Issue 162, Summer 2002
Meantime we will express our darker purposes. Chicago, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, whence I took a cheap train to Ukraine. I boarded my train, found the couchette enveloped in thick veils of smoke and an obscure cologne called Antarctica: I watched the man in the bed across splashing a few palmfuls out of a gelid-blue bottle before the train left the station. He unbuttoned his shirt, as if stripping for me, slowly divulging his sooty tapestry only to stop an inch above his navel. The discomfort I felt then I am inclined to see now as a sense of momentousness-doubtless a rearview interpretation. The man lit a cigarette, eagerly opened a booklet with a chesty damsel in sexy distress on the cover, with a title that I-the uncertain, occasional speaker of an obsolescent Ukrainian dialect-decoded as The King of Midnight.
The King of Midnight offered me a sip now and then from a smudgy bottle. Having quickly slurped his way to the bottom, he threw himself on his bed with such force that an earthquake suddenly took place in my dream: the earth 179 cracked open, swallowing swarms of citizens; roads whiplashed, throwing cars around like matchboxes; buildings collapsed flat. As the train crawled through Poland, I crept through a series of nightmares-all sequels to the earthquake one and involving a Wal-Mart and the Sears Tower, plus mice, midgets, brooms, and other Freudian gewgaws. The final one was staged on the Soviet border: a mob of shabbily uniformed men with humongous flat hats waited in a shower of sallow, gnat-infested light; they stepped into the shadows and then onto the train. They alternately looked into the King of Midnight's passport and into his woozy face, as if comparing them until they matched. They flipped through my American passport, determinedly not impressed with the plentiful freedoms it implied, let alone the rich collection of visas collected on my existentialist peregrinations. They still let me in, albeit with a humbling frown, conveying that they could stop me, indeed vanish me, if they only wished to. But they wished other, more profitable things, so they practically threw my passport at me. I fell asleep again and woke up only after the train entered Kiev with a poignant decrescendo.
The King of Midnight sat up with a grunt, clawed at his chest for a minute, then hawked and mindfully spat into one of the empty bottles.
Humid evening heat; the streets covered with a dark, oily placenta. A man named Igor was waiting for me, holding a sign with my name on it. He was blond, blue eyed, sinewy as a marathon runner, cautiously clever-painted with many colors, as they say. I present that as a fact, while it was barely a somnolent impression at the time. I got off the train, stepping on top of a steam cloud (though the train was not a steam train-what we have here is a remake of Karenina getting off the train to be welcomed by Karenin and his banal big ears), walking slowly towards the station building as the arriving women kissed the waiting men. I got into Igor's car, which reeked of vomit and pine. A man named Vladek silently sat in the backseat, inhabiting a magnanimous smile. We glided through the streets of Kiev, entering light from darkness, darkness from light. I could not speak, as I was tired and dazed. I managed to understand whatever Igor was saying in his guttural Ukrainian, but what he was saying I do not remember. I do remember occasionally looking back at Vladek, to check if he still existed, and he grinning with the demented enthusiasm of full-fledged existence, flexing his eyebrows and winking at me, as if we had already become fellow conspirators in an obscure plot.
Everything in the building was exceptionally orderly, hall carpets stretching straight, walls white like Christmas snow.
Igor told me that the place was a Party school, normally, but that they were permitted to use it for the summer. He opened the door of a room, I walked in reluctantly, Vladek dropped my suitcases and winked the final wink. My roommate-to-be was frisking a pillow, bare chested, wearing only shorts with an anchor pattern. “I am Jozef,” he said, and offered his hand, still warm from patting the pillow. “Jozef Pronek." Allow me to introduce myself: I am Victor Plavchuk. Supposedly, I came here for the sake of connecting with my roots, but was really looking for something to do until I figured out what to do. Now allow me to invoke his slouched shoulders, his square chin, and his eyes: almond, dark, and a mile deep.
This is how I remember it now-the excitement is ex post facto-but it was much different then: thus is his cheek a map of days outworn. We stared at each other for an embarrassed moment, waiting for Igor co say something and pull us out of the mud of silence. Then there is a confusing blank: what we did or said after Igor left, I do not remember.
When I woke up the next morning, Jozef was still in bed, hence I pretended to sleep, so as to eschew the awkwardness of waking in a room with a stranger. I heard him straightening up in his bed, scratching (his chest? his thighs?) with such unfaltering vigor that I suspected masturbation for a moment.
Then rummaging through his stuff, closing the door, then leaving-his steps echoing in the hallway. I got up with a heavy steel ball in my belly-the regular morning meaninglessness of everything, when all the uses of this world seem weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. I unpacked my stuff, hung up my shirts next to my roommate's. The colors of his shirts were predominantly Eastern-European bleak, and the sneakers at the bottom of the closet were well worn, so I was self-conscious about putting my attire next to his: my sandals, my sneakers, my shoes, and a lavish collection of khakis and colorful shorts in need of ironing. For an instant, I could not remember why I had them all: the arbitrariness of those choices appeared abruptly transparent, and all the other choices I had ever made seemed absurd. I liked ( and still do) the smell of his clothes-the musty smell of a lived life.
When my roommate walked back in, I was sitting on a bed with my head in my hands, looking at my toenails in dire need of truncation.
“Good morning,” he said, earnestly, which forced me into replying.
“How are you?” he asked. I was pretty tired.
“You want one coffee?” he asked. “Bosnian.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You Americans always say sure,” he said.
I didn't see the point of arguing, so I said sure, and he chortled.
He put a little pot with a long handle on the table between our beds. He dipped what seemed to be two razors attached to a wire, with a button between them, in the pot, then plugged the bare ends of the wire into a socket. I calmly realized that he was risking his life, along with my mental welfare, by doing that.
“I know this from army.”
“You were in the army? Whose army?”
“Yugoslav. We must go. It was many years ago, when I was eighteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty-four,” he said.
He had a rotund nose, which seemed swollen, and thick meaty lips, which he kept open. He had the darkest eyes I have ever seen, like two perfect marbles. We sipped coffee, too bitter and biting—I furtively abandoned it. The birds just outside the window warbled, and someone in the room above ours was apparently tap-dancing. He was from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He used to have a band and he wrote for papers.
His father was Ukrainian, just like mine, though his was born in Bosnia. He came to Ukraine to see his father's fatherland, but he also wanted to be away for a little while from “crazy things” in Yugoslavia. He had this idea they (who were they?) put things in your head and that you had to make it empty.
I had stomach cramps and needed to go to the bathroom.
“We must go and eat breakfast,” he said. “I wait for you.”
It was while spending time in Eastern Europe that I learned to appreciate unremarkable things, and the cafeteria I entered following Jozef, occasionally bumping into him ( our steps had not yet synchronized), was spectacularly unremarkable.
The light in it was gray; a windowed wall looked out at a parking lot, which had no cars other than a gigantic black Volga, like a beached walrus. On one of the walls there were men leaning forward with fiery eyes and mountainous muscles bulging under their work uniforms. The women in folk uniforms facing them off hugged tall stalks of wheat that used to be golden and now were merely washed-yellow. There was a long line of people sliding their screeching trays down a rail, toward the food. Some of them were foreigners, recognizable in their clean, crumpled clothes, glancing around, trying to figure out where they might be. We took our trays and they were sticky, still wet in the corners, reeking of socialist grease.
I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray. The young woman in front of us, with arms that were bones coated with skin-Jozef introduced her as Vivian-put on her tray one pierogi, which looked like a severed, ashen ear. I lost my appetite instantly. I sat across from Jozef, and he munched his pierogi while I sipped the absolutely tasteless tea.
“What are you doing?” he asked me, looking straight into my eyes.
“I am drinking my tea,” I said, suddenly perplexed as to what it was that I really might be doing.
“No, in your life.”
“Oh,” I said. “In my life.” My life. Ripeness is all, and I ain't got it. “I am writing a PhD thesis.”
“I see. What are you studying?" Let it be made clear, I did not want to have that conversation.
I did not want it to be known that I was not doing what I claimed I was doing. “Shakespeare,” I said.
“What about Shakespeare?” He was an unrelenting bastard, looking straight at me all along. Look away, you knave, look at the men with fiery eyes, look at Vivian nibbling her pierogi, preparing herself for a bout of bulimia. “What is called your thesis?" I must have blushed. I sat there facing Jozef from a crumbling country, glancing in despair at the image of fiery men and fecund women, up to my neck in fucking Kiev. I said: "Queer Lear.” I was about to say: “The Collapse and Transformation of Performative Masculinity in King Lear,” but Jozef said, “My little horse he thinks it is queer, that there is no house near. ”
“Not quite queer in that sense,” I said. It occurred to me that what I was doing was inapplicable, that I could spend days explaining it to Jozef to no avail, under the forlorn mural, the world's fresh ornament. I used the opportunity to change the subject. “You like Robert Frost?”
