Author's Note (Please read!): The [brackets] are just little footnotes that explain the previous word or sentence. I tried not to throw in too many specific names or Russian terms, but my narrator is Russian so I couldn't avoid them completely. There are some nicknames I didn't bother to footnote (you'll figure them out). Also, a bit of background: Stalin died in 1953 and under their new leader Khrushchev, people were just beginning to realize the terrible things he had done, mainly the mass arrests and executions in the late 1930s known as the Great Purge.
- - -
Lyova was going to study, no matter what I did to distract him. "Leave me alone, Sasha," he groaned, shoving me away. "Go tinker on your piano or something. Or better yet, start the reading for your next lecture."
"It's September! What could you possibly have to study?"
On Saturdays, the cafeteria was usually not as full, but it was almost empty today. The school year had just started a few weeks ago, and already, several more like Lyova were sat scattered in their own corners. Two old professors conversed quietly in the middle of the room; I could hear every word of what they were saying, but didn't bother piecing it together in my mind. Somewhere down the hall, someone very talented was whistling the Katyusha tune [wartime love song], and I felt like dancing.
I had some time to waste and was in a talkative mood that day—not surprising, considering that several of my professors made fun of me for having three mouths and no ears, which was completely untrue if you got to know me well enough. I was actually a fantastic listener. Besides, what use is a listener who never talks?
Then he walked in, a strikingly handsome man in his early thirties, followed by a little boy who looked just like a smaller version of him, although I could tell from the way the boy kept smiling that he was mentally retarded. He seemed lively and affectionate nonetheless, clinging to his father's sleeve despite the man's efforts to shake him off, and his sweet dimpled smile drew the attention of some girls studying nearby, who cooed and blew kisses at him.
The man could have been a graduate student or a professor, but he looked like neither, his hair cropped in a short military fashion which gave him a rugged look that complemented his delicate facial features surprisingly well. He had dark brown hair and olive skin, perhaps inherited from a Turkic parent or grandparent, or he could have just been out in the sun a lot.
They sat down at the table next to ours. The man took out an illustrated book of Tolstoy's stories and began to read in a deep quiet voice to the boy, who obviously had no interest in the story whatsoever. I doubted he could even understand Russian, not to mention read at all. He kept pointing at the pictures and giggling for no reason, until Lyova became so frustrated by the noise that he had to leave.
"Unbelievable," muttered Lyova, gathering his books and casting a sidelong glance at the pair. "It's Saturday, people are trying to study, and he decides to read to his son here?"
I shrugged and watched Lyova leave before focusing my attention back on the man and his son. Secretly, I was moved by how the boy was so concerned with a loose thread on his father's shirt cuff. No matter how much the pictures distracted him, he kept coming back to the thread. For a while, the man seemed to have no idea what was bothering his child so much, but he finally noticed and snapped off the thread with a careless tug before returning to the story.
The boy yawned. His father slapped his face several times in attempt to keep him awake, but he went to sleep anyway.
The moment the boy dozed off, his father's cold demeanor was gone and he held the boy in his arms, tenderly kissing both cheeks, which were still tinged with pink hand prints.
"How old is he?" I whispered, sitting down next to them.
"He's turning six soon," said the man. His voice was so soothing that he didn't even need to whisper back. "Are you a student here?"
"I study physics. My name is Aleksandr. Aleksandr Nikolayevich Zelenko. And you are…?"
"Myakishev, Viktor Andreyevich," he replied, shaking my hand over his son's sleeping form. "Very pleased to meet you. Is this your last year?" From the way he introduced himself, I decided he was a professor. I searched those brown eyes for some hint of condescension or annoyance, but couldn't find any.
"Second year," I said, embarrassed by my own confidence. Was I speaking too loud? Sitting too close? Did I shake his hand too firmly? "Which subject do you teach, Viktor Andreyevich [Russian equivalent of Mr. Myakishev, first name + father's first name]?"
"I teach a cartography class," he replied. "And coastal geography."
