Arthur or Night on Earth

Maxim Matusevich

Photo 1

By far, by far he was the most dazzling, the most charismatic man of the cohort. Just a couple of years older than the rest of us, Arthur comported himself with suave dignity. He was tall, lanky, mischievous-looking, with broad, fashionably stooped shoulders. A slight overbite rendered his mouth a perpetual sensual pout. He spoke slowly, deliberately, in a deep baritone (“what a beautiful velvety voice,” my grandma would note each time he called me at home), which presented a strange and alluring contrast to his youthful looks. Arthur advocated self-reliance and independence from parents. He was the only person I knew who rented his own apartment and visited his parents on the weekends. Even though not Jewish he worshipped his mother with whom, he insisted, he conversed in French, the language in which he claimed fluency. He dressed with studied and confusing shabbiness—confusing because even his threadbare suit fit him snugly; he always looked stylish. He was a fartsovschik—a smooth, black- market operator who haunted the hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners with whom in engaged in mysterious commercial transactions. By his own admission he got a particular satisfaction out of “playing on contrasts”—usually coming to class wearing a beat-up pair of shapeless Skorohod shoes, but then showing up the next day at the CP History seminar sporting brand new Swedish snickers and the impossibly cool Lee jeans. Arthur worshipped late-nineteenth-century French poets and German automobile engineering. He despised “Sovok,” but his objections to the Soviet regime were not of a political nature, at least not outwardly. He treated my dissident protestations with slight contempt. “You see,” he would say, “you keep whining about freedom and various Sakharovs, but you really are a pawn of the system. You wear crap, you take money from your parents, if you ever get a date what are you gonna do with the girl? Can you pick her up in a car (even in a Zaporozhets)? take her to a restaurant? bribe the bouncer and get her in a bar at some Intourist hotel? No? I didn’t think so. What am I even talking about . . . you’ve never been to a restaurant, you’ll never own a car.” “Listen,” he would continue, “the problem with this regime is not that they lock up the occasional dissident, the problem is the complete, total lack of quality. This fucking country is built on crap and manufactures crap. In huge quantities. What? the Hermitage? Who fucking needs the Hermitage when the best they can do is steal a Fiat design and even then fuck it up and produce some piece of Zhiguli junk? Stop listening to the BBC, learn to be a man.”

Easier said than done. My one foray onto the “Galyora”—the second-floor gallery at the shopping center Gostiny Dvor, a place where the illicit trading business was conducted by an array of shady characters—resulted in a loss of fifty rubles and any further ambition to be a fartsovschik. (I also spent a night at the nearby police station, puzzled by the seeming intimacy of the interactions between the area drunks and prostitutes and their uniformed captors.) By the second semester Arthur and I had settled into a strange sort of friendship with Arthur playing the role of an older and far more experienced comrade who recognized both the potential and the many limitations of his protégé. I continued to listen to the BBC and accept money from my parents. My love life tended toward White Nights—romantic and therefore unglamorous. Arthur continued to regale us with the stories of his entrepreneurial successes and amorous conquests; his commitment to materiality had evolved into an elaborate personal philosophy of consumption. While clearly cherishing our friendship, he nevertheless cultivated a distinct separateness, a strategic compartmentalizing of his social engagements. I never met his parents or any of his numerous girlfriends. That is, until he moved in with Nika.

That Arthur would end up dating (and eventually marrying) Nika stood to reason. A year our senior Nika had an air of someone much older (and wiser) and seemed to inhabit a galaxy far removed from our own. She was a child of privilege─her father worked for the merchant marine and spent most of the year traversing the foreign seas and disembarking in exotic ports. This rare access to foreign lands manifested itself in Nika’s tasteful outfits and in her air of detachment from the quotidian. In the drab, stale-smelling hallways of the history department she looked out of place. And she knew it. She perfected a classy retro look; her fleeting smile was hard to decipher, but I chose to interpret it as mildly disdainful; years later I would recognize the type in late Woody Allen films. Whenever I would work up enough courage to chat with her, Nika’s demeanor remained friendly but distant. Of course, I had a crush on Nika but somehow it was not sexual—more of a fascination with a delicately beautiful and enigmatic specimen. To us, she was just as inaccessible as Lara . . . but for entirely different reasons. Not to Arthur though. . . . In the spring of our sophomore year, during a mind-numbingly dull lecture on Russian Medieval History he solemnly confided in me that he and Nika were an item. In fact, they had been dating for months but by a mutual agreement kept their intimacy a secret. I suspect the reasons for such equivocation had less to do with any notion of privacy and more with Arthur’s weakness for French Symbolist poets, especially his famously debauched namesake. To tell the truth, the intrepid black-marketeer was a closeted romantic. Like the rest of us.