“I was reading him on faculty,” he said. “I am also studying litrch-litrchoo—I am studying books." It was as he was fumbling with the word literature that I befriended him. It was painful for me too to utter that word, and I grinned in warm understanding, wanting to hug him like a stack of wheat. Even now, when I teach, and am forced to utter the word literature, I have a strange sensation-my nipples tickle, my eyes well up with tears.
There was a time, I freely confess, when I thought it noble not to know where one was heading. I thought that being lost meant being in the middle chapters of one's own bildungsroman, but then I became very lonesome climbing up the steep, craggy cliff of self-knowledge. I kept reading and thinking, and thinking and reading, and drinking, in order to figure out what life was all about, and whose fault it all was, before I even started living. Then I went to graduate school.
I learned that desire was important in a class populated by lonely, insecure searchers who sought people like themselves in books written centuries ago. (The teacher's claim to academic fame was entitled Karaoke and (Re)Presentation.) My father once asked me what I desired in life, and I was happy he used the word desired, for by that time I considered myself an expert on the matter. My father was the kind of man who fixed old chairs and obsolete magnetophones, thereby restoring the original order-no search, just restoration. Anyway, I followed the path of desire, but it led me nowhere, and I roamed and wandered, and became a typical young American existential tourist-Jack Kerouac was my travel agent.
And for reasons I could not fully understand at that time, I had a terrifying feeling that sitting in front of Jozef, answering questions he had no right to ask, I had reached the terminus.
“You want to eat that?” Jozef asked and pointed at the remains of my sorry breakfast.
“No,” I said.
“Can I eat it?”
“Sure." He grabbed a pierogi and devoured it.
“Always is sure,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, and laughed with a gurgle of pleasure, for we had already acquired an inside joke. He stood up with the tray and said: “See you later, alligator. “ I resisted an urge to follow him, studying instead the differently shaped grease blotches on the table, and their relation to the straight lines that ran across the table-the configuration all made sense then, as if it had been a coded message. I looked at Vivian.
“Hi,” she said, in a whispery voice, and nodded as if to confirm that she really meant it.
Vivian was a graduate student too, but in Slavic languages- she spoke five of them, including Ukrainian. She was in school in Madison. She told me there were other Americans here, and pointed vaguely toward the undiminished food line. There was Will, who was a tennis player, he was from Somewhere, California. And there was Andrea, who was from Chicago. And there were Mike and Basil, who never had breakfast. Vivian would punctuate the end of every sentence with a nod, and an occasional tucking of her hair behind her ear, on which a fence of rings stretched across her earlobe to the top. She had a shirt with a sunflower pattern, with a wide, open collar, which exposed her chicken chest and the slight curves of her breasts. She told me that we were all going to take a train to Lvov tomorrow, early in the morning, and stay in Lvov for a couple of days. I complained about not being informed about it, allowing for some good oldfashioned solidarity of Americans in a hostile foreign country, then took off, having made up my mind to spend the rest of the day sleeping. Good night, lady, good night, sweet lady, good night, good night.
We all got up at the crack of dawn-Jozef had shaken me out of my weighty slumber-picked nocturnal cruds out of our eyes, then crawled into a bus that stank of harsh cigarettes and machine oil. The bus took us to the train station, down the same desolate streets that I had roamed the previous night, which created a profound sense of moving in circles, even if there was a wobbly morning worker here and there. I wanted to point out the workers to Jozef, who was a few seats away from me, too far for conversation, close enough to be aware of me.
The train station was swarming with citizens, dragging their overstuffed bags and underfed children, anticipating torturous departures. There is a history in all men's lives, figuring the natures of the times deceased. Pensive and ponderous I was indeed, squeezed in the middle of an alien rabble-a fog of garlicky sweat and exhaustion wafting about us.
“Look on us, we are like salt going out of hand,” Jozef said. I envisioned identical grains of salt, slipping out of God's furrowy palm. It was humbling, to say the least.
The train was much too salty: the Soviet masses everywhere, wearing the expression of routine despair: women with bulky bundles huddled on the floor; stertorous men prostrate up on the luggage racks; the sweat, the yeast, the ubiquitous onionness; the fading maps of the Soviet lands on the walls; the discolored photos of distant lakes; the clattering and clanking and cranking; the complete, absolute absence of the very possibility of comfort. I survived only because I followed Jozef, who cheerfully moved through the crowd, the sea of bodies splitting open before him. We found some standing space in the compartment populated solely by our schoolmates.
There was Father Petro—whom Jozef called Father Petrol- a young, spindly, pimply Canadian priest, who kept touching his left tit as he spoke. I could easily foresee a future in which Father Petrol's parish, somewhere deep in the Canadian western provinces, was in a community-tearing upheaval, after Father Petrol had been caught innocently fondling a gentle boy. There was Tolya, a teenager from Toronto or some such place. She used every chance to press her melons against Jozef, who endured the assaults with a bemused, avuncular expression. Vladek, the man with a "Komsomol face”(Jozef)—wide open eyes, freckles, and an impish lock on his forehead-kept hugging Tolya, trying to pull her away from Jozef, sharing his bottomless vodka flask with her and anyone interested, including myself. Priggish and prudish though I may have appeared, I had a few hefty gulps that scorched my throat and earned me an approval from the mob and a smile from Jozef. There was Andrea, the Chicago woman, with whom I avoided eye contact, for I did not want to detect any common acquaintances, and she played along. Like all tourists, we wanted to believe that we were alone among the natives. Jozef kept glancing at her, and his upper lip teetered on the verge of a seductive smile.
There was Vivian, sitting in the corner, refusing drinks, and, incredibly, trying to read, which she eventually abandoned for talking to Father Petrol about—as far as I could discern—martyrs and saints. In the next compartment-I peeked in, hoping against hope that there would be seating-there was Will, with two other guys who looked American in their .flannel shirts and an assortment of traveler's gadgets: backpacks rife with pockets, pouches pendant on their necks, digital wristwatches with an excess of useful little screens.
Needless to say, windows could not be opened, and within a couple of hours moisture painted pretty sparkling pictures on the panes; the walls were sticky; my skin was itchy and I kept gasping for air. The train was speeding through a misty forest, through an army of parallel trees visually echoing the tranceful clatter. Then the train slowed to a stop in the middle of a ravine. In total silence, the trees around the ravine loomed over a couple of brawny does grazing.
“It is beautiful,” Jozef said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“How can you kill them? I don't understand,” Jozef said.
“I don't either,” I said.
The does looked up at us as if aware we were talking about them. Jozef said nothing, but raised his hand .slowly and waved at the does. One of them made a little step forward, as if trying to see us better-I swear to God the does knew we were watching them, they did see him waving at them.
It seemed like a natural, ordinary gesture, just a simple motion of the hand. I did not dare do it, because I realized Vivian was looking at me, and I was embarrassed. The train moved on, the clatter accelerated, and the does turned their butts toward us and galloped away. Jozef and I stood wordless for some time, our backs pressed against the damp coldness of the pane. I often recall that moment (the moist morning mist; the collective clamminess; the mirth of Jozef's body; et cetera) and I am forced to own up to the fact that I have never had what Jozef had: the ability to respond and speak to the world. Then it was Lvov, and we disembarked the train together, stepping into a nipping, eager air. We inhaled deeply, simultaneously, as if holding hands. What country, friends, was this?
It was in Lvov that Will the Tennis Player fully entered my field of vision. He stood in front of the glum Lvov train station, with his arms akimbo, giving assured directions to the random somnolent sojourner. He had piercing blue eyes, sinewy tennis arms-his right asymmetrically thicker than his left-and the squat, sturdy body of a Ukrainian peasant, no doubt the sludge from his ancestors' genetic pool. Quickly did I succumb to his wise leadership-he led me and Vivian and Vladek and Tolya and the others toward a bus identical to the one that transported us in Kiev. I took a window seat, and looked out when Jozef slumped his body next to me. In front of us, Vladek was telling a lame joke in lamentable English to Vivian, who managed to produce a gracious giggle.
I woke up in front of a morose building, with my cheek pressed against the promontory bone of Jozef s shoulder. Will informed us-he seemed always to know where we were and why-that this was the student dorm that would provide lodging while we were in Lvov. The students coming in and out retracted their heads between their shoulders, their chins poking their chests, their mood clearly surly. I could tell that the showers in the dorm did not work.
Jozef and I shared a room, which was, to put it mildly, ascetic: bare walls (although my memory keeps stretching on its toes to hang up a Lenin picture); steel-frame beds with thin, sunken mattresses; a wobbly chair and a wobblier desk, which sported two symmetrical nails on the inside of its rear legs, a student-torture contraption.
Will burst into our room, asked us-me, in fact, for Jozef ignored him-if everything was all right. It was, I said. Will announced that he was trying to find out if we could have better accommodations, and stormed away.
