Dystopia Chapter 19

From the Story Arc: Dystopia

Previous Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 18 by Krasnaya Zarya (Friday, August 11, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Dystopia Chapter 20 by Krasnaya Zarya (Tuesday, August 15, 2006)

(posted Sunday, August 13, 2006)

The Omsk State University still looked the same; a red-brick building, vaguely frizzled around the edges, the paint slowly coming off its doors. Every decade or so the doors would be repainted, and the layers of different colour come crashing on the observer through the cracks. There was a rather new fountain, as well as a new front court the fountain resided in, but the windowsills still looked just like the doors – wooden, with the paint coming off.

The university seemed, to Sofia's eyes, to harbour more life in it than she was used to seeing. It was not a bad school, per se. it simply was a backwater, as any place distant from the capital in such a huge country as Russia is bound to be. At least, it had been in Sofia's days. Now the place was teeming with youngsters, as well as older, more sedate personages. Sofia saw several youngsters in the half-leather-goth half-radioactivity-coveralls walking around, a distance between them and the more sedate folk. The fashion in this world certainly took a different turn. No natural, flowing, loose fabrics, no thongs and stripped-down shirts and shorts and skirts... There was a relative abundance of flannel checkered shirts, and a relative lack of neon colours.

As a college professor, and a keen observer, Sofia paid attention to teenage trends – most especially singling out the students who failed to follow them, whether by choice or by failing to recognize them – and she was familiar with most of the cliques teenagers seemed to adore so much. Some trends, she knew, though slightly altered and with a twist to them, crossed the Atlantic, though nowhere were they so marked and distinct. Here, naturally enough, she supposed, they were even more blended and blurred.

There were more pockets to go around, for one. The getups were less skimpy, and many of the students were dressed for heavy work. Remembering her own days in college, and the time of year, Sofia reckoned that many of the youngsters were coming from – or headed to – their respective summer job assignments. How many of them, she wondered with a small smile, were busy loathing potato fields? She noticed, too, after some watching, the suspicious absence of electronics; no small, sleek local versions of the iPod, no cell phones, no cases for carrying laptops... She prodded her rucksack with a toe, considering. Pulling out the gadgets in it may not be such a safe idea, after all.

She lurked by the edges of the crowds, carefully blending herself with the walls, afraid of being cast out as a stranger, more afraid even of being recognized. She deposited with gratitude her rucksack at the dress-down wardrobe that she sometimes so sorely missed in America, and stuck the deposit chip into a pocket. The blonde girl at the counter seemed bored, and was leafing through a fashion magazine. In July, it was no wonder. Sofia peeked behind the counter only to find proof of her assumption the empty hangers and racks, the emptiness disturbed only by an occasional raincoat or suitcase.

Sofia climbed the narrow stairs with their wooden handholds to the second floor, and to the university library. In the softly sounding world of books she felt somehow infinitely more comfortable. The place was so eerily familiar and unchanged, as if she truly had stepped back twenty-odd years and found herself a girl-child tossing books at people at whim. She didn't feel old... ignoring a certain odd tiredness that the years dumped upon her, she could imagine that she was the same age as the young students, stepping carefully with their piles of books. This place, in fact, looked even more like her library of old than the Omsk State Library did in her world – no computers were added along the walls, no stickers declaring sponsors and commercials lining the walls... For a moment Sofia closed her eyes, alone with the ghosts.

Slowly, her steps just that little bit laboured, she walked over to the bookshelves and started puling out books. Encyclopedias, annuals, periodicals, recent history… she watched the books slowly pile on her table. The covers of some were not in the least revealing; browns and greens and blacks… The covers of others told a whole story just from looking; flags she did not quite recognize, portraits of people she didn’t know, names of places and dates that held no significance for her.

Then came a tap on her shoulder. She turned around, surprised, and found herself gazing up at the librarian. The short, stocky woman was staring at Sofia through a pair of thick, square glasses, her hair made up in an unbecoming braid and twisted to within an inch of its graying life.

“The access to the library is for university personnel only,” she informed Sofia with the cool professionalism of one who was accustomed of brushing rubble of her clothes. Considering how she was dressed, Sofia wondered not at all at the other woman’s skepticism. Between her rather dusty shoes – from which she had barely scraped the mud – and the haggard pair of pants and shirt she was currently wearing, it was no surprise.

“I only want to check out some background information,” Sofia retorted, assuming her most professional tones: a professor playing at being a professor, she called it, expression haughty, and rabid intellectualism burning in the eyes. The librarian was not convinced. She stared at Sofia stiffly until she put the books on the return rack, and escorted her with a chilly gaze out of the library.

Well… What now? Sofia mused to herself, watching as yet another option slammed close in front of her eyes.

Although… not quite. But the little sliver of possibility was dangerous; all the more so because ordinarily she should have been able to handle it with little trouble. She should, were she back in her own world. Over here… who knew? Pivoting on a heel almost too neatly, she climbed an even more familiar stairwell and strode across a linoleum-covered floor down a long, white corridor that did nothing to reassure her. It reminded her of hospitals, always had, and in her troubled state of mind hospitals were a troubling memory.

Was he still here? People moved. Back in her own universe, the man had long since made his way to Moscow, and long since abandoned Linguistics to occupy his considerable talents and charm in business. Everybody who was anybody went into business in Russia of her days – she thought it sad, the intellectual cream occupying itself in making profits, churning out money. The best, most ambitious youths lured in to the world of entrepreneuring, diving into it with abandon.

But no. There was the door, with the name plate still nailed to it; Dr. B. Naumov.

She stood in front of the innocuous door, counting heartbeats, trying to force moisture into her mouth. I hope I am not dead… she half-thought, half-prayed. Then she knocked.

