At fourteen, Martha discovered the love of her life. He had been dead for three centuries, but to her he was still alive. He was a Russian prince named Aleksei. He accompanied her all the way to her death.
Russian tsarevich Aleksei Petrovich Romanov (1690-1718)
On Friday, May 9, 2008, Martha read about Aleksei for the first time in a 1962 book by Henry Moscow called Russia under the Czars. A book of Russian history for a popular American audience, it had long been out of print, but Martha had found it at a library book sale. On a cool, foggy morning, she sat on the fern and rose playroom sofa drying her hair and reading. An occasional dog or bird was audible; sunlight slipped in between the vertical blinds. Near the end of the chapter on Tsar Peter the Great, she read a paragraph about Peter’s eldest son and heir, called in the book “Alexis.” Alexis opposed his father’s reforms, seeing them as a betrayal of Russian tradition, and fled to Austria to escape punishment. Diplomats convinced Alexis to return to Russia, where Peter imprisoned him.
Then, with the brutal firmness he had shown all his life to those who opposed Russia’s advancement, Peter had his son tortured and tried for treason. After a torment of deliberation, the judges sentenced Alexis to death. But fate spared Peter the beheading of his own son. Alexis died of fright and exhaustion in his prison cell.
The word tortured struck Martha. Her early interest in corporal punishment had by then evolved into a secret sexual fixation with the torturing of men. The idea of making men suffer gave her erotic pleasure. What must it be like not only to be tortured to death, but tortured to death by your own father? She wanted to learn more.
That night, she went on Wikipedia and looked up Alexis, whom the website called Alexei, a name she would always transliterate, more accurately in her view, as Aleksei. Aleksei Petrovich Romanov, she learned, was born in 1690 and died in 1718, 290 years in the past. The portrait of him on Wikipedia mesmerized her. He had “tragic, angry eyes,” she wrote. “He was not handsome, at least not by twenty-first-century American standards, but he was arresting.” She commented: “His dark brown eyes stared at me out of my computer screen with a gaze that at once condemned and pitied the entire world. His long curly brown hair framed his narrow face. His pursed, unsmiling lips suggested worry. He wore a dull scarlet jacket that reminded me of a dying rose at the onset of autumn.”
She learned more details about Aleksei. He was a devout Orthodox Christian. He married a German princess named Charlotte, who died during his lifetime. He was twenty-eight when he died. He was tortured to death with a knout, a whip with many rawhide thongs that may have incorporated metal wire or hooks.
“I was deeply attracted to the air of melancholy in Aleksei’s portrait,” Martha wrote. “All my life, I had been surrounded by playful, smiling boys with no inclinations toward knowledge or intensity. Aleksei fulfilled my desire for an intense, intellectual Christian man. Moreover, his story satisfied my unspoken need for tragedy. I fed off of sorrow. It was the only way I could feel anything.”
Over the next few days, she kept researching Aleksei. She thought of him as she played principal first violin in the spring concert. Love was on her mind. She translated the West Side Story love song “Tonight” into Latin. She studied Russian in hope of becoming fluent enough to read a Russian history of Aleksei’s life.
On June 25, Martha graduated from middle school, winning the award for highest GPA. We were immensely proud of her, but something else was on her mind, something we knew nothing about: Aleksei. She knew better than to tell her parents she had fallen in love with a dead man. She feared we would have thought she was crazy.
The next day, June 26, her last day of middle school, she wore a black shirt in mourning for Aleksei. That day, moved by Aleksei’s death by torture, she wrote a letter to President Bush condemning the torture of prisoners in US custody. June 26 was Aleksei’s death day in the Julian calendar current in Russia at his time; Martha chose to use that date to commemorate him rather than July 7, the newfangled Gregorian version later adopted. That night, she skipped her Stepping-Up Party, preferring to stay home and mourn for Aleksei instead. She called it a night of “peace, joy, and good sadness.”
On June 30, Martha began keeping a diary in the form of letters to Aleksei. That day, she finished reading Crime and Punishment, which she’d started because of her growing interest in Russian culture for Aleksei’s sake. Although she was in love with him, she feared her love might be sinful in some way. She hoped it was not, and hoped it would last. She wrote:
I used to long for someone to love who loved me, and for kisses, sex, and marriage, but now I believe I would be content to remain a virgin all my life because I already love you.
