s I sit at the bank of the river Volga, I remember the summer Nikita moved into the apartment next door. The truth is that I no longer remember anything before he arrived in Malinovka. For me, the world came blinking into existence that bright, eternal summer—the summer he taught me the right way to drown.
When people drown, he told me, they don’t thrash or scream like in the movies. They just slip under. Disappear.
I was nine then, and he was ten. We waded into the Volga, the cool water lapping at our ankles, then waists and chests, until the soles of our feet lost the riverbed. We silently sank to the bottom, like real drowning boys, and we rescued one another, pulling each other to dry land and jump-starting each other’s hearts until we gasped back to life. Then we laughed ourselves breathless in the coarse sand before racing each other back to the water to do it all over again.
“Can you keep a secret?” he asked me one day as we treaded water, our skinny legs kicking below the surface to keep our heads afloat.
He shook his head and told me, “Sure isn’t enough. You have to promise.”
I promised. He leaned in and whispered in my ear. Then we each drew deep breaths and sank to the bottom.
Maybe I’m repainting the past, complicating something as simple as two boys in a river. Maybe I know so much now that I’ve forgotten how little we knew then, how the words we spoke to each other meant what they meant and nothing more. But this is true: in one way or another, I was in love with him from the very beginning.
When I was younger and I couldn’t sleep, I’d stumble out of bed and into the living room, where my father would be sitting on the couch, folding paper. In our apartment, shopping lists and prescriptions for medications were reincarnated as cranes and turtles. He folded unconsciously, when he was thinking about other things; as he folded, sorrow tended to gather on his face. Whenever he noticed me watching, he’d unfold his creation, gazing down at his lap and shaking his head as if I had caught him succumbing to some dark temptation.
My father taught mechanical engineering at the local polytechnic. He had attended Lomonosov, Russia’s best university, and somehow he ended up right back here in Malinovka. If he couldn’t escape, I assumed nobody could. Outside of his lectures, he seldom spoke; the longest conversation the two of us had ever sustained was the day he tried for an hour to teach me how a circuit worked. Since then, our apartment was almost always quiet.
When I was afraid, I liked to stand in the living room doorway where he couldn’t see me watching the delicate movements of his fingers, the loving touch he applied as he folded life into paper. I imagined that, if something happened to me, he would take me in his hands, redefine my creases, fold the life back into my body.
Now and then, I hunted down the animals he left scattered around the apartment. I brought them back to my bedroom and arranged them on my bedside table, an unlikely herd of elephants and goldfish and eagles migrating together to somewhere warmer.
When Nikita moved into the apartment next door, I stopped visiting my father in the living room when I couldn’t sleep. My bedroom shared a wall with Nikita’s bedroom. Each night, one of us would knock three times, and the other would knock back, and I would fall asleep, secure in the knowledge that we were centimeters apart.
Many sons of single mothers lived in Malinovka, but only Nikita and I were sons of single fathers.
I used to hold my breath when I walked past Nikita’s father. He moved unpredictably, like someone else operated his body half the time and he was constantly trying to wrest back control. I still hold my breath sometimes, even though my father told me to treat him the same way we treat the alcoholic who sleeps in the stairwell in front of our apartment—not to fear him, but to pity him, and to tread gently around him.
The only reason I ever visited Nikita’s apartment was the stack of American films on VHS tapes that towered in the corner of the living room. Over the years, we watched them all. None of Nikita’s father’s movies had happy endings. Titanic was Nikita’s favorite; Frankenstein was mine. Whenever lightning struck in Malinovka, we clutched each other’s chests and shouted “It’s alive!”—Nikita’s first two English words.
When we got bored, we pressed rewind and watched scenes from the movies backward. We turned off the sound and narrated them ourselves. Frankenstein became a film about a scientist disassembling a murderous monster limb by limb, organ by organ, until it could never hurt anyone again. In Titanic, a broken ship rose from the Atlantic like some ancient leviathan waking from its centuries-long slumber. Hundreds of drowned bodies came to life and climbed out of the sea. They rode the ship all the way back to their homes and reunited with their families, asking, “Was I gone long?,” asking, “Did you miss me?”—laughing, crying, picking up where they left off.
