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  • 38. A Lady’s Story

    By Anton Chekhov • Adapted and Celebritized by Ben Greenman

    Who are these characters, these lovers of yesteryear? Are they mere, meaningless creatures of the tabloid age? Or is it just possible to imagine them with interior lives—with pride and fear and wistfulness over their faded dreams? Just ask Ben Greenman. This story marks the debut of Ben’s new collection, Celebrity Chekhov, with appearances by Tiger, Paris, Lindsay, Alec, Oprah, and many more. Will you laugh? Will you cry? With luck, all that, and much more besides.

    Some years ago Justin Timberlake and I were riding toward evening in fall time in Louisiana to get some coffee.

    The weather was magnificent, but on our way back from the coffee shop we heard a peal of thunder, and saw an angry black storm cloud coming straight toward us. The storm cloud was approaching us and we were approaching it.

    Against the background of it my house and church looked white and the tall poplars shone like silver. There was a scent of rain. We should have gone inside but we stayed out in the front yard. My companion was in high spirits. He kept laughing and talking all sorts of nonsense. He said it would be nice if we could suddenly come upon a medieval castle with turreted towers, with moss on it and owls, in which we could take shelter from the rain and in the end be killed by a thunderbolt.

    Then the first wave raced through the front yard, there was a gust of wind, and leaves went round and round in the air. Justin Timberlake laughed and twirled around in the weather.

    “It’s fine!” he cried. “It’s splendid!”

    Infected by his gaiety, I too began laughing at the thought that in a minute I should be drenched to the skin and might be struck by lightning.

    Standing outside during a storm when one is breathless with the wind and feels like a bird, thrills one and puts one’s heart in a flutter. By the time we decided to go inside, the wind had gone down and big drops of rain were pattering on the grass and on the roofs.

    One of the front windows was open and needed closing. Justin Timberlake began to turn the handle rapidly. He was trying to beat the storm. I stood in the doorway waiting for him to finish and watching the slanting streaks of rain; the sweetish, exciting scent of wet grass was even stronger in the front hall than in the yard; outside, the storm clouds and the rain made it almost twilight.

    “What a crash!” said Justin Timberlake, coming up to me after a very loud rolling peal of thunder, when it seemed as though the sky were split in two. “What do you say to that?”

    He stood beside me in the doorway and, still breathless from closing the window so fast, looked at me. I could see that he was admiring me.

    “Britney,” he said, “I would give anything only to stay here a little longer and look at you. You are lovely today.”

    His eyes looked at me with delight and supplication, his face was pale. He had not shaven in days, and on his beard were glittering raindrops that, too, seemed to be looking at me with love.

    “I love you,” he said. “I love you, and I am happy at seeing you. I know you cannot be my wife, but I want nothing, I ask nothing; only know that I love you. Be silent, do not answer me, take no notice of it, but only know that you are dear to me and let me look at you.”

    His rapture affected me too; I looked at his enthusiastic face, listened to his voice, which mingled with the patter of the rain, and stood as though spellbound, unable to stir.

    I longed to go on endlessly looking at his shining eyes and listening.

    “You say nothing, and that is splendid,” said Justin Timberlake. “Go on being silent.”

    I felt happy. I laughed with delight and ran through the drenching rain out of the house and then back to it; he laughed too, and, leaping as he went, ran after me.

    Both drenched, panting, noisily clattering up the stairs like children, we dashed into the room. My father and sister, who were not used to seeing me laughing and lighthearted, looked at me in surprise and began laughing too.

    The storm clouds had passed over and the thunder had ceased, but the raindrops still glittered on Justin Timberlake’s beard. The whole evening till suppertime he was singing, whistling, playing noisily with the dog and racing about the room after it, so that he nearly upset the woman who was there cleaning. And at supper he ate a great deal, talked nonsense, and maintained that if you eat fresh cucumbers and then lemon, you will smell like springtime.

    When I went to bed I turned on the small lamp beside it and threw my window wide open, and an undefined feeling took possession of my soul. I remembered that I was free and healthy, that I had put some songs at the top of the chart, that I was beloved; above all, that I had charted, had charted, what a feeling that was. Then, huddling up in bed at a touch of cold that reached me from the garden, I tried to discover whether I loved Justin Timberlake or not, and fell asleep unable to reach any conclusion.

