A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I am Sergei Yanachev, Russian psychiatrist from New York. FOUCK YOU!
OK. That was joke. You see I am from Moscow, of course. I was for nine days only in New York. First time I arrive, I am not speaking much English, but immediately I learn to say necessary phrases: What’s your name? and Fouck you!
International Conference of Psychiatrists — that is why I was in New York. There I meet American doctors, but I see they are not doctors. Nine days I listen: malpractice, insurance, drug prescriptions. Nine days and I learn only this: Fouck you!
After New York, I come here, Berkeley, California. Here I meet my fiancée, Carol. How do we meet? I am laying by side of road. Drunk. A street person. Carol comes along: “Aha! A man. He doesn’t look too bad. Taxi!” And so she takes me home.
OK. Another joke. You see I am tired of telling the truth. People always want to know about how I am with Carol, and I must learn to say special words, like relationships.
In Russia this is nothing to remark. All the time, a man and a woman are getting together, whenever they can. That is life. In Russia we have no girlfriend, boyfriend. In Russia you have fiancée or you have fuck. Boyfriends, girlfriends, special words, why have this? To make lies. It is shit.
Carol is my fiancée.
In California it is easy to tell lies. Every day more easy. Every day, to explain the truth makes me tired. Who wants to know the truth? It is too complicated.
Why I come to California is because of Paul, who I meet in Tibet. Before Tibet, Paul was psychiatric medicine student in Berkeley, also intern at Suicide Prevention, where every night at two in the morning is same crazy man on the phone.
He says to Paul, “My television is talking to me again. A man on the television is looking at me like he knows everything. He is telling me I am antisocial.”
Paul asks, “Why would he do this?”
The crazy man says, “Because I am antisocial! I fucking am, that’s why. Figure it out. I hate my television and my television knows it.”
The crazy man thinks to blow up his television except he has no money for another. Better to blow up some people — he hates everyone. “You fuckers! You assholes!” That is what he calls people. The crazy man says he writes the names of people he hates most in black paint on his wall. When he wants to kill someone, he puts a red X on the name.
A conversation like this Paul has every night for one year, exactly twenty-minutes time each call because policy puts limit on chronic calls.
One night, Paul is feeling very tired in his soul. He does not want exactly twenty minutes of hearing the crazy man hate everyone. When the man starts complaining about his television, Paul says, “Go turn it off.”
The man says, “What?”
Paul tells him, “Your television. Turn it off. If you don’t want to hear your television saying these things, turn it off.”
OK, he tries it, but returns to say, “Now the radio is doing it.”
Paul says to him, “Well, then, turn the radio off.”
The crazy man stays on the telephone. He says, “You are not doing anything to help me, you know. When I think about how you are never helping me, I want to kill you.”
Paul has nothing to say to him. He knows he has not been successful in one year to help the crazy man.
The man asks Paul, “Can you bring me a glass of water?”
Paul says, “No, I cannot bring you a glass of water. We are on the telephone.”
“Well,” says this crazy man, “I wish to hell you would bring me a goddamn glass of water. I have razor blades here, you know. There is full can of Drano in my kitchen.”
Paul gets a better idea. He says, “Please find a gun. Find a gun and blow your goddamn head off.” He puts down telephone before he says this, but it was anyway the finish for Paul’s internship. He cannot think more what to do, he cannot think more about crazy people, so he takes what is left of his student loan on trip to Tibet.
There he meets me, Russian psychiatrist, talking always about the troubles of my patients.
It must be that I ruined Paul’s vacation.
Look. I went to Tibet to study with monks, old men who understand sickness of spirit. From there I return to Moscow with suitcase full of herbal medicines. I try to pass customs, but a donkey with thick lips and a loaded gun wants to know what this is in my suitcase. Am I starting a business to sell illegal drugs to innocent people of Moscow? He confers with other donkeys, also they have guns. They ask many stupid questions. They don’t enjoy too much my answers and so take me to jail.
Three months I am in jail while idiot Russian officials try to identify what is inside my suitcase. Finally a guard comes to say, “Get out!” That is all, nothing to explain for taking three months of your life, just, Go, you are lucky to be free, don’t even think to ask for the suitcase, kozel, you stupid animal.
But don’t worry, I had a very nice time in jail. Plenty people sick and crazy, special opportunity for me. Forget drugs and hospitals, I want to heal the sickness from inside myself.
I am a doctor.
As soon as I get out of jail I make telephone call to Paul in California. I want to come to America.
In Moscow I work seven years in emergency hospital. Suicides, schizophrenics, everything crazy. All day, all night, never waste time, there is not time for it. At hospital I learn to follow special diet, very strict: coffee and cigarettes, that is all.
