A Russian Disease

    One night Evgeny Vorobev, who was studying English in a special class at his high school, rented an erotic novel for three rubles. When he got home, Evgeny lay down, turned on the table-lamp, covered the shade with a dark cloth, and began to read:
    Once upon a time... there lived in the world a young, lovely but cruel and pitiless king. He conquered city after city, country after country, until finally his horses stood before the walls of the last undefeated town. "I shall wipe everyone off the face of the earth. The smallest clemency toward the enemy shall be seen as betrayal and punished with death," he declared to his warriors before the assault. But he himself had already broken his commandment. Shaken by the beauty and courage of the young prince fighting bravely to defend his palace, the tyrant preserved his life. And, in fact, he fell in love with the prince, who abandoned his fiancee Veronika and moved in with the king to live a life of sin, as the local bishop put it. Love opened the tyrant's eyes. His whole past struck him as a nightmare. I tortured! I plundered! I killed! And why? Whatever for? People aren't born to suffer and be oppressed. No, but to love and be happy! The besotted king liberated the conquered country and restored the prince's destroyed city. He granted freedom and equal rights to all the citizens. But the Church hierarchy and other defenders of traditional values stirred the nation to rebellion. The  lovers had to flee for their lives, to some far-flung island in the middle of the ocean...
    Evgeny was so delighted by the book that he didn't notice his horrified mother stride into his room.
    "Evgeny, why aren't you asleep?" she asked him. "It's almost two in the morning!"
    "I know." Evgeny quickly hid his book under his pillow. "There's a quiz in English tomorrow. I was just reviewing my stuff."
    "Studying is good, but not at this hour! Tomorrow you won't even make it to the quiz, you'll sleep in and miss school." His mother reached over and pulled the plug out of the socket.
    "The devil take her!-she cut me off at the most interesting moment! How does it all end? Now she'll go back to sleep and I'll finish reading. It's almost over...
    As he drifted off into dreams-but no, it was no dream, but reality, no hallucination, but something quite believable. In a word, in God knows what, Evgeny Vorobev became the prince. It was Evgeny and not some hero in a book who was loved, and not by a made-up but by a real conqueror.
    The next morning Evgeny had to return the book.
    "So?" inquired the shopkeeper.
    "I didn't read it right to the end. How does it end?"
    "How should I know? I don't read these things, it's just my job. Pay triple and you'll find out."
    Evgeny shook his head.
    It's clear as pie how it ends, Vorobev told himself on his way home. They get burned at the stake, or drawn and quartered. The dark ages... And if they lived in our day and age, they'd be on bunks in some prison, where they'd get just be queers not people. It's still not obvious which time is worse. Human society never accepts our sexual orientation. Hell, not just our relationships but even talk about them. Just try and share with someone my dream of my life not turning into a dry hell. Well, maybe a few human rights activists. Sure, to most of the world, homosexuality is biologically a dead-end. Though as I see it, a free choice is more important than biology. But why open that can of worms? Better to get it out of my head, along with the whole story of that king and prince.
    And so Evgeny did. School ended. He entered university. His parents saw to it he got to know a girl from a good family, no bad habits, of course. A girl by the name of Veronika. When he first heard her name, Zenya laughed to himself-just like the prince!
    Days went by. Years went by.
    "Zenya, what're your plans for the summer?" Veronika asked him.
    "The usual. Naval service. Yalta."
    "My God, I always said it, you're such a romantic! But this is no ordinary summer, this is the last summer before we leave university. Don't you see, brain, the last. And you have to find something to do that builds up your strength, so you won't go and get sick."
    "So what are you proposing? A trip to Rio or the Antilles?" Vorobev asked sarcastically. "Or maybe it's our relationship you want to build up into something else?"
    "Don't be such an idiot! What's wrong with a boat trip down the river? Sun, fresh air, water. Maybe even the very thing you're hinting at."