For the first time in that entry, she began to introduce Cyrillic letters into her diary entries. Over the summer, more and more Russian phrases and sentences appeared.
In the letters to Aleksei that followed, Martha worried that her love for him was just another crush, but worse because he was not even alive. She worried about whether he loved her back. She worried that her love was wrong, that he was taking the place of God in her heart. She feared God would demand that she give up her love, yet for the moment hell itself didn’t scare her so much as not loving Aleksei.
By then, Martha had read 1984, which, like Heart of Darkness, was a book I loved that I had passed on to her. Now she drew an analogy to which she would return throughout her life. To her, God seemed like the totalitarian Big Brother in 1984, insisting on Martha’s total love for him, with no room for the passion she felt for Aleksei. Aleksei was her Julia, her way of rebelling against God as Winston Smith had rebelled through his love for Julia against Big Brother.
Martha listened to love songs and devoted herself to love, comparing herself to Maria in West Side Story and to Juliet. (Martha and I were both reading the complete plays of Shakespeare at the time.) On her violin she played Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, her favorite symphony and mine, with its theme of mad love. At school, she typed love songs on the desk as if it were a keyboard, and at home when no one was listening she sang love songs. She was as saturated with love as I had been at the height of my passion for Mary Ann.
Aleksei’s presence was strongest in the gentle breeze of the warm summer day; there she felt the transports of her first real love. “O, so young am I,” she wrote in her diary, “and in love so soon.” As long as she could love him, as she liked to say, she could rejoice.
On July 4, 2008, she was jubilant with love. All day she kept breaking into a wide smile. Later she would remember that night as being “perfect.” Yet even her joy was intermixed with sadness, or even, she thought, sprang from sadness, the way joy seems to spring from struggle in Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D.
She was still ecstatically in love on July 5 when we took her to see Damn Yankees on Broadway. All through the play she thought of him. The love between old Meg and young Joe reminded her of the love between Aleksei and her. Still she said not a word to us about him. She was determined to keep him secret from us and from most people, because none of us would understand, and because it would somehow cheapen her love to talk about it.
After the play, we all shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue, and there Martha’s mother, Melinda, took a fall and landed on her chin. She required two stitches when we took her home to our local emergency room. In a way, the fall wasn’t surprising because Melinda had had multiple sclerosis since her teens, and trouble walking is a symptom of MS. But most of the time her MS was symptomless, so when she occasionally lost her balance and fell, it was a surprise—a reminder that the disease was quietly eating away at her neurons.
By then, Melinda, now fifty-one, had entered menopause. Whatever slim hope we had had of having another child was gone. Martha would forever be an only child, our only hope to carry on our genes and our names. We didn’t know that child was now mad.
During the Democratic primaries, there was tension in the house because Melinda supported Hillary Clinton and Martha and I both supported Barack Obama. It was the first time Martha had ever split with her mother on a candidate. Melinda was sore at us both for that, as well as at her favorite living singer, Bruce Springsteen, who also supported Obama. (She chalked it up to Bruce’s being a man.) Until the primary season ended in July, Melinda refused to listen to Bruce records.
The rest of the summer Martha swayed between love and doubt, joy and worry. Periods of happiness alternated with darkness and confusion over whether loving Aleksei was wrong. At least once, the impossibility of loving a dead man caught up with her. It pained her that she and Aleksei could never marry or have children.
Self-harm became part of her love affair. Every day, she carved his initials into her arm with her fingernails, and looked at them throughout the day for sustenance. After they faded overnight, she carved them again.
She learned more about Aleksei, reading in Massie’s biography of Peter the Great about Aleksei’s intelligence, love of knowledge, and devotion to God. She felt she and Aleksei would have enjoyed each other’s company and would be happy together in heaven. She still felt she would marry a living man someday, but that even so she would cherish her love for Aleksei all her life.
At CTY camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that summer, where she studied ancient Greek, Martha was homesick, but not for her home in Dobbs Ferry. She was homesick for her heart’s true home in heaven, where she would be with Aleksei. She remembered her dream of December 8, 2006, the dream of standing by the seashore with Yuna as Yuna was about to die, and she felt now it foretold how she would feel for Aleksei. “Curious,” she wrote in her diary, “that I should find such peace in contemplating death.”
