J. S. Kierland

© Copyright 2022 by J. S. Kierland

Photo by Lisa courtesy of Pexels.
Photo by Lisa courtesy of Pexels.

 Memory and time run together when you get older and a smile from a stranger can tumble you back through decades of cigarette smoke and desires you’d forgotten long ago. It was one of those uncertain smiles that dropped me back into a time when I was taking post grad courses in the city that never sleeps. I remembered how flustered the young girl sitting at the classroom door got when Antonia’s smile appeared at the door and asked in an East European accent, “Is this Modern Drama?” The young girl managed a nod and Antonia walked in and sat down. Time didn’t seem to be as precious then as it is now and I spoke with her a few times at the breaks, and she seemed interested in our conversations because she changed her seat down front to an empty one next to mine in the back, and asked, “Would you like to have a drink after class?” I nodded and when the lecture ended and we got off the elevator, she said, “There’s a bar on 70th and Lex. You can’t miss it. Don’t worry, I have enough money, but I have to go out this way. You take the Lexington Avenue exit and I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” Then she turned, looked back with that same uncertain smile, and faded into the crowd of students heading for the Park Avenue exit.

At first, I thought she was just another lost immigrant but when she went out the other way I began to wonder if she existed at all. I remember walking up Lexington Avenue that crisp October night, not having any idea what might happen but going anyway. The bar’s neon sign flashed on the other side of Lex and I stayed in close to the darkened store windows before crossing the street. Antonia appeared further up on 70th and waved as if nothing unusual had happened and when I opened the door to the bar, she smiled that uncertain smile again and I followed her in.

The place was dimly lit with only a few people at the bar. She headed for the red booths along the wall like she’d been there before and the bartender came over to take our order. Antonia asked for a glass of white wine. I ordered whiskey, and when he left she turned to me and said, “I enjoy our little chats at the breaks but wanted to talk to you outside of class.”

“I’ve been curious about you too,” I admitted. She looked surprised. “I wondered where you were from and why you were here?”

She sighed, gave me that same smile and said, “I thought you might be wondering why I went out the Park Avenue exit instead of just leaving with you?”

“That too,” I said, glad she’d brought the subject up.

“I’m from Yugoslavia,” she said.

I nodded a semblance of understanding, and asked, “Isn’t that part of what we call the Communist Bloc?”

“Yes, and it’s why I had to go out the Park Avenue exit.” I shrugged, and she said, “The Russian Embassy is on 68th and Park, just across the street from the College.”

The bartender arrived with our drinks, and I asked, “Does that mean you’re staying at their Embassy?”

She laughed, leaned forward and said, “The Russian Embassy is the last place a Yugoslav wants to be.” I stared back at her and she said, “In the Russian’s clumsy way, they now control most of Eastern Europe, except for Yugoslavia, and the one thing they want and need desperately is what my country has so they watch us all the time, with every intention of eventually getting what they want. They also know I’m taking the drama class, so when it’s over I show my face at the Park Avenue exit and walk uptown to get the crosstown bus back to the Westside where I’m staying. When I turn the corner and know they can’t see me anymore from their Embassy I go wherever I want. Unfortunately, they have a need to know where certain people are all the time. I’ve gotten used to their heavy-handedness.”

“Are you a spy?” I asked.

“Everyone’s a spy to the Russians,” she said. “It’s a huge game they play...and I’ve played it with them in other countries too.”

“Sounds serious.”

“Yes, I suppose it is. I’m married to a government official in Yugoslavia and they want to make sure I’m not giving any of our non-existent “secrets” away to the West. What they really want is to get ‘something’ on me and use it to make me spy for them. They’re just being Russian,” she shrugged. “Officially, I’m here because a close friend is having an exhibition of her paintings.” She glanced at me over her wine glass, “It’s as simple as that but I wanted to talk to you because the Professor said you were-“

“He saw a one-act play of mine and remembered my name, but I’ve just begun to-“

“You’ve had a play produced?” I nodded, and she asked, “Who influences you? Who do you read?”

“Just the everyone else.”

“Have you read D H. Lawrence?”

Sons and Lovers. A few short stories”

“He was wonderful,” she said. “I just finished Lady Chatterley.”

“It’s banned in the States, you know?”

