Vodka, Girls, and Record Players
By Davidy Rosenfeld
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
It all started when Sergei, Mr. Gold, and I were sitting together at the bus station on Ben Yehuda Street talking about life, love, and the long journey home.
Ben Yehuda Street is long, and everyone knows it has a beginning – but does it have an end?
“Sergei,” I asked, “where does Ben Yehuda Street end?”
“How should I know?” Sergei protested.
“Well, you’ve lived here for ten years, haven’t you?”
“I’ve been drinking too much for at least nine of them,” Sergei gloomily admitted. “Now I couldn’t even tell you where I parked my car.”
“Sergei, old friend,” I said sweetly. “You don’t have a car.”
Sergei’s eyes widened in surprise.
My name is Alex, but you, my friends, can call me Sasha. I was born in Moscow, the world’s fourth biggest city. There I grew up, studied, found a job, married, divorced, got fired. Then I dug myself deep into my bed and stayed there for a while, staring at the cheap paper moon pinned up in the sky over Moscow.
While I wallowed in bed, a lot of my friends emigrated to that holiest of all lands: Israel. So one day I climbed out of bed, got on a plane, and when I got off it I was in Tel Aviv, the city that never takes a break. Not exactly ideal for someone like me who prefers his breaks to never end.
I was sure that here in Israel I’d get rich, find a young model who would love me for my great sense of humor and have all the papers write about me: Sasha, the mysterious oligarch, and Putin’s close friend.
I was a restaurant waiter and a parking lot cashier. I stood guard outside office towers so the buildings wouldn’t run off anywhere, and cleaned everything you could think of – except for myself.
In short, I found myself in a new country – and everything stayed exactly the same.
In the summers, Sergei and I sleep outside with the birds – sometimes in public parks, and sometimes at the beach where it’s peaceful, not too crowded, and the air is good.In the winters, we live in deserted houses where there’s no electricity or running water, and the neighbors… well, let’s just say they’re not the sort of people you’d want dancing at your sister’s wedding. At least the winters are short here, a month or two and they’re over.
Living on the street can be hard. And sometimes I get sick of the way people look at me, like I’m a piece of dirt stuck on their shoes. Sometimes they look right through me as if I’m invisible. Sometimes I get sick of the stench that comes out of every orifice in my body, and sick of scrounging for food scraps in the trash cans.Sick of this whole life.
But on a night like this, when the light summer breeze whispers between the ficus trees that look nothing like the birch trees back home, and I am sitting on the bus station bench, drinking vodka, looking at a pale moon flexing itself, preparing to slowly rise to the edge of these sweet skies arching over us – on a night like this I wouldn’t mind living this way for another million years at least.
Besides, once you get used to the great outdoors, it’s hard to go back to a house with four walls that won’t let you breathe.
What am I missing exactly? I don’t have a wife to nag me, or children to blame me for all their faults. I don’t even have a job to hate and feel frustrated about.
In short, I have every reason in the world to be happy.
Once a year, a little girl wearing round glasses comes from city hall to try to save Sergei and me from ourselves.
There is a problem, though. Sergei hardly understands any Hebrew, just a word here and there, and most of those are curses. Lucky for him, he has me to translate for him.
“What does she want?” Sergei asks suspiciously.
“She wants us to leave the street.”
“But we’ve already left everything else!” Sergei gets all riled up. “What more does she want us to leave? What? Does she think her father owns the street? Where has she come from, anyway? The nerve of that girl!”
“I would leave,” I explain to the girl, “but my friend here doesn’t want to.”
The girl’s name is Naama. She has long brown hair and sweet, caring eyes.
“Good thing he has good friends like you.”
“Yes, Sergei is my best friend. I’ll never leave him.”
“What did you just tell her?” Sergei asks.
“That you’re a bachelor and a nice guy, and that she should call you if she ever needs a mover, or a new boyfriend.”
“Did you tell her I’m an electrical engineer?” Sergei immediately straightens up, brushing a grubby hand through the few hairs he still has on his head.
