For two whole days, I somehow managed to not think about Myakishev at all. Instead, I thought of Polina. Whenever I passed her, it was as if I didn't exist—not even a single glance—although I seemed to have passed her more in those two days than the first four months of university. She didn't even bother to turn away, and if she happened to be looking in my direction, she saw right through me to the other side.
On Thursday evening, as Lyova and I were walking back to our dormitory after a study session, I saw her again.
"Good afternoon, Polina," Lyova greeted, a little surprised. "How are you?"
"So-so," she said. "Will I see you at tomorrow night's meeting?"
Lyova frowned and looked at me uncomfortably. "When have I missed a meeting?"
"Of course, you haven't. It's just that we'll be discussing plans for our next community project and I need to make sure everyone will be there. Well, see you then!"
She hurried away, taking dainty steps in her high-heel boots as if she were walking across a fancy carpet and not the dirty snow. Her feminine little strut might have aroused me if it hadn't been for the cold, or if I hadn't been so numb with anger.
"What was that about?" said Lyova the moment she walked out of earshot. "What could you have done to make her do that?"
"Why is it always what I did?" I retorted. "It was her! She was just using me to make Zhilinsky jealous! Just the other day, she knew Zhilinsky was coming, so she dragged me into a corner and kissed me in time for him to see everything! I doubt that could have been a coincidence!"
"Zhilinsky, Zhilinsky, Zhilinsky," Lyova muttered. He suddenly grabbed me and gave me a good shake. "Fuck Zhilinsky! Are you stupid? Are you fucking stupid? Would Polina do that? Would Zhilinsky still want her if he saw her kissing you? He's already angry that you talk to her! In fact, he hates your guts! He's thinks you're nothing but some hooligan! I can't even think of a proper sentence to describe how much he fucking hates you!"
I shoved him away. "You don't get it, do you? Why do you think Zhilinsky hates me so much? The more he hates me, the better it is for her! Then maybe he can swoop in at the last minute and save her from my hooliganism!"
For a moment, we stood glaring at each other, until a familiar voice interrupted our silence and I felt a small hand tug at my sleeve.
It was Antosha, wearing nothing but a thin jacket over his clothes, his pretty little face swollen from tears and the cold.
"Oh, my God," I whispered, lifting him from the ground and clasping him against my chest. "What are you doing here? Where is your papa?"
He couldn't stop crying long enough to answer, burying his face into my neck. I rocked him back and forth, stroked his head, murmured little endearments in his ear, but he still wouldn't speak.
"Whose child is he?" Lyova asked, also softening at the sound of Antosha's muffled sobs. "Why is he on our campus?"
"He's Myakishev's. I have no idea what he could be doing here." It was dark and there was hardly anyone on the path except the three of us.
"Let's take him into the dormitory," said Lyova. "Warm him up a bit, ask him some questions… Maybe he ran away?"
We brought Antosha into the common room. While Lyova went to get him some hot water, I took off his wet clothes and rubbed his hands and feet. Soon, he began to relax, and even smiled when I pressed the bottom of his icy feet against my cheeks.
"Can he talk now?" said Lyova, bringing in a steaming mug. "What happened?"
"Will you tell us what happened?" I asked Antosha. "Why were you out there all alone?"
"I… I miss Papa."
"Where's is he?"
At the thought of his father, Antosha started to cry again. "Papa is home. I want to go home."
"The poor boy probably just got lost," said Lyova.
"That's impossible," I said. "Myakishev never lets him out of sight. And what was he doing in that flimsy jacket?"
"Mama and Marisha ran away," Antosha suddenly whispered, as if he wasn't supposed to tell. "They're not coming back."
Lyova and I looked at each other silently.
"You should probably bring him back to Myakishev," he finally said. He took off his scarf and wrapped it tightly around Antosha's head and shoulders, then pulled Antosha's shirt and jacket back over his head. "There, that's should keep him warm. Here, boy, drink some hot water before you go. Sasha will take you home."
Antosha brightened at the mention of going home and drank the entire mug before we set off. It was about a half hour walk to Myakishev's apartment building. I held Antosha tightly in my arms, shielding his face from the wind with my hand. He seemed to have fallen asleep, but then he stirred and looked up at me.
