This morning, a phone call from an unfamiliar foreign number interrupted my game of golf. Although I recognized Russia’s country code, I let it go to voicemail. I would have done the same with any unidentified caller. You never know what guise the past might put on to haunt you. When I got back to my condo after a round of cocktails with my golf partners, all Florida retirees like me, I listened to the voicemail twice with trepidation. It was from my former best friend. We hadn’t seen each other for twenty-seven years and hadn’t spoken for nineteen.
“Vovik, is it you or is it not you?” his message began. His voice was thin but cheerful; he must have been putting on airs. He’d gotten my number through an improbably coiled chain of acquaintances past and present, he went on to explain. “How are things, family? It’d be nice to talk of the old, tennis. I’m still in Tula.” I waited to hear what he really wanted, but perhaps this was something he was saving for the conversation proper. He repeated his number with the country and city codes and hung up.
I sat down on the couch. Sputnik, my saltand- pepper schnauzer, jumped up next to me, wagging his joystick tail. Then he hopped back down and planted his muzzle on my knee: behind his bushy eyebrows his black eyes were begging for a walk, and a snack, and love. For everything at the same time and right away.
Vovan had been through the trenches of youth with me, supplying a watermark of authenticity to every memory and image. I should have been happy to hear from him. Yet, what I felt was acute annoyance at this rather minimal invasion of my privacy. Perhaps I’ve become too American. Or not yet American enough.
As I go about my long day, performing tasks I don’t mind, thinking either about what I now have the time and mindspace to notice—a beautiful flower or an intricate cloud formation—or the people who matter to me—my daughter Sonya, my sister Angela, my wife Marina—I am sometimes shocked into momentary physical weakness by the realization of how fast time has galloped by, each winter marked by increasingly passionate moaning of my once-broken shin. And by the fact that I am here and Vovan is there, whereas we started out together and young.
We were both named Vladimir. I was Vovik for short and he—Vovan. We were born a year before Stalin’s death in a small Far Eastern town on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. Despite its isolation, every Russian still shudders at the mention of our familial Magadan, a name synonymous with Gulag. In addition to mining tin, uranium, and gold, the prisoners were used in civil works. I still remember a brigade that built a five-story apartment complex across from my house. The construction site was blocked off by a fence—rows of barbed wire strung between eight-foot-high wooden beams. Several makeshift watchtowers were positioned around the perimeter. Canvas-top trucks brought the prisoners in the morning, when I was on my way to school, and carted them back to the camp at night, when I was getting ready for bed. By then the brutal Stalinist Gulag had largely disintegrated. The prisoners were not shackled and had no personal guards poking their napes with Kalashnikovs.
Although my mother had reprimanded Vovan and me when she caught us talking to the prisoners over the fence, we became friendly with many. The scent of the Thaw was in the air, their hopes for freedom high. At night we snuck in through the spaces between the barbed wire and hid cigarettes in agreed-upon places. In return, the prisoners carved toy guns out of wood and left them in the secret spots for us.
By the mid-sixties, half of the town’s population consisted of ex-convicts, many of them superbly educated—actors, doctors, geologists, certain teachers at school—and many acquaintances of my father’s. My father was in charge of the gas supply for Dalstroy, the corporation that developed the region and ran the camps. When I asked him what they’d sat for, his usual response was: for having a long tongue. Some exiled artists and writers were world famous now. But back then we kids didn’t know. Schools to this day don’t teach that layer of history. Besides, our heads were crammed with mischief. There was no space for anything else.
Vovan and I were unruly but quick-witted enough to get through school with minimum effort. And we were lucky. Our skinny backsides were forever saved by bells, snow days, and convenient illnesses—the teachers’ or ours. We were called to the blackboard only on the days when we had, on a hunch, prepared our lesson. Everyone smoked in the bathroom, but Vovan and I never got caught.
We crawled through the dark, damp tunnels by the old cinema, which we called “the catacombs.” What with the mysterious trapdoor at the end of the tunnel—behind which there surely lay a chest of Kolyma gold guarded by the ghost of the first prospector, Bilibin—the risks of death by suffocation or drowning didn’t enter our minds. We stole the still-hot bread from the city bakery as the slow fat baker loaded the trays into the truck bound for grocery stores. We stared at the blurry black-market photographs of Swedish porn centerfolds confiscated by Vovan’s father, the senior detective at the police headquarters. We even played with his spare revolver until one day it shot and shattered the crystal chandelier.
In eighth grade we were suspended from the Young Pioneers brigade for bad behavior and, free of “volunteering” duties, we spent the summer hiking and grilling shashliks. In those days, my big passion was animal biology, and on weekends I helped out at what could barely be called a zoo. Four cages contained a yellowed polar bear named Yulka, an emaciated fox, a balding eagle, and a sad-eyed local deer. Though Vovan couldn’t care less about the stinking proximity to the creatures of the north, he tagged along, unable to bear exclusion from any of my activities.
In the last year of school all the girls in our grade, at once, gained weight and developed acne. Self-conscious and closed in, they were useless for both friendly and romantic purposes. On top of that, the stadium where we played soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter was put under yearlong renovation, leaving us with nothing else to do but study for university entrance exams.
In the spring a recruiting commission from the Riga Red-Bannered Institute of Engineers of Civil Aviation of the Lenin Komsomol arrived in Magadan. Riga was not Paris, but it was as far west as any of us dreamed to get. “Civil” sounded good, patriotic without trying too hard. “Aviation” sounded even better—steel wings and navy-blue uniforms, an intoxicating whiff of grandeur and freedom.