“Sure, right after I told her I’m the king of Spain.”
“Your friend, why does he insist on living on the street?” Naama asks.
I shrug. “I don’t know, I guess he’s just used to it.”
“I Hebrew very, very little,” Sergei says, demonstrating with his hands. “What does she want?” he then asks me.
“She wants us to go live in a dacha with a big blue swimming pool and a cherry orchard, but I told her we prefer to stay on the street and fight the bourgeoisie to your last drop of blood.”
“Hey… Wait… You… Why are you so generous with my blood?” Sergei is upset. “If the lady wants to give us swimming pools and cherries, I’ll take –”
“But we’re Soviet laborers, remember? The proletariat that will never give up and never surrender!”
“What is he saying?” Naama asks. She has a pleasant voice that always seems to understand me. A voice like sweet almonds.
“He says you’re a very, very nice girl, but that it’s simply impossible.”
“I’d even take a very little apartment,” Sergei says excitedly, “so long as it has running water.”
“Sorry, he says no.”
“All right.” She shakes her head. Gently, like a little bird. “But if either of you changes your mind, there’s a municipal shelter not far from here. You could both go there.”
“I don’t think he’d want that,” I shake my head.
“Here’s my telephone number just in case.” She sighs and hands me a card. It simply says: Naama Blumenthal, and beneath, Social Worker. Her telephone and cell numbers are on the card, but there isn’t a word about hersweetalmond voice.
I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. As soon as she’s gone, I shred the card into bits and toss them up into the sky, where they flutter like little white butterflies.
The cops also come around from time to time. When they do, I start talking in Bulgarian. True, I don’t speak a word of the language, but then, neither do the cops.
“What’s your name?” asks a fat cop with short black hair. A young, balding cop is standing next to him.
“Dzili eshchek dat.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Rosposova zu dsi pechi.”
“Got an ID … Pechi-pechi?”
I hand him my ID.
“So you know what an ID is?”
I nod, but in Bulgarian.
“Where do you live?”
I make a no with my head, while Sergei pulls a Sergei face.
“All right, get out of here, and don’t let me see your face on my corner again or I’ll bust your sorry ass, got it?”
“Tu kara achi,” I mutter appreciatively.
“Okay let’s go,” says the fat cop.
Behind their backs, I poke out my tongue.
“We need vodka,” Sergei declared. “Do you have any money?”
Luckily, I found a crumpled bill in my pocket. The face of David Ben-Gurion stared out from it – another great Russian pioneer. Everyone knows this country was built by Russians: Ben-Gurion, Ben Yehuda, Bialik, Trumpeldor, all Russian. No wonder Israel is coming apart after seventy years. If Germans had built it, or Swiss, things would have looked different, trust me.
Nervous trance music surrounds the kiosk on the corner where we go to buy the nectar of the gods known to modern science as Vodka Gold.
After three drinks of Vodka Gold, the world becomes brighter; after six it gets darker, and evil thoughts start crawling on me like black, hairy spiders. By the ninth, the world has started swirling, opening like a rosebud, and suddenly I know everything – all the secrets of the universe are clear to me, and all the humans on this Earth are my brothers. I just want and hug them, and tell them, “Brothers, we are, all of us, poor, miserable Jews. We are, all of us, human beings. We never chose to be born; we don’t even know why we live. So tell me, brothers, why can’t we all simply love each other?”
It’s a great speech, I know. But usually, it comes out of my mouth more like this: “Argh… Jews… soon…brrr…”
Then I fall flat on the pavement.
A young unshaven guy took my crumpled bill and gave me a bottle of vodka. He looked at us with disgust in his eyes.
"Why you looking me like that?” Sergei asked nervously.
“Looking? Who’s looking?” the unshaven guy answered. He was a little nervous, too.
“You look me. I have eyes!”
“Listen, you got your vodka, now get out.”
“Now you talk like this, too?” Sergei’s eyes started to narrow and get red. I knew he had a screwdriver in his pocket, so I put my hand on his shoulder. “Take it off,” Sergei hissed nervously. “One more word and I’ll show him where the crabs go every winter.”
