Last week, on Thursday, my best friend shot and killed himself. He was 27; his name was Ilya; I – and two or three other people – called him Yofa, since the time immemorial. He didn’t like talking about the miseries of being, didn’t write poetry, songs, pessimistic sketches; actually, he hadn’t written anything since he graduated, except for a few notes to the employer explaining why he had been late – and even those only when he was 22 and stupid enough to spend 6 months working at Admiralty Shipyards. He had an uncompromisingly phlegmatic temperament, which every now and then pissed me off; he had a first-class sense of humour and a good taste in music and literature; he was unbelievably good-natured and tolerant, and just as unbelievably lazy and reluctant to do stuff. Also, he was a better cook than my mum, his mum or any other mum, and could fix anything that was capable of breaking down.
Yofa shot himself with his grandfather’s war booty – a German handgun, black and still slick with the machine oil which the grandfather used on a weekly basis to grease it until his death a year and a half ago. After he died, the gun and two full magazines moved to Yofa’s father’s place and were kept peacefully on the top shelf in a closet until Yofa finally had a use for them. Yofa could handle the gun perfectly since he was a little kid. At the age of 6 or 7, every time he was visiting his grandfather, he would whine ‘granddad-show-me-how-the-Germans-shot-in–the-war-please’, and every other time his granddad would extract the gun from a secret place everybody knew about, slowly and with gusto put in one of the magazines, shout in an ominous voice, pressed two fingers to his upper lip, hold the gun aloft, but at that very moment he would always be cut down by an imaginary volley from our Soviet PPSh assault rifle, so the Nazi invader never had time to do any actual shooting.
Yofa shot himself in the temple in the kitchen of his new flat with a gulf view around 11 o’clock in the evening. His father found him on Saturday afternoon. On Friday evening they were supposed to go and see Yofa’s aunt, his mother’s sister. The mother herself died of bone cancer about 10 years ago.
Dmitry Leonidovich – that’s the father’s name – had his own key, so they didn’t have to break down the door. When he saw the body, which had slipped off the chair and slumped clumsily on the floor, he called an ambulance, the police, Yofa’s little sister, and then me. I was visiting some people on the other side of the city. I apologised to the hosts, left, flagged down a car and arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of Yofa’s hair, crusty with blood, between the closing doors of the ambulance. It had taken me too long to get there – due to the pre-anniversary streets, all dug up and fenced off.
We had known each other for eleven years. Before he died, I used to divide people into five categories: strangers, acquaintances, friends, family, Yofa.
Dmitry Leonidovich had his usual slightly dishevelled and tired look, and he was very quiet. He said he would like to talk to me but not then, not right then, somehow he didn’t feel like talking right then, and he asked me to come round the next day. When I got to his place on Sunday, there was also Ira, Yofa’s sister. She was standing by the cooker, helplessly batting her red eyelids and crumpling a tear-soaked dish towel.
Yofa didn’t leave any note, didn’t send off any good-bye emails, hadn’t looked lost the day before, hadn’t been talking to me about death. To be honest, I can’t even imagine Yofa talking about death. I told Ira and Dmitry Leonidovich about that. They both readily nodded. They couldn’t detect in Yofa’s most recent life a single reason that would have moved a neurotic teenage Nirvana fan to commit suicide, let alone good-natured and level-headed Yofa. In the last year, Yofa had got a promotion, bought a flat, been to Iceland, raved about it for two months and was going to go again. Yofa had met his beloved Grebenshchikov, and Grebenshchikov didn’t disappoint him. Yofa had taken up tennis and nearly lost his trademark slouch. Yofa had paid his final visit to the draft office and was found irrevocably unfit for active service. True, he did break up with his rather long-lasting girlfriend half a year ago, but he did it of his own accord and was thoroughly happy about the development.
Dmitry Leonidovich accurately listed all of the above. Ira added a few less significant points.
Perhaps you know something? she asked.
I don’t, I lied.
We then talked about the funeral and about something else, and I said good-bye. Dmitry Leonidovich shook my hand, and Ira pecked me on the cheek and burst into tears as she was closing the door behind me. I said I would stop by again on Monday evening.
