Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Anya was sitting at her desk, ostensibly corresponding with her daughter. She had also been watching activity across the street for the better part of an hour. It was possible Karolina might no longer grace their neighborhood with her presence. A Lincoln had pulled up at the curb. A woman in navy and ivory attire and carrying a briefcase emerged. She walked briskly to Karolina’s door and was allowed in without hesitation.
If that was all there was to it, Anya might not have looked up again. But as she began her next sentence on the second page of pale blue stationary, movement caught her eye. Karolina and the other woman were walking the property, pointing and talking with what Anya saw as restrained animation. Karolina didn’t typically emote. Being effusive was forbidden from what Anya could tell. This lack of responsiveness determined all else about her neighbor, she thought, pen tapping pressed lips–except for only one time.
The two women beyond were deep in discussion along the eastern property line, then disappeared behind the house. She imagined them heading down the side steps, pretty shoes landing firmly on each deep step as they descended to that broad forested view. The breathtaking royal blue tiled pool. It was an oval pool. Who could appreciate an oval pool, neither suitable for laps nor comfortable enough for a good number to enjoy at once? It was like a mirror image of sky as one plunged in. As Anya had done a few times, once unintentionally. All that was before they stopped speaking ten months ago.
Anya turned back to her desk in the book-lined study and re-read page one of the letter. She was trying to not give advice to Tricia about her love life or career. She was instead sharing a little of her own experiences, hoping they’d demonstrate the value of both prudence and spontaneity. So far she’d not done so well but it was only eleven, plenty of time to shape tone and intent. It was worth the effort. Thoughts shared with someone you loved ought be indelible, not allowed the flippant, temporal nature of electronic words. One had to be careful on paper as in living, but not withholding. The balance was delicate.
She heard someone laugh through the study’s second story window. Not Karolina, surely. They were half out the front door, then the stranger turned, went to the street, got in her car and departed. The front door–heavy steel painted white to match the rest–was shut like an exclamation point in the surrounding silence.
The sound jarred her; she put down the ink pen. Anya stood and stared at that house of serious angles, its blank, clean materials lending a fine severity that suited Karolina. A house that Anya had once coveted–she’d first found its structure organic yet imaginative–but hadn’t been able to afford when in the market for a good house. Her husband’s medical practice had barely gotten started fifteen years ago. She’d gazed out her window enough while still dreaming of it to have redesigned the landscape, changed the door color and re-thought the interior a hundred times. That house was stone cold inside. It would protest at a barest twitter of vivacity, then relent happily if it was her hand on it.
But now, the white door, a barricade not to be breached, remained shut. It had been that way more often than not since Karolina took it into her possession. Now she would fully vacate it.
Anya had known this might happen sooner or later at the start. From the time they met and established they were both from St. Petersburg, there had been something about Karolina, a restlessness and emptiness that seemed at odds with her career success. The new neighbor had noted she was born and mostly raised in Prague. She had only stayed in St. Petersburg when her father was an unemployed professor; they had lived–he’d found a bit of work–with distant cousins for a year or so when she was twelve. So she said. Anya wondered over such abbreviated history–was it a short time in Russia? she knew quite a bit about it–but was pleased to meet her.
They had not gone to the same school or known the same people, Anya being four years older, her parents chemist and nurse, respectively. They had later both attended university but Karolina had moved back to Prague, eventually worked and lived many places. Anya had become a medical researcher. Karolina lilsted some of her emplyment on her long fingers: “journalist for a Czech news service; taught four languages in a Greek program, then in England; then there was my horse training business in the U.S. and other things”, all of which made her money. Her checkerboard past was put away after that. When she bought the gleaming white house, she was overseeing a travel agency.