Photo 2

Arthur made a big show of hosting me for dinner at Nika’s apartment, which, as I discovered, was located just a few blocks from my own. The nights were already growing short and pale and at 10 p.m. there was no need for light. The apartment was classical old St. Petersburg—full of books and dark, dusty nooks and crannies; apparently it belonged to Nika’s family since before the revolution—a rare but not unheard of case of private ownership surviving in some stunted form the vagaries of Soviet rule. Arthur played the role of the man of the house with gravity (and barely concealed delight), and if he wanted to make an impression on his younger friend he certainly succeeded beyond all expectations. They were the first “real” couple of people roughly my age that I knew―a couple who shared their own space, slept next to each other, made love in their own bed, took turns in the shower, and then sat together to breakfast in the morning—so Remarque-like (we were mad about Erich Maria), so indomitably adult. There was no trace of Nika’s usual aloofness; she chatted freely and animatedly, and I had some trouble reconciling this sweet and vivacious girl with the enigmatic Great Gatsby character I had been admiring from afar over the previous couple of years. They addressed each other with cute pet names—“little birdy” for Nika and “little piggy” for Arthur—which somehow didn’t strike me as corny but rather preternaturally cool and again . . . so adult. The evening was precious and dreamlike and I responded to it the way I (and most of my friends at the time) responded to most of life’s memorable events—by penning a poem. Years later I still remember the first line (but not much else): “Белой ночью и кошки белые, и вокзалы стоят прощальные. . . .” We talked about their plans, which included marriage and the acquisition of a used German-made automobile. We talked about my plans, which didn’t exist as I was about to be drafted into the army. Both Arthur and Nika sounded alarmed by this prospect and Arthur, who had secured a deferment thanks to an opportunely diagnosed congenital heart condition, scolded me for not making an effort to dodge the draft: “It’s not for you, it’s not for people like US. Do you get it? Do you know how they treat guys like us, especially those whose nose is shaped like yours? What if you get shipped down south? Did you see what they did to Vitalik?” Vitalik was our war veteran classmate who had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan and exhibited some disturbing signs of psychological instability. His temper tantrums were legendary, and we all swore not to let him anywhere near the alcohol. When drunk, Vitalik turned into a menace—onto himself and anyone who happened to be within his peripheral vision. When sober, he remained morose and distant. Obviously we didn’t understand at the time that he likely suffered from an acute case of PTSD. No, I didn’t want to be like Vitalik, and I most certainly didn’t want to end up on a dusty, sun-scorched hill somewhere in Kandahar.

Unbeknownst to Arthur, my father and I had been planning just for such an eventuality. The planning process reflected my father’s deep-seated phobias and certain geographical naiveté; it also captured a degree of idealism that even at the time I found so endearing. Ever since the draft papers arrived earlier in the spring my father and I began to engage in a strange weekly ritual of charting out my possible escape routes from Afghanistan. In planning this defection, we primarily relied on the 1951 edition of World Atlas, bearing a Stalin quote on its title page. The plan, as I understand it now, was not pure genius, but it had the benefit of being comfortingly simple (it also ignored such salient features of regional geography as insurmountable mountain ranges, extreme aridity, and dramatic temperature fluctuations). Having spent hours poring over the dated map we came up with two possible itineraries: one seemed to be the most straightforward and would have taken me from Kabul to Islamabad via Peshawar. Of course, for it to become feasible I would have to be stationed in or close to the capital. Plan B envisioned a more daring escape from Kandahar to Karachi via Quetta. Thankfully we had no access to Google maps, especially the Earth view, which when applied to the area in question provides a quick reality check to any would-be adventurer. But then again, my father was not just an armchair explorer. Well, he may have been an armchair explorer in 1986, but in 1944, as a disabled twenty-two-year-old man (his lower extremities disfigured by an acute case of bone tuberculosis) he hitchhiked from a tiny village in the Urals, where he had been working as a teacher since his evacuation from Leningrad in 1941, all the way to Moscow—a passage that took him some three months to complete. Some forty years later he was devising another harrowing journey across another country devastated by war. The hair-raising scheme owed its madness to my father’s Manichean vision of the world torn asunder by a momentous struggle between good and evil, in which the side of good was dramatically represented by the Congress of the United States and its sitting president. Father’s fondness for Ronald Reagan knew no bounds and in that he was no different from most other Soviet Jews of a dissident persuasion. Needless to say, he fully expected that his affection, which he experienced as uniquely personal, was widely shared across races and national borders. In accordance with this conviction the magic phrase “I love Ronald Reagan” should have secured my safe crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan and onto the grounds of the US embassy in Islamabad (or US consulate in Karachi).

