Trigger warning: This story mentions suicide.
This is a short story by Ilya Kharkōw, a writer from Ukraine. Interested in talking to Ilya about his work and options for publishing? He can be reached at [email protected].
I never liked Port Street. Curved like a fishing hook, this street wrapped around a holiday village. Daniel found a barely perceptible charm in this place. All I saw was a boring village. But I liked to look at this street through the eyes of Daniel. The swarthy guy loved this street the way you can love a person. He made Port Street special, not knowing that he himself was its main attraction.
The holiday village was only ten minutes away from the house in which I turned from a child into a teenager. Puberty made me drift away from my friends. Every day I ran to the sea. And ran there through the Port Street and Daniel’s dilapidated house. I ran, and under a wet t-shirt I took with me the secret of my first love.
I was in love with my best friend and through puberty, the desire for intimacy suddenly took the shape of the desire for his body. I was in love, but I was afraid to say it out loud. His father could kill me if he knew about my desire. He had said it so bluntly: ‘I hate faggots. I would have killed them all.’ However, he did not know that his son liked to play with me as if we were a gay couple.
Our innocent pleasure made everyone laugh. I laughed too. And my laughter at my own desire was the payment for awkward touches. For the same reason, I loved to fight with my friend. In a fight, we wrapped our legs around each other. Here he sits on me and beats his fists on the cheeks. And the next second I bite his stomach, and already I’m sitting on top and pounding on his chest. Soon he is sniffing my crotch. Now he is weaker. I can dictate the conditions.
In a fight with my friend, it was never possible to predict who would win. He had the same power as I had. But sometimes I went too far. I was in love with him, but I was afraid to say so and therefore did not know when the fight was supposed to stop. No matter how hard I hit him, it still hurts me more.
And then I comforted him. I was aroused by his disheveled appearance. Flushed cheeks. Red eyes. Scratches on the body, which if someone pierced, so only syringes during the period of routine vaccinations. We parted ways. We were always quick to excuse each other before we went home. Fighting was my favorite thing to do with him. I was a virgin and all I knew about sex was fighting with my best friend. But I wanted more. I wanted not sweet images, but real actions. Fight is fight; sex is sex. I was biting his belly and I wanted him to bite me back. All I really got in return was a punch from below in the jaw.
It was a special punch. I always skipped it. Whatever I did, if my friend was desperately trying to defeat me in a fight, then a punch from below to the jaw allowed him to win. We fought often. And I often lost because of the punch. I felt annoyed. There was nothing sexual about the punch to the jaw. No intimacy. Only pain. The fun of the public. Our comrades loved to stare at us. Here we are portraying a couple, but we are beating each other like freaky guys from the Titans of Wrestling. This was the summer when I first entered my teens. That same summer when I met Daniel on Port Street.
Now I am 30. I am walking along Generała Zajączka Street. Locals say this street has magic. The Polish city of Katowice is developing rapidly. Over the past 10 years, many streets have been transformed, but Generała Zajączka Street still holds a magic that locals can hardly describe. That is why I plan all telephone and video conferences so that I have the opportunity to leave the house and walk along the magical street.
Frankly, I do not really believe that magical things will begin to happen to me in this place. No. I like the legend. I like the feeling of possible magic. I go there for the possibility. This street is short, but the calls are usually productive here. Once, I managed to increase my salary by 20% instead of the expected 11% just by walking along this street.
But Generała Zajączka Street is not only a place for business negotiations for me. On this street, I call my family. I call friends in Ukraine. To my native city, which has been under occupation since the very beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war. I call Port Street to find out if everything is okay with Daniel. I haven’t been on Port Street for over 13 years, but we still keep in touch.
When I call Daniel, I call myself in the past. Communicating with him is a way to remember yourself at that age when the world was completely different. Before Russia divided my country in two parts, puberty did the same. It sharpened the desire to sleep with boys. And everything around was divided into those who could kill me for this, and those who could give me hope for happiness.
Alas, I spent several years in complete isolation. I will talk to the first gay man much later, when I start traveling regularly around the country. Then the whole country was against me, except Daniel. That’s why I still call him. It’s my duty. I wanted to be loved, but my country saw in me not even a romantic boy, but a mobilization reserve. Whoever wants my death is my enemy. That is why I will not serve Ukraine. I did my duty, I repay Daniel. He mentally saved me from my country and its cruel indifference.