Five hundred students fought for thirty places reserved for recruits from the Magadan region. There were several facultets at the Riga Institute, and everyone wanted to get into automatics, the precursor of computer science. Space, atom, technology—it was all madly fashionable. No one knew what automatics really entailed, but everyone wanted to dive into the stream of progress. Vovan and I had passed physics, mathematics, and chemistry with an identical number of points. Together we crammed for the last exam—literature—and could, as far as I remember, tell Dostoyevsky from Raskolnikov.
The weekend before the literature exam, my parents and my little sister Angela went for a walk in the Park of Culture and Leisure, the same park that used to house the now extinct zoo. There they ran into the head of the Riga recruiting commission, a Jewish fellow named Golfmann. My father had already managed to meet him and promote me as a potential aviator. So when this Golfmann heard that I, along with the rest of the student herd, was storming the walls of the automatics facultet, he advised my parents that I should instead apply to be an economist. Next, he delivered the famous analogy that changed the course of my life.
“Here’s the difference between economics and automatics,” Golfmann addressed my mother, who was a woman of rare beauty, with ashen hair, bluebell eyes, and the voluptuous yet sturdy figure of Venus de Milo. “The economist sits in front of the calculating machine, the automatics specialist sits behind it. With a screwdriver! Who do you think makes the decisions?”
My parents rushed home. Without taking off her gray astrakhan hat, my mother relayed to me the screwdriver analogy. I didn’t like screwdrivers one bit. I associated them with my bike, which had to be constantly fixed as I was an extreme daredevil and rode the thing down hills, stairs, curbs, and through just about anything else in my way. I took my mother’s cold, velvety hands and warmed them with my breath. She laughed. Her gold tooth sparkled in the back of her mouth like a little bell. Then, I saw her as a conservative middle-aged woman whom I had to beg to add one more centimeter of flare to the hem of my fake jeans. Now I am astounded at how young she really was, only thirty-eight. “Don’t worry, mamochka,” I said, “I’ll be all right.” I passed the literature exam, and, as a highly ranked candidate, had my first choice of the facultets. Golfmann transferred my application from one pile to the other.
Vovan’s parents had also gone for a walk in the Park of Culture and Leisure that weekend, and his mother was just as beautiful as mine (gymnast’s figure, curly chestnut hair, dimples). But they didn’t run into Golfmann. At the time I was still able to tamper with Vovan’s destiny. I told him to quit automatics and become an economist, like me.
We blazed into Riga in black trench coats. Pins with Magadan’s coat of arms—a golden deer flying over blue water against a scarlet background— burned on our lapels, just above our hearts. This dashing getup was quickly exchanged for navy-blue uniforms and caps. To compensate, we started to grow out mustaches.
We excelled in the economics of civil aviation. During the lectures on Marxism-Leninism we caught up on sleep. Our dorm room, which we shared with six other guys, stank so badly of sweat, feet, cigarettes, vodka, and food we forgot to refrigerate, that in order to fall asleep we put handkerchiefs soaked in cologne over our noses.
But out the window was Riga, so European and clean, so different from Magadan and even Moscow. Only a fool would sleep all night in such a city. Around every corner were coffee shops with five-kopeck espressos and cheap restaurants decorated in grand style and named after Riga’s sister cities: Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Dallas. Street kiosks sold Polish and East German newspapers with pop music charts, beautiful models, and photographs of the Beatles—our paper window to the West.
To supplement our student stipends, Vovan and I worked part-time jobs. First, at the candy factory, from which we were fired for stealing candy. Then, at the vodka distillery, from which we were fired for getting massively drunk. Finally, I settled as a night guard at the glass container storage. While Riga, the captive European princess, slept dreaming of freedom, I listened to the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio Liberty, broadcasting news from around the world in Russian. The container storage was next to the Daugava River, where reception was the clearest in the whole city. Vovan worked on the chipping floor of a match factory, inhaling sawdust all day. For the damage to his lungs he was given a free bottle of milk daily. His lips were constantly coated with a film of that fine sawdust, and at the most inopportune moments Vovan would break out into a violent cough. But we made enough money to finance all our student fancies: Elita cigarettes, holodets at a favorite café, an occasional ticket to the car race or the organ concert at the Dom Cathedral, and copious amounts of vodka, wine, and the famous Riga balsam.
Tall, blue-eyed, and wavy-haired, we were at the peak of our boyish handsomeness. Latvian girls looked at us with admiring fear of our seeming worldliness. So what if we got roughed up by the Latvian guys a few times? There were plenty of Russian girls in Riga too. We hardly noticed how five years of lectures, exams, dances with live bands, and stand-up comedy competitions clattered past us and disappeared around the corner of a cobblestone street.
We graduated with red diplomas, passing even the Marxism-Leninism exam, and received priority employment distribution back to Magadan because of our family roots—though my family by then had migrated west: my parents to Ukraine, the country of their birth, and Angela to study chemical engineering in Moscow.
We were happy to be back. Now that there were no gulag prisoners, someone had to develop the region. The town experienced a renaissance as young people streamed in to take advantage of the higher salaries and stores stocked better than “on the continent,” which is what we called the rest of Russia. I got a position as a schedule engineer at the Aviation Administration. Vovan began working in the passenger relations department at the airport and moved to the airport township called Sokol, fifty-four kilometers from Magadan’s city-center.
