Issue 162, Summer 2002
Meantime we will express our darker purposes. Chicago, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, whence I took a cheap train to Ukraine. I boarded my train, found the couchette enveloped in thick veils of smoke and an obscure cologne called Antarctica: I watched the man in the bed across splashing a few palmfuls out of a gelid-blue bottle before the train left the station. He unbuttoned his shirt, as if stripping for me, slowly divulging his sooty tapestry only to stop an inch above his navel. The discomfort I felt then I am inclined to see now as a sense of momentousness-doubtless a rearview interpretation. The man lit a cigarette, eagerly opened a booklet with a chesty damsel in sexy distress on the cover, with a title that I-the uncertain, occasional speaker of an obsolescent Ukrainian dialect-decoded as The King of Midnight.
The King of Midnight offered me a sip now and then from a smudgy bottle. Having quickly slurped his way to the bottom, he threw himself on his bed with such force that an earthquake suddenly took place in my dream: the earth 179 cracked open, swallowing swarms of citizens; roads whiplashed, throwing cars around like matchboxes; buildings collapsed flat. As the train crawled through Poland, I crept through a series of nightmares-all sequels to the earthquake one and involving a Wal-Mart and the Sears Tower, plus mice, midgets, brooms, and other Freudian gewgaws. The final one was staged on the Soviet border: a mob of shabbily uniformed men with humongous flat hats waited in a shower of sallow, gnat-infested light; they stepped into the shadows and then onto the train. They alternately looked into the King of Midnight's passport and into his woozy face, as if comparing them until they matched. They flipped through my American passport, determinedly not impressed with the plentiful freedoms it implied, let alone the rich collection of visas collected on my existentialist peregrinations. They still let me in, albeit with a humbling frown, conveying that they could stop me, indeed vanish me, if they only wished to. But they wished other, more profitable things, so they practically threw my passport at me. I fell asleep again and woke up only after the train entered Kiev with a poignant decrescendo.
The King of Midnight sat up with a grunt, clawed at his chest for a minute, then hawked and mindfully spat into one of the empty bottles.
Humid evening heat; the streets covered with a dark, oily placenta. A man named Igor was waiting for me, holding a sign with my name on it. He was blond, blue eyed, sinewy as a marathon runner, cautiously clever-painted with many colors, as they say. I present that as a fact, while it was barely a somnolent impression at the time. I got off the train, stepping on top of a steam cloud (though the train was not a steam train-what we have here is a remake of Karenina getting off the train to be welcomed by Karenin and his banal big ears), walking slowly towards the station building as the arriving women kissed the waiting men. I got into Igor's car, which reeked of vomit and pine. A man named Vladek silently sat in the backseat, inhabiting a magnanimous smile. We glided through the streets of Kiev, entering light from darkness, darkness from light. I could not speak, as I was tired and dazed. I managed to understand whatever Igor was saying in his guttural Ukrainian, but what he was saying I do not remember. I do remember occasionally looking back at Vladek, to check if he still existed, and he grinning with the demented enthusiasm of full-fledged existence, flexing his eyebrows and winking at me, as if we had already become fellow conspirators in an obscure plot.
Everything in the building was exceptionally orderly, hall carpets stretching straight, walls white like Christmas snow.
Igor told me that the place was a Party school, normally, but that they were permitted to use it for the summer. He opened the door of a room, I walked in reluctantly, Vladek dropped my suitcases and winked the final wink. My roommate-to-be was frisking a pillow, bare chested, wearing only shorts with an anchor pattern. “I am Jozef,” he said, and offered his hand, still warm from patting the pillow. “Jozef Pronek." Allow me to introduce myself: I am Victor Plavchuk. Supposedly, I came here for the sake of connecting with my roots, but was really looking for something to do until I figured out what to do. Now allow me to invoke his slouched shoulders, his square chin, and his eyes: almond, dark, and a mile deep.
