by Adrian Sangeorzan (USA)
Translation from Romanian by Caroline Carver and Iris Butnariu
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After lunch, Mother came with a lawyer and got me out on bail. She would not meet my eyes and all that I felt was relief at my pending release. From that day forward I entered some sort of cage that my mind had finished building in a hurry that very night, but I felt it had been working on it for a long time behind my back. The best way we know how to make cages is from inside them. When I finally managed to get out through the bars I found myself all alone in the desert.
– I should have left you there – Said Mother, finally– as she stood against the cement blocks, examining her shoes and not looking at me. For a brief moment, I felt new walls being hastily built as I wondered what she had meant by such an inflammatory and unpleasant statement; did she mean here; Queen’s Police Station, the airport, Russia; Moscow, or, perhaps, her womb.
I had no intention of being grateful to her for anything, as we had not been supportive of one another for a long time, and my mind was dying to get out of here—barely glancing at her and seeing the lines in her face having grown deeper and her eyes seeing to be set deeper within her head. This was my Mother, and, suddenly, I barely knew her. She stared at me, scared, as if I had suddenly become one of those weird statues that you bump into on the streets of Manhattan when you least expect it. Everything looked unknown to me, but because this was about my own mother, the thought frightened me. We had not been talking to each other for quite some time and neither of us knew how to break the silence.
– You have gone too far – she said in a resigned voice.
Misha Korbatov, with his money and lawyers, would eventually get me off the hook, because for them no evil was ever taken too far. I had destroyed a luxurious car by driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs and had put Linda in the hospital. However, she decided to help me, by coming out of the coma after two days. I have never seen her again since that night. When we got home my mother hit me on the face, for the first time, and it felt like being hit by a train. I wanted to hit her back, instead I shoved her hard against the wall.
– I should send you back to Russia, that’s what I should do –
– You cannot send me back – I shouted at her.
They took me to a psychiatrist who asked thousands of weird questions one of which was – had I ever thought of death? Any form of it, the death of others or of myself? – I told him that I had no intention of killing anyone or myself yet. I surprised him by hissing bits of an old joke I knew from Moscow, so he would understand that I came from a pretty aggressive people, but with a low suicide rate.
– Did you know that during communism suicide was not only illegal but it was also punished with the death penalty? –
He looked at me slightly frightened and it’s quite something to scare a Manhattan psychiatrist. He also asked me if I had been abused in any way as a child. I then let him know in a few words that if I was not allowed to smoke marijuana or at least to drink some vodka I might abuse or even kill someone. The doctor, being an impassive person who did not even frown the whole time I was with him, told my mother that besides the alcohol and drug problem, and natural aggression, I also had Attention Deficit Disorder, a serious syndrome that almost half of the youth population of America had. It was not what she had expected so we never set foot in there again.
Mother’s idea, to keep me locked up in the apartment during those next days, was not at all inspired. I had my own stashed reserves of vodka and cocaine and one night we ended up fighting. I threw her into the glass table in the living-room, on which she cut her hand. It was then that I truly woke up, but there was nothing I could do to fix anything. Mother slowly got up like a seriously injured lioness and she looked at me with fear in her eyes, amazed, mercifully even as if she had only then discovered me.
– Forgive me – I said, or I think I did. The words had all run away in fear.
I leaned towards her to help but she recoiled from me, scared.
– Leave me alone, don’t touch me – she said. – I made a mistake in bringing you here –
She got up and went to the bathroom where she bandaged her wounded elbow. She then got dressed and left in a hurry, ignoring my presence.
I continued smoking my marijuana until it had the effect I wanted. It had finally made me a better person, because I had hit the bottom, from where it was difficult to sink any lower. I started crying. Big tears rolled down my cheeks and in my heart it started to rain heavily. The noises of the streets were getting louder mixed with those of my mother’s body that kept rushing throughout Queens. I fell asleep and stepped into the world of sleep for almost an entire day. Leftover from that childhood defense reflex which I had been able to find before without stuffing myself with drugs.