“Who is this?” Jozef said. “I don't like him.”
“He's okay,” I said. “He just wants to help.”
“Maybe,” Jozef said, and then just as abruptly walked out.
I did not want to be abandoned in this dreadful place, but I could not just follow him. So I was alone, sitting on a bed that reacted with a screech to the minutest muscle contraction, staring at an empty wall that called for a Lenin. I pressed my hands with my knees, until they were numb, distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear.
I thought of the day when my father took me to a baseball game, after years of my pleading and weeks of my mother's lobbying. He loathed baseball-hitting a ball with a stick for no discernible reason, producing mind-numbing, indulgent boredom, that was how he saw it. He had informed me that there would be no hot dogs or soda for me, but I was still giddy with excitement. We sat in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and I had my baseball mitt (a present from my mom), which had spent long months closeted. I was convinced that I would catch a ball, that it was my day, when everything would come perfectly together. My father refused to stand up for the national anthem, because he was still Ukrainian, as if “The Star-Spangled Banner” wounded his Ukrainianness. He made me stand up, he wanted me to appreciate America, for I was born here. During the game, he was bored out of his mind, and he kept looking anxiously at his watch. It did not happen, I caught nothing. We left in the sixth inning, and I hated my father for being a fucking foreigner: displaced, cheap, and always angry.
Whereupon Jozef walked in with a handsome bottle of vodka, unscrewed the cap and said: “You want drink?”
“Hell yeah,” I said and took a throat-parching gulp.
“Do you like baseball, Jozef?” I asked him.
“It's stupid,” he said. “You kick ball with stick, it 1s nothing.”
“Yeah, I know.” I told him the sad story of the eternal misunderstanding between my father and baseball. Jozef listened to me not with the mandatory we-have-all-been-there interest, but with a detached, patient involvement, leaning slightly, and kindly, toward me. Now I realize that it could have been because he was trying to decode my English words, which still does not diminish my belief that he understood me better than anybody, precisely because he could go beyond my vapid words. He told me how his dad used to punish him: he would sentence him to twenty-five belt lashes for going through the pockets of his suits, or stealing, and determine the time of the execution-normally, Jozef said, after the evening cartoons. He spoke in his broken English, with articles missing, with present perfect steadily displacing past tense, with subject, verb and object hopelessly scrambled-yet I understood him perfectly, clearly visualizing the sequence of punishment. There was no screaming or yelling, no random disorderly violence-so much unlike my father, who would rip off kitchen cabinet doors and slam them against the walls.
After the cartoons, they would go into the bedroom, and the lashing would take place, red butt cheeks and all-I am loath to confess that I envied him for having had those moments.
“Fathers,” Jozef said. “They are strange." Then we talked about our mothers, and their domestic sufferings. Jozef remembered how he had always hoped that his mother would come into the bedroom and stop the lashing, but she never had. I told him how my mother would throw things out of the kitchen cabinets onto the floor, smash the plates, fling pot lids at my father like Frisbees, which would bounce off him. We talked about women, our first loves-the topic that required some embellishing and enlarging on my part. We talked about the silly adventures in school: snorting Kool-Aid in order to sneeze in biology class Oozef); smoking pot in the tenth grade and then being high and afraid to climb down the rope in PE class (me). The trite acts of rebellion that seemed revolutionary in our adolescence: saying “Fuck you, bitch!” to a nun (me); throwing a wet sponge at a Tito picture Jozef). Our mouths went dry, vodka diluted our blood and rushed to our heads. I was so drunk and excited that I wanted to hug him, but did not want him to think that I was strange. When we finally went to bed at dawn, I lay with my eyes open, watching the sunlight crawl across the wall above Jozef's bed, discovering stains shaped like Pacific islands, my heart throttling in my chest. I could still hear Jozef whispering, telling me the story about the loss of his virginity. His breath kept tickling my earlobes, even as he was tossing in his bed, and the soft nurse would not come and stroke my curls.
O, Lvov, with your old downtrodden monuments of comfortably bourgeois times; your Middle-European ornaments on the facades, barely visible through the thick filth of progress; your squares with nameless statues of obscure poets and heroes! Have I failed to mention I had never been in Ukraine before? All I knew I heard from my father, who had left a long time ago. Jozef and I wandered the streets of the old town and were sickened by the geometrical landscapes of the new town-to him all of it had familiar Eastern European shapes; to me it all seemed like a dream dreamt by another dream. Somewhere there was the Lvov my father had grown up in and had since left, and, bad son that I was, I had little interest in seeking it out.
Jozef needed to have coffee in the morning, so he was on a quest: we found an Armenian coffee shop, where we drank the muddy liquid, not unlike Jozef's Bosnian coffee. I am an herbal-tea man so, having had coffee that you could spread on a slice of bread, I was jittery and warbly, could not stop talking. Everything had to be told, and fast. I talked about my father, about him being born in Lvov. I talked about all the things he had never told me, things I found out eavesdropping on my mother's furious rants when they fought. I told him that my father had been a member of a secret Ukrainian organization-very secret indeed. They prepared for a war of liberation, and hated Russians, Poles, and Jews. And then in World War II, he was an eighteen-year- old fighter with Bandera partisans, fighting Bolsheviks and avoiding fighting Germans. Bandera himself was imprisoned by the Germans and then was shot by the KGB after the war and . . . “I know,” Jozef said.
Anyway, my father and his fellow fighters hid in the woods around Lvov, here and there robbing a truck of supplies, paying a high price in lives. They drank water from poisoned wells, ate cattle corpses found in villages burned by the Germans or the Bolsheviks, then died of animal diseases, boils exploding all over their faces. Man's life was as cheap as beast's. The few surviving fighters slipped into the disorder and carnage of the German defeat, and ended up happily imprisoned in the Allies' POW camps. My father had been a student of music-he was a baritone-so he sang in those camps: old Ukrainian ballads, Italian arias, and prewar Paris chansons that had somehow reached Lvov. He went to England, lived in Liverpool, worked on the docks, then he was off to Canada where he ran the memberless Ukrainian-Canadian Opera Society and sang at weddings and funerals-mainly funerals. Then he went to Chicago, where he conceived my miserable self.
My father rendered his pre-American days in disconnected details: how during wartime they all shared cigarettes when they had them, and smoked lint from their pockets when they didn't; how he was the handsomest, most sonorous singer in Lvov; how the POWs wept when he sang “Ukraine Hasn't Died Yet"; how he and his best friend embraced in the snow, warming each other up with their breaths, until his best friend's breathing ceased; how he had sung opera only once, in Kitchener, Canada, in the role of Wotan, terribly miscast in a local production of Die Walk1lre. Sometimes, at home, he would break out into the “Magic Fire Song,” which always scared the crap out of me.
Boy, was I on a roll, I kept babbling-it is very possible that Jozef did not understand most of my prolix monologue.
As a matter of fact, he said, out of the blue sky, so I was a little irked, “You know Bandera, when he was young, he wanted to be strong, to not feel pain. So he put his finger in door and then close door so he can see how long can he feel pain. He has did that every day." What could I say? I said: “That's crazy." Anyway, after the demise of the opera society, my father drove a truck-my mother told me once that one of the things he had transported was foreigners across the border. He drove his truck to the US and he met my mother in Chicago. My mother was a southside Irish girl, nineteen at the time. He knocked her up, possibly deliberately, in order to get American citizenship (my mother screamed out that secret in the middle of one of their more destructive fights). He married her, maybe for his sense of manly duty, maybe for the passport- I did doubt it had been love, for love was hard to come across in my father's words and deeds. He was, I attested, an unaccommodated man.
“It's like American novel,” Jozef said.
“Yeah,” I said.
But that could be because my older brother, born a few months after they had got married, was killed in Vietnam ("Vietnam-big war,” Jozef said). I remembered him as this remote uniformed presence, someone who had thrown a baseball at me not trying to hit me in the nose. Here on my desk (please take a look) I have a picture of him in his uniform, smiling, with a baseball mitt, yawning like a carnivorous plant, on his left hand. My brother was blown to pieces by a land mine. Years later, we received a visit from his army buddy, who was now peddling the true story in exchange for booze money, and who in pathologically gory detail described my brother's death: spilled guts still throbbing in the dirt, ungodly howling, a Charlie sniper shooting off his knees, et cetera. My mom blamed my dad for her son's death, she blamed all his fallacious army stories, all that sleeping-in-the-woods bullshit that deluded my brother into thinking that the army built a man's character-it kills the body, she wailed, screw the character, my son's body is gone. My father thought that every man needed character-that a life that produced pain built your character the way that door built Bandera's. So my brother's absence, the paint of his death on the walls of our home, that had built my character. My father, nuncle motherfucker, never talked about it, just went to the Chicago Avenue church, sang in the choir, his jaw eternally clenched. My brother was killed a week before he was to be discharged. He was twenty-three, his name was Roman.