    Zenya gave her a wary look. "Did you come up with this yourself?"
    "First or second?" said Veronika, her face lighting up. "First, it was a joint effort. Our psychology teacher came up with the idea, and he's really such a beautiful darling. Secondly-well, just say if you agree."
    "I'm afraid that secondly your beautiful darling is trying to force me into it."
    "Zenya, that's a nasty little remark. First of all, you're more lovely than he is, and he's over thirty-practically an old man."
    Veronika wasn't lying. Evgeny was a young man of rare beauty, really more handsome than Helmut Berger in Visconti's Ludwig.
    A week later he showed up at the boat station with a rucksack and fishing rods.
    "We're going to have fish soup!" said the captain of the expedition Alexander Yakovlevich Lvov, hailing Zenya. "Just call me Sasha."
    And Lvov was a tall, distinguished athletic type -to his students a young Marlon Brando or even Maximilian Schell.
    On the very first night of the trip Evgeny decided to take the bull by the horns and place his relationship with Veronika on a new track. "Evgeny, not today, please. Be a little patient for once."
    "Veronika, my dear. We've been together two years already and still it's like we haven't grown up. I don't even know if I can.
    "Of course you can! Trust me you can. Soon you'll know, only not tonight. Evgeny, my sweetest darling, I promise, the last day of our trip. Cross my heart."
    When the journey came to an end, the boat was sold and train tickets were bought for the return home.
    "A banquet!" Veronika explained, winking over and over again at Evgeny.
    The sun disappeared over the horizon, and as the first stars flashed out, the moon poked out above the poplars.
    "Hey, what gives, my friends?" cried Lvov. "I guess we can say the trip was a rousing success. Tomorrow it's the train and off home. I don't know what we were after. Were we after anything? The goal, like all our instincts, is always an illusion. So let's drink to ourselves. Let us stay young and lovely and happy? Hip hip hurrah!"
    As they raised their mugs, the sound reminded one of the tap-tap-tap of muffled drums. When they lit a bonfire, a storm of rebellion swarmed over the river, censored songs, politically dangerous conversations...
    With midnight approaching the atmosphere grew calmer. A tipsy Veronika stepped back into the tent.
    Only Lvov and Vorobev remained by the bonfire. For quite some time neither spoke, their eyes immersed in the fiery tinder.
    "Tonight we're right in Quindji's world," said Evgeny, first to break the silence.
    "You got it," agreed Lvov. "Right on. His river. His moonlight. It's a killer of a technique. I speak as a specialist in art." Lvov smiled. "Exactly. Exactly! Between you and me, I always wanted to become a painter. But then..."
    "Why, 'But then?'" asked Evgeny, his curiosity up.
    "Hey, my life is full of buts. I just try to write something, an essay say, and along they come and tear it up. Just like that kindling." Lvov tossed some more logs onto the fire.
    "Why the hell? Don't they like what you're saying?"
    "That's it. It's always my touchy subject, the psychological study of homosexuality. Have you heard anything about it?"
    The question stung Evgeny, exactly as if a spark from the fire had startled a dozing camper.
    "It does ring a bell. Yeah, when I was a kid I read this book,"
    Evgeny stuttered, not looking at the man sitting beside him.
    Alexander Yakovlevich looked directly at him. "What sort of
    "Oh, the title escapes me," answered Vorobev. "The gist of the story too, come to think of it."
    But Evgeny started to tell the story, got to the heroes' flight, and fell silent.
    "Why stop? Keep going. It's an intriguing story and you can really tell it. Please, Zenya, go on."
    "I'd love to, but the truth is I never got to the end. My mother got in the way. So I sort of wound up making up the end myself."
    "Even more interesting." Alexander Yakovlevich tenderly touched Evgeny's hand. He had known many boys, for research, of course, but this was different. The stars fell from the sky; the moon sank behind the poplars-this time time stood still.
