First Edition features original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.
Ivan and Misha
by michael alenyikov
“Louie, can I ask something personal?”
“And when has that stopped you before?”
Leo and I are done with our afternoon constitutional on the Brighton Beach boardwalk.
“Your kid, the blond one. It doesn’t bother you he’s a feygela?” Leo makes that mincing gesture with his wrist and purses his lips. “He’s a great kid, don’t get me wrong, but don’t it bug you any?”
I hold my tongue and raise a hand to the waiter. “More coffee, please.” When it arrives I make a great show of thanking him, ignoring Leo, who shifts about uneasily..
A man enters, leaving the door open to the cold.
“People like that guy really piss me off,” Leo says.
“Why not just close the damn door?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Yes it is the point.”
“Okay, okay,” he says, rising.
I gulp the coffee; it’s hot and gives me a coughing fit, allowing time to gather my emotions.
Leo sits back down.
“No, Leo, my friend,” I say, at last, “it does not bug me any.”
“But … ,” Leo says. I raise my hand to silence him.
Quite suddenly, when Misha was eighteen, one year into college, he announced he was moving out. He’d already found an apartment. “Nonnegotiable,” he said, with his down-turned mouth and jaw stubborn as granite, impervious to argument. He had taken a job as a waiter to pay. Besides, he’d moved nearby. And, truth-be-told, not a day passed when I didn’t hear from him. I missed my son, but held that back. Let him test his wings. I knew that Ivan would leave next, and prepared myself for the loneliness.
I had a habit, from the old country, as Leo would say, of “dropping by.” It was a brisk fall afternoon. The sidewalk swirled with dry leaves that crackled under my step. I asked for tea. He had none. Coffee will be fine, I said, but he said no, Papa, if it’s tea you want I will go all the way to China and he hurried out to the nearest store, several blocks away. Maybe it was intended — my predictably unannounced visit, the cupboards empty of tea, his rush to the store. I do not know. Children grow so fast; an open book, transparent for so many years, they become, if we are fortunate, affable, affectionate strangers. Perhaps, if he’d been born to me when I was younger, I could look forward to knowing him when he’d reached middle age and we’d be less a mystery to each other.
And so I snooped. I opened drawers, looking for clues to his life. He had an old, hardwood dresser with hand-painted details, one of Ivan’s finds. One drawer was enough to open. I found condoms and marijuana and magazines with pictures of naked men. Maybe it was his way of telling me. Leaving me time alone. All I know is that when he returned, I screamed at him. I was profane towards my boy. “Iti k charta. Damn you,” I said, coldly. I had never behaved like this with Misha or his brother. Never. I beg you to believe this.
He stood there and took all my words. His face grew red. His arms crossed his chest. His jaw had that set to it unchanged since he was two. When I ran out of words I threw those magazines in his face. Then we stood in silence. I was emptied of feeling. Numb. So bewildered I forgot the cause of my rage. Do you have any idea how terrifying that silence was to me then? It was the silence between a father and son that if not breached can last forever. I know. I did not speak to my father for his last twenty years.
“Papa,” he said, calmly, steel in his voice. “If you do not accept me for what I am, I will see you next at your funeral.”
We stared at each other. Neither of us gave ground. Time passed. I don’t recall if I’d ever stared so long into another man’s eyes. Because suddenly, he was no longer a boy.
Then, I looked away.
And of course I had no choice; accept him or lose him, really quite an easy decision.
A few years later, two or three, perhaps — he had moved into his East Village by then — I saw the bottles in his medicine chest. Snooping again. Though I have not practiced medicine for many years, I knew what they were. Did he forget to hide them, or was this his way, again, of telling without words? This time I kept silent. Although I am not a believer, I pray that I die before he does. I think the odds are good now that I will. I follow the news, after all. But they are not great odds. When I gambled I would not have taken these odds.
“Earth to Louie,” Leo says, waking me from my reverie. “I wasn’t knocking the boy. He’s a great kid. Both of them are. But can we go now?”
“Yes, my friend. Let us go. But please do not use that word to describe my son. It lacks respect.” I think that this business of losing time since my stroke may be a gift so that if anything happens to my boys, I will not remember long enough for grief. For my grief will crush me more heavily than the weight of all the stars in the universe.
“You’re not mad at me for asking?” he asks, forgetting that he’s asked before. I think he truly wants to understand what to him is unfathomable, so I forgive him, as in truth, I do not fully understand what my son does with men, what he feels.
“No, I am not angry, my friend, just cold and tired.”
Michael Alenyikov received the 2013 Gina Berriault Award from San Francisco State University; his book “Ivan and Misha” won the Northern California Book Award for Fiction. Alenyikov was born and raised in New York City and lives in San Francisco.
Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at email@example.com or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at jweeklylit.wordpress.com.