“Very interesting,” Jozef said. “Roman means novel in my language.”
“Oh, fuck you,” I said, and that was the first time I got mad at him. But it didn't last long: we sat on the bus next to each other again, in silence, and I was just about to tell him I was sorry, when I realized he was asleep, the wanton boy, his head on my shoulder, his saliva dribbling on my sleeve out of the corner of his mouth, my hand levitating above his nape, a touch away from his gentle neck.
The days upon our return from Kiev were wholesome. We would wake up, my beloved roommate and I, into a blissfully sunny morning. The memory of the view from our room contains an implausible sheet of snow, covering the parking lot below and the tips of the trees on its edge, straight as pencils (beyond which, I learned, was Babi Yar), solely because the summer sunlight was so bounteous that it washed everything white.Jozef was one of those people who are happy in the morning: he started his day humming a song that was a soundtrack for his dreams; then he sauntered in his underwear, gabbing steadily. It was in the morning that he told me about his numerous girlfriends; about his crush on Andrea (which, he freely admitted, provoked serious erections); about his band (Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls) and his best friend, the rhythm guitar in the band; about his family (parents, aunts, uncles, hard to follow).
I remember my brother doing push-ups bare chested on the floor next to my bed. His panting, yelping, and chest slapping woke me up. Sometimes, I woke up scared, and my brother comforted me, stroking my hair, smiling. Nothing could harm my brother's morning joy. I am exactly the opposite: I had long ago-but wherefore I know not-lost all my mirth. Hence I passively absorbed Jozef's cheerfulness, never quite responding, often wanting him to shut up. I wanted to be alone, but you couldn't be alone with Jozef—he brought buckets of cold world into your life and poured it over your head and you gasped for air.
We would head toward breakfast, down the stairs in synchronized steps. Seldom would we be alone at the table-all of a sudden he had an army of friends-which forced me into reticence or, worse, into nonsensical utterances, all sounding like pretentious misquotations: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be"; “Words are grown so false that I am loath to prove reason with them,” et cetera. Jozef would indulge in dalliance and glance exchange with Andrea ("You had nice dreams?"), which would always make me recall his erection; he would tease Father Petrol ("You dreamed pretty women?"), which would make Father Petrol's pimples sinfully purple; he would greet the Polish teenage twin brothers, who had been following Father Petrol like a double dose of temptation ("You switched names last night?"); he would provoke Vladek, asking him what kind of information he provided to the KGB ("Tell them I am spy"); he would make a crass remark to Vivian, whom he didn't seem to like because she was a vegetarian ("I have sausage for you"); he would even address Will, reading the International Herald Tribune he brought with him ("What are news?"); and he would embarrass Talya and me, suggesting that we could “make love” after breakfast. We all revolved around the axis of Jozef's morning mirth, and the revolution could make you nauseated.
After breakfast, we were expected to go to classes and expand our knowledge of Ukrainian history and culture. I usually skipped the Ukrainian language classes but I went to the Ukrainian history class, much with the same interest that would make me gawk at a train wreck, but also because Jozef was in the class. We would sit high in the amphitheater, almost at eye level with the solemn pictures of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, looking down at Vivian's emaciated back as she took notes, looking at Will's persistently raised hand, and at a puny Toronto professor who had written a thousand-page book on Ukrainian history. I was raised with my father's version of Ukrainian history, in which frequent and regular defeats were in fact triumphs of martyrdom; in which feeble intellectuals and hesitant politicians misled the common man and betrayed the hero; in which pogroms were merely self.
defense; in which Ukrainians preserved Orthodox Christianity from Poles and Communists. “Empty story, yes?” Jozef said.
He liked the empty story about the Cossacks throwing mud at their elected chief as part of the inauguration ritual. He thought that everybody should do it, and add some shit to the mud too. Once, as the Ukrainian SS division was being wiped out by the Red Army in its first and only battle, our knees touched, and a little furry animal of troubling pleasure moved for the first time in my belly, but I quickly smothered it with the soft pillow of denial.
In the evenings, we would go out, stroll by the Dnepro, while the greatest fleet of mosquitoes ever assembled attacked us, wave upon wave, some of them resembling small storks-it was hard not to think of Chernobyl and evolution taking a different turn in these parts. We would embark upon a quest for beer, up and down Andriivski Uzhvis, usually ending up in an Armenian restaurant frequented by all the other foreigners in Kiev. Once the entire school crowd went to the restaurant and ordered a whole piglet-Jozef's royal idea. He gnawed on the bones, greasing up and licking his fingers, daring everyone to try the brain, and no one dared except Andrea. (Vivian paled at the far end of the table.) I retch at the very thought of eating pig's brain, but they put the decadent morsels into each other's mouths with delight.
Strange is the taste of desire.
We would go back to the dorm and drink in someone's room, cheerfully exchanging funny anecdotes, talking over each other, though I cannot remember what about. Jozef would disappear to make out with Andrea, and I would be stuck with a ranting-in-Russian Vladek, whose idea of fun was to drink vodka out of a vase; with Father Petrol who would pontificate (mainly to the twins) about the spirituality of beekeeping; with Vivian, who was somehow always sitting next to me, trying to commence a quiet conversation about bad food or the water shortage in the dorm. I would depart only when I was sure that Jozef was not in our room with Andrea, quietly humping in the darkness while a moonbeam sneaked into the room and tickled his bare dolphinlike back.
One day, all the Americans in the school were summoned to Igor's office. I cannot say that a possibility of a summary execution of the imperialist enemy did not cross my mind, but I went nonetheless. There were six of us: There was Will, with his flaxen hair, half-open mouth and his tight forearms-he in fact came with a tennis racket in his hand.
There was Mike, whom I hadn't ever talked to, from Schenectady, with a large Slavic head and an itch in his crotch to which he responded by constantly touching his penile area ("You play tennis?” he asked Will). There was Vivian the Vegetarian, with her translucent skin and knobby joints.
There was Andrea, with her rangy Chicago prettiness, freckles and all ("You're from Chicago too?” I asked her. “Yup," she said, and that's all the conversation we had). There was Basil from Baltimore, with thin-rimmed spectacles, positioned at a studied equidistance from anyone, and a stack of money neatly held together by a silver clip-he was a banker ("I am a banker,” he said). And there was me, a graduate student, mired in the middle of a project called “Queer Lear." Thus, in streaming bad English, spoke Igor: The American president, George Bush, was coming to Kiev for a goodwill visit. The people of Ukraine had a lot of respect for the American president, and they wanted to develop friendship with the American people, and so on in a portentous voice.
He said we were needed, since we could speak Ukrainian and English, to be on hand as interpreters. “Sure,” Will said instantly. ''I'll be proud to serve my country,” Basil said.
“Bush is a prick,” Andrea said. “No way I'm gonna do it." Then Vivian and Mike agreed, and it was up to me. The way I remember it, which is most certainly inaccurate, is that they all turned toward me, in slow motion, tilted their heads slightly-it took me a few long moments to decide. I am one of those people who is always a little embarrassed to stand up and turn toward the flag at a baseball game, though I always do it, my father's invisible hand pushing me. And I never thought that my brother's death was quite worth it.
But it was different now: there were these people in a foreign country and I knew them-we were a “we.” I was tired of confusing, unrelenting perceptions and feelings. I wanted to go to a familiar place. I said: “Okay,” and avoided Andrea's gaze.
A bus was supposed to pick us up Thursday. We would be accompanied by a person from the consulate. Igor thanked us very much and told us how important it was that our school could be part of the historic visit. Igor had no shoes on, just snow-white socks, except for a red blot on his left foot, suggesting that his big toe was painfully bleeding.
But there were throats to be cut and work to be done: we boarded a humble bus, with smudges on the windowpanes probably predating Brezhnev. And in that decrepit ark we sailed together with other unnamed Americans, collected around Kiev, who all sat in the front seats. We were heading to the airport, we were told by a red-haired young woman in a neon-blue suit. She was from the consulate, her name was Roberta and she said she was delighted to see us, but then she instantly forgot us, firmly focused on the Kiev streets ridden with potholes and her goals-say, a position in the Moscow embassy ind an affair with a good-looking CIA man.
I liked the way she raked her fluffy hair with her carmine claws.
I sat next to Vivian, attracted by her scent of coconut sweat and her radiant skin-she gripped the handlebar on the seat in front of us and I could see her velvet veins bulging. I could also hear her breathing, her tresses' ends dithering from her breath. Her bare legs brandished a bruise here and there, amidst goosebumps. It terrified me to see how fragile she was. I believe that Vivian was aware of my gaze, for she looked straight ahead, only occasionally smiling, exposing her gums reluctantly.
But then Will threw his tennis body onto the seat in front of us, and said: “Roberta said we might get to see the president.”