I had no idea where crabs go in winter, but I did have a pretty good idea where the closest holding cell in Tel Aviv was, and it wasn’t a hotel I could recommend, let me tell you. The food was always fresh the day before yesterday, and they didn’t change the pillows too often, probably because they didn’t want to hurt the bedbugs.
“Let’s go, Sergei old buddy. Leave him alone. We’ll have a drink and forget. Why fight? Come on, let’s go to the beach.”
“Well, all right,” Sergei muttered. He spat on the sidewalk and we started crawling, stumbling, faltering up the coiling street like two blind men in a dark room searching for the world’s blackest cat.
We did end up on the beach, I don’t know exactly how. Little grains of sand scattered in the air. Young men were running, I had no idea where to, or why.
I spread a blanket. We sat and stared at the boring waves that rolled eternally to the shore in the same tired way.
“Sergei, what did you want to be when you were little?”
“A cosmonaut, like Yuri Gagarin. I wanted to check if God is actually up there. And you, Sashin’ka, what did you want to be?”
“A poet,” I admitted. “Like Brodsky who ran away from work to write poems. And when they tried him for being an anti-social parasite and asked him, ‘Who said you were a poet?’he answered, ‘And who said I am a human being?’”
A man needs something high, sublime – something he can truly fill his lonely soul with. And what else could it be but a poem?
Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy never wrote poems; they wanted to solve the world’s mysteries. Poets, though, don’t want to solve any mysteries. All a poet wants is to write that one true poem. All his life he struggles to find it. He doesn’t need a crowd to understand him, or phony applause; all he wants is that one, true, desperate poem. The one that will free the world from its chains.
But that poem has never been written, and perhaps it never willbe.
As for me, I always wanted the truth – and always ran from it. Because the truth has a sour taste that makes you want to spit, unless you mix it with lots of vodka, which is why I like my truth in the same way I like my cops – as far from me as possible.
Getting back to the subject of poetry, I was born to be a poet. I have a deep soul, big dreams. I even know how to drink. The only little thing I still need to do in order to be a world-class poet is to write poems.
Not that I don’t know how to write poems. Of course I do. Who doesn’t know how to write a poem? It’s just that I don’t know how to write the poems I really want to write. Instead, all those poems I never wanted to write keep popping up inside me like ticks after rain.
Poems need to be simple and true. My poems are like a carousel of black swans; they keep turning and turning but never get to where they’re really supposed to be.
“Remember how, in school, we had to learn Pushkin’s poems by heart?” Sergei asked me. “And if we didn’t remember a single word… whack! We got hit on the hand with a stick. My hand was always as red as borscht after the lessons, but I remember every word to this very day… You know the Pushkin poem that starts, ‘I loved you, and I probably still do’?”
“Of course. And do you love me?”
“What kind of question is that?” Sergei looked almost insulted. “Isn’t it clear, Sashin’ka? I love you with the purest love in the world. But what will your love get me the – crabs ? You give me nothing but trouble, Sasha dear. That is true love. All the rest is just chitter-chatter, jibber-jabber.”
“So, Pushkin? He loved the girl in the poem?”
“Of course not, it’s just a poem. Can you get drunk from a vodka commercial?”
I shake my head.
“Love has nothing to do with poems. You love like this, with a kiss,” Sergei says, and smacks me a kiss right on the mouth.
If that’s love, I think I’ll take the herring instead.
At the beach, we sat on the torn blanket. We drank and drank and then drank some more. The sun went down lazily into the sea, and all the rivers ran into it, but how come the sea never fills?
“I think –”
“Don’t. The turkey thought, too, and where did he end up? In the soup!” I said yawning.
“I had a dream, Sasha,” Sergei whispered in my ear. “God came to me in the dream. He had a beard like Tolstoy’s and a face as beautiful as Lermontov’s. Only, he had this big ugly stain on his forehead.”
“Are you sure it was God and not Gorbachev?”
