By Mikhail Iossel | Mar 29, 2023

On January 9, 1986 (I would remember the date because, of course, it was the Bloody Sunday of 1905, that of the ubiquitous mentions in Soviet school history books), less than two weeks before leaving the Soviet Union for good, for the first and last time in my life (the Soviet Union — not Russia), I was returning to Leningrad from Moscow, also for the last time ever (Leningrad — not St. Petersburg), after three strange (and of course, everything felt supremely strange to me at that juncture in my life), shapelessly endless booze-fueled days and nights of bidding incoherent funereal farewells to a motley crowd of friends and acquaintances there, in the giant stone heart of the eternal Soviet golem, on an unexpectedly (but then, again, it was the middle of the first workweek of the New Year, and the increasingly dispirited giant country was still dawdling in glum post-holiday lethargy, all across its senseless eleven time zones) half-empty Red Arrow, once the famously upscale train for the so-called Soviet elites (not the right word, I know; but it would be boring, both for you and for me, if I were to say instead something along the lines of “the transiently lucky and generally pitiful servants and beneficiaries of an irredeemably ugly totalitarian regime”) connecting Russia’s former and present capitals, the respective avatars of its hopeless European aspirations and its shambolic Scythian essence, and invariably departing from either point at five minutes to midnight (from Leningrad’s Moskovsky train station, it did so to the diffusely loud accompaniment of Reinhold Gliere’s “Hymn to the Great City — the finale of his famous ballet “The Bronze Horseman”; but — not that it matters any, and silence has always suited me just fine — I don’t recall any such acoustic reciprocity on the part of the Leningradsky train station in Moscow); and the only other passenger sharing the standard four-bunk compartment with me that night, my compartment-mate and fellow-traveler (yes, I am aware that this term has a different meaning in modern Western parlance… to pre-empt your possible impulse to explain this to me), was a stoop-shouldered tall man with intense deep-set and as though inward-staring eyes (this is putting it perhaps a bit too fancily, I concur; but what can I do if that actually was my first impression of him) and eagle’s-beak of a nose (agreed: a cliche, and a fairly insipid one at that, by implication — although, of course, I am Jewish myself, so… so nothing, actually), appearing to be in his mid-seventies (later on, he turned out to be sixty-five; close enough, although I certainly was not a good judge of people’s age at the time; still am not) and bearing a certain overall resemblance to the great Soviet stage and film actor Rostislav Plyatt in the hallmark role of Pastor Schlag in the timeless television series “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” who slouched in obliquely through the heavy sliding compartment door less than a minute before the train had taken off with a protracted shudder, in slanted driving snow (was it actually snowing in Moscow that night? I’m not sure, although I seem to remember so, but… let me not waste our shared time on trying to say something interesting about that) and, as though by way of an excessively and indeed too aggressively friendly wordless introduction, in an almost defiant gesture, produced from his beat-up black cardboard suitcase (yes, the classic old Soviet-style one) and placed with a thud (three thuds of varying loudness, to be accurate) on the small console table by the window, two bottles of the exclusive and strictly defitsitny five-star Armenian “Ararat” cognac (that last word applied to any kind of brandy in the old Soviet Union… another tidbit of useless information for you) and a large box of what shortly thereafter was revealed to be the delicious chocolate-covered Estonian pralines, called Maiuspala (the box’s unbearably pretty halcyon-blue cover featured a supernaturally blond little girl gazing lovingly at a few intensely yellow and irresistibly cute fluffy little chicks); and since (it’s a commonly known fact!) nothing can bring random travellers through the night close together faster than two bottles of brandy chased with chocolates (and because, obviously, it would’ve been churlish and rude and, well, downright stupid of me to decline his unexpected lavish offerings), we got right down to it, drinking and eating, talking animatedly and, in all, quickly forming a deceptively strong bond of nascent open-ended friendship, in the good old literary and cinematic and generically *Russian* (true that) manner of two strangers sharing a compartment on a night train and getting drunk (wasted would be a more expressive word) together and revealing (as they say in self-help literature) to each other the most essential truths of their respective existences; and thus, after our first approximately one- or two-hundred grams per liver (consumed from two heavy thick-faceted railroad glasses, separated for some reason from their ubiquitous and comfortingly familiar Stalinist silver-bronze glass-holders and brought over, as per our request, by the sullen and likely residually hungover trainwoman — who informed us, entirely unbidden and in a