Daniel says that the only cafe in their village has closed. Says prices are going up. The war has dragged on and his savings are running out. He can’t work. He has nowhere to go. He does not support the Russians. He feels that the Ukrainian-speaking population hates him. He is afraid. Shooting at night. He thought he was used to loud explosions. But it’s impossible to get used to it. He told me all this before. I let him repeat it again, and again, because apart from military news he has nothing else to share. And he wants to talk to me. Or maybe he doesn’t care who he talks to, the main thing is that someone listens to him. And I’m listening. Rough language shoots out like bullets from his mouth but crashes into my ears like silk petals. Tickles my neck. I hide his rude words under a t-shirt, as I once hid the secret of my first love.
I don’t remember how I met Daniel for the first time. That summer, I ran to the sea almost every day. I had already heard about the fact that you can’t run away from yourself, but I still tried. Separated from my friends, I sat for hours on the shore and looked at the opposite shore, on which the high pipes of the nuclear power plant stuck out. In truth, it was not a sea, but a reservoir. Still, it was huge. So big that the opposite bank was barely visible. That is why we called the reservoir the sea and hid our barely ripened bodies in the muddy water.
I rarely went swimming when I came to the beach alone. Most of the time I sat on the sand. Argued with the waves. Catching tadpoles. Stared into the distance. I tried to suppress my first love. And also tried to figure out what to write so that the text would turn from simple words into a valuable book. It was for me the same enticing mystery as the mystery of the emergence of feelings. We can’t control love. We can’t choose who to fall in love with. It happens to us, but without our influence. Why? That’s what I was thinking, sitting on the shore, trying to shake the sand out of my undies.
The way from my house to the beach passed through Port Street. Of course, there were many ways to get to the beach. I knew about 7 different beaches nearby. But my goal was to run away from myself, and at the same time hide from others, so that no one from my environment would see the shameful escape. That’s why I chose the least crowded beach. And the road ran past the house where every summer Daniel came with his grandmother.
Daniel was a karate fighter. He was proud of it. He built a whole universe around the martial art. Despite the heat, he went outside in a white kimono. As he will tell me later, the proper name for this garment is not kimono, but karategi. A brown sash snaked around his waist. He trained in the morning and evening. Seven days a week. He honed his punching technique to make his dream of a black belt a reality. It was Daniel who introduced me to possession. Possession is beautiful, and in combination with oriental martial art, it is also elegant.
I would pass by his house every morning and watch him train. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to him – it was embarrassing to stare. But over time, I began to look at him. A little later, I stopped hiding my interest. And later I even began to greet with a timid wave of my hand. Daniel was older than me. His body looked like the body of a mature, luscious youth. When he removed the top of the karategi, I had to make great efforts not to ask to touch his muscles. But I was lucky. The guys who work on their bodies treat them like a machine and are usually proud of them. That is why athletes often ask you to touch their muscles. And they even teach you how to touch their muscles in the proper way. This was the formal reason for our acquaintance.
‘Hey, can you help?’ he somehow called out to me. ‘Check if my chest muscles are the same. I think the left one looks smaller. Touch it. Right here. Yes. Say something.’
‘Press. Don’t be afraid. Scoliosis. Maybe that’s why?’
‘You have scoliosis?’
‘Yep, because of it, they didn’t take me into the army,’ Daniel said proudly.
In my childhood, it was considered honorable not to defend the Motherland, but to receive a document that allows you not to do this. I also dreamed of such a document. In Ukraine, a document on release from the army is the best gift for an 18th birthday. But even more I dreamed of having the same chest as Daniel’s. Even if his chest really had a barely noticeable defect.
The next day, I approached him and asked how he remembers these tricky karate movements. And Daniel showed me a black notebook in which he sketched each movement and the leading exercise to it. He did not draw very realistically, but I found his androgynous figures with legs apart and arms flying into the opponent’s body damn sexy.
‘Does anyone offend you?’, Daniel asked, and I could feel the care in his words.