Still, they had a few memories to share. Aya felt a swell of pleasure over the serendipity. But Karolina did not, though at first she noted that humble, famous bakery and museums of history and art so intimidating and beautiful, the parks for all, and of course the snow, the blazing snow. The deep ache of winters as well as blinding beauty, waiting in warmth and safety until spring broke apart all the frozen parts. It made you thrive with strength or it made you weak, Anya mused. Karolina was quiet. So few understood how Anya felt, what she missed, not even her husband when he took her there. He got cold fast, stayed cold. So they were hers, the memories, as she and Carl returned to their rain-blessed house.
Anya touched fingertips to the warm glass of her window; it appeared she was touching roof of the alluring house across from her. She was jarred by a thought. She would be able to get inside again when the Open House allowed potential buyers to troop through. She could see what had been changed or not, how Karolina had retained her austere mark or erased it. Was it possible for a personality to be more bloodless than she’d appeared during the last months? Like ice. Even as it slowly melts it will disappear into the vast thirst of the earth: Karolina had become invisible.
It had always looked like a a snow house to Anya, cool and warm at once, given to the magic of light’s variations, subtle yet obvious in its beauty. Karolina kept it cold and remote as her personality dictated.
Perhaps that was unfair of her to think of her neighbor, once more friendly. She was clearly more often gone as verified by the voiceless house, the many cabs that retrieved and returned her again. It was said she found another business opportunity, was moving fast.
She returned to her desk, mind cluttered with more than she could sort. The blue page awaited its next lines.
My dearest Tricia, having friends is far more important than you might realize, so I do hope you’ll consider this when factoring in attributes of your new love interest, as well. Will he be a loyal friend of yours no matter what? One who embraces your other ones as being good for you? Or will he be an intrusion on your circle, an impediment to good times shared? Will he, Tricia, turn closeness into a precarious thing with one word or look thrown in a surprising direction? He must trust you and you, him.
The definitive waning afternoon on a Saturday when Anya and her husband, Carl, were invited for drinks started like any other. Perhaps sunnier; it was just June but heat had imbued the air more deeply that typical for Oregon. There were also Ellen and Milt (Carl’s older medical practice partner), their happy sidekicks. Karolina was single. It had been a non-issue. Sometimes there was a male friend, sometimes not.
She sat with her arms resting on metal arm rests, thin hands dangling, a silver bangle loose atop prominent wrist bones. They encircled a sea foam green glass tabletop. It was smooth on the surface, rippled underneath. Anya liked this piece, it reminded her of a river that had been dammed. Karolina had drawn her eyebrows together at the observation: well, Anya, it’s only ordinary heavy glass.
“Well, it’s that time again,” Milt began and they all knew he’d be talking about his boat. Ellen smiled absently; she also loved boating. “Day trips, a few long week-ends if I can finagle them from Carl.” He wriggled his eyebrows at Ellen. “My wife has to break in her new swim suit before Corfu in October.”
“The boat, always that boat,” Carl said , then quaffed his drink. “She rivals Ellen in allure– and after all these years, both romances still going strong!”
Ellen raised her goblet, then nudged Anya, lowered her voice. “He’s thinking of heading somewhere gorgeous, within a stone’s throw. Wait for it.”
“Corfu? What happened to Santorini?” Karolina’s words came out languid but edgy, as if miffed by hearing herself speak of something so boring. “Why not try something else this time? I can get you exactly what you need. Better yet, something you didn’t even know you wanted until you get there.”
“Sorry, Karolina. The best rates at that hotel we liked before– it has become a tradition, as you know. For our anniversary.” Ellen pushed back a longish fringe of graying hair and her eyes warmed. “I wish we could skip summer and go straight to Corfu.”
“But first, another treat,” Milt said. He leaned forward, palms flat on the table, his eyes dancing with delight.
They were more than fond of Milt. His moon-shaped face was noteworthy, pockmarked by youthful acne and a broad smile, eyes that revealed kindness. He could talk you into anything. And Ellen was a friend you could count on, a partner who knew more about her husband’s work than most would care about, while her own career as a computer programmer had flourished. She’d just left it “in favor of general fun.”