Our mustaches had finally asserted themselves. Mine approached the coarse bushiness of “the walrus.” Vovan braved the slight curvature of the “petit horseshoe.” With the cool Baltic wind still whistling in our heads, we set out to stretch the balloon of our reckless youth to its limits. We played tennis and went to the movies with the prettiest girls in town, quickly earning the nicknames “tenisists-the penisists.” In the winter, we sledded down the glaciers on oilcloth mats, looking hours afterward for lost hats, mittens, and boots. People in Magadan said about me: Vovik, he’s a good guy, smart, handsome, reads books, has a good job. But he has this friend in Sokol, Vovan, who will be the ruin of him. Vovan’s neighbors in Sokol said the same about the good, handsome, educated Vovan and the bad influence of his debaucherous Magadan friend—me.
Time rushed by slowly. Historians coined catchy terms: Khrushchev’s Thaw followed by Brezhnev’s Stagnation. Vovan and I still juggled the same activities over and over: tennis, skiing, drinking, blurry days at work, and girls, with whom we broke up as soon as their slippers and bathrobes took up residence in our bachelor apartments. Minimal responsibilities, minimal consequences, minimal rewards. By the time I was twenty-seven, a sense of stagnation began to nag me. When will my real life begin, I wondered, and what was it, exactly, this real life, the one I’d spent so many years preparing for in school? I didn’t share these thoughts with Vovan; he was a man of that personal and historical decade, perfectly in his element. It’s not my fault time always moves forward.
One Saturday in the March of our twentyeighth year, Vovan and I went to ski with several of our friends from the Aviation Administration. This particular slope, our favorite, was in the near wilderness and had a cable ski hoist. Over the years we had built a little cabin up top and with every trip had to haul food, alcohol, and gasoline for forty minutes from the place where we parked the rented van.
The real spring lagged behind her calendar precursor by about two months, but the deepfrozen dwarf birches, low cedar bushes, and yellowed grasses pushing through the melted snow craters already buzzed from the blinding electricity of the sun. And we buzzed with them, drunk on the heady air. The town was visible from the top of the slope: a white matchbox labyrinth cradled in the snow-leopard-colored mountains. As we scaled the moguls and caught site of Magadan during the brief moments we were airborne, it felt as though we were flying toward it. A part of us, the young dreamy part of our souls, did escape and twist in the wind a while, even after our skis hit the ground.
By four everybody was getting ready to leave. Vovan and I decided on one final glorious run. Who had the patience to wait until next weekend?
I went first. The air was thickening fast. The moguls carved out unexpected twists, lurching— now up, now down—from under my skis. Gangs of dwarf birches sprang up out of nowhere. On the last several meters of the hill an invisible force tripped me. Before I fell I heard a crunch like splintering dry wood. My left boot had snapped off the ski and now faced in the backwards direction. It wasn’t pain but the sight of that bizarre angle that made me nauseous. I pulled up my unharmed leg to my chest and began to moan.
Vovan skidded by a minute later. When he saw my leg, his teasing expression was instantly replaced by alarm. Then, for a millisecond, a spark of anger animated the way he flicked the ice from his mustache and threw down his hat. (He’d realized that we wouldn’t make it to the dance that night.) And just as quickly, his face assumed the noble grip of determination.
“Don’t move,” Vovan said. He picked up his hat and jammed it on my head with its woven visor backwards. I’d lost mine during the fall. He took off his skis and began the trek up the slope to the cabin.
It was quiet. The world was expressed solely in shades of gray, as though somebody had sketched the scraggy trees, slopes and shadows on white paper with a graphite pencil. I tried to avoid looking at my broken leg, which was stiff with shock. My back was sore. The snow Vovan had picked up with his hat was dripping slowly down my neck. Yet I felt a feral, jealous ownership of my body. My blood tingled in my veins as if I’d been plugged into a giant central life support system. I was warm and unafraid.
Dark fog saturated the air. Suddenly I was convinced that the encroaching mass of the mountains was about to absorb me into its indifferent landscape, make me a flat black figure— a man or a log or just a shadow, rendering me invisible to my rescue party. This thought made me tranquil. If only I could send my parents a message that they shouldn’t worry. I would continue my life, not as Vovik but as an acorn or a little shard of ice.
I spotted a fallen cone next to a tuft of cedar bush needles. The composition looked remarkably like a miniature palm tree. For some reason, the sight of it and making this simple connection affected me to tears. I wanted to take a whiff of the cedar, a smell I’d associated with magic since childhood, but couldn’t lean far enough to reach it. I stared at the hardened brown petals of the cone until they began to quiver, drawers about to open into another world. I was on the brink of fainting. I hummed under my breath. “Michelle, my belle …” And then I heard my friends descending the slope and calling out my name.
Somebody had already gone down to call the ambulance from the bus stop, they told me. They hoisted me onto a wooden board like on a stretcher and tied me down with rope. Vovan and tall Oleg picked up the front end, and the shorter Slava and Artyom picked up the back, so that when they carried me downhill I remained relatively horizontal. When they ran out of war songs, they sang the discotheque anthems of the day, liberally interpreting the English lyrics of the chorus: Shizgara, yeah baby Shizgara for Shocking Blue’s “Venus” and Just give me money, that pha-ra-on for the Beatles’s “Money.” The fog grew thicker; my pain was waking up. At some point I saw the headlights of the ambulance flash from the bottom of the hill like a lighthouse.
The last thing I remember before the operation is pleading for the doctors not to cut off my ski boot. It had cost a month’s salary. Vovan had stayed with me in the hospital late into the night. The diagnosis was closed fracture of the fibula and tibia, spiral, splintered.
