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from the May 2015 issue

Just the Two

For V.

When the two of them stepped toward the terrace, the Boy cast a nervous glance around: the restaurant was not exactly posh, but still one of those places the Old Man normally avoided. He said they made him uneasy. No, not the prices, but the staff's attention—he didn't like feeling worth more than he really was. This time, though, the Old Man strode in confidently, scanned the tables with a connoisseur's eye, and picked one in the corner, a table for two looking out on the sea and with no umbrella.

"It'll do, right?" he asked.

The Boy nodded, and they sat down. The evening breeze barely ruffled the tablecloths, the sun had set beyond the host of hotels, and they were the only early customers here. The Old Man automatically took out his pack of cigarettes and lit one. He pulled a few times, glanced at the Boy, and flicked the pack toward him.

"Light one if you want."

"I, um, very rarely, only in company," the Boy mumbled.

"Am I not company?" said the Old Man with a half-smile. "Don't be ashamed. Actually, smoking is not shameful, smoking is stupid."

He glanced around, looking for a waiter. And the Boy knew: now all clocks in this time zone showed the approach of the sacral 6:20. At six twenty sharp, the Old Man would drink a gin with soda water, no matter where he was and what was going on. Tradition, he would say. Great men stand out from the mediocre because they set great store by traditions.

"Is it drawing near?"

"Quite so."

"And you've never missed it?"

"Not once, twenty years now. No one gets buried at a time like this, and you can slip away from everything else for a gin." The Old Man kept looking around, seeming worried now. "What will you have?"

"Beer."

"Beer?" The Old Man sounded almost indignant. "Beer is no philosopher's drink. It's just foam. There's something equine about beer."

"Equine?" The Boy burst out laughing.

"An association. Whenever I see a mug of beer, I picture a horse, damp with lather, tired from a ride. He leans over a bucket and swills and swills and swills . . . " The Old Man assumed a business-like look, because the waitress had appeared by them. "For the boy, vodka, Coke, and a salad, please. For the father, gin and soda water. Soda water, not tonic water, right? That's it. For now." He glanced at his watch. "And please hurry up."

The Boy reached out anxiously and lit a cigarette, never taking his eyes off the Old Man. The Old Man showed no reaction.

When the drinks arrived, the Old Man glanced at his watch again. "Seventeen past. Three more minutes to wait." When he saw the irony in the Boy's eyes, he said, "I'm no drunk, I can always wait. Time must be respected."

"And how did you pick this hour?"

"Look, my boy, it's not us picking the hours, it's the hours picking us. You're sitting there, and bang! the hour picks you. Then it was like that too, twenty years ago. I was drinking my cup of coffee, when a neighbor rushed in and said you'd been born. Said I had a son. I got confused, didn't know what to do, so I poured myself a glass of gin with soda, there was nothing else around. It was twenty past six. So it started. For twenty years, every day at this hour I drink a glass of gin to your health." The Old Man looked at his watch again. "Now it's all right. Now you've already been born. To your health."

"And to yours, Dad."

They took a sip.

"I didn't know that story—about the hour . . . "

"No one knows it," the father said categorically. "This story is yours, and now you know it and that's that. Well, I'll admit something else then—I've never liked gin with soda!"

They both laughed.

"The two of us are sitting together for the first time, aren't we?" The Boy nodded, and the Old Man went on, "That's no good. I've shared a drink with all sorts of scum in train and bus stations, at receptions and whatnot, even with the president, but I haven't shared a drink with my son. Why?"

"I don't know," said the Boy. "Maybe you think I'm too young."

"Maybe," the Old Man said and then grew thoughtful. After perhaps a minute, he said, "No, must've been embarrassment. You see, at home I'm your father, it's different there. But here it shouldn't be, here we should be equals. At a table, everyone should be equals. Come to think of it, two things make people equals: tables and graveyards."

"So, we're now the two of us and we're equals," said the boy.

"The two of us, equals," echoed the father, gazing at the sea. He was silent for a long while, as if he did not wish to believe it. Then, abruptly, he said, "And to think that this has cost me seven thousand three hundred glasses of gin and as many soda waters!"

And they burst out giggling so loud that the waitress shot them a disapproving look.

"You know," said the Old Man, "I drink only one gin."

"Yes, and then you go to vodka. Not one."

The Old Man beckoned for the girl, ordered a vodka with soda, and said, "Drinking is an art, my boy, an intricate art. Few master it by the end of their days. Drinking must bring only joy."

