Titan has changed. Three guys from the original 1982-83 intake beefed up with a bunch of twenty-year-old pups.
Elizarov stopped playing a Stalin. No one checks if you’re in bed when you’re supposed to be in bed. The guy who had invented the five-meter radius rule to keep you from talking to girls asks me if I’d like to fly my girlfriend down for a week. Says the resort is empty anyway, the team will even pay for the room.
What is this, a parallel reality?
A cardiologist and hematologist watch over me every day and draw blood from my fingers and earlobes. They read my blood values and stare at the cardiogram’s readout, nod and stare again.
Mileage, we pump a thousand each week, rain or dry, no one cares.
In January, after riding flats for a month in Gagra, we move to Lazarevskoye, seventy kilometers up the coast from Sochi. The township is on a highway between Sochi and Tuapse, the only paved road here. You ride either north-west or south-east. The two-kilometer stretch of a flat road in Lazarevskoye is the longest flat stretch in a seventy-kilometer radius. Short climbs but they never stop coming.
The latest tech toy is a heart rate monitor with a strap. You don’t have to glue the transmitter to the chest as we used to in the past.
Elizarov says to never go over one-fifty for now and if I cross that on a climb, slow down and grab the car. My heart stays under one-fifty beats at all times.
At the top of each climb I cough brown phlegm from my lungs filled with tobacco toxins.
On the first six-hour ride, he motioned me to the car after four hours and told me to get in. “Enough for today,” he said. “Step at a time.”
One thing Titan had always lacked was the Colnagos. They’ve been supplied to the national team since the 1970s. The top riders got a new one every spring and everyone else rode something older and then the bikes would be written off and go to other teams. Never to Titan. Elizarov never kissed anyone’s ass and when you don’t, your boys don’t get to ride Colnagos.
That spring, we didn’t need Colnagos. Reginald Vorontsov built us his sky-blue Takhions from Columbus tubes. We slapped Campagnolo gear on them and that was it, bikes sorted.
Racing started in February south of Sochi around Gagra where Georgian farmers grow mandarins, grapes, and figs. In Abkhazia, snowfalls go down on you the moment you think it won’t snow this year. Flakes melt the moment they touch the ground. Stubborn gray patches hang around for days on north-facing grass.
The commissaires never cancel a race when it snows. It’s only water they say.
Your feet go numb after an hour in nine degrees, then the fingers and then the penis. You puncture, get off the bike and sway like a drunk because you don’t know if you’re standing on your feet or float in the air and when you take a piss on the roadside, you can see the urine but don’t know where it’s coming from.
I snatched one of the first road races after four hours in the snow from a three-men breakaway, uphill finish, sand on my teeth from a water bottle covered in mud and sand in the eyes thrown at my face by the rear wheels in front of me.
The mud tastes like a raw coffee bean.
The night before the Sochinskaya stage race, Elizarov told me to ease up. “It’s only April,” he said, “don’t blow your gasket.”
I shared a room with Tikhon, a young gun from Krivoy Rog in south-eastern Ukraine. A tall, lean kid with a suntan skin, he spoke in short, fast sentences and made me chuckle or laugh half of the time he spoke.
In Gagra training camp, we’d buy home-made wine in three-liter glass jars and sip it on the hotel’s balcony before going to bed.
It’s a rest day and we go for ice creams in a shopping mall on Kurortnyy Avenue because Tikhon wanted to ask the ice cream chick out. I sat at a table to watch the go-to-hell scene and wait for the ice creams.
“Score,” he says and puts stainless steel, one-legged ice cream bowls on the table.
“Pff,” he says. “Go ask.”
“What if I do? A bet?”
“Twenty-five,” he says.
Bluffing like he’s got a million in the bank.
“Never mind,” I said. His net worth right now is less than twenty-five rubles, two ten-ruble notes folded in half in the wallet and some change left from paying for the ice creams.
If someone gave me a crystal ball right now, I’d stay in this cafe for twenty seconds longer.
Heated by the sun, the marble tabletop is like an oven’s door. Early summer this year in Sochi.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We trotted the flight of stairs to the street level and headed back to the hotel. A five-minute walk.