This all happened on March 8, the International Women’s Day. Later that evening we planned to attend a big dance at the ProfUnion Palace. While I was enjoying the post bonesetting morphine haze, Vovan tried to call and warn our girlfriends. But they had already left for the dance.
Mine was a little hourglass-shaped Jewish olive named Lily, with amber-clear eyes and a bead of a birthmark above her lip that drove me crazy. She was engaged to a rising Jewish academic, which I didn’t see as a problem at the time, at least not my problem. Lily ran to my apartment every other night. Who was I to stop her?
She visited me in the hospital twice. Each time the sight of me in bed with my broken leg in traction, supported by various slings, weights, and levers brought her to tears. Poor Lily would put her bag on the stand near the bed, although many of my other, less mindful visitors simply hung their bags right on the weight. Her hands would hover above my fullleg cast, brush quickly against my arm, and land on her face. Then she would kiss my forehead so tenderly that a wave of itching sensations would run down my broken leg. I would tear at my metal scratcher, like a French musketeer tears at his sword, insert it down my cast, and poke valiantly around, moaning from pleasure and pain, which would trigger another bout of tears from my beautiful Lily.
The third time it wasn’t Lily who came but her mother. Our affair had come out.
“You almost ruined my daughter’s life,” her mother yelled at me in a deep, operatic voice. She was fat, almost a perfect square—the kind of woman Lily would probably become in her older years, after having children. “If you didn’t look so miserable, I’d kill you. I’ll make sure you’re an outcast in this town.”
Suddenly I really wanted to laugh, though her threats were far from empty. Lily’s father had a high position in the local Gorkom. In Magadan, where everyone knew everyone’s business, reputation was everything.
Lily’s mother went on detailing my lack of morals, of sympathy for a young girl’s heart, of respect for their family, of respect for myself. Lack, lack, lack. But the hatchet had narrowly swung clear of both Lily’s head and mine, and I wanted to celebrate. My broken leg had saved my career. Even more than that, it provided a romantic exit from my relationship with Lily while preserving in her eyes my tragic hero blamelessness and her own dignity. I knew all along that Lily wasn’t the girl I’d marry even if her engagement broke up, and our inevitable separation would have taken a much uglier and hysterical form.
Vovan wasn’t so lucky. He was smitten with Anya, an air-headed girl with a lean figure and a voice that went with campfire guitar as smoothly as vodka goes down with salted herring. While Vovan nursed me at the hospital, she let herself be swayed by a former classmate of ours, a certain Seryoga, at the Women’s Day dance at the ProfUnion Palace. Vovan slipped this news into a stream of other town gossip when he visited me the weekend after my admission.
“You didn’t have to stay at the hospital. You could have just gone to the dance,” I said.
“That option didn’t even occur to me.” Vovan shot me a shaming look.
“Well, think of it this way. She showed her true colors. You don’t want a girl like that,” I said.
“Yeah, I don’t care. There’re always more. Seryoga will play with her and dump her soon enough. That’s the way he is,” he said, picking up my metal scratcher. “What’s this for?” He put it in his mouth and chewed, making a disconcerting sound. “Brutal age, rough manners, nyet romantismy,” he concluded—a quote from one of our favorite films.
I spent another month at the hospital. Vovan and I grew out our hair, mustaches, and beards, which made us look like nineteenth-century Russian merchants. When he visited, we drank tea in character—out of saucers—and flirted with the nurses. After I’d been moved home, friends and girls constantly stopped by to help with groceries and laundry, and to make sure I followed doctor’s orders of three hundred drops of vodka daily. I enjoyed three more guilt-free months of reading. I was a big fan of Thornton Wilder then. While reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I wondered, just like Brother Juniper does in the novel, whether accidents occurred for a reason or are random unfortunate events. Perhaps I’d been plunged into this parallel, slower life to learn a lesson. Perhaps Lily’s mother was right: it was time to grow up and get married. Surprisingly, this thought no longer threw me into panic.
But I don’t want to give the impression that I suffered unduly from heavy self-reflection. Aside from a few physical inconveniences with the cast and crutches, I loved living in my favorite striped mohair robe, away from my job, which wasn’t as exciting as I’d imagined it when I went off to the aviation institute in Riga. I was often awake at five in the morning after a night of reading to hear the first birdsong of the day. The Eagles’s “Hotel California” had just made its way to the Far East and played from the radio in every open window. Sometimes, when reading or watching soccer on TV, I’d forget about my white underwear boiling in a pot. The water and bleach would spill onto the stove and then the floor, and that way the whole kitchen would clean itself in minutes.
In July the doctors removed the cast. Later I’d find out that the fibula had grown back at a slight angle, and the soles of my left shoes would forever develop holes before the right ones even showed signs of wear. I hobbled outside on crutches to exercise my legs. The stream of friends and well-wishers thinned. Everybody had gone on vacation. Vovan and I played Battleship over the phone, unable to do any of the things that made the cold summer in Magadan bearable. (Vovan couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find another tennis partner). Finally, his father helped us obtain two-week passes to a sanatorium on the Black Sea and off we went to seek a cure for our bachelors’ ennui.
It was there that I met my future wife Marina, who was on vacation with her friend Lenka. I still remember my Marina’s green bikini and giant, sagging straw hat, which in theory was quite ridiculous but on her seemed utterly fashionable. Under the hat she had fantastic bangs, too.
She refused to take me seriously. I fell in love. While I crabbed after her through the toewrenching Crimean pebble beach, trying to impress her with my intelligence and wit, Vovan was stuck with the plain Lenka. Although, when he found out that her father was a Party apparatchik in Tula, with money and connections, she at once became a lot less plain. I realize now that Lenka was the type of girl whose beauty would have been awakened by a truly great love, which Vovan could neither give nor inspire.
