Treat your friends as though one day they’ll be your enemies, and your enemies as though one day they’ll be your friends.
— Turkish proverb
I haven’t lived well because I didn’t know until recently who the enemy was. I thought the enemy was outside, somewhere far removed from me — the communists, the Serbs, the Muslims. I didn’t know that the true enemy was much closer at hand.
Once the war started in Croatia, and then in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was obvious Serbs and Muslims were my enemies. I was drafted into the Croatian Army and sent to Mostar. Croats were a minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina — 17 percent of the population — and we were underarmed. It was easy to believe we were threatened, because we were. I didn’t have to think much; I only had to fear. And since I knew who the enemy was, I felt determined, even happy. Forget about good friends. To prosper, all you need is a good enemy. Friends help you relax; they tell you it’s all right to be self-indulgent; they invite you out, drink with you, help you while the time away, so that after twenty years of friendship you are a fat, good-for-nothing bum. Having a good enemy, on the other hand, stimulates you, strengthens you; you compete, sharpen your skills, your mind, your body.
Before long, however, I realized that I had an oversimplified notion of who my enemies and friends were. I was underpaid, underfed, and underarmed by my friends, the Croatian command, while the officers drove BMWs and drank the best whiskey and wine. In fact, they sold gasoline to the Serbs — never mind that it enabled the Serb tanks to encircle us. (Our officers probably figured that if they didn’t sell to the Serbs, the Greeks and Albanians would.) The Serb officers, in return, rented us their tanks. We’d pay them five hundred deutsche marks a day to fire on them, but we did them no harm; they were well bunkered and entrenched — at least, the bosses who rented out the tanks were. In a way, it was more of a playful camaraderie than it was a real enmity. (It reminded me of the games we played as kids: We’d collect bagfuls of stones and hide out in old German bunkers. A couple of kids would stay in the bunker, and we’d throw stones at them, and they at us, until someone got hit in the head and was bleeding, and then we’d all panic.)
During the day, we could freely visit the Serb side; we’d radio them and ask, “What’s on the menu today?” and they’d say, “Today we have a shipment of fifty VCRs. What have you got?”
“Oh, we’ve got twenty kilometers of fishing line and a hundred boxes of chewing tobacco.”
And then our low-ranking officers would go over there, or theirs would come to our side, and they’d barter. Sometimes even regular soldiers crossed the lines to trade.
One day, I shouted over the radio, “What’s cooking today?” and the other side replied, “A traveling brothel. Twenty deutsche marks a shot. Everybody welcome.”
I went to the brothel. Later, I found out it was a rape camp, though at the time I couldn’t tell. That the women all looked depressed was nothing unusual in my experience. Before the war, I had visited Germany, and the attitude in brothels there was the same, beneath perfunctory friendliness. (Of course, German prostitutes are really slaves — women enticed from Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and so on, to work as waitresses. Once they get to Germany, they are detained, beaten, and forced to pay a certain sum of money to buy their freedom, an amount they could never make waiting tables. So most German brothels are no better than rape camps.)
The atmosphere in the Serb brothel, which was set up in the cellar of an old burned-out house, pained me so that, though I was with a pretty girl, I had no lust, and all I did was squeeze her breasts nostalgically, like a weaned toddler remembering his mother’s milk; and after a while she probably gave me a blow job, I’m not sure. We talked for a long time, but I was so drunk I don’t remember what we said. Or maybe I do, but what difference does it make? I’m not making excuses for myself. All I want to say is that I did something despicable. The details don’t matter, or perhaps only exacerbate the meanness of the act.
I am perfectly aware that I’m not entertaining anybody by the way I’m telling this: to entertain, one must make scenes, create the illusion that the events are really happening, like on a stage. Well, forget the stage; I have stage fright. Forget entertainment; I don’t laugh at jokes. The only jokes we could laugh at in the Balkans were ethnic jokes. The jokes caused the war, I swear. I don’t mean that jokes should be illegal, that there should be a jihad against them — quite the contrary. Maybe the war started because we ran out of jokes. We couldn’t keep going. After we told ten thousand anti-Muslim, anti-Serb, and anti-Croat jokes (but mostly anti-Muslim), we wanted guns.