I nodded in the affirmative. I told Daniel that I have a best friend. And that we often fight. I told him that my friend has a special technique – a punch from below in the jaw. And that I don’t know how to defend myself against this punch. Then Daniel showed me a series of drawings. Daniel knew how to repel this punch. Moreover, he immediately came up with a series of tricks that would allow me to lay my best friend on his back, the next time he tried to use his special move. But all this looked to me incomprehensible, albeit sexy pictures. I told Daniel so directly. Nothing is clear. Then for the first time he opened the door of the low fence through which we communicated. He let me into the territory of his house. That is how we became port friends.
And again, I am walking along Generała Zajączka Street. Today I read that Russia is going to forcibly mobilize all Ukrainian guys from 18 to 60 years old in the occupied territories. But Daniel says that is not true. He says that those who turned 18 were supposed to go to military service. He adds that the Ukrainians were released from Russian military service. Guys are free to walk the streets if they are not afraid of explosions.
‘You aren’t issued a summons?’, I wonder.
‘You know, in Ukraine, summons are used as a punishment for any trifle. You can get a summons just for speaking Russian on the street if you run into a Ukrainian-speaking military man.’
‘But we all speak Russian here.’
‘So, everyone would get it.’
‘Would you like Russia or Ukraine to win this war?’
‘I’d like the war to end. I don’t like either Russia or Ukraine.’
‘And yet, in what country would you like to live?’
‘In a peaceful one… I’d like to leave as far as possible and forget about it forever…’
Daniel tells me that the passage to the sea is closed. Military vehicles are lined up along the coastline. Air defense. The locals are hard at work digging trenches. They are paid for this by the military. There are no jobs in the city. There are no jobs in neighboring villages either. The locals are cooperating with the occupiers. But they cooperate without ideology. They are afraid for themselves, not for the country. They do not receive any help from Ukraine, and therefore they accept help from the occupiers. Forced to accept it. And the longer the locals accept this help, the more terrible it becomes for them that Ukraine will retake the territory. After all, they can be imprisoned for digging trenches. And here the whole street is digging them. Will everyone be jailed? Will this be a genocide of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine? Who will say anything about it if they imprison or kill everyone?
Throughout the summer I visited Daniel, and he taught me karate. Taught me to meditate. Taught oriental calm. I strove for the sea in order to give up my former self, but by Daniel’s side, I found not only a new friend but also a new me. New character. And I love this new me. True, this new me was only an advance. There was a lot of work to be done to become a shadow of Daniel. But I was ready. So, Daniel, like the serenity of Port Street, became my spiritual mentor.
Today Daniel says that he is afraid for his grandmother. His savings are gone. They live on her pension, and on the money, he gets from digging trenches. But the Ukrainian pension comes with delays. There are rumors that soon it will not come at all. Previously, the old woman received both Ukrainian and Russian pensions at the same time. But now, in order to receive a Russian pension, you need to apply for a Russian passport. This is a fast process. But the Ukrainian authorities announced that they would imprison those who voluntarily issued a passport of the country of the aggressor. But without this passport, the old woman will not receive a single pension. How then to live? And this month they have not received any money. Daniel’s savings are over. And there was a queue for digging trenches. Yesterday he was denied a job. He says he will try again tomorrow.
It became my job to repeat the same movements day after day. Seven days a week. With a clear understanding of the goal – to overcome the first love. Do it both mentally and psychologically.
The principles of karate are built on respect and honor. My carnal desire to gain access to the body of my best friend bordered on disgrace. For the same reason, we fought as desperately and boldly as we could. And yet we fought mostly chaotically. I knew if I systematized my punches, I would have a great chance of winning. Defeating my best friend in battle meant that I had to defeat his father, who could kill me just because I love his son. This fight became a matter of principle for me. And it gave me energy for training.
Daniel says that his old woman has been issued a Russian passport. He talks about it shyly, in a whisper. He says that they baked a pie. And he describes the smell of the cake to me the way he described the smell of a woman before. But there were not many women in Daniel’s life. His grandmother always came first. He loved her, and she required special care. And now she’s not well. In the morning, a military doctor came. He told her not to be nervous. But how can you not be nervous when missiles explode nearby?
‘Karate brings up justice’, Daniel said. ‘When a person is honest with himself, it benefits the whole society.’
Every word he says is true to my fledgling mind. I wouldn’t mind if he cheated on me. Trivia. The main thing for me was something else. Our friendship makes me stronger. Already now I was ready to meet my best friend and fight with him, but for some reason Daniel asked me not to rush. We practiced dozens of different strikes. And in the breaks, he told me this:
‘Never think that karate is only done in the dojo.’