I felt his eyes on me for a long time until I gave in and returned his gaze. Then he said, "I need to pee."
"We're almost there. Just hold it in."
"I can't. I really need to pee." He started flailing around helplessly.
"No, you can't pee here! Your weenie will freeze off, okay? Stop moving or you'll make me drop you!"
He fell silent, shaking violently and clutching the edge of my jacket. As we approached the building, I suddenly felt something warm soak through the sleeve of my jacket.
"Shit," I muttered, setting him down before the apartment entrance. "Look what you've done. Now your pants are all wet and smelly. Couldn't you have waited just a minute?"
He didn't respond, hugging himself and staring at the ground. I pressed the doorbell to Myakishev's apartment and stood to one side of the door, leaning against the wall, hoping he would see Antosha first and not notice my presence. I had no idea how Myakishev would react at the sight; all I knew was that I would rather not be there for it, although I couldn't leave in case he wasn't home. Maybe I didn't want to see him cry, and I certainly didn't want to hear him yell.
The metal door opened and no one came out. I watched as Antosha lifted his hands to his face and tears began to well up in his eyes. He didn't even move, looking up at whoever was standing at the door with a mix of fear and adoration. I could tell he was desperate to jump into that person's arms and just cry his little heart out, but he held himself back.
"Whose scarf is that?" I heard Myakishev say. "Did you come back all by yourself?" He sounded surprised, almost pleased, but eerily calm.
I was about to run away and leave Myakishev to believe a miracle happened, but Antosha shook his head and looked at me.
"Sasha…" Myakishev whispered as he saw me, and finally showing some sign of relief, took me by the face and kissed me firmly on the mouth. "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I should have guessed it was you. Will you come inside with us?"
I followed them into the well-heated apartment, a bit dazed, glad to be able to take off my pee-stained jacket. Only after I hung up the jacket did I realize that the room was a complete mess. There were papers of some sort scattered all over the apartment floor and pieces of shattered china everywhere.
"Sorry about the state of things in here," said Myakishev, stripping Antosha down to his underwear and wiping him with a towel with one hand, holding up Lyova's scarf in the other. "Is this yours? Well, thank your friend for letting Antosha borrow it. There are some tea leaves by the samovar if you want some hot tea. What's this, Antosha? Why are your pants wet? Did you pee on yourself again?"
Antosha blushed and didn't respond, but he had blushed needlessly. A second later, I heard a loud slap against his cheek, then another followed.
"Go clean yourself in the bathroom and put on some clean underwear," his father ordered, stuffing the towel into his hands. "Don't ask me to help you."
As I watched a half-naked Antosha run off to the bathroom, clutching his towel, I wondered how a man like Myakishev could have the heart to hit his helpless son after all that happened. But when I saw Myakishev's expression, I suddenly realized that those two small slaps had hurt Myakishev more than he had ever hurt Antosha.
"Why do you hit him?" I asked. "He can't help it."
"But he can," said Myakishev, appalled by my words. That was the first time he ever sounded remotely angry at me. "Even if he can't, I should expect him to, or else he'll never be able to do anything. And if he can, well, I expect him to do better." Then he laughed softly and patted me on the back. "You'll understand someday, when you're a father."
- - -
I waited in the kitchen and sipped a cup of hot water until Myakishev had put Antosha to bed, trying my best to act as if the giant mess in the room didn't exist. The papers, I already guessed, were probably copies of divorce papers. The broken china… I found myself hoping that was his wife's doing. I couldn't imagine Myakishev smashing dishes in his anger.
"What are you thinking right now?" said Myakishev, joining me at the table.
"I'm trying not to think at all," I said honestly.
"You know, your dance performance was wonderful. The children and I really enjoyed it." He smiled, looking down at his cup.
I took one look at his calm expression and lost it.
"You know what? Stop it. No, shut up, and for God's sake, don't smile. You're not even in the right state to talk to me, not to mention about some dance performance. Your wife and daughter are gone. Where is the vodka? Why aren't you weeping on the floor right now?"