    And when in the morning I saw quivering patches of sunlight and the shadows of the lime trees on my bed, what had happened the day before rose vividly in my memory. Life seemed to me rich, varied, full of charm. Humming, I dressed quickly and went out downstairs.

    And what happened afterward? Why—nothing. Justin Timberlake came to see me from time to time. He quickly became the kind of acquaintance who was charming in Louisiana or Orlando, in a storm, but lost his appeal in Los Angeles, in less dramatic weather. When you pour out iced tea for them in town, it seems as though they are wearing other people’s coats. In Los Angeles, too, Justin Timberlake spoke sometimes of love, but the effect was not at all the same as in the country.

    In Los Angeles we were more vividly conscious of the wall that stood between us. I had put songs in the chart, and at that time he had not, though he aspired to do so; both of us—I because of my youth and he for some unknown reason—thought of that wall as very high and thick, and when he was with me in Los Angeles he would criticize other chart-topping pop stars’ society with a forced smile, and maintain a sullen silence when any of them called or texted me. There is no wall that cannot be broken through, but the heroes of the modern romance, so far as I know them, are too timid, spiritless, lazy, and oversensitive, and are too ready to resign themselves to the thought that they are doomed to failure, that personal life has disappointed them; instead of struggling they merely criticize, calling the world vulgar and forgetting that their criticism passes little by little into vulgarity.

    I was loved, happiness was not far away, and seemed to be almost touching me; I went on living in careless ease without trying to understand myself, not knowing what I expected or what I wanted from life, and time went on and on. People passed by me with their love, bright days and warm nights flashed by, the nightingales sang, the grass smelt fragrant, and all this, sweet and overwhelming in remembrance, passed with me as with everyone rapidly, leaving no trace, was not prized, and vanished like mist. Where is it all?

    My father is dead, I have grown older; everything that delighted me, caressed me, gave me hope—the patter of the rain, the rolling of the thunder, thoughts of happiness, talk of love—all that has become nothing but a memory, and I see before me a flat desert distance; on the plain not one living soul, and out there on the horizon it is dark and terrible.

    A ring at the bell. It is Justin Timberlake. When in the winter I see the trees and remember how green they were for me that one summer, I whisper:

    “Oh, my loves!”

    And when I see people with whom I spent my youth, I feel sorrowful and warm and whisper the same thing.

    Justin Timberlake has been through it too. He put some songs on the chart, and then left off for other pursuits. He looks a little older, a little fallen away. He has long given up declaring his love, has left off talking nonsense, dislikes some of his work intensely, is indifferent to other parts of it, is ill in some way and disillusioned; he has given up trying to get anything out of life, and takes no interest in living. Now he has sat down by the hearth and looks in silence at the fire.

    Not knowing what to say, I ask him:

    “Well, what have you to tell me?”

    “Nothing,” he answers.

    And silence again. The red glow of the fire plays about his melancholy face.

    I thought of the past, and all at once my shoulders began quivering, my head dropped, and I began weeping bitterly. I felt unbearably sorry for myself and for this man, and passionately longed for what had passed away and what life refused us now. And now I did not think about the pop charts.

    I broke into loud sobs, pressing my temples, and muttered:

    “My God! My life is wasted!”

    And he sat and was silent, and did not say to me: “Don’t weep.” He understood that I must weep, and that the time for this had come.

    I saw from his eyes that he was sorry for me; and I was sorry for him, too, and vexed with this man who could not make a life for me, nor for himself.

    When I saw him to the door, he was, I fancied, purposely a long while putting on his coat. Twice he kissed my hand without a word, and looked a long while into my tearstained face. I believe at that moment he recalled the storm, the streaks of rain, our laughter, my face that day, he longed to say something to me, and he would have been glad to say it; but he said nothing, he merely shook his head and pressed my hand. God help him!

    After seeing him out, I went back to my study and again sat on the carpet before the fireplace. The red embers were covered with ash and began to grow dim. The frost tapped still more angrily at the windows, and the wind droned in the chimney.

    The maid came in and, thinking I was asleep, called my name.

    *

    © by Ben Greenman. Adapted from the story by Anton Chekhov, translation by Constance Garnett. From the collection Celebrity Chekhov, published by Harper Perennial.

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