Content 16+ It would be hard to exaggerate how much my life has changed since 2017. I used to live in Moscow and in my role as ESL (English as Second Language) tutor I would beat the streets in all directions — with long intervals aboard metro trains, buses, trams — often scouring broad and faceless oblong buildings or plunging into the shadows between them for the evasive addresses of elusive entrances. Dome 8 Korpus 3 Apt 37. Riddles, wrapped in mysteries, inside enigmas, to be sure. But I always found them.
Eventually, I came to know Moscow better than I ever knew any of my former wives. The bad weather was the only thing similar. Compared to the ambiguous sight of my own face in the mirror — with its strange slums of vulnerability — Moscow became a surefire certainty, a Soviet lego set of gray acquiescence amid its bleak and tall sensuality. I loved it because it suited my soul; accordingly, the weather acted as a daily condemnation of every faint hope, although there was hope nonetheless: that is the Russian way: blind faith in the midst of 100% certainty of disaster. The Russian smile is a dark, violently binding smile, a smile of the utmost romanticism lurking amid a stony gaze.
iI rained a lot, and, due to the drainage problem, every downpour or even a stubborn drizzle would create lakes worthy of kayaks that had to be traversed or circumvented. The sidewalks were sometimes very narrow and — good sport that I am — it was usually me who veered out into the street to let some approaching citizen pass. Every McDonald’s was packed like a Covid clinic or a bus station for people leaving Belarus, people swarming about nonstop. Everybody seemed to be talking on a smartphone…incessantly. But the girls in the trains always stirred fantasies, and the might of the powerful city never failed to inspire awe. All those souls who might not be souls after all — as modern science and technology tell us — who may be only the product of a combustion of chemicals, nevertheless, stirred passion in the test tubes of my needy, thundering heart.
But that was the past. My wife and I moved to Bulgaria on the edge of the Black Sea for reasons related to her health, and eventually we found ourselves in a double-humped village called Bliznatsi. Goren and Dolen were the names of the humps. Like Buda and Pest. We bought a house and my wife turned it into a domicile of berries and paintings and brightness, an abode made of gingerbread and the inner sanctuary sounds of a haltingly played yet poignant piano. Across from my balcony there is a vast sloping field leading to the mountain and the sea. It would be great if the locals would stop strewing their garbage along the paths. But that’s the human race — so what do you expect?
The main thing I am getting to is that I am still an ESL tutor, but now I do everything online. I no longer have one single student that I sit in a real room somewhere with. Yet I teach people from all over the world. I have all my old Russian friends and quite a few new ones. I work for two Chinese platforms and boast a number of students from Korea, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands…the list goes on and on. I often give as many as 12 lessons per day, never fewer than seven or eight. As such, I dart from location to location, hemisphere to hemisphere, with hardly time for a toilet break. My wife brings me my meals while I work because I cannot leave the computer.
On Fridays and weekends, as soon as one lesson ends the next one begins. I interrupt my day only to give my dogs their second walk in the near dark of these winter month afternoons. Their first one is at 5.00 am with a flashlight in the pitch black — unless the moon and stars are looking down unimpeded by reams of mist. When all’s clear, the landscape becomes a semi-lit theatre watched by no one but us and the spies in the earth, bushes, and trees. I wish then that ghosts were real and would come to us, ushering the long dead forth to gaze at me like flirtatious mummies.
I always have a liter of good local or Czech beer and one long shot of vodka in the evenings as I finish my last lessons and go downstairs for my dinner. Amid this pinball machine existence where my brain lights up with every collision of one idea after the other, I also do mountains of editing and write my own blog. An old mind that is nevertheless a megalopolis of images and ideas. And my life is a marching metronome. Night comes.
I am a man with a heart like the open road, but I have no friends in the village, unless you count the stray dogs and cats. They are my true constituents and we recognise obscure, primitive, but not loveless things in each other. I do not speak Bulgarian and at 72 years now and counting, I doubt that I will be doing a crash course any time soon. There are a few Brits here, middle age on up, retirees who are worth a ‘natter’ every so often but it never goes beyond this chat-on-the-path level.
The locals are more closed and shut-looking than a mall which has gone out of business. Some of the men say “добрый вечер” (Good evening), others nod at you, and some labor to retain blank expressions. Unlike in Moscow, the generally unattractive village women (all generations share the same toothless, lop-eared aspect even when they have good teeth and perfect ears) never appear open or halfway friendly. It’s like trying to joke with cupboards full of false teeth. I have come to the conclusion that villages, far from being the quaint little havens full of twinkling things I had imagined., are in fact made mostly of granite.