“Wow,” Vivian said.
We arrived at the airport, at a back lot, with no one around except a square-shouldered man in a dark suit, a cubical jaw, dark sunglasses, a gadget in his ear, his hands lethal weapons-exactly how I had imagined a presidential bodyguard.
I get a kick out of meeting someone who is a cliche embodied. It produces a pleasant feeling of a world completed, of everything arranging itself without any of my involvement. And a diminished Vivian was reflected in his sunglasses. He ushered us into a waiting room, told us to wait in a voice that sounded synthesized, and then vanished.
There we sat waiting.
We were killing time, choking every little minute with the muscly hands of mortifying ennui. There was absolutely nothing in the room: no pictures on the walls, no magazines, no paper or pencils, no crass inscriptions on the chairs, not even dead flies in the light bowls. I exchanged irrelevant information with Vivian: our favorite Dunkin' Donut (same: Boston Cream); our favorite TV show ("Hogan's Heroes"); our favorite Beatles songs ("Yesterday,” “Nowhere Man"); our favorite salad dressing (she had none, I couldn't think of any). We agreed on almost everything, and that cheered Vivian up. But I must confess-and if you are out there somewhere, Vivian, reading this woeful narrative, find it in your heart to forgive me-I lied about everything, agreeing with her only because that was much easier than professing the flimsy beliefs I had never firmly held, and it was nice to see her smiling.
We turned to silence, and time simmered until it evaporated.
They took us back to the school, and they told us that the president would speak at Babi Y ar that evening and that we might be needed again. 'Tis the time's plague, when madmen lead the blind.
The Babi Yar ravine was full of people swarming against the green background of trees. They grew out of pits that once upon a time had been filled up with human flesh, which had on me a disturbing effect of feeling unjustly alive.
President Bush walked on stage, in the long dumb strides of a man whose path has always been secure-around him a suite of tough motherfuckers bulging with concealed weapons and willingness to give their life for the president. We were dose to the stage, over which a monument loomed-I could not make out what it was: a cramped lump cast in black bronze. We-Will, Mike, Basil, and Vivian, and I-watched him appear before the Ukrainian crowd that followed his every move, like a dog watching a mouse, with detached amazement: it was now in front of them that he became real.
His bland, beady eyes scanned the crowd for a loyal face-a habit from back home, where voters grew like weeds. He looked at his watch, said something to a man carrying a clipboard, all efficient and chunky. The man nodded, so the president approached the microphone. The microphone screeched, then the president's voice cracked in the speakers.
He touched the microphone head with his lips, receiving a jolt from it. He tried to adjust the unwieldy microphone, as if choking a snake, speaking all along. His voice then came from a tape recorder deep down inside him, plugged into the electric current of his soul. Nobody was translating.
“Abraham Lincoln once said: We cannot escape history ... “he said somberly, still wrangling the microphone. Under the stage, there were men in uniforms, squatting, leaning on their rifles. Their heads brushed against the wooden beams.
They had striped sailor shirts under their uniforms, which meant they were from the KGB. They smoked and seemed absolutely oblivious to what was happening right above them.
“Today we stand at Babi Yar and wrestle with awful truth." He pronounced Yar as Year. The men under the stage were laughing about something, one of them shaking his head in some kind of disbelief.
“And we make solemn vows,” the president went on, his voice getting deeper, the microphone making a wheeee sound. I spotted Jozef in the crowd, his face beaming out of the crowd's grayness, standing close to the stage, with his hands in his pockets, Andrea next to him.
“We vow this sort of murder will never happen again." The KGB men under the stage simultaneously dropped their cigarettes and stepped on the butts, still squatting, as if they were dancing hopak.
“We vow never to let forces of bigotry and hatred assert themselves without opposition." I realized that President Bush reminded me of Myron, who would eat earthworms for a quarter when we were kids: he would put a couple of earthworms between two pieces of bread and bite through. You could sometimes see their ends wiggling between the slices, while he chewed their heads.
With his quarters he would buy some booze-Cobra or Colt 4 5 or something.
“And we vow that whenever our devotion to principle wanes [ the microphone suddenly went silent] when good men and women refuse to defend virtue [silence] each child shot [wheeee, silence, wheeee] none of me will ever forget. None of us will ever forget." The setting sun peeked through the treetops and blinded Bush, who squinted for a moment, a fiery patch on his face.
Jozef whispered something into Andrea's ear and she started giggling, with her hand on her mouth. The people standing behind the president on the stage were uneasy. The men under the stage were on their backs now, looking up at the stage ceiling, their AK-47s laid next to them. Vivian silently moved next to me-the coconut aroma perished from her sweat. The chunky guy with the clipboard shook up the microphone, as if it all were a matter of its stubbornness, and then gave up.
“May God bless you all [ wheeeeeumph] the memories of Babi Yar." And then Bush came off the stage and after a sequence of microevents that I cannot recall-you must imagine my shock-Jozef was standing in front of Bush, behind the moat of the bodyguards' menacing presence, his face extraordinarily beautiful, as if an angelic beam of light were cast on his face. Jozef was looking at him with a grin combined with a frown-which I can recognize in retrospect as his recognition that the moment was marvelously absurd. Bush must've seen something else, perhaps his divine face, perhaps someone who would make his presidential self look better in a photo (and the cameras were snapping), someone who looked Slavic and exotic, yet intelligible-the whole evil empire contracted in one photogenic brow of woe. So he asked Jozef, looking at the fat man, expecting him to interpret: “What is your name, young fellow?”
“Jozef Pronek,” Jozef answered, while the fat man was mouthing a translation of the question, spit burping in the corners of his lips.
“This place is holy ground. May God bless your country, son.”
“It is not my country,” Jozef said.
“Yes it is,” Bush said and patted Jozef on his shoulder.
“You bet your life it is. It is as yours as you make it.”
“But I am from Bosnia ... ”
“It's all one big family, your country is. If there is misunderstanding, you oughtta work it out.” Bush nodded, heartily agreeing with himself. Jozef stood still, his body taut and his smile lingering on his face, bedazzled by the uncanniness.
I knew then I was in love with Jozef. I wanted Bush to embrace him, to press his cheek against Jozef, to appreciate him, maybe kiss him. I wanted to be Bush at that moment and face Jozef armed with desire. But Bush took off, his body exuding his content with his ability to connect with everyone.
Would I were a rock-I stood there trembling with throbs of want, watching Jozef, with the sun behind his back. I replay this scene like a tape, rewinding it, slowing it down, trying to pin down the moment when our comradeship slipped into desire-the transition is evanescent, like the moment when the sun rays change their angle, the light becomes a hairbreadth softer, and the world slides with nary a blink from summer into fall.
“Isn't that your roommate?” Will asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes." Jozef saw me then, waved at me, and shrugged, as if it all were an accident, rather than destiny. Oh, smite flat the thick rotundity of the world so we may never be apart.
That same night, I succumbed to Vivian's persistent, quiet presence, and invited her to my room-as Jozef was off carousing somewhere-where we made out in my bed. She pressed her lips against mine and sucked them, I let my hands wander across her ribs and breasts, and tried to push my tongue into her mouth. It was a cumbersome protocoitus: I kept banging my knees against the steel edges of the bed, she-my slim Ophelia-kept slipping between the bed and the wall. In the end, we never managed to get to the penetration point, though there was some heavy, nervous petting. Need I say that I was distracted by Jozef's absent presence, that I could smell his clothes and that, as I was trying to approach the lovemaking process from a different angle, my leg slipped off the bed and I stepped on his shoe? The part I enjoyed, however, was the talk after our hapless semi-intercourse had been abandoned, under the pretense of everything being too soon. We were facing each other, inhaling each other's breaths, whispering about the times when we were kids, when joys were simple and bountiful. I did not want to fuck Vivian, I just wanted to hold her and talk to her. Even as she talked, I kept imagining Jozef in his bed, in his shorts, absentmindedly curling the hair around his nipples. Ah, get thee to a nunnery! I spent a lot of time with Vivian henceforth: we were, for all intents and purposes, having a relationship. We would go to classes together, and sit next to each other-Jozef way above, behind my back, beyond my gaze. We would ask each other: “What do you wanna do tonight?” and respond: “I don't know, what do you wanna do?” It was always the same thing; we would go for a walk, then to the Armenian restaurant, then to Vivian's room-her roommate, Jennifer from Winnipeg, was sleeping with Vladek somewhere elsewhere we made out a little, inching toward the ever remote penetration (Vivian was not ready yet, still afraid of the pain, though she was not, she said, a virgin), then exchanged our memories. We had progressed to high adolescence, when I had taken up drugs, and she had taken up vegetables. Sometimes she would decide to stay in her room and read about Ukrainian history, or translate some lousy Ukrainian poem, and I would play tennis with Will. He would easily crush me, afterwards generously suggesting exercises that would improve my regrettable footwork. Or we would play doubles: Will and I versus Mike and Basil. Will demanded an elaborate high five after every win, though I never had anything to do with it. Then we would play poker, drinking infernal vodka.
