Antonia's Smile

by J. S. Kierland

Memory and time run together when you get older, and strangers with uncertain smiles can tumble you backward through decades of cigarette smoke and desires you thought you'd forgotten a long time ago. An uncertain smile had dropped me back into the middle of the 1950s, pulling me out of a dull New Year's Eve party into a time when I was taking post grad courses in a city that never sleeps.

I remember how flustered the young girl at the door had gotten when Antonia leaned in and asked her in an East European accent, "Is this Modern Drama?" The girl managed a nod, and Antonia in an expensive red coat and heels, walked into the room with that same uncertain smile that had passed me a few seconds before.

Time was cheaper then, and we spoke to each other a few times at class breaks until she changed her seat to one next to mine, and asked, if I'd "like to be her guest and have a drink after class?"

I nodded an acceptance, and when class ended she said quickly, "There's a bar on 70th and Lex. You can't miss it. I have to go out this way, but you can take the Lexington Avenue exit and I'll meet you there in a few minutes." Then she turned, looked back at me with that same uncertainty, and faded into the crowd going out the Park Avenue exit.

I had first thought she was an outrider like me, looking for a way into something that didn't exist. 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 was about to happen but going anyway.

The bar's neon sign flashed at me from 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 to me as if nothing unusual had happened, and I opened the door for her. The place was dimly lit with just a few people at the bar. She headed for the red booths lining the wall, like she'd been there before. A bartender came over and Antonia asked for a glass of white wine, I ordered whiskey, and when he left she turned to me and said, "I've been wanting to talk to you outside of class."

"I've been curious about you too," I admitted, and she looked surprised. "I wondered where you came from and what you were doing here?"

She sighed, gave me that same uncertain smile again, and said, "I thought you might be wondering why I went out the Park Avenue exit instead of with you."

"That too," I said, glad she'd brought it up.

"I'm from Yugoslavia," she said.

I nodded a semblance of understanding, and asked, "That's part of the Communist Bloc?"

"Yes, and why I went out the Park Avenue exit." I shrugged, and she said, "The Russian Embassy is on 68th and Park, just across the street from Hunter College."

The bartender arrived with our drinks and left, 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 Yugoslavian wants to be." I stared back at her and she said, "In their clumsy way, the Russians now control all of Eastern Europe, except for my country, and the one thing they want and need more than anything else is what my country has, so they actually watch me with binoculars from their windows. They know I'm taking the class, and when it's over I show my face at the Park Avenue exit and head uptown for the bus to the Westside. They like to know where certain people are...all the time. I'm used to their heavy-handedness."

"Are you a spy?" I asked.

"Everyone is a spy to the Russians," she said. "It's a constant game with them and I've played it before."

"Sounds like a serious game."

"You're right, it can be. I'm married to a government official in Yugoslavia, and they want to make sure I'm not giving away any of my country's secrets. They're just being Russian," she shrugged. "Officially, I'm here because a close friend of mine is about to have an exhibit of her paintings at the UN." She glanced up at me over her wine glass, "It's as simple as that, and I just wanted to talk to you because the professor said you were a writer and-"

"He saw a one-act play of mine, but I've only just begun to-"

"But you've had a play produced." I nodded, and she asked, "Who are your favorites...who do you read?"

"The usual suspects," I said, with a shrug.

"Have you read D H. Lawrence?"

"Sons And Lovers...a few short stories-"

"He's wonderful," she said. "I just finished his last book, Lady Chatterley. It's magnificent."

"It's banned here 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."

"You mean the intellectual versus the sexual?"

"Yes," she added quickly. "The plot is simple. An upper class woman's husband is confined to a wheelchair and their gardener becomes her sexual partner. Lawrence uses sexual slang in it so England has banned the book too. He published it himself in Italy, and I managed to get an autographed copy."

"You were lucky," I said.

"I'll lend it to you, if you like," she offered.

"There's nothing quite like the real thing," I said, finishing my Jack Daniels. "You mentioned you were married to a government official and-"

"My husband is head of manufacturing in Yugoslavia and we have two children, a boy and a little girl."

"That's exciting. You must know President Tito."

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

"I was," I said. "Like Lawrence, it was revealing."

"Wasn't there anything positive in it?"

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

"No, no," she said. "I do that because there's just not much left in Yugoslavia. The Nazi occupation was terrible. We actually owe a great deal to you Americans. You gave us hope 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 have a warm water naval base on the Adriatic and passage into the Mediterranean."

"Warm water?" I asked.

"All they have now is an old base in the Crimea on the Black Sea, and their ships are stuck in the ice for half the year. You can't be a world power if you don't have a full-time naval base."

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 morning, then go to the 42nd Street Library where I study and write for the rest of the afternoon."

"Sounds exciting."

"It's not," Isaid, 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 since our first class," she said. "Now I know why." I kissed her again, felt her body against me, and we ended up staring at each other in the dim nightlight from an antique furniture store.

She took my arm again and we hunched together against a sudden cold wind, waiting for the bus coming across 72nd. 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. She waved to me and the bus pulled away.

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." I nodded a greeting, and kept going. Reaching the corner, I glanced back. The man had turned and was walking toward me. I went around the corner, angled across the street and ducked into a doorway. The man appeared at the corner, looked up and down the street, than turned and headed back toward Park Avenue.

* * *

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 with her room but there was no answer, so I hung up and started for the 42nd Street Library. Going up the wide steps, I noticed the man that tried to follow me the night before. I saw Antonia in her red coat at the top of the stairs, and 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 right now hanging her pictures. 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 try to keep the Russians as confused as possible," she said, with a little laugh. "So let's have lunch." I took her arm and led her into the library and out the back through Bryant Park.

