TOMATO JUICE

It is not often that I got to see my friends’ tears. Because guys do their crying alone, or in the company of a girl (professional soccer players don’t count; they have a license to do whatever they want). We cry in front of other guys very rarely, and only when we are in real pain.

All the more sharply did the tears of my friend cut into my memory—tears that suddenly appeared in his eyes when we were on our way to Moscow, and I poured myself a glass of tomato juice.

Let us now turn to the heart of the matter, a story both entertaining and instructive.

When I was younger, I traveled in many disparate social circles that overlapped through affairs both commercial and carnal. New people materialized as quickly as they vanished. Young souls swirled around as if thrown into a blender.

One of those friends who appeared out of nowhere was Simon. An easy-going drifter from a good Leningrad family.

The former and the latter credential were both necessary for entry into our social circle. It would be wrong to say that we wouldn’t “ accept” others. We would. It’s just that our paths never crossed.

In the 1990s, drifters from bad families joined organized crime, or were simply skidding downward along the proletarian slope. Non-drifters from good families either started their own businesses, or were sliding down the slope of science, in most cases in the same financial direction as the proletarians.

While we, a kind of gilded youth, were partying and wasting our lives, safe in the knowledge that genes, and family support, would never let us down.

Simon, it must be said, made an effort to do something about his life: he worked as a translator, peddled some sort of golden jewelry; sometimes picked up fares in his dad’s car.

He was hard-working, honest and empathetic, qualities that in those days hardly counted as a competitive advantage.

During our taxi endeavors, Simon always found riders with whom he’d start chatting and then neglect to charge for the ride. Also, he was very attached to his extended family, and he introduced me to them. Our families were alike.

Young parents who were trying in vain to find their place in the wild post-socialist order; and the older generation whose influence grew enormously during the messy breakup of the USSR. These people made of steel, who were born in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century, and who survived in its bloody waters, became the load-bearing walls of every family. They wisely reckoned that their grandchildren should not be entrusted to the care of their children because one child cannot raise another. As a result, these families often featured grandmothers and grandfathers and two generations of impractical children.

The name of Simon’s grandmother was Lydia Lvovna. There are load-bearing walls through which you can carve an archway. But the wall that was Lydia Lvovna would blunt any jackhammer.

When we first met, she was close to 80, a coeval of the Great October Socialist Revolution who despised that October with all her heart but who found it beneath her dignity and intelligence to fight against it. She was an aristocrat without aristocratic roots, although proletariat and peasantry also skipped her genealogical tree.

You could spot in her veins traces of Moses, which Lydia Lvovna explained this way: “Every decent person should have Jewish blood, roughly in the same proportion as a good hamburger should contain chopped onions.”

Her health was good, and her mind was sharp, which triggered class hatred among certain people. An hour of conversation with Lydia Lvovna was equal to a year in a university in terms of book knowledge—and was absolutely priceless when it came to life wisdom.

Her sense of dignity was rivaled only by the complexity of her personality and by her merciless sarcasm. She was also rather well off, lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment downtown and often stayed at her cottage in the countryside. It goes without saying that the latter circumstance mattered above all else for Simon and me.

Not everyone liked sex in the car. But almost everyone liked sex in a good apartment. Both Simon and I loved sex, and sex loved us back, sending us all kinds of ladies for short- and medium-term relationships.

Besides, Lydia Lvovna was a source of food, sometimes of cash, and slightly more frequently of good Cognac. She understood everything and considered that burden not too heavy because she loved her grandson. And she knew how to love. Most people wouldn’t dare. They would be scared. But Grandma Lyda wasn’t scared of anything.

Proud, independent, with a wonderful taste and impeccable manners, with well-tended hands and modest but expensive jewelry, she, to this day, embodies to me the ideal of what a woman of any age should be like.

The quotations of this woman should have been collected and published as a book. But idiots that we were, we memorized only a few.

“A doctoral thesis in a woman’s head does not give that woman the right not to wash the hair above that head.” Simon and I agreed.