Luckily for everyone involved I never got to test the Reagan magic on either the Pashtun shepherds or the Pakistani military police. A few weeks after the unforgettable farewell dinner with the cute, young couple a specially requisitioned train deposited me, along with some six hundred other disoriented recruits, on a spit-covered, cigarette-butt-strewn platform of a drab provincial Russian town that was to become my home over the next couple of years. After the first few months when it did feel on occasion that my parents’ (and Arthur’s) worst fears were not all that far-fetched, the service settled into a predictable pattern of great boredom and uneventfulness, punctuated by sporadic (and usually quickly extinguished) flare-ups of violence, some of it interethnic. Writing and receiving letters was our sustenance; my carefully preserved army archive still holds over a thousand epistolary items. Arthur wrote to me twice. The first letter arrived a couple of months after my call-up. Arthur sounded concerned but supportive; he suggested I convert my new experiences into poetry. He brought up his idol, the poet-turned-entrepreneur Rimbaud, whose poetic, sexual, and business exploits in the Arabia and Harar Arthur found both fascinating and instructive. As far as I could judge there were some fairly obvious differences between Kovrov and Aden, but I got his point. Arthur and Nika had gotten married and the little piggy had finally purchased a car—alas, not the much desired Mercedes-Benz 500SE but a Soviet-made Lada Model 7 (“made in Sovok but will do for now”). The wedding was a modest and apparently secretive affair, attended only by the families. A black-and-white wedding picture fell out of the envelope: Arthur and Nika stood holding hands on what appeared to be a boating dock somewhere in the countryside (Nika’s dacha?). Arthur appeared to be on the verge of bursting out laughing, Nika squinted against the sun, which gave her a knowing, sarcastic look. Both were dressed casually. Arthur was holding something tiny in his free hand; I looked closer and studied the photo—there could be no doubt, Arthur was holding the car keys.

I received another letter from Arthur almost two years later, less than a month before my final discharge. It arrived in a strange-looking, bluish envelope; the two stamps in the upper-right corner showed the profile of a middle-aged man with mustache. The word SVERIGE appeared underneath the image. It was clear that I was not the only one intrigued by the foreign origin of the letter—the envelope had been tampered with, the flaps torn open and then politely reattached with a small piece of Scotch tape. The letter was most certainly not short on news; in fact, I needed a few minutes to absorb the magnitude of the changes in Arthur’s life, and even then it all seemed pretty surreal. Arthur and Nika got divorced about a year ago—the reasons were murky, presented with deliberate vagueness (something about diverging life trajectories). Arthur was married again, though, to a Finish woman “a little bit older” than he, and he . . . had left the country. The newlyweds had settled in Helsinki (one of the best neighborhoods, fantastic views of the Gulf), but Arthur’s new job consulting a Swedish business venture took him often to Stockholm and beyond. In fact, he had just returned from a couple of months in Tangiers (God, where’s the 1951 World Atlas when you need one) and Paris. Arthur’s business partner, impressed with his fluency in Russian, Finnish, French, and English, wanted him to open another office in Oslo but Arthur was not sure—his wife had booked a summer villa south of Florence, and he felt he should probably spend more time with her, even though he got sick and tired of Italy on his previous business trips. There was a P.S.: my friend now owned a Mercedes. I reread the letter a dozen times and still found it incomprehensible. I had spent the past two years removed from real life and, as a result, lost much of a sense of reality. We were stuck on an island, complete with barracks and marching grounds and BMP repair shops, but beyond the perimeter fence the world had shifted—it was full of mysteries and promise. I wondered if I would ever see Arthur again.

