Months passed since I was liberated from the underground labor camp in Orhey Forest, Moldova. Behind were scary blood transfusions, dental tortures and endless chats with a bunch of cardiologists. I finally got my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the slow-moving Soviet Immigration Office to approve my visa. Once, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside of the downtown restaurant in Chisinau, someone’s light hand touched my shoulder.
“What are you up to these days, Lazarus, what are you up to?”
I turned around to see the man. I really hadn’t recognized Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t pale – it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face.
He noticed my confusion, asked with a short laugh:
“Don’t you remember me? Yes, yes! They can do this to you – they and their newly invented mill-stones!”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheek-bones with thin skin over them, sticking out like miniature mountain peaks, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why it was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back.
“Professor!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “Well, well, how the hell are you?”
“I’m great, Lazarus!” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau! What can be more beautiful!”
I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing. To ask seemed impossible.
“Those mill-stones roughed me up quite a bit,” he said, “but I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with thin skin over them is laughing; it just looked like it, and now, at least five minutes later than I should’ve, I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, Lazarus, but I’ve gotten used to that.”
I felt embarrassed and wanted to leave now, to tell him about the conference, the real reason for my trip to Chisinau, but he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a few more things I’m hiding under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to show,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”
“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken.
I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked with his short deceiving laugh. “How about a couple of drinks for the occasion? I’m buying.”
He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.
“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: my conference starts in less than an hour.”
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I should like that,” I said paying for my coffee. “Whenever I’m in Chisinau again.”
“You know where to find me, don’t you, Lazarus?” he asked laughing. “They gave me back my apartment, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof – instead of a starry sky.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought suddenly while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said:
“It was nice to see you alive and laughing, professor…”
“We shall meet again, Lazarus,” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said. “Always up for a good story.”
I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.
Spring in Chisinau, always surprising, always beautiful!
We’re damaged goods, I thought cranking up the window, but he was right, we survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying; we’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants, dentures, and blood transfusions. And when none of that helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside and disappear. One after another. In silence.
“You may take a nap,” the taxi driver interrupted my thinking. “It’s quite a ride.”
“Can you make it in thirty minutes?”
“I can certainly try.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, closed my eyes and went back to the very beginning.
My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught literature and linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Beltsy, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldavia, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city’s own history is closely intertwined, and held seminars on weekends to make some extra money. Then came the Seventies, Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one. Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. They enjoyed wine and food and didn’t notice that I, who was usually in the center of every discussion, wasn’t talking much. Only my wife seemed unhappy. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course, I could make an effort to be smart and funny; it’s just I had the feeling I had said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden.
I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.
Time kept going, and I kept teaching Russian literature in the spirit of the socialistic realism. Every day I met plenty of people, killers and those who ordered the killings: you can’t tell by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, friends suddenly stop answering their phones, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment, I didn’t feel like talking about it.
More than once I thanked God for television.
In August of 1981 I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha some twenty miles from Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and those who will die in the nearest future; about the need of a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine, preferably in Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than a job or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine.
When a couple of months later I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan – two chairs and a desk – room and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. The man who soon walked in, greeted me with a smile and occupied the chair across the desk. At least six feet tall, nicely built, he introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. His smile disarmed me. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. By the end of our meeting, it became obvious that he knew quite a bit about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Checking something in a tiny notepad, which I missed at first, Anatoly assured me that I’ve done nothing wrong, and the reason for the invitation is rather prosaic: his department had been informed recently that some students from the university I worked for were distributing copies of BBC radio transmissions. All they’re missing were the names of those students.
“This is like a mountain off my shoulders, Comrade Major,” I said. “Really.”
“So, you don’t know anyone?”
“None of my own students is capable of such a thing. They’re just not brave enough!”
“That’s all we needed to know,” he said and glanced at his watch. “Look at that: almost noontime!”
Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break a bread with a KGB Major in a public eatery doesn’t seem like a wise idea, but couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands. Sunny day, everybody in white shirts.
Anatoly called again a month later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room.
“A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There is one right next to the university…”
“I have a better idea: the residential complex on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.”
“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule.”
“I’ve taken the liberty: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”
“This is not about my careless students I recon?”
“Not anymore, my friend: it’ll be much more productive actually.”
We chatted a bit more, then the line went dead. I stood in the hallway with the phone still attached to my ear, motionless, unaware suddenly of how to live my life, how to go back into the living-room and entertain my wife and daughters as if nothing happened.
It was a nine-story apartment complex about half way between the City Court and the KGB building; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. I reached the sixth floor and stopped at the door with a number 603 in the middle. Remembered suddenly a quick exchange of words I had with Anatoly before he disconnected the line. “The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them.” “So, don’t push me.” “In your case it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.” And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones to transform me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger! Well, I thought, what’s meant to happen – can’t be escaped.
I pushed the red button.