There was something strangely empty about his gaze. For a brief moment, I wondered if he was one of the prison workers who had just been rehabilitated, but then I thought of old Reznik, my friend and advisor who had just been released from prison no more than a year ago, his bones barely holding what's left of him together after years of torture and starvation. No, Myakishev was too young and too healthy.
"You're from the new Faculty of Geography!" I said, with more enthusiasm than I really felt. "How is it?"
"It's… nice," he said, for the lack of a more interesting word. "There aren't many of us, but it feels more personal that way."
I nodded. To be honest, I was bored already, but at least he was talking to me.
"Are you from Moscow?" he asked.
"No, I grew up in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg]," I said. "But I was born here."
"Leningrad? So you were there during the blockade [Siege of Leningrad, 1941-44]?"
His sudden frankness surprised me. No one had ever asked me about the blockade before. "Yes, yes, I was. You were also there?"
"You must have been quite young," he said. "Yes, I was a soldier of the Baltic Fleet."
He was suddenly a thousand times more interesting. "Where were you stationed?" I asked.
"I was there! Well, not in the town itself, but the same district. We saw our soldiers all the time. My friends and I even followed them around and pretended we were in the Army, at least in the beginning… I could have seen you and not have known it back then!"
"Maybe," said Myakishev, a bit taken aback, perhaps by the excited way I recalled such an experience, "though I was rarely in the city."
"Were you on the water?"
"Actually, I was a pilot, but yes, I was on the water when I wasn't in the air."
"A pilot of the Baltic Fleet Air Force!" I exclaimed, and my enthusiasm was real this time. "I imagine everything below looks just like a map from up there. You can pilot a plane! That's incredible!"
"Well, I was quite slow to pick up the skill," Myakishev admitted, though he seemed rather pleased by my interest. "On my second attempt to fly an Ilyusha, I crashed into the plane of my commanding officer and dented both our left wings. We were all nearly completely untrained, including himself, yet he insisted on flying with us. Even so, he was able to land the plane quickly and have the wing repaired while I swerved around in the air for an hour. Back then, the fact that I had hit an officer was more terrifying than the possibility of death."
"Was he an admiral?" I said, even though I had no idea what the officer ranks were.
Myakishev raised his eyebrows, probably at the thought of hitting an admiral's plane. "No, no, thank God," he said. "He was a lieutenant, and later he was promoted to Captain. We eventually became good friends, although he was obviously angry at me after that little incident." He smiled faintly as he recalled his friend. "His name was Anton Lebedev—actually, my son here is named after him. Do you like planes, Aleksandr Nikolayevich?"
I blushed. "Well, I don't know much about them, but we saw them all the time. We had to squint to see if the plane was the enemy's or our own."
"Then perhaps you did see me and just didn't know it."
That made me feel like an eight-year-old boy again, in a satisfying way. Now I could relish the fact that I was younger than him, that he had seen and experienced so much more. At the same time, he had treated me like his equal, which delighted me.
We chatted for a bit more and I told him about my family in Leningrad. I could tell he was listening by his thoughtful frown, and he even offered to personally deliver anything I wanted to give to my young niece on his next trip there.
"Well, I have a dance rehearsal soon," I finally said, glancing reluctantly at the clock. "It was wonderful meeting you. Perhaps we'll talk again soon." Something I rarely meant, but it was different this time.
"What kind of dance?" Myakishev asked.
"It's a mix of ballet and traditional folk dance," I explained, "There will be a joint performance with the orchestra in January, and you might recognize some of the old tunes. I can tell you more about it later if you're interested."
"Certainly," he replied, shaking my hand again. "Let's meet here next Saturday for lunch."
His son, Antosha, stirred and sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"Your Papa was reading to you and you fell asleep," I said. "Would you like it if he fell asleep while you were reading to him?"
Antosha looked at me and didn't answer. His father ruffled his hair a bit. "This is Aleksandr. He's talking to you."
"Aleksandr," repeated Antosha in a funny drawl. "A-lek-san-der." But he couldn't roll the R at the end of my name.
"Sasha," I told him, and from then on, he called me Sasha.