The Boy fixed his eyes on his glass and spoke slowly, "My friends sometimes get drunk, and they get sick . . . "

"Well, practice comes at a price." The Old Man shook his head. "What was it, 'more sweat in training, less blood in combat.' What matters is to constantly look at yourself from the outside. I split my gaze in two before I sit. One pair of eyes watches the table and the company, the other watches me from the outside. You drink as much as will let you say only good things about yourself afterward. It's simple."

The weather had grown milder, and the restaurant was gradually filling up. The customers were mostly noisy crowds of boys and girls with colorful clothes and lively sun-tanned flesh. They loosened up the air with their voices, ordered one after the other, as though they were the first people and the world would end with them. The Old Man never tried to go back. He'd long realized the pointlessness of going back—when you go back, what happens to you is only what's already happened to you, and the Old Man didn't like reordering his life, only his drinks. All else had already happened to him, and today, the last thing: sitting down with the Boy. Well, there was yet another sad event, but the Old Man was in no hurry for it.

Quite intuitively, probably from experience, he realized that the Boy's gaze crossed his at a single point. At home he'd have kept silent, but here everyone was equals and he shouldn't. "Slender, our waitress's legs, right?" he asked.

The Boy nodded, bashfully.

"You know, the legs play no part, they're on the sides," said the Old Man and instantly thought this might have been too much. But today he must be as he was. When two men sit at a table, each one must be as he is. And they were two men. Just the two of them. So the Old Man chose to go on. "Have you got a sweetheart?"

"No one uses that word any more, Dad. It's 'a chick' now."

"No, no," the Old Man shook his head. "The world's knee-deep in chicks. Anyone who fits the anatomy textbook in the least can be a chick. I mean something else, a girl you love. Just like that, you love her and you don't know why."

"That's old-fashioned," said the Boy. "Now it's all about open relationships, with no love, no commitments."

"Nonsense!" said the Old Man. "Like a gin with no soda or lemon—does the job but hasn't got any taste. And no sense either: you've got no commitment, yet you're already trying to escape from it."

"My generation doesn't hurry with these things," said the Boy. "There's education, a career, a bit of money, and meanwhile you enjoy whatever happens . . . "

The Old Man looked at the noisy crowd. He saw no one struggling toward education or a career; they were just enjoying whatever happened. But he'd made up his mind to give no opinions and no advice, either.

"In my life, everything happened more than once, only one thing remained unique," the Old Man began slowly. "You get tired of everything repeating—the unique remains like an ornament." He gestured to the waitress with the slender legs and ordered another vodka. "It remained the most beautiful thing in my life."

"Do you mean Mom?" the Boy asked timidly.

"She became your mother only later. Much before that, and much longer than that, she's been the woman I've loved."

"Do you mean you never cheated on her?"

"Dear God!" said the Old Man, and seeing the Boy's surprised look, added, "How did you come up with this, of course I did! With my lifestyle, with my popularity, I had money, too, then . . . "

"Did you cheat a lot, I mean, often?"

"Look, my boy," said the Old Man. "A true man never talks of women as numbers. Each one is a separate unit. As for me—they were an indeterminate set, but consisting of units only."

The Boy was silent for a long time, as if mustering energy to ask something that requires a terrible amount of it. He lit a second cigarette, drew slowly, spun its tip inside the ashtray, although there was no ash yet, and then suddenly, summoning the whole power of his young masculinity, asked, "And her? Mom?"

The Old Man grinned, because he knew that question long before he'd heard it. The Old Man had been preparing for these questions twenty years now. Nothing could surprise him.

"I don't know," he said meekly. "Never thought about that. Because once you start thinking—that's it, it begins to gnaw at you, to eat you, you will melt down. She has always loved me. What else matters? When you're loved, nothing else matters."

The orchestra began tuning up their instruments, and suddenly the noise became unpleasantly loud.

"You should eat," the Old Man offered. "I got a check today, don't worry. Today I'm rich, today I'm the richest man in the world," and he immediately wished the Boy had not understood his words in the emotional sense, so he hurried to add, "Today we can afford a whim or two. Pick yours."

The Boy took his time leafing through the pages, then tossed the menu back and said, "None of this sounds familiar. They're pretty names, but who knows . . . "

The Old Man patted at his pockets to feel where he'd put his glasses, slowly perched them on his long nose, and stared down so intensely as if he were deciphering an ancient scroll.

"That's it! Frog legs. And dry white wine."

"Frogs?" asked the Boy in disgust. "Like those guys things croaking in the swamps? Never!"