The dojo is a place for meditation and training. In our case, the dojo is the area adjacent to the front of the frail house of Daniel and his grandmother. Daniel continued:
‘The whole world is a huge dojo, and authentic karate classes should last 24 hours a day.’
This way I became a ninja, keeping it in the strictest confidence from the whole world.
I couldn’t reach Daniel for a whole week. Only then did he call me from a Russian number. Ukrainian mobile operators no longer operate in the occupied territory. And Russian numbers are issued only by the presence of a Russian passport. Scary to imagine life without communication during wartime. That is why Daniel was issued a Russian passport and received a Russian SIM card. Now he is an enemy of Ukraine. Traitor. Now he is afraid that Ukraine will come to protect him and accidentally kill or imprison him. He tells me this directly because he trusts me. I don’t blame Daniel’s choice. I have no moral right to condemn him. His actions are not those of a hero, but of a man who wants to survive. I accept his decision. And he thanks me for it.
At some point, I doubted my abilities. Summer was coming to an end. And I still didn’t feel like I deserved to buy my first karategi. Both me and Daniil trained dozens of movements. Daniel did great. But the longer I practiced karate, the more clearly, I saw the imperfection of my own movements.
‘How long have you been doing karate?’
‘About 8 years’, Daniel answered, and his answer became a concrete slab in front of me, which can neither be moved nor bypassed.
‘8 years? Wow! That’s an eternity!’
‘But you know, you’re not gonna die tomorrow. You only have as much time as you give yourself.’
‘But 8 years… maybe I should train one or two movements? Why do I train several dozen at the same time?’
‘It’s boxers practicing one punch over and over again. And that makes boxing primitive. We are developing the whole body.’
‘But a boxer over the summer can learn to strike one punch without a mistake. What will I learn over the summer?’
‘You have enough summer to clear your mind and prepare yourself for the path of a peaceful warrior.’
‘Warrior? But I don’t want to be a warrior. I just want to kick my friend.’
‘I don’t think you even understand what you want.’
Does the magic of Generała Zajączka Street not work? I come here specifically to conduct all important calls. I hope for magic. For a miracle. But today something went wrong. Daniel informs me that his old woman has died. For three days they tried in vain to call a doctor to their homes, but the doctor was busy treating the soldiers. The hospital is full. Doctors are reluctant to visit patients over 60. Too many false calls. Too many panic attacks. Many wounded and shell-shocked.
Recently, a shootout took place between the Russian and Chechen militaries. Two people died. Seven wounded. Daniel says that no one cared about his grandmother when she was dying. Now he wants to bury her, but even now no one cares. Everyone says, ‘it’s war.’ The morgue is full. There are no coffins. There are packages. There are black plastic bags. ‘I was given one by the same guys who paid for digging trenches. We were allowed to take a shovel for the evening.’
‘What are your plans for tonight?’ Daniel suddenly asks.
Maybe boxing? One hit or transformation of consciousness? What to choose? And is it worth choosing at all? My best friend hasn’t called me once during the summer. Never came to my house. Is he still my best friend? I felt that Daniel became closer to me. But he was older. I didn’t feel like I could be true friends with him. He was my spiritual mentor. But why have I never seen him with his friends?
Once I arrived a little earlier than usual and accidentally peeped out the window as he was busy with the old woman in the toilet. I could smell the nasty smell even when I was outside. And he wiped her ass without a drop of disgust. With one hand she held on to the wall, with the other she leaned against his shoulder. This care bordered on love. And if my love made someone’s body desire, then Daniel’s love for the old woman, on the contrary, forgave the body for its shortcomings. But now the old woman is dead, and Daniel is digging not a trench, but a grave. Now he digs it for free.
The magic of Generała Zajączka Street made itself felt the very next day. Yesterday, after finishing the conversation with Daniel, I began to ask this street for a favor. I asked Daniel to have an opportunity to earn a living. To keep him from starving. I could have sent him money myself, but my hometown was cut off from both the Ukrainian and the global banking systems. The Russian regime should have suffered because of the sanctions, but instead, it’s ordinary Ukrainians, who turned out to be enemies in their own country, that are suffering.