“Yes, but I found an edition in Rome.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Class differences, and Lawrence’s basic belief in the duality of Man.”

“The intellectual versus the sexual.”

“Yes,” she added quickly, and laughed. “The plot is simple. An upper class Woman’s husband is confined to a wheelchair and their Gardener becomes her sexual partner. Lawrence used sexual slang in the dialogue so England banned it too. He had to publish the book himself in Italy and I managed to find a copy.”

“You were lucky,” I said.

“I’ll lend it to you if you like,” she offered.

“Thanks,” I said, and added, “You mentioned being married to a government official and I wondered if that had anything to do with the Russians being-”

“You’re right,” she said. “My husband’s in charge of manufacturing in Yugoslavia and we have two children, a boy and a little girl.”

“Then you know President Tito?”

“Yes,” she said. “He comes for dinner all the time. What about you? Are you married?”

“I was,” I said. “And like Lawrence, it was revealing.”

“There must have been something positive in it?”

“You mean like traveling the world, going to the theatre, and buying rare books?”

“No, no,” she said. “I go places because there’s just not much left in Yugoslavia. The Nazi occupation was devastating. We actually owe a great deal to you Americans. You gave us hope during a time when there wasn’t any,” she said, taking another sip of her wine. “After the war, several small countries in Eastern Europe became the Republic of Yugoslavia. Now the Russians try to drag us into their Soviet Union so they can build a naval base.”

“Don’t they have a naval base?” I asked.

“They have an old base in the Crimea on the Black Sea but you can’t be a world power if you don’t have a full-time naval base that doesn’t freeze over for half the year and you can’t move your ships. The Russians posture a lot...but really don’t have much.”

The bartender came back for refills and I said, “Sorry, I have to be up early for work.”

Antonia nodded to the man and he left. “Where do you work?” she asked.

“I clear checks for a bank in the mornings, then go to the 42nd Street Library to study and write the rest of the day.”

“And college at night. It’s exciting!”

“It isn’t really,” I said, and she put her arm in mine as we walked up Lexington to get the crosstown bus. Halfway there she pulled me into one of the dark doorways and the sudden taste of wine was on my lips. It was a deep kiss and she held on to me in the cold darkness. “I’ve been wanting to do that ever since our first class,” she said. “Now I know why.” We kissed again and I felt her body push in against me, and we ended up staring at each other in the dim nightlight of an antique furniture store hunched together against a sudden cold wind.

We walked up Lexington in silence and waited for the crosstown bus. She quickly tore a page out of her notebook and wrote a number on it. “Call me, but don’t leave a message,” she said. “I’m usually there in the mornings.” The bus pulled in, its doors hissed open, and I let her go.

There were only a few people on 72nd Street at that hour and a man in a fedora and topcoat walked briskly by and mumbled, “Good evening.” His greeting seemed odd, but I nodded and kept going. Reaching the corner, I glanced back. The man had turned and was following me. I went around the corner, angled across the street and ducked into a doorway. The man appeared at the corner, looked around, than headed back the way he came.

* * * * *

The next day, I called the number Antonia had written on the piece of paper. I gave the desk clerk her name and he connected me but there was no answer. I hung up and started for the 42nd Street Library. Going up the wide steps I noticed the same man that had followed me the night before, casually smoking a cigarette. I saw Antonia in her red coat at the top of the stairs and when I got there, I edged her inside.

“You said you worked at the library so I chanced it.”

“Would you like some lunch?”

“Do you have a class tonight?” she asked. I shook my head. “Good,” she said excitedly, waving a key. “My friend arrived this morning from Yugoslavia and we traded keys. Her exhibition opens tomorrow and she’s over at the UN hanging her paintings right now. She’s a modernist. So of course, the Russians consider her work “western decadence.”

“And you have the key to her room?“

“Yes, and she has the key to my room. We keep the Russians as confused as possible,” she said, with a little laugh. “So let’s have lunch.” I led her further into the library and out the back way into Bryant Park.

“Do you know you’re being followed?”

“Has he been bothering you too?”

“Last night after you left on the bus-”

“Is this why you’re taking me out the back way?”

“He was waiting out front when I arrived,” I told her, and she gave a quick glance behind her. “He probably doesn’t know about the Library’s back entrance.”