Any story could have a happy ending. All we had to do was press rewind.
To leave the apartment building, we had to sneak past the Courtyard Boys. There were three of them, Dima and Vitya and Yan. They were our age but we weren’t friends. Neither Nikita nor I knew the right way to make a fist, but the Courtyard Boys picked fights with anything that moved. Purple bruises always mottled their skin, fading and reappearing but never completely healing.
Each day, Nikita and I waited until the Courtyard Boys weren’t looking and dashed out of our building, through the courtyard, and onto the street. On the darkest summer nights, when the power went out all over town and there was no light left to read by, we’d tear past the Courtyard Boys, down Kirov Street, and up the birch-dotted hill behind our micro-district, taking care not to tread on the broken glass or brush up against the cow parsnip, which dripped sap that could burn our skin.
I was in love with the lonesomeness of the hillside and the darkness that pressed in from all around, broken only by the hand-cranked lantern that flickered between my right leg and Nikita’s left.
When the electricity came back on, we’d watch Malinovka reignite. The pale-yellow glow crawled back up the streets, a tide of light rushing in and revealing the town block by block. There was the nucleus of Malinovka, Victory Square, where children climbed the dormant concrete fountain as their grandmothers negotiated the price of fresh dill in the covered market each Saturday morning. And there was our school, where we shared a desk and whispered rude jokes about our teacher, Irina Sergeevna.
Beyond our school, we could see the dark halo of abandoned factories that ringed Malinovka. Before the nineties, Malinovka had been a monogorod, a town devoted to a single industry—in our case, petrochemicals. There was no industry anymore, but the factories still stood. Every child in Malinovka had been warned away from them, but to a child those factories were irresistible—filthy playgrounds, the shells of prehistoric reptiles. Once, they had made floor wax, diesel fuel, industrial lubricant; for us, they made long shadows, and each summer we bathed in their cool darkness.
I unfocused my eyes and it all turned into a swarm of fireflies, a smattering of stars, a bonfire.
Beyond the factories, we could see the rest of the world. If we squinted, Nikita said, we could see America. It was just behind the silhouettes of the birch trees, just past the dead smokestacks. It was all there, he insisted—just out of reach. When we grew a little taller, we would be able to reach out and touch it.
We had seen America in the films we watched, and he was enamored. His aunt, whom he called once a week but had not seen in person since he was five years old, taught Russian in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, one of those cities the lucky escaped to for school or work or love. Someday, Nikita wanted to escape too.
“And where do you want to live when we’re older?” he asked.
I thought. I thought about every place I knew in the world at once.
“Here,” I finally said.
“Here?” he said. “The whole world, and you choose Malinovka?”
I nodded. I would follow Nikita anywhere, but in the end, I wanted to live here and die here, and I wanted him with me.
He threw his arm around my shoulders, laughing.
“I’ll send you postcards,” he said. “One from each of the fifty states.”
When we were twelve, the Courtyard Boys shot a bird with a BB gun. A robin redbreast. We found it as it was dying. We knelt down to watch it shudder, then go still. There was something about it that disturbed me—the way its thin gangly feet stuck straight up towards the sky, maybe, or the way its head was twisted to the side, its eyes open and unseeing. It was my first time seeing death, and it felt almost intrusive to bear witness, like spying on a neighbor undressing.
“It needs a funeral,” Nikita declared. Unflinching, he picked it up with bare hands.
We brought it to the Volga and used sticks to dig a grave. Nikita set it down in the loamy soil. The bird belonged in the sky, not buried beneath our feet. If only we could pitch the body into the clouds where it belonged, I thought. If only we could send it home.
He gave a quiet eulogy. At the end, he took my hand and squeezed, and something buried inside my body sprouted wings and took flight.
It was easier then, when it was just the dull ache in my bones, the pebble I couldn’t shake free from my shoe.
