There was light, and then came darkness. My monitor went out, along with my desk lamp, and the enormous sun-drenched classroom—where an imaginary little man in pullover, tie, and cute glasses paced back and forth, wringing his hands—began to melt. My fantasy world turned out to be dependent on electricity or, rather, on wires, fuses, and fuse-breakers. A glitch in the electric circuitry in our stairwell was all it had taken to hurt the thoroughly innocent people I hadn’t even finished creating before my monitor went blank. What was even stranger was that along with the cozy light of the desk lamp that had been warming my shoulder, the bright summer light in the little man’s classroom—which wouldn’t have seemed to depend on electricity at all—also went out. That light had been created by God in a world that existed solely in my imagination, and now that fragile creation, all of His mightiness in that world, had gone black because of some switches, wires, and fuses in this world.
For just a bit longer the little man stood in the middle of the classroom, talking to himself, or so it seemed, repeating the phrases “my favorite pupil” and “my very favorite” over and over again; but then—without the shadow he no longer cast without the extinguished sun—he could no longer exist, and I found myself all alone among the cold, old-fashioned walls of my Stalin-era apartment. The urge to write had passed: it was so marvelously quiet all around. Yes, a torch was in order, so I went to find one and lighted the only torch I had: a still entirely phallophoric stub of a candle.
I saw myself reflected in the kitchen window and found the image intriguing: a man with a star in the palm of his hand behind every one of the stars in the heavens, an invisible apartment-owner wandering the heavens in search of a knife. Yes, I needed a knife, for the only way to restore the lights was to open the fuse box and flip the switches. Or wiggle the fuses. Or the chain. Or the electrons. Or the wave that is supposed to be electricity. In short, there were three ebonite toggle-switches, one for each room, and you had to wring each of their necks, and then the wave would rise, the fuses return to their plugs, and my poor little man and I would have light again: I—electric, and he—sunshine.
The fuse box was closed, and one of the electricians had broken off the handle to keep handy residents from tinkering with their electric meters so as to get them to wind backwards, turning time back in the process. (They were very preoccupied with time at the electric company.) The opening in the fuse-box door was narrow, the lock mechanism hidden as deeply as the memory of a childhood trauma in the mind of a psychotic. This called for an appropriate operating tool, one as tempered as Sigmund Freud’s. The average nickel-silver table knife would buckle like an object in a Salvador Dali painting, so I’d have to get the knife with the wooden handle my father had made out of a two-millimeter piece of steel and polished with his own hands, and which I continued to polish after him. That knife would have no problem ripping open the guts of the fuse box and probing the latch inside. But where was the latch?!
Finally the fuse box swung open, the switches clicked stiffly, and light streamed from my doorway. I blew out the candle stub and went back to my desk to resume the miracles of creation. How little there was to do in this two-roomed tiny world with its flickering glimmers of candlelight on the wall without electricity! We are all homo electricus: pity McLuhan still isn’t alive. But having sat for a bit at my revivified desk, I realized that there was nothing to do here at home with electricity. Electricity drove me out into the night, as my mood slipped into the minor mode of a spring evening spent alone. Neither the sun-drenched classroom nor my little man in his pullover—perhaps a bowtie would be better? No, professors in this country don’t wear bowties!—could distract me from myself. Actually, my little man was sad because I was sad, and because spring evenings are so sad, and it would be one in the morning before I’d be able to fall asleep, while here, among these walls, all you could think of, really, was that the tea you drank alone had a different taste than tea you drank with someone else.
My appointment book contained a few freeze-dried cures for loneliness, the ingredients for which included a name and a combination of numbers to dial. The kind that end in a rush to put your clothes back on. In a rush, because someone’s waiting for you back home. Waiting and, perhaps, already undressing (the thought of which is particularly painful). No one has ever waited or waits for me at home. I can calmly disappear for hours on end and take a long, long time to get dressed. I know, I’ve told myself many times: people always get exactly what they want, what they aspire to in fact and not just in words, and—voila!—the only people waiting for me back home were the characters I’d created and the words I still hadn’t written, both of which needed me like God, but that’s okay, because spring had arrived, and the courtyard that opens out inconspicuously from our stairwell greeted me with April, which had—unnoticed by me—turned into May, and over here, to the right, in its usual spot, stood my Frau, who needed to be washed—in celebration of the end of winter, and I really lied when I said that no one was waiting for me: I had my Frau, who needed me if only to wash her, to fill her up, to drive her around town, and to look—as I exited the stairwell—at the bits of Bavarian sky encased in her circular trademark.
