Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
The Park. Dusty, withered by the oppressive heat of the summer. The long and anxiously awaited rain did not come; it would have washed the dust of the city from the trees, would have quenched the thirst of the grass.
The band was playing before a small audience. Children were running about; a few Red Guards were there, sitting in groups, or walking along with their sweethearts. On a shady bench sat a priest in a monk’s gown, leaning on his staff, lost in thought. Beside him was a nursemaid, watching a little child.
Vasya and Marya Semyonovna sat down on the bench; although they were a trifle to one side they could see everything.
They waited for Nina Constantinovna.
“Why hasn’t our little lady come yet? Generally she’s here the moment the music begins, to show off her clothes. All the fine ladies come here to see what’s stylish this year. They find out from Nina Constantinovna, because she’s always dressed up to the minute.”
Vasya listened absent-mindedly. She was eager to see Nina. How would she be? At the same time she was afraid. How could she bear to look at her?
“Is that she, Marya Semyonovna? On that bench there, to the right of the band? The one in the pink dress?”
“How in the world could you think that? Nina Constantinova isn’t like that. You’ll see the difference between her and the others right away. She’s a real fashionable lady.”
They sat there, waiting. But Nina did not come. Only when they were about to go home, intending to return the next day, did she appear. She was coming from the other end of the park, and stopped before the band. She was talking to Savelyev and two members of the Red Committee, and seemed unconscious of the eyes that stared at her.
So this was how she looked! She was wearing a thin white dress that enveloped her body in soft folds, and revealed the curve of her breasts. She had on long sand-colored gloves and a hat to match, pulled down over her eyes. Vasya could not distinguish the features, but saw only the lips, shining red as blood.
“What red, red lips !”
“That’s the rouge,” explained Marya Semyonovna. “You should see her eyes. They look as if she’d smeared soot over them. Somebody ought to take a sponge and wash the dirt off her face. And then you ought to look at her! I could be beautiful too, if I used powder and rouge.”
Nina Constantinovna was leaning on her white parasol, tapping the ground with the point of her white shoes. She laughed, throwing back her head a little. The members of the Red Committee laughed too.
Apparently bored, Savelyev had stepped to one side, and was tracing figures in the sand with his cane.
“Her hat hides her whole face,” Vasya complained.
“Come, let’s walk past her. Then you can get a better look at the hussy. But I advise you not to look her way. She isn’t pretty. When I was working for Madame Gollolobova, that’s when I saw real fine ladies and real beauties. Compared to them, she’s nothing!”
But Vasya’s curiosity bothered her. She had to know why Volodya loved the other girl.
Just as Vasya and Marya Semyonovna were getting up to walk past Nina, she said good-bye to the members of the Red Committee, exclaiming loudly enough for Vasya to hear: “We’ll meet again in Moscow.” Turning she went on toward the gate, Savelyev following.
“You surely don’t want to run after her? You mustn’t do that, Vassilissa Dementyevna. You’ll have to let her go, that bird. People know you – and that’s no way of stopping gossip.”
Though she slackened her pace, Vasya kept her eyes fixed on the other.
She was tall, slender; her shoulders swayed a little as she walked. Her head was bowed as she went away from the bandstand. Vasya thought Nina was crying. Savelyev bent toward her, seemed to be trying to persuade her. But Nina shook her head. No, she said, raising her tan-gloved hand to her face, as if to wipe away a tear. Could she weep? Had she come to bid the music farewell? Or – or did she love Volodya? Was she not merely trying to get something from him? Vasya was disturbed. She felt no better now that she had seen Nina Constantinovna. It was no longer jealousy that bothered her, but another, new feeling. Something like pity for Nina. Why had she cried? Why had she come to hear the music? To bid her happiness good-bye?
A new load on Vasya’s heart. She was furious at herself. That was all that was needed! To suffer with the other woman, with the one who had got in her way. A fine state of affairs.
Nina had gone to Moscow. Almost two weeks had passed since she and Savelyev had left the city. Logically, Vasya should have enjoyed life now. The interloper was gone. Vladimir had stayed behind with Vasya; so she surely was dearer, more precious to him, and the other affair was merely temporary?
Vasya smiled. Vasya laughed. She coughed less and visited the Party Committee regularly. Vladimir was working, too; he was reorganizing the business according to the plans of the syndicate people. When that would be finished he and Vasya would go to Moscow, whence he was to be transferred to his new district. Vladimir was happy, entirely taken up with his work.
But the real, heart-felt joy of other days was lacking. There was nothing to be done about it. Vladimir was not exactly cool; but he had changed. Frequently he would be moody, would lose his temper.
Why did Vasya come home so late from the Party Committee? It was annoying for their guests, for they would not have dinner without the hostess. Again, he would flare up about the collars: not a single one was clean. Then Vasya, too, would be cross. She wasn’t responsible for that; let him take care of it himself. Let him go to Marya Semyonovna. Vasya was no laundress. Both would be furious when they parted – and why? On account of a stupid collar! One day Vasya came home in the rain. To save her hat, she had left it at Party Headquarters, and had put a shawl on her head. When he saw her Vladimir frowned, and snarled: “How you dress! Your shoes are run down at the heels, your skirt is filthy, you come in with a shawl on your head like a peasant woman. Slovenly!”
