New York to Toronto, ten hours, coach class, no smoking please. I half dragged, half lifted my suitcase over the metal slit between the compartment and the station. The door closed fifteen seconds later and the train began to inch forward. I was going to visit Slavic, and had promised a finished needlepoint of a lion in foliage. Underneath, instead of "Proceeds go to support the World Wildlife Fund" I had hurriedly stitched, "for Slavic."
The diminutive means "little Borislav," and the name itself suggests everything Russian, combining "Boris", (prevalent as "John") with "Slav" -- one who is Russian. "Russian Boris" felt he couldn't have made it in Toronto if he tried -- so he didn't try.
I stitched furiously throughout the ride, listening to alternative rock on my walkman, and most likely making an incongruous sight to anyone caring to notice. I know I shocked the poor grandma sitting behind me, who, sticking her little face in between two seat cushions to complain that my bopping and wiggling was disturbing her knitting, sat back promptly when she saw my work, overwhelmed by its size and intricacy. (It takes thirty-two colors to create a white-faced lion in the grass, and the long stretch of earth behind him).
When I'd get tired of working, (which was often), I'd head up to the second rate hot-dog stand euphemistically labeled "Dining Car" and have the dubious pleasure of watching a greater number trees through larger and more dusty windows. I'd get back to work as soon as I could: the first person in history to needlepoint under a deadline.
Slavic met me at the station. He had warned that I wouldn't recognize him, and I almost didn't. Then I saw an eager-looking boy in new jeans and a brown paisley shirt and the rest of my memory returned. Nineteen years ago. Small and tousled-haired, alternately laughing and covering his face -- he had a gerbil and I had an equally interesting scar on my hand -- a fair exchange of respectful amazement and the beginning of a friendship that would last all summer, and on and off for years afterward. This time I hadn't seen him in three.
A recent bout with chicken pox had pitted his face nastily. Kids' maladies, when experienced late, are ten times as potent, (and in Slavic's case, ten times as itchy.) I had mine at twenty so I could commiserate. Cards, stuffed animals, and the latest in computer magazines: he'd get something every day by express mail, but I couldn't send him what he really needed. Neither of us knew what that was.
Sitting in the Metrocafe with my suitcase between us, we were impatient to talk and didn't want to wait past the small interruptions that would inevitably disturb the trip from the station. When Slavic spoke of home it was with that sad smile people get when they talk about parts of their lives that no longer exist. He always said he left it all in Russia: his education, his friends, and I think his feeling of self-worth too. Slavic immigrated to Toronto in 1990. Old systems were crumbling and it was time to grab a better life while life was still there for the grabbing. He was twenty-one. Eight years later, he still hadn't gotten it together. He had studied electronics repair in Odessa. In Toronto he was a car messenger, a loose flyer distributor, and the sad-eyed photographer for restaurant parties. He knew how to fix audio-visual equipment. This had been a hot field back home, but no one wants to bring in their old VCR in the West -- they just pay a little more and buy a new one.
"Doesn't working exclusively for Russians limit your choices?"
"You know how my English is."
"You talk fine to me...."
"That's because I know you'll understand. If I don't know a word I could always switch back."
"But you don't switch."
"But with you I know I could."
Shifting in my seat as our knees touched, I saw that he was still puppy-dog cute with sad brown eyes that grew so merry and mischievous when he wasn't thinking cynical. He was shorter than I remembered. Wavy brown hair, soft as a girl's, was beginning to recede on either side of his forehead. He worried about this of course, though the full effect was barely noticeable. I assured him that any bald spots would just show off his growing brain.
Slavic never understood why people liked him. He couldn't believe he was sweet, couldn't accept he was good-looking.
"Well if you're so worthless why did I come all the way up from New York to just see you?"
"I don't know -- maybe you got tired of sewing."
It's always hard to do the background. Little bits are much more interesting. The eyes, the nose, the streaks in the fur lit by the sun: green, white, black, and fourteen shades of orange. Little bits go by quickly because you're looking forward to the next one. Once you get to the background, though, that's when the trouble starts...
Slavic finally found a decent job as a computer technician, which was close to what he had studied in school, but the company downsized, and as a new employee, he was one of the first to go.
"What will you do?"
"In Canada, you can stay on Unemployment for nine months and get paid by the government. At least this country's good for something."
"Well, hopefully you won't have to use it for a whole nine months."
"Why shouldn't I?"
My nine days in Toronto were a blur of Slavic dropping me off at the shopping center, the theater, the museum.
"What time should I pick you up? -- OK, I'll be there."
And he was. He had thought a lot about it, and came to the conclusion that the best way for me to enjoy my trip is for him to stay in the car. "You know I'm not interested in that stuff. I want you to have a good time." Endearing chauffeur.
Slavic's friends worked, so for the most part he drank alone. The mirrored minibar, with its various bottles half empty, was the most expensive piece of furniture in the apartment. All the shot glasses were dirty, so he had to rummage in the cupboard to find me a clean one.
"To your job hunting success!" I offered.
"No, to future tourist extravaganzas!"
And we drank.
