The indefatigable Geraldine, who at work wanted to introduce me to a suitable young woman, and tried, without success, on a number occasions, spotted me sitting in the company cafeteria. She had in-tow this time a prettier-than-usual candidate and seated her and herself at my table. “I want you to meet our new worker, Nataliya,” she said in that breathless voice of hers. “She is a real Russian princess.”
The woman reddened slightly. ”Mazel tov,” I said, adding “Chorosho,” “good” – one of the few Russian words I recalled from the period in which I tried to teach myself Russian. I doubted she understood Yiddish, as Russian princesses didn’t learn the language. I rejected the notion of grabbing her hand and kissing it, as Melvin Douglas had done to Greta Garbo in the movie, ’Ninotchka.’
Although the matchmaker thought the Russian princess bit would impress me, I wasn’t crazy about Russian royalty. The czars had been anti-Semites. Their motto with respect to the Jews was “Kill a third, convert a third, and banish a third.” As a youth, I thought that the last czar murdered by the Bolsheviks had it coming to him. This history I did not lay on Princess Nataliya, nor the fact that as a youth I had admired Trotsky, the Red Army commander who was a distant relative of mine. Not a time for comparative lineage. I wisely let Geraldine do the talking, blah blah blah, including praising me as intelligent and that “She wouldn’t introduce just anyone to Nataliya.”
“Princess Natalyia,” I couldn’t resist correcting Geraldine. She gave me a withering glance, suspecting that I might have been using the prefix ironically. However, she warmed up to me considerably after I assented to her suggestion that “Since Nataliya is new to our city, perhaps you would like to show her the town.” I shot a quick glance at Nataliya to see how this suggestion went down with her. Apparently positively, because she smiled at me and nodded, “I would like that very much.” It was my turn to redden. She was a real looker. Buxom with the “heavy Russian beauty” that Tolstoy or somebody described. I had always had a thing for zaftig women. So much so that I was willing to violate my rule: Never date women from work. If you later break-up, it could make the workplace unpleasant.
I had never dated a Russian princess, only American Jewish princesses, as the more spoiled ones were called; I had found most Jewish women to be anything but spoiled, pleasantly down to earth, although finding one who could tolerate me may have been at the nub of the problem. Maybe I would do better with Russian princesses, if the cliché ‘opposites attract,’ was correct.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” chortled Geraldine, her work finished. She stood up and nodding to various co-workers, made her way out of the cafeteria. Her bubbling, friendly personality made her a popular colleague among the company’s employees.
Silence ensued. What do you say to a Russian princess? In my case something stupid. “Are you really a Russian princess?”
“It depends on whom you ask. There were so many rivalries and claims to the throne and being related to the czars, that my family says yes, but others disagree. We claim that we are
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related to a noble family that existed in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution. The ones not killed fled the country to Paris where they took jobs as taxi drivers and such.
Apparently seeing that I was somewhat flustered at her pedigree, she added, “I won’t bite.”
That, of course, won me over, as a sense-of-humor in a woman was for me de rigueur.
I tried to think of a clever retort, or if not a retort, at least something humorous. I rejected as fatuous Woody Allen’s query whether the correct spelling of the Russian ruler’s title is “Czar” or “Tsar.” To break the silence, I asked, “Are you related to Anastasia.?” I had seen the movie about the daughter of Czar Nicholas who claimed that she was Russian royalty and had survived the murders of her family by the Bolsheviks. A claim which caused conflict between supporters of her claim and those who disputed it.
“Ah, you know about that?”
“I saw the movie.”
“Until this day, my wider family talks about her. We – they – the family dispute her claim.”
I switched tack. “Well, I can show you our fair city, if you are still interested.”
She put the hand of her arm rich in bracelets on my own. “I would like that very much.”
I confess a shiver went up my spine. Whether because of her touch, her beauty or her pedigree, I wasn’t sure. I pictured Rasputin, the Russian mystic and self-styled holy man, charlatan according to others, turning over in his grave.
“Well, time to return to work,” I said. I took her phone number, stood up, and resisted the impulse to bestow on her a deep bow as I had seen Russian aristocrats do in the old movies. After a final glimpse at her blond hair with its braid curled on the top of her head like a halo, very Russian in my estimation, I walked away.
Nataliya had a smile like Grushenka in the movie ‘The Brothers Karamazof,’ but then I had a tendency to romanticize things. Maybe that’s why I was still single – the women couldn’t come up to my expectations. Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a Russian princess. Suppose one thing led to another and I had to introduce her to my mother. She would be upset, no doubt imagining my getting married in a Russian Orthodox cathedral with everyone crossing themselves as we walked down the aisle.
I wondered if Geraldine had told her that I was Jewish.
I took Nataliya on a tour of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Japanese cherry trees, topped off by the Phillips Collection, the scene, alas, of many a futile attempt on my part to pick up a date. I would sit next to a prospect and pose how much I enjoyed the concert or the paintings on the wall in order to impress them. Maybe the women saw through me. I adopted a restrained approach with Nataliya, letting her comment on the paintings,
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confining myself to nodding or verbally agreeing with her. She was smitten by Renoir’s life-size painting ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party,’ with its vibrant colors.
When I had picked her up, I noticed that Natalya wore her hair long on her shoulders, less off-putting than the Russian bagel-on-head braid she wore at work. During the tour, Nataliya was charming. What did she see in me? I wondered. Maybe simply a guide, and nothing more. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Nataliya to inform me as I said goodbye to her after taking her home, that while I was a delightful companion, etc., etc., she couldn’t continue seeing me.
But continue she did. Although we had mutually agreed that at work none of our colleagues would know about our dating, some knew. Geraldine taking matchmaking credit, I assumed.
At some point I would have to raise the fact of my being Jewish. It could be a real obstacle given her royal Russian pedigree. I hit on a stratagem. “I like to folk dance. Would you like to come, Nataliya?”
She would. I didn’t add that the folk dancing was Israeli folk dancing. I told her so only when I picked her up to drive to the dance site. After she had fastened her seatbelt, I simply blurted out, “The folk dancing is Israeli folk dancing.” “Easy to learn,” I added weakly.
“Fine,” she said. I pictured her total lineage wondering what ever happened to the gala imperial balls held in the Winter Palace. And yet she seemed not at all bothered.
Nataliya was a quick learner. I enjoyed especially the couple dances with her.
On the way to her residence after the dance, I came out with it. “Natasha, you know that I am Jewish?”
“Of course. Geraldine told me before she introduced us. She feared it might be an obstacle.”
“And it was not?”
“No. I was never a functioning Russian princess. Closer to a Jewish American princess. I dote on lox and bagels.”
I tried not to show my relief.
“My best girlfriends are Jewish,” she said.
“So, when we were introduced and Geraldine told me you were a Russian princess and I said ‘mazel tov’, you knew what it meant?”
“Certainly. Your ‘chorosho’ was a bit harder to decipher. Your Russian pronunciation needs improving.”
When I introduced her to my mother, it would be easier than I thought.