"Only once, you see? Only once must you overcome your resistance, do something in spite of yourself. After that, many times or never more! But this once is necessary. No, for nothing else, just to prove you can."

"If it was another thing, all right, but a frog . . . So many people leave this world without—"

"No," the Old Man cut in. "So many people leave without having read Shakespeare. So many people leave without having seen the Gioconda. So many people leave without having heard of the atom. 'Many people' is no argument. About anything, to anyone—except during elections. That's exactly whom elections have been invented for—for those who 'never' . . . But that's another story."

"OK, fine, in the face of so many arguments . . . "

They ordered two portions of frog legs and a bottle of dry white wine.

It was nicely warm and nicely windy, nicely bright and nicely noisy. And it was the two of them, for the first time just the two of them. The Old Man had held this conversation a hundred times in his head, sitting on a corner table in a strange bar in a faraway city; he'd considered every word, measured every statement, polished every dictum till it shone—just for this day, for this conversation. And his rare prayers to God had finished with the words, "God, please let me live to see this day." And to all misfortune’s slaps, he'd said meekly, "Fine, but let me live to see this day."

And now, on this day, sitting opposite each other, just the two of them, the Old Man was silent. He had spent himself during his preparation, had exhausted himself with rehearsals. All those words had grown stale with use, and he felt like a marathoner who had fallen down one stride after the finish, before receiving his laurels.

Yet he'd lived to see this day and he thanked God mentally.

"You look feeble," said the Boy. "Lately you've been working lots. You must take care of yourself, you've done enough, your fame—"

"Fame concerns only those who strive for it," the Old Man cut him short. "I am simply doing my job like everybody else. I want the execution to be masterful—that's all. After each award, after each premiere, after all that applause, I go to the graveyard and heal myself of vanity. And all the rest is not on our hands."

"Still, don't defy fate, your heart—"

The Old Man disliked it when someone talked of his heart, so he veered nimbly. "What's scarier is the sense of time passing. Time devours all but itself. That's why one must learn to stop it. I, for one, have stopped it now."

"How do you mean, stopped it?"

"Just like that, see . . .  The clock keeps ticking, but my time isn't running. Within these few square feet, there's been no history, no events, nothing. I'm outside them. Only a hand passes bottles and plates through this closed space, but it can't intervene with the flow of things. And in this timelessness, there's just the two of us."

The wine was lovely, and the Old Man was entering the soaring state he called "a gentle Socratic conversation." In that state, not only did time stop, but the soul ascended so high you had to stand on tiptoe to reach it. At first it was exhausting, but then you got used to it.

"From today on, I'm becoming a huge fan of frog legs!" the Boy said with youthful zeal.

"See? You'd have denied such a delight to your stomach only because of some prejudices. And prejudices exist to be overcome." Then the Old Man added sadly, "Though there's never any end to them."

The wine had loosened both their tongues. The Old Man knew from experience that their talk would start meandering at this point, but that had long stopped worrying him. He sprawled inside his timelessness, a glass of wine in hand, and he felt like an ancient Greek teacher during a symposion.

"I keep wondering how you manage," the Boy faltered. "You work like a horse, travel all the time, keep in touch with thousands of people, and you feast the nights away. Don't you get tired? You're burning your candle at both ends."

"And do you know another way to live?" the Old Man parried. "Let me repeat: to live!" He made a long pause and lit yet another cigarette. "One must live simply. And I live simply: I do just what I feel like, here and now. Now tell me, am I to blame for feeling like doing such a lot of things?"

"I wouldn't manage," the Boy confessed.

"Because you force yourself. You mustn't force yourself to do anything. I write to have a good time, translate to have a good time, travel to have a good time. Et cetera."

"So your life is a string of good times!"

"Seems so," the Old Man concluded, not seeming to believe himself. "That is, I try to make it so. Shall we get another bottle?" And when the Boy nodded his consent, the Old Man said, "Won't it be too much for you?"

"I'm watching myself from the outside." 

At the beginning of the new bottle, the Old Man expounded his philosophical views on friendship; toward the middle, on masculine honor. He planned to carry on with his thesis, but the slender-legged waitress arrived and brought the sad news that they would soon be closing. The Old Man looked around—everyone was having their final drinks—and since he wasn't accustomed to being a straggler, stood up and made a gallant bow. "Will you do us the pleasure of sitting with us?"