    A month went by after the trip. "Haven't you noticed, Tata, a change in Evgeny's health over the past days. He's lost weight. Shouldn't he be seeing a doctor?"
    "Oh, I already took him," Natalya Sergeyevna said with a sigh.
    Alexi Ivanovich laid down his fork. "Well, and?"
    "It's not good news," answered his wife, breaking into tears.
    "Ah, stop the whimpering!" cried Alexi Ivanovich. "I want to know what's happened to Evgeny."
    "Well, the doctors aren't quite sure. They've taken samples, even done a biopsy."
    "Nothing definite."
    "So it could be any old thing, the flu for instance, and you know yourself how we imagine something's wrong. Everything's going to be all right, Tata," said Alexi Ivanovich, trying to comfort his wife.
    "God willing, God willing!" Natalya Sergeyevna broke down. "The doctor said that he has to be hospitalized. Alex, do you know if we have to reserve a bed at the MVD hospital?"
    "Tata, what's going on?" Alexi Ivanovich said, hitting the roof. "We'll set things straight. I'm sure everything'll be all right. The doctors there can raise the dead."
    Before you knew it Evgeny Vorobev was hospitalized at the famous MVD clinic in a room all to himself with television and a steady supply of vitamins and pills.
    A week went by. Still no diagnosis could be made. He kept on being given vitamins, pills...
    "Oh God I'm so bored. There's not a thing to read. Papa, do bring me some books," Evgeny implored.
    "Whatever you want, just tell me," his father promised.
    Evgeny called and added, "Far left on the second shelf."
    "Sooner said than done, son. Tomorrow first thing after work I'll bring it to you. Just concentrate on getting better."
    Alexi Ivanovich stood up, twisted himself into his coat, straightened out his hat and went out into the courtyard.
    "So, comrade general, how is your son?" asked the chauffeur, opening wide the door of the official Volga for Vorobev.
    "Soakedundertheweather," muttered the general.
    "What kind of an illness is that? Never heard of it."
    "It's starting to rain, I said. Take me home."
    General Vorobev pushed a cigarette out of the pack.
    At home in the evening Alexi Ivanovich went up to the bookshelves, found the volume his son had asked for, and pulled it out. "What kind of garbage is this?" The general picked up from the carpet a long artist's notebook that had slid out. "Ta-a-a-a-ta!" His face white and his hands shaking he bolted into the master bedroom. "Ta-a-a-a-ta! Now I understand what's made our son fall sick!"
    Before long Lvov appeared in Vorobev's ward, like a ghost from times past.
    "Lvony, I'm so bored. Where have you been?"Evgeny cried, gripping Lvov's hand. "You haven't come round. What happened? Tell me!"
    "Vorobchik, I've fallen on hard times," Lvov replied, placing his beautiful hand on young Vorobev's pale wrist. "Your thesis?"
    Alexander Yakovlevich took a heavy breath.
    "How did he find out? Look, I didn't speak a word to him. It was our secret. We agreed, remember? Maybe you..."
    "The thing is, sweet Vorobchik, he found your diary. I even leafed through it myself in your father's office. I have to say you have an original style, and I love it." Lvov smiled bitterly.
    "Geez, what an idiot I am! I forgot all about my diary. It's tucked in right next to the book I asked him to bring!" Evgeny cried, smacking himself on the forehead. "Damn fool! Lvony, you better run for your life... They're awful people. They'll send you off to the camps! Just think what'll become of you once you're there!"
    "That's nonsense. Where am I supposed to run? Without you?! Vorobchik, without you, how? You see, you mean the world to me. I couldn't. I couldn't survive never seeing you again."
    "And you're all I have, Lvony. That's why I'm telling you to
    run, get out of here fast. Time will pass, the dust will settle. I'll
    speak with my father. He loves me, after all. He'll forgive us. And
    we'll meet up again as soon as we can, Lvony. But for now take off!
    Don't waste any more time. If they kill you , I'm telling you I'll
    never get better."
