Mark reached down off the bed and picked up an acoustic guitar. “So, what else you guys talk about? You and that Russian dude?”
“Pretty much everything,” said Ian. “Even my dad dying. And his mom.”
Mark started absently strumming random chords. “Wild.”
“Don’t worry. You’re gonna get a chance to meet him too.”
Mark’s fingers froze and one last chord rang out of tune.
Dmitry Fyodorovitch Borin jumped awake, startled by explosive clanging and the off-key wailing of a dying cat.
“Not again!” he groaned as he clamped his pillow over his ears and tried to ignore his papa. Borin Senior was in the kitchen banging a soup spoon on the steaming samovar as he mangled the lyrics of a Tatar love ballad.
After a few seconds, Dima gave up, rolled over, and squinted at the window. Pitch black still. He resigned himself to being awake, but pulled his woolen blankets up to his eyes, not yet ready to face his room’s hard frost.
His father stopped singing and started shouting instead. “Dmitry! Dima!”
Dima pulled his blankets away from his face, felt ice assault the tip of his nose, and dived right back under again.
The bedroom door opened, letting in a stream of painful light. “Dimka!”
“Hot tea in the kitchen, boy. And kasha on the stove. It’s a beautiful day! Breathe it in and dress. Up! Up!”
“Go away, Papa.”
“Haha! You can always dream, boy. Hurry, so my driver can give you a ride to class. Unless you’d rather walk?”
“Blaaaaagh,” Dima grumbled, squinting up at the tall, bulky figure framed in all that hideous light. “I hear you!” His morning voice grated and scraped out the final syllables. “Khorosho! Tisha!”
His father smiled and laughed from his belly. “Fine, boy. I’ll be more quiet, but if I have to come in and roll you out of bed again, it will be with a glass of cold water.”
Dima sighed as his father sang his way back toward the kitchen. Then he groaned as he threw back his blankets and swung his legs off the mattress. “My God!” he gasped, like he did every morning when the cold slammed into him.
He could hear the radiator gurgling, but he knew the boiler in the basement had only just been fed it’s first bellyful of brown coal. Heat wouldn’t arrive until long after the sulfurous stink had insinuated ever square centimeter of the building.
As he danced around the icy floor, pulling a pair of woolen trousers over his long underwear, he admitted to himself that at least it was warmer here than in Leningrad. Back home, he’d be seeing his breath in the air. Only after he pulled his slippers over sock feet and scrubbed his face with lye soap and ice water did he start to truly come alive.
Invigorated, he padded into the kitchen, sat down, and accepted a clear glass of midnight black tea from his father. The general buried his face back in his copy of Krasnaya Zvezda as Dima stirred hot milk and far too much sugar into his glass.
He sliced a thick portion of white bread off the loaf in the center of the table, and began to spread it generously with butter.
“Don’t forget the cereal on the stove,” came the voice from behind the newspaper. “The morning is bitter.”
Wolfing down the bread, Dima carried a bowl to the stove and scooped brown porridge into it. “Thanks.”
“Mmm. Just be quick, will you? Alexy and Ivan will be here soon. I have meetings all day, devil take it, starting early.”
Dima spoke into the newspaper across the table. “Papa, have you ever met an American?” He’d been thinking of his encounter ever since he got home the night before. Meeting Yan was the most interesting experience he’d had since coming to Berlin. Spending time with the young American had made him feel so alive. Happy in a way he hadn’t felt since Leningrad.
And West Berlin! The strange sights, smells, and tastes. He couldn’t get any of it out of his head. His dreams had been exhilarating… and very odd.
“An American?” his father asked. “Hmm,” he muttered as he folded up the paper and gazed curiously at his son. “Once or twice, come to think of it. Your mother and I once took a holiday in Vienna. For the music. Some American tourists were staying at our hotel. Your mother … well, you must remember how she made friends with everyone she met.”
Dima enjoyed the faraway look in his father’s eyes and the warm smile that that captured and curled his lips. This was new, this smiling. Only last year, talk of his mother would have summoned a stare of guilty grief.