If Martha’s deathwish had not already begun with her dream of Yuna at the age of twelve, it clearly began now, at fourteen. Moved by her desire for union with Aleksei, she had started to long for death. She was not yet suicidal—actively considering killing herself—but death had become a desirable state.
The company of other campers was unappealing to her, but she made some friends, such as Tina. She shoved aside her feelings, making casual conversation with people she barely knew and pretending to smile when she felt ready to choke from superficiality and boredom. Then, on the evening of July 21, while her roommate slept beside her, she married Aleksei in a spiritual wedding. The joy of that union burst through her, she later wrote, “like gamma radiation.” Waves of ecstasy swept through her. “I had felt euphoria before, but this euphoria had a different flavor. Although it was fleeting, it carried with it an air of permanence that swept through the palpable darkness of my dorm room and into my thinly covered bed. I momentarily forgot about my cold, bleak setting as I was transported into a realm heated by the warmth of love. For the first time I realized that my dream of marriage to Aleksei was not only possible, but an inevitable reality.”
Martha wrote a poem at CTY about her love for Aleksei, “Maiden, Widow, Bride,” in which she pictured herself as a maiden yet Aleksei’s widow and wife. She showed it to Tina, who called Martha “a complex character.”
Martha’s thoughts at CTY were not only about Aleksei. While at Carlisle, she kissed a boy for the first time. His name was Ephraim. At fourteen, she was two years younger than I had been at my first kiss. She told me about him, and hearing the news gave me hope that she was doing better than I had. But I didn’t know about Aleksei. I didn’t know that she feared kissing Ephraim had sucked out her soul, and that she might have to spend the rest of eternity without a soul.
Martha and I were amazingly similar in many ways, not least that in both of us madness often took the form of forbidden love. We differed in that whereas she loved a dead man without a body, I loved living women with bodies. We differed also in that she was monogamous toward her ghost—she never loved any other ghosts. But my mad love landed now on this woman, now on another.
The day we picked Martha up from CTY, when she was wracked with passionate love for Aleksei, I received a letter from my friend Mary Ann, the one who had inspired such passionate love it had driven me to medication five years earlier. She had received my letter of 2006 revealing my feelings, and for two years she had pondered how to respond to it. She had finally decided to tell me that she didn’t have similar feelings for me but she still wanted to be friends. By then, my own passion for her had subsided; I was now infatuated with Sarah instead, who kept working with me until 2009, and with whom I stayed in touch for years afterward. So I went along with Mary Ann’s suggestion, and never longed for her romantically again. We’re still friends.
Martha was thinking now of getting her PhD in Russian language or literature. Maybe she would use it to teach or to translate Russian for the CIA or the UN. She donated money to Amnesty International in memory of Aleksei and continued to wear black in mourning for him.
Her period was delayed, and she hoped that she was having a miraculous pregnancy, with Aleksei as father, that would end in parthenogenesis, virgin birth. Then on August 25, she got her period, and knew it would not be.
Her feelings continued to toss between joy and sadness. She felt that great joy and great sorrow lay close to each other, separated only by a thin partition, while the rest of emotion’s spectrum linked them circuitously, with “dreaded apathy” in the middle. She traveled suddenly from light to darkness and back, over and over again. She didn’t know what she dreaded more, the fall into darkness or the removal to apathy. She only knew that the higher her climb into joy, the more painful the fall that followed.
She knew about my being bipolar, and thought she might be bipolar as well. But if so, she thought it must be a mild case, since her mother was so emotionally stable.
Martha continued to self-harm in secret, and not just by carving Aleksei’s initials in her arm with her fingernails every morning. She picked at scabs on her fingers and the areas around her nails, tried to draw blood while flossing, touched warm black surfaces on cars. She was pleased to get little scrapes on her legs and looked forward to shots.
Soon after Martha started ninth grade, she told me she was self-harming. I self-harmed too sometimes, by twisting a paper clip into a spear and stabbing my hand, and told her about it, which made her feel better. But hearing that Martha was independently following in my tracks in this regard didn’t please me. It was more evidence that she had inherited my tangle of thorns.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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