“Oh, come on… it was God, I’m sure. He told me happiness is here waiting for us, just around the corner.”
“Happiness, nothing less…”
“It was God who told me that, and God never lies,” Sergei protested.
“That’s very nice of God, but could he be a little more specific? How about an address or a telephone number?”
“An address,” Sergei said contemptuously. “Who needs an address when we have God himself to take care of us?”
If our current situation was an illustration of how God was taking care of us, maybe he should start another business.
“And how will it be in that happiness?” I asked interestedly. “What will we have?”
“Vodka of every kind you can imagine. And women – lots of women! Russians, Israelis, even Japanese. The proletariat, my dear Sasha, has no homeland. And speaking of women, did my wife call by any chance?”
I shook my head. Sergei isn’t married and doesn’t have a phone, but why break that sad news to him?
“Women, you just can’t trust them,” Sergei asserted. “But you, Sasha, you’re a real friend. So come on, let us march on to happiness.”
“To happiness!” I echo his command and we start walking away from the sea.
“Tell me, do you ever think about Natasha?” I asked.
“Of course not! Why would I think about her?” Sergei answered angrily.
“Yes, but –”
“No buts. That’s over and done with. Is there anything left in the bottle?”
He snatched the bottle, drank, and said, “Forget her, we are on our way to happiness, remember?”
“Of course,” I agreed.
“But maybe we should take the bus there,” Sergei suggested. He was tired after walking five whole steps.
“We don’t have any money.”
“Money? Why be such a bourgeoise? We have love, two Russian souls, vodka. What else do we need?”
“Money, if we want bus tickets.”
“I don’t give a hoot about their money. We go on foot,” Sergei said, already tottering on faltering feet, and immediately sat on the bus station bench. “Well, are we going or what?”
“Sure thing, Sergei, just let me iron my shoelaces first.”
The bus came. We got in through the rear door without paying. The driver hadn’t even noticed us.I sat by an open window, Sergei behind me. The engine growled, the clouds started dancing, the sun started setting, the bus gradually emptied, an old woman with frozen fish eyes kept staring at me with a silly look on her face.
“Sergei, is everything all right?”
Sergei didn’t answer.
“Sergei,” I turned. “Are you all right?”
The bench behind me was empty. No Sergei in sight.
“Say,” I said to a skinny girl who was sitting behind me, blue earbuds stuck in her ears. “Did you happen to see a short Russian guy? He was sitting behind me, just in front of you.”
She shook her head, no.
I rushed up to the driver.
“Where’s that Russian guy I got on with?”
The driver looked at me oddly.
“You got on the bus all on your own, buddy.”
Stupid! Sergei must have gotten off at the last station. Never mind, the vodka trail would lead me straight to him.
I pressed the Stop button, got off at the station, and didn’t bother to say goodbye.
I was at the start of Ben Yehuda Street, not far from the sea. I looked in all possible directions. Where had Sergei gone?
I shouldn’t have let him drink so much, we shouldn’t have gotten on that cursed bus, and I shouldn’t have let him sit behind me. What a stupid mistake!
Where was he?
At the other end of the street, I caught a glimpse of Sergei’s grayish hair. I tried to run, almost fell, but when I was able to look at the man’s face, it wasn’t Sergei at all. The guy didn’t even look like him.
Maybe he’d gone to see Natasha? She worked in the area, not too far away, but where exactly? I couldn’t remember anymore.
I roamed among the apartment buildings by the sea, and they all looked the same.
I went inside the first building, then the second. I peeked at the mailboxes, read the names.
Another building, more mailboxes, and then I went down a few steps into a basement. From the other side of the door, I heard Natasha’s familiar voice saying, “In half an hour, she’s busy now. But believe me, it’ll be worth the wait.”
I knocked on the door.
“All right, sorry, I have another call,” she said. “Thank you and have a nice day.”
She opened the door, smiled at me, and wanted to fall on my neck and whisper to me sweetly, “Oh, Sasha, how wonderful that you’ve come.” But for the sake of historical accuracy, what she actually said was, “What do you want from me, Alex? Are you drunk again?”
