The following is a short story that appears in Mikhail Iossel’s latest short story collection, Love Like Water, Love Like Fire, about Soviet childhood and adulthood, dissidence and subsequent immigration. Iossel immigrated to the United States in 1986 from the former USSR and is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. His stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere.
To the memory of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Remember when . . . remember . . . remember how, thirty years ago, yes—after the requisite sum of money had been collected, in half handfuls of small change and occasional crumpled rubles, for however many bottles could be afforded of whatever toxic domestic ersatz port or esophagus-singeing Bulgarian dry red might be available that night at the basement liquor store diagonally across the darkly illuminated prospekt, five tall floors below; and then, after the eager young person dispatched to fetch the booze had returned to the loft, however many long minutes later, laden with bottles, winded but happy and greeted with discordant cheers; and then, after we all, all of us, wasting no time, had gathered around the massive and incongruously sturdy table in the middle of the otherwise desolate and unlivable mansard building where we had our nightly gatherings, and the first two bottles had been opened, quickly and expertly and without the use of a corkscrew, and their fetid contents had been poured out into the dense assemblage of thick-faceted railroad tea glasses and dainty mayonnaise jars and cheap china teacups with chipped edges, amid the flowering of dentally challenged Leningrad smiles and the animated rubbing of hands, whereupon all of us would claim for ourselves one of those mongrel drinking vessels and take our seats on the motley assortment of rickety throw away chairs and milk crates around that inexplicably elephantine table in the middle of the empty, dusty, decrepit loft space, and then, as if on cue, pause for a few beats, fall silent for a protracted instant or two, lifting our heads or turning or half-turning to face the dark window, all at once, for no clear reason, strictly because of some unspoken and almost unpremeditated ritual, putting ourselves wholly into that moment, with nothing preceding and nothing following, as it were—well, do you remember how, just then, as we were sitting there, in that sprawling, empty, dusty, unlivable mansard loft with the scuffed, uneven floors and the cracked stucco walls and the exposed electrical wiring and all manner of disagreeable smells, inside that odd moment or two of hushed silence, not even dragging on the hardbitten lighted Belomors in our mouths, before commencing to drink the night away, there, on the rooftop level of that uninhabited, condemned five-floor building on Chernyshevsky Prospect, a stone’s throw away from the vigilantly guarded U.S. consulate, to say nothing of the distance to the eponymous upscale metro station, partially visible from the loft’s window at a sharp angle during the light time of day, which is to say never, since we never went there before dark or in the light time of year, and it was always very dark when it was dark in Leningrad back then, yes, how we, a small gathering of momentarily silent, semiunderground young people seated around a massive rectangular table in the middle of a sprawling, empty, dusty loft up at the top of a condemned and otherwise unpeopled Dostoyevskian building, in the stark yellow light from a couple of bare lightbulbs suspended from the concave cracked ceiling on twisted lengths of black cord, yes, how we all, all of us, momentarily silent and not even dragging on the lighted Belomors in our mouths, peering intently out of the dusty and forever winterized yet still drafty cracked old window and into the immense pitch-dark outside, the unconquerable, boreal Leningrad wintry darkness, made darker still by the tiny yellow dots of thousands of windows in apartment buildings near and far, just a small gathering often or twenty of us, semiunderground and altogether inconsequential, prematurely young and childlike people between the ages of twenty and forty, peering in silence into that great and boundless yellow-dotted darkness that enveloped our part of the vast and great and terrible country to which w e solely belonged, the largest and darkest and strongest and strangest and most terrible country in the world, which we likely knew would never let go of us, never release its mortal grip on us, because it owned us by birthright, chapter and verse, body and soul, though mainly body, and in the end it probably would kill us, too, just have us suffocate to death on its immense darkness and the unimaginable gravity of the black hole that it was, even if it was populated by hundreds of millions of people, our fellow citizens, whom we didn’t really know or understand, even though we spoke the very same language and knew and understood anything and everything that there w as to know and understand about them , which was both not much and an awful lot, the realization of which made us feel all cold and dark inside, though at the same time oddly comforted, frightened and petrified and awed and oddly comforted, still and silent in that yellow fish tank of the empty rooftop loft space, floating above the giant, dark city, at the top of a condemned, uninhabited Dostoyevskian building, peering out intently into that immense darkness, all of us at once, silhouetted darkly and sharply in the harsh yellow ness enveloping us, awed and frightened and oddly comforted, until one of us finally shook his head, horselike, shaking him self out of the sheer catatonic strangeness of that momentary silence and immobility, and raised his drinking vessel, dragged on the Belomor in his mouth, and said, loudly and hoarsely, “Gentlemen! We’re surrounded by a sea of darkness!” thus signaling the end of that strange, ritualistic intermission; and then, with much relief, we turned or took our gazes away from the dark window and, talking animatedly all at once, commenced to drink the night away.
Excerpted from Love Like Water, Love Like Fire. Copyright © 2021 by Mikhail Iossel. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.