Twelve years ago, before I emigrated to the United States, when I was an inmate on the psychiatric ward of the Northern Fleet Hospital, in Murmansk, Sasha was brought to Unit A after he chopped off his thumb with an ax. This was 1987, north of the Arctic Circle, on the Kola Peninsula, where winter gales blew off the Barents Sea, whipping the port like a cat-o'-nine-tails made of ice. In boot camp Sasha had been ordered to split logs, but instead he got down on his knees and put his right hand on a stump and chopped off his thumb, which went flying in the dirt like a wood chip and was never recovered. Try as I might, I can't shake Sasha's anguished gaze from my memory. Although I barely knew him, we had gone to the same high school back in Leningrad, and we were from the same neighborhood. In the navy these coincidences were enough to make me feel as though I had encountered a dear and long-lost brother. Now, whenever his face re-emerges from my memory, a hollow coldness grows in my stomach, and I must concentrate to avoid drifting into the whirlwinds of my past. Today the numbing warmth of a bottle of Scotch isn't enough to keep me from drowning.
I remember his journey from Leningrad better than my own; perhaps it was no different from my own. When I returned to civilian life, I blocked out what I could—I didn't talk about it, tried not to let my mind wander back there. Even now, as I close my eyes and track my memories like a hunter, going deeper and deeper, I see a huge camp swarming with men in black from all walks of the Soviet Union, men going, men returning, men with incredible stories. How I got there, I remember from sitting next to Sasha's bed. I listened quietly, and he stared at the ceiling as his words poured out.
On that early-morning walk to the neighborhood military precinct, Sasha told me, the May light on the slumbering city had never been more painfully beautiful and sad. Each building took on the solemn beauty of what you love but can no longer possess. Leningrad reveals her splendor when the days are gray; the yellows, greens, and blues of the buildings make her look like a watercolor postcard, and here and there a golden dome shines like a surrogate sun. Sasha's feet were heavy, as if the streets conspired to hold him back, and his throat was so tight he couldn't swallow. Except for a small toy elephant and a piece of fur in a plastic bag, he had left everything behind, even his hair, yet he had never felt so heavy.
In the precinct's yard Sasha and thirty other boys with freshly shaved heads waited for the roll call. Some, still drunk from the night before, ran for the bathroom to vomit; others took swigs from flasks hidden in their vests. This was the end of their freedom for two or three years. Sasha knew no one, and kept to himself—he couldn't believe he was there. Until the previous morning he had assumed all along he'd been deemed unfit for service because of his asthma. He was studying Russian literature at the university when he received an official letter ordering him to report at once to the precinct with his medical records. At first he was sure it was only a formality, but the officer there glanced at his file and laughed. "Young man," he said, "you'll be just fine. We'll take you in spite of your imperfect lungs. Get a crew cut and report here tomorrow at six."
Sasha gaped. "But what about my asthma?"
"Sometimes Mother Russia makes exceptions for promising young soldiers like you," the officer said with a smile. "We'll find you a spot somewhere, don't you worry."
Sasha was speechless, disbelieving. The officer slapped his back and sent him on his way.
A draft official came out of the building and took the roll call; then he marched the recruits to a train station. The recruits lined up in the military waiting room, and the official told them, "You're all navy men now." Sasha's heart sank even lower; he was in for a full three years. He slumped on a bench in a corner and felt sorry for himself. The other boys were pale and worried too. Sasha reached for the piece of fur and held it tightly; then he closed his eyes.
His mind wandered to Galya, his first love. It was an exceptionally bright and sunny day, and the Neva River shimmered like rattling diamonds. She was with him, and together they walked along Sadovaya Street until they saw a crowd at the fish market. Quickly they got in line; something had arrived, but they didn't know what. Galya asked, but nobody knew. They stood in line for an hour and a half, his arm around her shoulder. Sometimes they kissed, her lips on his like velvet. When they got to the counter, little pink sticks of imitation crab wrapped in transparent plastic bags were on display—imports from Sweden. They bought what they could, and ate as they wandered in the city, licking each other's fingers, so happy at their unexpected luck, at the beautiful day. Then they went to her apartment, into the small room she shared with her grandma, who was out. Next to the bed was a plastic elephant that she turned to face away from them. "It would otherwise blush," she said. Then they made love, and afterward, as he lay on his back, she took a little piece of soft white fur and gently rubbed his cheek. Later, when he was drafted, before they parted she gave him the fur and the shy elephant wrapped in the imitation crab's transparent bag, which she had carefully washed.
As Sasha spoke, he drew a touching picture of life back home, and I clenched my teeth: I couldn't help thinking about my own girlfriend, my own departure. Those farewell days were hard. Military service in the Soviet Union was a very serious matter. When you turned eighteen, it was time to go—being a university student didn't help. When your name was called, there were no excuses, no extensions, no exceptions. I was hoping for the army—two years I could handle. But the navy, a full three years—that was a bit much. So when the official draft letter came, my hands shook slightly. Two years or three years? I put the letter in my bedroom dresser and didn't tell anyone about it. After a couple of days and six shots of vodka I tore it open. The navy. That was a big disappointment.
My girlfriend, Natasha, was the first one I told. That night we drank two bottles of Soviet champagne and then made passionate if brief love in her small room. Lying next to her, our sweat spicing the air, I told her slowly, It's the navy. She said nothing, just held me tighter and sighed. Three years; she wouldn't wait for me, and I didn't blame her. I didn't want to wait for me either.