• •

I saw Arthur again on a snowy night in Helsinki in the early 1990s. We were returning back to the States after our first post-emigration visit to St. Petersburg and had planned the trip so that we could spend a couple of days in this Nordic city, whose alluring forbiddenness had captivated us throughout our childhood and early youth. In fact, I don’t think I ever got over its mystique—maybe that’s why watching the Helsinki-based vignette in Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth” still constitutes the ultimate cinematic experience for me. In January, Helsinki was steeped in quiet and cozy melancholy. We booked an inexpensive hotel near the municipal park; the frosted-over windows of our room faced a generously lit skating rink where well-behaved kids and their parents solemnly glided in circles. The music from the rink mixed with a gentle screeching of late trams that circumnavigated the park before swishing off into the night of the city, night on earth. We had agreed to meet Arthur at an Italian place around the corner. The restaurant was almost empty; besides the three of us (my wife, myself and the kid) there was just one other couple seated across the room from us. They were young, roughly our age, sitting very straight and hardly exchanging a word over a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Their dignified poise made us feel self-conscious—we were making too much noise. Arthur walked in just as we were finishing the dessert. He wore a heavy parka but was hatless. We embraced—it’s been what, seven years? He gave me a quick look over. “Where are your famous curls?” he said. “You’re beginning to lose hair.”—“I know,” I smiled. “I know.”—“I told you, it’s the army, it’s the fucking army.” We laughed and embraced again.

Arthur’s car was parked outside next to a snowbank. It was immediately clear that he was proud of his car and wanted us to be impressed. Having spent the previous two years delivering pizzas in Oklahoma, I still knew precious little about cars, especially the ones blanketed in Finnish snow.—“It’s a Mercedes, right?” I ventured a guess.—“You must be kidding me, right? It’s a Peugeot, a special lux edition. Don’t you know the difference? Well, I suppose some people never change. . . . I know a guy in Turku, who had it imported for me from Antwerp. It’s custom-made. Custom-made just for Arthur.” He wanted to make light of it but sounded tense, nervous. We agreed to a quick tour of nighttime Helsinki followed by a nightcap at his apartment. We drove aimlessly around for some forty minutes—the city was frozen to its core, the occasional blinking neon sign only accentuated the arctic darkness of the place, its strange immobility. Arthur tried to have a conversation but kept getting distracted, veering off topic, interjecting non sequiturs. I asked him about his work. He shrugged: “Things are sort of in transition right now. You see, once you’ve achieved a certain level you can’t just take any job. I’m not like one of these fucking lumberjacks (I figured that’s how he referred to all Finns). I’m not gonna rot away in some damn Suomi office. So, right now I’m working on a few leads, serious money, you know.” We fell silent for a few minutes. “Are you in touch with Nika?” he asked.—“No, haven’t seen her since that dinner at her place. How is she?”—“Dunno, we’re not really on speaking terms. Or should I say she won’t speak with me. . . . But she is OK, remarried, got herself a kid. The husband, I hear, is loaded. Good for her.” As we were getting closer to our final destination (Arthur’s apartment), he was growing visibly gloomy, his anxiety filled the car and was kind of hard to bear. We soon parked in front of a two-story apartment building. My wife gasped―it looked remarkably similar to our own low-income apartment complex back in Oklahoma. I had no idea this sort of residential architecture—a long balcony running the length of the building, with rows of individual apartments opening up onto it—was a transcontinental affair. Arthur led the way upstairs, explaining as we mounted the steps that no, this was not a permanent abode—things, as he already mentioned, were in transition; he had a crew working on a new house out in Tammisalo (You ever heard of Tammisalo? Lots of diplomats live in that neighborhood, so it’s expensive but worth every fucking mark, and it costs lots of marks to build there). The construction will go on for a few more months, a lot of materials need to be imported, particularly from Italy, which takes time; in the meantime they are using this place as a point of transition, a temporary pad before their final leap into the luxury of the new house in Tammisalo. Most of their furniture was in storage, in the apartment they keep only a few of the most expensive items. “Basically it’s all about insurance, you know,” he declared with tragic finality, stopping in front of one of the numerous apartment doors that pockmarked the façade of the building and rummaging for the keys in his parka pocket.