Nikita began to sleep over to escape the shadows of his own apartment. The first night he slept over, my father came to life. At dinner, Nikita made him laugh and laugh, which was a strange sound to hear coming from my father’s body—like a machine malfunctioning, a printer jamming, an engine revving and revving but never starting. When we told my father about the bird and the funeral, he found some red paper, an advertisement for a package holiday to Crimea, and folded it into a robin redbreast.
He put out an inflatable mattress in my room for Nikita. A few minutes after we turned out the lights, I wondered whether my father had wanted a second child, if he was disappointed when my mother died and left behind only one infant son. A stone settled in my gut, and I wondered whether that was the longing in his face when he folded, if that’s what he was trying to fold—if all the origami animals were just practice for the day he would fold me a new mother and a new brother, one who understood how circuits worked.
As I considered this, I realized Nikita was crying. I said nothing. He crawled into bed with me, holding the robin. I rearranged the origami herd on my bedside table, pretending I didn’t notice the weight of his body next to mine.
I didn’t think to ask him what he was crying about. I wouldn’t have dared.
In the morning, the robin was damp with the sweat of his palms. He slept over again the next night, then the next, until I opened my dresser drawers one day and found his shirts neatly folded alongside mine. From then on, the inflatable mattress lay neglected on my bedroom floor.
Nikita competed in English Olympiads all around Russia, and whenever he returned to Malinovka, he’d bring me a souvenir. From Kaliningrad, a beetle suspended in amber, and from Moscow, a set of nesting dolls that bore the face of Frankenstein’s monster. My favorite was a conch shell from Novorossiysk; I had never left our landlocked oblast and thus never seen the ocean, but Nikita showed me how to hear it by pressing its mouth to my ear.
He won an Olympiad in St. Petersburg and bought us a stack of books with the prize money. The Master and Margarita, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Iliad—when he returned to Malinovka, his backpack was sagging with their weight. We read them all with our eyes on the same page at the same time, me trailing a few sentences behind him.
Sometimes, he read aloud. He was only thirteen, but he already knew what words could do, and he respected them like chefs respected their knives. With my eyes shut and my head against his chest, I felt his voice reverberate throughout his entire body, like the ocean humming inside the conch shell.
One night, we stayed awake to finish The Iliad. At daybreak, we raced each other to the river. We were Achilles and Patroclus, fighting the wars of gods, eternally by each other’s side. Nikita swam, and I stayed on shore, watching the sunrise double in the water and set the whole river ablaze.
When he dried off, I took note of the way the water droplets clung to him, the sun trapped in each one. I realized that he wasn’t a boy at all, but a painting of a boy that had escaped its frame. Achilles emerging from the river, invincible. I imagined spending the rest of my life inside the painting with him, wearing nothing but sunlight, our bodies made from the same brushstrokes.
I had noticed other things, too: his voice, which had dropped gradually over the last year, and the protrusion of his Adam’s apple, and the tendons and muscles that flickered in his arms. A year behind him, I felt childish in comparison, the contours of my ribcage appearing beneath the skin of my chest like a stray dog’s when I inhaled. Even when he slung his arm around my shoulders, even when we slept centimeters apart beneath the same blankets, I needed to be closer to him, as if by proximity his body could teach mine to be beautiful.
Until I was thirteen and he was fourteen, the only alcohol Nikita and I had ever tried was the filling of the sweets my father kept in a bowl on the kitchen counter, the ones with the bison on the wrapper. When we bit their brittle chocolate shells, they cracked open and flooded our mouths with plum liqueur that burnt our noses. We once gave ourselves stomachaches trying to get drunk that way.
One night, when our fathers were asleep, we gathered the half-empty liquor bottles from all over Nikita’s apartment, mixed them together, and smuggled the concoction to my bedroom. We pinched our noses, choked it down, and lay on the floor, watching the sharp edges of the world soften and melt away, waiting for the men inside of us to erupt from our immature bodies.
“Fight me,” Nikita said.
I asked why, and he told me that fighting was the thing to do when you were drunk. It’s what the Courtyard Boys did, what his father did, and those guys knew the right way to be drunk.
We stood up and I shoved him, even though it felt unnatural to push him away. He stumbled, laughing, then shoved me back. I fell backward onto my bed and he threw himself on top of me. I crawled out from beneath him and pinned him to the mattress, held him captive.