We stopped at a pedestrian crossing blocked by a beige Lada with all windows rolled down, waiting to turn. The guy in the front passenger seat has an arm out on the car’s roof holding a manbag in his hand.
We stood next to the car and waited for it to drive away. The guy, he’s talking to the driver, loud, with an accent I can’t place. Thousands of Georgians and Armenians lived in Sochi, but this wasn’t a Caucasian accent. Something western, Lithuanian maybe.
He pulled his arm inside leaving the bag on the roof, still talking, hands flapping like he’s a mad penguin. This is when the driver saw a gap in traffic, let the clutch spring back and took off. The bag on the roof, it drops to the ground next to my feet.
“Check out the idiot,” I said and picked it up. The Lada, it pulled away spewing blue fumes from the exhaust pipe when I looked at it.
Tikhon says, “Open it.”
I dragged the zipper and opened the bag — it’s stuffed with brown hundred-ruble notes.
He says, “Run.”
We ran for two minutes through the streets and turned left and right on every corner until we came to a park and rushed into a bunch of thuja trees and landed on the ground covered in dry pine needles behind a row of firs and laughed. We laughed and breathed like dying fish and threw pine needles at each other and told each other to shut up and stop laughing.
On the ground with my cheek on the needles I can see ants going about their busy lives.
The lottery tickets my mom used to buy, hitting three numbers out of six from time to time, the jackpot in that lottery was ten grand. Five years’ worth of wages. Here in the bag, it should be at least that much.
“Count it,” Tikhon says.
I opened the bag and pulled out a wad of bills and put them on the pine needles.
Inside was an ID of some kind, a zipped plastic sandwich bag with gold chunks the size of a cherry and a portable balance scale a jeweler would use to weigh tiny things. Or a drug dealer.
The ID was a Polish driver license. The Polish and the Romanians flooded the Soviet Union since Gorbachev launched his Perestroika circus four years ago.
They came in buses, cars, and trains loaded with jeans, shoes, and stereos. Sell the stuff on the markets or dump it in bulk to now legal private stores and buy with rubles gold or anything made from gold. Take that gold back to Poland or Romania where it’s worth multiple times more, sell it, buy more merchandise, repeat. All courtesy of the ruble’s downfall.
The Poles and Romanians, they’d figured out our currency was going to hit the floor and came to roam the Union buying all the retail gold they could find. Free market teaches you to look for breaks like that.
“Hey, do I look like him?” Tikhon said. He shows me the Polish license saying, “I’ll use that.”
“Driving. Don’t have a license.”
“You want to use a Polish license to drive a car here? A stolen license?”
“Not stolen. Lost.”
“You don’t even speak Polish.”
“Pff. It’s Polish, seriously. I grew up in Ukraine.”
I packed the bills back into the bag and said, “We take the cash. Cash is cash. Gold too is good. Cop finds a foreign driver license on you, you think he’ll high-five you?”
“Yeah like they search me every day.”
“We ditch the license. Ditch it.”
“You want to buy a car?”
“Let’s go. Count the money in the hotel.”
It’s close to ten thousand in cash when we count it and no idea how much we can get for gold.
Tikhon and I, we caught a taxi after dinner and told the cabbie to take us to the swankiest restaurant in Sochi and he drops us off at a Chinese or Korean place we had ridden past on the bikes hundreds of times and never knew it’s where the Sochi’s nouveau riche dine.
Ruble notes are rectangular paper slips died with hot ink you swap for things you want. Money is what you earn. The brown, green, purple, red, and blue paper pieces with Lenin’s profile, you call them money because that’s what everyone calls them. They are not money to you when you pull hundred-ruble bills from your wallet as if you breed them in there.
The fiesta can’t go on forever and this is why you do nothing to stop it, you want to see how it ends.
It ends with a gun pressed against my throat and a stocky man with Hitler’s haircut and blood on his lips from a punch I landed on his mouth saying to me, “Pray.”
It’s a two-hour flight from Sochi to Kiev. We land in Borispol airport and drive to Dom Kino restaurant for dinner.
Tikhon and I, we want another night out and I told him I know someone in Prolisok, a bar on Kiev’s outskirts, who’ll look after us.
