My youth in the USSR is all about silence, the suppression of opinions.
Life has a more pronounced performative aspect, with things you say vs. things you know and think. You criticize the government only in private settings. Elsewhere, you praise it. This performance is understood as the government’s untruth, not one’s own. It’s produced in jest in order to comply with the regime.
I’ve always assumed that outside official institutions such as work or school, communication is sincere. Russians are passionate about their beliefs and don't hesitate to express them. I’m the same way. Opinionated people are just fine by me as long as they acknowledge the legitimacy of other opinions.
It’s 1976. I’m eight, and the drawing class at school is my least favorite; a stray cat has more skill than I. The classroom is tall ceilings, bright second floor windows, shabby wooden desks, chairs that have held many tons of Soviet children. I crack up at the sight of the monstrosities that appear on paper when I draw an apple, a bird. Another kid in class seems to treat drawing with similar humor. Next time, I sit next to him. His name is Vadim.
Soon, we produce silly shapes on purpose: mutant birds with squashed heads advancing ironic ornithology, apples a reasonable worm would avoid. As we share these artifacts of visual depravity, we can't constrain laughter. The teacher does what teachers do – she separates us.
When thinking and feeling become more important in our teenage years, Vadim and I get even closer. Few of my classmates seem as intelligent or as interested in books. The white ping-pong ball tracks a jagged trajectory over the table as we spend hours arguing about people and books, our own habits and motivations.
“Do you think Pechorin is a positive character?” one of us may ask, referring to Mikhail Lermontov’s protagonist in A Hero of Our Time, the world’s first psychological novel.
“Mostly good. He’s sincere; he does what he believes in.”
“But he hurts people who don't deserve it.”
Vadim introduces the rule: to read first, postponing the homework – this way, parents can't force you to go to bed. We spend hours together, then hours on the phone. We both stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. despite the early morning horror of school looming over us.
Twice a week, we take the subway to our math group at the Palace of Young Pioneers, formerly Anichkov Palace. The subway flies under the great city of Leningrad. The Palace is an elegant baroque building started by a Russian architect and finished by the famous Francesco Rastrelli. It’s a vast, imposing structure with alternating four-story and two-story sections. It’s like the Soviet system itself, with its massive weight and its refined, purely decorative details.
In later years, Vadim and I are burned out on math and often opt for the high-quality Stiga ping-pong table inside the Palace. Vadim is brilliant and fascinating – the funniest person I know. He’s confident and good-looking – but unsettled in himself, which shows up in his irritability, his tendency to debate the minute degrees of responsibilities we must share, such as who should carry the bag with the ping pong net.
“Levin is a fake character,” I reference Anna Karenina. “It’s impossible to imagine a real person doing and saying those things.”
“Nonsense!” Vadim smirks contemptuously.
“It’s not nonsense. He’s an ideological character, employed specifically to…”
“By the way, you said the same about Pierre in War and Peace,” Vadim interrupts. “You said he was fake – but he’s the central character, supposedly based on Tolstoy himself.”
“You interrupted again. Besides, Tolstoy was a fairly fake person.”
Vadim argues about Tolstoy, letting go of the Pierre sub-thread. His disrespectful debate can be infuriating. We are trained early in life to vacate a seat for the elders, to say thank you, to avoid interrupting. Why is Vadim exempt? I’m surprised he doesn't exert the effort to train himself out of his negative habits. I often appeal to him to change his ways, and he doesn't deny my points – but his own thoughts seem to occupy him so completely that often, he is simply unable to focus on what others have to say.
There are few brilliant people in my vicinity – I put up with his faux pas.
In April 1986, I’m at the end of my first year at Leningrad State. This spring has a sinister flavor in my life. I’m eighteen, and college students are denied military draft deferment, something to do with the war in Afghanistan verging on perpetuity, as any war in that region tends to do. Stories of coffins transported back to Russia are beginning to circulate; we can only imagine the victim counts on the Afghani side. The USSR exports its tanks and its skill at mass murder.
Because Vadim’s birthday is in July, he is not eighteen yet by the time I’m drafted. We assume he will face the same fate shortly – in early August, he writes to confirm this.
A few months later, I’m in the Soviet Military in Siberia, being dehumanized. I’m in a military hospital, Vadim writes. I’ll tell you more later, you understand. I’m fine. Hope you are too.