“Hello, Sasha, how are you?” I said.
“Hello, Sasha, how are you?” she echoed and gave me a tired look. “Now, what do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“I don’t want anything from you. I’m looking for Sergei. Have you seen him?
"What makes you think he might have been here?”
“He talked about you just before he disappeared.”
She was silent for a moment. “When?”
“Now, just now,” I said impatiently.
Natasha used to live with us on the street. A year and a half ago she joined NA and got clean. She found a job, an apartment, a life, everything you’re supposed to find out there.
We used to be real friends. Today I hardly think about her.
Natasha Rostova was no longer a girl, but her eyes were still as black as a deep night. Her hair, long and black, flowed down to her shoulders. She had a loving soul and compassion for all mankind. She always wore shirts with long sleeves so no one could see the scars.
“He’s been talking about you a lot lately,” I told her.
“What we had once is over. Done.”
“Done? Just like that?”
“Yes, it’s done. I have a different life now. Don’t you get it?”
I stayed silent.
“I thought you had matured a little,” she said.
“Well, you were wrong.”
“Don’t you ever think about going back?” she suddenly asked.
“Back where?” I asked suspiciously.
“To a normal life. Aren’t you tired of the street?”
I have nowhere to go back to. This is my home.
How did I get here? It’s a secret. If I tell you, it won’t be a secret any more. You’ll probably not believe me anyway, since when can the really important things be spoken in words?
You can’t share suffering. It needs to remain close, pressed right against your heart, like a joker in a game of Russian roulette.
When you live on the street you become invisible, transparent. No country, no family, not even a mother.
You become nothing.
Maybe now, you can write that poem you’ve been wanting to write your whole life.
The poem no one will ever read.
“Go back where?” I asked.
“You know, I can help you a little. You and Sergei, I mean.”
“How would you help?”
“What do you need?”
Natasha’s phone kept ringing and ringing.
I remembered how Sergei took her to the emergency room when she overdosed, how he sat with her in the ambulance, singing Vysotsky songs. How he stayed at her side in the hospital all night. How they slept in each other’s arms as one dirty body on an old bedspring that someone had left in a dumpster. They used to make love like wild animals, blind to the world, covered with cold sweat and screaming.
“Your phone,” I said. “Someone is looking for you.”
“I know,” she said. “Never mind, let them wait. I just want you to know that you and Sergei are important to me. It’s not as if…” she fell silent. Just for a moment. It’s not as if… I’ve forgotten what you did for me.”
It was my turn to be silent.
“So if you ever want to come back…”
“To do what? Stand guard outside a shopping mall? Or maybe sit in a parking lot booth?”
“Stop being so cynical.”
“And I know exactly why you left Sergei.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“You have a job now, money, an apartment, so Sergei suddenly doesn’t fit into this perfect picture.”
“You’re an idiot, Sasha. A stupid fool.”
“Why? Because I don’t think love is a business?”
“Isn’t that what you think? You’re all grown up now, aren’t you?”
"I didn’t leave Sergei. Sergei left me. He preferred you and the street. I begged him to come live with me. He didn’t want to.”
“He did want to stay with you, Natasha, but he was afraid.”
She sighed. “Fine. Go find him, and come back when you have, all right?”
“All right,” I promised.
"And don’t drink too much, Sasha.”
“I always drink exactly as much as I need to. Not a drop more.”
I left Natasha. Her phone was still ringing as I went up the stairs, and I thought I heard her voice calling me, like the Sirens tempting Odysseus to turn back.
I have nowhere to go back to.
Iopened my eyes. It was dark, not a star in the sky, and Sergei was gone.All around me, people came and went, running back and forth, but where was my love?
“Sergei! Sergei!” I screamed.
People stopped and looked at me strangely.
Where to go? What to do? Who will take care of my Sergei? All alone in the big city, looking for me.
Suddenly, I had a feeling I knew where Sergei was. He had gone to Mischa.