I remembered that Arthur’s Finnish wife was a “little bit older” than he, but I didn’t know she was approximately my mother’s age. Christina had been expecting us: a bottle of wine, four glasses and some snacks were set on a small coffee table. The apartment was neat and sparsely furnished. They had a dog—a nervous-looking Italian greyhound, whose state of agitation upon our entrance into the apartment matched Arthur’s. After the initial introductions Arthur immediately switched to Russian, which made me uncomfortable—his wife apparently did not speak a word of it. But Arthur wanted to talk about his dog—a very rare breed, which had to be imported from Italy (I couldn’t help but marvel at how much my friend’s life had come to depend on Italian imports). He didn’t think my son should be playing with the dog, who had a particularly delicate nervous system and, according to Arthur, had to be flown to Milan for regular check-ups. He also thought the kid should be careful not to spill his juice on the coffee table, which had been made to order at a Norwegian woodshop specializing in exotic mahogany: “You know, one of those high-end custom-made products—hard to make, easy to ruin.” We drank some wine, which Arthur explained came from a medieval cellar in Burgundy―he had it shipped to Helsinki in a batch that cost him a little fortune, but it was worth it because now he had something of quality to share with an old friend. The conversation meandered and exhausted me greatly; we kept trying to draw in Arthur’s wife while he kept slipping into Russian. His obliviousness to her silent presence infuriated me. The phone rang. Arthur got up quickly and headed for one of the two bedrooms. “Pardon me. I’m expecting a phone call, it’s my business partner in Stockholm. I guess the deal is on, things are beginning to roll. Be right back.” He closed the door tightly behind him. In a few seconds we could hear the quiet murmur of a conversation, punctuated by prolonged silences. Arthur was speaking in Russian.

“It’s his mother,” said Christina. Her English was surprisingly fluent.—“His mother?”—“Yes, she calls him every evening.” I couldn’t quite figure out whether she was annoyed with this regularity of parental contacts or simply felt compelled to state the obvious. With Arthur out of the room Christina came alive. She had lived in the States back in the ‘70s and still harbored fond memories of a small college town in Pennsylvania where she spent two semesters as an exchange student. She was happy to welcome Arthur’s friends into her home; she knew how much he missed Russia and thought that reconnecting with old friends would do him a lot of good: “You’ve probably noticed, he is a bit nervous.” We chatted some more, Arthur was still on the phone, and I thought we should start thinking of getting back to the hotel. “It is getting late, the kid needs to go to bed soon, and you’re probably tired too.” Christina smiled politely: “Yes, I suppose it is late. I’m a schoolteacher and used to getting up early, but it’s a challenge for Arthur—his morning shift starts at 8.”—“His shift?”—“Yes, his shift. He works at the post office. Didn’t he tell you?”

We called in a taxi that arrived just as Arthur ended his phone call. He apologized profusely for leaving us alone with Christina, and we agreed to see each other again the next evening, our last in Helsinki.

 

The next day we spent the few daylight hours available to us walking and riding trams around the city, whose snowy monotony was becoming familiar. In the port, the kid ran dutifully through the empty, skeleton-like stalls of the open-air market and threw snowballs at a colony of phlegmatic-looking ducks huddled together on a floating ice sheet that covered much of the harbor. Then we climbed up the slippery hill to the cathedral, where the square was all white, with occasional patches of blackish ice, and completely bare of humans. Down below, the Gulf stretched out past the island fortress and into the Baltic whiteness. A Tallinn ferry had just left the berth and, oblivious to ice and snow, was heading out into the sea. The streetlights came alive at three and by four the city was dark. We headed back to the hotel—to pack for an early flight and wait for Arthur.

