YOUNG HEARTS IN THE SNOW
Because of the intensive high-school course, the summer of 1945 was my first without a real vacation. The afternoon shift was also a thing of the past, and there were girls at our course again. We would still snatch an occasional swim in the Ob after school, and I would spend a couple of hours with my fishing rod on the rafts on weekends, but it was hard work most of the time if I wanted to study properly and still read books - I was not compromising on that - late into the night by the light of the smoking koptilka, dragging myself out of bed in the morning by an act of will. I was still skinny, but so were many of my better fed Russian friends, due to our shooting up to almost grown-up height during that period in our lives, and I have managed to obtain good tan on the banks of the Ob. Clothes, enormously important at that age because of the girls, were something else, with most of my schoolmates better dressed than me. There was the winter fashion of never tying the flaps of your imitation fur hat under your chin - only sissies did that - but at the back, with flaps still covering your ears and then angling back with a forty-five degree fold, leaving your chin free. You always wore your coat collar raised but, whatever the temperature, never buttoned all the way up, with the collars of the sweater (unless it was a rollneck one) and shirt similarly undone. You only buttoned them up when it was really freezing and nobody could see you.
My knee-length winter coat, made from a used army greatcoat, had a square patch of slightly different hue above the left knee where there had been a hole. For the past two years - except for winter when one wore felt knee-high boots - I had worn a pair of stout black laced boots which we received from the Polish organisation. Upon a second look one saw that although they were both the same size they were not a matched pair; the left one was slightly narrower and more shiny than the right one. When they finally grew too small for me, we managed to buy a new rubber-soled pair comparatively cheaply at the flea-market. They were brown, and I loved them and polished them two or three times a day. We had bought them just in time for my parachute jumps. A few days after my last jump I discovered with dismay that although the boots were not tight, my toenails had dug holes through the uppers; the leather was of lousy quality. The shoemaker across the street who had once asked my mother how it was possible for the Russians to have won at Stalingrad could not do any invisible repair on that, and sew two round patches of not quite matched brown leather over the holes, completely ruining the appearance. In a Communist society one was supposed to be judged by one's heart and soul alone, but I was painfully aware of the patches on my coat and boots whenever a girl looked at them.
One summer Sunday, returning from fishing in the Ob with a single minnow to show for it, I found mother talking to a beautiful tall blond girl in an NKVD uniform, and it took me a few seconds to recognise Zoya Speranskaya, my old love and neighbour whom I had not seen for over a year. After the seven-year school, Zoya began work as a typist in the NKVD and was awfully smart and grown up in her uniform and chrome leather boots. She wore no make-up but did not need any. Zoya had always been a year older than me, but now, with me sixteen, with my fishing rod and the minnow and old tennis shoes over bare feet, and her seventeen, in that uniform, in full blossom and looking like a film star, the gap was insurmountable. I could imagine handsome NKVD officers paying her court, perhaps successfully by now. Or did she feel that the time to lose her virginity was drawing near and wanted an old friend to take it? I felt totally shrunk. Zoya had been waiting for me, and I was obviously expected to have a long conversation with her, and then to see her home, a quarter of an hour's walk away. The conversation limped badly, with, I think, both of us painfully aware that an insurmountable gap had sprung up between us, and even my parachute badge, which Zoya appreciated warmly, did not help. After a while I excused myself lamely, saying that I had an appointment with a friend, and hid in the attic - a sort of toolshed on the roof - with a book, feeling awfully miserable. Mother said afterwards that Zoya seemed offended by my disappearance. In spite of her uniform, we did not associate her personally with my father's arrest and absence; it was just a job; NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennykh Dyel) stood for Ministry of the Interior, and only a part of its higher brass, with whose decision making Zoya could have no connection, dealt with purges, arrests, and prison camps.
At the course run by the Technical College. Galya Salina, a fellow student, half Finnish, with fuzzy blond hair, pert nose, grey eyes, and a seductive slightly plump body, was also seventeen, like Zoya. Askold Yeremyeyev, a good friend, taller, stronger, and better dressed than me, was very keen on her, while I vacillated between Lyusya, a rather silly and in all other respects average girl except that to me she seemed to exude more sex appeal than all the other girls in class together, and Nelya Tertyshnik, a bit skinny and with mousy hair which she dyed, but otherwise a cinema vamp of the twenties - she reminded me of Ewa Mateusz - complete with lipstick and poses, insisting on being called Nelly and not Nelya; she somehow managed to combine all this with sharp intellect as well as a soft romantic heart, and knew a lot of Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, and Yesyenin by heart. I have never met anyone like her before. I would fool around with Lyusya during the breaks in some secluded corner, trying to lay hands on her. She would indignantly push my hands away, but not before letting them rest wherever they were for a decently acceptable moment. In summer there was a problem with hiding one's erection. With Nelya we took long walks after school, talking about literature and life, and sometimes, when I saw her home and we shook hands at the gate she would let me hold her hand in mine a little longer than necessary, but otherwise she was rather condescending, not only towards me but most other boys. Even if a girl was our age, they all seemed to be much older than us.
