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If She Hadn’t Learned To Knit

by Tatyana Yankovskaya

Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Russian original

She went back to her knitting. To keep from weeping, she counted the stitches out loud. Decrease stitches on one side, then the other; the first leg and then the second. But maybe he told someone what his plans were? Maybe he was afraid to tell her, but he told Pasha, their downstairs neighbor?

Sasha and Pasha had been friends since they were children. Pasha still looked up to him and was good to Ksenia. He admired her and was always ready to help if she needed it — she didn’t even have to ask. But still, waking him up in the middle of the night was too much. And what would she ask him — does Pasha know why Sasha is out all night? Lord, how embarrassing!

She went to the phone and dialed the number on Grazhdansky. A busy signal. She dialed again and again, but it was always busy. Maybe the number was wrong or the phone didn’t work? But Sasha could have called from a phone booth to tell her that he was spending the night. Something must have happened.

She picked up the knitting needles again and tried to calm down, but tears ran down her face. Maybe they were having an orgy and took the phone off the hook so no one would disturb them? Judging by the stories told by Sasha and Igor, a polite and smart fellow Sasha met on the trip, the girls were not exactly tramps, but they were pretty wild — women who’d been around the block.

The phone was still busy. It was already five o’clock. It made no sense to call the police and it was too early to call Igor’s parents or Pasha, but soon the trams would be running and Sasha would surely call and come home. Ksenia kept knitting. She was knitting automatically now. The needles flew in her fingers and two black knit swaths crawled down her legs, and only they, her allies that night, kept her from losing her mind.

At seven o’clock the phone on Grazhdansky was still busy. She called Pasha. Even though it was Saturday, it was all right to wake him.

“Did you see Sasha yesterday?”

“Yes — I saw him on the landing when I was coming home. Why?”

“He went to meet with his tour group from Germany and he hasn’t come home.”


“I thought maybe he said something to you — that he was going to stay the night or something about his plans.”

“No, he didn’t say anything.”

“He didn’t say anything to me, either, but for some reason he didn’t come home.”

“And he didn’t call?”


“That’s strange. People usually call in those cases.”

“I found a telephone number in his trip diary, but the line is always busy.”

“Don’t worry, Ksenia. I’m sure everything is fine. Maybe they just got drunk.”

“But he never gets drunk — you know that.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Well, the trams are running and the metro is open, so he’ll sure to be home soon.”

“All right. Sorry I woke you up, Pasha. I’ve got to get Dasha up and ready for school.”

When Dasha sat down to breakfast, she said: “Oh, Mama! You knitted so much! Didn’t you sleep at all? Where’s Papa?”

“He’ll be home soon. Dress warmly, Dasha. It’s cold outside.”

Dasha left, and Ksenia screwed up her courage to call Igor. A woman’s voice, sleepy and irritated, answered the phone.

“I’m sorry to call you so early, but may I speak to Igor?”

“It certainly isn’t appropriate to call so early Saturday morning. Igor isn’t home.”

Ksenia breathed more easily.

“I’m so sorry to bother you. This is Sasha Kushnarev’s wife. Sasha and Igor went to a party with the tour group and Sasha still isn’t home. I’m very worried.”

“Didn’t he call you?”

“No, and the phone there is constantly busy.”

“The phone is broken. Igor called me at eleven last night from a pay phone and told me they were sleeping over. After all, getting home in such cold weather... the trams aren’t heated and you can’t catch a taxi...But it’s appalling that your husband didn’t call. My son called me!” The voice of Igor’s mother swelled to Wagnerian heights. “He said that he’d be home by ten.”

It was already nine. Igor had farther to go, so Sasha should be home at any minute. Ksenia went back into the main room. Should she go to bed? Eat something? Start to clean up? She couldn’t do anything but knit. Ten o’clock. Where on earth was he? Ten-thirty. She began to sew together the two halves of the leggings. She began to weep — she couldn’t help herself. It was eleven o’clock. What was going on? She took a piece of linen elastic from her sewing box, cut a length and inserted it in the leggings. Done! What should she do now? He’ll probably never come home...

“Hi!” Sasha walked in as if nothing was wrong. “Why aren’t you saying anything? What’s the matter?

“What’s the matter?! What do you think is the matter?”

“What happened?”

“You didn’t come home last night. I didn’t sleep all night!”

“But you knew I was going to a party.”