I know my story is not beautiful. But I don’t think anymore that anything is really ugly or beautiful. If you see something beautiful in enough detail, it appears ugly. Take a woman’s smooth, healthy skin: seen through a magnifying glass, it appears greasy, perforated with holes, with hairs sticking out; the detail destroys the beauty. But detail can also destroy ugliness. Under a microscope, a drop of spittle becomes a troupe of rainbow-colored creatures dancing around in silent cosmic harmony. (Of course, most of them are angling to gobble each other up — some harmony.) The absence of detail creates a forgiving haze around an image, making it beyond beauty and ugliness. The absence of detail veils my experience enough for me to deal with it. Not that I need to deal with it. Remembering my experience in Bosnia and Croatia doesn’t do any good, or harm. It’s irrelevant. War is not the problem. Viruses and bacteria are the problem.
You see, I’m sick.
In 1993 I visited the States as a tourist and stayed on illegally. I lived in Astoria, in Queens. I probably became ill after I got here. For a while, I ate from the dumpsters behind bakeries. Or maybe I got sick during the war. That’s the only reason, other than force of habit, that I keep thinking about the war. Did I get the bacillus in the rape camp for twenty deutsche marks? Or in the trenches, where I got athlete’s foot? (No, not trench foot; athlete’s foot. Maybe it was because I wore sneakers. We didn’t have enough boots to go around.) My living conditions in Astoria were certainly unhygienic. I shared an apartment with a Serb, an Albanian Muslim, and a Pole — not that their nationality had anything to do with the poor hygiene, but our being illegal aliens did.
We played cards and chess, and the air was saturated with smoke. If I breathed in deep enough, the smoke gave me a nice scratch in the back of my throat. Something in my lungs begged to be scratched and scraped, so I inhaled as deeply as I could.
The Albanian, Omar, worked in a pizza parlor and got me a job there. It had maps of Italy all over the walls, but most of the people working there were Albanians; in fact, most pizza parlors in New York are run by Albanians.
The Serb, Drago, gambled in Atlantic City and played chess and backgammon in the New York City parks for money. He was the only one of us officially diagnosed as sick, with hepatitis B or C, I forget which. At any rate, he was gaunt and all yellow in the face; even his eyes were yellow. He didn’t want to go to the hospital — he was afraid he’d be deported back to Belgrade. When he became so sick we had to carry him, he married an American friend’s girlfriend; she did it to save his life. Only then, marriage certificate in hand, did he dare go to the hospital. The doctors said his drinking had weakened his liver, but when he came back from the hospital, still sick and taking all sorts of medicine, he kept drinking and smoking.
Adam, the Pole, made the most money — he’d landed a lucrative job as a gravedigger in Brooklyn — and he bought the beer and wine. (We spent only a few hours a day sober.) Adam was thin, moody, and a chain-smoker. The cigarettes might be the reason why he was so thin — or maybe old bacteria leaked out of graves and invaded him.
My roommates and I shared everything. For transportation, we had a beat-up Audi. Adam took care of the parking. He’d stolen a fire hydrant somewhere, and whenever we went out in our car, he planted it by the curb, reserving our spot. When we came back, we simply put the hydrant in the trunk. Parking would have been impossible otherwise.
I contributed in my own way. None of us liked to do laundry, and for two months we just got dirtier and dirtier, until I came up with a solution. (Going down to the laundromat would have been too obvious.) My mother lived in Rijeka, Croatia, and I had friends who were Croatian sailors, so once a month I’d collect all our laundry, pack it up in a crate, and ship it to her across the Atlantic. She’d wash the laundry and ship it back, and we’d all be clean again. The whole exchange took three weeks. She was happy to help, and enjoyed keeping in touch, even if only through my filth. I’d lived at home well into my thirties, and she was used to my ugly ways.
My roommates and I did what our Eastern European totalitarian systems failed to do: develop a workable communist system.
One night, Drago and I went to a coffee shop in Greenwich Village and sat in a courtyard near a fountain, chatting and laughing. At the table next to us sat two women, one a luminous blonde, the other a gloomy brunette with a thin nose, a wrinkled brow, and dark blue eyes. The brunette sighed. I asked how come she wasn’t more cheerful on such a splendid evening.
“It’s a long story,” she said.
“I like long stories,” I said.
“But you won’t believe this one — it’s like a dime novel, something that could never happen in real life.”
“Go ahead, tell him,” said the blonde. “I think it’s funny, and if we all laugh, maybe you’ll lighten up, too.”
“OK,” said the brunette. “By the way, I’m Natasha and this is Jane.”
“And this is Drago, and I’m Igor,” I said.
“Why are you talking to us?” Natasha asked. “Are you trying to pick us up?”