Photo 3

It was close to 10 p.m., and we had largely given up on waiting for Arthur when he finally called from the front desk—he was in the lobby. Arthur was drunk. Not intoxicated, not inebriated. Drunk. And he wanted to talk. He asked me if I still wrote poetry and was relieved to learn that I didn’t (“such a waste of time and anyway none of us will write better than Rimbaud or . . . even, you know, that punk Blok”). He wanted to know about America but had no patience listening to my story. Generally, he had come to hold Americans in a very low esteem (“all fakes, all ignorant bumpkins, just as bad as these fucking Suomi lumberjacks”). I disagreed but he didn’t want to argue. His unhappiness, heavy as a shroud, enveloped us, made our little group too big and unwieldy for a tiny hotel bar. “So . . . tomorrow,” Arthur tapped the empty glass with his index finger. As usual, but even more so, he enunciated his words with deliberate precision. “Tomorrow, this time tomorrow you’ll be . . . where?”—“Dallas,” I said.—“A-a-ha, Dallas . . . Dal-las . . . If there’s hell on earth it’s probably called Dal-las. No . . . wait, wait . . . it’s probably called Hel-sin-ki! Did you hear the “ki”? It’s really important—it’s the “ki” that makes it hell.” He was making no sense, but I didn’t want him to leave in this state. At least not by himself. “Should I call Christina?” I asked.—“Christina?” he looked confused, “I know no one by that name. And what a horrid, horrid name it is: Chris-ti-na. So churchy . . . reminds me of Rimbaud’s last days in that charity hospital in Marseille. . . . Did I ever tell you? The priests finally got him just before he died.”—“Anyone else I can call to come and get you?” His smile was vacant, self-absorbed.—“Yeah, call Nika, tell her to put on a pair of skis and come up and get the little piggy, who is stuck in the fucking hellll . . . sinkkkki.”—“Anyone else?” There was a girl—Olga, a prostitute, someone he had known during his glory days back in Leningrad, another lost soul transplanted to this indifferent frozen city. On a third try I was able to extract her phone number from the increasingly incoherent Arthur. She asked no questions and twenty minutes after the phone call entered the lobby; the taxi was waiting outside, its engine purring peacefully, its headlights capturing from the night a haphazard and nervous dance of the millions of perfectly shaped snowflakes, each one of them precious, each one holding a promise of a snow queen–like metamorphosis. Olga was tiny and seemed painfully shy, but she helped me hoist Arthur up to his feet with remarkable strength and alacrity. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll take him home, I know where he lives.” Arthur and I embraced, and I was startled to see that the unflappable Arthur was crying. He struggled to say something, but his usual eloquence had abandoned him; words were not coming easily. “Those lumberjacks, those fucking, fucking lumberjacks,” he kept whispering, as Olga and I led him to the car.

• •

There were a few times over the next twenty years when I thought of Arthur. Not the Helsinki Arthur, but the one I had come to admire in Leningrad—the suave charmer with velvety baritone, the rakish, black-market profiteer who generously dispensed life lessons and pointed me toward the adulthood, the wise, older friend whose easy cynicism I found so exasperating, yet so attractive. On my visits to Russia I often asked about him, but no one could say anything definitive. The stories ranged from ludicrous to utterly unbelievable: Arthur had left Helsinki and moved to Stockholm (oh, wait, was it Oslo?); Arthur had a run-in with the Chechens and had to flee to South America, where he now sells used cars; poor Arthur had drunk himself to death; Arthur was killed in a brawl in a bar on Majorca; Arthur was back in St. Petersburg, teaching high school French and Finnish (high school Finnish?). There was no trace of Arthur. He was my very first Google search, and it yielded nothing. Some years later I discovered that there was a sales associate with the same last name at a trendy furniture store in Stockholm. I called the store. The person on the phone was friendly but could not help me—indeed, there had been a Russian man working at their showroom a few years earlier, but he had long since left and they had no idea of his whereabouts. Eventually I gave up searching and, truth be told, I probably never searched too hard.