Sensitive matters cannot be discussed via mail due to military censorship. I’m surviving basecamp and have lost thirty pounds in three months over bouts with dysentery and slave labor, such as digging deep trenches for gas pipes. Hunger and humiliation narrow my vision, cloud my mind. I think about food incessantly. I debate how to act so the sergeant stops singling me out as a Leningrad college boy.
My advanced state of personality reduction subdues my worries about Vadim, about anything.
In June 1988, I’m back in Leningrad. Vadim and I chat over tea in his small kitchen on the 21st floor of a twenty-two-story building uniquely well-designed by Soviet standards, with its four sections subdivided by massive columns of windows in a spine pattern. Outside, Victory Park sways its trees under the gray sky. We are twenty years old.
“What happened back then, with your discharge?” I ask.
“They’d shipped me north, near Murmansk. Army units in support of the Arctic Military Fleet. It was rough even in summer. No way I was going to stay for the winter. They say everything is frozen October through May. I wasn't about to do two years of that.”
“What did you do?”
“I slit my wrists.” He imitates the gesture with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Boris had explained it to me; he did this first. If you really wanted to kill yourself, you’d cut along the vein. Cutting across is much less risky. I picked a spot where they’d find me soon.”
What? I’m shocked, my body tight and tingly. I wouldn't have the nerve.
“Weren’t you afraid they might not find you in time?”
I imagine a dusty hall, a body on the ground. Someone is supposed to walk in. Will they? How will they react?
“That wasn't enough to stop me. I had to get out of there.”
He talks about it as a practical matter, his manner soft, nothing to indicate any suffering attached to this story. I have no reference point in suicide attempts. I see that Vadim is in his right mind and pragmatic about this. Here in the oppressive reality of the USSR, we all get away with everything we can – Vadim’s way sounds reasonable.
“What about the psych unit?”
“They commit you for a month or so.” He shrugs. “They want to evaluate whether you pose an ongoing risk to yourself or others. I had to make sure I played it right.”
“I kept saying I’d do it again if they sent me back.” Vadim grins. “I made up this story that I was depressed anyway, my life wasn't valuable to me, especially not under extreme duress.”
A story? I thought I had it tough back in Siberia, but it had never occurred to me to stage a suicide. I’d heard the gist of Vadim’s story from my mom, but I’d never considered it a template for what I might do. Even if I knew that the probability of being saved is 99%, I wouldn't risk it. Am I a coward? Do I genuinely value my life more than Vadim does?
What’s the value of a life at our age? It’s all about plans and hopes. I see a future full of words, interactions, individuals, books to red, books to write. What does he see? How is it that life is something he can already risk so easily?
“Impressive!” I say, instead of sharing any of these deeper rumblings. “What happened next?”
“It worked. My psychiatrist would’ve been in deep shit if he cleared me for service and I ended up killing myself or someone else.”
Makes sense. In the USSR, fear of repercussion is the primary motivating factor. I’m happy for Vadim’s escape. I would have loved to be reckless enough to set a timer for my own expiration, hoping the routines of others would save me.
The flip side: I’ve passed two years of dehumanization, while all he has invested is three months. I’m not too surprised when he comments, amid some minor disagreement, “You’ve gotten a bit stupid after all this time in Siberia. You’ll get over it.”
It hurts to hear. I take a second to consider. Am I stupid? In this quickly collapsing country, I may be out of step with the most current trends of thought among twenty-year-old urbanites. But even during my service, I found opportunities to keep reading and writing short stories and poetry. I found a phenomenal used book store in Chita and brought back impossible finds, including a three-volume Franz Kafka collection. In the 21st century, my partner Laurie and I will keep it on our trilingual Kafka shelf.
I refuse to accept Vadim’s conclusion. We simply have a difference of opinion in a small argument. Why can’t he recognize the legitimacy of different opinions?
The year and nine months of stewing in the relative freedom of the dying USSR have brought Vadim to a decision to emigrate. I’m incredulous. This option had never occurred to me. We were born here; things are getting better. Everyone tries to dissuade Vadim, but his mind is made.
“It’s all broken here. I have no more interest for this place.”