Today is Wednesday, the funeral was yesterday, and I have decided that I should see someone. I don’t tell anyone about this, I didn’t even tell Nastya, although she of course found my multiple “not-the-slightest-idea-why-he-did-it”s unconvincing. Straight from work I went to Park Pobedy, got out of the metro and walked through several freshly green yards, straining my memory. I recognised the right stairway immediately, but I don’t know the flat number, all I know is that it’s definitely not the ground floor and probably not the first. Anyway, I start from the fifth, from top.
Who do you want? – Excuse me, does Alina Pazi live here? – She don’t. – Who’s there? — Excuse me, does Alina Pazi live here? – No, I don’t know anyone with that name. – Nobody’s at home. – Who is it? — Excuse me, does Alina Pazi live here? – No, you must have the wrong flat number. – Yes, who is it? — Excuse me, does Alina Pazi live here by any chance? – And who should I say is asking for her?
The fourth floor.
An elderly woman in a flowery bathrobe opens the door gingerly and tries to classify me.
‘Good evening, my name’s Andrey, I’m a friend of Alina’s. Is Alina in now?’
‘Well, hello, then. Sure she’s in. Alinka, you’ve got a visitor, come out and be a hostess. Come on in.’
I stand right by the door. Alina emerges from her room about a minute later and stares at me, goggle-eyed. She forgets to say hello and asks what’s happened instead.
Nothing much, I say.
We sit down by one of the fountains in front of the new Public Library building. Alina sits down across from me but not quite opposite, and I can look at her from the side. Back in our first-second years at university, Yofa and I developed our own female attractiveness assessment scale. 3 points was Time To Act Is Now, 2 points – If The Circumstances Lead That Way, 1 point – She Came Over Herself And Won’t Come Ever Again, 0 points – Long Live Masturbation. Fractional values are allowed. I still have to woo someone higher than 2.5 before I die.
Before today I only saw Alina once, briefly and late in the evening, and I withheld my judgement. Today I give her one and a half. They can show her in a museum as a perfect example of What Yofa Appreciated In A Woman’s Appearance, but I happen to appreciate something else. Alina’s nearly as tall as me, she’s got long fair hair, a thin pointed nose, rather dry features, erm, sorry Yofa, almost non-existent breasts, and, well done Yofa, perfectly straight legs in tight jeans. The way she’s looking at me is tense and sarcastic. Yofa gave her an unmitigated 3.
‘Well now then, let us talk,’ she begins sceptically and takes a packet of long cigarettes out of her handbag.
I nod, indecisively and several times.
‘Let’s,’ I say. ‘You’re nineteen, right?’
‘I am.’ She lights up and puts one leg over the other.
I don’t know why I asked that question. Actually, I don’t even know why I wanted to see her. I look at her, I look into her intelligent sarcastic eyes, at her exquisite well-groomed fingers, and I feel like standing up. I feel like bending over her, slapping her smooth face again and again and yelling, you bitch, you stupid piece of shit, you smug worthless shit, do you know what happened, you fucking cunt, do you know what happened, bitch, do you know that you’d better have your fucking head shaved right away, cover it with ashes and then off to a fucking nunnery with you, maybe then I’ll forgive you, although I don’t think I will, bitch.
‘When was the last time you saw… Ilya?’
‘Did he send you here?’
‘No. Nobody sent me.’ I realise more and more clearly that I don’t want to tell her what happened, I don’t want her to think that I have come here to play the role of a bombastic idiot, to blame her for what isn’t her fault, to squeeze out of her the tears and snot of remorse for what she didn’t do.
‘There’s something you’re not telling me.’ The sarcastic grin darkens a little. ‘Something’s happened, hasn’t it?’
‘No, no, everything’s fine.’ I wave dismissively. ‘Everything’s fine. I… I understand this is an unusual conversation, an unusual question, I mean. I would like to ask you, I mean, I’d like you to tell me about your relationship with Ilya.’
She gives a predictable unnatural laugh.
‘Shall I talk about everything, day by day, night by night?’