“Money is useful in the old age, but harmful for the young.” Simon and I disagreed.

“The only woman without whom a man cannot live is the woman who can live without him.” Simon and I didn’t have a clear position on the matter.

“Simon, you disappeared for two weeks, and even Zoschenko wouldn’t dare do this (The famous Soviet writer, I gather, was at one point courting Lydia Lvovna)”

“Grandma, why couldn’t you call me yourself?” Simon tried to justify himself.

“I didn’t impose myself on Zoschenko, and I wouldn’t chase a layabout like you. Besides, you will sooner or later run out of money, and you will come to me feeling like an ungrateful swine. Not that it would give me great satisfaction. But still…”

Simon came close to scrawling “call grandma” on his forearm, but he would forget to call her anyway. Our friends ribbed him, as they did me, for “grandma dependence.”

“I know what happens here when I’m not around. But if I ever find concrete evidence, your house of dating will be shut down for an indefinite airing-out.”

It is at Lydia Lvovna’s that I acquired the skills of a flawless cleaner. A loss of this caliber of a love nest would have a been a catastrophe for us.

“So, listen up. This apartment can be occupied by only one pair of mating rabbits at any given time. My bedroom is out of bounds. And also, try to remember this: judging by your behavior, when you reach a mature age, you will have issues with fidelity. Only a degenerate loser will use his wife’s bed to sleep with a lover. So please treat my bed as your future marital bed.

Despite his utter carelessness and cynicism, Simon defended his grandmother’s bedroom like a wallet from a mugger, meaning he used all available means. This principled stance cost him one friend, but instilled respect among all the rest.

“Simon, the only thing you should protect is your health. Being sick is expensive, and believe me, you will never have money.” Grandma wasn’t wrong about this, unfortunately.

“Simon’s face is starting to resemble his mom’s, and his character his dad’s. It would be better the other way around.” Lydia Lvovna uttered this phrase in the presence of both of Simon’s parents. Aunt Lena’s eyes burnt straight through her mother-in-law. Uncle Lyosha inquired in a detached sort of way, “What’s wrong with Lenka’s face?”—and began looking at his wife closely, as if he really had doubts. The attack on his character went unnoticed.

“I love Lena’s face, but it doesn’t suit a man, and neither does your character.” Lydia Lvovna either really meant it, or simply took pity on her daughter-in-law.”

Lydia Lvovna said to Simon once:

“Aunt Tanya and I are going to the Philharmonic Hall. She’s bringing her granddaughter. You can meet me afterwards and I’ll introduce you. I think she might want to rescue you when no one else needs you.” Aunt Tanya’s granddaughter ended up rescuing someone else, and what a rescue that was!

“A good daughter-in-law is a former daughter-in-law”

Along with their divorce certificates, Simon’s father’s ex-wives received notification that their now-former mother-in-law finally loved them.

‘Simon, if you tell a girl that you love her only to drag her into bed, you are not just a scoundrel, you are a cowardly and talentless scoundrel.”

I have to say that this lesson stuck with us. Well, at least with me, without a doubt.

Honesty and openness about motive always guaranteed that you slept well at night, that the other party made a quick decision, and that the two of you preserved friendly relations after the fact, whether or not there had been an erotic component.

“My boys… In the old age, things are either bad or really bad. Things cannot be good in the old age.”

Later, I met quite a few relatively happy people among the elderly; and no fewer unhappy ones among the young. I think people exist within a single age range from the very beginning, and when their personality age matches their biological age, they are happy. Look at Jagger—he’s forever 25. And there are so many 30-year-olds with life energy barely enough for 70. Boring, bitter, extinguished.

Lydia Lvovna, it seems to me, was happy at 35-40, in that wondrous age when a woman is still beautiful, but already wise, when she is still seeking someone, but can already live alone.

It so happens that I once got unlucky (or maybe, lucky), and had the privilege of encountering Lydia Lvovna in rather unusual circumstances.