When I woke up and went to the bathroom I saw my mother sitting at the table with Misha Karbatov and one of his men. They were waiting patiently for me to wake up. Time seemed to have swollen, to have deformed itself like a donut made out of a dough I no longer recognized. A day, a month or maybe an year had passed. Who knew? I was not at all comfortable with the way they were now looking at me.
– If you are going to start a fight again I am warning you that this time you are going to get it in the neck – said Misha Korbatov calmly, yet in a scary way. He started to pace the room with his hands behind his back.
– I believe it is enough – he continued. – I came to talk to you because your mother asked me to. We do not need trouble –
Mother had the elbow and hand bandaged. She was silent and sad.
– You seemed like a boy with a future ahead of him…. if you had not been a minor you would have gone to jail for everything that has happened. Anyway, it is not impossible for you to end up there. We have all spent enough on the stupid things you have done – He finally sat down like a true boss on a wide armchair. He paused for a long time and I expected my mother to say something.
– Your mother does not know what to do with you – continued Korbatov. – There is the army in Russia. Young men like you became soldiers there, maybe even went to war and got rid of the anger. If they did not kiss the dust, they would come back as real men. You do not want that, trust me. I have fought in Afganistan for two years. Some experience, I still have splinters in one lung… Everything is more complicated in this country and even Russia is not what it used to be… Still maybe you want to go back there –
– Fuck you Korbatov – That is all I told him and I went to the bathroom where I took a long piss. I sat on the toilet seat for a few minutes. When I got out everybody had disappeared as if they were never there. I rubbed my eyes to be sure I was awake. I wish my mother had said something but she had been quiet the whole time and had a gloomy face. I would have cut Korbatov and his men’s throats without remorse and I would have smeared our light couloured rug with their blood, although it was not worth ruining it with their filth.
I was alone with some new thoughts in my head, that were flying so low in my head that I could see their sharp claws. I was staring at that rug. It had remained stainless, but in a way I dirtied it with my cowardice and fear, and with the thought that all I had done was to hit my mother. I had hurt her deeply. I knew that once I looked up I would have to change the way I saw everything around me. The bastard, Karbatov, always met his purpose. If he had wanted, he could have sent me back to Moscow even without my permission, with a plane ticket and legal documents.
I could have one day woken up in our old apartment full of cockroaches from Lianozovo with aunt Tamara leaning over me, or in Klin at aunt Anastasia’s who from the first moment would have told me – I knew you would return eventually – They could have easily drugged me with substances only they knew about, some mixtures learnt from the former KGB alchemists with whom they were probably still in contact. Those guys always got what they wanted and that thought doubled my fists.
I had to get out of there and I remembered that running away from home was a kind of national sport in Russia. I could see mother’s forgotten purse on the kitchen table, which I knew always had enough cash. I got 300 dollars, then I went into the bedroom, straight to her jewelery box. She had enough. I took four gem rings, two heavy bracelets and three golden chains. I put all of them in a bag and put the bag under the bed..
I was determined to leave that very night and the thought that I had a clear plan in mind conforted me. I got dressed, got my Timberland boots on and lay down for a few minutes. I fell into a deep sleep. I woke up because someone was roughing me up. It was four in the morning, still dark outside and I did not understand why there were two men standing by my bed. Dressed in black, serious, grumpy, they looked like two professional grave-diggers who had just woken up. But the one who was woken up the most was me.
– You look ready to go – said the taller one.
– Where are we going? – I asked instinctively .
– To a camp – he said in a simple yet affectionate way.
– Are you out of your mind, at this hour? What camp? –
– It is called ”In the desert, close to nature”, an interesting and instructive camp for young people like you…Everything is set, you don’t have to worry about anything yet. We have your mother’s signature so don’t make trouble for us because we are taking you anyway –
– Who the hell are you? –
– I’m Tom, he’s Pierre. We were paid to take you there and that is what we will do. We’re professionals, believe me –
He showed me a pair of handcuffs that were exactly like those that the policemen put on me on the night of the accident. I got out of bed and thought that I wanted to leave anyway. The smaller one got a list out and read to me what I could take. It was a very short list as if I was a death row convict. Who knows what they intended to do to me.
