By Mikhail Iossel | May 17, 2023


 I am, I exist, I am not a figment of my own imagination, no way, I am standing there, under the blue sky of my eight-year-old world, a bit too cutely put maybe, feeling the soft hesitant wind on my there needs to be an adjective here skin, seeing shadows of shadows, sharp-edged sunny spaces, on a benign mid-September Leningrad afternoon, Lemmingrad I just typed out blindly, the city of lemmings, OK moving on, I am not a blind typist but I am a near-sighted one, a bit too cute but OK, don’t get carried away, womenfolk’s summer this lovely stretch of early fall is called in Russia, which is like a watercolor of itself, the afternoon is, not sure about that, a bit too cute by half, let’s start again, let’s not, I am eight years and two months old, I was born and live in Leningrad, my parents recently told me that I’m a Jew, all of us are, a heartbreaking and life-altering piece of news, yes, so ashamed of myself, not who or what I want to be, if I could just cease to exist I would, that’s not entirely true, yes it is, but that would be the optics oh I hate that word of an adult old man looking back, OK moving on, standing aimlessly, lost momentarily in the fearsome, not the right adjective, sheer, yes, strangeness of my utterly insignificant yeah yeah yeah moving on minuscule existence in this vast and raw new world of my unhappy being, too cute by half, at the outbound end of the poorly asphalted, dirt-spattered narrow passageway separating our nondescript wouldn’t be a word from my vocabulary as an eight year-old, OK moving on, apartment building from its exact five-story concrete-box replica, lookalike squarely across the way somewhere in the spatially undefinable whatever middle of a fast-growing, or so they say, but I can see it with my own eyes too, micro-district, yes, “Khrushcheville” as my parents and their friends occasionally refer to it with a bemused chuckle when heedlessly assuming themselves to be outside of my earshot, too cute by half, on Leningrad’s remote southwestern edge, where our family of four was finally much to my heartbreak and lingering sadness and it’s not an either or situation granted by the competent authorities’ permission I already know a little English to relocate earlier in the year and indeed has moved to two weeks ago, yes, unbelievably, believe it, exchanging the cozily cramped too cute by half OK moving on confines of our single room in the rambling communal apartment in the roiling Dostoyevskean drop that core of the great unrepeatable city for the unimaginable hateful luxury too many loud adjectives of the thirty-four square meters’ worth of a three-room space of our own, although strictly speaking it is not ours, it’s the city’s, yes, oh I miss our room in that old communal apartment, I miss my life as it used to be, before everything, before I became so ashamed of myself, I miss living in it with my parents and my little brother and our live-in nanny Lyuba, my favorite person in the world, yes, she has not moved into our new place with us, she has exited my life forever, what is this a soap opera, where is she now and will I ever see her again, no, almost certainly not, such losses, moving on, life is all about one loss after another, Lossel is how they often spell my last name as a grownup an old man a middle-aged an old one, especially in Kenya, too long to explain, some other time, life happened, a man of losses, as if they didn’t know last names start with a capital letter, well, it’s my own fault, admittedly, as I should’ve spelled my name with a Y not I when applying for a green card upon arrival in America, but, but what, but nothing, but I didn’t want to be at the very end of every alphabetical list I would ever end up on in America, I suppose, so there, so shallow, I’m so ashamed of myself, stop saying that, I miss everyone in that old communal apartment downtown, in the roiling Dostoyevskean drop it, even the ever-angry, furious even, yes, seething with anger at all times, vicious and vile yet probably possibly kind-hearted, too, deep down inside, very deep, Old Faina, she in her old Army boots who OK moving on, I don’t want to think of her now, I don’t miss her enough, and now that I know that I am a Jew and am supposed to want nothing more in the world than to harm the good and kind and trustful Russian people and all other people too for good measure and that I was the one who crucified the nonexistent Jesus Christ, now that I know that everyone in the world knows, then what, then nothing, shame shame shame, moving on, I miss other children my age in that apartment, also my fellow first-graders, too cute by half, they are in the second grade now obviously from my old school on Fifth Red Cavalry street, five-minute walk from our old Dostoyevskean drop that apartment building, built in another century, under the tsarist regime, OK moving on, before the Great October Socialist Revolution. too cute by half, my grandfather is an old Bolshevik, he used to deify and idolize Stalin or so I’ve heard being whispered, I miss everything and everyone, knowing it will be forever, an impossible concept for an eight year-old, especially that girl from my first-grade class, now in the second grade, Larissa, yes, I walked her home once after school, with her, once, after school, shadows and sunshine, trembling sun-filled spiderweb silences of midtown streets, she invited me to her apartment, the one on the Fourth Red Cavalry Street, a single-family one, not a communal apartment, imagine, yes, man of losses, man of losses, until then I hadn’t known anyone living in a single apartment, except my grandmother’s older brother and his wife and their three children, all older than me, and their nanny, Gasha, Lyuba’s aunt, also from Cheboksary, capital of the Volga-bound Chuvash Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, along with my grandmother and great-grandmother, all them in that very large old flat on Sixth Red Cavalry Street, with a whole room specifically designated as Library there, with lots of books in it, such as the fifty-two dark-blue volumes of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, what wouldn’t I give to be back there now, as a child, and even some in English, books that is, OK moving on, but also of course, my “Moscow” grandparents, I only have one grandfather, an old Bolshevik, living in a spacious or airy or something single-family apartment in the suburbs of Moscow, Moose Island it’s called, yes, OK moving on, I also lived there for a year, with them, my “Moscow” grandparents, between the ages of six and seven, too starchily put, very recently and a lifetime away, OK moving on, I’m just standing there, so ashamed, man of losses, yes, and I don’t know, as I’m standing there, at the end of that I don’t know how to put it passageway, OK, where the latter OK moving on intersects with the nominally superficially practically not paved road leading from Cosmonauts Avenue, where we live, that’s our new address, how I don’t want to be there, what a desolate place, dolorous, to Yuri Gagarin Avenue, where my new grade-to-high school is situated, are you sure that’s the right word, where I’ve only been going for one week so far, yes, moving on, and where I am the forty-third pupil in the Second-D class, yes I am, in a room that can hardly fit in more than twenty of us, little Soviet Leningrad children in mousy-gray uniforms and nondescript brown dresses or whatever, so we’re all sitting three or four to a desk there, in that classroom, which is ridiculous, but then no one there knows yet I’m a Jew, oh really, you really think so, don’t be ridiculous, the teachers know, others also, and how about looking at yourself in the mirror, any mirror of your choice, at your nose, say, and didn’t someone already sneer at you on the street in the old neighborhood and called you by the name your parents had told you you would from time to time and regularly be called by now, now that I know, moving on, yes, so ashamed, moving on, a man of losses, standing there, where from the window of your and your little brother’s room you can see nothing but an endless expanse of industrial wasteland, as far as the eye can see, nothing but liquid are you sure that’s the right adjective mud cratered and dotted with tectonic lakes, the sovereign habitat oh cut it out of water rats that I’ve seen local boys older than me hunt from their makeshift rafts with their long sticks with long forks attached to them, gigs, moving on, I don’t know in that moment if I’ll ever see Larissa again, although we’ll still be living in the same city, technically speaking, yet she could just as well be on another planet, get used to it, man of losses, so I’m standing there, aimlessly, on a typically benign womenfolk’s-summer afternoon, feeling heartbroken don’t be overdoing it and looking at this enormous expanse of nothingness in front of me, surrounding me on all sides, from every direction, liquid mud, yes, and believe it or not, for a briefest of instants a joyful feeling enters my minuscule being or whatever, because the sun, because I’m alive, trite as that may sound, but who cares, and all this fierce ferocious raw strangeness, this terrible and beautiful world, because life is endless, this unending open space of life, too cute by half, OK moving on, then just as quickly it’s gone, as I’m thinking of Larissa, of how she told me, when we were drinking tea from the faience cups of imperial make, her benighted what the hell does that word mean grandmother told us proudly, imperial, yes, what the hell, that she had a boyfriend, Larissa did, man of losses, in the parallel first grade at that old school, named Dima, eff me, whose father was a freaking lawyer, or at the very least she liked him, why are you telling me this, Larissa, which is why she was calling him her boyfriend, eff my life, which is one and the same thing and I feel like dying, OK moving on, I am moving on, even as I’m standing there, aimlessly, feeling I’ve already lived too damn long a life, it’s interminable, really, eight years, my god, what would be the point of extending this sadness any further, farther, further, father, this like meaninglessness and stuff, yes, man of losses, and I imagine myself pleasantly being dead, laying sad and stern and close-eyed this is awkwardly put moving on and oh so impossibly handsome, whatever, in a coffin made of ancient oak or some other noble kind of wood, red or black, red and black, like Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, been there done that, with everyone around the be-coffined me being heartbroken, utterly, filled with extreme remorse, Larissa in particular with her nominal boyfriend named Dima and everyone saying through tears how we so underappreciated him me he was too good for us and for this ugly cruel world oh he was a freaking genius and potentially the greatest human ever born but we but we but us but we were so blind shame on us but he was a Jew but that’s OK still OK moving on and everyone crushed, totally, standing around my coffin, OK moving on, I feel sorry for them, but what can I do, I’m dead, and my parents saying to each other, through veritable torrents of tears, we shouldn’t have moved him from that old communal apartment to this you know wild wilderness, it was a tragic blunder of cosmic proportions, how could we have been so unforgivably insensitive to his feelings, his emotional needs, and now it’s too late too late, too late, I run those two words, too late, in my mind, as I’m lying there, laying, in that beautiful coffin, too late too late too late slishkom pozdno slishkom pozdnoslish kompozdnnoslish, with steadily increasing acceleration because how else would I occupy myself there, in that stupid freaking coffin, this being dead thing is getting old on me, until they start blurring into and unto each other, those two words, too late, resembling some ominous incantation echoing inside my head, slishkom pozdnoslish kompozdnoslishkompozdno kompozdno dno dno dnodnodno, OK moving on, but where is everyone, why am I the only one there, how odd, why can’t I see anyone, a solitary man of losses in this wasteland surrounding me, have Americans dropped an atomic bomb on us or something, considering that typically it is quick with people, if that’s the word, quick, with all the new micro-district dwellers, re-settlers like us here, maybe it’s Sunday and so that’s why, but I don’t think so, but then, if it’s not Sunday and it is afternoon, which it is, then why am I not at school, huh, no idea, OK moving on, it doesn’t matter, I’m still alive, all these centuries later, although of course I’m not him, that sad and confused little Leningrad boy, while from an open window somewhere nearby, one of the exact same five-story concrete-block boxes of apartment buildings that comprise the entirety of our new neighborhood, our “Khrushcheville” micro-district, I can hear the soft, ruminative, sad, beautiful OK cut it out “voiceless” as my Moscow grandmother calls it voice of Mark Bernes, my grandfather’s favorite, singing about how Russian people don’t want war, totally not, are you kidding, and we don’t, we don’t want war, although I’m a Jew and so is my grandfather and so is Mark Bernes, but not Yevgeny Evtushenko, he the poet, no, not him, of course I know who he is, we the Soviet people we the Soviet people we the Soviet people, we are good we are good oh so good, we are the light of the world and America is its ugly darkness, historically doomed, the world of imperialism is, even if it decides to drop its atomic bomb on us, in which case it’s not terrible to die along with everyone else, yes, would be like living along with everyone else, no difference, although I’ll admit I’m a little scared, yes, and as though in order to assuage my fears, too cute by half, OK to be rephrased later, if there is one, that later, to calm me down and soothe my nerves and comfort me and whatnot, from another direction, but also somewhere very close by, from some other window in our new apartment building, comes the heavenly and a bit nauseatingly even lovely lyrical tenor of the greatest opera singer alive and OK my “Leningrad” grandmother, my father’s mother, who lives now in the same apartment building as we do, only we’re on the third floor and she and great-grandmother on the first with their fat and colicky old black cat Kuzya and, in short, she always says Ivan Kozlovsky’s voice is just heavenly, although that does not imply that heaven exists, or hell, everyone knows that, there is no god, everyone except Lyuba, my love, whom I may never see again, along with Larissa, OK moving on, Lyuba believed in god, still does probably, wherever she is, it was our secret, she knew I could tell on her at any moment, betray her, if I were a stranger to myself, someone I didn’t know I was, but then I am a Jew, it turns out, a snake doesn’t know it’s a snake, and I am supposed to wish nothing but evil on the good and gullible Russian people, but I don’t, I don’t think I do, I love Lyuba, and then she would be in a world of trouble, she had an image of an icon or whatever looked like my mother that woman under her bed no in her old suitcase among her clothes, and so now Kozlovsky, moving on, is singing what I know to be Lensky’s aria from the opera Evgeny Onegin, and who the hell are those two, Onegin-Lensky, and the latter is wondering, via Kozlovsky, as to where have they gone, the golden days of his damn spring, oh too cute by half, and for an instant I have a feeling he’s singing about