“But you didn’t say you were going to spend the night!”

“It was freezing outside, so we decided to stay over.”

“But you could have called.”

“The phone was broken.”

“Why didn’t you call from a pay phone?”

“I didn’t want to go out into the cold.”

“Igor went out and called his mother. You might have at least asked him to call me.”

“Sorry. I didn’t think.”

“And you didn’t think to take the first tram home? Where have you been all morning?”

“You know that I always do the rounds of bookstores on Saturday. I got to Liteiny Prospekt at nine o’clock and then...”

“You went to bookstores?! You didn’t call or come home?”

She turned to stone. Was he human? She slowly raised the black leggings in front of her. They turned out well. Sasha walked up and took them from her hands. “Kat!” he murmured. Then all was a blur. But it was clear that he loved her and she loved him. Despite everything. There was no one dearer.

Did she forgive him then? If she hadn’t forgiven him, they wouldn’t be on this trip to Switzerland, and she wouldn’t be experiencing this panic and cold rationality. Would she forgive him again? The past has the answer to today’s questions. If a woman forgives once, she’ll keep on forgiving. The unbelievable thing that happened will happen again, since for the person she lived with, it wasn’t just believable, but typical. You can change habits if you try, but you can’t change your nature. From time to time nature trumps habit, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why do we forgive those who don’t ask for forgiveness, and not forgive those who do?

What should she do? She was almost certain that nothing had happened to Sasha. He was a good skier who didn’t take stupid risks, and besides, he’s lucky. He’s just being Sasha. Should she call Vika in Petersburg to complain? Ksenia knows what Vika will say: “Ksenia, work it out with him once and for all. Either leave him or put up with him. He’s not going to change. You choose!” Vika thinks that the most important quality in a man is his reliability. Her first husband wasn’t very reliable, but she says her second one is.

After eight in the evening, Ksenia finally goes down to dinner. It’s Chinese fondue — better shared with someone. She takes pieces of finely sliced raw fish, meat, vegetables. At the table she skewers them on a long-handled fork and submerges them into the elegant little pot of boiling water. The waiter brings her the bottle of wine she and Sasha began the night before. But she can’t get anything down.

She returns to her room and decides that at nine o’clock she’ll ask Inga to call the crisis center and ask for advice on what to do. Maybe it makes sense to order the helicopter. At nine o’clock the phone rings. Of course, it’s Sasha calling from Cervinia. He’s in a hotel room eating room service, which the hotel staff brought him out of sympathy because he couldn’t go to the restaurant in his ski clothes and boots.

“Why didn’t you call earlier? We were going to get a helicopter to start looking for you. On TV they say that a couple died on the slopes today...”

“Ksenia, the battery in my cell phone ran down, and I’ve been trying to call you for two hours. The thing is that there is a hotel by the same name in Tasch and they connected me with that hotel. I told them to get my wife, but they said there wasn’t anyone there by that name. I called again — they got mad and thought that someone was playing a joke on them. I said that I was in Italy and didn’t get back up the mountain, but they shouted at me and slammed down the phone. I asked the Italians in the hotel to call, but the same thing happened. Finally, someone else picked up the phone, and when I said that I didn’t make it back across the border to Zermatt in time, they understood and gave me the hotel’s number. Kat, everything’s fine. The lifts will start working at seven in the morning and I’ll come right back. Don’t go out until I get there. We’ll have breakfast together and go skiing. I won’t call in the morning. Good night, Kat.”

It was a huge weight off her shoulders. But she was angry. Ksenia tried to go to sleep, but in the middle of the night she woke up and couldn’t fall asleep again. She went over to the window, opened the curtains and gasped: A huge round moon was suspended in the sky next to the Matterhorn, illuminating its proud, dignified pose and the sharp face of a sea lion about to toss the moon high into the air like a ball. It was deceptive, an illusion of closeness — the moon was infinitely farther away. If the Matterhorn had been really next to it, it would be but a blemish on its surface. But here, on earth, the small moon was next to the huge Matterhorn, shining reflected light, illuminating its unassailable beauty, and tonight they are together. Nights like these have come before and will come again countless times. This eternal beauty brings healing and calm.

