My brother does not have an explosive personality, but in his childhood he came across a case of injustice that severely hurt his feelings: a boy in the neighborhood he was in good terms with, was kicked around by other kids on the playground and called hooknose, and sent I did not quite hear where – to Borispol, Brovary or even to Vasilkov on the far side of bfe.
Things did not run beyond mockery, because Boris, in spite of having a classic Jewish appearance: black eyes, curly hair and well-balanced talk with burring, was a precocious guy, topped his offenders by a head, practiced combat sport and could well stand up for himself, in contrast to my brother, by the way.
Nevertheless, Genia grabbed for altitude and rallied to Boris’s defense. The malicious hubbub still went on and they left the court together.
Genia invited Boris to our flat to what the latter agreed.
We, me and my parents, took a liking to him at once. His courteous manners, politeness to match an English gentleman, Jewish veneration of mother and women in general were out of tune with general ways of Troyeshcheena of the time, a criminal and lumpenprole district at the outskirts of Kiev, with its swearing children, sour wine odor and tiny courts.
Up to this day, though the notoriety of the area has subsided, there is still a well-known adage: “life turned a hyena, I moved to Troyeshcheena”. Local spooky memo, a misfit stigma.
It was interesting with Boris.
On that particular day or another, his parents dropped in to pick him up, fell into talk with mine and, through friendship between sons, a friendship between families was soon established.
His mother Aunt Natasha was a good-looking woman and seemed very stylish to me at that period: wide sunglasses on the forehead, after the fashion of German porn stars, denim overall, theatrical hand movements and a wealth of byplay, which imparted stage dramatism to everything she said.
His father Uncle Misha was roundish, baldish, and big, and had very loud voice. Any discourse immediately evoked his enthusiasm and his vibrating bass started to shake walls.
Aunt Natasha usually graciously turned the upper body to him, lit up an indignant glare and launched a rant: “Misha, don’t start your wo-wo-wo-wo!” and waved her delicate palm at her mouth.
And it sounded very much like him.
I was five years younger than Boris and my brother, and thus they played pranks without me: visited the disposal dump to pick up boy’s treasures, such as a crystal from a broken color TV (evidently after a drunken family quarrel). Rode bikes rattling along traditional Kiev lanes made of slabs.
Sometimes they let me join them: Boris, with inherent Jewish cheerfulness, treated me seriously and told certain startling secrets.
Boris studied drawing, frequented a karate club and was keen on biology, with equal success everywhere.
He was also listening to Russian rock and shared tapes. Being asked of his favorite music he mentioned poorly known to the general public arcane names like “Aquarium”, “Kino” and “Time Machine”.
I always gave my full attention with passionate childish joy to his amiable cooing voice. Now he’s telling of his dislike for caulie in his early years and of his mother proposing him to imagine being a Gulliver among the Lilliputians eating their trees. Now he fearlessly drives away a wasp simultaneously explaining how to treat a bite, in case he’s not there in the right moment.
We moved from Troyeshcheena to Kharkov quarter, which was also uncivilized outskirts at the time, but often visited each other in full set.
In some cases the visits were agreed well in advance and it was delicious languor of anticipation to mark the days in the calendar, awaiting when we step into our Lada Niva and go along the Left Bank to the distant Troyeshcheena to be caught again in the cloud of charm of this family totally alien to Troyeshcheena living at the Honoré de Balzac Prospect, this name also being completely out of picture in the area.
I knew them to be Jews, but this info was of no earthly use to me, because I knew zero of nationalities.
Moreover, a lot of Jews lived in Kiev at that time, thus it was not exotica to me. At the floor above ours, for example lived a Jewish family. We were not bosom friends but on good matey terms with them.
We called Alec, the head of the family, a coney for his front teeth and jackrabbit eyes straight out of cartoons, and I had been thinking for quite a while that it was his surname: Coney. Alec Coney.
His daughter, Anna, held affection for me: took my hand, made me sit next to her when we watched TV, clung her hip to mine. I felt very embarrassed, grew red, and did not know what to do about it, but it was alluring. And tantalizing.
Times were changing and I suddenly discovered that practically all Jews I knew were going to depart, and, by some strange reason, all to one place: certain unheard-of Israel.
I had a good notion of Kiev and its vicinity, but the whereabouts of Israel was totally unknown to me, and that made me think it was probably very far, somewhere toward Zhitomir.