In December 1988, a group of friends gather in Vadim’s apartment. It’s a farewell party. The small flat is filled with young people. In three days, Vadim will fly out on his emigration path to the United States. Our conversation is full of jokes and optimism. A departure like this is less tragic to others, who see the promise. But I’m about to lose my best friend.
“Let’s drink to this particular kind of gathering.” Our classmate Anton raises his glass. “It’s like a wake to everyone except Vadim. Isn't it something, to drink at your own wake?”
In 1988, international flights are relegated to Pulkovo’s smaller terminal. Friends and family are not allowed in. We hover outside, freezing, desperate to track our loved ones through the frosted windows and the occasionally opened double door. Now and then, a bus of foreign tourists pulls up, and the policeman guarding the door pleads,
“Comrades, please move. Aren't you ashamed to let our foreign guests see you crowding out here like bums?”
“Aren’t you ashamed to do this to your own citizens?” someone from the small crowd yells. “Let us in!”
Because of the twenty-kilogram limit on the luggage, Vadim impersonates a polar dweller with his three layers of pants, sweaters, jackets. The weight of emigration has turned into fat on his body. On this clear December day, the umbrella in his hand completes a picture of displacement.
Something changes in the policemen’s attitude. Suddenly, we are allowed inside. Vadim passes through customs as we watch. There he is, so tangible across a few layers of glass and air. He glances at the gigantic clock on the wall: time, always pressing. He waves, walks through the door leading to the gates. Disappears.
In spring of 1990, almost overnight, my disappointment with the USSR comes to a head; I also decide to emigrate. Nothing will work right here, not in the next few years, nor in the next few decades. It’s all broken here, as Vadim pointed out.
On December 20, 1990, I land at another airport: JFK. Vadim picks me up. My head is full of efficient designs and comfortable accommodations I’ve observed during my Leningrad – New York flight, with stops in Ireland and Greenland. It’s a beautiful day.
Vadim is elegant, confident in a fitted pair of jeans, an intriguing leather jacket, a cool pair of boots. In this outfit, in this gateway to the free world, he is downright stunning. A good deal taller than I, with his curly hair in no need of care, his long legs and his smart brown eyes, he makes me wish I were attracted to men. We could have a dysfunctional affair.
I spend three days in New York City with Vadim and Boris, who emigrated a year ago. What a reunion. Three years ago, as I counted my remaining days in Siberia, this version of my future would have seemed absurd.
It’s February 1991; I’m twenty-two. I’ve settled in Albany, close enough to visit New York City every month or so.
I take the subway to Vadim’s new place in Jackson Heights.
“How’s the new life?” he asks.
“Still trying to find a steady job.”
“But you like it here?”
“I love it.” I can't suppress a big smile. “And I love the City. New York was supposed to be this extremely unfriendly place, but everyone seems cordial. Much friendlier than back in the USSR.”
The apartment is functional, nondescript. We discuss circumstances, share plans, many of them naïve as one would expect from our age and our status as new immigrants. Especially mine, just a baby. We talk until 3 a.m., entertained by an army of cockroaches. We get melancholy and philosophical.
“I’m skeptical about myself.” Vadim bites into his open-faced white fish sandwich. “Myself and everything else. The thing is, I can't fly, and I have no reason to believe others can. I get tired of everything too soon, even things that engage me at first.”
We speak Russian, as we always do. He says it just like this, ya ne oomayoo letat’, I can't fly. I know what he means without quite knowing how it feels. He is not moved by inspiration, not driven by lofty ideas. He lacks a calling in life.
“No one can fly from the start,” I say. “It takes time to learn.”
“I don't have the patience. I always think: it would be nice to have written a novel, made a film. But I’m not up to the actual work of it. I don't have any concrete ideas. When I sit down to write, nothing comes.”
In the morning, Vadim leaves for work, abandoning me to the cockroaches. I have an appointment at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan. Outside, snow is dense, insistent like the white space of our lives, emptiness perpetually yearning to swallow the meanings we so desperately build.
I witness a multiethnic procession, faces floating in white, suspended from their umbrellas: Black, Latinx, Asian, Caucasian, all combinations thereof, beautiful and engaged – the real people of the real world, not the identical pale shadows that surrounded me back in the make-believe USSR. I open my own umbrella, become one of the floating faces.