This is how I remember it now-the excitement is ex post facto-but it was much different then: thus is his cheek a map of days outworn. We stared at each other for an embarrassed moment, waiting for Igor co say something and pull us out of the mud of silence. Then there is a confusing blank: what we did or said after Igor left, I do not remember.
When I woke up the next morning, Jozef was still in bed, hence I pretended to sleep, so as to eschew the awkwardness of waking in a room with a stranger. I heard him straightening up in his bed, scratching (his chest? his thighs?) with such unfaltering vigor that I suspected masturbation for a moment.
Then rummaging through his stuff, closing the door, then leaving-his steps echoing in the hallway. I got up with a heavy steel ball in my belly-the regular morning meaninglessness of everything, when all the uses of this world seem weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. I unpacked my stuff, hung up my shirts next to my roommate's. The colors of his shirts were predominantly Eastern-European bleak, and the sneakers at the bottom of the closet were well worn, so I was self-conscious about putting my attire next to his: my sandals, my sneakers, my shoes, and a lavish collection of khakis and colorful shorts in need of ironing. For an instant, I could not remember why I had them all: the arbitrariness of those choices appeared abruptly transparent, and all the other choices I had ever made seemed absurd. I liked ( and still do) the smell of his clothes-the musty smell of a lived life.
When my roommate walked back in, I was sitting on a bed with my head in my hands, looking at my toenails in dire need of truncation.
“Good morning,” he said, earnestly, which forced me into replying.
“How are you?” he asked. I was pretty tired.
“You want one coffee?” he asked. “Bosnian.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You Americans always say sure,” he said.
I didn't see the point of arguing, so I said sure, and he chortled.
He put a little pot with a long handle on the table between our beds. He dipped what seemed to be two razors attached to a wire, with a button between them, in the pot, then plugged the bare ends of the wire into a socket. I calmly realized that he was risking his life, along with my mental welfare, by doing that.
“I know this from army.”
“You were in the army? Whose army?”
“Yugoslav. We must go. It was many years ago, when I was eighteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty-four,” he said.
He had a rotund nose, which seemed swollen, and thick meaty lips, which he kept open. He had the darkest eyes I have ever seen, like two perfect marbles. We sipped coffee, too bitter and biting—I furtively abandoned it. The birds just outside the window warbled, and someone in the room above ours was apparently tap-dancing. He was from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He used to have a band and he wrote for papers.
His father was Ukrainian, just like mine, though his was born in Bosnia. He came to Ukraine to see his father's fatherland, but he also wanted to be away for a little while from “crazy things” in Yugoslavia. He had this idea they (who were they?) put things in your head and that you had to make it empty.
I had stomach cramps and needed to go to the bathroom.
“We must go and eat breakfast,” he said. “I wait for you.”
It was while spending time in Eastern Europe that I learned to appreciate unremarkable things, and the cafeteria I entered following Jozef, occasionally bumping into him ( our steps had not yet synchronized), was spectacularly unremarkable.
The light in it was gray; a windowed wall looked out at a parking lot, which had no cars other than a gigantic black Volga, like a beached walrus. On one of the walls there were men leaning forward with fiery eyes and mountainous muscles bulging under their work uniforms. The women in folk uniforms facing them off hugged tall stalks of wheat that used to be golden and now were merely washed-yellow. There was a long line of people sliding their screeching trays down a rail, toward the food. Some of them were foreigners, recognizable in their clean, crumpled clothes, glancing around, trying to figure out where they might be. We took our trays and they were sticky, still wet in the corners, reeking of socialist grease.
I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray. The young woman in front of us, with arms that were bones coated with skin-Jozef introduced her as Vivian-put on her tray one pierogi, which looked like a severed, ashen ear. I lost my appetite instantly. I sat across from Jozef, and he munched his pierogi while I sipped the absolutely tasteless tea.
“What are you doing?” he asked me, looking straight into my eyes.