“Yes, yes. Come in!” The voice was the same gruff and irritable basso, so very unlike Alexander’s amused tenor. The man she was so busy avoiding all these years, until finally, and he already a father to three children, he managed to come to terms with her irrevocable marriage, her refusal to consider divorce… She’d envied him his stable, comfortable life, his health and surety, and most especially his children. That was the bitterest pill of them all, but Boris Naumov was not, never had been, an option.

“Good morning, Boris Arkadich,” she smiled at him tautly from the door way, not sure whet to expect.

He was short and, in this version of history – probably for lack of gyms and American health food – rather leaning to the stout. In many ways better looking than her hawkish husband, Naumov had the sort of face one would assign to a sportsman, and not to a professor of Linguistics; broad and oval and genial, with red cheeks and blase blue eyes. The eyes stared at her now, taking her in, and the red cheeks puffed when he smiled radiantly.

“Aah! My dear Sofia Oskarovna! How long have I not seen you! Come in, come in…” he was positively effusive, getting up and pulling out a chair, motioning her to it with a half-bow. He always had a bend to the theatrical and the flamboyant, behaving as if he were constantly scrutinized, on a stage or in front of the cameras. That did, however, make him a fascinating lecturer. He was able to provide the energetic background to his linguistic escapades that Alexander could never grant physics. Sofia would take her husband over the flamboyant thespian any day, thank you.

Well, I am not dead in this universe… she conceded to herself thankfully.

“It’s a pleasure for me too, Boris Arkadich,” she murmured, trying to bring him back to earth. “I regret that I am not more of a frequent visitor,” – because apparently I am not – “I am just an elderly woman, after all,” and she grinned cynically.

“Ma cherie! What nonsense. You are looking better than ever! Believe me.” She hated his tendency to insert French into his speech at random intervals. He thought it made him sound suave and professional; Sofia thought it was disrespectful. She held a reverence towards language, always had. Whatever language she was using at the moment deserved her full respect and attention. Mixing foreign phrases in it just because one felt like it, even if they were perfectly understandable to the listener, was equivalent to eating your good salmon with your perfect chocolate cake – complete destruction of the taste buds.

“You have always been a flatterer, Boris Arkadich,” noted Sofia, quite truthfully. She still used the polite plural with him. She'd resisted all his efforts to drop the formality of the address, and begin calling her by the first name only, for years and years. He may call her 'cherie', but he was still old-fashioned enough that he felt obligated to address her by her full name. Formality had been a shield between them for a long time, it served as a reminder to Naumov that his attention to her should be strictly within the friendly.

“I was always a rug at your feet, Sofia Oskarovna, you know that.” he was looking at her, his round face pathetic and somehow incredibly sad. Sofia felt pity on the man, and wondered, for the thousandth time, what in the world made her so special, so irresistible to him. Perhaps he had fostered some worship of the unattainable? She thought that men pining away happened only in books, that nobody in their right mind could do it to themselves for real... but apparently this universe's Naumov was never told that to his face.

She'd done it herself, shattering his hopes, when she and Alex were busy finalizing their affairs in Russia. He got himself married to a pretty, rather foolish female and was not particularly unhappy... But not here.

“You shouldn't say that, Boris Arkadich,” she said, her voice rather too dry. “All this has been discussed several times...”

“But Sonechka!” how she hated that address... “You can't possibly torment yourself forever. I understand, true love, marital fidelity,” he waved his hand with something between exasperation and dismissal, “all this is admirable. But you are not yet old, and one cannot grieve forever.”

Grieve? Sofia tried not to let the shock show. What did he mean, grieve? What happened here, and when, and why? Alex... My God, Alex... she thought, stunned. She closed her eyes in despair, and then forced herself to look back at her tormentor. She felt something almost akin to hatred, inexpressible, fierce anger that she tried hard to contain, knowing that it was unfair and foolish but quite unable to help herself.

“Boris,” she said, her voice cold and angry, “this issue has not been open for discussion for a long time. Regardless of anything...” she hated to deceive him, “I cannot... I do not want... to discuss this subject,”

Both of them were quiet then, looking at each other stiffly, the silence growing awkward.

“What have you been working on?” Naumov inquired, making polite chitchat to break the uncomfortable moment, still stilted but quickly gathering his wits; rearranging battle lines for a new attack, Sofia knew.

“Oh, just some Hebrew semantics...” she said offhandedly, completely truthful for a change, and quite grateful for the relief.

“My dear!” Naumov was all charm again, “But that is obsolete. We have a considerable amount of work done on French...”

“French is done to death,” Sofia waved him off, shaking her head in disagreement. The Hebrew semantics was her pride and joy; an absolutely fascinating tangle of a language. One had to sort out where ancient Hebrew ended and modern Hebrew began before one could do any work at all with it, not to mention pick between so many side influences on the language that the linguistic work became rather like that of a detective. Insightful people, the Israelis even called linguistics 'balshanut', the same root word as they'd named 'balashut' – police detective work.

“Speaking about,” she seized the opportunity, “who is that ignoramus librarian that chased me out today? Honestly, Naumov, I was annoyed. I don't come here very often, I realize... but nonetheless, some decency. Perhaps,” she lip up, laying her act thick, “you could do me a favour?”

“Anything at all, Sophie!” he bounded enthusiastically.

“Well... as you can see, I am not exactly coming from a conference room... I don't have my documentation. Why don't you walk me down, Boris Arkadich, and introduce me to that old harpy? I need some background history for the research...”

“Of course, Sonechka, of course...” he got up and offered her a gallant elbow she declined.

But for the sake of the information she put up with his calling her 'Sonechka' all the way, even though the name, and the familiarity, tasted to her like ashes.