- - -
I don't know what drew me toward Myakishev at first—it could have been my admiration of his serene personality, or my gratitude for his service to Leningrad—but anyhow, I was soon giving his Antosha piano lessons when no other pianist would ever agree to teach this poor hopeless child. He had no musical talent whatsoever and I suspected he was completely tone deaf.
Antosha also had an older sister named Marisha, a blond-haired blue-eyed girl who liked to feed him all kinds of sweets when their father wasn't looking. Their family was quite unusual; the children didn't have a babushka to take care of them and their mother was never home on those Saturday afternoons I visited the apartment, which was adequately large for the four of them and full of imported furniture, including the beautiful Czech piano… clearly this was the home of a well-connected family. I never asked about his wife and Myakishev never brought up the topic, but I knew she lived with them because Marisha and Antosha sometimes talked about her.
I taught Antosha to play basic scales and found a children's book of music that I could use. The book was from my own childhood and the first music I ever learned to read, but I was happy to share them with him. He had what I called "sticky fingers," which he had trouble lifting off the keys so that all the notes sounded jumbled together when he played them.
But he was so determined. He was also ashamed of his own learning disability. I first realized this when I scolded him on the third week for not practicing.
"Will you come back?" he asked, pronouncing every word with enormous effort, as if he had thought them out a thousand times beforehand.
"I won't if you don't practice."
A single tear leaked from the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek.
It surprised me and broke my heart that a silly boy like him could learn to cry so silently. "I'll come back," I told him. "I'll come back every week."
Just as Antosha kept trying his hardest, however unsuccessfully, his father kept believing in him. In addition to the countless children's books in the apartment, there were various games and toys that were supposed to be good for a child's mental development. The pile grew a little every week, but Antosha was still the same.
For the first time, I found myself wishing that my childhood had been different, that I could have had a father who was willing to give so much time and energy to raising his child. Both my parents were arrested and shot in 1938, when I was a year old, and I grew up in Leningrad with my mother's sister's husband's cousin, his mother, his wife, and their two children. They paid for my music and dance lessons, gave me the best food and clothes they could afford and treated me like a member of the family, but they didn't have much attention to spare.
In mid-November, on the weekend of Antosha's sixth birthday, Myakishev invited me to go mushroom-picking with him and his children since I couldn't go with my own family. His wife wasn't there and I didn't ask why. We barely picked any mushroom at all. I watched Myakishev toss Antosha into the air on the open field as Marisha gathered wildflowers nearby.
"Are you one of Papa's students?" she asked, sitting down next to me.
"No, but I study at the university."
"How old are you?"
"Nineteen," I said. "You?"
She smiled impishly. "Sixteen."
I would never have guessed that she was sixteen. She looked and acted twelve, at most. On a closer look, I could tell that there was something different about her too, though unlike Antosha, it was more unsettling, as if she had seen too much.
"Why does Papa like you so much?" she said, with the same disturbing smile. She didn't look particularly happy or amused about anything.
"Maybe he feels sorry for me," I said, although I wasn't really sure. "Why don't you go play with your papa and brother? I'll come with you."
She shook her head like a child.
Just then, Antosha ran past us and his father chased after him. They circled us several times, Antosha squealing with laughter. I laughed too, but as I did so, I could hear Marisha whispering to herself, "Papa is good to us. Papa is a good man. Papa loves us and would never hurt us…"
How could I have been jealous of these children? But while I was with them I could somehow believe I was living in a warm and safe little world. What I really looked forward to was the conversation with Myakishev after the piano lesson, when he would invite me into his kitchen and talk to me for hours about anything and everything.
"I think I may join the army so I can perform with their dance ensemble," I admitted to him once.
"They are truly a fantastic group," he said. "I had the honor of watching them perform on several occasions, literally hours before going off to battle. They made us laugh and cry, and reminded us how fortunate we were to be alive, that such joy could exist at a time of war. I hear they're traveling all over the world now; it would be wonderful for you to be a part of that."