Will seemed to know everything about the current baseball season, and we discussed it enveloped in the air of elite expertise, conscious that nobody in that damn country knew or cared about it. They also liked to talk about women: they wanted to know about Vivian's fucking habits (I could tell them little), while they seemed to possess information about Andrea (Mike claimed she liked to suck uncircumcised dick) and Jennifer of Winnipeg (she paid Vladek per fuck) and Father Petrol (who was caught jacking off in the bathroom).
I was disgusted, of course, but on the other hand their idiotic discourse was familiar and comfortable-it was my summer camp all over again.
I would go back to my room, feeling guilty, as if I had betrayed not only Vivian, but Jozef as well. He would sometimes be awake when I came in drunk, and we would engage in small talk. He would tell me about his little adventures in Kiev: in the post office, a man had whispered to him about the Stalin days, when people used to disappear, but you could buy sausage in stores; he had had some kvass and it was so horrible that he was happy he had tried it, because he could now tell everyone about it; Andrea had bought a Red Army officer's hat from a guy who was also selling night-vision goggles-Jozef wanted to buy the goggles, but they were expensive. It was all laughter and amiability, but I felt as if we had broken up and were only friends now, desire banished from our land, even if it had never settled there.
Wide awake, I would close my eyes, and my mind would wander with my hand across his chest, down his abdomen.
I would stop it on the underwear border, forcing myself to think about Vivian-you have to understand that I had never been attracted to a man before. It frightened me, and it was hard sometimes to discern between fear and arousal: the darkness throbbed around me, in harmony with my heart.
Occasionally, I would feel a compulsion to confess to Vivian: to tell her that being with her was only out of need for something safe and familiar; to tell her that I could not stop-and God knew I tried-thinking about my foreign roommate, even as she touched me and breathed into my face. But instead of confessing, I lectured her about my thesis and the homosocial relations in King Lear; and how the collapse of Lear's society was rendered by the emasculation in it; and how Lear being alone with Cordelia before she dies was when he went beyond his masculinity, entering a different identity. I babbled and babbled, understanding along the way that I understood very little. Incredibly, she found it interesting: she swore in faith 'twas passing strange, 'twas wondrous pitiful. But what she actually said, I shall not recall before the next lifetime.
Jozef, naturally, suspected nothing: he cheerfully walked around half-naked, was convinced that our new distance was due to our respective new girlfriends. I assumed this fake voice of male solidarity-the voice, I suspected, often heard in army barracks and trenches before nightly masturbation sessions-as we shared petty treasures, trinkets glittering only to easily arousable men: a vivid description of Vivian's nipples; a joke about Andrea's orgasmic yelps; the standard fantasies about having more than one woman in bed, and so on.
I remember the time when my father had been fired from his work as a security guard, spending a lot of time at home, mainly drinking, telling disconnected Bandera-times stories, and ripping cabinet doors off. But occasionally, he would be in a somber mood, slouching on a sofa in a dark living room, blinds rolled down, watching a daytime talk show with the sound off. I was sixteen or so, prone to avoiding my father's proximity as much as I could, but he seemed so helpless and aching at the time that I would just join him and watch TV in complete silence. I could never muster the audacity to prompt him to talk, and he never wanted to talk. We could hear Mother trudging through the apartment, but she was as shut off as the talk show. Once, as some shoddy porn stars were being interviewed, my father said, slowly, as if he had been thinking about it for a while, that he had some porn tapes and that we could watch them together some time. I retched-I swear to God-it was so unthinkable to me. So I said: “No, are you fucking crazy?” and stormed out of the room. Yet, despite the nausea I still feel, that seemed to be the last time my father had wanted to give me anything, and I had declined it. Men have died-worms have eaten them-but not for love.
The days after Babi Yar were days of torment. I spent a lot of time with people who ultimately made me feel frightfully lonely. More and more often, I roamed the streets of Kiev alone, collecting random particles of someone else's life: a throng of wizened carnations, sold by a decrepit baba; a woman tottering under the weight of bag clusters in her hands; a naked mannequin in the dust-infested window of an empty store; a boy waiting with his father in front of a kvass kiosk, pale, a chenille of greenish snot stretching over his lips to his chin; the gnarly bars on the post-office windows, eaten by rust; the ashtray brimming with cigarettes, lipstick half-moons on their ocher filters, in front of a post-office teller named Oksana, who provided me with a phone line to Chicago.
My mother picked up the phone. I could hear the echo of my voice, and she was confused by the delay, so our words kept running into one another: "Mom, how are . . ”
“Victor, how . . ”
“ ... you?”
“ ... are you?”
“I'm good ... ”
“Are you ... ”
“ ... Mom.”
“ ... okay?”
“How ... ”
“Is everything .
“ ... is Dad?”
“ ... okay?”
“Everything . . ”
“He ... ”
“ ... is okay.”
“ ... is okay.”
“He is only ... ”
“Is he ... ”
“ ... a little weak.”
“ ... okay?”
“Okay?" He was sick, I understood in spite of the echoes. High blood pressure, my mother said. He wasn't eating, couldn't digest food, my mother didn't say why, and I knew he wouldn't see the doctor, claiming he was fine, meaning he was tough. But I didn't want it clarified, I wanted to pretend that it was all so distant, many echoes away, because I could not deal with it. I finished the conversation with love that was to be shared by my mother with my father, an unlikely outcome. This was mid-August, 1991.
I went down the stairs, still hungover, vaguely afraid of breaking my ankle and tumbling down the stairs only to have my neck snapped. As I was sinking into the hall, I saw Natalyka, the cleaning woman who would often walk into our room and admonish us for the mess; I saw Natalyka sitting despondently, watching TV, her head on the blubber-padded shoulder of another cleaning woman. Her log-thick legs were crossed at her swollen ankles. She kept her hands in the pockets of her formerly blue jacket, as if despair were a marble in her pocket. No one had ever watched TV in the hall, let alone this early-it was breakfast time. There was a crowd of people, whose faces had wandered through my hazy stay in this building, whose faces were now richly made up with dread and desolation.
August 21, 1991, will always have Natalyka's sorrowful face.
I sidled up behind the crowd and peeked at the TV, the way I join onlookers calmly watching an accident aftermath.
A Brezhnev clone with a bass voice read a proclamation, sitting uncomfortably in the midst of a horrendous purplev-elvet set, his tie breaking over his belly. It took me a while to shake off my daze and parse what he was saying. The people around me shuffled their feet as if rattling their shackles. They murmured and sighed: somebody, I understood, had taken power, declared martial law because of anarchy and disorder.
“Gorbachev is out,” Will said, suddenly standing next to me. “There's been a coup.”
“Oh, fuck!” I said.
“Exactly,” Will said.
I must mention this: abruptly and against my will, as it were, I was close to Will-abruptly, he was someone I could trust. But I felt a cramping urge to locate Jozef and break the news to him, to produce wonder in his heart and excite him. So I flew upstairs, not caring about my ankles or my neck, followed by an echo of Natalyka's tormented gasp. I burst into the room without knocking, and Jozef was naked.
I could not help noticing-and I was too excited to try-a hair vine crawling up from his sooty crotch to his navel, and curls spiraling around his nipples.
“There's been a coup!” I nearly hollered.
“There's been a coup!” I hollered.
“What is coup?” It was rather annoying, his ignorant calm, his boxers sliding up his alabaster thighs.
“A coup, a violent takeover of power.”
“Take over from where?”
“You know, a fucking revolution.” What was wrong with him? He couldn't understand the basic information, let alone assuage my fears. What was I doing here? "Revolution?” Jozef said, his eyebrows raised, the sun of comprehension rising from behind the dark mountain of his dimness. “Where is revolution? Who is organizing revolution?”
“Goddamn it, a putsch. Gorbachev's out.” He had no chest hair, and his navel had a birthmark satellite, shaped as a mouse.
“Putsch,” he finally understood. “Maybe they want to arrest us." Now, I have to confess that I hadn't thought of that-why would anyone want to arrest me? "Trouble, trouble,” he said.
I needed to talk to Will, so I left Jozef behind to wallow in his fake wisdom, muttering something in his weird language, and I ran downstairs. Down in the hall, there was no one but Natalyka, sitting in the same place, but no shoulder to support her, her hands dead in her lap, like hairless bloated hamsters, her round little body weary of this great world. She was watching the Red Army choir, handsome men endowed with mandibular strength, thundering a victorious song.
I ran to the cafeteria, where there was a hopeful line of second-helpers, led by the indomitable Vladek, as if nothing had happened, but there was no Will. I ran to his room, leaping stairs, rapidly running out of breath, and I found him there, with his ear pressed against his transistor radio.