whiny, peevish tone, that if we wanted tea, too, we were plumb out of luck, due to the hot water tank in the carriage not quite being sufficiently hot, owing, in turn, to the insufficient quantity and subpar quality of the coal at her disposal… thanks, as she went on to remark completely out of the blue, to “that devil-marked Gorbachev of yours”; which outrageous and provocative statement, potentially an entrapment attempt, although of course not, was taken perfectly in stride by the two of us, my compartment-mate and I, as we just shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes, frowned a little and said nothing to her in response), I learned from him that he was a widower of three years’ standing (his wife, to whom by the time of her death, he’d been married for over three decades, just didn’t wake up, failed to open her eyes one morning, for no clear health-related reason) and a retired senior accountant at Leningrad’s largest regional concrete-distribution center (not an exciting job, my friend, by any stretch of the imagination, I’ll grant you that, but still a pretty important one), while about me, in turn, he got to find out that I’d been trained as an electromagnetic engineer in college (submarine demagnetization, all arcane stuff) and had worked in junior engineer’s capacity afterwards, for a couple of years, at an appropriately profiled secret-research institute (a PO Box, yes; we both kind of winked at each other with exaggerated, mock seriousness, and he also nodded and brought a knobbly yellow finger to his bloodless bluish lips, to indicate that he knew how to keep a secret; mum as a grave — and we both laughed), but for the past five… yes, and a half years had been a shift security guard in the Roller-Coaster Unit of the Amusement Sector at the Central Park of Culture and Leisure (again my compartment-mate nodded knowingly, sagely, with a subtle smile, observing that he could easily fathom as to what concrete practical or existential circumstances such a sudden and sharp career change could have been precipitated or necessitated by), plus I also and primarily was an underground, samizdat writer, I informed him, a tad too self-importantly (and instantly disliking myself for that), in an archly, starchy meaningful tone of someone keenly aware that he hasn’t written anything remotely notable or genuinely good yet and is not at all certain he ever would (and of course, right away, he wanted to know what it was, in general, that I wrote about; life and death, I told him, and everything in-between — and we both laughed); and then, after our second refill of our glasses, he let me know (and it came as a shock to me) that just recently, only about two and a half weeks earlier (he mentioned the exact date, and I started involuntarily, for it was my father’s birthday), my compartment-mate or fellow-traveller or drinking companion or whatever (it’s high time that I started referring to him by a specific name of some kind, or an acronym maybe — DMD, for instance; Dead Man Drinking, why not; it will become clear in a moment), was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and given three-to-four months to live, by a refreshingly sympathetic young doctor (whose last name was something like… well, it started with Che… Che… Che-something; no, not Che Burashka, haha; well, alas, forgetting more and more things lately — words, names, you name it… by the day, if not hour) at that oncological clinic over on the Liteyny, close by the Big House (you must know the Big House, something is telling me; I just closed and opened my eyes in the affirmative – yeah, did I ever), and so this quick trip to Moscow he was returning from now, at the same time with me, coincidentally, for the very last time in his life (and that last circumstance, sadly or not, was a dead certainty now) had been undertaken on his silly, fussy, excessively death-fearing sister-in-law’s relentless pestering insistence, in a last-ditch effort to… well, cheat death, one supposed (although he really didn’t mind dying all that much, seriously, he really did not, what the hell was the big deal, he’d lived a sufficiently long life and… well, and so on, stuff too boring even to discuss), in order to be seen (again, through selfsame sister-in-law’s murky connections in that nebulous netherworld of homeo-paganistic quasi-medical folk-quackery) by some fabled underground miracle-worker of a cancer-curer, the supposedly legendary and mysterious “cancer-whisperer” (such embarrassingly stupid nonsense, really!) who ran a clandestine (no kidding) and officially nonexistent (well, obviously) private practice at random nighttime hours in a rambling wooden cabin on the outskirts of Balashikha (a distant suburb of Moscow… explained I helpfully; you’re welcome), and who, upon the rather perfunctory and more than a little odd (aural? palpatory, if that’s a word? incantatory? there certainly was quite a bit of liturgical-like, churchy kind of mumbling involved) examination of DMD, had shaken his oddly shaped head with a heavy sigh (face concealed by full-length red cloth mask, incidentally — what a creep) and told DMD in a voice both rueful and businesslike, that, much to his regret, there was nothing that could be done anymore, not by him and therefore certainly not by anyone