    That very evening Alexander Yakovlevich sat himself down on
    the Trans-Siberian Express and disappeared somewhere into the
    snowy expanse of Siberia.
    "He thinks he got away!" General Vorobev cried out in
    Evgeny's ward.
    "Shhhh, Lyosha. There are sick people here. Your son is sick," his wife whispered.
    "It's because of that faggot, my son is sick! But never mind, I'll dig up the worm and crush him into the earth. No one ever got away from General Vorobev."
    "Papa, I beg you, leave him in peace. It's not his fault I'm sick. Anyway, I love the man. Don't you understand? If anything were to happen to him, I'd slit my throat."
    "The son of a general with medals like I have can't be a faggot. It's against nature." General Vorobev made it sound as if he was issuing orders. "You have to be like everyone else! Listen, you idiot, what'll happen to my career if it comes out that you've got this disease? We'll be thrown out on the street."
    "Papa's right," Natalya Sergeyev seconded her husband. "That man's played games with your mind. He's the one who caused the problem. But you have Veronika."
    "That's just it," said the general, interrupting his wife. "That Lvov created the problem, but in our department they say: there's a man, there's a problem; no man, no problem. It's not just him I'm going to expose, I'm going to expose his whole family. They're going to have to answer to the law for their faggot son!"
    "Papa, I'm begging you, don't touch Lvov or his family. Leave
    them alone. I swear to you, I'll be normal again. I'll go back to
    Veronika. Just don't touch them. Forget about it. Mama, tell him
    to leave them in peace."
    "First of all you have to get better, because if you don't, I'm
    telling you with my own two hands..." Natalya Sergeyevna kicked at the wall.
    "Mama, he's got nothing to do with it. It's not what you think."
    "What do you mean he has nothing to do with it?" Natalya Sergeyevna broke in. "That damn fag is crawling with every germ on the planet. It's unspeakable..."
    The illness turned out to be a mild form of hepatitis, and Evgeny got better. In Siberia, Lvov lived in a provincial town where he found himself a small job. Every two weeks he sent Evgeny a letter poste restante. Vorobev would break the seal and read it right in the post office.
    I'm bored to tears... I'm waiting... You're everything to me... Take care of yourself, my dear little Vorobchik.
    And a year went by.
    My dear dear one, Vorobchik. I'm alive. I'm healthy. Yet I'm living on a prayer. You see, my parents have decided to emigrate. They're taking me with them. I'm totally opposed. You know as well as I that if the emigration idea goes through so are we.
    Forever your A
    Evgeny wrote him back right in the post office.
    My Lvony! Dear A! Before I say anything else, I love you. It's driving me wild. I'm doing a countdown till we see each other again. But take my wordfor it, we'll be making the most horrible mistake if we don't pull it off. I'm talking about emigration. You absolutely must do it. You mustn't stay in this barbaric country any longer. Leave. Don't think twice. And I'll come to you. Somehow. Today I can't, but tomorrow will be possible. I am convinced. Providence will be on our side.
    Forever in love with you, Vorobchik

    Lvov followed the advice and emigrated. Evgeny received a letter from him with beautiful stamps on the envelope. He sauntered into an empty cafe. He ordered a coffee and opened the envelope.
    I'm alive. I'm healthy. I found a position in a college. I'm in love. I'm bored. I live on hope. I have everything here but you. Ah, my eternal...
    Your A
    Evgeny read it twice. He kissed the paper that his beloved had handled. The uneven letters, the blue ink. He fished into his pocket for a pen.
    Dear dear Lvony. My dearest A. The only thing that's keeping me going is the hope I'll see you soon. A lot of time has already gone by since I last saw you and heard your voice. It seems possible you forgotten me; myself, meanwhile, with every passing day my feelings for you keep raging. It's just crazy how much I love you, my dear dear
    A, my brother A! It's just terrifying how much I miss you. I'm living on hope alone... We 're going to see each other, I'm absolutely certain. Providence will work it out.
