If You Say It Again...
by Sherman Smith
May 18, 1977
“Vera, if you say it again, I’ll scream.”
With those words Mikhail Andreevich Lapin died. This was perhaps the first time in their marriage that Mikhail had gotten in the last word. It was a shame he did not live long enough to appreciate the silence.
Vera had plenty left to say, just no one to say it to. Her world ended with Mikhail’s death. Now she was just an old Russian babushka, a prima donna of French and Russian lineage, no known family, with only an old woman’s selective memories, a few pictures, and her porcelain chicken collection to comfort her.
She sat for close to twenty minutes looking at her husband’s face. His passing had been long, the cancer that had taken him had laid waste to his once handsome features. Handsome, in her eyes, yes, though she could barely recognize him now.
“There were some good times, were there not, my dear? In Shanghai, when we first met? Springtime in Sapporo. Paris? I never wanted to leave, but I followed you to Palestine because I was your wife. Palestine — spest — I spit on the memory, such a horrible place,” she said in French, her voice just above a whisper.
Vera knew that she had not been an easy woman to live with. In Palestine she had been impossible. These last few years, as their age grated on each other’s nerves and their health declined, she had not been much better. She had never forgiven him for taking her away from her Paris, nor for the loss of their unborn child while Mikhail had been beaten and tortured by the Japanese occupation authorities in Shanghai.
In the last year, Mikhail had said little. He lived his life around her, providing for her. But he had long run out of anything to say and did not respond to much she said.
At first she had thought that his hearing had gone bad. But, when he listened to his television news, he heard Walter Cronkite just fine. And that’s the way it is. Mikhail always answered Cronkite’s closing commentary with a comment of his own, as if the famous news anchor were holding the last few seconds of the broadcast for Mikhail’s irony or wisdom on life’s foibles.
Vera, who paid little attention to the news, often thought his comments were directed at her, and they confused her. When she asked what he wanted, he usually turned off the television, poured himself his one brandy of the evening, and lit a cigar as he moved to the veranda to read the newspaper. He never answered her, leaving her in a quandary.
Who had been more difficult? Well, that’s the way it was.
A hospice nurse came in and saw that Mikhail was gone. She did not have to look at any of the machines to see that he had flat-lined. His death was long overdue.
What remained of Mikhail Lapin reminded her of a picture she had once seen of human skeletons stacked like so much cordwood, ones that the Nazis hadn’t had time to burn at the Dachau death camp. She had become used to that; few patients left the hospice as they came in, which isn’t saying much.
She took Vera by the hand. “Come, my dear. Your husband is finally at peace. Let’s get you some tea, while I see that Mikhail is taken care of.”
At the door Vera turned, took one last look at her Mikhail and said in French, “What will you have me do now, God?”
God was busy with Mikhail and had no time for her at the moment.
The door to Mikhail’s room slowly closed as she said in Russian, “That’s what I thought.”
“Excuse me,” asked the nurse?
Vera did not answer.
When you cremate a human body by subjecting it for more than two hours to temperatures of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit what remains is between 5 1/2 and 8 1/2 pounds of granulated ash. Six pounds was the approximate weight of the contents of the ceramic urn that Vera held over the bow of the boat as it idled off Angel Island on a sparkling afternoon, with a misty San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
She tilted the urn down toward the bay. The ashes formed a milky gray cloud in the bottle-green water. She did not want the urn and let it to drop into the rippling water where she had let Mikhail go a moment before.
A crew member hurried over with a fisherman’s net to retrieve it. “No, let it be,” she said. “It was made in China. Perhaps it will help Mikhail find his way home.” She turned away and quietly made her way to an enclosed cabin where other mourners waited their turns to scatter the ashes of their loved ones at sea.
That evening, as the sun was just setting, Vera took a cab to the Presidio, to a small park west of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she got out and walked alone to the edge of the cliff. A foghorn moaned, while seabirds flew just overhead looking for a last meal before the sun disappeared over the horizon. She scanned the waves breaking below. A cold wind edged her back from the cliff’s edge.
“Remember when we first met, Mikhail.” Their was a slight hitch to her voice that was compelling in its disclosure of what she was actually feeling. “It was so long ago. You remember, Mikhail, how it was? How could you ever forget? We were so young, so foolish, and so unprepared. It was in Shanghai, and I had just sat down for afternoon tea at the Cathay Hotel, when...”
