1986 – Leningrad – last night of a 3-week whirlwind tour of the Soviet Union with school friends
The packed dance floor of the hotel bar heaved and convulsed under the bright disco lights. The only Russians in the place were the staff who sullenly looked on and served drinks. A lot of drinks. A lot of vodka-based drinks. Me and my friends (all boys) were an atrocious rabble of drunken 17-year-olds, hooting and hollering and, having been thoroughly culture-saturated by the city over the past 3 days, wanted nothing more than to get laid one more time before going back to staid Toronto where getting laid was more difficult than breaking into Lenin’s tomb and stealing his corpse in broad daylight.
I had been striking out all night but did not care because I was having a good time with my friends anyways. Another round of drinks had just arrived when a girl arrived at our booth and stood in front of me. She was petite but had the curves in all the right places. She wore a blood-red short dress that complemented her almond-colored skin and long, dark hair. Her eyes were astonishing, smoldering green, like ocean wounds beneath her lazy bangs.
“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed one of my friends.
The girl pointed at me and nodded towards the dance floor. “Dance?!” she ordered, more than asked, in an un-placeable accent.
“Sure!” I laughed and, as she led me out on to the dance floor by the hand, I looked over my shoulder and cast a withering smirk towards my resentful friends.
I flailed away for a few minutes with her. She was a bit older and super hot so I was as intimidated as hell. I finally mustered up the courage to shout over the music “what’s your name?” She stopped dancing and stared at me blankly and I realized she didn’t speak a word of English beyond “dance”. She flagged over one of her friends, cupped her hand over her ear and spoke rapidly for a few moments.
“She doesn’t speak English,” her friend said, turning to me.
“I know! I just asked her what her name is.”
“Her name is Marija. She likes you. She wants to know your name.”
“Me. I’m Andrew. Canada. Toronto. Where are you guys from?!”
“Yugoslavia,” said the friend as she turned to Marija and translated. “She wants to know how old you are.”
“I’m 21,” I lied as I had grown a beard while traveling and, although it was more greasy and straggly than a sailor’s, it did make me look a couple of years older. “How old is she?”
“She’s 21 too! She likes you!” she said as Marija nodded approvingly and waved her away.
We resumed dancing and grinding for another 20 minutes or so and then, suddenly, she disappeared.
“Fuck me,” I muttered, slumping into the booth with the remaining friends still there.
“She just fucked off! I turned around and she was gone! Her friend said she wanted to fuck me!” I lied again.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” chortled my friends, intensely satisfied with themselves.
But then, out of nowhere, she was there in front of me again with pure lust in her alarming eyes. She had her hotel key in her hand and, jabbing it towards the ceiling, she said: “Room!”
“What?” I asked, confused. “Where did you go?”
“Room!” she said again more emphatically, in defiance of not understanding my question.
“Absolutely!” I said and, this time, I was led away by the hand to the elevator doors in the lobby.
2 weeks later – Duke of Kent Pub – Toronto
“You stupid fucking idiot,” surmised my friend, Dave, as he slammed down his pint glass, splashing beer all over my history paper that was due the next day. “We all had condoms on us! Half our suitcases were condoms! What’s wrong with you?!”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck – FUCK!” I groaned, holding my head in my hands. “I don’t know. It was just… she was mesmerizing, you know? It was kind of like a seduction thing, you know? You saw her! Jesus, Dave, she was 21 years old! I was out of my league!”
“Oh, fuck off! How many times did you bone her anyways?”
“God, right up until I almost missed our transfer to the airport the next morning. You remember. I’m scared, man. I’m scared I’m going to fucking die.”
“Go to the doctor and get tested, man,” Dave said flatly. “It’s the only solution. Try not to fuck anyone without a condom on the way.”
This was the way me and my friends talked to each other back then. Everything laced with extreme vulgarity and a total disregard for girls. Girls were merely objects to be “boned” in a testosterone-fueled campaign of conquest before Daddy handed over the reins to the company after university (where it mattered little if you did well or poorly). We were being harvested by an elite all-boys private school that refined our minds in the classroom and molded our bodies on the sports pitches, all the while turning a blind eye to our pent-up, adolescent hooliganism when we were off school grounds.
In any event, I did as Dave said and went and got tested. It was the mid-1980s and HIV infection and an agonizing death from AIDS terrified us as if it was the Black Death. We had been trained to not so much as kiss a girl without putting on 5 condoms beforehand – even if she was a rich, private school virgin who had never even had a boy’s hand down her panties. What had I done? Repeatedly had unprotected sex with a complete and total stranger from Yugoslavia, thousands of miles from home. In the Soviet Union. Well done.