At the close of two weeks we said goodbye to the girls and spent the next months clogging the phone lines with long-distance calls. As soon as my healing leg was strong enough to bear the weight of a bride, Vovan and I decided to visit Marina and Lenka in Ulyanovsk, their and Vladimir Lenin’s hometown. I arrived in my most fashionable outfit: a blue plaid blazer, plaid shirt, and navy pants I had from Riga. I knew that as soon as I saw Marina I’d know. And I did. She met me at the airport in a scarlet dress with little white polka dots and giant horn-rimmed glasses, her chestnut hair in a thick schoolgirl braid. Her now legendary botched dish awaited me for dinner: meatballs that overnight had congealed into one pot-sized meatball mass and had to be cut with a steak knife.
We married the next month. Vovan married Lenka because he couldn’t stand lagging behind me and because she was a very good prospect. If one must have a wife, it might as well be an apparatchik’s daughter he had reasoned. Perhaps I should have foreseen trouble. But the little sense I possessed at twenty-eight was hopelessly drunk on Marina. I guess, I simply wanted Vovan to have what I had: the wedding, the young wife. We, after all, had known our brides for the same amount of time: two weeks plus the phone calls. Our chances seemed equal.
The weddings took place on the same day. Back then it was a simple affair: you signed the marriage registration at the city hall (I remember a big oil portrait of Karl Marx on a pristinely whitewashed wall), took pictures next to the war memorials in town, and partied at a restaurant until morning. It was the first time my parents met Marina and I met Marina’s mother, Olga, who had brought a family album to catch me up on my bride’s heritage. They came from the Volga Cossacks, with a wild card Mongolian babushka somewhere down the line. Marina didn’t know her father, whom Olga left because of his gambling addiction when Marina wasn’t yet two.
I still remember a particular photograph in that album. Marina’s grandmother, a chubby, smiling woman in a floral tent dress points out something in a book with her finger raised in a teasing, teacherly way to Marina’s grandfather— a much skinnier, tired-looking man with a curly cowlick and linen pants pulled up high to his waist. He looks at her with the most perfect mixture of attention, humorous suspicion, and love. Marina said she’d seen the ghost of this grandfather after his death. This was her grandmother’s second husband; the first one had been accused of being a foreign spy during Stalin’s repressions and had served in one of the camps in Magadan’s vicinity.
What most touched me in that picture was Marina’s grandmother’s ear. It was the exact shape of Marina’s: long and narrow, the lobe the same width as the top. It’s then that I felt Marina and her whole lineage of feisty women, including the Mongolian babushka, were now my family.
After our honeymoons—mine in Bulgaria and Vovan’s back in Riga—we took our brides northeast. At first Marina and Lenka complained about how far Magadan was from the continent, from their parents, and marveled at how close it was to Alaska, a mythical place that was once Russia and now inaccessible America. Soon they acclimated to the weather and began to love, like us, the quiet white days after the snowstorm. They noticed that despite Magadan’s extreme provinciality, they were surrounded by intelligent, highly professional people, who were always willing to help. Survival in the harsh North, especially back in the Soviet times, was impossible without friends and reliable acquaintances.
Marina found a job as an accompanist in the winds department at the local arts college. On the weekends, we all went mushroom and cowberry picking, grilled shashliks and sang songs with Vovan’s bad guitar accompaniment. He’d managed to learn a few chords back in the days of courting Anya. With the first big snowfall I was back on the slopes and teaching Marina, who’d never skied before.
My newlywed life was not without surprises and discoveries. That happens even if one first makes a proper acquaintance and then signs the marriage registration. But we were good candidates for eventually getting used to each other. Vovan and Lenka weren’t so lucky. It was clear from the start that they were catastrophically incompatible. At first they tolerated each other because of the novelty of marriage. Then Lenka tolerated Vovan because she wanted children. He refused to change his bachelor ways: he was still a flirt and a heavy drinker. When not playing tennis with me, he lay on the couch watching soccer. Sometimes Lenka called me to complain about Vovan’s behavior, as though I’d sold her a defective product. But what could I possibly do? I’d lost my power over him; he was now her responsibility.
Two and a half years later Marina and Lenka gave birth, within weeks of each other. Time cranked up its already supersonic engine. Perestroika raged in the country and at home. We named our daughter Sophia after my grandmother, Sonya for short. Vovan’s son sustained an injury at birth and developed cerebral palsy.
Needless to say, not only were Vovan and Lenka devastated, but so were Marina and I. The feeling that we were all in it together at once disappeared. We couldn’t shuttle between Sokol and Magadan as often with the newborns. And when we did see each other or talk on the phone, Marina and I couldn’t fully express our joy about our daughter. Nor did we know how to properly sympathize with Vovan and Lenka. How could we ever come up with the right proportions of understanding, concern, and encouragement? How could we ever truly relate?
When their son turned one, Vovan and Lenka moved to Tula. I didn’t try to talk Vovan out of it, even though I knew he would be unhappy there. It would have been me against Lenka and her father. And what could I offer him in practical terms? Now he would be unhappy anywhere. The few times I’ve thought back to our separation, I am always struck by how undramatic it was. The only moment that could possibly lay claim to meager cinematic poignancy was when I picked up Vovan’s skis at his place for safekeeping and he had held on to them a moment too long. But even this gesture aggravated me. In the background, Lenka was screaming on the phone and his son was wailing. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. My real life had already begun, whereas Vovan’s was quickly slipping out of his hands.
