CLEARWATER — Alah Rozanovsky was in the hallway of her senior apartment building, getting her mail, when she first heard the music. Someone was in the bingo room, playing that old upright piano. Someone who really knew how to play.
Alah, 65, had lived at Clear Bay Terrace for more than a year. In all that time, the donated Wurlitzer had sat silent. She had thought about playing it herself, sitting on that hard bench and letting the past pour out. But she still felt like a newcomer. She didn't want to bother anyone.
Whoever was playing that afternoon wasn't worried about anyone listening. Liszt's Dream of Love, flowed loud and lovely from the small room.
Alah hadn't heard that song since she left Russia. In her fingers, she could still feel each note.
She walked toward the sound and paused by the open door.
• • •
As soon as she was tall enough to reach the keys, Alah was playing piano. Her mother performed with the Kiev Philharmonic and had a beautiful baby grand in their home in Ukraine. Alah started music school before she started kindergarten.
By the time she turned 10, she was playing Beethoven by ear. "It was always my joy."
A wiry, fiery woman with coal-colored curls, Alah played for vocalists and choirs, whoever needed her. In her 20s, she became a faculty member at a public school in Kiev: No. 33.
She worked there from 1973 until her son was born in 1978. Then her family moved across the city and she stopped teaching, started performing. Classical music, popular pieces, even original tunes. "On stage," she said, "I was never alone."
Her biggest honor was when officials at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl invited her to give a concert for the crews who were cleaning up after the disaster. She still has a "certificate of bravery" for going inside the reactor. "All through the concert, those poor men kept coughing."
After her husband died, after the Soviet Union fell, Alah moved to the United States so her teenage son could attend American schools. Three days after arriving in Portland, Ore., she got her first gig: as pianist for a Ukrainian church. "They said they had been praying to find me."
She moved to Maryland to marry a man she had met through an advertisement. He promised to buy her a piano. But he never did.
The next few years, Alah said, she would rather not talk about. She keeps a letter from President Clinton, thanking her for her work against domestic violence. She has to squint to read it, because when her husband beat her, he detached her retina. She is almost blind in her left eye.
After the divorce, she followed her son to Pittsburgh, where he studied computer science. Then to Florida, where he works in IT. Last year, she moved a few photos and three shelves of music books into a subsidized 630-square-foot apartment at Clear Bay Terrace, on the first floor, just down the hall from the bingo room. And the piano no one ever played.
• • •
For a long time on that June afternoon, Alah lingered in the lobby, listening. Liszt and Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff.
Playing like that required decades of discipline and dedication, Alah thought. She closed her eyes and the music flooded her with memories.
When the songs stopped, she stepped into the bingo room. A pale woman about her age was packing torn sheet music into a grocery bag.
"You play beautifully," said Alah. She introduced herself.
"Thank you," the woman said. "I am Valentina. I am new here."
The woman's style of piano playing had made Alah wonder. Her accent almost assured it. "Are you Russian?"
The woman smiled. "From the Ukraine," she said. "Kiev."
Alah embraced her new neighbor. "I am too," she said. "I was a piano teacher."
Wiping her eyes, the woman said, "I was too."
They took a walk that afternoon. For two hours, they talked about people and places they had lost long ago.
Speaking in Russian was such a relief, finding someone who understood your native tongue, your culture, your community, who shared your heritage.
By the time Alah and Valentina got back to their senior apartment building, they had figured out that they had known each other for 40 years.
• • •
Valentina Kits, 67, started playing piano when she was 6 "and never thought about anything else," she said.
"What I heard, I could play."
Her mother died when Valentina was 11; by then, her older sisters had moved away. "I played mostly, then, to fill the silence," she said. "And because it made my father happy."
She married a lawyer at 17, went to college, majored in music education. "I was never a performer," she said. In 1974, she landed a position at a public school in the center of Kiev: No. 33.
The institute had 20 faculty members, including seven piano teachers. Valentina remembered one thin, spirited woman with coal-colored curls who always talked with her hands.
That afternoon in June, the women discovered they had worked together almost four decades ago.
"We shared the same halls, the same students," Valentina said. She was raising two sons then, so she seldom socialized. But she remembered Alah's smile.
But when Alah moved across the city, the women lost touch. In 1992 — the same year Alah came to America — Valentina followed her youngest son to Cleveland. She sold her baby grand for $300 to pay for the plane ticket.
After her husband died, she found work in a factory, making Greco baby seats. She took a second job stocking a salad bar, then selling shoes. On days off, she would go to the Jewish Community Center to play the piano.
"I did not know anyone. I could not really communicate," she said. Music was her language, her only outlet. "But all the time, I was lonely."
When her son and his children moved to Tampa two years ago, Valentina followed. For a year, she was on the waiting list at Clear Bay Terrace. An apartment finally opened in March. On the tour, the manager showed her the bingo room and the forlorn piano. It took her three months to summon the courage to play.
• • •
There's a time in life, for so many people, when you are stripped of everything that defined you. You retire, your children grow up, your spouse dies, you move away from your friends. Suddenly, you are Mom or Grandmom, Mrs. Kits or simply, "the woman in No. 333."
No one calls you Valentina anymore.
"A long time had gone by since I had anyone close, like a girlfriend," said Valentina. "I never thought I would find one. Not here."
"How did it happen?" asked Alah. Clearwater is almost 6,000 miles from Kiev. "America is big. Florida is big. Even the city we came from, and this one here, how did we find each other in the same building? My life has been changed. Now I have someone to share it."
Since that day at the start of summer, the women have been inseparable. They call each other 10 times a day, take long walks in the afternoons. Alah doesn't drive, so Valentina ferries her to the beach, to Sweetbay.
A few weeks ago, the women went shopping at the Salvation Army. They were just about to leave when a voice shouted through the loud speakers, "It's 5 p.m. All furniture is half off." Alah ran to ask the clerk, "Does that include the piano?"
Valentina paid the man $300 for the well-loved upright, which included delivery. Now, instead of waiting until the bingo room is free, the new, old friends can play in her apartment any time. Together.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727)893-8825 or [email protected]