– You are Misha Korbatov’s men, aren’t you? –
– We have no idea who the guy is. We work at ”In the desert, close to nature” –
Tom put a handcuff on my hand, the other being on his own hand. They were both very cold and official, dressed in black suits, tie, not even overalls or uniforms.
– I’m going to get this off on the plane if you behave –
– On the plane? Are we going to Russia? –
– Just in Utah, boy! There’s a pretty big desert there –
Mother was in the kitchen with a cup of tea in her hand. She looked at me sadly and came towards me determined to give me a hug, yet she only patted me on the head. She was still afraid of me. We did not say anything to each other and I did not look back. I felt that I was going on a long trip, the first trip I was taking alone.
They took the handcuffs off on the plane and I sat between them. They had relaxed all od a sudden and the big slab-sided fellow discreetly but reluctantly escorted me to the toilet. I would later find out that my transportation had cost 8000 dollars. We landed in Salt Lake City from where we got a Grand Cherokee jeep with blacked out windows which had ”In the desert, close to nature. Learn to live” written on them. The back of the car was all barred, like a police car. We quickly took a turn onto a highway from where we could see the mountains ahead and on the right the shores of a huge lake which we drove alongside for a while. After we got off the highway the shades of green from outside darkened slowly, the landscape had begun to change, as had my thoughts, which seemed to have gotten rid of the gravitational attraction of those that had generated them.
Driving on highway 6, where we increased our speed, the road was down to two lanes. A car passed, here and there, and at some point we went through a town called Evrika, like the famous exclamation whose origins I did not know. Months later, after I had gotten to know the area very well, I found out that just after route 6 passed from Utah to Nevada there was another little town called Evrika, that looked the same as that from Utah, so that if you were an immigrant like me, you would understand that America is an homogeneous country, a copy of itself, which would make any army confused. But who would dare to take over an area like this, where the desert does not seem to have an end and where every town is mentioned several times.
We stopped in a little town called Delta, a name which did not seem to come from somewhere in particular, but which most definetely had not been born there. I ate a burger at Burger King. They did not put handcuffs on me.
-You have nowhere to run here boy – one of them told me.
The desert began right where the parking lot ended. We suddenly got off the main road and headed through the desert. A cloud of brick-coloured dust was rising behind us, different from the dust in Russia, because this one settled down quickly wiping out any trace of our passing. It was as if we had landed directly on the moon. Everything was bricky-red, the cliffs, land, dust, bushes, thistles and the rocky mountains, well stubbed, seemed like broken teeth that God had used to chew the world millions of years ago.
We drove for over two hours, during which I realised that American cars have the best suspension and that there are huge unpopulated places across the country. If you would have met someone you would have been very surprised. Those places did not look like anything my eyes had seen or my mind had imagined before.
There is without a doubt something magical about the desert – at least in Utah, Nevada or Arizona. And it is not because at noon when it is very warm the air seems to be playing and shaking strangely, nor is it because I am part of a generation that is crazy about magic and beautifully told lies. There is something out there.
An unexpected silence had come over me. Even my guards, who up until then had chattered using one-syllable words, swallowing half of every word, as all southern people did, were now quiet, convinced it was not worth while to say even the other half. The desert teaches you to shut up without being afraid of the silence.
In the evening, we arrived at a camp with a great many tents and before I could figure out what was happening a heavily sun-burned individual approached me and got me into another jeep that drove me for another few miles near some rocks that seemed to rise unexpectedly from the desert.
– I am Bill, one of the camp’s instructors and psychiatrists. You can call me Bill. The first night, well actually the first few nights you will be alone. It depends on the time you will spend here – He squinted to see my reaction. Ahead of me, the sun was setting, so I put on the sunglasses they had allowed me to take with me. I did not even blink. He continued:
– Isolation is to allow you to meditate undisturbed –
– What the hell am I going to meditate on? –
– Everything that has happened. Your parents did not send you here for nothing –
– I only have a mother –
– Whatever…We will come and pick you up, when we think you have meditated enough. Do not try to run away, because you have nowhere to go. We will be close by –
He stopped here. He left me in the desert with a backpack that did not contain too many things. I spent the first two nights and days under a low rock. If I would have jumped all I would have gotten would have been a bump on the head or maybe a fracture. Others had been there before me because there were traces of fire and inscriptions on the red stone in the little shelter under the big rock.
