Vlad Men, Part Two – The Kitchen Debate

USED 22By David Michael Newstead.

The photographs in the newspaper smiled up at Danik Drapushko, reassuring him.

It was a bright Saturday in Moscow and he was beside a newsstand with his head buried in the paper and its description of current events. At present, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was on a goodwill tour that was being widely covered in the press, but it wasn’t necessary to read articles to understand the significance. The photos from Gagarin’s trip perfectly captured the mood of the occasion. Months after the first-manned space flight in history, the world was still celebrating this unparalleled Soviet achievement. And in the midst of it all, Danik felt hopeful in a way he’d never known before.

Around him, the street was filled with people drawn to the city’s center. Some couples shopped. Children were running and playing in the park, while a few old men strolled by aimlessly greeting each other. At the newsstand, a crowd clustered together, eager to chat and buy new periodicals. But Danik Drapushko ignored them, instead focusing on his paper. A withered cigarette hung from his mouth. And he stood there, reading and waiting patiently for his wife.

HUGE CROWDS WELCOME GAGARIN IN LONDON, was today’s headline dated September 1961.

Since they first appeared in April, Danik had been reading these articles religiously. And it seemed that every trip Gagarin went on produced the same universal outpouring of support: in Egypt and India, in Cuba, Japan, Mexico, and Canada. Throngs of people came to see him and to celebrate what he’d done – the first man in space!

Here was an individual, Danik thought, just one man who had crossed all the barriers that divide people. He could bring the world together for a defining moment and Yuri Gagarin did it with a smile on his face. He was friendly, carefree. To Danik Drapushko, photographs of the Soviet cosmonaut shaking hands with adoring westerners seemed to melt away all the tension of the here and now. And if that were possible, then perhaps all the wars and the bitter suspicion could be overcome one day, because everyone was human and people could accomplish so much.

Drapushko relished the thought.

Checking his watch, he skimmed the rest of the front page before folding it under his arm. This was the typical sort of party publication that grew stale if you looked at it for too long and Danik’s fingers were already stained from the poor quality of the newspaper ink. Still though, one story in the bottom left hand corner had caught his eye. It was about a wall recently erected in Berlin not long after Gagarin’s space flight. Danik stared down at the offending words for a few seconds, letting them sink in. Just as one barrier had been shattered another one was created, he thought. Then, he promptly folded up the paper.

Danik wandered from the newsstand to a line of book stalls – still passing the time, still waiting for Elizaveta. Luckily, there were tables with every sort of publication to choose from in the meantime: history, art, biology books, old magazines, novels. Many of the titles were new to the Soviet Union thanks to the more relaxed policies of Premier Khrushchev. And Danik would instinctively cringed at the memory of anything before that. The very idea of Stalin sickened him and he turned to the pile of books, intent on occupying himself. One of the stalls was made up entirely of old copies of the Soviet journal, Novy Mir. Another was filled with books about radio repair and engineering. Children’s picture books. Medical dictionaries. But at the literature table, Danik stopped to examine a title by a Polish author.

Solaris…” he read aloud, thumbing through the text before putting it back where it came from.

This is Moscow Speaking was another title; this one from a Russian author.

Then, there was a novel called The Trial Begins by Abram Tertz. Danik noted the writer’s name and leisurely read over the back cover.

Just then, someone bumped into him, causing the book to fall from his hands.

“Excuse me!” a short, moustached man said to him.

Startled, Danik bent down to get the book, while the man picked up copies of each novel and walked to the next stall. Danik brushed himself off and again checked his watch. He looked at the selection one more time, eventually deciding on This is Moscow Speaking by Nikolai Arzhak. He paid the bookseller and began walking over to the department store to find his wife. But behind him, the short man was still there, still patrolling the book stalls, and meticulously sifting through everything.

Elizaveta and Danik’s daughter, Masha, were outside the GUM department store by Red Square. Locks of Eliza’s yellow hair rippled in the wind and she looked cross at him, even from a distance.

“You are late…” she said to him when Danik arrived.

“You said four o’clock,” he replied, finally discarding his cigarette.

“I said quarter to four. We’ve been waiting for you. And your daughter has been misbehaving,” Elizaveta informed him, an assortment of shopping bags hanging in her hands.