And it all began in a somewhat pedestrian fashion. My girlfriend left me, I wallowed in sadness, and sought treatment by partying hard. Of all the tools necessary for it, the only one I owned permanently was determination. However, every once in a while, I succeeded in sinking my teeth into a fellow college girl, or a friend of hers, and had an excuse to ask Simon for keys to his grandmother’s apartment.

One time, according to reliable intelligence, Lydia Lvovna was supposed to decamp to her country house. With keys in my pocket and lust on my mind, I asked a girl out to go see a movie. That was the pretext.

We met two hours before show time, and my devious plan went like this: to tell her that my grandma asked me to drop by to check if she’d unplugged her iron, to offer the girl tea, and then, using an element of surprise, to pounce on her. This girl and I once kissed passionately by her house, and judging by her reaction to the freedom I allowed to my hands back then, I had reason to expect victory this time.

I had no intention of ever introducing this girl to my real family, so the idea of presenting Lydia Lvovna’s pad as the apartment of my own grandmother didn’t seem to pose a big problem. I planned to remove Simon’s photo from the apartment ahead of time. But as could have been expected, I remembered too late, and had to invent a story about this tremendous love felt by my grandmother toward my best friend: holidays together, and this emotional tearjerker of a photo that I myself had taken which is why I wasn’t in it. Selfies didn’t exist then.

It was all going according to plan. The girl got so anxious about the unplugged iron that I could barely keep up with her on the way to the house. I’m curious, if God really created us in his own image, does it mean that God was also young once and was also running after a girl somewhere in heaven the same way I was now…

Anyways, I charged up the stairwell making stops for kissing. Of course, these juvenile fears (what if she refuses me?) make us hurry, and this rush often ruins everything.

With her lips in mine, my hands shaking, I attempted to stick the key in the keyhole. The key wouldn’t go in. “Well, this is going well…” I thought to myself.

“Let me do it myself!” My favorite thing to hear a woman say.

The girl, by then kissed to death, gently inserted the key, turned it and…the house exploded. To be more precise, the whole world exploded.

“Who’s there?” Lydia Lvovna asked.

“It’s Sasha,” a voice from space, alien to me, answered.

“Hi, grandma, we just came by to check on the iron, as you asked.”

To this day, I don’t understand where I got the insolence for this move. You know, the intelligentsia has this wonderful phrase “I feel embarrassed for…” It’s impossible to explain it to another caste. It has nothing to do with being rude or mean toward someone, or even with damaging someone’s wellbeing.

It is a strange anxiety about what another person would feel if you pulled off a stunt that, in your opinion, didn’t comport with this person’s view of global harmony. It often happens that those for whom we feel embarrassed would be genuinely surprised were they to learn of our tormented conscience.

I felt extremely embarrassed for my young girlfriend for bringing her to someone else’s house with an obvious purpose. And this feeling prevailed over the “embarrassment” I felt for Lydia Lvovna. She considered this for precisely one second. Smiling with the corners of her eyes, the “grand dame” joined the game.

“Thank you, but as you see, I didn’t go to the countryside. I’m not feeling too well. Please come on in, we’ll have some tea.

“I’d like to introduce you to…” In my terrified state, I forgot the girl’s name. Completely forgot. This still happens to me sometimes. I can unexpectedly forget the name of a person relatively close to me. It’s horrible, and it was at that moment that I devised a way out of this difficult situation. All of a sudden, I stuck my hand in my pocket to fetch my phone pretending I’d just received a call (Erikson had recently started making pocket-sized mobile phones).

“Excuse me, I need to take this,” I said. Acting out a phone conversation, I listened closely to my girlfriend introducing herself to my “grandma.”

“I’m Katya.”

“Lydia Lvovna. Please do come in.”

I immediately ended the fake phone call, and we proceeded to the kitchen. I’d even call it a kitchenette, cramped and uncomfortable, with a window facing the wall of another building. But I think it was the best kitchen in St. Petersburg. Many people’s lives resemble just such a kitchen, despite the fact they own penthouses and villas.

“Katya, would you like some tea?” She said using the polite form of Russian “you”. Lydia Lvovna had taught us to address all people in this formal, polite way, but especially those younger than us, and those serving us in shops and restaurants. I remember her lecture about this.

