I’m thinking tonight about Rachel. Dear beautiful Rachel.
This is a tragic story.
In the early 2000’s, in May, in the hallway of the Pribaltyskaya Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, I ran into my good friends Jose and Rachel. It was nearly four am and we were leaving in a few hours for the airport, but no one was asleep anyway and Rachel decided while packing that she still needed a half dozen or so bottles of vodka to bring home as gifts.
“Vodka!” I said, perhaps a little too loudly. “Rachel, you’re pregnant!” A few hookers at a nearby booth turned to watch.
“It’s not for me!” she declared, also not just a little loud for the hour of the morning.
Jose explained he was bringing her to a twenty-four-hour kiosk not far away and would make sure she didn’t get hurt or ripped off, or, worse, purchase bad alcohol. This was Jose’s fourth trip to Russia with me and he knew his way around the black market during the white nights of late May. “Just be careful, Rach,” I called. “You should be dead anyway!” I added, and we all laughed.
A few days earlier our entire entourage was walking freely down Nevsky Prospect, the Fifth Avenue of the city. I was right behind Rachel on the crowded street so we were all pretty close to each other. As usual, my former student was engaged in taking pictures and writing in her notebook, jotting down “Kazan Cathedral” which was just to our right. Of all the people I’ve traveled with—numbering well over four hundred—Rachel was by far the most diligent about drinking it all in, making notes, taking countless photographs. She always smiled anyway and could make everyone around her laugh, and there on the other side of the world she was in her element. She absorbed every single moment. In the evenings she’d come into my room and show me what pictures she had taken that day and double-checked their locations. Then we’d sit and talk about her impending motherhood, what it’s like being a parent—my son had just turned ten. We’d laugh about students in the classes of mine she had taken. Like one guy that previous semester who kicked over a desk, told me to fuck off, and stormed out of the building.
“I have that effect on people,” I said.
“Only those who deserve it!” she laughed. “He was such a punk! I can’t believe you let him back in.”
“Chances,” I told her, and she laughed. We had over the course of a few semesters joked about how many second chances we get, and when we do to not screw them up. “He pulled out a passing grade. He’s in my next class this summer, so we’ll see. Which, by the way, I saw you’re not in!”
“Hello?!” she laughed, pointing to her abdomen, which was just starting to show enough that she wore loose blouses.
“Can I ask about the baby’s father?”
“We’re working it out. He keeps promising he’s going to be different now that we’re having a baby. He got a job, moved in with his parents to save money. We’ll see.”
“HA! More like fourth or fifth!”
And we’d talk about education, about travel being the most advanced degree possible, and that she wanted to make sure she went on all the trips she could. For this one Rachel had secured a scholarship to help pay for the expenses. To earn that, however, when we returned they would have to write a paper for me for Humanities credit, and she chose to write about architecture.
So the next morning while walking past Kazan Cathedral, she was absorbed in her notes and stepped right off the curb and into the cross street where a bus was ripping past us at forty miles an hour. I was close enough to Rachel to grab her hair which she had pulled back in a pony tail, and I yanked her back into my chest, and the bus was close enough to knock her bag out of her hand on into the street. Those around us screamed and Rachel turned back somewhat unaware of what had just happened. “He saw me,” she said, to which I replied, “Yeah, he did. He just didn’t care. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way here.” We picked up her belongings and in no time she was back into enjoying her tour of Russia; my heart didn’t settle down for hours.
“Second chance!” she said to me, later on the walking tour.
“More like four or five!” I joked.
The morning we were to leave, she and Jose showed up to the bus with their bags just in time for our ride to the airport. Rachel had her vodka supply and asked how she should handle customs. I ran through the myriad responses possible for whatever they asked, but as it turned out they waved her right through.
I saw Rachel several times during the following year, even after she turned in her paper (A), and a few times after she told me she had a new roommate at an apartment on 24th Street at the beach, and she broke it off for good with the ex.
The last time I saw her she brought her daughter, Shaylyn, to my office. This beautiful woman with her beautiful little girl was so excited to move on with her life; she’d be a single mother, she told me, and hoped she could set a good example. Then we remembered the bus in Petersburg, laughing at the nearly tragic outcome, and she assured me I had saved two lives that day. I laughed and told her I was just glad she hadn’t cut her long, curly hair. “Yeah that hurt, by the way,” she joked, grabbing the back of her head.
Her daughter has her eyes.
Not much later, in May of 2005, the little girl’s father went to find Rachel who was hanging out with some friends at their apartment. When she refused to let him in, he cut a hole in the screen and climbed through. Rachel ran out the back door and called 911. Her ex walked through the house and shot four people killing two of them before he found Rachel hiding outside. She had called 911 and the operator had to ask several times what was going on, but Rachel was quiet, until finally she replied, “He saw me,” and her ex put his gun to her skull and shot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Three years later with some plea-bargaining to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
In the woods not far from the hotel, right on the beach and tucked away in a grove of trees, was my favorite gritty bar I’ve ever been in. Everyone called it “the shack.” I knew a gypsy band who played there most nights after midnight until about four, and for a few years by then I’d head out and join them, borrowing Dima’s guitar while Sasha played violin and Natasha sang, and it would last until dawn while we drank red wine and ate shashleek, a chicken dish similar to shishkabob. Sometimes there would just be a few of us, and other times a whole group, like the time we spent the night in the shack during a storm. Rachel was there that night, sitting at a table in the small make-shift shack, taking it all in, watching everyone dance, sing, and drink. She had bottled water and a lot of chicken and laughed hard with Natasha who sat with her between sets, though I know Rachel didn’t understand a word the singer said. I can picture her still, sitting there, laughing.
That’s how I will always picture her.
Her daughter today would be almost Rachel’s age then.
We spin and we turn through the changes and falls, hoping beyond hope we get to the end of it all without something tragic happening, dreaming of second chances and laughing the best we know how, stealing time with friends, telling stories and remembering when. But there are no second chances, not really; just this one, and while not all of us will live the life we had hoped for when we started out, some will not get any chance at all.
A few weeks after the murder I was giving a tour at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, to my art students at the university. Rachel always showed up for those tours—notebook in hand. She was on my email list of people who wanted to know when I brought my class since it was open to anyone. I stood in the atrium lobby drinking a glass of cabernet talking to another student who often came with her husband. It was quiet while visitors and students mulled about waiting for the tour to start, and I said to the woman, “I thought Rachel would be here. She had emailed a few weeks ago that she was going to bring her daughter.”
The woman handed her wine to her husband, touched my arm, and suggested we move to a table to talk.