Memories of Anastasia, Real or Imagined

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

As I boarded the bus going west, a woman of about my own age, early 60s, smiled up at me from where she sat, curled up in the seat like a teenager, and gave me the peace sign. Surprised, I returned the gesture, and the woman winked as if we were old friends. She offered me her hand to shake and said in a gravelly voice, “I’m Lois.”

I shook her hand and sat down in the seat across from her. She began talking immediately, as though we had just taken a bathroom break and were resuming our conversation.

“You’re an old hippie, too, so you understand how wonderful it was being young in those days,” she said. “How free we were. How many changes were taking place, and the fact that we were the ones making those changes. You know, the whole Woodstock thing, going braless, wearing our hair unfettered to our waist, free love.”

Lois had a slow Southern drawl and the lilt of her voice, along with the expectant way she looked at me, made me feel as though I had been hypnotized. Something like how a wounded animal in a trap must feel—he knows with a certainty that the bearer of his doom will soon arrive, yet his knowledge can lend nothing to his escape.

But I did remember the late ’60s—my hair in long pigtails, waiting expectantly on a twin bed in my parents’ house for the lottery of names to come on the television set, wondering whether a family member or acquaintance was going to be called against their will to fight in a war they did not believe in.

“It was a grand time,” said this small woman in her nondescript plaid blouse, jeans, and rain-hat—but I saw the nobility and grace beneath her unassuming appearance. She stared out the window at the brilliant colors of fall and began to speak again. “She always wore a flower in her hair,” she said softly, smiling to herself in tender remembrance.

“Who did?” I asked.

“Well, of course, Anastasia,” Lois said, as if this information should have been obvious.

“Of course,” I said, falling into a kind of deception of my own by pretending to know what and who this woman was talking about.

“She wore overalls with floral blouses and combat boots and she was utterly feminine and was totally, totally self-contained,” Lois said. “She knew what she wanted, went where she wanted to go, and always did what she said she was going to do. Every place she went, she sent me a picture of herself, which I would put on my refrigerator, so I always knew where she was. I could almost pretend that I was traveling with her.”

She looked at me dreamily from behind her thick glasses and continued. “Colorado, Atlanta, New York, Seattle, and finally, India, where I lost track of her. But by then my refrigerator was covered over with photographs of Anastasia, so it’s a good thing she stopped sending pictures. The greatest thing about Anastasia, you see, was she didn’t wait for something outside herself to tell her who she was. She knew who she was, and she made her dreams happen.”

“And you?” I asked. “Did you make your dreams happen?”

Lois snorted as though this were an absurd question.

“Of course not! I married an ordinary man of the verbal abuser type and had boy/girl, boy/girl,” she sang in chant-like succession. Soon after that she sat up straight in her seat and said. “I’m going to a bar and have a few drinks. Would you like to join me?”

“Indeed I would,” I said quite truthfully, for I was charmed by this woman’s lack of rancor and bitterness towards her friend, who seemed to have fared better in life than she had. Lois had managed to internalize some of her friend’s happiness from afar and to accept her own fate with dignity and grace.

“I have to go to the art store first but I’ll come back and join you,” I said.

“It’s a bar called The Library,” she said. “Over there.” She pointed vaguely and got off the bus.

After the hour or so it took me to get supplies and ride the bus back to Cumberland, I got off and looked around. Though I asked many people, no one had heard of “The Library.” One young co-ed googled it for me and said that The Library was not on Cumberland but on Gay Street.

I was waiting for the bus on 17th and Cumberland when I saw Lois coming towards me, weaving and stumbling, her shirt unbuttoned and hanging out of her jeans. She was still carrying a drink, which she would stop and take a sip from every few steps as she sang the last verse of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” at the top of her lungs.

“Lois,” I called out. “I’m over here at the bus stop.”

“Anastasia,” she called back.

“I’m not Anastasia,” I replied, and she looked up at me in surprise. She put her hands on her hips and peered into my eyes.

“Well, if you are not Anastasia, then who the hell are you?” she asked indignantly.

“I’m Donna,” I said, becoming confused myself. Everything and everyone seemed to have disappeared from the street save Lois and myself, as though we had entered an alternate reality that held only she and I and our fragile memories of times briefly recalled before being lost to us.

“Do you have a cigarette?” I asked Lois.

“No, I was just going to go buy a pack,” she said. “What kind do you smoke?”

Amid my protests that she needn’t pay for my cigarettes, she plunged headlong into the Friday evening traffic of Cumberland Avenue as I looked on aghast and helpless. But I need not have worried, for Lois wove in and out of the cars as though she was weightless and without any substance at all.

Just about the time she vanished from sight, my bus arrived. I looked out the window in the direction that Lois had disappeared, and wondered to myself if our encounter had ever taken place at all—or was this all just a figment of my own imagination, a place where time had no meaning and anything at all could happen.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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