I could not call them grafitti because they were carved into the rock and some of them were written with something red that could be nothing else but blood.
– Fuck you all – was my favourite message that best embodied the spirit of those who had passed through here. I found many little bones nearby, that I would later find were the remains of the desert rats whose taste I would get used to, soon enough. The backpack contained a bottle of water and a book with many pictures called ”How to survive in the desert”. From the first pages it taught you how to make fire by rubbing together two sticks of different kinds, or by using two stones to make sparks; how to seek shelter from the sun during the day or from the cold at night, where you can find water and how to set traps for the small animals of the desert that were almost all edible and very organic.
I did not make a fire on the first night because I was completely paralyzed and convinced that any moment someone would come to pick me up and tell me that everything was only a stupid joke, meant to scare me a bit. Darkness suddenly fell and looking at the sky I discovered that the stars are much more numerous and brighter than I could have ever imagined, if I had been bothered to think of such a thing. It was as if somebody had turned on the sky to the maximum. It was so beautiful that it was scary. I climbed on that overhanging boulder, under which I was suppose to sleep, and I looked around. It was a full and orange moon outside; the cactuses, rocks, thistles and even me were casting unusual shadows that looked nothing like those that were casting them. My shadow for example seemed like the extension of a prehistoric being long gone. I got up and started screaming:
– Hei, hei, hei, hou, hou, hou, ou, uuu….- I started making unusual sounds that gradually became a long and inhuman howl. I was howling like an animal that had long dissapppeared, that had just woken up and felt good. I was in the desert and I could do whatever I wanted, the only problem was that it was night and there were not many things to do. It had gotten cold so I got into the sleeping bag, which had a strong human scent. I fell asleep thinking that maybe before me it had sheltered the body of a girl. When I woke up, shortly after the sun came up, I would discover I had been right because I found two tampons soaked in menstrual blood, still fresh, inside the bag.
I later found aut that the one who had slept in it before me was a 16 year old girl from California, the daughter of rich people, the only one who had managed to escape from the camp, from the desert and maybe even from this life. She also ended up here because of drugs, after she’d set on fire a Beverly Hills house worth a few million dollars. Long after I returned to normal life I found out that the papers had been full of her stories. They found her after a few years in a trailer in Arizona, but they were not 100% sure it was her.
She had changed a lot, she had grown, she was a big woman, burnt by the sun, who while breastfeeding an infant, drank beer straight from the can with one hand and smoked with the other. She was living with a man covered with tattoes, and had had two small children with him. She vehemently refused to admit that she was that girl. She refused to see her parents and when the police and mass media crossed the line she and her husband got on a Harley Davidson, put the children between them, drove through the desert and jumped into the void of the first canyon they came across.
I also tried to get out of there of course. The next day, as soon as I opened my eyes I thought about nothing else but that. I drank the last mouthful of water from the bottle and started walking towards the sunset, towards the place I thought the sun would set at the end of the day if it continued in that direction. I walked for almost an hour, with many breaks to put my hand on top of the eyes and observe my surroundings, hoping I would see a road, a car, a house or any sign that there were people nearby. I constantly had the feeling that I was being followed from time to time, because when I turned around I would see little clouds of dust rising behind some bushes.
As the sun was rising, the cliffs that were getting out of the desert were changing colours and looked like huge cake slices, bitten at the corners, made out of superimposed layers of rocks of different colours. I had gotten hungry and thirsty and for the first time in my life I started to be worried that I would not be able to satisfy these simple needs which would usually take me to the well stocked fridge or the first McDonalds.