I asked my mother, why should they go there?
I do not remember her exact words, but the big idea was that, where we live, is not their country, whereas theirs is elsewhere. And that their life is bad here, and it will be better there.
And if we were Jews, we could as well go to a better place.
I was a clever child, but still I could not in any way understand, why is it better there? And what is bad here?
Then, why are they alien here? If they live the way we all do, what’s alien about this?
The factor of unfathomable Israel, the agonizing desire to go there, had crept into everyday state of things, and generated certain reflections.
The Coneys were first to leave.
Mom told me one day entering my room: “Come to say goodbye to Anna”.
A taxi was waiting on the drop-off: a rumbly Volga-24 with hexagonal taillights. Uncle Coney, blinking with his jackrabbit eyes, put all his weight on the stubborn basket, which did not fit in the overfull boot.
Anna, in her dark blue dress, awful children’s pantyhose of Soviet production, goggles and with curly black hair, rather delicately took my hands, slightly squeezed them and said only one word: “Farewell”.
I blushed. And noticed for the first time how plain-faced she was. Engaging but plain-faced.
I stood at the entrance with somewhat new, strange, acute and dismal feeling.
The doors were closed, the red taillights lit up and Volga drifted away.
The last glimpse was the top of Anna’s head, black curls and a silly, useless straw hat out of place behind the rear window.
I never saw the Coneys anymore.
Once they phoned to tell they had settled in Haifa.
The line was bad and then connection failed. There was no other call.
Something strange, not infantile any more, had nestled in my mind after that. And all of a sudden, I realized sharply and clearly, why these people go to this unfathomable Israel.
And on impulse, I also felt like taking a taxi one day, loading my simple belongings in the boot, and departing for Israel, after having cast the last glance at our high-riser, seers-off, court, flowerbed and school.
I vividly sensed I would feel better among the outgoing than among the remaining.
“Ma, may we also go to Israel?” – I asked once, restless from brown study.
“No, – was the answer, – because we are not Jews”.
At that point, I probably understood and decided for myself: the Jews are those who have Israel, where they could go.
But I am not a Jew and have nowhere to go.
I came to know about Boris’s, Aunt Natasha’s and Uncle Misha’s plan to go to Israel as well a bit late and quite by chance. It turned out they had already been frequenting the language course for a year, sold the grandparents’ summerhouse and town flat in Belaya Tserkov.
The adults of the family had problems with studying Hebrew, whereas for Boris, who already spoke brilliant English, it was easy. He, grown to maturity, increased in height, with funky black brush of first lip grass, smartly pronounced long, hissing and burring phrases, of which I couldn’t make anything.
The date was fixed, when they, as the Coneys before them, would step out of the house, get in a taxi, leave for the airport, and we will never see them anywhere, because Israel appeared to have a strange feature: nobody returned from it.
Just a month prior to their departure, a turmoil occurred in the state of things. Uncle Misha, who made incessant tour over the offices and gathered various papers, put everybody on heels with the latest news: there is a unique chance to take up a stray quotum and go to Germany instead of Israel. In addition, it has to be decided right now.
All pale and strained, they had slept off the idea, and the next morning – Rubicon behind them and Waterloo in store for them – Uncle Misha rushed to tackle the new variant.
In Israel, they would have relatives and a certain notion of Hebrew. In Germany, they had nothing, and knew nothing of it, except that “Hitler had got only one ball”.
It meant a cul-de-sac station and the need to study German from zero. I was sure Boris would master the language, but the older generation could have problems.
The day before going away, they came to see us. The flat in Troyeshcheena was already sold, and they stayed at their acquaintances with their belongings.
It was a merry, surprisingly unshadowed party, as though we would see each other in a week, nothing happened and these intensive preparations for going away without return were just a lame joke, a prank or a misunderstanding, which happily cleared up.
Boris was in my room, we were playing and laughing.
The idea that I see Boris for the last time stubbornly refused to be lodged in my mind. I was trying to cram it in, but it still bulged, I shoehorned it, as Uncle Alec did with the basket, but it stuck out again.
I had my childish treasure: a booklet-pendant in a brass frame with a folding set of photos with the sights of Kiev.
I liked it very much, but still presented to Boris. He gratefully accepted it.