else, very sadly indeed, as the disease had already spread through and taken an irreversible hold of every vital focal point and what have you in its host’s body, so, in short, to summarize again, yes, too late, too late (very irritating it was, that sadistic fake sympathy, let me tell you; what exactly was it that was too late? it’s never too late to fucking die, that’s for sure… but at least that sanctimonious charlatan had the basic decency to return half of the five-hundred ruble deposit received in advance, in addition to turning down as too-frivolous, that pious prick, the offering of this here cognac and chocolates); and I… well, as you can imagine, I was taken aback, spooked (if that’s the word) more than a little, I admit, when he shared that information with me (and in truth, wouldn’t you be also, um, unnerved, if on the threshold of starting a whole new life in a new world it suddenly developed that you would be spending the night in an inescapably tight enclosed space with, and telling all kinds of personal stuff about yourself to, an incurably sick, dying man, while getting seriously drunk with him… something Shakespearean or, you know, Bergmanesque about the whole setup; definitely not a good omen), and I told him, of course, reflexively, that, of course, I was very sorry to hear that, so incredibly sorry, of course, oh man, so very sorry, so-so… and cutting me off with a scowling, dark look on his face, he told me to knock it off forthwith, for if I didn’t, he’d smash this here cognac bottle, an almost empty one already, true enough, but still, a bottle is a fucking bottle, over my fucking stupid head with his full remaining force, seeing that he’d already made it very clear to me that he was not afraid to die, not fucking afraid, and was actually looking forward to it, to no longer existing, if I wanted to know the truth, yes, seriously, not being coy or, like, coquettish or anything here, so… so fair enough, acknowledging his forcefully made point with a slight inclination of my increasingly heavy, echoing head, I confided in him then (and understand that doing so represented a qualitatively different leap of faith on my part, since… well, this still was the fucking Soviet Union and I didn’t know him at all, this man, who could’ve lied to me about his brain cancer and all that, and who actually could be a KGB provocateur or some such, sent in to derail my departure for America and ruin my whole fucking life; so yeah, it was a plunge in the dark) that thanks to Gorbachev and his urgent, financially motivated dire need to improve his relations with the West, in less than two weeks I would be leaving the Soviet Union for good, along probably with thousands of other refuseniks from across the country, yes indeed, I know, man, thanks, yes, after more than five fucking years of being a fucking refusenik (and DMD, beaming, slapped me on the shoulder at that, and guffawed and said he’d known from the very first, as soon as he laid eyes on me upon entering the compartment, that I was a fellow aidishe boy, well, mazeltov, and… oh, how funny and strangely and happily coincidental, or serendipitous, whatever the word, it really was that, hey, here we were, in the same train compartment on the same night, two Soviet Jews imminently about to escape the fucking Soviet Union for good, if admittedly in two slightly different ways, by two different routes, two alternate modes of dying – one real and the other, um, more metaphorical, although still pretty real), as the two of us were careening (*careening*? really) through the boundless wintry Soviet night, with its immeasurable darkness, for the very last time in our respective Soviet lives, the thought of which made me both extremely and almost unbearably excited, but also scared as hell, full of uncertainty and tre… trepidation (and DMD told me, hiccupping, that was more than absolutely understandable, because death, taken as a fucking datum – say what? — was a damn riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enema); and then, with my head spinning slowly, I also told him, almost despite myself, that… yes, that… on a different yet adjacent subject, that my father and I, we’d just barely begun to be back on speaking terms with each other, after all this time, all these years of total non-communication, the pointedly surly mutual avoidance — with my poor mother being torn between the two of us! — because of his, my father’s, justifiable, I admit that, resentment at my having gone ahead, autonomously, on my own, albeit after years of duly forewarning him and my mother (but he just wouldn’t take those warnings seriously), and applying for an emigre visa… which, again (again and again, OK, dad?), was a pretty egotistical move on my part, objectively speaking, yes objectively (but there’s no any essential truth in objectivity), so it was no wonder he felt mortally wounded in his feelings, in addition to being morally indignant, so much so that he refused outright to provide me with his crucially essential official consent to my leaving the Soviet Union for good, refused to sign the official paper to the effect that he didn’t mind it that his son was effectively about to become a traitor to the fucking motherland, thereby automatically, like, making a refusenik out of me, you