I stop by the office where Vadim is employed as an administrative assistant. It’s after four. Vadim is typing; I settle down in the lobby to write a letter to my partner Luba, who is still in Russia. In a few days, my letter is set to travel there with a friend of Vadim’s. Mail is known to be inspected and often lost or stolen upon its arrival in Russia – personal delivery is not only much faster, but also safer.
Luba is yet to get a US visa and an airplane ticket for herself and her daughter Sonya. I haven't seen her in three months. I miss you, I write. I hesitate. What more substantial thoughts are there to share? My mind is overloaded with new contexts eluding brief description.
At five, a trickle of employees flee, most with a curious glance my way. Vadim and I stay behind. I pick up some food at a nearby McDonald’s while he starts the coffee machine.
“I don't know if I’ll stick at this job.” He bites into a burger as we face each other across a coffee table.
“Why not? It seems nice.”
“Nice? I’m not sure I can take this for more than a couple of months. Typing stupid documents, talking to stupid people. I already had a small argument the other day.”
Any number of steps separate me from an office job. I’m envious of Vadim’s nonchalance, but in a good way. I know I won't be stuck in low-paying positions in food industry for the rest of my life.
“Wouldn't another job be similar?”
“True. I’m not good at keeping them.”
To me, a paying job is a permission to exist and to be a writer. What is it to him? At twenty-two, shouldn't we all have a plan, a path?
In a couple of hours, I’m taking a bus back to Albany.
“Do you mind if I take half an hour to finish my letter to Luba?”
“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?” Vadim is unexpectedly aggravated, his face tense, unpleasant.
What just happened?
“Can't you read a book or something?” I keep my voice level.
“You’re wasting my time. You’d never do the same for me, or anyone else for that matter.”
“That’s crazy. Of course I would.” I don't even know how to confirm my point, can't decide if his accusations are more offensive or incongruous. Should I laugh or feel hurt? I experience something in between.
I’m with Vadim in New York, and he is being rather unpleasant, I write. Otherwise, my life is fine. I have work these few weeks, but after that, I don't know yet. I’m working for this electrician, an old Hungarian. He is hilarious and swears continuously in the most elaborate ways. I’ll introduce you. How are you and Sonya?
The pressure is on, extinguishing all inspiration. I wrap up my epistolary efforts. We turn off the lights and step outside. The snow has not subsided.
“Should we take a walk?” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
“Nah. Too cold.”
I open my umbrella; it doesn't take long for snow to accumulate on its surface, on Vadim’s hair. I’m sad, compelled to say something, to find a fix for his gloom. I feel a mix of disdain and love for him. Why is he so irritable, so unfriendly?
“You need to find something real,” I venture as we cross Sixth Avenue. “Something important to you.”
He smirks. “Yes, the subway station.”
Indeed, one floats in the white space ahead. With an hour until my bus, we walk down the stairs to warm up inside. The train is quick to arrive.
“Don't be upset.” Vadim gets in. “It’s just my mood.”
His train takes off, the tunnel like the future we slide into, one moment at a time.
I exit the station and walk through the snow toward the Port Authority bus terminal. Few pedestrians are out. I consider this beautiful creation, Manhattan, the whole city of New York, so lonely at this hour. It didn't take me long to fall in love with it.
I get a little lost – typical. I find my way. I’m almost late for my bus.
Vadim awaits by the bus door.
What the hell? I search my brain for a reason.
The keys to his apartment!
I dig them out of my backpack and hand them over. Vadim’s face is hard, hostile.
“It’s your fault too.” I get inside.
I regret saying that as the bus takes off.
It’s around 1991 that Vadim first summarizes his attitude,
“You know, it’s hard for me to accept that people really believe the things they say. Some stuff just doesn't make sense. They couldn't possibly think that.”
“So, if you don't think something is true, it’s not true?”
He laughs, momentarily confounded by my rephrasing. “I suppose so. I assume they’re pulling my leg.”
That’s insane – and yet, it explains his way of dealing with me, with others. What’s this about? When did the suspicion of performance extend to a conversation with friends? Sure, we come from a country where opinions were discouraged – but Vadim never fell for the official line. He was the first to leave, after all. How did he arrive at this place of a single opinion, his? Is getting entrenched in his own set of views Vadim’s way of battling a single opinion that dominated our youths – that of the dreaded Communist Party?