I suddenly got to the edge of a deep canyon and I could see on the bottom the sparkling blue water of a river that had not gone dry. I sat on its lip feeling I had gotten to the end of the world and I quickly understood that I would not make it to the other side alive. For those who have not seen a canyon yet I can say that the sight of such a place can terrify you to such an extent that the first thought that passes through your mind is that something supernatural must have taken place there not long ago and that the idea of ending or the end of the world is not some impossible idiocy.
A giant eagle appeared from somewhere under me and I could see from above its nest that was well secured in a withered bush in which three callow chicks started to grow wings. I found a narrow path that went all the way to the bottom of the canyon and when I passed the nest the eagle plunged down near my head. I think it would have attacked me had I gotten too close to the chicks. When I reached the bottom of the canyon I was exhausted and I drank straight from the river like a thirsty animal. Lizards were sunbathing on the rocks and looked at me as if I were an intruder. One of them disappeared in front of my eyes, snatched by the same eagle that kept me under observation. I filled my bottle with water and I poured a lot on my head. It seemed dangerous to stay at the bottom of the canyon, but it was clear to me that it was impossible to climb up the other side. On its lip I caught a glimpse of a man watching me. He dissapeared all of a sudden and after I had waved I realised it could not have been someone who wanted to help me.
I was so hungry that I would have eaten anything. When I got back, I found a giant cactus full of red fruits that looked like the fruits that peasants sold three for a dollar in Rego Park. I never thought I would ever climb a cactus or that its fruits would be so sweet. I ate for an entire hour looking at the desert trying to find some reference point to get back to my rock. I got my shirt off, tied the sleeves and filled them with cactus fruits. I could not have known that this fruit had such little spikes that at first you do not even feel them. It was noon when I got back to my rock because the sun was on top of my head and it was a drowsing heat outside. Nobody came to pick me up. It was not so hot in the shade and because I had nothing else to do I started browsing that book that taught you how to survive in the desert.
I dozed off remembering a picnic, somewhere near Moscow, when I was very young. One of my first and only memories of my mother and father together. They were both sitting with their cigarettes in their mouths looking mazed at each other. It was just the three of us. They had forgotten the lighters and matches at home, and after searching the entire car they gave up and remained there in their bathing suits with their cigarettes unlit in their mouths, seeming amused. Then father got mother’s watch, took off his, took out the cap on both of them and put them together forming some sort of magnifying glass. He concentrated a ray of light on top of the cigarette that my mother was holding in her mouth smilling.
– Do not move Nadia, please do not move – he said. I even held my breath and prayed for him to be sucessful as if everything depended on him lighting that cigarette. I still remember that prayer my grandmother made me say every night. At the end I said a few times – Please God, let it light – and it did. Mother started puffing smoke through her nostrils and we were all happy.
After nightfall, it took me hours to take out the little spikes from my lips. I got into the sleeping bag and looked at the sky again. I saw a falling star that suddenly came off and damped down in a few seconds as if it had never even existed. Maybe I had accidently witnessed a disaster, a catastrophe of the universe while I, a nobody of the Utah desert, was getting the spikes out of my lips.
In Klin, where the sky was pretty visible, it was said that if you see a falling star you can make a wish and it will come true. It’s not every night you see something like that. I tried to make a serious wish, an essential one, that could for example change my life and I did not know what to ask of the universe who had taken pity upon me. I was very angry. I thought about masturbating in order to calm down, however I gave that idea up because my hands were dirty, full of spikes and because all of a sudden it did not seem right to dirty the desert and the Milky Way with my secretions.
From that night on, I started to do some serious dreaming. What else could I have done? Night after night, I dreamt about my entire family and I had long dreams that really messed up Russia and America, Moscow and New York, the living and the dead. I truly believe that those dreams helped me rid myself of the insanity that drugs caused me. I would wake up from time to time, shivering and shaking without being cold, sweating, but holding my eyes shut in my attempt to remain withing the dream that protected me.
When I woke up after the second day of isolation I was soaking wet and trembling. The sweating and trembling would continue a long period afterwards and I do not wish to talk about them, because even the mere memory of it is painful. I managed to sneak out of my drug addiction, like from a battle that gradually calmed down. I was healthy, I had no choice and the desert with its rocks and deceitful sand seemed built for such a thing.
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