Yes, that had to be where he was. At the Baba Yaga.
I want to go back. Back to my childhood, my home. Back to the years of my innocence.
I am Odysseus coming back after the war. Life is a war, and I am the only survivor. So many have fallen and gone, buried between the bushes, leaving dim memories behind, soon to be gone. But I have survived. Faltering, old, but alive, and coming back from the land of the dead. Back to you.
But from this voyage you can’t come back the same. Even Odysseus returned to his Ithaca and found a different homeland, and he too was a different Odysseus. As they say, you can’t cross the same river twice, and maybe not even once.
Good thing this city doesn’t have a real river; just a small, stinking creekfilled with green water.
I can’t go back to my beloved Russia. She’s gone. Who has ruined my childhood dreams? Who stole the kokoshnik from the fair lady?
Was it the tsar, Putin, who thinks the sun rises between his buttocks, or Medvedev his bootlicker, or Chernomyrdin, who said that we wanted the best, but it turned out as always?
Who knows? Who cares? It is all lost, forgotten, gone with yesterday’s wind that whispered between the eucalyptus trees of my new homeland.
All that is left of my Rodonia is a pile of books I always carry in my bag. What’s in it? Dostoyevsky, the gambler who wrote so much about good and evil and how easy it is to feel ashamed to be good. Chekhov, who knew how to cure all mankind except himself. And Bulgakov, who desperately tried to write the truth in a world full of lies. You are all my brothers. I came out from under your overcoats.
Ten minutes later I reached Baga Yaga.
Baba is an old Russian witch who lives in the heart of the forest, in a tiny hut that stands on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence made of skulls. And if you happen to meet her, you better start running – fast.
But here, not far from Jaffa, Baba Yaga is just a restaurant that serves delicious food: juicy vareniki stuffed with potatoes that melt in your mouth, and fried onions with just a touch of cream. Steaming pelmeni with lamb and pickled mushrooms that taste like home, and blini stuffed with sour cherries.
Sergei and I sometimes come here after midnight, when all the guests have gone. Mischa, who works in the kitchen, gives us the leftovers.
I knocked on the back door. Luckily, Mischa opened it, not that frumpy cook.
Mischa is a young man, almost thirty, and pretty tall. He has fair hair, sunken cheeks, a pleasant pale face, large, soft, blueeyes, and a thin whitish beard that clings to the end of his chin. He was wearing a white apron, and his long golden hair was tied in a ribbon.
“Hello, Professor Sasha. How are you? Hungry?” he asked, his smile.wide
“I’m looking for Sergei.”
“I haven’t seen him. What’s happened?”
“We were on the bus, and suddenly he was gone. I think he drank. Well, I drank too and… and –” I stammered: “I don’t know what to do. I must find him.”
“You want me to help you?” Mischa asked softly.
“I don’t know, I –”
“Where do you think he went?”
“He said something about going to find happiness.”
“Well, he should have taken us with him then! All right, let me just tell the cook I’m going to find happiness.” He winked and closed the door.
There are no guided trips to happiness. The road leading to it is so narrow that only a single man could fit on it.
Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I think he was wrong. There aren’t any happy families. They’re all miserable. The only difference is that some families still make the effort to pretend, while families like mine and Sergei’s have stopped making the effort.
Can anyone be happy in this world? Maybe the taster in a vodka factory. Vodka made from the purest water, from sweet wheat grains as pure as gold. But the rest of us, well… we’re all a little miserable and a little happy. That’s just life, isn’t it?
The door opened. “Come, let’s go,” Mischa said.
“Where to? I’m tired Mischa. Forget it. I just need a drink, that’s all.”
“What’s happened to Sergei?” Mischa moved closer. I moved away. “I don’t know.”
“You know better than I do.”
“He was sick and tired. Maybe he wanted to end it all?”