Vadim completes a BA in film at SUNY, Binghamton. It’s two hours from Albany by bus – we see each other every now and then. Both of us love this art form, have seen thousands of films and amassed strong opinions about our favorite directors. Yet, all Vadim does during his studies is the absolute minimum required to pass.
I’m impressed with his final project, a short film starring myself and our friend Anna. The setting: a forest railroad in disuse. Our processed ghostly figures tread along the rails to Vadim’s recitation of Kafka’s aphorisms. Closeups of Vadim’s hands palpate his anxiety-ridden face in ultra-high contrast. The railroad again.
From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
A cage went in search of a bird.
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Vadim’s voice is slow and thoughtful, his accent barely noticeable. I watch several times. Aphorisms is one of my own literary anchors.
“It’s marvelous. The visuals complement the text.” The world rolls in ecstasy for the two of us, our unexpected escape from communism in our early twenties, the myriad creative opportunities available to us.
“It’s crap.” Vadim waves dismissively. “I don't think I have the inspiration to be a filmmaker.”
My 1996 move to San Francisco reduces my face-to-face encounters with Vadim to once every two or three years, but we frequently talk on the phone. His next stab at life is an MBA. He hates every moment of his program and barely applies for any jobs in finance when the ordeal is over. He settles into a job as a New York City taxi driver.
“You mentioned Dave Eggers. He was in my cab the other day. We had a chat – a nice guy.”
“Don't you get bored doing that for twelve hours?”
“Yes and no. I can work, or I can stay home. If it’s slow, I can end my shift early. It’s good work, and I don't have to deal with anyone’s idea of how things should be done. I only have to work ten-twelve nights a month to cover my expenses. Besides, I like driving. I like meeting people.”
Sounds reasonable, in a way. Like myself, Vadim is a sociable introvert.
“Wouldn't you want to work with your mind, somehow?”
“I would, in theory. But in practice, I don't see a path. I’d love to write a book or create an app everyone would want and make tons of money - but of course, I don't have any specific ideas. I was wondering if I’m depressed, or simply unmotivated. I don't feel depressed in the way they describe it. I’m not desperate or suicidal or anything like that. I’m not even sad. But I went to see a therapist just in case.”
I’m surprised. Vadim is always composed enough, cheerful enough to preclude the perception of depression.
“He prescribed Prozac. I gave it a few weeks, but it didn't make any difference. It confirmed to me that I’m not clinically depressed. I just don't have your motivation.”
My motivation! How does he feel about it? Is he envious? How could he be? In my view, one can be envious if they tried and didn't succeed – how can one be envious without even trying?
But this is faulty logic: it’s his very inability to try that Vadim is concerned about. And how would I ever imagine this feeling, the lack of ambition, when ambition drives me fiercely through my own life? I wish I could write a prescription for ambition for my friend.
The conversation moves to films and books.
“I’m finishing The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger,” I mention. “A marvelous novel. It seems that once you have an idea like that, you can't help but write a great book – but how do you come by such an idea?”
“Yes, I’ve read a review in the Atlantic. It’s clever. But I find it very difficult these days to relate to a story that relies on fantastic elements. It’s as if the author didn't want to do the work of making something real. Once the fantastic enters, it’s as if anything goes – but in fact, it takes so much more effort to justify each fantastic move in a way that I, as a reader or viewer, can accept.”
I think about it for a second. Even though Vadim is not the writer, this sounds better phrased than I could muster if I were called upon to explain my growing disinterest for sci-fi.
In December 2004, my mother dies. Vadim is the person I call.
He can hear it in my voice.
“My mom died yesterday. I just found out.”
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. How are you?”
“I’ve been crying most of this time. But I’ll be okay.”
“I liked her very much. She was always kind to me,” Vadim says. “Often, I wished my parents were like yours.”
He even visited her on some of his trips to St. Petersburg.
“She could be difficult sometimes. What gets me is how quickly it happened.”
“Yes. Was it two weeks ago she first went to see a doctor?”
“Three. She must have downplayed her symptoms.”
“What was the cause?” A sincere concern in Vadim’s voice.
“Cirrhosis of the liver. But she wasn't a drinker. It must have been oncological. She had breast cancer in her forties.”