“I am drinking my tea,” I said, suddenly perplexed as to what it was that I really might be doing.
“No, in your life.”
“Oh,” I said. “In my life.” My life. Ripeness is all, and I ain't got it. “I am writing a PhD thesis.”
“I see. What are you studying?" Let it be made clear, I did not want to have that conversation.
I did not want it to be known that I was not doing what I claimed I was doing. “Shakespeare,” I said.
“What about Shakespeare?” He was an unrelenting bastard, looking straight at me all along. Look away, you knave, look at the men with fiery eyes, look at Vivian nibbling her pierogi, preparing herself for a bout of bulimia. “What is called your thesis?" I must have blushed. I sat there facing Jozef from a crumbling country, glancing in despair at the image of fiery men and fecund women, up to my neck in fucking Kiev. I said: "Queer Lear.” I was about to say: “The Collapse and Transformation of Performative Masculinity in King Lear,” but Jozef said, “My little horse he thinks it is queer, that there is no house near. ”
“Not quite queer in that sense,” I said. It occurred to me that what I was doing was inapplicable, that I could spend days explaining it to Jozef to no avail, under the forlorn mural, the world's fresh ornament. I used the opportunity to change the subject. “You like Robert Frost?”
“I was reading him on faculty,” he said. “I am also studying litrch-litrchoo—I am studying books." It was as he was fumbling with the word literature that I befriended him. It was painful for me too to utter that word, and I grinned in warm understanding, wanting to hug him like a stack of wheat. Even now, when I teach, and am forced to utter the word literature, I have a strange sensation-my nipples tickle, my eyes well up with tears.
There was a time, I freely confess, when I thought it noble not to know where one was heading. I thought that being lost meant being in the middle chapters of one's own bildungsroman, but then I became very lonesome climbing up the steep, craggy cliff of self-knowledge. I kept reading and thinking, and thinking and reading, and drinking, in order to figure out what life was all about, and whose fault it all was, before I even started living. Then I went to graduate school.
I learned that desire was important in a class populated by lonely, insecure searchers who sought people like themselves in books written centuries ago. (The teacher's claim to academic fame was entitled Karaoke and (Re)Presentation.) My father once asked me what I desired in life, and I was happy he used the word desired, for by that time I considered myself an expert on the matter. My father was the kind of man who fixed old chairs and obsolete magnetophones, thereby restoring the original order-no search, just restoration. Anyway, I followed the path of desire, but it led me nowhere, and I roamed and wandered, and became a typical young American existential tourist-Jack Kerouac was my travel agent.
And for reasons I could not fully understand at that time, I had a terrifying feeling that sitting in front of Jozef, answering questions he had no right to ask, I had reached the terminus.
“You want to eat that?” Jozef asked and pointed at the remains of my sorry breakfast.
“No,” I said.
“Can I eat it?”
“Sure." He grabbed a pierogi and devoured it.
“Always is sure,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, and laughed with a gurgle of pleasure, for we had already acquired an inside joke. He stood up with the tray and said: “See you later, alligator. “ I resisted an urge to follow him, studying instead the differently shaped grease blotches on the table, and their relation to the straight lines that ran across the table-the configuration all made sense then, as if it had been a coded message. I looked at Vivian.
“Hi,” she said, in a whispery voice, and nodded as if to confirm that she really meant it.
Vivian was a graduate student too, but in Slavic languages- she spoke five of them, including Ukrainian. She was in school in Madison. She told me there were other Americans here, and pointed vaguely toward the undiminished food line. There was Will, who was a tennis player, he was from Somewhere, California. And there was Andrea, who was from Chicago. And there were Mike and Basil, who never had breakfast. Vivian would punctuate the end of every sentence with a nod, and an occasional tucking of her hair behind her ear, on which a fence of rings stretched across her earlobe to the top. She had a shirt with a sunflower pattern, with a wide, open collar, which exposed her chicken chest and the slight curves of her breasts. She told me that we were all going to take a train to Lvov tomorrow, early in the morning, and stay in Lvov for a couple of days. I complained about not being informed about it, allowing for some good oldfashioned solidarity of Americans in a hostile foreign country, then took off, having made up my mind to spend the rest of the day sleeping. Good night, lady, good night, sweet lady, good night, good night.