Mischa was quiet, and then he said slowly, “So he wanted to kill himself…”
“We all have hard times, but we can’t surrender to despair. There is always a hope. We need to smile, even laugh if we can,” Mischa said and smiled sadly. And I remembered, I don’t know why, that Mischahad been hospitalized for two years at the Abarbanel madhouse after his little baby died. He thought he was the Messiah, that he could save the world. “Things will change for the better, Sasha, but we have to keep on believing. And we can’t forget to hope, and we must always help our brothers and sisters.”
“But you care. Youhelp, don’t you, Mischa?”
“Me?” he asked bitterly. “If I cared, I wouldn’t be here. I would have gone to Africa, to help the babies that are starving to death,the kids that are dying in hospitals without medicine. But what do I do instead? Bake vareniki and Napoleonchiks for the Tel Aviv rich. What kind of man does that make me?”
“What, you think you could just go over there and save Africa? Besides, why go so far? Don’t we have enough misery here, just around the corner?”
“Sasha, I’m not trying to save Africa; I’m just trying to save myself. You need help and here I am, going on about Africa again. Sergei –where do you think we can find him?”
“Ireally couldn’t tell.”
“We’ll just have to do our best then, Sasha. Let’s go.”
I looked at him, sighed, and said sadly, “No, Mischa. Thank you, but I need to go by myself.I’m the one who lost him, so I’m the one who has to find him. You can’t help me, not anymore.”
The world is huge. Full of immense oceans and snow-capped mountains where no man has ever set foot.
And this planet is just one tiny dust ball spinning in space. Millions of planets just like it spin around the stars that crowd the Milky Way, which is just one of billions of galaxies floating and spinning aimlessly in the vast, empty spaceof the universe.
How can I find Sergei in this sea of stars?
I really don’t have a clue how I got to the train station.
I stoodon the platform by the tracks. Trains hurtled past, brakes shrieked. Anna sat on the bench in front of me. A beautiful womanin a black dress. A long black braid resting on her pale shoulder.
“What did I want, Sasha? A bit of love. I swear to you that was all I wanted. I left my home for him, left my little child. I thought he’d love me. My husband never loved me,” she whispered, “but he had gotten used to me. I even bored him. I left my child for him. What a fool. Now my child hardly talks to me. He won’t hug me. Whatshould I do?”
I said nothing.
“I can’t make myself feel good,” she went on. “Can’t make anyone feel good. I don’t even know what‘good’ is anymore. Once I thought I knew what was good and what was bad, but once you start digging into your soul, you find things you wish you hadn’t.”
She gave me a gloomy look and took a few quick steps towards the tracks. “Don’t try to save me. I don’t want to be saved.”
“But Anna –” I tried to reach out for her.
A terrible screech of brakes, a loud scream, and I escaped – running.
I ran into the train car, drenched in sweat and scared. Fog blanketed the world outside and I couldn’t see anything through the windows. I closed my eyes, just for a second.
And then I saw it through the window. The central station itself with its filthy streets, aging prostitutes, petty thieves, skinny drug addicts. They were all there, calling us: “Workers of the world, come step into happiness, you have nothing to lose other than the money you don’t even have.”
I got off the train, still in the station, my step faltering, not knowing where to go.I found myself lost in the endless corridors until, finally, the station spat me out through some door and I was in an unfamiliar, empty road.
I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t in Tel Aviv. But where was I?
Everything was dark, closed, not a soul in sight. A few streetlights here and there, a cold wind starting up from the sea.
Slowly I walked along the deserted street and thought about Sergei walking all on his own in the dark streets, not knowing where he was, or where to go, or why he should go on living. Without me, he’d be lost, he’s so naive – and stupid too. How would he ever find his way back to Ben Yehuda Street?
And me? Who would I take care of? What would I do without my beloved Sergei?
You’re the only one I can save.
The street is empty. My footsteps are the only sound. I think I am the only man left in the world.
“Sergei!” I howl like a grey wolf.
They must all be laughing at me. They must all think I’m a drunk. Maybe it’s true. And maybe I don’t care.