“What's the news?” I asked in a series of pants that must have suggested frenzy.
“Haven't found any news yet,” Will said. 'Tm trying to find the Voice of America. “ I had never been in Will's room-his clothes were neatly stacked in the closet, and he had tubular boxes full of fluorescent- green tennis balls positioned unrandomly around his room like little watchtowers. He had a family picture on the nightstand: there were five of them, Will in the center, flanked by his sisters, mom and dad standing behind them. They were sublimely beautiful, blond, and suburban, all resembling one another as if they were a variation of the same person, a family procreated by fission rather than fucking.
“What are we going to do, Will?”
“Well, they can't arrest us. And even if they arrest us, they will exchange us. We don't leave anyone behind.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“I mean if the American Embassy knows we are here, they are going to get someone to get us. They might send a bunch of marines or something. We take care of our people, right?”
“Do they know we are here?” I imagined a herd of robust marines storming into the building, the sergeant bellowing: "Move! Move!” shooting to pieces whoever unwisely stood in their way, crawling along the walls, exchanging mysterious finger signs, patriotic paint smudged all over their endearingly familiar faces.
“I don't know, “ Will said. “I hope they do. I want to go home.”
“But what are we going to do until they come?'' "We're gonna stay put. Get your stuff ready in case we have to leave soon. I'm gonna talk to other people. We oughtta have a meeting." I ran back to my room, bur Jozef was not there. All that running: maybe I didn't run at all, but now as I remember it, it all seems speeded up, with plenty of huffing and puffing and urgency. And I was tired and the running (if indeed there was any) seemed pointless. The bed beckoned me and I stretched on it, pulling the blanket over my head. Here is a confession: when the future is uncertain, when there are many events in the womb of time about to be delivered, I take a nap. I roll down the shades and creep under a blanket and cover my head, and I try to imagine a safe, warm place-a tip from my therapist. Usually, it is my tent. We are on a camping trip in Wisconsin, somewhere near a shimmering lake. The sides of the tent are throbbing slightly. I can hear the crickets on the fragrant pine, and I can hear my mother humming an Irish song. The shadows of the pine's branches are quivering above my head, and I can hear the splashing of the struggling fish my dad is pulling out of the lake.
A cold hand on my forehead woke me up, and before I could see her face darkened and haloed by the background light, I recognized her smell: sweet sweat and coconut.
“Are you sleeping?”
“What do you think?”
“Have you heard?”
“How can you sleep?”
“How can you not sleep?”
“Can I come into bed with you?”
“Sure." Vivian took off her sandals and her hairpins and weightlessly landed her body next to mine. She had on the flowery dress, which slid up to her thighs and I could feel them against mine. She kissed my neck, and I curled her hair behind her ear. She put her hand on my stomach and then it edged towards my underwear.
Never mind the details: there was penetration, there was pain, and she was a virgin; there was guilt and avoiding each other's eyes afterwards, yet there were touches that implied the required postcoital closeness; there was sweat mixing. And there was embarrassment with the rich assonment of bodily imperfections: a solitary red pimple gestating on my chest; her asymmetrical, cross-eyed breasts; my nose hair; the gossamer on the fringe of her cheek. We exchanged susurrous, empty words, not quite lies, but cenainly not truths, while my body tensed and tightened, eager to get out of her hold.
I imagined describing the whole haphazard event to Will, Mike, and Basil and the salvos of laughter I would get, knowing all along that I could not do it. And I kept fretting that Jozef might come in, trying to think of things I could say to dispel the accusatory, questioning gaze, and the only thing I could think of-eminently useless-was: “We're just friends." God help me.
Then the door of our room went down with a horrible crash and a bunch of KGB men with painted faces burst in, ripped Jozef and me out of the bed, threw us on the floor.
One of them stepped on my neck, pressing it with his boot 212 ALEKSANDARH EMON viciously. The pain was intense, my neck stiffening up, but it was pleasurable when they handcuffed us together. I found myself wanting a second helping of that pain. They pushed us down the stairs and I twisted my ankle, but Jozef kept me from falling and breaking my neck. Then they ushered us with their rifle butts into a black-very black-Mariah. And when we entered it, I could not see anything, and I did not know whether it was because we were blindfolded or because the darkness was so thick that I could not see Jozef's face, even if our breaths embraced. But I could feel his bleeding wrist fidgeting on the other end of the handcuffs that tied us. We escaped from the black Marenyka when they stopped to pick up more arrestees-I recognized Mike and Vivian and wondered where Will might be-Jozef head-butted a guard and barged forward. We heard shouts and shots and the gallop of boots, but we were hidden by the darkness. I could not see anything, I just followed Jozef and we ran and ran, but it was as if we were skidding along the surface of a placid sea. I simply let myself go, gliding over water, and then we hid in the forests of Ukraine. We dug a hole in the ground, and woke up sheathed with frost. We bit off chicken heads and drank the blood straight out of necks because water was poisoned everywhere. We hopped on a train, where Jozef strangled a policeman, while my handcuffed hand shook like a rattle in front of the dying policeman's crooked eyes. We crossed borders and more borders, some of them were hedges and some of them were walls, with watchtowers and sharpshooters strewn all over, waving at us, letting us through, so they could shoot us in the back. And they shot and I could feel their bullets going through me, because they were not real. Then we slept on a train-car floor, like hobos, there was no one there, but as we slept it filled with furniture and people sitting in armchairs and on sofas, and Jozef and I were sitting next to each other, and somehow our hips were handcuffed, and where the handcuff bit into my flesh there was a hole and I was leaking out, buckets of bile. I felt both pleasure and horror-horrible pleasure-at this loss, this leakage of my self.
It was Will who walked in on us. It was morning again, we slept with our backs turned to each other, Vivian's full frontal nudity facing the door.
“Jesus,” Will said, and Vivian covered herself. Jozef still was not in the room. Will brandished a tennis racket as if it were a sword. He leaned over us-we could see our distorted little heads in his glasses-and said: “Meeting. In my room.
In fifteen minutes." I may be this, and I may be that, but when I am told there is a meeting, I get up and attend the meeting.
“I need to go to my room,” Vivian said, pale and in need of a carrot or something.
“Okay." The meeting, ah, the meeting: Vivian and I, sitting on Will's bed next to each other. Mike and Basil on the other bed, and Will amidst us-his family benevolently beaming at all of us. Andrea was not there, probably stretching in her bed next to Jozef. Will told us what he knew: there had been a coup; Gorbachev was in the Crimea, under house arrest; hard-line Communists and generals had taken over; there were arrests everywhere, people disappearing; street fighting in Leningrad, tanks on the streets, bloodshed; large armycontingent movements from western Ukraine and Belorussia toward Kiev. He had received a call at Igor's office from his father, who for some reason was in Munich. Will told us everything was good at home, and I may be misremembering a collective sigh of relief.
“We gotta get the hell out of here,” Basil said.
“We gotta wait,” Will said, “until we know what is going on. I think we are okay here." He ordered us not to leave the school and to let him know at any given time where we were. He instructed Vivian to inform Andrea about our meeting and its conclusions, and he told Mike and Basil that he needed to talk to them after the meeting-I seemed to be out of the loop, though I didn't know what they were looping for.
Jozef was back in our room, radiant on his bed, not able to suppress his grin, his hand roaming under his shin, as if marking the kiss traces, the tongue trails.
“Love is beautiful thing,” he said, pronouncing thing as ting.
“It is indeed,” I said, for a moment entertaining the thought of telling him about my ting.
“They demonstrate on Kreshchatek,” he said. “Many people, all night. Police is everywhere. I go now, again. You want to go?”
“Oh, I don't know. I have to talk to Will.”
“Well, because we had a meeting this morning.”
“Meeting, you know. We organized ourselves. We have to know where every one of us is, in case of trouble." He put his left foot on his right knee, the sole facing me, and then went on picking on corns, peeling off dead skin, sliver by sliver, his toes watching it like five retarded hick brothers.
“You are like child. You must tell your parents where are you.”
“No, man. It's just common sense.”
“When you don't tell parents, you are bad boy. Bad boy," he said, scowling at his heel.
“That's stupid,” I groused. “I don't have to prove anything to you, you know.”
“I know. I go now.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I said, and threw a pillow at the other pillow on my bed.