When I arrive at New York conference, American doctors see me smoking, they are shocked. “Don’t smoke, you are a doctor!” They say, Look at one thousand doctors, see one thousand people who don’t smoke. I tell them, Go to Russia, look at one thousand doctors, see one thousand and one people smoking. Different country.
But look. Walk in the streets of Moscow and you will feel something: the soul of Moscow. See a man walking past you wearing a big, ugly coat? He does not think about fresh strawberries for breakfast. He is thinking about revolution. Soon he will be watching cable television.
Paul thinks to understand me about Moscow, about psychiatry, but he does not. Many times I try to explain this for Paul: you cannot cure sickness unless you have yourself been sick. Paul says no, you cannot heal sick people unless you are yourself healthy. We have this argument again and again.
Now Paul studies to be chef.
But still Paul has friends at Suicide Prevention. Still he has some feelings inside himself to cure sick people. That is how I get my first American patient. Raymond. The crazy man who sent Paul to Tibet.
Paul thinks to find peace cooking beautiful food for happy people, but I know this: I am a doctor.
I know something else. I was one year in Russian army. Twenty years old.
I was medical student, but Russian army does not care about that. When I was twenty I was athlete, ski champion, so they make of me bodyguard for important commander. This commander is stupid, he likes to stay on front lines with his soldiers. The result for me is a hole in the chest. Good luck, I am one year early out of the army.
In Afghanistan I learn something important: it is easier to kill my enemy than make him my friend.
Do you understand? I am kozel, stupid barnyard animal.
It is true I was drunk when I meet Carol. In a bar with Paul, arguing, and feeling like I want to stay drunk for a week. I order more vodka and tell Paul I have just spent some money to buy a beautiful car. Mazda RX7, black and fast. In Russia you are millionaire to touch a car like this. I pay only six thousand dollars, but this news does not put happiness on Paul’s face. He does not like me to spend so much.
I tell Paul I don’t care about money. Money is shit. More will come if I need it. From Russia I bring seven thousand American dollars from the black market. In Russia I have good salary. Here I cannot earn money. I work as volunteer because of legal papers. But I don’t care. I can try new ideas for psychiatric treatment.
Paul is giving me a bad look. He does not want to talk about my car, he does not want more vodka, he wants to take me to AA meeting. I give up talking about Mazda RX7 and the price of money. I order more vodka and talk about Raymond. My first American patient.
“Hopeless case.” That is what Paul calls Raymond. Violent paranoid schizophrenic. He likes to kill everybody, especially his doctor. But Raymond has not killed anyone.
It is true he cracked a man’s skull on the pavement at Napa mental hospital five years ago. He told me about this. At hospital Raymond’s head is full of drugs — Haldol, lithium, Perlixyn, Cogentin. He is acting very calm, so doctor there permits Raymond to go on the patio, where patients can be friendly together every morning. There sits Raymond in a chair in the sun, quiet, watching leaves on a tree. But he feels another patient, a hairy man with big eyes, staring at him, and Raymond does not like this. The man must be thinking bad things. Raymond must do something, so he goes to this man, takes his head carefully with both hands, and cracks it against the floor of the patio. He returns to his chair in the sun and sits peacefully thinking he would like a can of cold Coke. Then comes a doctor. The man with the cracked head goes to emergency room, and Raymond gets more drugs. Thorazine.
After this, Raymond is not free to go to the patio. He gets one doctor, then another doctor. One treatment, then another treatment. Three years. But still Raymond hates everyone, and finally the doctors are tired of Raymond. They put him on blacklist, people they do not wish to treat.
Since blacklist, Raymond has only telephone for company. He calls to Suicide Prevention every night to talk about blowing up his television, about killing everything he hates. He calls Sacramento to say the governor is a cockroach. He calls the White House every morning at eight to say that the president is telling lies, he should die. Raymond is once arrested for this, but they see he is crazy, he will not be successful to kill the president.
I tell Paul that Raymond is having trouble about his phone bills.
But Paul does not want to talk more about Raymond. He wants to relax. “Sergei, it is important to enjoy life,” he tells me again and again. I am thinking Paul must be having another bad mood, that is why he cannot enjoy our conversation. It is giving me a bad mood, too.
Then Carol comes over to us and says, “Do you want to go to a party?” She is smiling. A beautiful smile. A prayer.
That is how I fall in love with Carol.