• •

Nika had changed. But it was no doubt Nika—the 1920s haircut, the stylish umbrella that she used as a decorative cane (what a statement of elegance!), the same look of sarcastic detachment. I couldn’t believe it took us over twenty years to finally bump into each other even though I visited St. Petersburg with great regularity and she, as I quickly learned, continued to live in the same apartment by the Maltsevsky farmers market. She hugged me warmly, then stepped back and shook her head in mock disbelief.—“Oh dear, your hair, what happened to the hair?” I had gotten used to my Russian women friends assuming this air of parental authority—like older relatives they ignored the reality of time passage, they refused to treat you as an adult. Their familiarity was jarring but surprisingly comforting as if they were inviting you to forget, for a few minutes, the gap of years. Nika was in no rush; she was on the way home from her bi-weekly psychoanalysis class (“I’m a Jungian,” she explained). It seemed like every other Russian friend I knew was doing something “new agey,” usually with an all-consuming dedication. We walked around the neighborhood in search of a suitable place to talk in quiet. It was an easy task, and its very easiness served as a jolting reminder of the distance separating us from our youth. The tram lines were gone and the area was teeming with cars (most of them foreign-made “inomarki”), parked with no particular concern for municipal regulations. The courtyards of the buildings that I remembered since my childhood were now gated, their façades plastered with flyers advertising escort services, saunas, and massage parlors. There were tanning salons, pretentious boutiques, hipster bars, a plethora of sushi and ice cream places. We found a quiet café, whose “African” décor was testimony to its owners’ flights of aesthetic fancy (and their complete unfamiliarity with the basics of political correctness). Nika made a quick phone call to give her son the address of the café—he would stop by later to pick her up. And in the meantime we could talk―more than twenty years’ worth of catching up. We could talk about our lives that in retrospect appeared to be the stories we wrote, the stories that we continued to be writing. “We were too literary,” Nika offered, “too affected by the weirdness of this city, by its ghostlike presence in our lives.” I agreed, readily. We talked more―about our travels and distances covered, and jobs, and marriages, and divorces (in that regard Nika’s record of accomplishment far surpassed mine). And, of course, we talked about Arthur.

No, she didn’t know where he was, what eventually became of him. In fact, she couldn’t tell whether or not he was alive. She heard (many years ago) that he got divorced and left Finland and was drinking heavily for a while (“went on a real bender, you know, gained tons of weight. Can you imagine a fat Arthur? That skinny little piggy suddenly growing fat? Frankly, I can’t believe that part—most likely just stupid rumors”), then the trail went cold. . . . But before he disappeared she did see him once, though. Sometime in the late 1990s, he suddenly showed up unannounced at her dacha on the Gulf of Finland: “It was towards the end of the summer, August probably, because the nights were already dark, early in the morning—2 a.m. maybe. He crushed his SUV through the front gate. My husband was livid, pulled him out of the car, I was afraid he would kill him. Arthur was wasted, it’s a miracle he was able to drive at all. He looked pitiful—unshaven, disoriented, mumbling incomprehensibly. Of course we couldn’t kick him out; we are not animals. I made him a bed out on the verandah, let him sleep it off. I don’t think he even recognized me. . . . When I got up in the morning, he was already gone. He had left five hundred dollars on the dining table—I guess a compensation for the gate. . . .” Nika fished a cigarette out of her handbag, lit it expertly. It was surprising to see her smoking. The barrister pulled a lever on the espresso machine, and for a few seconds the café filled with mighty hissing sounds—some coffee gods puzzling over the human condition, whistling in disbelief. “And that,” Nika drew an airy circle with the cigarette, “THAT was the last sighting of the little piggy. He took off, left, vanished, drove off into the sunset (no, wait, it was the sunrise!) in his beloved Mercedes SUV . . . with a bent fender.”

Nika’s son turned out to be an attractive young man—rather slight but athletic-looking, with a warm and uninhibited charm. One couldn’t miss the easy rapport between the mother and the son; there was not a hint of tension between the two—a child and a parent completely comfortable in each other’s presence. As the young man approached our table, Nika quickly put out the cigarette and looked up at him with an affected, coquettish bashfulness: “Sorry, dear, this won’t happen again, I promise”—“Mom, who told you I take your promises seriously?” He turned to me: “How can one trust women, especially the ones smoking cigarettes in . . .” He scanned the café, shook his head ruefully, and finished with a theatrical sigh, “a rather strange looking establishment?” The scene was probably being performed at least in part for my benefit, but their intimacy was real. I couldn’t detect a single false note in this playful back and forth. With the little play-acting routine out of the way, it was time for introductions. Nika’s face assumed an expression of faux gravity (oh, she was acting up again): “Meet the ultimate arbiter of my morals, my prosecutor and my judge, my son . . . Arthur.” For a second I thought I had misheard her: “What? Arthur? Your son Arthur?” Nika looked at me with an unmistakable amusement. Quarter of a century and I still couldn’t read her smile. “Your son Arthur?”—“But of course, such a nice name: Ar-thur, Ar-tur-chik. Don’t you like it?”—“I do, it’s just that . . . you know . . .” I realized how silly it was to be stunned by a name—it was just a name, like any other; there were hundreds, possibly thousands of Arthurs in this city alone. And yet, and yet . . . “Oh, no,” it was as if Nika suddenly became aware of my silent question and found it preposterous. “No, no, oh God NO!” She put an emphatic stress on the last “no,” but there was mirth in her voice. There was something about my awkward bewilderment that she found profoundly entertaining. “Stop looking mystified, we harbor no secrets, right, Arturchik? Besides, as you may remember I’m on my fourth husband.”—“Oh, Mom, stop embarrassing me.” Arthur rolled his eyes, but his voice betrayed nothing but genuine affection for this classy and slightly eccentric woman, his mother.

