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My First Love

Dimka and I came to the sleepy Russian town of Yuryevets during summer breaks. He visited his grandfather, Kostya, and I came to Grandma Diana.

Our grandparents had a complicated but undoubtedly romantic relationship. Forty years ago, Diana rejected Kostya’s advances, but he waited until her husband died and started fetching buckets of water for her, fixing locks in her house, and bringing her potatoes from her deep cellar with its dangerously shaky old ladder.

Kostya was in charge of the semi-abandoned Yuryevets airfield where planes appeared only on big occasions. Most of the time, there were only goats grazing, bumblebees humming, and Dimka and me playing.

The tanned, golden-haired boy was fast and fearless. He deftly pulled himself up over my grandma’s wooden fence and jumped over the sky-blue puddles in single leaps. How could I not fall in love with this eight-year-old Viking?

He chased me all over the airfield, and I ran away with happy squeals, hoping that he would catch me, which would be almost a hug. I fell into the grass full of blooming daisies and clovers, waiting impatiently if he dared to kiss me.

But Dimka collapsed next to me, and we looked at the clouds, argued, and sometimes even fought, pretending that we needed a victory, not an excuse to touch each other.

This was our summer paradise with daring exploits of the brick-red river cliffs, dizzying rides on a rusty Ferris wheel in the town park, and sticky taffy candies in our pockets that we shared with each other.

When I got back to my home city of Nizhny Novgorod, it was not the same. There was no one to come up to my apartment door and ask my mom, looking sideways, “Will Elvira come out?”

In winter, I lived in the world of books and wrote letters to Dimka, telling him about my math assignments and the delicious puff pastries in our supermarket. He lived on the other side of the universe in Severodvinsk. The only thing I knew about this city was its military secret: they built submarines there. Dimka’s letters were as useless as mine, and there was no way I could learn what he truly loved, what he dreamed of, or if he was going to marry me when we grew up.

We undoubtedly made each other up, and the more so, the sweeter our next reunion was.

In our penultimate summer, he did kiss me after he won a wish playing cards with me. I tried my best to let him win, hoping that something mind-blowing and passionate would happen, just like in the movies. But Dimka pecked me on the cheek and immediately ran away to process his victory and wrap his head around what he should do next.

I decided that from that point on, we were in a relationship. For my next trip to Yuryevets, I dressed up as if I was going to a ball—a red sundress, white plastic beads, and a foreign shopping bag with the Adidas logo on the side. When I walked along Soviet Street, local guys wolf-whistled after me and asked if my mother needed a son-in-law.

When Dimka came out to meet me and we went to the airfield, I already knew that everything was over. That golden boy was no longer there: a skinny, agile teenager walked in front of me, swearing endlessly of embarrassment. He took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one, and said that he had been admitted to the trade school, so his future as a taxi driver was assured.

I desperately tried to come up with a reason to escape, to lock myself in my grandmother’s shed and cry my heart out. I felt robbed. That awkward stranger, an imposter, was nothing like my Dimka.

There was no chance for us to make it up. Kostya died, and there was no reason for Dimka to come to Yuryevets anymore. Grandma Diana grumbled, “He got what he deserved, that old dolt.” But it was obvious that Kostya’s death had affected her. She grew old and sad without his diligent courtship. And then she was gone too.