One Lonely Russian, One American, One Phone Number – James Finn – The Blog
Dima was happy to put aside politics for a while and wander around the hall with his new American friend. He’d felt really lonely since his father uprooted him from his school and friends in Leningrad. He was used to having the run of the city he grew up in.
Here in Germany, he was a stranger. A total outsider.
Later, after everything turned so sour, he wondered if maybe mutual culture shock had drawn him and Ian together. He wondered if the fateful chain of events had its beginnings in shared homesickness.
“Hey,” Ian asked in his clear but funny sounding Russian. “You want to get something to eat? I was just about to get dinner when I ran into you.”
Dima pulled away, embarrassed. “Oh, um…” he stuttered. “I guess I’d better not. I’m not all that hungry, anyway.” He felt himself blushing. When his father had dropped him off earlier, he’d paid his admission and given him 10 West Marks. It hadn’t gone very far. Even ranking Russian officers were poor by the standards of the decadent West.
He patted his nearly empty pocket and felt a couple two-Mark coins rattling around. Enough for a snack, maybe, but not for a real meal.
He hoped his face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“Oh, come on,” Ian urged. “I insist. On me! I know what it’s like to be a student with no money. That was me until a few months ago.”
“Well … if you say so, but, I do not want to impose.”
“I do say so! Uncle Sam pays my rent and most of my expenses. I’m good, truly. You ever have steak from Argentina? With butter and herbs? We gotta do it!”
They wormed their way through the crowd and quickly settled into a small table under a green and white striped canopy. Ian ordered for both of them. Dima’s eyes bulged to see him peel a couple multicolored bills off the top of a wad of cash. His friend hadn’t been kidding. He was rich!
“I’m having a Berliner Kindl, man,” Ian said. “A beer. What do you want?”
“Sounds excellent. I haven’t had a beer in a while. Whatever you’re having.”
Ian laughed. “Ha! You sure you’re old enough to drink beer?”
Dima drew in an indignant breath. What did this American take him for? “I’ll be 18 soon! I drink vodka with my father since I am 15. For a Russian, beer is no more than water. Such a question!”
“Hey, I was kidding, sorry. But we do things a little different in the States, you know. Not that I waited to be 21 before I drank. Nobody really does!”
Dima thought as Ian ordered. “Zwei Kindl, vom fass,” he said, holding up two fingers to the bartender. As the man drew their beers, Dima remembered thinking that Ian was probably 18 or 19. He’d had to adjust that upward when he realized that the American must already have graduated from military academy. How old was he really? 22? 23?
He watched the bartender draw their beers, running the tap forcefully, streaming amber fluid into first one tulip-shaped glass then the other. He wondered why he cared how old Ian was. He caught himself looking his new friend over carefully, liking what he saw. Then, just as carefully, he pushed the thought aside and concentrated on the beer.
As much foam as liquid was ending up in the glasses. The bartender set them aside and moved on to a different task with machine-like precision.
“It takes forever,” Ian said. “The way they fill beer glasses here.”
“Vodka is easier, my friend. You just drink it.”
“These guys are serious about their beer!”
“Is different in America?”
“Oh, my God! Totally. You have no idea how strange all this is for me. I grew up in a small town and went to college in one almost as small. I’ve never been anywhere. This is the biggest city I’ve ever seen.”
Their server interrupted, setting two full glasses on the table. Dima drank, then rolled his eyes, shocked by the pungent flavor of the cool beer. So bitter! But so sweet and flowery at the same time. He’d never tasted anything like it.
He smiled at Ian through a mustache of foam. “Good! So good. You like?”
Ian nodded. “I thought it was pretty weird when I first tried it. Nothing like Budweiser. But it’s growing on me.”
“Budweiser? Is what? American beer?”
“Yeah. But it’s different. Weaker or something. You get drunk but it doesn’t really taste like much.”
“Just like Russian beer! We have that in common.” He switched to a mournful tone. “People drink it only if they have no money for vodka. So tragic!”
Ian laughed as the platters of steak arrived. Dima opened his eyes wide as he took in the huge, charred strips of beef, dripping with butter melting down herbed mountains.
He watched Ian carefully as the American picked up a small serrated knife. He’d never eaten meat cooked like this, and he was afraid of making a mistake and embarrassing himself.
