by Georgia Cloepfil
He sent me a link to the trailer, and I watched it with headphones on during my flight from Portland to Los Angeles. I couldn’t understand a word of the video. I pressed mute in the bottom left corner of the screen and tried to improvise a dialogue. A divorced family, an immigrant child being bullied, shy kisses, two young kids holding hands across the aisle on a bus. When I turned the volume back on, I heard my name, “Georgia,” embedded in a Russian monologue.
We hadn’t seen each other since a weekend in San Francisco nine years ago, after he hitchhiked across the country. He met me at the airport wearing a big, wooly sweater and holding The Brothers Karamazov. We were seventeen. The weekend was full of innocent kisses, sneaking into 21+ concerts, walking and walking and talking. He took me to the bus stop, and we sat, holding each other until the bus came to take me back to Portland. We will see each other again or it will always be like this, are things I remember him whispering as he let me go. We maintained this pattern of near decade-long intervals of contact for the length of our relationship.
Now, he was flying from Moscow to film the second half of a movie about his life: his parents’ separation, his move to America, his childhood. He had gotten to the part about us, he said over the phone, and I should come watch them film. He found a really cool Georgia to play my part.
Only one photo of us survived from when we were young. In it, we are standing in front of a cafe that we used to frequent. We are saying goodbye; we have stomachs full of hot chocolate. I am holding a single red flower and wearing a crew neck sweater. I rarely wore skirts, but in the photo, I am wearing one. It is blue with tiny flowers on it. He is looking at the camera with knowing eyes, always so much older than his years. He is wearing a short-sleeve button-up shirt and has his arm wrapped innocently around my lower back. A sliver of my midriff is showing. We are both smiling with our mouths closed.
There is the obvious thing to consider: we confuse our memories with photos. But I remembered more than that. I remembered sneaking into an R-rated movie; I remembered playing soccer in the muddy schoolyard; I remembered the exact tattered copy of Notes from Underground he gifted me outside of his family’s yellow apartment in Portland. I remembered a story he wrote for our fifth-grade class called Mirror.
There was no Skype or FaceTime when Sasha left in the sixth grade to move first to New Jersey, and then back to Russia. In LA we wondered together what would have happened to us if we’d had this technology at our disposal. We would be married, he insisted. Instead, we had sent letters, emails. When he didn’t respond, I cried to my mom. When he moved to New Jersey, I made a gift box to send him that I still have. The carboard is decorated with Sharpie hearts and doodles. It sits on the shelf in the home I share with my boyfriend of six years. I opened it recently. It is filled with old chocolates, a kid-sized T-shirt, and a postcard from the Oregon coast where we had spent a weekend with his parents when we were ten.
From a distance of 5,000 miles, through social media and Google Translate, I had watched Sasha make a life. He studied theater in St. Petersburg, he acted, he wrote screenplays, and now he made feature films in Moscow. For four years, I had traveled the world playing professional soccer. We were both living lives that we might have wanted for ourselves when we first met.
By the time we met at the airport in LA, he had grown into his face. Right away he remarked that I looked different from the photos he saw online. We had both done our research. He took a picture of us with his phone and sent it to his friends back home. He showed me their response: she is exactly what we imagined.
“That one over there is you,” he said, pointing to a small girl, ten years old, with a blond ponytail and skinny legs. This other Georgia was shorter than I was, and she looked bored. Her hair was a shade too dark. She didn’t have the same tomboyish style and she spoke very quietly off camera. She was shy but composed, a child actress ready for her debut. Her mom shuttled her to and from the set each day in a red Volvo.
Looking at her didn’t feel like looking in a mirror. Instead, I was in a room where two mirrors faced each other. Infinite images of myself, unreachable, receded away from me forever. I thought of broken friendships, scattered acquaintances, my tenth-grade math teacher, my old softball coach. It is impossible to see ourselves the way that others see us.
I walked to CVS to get sunscreen for Sasha and water bottles for the crew. I stood off-screen, just barely out of the camera’s view. In this scene, a group of kids were listening while a teacher gave a lecture. The actors were speaking Russian. I backed away so that I couldn’t hear them. From the distance, I could imagine that I was in Mr. Brand’s fifth-grade classroom again. I could smell the cafeteria lunch, could feel the skinned knees stuck to the inside of my jeans.
During a break, I asked Sasha about the short story that he wrote in the fifth grade. It was so profound for such a young mind. He laughed. I didn’t make it up. It was based off a movie.