know, by that refusal of his (too cute by half, that turn of phrase), and I couldn’t really blame him for this, either, looking back, like I already said, especially in light of the fact that as an inevitable and immediate result of my application, he was stripped of his top-level security clearance and all that shit necessary for him to, you know, possess in order to continue being one of the leading fucking designers of our hopelessly outmoded Soviet submarines’ electromagnetic defenses, yes, and… and moreover, to my intense lingering subsequent latent shame (one or more of these adjectives here is superfluous and must go, but… OK, not right now, later), at one point, shortly after he’d refused to grant me that official consent, I, filled with seething anger and the unbearably smug and downright repugnant youthful arrogance as I was, given the intensity of the moment, I told my father, more or less in those very words, verbatim practically, that he’d already had his chance to live his life to the fullness of its (admittedly, limited, in the Stalinist USSR) potential, his life’s cruelly truncated promise, and that the bulk of his life had already been behind him, lived out, not to mince… yeah, and to think that he was so much younger then than I am now, too… so now, I told him, it was my time to experience life, to chart my own path in it, while for him it was time was time to step aside, stop being egotistical and to set me free, as any loving father would, to free me up (yes, I actually said that) to live my life the way I wanted to, where I wanted to make it, which was definitely not in the Soviet Union, no, in a different world, in a… well, in an infinitely  broader one, father, enough was enough, I said to him, Stalin had long been dead even as a metaphor, even as a metaphor’s shadow, a hieroglyph of humiliating deadly fear, and there no longer was any latent Soviet fear bred in my brittle post-Stalinist bones, so let me be, daddy, don’t laugh, I want to be a free writer in a free world (don’t laugh, daddy), rather than yet another joylessly glorified Soviet engineer, submarine demagnetizer, no matter how maybe nominally accomplished or not… oh, DMD, how guilty I felt afterwards, how sickened by my own cruelty, how contemptible, deplorable I was, what a fool, such a total bastard, I was almost crying at that point, with an equally drunk and indeed sick-looking DMD looking on silently, sympathetically, at me slumped forward across that small console table, my face but a few centimeters from his, as the two of us were rolling, rollicking along with the Red Arrow express train, travelling through night’s all-encompassing darkness, the two superfluous, superannuated (not sure what that word means, but I like it) lambs of god, two human silhouettes bent toward each other over the small console table by the window, glasses in their hands, inside the stark frame of darkly yellow light, as we already were approaching Bologoye — the small town (is it even an actual place… no question mark) smack in the middle of the train’s distance between Russia’s two capitals – the Red Arrow slowing down, coming to a stop gradually, haltingly, with a shudder, sighing tiredly, with the dull, staid gray-yellow light of the station’s lanterns mingling unsuccessfully with the intense, harsh yellow brightness inside our compartment, and we already were more than halfway through the second bottle of that five-star pseudo-cognac, too, the dusky placid light of the Bologoye train station reminding us (oh, just speak for yourself) of the memories of our own lives, much of which latter we, like most other people in this world, hadn’t been able to retain all too well, holding on to very few of them actually, hardly any at all, dispiritingly enough, as if our own lives had happened to some other people, rather than the only us ever to exist in the world, oh, such a sad thought, such a terrible waste of a perfectly good lifetime, so we were legitimately sad at that moment, paused in the night in Bologoye, with me still crying quietly, sniffling spasmodically and gradually calming down, while DMD kept telling me again (but actually, just speaking to himself, sotto voce, mumbling as though in a trance, shaking his head mulishly now and then) that he was not afraid to die, not afraid, and not sorry about anything, nothing at all, definitely not sorry about never getting to see the big wide shitty world out there, this time around on this planet, all those New York-Paris-London-Rio and so on, the fucking non-Soviet world, or even much of the Soviet one, obviously, so incomprehensibly gigantic, well, see, because his life, the one coming to an end now, it was not about that, this time around, not about traveling and, like, the expanding or deepening of itself or… being interesting or fulfilling, which was all right, for one doesn’t get to choose the time and place or other basic elements of one’s life’s essential parameters and so on, all that self-excusing bullshit, so he simply (easier said than done, obviously) would have to live a much more, like, interesting, intense, rewarding and fulfilling and joyous life the next time around, you know, when he gets his chance to be reborn, when his time comes for that, his turn, which he had no other recourse but totally to