His friend cut off a big piece, stuffed it in his mouth, and smiled big. “Fantastic! Now THIS is like America. Well … except for the butter. That’s kind of weird. But it’s good.”
Dima sliced off a piece of buttery beef, pink on the inside, and gingerly slipped it in his mouth. His eyes rolled with pleasure as he chewed. “Wow! This is really, really good.” He tried not to sound too shocked. “You eat like this all the time?”
“Well, no. Not really. It’s a special treat. My dad used to joke about how much I liked it, though. He said when I was a baby I’d cry when they were having steak for dinner. Wouldn’t shut up until they gave me some.”
“Funny! My mother, she used to joke about slapping my dad’s hand to stop him from putting vodka in my juice. I hope was joke!”
Dima concentrated on eating for while, and on watching Ian eat. He seemed so happy.
“So,” he asked after a while. “You grew up in the country? Tell me about it.”
“No, not exactly. A small town. In the middle of the country.” Ian talked around bites. “Nothing but a single traffic light, a couple of churches, a bar, post office, and a gas station. Not much to talk about.”
Dima felt his conscience ease up a bit. In the back if his mind, Komsomol lectures had been nagging at him. American bourgeoisie were decadent. Immoral. But if his friend was a farmer… Peasants were OK, as OK as workers.
“So, your family works on a collective?”
“Collective? Huh? You mean like a farm? I went to school with lots of farm kids, but we were townies. My dad was a … I’m not sure of the Russian word. A minister?”
“Ah,” nodded Dima sagely. “His is government official? Apparatchik?”
“Oops, no. Wrong word, I guess. I mean like a religious minister. Like in church?”
Dima gasped. “Priest! Your father is priest?” His voice betrayed indignation. “You are religious?”
“Well, no, actually, he died when I was 16. But he wasn’t a priest. We’re not Catholic. It’s kind of hard to explain. I don’t know the right words in your language.”
Dima stayed quiet for a moment while he thought. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I didn’t mean to sound so … I don’t know. I’ve never met a religious person before. I’m sorry your father died. Really sorry.”
“It’s OK. It was a long time ago.”
“My mother died when I was 12. It doesn’t feel so long ago. You know?”
“Yeah. It really doesn’t. I think that’s just something you say so the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel bad.”
Dima nodded. “Yes. In Russia too. We do the same.”
“What happened? Was is terrible?”
“I suppose. Yes. She was in hospital for very long. My aunt came to take care of me because Dad was away in Afghanistan. He came back finally, but too late. She died while he was on his way.”
“Now I’m the one who’s sorry,” Ian said. He lifted his beer, lowering his eyes and taking a long drink. “I’m kind of glad my dad went fast. He just dropped over from a heart attack one day. Just like that.”
“Does your religion make you feel better? Do you believe you’ll see him again one day?”
“Me? I don’t know. Maybe my mom does. I’m not that religious. I’m not sure what I believe. Probably not very much.”
“I’m glad!” said Dima earnestly. “Yan, listen to me. Religion is a tool of oppression. It’s false hope. I’m glad you’re not taken in by it.”
“Wow,” Ian exclaimed, looking surprised by Dima’s intensity. “You really are a communist, huh?”
“I … listen …”
Ian cut him off. “Look, I know religion can be used against people. I’ve studied history. But it does good things too. I know. I’ve seen it. I just personally don’t believe very much, that’s all. I don’t even know why.”
“Yes. Yes, I understand. I’m sorry again. Really.” He was. He felt stupid for saying something so political after his friend had confided in him. “I didn’t mean anything against your father. Really.”
When Ian nodded, Dima added, “But, so you understand. I really am a good communist.” He held himself just a little taller in his chair.
“I am already full Komsomol member. That’s one reason I’m here today. I’ve been chosen to write an article for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the youth newspaper. I’m going to be writing about the victories of the East German workers. I wanted to come to the West so I could research the differences between the two Germanies.”
“And they LET you?” Ian asked, sounding dubious.
Dima shrugged and chuckled. He wasn’t sure he should admit that his father’s position brought a lot of possibilities to life for him. “It’s a great honor,” he said softly.
“But what about you?” he asked. “Are you Party member?”
“I guess so. I voted Democrat in the last election. But it’s not like you actually join or anything.”
“Is not important for military career?”
