Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Matt Sundakov
Most of the time, my early life in Russia was sad, but nonetheless on some occasions I was quite cheerful (and happy too), when together with my High School friends I was engaged in some exciting adolescent adventures, when I was watching a good comedy or thriller, or when I was completely absorbed by a classical novel, forgetting the real world around me.
What books did I read? I enjoyed Maupassant, Stendhal, Dreiser, Hugo, Dumas, Julie Verne, Tomas Mann. I read with relish Stefan Zweig, with some strange amazement I worshipped Balzac. But I really felt indebted to Pushkin, whose genius created “Eugene Onegin” and its main character: Tatyana Larina. I loved Tatyana, as if she were a real person; and I was getting dizzy, felt like drunk, when I was reading “Tatyana’s Letter “.
Tatyana’s Letter affected me incredibly. It literally prompted me to answer. It was pleasant to think how I would write and what I would tell her in my letter. I would bare my soul, and will finish that letter with words: “I love you! ”
However, in reality, nobody wrote love letters to me. But I was looking for at least a hint of love or sign… Alas, nobody showed any sign, and I was suffering in silence…
An unexpected breakthrough happened when I was finishing my last year in School, after my best friend Andrei introduced me to Masha at a School Ball and left us alone. I was shy, even timid. I did not know how to start conversation, and it seemed I stayed silent forever, the silence weighed us down.
“Andrei told me a lot about your friendship,” Masha said suddenly.
“Your friendship is unusual and a little bit strange. You are antipodes, as day and night, as a cat and a mouse, as a hunter and a deer.”
“A wooden block cannot be animated,” I said to myself. I felt inadequate with Masha and could not move my tongue to talk. Why did she compare me with Andrei? Did she tease me? Alas, not everyone can fly – someone should be born to crawl. I felt absolutely awful. Distraught, sulky, and angry, I wasn’t like my usual self but ridiculous, piteous, and unfortunate.
“You are such a bore”, – she said eventually, and slowly left the School hall.
I could not sleep that night. I thought about fates of people: life is illogical, it is like a lottery. Nature’s laws are accidental: everything depends on chance, that is beyond our control. I asked myself a rather absurd question: “How to explain that I am what I am?”
I could be born in ancient Rome as a plebeian or patrician, condemned to work in mines or blessed to serve in the Government. When and where a person born in foam would receive these or other genes – everything is so accidental, so unreliable. It is impossible to do anything to influence the result, to win in this lottery of life…
Suddenly, I realized that I was repeating myself, that I already asked these questions that could not be answered. I hated myself for that, and felt that I must overcome these thoughts at any cost.
Then I thought that the University entrance exams at School are not far away, and I must concentrate on my studies, instead of feeling sorry for myself. Motivated by these considerations, I opened one of my textbooks, but… suddenly the telephone rang.
” Privet! How are you doing? ”
“Who is it?
“Don’t you recognize me?”
” Masha? Is it really you?”
“Oh, you’re a genius!” She said with a shade of sarcasm in her voice.
“Alright,” I tried to sound calm and indifferent. “How can I help you?”
“Come on. Please stop being so formal and official.”
“Forgive me, Masha, but it was YOU who told me that I am a bore, that I am uninteresting to you. I don’t hold any grudge, but I realized that we cannot be friends; and as I understand, if you call me – you need something. Right?”
“Mottel, please stop talking rubbish.” (Mottel? Only Andrei called me this way – he borrowed this Yiddish name from Shalom Aleichem’s fascinating story ‘Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son’ and thus, being himself an ethnic Russian, he demonstrated a great respect toward his Jewish friend.) -“You didn‘t understand me at all. You have angered me by your silence. You seemed to be so unapproachable, but I waited for warmth, for at least some attention from you”
“Is it true or you are making fun of me? I didn’t know your secret. I was silent only because I felt that you will never take me seriously; in my eyes you were like Cleopatra, and for you I could only be a slave, a servant, a plebeian. I could expect that you take a whip from your handbag and will be hitting me without mercy or compassion”
“Oh my God! What a sick imagination…”
“Sorry for that. But if I am wrong, please tell me honestly what interest could you have found in me?”
“You are a strange guy, Mottel. But I do like you and will be absolutely honest with you.” Masha’s voice was warm and sincere. “You do not appreciate yourself. But your friends think that you are a genius. They envy your brain. Then you’re kind, fair, very honest, and also are always ready to help anyone who is in a trouble. Of course you have your own weaknesses, and you’re not athletic as Andrei or many other boys, but you have an incredible soul, that is open for genuine friendship, honor and love.” She paused for a minute. “Truly, in your blood, there is some great nobility that, unfortunately, is forgotten by so many. Besides, you are handsome. I cannot forget your eyes: so sad and clever, warm and kind.”