‘No. You can leave out the sex scenes and romantic dinners. I’m mostly interested in the beginning and the end. Why you started going out with him and why you put an end to the whole thing.’
Alina understands what I want to hear but she won’t tell me anything until I explain to her what I need all this for, I say, out of unnatural curiosity, she won’t take that for an answer, she keeps refusing to talk, but I can see that she’s tempted to voice her side of the story, because I’m Ilya’s friend, surely Ilya’s been slagging her off to me, it wasn’t quite like that or not like that at all, and all of a sudden she starts talking, quickly and emotionally, giving a lot of detail, she no longer grins, she looks earnestly at me / the fountain / the couple opposite us / the street, I can see that she found and still finds this unpleasant, but she didn’t want to deceive anyone, and she didn’t want to deceive herself.
Alina and Yofa met in the street about a month and a half ago, she was handing out leaflets of some business school in Vladimirsky Prospekt, Yofa struck up a conversation with her and helped her stick the rest of the leaflets into passers-by’s hands. They went to a cafe and after the cafe they agreed to meet again. Yofa’s obtrusive unobtrusiveness and his thermonuclear sense of humour, as well as his Europeanised appearance, did their trick, Alina was charmed and comprehensively conquered in the first onslaught, and a hyperactive relationship set in. Yofa suddenly found himself in nirvana and went so far as to tell me about the Alina thing just five days later, the standard trial period being two weeks. Iceland receded into the background along with Grebenshchikov, and at times Yofa exuded so much bearable lightness of being that he would lose his phlegmatic temperament and I would feel slightly worried. Yofa spent the month and a half in a better world, but Alina spent the time being increasingly nagged by doubt; every night they were together she had a sneaky suspicion that she was busy convincing herself of enjoying it rather than actually enjoying it; and women, it is well-known, don’t simply have suspicions, they always see straight through to the core.
Last Thursday they met in the Ideal Cup at the Gorkovskaya metro. The plan was to go for a stroll along the Neva and then listen to some jazz somewhere, but they did neither because Alina didn’t touch her coffee and announced that her mind was made up. She did not find Yofa physically attractive, she did not like sleeping with him, she did not want to sleep with him anymore, and as the edifice of romance is always erected upon certain foundations, the edifice of romance had to come tumbling down and cry uncle. Alina had never mentioned her doubts before, and for a few minutes Yofa was rendered speechless.
‘…and then he goes, what am I supposed to do, and I go, just don’t get all worked up about it please and don’t be so hurt, and he said, I’m not hurt, there’s a different name for this, and I sort of laughed and said, so what is it then, fury or something, and he just goes again, what am I supposed to do. I suggested getting another girlfriend, he said no, what am I supposed to do right now, — sort of cow-eyed, to be quite honest. I said, we still could just go for a walk and listen to the jazz if you like, although I have to say I’ve really had my fill of jazz by now. He said, I don’t want to just do anything with you, and I said, what the hell, do whatever you want without me then, just let me say good-bye and go ahead. He said, I don’t want to do anything without you, and I said, well I’m sorry, can’t help you there, shoot yourself if you’ve got a gun…’
‘I seeeee, I see.’ I interrupt her in the voice of a standard teenage girl.
‘And what’s he been telling you? What?’ Alina looks as if she’s now got enough momentum to recount her entire life before she met Yofa.
‘Well, nothing much, really. Just, you know…’
He called me from his mobile and said that the Alina thing was over. Then he stopped by his father’s, had a cup of tea, took his grandfather’s gun and went home.
I thank Alina and say that I must go. She asks, are you sure nothing’s happened, I look the other way and shake my head, nothing’s happened. I say good-bye to her on the other side of Moskovsky Prospekt. As she’s walking away, my eyes follow her for a little while. I know what’s going to happen next. In a couple of days her curiosity will get the better of her, she will call Yofa, first on his home number, then on his mobile, Yofa’s father will answer and say for the thirtieth time, Ilya has died.
He shot himself.
Alina doesn’t know about the grandfather’s handgun, which Yofa had to put to use one day. Maybe she will feel bad about herself for a little while.
Serves her right, Yofa.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.