“I go now,” Jozef said. “You don't want to go?" I followed him. We walked: it was a long walk, through largely deserted streets, except for a sporadic pedestrian, ambling conspiratorially, or an ominous truck of soldiers, roaring by, under a roof of tree crowns touching one another above the street. We didn't talk much; we heard birds chirping and ruffling the leaves above our heads; the concrete was warm, and the light was soft, diffused by the humid air and the tree shade. We walked by open windows exuding boiled-dough steam; by basement doors giving off a damp coal-dust scent; by shuddering lacy curtains, behind which a shadow of an old woman's face was recognizable for a moment. The sun twinkled from the tree crowns, for a whir of wind divided the leaves for an instant. But then we turned the corner and there was Khreshchatek: giant ore-brown men looming over austere concrete steps, too big to be human, their gaze directed at the horizon of rooftops, over our heads. There was a large crowd at the bottom of the stairs, with a speaker elevated above it, thundering into the squealing microphone something I could not understand. We saw a line of policemen standing a little below giants' feet, up on the stairs, solemnly lined up like a choir, their hands on their asses. And then another police line, behind the speaker, in the shadow of the trees. We joined the crowd and stood there, unsure what to do, other than applaud when everyone else did. The mustached guy standing next to me, with an unruly dandruffy lock poking his eyebrows, spoke to no one in particular about the police coming down and wiping the demonstrators out.
I was taken aback because he was the King of Midnight himself; even if I was not sure about his face, I recognized Antarctica. I don't know if he recognized me, but he pointed at the trucks behind the back of the umbrous policemen, deeper in the shadow.
“We go closer. I want to listen that man,” Jozef said, and started moving closer to the speaker.
“I don't think that is a good idea,” I said, but Jozef was already pushing his way through the throng. We ended up practically in front of the speaker, only a few wide-shouldered security men in front of us, looking up at him. The speaker had tears in his eyes, and he clenched black-and-white photographs in his hand. He kept ranting about genocide and Russians and plague, flipping and showing the photographs: a wasteland recognizable as Chernobyl; crooked and cramped tree branches, with mishapen monster leaves; a two-headed mouse, with only two eyes, the two snouts pointing in different directions.
My mind was brilliantly clear, aware of everything around me: the screeching and buzzing of a transistor radio; the hairy rungs of fat on the neck of the man right in front of me; the lemony smell of Jozef's skin; the policemen's sealskin batons, doubtless bloodied many a time; the striped shins of the KGB men who stepped out of their trucks and smoked, staring at us; the rustle among the policemen, the shuffle of their feet before they made a thudding step down the giant stairs; the crowd cringing and contracting, before the policemen stopped; the woman high up on the window of one of the buildings, leaning out and calmly smoking, watching the whole shebang without particular interest.
Jozef gently put his hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, his lips touching the lobe: “When police attack, we must run, and if we lost ourselves we must run this way” -he pointed toward a red kvass kiosk- “and meet there.”
“Sure,” I said, but did not really want to leave, for I knew that nothing could happen to us today, that even if they arrested us we would get away together,, that this was our souls' wedding; a wave of euphoric tranquility went over me. I did not wane to move, cherishingJozefs palm on my shoulder-I can feel its weight now, his breath brushing the side of my neck. There was nowhere to go beyond this moment.
I knew I should try to live in it for as long as possible.
There was nothing to lose and everything to gain by being as present as possible.
So I turned to him and grabbed his face with both of my hands, and pressed my lips against his, feeling the air coming out of his nostrils on my cheek. To the men around us, it could have seemed a typically Slavic outpouring of brotherly feelings, but Jozef knew what I was doing, for I tried to put my tongue into his mouth. He opened his mouth and let my tongue in, then kept it in. Then he kissed my neck, bit my shoulder gently, and slipped his hand under my shirt. I grabbed his shoulders and pulled him closer to me. We kissed for an eternity, could not separate.
A bird slams into the window of my office and startles me-my heart is galloping in frantic circles. The bird-a comatose sparrow-lies on its back on the windowsill, its little claws grasping nuggets of nothingness. I stored that kiss in the cryogenic chamber of my soul for some future, whose prospects are diminishing daily, and sometimes I take it out and tempt myself with the thought of thawing it. Outside, I can hear the din of the waiting students: a few young women with their feminist paper proposals on A Midsummer Night's Dream; a winsome young fellow who wants to write about Hamlet and Kurt Cobain. Around me, there are stacks of knowledgeable books, some of which I have flipped through impatiently in the past few years, looking for some kind of wisdom or, at least, references to my published articles. I loved Jozef because I thought that he was the simple me, the person I would have been had I known how to live a life, how to be accommodated in this world. Today, I garbled through the class, teaching Lear, soliciting ideas from my students about the ways in which Lear's power was discreated, and what it meant to him as a man. But it was routinely absurd-everyone had something to say, everyone had halfbaked opinions based on how they felt about this and thatand I kept wanting to read them the passage when Lear and Cordelia are about to go to prison, and Lear says: “Come, let's away to prison.” And he tells Cordelia about all the things they can do together in prison: they will live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news, and they'll talk with them too-who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out, and take upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God's spies. And Cordelia says nothing beyond that point, she does not utter a word, they take them to prison and she's killed, Lear dies. I wanted to read that with them, and then sit in silence, make them imagine all the things that Cordelia might have said, think of all the things I could have said, and let the uncomplicated sorrow settle in and stay with me, like a childhood friend.
We stood there, his hand on my neck, and listened to exhilarated speeches about the greatness of this moment, about the future shining bright behind dark clouds that hid our horizons. People cheered, and applauded, and sang songs about freedom. Policemen did not move, the KGB did not move, the giants did not move. I never kissed Jozef. I pretended to be listening carefully to the speakers, while I was trying to make a decision, one moment after another, and then turn to him, grab his face, and press my lips against his, dizzyingly aware all along how impossible it was. Jozef stood next to me, oblivious to my desire, unsinged by the fires of my hell. My stomach quivered, and iron fists pressed against my temples until my sinuses were throbbing. He might have said something, I might have responded. He might have touched me a few times, I might have shuddered.
But I looked not at him, and I touched him not, and it all lasted for years. Finally, we walked back to the Party dorm.
Jozef went to look for Andrea. I went back to my room and fell asleep.
When I woke up, Vivian was resting her face on her palm, curled next to me. I thought for a moment that I had dreamed it all: the putsch, the non-kiss, my life. Vivian stroked my cheek, and told me that Ukraine was independent now. I told her to go away, that I didn't want to see her any more, that it was not her, it was me. “Why? Why?” she cried. The image of her arched back and her craning neck as she left the room still, often, makes me contemplate my cruelty, producing a sneeze of intense grief. But I take out a handkerchief and wipe my runny moral nose.
I crept out of bed in the days after the freedom arrived only to call home. Exhilarated gangs of newly independent Ukrainians still roamed the streets with blue and yellow flags.
I talked to my father, who vociferated, in an exhausted, coarse voice: “Shche ne vmrela Ukraina!” Ukraine hasn't died yet! But he was about to die, my mother outright told me, too fatigued to lie. Everything inside him, she said, had been eaten away by cancer-it was a matter of days.
I found Jozef in Andrea's room playing chess with her.
Andrea's things: underwear and shirts and bras and crumpled tissues were strewn around, as if a hand grenade had exploded in her room. I kept it simple and poignant. I told Jozef that I had just found out that my father was dying, from belatedly discovered cancer. He hugged me, his breath sliding down my neck. Andrea hugged me too, kissed my cheek, her lips warm and sincere. I thought then I would look her up in Chicago, but I never did. I never saw her again, and I never saw Jozef. Although there have been passersby and strangers who cruelly wore his lovely face and sometimes I recognize him among the extras in a lame Hollywood movie. I am used to those fantasies now, as one gets used to the voices of the dead talking to him.
I packed up, said good-bye to Will-there were actually tears in his eyes when he said: “I know your old man will be okay.” I took the night train to Warsaw and flew to Chicago, via Frankfurt, all in dazed, numb pain, my only entertainment nightmares full of remorse. The funeral was the day of my arrival-he perished while I was in the Frankfurt Airport duty-free shop, considerately buying a few bottles of Absolut vodka that would be consumed at his wake. Straight from the airport, I sat in the first row at the Muzyka Funeral Home, with my sobbing, trembling mother, dressed in deep black, while my father lay in an open coffin, and his war comrades, men he used to share cigarettes with-old men in dun suits that had been growing bigger on them, exuding defunctprostate stench-held on to Ukrainian flags and delivered speeches about my father's loyalty and generosity, about his love for Ukraine, about his final moments of sublime joy as he lived to see his homeland free. Pan Bek wept as he read a Taras Shevchenko poem that had our wheat fields extending into eternity. Then they all sang “Shche Ne Vmrela Ukraina," looking up, as if freedom was hiding its misshapen face behind smoke detectors and dim ceiling lights. Finally, my mother and I stood up and walked to kiss my father good-bye, before they closed the casket for good. His face was laminated and hardened, his eyelids stiff as bottle caps. As I leaned over him, I could see the tips of his trimmed nose hair peering out of the dark nostril holes, but not moving, no breath coming out to tickle them. I kissed my father gently: his lips were frigid and tight. I know now when one is dead and when one lives.