Grabbed a cab and we’re in Prolisok half an hour later ordering St-Rémy with caramel-dipped hazelnuts kept under the counter for the VIPs. Brown and green notes with Lenin’s face looking away into the golden age, they are the VIP tickets.
The bar shuts after midnight and we sit and drink until two because the Lenin’s banknotes give you the right not to rush anywhere if you give them to the right people. The banknotes, they can unlock doors or they can lock doors from inside. It’s up to you what side of a door you want to stay on.
My Prolisok guy told us he can call a cab but it might take an hour to get a car willing to drive here at this time so we walked to the Brest-Litovsk highway to catch a gratch, someone in a private car you pay to drive you as if it were a taxi.
You don’t know how you’ll die. It’s a secret. People on a death row, they don’t know either because they hope for a miracle that would stall the execution. An intervention. A belief in the absurdity of death and that in the end, logic will crush insanity.
We get outside and I look up to the sky infested by the brandy-blurred stars. The last glass of champaign in my stomach slashed from wall to wall with every step.
Down the alley two men and a woman under the streetlight on the corner of the road we walk on and the highway, voices rumble in a baboon growl and I tell Tikhon the stocky dude in a leather jacket has no business yelling at the blonde and slapping her on the face between sentences.
We stop meters away from the scene and try not to sway too much on our feet from a blend of St-Rémy and champagne doing rounds in our blood.
The leather jacket’s friend tells us to keep walking.
Tikhon says, “What if I don’t?” He says, “What if I smash your jackass face instead?”
The stocky guy with Hitler’s haircut says, “Get the hell outta here kids.”
Tikhon lands a wide, looping swing on the leather jacket’s friend’s jaw from a 185-centimeter height with a thud of a boxing glove hitting a punching bag and I pounce and jab Hitler in the lips and split the skin on my knuckle against his front teeth and when he goes down, the woman runs on her high heels like a wounded doe.
Hitler falls on the grass with his arms spread from east to west and under his jacket is a leather holster and my eyes catch a glimmer of moonlight in the gun’s steel.
In a boxing match, this is when a referee steps in and stops the fight. Man down, bleeding.
This is not a boxing match because the guy on the grass has a Makarov semi-automatic in his right hand, cocked. He tells me to not make another move or he’ll blow my head off my shoulders.
Still on the grass, he says he’s a cop and pulls out a red Ministry of Internal Affairs korotchka. Gun in the right hand and korotchka in the left, he stood up from the ground, barrel aimed at my chest, saying, “You raised your hand against the law you stupid ass.”
He stepped closer and shoved the gun’s barrel into my neck. I smell vodka and American cigarettes on his breath and he sputters blood mixed with saliva on my face when he speaks and I want to wipe it off only my arms are like frozen tree branches because his finger can jerk the trigger if I move.
He says, “Time to die you dumbass.”
He drives the barrel into my neck. It pulls and burns the skin.
He says, “Pray, suka.”
In a boxing match, they use a countdown to get a knocked out fighter out of a fight. This is not a boxing match and the cop with the gun doesn’t tell me the countdown’s length and I have never prayed in my life except one time when I was nine and lost a key from our flat, the last one, the third in a row I’d lost. Desperate to find it, I spent an hour looking for it in the courtyard, crying, until I sat on the grass, looked up in the sky and said please. The key, it was next to me, buried in the dirt.
“Hey,” the Hitler’s friend says. “Don’t be stupid.”
Hitler says, “He hit me in the mouth. He hit a lieutenant in a mouth.”
“Too much mess if you shoot him. Don’t be stupid.”
The cop grabs me by the throat with his left hand, gun into my cheek, saying, “You had two seconds left to breathe you dog. Remember that.”
Two seconds left to breathe. I remember.
I picture Mom, a sunflower face that never showed anger. We stand at a bus stop and watch a car plow into a concrete wall.
Three seconds before that, she took my right hand and asked if the two headlights up the road are the bus we’re waiting for. Losing her eyesight with age she said. Every time a bus pops up out of traffic she wants to know its number saying she can’t see that far. A game she liked to play with me. An old mom who needs her little son’s help.