believe was absolutely going to happen, him returning to this world as someone else, unbeknownst to himself, as a clean slate, to this future and barely recognizable world of ours (curiosity is the only factor making me regretful about this whole dying thing), as a human being, hopefully, again, rather than, say, a lizard or a hyena, which he thought he stood a pretty good chance at, being reborn as a human being, since he didn’t believe, didn’t think honestly that he had committed any really grave, serious, cardinal, like, sins and all that in this, current life of his, which was now rapidly rolling toward its end, except, well… yeah, well (and he gave me a pleading look, his eyes those of a tortured man), OK, here goes, except for cheating on his wife with another woman while his wife was still alive, there, he said it, yes, another woman, whom he’d been seeing, as they say, for nine years and four months by now, by this final juncture of his fucking journey, and with whom he still was very much in love, sappy as it may sound, so feel free to laugh (while I was still crying quietly, while listening; laughing at him would’ve been the last thought on my mind), which fact, that love, constituted the ultimate truth and both the greatest sin and the utmost joy of his life, he went on, although obviously he was not a religious man, for what was there even to be religious about in this damn country of ours, what was sin to begin with, just a word, a silly word that didn’t apply to love, or maybe it did, what did he know, since he personally felt his love for the woman who’d never been his wife, while his wife still had been alive, was a sin, or might have been, both his happiness and his curse, and if it was a sin he regretted it, although he still loved her very much, that woman, now more than ever, even as we were speaking now, he fucking loved her, and it was a shame, he said, also beginning to crying, a damn shame that he would have to leave her so soon, alone in this world, but oh well, enough of this maudlin crap, he would miss her very much in his eternal nonexistence, and she would be miserable without him in the world also, although maybe not, oh well, who could tell, life was life, so what could he do, a sin was a sin (and he smiled a little, as he sang that out in an unmelodic voice, “you must remember this, a sin was still a sin,” although of course not, for how would he know the lyrics of American golden oldies), yes, breaking his late wife’s heart probably was a sin, for she must have sensed something and perhaps, and even likely, that might have been one of the main reasons she’d refused, you know, to wake up that awful (yet also liberating, no?) morning three years ago, had chosen to die, cease to exist, rather than… and that was a shame, but what could one do, what could he have done differently, love was love, it was not a sin, enough of this boring maudlin crap, life was life, love was love, a reason unto itself, so hopefully his having been in love with another woman all these years would not in the end be counted against him, in the context of, like, preventing him from being reborn as a human being at some future point, rather than a cobra, for instance, although cobras didn’t know they were cobras and therefore led a pretty untroubled emotional existence… or maybe, you know, there might be another possibility (and he perked up a bit and lifted his head higher and looked at me coyly from his swimming eyes), his body alone would die, just his body, if die it must, which it did, inevitably, but his soul, his sac… rosant inner being, well, what if it refused to expire along with its mortal chamber, just fucking refused to do so, yeah, fuck that, fuck death, and so his spirit would then move on conceivably and inhabit someone else’s body — yours, my young friend, he said to me, winking, why not, yes, yours, in fucking America, for there are no distances too great for the spirit; and we both laughed again, while still crying just a little, two dead men alive and drinking, sitting on our corporeal butts on our rigid lower bunks in our Red Arrow compartment, traveling through the dark, two imminently dying men, one old, one young, although, literally, technically speaking, only one of us was actually actively dying, dying on an accelerated schedule, while the other was doing so, um, more metaphorically, in literary terms only, which still meant literally (metaphorically speaking… no, it didn’t), since my leaving the Soviet Union for good, as an emigre, as a figurative (oh, come on) traitor to the motherland, meant in terms practical that I would never see my loved ones again, my family, my friends, you name it, even those I didn’t particularly like, no matter, because treason (even if only a figurative one) was generally punishable by death everywhere (speaking figuratively… oh, shut up), and so I would be dead effectively, figuratively, and they would never see me again, my loved and unloved ones alike, since I would never be allowed to return, and no one from this Soviet world would ever be allowed either to travel to where I would dwell in my post-Soviet netherworld…. my unreachable nevermore of the ultimate capitalist abroad of unimaginable America, which meant, simply put, that the morning of seeing me off at the airport, for