He listened to me babble on and on about my childhood, about the trivial problems of my school life and love life, never once making me feel petty or bothersome. Then, he would tell me stories of the war—not stories of self pity, but fond memories of adventure and companionship. He had a talent for mapping things out before he had any schooling on cartography, and he learned the Russian shore of the Baltic Sea by heart, the same way he knew the stars and named them every night so he could fall asleep.
His favorite memory was the time he was sent on a reconnaissance mission to assist his friend and commanding officer, Anton Lebedev, to find out where the most and least reinforced parts were along the Leningrad border. Their plane had been surveilling the German troops silently for three days, and on a stormy night with a stroke of luck, they blindly crash-landed on an empty unnamed cove. After a week of living off rainwater, eel, and uncharacteristically small codfish, until they finally managed to fix the plane and take off again. While Lebedev was fixing the plane, Myakishev documented every corner of the beach, and the same route was used to supply food and carry out several rescue missions. They became inseparable afterwards.
One dreary winter day, I decided to mention Myakishev to Reznik, the same professor who was rehabilitated last year. He spent most of his free time working on a memoir of his experiences. Sometimes, he would read to me some passages he had written and ask what I thought, but I only had praises for him. For a physics professor, he was an excellent and vivid writer too.
As usual, my professor was brewing a pot of really strong tea in his office atop his samovar. His office was small musty room, although it seemed big in comparison to his thin frame.
"Do you know a Viktor Myakishev?" I asked him, just as he was about to take a sip from his cup.
He choked and nearly spilled his tea all over himself. "Where did you hear that name?" he rasped when he finally caught his breath.
"I met him about two months ago in the cafeteria. Are you all right, Grigory Abramovich?"
"Fine, fine," said Reznik, waving his hand dismissively. He seemed relieved by my response. "Yes, he's the new geography professor. I've heard about him."
I had a feeling he knew something about Myakishev that I didn't, so I waited for him to continue.
"He's young and handsome, isn't he? I expect his students like him a lot."
"Maybe," I said, although I suspected Myakishev would make a rather boring lecturer—he was probably a much better storyteller anyhow. "I teach piano to his son on Saturdays. He talks about the war sometimes; he was one of the soldiers who defended Leningrad during the blockade."
"Well, he's not just a soldier anymore, but a First Captain of the Baltic Fleet," Reznik muttered, as if to himself.
"What? How do you know?"
Reznik let out a short breath of air and pursed his lips, and I thought I saw a glint of scorn in those blank colorless eyes. "The whole faculty knows. That's how he got hired. He didn't tell you? How modest of him… though on second thought, the title is not much to be proud of. The Army was quite desperate for some time."
"Desperate for what?" I said, my voice rising and betraying my annoyance at his vagueness. I had never seen my wise old professor act this way before.
"All the great military officers were purged before the war," explained Reznik impatiently. "How else could he have become a captain at his age?"
Suddenly, I felt a strong urge to defend Myakishev, to at least defend my reasons for befriending this man if I wasn't going to get Reznik's approval. "You know nothing about him!" I said. "Have you ever spoken to him before? No? Well, I can assure you that I'm not the least bit surprised to know that he's a captain."
Reznik stared at his desk with his hands folded across his lap. I waited for a response, but he didn't say any more about Myakishev. When he finally spoke, he changed the topic.
"How is that dance coming along? Are you still performing in January?"
"It's fine, and yes, we are performing."
"And how's Polina? Are you still getting along with her?"
"Well, good, I'm glad to hear that."
- - -
Beautiful doe-eyed Polina, whom I was having some sort of romantic affair with, was one of the best students in her class, a talented actress and singer in various student performances, and to top it all off, the secretary of the university's Komsomol [Communist Youth League] organization. I called my relationship with Polina an affair because she was two years older than me. Also, I didn't hold any special position in the Komsomol, mostly because everyone in the organization hated me. The organizer of our Komsomol group, Boris Zhilinsky, had this ridiculous idea that he was in a relationship with her. Actually, he wasn't entirely wrong, only it was obvious that Polina loved me a great deal more. Or so I believed.