“Tell us before we die of suspense, Milt,” Anya said.
“I’m taking you all to the Channel Islands, we’ll hang out around Catalina Island a couple days– as soon as we can clear our calendars for ten days. What do you say to that?”
They all whooped. Except Karolina.
“I can’t possibly, it’s such a hectic season. But thanks.”
She frowned at no one in particular, threw an irritated look toward the pool, as if not in the mood for talk, or perhaps she thought it foolish to even consider her. Light sparked the pool’s quiet water as a breeze ran over its surface; she blinked twice and her gaze fell.
“Bring it on, I’m ready to be another passenger on your legendary boating trips!” Anya clapped her hands in excitement. “I know you love and care for that boat like you would your neediest patient. Oh, by the way, I get a bit seasick…as you know. I’ll need meds and good care, Doc.”
“Oh, watch it, Anya took a shine to you long ago, Milt and now she’s playing helpless!” Ellen chortled. “I know for a fact that you are a good sailor, anyway, my dear.”
They talked about the possibilities, if they could manage it fast. How to get the boat down there with time left. What Carl and Anya would pitch in, to help with costs. They could likely make it by early September. Karolina was quiet, but she knew about boating. She had co-owned a small yacht, she’d mentioned, in her Mediterranean period before Martha’s Vineyard, before Chicago, and the Northwest. It was resoundingly not the Pacific Ocean. She showed some interest in their plans, she just didn’t share in their pleasure.
“Well, I’m thrilled. But it won’t be the same without you, Karolina,” Carl said, his eyes falling on her face, then pausing a beat longer than usual, as if he saw her anew. “We’ll send you photos of the fun you’re missing.” He emptied his goblet of wine again, eyes not moving off her.
Karolina opened her mouth, made a little circle with her lips and a simple “Ooh…” was emitted. Then, “Mmm…” The she looked to Milt and asked for more details about his boat, her hand smoothing the skin of her throat.
It was the angle of the light, Ellen said later as if that was all there was to it, nothing more. Her long brunette hair shone in an elongated patch that slid across her chest and neck, full lips, then lingered on the slant and rise of her cheekbones. They made her face, far more than her eyes which were wide-set and grey with something else. That mighty bone structure made her seriousness dominant, yet it hinted at more, a sensuality underplayed but ever present.
Anya had never seen her husband look at another woman that way, as if he was awakened suddenly, then on full alert. Even though he’d drunk how many goblets of wine? That’s what she thought when she went into the house to grab the new bottle of wine from the cement slab counter. Ellen followed.
“What on earth was that?” Anya asked. “Some sort of flirty maritime code between those two? He’s never done that around her. No one. His eyes locked with hers, Ellen! It’s–weird!”
“Never mind, let it go,” her friend advised. “Be at peace, dear, she casts a shadow as fast as that beam. He’s a very good man, but he isn’t perfect…neither is Milt. A glance is nothing.”
Karolina gazed at Anya on her way back; in it was a rebuke or a warning. It morphed into a half-smile. But late afternoon became early evening as it tended to, and then they ordered pizza as small ground lights around the pool’s area illuminated well enough. That pool was bold and bright. So, by then, were they.
How can a person know for sure what will happen with a few drinks, a clear and promising sky above, perfect water and easy chatter? But Anya saw it once more, that telegraph of information from Karolina to her her, then to Carl, the moment’s smallness exuding a power she hadn’t expected. A chill.
Carl was a solid husband, she knew that. He was also magnetic. He couldn’t help himself, it was in his sinew and joints–that way he moved like a wild cat. It was in his voice, a dash of lemon in a sea of sweet tea, the way he kidded. He complained in the early days that all this was an nuisance and impediment, that he was taken less seriously and women didn’t hear him, they saw him and what good was it when you had to teach people self-are or tried to save a life? Anya found him to be her best friend from the start. She wasn’t that keen on fancy looks–that kind of man was risky– but was all over his kindness and intelligence. They had fallen in love. After the first few years, she stopped thinking of it. It had been nearly twenty together now.