I don’t know where I was headed and why I was headed there, but for some reason I felt sad: the sadness I had wanted to transfer to the little man in the sun-drenched classroom remained with me, bottled up, unmitigated, and without release, but no big deal, ol’ man, no big deal: it’s May, after all. I reached the end of the corridor of the little street leading from my apartment to Independence Avenue—our country’s main drag, which through some glaring oversight to this day does not bear his name. I found myself among well-dressed, apathetic passers-by, and I became acutely aware of what it was I was searching for, what it was that had driven me out of my apartment. I was looking for a pair of eyes, of course! I needed human eyes that would look at me, even if with indifference, but look at me: not at my clothes, my despondent raincoat, not at my haircut (“freaking genius”), and not at the excessively mechanical—all I had to do was think about it—way I walked. No—at me. At this living creature walking down this street, among other living creatures, ready to love them and to look at them, really look at them, in the Biblical sense, to notice them. Yes, I know, I know, I’m asking for too much. This soon will pass.
In front of the Lianok-Linen fabric store a Chinese girl stopped me and asked me to take her picture with her girlfriend, and as I attempted to frame them in the camera’s view-finder, she looked at me calmly and slowly, precisely as I needed to be looked at, just what I’d been searching for. I pulled the camera away from my face and was ready to smile back at her—one smile would have been enough. I would have known that I was not alone in this city, that there was you, no matter who you might be, even if you didn’t know a single word of my English, a simple exchange of smiles: two living creatures communicating to each other that they understood each other. And it would have been understandable why she was looking at me that way: she was, after all, alone in this city of white-skinned oafs who thought they knew everything there was to know about people. And I would have smiled with just my eyes, handed her the camera, nodded to her and her girlfriend, and crawled back to my apartment to make myself some tea, think about her loneliness, and comfort myself with the thought that she was thinking about mine …. But her look—the one I had interpreted as intended for me—shifted downward towards the camera, now also aimed downward; she was looking not at me, but at the camera, that is, she was looking at herself. Or at the person the photograph was for, and not a drop of her soul had been apportioned for the person who had done her the favor of pushing the right button and of handing her a digital image of her sincerity directed at someone else, and I was the one who’d pushed the button, and I was the one who’d handed her the image! There was a moment at the bus stop when her inscrutable eyes—mere hints, mere half-shadows beneath the dark arcs of her brows, beneath her coquettish bangs—looked at me, and I decided that those eyes were cat-green and that I would run after the trolleybus whose doors had just closed; I would run to the next stop so as to utter just one word to those eyebrows: “Thank you.” I didn’t need anything else. Honest! For everything else I had those prescriptions in my appointment book, each of which was sure to alleviate what hurt the most: that look. The trolleybus drove off, and her wandering gaze settled on a point in space behind me, behind me; I turned around and discovered the person for whom that gaze had been intended, and feeling like a thief, I stalked off, embarrassed. The Café Brigantine had already spilled its summer terrace onto the sidewalk, but it was still too cold, so diners sat cocooned in blankets; two girls—accessorized with glasses of red wine—shot me a glance, but there was too much professionalism in their eyes for me to flatter myself. My cold had not yet subsided, and scary clouds of shivers coursed up and down my spine, as if my soul had goose-bumps, while oncoming couples and schools of humans swam before my eyes like fish; for them, too, I was as exotic as cold-blooded tropical fish in an aquarium were for human beings. But the magic works in two directions: you, naturally, know nothing—and never will know anything—about me, but I’ve caught your signal. The Antarctic of shivers down my spine intensified—I hadn’t encountered a gaze capable of melting the ice—and probably I should have gone home to drink tea with a good dose of raspberry-jam drowsiness, wrap myself up in a blanket, and have a good sweat. But I kept on walking, as if heeding some call: now I know that it was you beckoning me onward, but at that moment I just ambled. On October Square in front of the anti-utopian monstrosity of the Palace of the Republic people lent their eyes to an enormous screen where he was talking about the country’s internal and foreign enemies in a calm and sort of kindly way, making it feel as if the situation in the country were stable. For a while I had to walk with only people’s backs before my eyes, wending my way through the crowd, hearing his inveigling words, and sensing his fatherly gaze, but his were unquestionably not the eyes I wanted to peer into.
I thought about the eyes of the autos creeping down the avenue, the majority of which were, of course, insolent. There were lascivious eyes and evil eyes (my Frau’s shark-like profile also, likely, evoked thoughts of a predatory nature, but she was very kind and sweet), intrepid eyes and impetuous eyes, and the pathetic eyes of Soviet “Zhigulis” with their looks askance that spoke volumes as they peered out on the city from behind thick lenses in outdated frames. And terrifying eyes, half-hidden behind wire grates, with fog lights: the cars his people drove.
