Titan is a clockwork, it’s how Yuri Elizarov wants it. You land in Kiev and the team bus is waiting for you. They bought the bus with two drivers soon after I came back from the world’s and I liked to think it was a bonus for two gold medals we earned in France.
I didn’t like the drivers the first time we met. Tolik was an old-timer long-haul trucker who could drive a semitrailer through a needle’s eye and Grisha an Afghan war veteran. They knew jack all about cycling.
Grisha smoked like he was allergic to air. Survived the bullets in Afghanistan to die from smoking Kosmos cigarettes at home.
On training camps and at the races, Tolik and Grisha stayed in the same room. For months.
Tolik had four little boys and a wife at home in Kiev. Grisha, he smoked cigarettes and cracked lame army jokes and made moves on every miniskirt passing near our bus parked next to a hotel.
He slept in the bus sometimes because he and Tolik, he’d say, got a divorce. Soviet playboys cruised in Ladas to pick up their girls. Grisha took our bus, the Titanic, splashed with Titan’s logo on both sides and Modern Talking screaming out the windows to chase his chicas.
Titan’s not your normal cycling team.
On long drives from races, the sound of an old High Voltage cassette vibrated Titanic’s windows as if we drove a volcano. We shouted in one voice at Tolik to bury the pedal the hell all the way to the floor and catch that pathetic Volga up the road or you have no balls. Give the steering wheel to Grisha because he’s our man. He’ll die tomorrow anyway because he can’t breathe clean air.
A band of bony dogs with legs half-black, half-white and Grisha shredding an air guitar with savage riffs of Baby Please Don’t Go.
Titan’s not your normal cycling team.
We land in Kiev and Tolik says on the way from the airport Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up last night. Too bad and how’s that a problem, we say.
“You know where Chernobyl is?” he says.
Someone takes a guess and says it’s in Ukraine somewhere.
“A hundred kilometers from Kiev,” he says.
He shuts up and drives like he’s got nothing else to add. We play along, say nothing, who cares anyway.
“Fire or something,” he says bobbing in his custom-made seat on every road bump. “That’s what I heard. Everybody’s gone from Pripyat. Evacuated. It’s bad.”
They send firefighters to put out a fire and don’t tell them the nuclear reactor had cracked. It spits out radioactive toxins killing all life on its way. Keep it a secret. A thousand kilometers from Chernobyl a nuclear alarm goes off in Sweden. This is how the world knows. We don’t fret. Red wine removes radiation from your body. They don’t know that in Sweden or in Germany.
Nobody knows anything. They lie on television. They name a newspaper Truth and fill it with lies. They play Tchaikovsky on the radio as if half the country is Romeo and the other half is Juliet. You tune in to the jammed Voice of America to figure out what’s going on. You listen. Someone had released a death genie out of a bottle and it goes around spreading death. Some people died fast, others will die later.
You listen to the Voice of America and can’t tell if they know anything. Everyone is lying. Some lie to hide the truth, others lie to cook it.
It’s two weeks before the Peace Race starts in Kiev and two days before the rehearsal. We will race every stage, even the prologue. I led and lost a stage race days ago and want a rematch to fix the mistake I had made in Tashkent.
I pick the first road race because I know its every street. Nothing you can call a climb on it but it’s not flat. Near the end is a steep cobbled berg off the Khreshchatyk street and this is where I’ll go on the last lap. I play my move over and over in my head lying in bed the night before the race.
It’s a ninety-degree turn from Khreshchatyk and you hit a cobbled wall and you need to be smart with your gears. You can attack before the corner, drop back into the saddle for a quick flick up the cluster and out of the saddle again with all you’ve got in your legs.
You won’t make it to the top without shifting, too steep and too long for one gear. If you sit back into the saddle to shift, you lose momentum. When you stand up on the pedals again it hurts too much and then they catch you.
The trick I learned back in Nalchik as a kid. You hit the front derailleur lever with your knee when you’re still out of the saddle and can’t grind your gear anymore. You can mess it up. You can hit the end of the handlebar. I won’t miss that lever after I’d scarred my left knee on the inside shifting with it.
I roll to the start line to prove the stage race I led was normal. This is me catching up with what they’d trained me to do.