I drive her to San Francisco, to the party, fast in every gear. Carol smiles and says my car is very excellent, good deal for six thousand dollars. We pass over the Bay Bridge, laughing, and Carol asks to learn a Russian word. First I think kozel, but instead I teach zdravstvyge, hello.
Paul remains at the bar. I know he will drink more vodka.
Carol is musician, she plays timbales in a Cuban band. She loves music and dancing. I don’t dance with her, but I like to listen. Her music has a happy sound.
We eat fresh strawberries every morning. In Russia I don’t care what is for breakfast, but with Carol there is always attention about food. She has idea that strawberries make her look good. Sometimes I cook sausages, but Carol will not eat this. When Carol eats something she likes, she smiles her beautiful smile.
Always there is activity in Carol’s house. Musicians practicing, pets running everywhere. Carol has five cats and two dogs. The dogs I like. They jump and lick me when I come home. The cats I don’t care. They like only to walk over the shiny black paint on my car.
After I am one month with Carol, we decide to have a party. Music, food, dancing — no vodka, but still I become very drunk from beer and wine. People ask how I meet Carol, do I like California, am I glad to be away from Russia, but I don’t want to talk about these things. Also I don’t want to dance, so I take off all my clothes and get in the hot tub. In the tub are three women, making a serious conversation about relationships. The woman in the middle has a complaint that in San Francisco are only three kinds of men: married, gay, or assholes. The other women decide she must buy new underwear and keep looking for one more year. They sing a song: “A good man is hard to find, / I always get the other kind.”
Then they stand up laughing, and I am seeing six wet melons in front of my face, so I am laughing too. I dive under the water, I pull some legs, I want to play. But now the women don’t laugh more. They think I am stupid, they call me asshole and get out of the tub.
But don’t worry, I have a good time alone. I laugh and dive and shout. Zdravstvyge! Kozel! Melons for breakfast and enjoy your life!
Next morning at breakfast Carol explains good manners. “Sweetheart . . . baby . . .” If there are breasts naked in front of my face I am impolite to see them. I make apology because I was drunk, because I do not understand about manners in a hot tub. I don’t explain I am kozel, not asshole, or that I do not enjoy my life in California.
I say I love her. OK. She loves me too. I am forgiven.
But we don’t have another party since then.
Carol’s father is American doctor. Urologist. He lives in San Rafael, in a very nice house. I have eaten from his table, but I don’t want to see this man again. At the dinner Carol tells him about Raymond, that I spend with him two hours each day talking and drinking herbal tea. She says I am a good man to take this patient no one wants. To this Carol’s father says, “Alternative medicine is very interesting,” and asks to give me more wine. He pours some in my glass, chardonnay. I don’t look at him. I look in my glass instead. Carol watches, smiling.
Carol’s father is nice man. He pays for her music lessons and says polite words. Nice, that is all. How are you? Fine, fine. He is content, sitting in his chair like a big avocado, and has only the soul of an infant. What can he learn about life from repairing withered genitals of old men? What does he see of death at his operating table? He makes precise cuts in the flesh of his patients. Sharp instruments, steel clamps, sterile dressing. Everything in order.
I was a soldier. I have seen people die, everything in disorder. Destruction. A mess. Everything a mess. See yourself in the face of the man you kill, kozel.
I am not afraid of Raymond. I don’t give him drugs, only herbs. If he puts his hands around my throat I can kill him. Raymond knows this.
Almost four months now Raymond is my patient. When I talk to him he swears at me and laughs at my bad English. He says he hates me, he would like to blow me up like a television. He says I am telling lies, like everyone, especially doctors, “you fuckers!”
I explain for Raymond why he should drink his tea. That problems in the body are also in the mind. I tell him Tibetan doctors would see he has symptoms of Liver Fire Blazing Upward: headache, eyes red, pulse rapid, fits of anger. To this Raymond says I am stupid Russian, what do I know about Tibetan medicine. “Superstitious idiot! Faker!” What do I think I am doing in America, he wants to know. Last week Raymond adds my name to his wall, puts a red X on me.
Still, I think Raymond enjoys my company.
Something else happened last week: Carol’s friends came over to prepare a protest about killing and torture of animals. It is warm and sunny, and they go to paint signs in the yard: UNIVERSITY LABORATORIES A MORAL OUTRAGE!; BUNNIES ARE FOR HOPPING; STRAY CATS KIDNAPPED FOR ANATOMY LESSONS!; THE THREE BLIND MICE WERE NOT AN ACCIDENT OF NATURE.
They sit on green grass under Carol’s favorite birch tree, painting big letters, blue and yellow on white, having a very nice time. Clover is blooming in the grass. When they get up to leave, one of the dogs gets blue paint on his foot. He jumps and puts it on Carol’s white shorts. Everyone laughs. They hold their signs and tell me to look for them on six o’clock news.