“But why do you ask, Dimka? I suppose you must have seen some Amis at the festival?”
“Sure, I think so,” the boy dissimulated. He trusted his father, but yesterday’s events felt private. He wasn’t ready to dilute them by sharing them. “It’s only that … being in the West, it made me wonder. Everybody seemed so happy.”
“Ah, I see what you’re asking.” Borin reached for his glass and refilled it from the samovar. “Confusing, isn’t it?” As he stirred in milk and sugar, Dima could see that he was stalling to collect his thoughts.
“Listen, son. Sometimes what you learn at school or even Komsomol — sometimes it’s the truth, but maybe not the entire truth. Sometimes the Party tries to protect members from information they aren’t ready to understand. Hm?”
“But let me tell you what I’ve learned,” Borin continued. “Many Westerners — Germans, Americans, Italians …”
He swung an arm around in a wide circle and cuffed Dima on the shoulder. “Many of them are talented, energetic people — even good people, generous and loyal. But their society is sick. For all the wealth you saw yesterday, for all the happy, prosperous people, there is an underside.”
“The oppressed workers, yes?”
“Of course. All those shiny Western cities are built on the backs of impoverished workers who don’t have enough food or medical care. Who can’t afford to stay warm in the winter.”
Dima shivered, gulping more tea to fight the kitchen’s chill. “Yes, that IS what they teach us.”
“Ah, but here is the confusing part. We have much to learn from the West. Their science, their engineering, their systems of management are top notch. They’ve even learned to improve the lives of many workers. They’ll never tell you that at Komsomol.”
A sharp rap on the door interrupted Borin.
He reached for the bread knife. “We’ll finish this discussion later. Let them in?”
Dima ran to the door, opening it to reveal two young men, 19 or 20 years old, wearing the heavy overcoats and thick fur hats of the Soviet Army.
“Come in, boys! Come in!” boomed the General in a jovial voice. “We still have a few minutes. Take off those coats and have some bread and tea. I know they never give you enough at the barracks. Eat!”
Dima headed to his room to finish dressing as he listened in on the normal morning routine.The clinking and clattering that reached his ears told him his father’s driver and aide were serving themselves as he briefed them on his needs for the day.
“Ivan, I’m keeping you busy today, son. We’ve got a lot of driving to do. I’m dropping by to pay some unannounced visits on three of my commanders. Make sure you pick up good maps at the motor pool. I don’t want to wander all over southern Germany like we did last time.
“Alexey, you’ll come with us to take notes. Oh, and I’ll need my dress uniform pressed for a reception tonight. We should have plenty of time later. Is my spare mess dress at the office, do you remember?”
Dima allowed the morning bustle to fade into the background as he gathered his school things, thinking. He didn’t know what he should do. He found his trousers from the day before, balled up on the floor where he’d abandoned them, and fished out the scrap of paper with the West Berlin phone number written on it.
After his talk with his father, he was starting to feel guilty. Nervous. What had he been thinking? He decided he’d better throw it away.
He tightened his fist, crumpling the paper into a ball, then grabbed his bag with all his books.
He stepped into the kitchen and headed for the trash can.
On the way, he remembered that his own mother had made friends with Americans. His father had just told him how important it was to learn from them.
He held his clenched fist out over the garbage container and tightened his jaw in concentration.
Ian’s face flashed briefly in front of him. Bright green eyes. Pointy nose. Laughing and smiling as he drank foamy beer that smelled of flowers.
Dima pulled his hand back and thrust the scrap of paper deep into his pocket.
This is Chapter 4 of a serialized novel, a genre-bending Cold War geopolitical thriller cum gay coming-of-age romance. You can expect a chapter every couple of days.
The action is set in Berlin, Russia, Greece, and Tunisia. The settings and the characters are pulled directly from my own life, but the story is entirely fictional.
I never fled Berlin with the son of a Soviet Air Force general hiding from the KGB. Or did I?
Next chapter: Meet Juliette!
Miss the first chapters?
One American Youth, One Soviet General
Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: Fateful encounter
One Lonely Russian, One American, One Phone Number
Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: B1C3
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.