We never did have lunch. Instead, she guided me through her hotel’s side door and up a back staircase to a small room with high ceilings and art deco designs on its trimmed walls. We spent the afternoon together and talked about theatre and writers, and I remember how surprised she was when I told her there was nothing more commercial than a Nazi symbol on a book jacket and she admitted that in Europe it was the same way, and told me how Shaw’s novel, “The Young Lions” was a big seller over there.

I heard a sound in the hall and peeked through the viewer on the door. “I don’t see anyone. But by this time he must have figured out where-”

“Now you’re getting a sense of what it’s like living next to Russians,” she whispered.

* * * * *

They’d converted a large room at the United Nations Building into an art gallery. Strolling waiters served champagne and finger-foods to people speaking different languages. Hanging on the walls were Olga’s impressive paintings. She was the wife of the first President of Yugoslavia and several of our famous Expressionists had been invited to venture “across town” and meet her, making the evening uniquely American, and on one of our prearranged signals, Antonia and I left the building through different exits and met on a corner a few blocks away.

“Did you see him?” she asked, running at me.


“No, our spy,” she squealed, and I shrugged. “He was wearing a tux and serving little frankfurters on a silver platter. He actually spoke in Croatian and told Olga how wonderful her paintings were.”

“You’re right,” I said with a laugh. “They do enjoy the game.”

“Oh, but their posturing is so disgusting.”

I laughed some more and we walked to one of my favorite east side restaurants and ordered spicy shrimp and sizzling rice soup. “Russian Spies make me hungry,” I told her.

“This is why Olga is so crazy about you, and so am I.”

“What do we do with the rest of the evening?” I asked.

“First, we enjoy this wonderful food, and celebrate meeting each other again,” she said, and we touched glasses, laughed, and toasted the strange Russians.”

* * * * *

The Modern Drama class had reached its mid-point. Exams were given, marked, and returned. We had studied together but hadn’t seen a Russian for days. Then one night when I was leaving Antonia’s room, the elevator opened, and he was there in front of me trying to get off. I moved directly at him, and said, “You really shouldn’t worry about us, you know.”

“But I do worry,” he said, “all the time.” There was a slight British clip in his accent, and when he tried to get around me I didn’t let him.

“You learned your English in London,” I said. He shook his head. “And then joined the Waiter’s Union over here.”

He smiled at my remark, and said, “I did learn the trade in London.”

The elevator door closed and we set ourselves for the ride down, but it didn’t move, and I said, “Hard to believe you’re Russian.”

“I speak several languages,” he answered flatly.

The elevator started with a whine and there was a sudden drop. He reached over, took hold of my arm to steady himself and we waited for the floor to stop moving. The doors opened and someone behind me said, “I thought it was stuck again.” I turned, and the hotel desk clerk stared back at me. “I didn’t know you knew Vladimir,” he said, surprised at seeing us together.

“I was just leaving,” I said, pushing past him.

“The elevator is quite all right, Bela,” Vladimir said, walking to the front door with me. “There’s a little bakery down the street that serves the worst coffee in New York. Their coffee is so bad it’s almost indescribable,” he said. “You have to experience it to believe it.”

“Is the food as bad as their coffee?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, their Danish is quite good,” he said.

“Sorry, but I’ve got to go.”

“We’re really not so bad, you know. We get a lot of negative press here. Makes things harder. We just want to be friends. Like in the war. We owe so much to America.”

“We were Allies, Vlady. That gives a whole other meaning to the word “friends,” I said. “You’re dangerous.”

He took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one, but I didn’t move. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?” he said, lighting his cigarette. “Pity,” he mumbled, his eyes staying with me. “You ought to walk away, you know. There’s still time.”

“Is there?” I said, and headed for the subway.

* * * * *

A familiar desire and cigarette smoke brushed my memory back into place and I remembered walking in Riverside Park with Antonia during an early-December snowstorm. The wide walkway was deserted except for a few Russian families stoically sitting on the benches and watching their children playing in the falling snow. Their husbands were officials at the Russian Embassy and the UN, and Antonia waved to their excited, laughing children as we passed. “I feel sorry for the Russian women,” she said. They’re strangers here and expected to remain that way. Never trying to join in, always the outsiders looking in. Russian to the core.”

“You’re not like them at all, are you?”