those who’d come to see me off there, to bid me an eternal farewell and stuff, would be one in essence of burying me, metaphorically but also kind of literally, too, in their hearts and minds — so yes, it would be the morning of my funeral, for them, as well as for me, speaking metaphorically (OK, time to let go of that fucking adverb already), so emigration was indeed death, I told DMD, only the kind of one where you died and then still continued to go on living; and so… so nothing, it was so dark outside, so hopelessly and eternally dark, and so… and so nothing; and I also remember telling him then, the quietly weeping DMD, how (but wait: no — how could I have been telling him about something that would only take place in my American future, no matter how immediate, which hadn’t happened yet? I was drunk, sure, but not prophetic) – yes, how, never mind, how, soon after arriving in America, not more than a month maybe into my second life (ooh, his second life! wow! such a momentous development for the entire world!), my post-Soviet existence (I was living then in an enormously-sized but poorly laid-out apartment with lots of rooms on both sides of a long sinuous corridor, not entirely unlike the communal apartment of my early childhood in midtown Leningrad; in a rambling, rumbling, slum-like rooftop apartment in a dilapidated flophouse in Brookline, Massachusetts, owned by a fellow Soviet-Jewish immigrant, bald and cunning and shifty-eyed and cheerily talkative, and inhabited by seven young and likely undocumented Columbians, who worked on a construction site in downtown Boston and kept a bunch of piranhas in a massive tank in the living room, plus a highly sophisticated Lithuanian theater director, who spoke native-quality Russian and perfect English), well, in short, in really short order I developed a bad case of agoraphobia, the irrational fear of open spaces, an offshoot of depression, obviously, raging anxiety, PTSD, the whole gamut; and as a result I was fired from my first American job, that of an information-desk clerk at a tony bookstore in Harvard Square (I just couldn’t make my vertiginous, nauseated, altogether pathetic, semi-suicidal self to get itself on downtown-bound T train to get there, to that bookstore, plus my English admittedly was inadequate to the latter’s exacting standards; there’d be days when I went without food altogether, unable as I was to force myself to step out to the supermarket just across the way; and oh, my heart, how many days and nights had I spent there, in my tiny room in that terrible cruel apartment, prone on my back on my narrow sagging bed in the corner, under the hellishly hot tin roof of that dilapidated flophouse and listening to the seven Columbians’ piranha-cheering shouts in the living room, as well as the insanely agitated, husky, raspy voice of the Boston Celtics’ TV announcer, that Johnny Most guy, coming from my black-and-white portable TV with rabbit ears that only could catch one channel, the Boston Celtics one, and thinking that if the old push were to come to the ultimate shove of its logical conclusion, well, as long as there was death there was hope – an extremely comforting, heart-warming thought, let me tell you… but don’t try it at home); and how, then, one day (just get on with the story already!), trembling like a leaf (what kind of leaf? be specific?.. fine, an aspen one), I walked out of the house, into the simmering open, in a desperate effort to overcome my shameful inner brokenness, hating and despising myself and my pathetic surreal illness, to try and prove to myself that that fucking fear of open spaces was all in my head, in my imagination, for crying out loud, enough already, I kept telling myself, to no avail; be a man, be a goddamn man, get a hold of yourself, get a grip… and so I dragged myself, dying inwardly with every single step, to Harvard Circle, just a couple of blocks away, and then walked a few meters past it, beyond the T line, at which point, feeling totally exhausted, I sat heavily on a lonesome lopsided bench there, across from some grocery store, yes, it was a sunny summery day, although it still was early spring only, and a Prince song was issuing from the open doors of that grocery, or maybe it was coming from an open window just above it, the music, it doesn’t matter, Prince’s nervy hiccupping falsetto singing about how one didn’t need to be cool to be his girl and that he knew how to undress himself, yes, and then that Paul Young song, all the rage at the moment, constantly on the radio, about how every time you went away you took a piece of meat with you, unconscionably, in my view, yes, that’s how I was hearing it then, a piece of meat, every time you go away you take a damn piece of meat with you, so uncool and cruel and, you know, uncalled-for, for god’s sake, what’s wrong with you, dump your lover if you must but leave his food alone, don’t deprive him of sustenance, what the fuck… yes, and how, on that visually unlovely yet sturdy and sound structurally, large bench there already was a woman sitting on it, closer to its middle, in her thirties or forties maybe, I don’t remember her well, yes, just sitting there, not reading or anything, just staring off into space, into the sunny nothing of a summery Sunday morning, perhaps