To the surprise of both, the girl closed her notepad and thrust it into her pocket. The Old Man motioned with his eyes, and the Boy rushed to fetch a chair. The Old Man motioned with his eyes again, and the Boy rushed to fetch a glass from the waiters' table. With an expert, practiced gesture, the Old Man filled the girl's glass, raised his and asked, "What should we call you?"

"Mimmi," she said shyly.

"Mimmi, let me introduce you: this is my son, a wonderful boy. Let's drink to the health of the three of us."

They did.

"My son's a clever boy, he studies physics, knows a few languages—"

"Dad, stop it!" cried the Boy.

The Old Man shut up in embarrassment and rose a bit again. "Young lady, please excuse an old jester. Sometimes a man enjoys himself more than he can take . . . "

The girl stretched her lovely lips into a smile and asked, "And why didn't you introduce yourself, sir?"

"I did not? I'm sorry. I'm his father."

"I know who you are. The party at the next table recognized you—I heard their whispers. I've read your books myself, I like them very much."

The Old Man leaned deeply toward her, smiled inscrutably, and said sadly, "My books? I'm presenting you something much greater than them." He pointed a finger at his son. "My life."

The Old Man paid, and they left. The Sea Garden was deserted, and the evening breeze had freshened.

"It's happened to me before," the Boy said. "When I say my name, they ask me, 'Wait, aren't you the son of—'"

"That's nonsense!" the Old Man cut in irritably. "No one's ever asked me such a thing, my father was an accountant at a local cinema. But I am proud of him."

They walked a few steps along the alley. The Boy halted and turned to the Old Man. "I'm proud of you too, Dad." He hurried to add, "Not just because of your books."

The Old Man felt an odd weakness in his knees. He'd grown used to flattery, but that was different. He'd grown used to living among sentences, but that was a different sentence. He'd learned how to construct plots and string together his characters' words, but that was not a story. Only now did the Old Man realize how long he'd waited to hear that and how much he'd hoped to hear it, and how great it felt to hear it. Only now. Suddenly, he decided they should not get to the old street lamp, before the street lamp he should wipe, you know, his glasses . . .  "Let's sit down, OK?"

And when they sat down on the bench, he felt the treacherous lump in his throat that was about to spoil all the enchantment of the evening, so he decided to drown it.

"Now listen to my last lesson for tonight," he said slowly. "This is my bag, right?" The Boy nodded. "I always carry it around, right?" The Boy nodded again. "Now listen. Here in front, in this small pocket that's meant to hold a notepad, there's no notepad. There's this." And the Old Man produced an elegant flat flask containing a transparent liquid. "My friend Vasko calls this bottle 'a life-saving rope.' You know, like with the mountaineers, the rope of last hope. You reach for it only as a last resort—say, after heart failure. Or in a fit of terrible thirst at a wrong time and place. Or in a case like this one."

He carefully, like in a ritual, undid the cap and took a very small sip, but enough to drown the lump in his throat. "Remember also: the rope must never be beyond arm’s length!"

They ambled down the alley, between the lamps with their halos of moths and mosquitoes. They chattered about a million things, and the Old Man was afraid he had few days left to talk his fill with his son. Everything was too wonderful, and the Old Man deliberately strolled slowly, and deliberately spun all sorts of yarns, and deliberately strung one into the other.

Somewhere in that bustle of stories, jokes, and maxims, the Boy found an unexpected opening. "You drink in the morning, too. At eleven twenty sharp. I've seen you pour yourself from the fridge in your room. Why do you drink in secret?"

The Old Man gave him a puzzled look. "In secret? Heck no, my boy. That's when your brother was born."

And they burst into another guffaw, much to the horror of the people who had come outside to breathe some fresh air in silence. The Boy used the excitement of the laughter to pat his father on the shoulder, but then he didn't draw his arm away. The two of them walked on, the Boy's arm around his father, the Old Man barely reaching his son's shoulder but for the first time in his life not caring about it.

The sea remained far behind their backs, and they could see the first old houses of the seaside neighborhood, when the Old Man ground to a halt. "Hey, don't you know any songs? I know one. Well, not all of it, but it starts fine." He slipped the bag off his shoulder, set it down on the cobblestones, carefully rolled up his shirtsleeves and began with all the power of his lungs and all the false dissonance he could muster:

"Screw this life, I've had enough. . ."

Then his voice was joined by another, just as powerful and just as false:

"Come tomorrow, I'll be tough. . ."

And the two of them broke the seaside silence. And they walked on, the Boy's arm around the Old Man. And they were just the two of them in this city, in this area, in the world. And they needed no one else.

 
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