But the magic happened. Generała Zajączka Street heard my request. Daniel has a modest income. By this time, it had already become obvious that the war was dragging on for a long time, and therefore the military began to rent houses from locals in a summer cottage village by the sea. In the Ukrainian press, this was covered in such a way that the Russian military took away the houses and killed the owners or put them out on the street. But in reality, the locals themselves offered houses to earn extra money, because there was no other work. Ukraine could not protect its citizens in the occupied cities in any way, and instead of psychological support, they made several statements on behalf of officials stating that anyone who cooperated with the occupiers would lose their citizenship.
A young military man settled in with Daniel. Twenty-two years old. Boxer. He took part in international competitions. This unites them. Fighting is a martial art for both of them. War is a fight of bullets, not fists. Both guys think it’s unfair. And therefore, with double excitement, they demonstrate techniques to each other. It reminds them of a peaceful life.
‘This guy doesn’t want to fight. He is forced to be here. If he escapes, he will be shot. Therefore, he does not run away,’ Daniel tells me. ‘Also…he also helped me put together a coffin for my grandmother. Do you think I did a bad thing by letting him into my house?’
Finally, I got an amazing opportunity. I met my best friend. He was walking with a guy. Our peer. Why didn’t he come with me? I didn’t say hello. I immediately got down to business. I asked him directly:
‘Why haven’t you come to see me once all summer?’
‘Why didn’t you do the same?’
I felt this phrase as a slap in the face, and therefore I reacted to it with a slap in the face. Then he pushed me on the shoulder, but I pushed him harder. And now I see that he has already clenched his fist. I see this fist flying towards me from below. Aiming at my chin. Nothing unusual. Everything is just the same. And this is my chance to show him my technique. Show him what Daniel taught me.
I shift my body weight to the right. I let his fist fly to its peak. And then, in three simple but precise movements, I bring him down to the floor. I sit on his chest. I kiss him on the forehead.
‘How did you learn it?’
He calls me to go with them to the port. He says there is a cool cafe over there. You can get beer at that place. You can hit on local girls or fight with their guys. But I’m not interested. I feel that if I leave, I will get more than he can give me. So, I do.
Daniel increasingly began to ask me about relationships with guys. We have avoided this topic before. Now he talked only about it. But he didn’t explain why. Unless he drew a parallel with the fact that war causes stress, and stress gives a strong desire to have sex. And he waited all the time for my approval. Asked if it’s okay to want sex during a war when others are dying? Is it normal to use a Russian passport in an occupied city? Is it okay to rent a house to an occupier?
So, what if I won? The victory was not as sweet as the path to it. More than 13 years have passed. When I think about this summer, I don’t think about beating my best friend in a fight. No. I remember how Daniel trained me. How he taught me to defend myself with dignity.
What now? Yes, he got a black belt in karate, but he is powerless against missiles. And this impotence gives rise to a despair greater in size than that experienced by one who does not master the martial art at all. This way mastery turns into weakness. And this is just one of the manifestations of the war.
Even after the end of hostilities, this land will continue to smoke with outlandish complexes, psychological trauma and sexual fires for a long time to come. All this is happening now on Port Street. All this has long spread throughout the country. And will remain there even after the victory.
But what is victory when there are so many deaths around?!
When I called Daniel this time, I was in a hurry to share the wonderful news with him. The Russian army left Kherson. Partially, but still left. This means that the Zaporozhye region will soon be liberated. The war will end soon!
But instead of Daniel’s soft voice, I heard a new, unfamiliar voice. I immediately realized that it was the voice of a Russian military man. A 22-year-old crying voice screamed into the phone that he hated it all. This war. And this street. And karate. He shouted that for the first time in his life, he fell in love. And that his love ended so stupidly. Daniel hanged himself on a black belt when he learned that the Russian army was retreating. He was too afraid to be a traitor. He was afraid that the Ukrainians would imprison him or kill him. And so, he hastened to take his own life.
‘But I loved him, you know?’ the 22-year-old occupier shouted into my ear. ‘He is dead, but my love is not. And she tortures me. Damn it!’
And again, rough language shoots out like bullets from someone’s mouth but crashes into my ears like silk petals.
‘Isn’t what you are doing on our territory more terrible than what you feel right now?’
‘No, buddy, love is more terrible.’