daydreaming, waiting for someone to come along and start talking to her maybe, only not someone like me, that’s for damn sure; and then all of a sudden I knew with total final certainty that I was dying, yes, that was it, death was sitting on that bench right next to me, invisible to everyone but me, no question about it, everything started spinning in my head and all around me, slowly at first and then with increasing acceleration, right in front of my unseeing eyes, yes, and utter despair entered my suffering soul, unconquerable weakness filled my entire being, my trembling limbs and whatnot, and I knew then that my life was over, my stupid incomplete life, and so I croaked out, hoarsely, addressing indirectly both my bench-mate and the entire wide world out there, “Oh, I’m dying, I’m dying! Help! Please! I’m dying!” (please – what? what the hell?) – crushed by the realization that she, that woman on the bench, an absolute stranger to me, would be the last person to have ever seen me alive (and of course, I knew there was no way she could help me in any way, except maybe calling an emergency from the nearest phone booth; I just needed to let at least someone, anyone, no matter who, know that these probably were going to be the last moments of my time in the world; I just had to, you know, articulate, vocalize, if that’s the word, my hopeless fear and despair); and of course, upon hearing my quavering voice, the woman hastily moved further away from me on the bench, looking at me from aside with suspicion and fearful disapproval (and indeed, what a line it would be to strike up a light-hearted conversation: “I’m dying! Please help!”), and the next moment she got up and walked away without looking back, while I… well, all that matters is, I didn’t die then, as I didn’t die in too many comparable instances and on too many similar occasions to count, at which point I… and the train kept rocking and rolling, rollicking through the boundless night, and the two of us, DMD and I, were already drinking vodka, oh yes indeed, you bet, how the hell did that happen, oh no, such a surprise, inevitably, purchased by DMD from that Gorbachev-loathing yet money-loving trainwoman, and I told DMD then that I was tired, so tired, so dead-tired, man, so… about to pass out, to call it a day, call it a night, call it a life, wishing him all the best in his death, drifting off — but he told me not to… not… to… as if that was up to me, to pass out or not, with him asking me whether instead I might be willing to do him a tiny little favor, you know, help him just a little bit, by giving him a tiny little, really minuscule push, um, in the back, in-between his shoulder blades, lovingly almost, while standing right behind him in front of the open train doors, you know, just a tiny little nudge, pretty please, lightly, lightly, ever so lightly, almost imperceptibly, unwittingly, oh would I, if he were to give that kind-hearted and equally corrupt trainwoman some serious sum of money, maybe a hundred rubles or so, half of whatever he had left on his dying persona, to incentivize her to agree opening the train door for a few moments, just a few, into the fierce howling onrush of the boundless wintry night outside, if I knew what he meant, for just one moment, for a hundred rubles or so, enough to persuade her possibly to get over her understandable worry about the possible subsequent criminal investigation into the incident, over her reluctance to be prosecuted on the grounds of harmful negligence or dereliction of duty or whatever, or maybe not, perhaps and even likely there would be nothing, no investigation, no prosecution, because who was he and what was the big deal even, sometimes a dead body is just a dead body, sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, so, well, would I, seriously, for real, no, seriously, and he’d give me everything he had left, the other hundred rubles from his leftover stash, and also a small handful of, like, unpolished diamonds he had there, in a little pouch in his suitcase, seriously, don’t fucking laugh, he knew this sounded crazy, but still, might I agree, might I at least be open to the idea, yes, would I consider it, considering it would be no big deal, no big deal at all to me, just a tiny push in the back, an angelic touch, really, since I wouldn’t even remember in the morning having done this, or anything, the ultimate good deed for a dying fellow-traveller, a mitzvah through and through, come to think of it, seriously… while to him, my favorite DMD, that would mean everything, the world, absolutely, and he would be grateful to me forever and ever, even in his death, it was nice to have someone among the dead who’d be grateful to you, a useful contact, because then, technically, it wouldn’t be suicide, from, uh, whoever’s powerful perspective, on the outside chance god actually existed, haha, my friend, it’s complicated, because who knew, who could tell, maybe those committing suicide automatically got their chances to be reborn in the capacity of a human being diminished, if I knew what he meant, yes, maybe they, the suicide cases, got transferred to lower positions on the waiting list of planned rebirths and reincarnations, so why take chances, was he right or was he right, yes, but then on the other hand (and he