He squirmed his arms free, took my face in his hands, pressed his forehead to mine, and shut his eyes. We stayed like that for a moment, breathing each other in and filling each other up the way souls fill bodies. Then, gently, clumsily, he kissed me.
Beneath the alcohol, I tasted our shared dessert, the last bite of my father’s zapekanka we had dueled over with our forks—and beneath that, the subtle, intoxicating sweetness that only his skin carried.
We outgrew our clothes and tossed them aside like last winter’s coats. My heart pounded like horses were galloping from my chest. The bare heat of him pressed up against the bare heat of me. All was quiet except the rain beating against the window panes, and the sound of our breaths—quick and urgent, building and building. He said my name, and I realized that my name only sounded right in his mouth, that it was only my name when he was saying it.
Afterward, the room smelled hot, sweet, like fruit left in the sun. I heard a pulse, and I couldn’t tell whether it was his or mine.
I smiled at him, and he at me, and we both smiled at this new secret between us, this wonderful thing that was ours and only ours. The secret swelled and swelled inside our bodies until, little by little, it began to replace us.
The Courtyard Boys found us by the Volga one midnight. I don’t know how they knew we were there, how they knew we would be undressed, our bodies wet from a late-night swim, and my head resting in Nikita’s lap, his hand on my chest as it rose and fell with my breaths. Maybe they had followed us and watched us through the trees; maybe they could simply smell it on us the way sharks smell blood in the water.
I remember only the moment before—the silhouettes in the dark suddenly menacing, the hands seizing me by the shoulders—and the moment immediately after, their jagged laughter still suspended in the air, blood trickling from our faces and muddying the sand.
We pulled our inside-out clothes onto our bodies, wet with blood and river water, and staggered back to my apartment. My father asked if it was Nikita’s father. We insisted that it was nothing, nothing at all. We had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wouldn’t happen again. We promised.
My father sat us down side by side on the edge of the bathtub and dressed our wounds, stanched our bleeding. I closed my eyes as he cleaned the cuts on my cheek. I felt the movement of his fingers and thought of origami.
Nikita stopped coming by. He told me he was busy studying for his next Olympiad, as if I hadn’t learned to hear the difference in his voice when he was lying. For two nights, when I knocked on the wall between our bedrooms, he didn’t knock back. On the third night, I heard the faint rap of his fingers and pressed myself to the wall.
He returned to me in the cautious way a spooked cat emerges from its hiding place beneath a couch, drawing closer and closer until he finally spent the night again. He lay on the inflatable mattress, as if he was afraid to get close to me. Neither of us could sleep. There was a new weight between us, something that beat like a heart.
“I’m moving to America,” he said sometime after midnight.
“Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”
“I told my aunt what happened,” he said. “She paid my visa and airfare. She says my English is good enough to go to school there. She says it’s safer for me there.”
My stomach lurched. For a moment, I couldn’t speak at all. Then I said, “You’re leaving?,” which was a completely useless thing to say. My voice was strangled and foreign to my ears.
“Two weeks from tomorrow,” he said.
Frantically, as if I was pleading for my own life, I reminded him of all the things about Malinovka I knew he loved, despite the bruises. I reminded him of the New Year’s Eve he and I walked onto the frozen Volga, and the winter music the ice sang as the wind glided across it like a bow across violin strings. I reminded him of the gooseberries and tomato plants that sprouted from the black soil at the dacha where my father took us each summer, and the pears, bursting with nectar, so urgently ripe they leapt from their branches into the palms of our hands. I talked until my voice, already hoarse, began to give out.
He told me I may love Malinovka but Malinovka could never love boys like us. His voice wavered.
I pounced on him. Straddled his waist, kissed him. Pretended my whole body didn’t hurt. The inflatable mattress whined and hissed under our combined weight, the clumsy movements of our limbs, my frenzied hands trying to reclaim their rightful places on his body.
“Don’t go to America,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere. Don’t even leave this mattress. Promise me.”
He said my name.
“You have to promise.” I kissed him again. I kissed the place where Dima had split his lip and I tasted blood.