What we see coming at us is a car, not a bus. It runs the red light and keeps going straight. Straight is where the bus stop is on the corner of a four-way intersection with traffic lights hanging in its center from thick electrical cables above.
The headlights grow the size of cartwheels and melt into a fireball. The light blinds me dead, nails my feet to the ground and grows a ball of ice in the groin.
Two seconds left to breathe. Everyone is appointed to die once.
She yanks my hand and pulls me to her bosom. A ton of metal flies past and explodes with a sound of a bomb when the wall stops it. Time stalls, the air fills with the smell of gasoline, burned motor oil, death and gore.
The driver’s body smashed the windshield and landed on the bonnet after it hit the wall. It laid heaped up in a mound of dumb flesh and broken bones. On its back, arms hanging, reaching down to earth, face black like it came out of a coalmine, glints of streetlight shimmering, bouncing off its bloodied surface, the wide-open eyes counting stars in the ebony sky.
My hand is still clutched to Mom’s, warm and moist with sweat. She puts a shoulder bag on the ground and covers my eyes with her other hand. In the bag is three kilos of fresh meat we came to pick up from Aunty Lyuba five hours ago.
Aunty Lyuba was an accountant at the Nalchik’s meat factory. Most of the meat we ate at home came from her. In a town where grocery stores sell nothing but bones, she never turned down an offer to buy stolen meat. You buy what you can and sell what you don’t need to your relatives and friends. Not to make a profit, you do it as a favor.
Favor is the Soviet Union’s second currency. Sometimes, it’s worth more than the ruble. I fix you some meat today and you get me some butter tomorrow.
She lived on the top floor of a five-story Khrushchyovka made from cement blocks that look wet as if it rained all day.
The side of the building facing Kirov Street had no windows. Its wall was done up with a profile of a cosmonaut carved with milky pebbles, maybe even Gagarin himself, looking at the city’s airport.
My kindergarten was a stone’s throw from Aunty Lyuba’s balcony. Two weeks ago I threw a beetroot from the balcony to see if it would land on the kindergarten’s roof. The beetroot didn’t make it to the roof. It plopped on the footpath near the chain-wire fencing and ruptured with a muffled sound of an exhaust pop.
This is how I discovered bombing. This is why I didn’t whimper about going to Aunty Lyuba’s anymore.
Beetroot was my favorite bomb. Fresh, it left a bloody blot on the asphalt as if an enemy’s head had been blown off with a sniper’s bullet. Potatoes flew far but didn’t always shatter when they hit the asphalt.
Beetroot was the bomb.
I scanned the perimeter first before every throw and then hid behind a rotten drawer on the balcony as soon as the bomb landed. Getting caught was not an option.
My bombs had never hit anybody, even when I aimed. You need a steady arm to hit the target. Mom would whip me with a rubber hose if she found out what I did on the balcony. Fear flooded my guts with ice before every throw and shrank them to a trembling ball of dread. It crippled my muscles and the bombs never landed where I wished them to land. They raced through the air in an arch, upward first and then lower and lower until they struck the ground to blow the fear away.
I missed every time.
Aunty Lyuba and Mom drank Pshenichnaya vodka she brought in her purse. They always did. You don’t go to someone’s place with empty hands. Bring something. Bring something you can only have if you know someone who knows someone, something you can’t buy in a store filled with processed cereals and pig fat sold in enameled roasting pans. Bring Ceylon tea. Bring Finnish salami. Bring Brazilian instant coffee.
Thank people with condensed milk or toilet paper, smoked salmon or Cuban oranges and never forget vodka. Bring Stolichnaya or Ekstra if you can, Russkaya if you can’t. Don’t walk through someone’s door without a bottle.
We ate Aunty Lyuba’s pelmeni she kept in the freezer for guests. She cooked them perfect. The chewy dough wrapped around firm, juicy mince stuffed with diced onions and ground black pepper. She made them smaller than my mom did, more delicate.
They emptied the first bottle before I finished my plate. Everyone in the country drank from the standard hundred-mil faceted glasses no matter where you drank your vodka. Two shots each and the bottle is one shot away from dry.