To my surprise, Myakishev laughed. "Sasha, it's okay. Look, I'm sorry I made you wait, but I just wanted to let you rest for a while and thank you again for bringing Antosha back. Why don't you have one more cup of tea and go home? It's getting late and you still have class tomorrow."
"I'm worried about you," I said, trying to sound reasonable. "I don't think you're really as well as you appear right now."
He looked at me in the eye and held my arms. "That's very kind of you," he said, "but really, I'll be fine."
I closed the gap between us, pressing my mouth against his in our second kiss. It might have been to comfort him. Or it could have been out of love. Or just curiosity. His lips were warm and soft, like his hands. For a moment, I was completely convinced that he was the same beautiful soldier who had brought me back to life in Leningrad, and I would have given myself completely to him if he asked.
"No," he said. He pulled away, and I realized what I had done. "I'm sorry if I ever gave you that impression."
"Don't…" I whispered, hating myself more than Zhilinsky ever could. "It was stupid of me. I didn't mean it. Really, I'm not like that… Will you report me?"
He frowned. "Why would I ever do that, Sasha? You're a good person at heart, even if you don't think so, and I really like you. Don't look at me that way, like I'm a young girl who just rejected your advances. I'm a thirty-four-year-old man. Your feelings for me are not romantic, despite what you may have been thinking. You were confused, and now I'm making it clear to you. Don't ever let it cross your mind again, understand?"
I tried to turn away, wincing at my own tears, but he gripped my shoulders firmly.
"I'm not saying that you can't look at me," he said. "Look at me. Don't be afraid. I know how it feels and I'm not offended… except by you thinking that I would inform on you. I also believe part of this is my fault, although I can't explain how. Did you know anything about my wife before today? Have you heard anything?"
"Then you know that Ninel was married before, and perhaps you've heard that I've been an incompetent husband and father."
I nodded, wiping my eyes and wondering why he was telling me this now.
Myakishev sighed and released my shoulders. "I left the army and settled in here Moscow because of her. I thought she and the children were sick of moving all the time, which was why she was always complaining about headaches and insomnia. But when we moved in here and she started to disappear for hours, sometimes even entire nights, I started to suspect something else was wrong. As I just found out three days ago, it had nothing to do with moving at all."
"No, Sasha, it's not what you think. Actually, her first husband was Captain Anton Lebedev, the same man in so many of my stories. He was four years older than me and very well-educated; he had already gotten a degree from a prestigious higher military school while I was fresh out of secondary school. In the first year, he made the new conscipts' lives quite bearable, talking and drinking with us as if he were one of us. I completely idolized him. I would have shot myself immediately without a second thought if he commanded me to.
"We became closer than brothers. He once joked to me that I was the only other man he would let handle his wife. I watched him die on that same day. That was only three months before our troops took Berlin. What he said seemed strange to me then, but when Ninel asked me to marry her, I remembered those words and agreed. It was as if he knew he would die, or perhaps he had cursed himself."
I stared at the table, where some papers were lying as if they had been deliberately picked out from the pile on the floor.
"These papers," said Myakishev, and I thought I heard his voice tremble, "they're from Antosha's journal. Ninel had some of them already from his old letters to her, but she somehow got a hold of the rest after the war—I'm not sure exactly when, but it couldn't have been before our son was born. Or perhaps she kept them all this time and just didn't read them."
So they weren't divorce papers or even official documents of any kind. Now that I saw them more closely, I realized that the aging yellow sheets had all been carefully torn out of a notebook.
"I wasn't going to tell you all this today, but maybe it's best for both of us that you should know?" He looked at me expectantly.
I picked up a particularly crumpled piece of paper. "May I?"
Myakishev waited for me to proceed, resting his chin on his hand.
The sheet was completely covered in a tight masculine script, frantically written by someone with decent penmanship. I smoothed it out as best as I could and started to read:
April 30th, 1942
Vitka brought me a letter from Ninel today. It's lying next to me, but I don't feel like reading it. Vitka likes to joke about my higher rank, since he still needs to do menial tasks like delivering letters to officers who enjoy abusing him. He doesn't seem to mind, but I can tell he thinks of me differently now. I wish he would stop calling me Captain because it isn't funny, it just makes me very hot, and now I think I know why.