Talking to Arthur was pleasant. He seemed like a straightforward but thoughtful guy, a bit self-centered (and who is not at his age?) but engaged with the world and full of curiosity. An MBA student at a university in London he was back in St. Petersburg for the summer break. How did he like London? Oh, he loved it. But what he really loved was New York. He had tons of questions about New York. Many of his friends were moving there, and he would love to try it, too, even though what he REALLY loved was Silicon Valley. Because you see, he had a dream, no, forget the dream, a plan—he had a plan to work for the best company in the world, Apple. “You know about Apple, right?” I pointed at my iPhone resting on the table next to the espresso cup. Arthur gave it a quick, expert glance: “4S?”—“What?”—“Your iPhone’s model  4S?”—“I guess . . . I don’t really know.” At first Arthur thought I was joking, but having realized that I was not, fixed me with a stern look: “You. Don’t. Know. The. Model. Of. Your. iPhone?” Each word fell with the heaviness of an indictment. Clearly Arthur had little patience for the Luddites. “You understand, though,” he continued, “what a beautiful product it is?” The question was rhetorical and disagreeing was not an option. Besides I did like my iPhone. However, Arthur was not done with me, not yet. He wanted to explain: “You see, for me it’s all about quality, how quality things are designed, how they get made, how they are” He looked at me reproachfully “respected.” He picked up the iPhone, fumbled with it for a few seconds. “It is a thing of quality. Look how elegant it is, how slick, there is nothing superfluous in its design, not one unnecessary feature. When I look at this product I feel better about us humans . . . also about myself. My life comes into focus and I know what I want.”—“And what is it that you want, Arthur?” He smiled mischievously. “Not much. I just want to work for Apple.”

Nika was not part of the conversation, but her presence was felt; in some subtle, ill-defined way she owned the scene, gave it its meaning. She had lit another cigarette. Arthur moved to object but quickly reconsidered and threw up his hands in mock exasperation: “You see what I have to deal with?” “You see, what I have to deal with,” laughed Nika. “I told you, he is a one-man morality police, keeps tabs on me 24/7. Even from London. Would you believe it, this mama boy calls me every damn evening! I’m sure his girlfriends think he must be Jewish.” “Am I?” Arthur asked without losing a beat. “Am I Jewish?” These two loved needling each other.—“I don’t know what you are, you are the damn Grand Inquisitor, but I still love you. Come on, boys, it’s getting late.” It WAS getting late but how would one know? In the summer, these milky Finnish nights turn our understanding of time on its head, make a shameless mockery of it. The memories come floating in through the hastily pinned-up mosquito screen and refuse to leave in the morning, not even when they are supposed to―at the rooster’s crow. The distances shrink and one can easily imagine a place untouched by time’s passage: a place where the frigid dark waters caress the iced-over hulks of container ships in the harbor, where a lonely driver pulls over on a highway just north of Dallas to peer into the pitch black but full of electricity night of the great American Southwest, discerning the familiar shapes of the Milky Way, the same timeless constellation that comforts a sleepy, young sentry guarding unnecessarily a dilapidated BMP park full of rusty machinery. One can also imagine a rundown French hospital where a roguish poet dying of gangrene finds consolation in the simple words of a humble, provincial priest, and, of course, if you try hard enough, if you strain to remember, you will see a deathly quiet old apartment where two young lovers sit next to each other (so very closely) at a stained kitchen table, mapping out a future that will not be theirs.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter