By Mikhail Iossel | April 5, 2023

As I was walking along the crowded underpass at the downtown metro station of my destination the other Friday morning, running close to being late for my university department’s monthly meeting (I don’t tend to look forward to those too eagerly, if you want to know the truth), I heard, gently growing in volume and intensity, the beautiful violin rendition of Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2, accompanied somewhat less mellifluously by its regular orchestral arrangement (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, horns, trumpets, trombones… you name it), and a few seconds later I saw, seated on a red fold-out chair in a slightly slouched posture of a professional musician in the designated busking spot there, with, yes, a dully gleaming violin tucked under his jowly chin and with his protruding, heavily bagged eyes half-closed, in front of a short reedy stalk of a microphone stand and next to what appeared to be an old-school tape deck with two subwoofers, an elderly-looking man (well, he probably was my age, too, or even younger than me, it occurred to me then, in a flash of sober self-assessment) possessed of an unmistakable air of being a fellow former Soviet Jew (don’t ask — we just recognize each other, instantly and almost always unmistakably; thus, say, a Great Dane and a Chihuahua, upon spotting each other from a distance, know at once, in some mysterious way, that they’re both dogs), and, almost despite myself, I stopped momentarily, paused in the middle of the gloomily determined and overwhelmingly young human flow, suddenly overtaken (not the right word, too overused… stirred to the deep? feeling pricked in my heart?.. something like that) by one very specific and vivid, long-dormant recollection that had floated at that instant, out of nowhere, to the rippling surface of my mind — one of listening (and not quite listening but being keenly aware nevertheless of its playing in the background) to this very piece of music, this ultimately nostalgic (that is to say, ineffably *Russian*, although, on a personal note, Putin’s insane war against Ukraine has burnt all Russia-bound nostalgia out of my heart; and no great loss, good riddance) Shostakovich waltz, Waltz No. 2, in a state of quiet happiness, slowly simmering ardor, in the remote nevermore of my (did it actually happen to me, rather than someone else?.. yes, it did, so stop it) youth, back in the summer or early fall of 1982 maybe (the last year of Brezhnev’s life, and the second one of my being automatically and forever turned down in my ill-starred application for an exit permit from the USSR); yes, a fully formed, life-like mental tableau, with me and the beautiful (and yes, beautiful she was, believe me) smart funny young woman, girl that I was in love with at the time (she is dead now, as are probably, undoubtedly, more than half of all the people I’ve ever known) sitting in a beachfront restaurant, just outside of it, in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, then part of Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, so much water under the old bridge, in another lifetime, such a different world it was then, and listening and not listening (but being immersed in and, in a manner of speaking, harmonized by it) to that waltz which was playing inside the restaurant, oddly enough, and reaching us, instead of the ubiquitously hellacious early-eighties potpourri of Pugacheva-Rotaru-Kobzon-Leontyev-Senchina-Khil-Obodzinsky and… so on; and it was, of course, inexpressibly good (forgive me, I just don’t know how else to put it), all of it, just being there and, like, existing, being alive (yes, I know — but what can I do) and listening to it, that beautiful otherworldly waltz, just the two of us, the only two people there, late at night, well past midnight, drinking cold semi-sweet Psou, the local wine taking its name from the river separating Abkhazia from Russia, as we had been told by our waiter, and (yes, that’s right: true fact!) I was reciting to her the entirety of Arseny Tarkovsky’s long poem “Life, life,” the one claiming, or asserting that there is no death in the world, no death and everyone and everything is immortal, the one he recited himself off-screen in his son’s film “Mirror” (which I loved, if that’s the right word for it, and she hadn’t seen), “I don’t believe in premonitions / and omens frighten me not,” yes, and all that, and we were young and the world was endless and full of infinity and immortality, while the dark waves of the eternal Black Sea, unseen in the dark, were lapping on the pebbly shore, rhythmically, methodically, ceaselessly, thousands millions trillions of them, sibilant, whooshing and susurrating in the pitch-darkness surrounding the narrow circle of yellow light from the restaurant in which we were bathed in night’s fragrant warmth, to put it maybe a tad too beautifully, and that Shostakovich waltz was still playing, in that another life, the long-gone one, all these compressed multicolored layers of petrified decades ago… and for an instant, already back in the present moment of my being, back in that metro underpass, in my current reality (in which Russia was a fascist state waging an unconscionable war against Ukraine, American political system was broken and dysfunctional, a dozen of eggs at my local supermarket cost over 6 Canadian dollars, and I was almost being late for my department meeting), an old (ok, let me be kind to myself and say: middle-aged) man, former Soviet Jew, stopping momentarily in the long underpass at a busy downtown metro station in order to listen to an almost certainly another middle-aged former Soviet Jew play Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 on his violin, and yes, I also wondered briefly, gripped by the music’s mnemonic power over me (and not for the first time, of late) why my memories of my “first” life, so to speak (yes, “so to speak”: it’s a pretentious thing to say, to put it, I know, but no matter: that’s how I feel about it, my so-called life, and I’m entitled to my own tacky verbal tics), the one that began at the same starting point for everyone who’s ever been born and ended when, at thirty, I boarded that silvery shark of a West-bound plane at Leningrad’s Pulkovo airport — why, in short, my memories of it, my “first” life (yes, I know, OK?), were quite so much stronger, more vibrant, intense and keenly and sharply detailed and delineated than those of, well, pretty much everything (no, not everything; come on) that came later, but that was a pointless and counterproductive line of rumination, a waste of rapidly dwindling time, under the circumstances, and so I thought instead that he (the sad violinist in front of me) definitely reminded me of someone, and someone really good and kind, at that, and… yes, of course, I realized, he reminded me of the great Soviet chess player from Leningrad, Victor Korchnoi, that’s who, a chess genius, who almost succeeded at beating in a crazily tumultuous match for the world championship the official Soviet paragon of sports patriotism and Komsomol goody-two-shoes, slick-haired and reedy-voiced Anatoly Karpov, in Baguio, in the Philippines, in 1978, a few years following his (Korchnoi’s) defection from the Soviet Union and thus automatically becoming a contemptible, death-deserving traitor to the Motherland in the bovine eyes of the official Soviet propaganda, which last fact caused every decent and even minimally enlightened Soviet person at the time to root for him with added passion, to say nothing about the insignificant little me, a young and idealistic (strike that) Leningrad Jew, with my perennially inflamed imagination, to whom he (Korchnoi) always reminded of my own father, in some powerful and poignant yet elusive fashion, in the way he talked, by the cadences of his speech, the timbre of his voice, in the little gesticular (a real word? yes? no?) quirks and mannerisms of his (he was even born the same year as my father… two remarkably bright and good Leningrad Jews; I always wanted to be like them, but…); but that too unfortunately was an extraneous and superfluous thought at that specific moment, and I mentally shook my head and my whole inner self, like a dog coming out of water, only inwardly, to awaken myself fully to the unkind reality of my and our now (in which I was inexorably getting old and running late for my department meeting), and took a quick step, half-step toward the still-playing (but already winding down that waltz) violinist, in order to give him some money and, you know, say something nice and comforting to him maybe, in Russian (like what, though — that death doesn’t exist, as per the poet Arseny Tarkovsky? that life is something to be endured and there is no shame in succumbing to its relentless toughness, so take heart, my dear man? that we, the adult-age first-generation immigrants from a totalitarian world, were supposed and fully expected by life and, like, Mother Nature and stuff to be the lost cause of our own desperate endeavors from the get-go, in terms of our inevitable constant heartbreaks and readily predictable setbacks and non-achievements, us, the loveable and pitiable losers at life by default, whether beautiful or not, in our fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen’s florid poetic definition, but losers all the same… oh man, what’s this life of ours, what has it done to us, just look at us, man, how old we are all of a sudden, this is just sad, life, life, but at least, at the very least you’re a brilliant violinist, yes, which is nothing to sneeze at, if probably too old by now to be hired by a symphony orchestra or some such outfit, if you want the hard truth of it, not that you don’t know that already, but that’s life, it’s cruel and cold and doesn’t care about us or anyone, but it’s essential for us to believe that we haven’t lived completely in vain, not completely, man, not totally, and as for me, well, I may seem to be doing moderately all right from the outside, holding it together, as they say, on the surface of my middle-class existence and all that, but I’ll have you know that I also happen to be a walking compendium, if that’s the word, of regrets and unrealized dreams, which is not healthy from any standpoint, to put it mildly, so… and yet, and yet… man, we should take succor — succor? solace? no matter — in the knowledge that our children, let alone grandchildren, if or when we do have them, will be and already are the legitimate, true-blue, perfectly free citizens of the free world, with lives infinitely better and more successful than ours, and that’s the principle upon which the world turns, if that’s a legitimate expression, and so on and… stuff like that? yeah? that’s what I was going to say to him, to make him feel better or something? to that stranger, of whom I knew nothing? seriously? yeah, right), but just as I started approaching him, I realized, much to my embarrassed frustration and dismay, that I had no money to give him, none, because I had no cash on me, nothing in my pockets or in my wallet, zero cash situation (and I noticed, too, that hardly anyone thus far had dropped any loonies or toonies, much less any paper money into the beat-up violin case unfolded, agape, at his splayed, shoddily shod feet; and actually, I thought, it’d been quite a while since I had any real money on me, unless I was travelling abroad,, because why would I or anyone do that, carry any physical money, when we had all those cards and our smartphones; cash was becoming obsolete, extinct, already practically out the door, and so how – but again, this was another mental distraction; my mind was all over the place — were they supposed to survive now, going forward, all those cash-incentivized metro musicians and street buskers everywhere?); and for a split second I was considering making a mad dash for the nearest ATM, the one just outside the metro station, half a block away, even less than that maybe, next door to my university building; but that, of course, would mean taking the escalator upstairs, leaving the station, running over to the ATM in question (and hoping there would be no line inside its airless cubicle), procuring the money (but then, too, the smallest denomination I would obtain from it would be a $20 bill — so then, would I give the violinist that? of course not, that would be too ostentatious, too damn tacky, like I was some kind of frigging Abramovich), rushing back and re-entering the metro, getting on the down escalator, and… well, that was out of the question, in short, obviously, since I was already officially late for the department meeting (although, in all frankness, nothing of any import were to happen if I showed up for it as much as an hour late, or even skipped it altogether; but… since I’d already left my house on a snowy Friday morning, reluctantly, and made my joyless way downtown, what would be the point of doing it in vain, for nothing — so pointless and, like, self-defeating?); and so, with an appropriately contrite look on my face (and I was, for real, feeling bad about this!), I stepped up closer to him, just as he was being done with the waltz’s final chords, and said to him, quickly and quietly, in Russian, “Thank you, and I mean it, you play very beautifully, this brought back some lovely memories from my youth, but unfortunately, I have no money on me, I’m embarrassed to say… however, next time, if you ever play in this or some other such spot again and I’m here or there at the same time, I promise to make it up to you” — and my heart was beating rapidly in my chest for no clear reason — and (life, life!) he just looked at me in mild confusion, lifting up at me those moist, heavily bagged soulful eyes of his, the eyes of a violin-playing human basset hound, and smiled thinly and shrugged apologetically, and responded, in perfectly neutral American-Canadian English, “Sorry, my friend, I don’t understand” – son of a gun! (life, life) — and I, feeling like an idiot (you could say that again, me!), like a stranger to myself, I just repeated it in English, what I’d just said to him in Russian, only less empathically, with less of an emotional acceleration (he inclined his head politely and said, in a voice a bit hoarse from a spell of non-use, “Thank you kindly, I appreciate it, and no problem, I understand, this happens all the time”) — and then, no longer feeling or thinking about anything in particular (not even the department meeting, already in progress), I turned away from him and hurried towards the up escalator.


  • 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