The next morning Ksenia dressed as slowly as she could, but in the end she went down to breakfast by herself. It was already nine o’clock, and Sasha still wasn’t back. He said he’d return early. Well, the ski lift in Italy to the pass would take some time, but Sasha could ski down quickly. That meant he was up to his usual tricks and in no hurry to get back. Soon it would be ten o’clock. Well, fine then. The day was beautiful and she’d go skiing by herself.

Ksenia took the electric bus to the farthest ski lift that would take her to her favorite slope. Weighed down by her boots, she trudged to the lifts that take the hordes of skiers to the gondolas. And then she ran into Sasha, unshaven, pale, pushing through the crowds.

“Kat! Why didn’t you wait for me? We might have missed each other — it’s a miracle I ran into you.”

Ksenia muttered something without looking at him. She didn’t have to answer him. He was the guilty one — let him talk. Sasha took her skis. “Where do you want to ski?”

They went through the turnstile and got into a gondola. Sasha told her about the Italian hotel, about the mix-up with the telephone numbers.

“Inga said that in the twenty years she’s been working here, nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“But it wasn’t my fault, it was just a series of mix-ups.”

“I told you to take a card from the hotel with the address and phone number.”

“I didn’t think anything like this would happen!”

“Well, I did, and that’s why I told you to take it. There should be some kind of service, some tourist office or something, in Cervinia, where they have information about hotels in Zermatt.”

“It’s not as well organized there as it is here.”

“That’s not the problem. You’re the problem. Why don’t you listen sometime, since your wife is so smart?”

“You’re not just smart, Kat — you’re beautiful. Let me take your picture.”

“I don’t want you to!”

They skied down parallel slopes several times and shared a ski lift back up the mountain.

“Do you want to get something to eat? I haven’t had breakfast.”

“No. I’m going to ski down a couple more times and then go home. You can get a bite to eat and keep on skiing.”

“No, I’ll go with you.”

But after skiing down another time, he said: “I’m so hungry that my head is spinning.”

They went into a restaurant on the slope. Sasha got a beer and a hearty Alpine meal of thick sausage with fried potatoes and a fried egg. Ksenia just had soup.

In the hotel she took a bath while he went to the sauna and pool. She was sitting in a terrycloth robe on the shining white of the bed when Sasha walked in, hot from his sauna and shower, and came to her. “Kat...” In their furry white robes they looked like the embracing polar bears on the postcard she had pinned above her desk at work.

No matter what psychologists say, it’s always better to make up in bed. Or perhaps it’s just easier that way? Arguments quickly get swept under the rug and stay there. How do older couples make up — the ones who have long forgotten about sex? But they don’t get lost God knows where in the mountains and don’t spend the whole damn night without a thought of calling, so there is less cause for anger and far less drama. But old people who are deaf, slow, fussy, stubborn and critical — isn’t that impossible to bear? Well, let’s deal with each thing as it comes. Right now everything is fine. That’s just the way he is. So... warm,, so ... mine. Mine. Mine.

The next morning, they went up the mountain, surrounded by blinding white. From the gondola she could see the shining spots polished by the wind and sun on the illuminated sides of the mountain and the evenly matte surface of the shadowed slopes. She could see her favorite wide, smooth slope lit by the sun. Soaring like a bird, the wind in your face — it’s not cold, but fresh and alive. The rhythm of the squeaking snow is music to your ears. The skis follow every movement of your knees — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh — turn, turn, turn. For heaven’s sake, what’s the point of getting caught up in the drama and putting yourself through such an ordeal, when you can do this? Pure joy — a holiday that is always with you. And the cross you bear — isn’t that always with you, too? You probably can’t have one without the other. Except for those moments when you rise up to the surface, catch the rhythm, and soar upwards. Soar now along that smooth white surface, amid the shining blueness, above the soft clouds concealing the town in the valley. Soar. Today is a holiday.

And what about the sleepless nights with the moon, with the Matterhorn proudly rising up, dimly white in the darkness, with a child’s leggings flying off knitting needles? So what? Because there were, are, and will be other sleepless nights. With him. Maybe all this — the moon, and the knitting, and the brief terror of solitude — is payment for the long days and nights together? But what about her choice? That’s just philosophizing. Let Vika philosophize about whether choice exists at all and whether we have the freedom to choose.

Inga and the young bartender got bottles of champagne after all, although they’d only been joking. They’ll have something to remember in twenty years.

Copyright © 2012 by Tatyana Yankovskaya
translation © 2012 by Michele A. Berdy

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