I was absolutely stunned by her monologue. Is it one of my many dreams or it really happens to me? I could not believe in my luck. Masha was so beautiful, sophisticated, and clever girl. I was charmed by her from that very moment when Andrei said: “Mottel, it is Masha. Masha, it is Mottel”
I was spellbound by Masha’s image and her words. Nobody before has ever told me anything like that. I knew that I am madly in love with her…
Half an hour later, we were slowly walking along embankment of Neva river. We forgot about time. Happy people do not notice time.
Indeed, we did not know how many hours passed since we met by the cruiser-museum “Aurora”. In the meantime the night fell over Leningrad, but it was a white night – transparent, clear, and quiet.
Leningrad is an exceptionally beautiful city, and always looks good: by day and by night, in winter and in summer. It seems that elegant silhouettes of Leningrad palaces are lined along Neva for a parade to show off themselves and to admire the wide beautiful river with granite embankments.
But Leningrad really shines in its glory, and its beauty reaches the culmination point, when many bridges of this city are lifted to allow large ships to go through. You can easily imagine them as giants who worked hard during a very long day, and now they stood up to relax and stretch themselves. During white nights, their
power is limitless: if your home is on another side of the river, you will not be able to reach it…
We found an isolated bench surrounded by flowers with teasing, stupefying smell; by caressing branches of old trees and by thick shrubs. On that bench we took refuge from everything and everyone: from other people and everyday problems. We were chatting joyfully and carefree, as if we always knew each other.
“I have heard that you write poetry,” Masha said. “Please read something to me. Oh, don’t be so shy, for God’s sake!”
“Very well. I will. But only one, which is dedicated to you.”
“It was a melancholic day. Not quite autumn yet,
But the summer was nearing its end.
Cold rains knocked on the door.
It was getting dark, though the wall clock struck only eight.
And a gloomy mood of nature
Has crept inside the small, sad country house,
Which seemed to be oblivious in its quiet sleep
To stormy elements of this unstable world.
I reached the window and pressed my face against the glass.
I looked with sadness at the empty street.
But suddenly I noticed someone who waved her hand,
And then instantly sunk in the depth of darkness.
I have flung the window open, and with the wind you have rushed inside.
The dormant house came quickly back to life.
The fire by itself ignited in the stove.
The smiling sun was back in sky: I felt again its light and warmth”
I fell silent and was alarmingly waiting for Masha’s verdict. Looking in her eyes, I cautiously took her palm in my hands, but then immediately released it and murmured so quietly that she hardly could hear me: “Please forgive me, perhaps I shouldn’t have done this. I’m scared, I don’t know, don’t know how … ”
My incoherent speech was stopped by her warm lips. By kissing me she stopped not only my words – she stopped my thoughts. Nothing else existed for me any more. The whole world has stopped and with a smile dissolved in two of us.
“Let’s go to my place,” quietly whispered Masha. “My parents are in the Crimea. There are no neighbors in our apartment. So, nobody will disturb us. You made me feel like being drunk… How have you done this?”
We entered her apartment – a rich and cozy world of a man who belonged to the Communist Party elite, who practically ruled the city.
“Come in, Mottel. Feel at home.”
But I could not move. I was shocked and puzzled: the apartment was very spacious and everything was so incredibly beautiful. The floor was covered with very expensive Persian carpets, huge crystal chandeliers were hanging from high ceilings, the walls were adored with exotic pictures, and several large bookcases accommodated hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of books.
I could not believe that some people live in such luxurious conditions. I remembered how my mum cried when our neighbor tried to “persuade” her to go to Palestine, because she wanted our room for her just married, elder son.
“How can we cope otherwise?” screamed Mrs Volkova. “You know that we already have four adult people in our 12 square meters room! My daughter-in-law is pregnant, and she doesn’t have parents who could support her.”
In spite of all the absurdity of Mrs Volkova’s logic, who was so keen to get rid of us in order to use our room for her son, I could understand her despair and pain. She just wanted somehow to change the horrible conditions of her family life, to stop their sufferings. Of course, she would not have worried if she could lessen her sufferings by increasing ours. The vicious life generated the vicious mentality.
After the darkness of our communal flat, miserable years filled with tears and pain in evil and cruel world, where each of us was bearing his or her own cross, I suddenly entered a fairy tale world. “Am I dreaming? And if I do, I don’t want to wake up, because Masha may well disappear together with my dream .”
Masha obviously realized what is going through my mind, because the next moment she came close to me and said:
“Please forgive me for my dullness. I have not thought that someone can be offended not only by rudeness, but also by demonstration of ostentatious wealth. But I invited you here not in order to elevate myself or humiliate you. Do you believe me? Yes? Please say something! …After all, I personally have not yet achieved anything to be credited for. I was just lucky from my birth – product of a good luck and blind nature.”