"Do you know you're being followed?"

"Has he been bothering you too?" she asked.

"Last night after I put you on the bus."

"Is this why we're going out the back way?"

"He was waiting out front when I arrived," I told her, and she gave a quick glance behind her. "He followed you to the library and doesn't know about its back entrance."

We never did have lunch. Instead, she guided me through her hotel's side entrance and up a back staircase to a small room with high ceilings with an art deco design along the top of its 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 those days than a Nazi symbol on a book jacket."

"I'm afraid I do understand," she finally admitted. "Europe is frightening when you realize how physically close we are to one another. Incestuous, like our royalty."

I got up and peeked into the hallway. "I don't see anyone, but by this time he's probably-"

"Now you know what it's like living next to Russians," she whispered, as I stared down the empty hall.

* * *

They'd converted a large room 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 come "across town" to meet her, making the evening uniquely American. I congratulated Olga, and on a prearranged signal, Antonia and I left through different exits and met 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, holding a silver platter and serving little frankfurters. He actually spoke in Croatian and told Olga how wonderful her paintings were."

"They seem to enjoy the game they play," I said.

"Their posturing is disgusting."

I laughed, and we went to my favorite eastside restaurant and ordered ginger shrimp and sizzling rice soup. "Russian Spies make me hungry," I told her.

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

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

"First, we eat this wonderful food...celebrate meeting each other," and we clinked our water glasses and toasted the Russians.

* * *

The Modern Drama class had reached its mid-point. Exams were given, marked, and returned. We'd studied together, and hadn't seen a Russian in 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 in front of him, and said, "You really shouldn't worry about me so much."

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

"You learned English in London," I said. He shook his head. "But you're definitely in the Waiter's Union."

He smiled, and said, "Learned the trade in London."

The elevator door closed and we set ourselves for the ride down, but the elevator didn't move, and I said, "Hard to believe you're not 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." When I turned, the bald-headed Hungarian desk clerk with the round-framed glasses stared back at me. "I didn't know you knew Vladimir," he said, surprised at seeing us standing together.

"We were just leaving," I said, pushing past him.

"The elevator is quite all right, Oscar," Vladimir said, and he walked to the front door with me. "There's a little bakery down the street that serves the worst coffee in New York. It's indescribable," he said. "You have to experience it to believe it."

"Is the food as bad as the 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're trying to be in the war. We owe 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.

* * *

I remembered walking in Riverside Park with Antonia during an early-December snowstorm. The wide walkway was deserted except for a few Russian families who sat on the benches stoically watching their children playing in the falling snow. Their husbands were officials at the Russian Embassy and the UN, and Antonia waved to the squealing children as we passed.

"I feel sorry for the Russian women," she said. They're strangers here and expected to remain that way. Never mixing. Always being the outsiders, looking in. Russian to the core."

"You're not like the Russians at all, are you?"

"Russians are not like anybody. Sometimes I think they want to join in, but really can't. It's as 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."

"You mean, leave it out here for the Russians."

"Yes, they do enjoy it."

When we turned to leave the park, Antonia stopped, and said, "You better go on without me. This time I have to have it out with him," she said. "It can't go on this way."

I looked around but didn't see anything through the falling snow. "You see him?" I asked, and she nodded toward a bench near the entrance, where Vladimir was sitting in the snow. "I'll wait for you," I said.

"No, I'll see you in class tonight. I have to do this my way," she said, and I understood what she meant.

When I got to the other side of the street, I looked back at Vladimir sitting in the falling snow, and Antonia yelling at him like he was a little boy. The snowfall got heavier and heavier, and I could hardly see them anymore.

* * *

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

"Olga's packing what she has left of the paintings after the big sale," she said, when we sat down.

"What happens now?" I asked.

"We leave in the morning," she said abruptly.

There was really nothing more to say. All I could do was offer 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 an early tide." I didn't say anything, but had that empty feeling in my gut. "I'll call you when I come back. It'll be soon," she said. "Now we've both got lives to lead," she I nodded, and we finished our drinks.

* * *

I got to the pier early and stood 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, Vladimir was standing behind me.

"Thought you'd be here to see them off," he said, in that offhanded way of his.

"Maybe it is better this way."

"At least you don't have to follow us anymore."

He shrugged, and said, "It's my day off."

We watched the flurry of activity at the foot of the floating black mountain. People showing papers 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 these European women are different than the ones you have here," he mused. "If you had picked her it would have been different, but she picked you. 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...and on your day off. You're a hopeless
Romantic, Vlady."

"My mother was Russian," he mused, and as we started up the street together, he added, "She won't be back."

"I know," I said, thinking of the report he was going to turn in.

"You don't have to worry. My report leaves you out of it completely," he said with a shrug. "Life goes on over there, and we try not to get in its way."

"Do you know her husband?" Vlady nodded a smile. "You seem amused by all 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, and so he added, "Things like this go on over there all the time."

"Are you Croatian?" I asked.

He kept nodding like he did in the snow with Antonia. "Her husband understands these things," he acknowledged.

"We grew up in Belgrade together." He took my arm and said, "There's a place up the street where we can get-"

"Coffee," I said, and he laughed.

We began to walk away from the dark ship waiting for the tugboats to guide her out through the harbor. There was a low blast as she left but I didn't look back. She'd become a memory, waiting for some stranger's uncertain smile to bring her back. Oddly, I never saw either one of them again until an uncertain smile at a boring New Year's Eve party decades later.

Friday, March 6, 20