In Tula Lenka’s father had arranged for a two-bedroom apartment, which by the standards of the day was shockingly spacious for a family of three. He also helped Vovan get accepted into the Party and find a position at the local aviation agency. Vovan, I could tell from our still frequent phone conversations, was miserable. All of his life he’d lived in pursuit of his own pleasure. Now, the care of a sick child—a child, he said, he wasn’t crazy about having to begin with—was like a second, more stressful and time-consuming job. It soon became apparent just how spoiled and selfish Lenka was. But her daddy could solve only so many of her problems.
Vovan’s unraveling, aided by national trends, progressed quickly. He started drinking earlier and earlier in the day, showed up to work late and slept at his desk. For now, his father-in-law’s influence protected him from dismissal. Both he and Lenka started having affairs. Eventually their new paramours moved into their separate bedrooms. Their son, when not in the hospital, was set up in the living room. The kitchen became a veritable battlefield.
When the Union collapsed, Vovan’s fatherin- law lost his Party power. Without his patronage, Vovan, who was on the verge of clinical alcoholism, was fired from the aviation agency. Lenka lost her administrative position with benefits and vacation pay, also set up by her father. They didn’t have the money to buy out their two-bedroom apartment, so they gave it up and crawled their separate ways. Vovan was picked up by a good woman, who for some reason decided to save him. (Oh, Russian women! Many of them still live by the principle of: “Doesn’t matter what he is, as long as he’s mine.”) Lenka settled with someone else and took on the custody of their son.
The last time I heard from Vovan was by phone in ‘92, shortly before I moved to America. His second wife had sobered him up and they tried to launch an import-export business. But Vovan refused to cooperate with the local mafia and was beaten up. The business folded. Brutal age, rough manners, indeed. On top of that, he got into a car accident and couldn’t walk for a year.
I was shocked at how adamantly he interrogated me on the subject of tennis. Did I still play? At our old courts in the Park of Culture and Leisure or at the Palace of Sport? How often and with whom? Since my daughter’s birth, tennis wasn’t my tenth or even my hundredth priority, I said, though not dismissively, in honor of our good memories on the court. This seemed to gravely disappoint him. Then he asked after his skis and we talked about the skiing accident. How young, strong, and healthy we were then, with our whole lives ahead of us. In fact, looking back at his life, Vovan said, he couldn’t understand what it was all for. He was a failure at work, at being a husband and father.
“What about your new wife? Aren’t you at least a bit happy with her?” I asked.
“She’s a good woman, but—you’re going to laugh—I keep thinking about Anya.”
Anya, the one who got away and therefore caught in the memory in a perfect light, like a fly in the sap that later turns into its amber tomb. “You stupid old goat.”
“Do you know how she is?”
“No.” The lie jumped off my tongue instinctually. Anya was still in Magadan, with two daughters. The older one was Seryoga’s, although neither he nor the father of her younger daughter, Asya, were around. Asya and my daughter attended a ballroom dance studio in the same ProfUnion Palace where Vovan and I used to go to dances in our bachelordom. I had recently glimpsed Anya at one of the ballroom competitions. She was heavy-set, her hair faded, her eyes tired and wet. We had talked for a few minutes, mostly about our children. Her older daughter studied piano at the music college where Marina worked, she told me with pride. Asya was a difficult child, but a very talented dancer. She didn’t ask about Vovan.
I contemplated whether this information would make Vovan feel better or worse. “Well,” he said, his voice thin over the line, “at least it worked out for one of us. Can you imagine if you hadn’t broken your leg that day?”
I was shocked. Did he really blame me for his misfortunes?
I could have told him that nothing was his fault, that he was simply unlucky. I could have asked him if there were any medications or anything else he couldn’t get in Tula that I could get for him when I got to America. I could have invited him for a visit. But something inside me turned cold and protective. All of this would have taken a lot of hassle in a country where no one owed me any favors yet. A part of me was also wary of dragging so much bad luck into my new life, nervous about Vovan’s dormant alcoholism, the possibility of his wanting to involve me in some ridiculous business venture. A goodfor- nothing childhood friend was better left in childhood.
We exchanged a few more reminiscences and hung up.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and I decided to take Sputnik to his favorite beach, which was an hour’s ride from my home. As I drove, Sputnik breathing hard and fast into my ear, I continued to think about the distribution of luck among the living—a subject I’ve been returning to more and more lately. I understood why Vovan was so eager to get in touch with me now. For him, the years when our roads ran parallel to each other were the peak of his life. I could only imagine to what mythical proportions our youthful friendship had grown by now in his imagination. For me, it was a takeoff strip, not the flight.
While Vovan and Lenka hit each other over the head with frying pans in Tula, I had lived out a happy routine in Magadan. Work, home, grocery stores, daycare (then kindergarten and school). Marina cut her thick chestnut hair into a bob, which sat on her head like a thatched roof. Sonya was growing up healthy, beautiful, and ambitious. She excelled at school, attended the section for gifted children at Marina’s arts college, and switched from gymnastics to basketball to ballroom dancing. I could never get her to love tennis as much as I did, but she liked to ski. When I showed her the fateful spot where I fell and broke my leg—the accident that led me to her future mother—she bent down and whispered thank you into the snow.