He held my face in his hands. “We still have two weeks.”
“Fuck you.” I swatted his hands away, my eyes burning.
He pulled me close and said my name over and over. The lamp on the bedside table flickered out, and the oscillating fan slowed to a stop. Out the window, Malinovka went dark. When Nikita fell asleep, I stayed awake and waited anxiously for the light to return.
For two weeks, we dug our heels into each moment, each second passing quicker than the last. We packed his suitcase together, and he joked about stuffing me inside and bringing me with him. At night, I stayed awake to savor the sight of him falling asleep; when I shut my eyes, I imagined my eighteenth birthday, university entrance exams, high school graduation. I watched the shape of his body fade from each vignette of my future, and I mourned the life we would not live together.
There were rare moments when the weight lifted, when old jokes would send new laughter rippling through our bodies, when I would wake up still half-dreaming and he would still be sleeping next to me, his hair matted to his forehead and his body awash with morning sunlight, and I would forget that I had ever felt sorrow, that any of this would ever end.
Finally, an hour away from Malinovka, at Strigino International Airport in Nizhny Novgorod, he boarded a flight to Moscow. From Moscow, he flew to Frankfurt, then Boston, where his aunt picked him up at the airport. There he will live and make new friends and stay up all night chatting with them in a language I only know two words—“It’s alive!” I will fade from his life until I am a ghost from his past, nothing more than a neighbor from years ago, a boy he once knew.
The night after he left I couldn’t sleep. Out of habit, I knocked on the wall behind my bed. When there was no answer, I wandered out to the living room to find my father sitting on the couch, folding paper.
“Let me show you something,” he said, as if we were already mid-conversation. He patted the couch cushion beside him. “Come here.”
I sat down. He handed me a piece of red paper and said, “Watch closely, and do as I do.”
Fold by fold, crease by crease, I copied his movements. When I made an error, he reached over and corrected me with his hands over mine. When we were finished, we each held a robin redbreast—the exact same as Nikita’s.
“Your mother taught me origami,” he said. “This is what I do when I find myself missing her.”
I stared at him. I recognized myself in his posture, and the way he pronounced his words, and the angle of his eyes. I realized that the same thoughts kept us both awake at night. I understood for the first time that his passive, silent love, fills me the same way my blood—which he gave me, which is his and mine and ours—fills my veins and arteries and capillaries and makes its way, three times a minute, to my heart.
I stayed awake the whole night folding paper robins. At sunrise, I watched with heavy eyes as the light in my room lifted from dark to dim to bright. I decided to escape the still air of the apartment and I walked to the Volga. I thought that maybe I could see Nikita there, that he would still be there the way the flash of a camera remains in your eyes after the picture’s been taken—the way all bright things linger.
Now, when I sit at the bank of the Volga, I squeeze my eyes shut and fix the world the only way I know how: I press rewind.
The Volga changes course and flows south to north. Hand in hand, Nikita and I walk backward through time, then run, shedding inches from our heights and bruises from our skin, shedding our clothes and diving into the river, drowning and undrowning and saving each other.
We forget The Iliad and The Master and Margarita and One Hundred Years of Solitude. We forget alcohol and the way it makes us feel as if we’re underwater, even on dry land. We forget how it feels to hold each other’s bodies.
The universe contracts. My father unfolds birds and fish and elephants into lifeless paper. We exhume the robin, bring it to the courtyard and watch it shudder back to life. Its tiny heart remembers its old rhythm and its wings remember their purpose and it takes flight, disappearing into the sky until it’s a speck in the summer sunlight.
One day, we’re swimming in the Volga, and Nikita’s teaching me the right way to drown. Our bodies are small. The rest of Malinovka has shrunk away. The whole world consists of him and me and the water between us.
“Can you keep a secret?” he asks, and I say “sure,” and he tells me I have to promise, so I promise. He leans in, cupping his hands tightly around his mouth and my ear like he’s scared the breeze will blow the words away before they reach me, and he says: “You and I, Roma, we’re going to be together forever.”
Then, in silence, like real drowning boys, we sink beneath the surface and disappear. ■