In 2007, I meet Laurie. Vadim visits in 2008; the two of them hit it off.
“Laurie is special,” he offers. “Of all my friends’ partners and just about all the women I know, she’s the most interesting. Lucky you.”
We both value people who are kind, attentive, opinionated but self-deprecating, engaged in intellectual pursuits, sincere and unpretentious in conversation. I appreciate Vadim’s endorsement. No one else has tracked my life over the last decade or two. He’s honest 100% of the time. He would never hesitate to criticize the breath out of anyone who doesn't quite live up to his expectations.
“I don't care for Pushkin, personally,” I say. “His work is too light, except for Little Tragedies.”
“You’re putting me on.” Through the phone line, I can hear Vadim is more passionate about this than I’d expected. “Pushkin is the best poet we’ve had; every Russian loves Pushkin.”
“It’s subjective, isn't it?”
“No. It’s clearly a fact.”
The same dilemma as before: should I laugh or feel hurt? In psychology, Vadim’s challenge is referred to as invalidation.
“Wouldn't you agree so much of what you say is for effect?” he continues. “It’s an interesting thing to say, that you don't like Pushkin. It makes you original.”
“Look, you’re my friend.” I struggle to keep an even voice. “Why would I misrepresent my opinions? To impress you? Or what is it?”
“Ha,” he scoffs. “I’m curious about that too.”
“Do you remember that brown toy monkey you had when we first met?” he asks apropos of nothing. “You said you put it under your pillow at night. I had the same kind, only gray.”
I hadn't thought of the monkey in a quarter century, would have never recalled it again. Now the image comes back, a flat thing of comfort. I don't remember placing it under my pillow, but Vadim attests to my stating so, and his assertion sounds real, true, creates a new memory.
In 2010, it’s Vadim’s turn to deal with his mother’s illness. After his father’s premature death in the mid-90s, she followed Vadim in emigration. He relates his childhood experiences in critical tones, but in our recent encounters, his mother is a charming and warm-hearted person. Her lymphoma takes a slow course. Vadim grows through this medical ordeal – I’m impressed by how much he does to improve his mother’s treatment, to get her seen by the best available doctors. By the time she dies in 2015, he is ready to let her go.
He used to say, “I can't imagine what I’d do if my mom died.”
“I’m beginning to make peace with it,” he says now.
In October 2014, Vadim visits me in Portland. We haven’t seen each other in two years. At forty-six, he is heavier than he was in his youth, but not in a drastic way that would alter his appearance. His face, too, is youthful, mostly unchanged, smarter as faces tend to grow with the passing years.
Later, we sit in the small booth in my Portland kitchen, reminiscent of our kitchen gatherings back in our youth in the USSR.
Vadim is a deeply intelligent person – but instead of asking him what’s our responsibility in life? how do we make the rest of our years meaningful? I ask,
“How’s the driving?”
The cab driver’s work doesn't change much from one year to the next. Many of my more recent friends are artists; a few others are psychotherapists. We can talk forever about plots, stories, childhood trauma, empathy, narcissism, guilt, responsibility. With Vadim, that language eludes me. Ironically, it’s true even in the literal sense: Vadim and I speak Russian; my new friends and I speak English.
It must be about his sarcasm, his lack of interest for modern literature, his lack of friends to scrutinize. But we settle into friendly chats about the past, our shared acquaintances, our very different plans. We play ping-pong, talk more over tea, over vodka. Our capacity for smart conversation has not disappeared, but our emotional connection has grown weaker. Vadim’s refusal to commit to a deeper meaning in life, to a planned personal story, makes him a stranger in my goal-driven worldview.
I assume I’ll be a friend to this fascinating stranger for the rest of my life, but I’m weary of the Pushkin syndrome – Vadim’s occasional refusal to accept my sincerity.
Laurie, Vadim and I share the rent for a weekend house on the Pacific beachfront. We enjoy forty-eight hours of non-stop rain. On a stormy Saturday, Vadim and I split a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the three of us dress up in waterproof gear to search the forest for the more benign edible fungi. We follow a path along Netarts Bay, which lies flat, indifferent to the robust waves the ocean brandishes half a mile out, beyond the narrow peninsula of the Bay’s other side.