me, Kozlovsky is, because even at my eight years of age, I know I’ve already lived an impossibly too many impossibles long life and the golden days of my spring are already behind me and now I’m in the too cute by half September of my life, with Kozlovsky now channeling Lensky’s anguished musings concerning what the coming day would have in store for the him, which is a good question, Lensky, and the answer to it unfortunately is nothing good, yes, unfortunately or fortunately, and whether he would be killed dead by a deadly arrow and all that, what arrow who uses arrows anymore, while out of nowhere, it seems, two big boys, probably middle-schoolers already, at least twelve or fourteen or forty years old each, too cute by half, materialize practically in front of me, in the distance, mirage-like, walking briskly in the direction of Cosmonauts Avenue which is right behind me, from the Yuri Gagarin Avenue’s emptiness five minutes’ worth of OK moving on, and they are talking animatedly, discussing probably the upcoming football match between us, our Soviet team and Hungary, yes, Hungary is strong, I know, I love football, football, not soccer, man of losses, man of losses, OK moving on, I can name almost all the players in the major league, despite the pointlessness of my existence, and then one of the boys, for no reason at all, asks the other in English, for no reason in English, once they’re within my earshot, what his name is, in English, and the other boy responds by saying his name is John, and the two burst out laughing, and the first boy says his name is Jack, still laughing, the two practically doubling over, slapping each other’s backs and all that sort of thing, OK moving on, and yes I already know English a little, grandmother’s older brother’s apartment on the Sixth Red Cavalry Street has all those books in English in its Library, his wife is a teacher of English, and those books in English they have there are a lot of fun to look at, like the one that is a book of American cartoons, with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, also one published around the beginning of the century in England, how very strange, and it’s about England, titled “This is England,” imperialism is historically doomed, and there are many old poems I cannot read and other such stuff in it, but also old photographs and drawings of London, so I already know a little English, yes, maybe more than a little, I just don’t know just how well I know it, thank you very much, although not really, come on, I only know a few words, realistically speaking, and these boys, they clearly are going home, are they brothers no who cares, from an English lesson at school, which means they must already be like in eighth grade, oh man, or maybe they’re studying English at the Young Pioneers Palace over on the Nevsky, which I have never seen actually, the palace, not the Nevsky, although the Nevsky also, in all of my eight years in this world, maybe just a couple of times with my parents, although I have heard a lot about it, the palace, not the Nevsky, but the Nevsky also, it’s my whole life, it’s everyone’s main street, it’s our symbol of existence, there is no Leningrad without the Nevsky, OK moving on, they probably undoubtedly well sure also have just moved to this new micro-district of ours from somewhere else in Leningrad, good thinking detective, and they finally notice me and stop momentarily, as if I were such a startling spectacle, a mirage in my own right, and one of them says loudly he sees a boy, in English, and the other responds to the effect that he is seeing not just any boy but a little boy, a little boy with a big nose, and they start laughing again, like they are two Neanderthals or something, and one of them addresses me directly then, saying A little boy, do you speak English, all of a sudden, doo eweyooo spik Inglizh, in an aggressive tone, startling me, my heart starting to beat very rapidly in my chest, to hammer away in my ears, deafening me, so that I almost cannot breathe, and so I say to him, also loudly, but also not, in a pathetic broken weak high-pitched voice, Yes I am, yes, that’s what I say, YES I AM, already knowing I screwed it up in a fundamental way and will never be forgiven, as the two big boys scream with delight in disbelief at that, fairly falling down in an overload of merriment into that liquid mud beneath our feet, roaring with laughter, repeating to each other Yes I am, Yes I am, but then they stop abruptly and look at me with cold derision and pure contempt, and they say to me, one of them does, A little boy, you speak English not, yes, already losing all interest in my minuscule persona altogether, starting to move again, walking away, resuming their progress towards Cosmonauts Avenue, leaving me behind, yes, leaving me standing there, as shame unfurls in my chest like a searingly hot bright red flower, burning me to death from within, this shame, this fire inside me, killing me on the spot, forever and ever, oh the things we remember, fool fool fool fool fool fool fool fool fool. 




  • 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.

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