Professor Emeritus at Hunter College in NYC, Emil Draitser is the author of Stalin’s Romeo Spy; Making War, Not Love: Gender and Sexuality in Russian Humor, and other volumes. His work also ... [+]

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #08
"So, you're happy, huh?" he says in disbelief.

He asks me this question several times during our two-hour get-together, trying to understand how I could feel so much happier about my life than he does about his own.

We live on opposite sides of the continent. We see each other two or three times a year, when I visit the Pacific Coast. We usually meet in San Clemente, a small town; he comes by bus from San Diego, and I take a rental car from L.A. He steps out of his bus wearing his backpack, and we drive to the pier by the ocean. Making our way across the railroad tracks—they're near the entrance to the beach—we find a table at the café where the waves make the wooden floors shudder as they hit the concrete piles.

We've known each other for a long time, and have been friends for many years. We're both immigrants who arrived in America during adulthood—he's from Bulgaria, and I'm from Russia. We both studied at the USC grad school where we met. Until recently, our lives ran parallel courses. We both married women who, as we discovered down the road, suffered from alcoholism, which destroyed our families. We both lived through the trauma of divorce. We both missed our children and could only see them (he, his son, and I, my daughter) during brief visitations.

Our misfortunes brought us closer. During tough times, not only do you find out who your genuine friends are, but you may also make new ones.

After he retired from his teaching job, my friend took to pottery. He crafts painted bowls. The only time I visited his home in San Diego, I saw stacks of his pots wrapped in newspapers. He piled up several rows of them along the wall of his bedroom.

 "Why don't you sell them?" I asked. I knew my friend's pension was small. "Your pots are a feast for the eyes. I bet there won't be a shortage of people who'd want to buy them."

 "Ah!" he waved his hand. "I don't have time to trifle with it. I enjoy making them and painting them. I could sit at the potter's wheel all day long. Sometimes you surprise yourself with the things you make—it almost seems like your fingertips have magic in them. You change the colors on the go . . . You wait, you hold your breath . . . but the idea of selling them makes me bored stiff."

Every time we meet after that, he gives me a bowl or two. I used to take his gifts home in my suitcase. Then I gave them away. First, to my daughter, then to my other friends. Now, sometimes . . . I leave them for someone else to find.

Sitting across from him, I share that my life now is the most serene it's ever been. My Indian summer, so to speak. I feel much more at peace with myself than I did when I was younger. You can't bury your past. It never fades away, anyhow. My girl has grown up already; she has a family on her own. I have grandchildren. It's true that sometimes I stumble upon the old drawing she sent that reads I LOVE YOU, DADDY while rummaging through my papers. Looking at those big block letters, I still get a lump in my throat. But it doesn't happen too often, thank God. I live on my savings, which, given my simple lifestyle, should last for the rest of my life. I have a lot of free time, so I can do only the things I enjoy doing. In my younger years, I used to just concentrate on making a living.

My friend listens with surprise.

"You're happy, huh?" he repeats throughout our conversation.

Staring into the distance, into the gray-blue waves on the horizon, he says that, despite the pain of his divorce and all the terrible things his ex-wife accused him of, he still doesn't regret marrying her.

"We had a good time when we met. And for some time after that," he utters the same way, gazing at the ocean with his unseeing eyes.

The rolling waves crash at the piles under us, under the floorboards of our café.

 After a deep pause, he continues in an even voice, "We didn't live under one roof anymore, but we weren't divorced yet. And we still slept together. She'd come over to my place, and we'd make love all night long."

She appeared in the doorway, and without a word they rushed into each other's embrace. He recalled how hearing her breath next to him on his pillow made him giddy. How goosebumps rose on the skin of her thighs, coming to life under his gentle, caressing fingers. How exciting her hair smelled; the way it fell on her face when, leaning forward, she rode the sweetest horsy in the world. How the taste of bitter almonds appeared on his lips after their long, infinite kissing. How her big gray eyes rolled up to the skies in the throes of passion. Only when he saw it did he understand what the French call la petite mort, the little death. Any human being would give everything for this, he thought. Everything! Even their life.

He's just an invisible old man now—he has a long gray beard! If he turns his head at a funny angle, pain shoots up his neck. When he walks along the street and somebody calls him, he turns his entire body like a lonely wolf, not even like some domesticated dog. He passes by young full-lipped beauties on the street and wants to find an excuse to chat with them, to gaze at them a bit, to admire them. It makes one's life so much fuller! But they don't see him. It's as if he's just an apparition.

So, if his ex were to appear at his apartment's threshold, he'd forgive her for everything all over again, without hesitation. If only it were possible—at least for an hour!—to feel it, to bring back the almond taste on his lips, to hear her breathing, that shortness of breath of a person escaping mortal danger.

"I know it sounds ridiculous," he says, staring at the tanker's towers smoking on the horizon, "but sometimes I think of my aging as a punishment for something bad I'd done in my life. I'm bewildered. I look back and wonder, what bad things have I done to deserve this? I think I lived an honest life. I don't recall doing anything awful."

"Ah!" he exclaims, his hand brushing aside the thought, giving up any hope to understand the logic of what happened to him.

They bring us oysters, which he, to his surprise, consumes eagerly.

He shrugs. "I lost my sense of taste a long time ago. They say it's a sign of oncoming Alzheimer's."

He says as if it were a forecast of a drizzle.

"I know what awaits us all," he remarks with a light laugh, feeling my confusion. "I think people exaggerate the fear of death. We aren't afraid to fall asleep every night, although there's no guarantee we'll wake up in the morning."

"Can you believe it?" he says, without looking at me. "The other day, I dreamt my ex had found a young lover. I found them when I climbed up to the loft in our old home. I saw their backs. They sat naked, embracing each other. I recognized her from a cluster of pale freckles on her left shoulder. They always reminded me of a small patch of mimosa flowers. I tell her right away, ‘Don't call me anymore!' Her voice muffled, she utters, ‘How will you manage without me?' ‘Oh, don't worry, I will,' I say. And I wake up with a heavy heart. ‘Don't call me anymore!'" he chuckles. "I wonder what kind of idiot writes the scripts for our dreams? It's already been twenty years since she stopped calling me."

Our lunch ends. We part until my next visit to the West Coast. My friend heads for the bus stop, turning his entire body. I return to my car.

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