They say you know the moment you wake on the race day if it will go down the toilet or not. That cymbal cacophony clatters and clacks in your head like it’s full of boozed demons. Legs are two concrete pillars and you make yourself believe you can fix them in the warm-up except you can’t and you don’t.
Sometimes, you get dropped. Everyone’s human and you get dropped from a breakaway and it’s okay. Maybe you’re stupid. You worked too hard and ran out of gas or you’re jumping above your head. It happens. You can miss a split in a crosswind. Fine, no one’s perfect.
You can’t get dropped from the peloton. Not part of the protocol. You’re not wired that way. You put petrol in a car and it goes unless it’s broken, it’s what it does, the car, it goes where you steer it to. It’s what cars do.
At this level, you can’t get dropped from the peloton.
I’m in a car convoy before the end of lap one. Lap one. The first car is the national team’s car with Viktor Kapitonov behind the wheel in aviator’s sunglasses. His left hand is a rope hanging out the window with a cigarette between a thumb and a finger.
He barks short orders when he speaks. An invisible man’s hat is what I want now to erase myself from reality and out of his view. One moment you see me and then you don’t.
He gases, moves in front of me and slows down until I reach the open window.
“Where you going?” he says.
I look at him and can’t tell if he heard me or not.
“Stomach,” I say and point at my stomach.
“Need some rim glue?”
The comeback is at the tip of my tongue about the glue and his mouth and I stare at the road ahead and stop pedaling. He speeds up to open a hole for me on my right to get out of convoy’s traffic.
I look back over my shoulder for Titan’s car to sign off out of the race. It should be fourth in the pecking order because we finished fourth in a team time trial but it’s not there. I sink deeper into the convoy. Turn my head, again and again, looking for Elizarov’s GAZ-24 station wagon.
Next time I turn my head back he’s charging on the far left side of the road motorpacing my teammate back to the peloton. He doesn’t see me. If I had a flat he’d have missed me and I’d be out of the race. It would be his fault except I already told Kapitonov about an upset stomach. Chances of them talking after the race are good.
Elizarov doesn’t know about my DNF until dinner when he looks at the result sheets.
“What the?” he says looking at me with the sheets in his hand and bushy eyebrows arched.
I don’t say anything.
“You didn’t finish,” he says.
“I thought you were hiding in the bunch.”
“No, pulled out on the first lap.”
Not part of the protocol. This is a code error. Terminate.
He never said this to me but there’s the first time for everything. He says “Do you need a break?”
People flee from Kiev in all directions. Those who stay drink red wine. Buses from all over Ukraine stand in lines as giant pitons stretching from one street to another. They’re waiting for children to ship them out of Kiev. All children. Adults who can’t leave stay and drink red wine. We’ll never run out of red wine radiation or not.
I tell Elizarov I don’t need a break.
It rains through the night and into the morning and rains more when the race starts. They’re cracking jokes on the start line about glowing from the radioactive droplets of water coming down from above. About never to sleep with a woman again. Someone says you can still sleep with a man and they throw oatmeal cookies at him and squirt sweet tea on his shoes from water bottles.
Wet cobbles are like soap nuggets.
Western teams land in Kiev for the Peace Race and stay at the airport. They charter a plane and get out.
We fly to Sofia for the Tour of Bulgaria and on the rest day I ask for a road map at the reception in the hotel we stay overnight. We speak Russian here like we’re in Russia and no one raises a brow. When they speak Bulgarian I don’t understand them and I don’t know why that is.
When we finish the race, I can go out in Sofia and take a bus south and get shot crossing the border to NATO’s Greece or Turkey.
Romania on the north is like Bulgaria with a different flag and language.
Yugoslavia is west and I don’t know how hard they guard the border. Yugos talk socialism and Marx and we import their furniture you can only buy if you bribe a furniture store director. They sell us shoes that never make it to shoe stores and go straight to the black market where you pay five times the retail. The Yugoslavs do not report to Moscow.
Last day in Sofia we split the prize money and I don’t know what to do with a pile of cash in Bulgarian leva. I go out and buy a bottle of Camus and a pack of Marlboro.