“No,” I said. “I was just curious what made you sigh. I’m not trying anything.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you were,” Natasha said. “I could use an ego boost right now.”
“All right, we’ll try,” said Drago.
“That doesn’t mean you’ll succeed,” Natasha said.
“You know, it’s great how openly men and women talk here,” I said. “Where I come from, in Croatia, that doesn’t happen, and it probably doesn’t happen either in Serbia, where Drago comes from.”
“Serbians don’t need to talk,” Drago said proudly. “We just do it.” He exhaled a stinging cloud of pipe smoke.
“What a paradise that must be,” Jane said sarcastically. “Hey, wait a minute. What are you two doing together? Aren’t you supposed to be killing each other?”
“We were failures as soldiers,” I said. “Anyway, maybe we are killing each other. Like now, he blew so much raw smoke at me that it amounts to chemical warfare.”
“Warfare is my second nature,” Drago said.
“What’s your first?” asked Jane.
“You’ll have to kiss me to find out,” he said.
They leaned over and kissed, long and deep. I hoped he was over his hepatitis. Natasha and I were too embarrassed to look at each other.
“You’re interrupting Natasha’s story,” I said.
“Sorry. We’ll behave,” Jane said.
“I’m in a bad mood,” Natasha explained, “because my fiancé stood me up.”
“What’s the big deal?” I said. “Drago’s dates stand him up all the time, and he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t even notice.”
“It would be no big deal,” Natasha continued, “except that he stood me up at our wedding. He was too drunk to show up. The guests had already arrived with their gifts, the band was there, the wedding cake — everything was ready. I was so embarrassed, I could have died. And that was just this morning, so how do you expect me to be cheerful?”
“Better to discover at the last minute than after the wedding, right?” I said. “You should be glad you found out in time.”
“But for me it was a double disaster,” she said. “I work at a detox clinic, and he was one of my greatest successes. I thought I’d cured his need to drink. So I failed in my professional life and my personal life. I was a wreck — I am a wreck.”
“Good riddance,” I said.
“But he was a rich guy,” Jane said. “She would have been set. Famous family, too: du Pont.”
“Never heard of them,” I said. I had, but I felt like being provocative.
“Oh, you’ve heard of them,” said Drago. “Without them, the First World War would have been dull. They made most of the gunpowder — for both sides — so everyone could keep blasting each other. We have a lot to thank them for. Real noble family.”
“Screw them,” I said. “You shouldn’t bother with noble families. They grow spoiled and degenerate. You should marry someone from peasant stock, like me.”
“Is that a proposition?” Natasha asked.
I looked her in the eye and said, “It sure is.”
“Don’t act so surprised,” Drago told her. “He needs a green card.”
“Oh, in that case,” Natasha said, “since you cast it in such a romantic light, by all means — forget it!”
“You said yourself the cake is baked, the band is hired — it would be easy,” I said.
“You take the phrase ‘a marriage of convenience’ literally, don’t you?”
But she didn’t turn down a date with me for the following day. We went to her apartment, drank wine, made love in the traditional way: missionary. Afterward, she said, “You’ve blown it. If I marry you now, it will be for real.”
Still in postorgasmic lethargy (at least, I was; I’d come too quickly to give her an orgasm — although I probably depressed her enough to give her lethargy), we descended the tilted staircase, slipping a bit on the threadbare red carpet.
On the way out, she checked her mail, and on one envelope was written, in elegant calligraphy: Princess Natasha Romanova.
“ ‘Princess’?” I said. “How tacky. Who’s your cheesy friend?”
“It’s not tacky if it happens to be true.”
“You’re a Russian princess? How can you be?”
“Somebody’s got to,” she said.
“Must be a tough job.”
“As a matter of fact, it is. Most of my family was killed by Lenin and his cronies.”
I was astonished, although, when I thought about it, I realized there must be hundreds of Russian princesses — a veritable horde of them. Still, I was impressed.
“I suppose you want me to be impressed or something,” I said. “So you’re rich; so what?”
“No, I’m totally broke.”
“Can’t you ask for your inheritance — part of the Kremlin, let’s say — now that Russia is a democracy?”
“Can we talk about this later? I’ve got to go to work.”
She rushed off to her substance-abuse job. What karma, I thought — not just for her, but for her old drunken nation: a Russian princess working in a detox program.
We continued to see each other, our sex improved, and I still needed the green card. “Why don’t you apply for exile status,” she asked, “so we can see each other just because we want to, not because you also need something from me?”