The door was unlocked by a tall woman of satanic calm and undistinguishable age, who said holding the door open: “Good morning, Lazarus, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “is this…”
“Please, come in, Lazarus, you’re not lost,” she assured softly, accompanied me into the living-room, and walked away without uttering another word.
Anatoly stood next to wall-to-wall bookshelves with an open book in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other, said as though reading my mind:
“Her name is Iraida Borisovna Borodina. She’s a retired schoolteacher, likes music and literature, which she understands more than I do. She’s also a great hostess and a widow. She lives by herself; her three sons are long gone and visit her once in the summertime and again on the New Year’s Eve. Otherwise…”
“A widow?” I dared to interrupt.
“Her husband, Evgenii Andreevich Borodin, a hero of the Soviet Union, died three years ago of a heart attack during his annual vacation in a prestigious sanatorium near Sochi. He was a very respected and knowledgeable officer who spent his last fifteen years writing memoirs about the first few days of the World War II…”
“What did you say was the cause of his death again?”
“Please sit down, Lazarus,” said Anatoly, ignoring my question.
And I understood: the casual time was over.
We were about the same age, Anatoly just a couple of months older, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and loved to talk about modern poetry and prose as long as the conversation didn’t veer toward forbidden themes.
“A cigar?” he offered, knowing full well that no one in his right mind will refuse a real, hand-made Cuban cigar, and adroitly cut off the end of the one he had in his hand.
“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly. “About a year ago…”
“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again,” he interrupted in a slightly raised voice, pulled a tape recorder out of his back pocket, and for half an hour I listened to my own seminars and the conversation with my colleagues in that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened: “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…” At that moment, Iraida Borisovna came into the living-room with two cups of steaming tea and some sponge cake on a silver tray, placed everything on the table and walked away. In silence.
“Please, help yourself,” said Anatoly. “It’s an herbal green tea from China – does wonders for your sex drive I’ve been told.”
I tried a piece of cake, took a sip of tea, and asked:
“Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?”
“Have another piece of cake, Lazarus,” said Anatoly, “and some more of this wonderful tea – I’m sure you have never had anything like it in your life. Now, let’s talk seriously: you’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily; at least for now, you’re a Soviet citizen, aren’t you? To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”
“Don’t see any difference!”
“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents, will never be pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you will never know what happened to them, how they were punished or if they were punished at all. As far as I see it, you’ll be a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is interested in men and women of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities, in particular your exceptional memory. It’s rather impressive. We’re also very interested in a circle of people with whom you have established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, future moves, and the contents of letters that might be channeled to them from around the world, especially from United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”
“A risk-free job, isn’t it?”
“Nothing is completely risk free, professor, even this tasteful herbal tea,” said Anatoly, “but let’s talk about the compensation, despicable money and the bright future for you and your family, especially your daughters. Our system is not perfect, and the fact that a college professor doesn’t make enough money to provide a decent life for his wife and children only proves…”
“I’m actually a college lecturer…”
“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”
“Not today, no.”
“Finish your tea, Lazarus.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“To avoid punishment? Not even a slim one, but that would be something to talk about in details at our next meeting on Monday. Take your time please. For now, I just want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”
“My family?” I had to ask.
“It’s for your own good, my friend, believe me.”
It still seemed like a game, sounded like one. I sat on the other side of the table and looked straight into Anatoly’s eyes, trying to understand why a young man of his abilities, very well educated, with a chance to become a professor while in his thirties without any obstacles, visible and invisible, would dedicate his one and only life to a system that is hated by every civilized country on earth? Is it the money or the power to manipulate people’s lives? Or both?
“I’m a soldier under an order, I’ve chosen this life and I love it,” Anatoly read my mind. “I can do a few things for you if you decide to consider our offer. If not…well, let’s just say that your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”
I kept quiet.
“Until next Monday then?” he said shaking my hand.
“A very productive conversation, wasn’t it?”
“Is it Monday or Tuesday?”
The door of the other bedroom was closed.
I took the elevator this time; didn’t know why, but this time wanted to meet somebody, an old classmate maybe, a colleague…Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.
Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. I heard my wife talking to my daughters, their usual morning wrangle. To go or not to go? A door slammed, then another: kids were gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. My wife knocked on the shower door, wished me a safe day, and then her steps died in the distance. I dried myself, brushed my teeth. Is it possible to keep it secret from my friends and colleagues? Am I really good for the assignment? Carefully as never before I shaved my face, combed my hair. My breakfast took the usual half an hour. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. In a few years no one will remember. Anatoly was right; the time itself, like a miracle doctor, will erase from people’s memories the good deeds and the bad ones. Anatoly was right: if not I – then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, more ambitious and braver. Survival is the name of the game.
I finally left the apartment.
Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.
I looked around: morning people everywhere, always in a hurry, their grayish faces never smile – fear of the reality? I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.