The room I stay in with my teammate has a snow-white, deep bath. I fill it with hot water, come back to the room and pour a glass for my teammate. We shared a room in Vilnius and I made him drunk legless on Bulgarian brandy. He puked out the window from the twelfth floor so I left him bent over the open window and went out to town by myself.
Now we have French brandy in Bulgaria. I leave him alone to drink his brandy and go and lie down in my bath with my brandy and my Marlboro cigarettes.
If you’re not a smoker, the first cigarette makes you want to puke. You burn that sensation with brandy and smoke another cigarette.
We drink more Camus, talk cycling trash and I smoke another cigarette. I tell him I have a theory about smoking and cycling. I tell him that if you smoke and ride a bike, your lungs develop resistance to smoking and grow in size. Bigger lungs equals more oxygen. More oxygen equals more energy. This is how you win races I tell him. Smoke and you too can win a rainbow jersey one day.
Like last time in Vilnius, he’s plastered. I go outside to look for a bar and find out if anyone wants to sell me dollars and tell me if I’ll get shot crossing the border to Yugoslavia.
We land in Yerevan. We drive to Sevan lake to breathe thin air at altitude and live in isolation until Viktor Kapitonov selects the team for world championships in Colorado Springs.
Titan’s protocol is to find an obscured place in a desert and make it our base. This time it’s a boarding school’s dormitory with shared showers and a cemetery at the back with graveyard stones hewn when Anselm of Canterbury wrote his Monologion or even before because the village we stay in had been built soon after apostle John died. Mount Ararat where Noah landed after the flood towers in the background as a faded wallpaper.
Nikolai Rogozyan shuttles us to the restaurant three times a day in a military minivan he drove from Kiev. He wears thongs and baby-blue running shorts that can double as underwear. I drink more water on the bike than I have ever drank and it hadn’t rained once since we came here.
The World Cup is on. We watch games late at night and Rogozyan doesn’t mind because he wants to watch too and there’s only one TV in the dormitory.
We watch Maradona score with his hand against England and before we stop screaming he dribbles past half the England’s team to score again and knocks the cupcakes out of the Cup.
The asphalt is like play dough with puddles of melted tar you don’t want to step on when we line up for the first road race. Tabletop flat, it’s an out and back course with three U-turns. The air doesn’t move. Some idiots step on the gas at the front right off the bat as if they’re brain-dead. You can’t do that racing in a sauna.
The race never slows down. You don’t care because it’s like they’re motorpacing you. Sit on all day except after four hours, the wind punches the peloton on the side and it’s single file to the end with a downhill bunch kick.
This is what you’re good at. Suicidal sprints. The guys at the front spill all over the road as if someone dropped a handful of dry peas on the floor. You hop from wheel to wheel trying to stay afloat and the race spits you out anyway because you took the wrong wheel.
I run into Kapitonov after the race and he tells me I’m still on the list for the world’s but I need to show him something.
He says, “A medal in the two-men team time trial will do.”
The bullhorn Takhions come from Kiev a week before the race and I ride nothing else until the race day. I haven’t had good legs like I have now since the stage race in Tashkent. I ask Elizarov to pair me with Oleg Galkin who I can see is on the rise too and he tells me he can’t do that.
“Kapitonov wants Oleg to ride with someone else,” he says.
He pairs me with a stage race ninja who had never agreed to do this and doesn’t need to torture his legs for fifty kilometers. He wants a spot in the road race in Colorado, not a team time trial spot. He’s a machine but a different kind of a machine. Give him long climbs and hours of racing if you want to see him shine. A one-hour time trial is not his thing.
We trail the best time by six seconds after the first quarter of the race. Turn around and lose another eight with the tailwind on the way home. The third quarter against the wind is where you win or lose today. We make a sharp U-turn and this is where the race starts. Twenty-five to go.
It’s uphill the first kilometer and we ride into an open oven with the head wind blowing in my face. I mark a power pole at the top of the hill where I want to peel off and pull. Head down, look at the chain going around in circles. Drive the pedals. The frame bends with each stroke and wants to push me up the hill.
This is the place to gain time after the U-turn where you break the race’s rhythm. Turn around and ride uphill with the wind pushing you back. You can take ten seconds right here. Keep looking at your chain. Focus on that and not on what your brain is telling you about shutting you down if you don’t slow down.