Karolina had decided to swim. She had dressed in a white silk caftan scattered with salmon pink petals. She pulled it over her head and revealed the modest white-and-grey striped suit that hid nothing. Anya knew it well, they sometimes swam together.
“I will let you talk on–I need to get in that pool.”
“Why didn’t you tell us to bring our suits?” Ellen was disappointed, considered going back home for hers.
“Glad you didn’t mention it, not up to it,” Milt said.
“Ditto,” Carl agreed.
“I just always like an evening swim…”
Carl stood and sauntered around the pool. Paused to watch her, then walked a bit again, his fourth or fifth drink in hand, navy polo shirt rumpled, unbuttoned. He took off his sandals and decided to dangle his feet in the water. He sat and kicked the water, stole a glance at Anya, then Karolina.
Karolina looked unperturbed, which was how she usually was except for the show of irritation earlier. Her arms spread out about her, she was a cool white flower rotating in blue water, legs moving like they were at home, body wafting to and fro, in a slow circle about the pool. A lotus, Anya thought, lovely, untouchable. At the far edge of the pool, Anya saw her husband think about slipping into that inviting water, hands tugging on his shirt, khakis darkening where water crept up the legs. Karolina changed herself from a lotus to dolphin and upended herself in a dive, sinous arms and legs propelling her deeper and deeper until she touched the bottom.
“What’s going on over here?” Ellen asked, Milt right behind her.
“Don’t ruin all your good clothes, buddy,” Milt called out sharply, warning Carl, telling him he saw things, too. “Too much to drink, right, my right hand man?”
Carl shrugged oh so nonchalantly, began to lower himself into the dazzling pool.
“Carl! Here I come, honey, ready or not!”
Anya jumped in and swam a mean stroke, shorts hiking up, linen blouse billowing. Just as he was chest deep, she reached for and grabbed him.
He looked up, eyes blurry with confusion. His breath stank of souring wine. “Going swimming tonight, Anya? Everyone in!”
“Too much to drink like Milt said. Not a good idea. Besides, you’re not exactly the best swimmer even sober, remember?”
He put his arms about her and held tight. She struggled to keep him afloat. “Help…” she said but Ellen was throwing daggers at Karolina.
Milt was watching his wife, then Carl, back to Ellen, torn.”Ellen, don’t consider anything foolish, we can just leave.”
“I love you,” Carl gurgled drunkenly.
“Sure, honey, I know that, could you dog paddle or something, move with me to the side of the pool?”
But Karolina had resurfaced nearby, was treading water as if she were dancing, then floated closer, her cheekbones gleaming silver in the underwater lights. Hair slicked back against her head and back. Wide hungry eyes settled on him.
She’s not a dolphin or a lotus, Anya thought, she’s a shark, as she dragged her husband with her, water sneaking in and making her cough and spit.
“I got him,” Milt pulled Carl with a yank on both arms and Ellen held onto Milt. “Damn.”
“Just a refresher swim,” Carl announced as Anya hoisted herself over pool’s edge.
“That was an escape from pirate waters,” Anya said. Ellen put hands on her ample hips, then looked at Karolina, anger tightening her softly lined face.
And they all three left, only Milt thanking their hostess.
“Thanks for drinks and nibbles, we’re off!”
Karolina’s hand came up from the water in a small salute of acknowledgement, then she dove under.
The last Anya saw of her was this: Karolina floating, her lithe ivory body relaxed but strong, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, that blue pool like a watery cave going dark as the underwater lights suddenly failed. Karolina kept on floating; she was quite undisturbed. Unfathomable.
That “For Sale” sign had gloated at her every day; she had moved her desk away from the window and wondered why she hadn’t before. It had been a week and the open house was happening. The white was radiant in early afternoon light. She stood by an open window in the living room, watching.