* * *
August 1, 1929
Mikhail sat in his cab parked in front of the Cathay Hotel, Number 20, The Bund, overlooking the Huangpu River. It was the hotel’s grand opening, and the city’s most modern, art deco, architectural achievement.
Shanghai was the “Paris of the East,” a melting pot for people with plans, for adventurers and schemers from all over the globe. And refugees like Mikhail. The city was a thrilling place full of finger-snapping, can-do swagger. China’s most devil-may-care metropolis was, in fact, the fifth largest city on earth.
People were just now arriving, a few had tried to flag him down, but he was not going anywhere, at least not yet because the jazz music he had recently discovered poured from the great hotel. His fingers snapped, his toes tapped, as he listened and dreamed of being more than just a poor, stateless Russian cabbie. The total of one day’s earnings couldn’t afford him the price of one martini.
The men were dressed to their own self-importance; the women were all beautiful. All the women were beautiful, except one, who stood out above all the rest. A young woman as arresting as a Martagon “Russian Morning” lily surrounded by a field of common white irises.
“What is this?” he said aloud as his eyes took in the most bodacious woman he had ever laid eyes on. “Russian? Perhaps. French? She has the beauty, but she is not skinny enough to be French. Russian, I think so. But why would she have anything to do with a poor Russki cab driver? Because,” he said with a snap of his fingers to the music, “because I am Russian. Poor, yes, but that is today. Tomorrow I will be someone.”
Mikhail put a sign on his dashboard that said his cab was not available, pocketed the keys, brushed back his thick, dark hair as he eyed himself in the mirror, blew a deep breath into his hand to see if the onion sandwich he had eaten for lunch was too telling, and set off for the entrance to the Cathay Hotel in hope of finding this intoxicating young flower. He hesitated for just a moment. What should I say? What difference does it make? She will see me as a fool, a Russian fool — yes — and then she will laugh. Or slap me for being an impudent one.
The two long-tailed black-coated doormen eyed him as he approached. The grand opening was reserved for the rich and privileged, not common street rabble. Mikhail pointed back at his cab saying in French that he was to pick up a grand lady from the French Concession after she finished her afternoon tea.
He had learned to speak French in Harbin, and he spoke it as easily as he did his native Russian and a few Chinese dialects.The doormen let him through. They considered the French more civilized and less brutish than the Russian expatriates who had recently been arriving in the city by the thousands.
He was determined to meet this woman. He had thought it so easy, despite his insecurity. He would march into the hotel, present himself as a gentleman, despite his attire, kiss her hand, and invite her to tea at a neighboring hotel the following afternoon. But first he had to find her.
What he found inside the hotel was dizzying. Their were hundreds of people milling about the lobby, with dozens of white-coated waiters serving trays of exotic food and a seemingly endless supply of champagne. A seventeen-piece swing orchestra competed with the laughter and din of the crowd, their voices raised to be heard against the background of the music.
The ground floor was designed as a luxury shopping arcade. Once up the grand staircase, he was stunned by a octagonal glass skylight that lit up the entire mezzanine level. The floor beneath was made up of custom-patterned stone mosaic floors in deco-style tiling.
A soft buff and blue-grey color scheme enhanced the hotel’s intricate cornices and coffers. Copper balustrades and light fixtures complemented by bronze and polished nickel hung from the high ceiling. Grey-vein marble accented with rich Noir St Laurent dark marble borders and walnut burl grain wood paneling covered the walls. It was the grandest place he had ever been to.
Distracted by the detail of the Art Deco beauty that overwhelmed his senses, he pushed his way through the crowd, looking for the damsel who had so easily stolen his heart.
There she was. She had just taken a seat in a lobby sofa chair with a tea chart and pastries only a few feet away from her. He would serve her the pastries himself if the waiter didn’t box his ears.
The security men seemed to be keeping a close eye on him, or at least that was what his conscience was telling him. Mikhail, you fool, you have no business being here. You are a stateless Russian nobody with only a few coins in his pocket. Leave while you still can on your own volition. The pastry cart was drawing near. If he didn’t make his move, it would be too late.
A sudden surge in the crowd blocked his way.
He pushed forward, trying to edge his way around a bosomy Dutch woman who had obviously had more than her share of pastries. She stood her ground. He stepped on her foot. She shrieked in Dutch, which few around her understood. A misplaced step by Mikhail turned the area around the tea court into a panicky gathering where everyone was turning first one way then another, each looking for the cause of the woman’s distress.