My throat is dry as the dust on the side of the road. I peel off at the crest of the hill and look at the face behind me and see what I don’t want to see. The ninja had cracked. His face never shows emotion when he’s on the bike except now I can see he had emptied his legs and is on the limit. He tick-tocks as a clockwork and you think he’s okay until the mainspring runs out of energy and he’s not okay. This is the first time I see him kaput since I’ve met him.
I look at him again hoping he’s fine but he shakes his head and this is how I know it’s going to be hell from this point on.
We bomb down a straight descent and I pull to the top of the next hill and peel off again. I need a break. He comes to the front and swaps when I get on his wheel.
The guy is out of gas.
Rogozyan drives ahead of us before the last U-turn to get the time splits. We turn and he screams from the roadside that we’re four seconds off the third place. I know who the first three pairs are. They’re on heavy disc wheels. With a tailwind and high speeds, my only chance is if one of them punctures and we sneak in on the podium like thieves.
I time trial without swaps to the finish and we come in fifth.
After nightfall, I go to the cemetery with my Marlboro and sit on the grass. Back against an ancient gravestone and stare at the dormitory and then at the sky and smoke.
I want someone, anyone to tell me why I’m here in Armenia chasing a dream I know I can’t catch. A wonderland I had imagined waiting for me around the corner if I train harder and ride faster.
It’s not complicated. You want an apartment in a country where apartments are free but the waiting list is longer than you can stay on this earth. Win something big and you earn the right to jump the breadline and live by yourself when you’re done racing. You want an apartment with Yugoslavian furniture and Sony TV and Panasonic VCR to watch Bruce Lee movies. You want your rotten-cherry Lada you bought at the price set by the government, not the black market price where everyone else pays double. You want privileges.
This this is why you’re in Armenia. This is the dream. Not the medals, not the results. The medals and the results are the means.
The dream is a forty-five square-meter living space in a high-rise concrete coffer with gas, telephone, split bathroom, parquet floor, and views to an identical high-rise. Two high-rises, three high-rises. Near metro. You start when you’re twelve and finish sometime before thirty. Not complicated and not that hard. Could be worse. You could be in Afghanistan right now with your mouth open and molten lead going down your throat.
This is my life from A to Z. The apartment I haven’t earned yet with the Sony TV I haven’t bought yet and the rotten-cherry Lada that hadn’t been made for me yet. This is me. The Panasonic VCR and Akai reel-to-reel stereo. And none of it is mine yet and this is what I’m chasing.
The means, I love the means but here I am with a pack of Marlboro sitting on a gravestone with Mount Ararat behind my back. This is where the human race had its second start, right here where I sit. This is where Noah planted his vineyard after he docked his boat, got drunk on the wine he had made and crashed naked in his tent. Human race version 2.0 started with Ham peeking at his father and dragging his brothers to the show. One out of eight who stayed alive learned nothing from the destruction they saw. A slave to your brothers’ slaves you’ll be is what his dad said to him when he learned what Ham did.
Destroy what you stand on to figure out what you want to stand on.
We land in Kiev. It hadn’t stopped raining since we touched down in Borispol airport. We could use a break we tell Nikolai Rogozyan. It’s not like we’re racing next week. It’s not like you lose anything if you lie in bed for two days. Dry and warm with a book in your hands and not worry about four soiled wet jerseys you need to wash, four shorts and four t-shirts and eight arm and leg warmers and eight socks and two wet pairs of shoes. I get it. It’s not like they’ve slashed you all over with a knife and thrown you into a hole in the ground full of insects. You’re in Kiev, not in Kandahar. It’s not complicated.
You want to destroy an army, you mow everyone down and make it sink in its own blood bath. Or picture a building. You don’t break doors and windows and say, I destroyed it. You flatten the whole structure from top to bottom. Turn it into a pile of rubble so that no one can say this looks like a building to me. Wipe it off. Clean.
Pull the trigger. Don’t be a pussy.
We’re on the Brest-Litovsk highway wet from the moment we started to ride. The guy I’m riding with has been narrating a movie to me scene by scene since we left the base. This is the third time he’s taking me through the movie. I don’t tell him this because I know he’ll keep going because I know him better than I know my own brother. Me and this guy, we eat, sleep, train, and race next to each other eleven months a year. My brother, I see him once or twice.