    Forever in love with you, Vorobchik
    Vorobev proved to be right. Providence worked it out exactly as he predicted. Less than a year after Lvov had left, the irreversible process (as the Party Secretary called it) began. The Motherland raised the Iron Curtain. And Evgeny soon received permission to leave the country. A famous human rights activist helped push the papers through.
    "Get off with you! Get lost!" cried Alexi Ivanovich. "Go there, be with your Lvov, fuck each other up the ass all you want!"
    "Lyosha, how can you, he's your own son!" Natalya Sergevevna scolded her husband.
    "What fucking son. He's a traitor and a faggot, one and the same thing. Let him drown in shit!"
    Nobody hugged him or bade him farewell, but Evgeny's plane took off into the night.
    They settled in a rooming house in the Russian part of town. Good-natured shopkeepers nodded pleasantly at them and made off-color jokes the minute they were out of sight.
    "Oh Lvony, why are we living in this stupid neighborhood? Aren't you sick and tired of the guff? It's insulting. Joke after joke, all on us. C'mon, darling, let's move somewhere else."
    "Vorobchik, I don't know whether you know it or not, but this is where my own parents once wanted to come. I admit it, my dear, I can't leave them here all alone in a strange land. Why pay attention to idiots? Their bark is worse than their bite." And Lvov put on a Duke Ellington jazz suite.
    "Be patient, darling. Before you know it we'll have a
    comfortable little house right on the coast. We'll be out of reach of
    every last numbskull."
    Home! They even went to look at it. A hidden cottage with a
    dazzling view out over the ocean. The trees, the sand, the sea!-
    ideal happiness.
    They came so close, but sickness caught them again-now it was Alexander who was carried off to the hospital. The masked white attendants seemed to be keeping people away. But during the day Lvov's parents came to the ward. And the night brought Evgeny's turn.
    "We're going to get my Leonovich back on his feet," Evgeny cried to his friend. And it seemed they would again triumph. Everything was looking good, until the doctor announced Lvov had fallen into a coma. He said they had to get ready for the worst.
    At five one morning Lvov stirred and opened his eyes. The ward swam in the eery light of the full moon, which lit up Vorobchik asleep in the armchair by the bed. Alexander Yakovlevich lightly touched Evgeny's hand.
    "Lvony! God bless us, you're awake! You were unconscious so long I thought I was losing my mind! How do you feel, my darling darling Lvony?"
    "All right, Vorobchik. All right."
    "God bless you. The doctor said that if only you woke up, you'd be on the way to being cured. God, I'm so happy, Lvony, that you've come back!"
    "Yes, I'm back," Alexander Ykovlevich said quietly. "I'm back, but just for a minute."
    "What?" Evgeny squeezed Lvov's dry hand.
    "You don't know my everlasting but. Ah, what a night this is, Vorobchik. What a moon! It's almost just like that night on the river. Remember?"
    "Of course, Lvony. Of course." Evgeny rubbed his prickly cheeks on Lvov's arm.
    "I just want to let you know, Vorobchik, that no matter how many things have gone wrong in my life and how much stupidity there's been, I've been happy. Yes, yes, I know it sounds corny. I've been happy because even if it hasn't been for long, I've had you around me, my sweet darling Vorobchik. I ask you to live a long, long life and always think of me. I love you, my sweet little Vorob-"
    "Lvony! Lvony!" Evgeny cried.
    But Alexander Lvovich didn't answer. Already he was no longer in that room, in that hospital, or of this world.
    After the funeral Vorobev almost never thought of moving. Where was there to go? From back home only Lvov's parents were left. Evgeny somehow managed to drop in on them, wanting to discuss which photo to place on the memorial plaque.
    "We don't want to see you," they told him from behind closed doors. "You and your parents are to blame that our only son died. Forget the road to our house."