“Little Masha?” he said playfully and leaned down to kiss his daughter’s forehead. “Are you sure it wasn’t someone else’s child?”

“I have to start making supper, Danik. And Boris needs to be picked up from the neighbors,” his wife told him.

“Alright,” he sighed. “Let’s head home then. You get the meal ready and I’ll go get Boris.”

Eliza didn’t respond. The three of them began walking, while Masha held Danik’s hand, smiling at him.

As they passed a poster of Yuri Gagarin, his daughter looked up and started to ask questions as she often did.

“Papa, did you make that poster?” Masha pointed.

“Yes, little one,” he replied. “I draw all the cosmonaut posters now. Or most of them, at least.”

“For the whole country, Papa?”

“Yes, Masha. The entire USSR sees my work. But you know, I save all the best drawings for you and your brother,” he teased and his daughter laughed.

“Were you always an artist?” she asked, ever inquisitive.

“Oh Masha, I’ve been drawing since I was your age,” he told her. “But no, I wasn’t always an artist like today…” he said, trailing off.

“Danik, could you please carry this?” Elizaveta interjected and handed him one of the shopping bags.

Soon enough, they reached the outskirts of their Khrushchyovka apartment – a plain pre-fabricated structure in a long row of identical buildings, trees, and tangled up power lines. Danik hauled the bags up six flights of stairs, while Eliza tended to Masha. He dropped everything off on the kitchen table and immediately headed to the eighth floor to collect Boris. Elizaveta said something to him just as he left, but he ignored her, returning with their young son and to the pleasant aroma of food being prepared. Eliza set the table and Danik’s family soon sat down to eat potatoes, assorted vegetables, and sausage. The two of them didn’t speak over dinner. Instead, they watched their children finish their meals. Then, Masha and Boris played with their toys until bedtime. Once the children were asleep, Elizaveta disappeared into the other room. She ran herself bath and shut the door behind her.

Danik sighed.

He stared at that door frame and its bland white paint. He felt a profound distance that grew worse each passing day. Then, he turned and walked back into the kitchen. He searched through their shopping bags from that afternoon, looking for the book he’d just purchased. But the instant he opened it, there was a knock at the front door.

His friend Sergei had come over with a bottle in hand and Danik knew that he couldn’t refuse a drink. Not today, in any case. In earnest, the two of them sat down at the kitchen table: to drink, to commiserate, and to speak their minds. Not about politics or religion. They just talked about life. About their artistic labors at the Ministry of Culture. And as the first bottle was emptied, their conversation flowed from work to their wives, Danik becoming particularly drunk.

“I…” he started a thought. “I can’t say exactly where things went wrong. Elizaveta was a lovely girl when we first married. Very loving. Now, who knows? Who is she? I certainly don’t know,” he said.

Sergei grinned, then drank more. “I think it’s more likely that the East and the West become the best of friends than it is for men and women to start getting along. My wife isn’t speaking to me this week,” he admitted.

Danik paused. “But I don’t recall if my infidelity made her this angry. Or if she was angry all the time and that’s why I became unfaithful in the first place. I really can’t remember now…”

“What is that? Some kind of riddle?” Sergei asked, taking another swig of vodka.

Danik drank as well. “It seems to be.”

He continued. “When we moved out of the communal apartments a few years ago, I thought things would get better between us. And when Boris was born, I thought things would improve. Then, when I got a promotion. It’s always just over the horizon, because no matter what she wants so much,” Danik said.

“I hated living in the Kommunalka,” Sergei replied. “Communal housing was such a crowded, smelly, messy hive of people. No space and no goddamn privacy. Completely suffocating! Everyone always listening, ready to denounce you at a moment’s notice. I mean, the lengths we had to go to just to conceive my son, I swear to you!” and the two men laughed.

“But communal housing wasn’t the problem,” Danik told him. “Moving here was supposed to solve all that. But my wife’s still not happy. Not with me and not with anything else. And I like the new apartment.”

“You know, my father worked in a factory. Used to beat my mother when I was a child,” Sergei said. “Then again, it was the 1930’s. Things were less civilized back then.”

“Yes. I had neighbors like that when I was in art school,” Danik told him. “Every night was like a battle. You’d think someone was getting murdered.”