When the winter began, mother managed to get for me a white rollneck pullover, not of wool but some thick cotton yarn, but otherwise very handsome, especially with the parachute badge over my left breast when I took the patched coat off. I also still had my summer tan, maintained on the face by the winter sun, and of course the old blue eyes and black curls, and I noticed that Galya Salina was paying attention, talking to me sweetly, asking questions about parachute jumping, being very impressed by the theoretical gliding course I had started attending in the evenings, and, whenever possible, making fun of Lyusya and Nelly. It was she who suggested we go skiing together across the frozen Ob after lessons one day. The snow was crisp and blinding in the early afternoon sun. We crossed the Obi at a walking pace because of the deep snow and sat down on the far bank to eat our sandwiches, and then threw snowballs at each other and tried to stuff a handful of snow down each other's collars. There was not much to see on the other bank - it was mostly snow-covered bushes and reeds, and then it was late and a wind sprang up and, although it was not snowing and the sky was blue, we hurried back. There was no joking with Siberian winter.The year before, during the elections (a farce with just the one party and a candidate named Byelyayev whose portraits were all over the town getting well over ninety percent of the vote - he was otherwise unknown but people were afraid not to vote) a local sports club had organised an outing of seventeen advanced cross-country skiers, boys and girls in their teens, to a village some twenty kilometres away. They wore light clothes and red bands with election slogans across their chests and reached the village before noon. On the way back, an unusual change in the weather occured. It usually took the continental weather over Barnaul a couple of days to gradually change from clear skies to cloud and snow or back, but that afternoon, with the skiers on their way back, it happened very quickly. A snow blizzard began and blew for three days. The skiers dispersed, lost their way, and all of them died. It took several days after the blizzard to find all the bodies because they had been covered by snow. I saw a horse-drawn sled bringing four or five of them to Barnaul, the frozen bodies like large logs of wood under a blanket.
When we got back it was already dark, with a full moon shining over the town. I saw Galya home, with both of us carrying our skis over our shoulders. We could have skied along the snow covered streets, but by had by now had enough skiing. Telling me something funny, Galya slipped on an icy patch near a tall wooden fence and grabbed a lapel of my coat so as not to fall down, and then buried her face in it, laughing. I took her by the shoulders and held her against the fence in ankle-deep snow, also laughing. When we stopped laughing she raised her face and we kissed; a simple contact of warm lips which went on for a very long time. The narrow street was completely deserted, and we spent about two hours against the fence, kissing without saying anything. After a while it got colder, and we unbuttoned our coats and pressed against each other to keep warm. There was still a lot of clothing between our bodies and I hoped Galya wouldn't notice my erection. We kept moving a little, with my leg between Galya's, and after a while I ejaculated into my long underwear, and a little later she heaved a deep sigh and moan, difficult to explain by a mere kiss. We walked the remaining distance to her house with our arms around each other. Before our last kiss on her doorstep she looked up at me and said: "We shall meet the spring together, shan't we?" and I said "Of course".
I went to bed elated and proud, but in the cold light of the morning, on my way to school, doubts and misgivings began to set in. I was already looking forward to more kisses under the wooden fence at night, but the evening after that there were lessons at the aeroclub and it was unthinkable to miss them; I would have to find some way of telling Galya about it as gently and lovingly as I could. Then there was Askold Yeremyeyev, a good friend who was also keen on Galya, and I knew he would be hurt. Then, our sixteen-year old male society was not particularly tolerant of romance and would tease anyone who had established a visible friendship with a girl. In short, I felt that I may have traded my freedom for my first kisses. At a longer range, the situation looked even more threatening. Something told me that sooner or later, after a comparatively platonic period of kisses and embraces, Galya might give herself to me, "meeting the spring together" in her words, whether she was still a virgin or not - sooner if she were not - and then the danger of pregnancy would loom huge and dark like a storm cloud. Condoms were unavailable in pharmacies; whether it was a simple wartime shortage or instructions from above in view of all the people who were dying in the war and had to be replaced we did not know, but the result was the same. You could only get them at the flea market at an exorbitant price, and then you did not know how old they were, or how reliable even when fresh. We knew about coitus interruptus and safe periods, but also knew that they were not perfectly safe. A clandestine abortion would be a trauma for both partners, and prohibitively expensive. An early marriage and a baby would cancel any chance of engineering studies, return to Poland, and, to start with, any flying career. I got to school in a dark mood, but it dispersed somewhat when Galya smiled at me and surreptitiously squeezed my hand.
It lasted about a month. We would meet under the wooden fence or in some similar dark spot or backyard and spend an hour or two holding each other tight and kissing. After a while Galya would let me rest my hand on her breast or hip, but only through the clothes, one of the reasons or excuses being that the weather was too cold for a more intimate contact. Galya repeated several times that we shall meet the spring together, obviously meaning not just the contemplation of a reborn nature but the fact that in spring one could go anywhere, for example into the woods, and do anything without the risk of a frostbite. In the meantime, my doubts and hesitations have returned. Every now and then, someone would intone in my hearing the popular song whose refrain went "Ekh, you Galya, young Galya, they've talked Galya into coming with them". Lyusya and Nelly have grown cool. Askold suffered in silence. Seeing me returning home late at night, mother obliquely began to tell me stories she had heard from our neighbours: about a young boy who married a girl at seventeen and then got up one morning and said "You know, Marusya, I don't love you any more," and about a girl who died of a botched abortion, and a lot about our forthcoming return to Poland and the fun and adventure of studies at a European university, perhaps even aeronautics instead of cars and tractors at the Barnaul college. After a while, Galya must have sensed that not all my heart was in our budding romance; that I was either getting cold feet or being still too immature or falling out of love with her or something of the sort. Gently and kindly she grew a little cool and began to hold conversations with Askold Yeremyeyev during the breaks. One day, when I caught up with her after school and asked whether she would like to go skiing across the Ob on Sunday she said she would love to but Askold had asked her the day before and she agreed and it would now be unkind to cancel it. She blushed and it was awfully embarrassing for both of us, but we shook hands and I gave her a little peck on the cheek, and we remained good friends. I returned to my fooling around with Lyusya, my long walks with Nelly Tertyshnik, and reading books by the light of the koptilka late into the night.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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