It was only a few days earlier when I had been telling a friend that during my ten years in Moscow I had never had to deal with the death of a student and/or friend. Certainly, scores of grannies and grandpas haver gone the way of all flesh, but that's in the nature of things, and anyway, in Russia extreme old age is not common, especially among men. People may look old without actually being old. But no tragic or untimely deaths at the moment of speaking. Remarkable, considering all the air travel in terrible weather, and driving on unsafe roads amid chaotic traffic and super aggressive, reckless, road-rage afflicted psychopaths at the wheel..
I should have knocked on wood and spat for luck. Because on Saturday morning, 28 January, the luck ran out.
Her name was Katya. She was 28 and already had an important position in a solid, profitable Moscow company. She had a soft round pretty face that in the beginning -- at least when I met her three years ago -- nevertheless betrayed elements of her weight problem ( imagine Adele the singer), but which in recent months had begun to border on beautiful as the weight disappeared under the fierce regime she had imposed on herself. She wore a pair of glasses with very striking bright blue rims which worked well with the blondish aspects of her hair and complexion. Her new-made body was starting to look damned good in her denims and white-silver tops. From just being a very likeable person and better-than-average student, she was clearly emerging into something else, and I, her English teacher, was starting to catch myself glancing at her in a different way than before.. Funny how that happens. But I am old and she was young. So it was a friendship. We used to bum cigarettes off each other after the lessons. There was, at the end of it, a kind of what I will call a 'recognition' factor. We were connected in that way which doesn't need theatrics. Simply, we liked and respected each other.
She lived at home with her younger sister but had a boyfriend of some apparently long standing status. She was revered in the company. The future was hers. And she had a car. A small black car.
On that Saturday morning Katya was driving to her dacha. She was apparently flying down a road that invited speed, and the other cars around her must have been going fast too. All was well. But then something happened, and she had to make a quick manoeuvre. It didn't work. The roads were icy and inadequately tended to. The car skidded out of control and she rushed headlong into a full minivan coming from the other direction. The minivan ended up in a hell of a state, flipped over, skidding along the road, and, eight people-- I believe that was the number -- needed to be hospitalized. But all, as far as I know, survived. Katya was obliterated. The photos in the newspaper show a car demolished beyond recognition. By then, what was left of Katya's body had been pulled away.
The funeral was on Wednesday, 1 Feb. But I didn't know about it, I knew nothing at all. We had rescheduled our Thursday class for Wednesday, and during the day, the day of the funeral, I kept trying to phone Katya to confirm an early starting time for our class because I had somewhere to get to afterwards. I called, and there was no answered. Sms-ed and there was no reply. Called again. I grew impatient. What the f---? -- I wondered.
I finished a class in a dismal place in South Moscow called Uzhnaya and wandered outside, facing a long walk along the MKAD to reach the metro. I sms-ed Katya's boss. And then I received the answer as to why Katya hadn't responded. All day I had been trying to call someone who now was past calling. When I understood, I stood desolate among the frozen wastes of Uzhnaya in disbelief.
I am still trying to understand. But I will never understand. Why her? Why not someone else? And I remembered the faces of all my students, and Katya's only the previous week, saying a casual goodbye. Not an inkling that I was smiling goodbye to a girl so alive, but already standing so near the precipice, and so soon to fall into the void. All the rest are still here and going about their business; why didn't I see any trace of death in her face? Why did fate single her out? Why was she condemned?
Why will she never go to work again? Why will she never make love to her boyfriend or hug her mom, or eat a pizza? Or sneeze or yawn or scratch her nose? Why oh why?
I don't know about you, but at these moments I want to attack 'God'. I want to rip him off his phony pedestal and demand an answer. But God is out to lunch. Or He simply doesn't know the answer either. He is, to quote an old pop song, 'just a stranger on a bus.' As impotent as us, I would add.
I will see her boss -- who cried three days because she loved Katya -- this coming Sunday. Nina has tried to explain it to her older daughter, but hasn't told the younger one, for obvious psychological reasons, one being 14 and the other only 12. And next week, presumably, I will meet the class again. But maybe it will not meet. Katya was the leader, and without her, maybe it will also die.
Or maybe the other students will rally to her memory.
All the things, the dreams, the experiences that might have been hers, erased by a single mistake. ONE DAMNED MISTAKE.
I have made a million mistakes, many of them when I was drunk. And here I sit. I have kept the only message from her I hadn't erased on my little not-Smart phone. I suppose I had asked her, just the previous week -- asked her to confirm a lesson. On my phone remains the single word, "Yes."
===Eric Richard Le Roy===