If I had been smart I would have done it in stages: first the eyes, then some background, then the ears, then some more background. But I couldn't wait to see the lion, to feel the texture of an unbroken image. Now I'm left with shadows and an end that seems farther with each stitch.
Slavic gave me his bed my first night and made do with the coach. The following night, we drove to Niagara Falls in possibly the worst traffic in Eastern Canada. It was past midnight by the time we arrived. The falls was lit up with alternating colors. The mist was so low you couldn't tell it apart from the spray. Our car was the only one there that late, and we felt lucky. Then the colored lights went out. First no more green, then the red stopped flashing, finally the yellow one went out too. In the dark and damp we couldn't see the water or the sky, but we heard the huge rumbling of the falls and felt part of something greater than ourselves. Something big was happening just out of reach. We knew it by the spray in our faces. Slavic gave me his jacket when I got too cold, then he got cold too so we jumped in the car and drove around town.
Niagara Falls has all the sleaze of Las Vegas without any hope of winnings. It's famous for accidental tourist drownings and folks coming far and wide to do away with themselves. We passed over the "Jumpin' Barrel Family Restaurant" for a shared plate of diner fries. Slavic had a vodka on the rocks and proceeded to finish off the screwdriver he insisted I order.
Sitting opposite with his jacket on the floor between us, I noticed his smooth muscular arms clenching and unclenching fists under the table. Slavic had a slightly protrudent little belly from drinking and from being out of work, and perhaps from watching too much television. It almost touched the underside of the table top as he slouched low in his seat.
It was three in the morning by the time we were ready to leave, and both of us balked at the long drive ahead. I said that I just wanted to go to sleep somewhere, so he rented a motel room. At that point we knew that everything had been decided beforehand and that it really wasn't our fault -- that we were meant to be there before we were born and that our mutual attraction had absolutely nothing to do with it.
"How many beds?"
"Doesn't matter -- whatever you've got...."
"I've got one queen-size or two singles."
"I guess one bed will be OK."
"That's $45.50 altogether."
Pain costs $45.50. But of course, it's different for everyone.
I had packed my long flannel nightgown "because it gets cold up there, even in the summer," and for once I had listened to my mother. Underneath, the plainest underwear I owned because "no one would see anyway so you might as well be comfortable."
At first, I thought we weren't going to do anything at all, because after we both took an inordinately long time in the bathroom, finally getting into bed as nonchalantly as possible, Slavic kept talking about regular subjects, as if we were still eating fries at the diner. After a while, I started to get used to the fact that he probably never really had a crush on me, and that just going to sleep would be the best idea after all.
But then he was so awkward, so nervous -- I didn't understand. I didn't particularly want to do it, but I felt that it had to be done. It had to be done because he needed it, because when it was so late and I was thinking about dinner and maybe renting a movie, he said "Let me take you to Niagara Falls," and that translated into "Let me take you." And then I knew that he had been waiting for me for three years, and I said "OK, Slavic, let's go to Niagara Falls."
"I'm so ashamed."
"It's no big deal; we won't do it if you're not in the mood."
"I've never done it with a real girl before."
"You're a virgin?"
"No, only with hookers...."
And why should that make me so glad? Because it meant he was still a boy, and this let me be the man. His insecurity made him weak, but my strength had no power over him. And then something inside me unraveled like a ball of string, as he curled up in my arms, a child with a grown man's passion.
Afterwards, he was so happy. And his face -- it wore the clear expression of the boy I knew when we were small by the Black Sea. He said he saw me completely naked then, but I didn't remember. But afterwards, when his face was so clear and there were no wrinkles between his brows except the etched ones that would never be cleared away, not even by joy -- then I remembered. It was hot and I had taken off my underwear, seven years old and running barefoot over the sharp black stones into the water.
Back at his place, we left the fold-out couch folded, but as nine days became six and six became three, I worried. "What about friends?"
"Everybody's busy; they don't have time for me."
"Ever thought of making new ones?"
"Who with? I don't know anybody."
"What about clubs, sports -- you like soccer and stuff."
"Yeah, I'll start the Russian Expatriate Sportculture Society. I used to play it all back home: soccer, hockey. But now...." He smiled and patted his paunch.
He'd call me in New York every day, and he stayed at my apartment each time he visited, horrifying both our grandmothers, as well as grandmothers far and wide. He'd stubbornly proclaim that we were cousins -- and friends of course, to anyone who asked and to many who didn't and didn't care one way or the other.
"Are you ashamed of me?"
"No, I'm ashamed of me."
After a seventy-two hour search, Toronto police found his body in some woods two miles from his car and twenty miles north of the Falls. Frostbite was determined to be the cause of death. (He hadn't been wearing his jacket.) Suicide could not be conclusively determined. Slavic left no word, no note, and no clues, not even after an autopsy --i n short, nothing that those who loved him could use to understand.
Sometimes, caught up in the interesting bits of our lives, we forget to think of the dull background that often encompasses the lives of others. Slavic lived in my background, but for a long time I didn't know it. And today there's some framed work on my wall -- not directly where I can see it, but in a small alcove, where I can look at it when I want to. It's a picture of a lion in foliage. On the bottom, instead of "Proceeds go to the World Wildlife Fund," it says "for Slavic 1969-1998."