The Friend

Writing a fully-fledged short story takes more than unrequited love and a laptop, even if the laptop is a new pretty one. I have given a complete list elsewhere, though.

But you still feel like writing a fully-fledged short story anyway. Mostly out of habit. But that’s not all. I also have a friend. Had a friend, to be more precise. They haven’t invented a word for our present relationship yet. I mean really, you can’t say that we remain friends, can you. Because friends is what we used to be until we became – and this seems to call for an ellipsis. But an ellipsis in the author’s speech is coy and an abomination. Like the time when you’ve already taken the girl out somewhere but you’re still supposed to be faking an avid interest in anything except joint sex in the foreseeable future.

So anyway, this former friend of mine. He said:

‘I believe in you more than in anyone else. Your songs are crap, but your stories are simply marvellous. If not you, who then?’

Actually, it’s interesting how on earth I was able to be friends with a person who uses the word “marvellous” in his colloquial everyday speech. And what sort of “me” is it that writes crap songs plus stories – whatever their quality. I don’t engage in bollocks like that. I give presentations and issue invoices on the services provided. This is why we shall have Vasya be the protagonist and say all manner of banality.

So anyway, this former friend of Vasya’s said:

‘I believe in you more than in anyone else.’

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Vasya said, taken aback. ‘Why would you want to believe in me? Am I God or something? You can even touch me.’

‘Can I?’ the Friend asked meekly.

They were both drunk by then.

‘You can,’ Vasya confirmed.

The Friend reached out his revolting firm male hand and touched Vasya.

‘You see now?’ asked Vasya.

Everyone’s already realised by now what the author’s driving at. The Friend kept touching and stroking Vasya. With his nasty male hand.

All this was not happening in a public place. Meaning that, at the very least, no one could see it.

Vasya gave a start, winced and looked at the Friend. At whose place the whole thing was unfolding. That’s why you couldn’t just drag him off the chair and kick him out of the flat, and then proceed peacefully to think about how the word sucked. You had to stand up – put on your jacket – flag down a car – suffer mental agonies over having only a 500-rouble note in your pocket. It all seemed difficult.

Thus Vasya had to show understanding and demonstrate his civilised European side.

‘Are you nuts?’ Vasya asked.

(Here, for a comic effect, I should really have written “are you fucking crazy”, I admit that. But that kind of unwarranted use of an expletive would lead a cultured reader to draw the wrong conclusions about Vasya, and an uncultured reader just isn’t reading this story. Vasya is an educated young man. His mother’s in charge of the museum of a Silver Age poetic genius. His dad used to be a physics professor. Now he’s dead, though.)

‘Oh no, no, I’m not nuts’, said the Friend and reached out for Vasya again.

It can’t be claimed, by the way, that the Friend was a close friend. Just, you know, a regular friend. Regular friends are those one meets up with twice a month, on average – in order to go and see a shitty movie with a subsequent drink. Or else according to one’s interests. For example, in order to play a computer game together. Or take some pictures of the dumps and pipes in Kanonersky Island.

Vasya gave an even bigger start and hit the Friend on the hand. The hit hurt, so the Friend squealed and gave Vasya a look of forlorn sadness. A deep personal tragedy was hiding behind that look, of the kind that you can make into a movie which you then watch with regular friends.

‘Are you gay or something?’ Vasya asked after the long pause was over.

The Friend opened his mouth but was somehow unable to respond verbally.

‘Since when?’ Vasya asked.

‘Ages,’ the Friend hung his head.

‘But haven’t you like, had girlfriends?’ Vasya couldn’t understand. ‘Why did you date them?’

The Friend shook his head, looking away.

‘I couldn’t…’ he said.

Vasya thought about that.

‘How come you couldn’t?’ he said after the thinking. ‘Who’s stopping you from being gay? It’s been legal for ages… Borya Moiseev’s on the TV. Elton John played the Catherine Palace. A few years ago. They were selling tickets for five thousand bucks apiece, I remember that. Mind you, he’s an Englishman, of course. He can do whatever he wants anyway.’

‘You don’t understand,’ the Friend said in a half-whisper. ‘I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Because of you.’