“Well, there’s your solution,” Sergei laughed. “You’ve solved marriage.”

“Shut up!” Danik said, only half-joking. “After the war, I never want to be around violence ever again.”

Sergei nodded in quiet deference to his friend. Then, he took a drink.

“I should head home,” his words slurred from the vodka. “Tomorrow, I have to sober up and this week we have all that work to do for the Twenty-Second Party Congress in October.”

“Isn’t Pyotr managing that project?” Danik asked, offering a cigarette to his friend.

“Unfortunately,” Sergei grinned.

Elizaveta stayed locked away until well after Sergei had left, but Danik continued drinking on his own. Every so often his eyes would shift back to the bathroom door. And each time, it was closed. So, he waited and he smoked and drank more.

He was calm now and contemplative.

Danik surveyed the interior of their apartment, automatically comparing it to his modest childhood home and to the absolute squalor of Leningrad during the war. Today, he had a sixth floor apartment that overlooked the scenic highpoint of Moscow University. They owned a radio and a refrigerator. They had several closets filled with books, clothes, and toys as well as a bathroom with a shower and a tub. The apartment had a balcony, a living room, a modern kitchen, a bedroom for his two children, and another for himself and his wife. Danik had even converted a corner of the living room into a workspace with a small desk, some art supplies, and two framed posters he’d worked on that received official commendation.

Cumulatively, all these domestic comforts surpassed everything he had ever owned or laid eyes on before the age of thirty. This caused Danik to have a mix of emotions. Of course, there was a clear element of pride and contentment like he had reached some great destination. But there was also this pronounced numbness, a dissatisfaction with accumulating material things. How hollow that could feel. He thought back to the young, starving soldier he’d once been, fighting to survive every single day during the Siege of Leningrad. And when Danik contrasted that bleak portrait with his life now, there was such a wide gulf between the two.

At 10:30, Elizaveta reappeared again in pajamas, clean and with her damp hair wrapped in a towel. Danik noticed the few strands of blonde that had escaped and were hanging down the side of her face.

Really, Eliza was quite beautiful, he thought.

“What are you still doing up?” she asked him, dripping with irritation.

“I wanted to talk,” he said.

“You’re drunk…” she replied.

“Might be easier that way. Just sit down for a minute,” he offered her a smoke, but Eliza declined.

“Alright then. I’m here, aren’t I?” Elizaveta declared.

“Eliza, please,” Danik said.

“What is it already?” she said. “I’m tired from dealing with the children all day and now you want to act like a child too?”

“Eliza, why are you so angry all the time?” he asked. “Remember how things used to be when we first met. When I was finishing at art school…”

“You think I don’t know about you and your whores,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I know, alright. How many have there been already? Fifteen? More than that?!”

After seven years of marriage, Danik wasn’t sure of the number either. There was the poet girl from the university, the dancer, the typist, and so many more, each woman blurring into the next. In his mind, Magda, Valentina, Glasha, and the others merged into one beautiful angel that liberated Danik from the day-to-day malaise of work and family. Every day, work and family. But paradoxically in his heart, there was always Elizaveta, his wife, who he truly did love.

“How can you treat me this way?” she asked.

Then, Eliza called him a liar and went through a long chronicle of his misdeeds.

Danik breathed, listening to her yell. This was the most she’d said to him in so long. And when she was finally done, he could speak his mind.

“And what if I stopped?” he replied, sobering up now. “What if it was like before? Just you and I. No other women. No more lies and no walls between us. Would you want that?” he asked.

Elizaveta didn’t speak at first. She just breathed. Her eyes were red from tears she had to continually wipe away. And her facial expression was evolving right in front of her husband. That palpable anger she felt gave way to a conflicted sort of vulnerability. She looked at Danik. And as they stared at each other, she realized that the two of them had joined hands during some point in the argument. Then, the conversation continued.

Eliza wanted to be enough for him without being made to feel like a fool again. She wanted to be respected and appreciated. Danik wanted her to accept him, not to be disappointed in him or to constantly search out his faults. One talked and the other listened as they reached a long awaited détente in their marriage.

It was late by the time they finished talking. The two of them quietly walked passed the children’s room. And when Elizaveta dozed off, Danik just stayed awake for some time, holding her.

He couldn’t sleep.

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