In the summers we took Sonya to the Black Sea or sent her to her grandparents, Marina’s mother in central Russia or my father in Ukraine. My mother died when Sonya was eight. Two years later my father met another woman and moved with her to a little village outside of Kiev called Milaya—”darling.” Once in charge of the gas supply for Dalstroy (which at its peak developed one-seventh of the Union’s territory) he now had a vegetable plot, a chicken coop, and a goat.
My career developed swimmingly. By the time Sonya was born I was Vice President of the Department of Commercial Transportation. Due to my youthful misadventures with the Young Pioneers and overall reservations, I’d never joined the Party and that made further promotion unlikely. Instead, I developed good relationships with the head of my department, Lavrentiev, and the Vice President of the Aviation Administration, Prokhorov. My hours were leisurely. I had plenty of time to spend with my daughter and to fry an occasional fish and potatoes to appease Marina in the kitchen.
In ‘85, a new man from Moscow, Davidenko, was appointed President of the Aviation Administration and immediately set about getting rid of the old guard. He stirred up half-fictitious criminal cases against a slew of heads of various departments, accusing them of faulty accounting. In those days, the economy was mostly on paper; it was easy to find evidence of just about anything. Prokhorov and Lavrentiev were sentenced to two years of “work for the development of the national economy.” Prokhorov, a bear of a man, served out his term as a truck dispatcher, cramped all day in a radio booth. Short and rotund, Lavrentiev, on the other hand, was comically appropriate in his new incarnation as a loader at the bakery, from which Vovan and I used to steal bread when we were boys. The town was outraged by the injustice, but we could do nothing.
In the end, the legal drama turned out to be to my benefit. I was not important enough to sue and, without party membership, I was nonthreatening. When several of Davidenko’s men, having no prior experience in Magadan aviation, failed to handle the position of the Commercial Department VP, I was appointed to fill it.
In ‘87 Perestroika began. Marina got a mushroom haircut and highlighted her chestnut hair with ashen streaks. Prokhorov and Lavrentiev were acquitted and restored to their former positions— and I had to give my post back to its lawful owner, Lavrentiev. There were no job openings, so Prokhorov created a nominal position for me: Director of Special Programs. I had no official duties and mostly handled the overflow. In my free time I studied English. In ‘89 and ‘90 communication with America opened via none other than Alaska. The first charter flights were organized to Anchorage, Juneau, and Seattle. Children’s choirs and sports teams began exchange programs. Rotary and Lions clubs and the Seventh-day Adventist Church descended in a flurry of philanthropic and missionary activity. Americans wanted to invest in Magadan’s gold, its fisheries, and see the ruins of the infamous Gulag.
In time an International Aviation Department sprang up, and I happened to be just the right man to head it. After I translated one or two little documents (looking up every word in a dictionary), I was hailed as the resident English language expert. Plus, I wasn’t tied up in any other projects. I flew to Moscow to take a course in international aviation and then to Alaska to study the American side of the operation. For the first time in my career, the fact that I’d never belonged to the Party was beneficial. America impressed my heart with its aromas: the coffee and cinnamon of the hotel lobby, the lilacs of the bathrooms, the unadulterated deodorant of people. Though, I must note, even America could not eclipse the impressions of youth.
In the fall of ‘92, I moved to Anchorage to become the airline’s representative. Marina had grown out her hair into a bob again and dyed it red. This was shortly after I had talked on the phone with Vovan for the last time. After his ridiculous intimation that my skiing accident had ruined his life, I was tempted to argue that I did well because I worked hard and planned ahead. But, even then, I had to admit that work accounted for barely fifty percent of my success. I’d been helped along by a string of coincidences, both personal and historical, which to this day continues to thread its lucky pearls.
If on that spring weekend of my senior year at school my parents hadn’t run into Golfmann on their walk in the Park of Culture and Leisure, I would have studied automatics rather than economics, and I wouldn’t have worked in the commercial department at the Aviation Administration, where I wouldn’t have become friends with Prokhorov and Lavrentiev. If they hadn’t been forced out of the agency and then restored to their former positions, I would have never found myself in between departments, a free man at the right time to study English and eventually be sent to America. If I had taken the time and effort to join the Party, who knew what kind of obstacles I would have run into in the process of getting an American work visa. And Magadan, whose geographical isolation everyone had scoffed at, turned out to be in a much better strategic position for throwing bridges to America than Vovan’s Tula, in the now ailing heart of Russia.
Marina and Sonya remained in Magadan. Since we didn’t know how long I’d be in Anchorage, we decided it would be better not to interrupt Sonya’s education. At the time Magadan was suffering a mass exodus to the continent. With the collapse of the Union, social and economic infrastructure also collapsed. Power outages occurred weekly, inflation soared, and salary delays went on for months. Instead of money, Marina was paid in coupons for the local grocery store. I thanked my luck to be able to send a big box of food with flights—a weekly Christmas for my family. Sonya was an early fan of sushi, strawberry milk, cream-filled toasts, yellow legal pads, and Hi-Liters.
In ‘94, just as I thought that my life couldn’t get any better, there was another power shakeup at the Aviation Administration. The new bosses fired me after I finished setting up the business from scratch, from the American way of defrosting airplanes to printing tickets. A few months after I returned to Magadan, Marina left me for a TV journalist of local semi-fame. Her hair was long and red. Sonya was eleven, too old to lie to about certain things.
For a year I foundered in the quagmire of grief and depression. Then I decided to prove to Marina that leaving me was the biggest mistake of her life. I joined one of the young airlines that cropped up during the first fertile years of capitalism, like mushrooms after the rain, contacted several investors I’d met in America and worked with red-eyed determination. After a couple of years we had a fleet of five planes. By ‘96 I was back in Anchorage. In a way, I was fortunate that Marina left me.