‘Because of me? How the hell was I stopping you? For all I care, you can go to Sixty-Nine right away. I wouldn’t mind, would I? I wouldn’t mind at all. I would even support that decision. Just don’t go pawing me, OK?’ Vasya noticeably raised his voice at the last word.

‘Exactly,’ the Friend said. ‘That’s exactly the reason why.’

And he went on to tell Vasya everything, from the beginning to the present moment.

THE MOVING STORY OF VASYA’S FRIEND

There are a number of different ways to commit suicide. A male Russian schoolchild, in addition to the standard set, has at his disposal an extra one: he can inform his classmates that he is gay. Vasya’s friend had his first inkling of the direction of his sexual attraction at the age of fourteen, but until he went to university, he tried not to admit anything even to himself. Russia is a backward feudal country where they oppress homosexuals, and bears roam the streets. Elks sometimes roam them, too.

Higher education institutions, however, have always been a breeding ground of scheming yids and liberalism. Ergo, homosexuality thrives and sprouts its evil shoots there. An especially worrying situation is to be found at the Culture Academy, where a whole few young men and women with a non-traditional sexual orientation are enrolled as full-time students, and there are even more of those with the traditional one. Sexual orientation is a plague of our time.

Vasya’s friend went up straight to the Academy of Culture and there, for the first time, breathed the air of freedom. (By the way, here the guidelines for writing a satirical short story for cultured readers require that the next sentence should read something like “The air of freedom smelt of marijuana” or of some “Soviet corridors, still unspoilt by the hurricane of Euro-remodelling”. But please note that those were just examples, nothing more. I don’t know what the corridors at the Culture Academy are like these days. The last time I went there was nine years ago. But let us return to our narration, which has no style whatsoever as all I can do is spitefully mock other people’s stylistic achievements.) He finally admitted to himself that boys appealed to him a lot more than girls did. What’s more, he came up with a theoretical basis for the whole thing.

Indeed, think of the strict austere beauty of the male body and the wholeness of the male character. Think of the man’s noble mission – to be in the vanguard of civilisation, stand on the cutting edge of progress, dare and boldly go into the unknown. The man is the maker of history. How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! It wasn’t for nothing that the great Leonardo, in his famous drawing which you can see on the cover of all books on anatomy, astrology, molecular biology, the Renaissance and quantum mechanics, depicted a man rather than Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa, come to think of it, also looks like a man. What’s more, Leonardo himself was one.

Besides, all worthy men were homosexuals. Except for those who were forced to love women – due to the barbaric zeitgeist. To love women! How little those who love women have progressed beyond animals in their development! How trivial and mundane an attraction to a woman doth make a man! A woman, this petty, quarrelsome, unforgiving, greedy creature –

At this point, Vasya could take it no more and asked the Friend not to get distracted from his own biography. But this IS my biography, the Friend protested passionately. The moment when I, you see, when I realised for the first time why I was so indifferent to women, that very moment. You can’t imagine how important it was to me. Reasoning doesn’t make you gay, Vasya said. And it doesn’t make you stop loving women either, he added after some thought. No, of course not, I’m not saying it does, the Friend said. It’s just it was important for me to understand…

‘All right, so you understood,’ Vasya cut in. ‘Nuff said. What happened next?’

Next, Vasya’s friend decided, as a short-term objective, to get a boyfriend, the long-term goal being to meet his true love. But love works in ways unpredictable, and goals will often swap places. The long-term ones with the short-term ones. And so his true love found him sooner than a boyfriend did. (A boyfriend, I have to explain this, bears but a superficial relation to love. So does a girlfriend.) One August Vasya’s friend went to help fix a medieval castle in France and became Vasya’s friend. Neither of the two could speak French aloud, but I personally know someone whose knowledge of French was the same as mine but who nevertheless studied at the Sorbonne. Of course, he had started out by fixing castles, too. Shame it wasn’t me after all.

Vasya and his new friend became great chums, thanks to and in spite of. Thanks to the fact that the Friend fell for Vasya right on the second day of their acquaintance and in spite of the same fact.