Tarkovsky wrote and directed Mirror in 1975. It is a collage of personhood, a cinematic stream of consciousness. In it, a flow of images and memories are recalled by a dying poet from his deathbed. The viewer is overwhelmed by an indiscernible mix of flashbacks and dreams: here his childhood, there his parents, there his wife.
Sasha said cut and action with such authority. He pointed and the actors followed the tip of his index finger. From time to time he stepped in front of the camera and moved the actors’ bodies around as though they were dolls. Again and again, take after take, they rehearsed his vision of the past until it was just right.
The other Georgia walked toward me, and we reclined on a bank of grass in the shade where we could watch Sasha direct. It was a muggy day and hotter than usual, even for LA. The cast and crew arranged themselves in a neighborhood park. They were filming the scene of an after-school game of football. The young Sasha was wearing red and the rest of the kids were in yellow uniforms: how he must have felt.
I tried to make small talk with this Georgia. How old was she? Was this her first movie? But I found myself suddenly shy. She didn’t know who I was.
I agreed to spend the night with Sasha in the highway motel they were staying in while they filmed. The room was carpeted, the duvet stained. I had only brought enough clothing for the day, so I just got undressed, and we lay next to each other in the bed.
I wondered if we were conspirators. We had come together on occasion to corroborate our alibis. We kept in touch just enough to keep the story alive, but not so much that we were limited by its truth. We were both writers. It was easy for us to think of our lives as a story. It is so much harder, I think, to think of ourselves as characters in someone else’s story.
We spent hours cataloguing our memories. At first, we tried to answer for the past nine years. But we both sensed the presence of a fissure that might grow if we gave it our attention: disparate cultures, passing time, and unshared memories. Our lives had complicated us. We took another photo together on his phone with an app that added wrinkles to our faces and gray to our hair. Soon we were kissing innocently, then passionately. I was on top of him. We were adults, finally, and everything felt suddenly accelerated.
I had spent the early part of the night wondering why I was there. I wondered why I had left the boyfriend I love to come see Sasha, I wondered if I even knew him anymore, I wondered if I could really still love him. I wondered at the power of narrative. There is something irresistible and also mournful about ushering a story to its end.
I stopped abruptly and rolled off of him. He was offended, he was sad. In the morning, he promised to write me when he got back to Russia.
He remembered when we walked to the top of the tallest waterfall in Oregon. At the top, we made paper airplanes and threw them off. He remembered when I burped at dinner with my family, when we went to the beach, when I breathed heavily in front of him in line at the water fountain in the hallway, each of the four times we kissed.
I remember holding hands and walking around an outdoor market. It was summer, midday, and our palms were sweaty. Eventually, when it became unbearable, he let go of my hand. It’s too hot, he said.
When Sasha left after the sixth grade, his mom stayed in Portland for a couple of months. She was working for Newsweek and had to finish a story before she joined him and his stepdad in New Jersey. She had me over to their almost empty apartment for tea and we looked through family albums. She gifted me a photo to keep for myself. For years I stored it in the pages of his book as evidence of something that would feel increasingly invented. I still have that photo of Sasha from before I ever knew him: he stands atop a windsurfing board, pulling hard with his young, lean arms, trying to lift the sail.
When I got back home, Sasha sent me an email with pictures from the set. In one of them, two young actors stand side by side. The girl is holding a bouquet of flowers. She is wearing a crew neck sweater and a skirt. The boy is wearing a button-up shirt and has his arm around her waist. The body of the email read, simply: There are always more flowers in the movies.
After the premiere, he sent me a subtitled copy of the movie. In the end, he’d decided to title the movie Tell Her. Watching it was different than watching the trailer, different than watching him direct in LA. Those things were in bits and pieces, those things I had filled in with feeling. They were ours.
If I’d seen the movie in a workshop, if I’d been given the chance to critique it, I’d have said that it was too dramatic, that the characters weren’t developed enough, that the daily life of the protagonist was not realistic, that the writer and director had not done enough research about what America was really like, apart from in his imagination.
Tell her. Finally, it became clear. She hadn’t slept with Sasha—not because she felt the need to hold something back to maintain the love story of their childhood—but because she didn’t want to. He had been a terrible kisser.
Georgia Cloepfil is a second-year master of fine arts candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Idaho. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, Epiphany, and Sport Literate, among others, and has been featured on Longreads, The Rumpus, and WBUR Boston’s Only a Game. She is the winner of the 2020 Epiphany Breakout 8 Writers Prize and was listed as a semi-finalist for the 2020 Southeast Review Ned-Stuckey Prize for nonfiction.