There were now fewer people around, and I immediately figured out why: I had walked beyond the State Department Store building (decrepit from its own attempts to restore socialism) and found myself in a part of town where I shouldn’t, just shouldn’t, have been. In front of me, bellowing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, stood the Ministry of State Security (MGB)—a complex of structures whose elegant façade looked out on the avenue, while its terrifying back walls faced side-streets that buses with foreign tourists never entered. Stalin baroque: porticos, pilasters, bas-reliefs of hammers and sickles, Corinthian capitals with additional acanthus leaves draped fecundiously downward, signifying the triumph of Socialist Realism in stone. A part of town cross-hatched out of every city map; the residence—his residence—alongside which uniformed guards stood posted round-the-clock, and god forbid I slow down as I walk by, not to mention pull out a camera. The colossal doors—there, in the center, set behind the columns, at the top of the stairs—were always closed: no one ever entered through the central entranceway. No one.
I hurriedly crossed to the other side of the street, having noticed that the little tower appended atop the roof of the right wing of the building in a manner slightly more subtle than the Stalin Empire style (Stalin rococo, was it?) glowed with soft light from within. Legends—our legends, legends born of nocturnal paranoia, of disappearing neighbors, of the rare tales of enemies called in for interrogations, then exonerated—these legends hold that the tower had been added to the building by Lavrenty Tsanava, the almighty republican chairman of the Soviet NKVD. In calmer, Soviet times people used to call it “Tsanava’s tower.” But then he arrived on the scene, unified the country, and combined all of the country’s security and militia forces into a single Ministry of State Security, and since then no one has had any doubt whose tower it is. Of course, he himself was sitting up there. And since he never sleeps, the lights burn in the tower for whole days on end. I don’t know which of the terms is more terrifying: the abstract pronoun “he,” or the surname “Muraviov”—now a common noun, or the ammunition belt of all his titles combined: Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, Minster of State Security Nikolai Mikhailovich Muraviov. What are words like “military coup,” “usurpation of power,” or “arrests” alongside the simple, all-elucidating “Muraviov”? Muraviov! Yes. Muraviov. The minister who appointed presidents.
Generally speaking, one isn’t supposed to fear the Ministry of State Security. The more they burn the lights in that little tower, the more the citizenry should stroll past it, look at it, and marvel at his diligence, his concern. But what if you were to blast it with a few rounds from a grenade-launcher …? Just then I heard the sound of steps behind me so true to type that I rushed to hasten my pace as panic flitted through my mind that they were now capable of wire-tapping thoughts; I ducked into the courtyard of a Stalin building topped with an old clock, came out on Marx Street, and quickly headed out of that part of town. The footsteps from behind had been those of an ordinary passer-by, fool!
I proceeded dutifully past the casino and bowed with patriarchal reverence before the building of the Philological Faculty, embellished with yet to be expunged graffiti: “I feel fac,” an unfortunate pun in contempt of grammar, a pun on the level of a trade-school dropout, but the bug—damn it—had lodged itself in my brain, which was now churning out a succession of Rubik’s-cube variations: “phil fuck,” “fill f.a.q,” “filmed fuck” …. Enough! Stop! Stop! I walked down Marx Street. No, not Karl: nowadays the street is named after a different Marx, Marx & Spencer, for its glitzy, bright, self-aggrandizing, glossy capitalism, all of it perfectly capable of coexisting harmoniously with—and even to the advantage of—the Ministry of State Security. But that wasn’t important either. I was ready to walk down a street named after Marx & Spencer, as long as I could exist, as long as I could sense and be cognizant of the fact that I existed: existed as a living creation and not as a mannequin in a world of mannequins.
By the time I walked past the stately entrance of the Constitutional Court of the MGB you had already opened two packets of sugar. You had already emptied their contents into the tall, curvaceous mug you’d been served together with a long, crane-like, spoon. Like a spectator at a theater, you had made yourself comfortable, set your sights, and were ready and waiting for me to show up, distraught and driven by incomprehensible expectation of you. Out of habit I noted the shingle outside the Chess Café and its enormous windows, through which I could see the black-and-white interior; the waiters dressed in old-fashioned costumes reminiscent not of Nabokov’s Luzhin’s Defense, but of the Hollywood version in which the characters wore outfits straight out of a Repin painting; some guests, who really were playing chess in the muted light at the far end of the room; you; several deliberately dressed girls laughing at something on a lemon-colored laptop propped on the table in front of them; and a couple of balding gentlemen who had obviously devised some reason to laugh alongside the girls and felt that the girls were laughing for their sake, but no—you! You! When I … I saw … You looked straight at me through the glass, unpretentiously and a bit ironically, as if to ask: how many wrong turns did it take you to get here? My search was over: yes, yes, those were the eyes I had been searching for.