It has to be mentioned that Vasya is a typical product of the Russian socio-cultural paradigm, albeit with an outer layer of higher technical education. On the very same second day of their acquaintance, completely in passing, he told the Friend a cruel and contemptuous joke about sexual minorities in general and gays in particular, and the Friend realised everything. And the longer they were acquainted, the more clearly he saw that he couldn’t hope for his feelings to be returned in a relevant way.

Let us try to spur our sick imagination and infiltrate the Friend’s inner world. His battle was lost, his position hopeless, his cause screwed. Vasya’s face, as if chiselled by an ancient Greek sculptor, was beautiful; Vasya’s personal qualities were worthy of an FSB major as portrayed by the most recent Russian cinema. As of today, Vasya is kind, considerate, resourceful, sharp, able to put up with considerable discomfort, persistent, has a strong character, a vivid imagination and good analytical ability, is hardly ever late for work, enjoys the respect of his superiors and colleagues. The only thing Vasya doesn’t enjoy or want to enjoy, is the Friend’s love. Well, need I say more. If you’re a beautiful woman, imagine there’s this co-worker in your department, a good specialist and interesting conversational partner, but with a slouch, big ears, an acne-covered face, and fat. And so you work and you work alongside him, you meet targets and get bonuses together, and then, at some corporate party, he ambushes you in a quiet corner on your way to the toilet and fills you in on the way he feels about you. And now put yourself in this co-worker’s shoes.

That’s how the Friend became friends with Vasya. To ward off any suspicion, he overcame his revulsion and had sex with a girl, and he even…

‘Oh, so you overcame your revulsion, didn’t you?’ Vasya erupted and accidentally swept an empty wine bottle off the table.

The frightened Friend didn’t say anything.

‘Revulsion, you say,’ Vasya rose from the stool and towered over the Friend, swinging slowly.

‘Well, yeah…’ the Friend nodded imploringly. ‘I mean, you feel revulsion against sex with men, don’t you? You can imagine…’

‘What am I supposed to imagine?!? Revulsion against women?!? Have you… Have any got any…’

The Friend started backing towards the wall – along with the chair he was sitting on. Vasya turned away from him and was quiet for a few seconds, astounded by what had suddenly been revealed to his mental eye.

‘Have you got any idea what a woman is?’ he asked eventually. ‘What it actually means – to love a woman?’

‘…I think,’ the Friend began cautiously, ‘I think it must be similar to…’

‘Who cares what you think! What can you possibly know about that?!’

‘But you also don’t know anything about…’

‘And I don’t want to know! To know, for fuck’s sake…’ Vasya couldn’t refrain from an unwarranted use of an expletive. ‘Do you understand, no, you don’t even begin to understand what a woman is! Women, they, if you… When you love a woman…’

Vasya couldn’t finish the sentence. He was frantically trying to find a trump card up his sleeve and deal a rock-solid argument that would at least explain to him, Vasya, what the great thing about women and loving them was. The song When A Man Loves A Woman was going round and round in his head – or, to be more exact, its first line was as Vasya could never understand the rest of the words. But we have no intention to write here about how Vasya could feel the music and the inner nerve of the song with all his heart. Nor do we intend to write that female beauty is the crown and salvation of this world, and all that crap. We shall even keep to ourselves the romantic remark that all the clouds, canyons, quasars and quarks only make sense together with a woman’s smile and the words ‘you’re so funny’ said by a woman’s voice, and that no amount of sobriety or conscientiousness can deliver you from the ghost of a woman, imprinted in some selected places of your particular city.

Vasya sighed and straightened up. The Friend was still looking at him like a dog that had just received a beating. He felt like shit. Vasya also felt like shit. He put on his jacket and left without saying goodbye. He stopped by the side of Moskovsky Prospekt, flagged down a car and went home.

The driver stopped the car opposite the 24-hour supermarket and waited for Vasya to change the five hundred roubles.

‘Have a safe journey,’ Vasya said, shocked by the driver’s noble behaviour.

‘Have a great life,’ the driver said.

And life is just a word, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what V. R. Tsoi said in one good song with ridiculous heroic lyrics. There’s only love, and there’s death.

The rest is, undoubtedly, bullshit.

.

.

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2005

Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.

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