“They wouldn’t believe me. If I were from Bosnia, no problem, or maybe if I were a Serb from Croatia — but a Croat from the Croatian coast, where it’s safe? Forget it. It might have worked in early ’92, if at all.”
This was during the Dayton Peace Accord negotiations. For me, that was the worst side effect of the peace plan — no more exile status. You might say the war was undertaken so the world, which had previously ignored the Balkans and shut us out, would not only pay attention to us but invite us in as exiles. It was a collective green-card scheme. I’m joking, of course. The war was real as such things go, but the benefit for many people who wanted to emigrate was that now they could. Unfortunately, I jumped on the wagon too late.
But Natasha was a compassionate social worker, so it didn’t take too long to convince her that I was a miserable wretch who’d die if I went back to Croatia, and that, in order to save me, she should marry me. Maybe she liked me — or maybe even loved me — only because I was miserable. I am not being cynical; I mean that as a compliment.
I thought I was getting married just for the green card, and Natasha would go on being my girlfriend. But the wedding was such a big to-do, with so many preposterous, haughty, drunk Russians — bumpy-kneed ballet dancers, cleanshaven writers (I’d thought all Russian writers had beards), well-fed musicians — that Natasha and I had stage fright; our lips trembled as we kissed. I think we were scared that, after such a big ceremony, we could no longer pretend it wasn’t real. All those gifts and kisses and tears just for a green card? Come on. Suddenly I knew we were actually married, stuck with each other.
I had an aversion to being stuck, and one possible, if only temporary, solution was another woman. So during the reception, I flirted with a catering girl as she poured me a single-malt Scotch. She blushed, and I asked for her phone number, knowing perfectly well I’d never call her, but feeling like a member of the upper class nonetheless. I was having an attack of lust, pure and simple, for this girl with her taut, shiny skin; small, tight, upright breasts; and smooth, sturdy legs. Even before she could write down her number, I ran to the bathroom and jerked off, imagining her clinging to me.
As a result, I couldn’t make love on my wedding night. I pretended I was too drunk. Actually, I was too drunk, and while pretending to pass out, I really did pass out.
The following morning, when I made love to Natasha, I was again both pretending to be doing it and doing it. Our lovemaking was self-conscious, official, as if marriage had alienated us rather than brought us together. It didn’t feel like a big adventure — but in fact it was. Bigger than we suspected.
Natasha wanted to get pregnant right away. I was scared of being a father; I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone someone else. Besides, why not take care of the people who are already in the world? (Of course, I didn’t want to take care of them either.) But my wife said she was going to have a baby no matter what. Sex took on a biblical character for her: procreate and multiply. But her attitude didn’t worry me. I’d read articles about the decline in sperm counts and was quite sure mine was too low. And anyway, I lacked a certain biological self-confidence.
Natasha got pregnant only two months into our marriage. With that accomplished, she refused to have sex.
At the same time, I lost my appetite and began to grow thinner and thinner. Walking upstairs to our apartment left me out of breath and wheezing. I’m no complainer — if you can believe that after reading this — but I could tell something was wrong. Although I mistrusted medicine, I mistrusted my body even more.
One evening, my wife said, “What’s wrong with you? Just look at yourself; you look like a concentration-camp victim.”
“Maybe I have a hyperactive thyroid or something.”
“Whatever it is, you’d better go find out. Are you sure it’s not AIDS?”
“I’m not sure of anything, but I don’t know how I could have gotten it.”
“You haven’t visited any prostitutes, or —”
“Come on,” I said.
“I need to know, for the baby.”
“How about for me?”
“For you, too, but if you don’t want to find out for yourself, you have to find out for our child.”
I went to see a doctor, who asked where I was from. I told him, and he asked whether I’d been in the war. When I answered yes, his bearded, salmon-colored face lit up. “Post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he said. “You need a psychiatrist.”
“Give me a break,” I said. “That’s an American thing. We don’t get that, just like we don’t get allergies; they’re a totally American privilege.”
“You’ve got it, all right. I can tell by the way you talk. You need to see an expert.”
So I went, but when I couldn’t climb the stairs at the expert’s office and my vision turned green and all kinds of noises started coming from my lungs, I thought, This is no fucking psychological problem.
I went to a new doctor, who, without talking much, sent me to a lab for X-rays, and then showed me that there were spots and lesions on my lungs. “Whatever it is,” he said, stroking his huge bald skull, “it’s not good.”
Terrified, I asked, “Is it cancer?”