“One day, you’ll have a driver. Always, I repeat ALWAYS, use the polite form of “you” with him, even if he’s the same age as you, and has worked for you for ten years. The polite “you” is an armored plate behind which you can hide from the rude and the uncouth.

Lydia Lvovna took out teacups and placed them on matching coasters. She also took out a milk carafe, a steeping teapot, and silver spoons. She poured raspberry preserves into a little crystal bowl. Lydia Lvovna always drank tea this way. There was no pretense or desire to impress in any of this.

For her, it was as natural as insisting upon pronouncing the formal Russian greeting of “zdravstvuite” in full, instead of slurring and skipping over consonants, and turning the word into a low-class “zdraste”, as many did.

Drinking tea this way was as natural for her as not walking around the house in a bathrobe, and as natural as bringing a small present when going to see a doctor.

Observing all this, Katya’s eyes took on the shape of the tea coasters. She immediately stood up to go wash her hands.

“Wow, Sashka, you don’t even remember her name…” Lydia Lvovna said. She looked at me with warmth and with a certain sadness

“Thank you so much… and my apologies. I didn’t know what to do.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, I understand. You are a well-mannered young man, and you feel embarrassed for the girl. She is very young and must follow conventions of decency, and not go around strangers’ apartments.”

“Her name slipped my mind purely by accident, I swear.”

“And how are things with Ksenia?

As I mentioned, I had recently broken up with my girlfriend. We had been together for several years, and were often invited as a couple to friends’ houses, including Lydia Lvovna’s

“To be honest with you, she left me”

“That’s a pity, she’s a good girl, although I understood that’s how it was going to end.”

“Why?” I loved Ksenia, and took the breakup very hard.

“You see, all the good and even unique qualities that form the essence of your personality aren’t that important to her. And she’s not ready to accept your flaws, which are the flipside of those qualities.”

Back then, to tell you the truth, I didn’t understand what she meant. And for a long time afterward, I tried to change certain character traits in other people, not realizing those traits were the necessary baggage accompanying the virtues that gave me so much joy.

Suddenly, a shadow of alarm fell upon Lydia Lvovna’s face.

“Sashenka, please carry on being a friend to Simon. He’s a good guy, a kind person. But he doesn’t have any fury in him, and a man should have fury, at least sometimes. I worry a lot about him. Will you look after him? You’ll succeed in life, and he won’t. At least, let him have worthy friends around. Will you promise me that?”

It was the first time I saw a certain helplessness in the eyes of this woman who was the strongest of all the women I knew. The highest price for the happiness of loving someone is the inevitable pain arising from the inability to help that person. Sooner or later, this moment arrives.

Katya came back from the bathroom. We drank strong, freshly brewed tea, talked about something or other, and left.

A week later, Lydia Lvovna died in her sleep. Simon hadn’t managed to see her before that because we again skipped town to go somewhere for the weekend.

Two months later, Simon and I went to Moscow. The “Red Arrow” train, a whole compartment, a real adventure for two loafers like us. A waiter popped into our monk’s cell, and I ordered tomato juice to go with the vodka, which I’d procured earlier.

I opened the juice, poured a full glass, and looked at Simon. He was looking at the juice. He was crying. To be more precise, his tears rolled to the very edge of his eyelids, and would at any moment now break through the levee.

“Simon, what’s wrong?”

“Grandma. She always asked me to buy her tomato juice.”

Simon looked away because guys don’t cry in front of other guys. In a few minutes, when he looked at me again, it was a different Simon. Entirely different. He was older and more mature. He still exuded light, just not as brightly. His face had the appearance of sand on the beach right after a wave washed over it. Grandma passed away, and he finally grasped it, as well as the fact that no one, ever, will love him the same way.

And I understood then that when a person we love dies, we experience within a single moment a quantity of pain equal to all the warmth we received from that person in all the countless moments of a life lived together.

A heavenly scale reaches a balance. Both God, and physicists, are at peace.