About four years ago I got a Facebook message asking me if I was the same Eric LeRoy who had lived on such-and-such street in Charleston, West Virginia, back in the late 1960s. Turned out I was. It was from a guy named Gene whom I had liked but had a few scrapes with. Not my favorite guy, but not the worst. I was an intellectual and he hung out with the greaseballs. He always wanted to kick my ass. Otherwise, he wanted to share a bit of his soul with me. And he had one, under the grease.
I moved to Minnesota. He joined the army, did his macho thing, outgrew it, and became a helluva nice guy. So I accepted his offer of renewed friendship, and we have been going strong ever since. The letters are exchanged sporadically, but they never seem tired.
Gene is something of a genealogist. That is, he likes to trace things back into the past. Also, he keeps up, almost obsessively, with what happened to the people in our graduating class of 1967. So I know who died (and how they died) and who is still alive. He sends me photos of the living, and rather predictably, most of them look like hell. Guys who thought they were The Shit 50 years ago are now just balding old farts, and the women look as you would expect. Except for a couple who have magically cheated time and kept their looks, even a touch of glamour. Well, there is always one or two great horses in every rodeo, and some have the gift and spirit of God.
About two years ago he sent me a thing the school had prepared as a kind of commemoration: it was a still-life video of all the kids from our class who had died. There was this terribly sad country song playing while the faces slowly went by on my computer screen, and of course, I recognized many of them, including three girls I had actually dated. Not slept with, but kissed. ""Necked with", as they said back in those days. Played with their tits a little. It was like a morgue of memories, a photo-shoot of the condemned, and it was made harder because of the fact that I could remember the wet tongues of those girls.
I cried a little, and then said the hell with it. I said it, but didn't mean it. I thought about those dead lassies for days.
But then I started thinking about all the faces I have seen, one way or the other, during my ten years in Moscow. Maybe a million or maybe two. And I wondered, suppose I could make a similar photo album of what I have seen, which scenes and faces would I choose? And why?
As my Hour of Reckoning nears, I see the funny side of things. Maybe the ironic.I chortle over things that go against the grain, that defy expectations. For example, I remember one early morning on the metro when two young police women got on together and sat down. One was a pretty blonde, the other not bad herself. They sat together and shared an ipod. In full uniform, they rode with the other people (imagine such a thing in America !), their eyes closed, and the song burying itself in the one ear and the other. They looked human. And so the police uniforms were not an alienating factor but rather a connecting one. And in that moment, the presumably inevitable division between police and non-police dissolved. And the blonde was a piece of work.
I remember two guys with no fingers. One had a kiosk back in the old kiosk days, in Выкино, and he sold, among other things, chicken roasting on a rotisserie spit. Everybody said, don't buy chicken on the street like that, but I did, and it never hurt me. I didn't speak Russian, and he sure as hell didn't speak English, but somehow we both knew some Italian. And so we became friendly. He was the first Russian face that said Welcome to Russia. Heavy-set, chubby, in all respects nondescript and forgettable, that was him…except I have never forgotten this man. There was something…transparent…about him that can't be taught of faked.
The other fingerless man was a big, lumbering guy around my neighborhood who I found sleeping on the landing outside my apartment with some hag who would have made a great client for Jack the Ripper. My wife screamed at them so much that they finally woke up, but I slipped them some money, and ever after that this guy treated me as a fellow conspirator. I gave him handouts when I could not avoid him, and then one day he just disappeared. Well, it happens.
I knew a girl who was my student. 30-something, nothing to sneeze at, and we would meet in a cafe. Then one day, I decided it would be better to meet in her apartment. At this suggestion, she mumbled and muttered, until I asked her what the problem was. More dissembling and clearing her throat until she finally said, "Well, I use my apartment for my work, and you might find it strange."
If she thought she was putting me off, she was wrong. I fairly leapt from my chair, overwhelmed by curiousity. "Why strange?"
"I am a dominatrix," she said. "That is my work."
Ok, I said, so let's have our next lesson at your apartment.
When we got there, a place high up in a building in some forgotten area of Moscow amid the expected shabby outer dimensions, I saw the machines she used to bastion her men down. Once they were in tow, she would "strap-on" a dildo and go to work on them. The size and colour of the dildo was their choice. They had a great number to choose from: white and black, fat and thin. And BIG.. Some, especially (of course) the black ones, were enormous.
"Mostly rich guys, even oligarchs." (Was she exaggerating?). "These guys always control and dominate and abuse other people," she explained. "But there is a side of them that wants the same as they give. They want to be beaten down and humiliated. It gets them off."
One day I arrived for our lesson, and Tanya was in a tizzy. A pipe had broken and water was pouring out everywhere. She had called the superintendent, but had not anticipated that he would come as soon as he said. 15 minutes. And she did not want this guy to know her profession.
"For Chrissakes, HELP me!!!" she cried ("Ради всего святого, помоги мне !!") , and so I was enlisted in the task of cramming dildos into as many open drawers as she could muster. In case you are wondering, it was really strange to be doing this — grabbling plastic penises and stuffing them into hiding places. But I guess I was a good sport. And by the time the plumber arrived, sheets had been thrown over those bulky contraptions which before had vaguely resembled dentist's chairs, and there was not a phallus to be found. It could have been modern art sequestered under those bulky veils. The guy went to work, didn't bat an eye, and before long the tide was stemmed. He left and all the original interior decorating was restored as the English lesson proceeded. Evidently, she was expecting a visitor after we finished.
To see Tanya in broad daylight along the street or in a park would be to observe a perfectly normal-looking young woman. No vampirish glare, no ghoulish lip implants or lush purple lipstick. No stilettos to prod your groin with. Rather, a fitness club girl on whose feet rollar blades would have fit nicely on a Sunday afternooon. She dabbled in other professions: real estate, mood-enhancing herbal medicine, etc. But these ambitions would change with the weather. She was a meditative type with a sharp eye for money. It also happened that Tanya had a husband. How did she keep such a remarkable double life a secret from her unsuspecting spouse, you might wonder? In fact, he knew all about it. I have no idea what the terms of their 'pre-nup' might have been. He was not a pimp. Apparently, he earned his daily bread designing labels for cereal products. Or was it children's toys? It seems that he was occasionally even at home, relaxing in the bedroom, during the hours of action. I tried to imagine him back there, placidly watching Animal Planet or The Cooking Channel while, out in the dungeon, his wife was laying siege to some gasping — but ecstatic — Central Director. If I had been her husband, she would have had two choices: STOP. Or let me watch.
Anyway, it was cold that day, and by evening I was back in Preobrazhenska Plowshad. When I left the metro, fighting through all the people handing out flyers and wanting cigarettes or a drink, I saw another sight I still remember. A young woman was standing on the small embankment in front of the shops, and she was playing a violin.
Playing it well. She was tall and beautiful in that fiercely noble, impassive Russian way that has kept me in this country longer than I would ever have guessed. The spheres of her eyes seemed to have some sort of relationship with infinity, perhaps seeing everything, perhaps looking at nothing.. Her fingers must have been awfully cold in the howling wind, but she wove the fiddle bow immaculately. I threw some coins into her basket and waited to see if she would make eye contact with me.
But she never did. She just kept playing.
===Eric Richard Le Roy===