Sonya moved to Anchorage to attend high school. She catapulted to the top of her class and went to Princeton on a full scholarship. She now works sixty hours a week for a consulting firm in New York and writes humorous family sketches on the side. When she finds the time, she dates. She is not the kind of girl who’d jump into marriage after two weeks. In America, young people are cautious, afraid of the losses of marriage and love. While, in the USSR, most of us had nothing to lose but innocence—and even that we managed not to lose much of. Sonya is wiser than Marina and I were at her age. And if she makes a mistake, I hope that luck will come to her rescue, just as it has always come to mine.
A year after Sonya’s move, Marina also moved to Anchorage. By then her relationship with the TV journalist had disintegrated. She let her hair grow out to her natural color and cut her bangs, which made her look so much younger. I didn’t divorce her because, having no official relations in America, she wouldn’t have been able to immigrate, and Sonya needed her. We are still not divorced; there was never a hard-pressed reason for it. My sister Angela is now a manicurist in California, but that’s a whole other story. Marina still lives in Alaska and is friends with several Magadan expatriates. We often speak on the phone. She has almost forgiven me for the ways in which I’d disappointed her, and I’ve almost forgiven her betrayal. After all, she’d been nothing but a positive influence on my life, unlike Vovan’s first wife, Lenka.
I’d been walking on the beach for almost an hour—my motorized Sputnik so wet and happy—when it hit me just how quick I was to dismiss the fact that Vovan had a disabled child. I’d tucked that tragedy between a hapless first marriage and a failed business. But, surely, it was the worst thing that had befallen him. And what happened to the boy? I almost didn’t want to know.
On the other hand, knowing Vovan, I could as easily see him as an emotionally and then physically absent parent to a healthy child. Children were simply not one of his great interests, nor was career. Though, how many blows on the head could one take until one finally decided it was safer to stay on the floor?
Perhaps, all those years ago I had misinterpreted Vovan’s comment, and he didn’t blame me for what had gone wrong in his life. He simply wanted to reconnect, and that was what today’s phone call was about as well. Connecting with persons from one’s childhood—something people did after they’d scaled over fifty.
How much of my life did he know? What rumors had reached him?
Or maybe he did want to ask for a favor. If he had sought me out, the favor was probably big. Russian people had a notion that all Americans were rich and powerful, and definitely all Russians who’d made it in America. Firstly, it wasn’t true. And secondly, he didn’t know what it really took, all the dirty details. Even my family doesn’t know. He can’t just show up and pick the fruits.
I was getting a headache. These were silly things to get so worked up about. Sputnik jumped up over and over, like a wound-up toy, to a stick I held at shoulder level. For the next three days he would lie stretched out on the carpet “without hind legs,” as we say in Russia.
Vovan happened to be present at the pivotal times of the first thirty years of my life. But he was incidental, not critical to my progress. A mere co-bottler. I would have certainly achieved all the same things with another ski and tennisobsessed man-child by my side. If I hadn’t broken my leg and Vovan’s father hadn’t gotten us tickets to the Black Sea sanatorium where I’d met Marina, I would have met someone else. There has always been a surplus of good women in Russia.
On the other hand, maybe luck was like a magnet, and my positive pole required his negative pole in order to function. The prospect of rationalizing a quarter-century worth of decisions and good fortune to him made me angry. I hurled Sputnik’s stick into the ocean and he took off.
I felt a stab of pain in my chest. Instantly I was certain that I was about to die. I will die.
I sat slowly down.
All my senses had burrowed deep into my body, and I knew that if I opened my mouth I wouldn’t be able to speak. I felt that I was holding my naked heart on the palm of my hand and it was pumping there, laboriously, trying its best but not making any promises. I held it as carefully and tenderly as I could, with awe and fear, like I once held my newborn daughter. I needed to take a breath but was terrified that if I did, I’d drop it. I’d drop my heart on the hot sand and die.
This horrible feeling lasted for about three minutes. Finally the pain loosened its grip. Was that my first heart attack? I’d have to see the doctor. Luckily, I could afford it.
Sputnik was yelping and licking my knees and hands; he’d retrieved the stick from the ocean and brought it to my feet. I grabbed his neck and kissed him on his bearded snout. I was overwhelmed with relief and also a deeper happiness and peace, which bled into my past and reinforced the stitching. I’ve forged together a good life.
The platinum waves broke on the shoreline and retreated, broke and retreated, leaving ribbons of frothy bubbles and trash in their wake. A plastic bottle without a label filled with water and leaking. A feather. Where the waves reached dry sand, green and brown seaweed lay in wavy ropes. I closed my eyes and took a full-bodied breath.
No, the magnet theory of luck is a preposterous idea.
I have to take better care of myself, that’s all. I’ll swim laps in the pool when I get back to the condo and call Sonya afterward. She’ll be happy to hear about my cardio efforts. I won’t tell her about the cognac with the good chocolate I have every night, while I watch Russian news and talk shows on satellite TV. Though she probably knows; somehow she knows everything. I’ll spend half the night reading from The Next 100 Years, a book I highly recommend. Sputnik will snore next to me and from time to time kick me with his legs, dreaming of the chase.
I will squint my eyes and, instead of white Florida sand, see the snowy mountains of Magadan. Skiing on those young days of spring felt like flying high above life, a sensation duplicated when one is newly in love. The snow, the sand, it’s a nice reminiscence. But only in solitary confinement does memory become a merciless editor, cutting a bearable story out of the ever-accumulating mess of days.