After the second bottle is out and more food, it’s time to look at the miniature effigies of people below.
I went to the balcony with an egg in my pocket stolen from the fridge and threw it on an empty footpath to see how much mess it makes. Too much. If I hit someone with an egg, that rubber hose in the bathroom at home will dance all over me like an out of control thresher.
I knew this because last Sunday I threw a rock at a neighbor’s kid and hit him on the head. It was an accident. He threw a rock at me first and I threw one back at him and it split his head open, blood gushing out. I ran home. After that, the bloodied kid’s parents are at our door yelling at my mom in Kabardian and broken Russian.
She apologized, shut the door, went to the bathroom and came out with a washing machine’s hose. A heavy-handed, strong woman. I crawled into a corner in the corridor and wept like a dog, face behind my elbows, and counted every lash she swung at me until I lost count and begged her to stop.
They were singing a Russian romance when I came inside after the sunset. Too dark to bomb. Two sisters-in-law singing a cappella Tonkaya Ryabina. Mom’s face was a smile with her high, watermelon-red cheekbones and sultry slanted eyes.
This is how I knew she’s drunk.
“Ma,” I said, “let’s go home.”
We walked on the road under the street lights and Mom said it’s easier to catch a taxi when you’re right there on the road already.
It’s sixty-six kopecks from Bogdanka to Gornaya, ten kopecks to get in, ten kopecks per kilometer. You pay a ruble and never ask for change. If it clicks over a ruble, you pay two.
In Nalchik, you never ask for change in a taxi unless the driver knows he owes it to you. Your fare is a whole number. What’s on the meter is a guide. Sometimes, there’s no meter because it’s off or the display is blocked by two-kopeck copper coins to make you negotiate.
Take a bus if you don’t like it. Five kopecks to anywhere in town.
We walk to the bus stop without catching a taxi. After that, we watch a car plow into a concrete wall.
Behind the wall is a two-story building with a wide red banner at the top. Its white letters say: LENIN LIVED, LENIN LIVES, LENIN WILL LIVE.
Unlike the man with the black face on the bonnet, Lenin’s not dead, he’s not in the ground, everybody knows that. He’s in Moscow, in the Mausoleum. Lenin and the Party are immortal. Our goal, another slogan said, is Communism. No one will die under Communism. Rumor is, they’ll bring Lenin back once we build Communism. This is why they keep him in the Mausoleum. This is why his body has been spared from rotting in the ground. He’s supposed to be dead but he’s not. It’s like he’s in a coma and we’re all waiting for him to come out and tell us what to do next. Tell us how to make color TVs and blue jeans.
Coma is when your body is still here but your mind is not. You’re supposed to be dead but you’re not. You fly through a windshield against a wall, land face up on a bonnet and stare into the sky until you die. Nobody knows what goes on in your head because you don’t get to tell it. You stay where you are and wait for someone to draw the curtain.
I snuck out to an apple orchard at the end of a kindergarten break-up party to steal apples. They told us the orchard is off limits for kids. They told us unripened apples make you gush runny poo out of your butt. They sprayed the trees with pesticides and I knew nothing about it, climb one and stuff my stomach full with apples because this is my last chance to steal them.
You vomit the guts first, this is how you start to die. The guts are still inside but you want them out. You want everything out. The skin is ice-cold and you breathe as if an elephant sat on top of you and you know this is the end.
This is how you go into a coma. The light faints and you don’t care about your guts anymore. You see nothing but you hear what everyone says. Mom says, he’s not breathing. She tells this to paramedics when they come. Not breathing she says, my son’s not breathing.
Over and over.
I come out in a hospital bed and choke on the first word out of my mouth. It’s stammering the doctor said.
Za’ika, they call people who stammer za’ika in Russia. In Russia, we brand people with a condition. Kosoi if you’re crossed-eyed or shliop-noga if you limp.
“Do you remember your name?” a curvy nurse in a white coat and a long white cap says. She wears a strawberry-red lipstick on her Gypsy lips and a thin golden necklace.
I do. I remember. The man’s face on the bonnet, apples, and hands lighter than air. I remember.