“Russians aren’t like anyone else. Sometimes I think they want to join in, but can’ if they don’t know how. It’s hard to explain in another language,” she said, and her voice trailed off.

“They’ve given the world such great composers and writers,” I said, trying to understand what she meant.

“It’s something deeper,” she said. “Unexplainable.”

We came to an exit, and I said, “Let’s head back along Broadway. We can pick up a pizza and watch the snow fall.”

“What you really mean is that you want to leave all this snow to the Russians.”

“They seem to enjoy it so much.”

As we started to exit, Antonia stopped, and said, “You better go on without me. This time I’m going to have it out with him,” she said. “It can’t go on this way.”

I looked around but didn’t see anything. She nodded toward a bench near the entrance where a man was sitting quietly in the falling snow as if he were waiting for her. “I’ll see you in class tonight,” she said. “I have to do this in my own way.”

When I got to the other side of the street I looked back at Vladimir sitting on the bench. Antonia was yelling at him like he was a little boy, and the snow falling between us got heavier and heavier until I couldn’t see across the street anymore, so I walked up Broadway alone in the storm.

* * * * *

The end of classes and finals arrived. Antonia and I studied together but she decided not to take the final so we met at the bar on Lexington again.

“I helped Olga pack up what was left of the paintings after her big sale at the UN,” she said smiling at me.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“We’re leaving in the morning,” she said abruptly.

There was really nothing more to say so I offered to “see them off at the airport.”

“I don’t like goodbyes. Besides, we’re leaving on the Elizabeth,” she said, reaching over to take my hand, “and it sails on the early tide.” I didn’t say anything, but felt that empty feeling in my gut. “I’ll call you when I come back. It’ll be soon,” she said. I nodded, and we finished our drinks in silence.

* * * * *

I got to the pier early the next morning and waited across the street with a container of black coffee. The pier was crowded with cabs and limos dropping people off. Antonia’s red coat emerged from a cab with Olga behind her. Their bags were taken, and they moved quickly to the covered gangplank and disappeared up into the huge ship. When I turned to go, I realized Vladimir had been standing behind me. “Thought you’d be here,” he said, in that offhanded way of his.

“You don’t have to follow us anymore.”

“It’s my day off,” he said.

For a time we watched the flurry of activity at the foot of the floating black mountain. People showing their papers to the Officers and heading up the gangplank.

“We ought to have and I,” he said.

“Have you ever thought I might be CIA?”

“Not really,” he said. “You have an honest face and it’s easy to read what you think. I hope you understand that Europeans are quite different than people here,” he mused. “If you had picked her it would have been different, but she picked you. And I know that because you came down to watch her leave. A last look, as they say, eh? Things like this happen. It’s sad.”

“I noticed you showed up too...on your day off. You’re a hopeless Romantic, Vlady.”

“My mother was Russian,” he admitted, and as we started up the street together he added, “You know, she won’t be back.”

“I do know,” I said, thinking of the report he was going to turn in. “I just wanted to return her D.H. Lawrence book-”

“You don’t have to worry. I’ll leave you out of my report completely,” he said. “Life goes on over there and we try not to get in its way.”

“Do you know her husband?” Vlady nodded, and smiled. “You’re amused by this.”

“Not really,” he said, in his off-handed way. “Believe it or not, her husband and I are cousins.” I must have looked surprised, so he said, “Things like this go on all the time in Europe. We’re used to it.”

“Are you Croatian?” I asked.

He kept nodding like he did that day in the snow with Antonia. “Her husband understands these things,” he said. “He and I grew up in Belgrade together.” He took my arm and nudged me forward. “There’s a place up the street where we can get--

“American coffee,” I said, and he laughed.

The tugboats began moving in to guide the dark ship out of the harbor. There was a low blast as she left but I didn’t look back. Antonia was already a memory, waiting for another stranger’s uncertain smile to bring her back again.

STRANGERS is a memoir of the late 50’s
A time that Anna Arendt called “posturing and disgusting.” My bio is simple…I was born in the Bronx and went to Hunter College in the late 50’s. I graduated U. Conn, Yale Drama School and was playwright in residence at Lincoln Center, Brandeis University, and the Los Angeles Actors Theatre…oh, and there are over 100 publications of my short stories and plays. However, this short story takes place in the fifties.

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