A Dream Come True
Johanna had been waiting for this moment a long time. A day before, the 40-year-old woman from Holland had talked about her love of Russian literature. Earlier that day, she had mentioned she studied art history in school in Amsterdam. But, despite trips to various parts of Europe over the years, she had never visited the Tretyakov Museum, home of the world’s largest collection of Russian fine art, in Moscow.
Now Johanna stood before an oil painting, The Death of Pelopid, by Ivanov Andrey Ivanovich, in one hall of the sprawling Tretyakov Museum. Formerly, the building in Moscow’s oldest neighborhood was home to a wealthy merchant and his family.
Johanna looked at the painting for a long time, as if confirming what she already knew about it. Her husband, Dirk, a physicist in Amsterdam, approached. He was very short, almost a midget, about 5’2”.
Johanna didn’t avert her gaze. Dirk stared at his wife. I sat on a bench in the center of the room, reviewing my images in my Pentax camera.
Dirk hadn’t paid any attention to the paintings on display. Maybe he was jealous of the attention his wife paid to them. He also was upset about something else.
Dirk sat down beside me. He said, “Johanna doesn’t love me any more.” I replied, “That’s ridiculous.” He continued: “She told me this morning I’m always coming up short. She said she loves Igor because he’s tall.” Dirk looked at the ground. “He’s a very big man.”
Through two rooms containing works of art spanning the 19th century, I passed into a hallway with doors leading to other parts of the museum. In 15 minutes the Tretyakov Museum would be closed for the day. Ahead I saw a sign for a bathroom on a door just as the door opened and emitted a short, plump figure.
It was Dirk, the physicist from Amsterdam. Most people from Holland are tall, I said to myself. Then I thought: I wonder how Dirk and his wife are going to get through this trip together. I decided I didn’t want to talk with the Dutchman at that moment. I turned left into the next room.
I wasn’t fast enough. “Have you seen my wife?” Dirk looked tired—and something else I couldn’t pinpoint. He followed me into a spacious room.
We were surrounded by paintings of almost every human subject imaginable, from naked women and small children to noble men and old men. Across from me I saw a portrait of a man in his 50s with a long beard and grey coat against a green background. I recognized him: Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I had a copy of Dostoevsky’s book, Notes from the Underground, in my bag. I was half way through it, although I had read it several times already and I had taught it at the university. It was, perhaps, the most famous short novel ever written by anyone.
Dirk stared at me. I had the impression the Dutchman wanted to ask me a different question. I realized, then, I couldn’t avoid talking with Dirk. “The weather outside is good,” I said, picturing a bar the tour group had passed earlier on Lavrushinsky Lane. “Why don’t you and I have a beer?”
Dirk and I moved through the rooms of the Tretyakov Museum toward the front door. Suddenly, the Dutchman stopped and grabbed my right arm. “Listen,” he said, “My wife has wanted to come to Moscow for many years.” He looked around. “To see all of these paintings…. It’s a dream come true.”
Then he said, “I don’t know what went wrong.”
Dirk looked at a figure to our left. I, too, looked in the direction of the petite woman who stood in front of perhaps the largest painting I ever saw. At first, I thought it was Dirk’s wife, Johanna, but it wasn’t.
Dirk said, “We’ve been having some problems for a while. We thought this trip would do us good. Johanna, especially, was looking forward to it.”
“Let’s have a beer,” I said. But I realized, immediately, the alcohol would only make the Dutchman more depressed. Still, I knew I needed a drink.
Outside the museum a cool breeze pierced the warm air of the late June afternoon. I stopped, trying to remember how to find the bar we had passed earlier. It was somewhere on Lavrushinsky Lane. “We’ll catch up with the others later,” I said. Our tour group had 14 members, including Igor.