“Mark, I’m home!”
Ian threw his coat on a peg in the bare entryway, not noticing it slide off and drape itself over a backpack that shared the floor with wet winter boots.
He glanced around the main room that Juliette liked to describe as “decorated in early college dorm.” He didn’t see Mark on either the bean bag chair or the futon. “Dude! You won’t believe what I’ve been doing!”
Mark wasn’t fiddling around with the stacks of stereo equipment in the corner, and a quick look over the top of the breakfast bar revealed an empty kitchen.
“Dude, where are you?”
A muffled voice floated over from behind a closed door. “In my room, Bra.”
“Damn,” Ian said, opening the door to find Mark cross-legged in the center of his unmade bed. “Are you studying again?”
Mark cocked up one earpiece of his bulky headsets. Ian heard Pink Floyd wailing out of them. Mark gestured at a pile of books scattered all around him. “So? I didn’t get to read Russian novels for years in college like you did. Playin’ catch up here, OK?”
“Dude, get over it. Your Russian is fantastic. Don’t make me compliment you again. What are you worried about?”
“Not worried. Reading.” He picked up a book and started to settle the headphones back in place.
“Hang on, man. You aren’t gonna believe this. Dude, Russian? I’ve been speaking it all night. For real!”
Mark lifted an eyebrow. “No shit? You should try, like, getting a job in military intel or something. I hear the Air Force is hiring.”
Ian laughed despite himself. “No, man! Check it out. I mean I was really speaking Russian with a Russian. A real Russian from Leningrad. Dude! My mouth is sore, like after orals at DLI.”
Mark cocked his head. “Seriously? What the fuck?”
“I met this kid, this guy a little younger than me, and we hung out. He’s a military brat like you. Dad’s in the Soviet Air Army, and we talked politics and everything, and he was shocked my dad was a pastor. You should have seen it!”
Mark’s usually placid expression finally cracked. “Wow! Are you shitting me? Damn! I wish I’d stayed now. Was it hard understanding him? Could you really do it?”
“No. It was fine. Like… he’s way easier to understand than some of those rural guys we intercept, or the ones from Ukraine. He almost sounds like Gorbachev. Super educated.”
“And check this out. He says his dad drives Flankers and he’s a general. We probably, well maybe, already intercepted him.”
“World’s a small place,” Mark grinned. “Wish I’d been there.”
Ian plopped onto Mark’s bed and changed the subject. “Why’d you take off all the sudden, anyway, like that?” He was thinking how Mark was usually the last one at a party, how he was always up for drinking, listening to music, or hanging out. Leaving early wasn’t his thing.
“Well …,” Mark started to answer slowly, clearly searching for words. “It’s like this. Juliette and me, see. She wanted to go, so …”
“Aha! Gotcha, Romeo,” Ian teased. He ducked just in time to miss a pillow whizzing by his head. It smacked into a Rush poster on the far wall.
“Hey, don’t forget,” Mark said, looking like he wanted to change the subject. “You’re coming to base with me tomorrow after work.”
“Oh, yeah. It’s leg day, right?”
The Marienfelde listening post where they worked was located on the outskirts of West Berlin, on top of the highest hill in the city. The main Air Force base occupied Tempelhof Central Airport, across town.
“Yeah. Squats, calves, and some new shit I’ve been reading about. And we’re upping your weight, remember?”
“Sure. Then we can have drinks and dinner at the O Club.”
Mark frowned, but nodded. Ian knew he hated “face time” at the Officer’s Club, schmoozing with all the higher ranking guys, meaning everybody there. But they had to. The major got on them about it if they didn’t show up at least a couple times a week.
He changed the subject so Mark wouldn’t have to think about it. “You gonna cut out early and walk to Tempelhof again? I can’t believe you do that.” Mark often walked the four or five miles with a backpack full of weights.
“Try it with me sometime. It’s fun! Better than falling asleep on the duty bus. Dunno. I might if I can crank those new training manuals early.”
“Ha! I’ll save you a seat.”
Mark reached down off the bed and picked up an acoustic guitar. “We’ll see. So, what else you guys talk about? You and that Russian dude?”
“Pretty much everything. 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.”
“Yeah, I sort of invited him over.”
Mark’s fingers froze and one last chord rang out of tune. “You did WHAT?”
“Uh…. I mean, so we decided we wanted to hang out some more. He comes over to the West some weekends, and we’re gonna get together.”
“Yeah, so listen.” Ian smiled out of half his mouth. “He’s probably gonna call some evening. Cool, huh?”
His smile died as Mark jumped to his feet and dropped the guitar, which wailed in discordant protest. “Are you KIDDING me? You gave a Russian kid — no, a Soviet military kid — our phone number? Really, Ian? What the fuck?”
“He gave me his first!” Ian realized how lame that sounded the second it escaped his lip.
“Great!” Mark snarled. “Fucking fantastic. That’s what we’ll tell the OSI, then. The Russian kid started it. Like they’ll really care.”
“OK, you’re right. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“No kidding,” Mark agreed, starting to pace. Ian watched him circle back and forth around the room a couple times, brow creased and eyes half closed. He stopped after a minute, shook his head severely, and started to issue orders.
“Fine. No use overreacting. This is what you’re gonna do. No gym tomorrow. You go straight from work to the OSI and you file an enemy contact report. Tell them everything that happened. Especially the phone number thing. You just explain that you got carried away. Everything should be OK.”
“Are you sure?”
“Didn’t you pay attention to your in-briefing? ‘Report all enemy contact. No matter how casual.’”