We all got up at the crack of dawn-Jozef had shaken me out of my weighty slumber-picked nocturnal cruds out of our eyes, then crawled into a bus that stank of harsh cigarettes and machine oil. The bus took us to the train station, down the same desolate streets that I had roamed the previous night, which created a profound sense of moving in circles, even if there was a wobbly morning worker here and there. I wanted to point out the workers to Jozef, who was a few seats away from me, too far for conversation, close enough to be aware of me.
The train station was swarming with citizens, dragging their overstuffed bags and underfed children, anticipating torturous departures. There is a history in all men's lives, figuring the natures of the times deceased. Pensive and ponderous I was indeed, squeezed in the middle of an alien rabble-a fog of garlicky sweat and exhaustion wafting about us.
“Look on us, we are like salt going out of hand,” Jozef said. I envisioned identical grains of salt, slipping out of God's furrowy palm. It was humbling, to say the least.
The train was much too salty: the Soviet masses everywhere, wearing the expression of routine despair: women with bulky bundles huddled on the floor; stertorous men prostrate up on the luggage racks; the sweat, the yeast, the ubiquitous onionness; the fading maps of the Soviet lands on the walls; the discolored photos of distant lakes; the clattering and clanking and cranking; the complete, absolute absence of the very possibility of comfort. I survived only because I followed Jozef, who cheerfully moved through the crowd, the sea of bodies splitting open before him. We found some standing space in the compartment populated solely by our schoolmates.
There was Father Petro—whom Jozef called Father Petrol- a young, spindly, pimply Canadian priest, who kept touching his left tit as he spoke. I could easily foresee a future in which Father Petrol's parish, somewhere deep in the Canadian western provinces, was in a community-tearing upheaval, after Father Petrol had been caught innocently fondling a gentle boy. There was Tolya, a teenager from Toronto or some such place. She used every chance to press her melons against Jozef, who endured the assaults with a bemused, avuncular expression. Vladek, the man with a "Komsomol face”(Jozef)—wide open eyes, freckles, and an impish lock on his forehead-kept hugging Tolya, trying to pull her away from Jozef, sharing his bottomless vodka flask with her and anyone interested, including myself. Priggish and prudish though I may have appeared, I had a few hefty gulps that scorched my throat and earned me an approval from the mob and a smile from Jozef. There was Andrea, the Chicago woman, with whom I avoided eye contact, for I did not want to detect any common acquaintances, and she played along. Like all tourists, we wanted to believe that we were alone among the natives. Jozef kept glancing at her, and his upper lip teetered on the verge of a seductive smile.
There was Vivian, sitting in the corner, refusing drinks, and, incredibly, trying to read, which she eventually abandoned for talking to Father Petrol about—as far as I could discern—martyrs and saints. In the next compartment-I peeked in, hoping against hope that there would be seating-there was Will, with two other guys who looked American in their .flannel shirts and an assortment of traveler's gadgets: backpacks rife with pockets, pouches pendant on their necks, digital wristwatches with an excess of useful little screens.
Needless to say, windows could not be opened, and within a couple of hours moisture painted pretty sparkling pictures on the panes; the walls were sticky; my skin was itchy and I kept gasping for air. The train was speeding through a misty forest, through an army of parallel trees visually echoing the tranceful clatter. Then the train slowed to a stop in the middle of a ravine. In total silence, the trees around the ravine loomed over a couple of brawny does grazing.
“It is beautiful,” Jozef said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“How can you kill them? I don't understand,” Jozef said.
“I don't either,” I said.