    Evgeny didn't defend himself-why bother to appeal to common sense? Why try? They're right. It's all my fault. It's always the fault of whoever survives. He turned around and headed home with the shuffling gait of an old man.
    About a month after Lvov's passing a letter arrived from Evgeny's parents.
    Child! (Evgeny recognized his mother's touch.) Your Papa and I are sorry about what happened. I'm being frank. Swear to God. But what's past is in the past... Evgeny, you 're all alone over there... Papa and I aren't in the best of health... When we die, there won't even be anyone here to give us a decent burial. You know the time we live in...
    Surely you remember Veronika? She often speaks of you. She asks how you 're doing over there. Who knows, child, you might think of coming back. You marry her. She's all alone. She has a son, a magnificent youngster. You raise her child together. Evgeny dear, come home. Your Papa and I miss you so.
    Evgeny wrote a similarly long letter back to his mother. At the end he wrote,
    No. I'm not coming back. I'm staying with my Lvov.

    Some months after Lvov's death Evgeny's neighbors met in the park. One called out over the fence. "That Vorobev fellow just cried and cried. Couldn't stop wringing his hands. I-yi-yi! Can't live without my Lvov! And now recently I'm hearing him talking and giggling away with someone." The neighbor who lived under Vorobev joined in, "Yeah, lately I keep hearing these noises, sort of obscene. Loud breathing, grunts, the mattress springs bouncing like it's some sort of whore house up there, not a man in mourning. Oh what's become of him?" The first one added, "Then again they're such sluts, they can't do anything better. They're all the same. They lose one, they go on to the next. The fuckers!" A neighbor from the ground floor one building over said, "Maybe it's true he's in love. He's blue, he starts talking with a photo, or what the hell do I know! Maybe someone drops in on him." The neighbor underneath Vorobev suggested he drop in himself if he felt so sorry for him. And the neighbor from the building one over said he would.
    Soon the chatter changed direction: they spoke of elections, countries at war, dirty laundry, the price of gasoline. They forgot about Vorobev.
    Some elderly lady living in Evgeny's block rang up the janitor and said, "There's a peculiar smell in the courtyard. Did the garbage collectors decide to make a mess?"
    "It's summer, what do you expect, ma'am?" the janitor sighed into the receiver. "Things go rotten fast."
    "Just the same it should be checked!" the old woman demanded.
    "You've got a point, it don't smell so good," said the janitor when he came over. "The garbage men are on friendly terms with us. The containers are empty. Let's see what the neighbors say."
    All day long no one answered at Vorobev's door.
    "I think we better call the police and wait for them to open the door. Give them a call, ma'am."
    An officer on duty came with a key, opened the door, and was hit by the stench of decomposing flesh. In the dimly lit bedroom he and the janitor came upon Evgeny Vorobev. Someone was lying on the bed alongside his.
    "Who's that one?" asked the officer.
    "That's Mr. Vorobev. And that-" The janitor stared stunned at the man lying on the bed beside Evgeny. "That's Mr. Lvov, except that he's been dead for six months now."
    "It so happens that no one dies twice." The policeman shone his light into Lvov's face. "Besides, that's no man, that's a mannequin."
    "What d'ya mean, mannequin?" the janitor shouted. "Silicone. Un homme de voyage. You know, the kind they sell in the sex shops. You blow it up and there you have your partner."
    "But hey, that's a real copy of Lvov. You can't buy that in a shop."
    "I don't doubt it," the policeman interrupted. "But you can order one. You submit a photo, give the measurements, and you receive what you order, be it Lvov, be it Smith."
    "So that's who he was talking to!" the janitor gasped.
    "What are you saying?"
    The janitor described the rustling, the signs, the kisses Vorobev's agitated neighbors had talked about.
    The mannequin was burned at police headquarters.
    At the civil funeral service the only people present were Evgeny's parents, just arrived on the plane, along with the father and mother of Alexander Yakovlevich Lvov.
A common grief brings people together.