“Don’t go,” Carl said flatly. “There is no reason for it, we’ve been there and it was not anything we wanted to repeat, remember?”
“I want to know something.”
“I don’t know, I just feel I need to go see it.”
“Don’t even think about buying it. We have a fine home.”
“No…” But the thought had entered her mind more the past week. “It’s a beautiful place. My snow house, I once thought of it as that.” She snickered in embarrassment.
“Snow house. Well.” He brought her close, smelled what he thought was wind and a touch of cinnamon in her hair. “I’ll build you a snow house up the mountain.”
She gave him a squeeze. “But a real one?” They had talked about it once.
He looked down at her, then kissed her forehead. “Yes, if you must have it, you must have it before we get way too old. I have thought so myself. We can have snow up there and our usual permutations of rain and sun down here.”
“A little bit of my Russia in good American mountains.”
She let out a contented sigh. They had had a moment after Karolina’s gathering; it was like a thread pulled and rewoven. They liked to live forward.
Anya walked through each finely appointed room and found the entirety of it unattractive. She had worried she would feel nervous, as if she might meet Karolina in a corner. She wondered what she’d been thinking all those years. Maybe she had glimpsed its potential in the beginning. And it was there, still, the contemporary beauty of clean lines and open spaces unburdened by a plethora of objects or disorder. It remained grey, white, grey, black, white everywhere you turned. The light was stark and unrelenting; the house nearly leaned into it with expectations of more. Anya could feel the need for color in every room, just a stem of scarlet flowers or a big green pillow, a few brass or ceramic items amid steel and boundless walls. Had she really hoped for such change?
It was still wintry. Not in voluptuous or prismatic ways she recalled of the season. It was winter used up and discarded, void of hope, one long seductive loneliness that would not accept or acknowledge abundance. What had happened here? What had Karolina brought with her from places she had left? What poisoned her when she could grab more happiness?
She had been inside two times. Karolina had preferred they meet outdoors, even swim since that was her “sacred R and R.” When it rained they didn’t see each other much (she came to two dinners at their house), as Karolina didn’t entertain in the strict sense of the word–she didn’t cook or make effort to engage people much. But by the pool with drinks they could all hang out. It was good enough, if it felt a little off-filter beginning to end (the rest later agreed).
Until that night when any more social possibilities vanished. No more reminiscences, either, about Russia. They had just had enough of her.
Anya had enough of the house, too. People were milling about; Anya threaded her way between them. She did not want to see the pool and backyard. Not even the forest rising regally above all. She had her own trees.
Once out the door, she felt the need to run but walked, briskly.
She turned to see Karolina leaning through the open window of her car. She must have been sitting there, watching people enter and leave. Had seen her.
Anya walked closer but not too close. “Yes?”
Anya’s eyes squinted in the sheer sunshine and her face bloomed with fury.
“I hated that blinding snow in Russia! I hated being dragged to St. Petersburg, left alone in an alien place, my mother gone. You have no right to know my life but that time and place meant nothing to me, hear me? Nothing.”
Anya’s hand flew to her chest. “I don’t understand, Karolina, I’m sorry, but what are you–”
“Stop!” Karolina pointed at her. “You are so like all the others, belonging to no one. My soul is Czechoslovakian, my life waits in Prague!”
She pulled in her hand, tucked in her sleek head, sped away.
Anya sat on their front steps, watched people trickle in and out of the Open House, tears thickening in her throat. She thought of her parents and brother, all gone. She thought of her beautiful ancestors. Longing passed over and stung her afresh like swirling snowflakes. She closed her eyes tight. She would call her daughter, tell Tricia about the vacation house they’d finally have on the mountain. How they could all go cross country skiing, she’d teach them.
Carl came out and said he’d seen Karolina drive off too fast. Anya said nothing, leaned against his warm shoulder. She knew exactly where she belonged.