An older Ukrainian guy walks his dogs in the woods near my house. We talk a lot. The other day I was complaining about tendonitis in my ankle, which was causing me pain.
“Pain?” he said. “You call tendonitis ‘pain’?”
“What would you call it?” I said.
“Better to say . . . ‘discomfort.’ ”
However rich the English language, Americans make distinctions only of kind, never of degree. “Misfortune,” “disaster,” “catastrophe”—these words all mean the same thing to us. Any of them might be used to describe (a) dropping your toast on the buttered side or (b) the Bataan Death March.
But my friend’s point was not that I was misusing adjectives. His point was that I was a whining sissy. I thought he was about to start lecturing me on the 22 million Soviet war dead. There is nothing more withering than the contempt of those who survived the Brezhnev era in the East Bloc for those who did not. And there rushed back into memory someone I had not thought of since the Cold War.
One night, further into my twenties than I’d care to admit, a friend and I wound up being driven by a voluble Russian and his girlfriend from a party in Harvard Square to one in a thoroughly terrifying neighborhood of inner-city Boston. Ivan and I had met two hours before, and had been guzzling alcohol and declaiming poetry ever since. We had hit it off, in our own slurry way.
It was about 2 a.m. Ivan asked how we liked the car. Good, we told him. He was glad. It wasn’t his. In fact, he had no idea to whom it belonged. It had come into the possession of a criminal friend who said he could use it for a few days. Ivan warned us that he might need to fight a couple of the people at the party we were going to. Unlike most of my friends who quoted poetry, Ivan was about six-foot-five. He had spent his teen years in one of the most violent parts of metropolitan New York—a place white people never went. He liked it there, he said. His neighbors really knew how to fight.
Ivan had a job as a night watchman. His walk home from Allston took him through the Harvard Business School campus. He would cut through the library if it was open late. “Last week,” he told me, “there is nobody there, so what do I do?” He looked at me expectantly.
“You didn’t steal a book, did you?”
“No, no!” He sounded insulted. “I squat down and take beeg sheet! Right in middle of Baker Library!”
After reflecting that it was quite a reversal of the natural order when regular citizens have brainstorms and Harvard has to clean up after them, I asked the obvious question. “Why the hell did you do that?”
He gave me a solemn look. “It was to say . . . ‘The Boy from Magnitogorsk! He is here! In America!’ ”
One night Ivan had, not to be overly tautological, a drinking party in his Somerville apartment. After midnight, he summoned those who had not passed out or been rushed to the hospital and said he was driving to New Mexico. Who was in? At that point in the evening it seemed like a good idea to several of us. He called his parents in New York and told them to expect four people for breakfast.
I woke as we parked in front of their housing project. Ivan walked to the trunk to change into a clean shirt. The bag in which he’d packed it lay amid various rifles and pistols. We went upstairs for a breakfast of bread, radishes, and vodka. His father, who had one of those Leninist names like Traktor, had been a brave dissident in Magnitogorsk. He doted on Ivan. He wanted to make sure we were drunk enough to drive across the country.
That afternoon as the booze wore off, the memory of an approaching deadline descended on me, along with a headache. I had them drop me at the airport in Roanoke, and left Ivan and his two friends to make their heavily armed way across the country. “I was not realizing you were this kind of wimp,” said the Boy from Magnitogorsk.
I tell you this without smugness. I have no sense, even today, that I was more responsible than Ivan. People like him collect the fruits of modernity in the form of intensity, rather than longevity or comfort. It’s not wrong to call them braver, or us wimpier. I have not given my friend’s real name, nor is Magnitogorsk really his native city. This is partly so no one’s privacy gets violated, and partly so Ivan does not reappear in my life and teach me the meaning of pain.