At that moment someone came in; we always had an open-door life style and one more unexpected guest was normal.
“Who’s that? – vividly responded Boris, – is it my father?”
The fact was that I had not seen Uncle Misha for quite a while: he was up to the hilt in that sticky botheration.
I looked out into the corridor: it was him all right, but not recognized by me. It could be due to my not having seen him or to darkness, and then again, his favorite “wo-wo-wo-wo” had gone, waned in the dreary times.
I confused him with very unpleasant personage for me and my brother, to whose visits (rare as they were) we reacted with disgust.
I returned in the room and said: “No, it’s hooknose’s dad”.
“Hooknose” was a common term of abuse among children, which, strange as it may seem, bore no relation to Jews. A “hooknose” was a sinister, wicked, hostile or dangerous and generally suspicious type, often shown as such in fairy tales, cartoons and books.
To call someone a hooknose was in our local crowd quite a trivial thing and nobody went into chthonic depths of word formation.
Boris looked at me in puzzlement, went to the corridor, turned to me and said: “What’s up with you? It’s my dad”.
Next moment I realized with a shock the sense of what I had thoughtlessly dished out and the way it sounds to others.
“To go bright red with shame” – that was exactly my situation at that moment.
I panicked and started to blabber, to explain that it was a mistake, that I meant a certain Igor, bullshit of a guy, who was around, and I thought it was his dad, that I meant no harm and choke on foot, that things were not as they seemed to be, and blurted out dozens of other desperate arguments.
How terrible it is, when you are unable to prove innocence! In addition, by this you offend a great guy like Boris on a farewell party.
He looked to think nothing of it and the unpleasantness was forgotten.
I watched him for the rest of the evening: was the situation really closed? Did he really bear no grudge?
My mom had prepared delicious and my favorite chocolate jelly. Everybody gave it a just credit but I could hardly swallow a piece.
Next morning a taxi came to their house in Troyeshcheena.
On metal mesh around basketball court a nasty guy was swinging, brazen and miserable at the same time, and repeated the same monotonous chant exaggeratedly burring: “My dearr frriend Borrris, my dearr frriend Borrris”. But he kept his distance just to be on the safe side, because he knew that Boris was a good runner and already had a brown belt in karate.
We bid farewell and embraced one another.
The taxi left.
We were riding back home in our Lada Niva, I was on the back seat with lump in the throat. And it could not be cried away or spat out.
I felt infinitely unhappy. As though the whole world had headed for a tough but noble goal. As though everybody had joined a new club, but I was denied membership.
After a short while, they phoned from Germany to say they had arrived safely.
Then phoned again in several months to tell they got settled, though not without problems. They were at work upon German; Boris had blended into scholastic community and re-started karate lessons. Aunt Natasha found a job as a pharmacist, which was exactly her profession.
The next call was in a year. My mom was listening to the news, but it came as if through cotton wool, because we could not imagine their life, nor understand their reality alien to us.
They found a piece of furniture: a living room range, at the disposal dump, which was an ultimate dream in Kiev and cost a fortune.
At that time my mom here was hunting through the shops in the whole city to come across a piece of cheese.
Aunt Natasha and Uncle Misha had divorced: it turned out they stuck together only for emigration purposes, and Boris is already a grown up person. He already has a black belt and the next dan rank. He knows German like a native-speaker, but did not forget English and is going to study in London.
That seemed odd to us: it was hard time and easier to survive in a bunch.
They left their number and sometimes my parents got an honest impulse to phone them but never had the guts. Did not want to be a nuisance. Why should we unload our petty problems on them in their newly obtained Land of Milk and Honey?
Our friends probably had the same doubts.
Our Gondwana had split up. There was no way to fasten new continents together.
When several roaring years passed, my folks made the number and came to know they had moved long ago. A different family, also Russian-speaking, lived there. Moved and left no contact info.
I am still tortured by the unanswered question: did Boris take “hooknose’s dad” personally?
That is highly improbable, but if you would read these lines, Boris, you should know it was really a stupid misunderstanding. I did not want to offend you. I am asking to forgive me once again.
When the Coneys were departing, Anna told me: “Farewell”.
I did not say anything, but still hold this misstep in my head, as it turned out.
I begged Boris’s pardon, and that is the best thing I can do, thus there is no need to bear this load in me.
I release you. Farewell.