Again she lost control of herself.
“We can't all strut around like fashion plates. But I don’t have to accept any favors from Savelyev.”
Vladimir looked daggers at her; he said nothing. Vasya thought he would strike her.
But he restrained himself.
Something was wrong here. Vasya and Vladimir wanted to be friends; but the slightest provocation filled them with hatred for each other. Vladimir was always dreaming of his new position. How he could furnish the house, how he could arrange everything.
This was boring for Vasya. Why furnish a house? What was the pleasure in that? It would be different if it had anything to do with the common good. Vladimir disagreed with her, reproached her with narrow-mindedness.
Vasya told of a dispute in the Marxists’ Club on whether history was determined by economic questions alone or by ideas also. She grew animated, wanted Vladimir to hear everything that had been said. But he was bored. All this was empty talk. Increasing the profits of his enterprise – there was something worth doing! And they quarreled again.
When the two of them were alone together they had nothing to talk about. What could they do? They telephoned Ivan Ivanovitch. His presence made them feel more at ease.
Vasya was expecting letters from her province. But none came. Neither Grusha nor Stepan Alexeyevitch wrote a line. What could be the matter?
Although Vasya did not want to admit it even to herself, she suspected, deep down in her heart, that she would be called back to her province to work. Should she go? Should she stay?
A registered letter from home. From Stepan Alexeyevitch. Short, and to the point. He proposed that Vasya take over the group of the textile factories, and organize the work there in a new way, as the Central Administration would prescribe. Vasya would live there, not in the city. He asked for an answer.
Vasya’s heart pounded. She longed for her own people. For what was her life here? No work, no joy, only one worry: if only nothing happens! She seemed to be bound hand and foot. She remembered a jackdaw her brother Kolyka had owned. He had caught it in the woods, and had bound its wings so that it couldn’t fly away. The bird hopped about on the floor, opened its beak, and turned its bright black eyes toward the window. It tried to flap its wings, but they were bound fast. It tried again, a third time, cawed with distress and – resumed its solemn walk on the floor as if it had never attempted to fly. This was what was happening to Vasya now. Her wings were bound, too, and it was impossible for her to fly. But what was binding her wings? Joy, or love? No; neither of these. She was fettered by apprehension, by the fear that again something might happen to Vladimir. By her gratitude to him for staying with her, for sending away the ‘hussy.’ Slender threads. But they were bound tightly about Vasya. She seemed hopelessly entangled in the net.
Lisa said: “I don’t understand you, Vassilissa. I tell you, you’re becoming a real ‘manager’s lady.’ You can’t get away from it.”
How could she break these threads, tear the net?
Vasya held Stepan Alexeyevitch’s letter in her hand. She felt loath to put it away. It seemed to be a talisman that would help her find her way, as in the fairy-tale.
“Vassilissa Dementyevna, the beer is all gone. You’ll have to tell Vladimir Ivanovitch to have some more sent out from the factory. Otherwise we’ll get unexpected guests for dinner and we won’t know where to get it from. You can’t make it out of the air.”
Marya Semyonovna looked disapprovingly at Vasya.
“You’re always glum, Vassilissa Dementyevna. And why, if I might ask? That dressed-up minx has finally landed in Moscow, thank God, and Vladimir Ivanovitch is with you now, never goes out anywhere. Why do you sulk so? The men don’t like that. They want their wives to be jolly, want to hear them laugh, want to have some pleasure at home after the day’s work and worries.”
As she listened, Vasya smiled and thought: Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps I ought to rouse myself and again become the tomboy Vasya of ’18. There was a lot of work in those days, but a lot of laughter, too.
Should she go to see Volodya in the office? An unexpected visitor? Tell him about the letter – and, laughingly, say that she would refuse, that she could not leave her Volodya! He would see how she loved him. He would be glad, would put his arms around her joyfully, would kiss her brown eyes. He would call her Vasya, his tomboy.
She chose a white blouse and put on a blue tie. She stood before the mirror as she put on her hat and arranged her curls. She wanted to please Volodya today. For she was bringing him a gift – a priceless gift! Her refusal of Stepan Alexeyevitch’s offer! She would go with Vladimir to his new position, and would undertake some work there.
When she reached the administration building Vasya went to the manager’s office. It was empty. The manager was at a conference. But it would soon be over; he would probably be back in about ten minutes.
Vasya waited, looked through the Moscow papers. She had to smile at herself. Now she would make up to Volodya for everything – for his parting from the other, for his greater devotion to herself.
Someone brought in the mail, laid it on the manager’s desk. Might there not be some letters for Vasya? She looked over the business envelopes. There – suddenly her heart throbbed wildly, then seemed to miss a heat. A narrow, tinted envelope – a delicate handwriting, as though engraved. That could only be the other woman: Nina Constantinovna.
Everything was not over? Everything was as before? Lies? Vasya felt as though she were flying, soaring – long, long, endlessly.