We are immersed in rain, the wind about to throw us off our feet. How exhilarating – the Pacific, the new life, the future in every breath. We are safe – yet as near to being at nature’s disposal as we can be. We float in this experience, laughing. All we find is one small, beautiful porcini, but even this is perfection enough.
“You weren't joking about Oregon rain,” Vadim yells against the wind.
“It’s not like this all the time.” I try to be optimistic, but I don't think either of my companions hears me.
The intense wind from the ocean chills us. Now we submit to that other joy – of being tired and overwhelmed by the elements, anticipating the approaching rest. We turn around; the wind propels us forward.
When we get back to our cottage, we resolve to cook the porcini with the pork chops we’ve brought along. It’s a linguistically fitting combination: porcini means little piggy in Italian. The cute mushroom is too small to warrant its own preparation. I remove the chops from their packages and place them on a tray to broil. I’m about to turn on the oven when Vadim grabs the tray from me.
“This is not how you cook pork chops. I’ll show you.” He reaches for a frying pan instead.
“If you insist.”
Vadim’s conviction is much stronger than mine. The rain washes the leaves, the beach, the ocean itself, the unknown stretch of the future before us.
It’s October 31, 2016.
“How disgusting, that Trump tape,” I say on the phone. “Grab women by the pussy? Really? We didn't think something like this was possible in America, did we?”
“No. But I must say, it’s silly to mix all these women’s stories with politics. Why should the voters be concerned about the politicians’ private lives?”
I reference a friend’s statement about the way Trump’s gaslighting and his vicious attacks against women have exacerbated her PTSD symptoms. As usual, a third party’s experience doesn't mean much to Vadim.
“So, you don't think voters should be concerned that the president is a scumbag who treats people like dirt while being especially cruel to women?” I’m getting upset by now.
“I’ve talked to a few of my Russian women-friends, and they think little of this. After all, the woman can always say no, can't she?”
With this glib pronouncement, my appetite for this discussion is waning.
“You know,” Vadim pushes on. “At times like this, I can't believe you’re being serious. Confess, sometimes you say the right thing for the image more than substance. Something that would sound right, coming from you. I don't believe you truly think this. It just doesn't make sense.”
Here we are again, back to the pattern formed long ago. I say what’s on my mind, and Vadim separates it into two categories: my sincere thoughts and my pose. As usual, I feel physically and psychically damaged by such claims, silenced by a person who shouldn't seek to silence me. My heart beats fast, something like panic building up in my chest.
“Look, I can't have this conversation anymore. Let’s take a break.”
After we hang up, I write a short and friendly email. I reiterate my points about acknowledging the pain of others, not only our own pain that we understand and consider legitimate. I point out how inappropriate and intolerable it is to invalidate another person’s statement by declaring it mere posturing.
Vadim shoots back:
I think it is healthy to consider that things we say are usually at least three different things: things we actually say, things we think we ought to be saying, and things we want to get across. Some of the things you say strike me as a pose. I think it's a part of your persona. Please stop being offended by this, it is all too common and only human.
We speak Russian but write in English; we both can type faster in this language.
I’m anxious, desperate. All at once, it’s too much for me. I would deal with Vadim’s pessimism, his lack of objectives, his limited knowledge of contemporary literature – I can't expect him to share my interests throughout the history of our friendship. What I can't deal with is his refusal to accept that I’m genuine.
I’ve been wondering why you and I are still friends. We share little more than a past. Most of the recent interactions left me with a heavy heart on account of what I perceive as your indifference to others, your consumer attitude to life, your inability to make room in your mind for the legitimacy of other views, your subtle misogyny, your nihilism. To make things worse, you still insist that I’m insincere. I need a break.
Ok, take your time. Vadim responds. Maybe we both could use a break. I find your sanctimony a little tiresome.
In The Ways of Silencing, Jason Stanley proposes: “Citizens who grow up in a state in which the authorities deliver propaganda have no experience with trust.” But I trust Vadim and other friends, I trust Laurie, I trust people I meet until they have proven untrustworthy. Is Vadim genuinely unable to trust me?
In Metamorphosis, Kafka’s protagonist loses the ability to be understood when his altered body no longer produces human speech. He finds himself silenced, reduced to the interpretations of others.