“Damn, I never even thought about that.”
“Wait til Juliette hears about this,” Mark groaned. “She’s gonna roast you! God damn it, Ian.”
“Hey! Like I’m the only one of us that ever did stupid shit? Huh? You forget about that time in Texas already?”
Ian walked slowly back from class, wilting under fierce San Angelo sun, picking his way through wild prickly pear shrubs invading the gravel walk leading up to the dormitory.
He walked into crisp air conditioning and spread his books and notes out on his desk, ready to study before dinner. Mark bounced into the shared room, whistling, way more cheerful than Ian was used to.
“What’s up? What made you so happy? Getting laid tonight?”
“Ha!” Mark snorted. “Nope. Just back from the post office.” He slapped a legal-sized manila envelope on top of Ian’s notes. “Check it out!”
Ian turned it over a couple times, examining the postmark and return address. “Orange County? Los Angeles? It’s heavy. Care package?”
“Yup. Here, give it back. Watch this.”
Mark dug around inside it, pulling out a letter, some snapshots, several baggies of what looked like cookies, then finally a clear, zip-locked bag, which he held in front of Ian’s nose.
“Dude, what is that? Who sent you a bag of powered sugar? And why?”
“Haha. Sugar. Good one. My old buddy Jerry sent me this. Been waiting on it all week. You gotta try it with me. His shit is always the best.”
“Try what? What are you talking about?”
Mark demonstrated. He cleared a spot off the desk, tipped some powder out of the bag, lined it up with a credit card, then rolled up a dollar bill to make a straw. “It’s coke, man! What did you think?”
He snorted up one line, then Ian grabbed the rolled-up bill, wondering how you could just breathe power up your nostrils and not die coughing or something.
“No,” Mark said. “Pinch one side of your nose closed first. There you go.”
All Ian thought about was not embarrassing himself. He sniffed tentatively. Not too bad. He barely felt anything. Then he switched nostrils and really went to town. Vacuumed up his whole line in one loud snort.
He felt his face go hot. Then his heart sped up — so powerful he thought Mark must hear it beating. Warmth spread through his body, like he was sinking into a hot bath of happiness. His nose and throat felt a little numb, but good numb. Like joyful numb.
He grinned at Mark. “Damn! This is wild!”
“Ian, Bra, you got no idea how much I missed this. Listen dude, I ever tell you about Jerry? Guy was my best friend in high school, and I dated his sister for a while until that got between us, so I dumped her because buds are more real than girlfriends, only she told me once she dumped me, but whatever, we were through, anyway, ya know? So, then, Jerry and me, we used to drive down to San …”
Ian had never heard Mark chatter before. Had never seen him so animated. He talked, he paced, he played his guitar, and he told stories that must have been bottled up since forever.
After only a few minutes, though, he started to slow down. So did Ian. He stopped hearing his heartbeat. His wild energy drained away, pulling euphoria with it. Sucking the air out of the room.
Mark tipped a little more powder out of the bag, and Ian was startled by how happy he felt about that. A sudden realization slapped him upside the head. He thought hard for a minute, then very calmly and casually, he stepped over to the desk where Mark was concentrating on scraping two lines together.
He picked up the mostly full zip-lock bag, then walked quietly into the bathroom, emptied it into the toilet, and flushed. He felt a shadow block the desert sun shining through the dorm windows, and he knew Mark was standing in the door.
“Tell me you did not just do that. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Ian whispered. “I had to.”
“Bra? Why? What the fuck? How could you do that?” Mark started out sounding mournful, but anger was beginning to hijack his voice and Ian saw his eyes sparking and flashing.
But Ian’s own anger was building. “How could I? How could YOU? Why would you? How could you even think about starting back up again?”
“Give me a break! I’m not starting back at anything! I’m just having a little fun!”
“Bullshit! Don’t even try that. I don’t want to hear it. You joined the Air Force to get away from it. You told me all about it. You were crashing and burning in LA, you said. Dropped out of college twice. Flipped burgers so you could live with your mom and sell coke so you’d have enough to snort.
“And now you’re gonna start up again and I’m gonna be here with you? No! Bullshit!”
The more Ian talked, the madder he got. “They could piss test us at random any day they feel like. Any time they want. And that’s it. Game over. No graduation. No Berlin. No career — nothing! This is fucked up, man. No. Just no. You hear me?”
Mark opened his mouth like he wanted to yell. Then something flashed across his face. His body went limp. He didn’t say a word, just turned around, walked over to the desk, swept the prepared lines of coke onto a sheet of notebook paper, walked it into the bathroom, and tipped it into the toilet.
Ian tensed up when Mark walked up, afraid his friend was still mad.
“Thank you, man. Really.” Mark hugged him — fast and nervous, but a real hug. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Just… I ever try anything like that again, just shoot me or something. OK?”
“No. You’re not the only one of us who ever did anything stupid,” Mark said. He picked his guitar up and started strumming again. “Just promise me to go to the OSI tomorrow. OK? Promise me not to fuck your career up over this Russian kid.”
Ian took a deep breath as Dima’s face flashed in front of him. He exhaled. “OK.”
“Fine. Now come here. Check this word out. I added it to my vocab notebook just before you got home. You ever see this before? I found it in a Chekhov story.”
Ian bent over Mark’s notebook. Together, they searched the dictionary and argued over the right definition.
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 if I did, I’ll never admit it.
Miss the first chapters?
Check out the prologue, set a few years before this chapter:
One American Youth, One Soviet General
Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: Fateful encounter
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.