Nearly 15 years ago, Arlene Gottlieb waited to be seated at a restaurant in Rome.
She and her husband David are 50-year Westport residents. But that night, she was alone.
A young man tapped her shoulder. “Would you like to join my wife and me for dinner?” he asked.
She was surprised, but grateful. As they ate and chatted, they discovered a connection. Alexey and his wife Victoria lived in Kyiv, Ukraine — Arlene’s grandmother’s home.
A friendship formed. Over the years, Arlene and Alexey exchanged emails and texts. He invited the Gottliebs to visit.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Arlene asked how he was doing. He texted back: “It’s getting bad here.” He wanted Victoria and their teenage children to leave. She did not want to go.
Finally, she agreed. Alexey drove his family to the Polish border. Then he returned home, to fight.
Luckily, they’d just gotten Canadian visas. This summer, they planned to visit Victoria’s sister in Toronto. They moved up their departure date. As soon as they could, they flew to Canada.
A couple of weeks ago, Arlene called Alexey. He was underground in Kharkiv, as a sniper.
Victoria told Arlene he needed military equipment. It cost $6,200. Arlene promised to raise the funds.
The Gottliebs’ friends pitched in. A journalist friend of Victoria’s in Odessa made sure it was delivered to him.
The other day, Alexey texted Arlene. He sent photos, of himself with the equipment.
As she described the latest twist in this unlikely friendship, her voice broke.
“I still wonder how and why he picked me out to join him for dinner,” she says. “And how we kept up with each other, through all the years.
“There’s a Jewish word, ‘beshert.’ It means ‘meant to be.’ That’s all I can believe.
“I’m not a praying person. But I pray every day that he is okay.
“This is a love story, all around. I’m just glad we can help Alexey, and help Ukraine.”