She must have lost her balance, for she knocked down the ashtray that stood on the desk.
As she looked at the narrow, tinted envelope, Vasya felt that it contained her destiny. There! It disappeared in her pocket. Now she would learn the truth. Now there would be an end to the lies.
Vladimir entered together with a member of the administration.
“You’re here, Vasya? Did you want something, or are you just visiting me?”
“There’s no more beer. You’ll have to order more from the factory.”
“Will you look at that! You’re becoming a housewife! I can’t recognize my tomboy, Vasya,” laughed Vladimir, quite happily.
Laugh. Just you laugh. But I’ll tear through the net in which you have caught me. I’ll go to the root of this deception.
“What’s the trouble, Vasya? Can’t you stay longer? Must you go?”
She nodded silently. She was trembling with a fury that might break loose any moment.
She could not wait until she got home to read the letter. Going to the City Park, she sat down on a bench and impatiently tore open the tinted envelope.
“My precious Volya! My king, my beloved tormenter! Again, not a word from you. The third day without a line. Can you have forgotten me – don’t you love your capricious Nina any more? Your little Egyptian monkey? I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! But it’s terrible, nevertheless. You’re with her, and I’m all alone! Your ‘mentor’ will be able to change you, she’ll convince you that our love is a ‘sin against Communism’, that you must fast Communistically, give up everything that might delight you, and live only for the fanatics. I’m afraid of her. I know the power she has over you. But, my God! I’m not taking anything from her. I want so little. After all, she’s recognized as your wife. You’re with her always, all the time. And I’m begging only for a few hours for our love. I only beg you to pity me – I have only you, no one else in all this world!
“I wake up at night, trembling: he doesn’t love me any more; he’s going to leave me. What will become of me then? I’m afraid to think of it. You know that Nikanor Platonovitch is lying in wait for me like a spider. Of course he still plays that fatherly role – but we know what he’s hoping for. He’s waiting anxiously for the day when you’ll leave me, when I’ll be alone, with no one to protect or help me. That’ll be a holiday for him. There are times when I hate him, when I’d rather go on the street than be obliged to him in any way. Volya! Volya! My beloved, my madly adored lover! Will there never be an end to this? Will you never rescue your Ninyka? Have you no pity for her? Don’t you want to protect her?
“I’m crying, Volya. You have no pity for your little monkey. You never think of her, you cruel, faithless man. You’re caressing another woman. You love her. I know you love her! And that hurts. Very, very badly.
“I want you, your ardent, insatiable love! Don’t you long for my lips? For my embraces? My satiny arms want to enfold you – my breasts yearn for your caresses....
“I can’t bear it, Volyda! I can’t be away from you any longer. Why did you send me to Moscow? Why?
“But this will have to be our last separation. In your new district you’ll have to find a little house for me outside the town. Nobody’ll know that I live there. ‘The mysterious little house’, where you will go at twilight. And there I’ll teach you that a love like ours is better and more important than anything else in the world. When are you coming to Moscow? Is she really coming here with you? If only we could have a week together, to make up for this! A week for us only.
“Nikanor Platonovitch says that in the new district you’ll have a splendid house for yourself. With a Gothic dining room. But there’s no dining room lamp. I’ve seen a marvelous chandelier here – a bit expensive, but really artistic. I know you’ll like it.
“Now I’ve told you enough. Such a long letter. You won’t be able to hide it. Here I’m joking; but I really want to cry. Can’t you feel how I suffer? Why, oh why, doesn’t life let us have a little happiness? But don’t be alarmed. I won’t complain any more. After all I’ve gone through I’ve gained a little sense. You do whatever you think is right, and I’ll be satisfied with everything. Let me have only one thing – your passionate tenderness, your loving pity for your poor, miserable, capricious Nina.
“Moscow, Ostoshenka I8, Number 7, and not 17 as you wrote last time; the letter almost got lost on account of that.
“I’m yours, from my feet to my lips – only your darling sweetheart.
And, in the margin: “Imagine how delighted I was to find Coty’s 1’Origan powder in Moscow”
Vasya read Nina’s letter slowly, carefully, word for word. Not only with her eyes, but with her heart.
When she had finished she dropped the letter on her knees, looked at the dry, dusty grass, listened to the angry humming of a bee; it flew about busily among the blades, rose into the air, disappointed, and descended into the grass again. In the spring, when the lilac was blooming, there had been bees, too. But those had been different, happy bees; this one was angry, as if the summer had played it false.
Vasya thought she was thinking of the bee, and not of the letter. Her heart was numb, seemed not to ache, seemed indifferent to everything. “Satiny arms,” “passionate tenderness!” It hurt her so! Slowly, painstakingly, Vasya folded the letter, put it back into the envelope.
Getting up, she walked toward the gate, past the bandstand. The park was silent and empty today. No music. Now Vasya knew whom Vladimir loved, knew that not she, but the other, belonged to him.
Vasya stepped through the gate of the dusty City Park into the noisy street. She felt as if she had left a grave behind her in the park. She was going home from a funeral. The burial of her dead happiness.