Pull the trigger.
I peel off away from the bunch, slow down and turn around. Rogozyan’s car is the size of a gasoline lighter parked on the road shoulder. I can see through the mist of drizzle he’s taking a leak in front of the car. He doesn’t see me when he flies past me in the opposite direction. Brest-Litovsk is a four-lane highway with a median strip wide enough to camp on.
The boys are still on the road clicking miles when I smoke a cigarette lying in bed in wet and dirty clothes. I throw the cigarette butt out the window and take a shower.
My bag is light after I pack my possessions without all the cycling tackle I carry with me around the country.
I land in Nalchik. Anton is in town on holidays my mom tells me. We play chess and chip away from a golf-size ball of hashish. Empty Belomorkanal cigarettes, stuff them with pieces of hashish and tobacco and smoke. We drink black sweet tea between glasses of Moldavian port. The sun is up one moment and down the next.
He’s telling me he’s making a mint flying in and out to an oil or gas rig in Siberia somewhere. Doing what I say and he says he’s not sure. He brings a suitcase of vodka with him. He pays for vodka here in Nalchik four rubles a bottle and sells it for twenty in Siberia.
Why, I say, would anybody pay twenty rubles for a bottle of vodka? You kidding me? he says, it’s an oil rig. You said gas, I say. Whatever, he says. They sell no vodka on gas rigs, brother. Bet you didn’t know that. Live and learn. He points a finger up to the ceiling as if something profoundly important is about to come out of his mouth and says they pay him four hundred roubleviches every trip in wages. Shut up, I say. True, I swear, he says. I’m in, I say, sign me up. Signed, he says.
It was Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man flowing from the wooden speakers that made him say this: “Remember Chert?”
“A crazy guy you studied with?”
“Yes. He lives in Sukhumi, did you know that?”
We’re at the train station an hour later. Hop on the Rostov-bound train to get off in Armavir to hop on the train to Krasnodar to catch a train to Sochi. From Sochi to Batumi to get off in Sukhumi to visit Chert and swim in the Black Sea.
It takes one earth’s rotation to get to Sukhumi like that. If Caucasian Mountains had a tunnel we could be there in two hours.
Near Armavir the train stops at every village and this is what we want. Outlawed opium poppies grow here and no one can do anything about it because you can’t arrest and jail a plant.
We hop off in a random village sunk in greenery with not a soul in sight and plod through backyards and gardens looking for poppies. Some of them reach our chests with hulls the size of an apple. Anton nicks them on the side or at the hull’s base with a razor blade and swabs the juice with a piece of cotton roller bandage he pulled out of his shoulder bag.
My job is to carry tatters of bandages soaked with opium by two fingers and wave my hands to dry them. Part of the job is not to draw attention to my hand-waving. They catch you harvesting opium, it’s better to slash the wrists with that razor blade than go to prison for this.
Back at the train station, we check the timetable and vote to hitchhike to Armavir.
A man with a teacher’s looks in a tidy Lada built when I started school picks us up outside the village we milked for opium. The guy doesn’t ask us more than where we’re going. We tell him we want to catch a train in Armavir and he says yeah no problem, I’ll drop you off in Armavir, I’m going to work. He’s not a talker. We fall asleep in the back seat with four windows opened and the sun scorching the salad-green Lada.
“Wake up. Arrived.”
We’re in a police station’s car park. I know this because I’m looking at the signboard on the building we’re parked next to. It says in bold golden letters on a navy-blue background that this building I’m looking at is a police station. It’s all I see, two words: POLICE STATION. Below that is something else, suburb’s name and other nonsense but all I’m looking at is the two words at the top.
This is the end, you pulled the trigger and this is how it ends. You go down long enough, you hit the bottom at some point, it’s only a matter of time. This is your time. You asked for it. This is what you wanted, to get out of here one way or another. This is one way, one of many and this one is yours.
I want my brother with me right now to help me with what to say and what to do. Three criminal convictions, he knows what to say and what not to say. What’s this brown stuff in my pockets? Don’t know, found it on the road. Brilliant.