I hate being a captain if it means sleeping without Vitka by my side. I hate the thought of another man sleeping next to him. He always sleeps so peacefully, unlike the other men who toss and turn and dream out loud. I know how it feels to kiss his lips, but sometimes I dream of kissing him in places that make me blush to think about, even though I've seen him naked a thousand times. Naked, in every sense of the word. He has bared his soul to me. I wonder how men make love. With women, it's obvious, but what would it be like to make love to Vitka?
As I put down the paper, I realized my hand was shaking. Was this how to describe the way I felt? Myakishev had perhaps meant to convince me that my feelings were not the same as those described by his friend, but now I wasn't sure.
"He had written much worse in later entries, but that was the one that Ninel dwelled on," Myakishev murmured. "She thinks I'm the reason he stopped returning her letters. Even if it wasn't my fault, how can I blame her for holding such a grudge? Before Antosha became Captain Lebedev, he wrote in that journal every day—long arduous entries about everything in his life, when he woke up and what he ate for supper—tore them out, and mailed them to her along with his letters. Those were the ones he showed to me. Then he stopped showing them to me, and now I know why."
"He never told you?"
"How could he?" said Myakishev, placing his hand over his mouth thoughtfully. "It might have ruined everything between us. I could have reported him, or worse, I could have returned his advances and caused a huge scandal. Even now, I can't say for certain what I would have done. His writing it down was already a mistake. He was the closest friend I ever had. I told him everything; it's hard to believe I never knew this side of him. I even slept with his wife and named our son after him."
"Maybe he thought you were too trusting," I said quietly, "and he was afraid to betray your trust because he knew you would forgive him."
"You're right—I would have forgiven him and I forgive him now. But is that what you think too? That I'm too trusting?"
"If that's the reason, then I have no regrets. Why shouldn't I have trusted him? Even now, knowing what had been going through his mind then, I would trust him with my life. Quite naïve of me, but if no one trusted each other, the world would stop moving. Am I right?"
Since when were we moving in the first place? As Reznik once told me, science progressed every day, but Russian society had been frozen for hundreds of years, held back by our own envy and suspicion of each other. I was partly guilty, like every other Russian. Suddenly, I realized that Myakishev's trust was a gift, if only everyone had the same trust. Perhaps then the purge would never have happened, and today the Soviet Union would have been as Stalin described in the thirties: "Life has become better, life has become merrier." I still clearly remembered the day Stalin died, and I had cried along with everyone else. Funny how so many people once placed their faith in such a mistrustful man.
"Maybe you should go," said Myakishev. "It's past eleven, and you probably learned more about me than you ever wanted to know in the past hour. You don't have to come anymore if you don't want to. I won't hold it against you."
"No, no, I will come if you and Antosha still want me to," I said. "I've grown rather attached to my first and only piano student."
"That makes me glad. Antosha loves you very much." He saw me to the door. "I hope you don't mind if I don't walk you downstairs. It's just that Antosha—"
"It's no problem. I understand."
I offered my hand to him hesitantly, but he pulled me into our usual embrace. So this was why Anton Lebedev fell in love with Viktor Myakishev—young Vitka who had probably been around my age then and knew how to make maps without being taught—and that was why I loved him too. It was all clear to me now.
"Thank you for listening," he said as I walked through the door. "I feel relieved to have a friend like you. Now hurry back to your dormitory. And stay warm."
I was just about to leave, but all of a sudden, I turned back and held the door open. "Wait, Vitya."
"What is it?" he asked, stepping out into the hall so I wouldn't have to talk with the door between us.
"Do you happen to know Grig—" I began, but thought better of it. "Never mind. It's nothing."
"Well, all right." He seemed concerned, but didn't question me further. "Good night, Sasha."
"Good night. Please, take care."
I breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed. Myakishev never talked about his father, probably out of disinterest, but there could have been other reasons. After all, he didn't tell me about his wife either, although I suspected he had avoided the topic to spare me the discomfort. Who knew what would have happened if I had mentioned Reznik to him? Perhaps nothing would have come of it. Or… I stood there for a long time, considering the possible consequences with a fleeting dread.
Myakishev would go talk to Reznik.
Reznik would tell him what his father did.
Myakishev would quit his job at the university.
Reznik would think I was purposely torturing him.
I would never be able to face either of them again.
Of course, it was possible that they could have found a way to accept each other and forget the past. Maybe that was what Myakishev would believe and it was what I would have liked to believe, but old Reznik had seen and experienced too much. There were just some things that couldn't be changed.
- - -
And others that could be.
I didn't go straight back to my room. Instead, I continued up the stairs to the floor that was nine stories above ours.
The dezhurnaya, the floor lady who had strategically situated herself right where the boy's corridor met the girl's corridor, greeted me with a thorough beating using her broom before I could even explain why I was there. "You've got some nerve, coming in this way!" she shouted. "At least the other boys try climbing through the windows! No, no, no, I'm not letting you in! Your little rendezvous isn't happening tonight, not while I'm on duty!"
"Please," I said, wincing as she managed to get a good swipe at my backside. "There is no rendezvous, I promise you. I just need to talk to Polina Danilkova, if you could just call her out here—"
"Polina?" said the dezhurnaya, staring at me as if I had gone mad. Then she sniffed and turned her head away importantly. "You want me to call her for some petty love confession? Well, Polina's probably busy, as usual. That girl works all day and night and I'm sure she gets at least ten different love confessions every day. She doesn't have time for boys like you."
"It's… It's not a love confession. Well, it sort of is, but not really because she already knows, except she doesn't know right now and I'm here to tell her… It's complicated." I put on my most pitiful expression. "If you won't let me see her, tell her Aleksandr Zelenko would like to apologize for what happened on Tuesday and that he's the stupidest boy in the world."
"You?" she said, her eyes widening. "You're Aleksandr Zelenko? Polina has mentioned you several times. Well, I guess you're not a bad-looking fellow, though a little smaller than I thought you'd be… Okay, I will give her your message when I see her. Anything else?"
I nearly passed out with happiness at the thought of Polina telling this old woman about me. "Has she mentioned Boris Zhilinsky too?" I asked, unable to contain myself.
Instead of a direct answer, I received another beating. When I told Lyova later that night what had happened, he didn't even bother scolding me for being so fresh with the dezhurnaya, teasing me and laughing with relief.
I barely slept that night. The next morning, as Lyova and I headed out to go to breakfast, Polina was already there waiting near the door. Lyova gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder before running off.
Polina stood stiffly, lining up her pretty shoes as she waited for some other students to pass. If no one had been around, I might have fallen to the ground and kissed her feet. "Katya gave me your message," she finally said, still adjusting the placement of her shoes. Her voice was completely flat, as if she were answering a question in class. "Tell me, why should I accept your apology?"
"You don't have to," I said, kicking the snow around and looking down at my feet too. "I shouldn't have treated you that way."
"And nothing. Now you have to tell me something. Did you know that Zhilinsky was walking by when you randomly decided to kiss me where the entire world could have seen us?"
"Yes, I did," she said, as if it were nothing.
"What?" I whispered. That was not the answer I had been expecting; I had completely convinced myself after all that happened last night that she had kissed me in a fit of passion, and that Zhilinsky had nothing to do with the situation whatsoever.
She looked at me, concerned. "Does that bother you? I didn't know you cared so much about what he thought. Besides, it was kind of exciting, and I thought you might have gotten some fun out of the experience."
"But why? Why do you care what he thinks?"
"Why do I care?" she repeated in disbelief. "He follows me around like an old helpless dog, that's why! For some demented reason, he thinks his presence is a privilege for me! I had to prove to him somehow that this was not the case. He's not a bad guy, mind you—he works quite hard and his position in the Komsomol is well-deserved—but I can't love him the way he wants me to. He's too self-righteous, and you should hear the way he lists the shortcomings of certain people when they aren't around."