raised first one of his pale vein-streaked hands off the table and then the other), why wait, what for, it probably would get ugly in the end, highly unpleasant, painful, humiliating, so why not get it over with before that starts happening, in advance, right now, with a kindly accidental friend’s lovely humanitarian assistance, now that he was drunk, wasted off his ass and the night was dark and the train was fast and the pristine expanse of Russian snow was fucking boundless, oh the Russian troika-balalaika, and he wouldn’t even feel anything at all, wouldn’t know even what happened, that one moment he was still alive and the next one, bam, guess what, already not, so… what do you say, my friend, let’s do it, I beseech thee, let’s just do it… and I only laughed drunkenly in response, haha, absolutely not, no way, what the hell, what the fuck, was he insane or something, who gave him the right to… whatever, ok, to rephrase, he had no right to take it upon himself to decide… to… fucking determine if his life’s ass… assignment had already been fulfilled, oh man, I was drunk and told him I wouldn’t even be able to walk over there, to the train’s door, plus I was no murderer, give me a break, I was leaving for America in less than two weeks and not in a million fucking years would I agree to be an accomplice to something so fucking illegal and, like, unspeakable and generally totally fucked-up, even if, from his skewed perspective, I also was a dead man, to whom nothing really mattered, but metaphors be damned, I wasn’t dead, I was not dead, no, I… and he, nodding thoughtfully, drunkenly, to show me he’d heard and understood me, said that was fine, if he didn’t want to help him end his life, that was fine and dandy, but (or perhaps I’m just imagining this part; I don’t really remember any of our exchanges beyond that point) would it be all right instead if that aforementioned sister-in-law of his were to call me sometime before my departure date, you know, so as to pass on to me something he’d written down after having been diagnosed with fucking cancer, an impromptu manuscript of sorts, in which he’d tried to recall and record everything he remembered about his fucking life, which had turned out to be surprisingly little, disappointingly and quite frighteningly so, as if most of his life had been like this train ride in the dark, with only rare and sporadic splashes of light in the distance, from Moscow to Bologoye and from Bologoye to Le… to… Le… and I said sure, why not, whatever, it wasn’t going to happen anyway, she wouldn’t call, so she could call, although I wouldn’t give him my fucking phone number, since I no longer had a phone at my place, nor a place of my own to have it at, and he didn’t write any such thing, there was no manuscript, it never did happen, admit it, you dying fool — and we both laughed, and then… then nothing, I passed out, became dead to the world, and only opened my eyes to the dreary boreal darkness of a January Leningrad morning when the Red Arrow had already started to slow down in its close approaches to the Moskovsky train station, sighing and shuddering, emitting screeching metallic noises (oh, my head! my head!), and then I saw that DMD (whose real name I still remember, incidentally; but it is of no significance here… or anywhere else) was not in the compartment, and neither was his old-fashioned black cardboard suitcase, as though he’d never existed in my life, never shared the drunken train ride with me, which discovery surprised and alarmed me, so much so that I went looking for the trainwoman, who was glum-looking and pointedly brusque and unpleasant, probably hungover as hell, and who told me, in response to my query, with her unyielding back to me, that she had no idea where he was, that man from my compartment, and that keeping an eye on passengers’ movements throughout the train was not part of her payable duties; and that reaction of hers made me convinced, somehow, that she was lying and did actually know something with regards to DMD, and for a few moments I considered pressing the issue further, perhaps with her superiors, because I was worried about him, but then… in the end, I decided against it, for I had my own life to live — which, despite my uneasy premonitions on its account at the time, still had a surprisingly long way to go before running its course. 



  • Mikhail Iossel

    Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia), where he worked as an electromagnetic engineer and a security guard at the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure, and belonged to an organization of "samizdat" writers before emigrating to the U.S. in 1986. He is the author of, most recently, of "Love Like Water, Love Like Fire," a collection of stories, " "Notes from Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling," and one previous collection of fiction: "Every Hunter Wants to Know." He is a frequent contributor to, and his stories and essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Iossel, a Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Stegner Fellow, has taught in universities throughout the U.S. and is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Dooney’s is serializing Mikhail Iossel's SENTENCE.

You can find the full list of posted essays here