Sometimes I have these bad thoughts. Sometimes I think about the night, and the darkness, and my death coming closer. Thoughts about the loneliness and the great darkness between all the people. And my heart fills with compassion, first for myself, then for Sergei, and then for all the humans in this strange world.And I think about God, lost, drunk between the stars, muttering something in a strange language no one understands. And I think about all the things I don’t have. Home, work, family. All I have. Just one Sergei.
When I was young, people thought I was going to be somebody. Even I used to think that way. Now it’s nothing, all gone with the wind. All that is left is a last drop barely hanging onto the end of the bottle – and even that will soon be gone.
So I hold on to that bottle and drink, and then I drink some more, then just a last drink to be on the safe side, and the world changes incolor and shape. It roars, it dances, it puts its arms around me, and tells me, “Sasha, don’t worry, after all you’re a flying cat.”
But how can I fly while the earth is shaking beneath my feet, spinning, vanishing, rising and falling, until I can hardly stand?
“Meow! Meow!” I howl. Luckily, no dogs come to bite me.
I was sitting on the sidewalk. A car raced past me and vanished into the darkness. I had drained the bottle down to the last drop. I looked at my reflection in the window pane set into the bus station. I was pretty sure it wasn’t me looking back. I got up and started walking, not because I had anywhere to go, I just had nothing else to do.Then, suddenly, I noticed a tiny figure far.off
“Sergei!” I shouted as loudly as I could.
The faraway figure turned his head.
It was him!
Sergei ran to me, and I ran straight to Sergei. Well… as straight as a man can run with half a bottle of vodka in his stomach.We hugged so hard that I felt my ribs nudging my back. And I swear to God that if he hadn’t been stinking like rotten eggs and old socks, I’d have kissed his ugly face.
People always want what they don’t have. If they’re alone, they want a woman. And if they have a woman, all they want is to be left alone. They never love what they have; instead they fall in love with everything they don’t have.
Me? I’m happy with my Sergei and a little piece of the sky.It’s easy to be happy: Just think about all the things you have.
First off, you’re alive. Second, you’re healthy. Third… I forgot the third, but the fourth is hope. And the rest? Well, it just comes and goes.
“Am I right, Sergei?”
“You’re always right, friend, but my name isn’t Sergei,” said Sergei.
“What’s your name then?” I tried to focus. It was Sergei’s face, I believed. I wasn’t sure about the body, though. Generally speaking, it was kind of Sergei. How could it not be Sergei if he was so completely Sergei? Basic Marxist dialectic logic!
“Well, my name is… Stalin. Yes, I’m Stalin. I’m steel,” he said, and puffed up his chest.
“You’re Sergei, not Stalin.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! You’re Sergei.”
“Sergei…. my name is Sergei. Okay, let it be Sergei.” He shrugged.
“So what do you have to say, Sergei?”
“About where you disappeared to?”
“Disappeared? Me? I’ve been here all the time,” he protested.
“You got off the bus.”
“What bus?” Sergei marveled. “I was flying in space with Laika. We were on our way to happiness, all across the Milky Way. I just got off at the wrong station.”
“You’ve come to the right place,” I told him. “Happiness is here. Right here.”
“Here?” He looked about suspiciously. “It doesn’t look like happiness to me.” He wrinkled his forehead. “Where are the girls? The record players? The vodka pouring from the fountains?”
“I’m sorry, Sergei, this is happiness. There’s nothing more. We may have just a drop left.” I handed him the bottle, and he sucked up the last few drops and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“All right, if you say this is happiness who am I to argue? That’s all we have. Come on, Tovarich, let’s go be happy.”
Yes, that’s all we have. Only Sergei and I, two no-use citizens in a dark, dead-end street. Were we born to be useful? Weren’t we born to touch, love, wither, and die?What use are flowers? Clouds? Dreams? I remembered my dad who had said nothing good would ever come out of me.
He was probably right. I remembered the dreams I had when I was a boy. The poem I never wrote and now never will. That poem is my life.
“Come, Sergei. Let’s go back to Ben Yehuda Street,”Isaid.
We started walking. But I knew we would never go back.