"Maybe he just has high standards," I suggested, now that my anxiety had passed, too tired to feel smug over this. I thought of Myakishev, who believed and expected the best of everyone.
"Did I just hear you stick up for Borya?" said Polina, staring at me in disbelief. "Well, I don't think so. He just sees what he wants to see. Lyova, on the other hand, is much more perceptive."
I shook my head and smiled. "He loves you, you know. He loves you as much as he loves Komsomol meetings."
"But not as much as he loves you," she said. For a moment, I thought I saw tears in her eyes. "For God's sake, don't take his friendship so lightly. Do you know why Borya tried to vote him off the committee?"
"Because of you! For marking you down as being present at every general meeting even though Borya could have sworn you weren't there, for refusing to produce a sample of your handwriting to compare with the offensive verses someone had written in one of his textbooks, and basically for being your friend, although he threw in a few accusations about not actively contributing enough to the organization."
"Really?" I felt a surge of affection for my loyal Lyova. "I would never have known."
"Well, I can see why Lyova holds you so close to him, although I can't quite explain it."
She held my face in her hands. I leaned forward, hesitated for a second, and stole a kiss from her.
"Sashok!" she cried, looking around to make sure no one had seen. Everyone walking by suddenly seemed as if they were hurrying off to somewhere, and I felt a rush of affection for these strangers I knew and saw every day. Of course, there were the informers, but then there were also the sympathetic people who turned a blind eye to harmless inappropriate behavior. Often, one person belonged to both categories depending on the situation. "My God, you're impossible to understand! I thought you were angry at me just a few days ago for doing the same thing to you! So tell me, why were you angry, if not for that reason?"
"I… I thought you were using me to make Zhilinsky jealous," I murmured, realizing how ridiculous it sounded now.
She stared at me for a second and burst out laughing. "Oh, Sashok! I didn't know you were so vulnerable, you poor silly boy. It's actually quite endearing." Then she grew serious. "Borya is certainly jealous of you, and not just because of me. What I did the other day was selfish, but I wish you would stop purposely provoking him all the time. He's very well-connected. If he wants to ruin your life, Lyova won't be able to stop him, and neither will I. Just be careful, okay? Be careful."
I heard her, but I wasn't really listening. Let Zhilinsky ruin my life if he wanted to, although I doubted he would do such a thing. As Polina had said herself, Zhilinsky was a good person, and somewhere in the back of my head, I knew he was quite lenient and probably much more forgiving than he could have been. Perhaps in some other place, some other time, we would have been good friends. Nevertheless, I assured Polina that I would be more careful in the future.
We headed for the cafeteria. On the way there, I suddenly grabbed her hand and stood with my feet firmly planted on the ground. Looking up at the gray winter sky, I thought I could feel the Earth moving beneath us.
"What is it, Sashok?" she asked.
"Nothing. It was nothing."
- КОНЕЦ -
A little about where this story came from: This is the longest thing I've ever written in my whole life, and the first chapter story I've ever completed, so thanks for taking the time to read it! I tried to explore the lack and excess of trust that could typically exist at the same time between Russian people, the different kinds of relationships between men, and contrast multiple generations of the post-war period. The Russian personality can be so many things at once—generous and envious, sympathetic and unforgiving, hardworking and lazy—and this was further exaggerated and encouraged under the Communist system.
Perhaps I should note that some Russian men will kiss each other in a fit of passion, and I mean that in the most platonic way. Think saying goodbye at a train station. They are much less squeamish than Westerners about personal space. That said, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed, like what Sasha did.
Actually, to be honest, this whole thing started out in my head as a gay wartime romance between an army captain and a newly recruited male dancer, involving excessive amounts of angst, sex, blood, and see-through tights. But that kind of stuff is meant to stay in my head, you know what I mean? You're probably thinking you didn't need to know that. And now that this story is done, I think I will write a prequel in which Captain Antosha and Vitka wrestle naked on that private little beach where they crashed their plane, and maybe more people will actually bother to read this one. Just kidding. Maybe. :)
As always, I'm open to suggestions and corrections, and any feedback is appreciated, even if you have nothing to say except "Hi, I read your entire story" because that means a lot to me.