“Please be quick,” warned the young freckled clerk.
“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number. After a few rings Iraida Borisovna picked up the receiver. Her flat, soft voice discouraged me: I wasn’t ready to talk to the wife of a war hero. “Anatoly please,” I asked, glancing at the freckled clerk.
Whispers on the other end; then: “I’m listening.”
“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming…”
“You shouldn’t be calling from the bookstore.”
“I am sorry…”
“Well, it’s very understandable.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I really didn’t know how to end this conversation.
“I doubt it,” said Anatoly and disconnected the line.
I thanked the freckled clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.
In a small restaurant I occupied the stool at the counter and asked for some coffee.
“In a minute, teacher!”
I closed my eyes and imagined Anatoly’s face, hands, rare anger. The restaurant was empty at this time of the day, just a soundless young couple at the distant table holding hands together.
“Your coffee, teacher,” said the barman.
“Thank you, Konstantin.”
“Is your family alright?”
“Everybody’s fine, thanks for asking.”
“Well, that’s good. Family is without doubt the most important thing in life,” said Konstantin, now rinsing the glasses. “When my Stella died, I thought my life was over, but then again…”
I nodded, sipped my coffee. Surprisingly enough, I felt pretty calm, as though my sudden decision not to see Anatoly again was the only one I could live with. Consequences? Of course! It would be naïve to assume that Anatoly, having all this power, could simply forget about the secret seminars, my trip to Moscow and the sudden rejection of his offer.
“Is it too early for a shot of cognac, Konstantin?” I asked.
“Well, it depends…”
“I’ll have one then.”
“Here you go, teacher.”
“I am very sorry about your wife, Konstantin,” I said. “I hope you had enough money for a nice marble stone on her grave.”
“Just a small granite one, teacher, just that.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“All grown up and gone,” said Konstantin and splashed more cognac in both glasses. “That’s to my Stella – let the ground be soft to her.”
The drink burned my throat.
“Some fresh coffee?” asked Konstantin.
“Unfortunately, I have to go,” I said feeling a little headache suddenly. I pulled my wallet out of the chest pocket, but he forestalled my attempt to pay.
“It’s on me, teacher,” said. “It seems that we both needed some hard liquor this morning,”
I thanked him and went out.
The rain had stopped while I was inside the restaurant, but it would probably start again later in the day. Puddles in the same places. I walked fast, feeling younger, lighter – no longer a robot. The sun fought its way through the clouds, brighter than ever. Ten minutes later I stood on the steps in front of the university, looking around: people here and there, cars, dirty buses; more people than before the rain: freshness pushed them out of their disgusting apartments. Well, I thought, what was done was done, and thank God I never discussed it with my family.
A month passed. On Friday, as soon as we finished watching the late-night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.
“As alright as I can be.”
“I can make you feel better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my arm.
“I’ve no doubts,” I said. “How about a rain-check?”
“A rain-check it is,” she said. “Don’t take too many though.”
On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of aged Feteaska Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight.
A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.
They came for me.
I stepped out of the balcony and stopped: my wife was already in the living-room, her face white as paper, her hands visibly shaking.
“Who do you think that might be?” she whispered. “It’s after midnight, for God’s sake!”
“There is something I always meant to tell you, love,” I said, “but it seems that I suddenly ran out of time…”
“KGB!” a man’s voice interrupted from behind the front door. “Open immediately!”
“You meant to say we ran out of time, honey?”
“Yes… Give me a moment, please,” I walked briskly through the hallway and unlocked the door.
“Citizen Trubman?” asked one of the three men.
“Do you realize that it’s after midnight?”
“I’m Captain Samoilov,” the man introducing himself ignoring my question. “I hope you said your good-byes.”
“Of course not!” I said. “You haven’t called ahead of time.”
“My apologies… Would five minutes be sufficient enough?”
I thanked him and went back. My older daughter was already standing next to her mother, crying; the little one was asleep, thank God.
“I didn’t tell her anything,” said my wife. “She just seems to know things…”
“Three minutes!” reminded Captain Samoilov.
I hugged my daughter and said:
“Come on, honey, it’s just the way they pick up and escort people to their commander for a chat – that’s all.”
“Grisha’s father was picked up this early in the morning,” she said through tears. “We haven’t seen him since.”
“One minute!” announced Captain Samoilov.
I had just enough time to kiss and hug both of them: his two subordinates walked briskly toward us, picked me up by my armpits and escorted out of the apartment.
There wasn’t any wait at the elevator: the driver of the Volga held the door open.
It’s all in the past now: arrest, interrogations, underground labor camp; my survival. On December 4th of 1990, I and my family, my wife and our two daughters, boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bound for New York. And today, 28 years later, my dreams and hopes are fulfilled, I am breathing the healing air of freedom.
My interrogators and torturers? I forgave them. God won’t.