I gently embraced her. We stood quietly for some time, and then I suddenly exploded with a passionate speech:
“Oh, Masha, Masha! I believe, I’m confident, I know: your birth was not an accident. Until I met you, my life was rather sad and miserable. You’re my light in the darkness of universe. Every time when I look at you, my heart is missing a
bit. I am really crazy about you. I love you madly and probably behave silly. But I feel really happy, more than happy!”
“Enough of words,” she deeply sighed and firmly pressed her whole body against mine.
I began to shake and vibrate feverishly, and my blood was seething and spinning. I could not control my own body any more, and part of it popped up as a steel spring. I was embarrassed but not for long, because Masha’s hand, as a tropical hurricane, rushed straight to the subject of my embarrassment. Instantaneously, I forgot about my shyness. We started to rip off our clothes from each other, eliminating the last barriers between ourselves. Seconds later, our bodies merged in ecstasy…
Masha’s parents returned home much sooner than we wanted. Their daughter gained a Gold Medal for her academic achievements, and they obviously wanted to be present at the School during the award ceremony.
I did worse than Masha: the total number of subjects was 10, and for two of them I got just “Good” instead of “Excellent”, thus missing a medal. But I was genuinely happy for Masha.
I was standing in the School hall, which was crowded with students and their parents. But all my attention was focused on Masha and her parents. Masha was hugging and kissing them, and they were looking at her with great admiration and love. “What a wonderful family,” I thought.
Masha’s father was tall, handsome, elegant, and good mannered.
Her mother, however, seemed to be quite opposite: short, fussy, and playful.
Suddenly, she noticed that I look at them and asked Masha showing in my direction, “Who is that boy? Why is he staring at us?”
“Oh, this is Mottel! I am in love with him.”
“You must be joking! From when? Father, have you heard this? What a nonsense! To fall in love – and with whom? With that wide-eyed Jew? That’s just ridiculous!”
She was really yelling, so that people in the hall started to turn toward them, then toward me.
“Raisa, what are you doing? Please calm down,” said the father very quietly. “You shouldn’t say such things in public. We will become a subject of gossips, and my career may suffer. When we come back home, then if you want shout, yell and scream. But not now, please…”
“Get lost!“ barked Raisa. “You are demonstrating your weakness instead of showing your power and strength. Are you the father or not?”
Masha fell silent. She has never before heard such an outburst from her mother combined with such indecisiveness of her father. She has never before heard their arguments, and now it happened in School, in the presence of so many people! And what about? How did it occur that her mother turned out to be such an obvious anti-Semite? And her father? He seemingly was outraged not so much with what his wife said, but with the fact that other people could hear her. He was anxious to avoid making this incident public, but was he a hidden anti-Semite as well?
The ideal of her family suddenly collapsed and broke into many ugly pieces.
I felt dizzy. I needed some fresh air. I needed to do something about that. But what? Shall I try to prove them that I am a good, decent person? To whom? I knew that my words, even most passionate and sincere, will not help. They will just ridicule me, and all my efforts will be in vain.
Like Mrs Volkova, Masha’s mother openly demonstrated that she hated Jews, just because they were Jews. Her father seemed to be different, but deep inside he was exactly the same. He was just pretending to be fair, but in fact he was Mr. Big Lie.
I went outside. The rain was pouring. Whom shall I call for help: God? The Devil? To ask them return those recent days, when we were embracing each other and wished to stop the time forever, so that nothing would enter inside our own little universe.
Alas, an external world – prejudiced, cold, unfriendly and malicious – did come through and destroyed our joy, our happiness, our love.
Oh, no! I ran back to School. I saw Masha stepped outside the front door. She looked miserable, and her parents were solemnly leading her to their car.
I ran toward them and stopped blocking their way. Masha’s father just frowned slightly, but her mother exclaimed: “What is the matter?”
With sudden boldness I yelled: “I love Masha!”
But Masha’s mother already pushed her daughter in the car, then quickly turned back to me and ordered: “Go away, you little Jew!”
Her words sounded as a shot. I was severely wounded by her ignorance and hatred. The depth of my grief was so great, that I wanted only one thing:
disappear from this world without a trace. I did not want to live, to think, to aspire. I wanted to bury my dreams, my ideals, my hopes…
I was literally dragging myself back to our communal flat, being struck with a tremendous pain caused by an infinite evil. The Earth was running under my feet, all around me was whirling and twisting, the rain appeared to me as streams of blood, and the streets seemed shouted at me:
“You are not ours! You are an alien here! Go away, go away, go away!”