Anton is awake too. The brown tatters in our pockets is bad enough. What’s worse is the syringe, he has a syringe wrapped in a towel in his bag.
The man who drove us here, he’s outside. He holds a police uniform folded over his left arm and stands next to the car waiting for us to get out. We step outside and I sweep the car park with my eyes for a way out of here. The car park is behind a concrete wall with an iron gate and an iron door. The gate is locked and the door, I don’t know about the door.
The cop says, “Go through that door and turn left then walk until you come to an intersection. Ask for directions from there.”
We’re in Sochi standing in line to buy tickets on the Batumi train to Sukhumi. Sochi is the second home to me. I spend four months here every winter and can ride a bike to Sukhumi blindfolded.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. Two cops, one is next to me, the other one is strategically at a distance in case we decide to run.
“Show me your identification document,” the one closer to me says.
I pull out my internal passport from the jeans back pocket and give it to him.
“Yours,” he says to Anton.
He goes through Anton’s passport first and then opens mine. He turns pages with a bored look on his face and stops browsing. I know how it’s going to end. Round two, you’re on.
“Where do you live?” he says.
He keeps his eyes buried in my passport.
“Kiev? That’s not what it says here.”
He raises his eyes and looks at me.
Our internal passports have a stamp with your address in it. Not having one is against the law. They tie you to an address and you can’t move anywhere you want, you won’t have a residence stamp if you do. My internal passport has two stamps. One with my Nalchik’s address and the second one that says I moved out from there. The second stamp is three years old. If this cop wants to, he can arrest me for vagrancy. Technically, I don’t live anywhere.
He says, “Name and date of birth.”
“Nikolai Razouvaev 26 March 1966.”
He checks that against what’s in my passport.
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a cyclist.”
He pauses, looks at Anton. “Are you a cyclist too?”
“No,” Anton says.
Cop’s eyes back on me, he says, “What are you doing in Sochi?”
“Buying tickets to Sukhumi.”
“Sukhumi? What’s in Sukhumi?”
He taps our passports against his thigh. I want to hear him say that we can go except he doesn’t say that. He’s looking at a guy who hadn’t slept in a bed for a few nights with no place of residence since three years ago. They give you thirty days to have no place of residence, after that you’re an open game.
I’m an open game now.
He says, “I don’t believe you.” He puts our passports in the pocket of his gray cop trousers and says, “You two will go with us.”
At the police station, they sit us in a room with two plainclothes cops and tell us to wait. We wait. The cop who arrested us comes back with another plainclothes cop. He nods at me and says, “This one, comrade Lieutenant.”
He leaves and the plainclothes asks me the same questions again except he never says he doesn’t believe me.
“So,” he says, “you say you’re a cyclist.”
“Say you’re me. Would you believe me?”
I don’t say anything.
He says, “Two problems here. One, I don’t know where you live. Two, I don’t know where you work. Help me out.”
Shaved legs, arms and legs half-white, half-black, will that help?
“He’s a world champion,” Anton says.
“Yes,” he says. “Show him your MSMK card.”
My MSMK card, I forgot about it. Master of Sport, International Class that looks like a KGB identification. It’s in Anton’s bag, all our stuff is in Anton’s bag where the syringe is.
“It’s in your bag,” I tell him.
He unzips his bag and rummages through it, pulls out my MSMK card and gives it to the cop.
We wait. The cop, he doesn’t need that much time to weigh up what’s on the card.
He says, “You must be a proper cyclist then.”
“I’m in a national team.”
“Oh,” he says. “Do you know who Nikolai Morozov is?”
Morozov is second in command in the national team and he’s from Sochi. He knows everyone worth knowing here and they know him.
“He’s national team’s coach, one of. Lives here in Sochi,” I tell him.
The cop, he grabs a phone on his desk and pulls it next to himself.
He says, “So, if I call him right now he’ll vouch for you, right?”
“He’s in Lithuania with the national team.”
“And you’re in Sochi.”
“I’m on a break.”
He grins. He pushes the phone away and says, “Guys like you, you don’t have breaks.”
“Sometimes we do.”
“What about you,” he says to Anton, “where you work?”
“On a gas rig.”