The does looked up at us as if aware we were talking about them. Jozef said nothing, but raised his hand .slowly and waved at the does. One of them made a little step forward, as if trying to see us better-I swear to God the does knew we were watching them, they did see him waving at them.
It seemed like a natural, ordinary gesture, just a simple motion of the hand. I did not dare do it, because I realized Vivian was looking at me, and I was embarrassed. The train moved on, the clatter accelerated, and the does turned their butts toward us and galloped away. Jozef and I stood wordless for some time, our backs pressed against the damp coldness of the pane. I often recall that moment (the moist morning mist; the collective clamminess; the mirth of Jozef's body; et cetera) and I am forced to own up to the fact that I have never had what Jozef had: the ability to respond and speak to the world. Then it was Lvov, and we disembarked the train together, stepping into a nipping, eager air. We inhaled deeply, simultaneously, as if holding hands. What country, friends, was this?
It was in Lvov that Will the Tennis Player fully entered my field of vision. He stood in front of the glum Lvov train station, with his arms akimbo, giving assured directions to the random somnolent sojourner. He had piercing blue eyes, sinewy tennis arms-his right asymmetrically thicker than his left-and the squat, sturdy body of a Ukrainian peasant, no doubt the sludge from his ancestors' genetic pool. Quickly did I succumb to his wise leadership-he led me and Vivian and Vladek and Tolya and the others toward a bus identical to the one that transported us in Kiev. I took a window seat, and looked out when Jozef slumped his body next to me. In front of us, Vladek was telling a lame joke in lamentable English to Vivian, who managed to produce a gracious giggle.
I woke up in front of a morose building, with my cheek pressed against the promontory bone of Jozef s shoulder. Will informed us-he seemed always to know where we were and why-that this was the student dorm that would provide lodging while we were in Lvov. The students coming in and out retracted their heads between their shoulders, their chins poking their chests, their mood clearly surly. I could tell that the showers in the dorm did not work.
Jozef and I shared a room, which was, to put it mildly, ascetic: bare walls (although my memory keeps stretching on its toes to hang up a Lenin picture); steel-frame beds with thin, sunken mattresses; a wobbly chair and a wobblier desk, which sported two symmetrical nails on the inside of its rear legs, a student-torture contraption.
Will burst into our room, asked us-me, in fact, for Jozef ignored him-if everything was all right. It was, I said. Will announced that he was trying to find out if we could have better accommodations, and stormed away.
“Who is this?” Jozef said. “I don't like him.”
“He's okay,” I said. “He just wants to help.”
“Maybe,” Jozef said, and then just as abruptly walked out.
I did not want to be abandoned in this dreadful place, but I could not just follow him. So I was alone, sitting on a bed that reacted with a screech to the minutest muscle contraction, staring at an empty wall that called for a Lenin. I pressed my hands with my knees, until they were numb, distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear.
I thought of the day when my father took me to a baseball game, after years of my pleading and weeks of my mother's lobbying. He loathed baseball-hitting a ball with a stick for no discernible reason, producing mind-numbing, indulgent boredom, that was how he saw it. He had informed me that there would be no hot dogs or soda for me, but I was still giddy with excitement. We sat in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and I had my baseball mitt (a present from my mom), which had spent long months closeted. I was convinced that I would catch a ball, that it was my day, when everything would come perfectly together. My father refused to stand up for the national anthem, because he was still Ukrainian, as if “The Star-Spangled Banner” wounded his Ukrainianness. He made me stand up, he wanted me to appreciate America, for I was born here. During the game, he was bored out of his mind, and he kept looking anxiously at his watch. It did not happen, I caught nothing. We left in the sixth inning, and I hated my father for being a fucking foreigner: displaced, cheap, and always angry.
Whereupon Jozef walked in with a handsome bottle of vodka, unscrewed the cap and said: “You want drink?”
“Hell yeah,” I said and took a throat-parching gulp.