So my life unfolds on a computer screen, and the corona virus has only added to the isolation, albeit lucrative for me. In lockdown and quarantine, they apparently say WTF and call me for an English lesson. Honest. It’s what happens. Thus, in one sense, my cyber space existence is rich with an endless array of fascinating people. I really cannot exaggerate how much I enjoy this — even the kind of power it causes me to imagine myself having, and the sense of being in control of things that are unfolding in Beijing, Manhattan, Budapest, and Seoul almost simultaneously. It is sort of like being a god or the ultimate micromanaging CEO. I look up and down my chat-list and I know what all of the relevant people in my life the world over are doing at all times, at least in terms of their availability. It is a meglamaniac’s paradise. I talk to great guys, beautiful and clever women, fascinating children, business people, students, programmers….all day and all evening. It is impossible to be depressed or tired.
That is, until there is finally a break and it dawns on me that I am just a little guy sitting like an unfinished bowl of stale popcorn in a single room bellowing and explaining, and laughing and gesticulating to a screen, like I am trying to entertain the damned thing or win its heart. But what the screen giveth it also taketh away. There is no one here except Poppy sleeping on the sofa, Sammy the cat coming in to jump on me, or Casper the Ridgeback whining for another ‘treat’. My wife appears at the doorway, brings food or delivers some message or registers a complaint, and departs. The screen remains.
Once in a while I remember to change clothes, but for the most part there is no reason to. I spray my crotch and armpits with deodorant and sometimes, on special occasions, lather up my hands with the same cream I shave with, and sweep the foam across the old cobblers. Here we live by the mercy of the fireplace, and most of the time it’s just too cold to get naked for a shower. Better hygienically compromised than frozen to death, that’s what I always say. What do you always say?
In the winter months I do not sweat so there is not much point in even changing my underwear. I mean, who’s going to be licking my balls? Would a woman in a leper colony put on mascara and lipstick? Every month or so I switch out my sweater just so my students won’t think I am too poor to purchase another. But no neckties, that’s my strict policy. So I howl at the screen like a coyote into a canyon. It used to be when you exhorted the walls and the air to give you the right answer, onlookers thought you were crazy. And you were. Now people everywhere wander around discussing the deals and vicissitudes of their existence with the high winds and the seven seas, the skyscrapers and the rats below them, and it is considered normal dialogue.
The reality is (if this is not a contradiction in terms) that I lead a virtual life with virtual people. There are several women I like a lot (re: am attracted to, for one is never too old for it) whom I will never meet in ‘real’ life (or is this the new real life?). I know these people from a starting point where the chest rises to become shoulders with heads and faces on top. All of them could be legless amputees for all I would know. In order to get some idea what they really look like, I have to check them out on Facebook, which makes me feel a bit like a voyeur or peeping tom. If I ever met these people on the street, I would probably experience a moment of shock; real life would seem as though it had just landed from another galaxy.
George Bernard Shaw is alleged to have said that when he was young and still a virgin he would often masturbate. Nothing odd about that, but he went on to say that his fantasies were so arousing, so vivid and explosively satisfying, that when he finally got around to the real thing it was a disappointment. Shaw didn’t realize it, but it seems to me that he was a cyber space pioneer.
So life is disembodied, dismembered, discombobulated. The people on the screen are both real and unreal — like photos in an old highschool yearbook. You look at them and here and there something touches a nerve, but basically you wonder: did I ever really know those people?
Thus my old wife and I are happy enough, and I still have my ‘honeys’ on the screen just so I maintain a blood flow and a pulse. I know that somewhere amid those cities, the foreign women before my eyes are sitting in chairs chattering away in English like songbirds who sometimes forget the words to their songs, and afterwards they will get up and start doing something else. Someone, someone else, caresses them at night. I never will. But a few have confided in me, and mostly I get the feeling that real life — whatever it is out there — isn’t all that great after all, no better than it ever was. Maybe I’m not missing much.
So I say goodbye to Firuza, Yasha, Lena, Nastya, Tatyana, and Natasha (have I left anyone out?), and go on about my business, as they instantly disappear, not even taking the time to slowly fade away like a sweet memory before sleep. Cyberspace just swallows them up, click click, like a prehistoric bird devouring its prey. No problem: my persistent mind — that philosophical sex toy that’s always talking dirty to my spartan resolve — accounts for causing to linger those things I would have linger a while before they dissolve.
As the body dies, the brain lives on with its myriad heavens and hells. A computer screen is the perfect setting for such epics to unfold until they dissipate into mere mythology.
By Eric Le Roy