We wait. The cop picks our passports from the desk and taps them against its veneer top. He says, “Come here you both.”
We stand from our chairs and come next to his desk.
He says, “I’ll let you go.” He looks at me and says, “Pass my greetings to Morozov when you see him.”
“So we can go?” Anton says.
Anton takes the passports and the MSMK card and puts them in his bag.
“Wait,” the cop says, “what’s in the bag?”
He rises from the chair and walks around his desk and sits on it. “I need to see your bag.”
He opens the bag and starts pulling stuff out. Socks, underwear, cigarettes. He pulls out the folded towel with the syringe inside and lays it in the pile with the rest. Pulls out a book, looks at the title and drops it back in the bag.
“All good,” he says.
I can taste the Black Sea’s salt water on my lips when we walk outside.
Chert takes us to a beach in Sukhumi. We swim to an abandoned dock in the sea to harvest mussels and bring them back to the shore in plastic bags. We make a fire and cook the mussels and Anton and Chert cook the brown shreds of bandage we brought from Armavir. We stay on the beach until darkness. Sun out, we walk to Chert’s place to drink home-made wine and eat khachapuri his mom had made for us.
All households in Sukhumi keep enough wine at home to drink every day for a year.
Autumn doesn’t last long in Kiev. It starts with red and yellow on the trees and the smell of burning leaves. The waves of soppy nostalgia. When the cold drizzles come, you think about the start of the new season. The Black Sea and how you go there every year to click miles except this year you won’t. You’d pulled the trigger to wipe out what you lived for.
The forty-five square-meter apartment in a high-rise coffer I live in isn’t mine. It’s my girlfriend’s parents’. I don’t need a job. The bureaucrats forgot to cancel my salary and a cool sum of money shows up in my account every month.
I sleep until people have lunch at work and sit on the balcony with a book and smoke and drink Turkish coffee I brew in the kitchen with black pepper and cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
Wrong lifestyle my girlfriend’s parents tell her and she says I’ll get over it. She says you don’t know what it’s like. They’re never home, her parents. They live with the grandma near Kiev and wait until I stop sitting and smoking on the balcony.
I buy reels of music from a guy I met at a party. Like me, he sleeps until late and doesn’t work anywhere except nobody pays him to sleep until late. He sells music. He buys smuggled records and tapes them on a Japanese reel-to-reel and sells the reels. I’m his best customer.
He makes his own vodka at home, the samogon. We drink it and listen to records and smoke and drink more samogon with his customers. His wife comes from work and yells and opens all windows and the balcony door because she can’t breathe the smoke.
We go out to buy coffee beans and cigarettes or catch a taxi and go visit friends with a three-liter jar of samogon we carry everywhere with us.
Sometimes, I don’t know if the darkness is the start of a night or its end.
The trees in Kiev are naked and wet from the icy drizzle. I go to Pulya, my former teammate, to say goodbye before he leaves for Europe.
Nikolai Morozov is at his place staying overnight on his way to Italy where he’ll manage the all-Soviet Alfa Lum team. We drink Baileys with Belgian chocolate and Morozov pulls out a bottle of Ballantine’s. Pulya and him, they talk Giro and the Tour and I go outside to smoke because I can’t smoke in front of Morozov. When I come back, they stop talking and I say you’re talking about me and we laugh.
“You ride?” Morozov says.
“When did you stop?”
“Middle of last season.”
“Do you want to come back?”
“You’re stupid, you know that?”
Outside, I put on the night as a coat I’ve owned for years. It’s mine. I did it to myself.
The drizzles had stopped and it’s dry and cold before the snow falls and the winter starts. I walk to Uni from the Republican Stadium metro station. Looks like Elizarov’s car parked next to the Planetarium. He’s outside leaning against the front door, arms folded across his chest. I say hey and keep walking.
“Wait,” he says.
I come closer and we shake hands.
“What’s wrong with you?” he says.
“Why don’t you kill yourself?”
“I know what you’re doing. Find a rope and hang yourself, it’s quicker this way.”
I look at the asphalt under my feet, at his car, and the bike rack where my bike used to travel to races. I know how this car smells inside.
He says, “We’re leaving to Sochi tomorrow. Do you want to come?”