My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. She talked about it since we got married, enthusiastically in the beginning, particularly when she became pregnant with our first daughter, less and less later, after she got pregnant again and we decided to keep the baby. I taught Russian literature and linguistics at the local college and held seminars every other weekend to make some extra money. Then came the seventies, strange Brezhnev’s time, dangerous like a deadly marshland, 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, and I was still their usual host; the guests enjoyed food, drinks, and slow dancing and didn’t notice that I, who was usually at the center of every discussion, was not talking much. They still had a good time though.
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’ve said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden. Later, when everyone was gone, I stood at the open window, hands in my pockets, silent. When I at last turned around, she was already in bed.
I was in my late-twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.
As months went on, things got worse. We became a couple, which no longer had anything to say to one another. We made love occasionally, still with some passion, but with our eyes closed, relieved to be done. I still kissed her in the morning and again in the evening, but in passing, as though forced by necessity. I had many duties, most of them boring and discouraging. I hated my job, the environment, the System. Time passed. I met plenty of people every day, killers and those who ordered the killings; all sorts of things happened around me, 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 the fall of 1978 I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my old colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place behind closed doors in a dacha about 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. No one knew about it, not even my wife or any of my close friends.
When sometime 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. The representative turned out to be a Major by the name of Anatoly Orlov, a young, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. He knew a lot about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I agreed: after all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next thirty minutes there was very little conversation, only remarks about this and that. Then we shook hands. Sunny day, as usual at this time of the year, no rain, everybody in white shirts.
Anatoly called again a month later to wish me a happy birthday and to request a short meeting in an apartment on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, at ten o’clock next Tuesday. “Next Tuesday?” I asked as if this was the only thing that could stop me from coming. “I need to check my schedule.” “I’ve taken the liberty,” he said. “Your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”
It was a nine-story apartment complex behind the very popular bookstore, about half way between the City Court and the KGB building; I opened the side door and took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face in the elevator. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. My head spun. I reached the sixth floor and stopped at the door, remembering suddenly Anatoly’s short remark during our lunch together. “The mill-stones of history never stop,” he told me, “that’s why it is very important not to get caught between them.” “So, don’t push me,” I said with a smile. “In your case it’s a bit too late,” he responded, “your hands were already there 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 my mind squeezed between the mill-stones to transform me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger!
I pushed the red button.
“Come in!” resounded from behind the door. “It’s open.”
Anatoly stood next to wall-to-wall bookshelves with an unlit cigar, tall and handsome, in a tailor-made three-piece gray suit. “Sit down,” he invited pointing at the chair. “A cigar?”
I looked at him: he was just a few months older than I, 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, good memory and loved to talk about modern poetry and prose as long as the conversation didn’t veer toward forbidden themes.
“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,” interrupted Anatoly and exhaled a cloud of smoke to the side. “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…”
“Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?” I dared to interrupt.
“I’m not reminding you about your trip to Moscow, am I?”
And I ran out of words suddenly.
“You’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily,” said Anatoly, ignoring my silence. “To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”
I kept silent.
“…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’ll never know what happened to them, how they were punished or were they punished at all. As far as I see it, you’re a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is interested in people of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities. We’re also very interested in a certain circle of people with whom you had 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…”
“I’m actually a college lecturer…”
“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”
“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. The assignment is simple if you follow instructions. 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, believe me,” said Anatoly following me to the front door. “I can do a few things for you and your family 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?” I tried to joke.
“Is it Monday or Tuesday?”
“Very good then.”
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.
The 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: everybody was gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I dried myself, brushed my teeth, breakfasted. At 8:45 a.m. exactly 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 himself, 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 it’s not me – 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, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.
I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.
“Please be quick, Comrade Trubman,” warned the young freckled clerk.
“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number. After a few rings, a woman’s voice answered the line. Her soft, flat, soft voice discouraged me for a moment.
“Anatoly please,” I asked glancing at the freckled clerk.
Whispers on the other end; then: “I’m listening.”
“This is Lazarus Trubman… I’m not coming.”
“You shouldn’t be calling from a bookstore.”
“It’s very understandable.”
The freckled clerk began showing obvious signs of impatience.
“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I didn’t know how to end this conversation.
“I doubt it,” said Anatoly, and the line went dead.
I thanked the freckled clerk for the risk taken 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 corner stool and asked for some coffee.
“In a minute, teacher!”
I closed his eyes and imagined Anatoly’s face, hands, rare anger. The restaurant was empty at this time of the day, just a young couple at the distant table holding hands together.
“Your coffee, teacher,” said the barman placing the cup in front of him.
“Thank you, Konstantin.”
“Is your family all right?”
“Everybody’s fine, thank you 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 Anatolii again was the only one I could live with. Consequences? Of course! It would be naïve to assume that Anatolii, having all this power and authority, could simply forget about 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.”
They were touching their tongues now, the young couple at the distant table, slow, enjoying every moment of it, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them; then they kissed: first the upper lips, then the lower ones; then the upper ones again.
“Your drink, teacher.”
“I am very sorry about your wife, Konstantin,” I said taking a sip. “Do you have any kids?”
“All grown up and gone,” said the barman 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, teacher?” asked the barman.
“Unfortunately, I have to go,” I said feeling a little headache suddenly. “Keep an eye on them for me, will you? There is not much love left in this world,” I paid and went out.
The rain had stopped while I was inside the restaurant, but it would probably start again in an hour or so. 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 college building, 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 Monday, 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 all right, honey?” she asked.
“As all right as I can be.”
“I can change that for much better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my hand.
“I’ve no doubts, baby…how about a rain-check?”
“A rain-check it is,” she began walking away, then said before disappearing into the bedroom, “Don’t take too many though.”
On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of young Feteasca Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie or 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, tall, wide-shouldered, in shiny leather raincoats, got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building.
I finished my wine and put out the cigarette.
A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.
They came for me.