The funny thing was that she would always tell me how much she hated me. The more she displayed her hate for me meant the more she loved me, so if she stopped talking to me altogether, I knew that was when she loved me most. When we made love (which, by the way, she hadn't done with Boris or anyone else), she would whisper insults in my ear about how terribly selfish I was in bed, and that I couldn't please her even if I tried because it was no fun having sex with a skeleton. The more I pleased her, the more she accused me of being a skinny inconsiderate bastard.
This little quirk of hers used to make me angry—I was not as thin or selfish as she made me sound—but I eventually got used to it.
"Sashok!" That was what she called me, so the lull of the 'sh' could be voided by the harsh consonant at the end. "Sashok, don't pretend you didn't hear me!"
I was walking with Lyova and he greeted her first. "Hello, Polina!" he called. "How are you?" Then he turned to me and whispered, "You know, Sasha, you ought to treat her better. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?"
It was early December and the ground was covered in snow, but Polina ran after me down the slippery steps of the building as if it were summer. The moment I turned around, she slowed to a walk.
"What? What do you want?"
"I was going to ask if you wanted to study with me tonight, but I changed my mind."
"Well, fine," I said. "I'm going out for a drink with Lyova anyway."
At this, Polina stuck her hands on her hips and glared at me. "I don't know why he's friends with you," she said, smiling at Lyova. "He's such a smart decent guy. So polite too, especially at our leader meetings. Perhaps he'll take my place next year as secretary when I graduate."
Lyova blushed, muttered an excuse about going to study in our dorm, and quickly left.
Polina looked at me expectantly, but I only shrugged.
"Are you seeing someone else?" she finally asked. She had meant for it to sound indignant, but her voice cracked.
If she wasn't sincerely hurt and trying to cover up this fact, then she was certainly an impeccable actress who knew I had a soft spot for soft spots. I wanted to kiss her, but I couldn't do that in front of the school building. "Why did you have to ask that?" I said, taking her by the hand and leading her to a less crowded corner. "Now you've forced me to tell you my secret. You think I'm cold and distant, but I act this way so that you can come to me. You're so strong and proud and as much as I'd love to follow you everywhere, you would only ignore me. So I have to let you take the initiative, am I right?"
"Oh, Sashok!" She started to cry real tears. "Why are you so good? Why do you always say exactly what I want to hear? I hate you for making me feel like such a girl!" Then she hit me three times across the chest, really hard, but I didn't say anything because I was flattered she thought those punches couldn't hurt me.
I glanced around and made sure no one was looking before lifting her hands to my lips and kissing them.
That night, instead of studying or going out to drink, I made love to her in a dark empty classroom and let her insult me as much as she wanted. We had stopped worrying about hidden cameras and microphones long ago—we certainly weren't the only ones who used the classrooms this way. Besides, our love-making could hardly be considered an anti-Party activity. We sometimes made jokes about what the authorities would do with a recording of us.
After it was over, Polina clung to me for a bit before fixing her clothes and heading back to her dormitory. We never left at the same time, in case someone caught us walking together at this hour. She might have been crying when she left, but I wasn't sure.
On my way down the hall, I suddenly came across Boris Zhilinsky, the Komsomol organizer I was talking about earlier.
"Borka!" I greeted. "Good evening! How are you?"
"The usual," he said, passing me without even a glance in my direction.
"Asshole," I muttered.
"I heard that. Watch your mouth."
I wanted to strangle him, but instead I continued to stroll down the hall, whistling Kalinka [folksong] loudly. To be honest, it felt satisfying to know that someone in such a high position hated me so much and couldn't do anything about my existence. What Zhilinsky did next only added to my smugness.
"Wait, Zelenko," he called.
"Have you seen Polina Danilkova? I saw her coming into the building about an hour ago."
"Sorry, I can't say I have," I said with a shrug. "Good night!"
- - -
Note: So I decided to take down the version I posted yesterday, replace some narration with dialogue, and post this in three parts. After all, a short story of 12000 words isn't really a short story anymore. All characters are completely fictional. I tried to make the characters Russian and stick to historical facts as well as I could, but I am not Russian myself. Any suggestions or corrections are welcome and appreciated!