Mikhail apologized and tried to edge his way past the woman without further incident. His apology went unheard; she shrieked that someone had tried to pat her bottom. A Dutch military aide grabbed Mikhail by his shirt sleeve.
Mikhail twisted away, spinning backwards to avoid being caught. He hit the tea cart, causing it to tip, tea and a tray of pastries spilling onto the lap of the young woman Mikhail was seeking.
She looked at her ruined dress then looked up at the man who had caused it all. “You stupid clumsy fool,” she said in French.
Mikhail recognized the Moscow accent beneath her almost perfect French. He took off his hat, knelt and kissed her hand unexpectedly. “Mikhail Andreevich Lapin at your service.” He offered her a handful of napkins as two security men grabbed him by his elbows to escort him out of the hotel. “And yes, you are right, I am a stupid, clumsy fool who admires you greatly,” he called back.
Those nearby laughed at Mikhail’s clownish introduction. Vera looked at her ruined dress, then smiled; for, despite everything, she could not help but feel complimented, even by this lowly Russian taxi driver who had risked his honor and had been dragged from the room a disgraced romantic fool.
* * *
She was growing cold and weary. Saying goodbye to someone you have loved and shared your life with is not easy. She pulled her coat closer against the wind while the sun, a small brilliant beacon, slipped below the horizon. “The Bund was the center of Shanghai, of the whole world; such a wonderful place.” Her eyes lit up with the memory. “It is not there anymore, my dear, not the way you and I knew it.”
I will find it and send for you, she thought. She could hear him say from somewhere just beneath the waves that crashed against the shore a hundred feet below. “Yes,” she said as she turned back towards the cab. “I’ll meet you there,” she said in Russian. “Goodbye, my love, my Russian fool.”
The cab driver opened the door and helped her inside. Vera looked at him with sad eyes, wondering for a brief moment where he had come from, what had brought him to this place. What storm had tossed him here, where she and Mikhail had been for forty some odd years. The cab pulled out of the park, the night growing dark, as were the thoughts that floated across Vera’s tired mind. “God, I ask you for a second time, what am I to do now?” She sat in silence as she waited for an answer.
Her answer came in the rumblings of the cab’s engine in bad need of a tune-up. It came in the jolting and jostling of the cab as it bounced from pothole to pothole, the cabbie not too careful.
It came with the wail of a distant foghorn, and the glitter of a million city lights, where no one knew her, nor cared that she was frighteningly alone this night. After a while she nodded her head saying to herself, “That is what I thought.”
She had tried not to cry; crying did nothing to ease her pain. Still, a small tear edged its way slowly down her cheek as she looked out into the night. “You promised me, Mikhail, that someday you would be someone important. Do you remember?”
When she returned to her apartment in Oakland, she went to her tiny kitchen to make tea.
As the pot boiled she walked around the living room touching little things that had been Mikhail’s: his hat, a sweater for keeping warm on the veranda, the brandy glass, his box of cigars. When the tea pot whistled, she returned to the kitchen.
Just by the door there was a glass shelf filled with porcelain chickens, one for each year of their marriage. She picked up the one he had given her in Paris. She held it to her breast and remembered Paris. She remembered his last words: “Vera, if you say it again, I’ll scream.” And for the life of her she could not remember what she had said.
She set the fragile chicken down and went to the stove. She reached for a teacup, looked up and said, “Now, God, what will you have me do?”
Mikhail Lapin was born in 1900 in St. Petersburg, Russia. He and his family fled from St. Petersburg in 1905. It took them three years to get to China. Mikhail was the only member of his family to make it to Shanghai.
Vera was born in Moscow. Her father had been a conductor of the Moscow symphony until a purge sent her family fleeing to Shanghai. She arrived with on a surviving aunt. Mikhail was raised in Harbin, fleeing to Shanghai when the Japanese invaded in 1932.
Mikhail’s and Vera’s lives were always on the edge of history; they lived in Russia, Mongolia, China, France, Palestine, Japan, Bolivia, and Brazil. They finally lived out their last days in San Francisco.
The Shanghai Jews are mostly gone now, as is the world they lived in. Shanghai today is something I doubt they could ever have imagined.
Copyright © 2014 by Sherman Smith