Ian shrugged. “No, not at all. Not now. Maybe in twenty years or so I might need some political connections to advance. Not today.”
Dima frowned, puzzled. This was outside his experience. All his father ever talked about was politics and pleasing the Party. But he was glad Ian seemed to have no strong political feelings. It would be hard to be friends with a real American capitalist.
They spent the rest of their time together enjoying the festival. Dima forgot his concerns as they checked out music groups, folk dancers, and flower displays. Being from Leningrad, he was used to big city craziness, but …
“Yan, look! That woman, she has rat on shoulder!”
Dima grabbed his arm and pointed him in the right direction. “Look!”
“Damn! It’s huge.” Dima hadn’t let go of Ian’s arm. He felt his friend shudder before he continued. “That’s like a New York sewer rat!”
“Big Leningrad dock rat!” Dima agreed. He tugged Ian’s arm. “Come on!”
They ran after the woman, checking out the black leather she wore from head to toe and the enormous rodent she was caressing as it rested on her shoulder, naked tail wrapped around her neck.
“I dare you!” Dima said. “Ask her why she has it. Use your German!”
“Hell, no! You ask her. Don’t look at me. I’ll try to translate.”
Ian pushed him forward.
The woman must have noticed she was being followed. She turned and glared. Teutonic and severe. Dima lost his nerve. They scuttled backwards into the crowd, laughing as she stormed off.
He glanced down at his watch. “Yan. I didn’t notice it was so late. Almost 7. My father will be at the gate soon to get me.”
“Come on, then. I’ll walk with you.”
“No,” Dima objected, worrying. “I don’t think is such good idea.”
“I guess I look pretty American, huh?”
Dima laughed, looking at Ian’s t-shirt, Levis, and sneakers. “You sure don’t look German!”
They stopped walking and looked at each other. Silent. Dima opened his mouth to say goodbye, then closed it without making a sound. He didn’t know what to say. Ian was one of the first friends he’d made since coming to Germany. One of the first friends he really liked.
Ian was looking at him like he was waiting for something.
“Listen,” Dima finally said. “You’re OK. Even if you are a capitalist. I like you.”
“Yeah. Me too. I mean even though you’re a good junior communist. I’m glad we met.”
“Yan? Maybe we meet again? I will come to the West again soon for my research. Or you could come to the East sometimes. We’re not in different cities.”
“Yeah, you know, that’s true. I’d love to see you again! I mean, you know. It’s… I’ve never had a Russian friend. It might be cool to learn about each other’s cultures.”
Dima watched Ian’s face closely, trying to read an expression that transformed it briefly but strongly. He didn’t recognize the look, but his heart sped up when he saw it.
“Here! Wait!” He pulled a scrap of paper and a pencil stub from his pocket. He scribbled, then extended his hand. “My phone number.”
“Wow. Um. OK.” Ian stared at the paper for a moment, looking afraid.
Dima was afraid Ian was going to reject the offer. Then he reached out and snatched it.
Dima felt his heart speed up even more. “Excellent! But you can only call me after 4 and before 7, OK? I will be home but not my father. Maybe he won’t understand.”
“Yeah, man! I can just see it now. Excuse me, sir. This is an American Air Force officer calling. Is your son home?”
“Correction,” Dima said, laughing darkly. “No ‘maybe.’ He will NOT understand.”
Ian tore a bit of paper off the piece Dima had handed him, then reached out and grabbed the pencil stub.
“Here,” he said, after writing for a second. “My number. I work rotating shifts around the clock. You’ll never know when I’ll be home. If Mark answers, don’t worry. He’s cool. I’ll tell him who you are.”
“OK, I better study some English.”
“You can if you want. But don’t worry. Mark speaks Russian better than I do. But don’t ever tell him I admitted that.”
Dima rolled his eyes. “Another spy?”
“We are NOT spies. We’re just, um … well, you know. Data collectors.”
“Ha! OK, so, my not-spy friend. I have to hurry now. The general doesn’t like to be kept waiting.
He watched Ian’s eyes grow large, then turned and ran off.
“A general?” the American shouted after him. “Oh my god! Your dad’s a general?”
“What did you think?” Dima called over his shoulder, grinning despite himself. “A command pilot with almost 18-year-old son is senior lieutenant? Ha!”