I don't know how to continue this. Is our forty-year-long friendship over? And if so, how do I
feel about it?
Sad. Relieved. Perplexed.
This is where the story was supposed to end – or to remain unfinished. On November 30,
2018, I mention to Laurie,
“It’s been just over two years since Vadim and I had our fallout. I keep thinking he’ll call to apologize. But it’s been so long, perhaps he never will.”
“Unbelievable. He’s quite something, isn't he?”
“It must be for the best.” I shrug.
“Yes, but you two have so many shared memories. It’s a real loss. He’s a compelling person. I’m not blaming you, of course. He made it impossible.”
How do I feel about it? Bitter, resigned, too busy with more meaningful things to dwell on Vadim’s stubborn stance.
I imagine the two of us in our seventies, running into each other at some event, still mad at each other. The old pair of us have extended conversations in my head.
“Did you finally accept that other people have different opinions?” I ask. “Do you have any friends left?”
He replies sarcastically.
The next day, December 1, I load my Facebook page to see what’s transpired in the world greater than mine. A friend request or two – nothing to write home about. A red 1 next to Messages. I click. It’s from Boris.
Looks like Vadim drowned in Laos.
He loved traveling. The mention of Laos doesn't surprise me. Memories move in. Laughing in class as we wrote surrealist stories in grades nine and ten. Walking around New York City with the swagger of city dwellers. Strolling around San Francisco when he visited in the late ‘90s, his criticism of my rainbow hair and clothes. All the times I tried to convince him to move to the Bay Area, so we could spend time together.
What I didn't say then: perhaps, somehow, I might be able to help you jump-start your life.
His friendly smile, his intelligent brown eyes.
The fact that the two of us could, from time to time, genuinely surprise each other, with thoughts.
Friends reach out to discuss his death, and I learn: he took ESL teacher courses, was looking for a job, trying to change his life. Does this make his ending less or more tragic?
He inherited a condo in New York City, to top off the changes. His mother’s husband didn't have children.
I didn't know him during his last two years.
I learn that he went to swim by a waterfall at a place known to be dangerous for swimming. This doesn't surprise me much; Vadim’s inflated self-confidence somehow coexisted in him with various layers of insecurity.
“Do you think he was suicidal?” I ask Boris.
“It doesn't seem so. He’d made travel plans for the next month, had plans back in the States.”
Could he have been unaware of his own potential for suicidal behavior?
The world owed him nothing and he owed nothing to the world, a friend writes in a beautiful elegy on Vadim’s Facebook page. This is precisely what he said whenever we touched upon the matters of responsibility, contribution, commitment.
Understandable for someone who, during his entire development from a child to an adult, breathed the morally corrupt atmosphere of a silencing state, a place where initiative could only end badly and good deeds never went unpunished. Or was this stance personal rather than historical? To me, it sounds like a tragedy: to strive to be needed by no one, to hope for no impact on other humans.
Anna, who acted in Vadim’s short, mentions a possible wake in New York City, a chance for friends to gather and remember Vadim. Would I go? Unlikely. Our relationship was too difficult; I couldn't just sit around and blabber about how wonderful he was, nor would I want to diminish him in the eyes of those who know him less, or differently.
Selfish, but between the ages of eight and forty-eight, Vadim was the only person who was always there. Now, so much of my life becomes unwitnessed, as if I’d imagined our debates, our ping-pong battles, his biting sarcasm, his helpful and unhelpful sides.
Now it’s my word against silence.
He was beautiful, honest, reliable – utterly endearing when not being difficult. He was usually supportive, the funniest person I’ve met. I loved him, but not enough to accept his invalidation. He betrayed the friendship’s assumption of sincerity. But he will not call to apologize. He will not do anything differently. Visiting me as a ghost is his next best option.
He silenced himself, he was silenced. The last conscious moments of his life must have been terrifying. I’m not getting out of this, he must have thought. Then, the waterfall’s roar, the beat of his own heart faded.
Silence came after him.
Born in Russia, A. Molotkov moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. "Silencing" is a part of A Broken Russia Inside Me, a memoir based on his 22 years in the USSR and his immigration, which is currently in search of a publisher. His poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows, and Synonyms for Silence; his prose is represented by Laura Strachan at Strachan Lit. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Please visit him at AMolotkov.com.