“Doesn’t look like any cancer I’m familiar with, but you never know. At this stage nothing can be ruled out. We’ll have to see how your other organs are doing. Your heart rate is kind of high, but that’s probably because you aren’t getting enough oxygen. You’re gradually losing your lung functions. I wonder whether it could be AIDS.”
I wondered why he didn’t keep such thoughts to himself; I was panicked enough as it was.
“What’s your sexual history?” he asked.
“Nothing to boast of: An affair here and there — a quickie, usually. All heterosexual, no professionals.”
“I haven’t made love to any.”
“No, have you been to one recently?”
“Yes, when my molar broke. At first I didn’t want to go, because I couldn’t pay the bill, so I pulled it out myself with a pair of pliers. But a fragment stayed in and bothered me, so I had to go after all. In taking out the fragment, he pulled another tooth by accident. His fingers were cold and slimy, and he didn’t wear gloves.”
“Hmm,” the doctor said. “You’ll have to be tested.”
I went to a lab, where they drew blood and sent me home. I spent my nights in terror, thinking that must be it; the dentist’s office hadn’t been clean. I’d chosen it because my roommates had said it was cheap.
My wife was panicked, too, and was now having morning sickness. We were both miserable. It was worse than the Balkans. There, at least you could hide in a basement, in a trench, and have hope. Here, if I had the virus, there was no place to hide, no hope. But how could I have come down with AIDS so quickly? Or could I have gotten it in Bosnia or Croatia? Probably not. A health worker in Croatia had told me there was only one good thing about the war: it had stopped tourism, and thus curbed the spread of AIDS, which was brought in by German tourists. So in one small way, the war might have improved the health of my people.
The test result came in several days later: no HIV. This threw the doctor off. He thought it couldn’t be TB, because TB usually occurred with weakened immune systems. In new X-rays, my lungs looked even more scarred than before.
“Maybe you have sarcoidosis,” he said optimistically.
That didn’t sound good to me; in general, sarco- wasn’t a good prefix — sarcoma, sarcophagus — but he explained that it wasn’t deadly, in most cases. At any rate, I’d have to have exploratory surgery.
The hospital where he sent me was a diagnostic center, and was full of terrified, thin, anxious people standing around in hushed carpeted corridors. Now, here was a real war between life and death, with death gaining the upper hand; yet nobody acknowledged it. In Bosnia, you had chetniks waving flags with skulls and crossbones, loud explosions — the whole fanfare of death — and in the end almost everybody survived the attacks. I bet even in Bosnia more people died of disease than of bullets (let alone in world history — billions have perished from diseases, and only millions from wars). Even on the battlefield, if you find someone dead you don’t look for a bullet hole. He may have died of a heart attack, or from a contagious disease, or stomach cancer — we ate so badly.
I looked out the window of my hospital room. I couldn’t smoke anymore — a cigarette could kill me — and I didn’t know how to handle my nervousness, what to do with my fingers, my lips. I saw hearses departing several times a day.
The exploratory surgery turned out worse than expected. During the operation, one of my lungs collapsed. They had to cut away the top third because it was shot through with cavities and scars. When I came to, I saw only white ceiling and white walls. Nobody was around. My eyes hurt, my body hurt, my chest burned, and I had a terrible headache. I wasn’t religious, but I thought I was in hell, a hell of white nothingness and scorching pain. I had fever, hallucinations: I was lost in Antarctica, abandoned by my sleigh dogs, tossed in a snowy ditch.
A pulmonary specialist came to see me, dressed in green and wearing a mask over his face — not just a little one, either. He said, “You’ll be all right. We found out what it is: TB.”
“And that’s good?”
“Considering the possibilities, yes.”
“So I can go home now?”
“No. We have to test your wife to make sure she doesn’t have it. Your form of TB is highly contagious. We’ll keep you here as long as reasonably possible.”
“How long is that?”
“Three to four weeks.”
That was a year ago. I’m out of the hospital, but I haven’t improved. My TB strain skillfully evades large doses of antibiotics. Maybe the doctors have slowed the progress of my disease; I don’t know. They tell me some parts of my lungs have repaired themselves, while others have deteriorated. I’ve taken all sorts of drugs. Some seem to help, for a while. Who knows? If I hadn’t taken them, I might be dead by now. Sometimes the bacillus develops a tolerance to a drug, which means the drug no longer sees the bacillus as an enemy: instead of attacking and killing it, the drug hangs around amicably. Their friendship kills me.