I don’t watch the news. Instead I drive my car in the hills. I park beside the road and look at the ocean. The sun is stuck on top of Golden Gate Bridge. I am thinking about my dream. Four times I dream the same, about digging a hole, looking for something. I make the hole one meter square, exact. Something must be in the hole, but I don’t find it, so I dig two meters. Nothing. OK, three meters. I don’t let myself get tired, and at three meters finally I find something: ugly black fungus. Then I am standing in a dark cave, and thick black fungus is squeezing up between my toes. I am very tired, also hungry, so I sit down and eat the ugly black fungus.
I think about my dream and I think about Carol. Carol thinks helping Raymond is like saving bunnies.
Raymond is thirty-two years old, same as me.
When I visit Raymond, I go to his apartment on Ashby Street, very ugly, with bad smells and dirty green carpet, which he can pay for from five hundred dollars a month he gets from government.
Raymond is not friendly, but he likes to talk, talk, talk about things he hates: politicians, neighbors, television. He says politicians are all the time stealing money, his neighbors spy on him and try to disconnect his telephone, his television is screaming lies. From Raymond’s talk about television I learn a new word which I like very much: drivel.
Once I tell Raymond that it is no discovery that politician means thief. Also, if he does not enjoy drivel he can turn off television. For answer, Raymond throws his tea onto the wall.
Two days later, Raymond tells that he has been talking to a woman on the telephone. Laura, who is working at La Val’s Pizza where Raymond telephones for delivery of medium pepperoni every Friday night. When she is not busy, Laura likes to talk. She hates politicians and television just like Raymond. Also like Raymond she complains about too many lies. She says even recycling newspapers is a trick; she has seen big trucks full of logs still coming from Oregon.
Raymond likes Laura so much he told her a secret, that he keeps two old dogs in his apartment, Gentle and Sweet. He loves these dogs because they never do anything. If anyone discovers his dogs, Raymond will kill this person.
Raymond has idea to meet Laura, but he is worried about his hair. He says hair is macho, like big, hairy men who want to hurt people. He does not like the hair on his legs and chest and face. But he does not shave his beard because shaving also is macho.
He is sure Laura will not like him if he has so much hair, but he has solution for his problem: he will kill the hair with electric needles. Electrolysis. Already he has saved enough money for one leg. When all the hair is gone, he will make arrangement to meet Laura.
I think about this meeting. I call La Val’s Pizza and talk to Laura. She is student of political science. Laura says Raymond is sometimes strange, but she likes his ideas about politics. About truth. OK. Laura likes truth, so I tell her Raymond is psychiatric patient. Violent. To this Laura says she hopes her talk with Raymond can help him get well.
In the morning I watch Carol eating strawberries with her fingers. Her hair is dark and straight. It hangs long on one side, and other side is shaved above her ear. You can see white skin there. I tell Carol that sometimes I want to kiss this white place, but sometimes I think it looks foolish.
“Well, sweetheart, I have to keep up my image as a musician,” Carol says. She is laughing, and she shakes the long side of her hair.
I think out loud whether I should kill Raymond before he gets to meet Laura. Carol puts down her strawberry and gives me a look. She is not smiling her beautiful smile. She has expression on her face exactly like her father.
I ask if she thinks I am asshole. No. Superstitious idiot? No. Faker? No. I tell her I am kozel, angry barnyard animal — easier for me to kill Raymond than cure him. But I am not gay or married, maybe she wants me anyway?
“Look,” she says. “I want you to stay in this country. Let’s get married so you can stay.”
It is true — one month more and my visa is expired. Carol does not want me to go to Russia to renew my visa; what if there is more trouble about my suitcase? But Carol does not understand suitcase. Or me.
I leave the table and go drive my car on my favorite road to see the ocean. I feel my car black and fast, like a car that carries the dead. First time I drive this car, I am thinking to go somewhere with a beautiful woman. Hollywood movie. But always my passengers are the souls of my patients. Serious. Like Bergman film.
I put on the radio for music, but instead I hear news, a British woman telling that Moscow is having a big party. “Dancing bears have replaced military tanks in Red Square.” Democracy. Freedom. Yeltsin is making speeches. But still no bread and still the Russian people are angry.
That is Russia.
In California there is Carol. And my car. Also Raymond, who is like Russia. He knows how to suffer. Problems are his old friends. If he gets a new friend, if he gets a woman, what can he do? How is herbal tea going to help this, and what good can I, Sergei, be in this world?