A few weeks later, my results came in and the doctor told me I was clean. I almost wept for joy and embraced her. She gently pushed me away and cautioned me about how lucky I was. I remember walking out of the clinic into the spring air, without a cloud in the sky, and thanking God for the reprieve. I then promptly deleted Marija from my memory and the long night we spent together in that hotel room. Of course, you cannot delete memories like you can files from a computer – but this memory I relegated to that dark place in memory, the ‘top secret’ folder that is only, if ever, revisited as a result of the haunting, cyclical nature of history.
2012 – Montreal
I sat in front of my computer pondering. Should I try online dating? No, I decided – someone will come along at some point. I was now 44 years old and my time was spent with either people half my age or friends approaching 70. It seemed that everyone in my age range was either happily married or going through an ugly divorce. And, frankly, I simply did not really enjoy the company of people in their 40s. They seemed so lost in the banality of middle age, lacking both the passion and courage I saw in the young and the old alike. Middle age seemed to me like a No Man’s Land in which you were neither here nor there – just lost in a holding pattern of life until the kids are grown and you can retire and actually do the things you really want to do once again. I was about to close the lights and go to bed when I heard a gentle tapping at my front door.
“Yes?” I asked quizzically of the woman silhouetted by my balcony light.
“Andrew? Is it you?”
“I’m Andrew. Who are you?”
“We met briefly in St. Petersburg a long time ago.”
“Oh, my God,” I whispered as the file in my top-secret folder was suddenly resurrected. “What are you doing here? Please come in. Drink?”
“I’m fine thanks,” she said, stepping in and perching herself on the edge of the sofa in my living room. “I won’t keep you long.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “But how did you find me after all these years?”
“Facebook. It wasn’t such a leap to find you from there.”
“Why didn’t you just friend me? That would have been a lot easier. By the way, your English is excellent!”
“I moved to Seattle years ago,” she laughed. “No, I was passing through Montreal on business and wanted to see you. I’m leaving early tomorrow morning. I’m sorry if I’ve taken you by surprise.”
“No, no – that’s okay. Wow, it’s… it’s been a long time,” I said lamely. “You look good.” This was a lie as she had a serious facial injury and had a glass eye.
“You lied to me about your age when we met and you’re lying again now,” she said, laughing again.
“What happened?” I asked, surrendering to the utterly true accusation.
“I was shot in the head in Bosnia,” she said matter-of-factly, her face emotionless.
“Oh, my God! I’m so sorry Marija,” was the best response I could muster.
“I wanted to give you something,” she said after an uncomfortable silence.
“Okay,” I said, nervously, as she handed me an envelope.
“I wanted you to see this picture, Andrew. And I’m not doing it to cause you any guilt. We were young and reckless and I take full responsibility. I just… I just thought you should know. You can keep it if you like.”
I took the picture from the envelope and two young boys, about 8 years old, stared out at me from it. They were standing in the midst of smoking ruins, one of them holding a soccer ball with a defiant expression on his face.
“What is this?” I asked mystified.
“You don’t recognize them?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
I examined the photo again and then the shock of realization crept over me and flooded me with dread. The jaw lines, the eyes and the white blond hair. The boys were perfect replicas of myself when I was their age.
“No,” I whispered, feeling like my head was about to explode.
“Twins,” she said quietly. “They were your sons.”
“Were?” I said, already knowing the answer to the question. “What happened to them?” I asked breathlessly.
“They were shot in the head, like me. I played dead in the pit and, after the soldiers left, I managed to get their bodies back to my village and I buried them on my father’s farm.”
“No! No… no! No…”
2 weeks later – Bosnia
I stood alone over the two unmarked graves, in the farmer’s field, as Marija’s brother kept a suspicious eye on me from a distance. I had placed some flowers on them both and was about to leave when I turned back and a dam of emotion broke within me. I fell to my knees.
“Boys… boys… I should have contacted your mother after I came back to Canada. But, you see, all I was worried about was myself and my health. I only cared about me and it never even occurred to me that I could be a father of children… children in a desperate land. A couple of weeks ago, I stayed up all night talking to your mother. She came to visit me, you see? Because… because I didn’t know. She told me all about you guys. She said that, at the end, you both tried to save her from the guns. And… and you did… you saved her… and… in the end, you saved me too… half a world away. And… and…”
The leaves in the trees sighed gently under a sudden breeze. The sun set the wheat fields afire, in orange and red ribbons, as it slipped below the horizon behind the woods and the torn clouds.
A bird chirped as it alit and happily pecked away at my worthless flowers.