20 years ago this month

20 years ago this month Beth and I first met, although neither of us could tell you when exactly or what was said or whatever. My first summer in Boston, I was taking classes at Tufts in my spare time for graduate credit. The summer session was split into two, and I took one class each session. The first one was “History of the Soviet Union”, which met every morning for a couple of hours, so I was able to adjust my work schedule (I was a few months into my temp stint at Bank of Boston) so that I could come to work after class, since I was getting paid by the hour anyway. The second session, the class was called “Psychology of Russian Literature”, taught by a guy named Lottridge, who’d been a Russian lit professor but had gone back to school and gotten a degree in psychology and was trying to figure out how to put the two together. It was basically a Russian lit class, but analyzing the characters from a psychological angle, an approach that is particularly well suited to the crazy people you find in Russian literature.

At the time, I was interested in things Russian, having studied the language (barely) at NU and taken a class there called “Intro to the Soviet Union” that was part lit part sociology. You could take a few classes for graduate credit before you had to actually enroll, and Tufts is affiliated with NEC, which is the original place I wanted to go for grad school, so it seemed like the thing to do, since living in Natick wasn’t going anywhere. So it was goodbye Natick Village and hello living for the summer in a dorm again, the first session I had a roommate from Hong Kong named Clifton, the second session somehow I ended up without a roommate, although there was a guy in the room next to mine who liked to shoot fireworks out his dorm window, until the campus police caught him and threw him out of the dorm. After that it was pretty quiet.

Beth ended up taking the same Psychology in Russian Lit class because she was finishing up her undergraduate degree from the School of Museum of Fine Arts after several years off and says she picked the class out of the catalog as the one that sounded the hardest, in order to challenge herself. She like literature, too, so I think if there’d been a class called “Advanced Brain Surgery” she would’ve still gone for the lit class.

The class met twice a week in the evening for 3 and a half hours at a time. Beth was living with Deb in West Roxbury at the time and working at the old Heartland in Natick, and Tufts is on the Somerville/Medford line, so she was all over the city in her 3-year old Chevy Chevette. There were maybe 12 or so in the class, mostly our age, with a couple of old fogies in their 40’s. We had to read several books and groups of stories, the previously mentioned Lermontov, some Gogol, Chekhov, and maybe a couple of Soviet authors, Zoshchenko (a favorite of Shostakovich), Olesha and Mayakovsky, although I may be conflating the syllabus with the NU class there. My first visual memory of Beth was the day she came into class wearing a white, summery sleeveless dress, she herself bright red with a sunburn. Her hair was much redder then, so it made for quite a contrast. Maybe that same evening might have been the first time we spoke, as Lottridge had passed around an lit crit article titled “Anality in the works of Gogol” or something, and Beth was asking why would anyone write something like that, since Gogol obviously wasn’t thinking along those lines when he wrote his stories, and I asked her if she was saying that the article should’t have been written.

As the class was winding down I was looking for a place to live and some new people to hang out with, preferably within the greater Somerville area, which was much handier to Boston than Natick had been. During the breaks in class a bunch of us talked about various things, particularly movies, and Beth and I and this other girl Carol had arranged to meet at Coolidge Corner for a couple of Woody Allen movies shortly after the class had ended for the summer. Carol never showed, so it became a date of sorts, and the rest is history. Beth never did finish her degree, I never did enroll in a masters program, Beth and Deb moved to Roslindale, I found Jeff, Randi and Bill on Paulina Street, and we had a group that hung out together for the next few years until we all got married and moved to different towns.

Over this past winter, we drove up to Tony’s house in Gardner during a snowstorm for a mini-reunion with Jeff, who we’ve seen off and on over the years, and Bill, who we hadn’t seen in about 10 years. Chip/Wayne, who was tangentially part of the group, was there also, everyone brought their kids along, Tony threw a Mardi Gras party and we all reminisced about the old days when we were young and thin and had hair. We resolved to get together again before another 20 years had elapsed.

In spite of some familiarity with Russian authors, I wasn’t familiar with Lermontov before taking that class, and I hadn’t read enough of European literature to recognize the archetype of the disaffected anti-hero common in many novels of the period, what the Russians call the “superfluous man”, typified by Bazarov in “Fathers and Sons” or the nameless narrator of “Notes from the Underground”. Pechorin, the eponymous hero of “A Hero of our Time”, is an ex-military man with nothing to do, spending much of his time obsessing over women he can’t have and ending up fighting a duel over a woman he doesn’t really care about. At that time in my life I could probably identify with this type of character, not because of aimless womanizing, but because he’s casting about for something to do with his life. Now 20 years later, Pechorin just seems annoying. Lermontov, if he’d lived long enough, would have probably agreed.