I live with Drago in Astoria again. When he found out about my TB, he said, “What can that do to me? If you Croats haven’t killed me, a little bacterium won’t either.”
“Don’t be so sure,” I said.
“No, really. I had childhood TB and nearly died, so I’m immune. I can’t get it again.”
And so my supposed enemy is now my best friend. We play chess and cards. My wife can’t see me because my TB is contagious, even through the air. She doesn’t want to risk it.
She’s had the baby. I’d like to say we have a baby, but I haven’t even seen my child, except in pictures. She’s a beautiful girl, Victoria, another princess. Sometimes I feel vain — I have fathered a princess. Does that make me a king? Probably not, and it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, my wife has been taking her heritage more and more seriously, reading about bones uncovered in the Urals that might be the remains of her murdered ancestors; genetic and radioactive tests are being used to ascertain their identities. Meanwhile, she’s suing the Russian government to get back her family’s gold, artworks, and summer palaces. I hope it works for her, although to me it all sounds preposterous and outlandish.
Even if I don’t recover, Natasha will continue to be my wife, I guess. She sympathizes for me, and cries when we talk on the phone. I long for a simple family life. Strange how I didn’t appreciate it when I had it (if I ever did). I wanted something extraordinary. I didn’t know that the most extraordinary thing is to have an ordinary life: health and family and any job that doesn’t destroy your health or take you away from your family. Everybody seems to know this. I wonder why I have realized it only now.
I should be ashamed to state such platitudes if I hadn’t arrived at them the hard way. Life is like a complex math puzzle with a very simple solution — say, 1 or 0. Of course, when you come down to it, what is 0? What is 1 but a complicated philosophical concept that can’t be explained without redundancy, without resorting to itself? In the long run, the simple things are the most puzzling, the simple life the most unattainable.
When in a certain mood, I spend hours remembering each encounter that might have led to my infection. I suspect even my wife. After all, it’s an old Russian disease, consumption, the dry variety of TB. Other times I live almost pleasantly, gathering enough energy to take subway rides, look at pretty, overworked women, go to a coffee shop. I know I shouldn’t do this because I often sneeze — some susceptible person might catch my bacilli. But then, if not from me, they’ll catch it from someone else; these bacilli must float all over the city.
I once thought that simply being in America would make me happy, but now I know better. The American poet W. S. DiPiero once said, “America is grief parading as opulence.” I’d say America is disease parading as health. Everywhere you look, you see joggers, white teeth, youth, smiles, but when you talk to people, you hear only about cancer, heart failure, and AIDS. My parents cling to an image of America as pure happiness. I haven’t let them know that I’m sick — I can’t. I don’t even send my mother laundry anymore. (I wonder whether the disease came over on the ship, rats nesting in my clean clothes.) I hope I’ll outlive them, so that they’ll never have to learn how miserably I have ended up. I send them old pictures of me, and new ones of my wife and child. I tell them I am not in the latter because I took them.
I don’t mean this as a lament — I’m having a lot of fun right now. I’m strong enough to sit up, for a change, and am semiconscious enough to rave. How beautiful that I can still do this. (Although I renounced the concept of beauty before, I’m coming back to it.) I am in a good mood, I won’t deny it. I’m having a strong cup of coffee at the moment, and I don’t feel absolutely exhausted and pained. I’m scribbling down these words, creating an illusion of memory, pleasantly fleeting and ephemeral. Just now I’m feeling wonderfully alive and alert, not wheezing, or spitting, or shivering; just waiting. But for what? Health? Death? Anyhow, I’m passing the time. I play chess with Drago, who continues to live unhealthily. He still has hepatitis, and cirrhosis. I don’t know why, but we Eastern and Central Europeans don’t know how to live. Soon, we’ll all be wiped out. I’ve read that the average lifespan for a Russian male is fifty-three. Although Drago and I are not from Russia, I suspect ours must be similar. If America is disease parading as health, then Eastern Europe is disease parading as disease.
Well, I’m forty-three. I’ve lived. I should be glad to have made it this far. At least I’ve discovered who the enemy is: it’s nearly invisible, like purified evil, a form of antimatter that annihilates body and spirit. This story, this disease, has an open ending, thanks to the new dark ages of medicine, in which once again we know hardly anything. I wish I knew how long I can postpone the ultimate ending. But maybe I don’t want to find out; maybe it’s better for me to live in this hazy daydream of uncertainty. Yes, it is pleasant, this haziness. It makes me dizzy, makes me want to sleep.