“All right,” Nikolay said, scowling. “I’ll do it, you bloody bastards. Get your cash ready!” He was talking tough to cover his embarrassment. It helped us all. We were all a little embarrassed.
We were a group of five friends in our late teens, cadet members of a military unit studying Oriental languages in the Soviet Army Academy. We were a proud bunch, having passed a rigorous selection. We thought ourselves to be the crème de la crème, and we were cocky as hell.
We had been confined to our barracks in the center of Moscow for the first three years of study. From time to time, during our long Sundays, we liked to entertain ourselves with some gambling of a special kind: we’d do risky things, and bet money on success or failure. We had a few dicey deeds under our belts already, and we were on a constant look out for new adventures.
We contributed a small part of each monthly pay to a ‘jackpot’ that went to the one who pulled off the riskiest dare. The previous contenders, including me, had failed in two or three challenges, and the jackpot grew to ten rubles. That money was enough to take a girl out for a meal a couple of times.
This time, Nikolay was to take on a challenge of a different nature.
There were a few gay cadets in our barracks. We, the ‘heteros’, did not really mingle that much with them, but we did not quite accept them either. We liked to think that we were tolerant, as long as we knew who they were so that we could avoid them. They had their own ‘gay-only’ utility room, the only room that had a sofa in it, and we never so much as peeked inside. For me personally, the room had an air of impurity, and I guess that was the case for some others, too.
We also preferred to shower separately from them, just to avoid any awkward feelings.
I never gave a second thought at that time to how the gay cadets felt. I experienced some mild fits of jealousy, seeing them occupy some of the unit’s choicest jobs, such as the typist for the officers’ dissertations or the keeper of the documents. But I tried to keep that out of my mind. To me, the minorities in Russia had always seemed to be smarter and stronger than the majority, and that was that.
There was one cadet, Andrei, whom my friends and I found intriguing. He appeared gentle and humorous, and some people spoke of him as a nice conversationalist. He mostly kept to himself, for reasons only he knew. We assumed he was one of us, even if a bit on the eccentric side with his excessive neatness and his refusal to speak obscenities.
However, one morning he appeared in the barracks wearing a tailor-made uniform of expensive material. Cadets from rich families did that sometimes, and it was an accepted practice for others to pretend not to notice it. But that uniform’s somewhat feminine design was impossible to ignore. It was tight around his waist, a bit puffed in the chest, and all its hooks and buttons had an elegant, silvery shine to them.
We discussed this style, and decided that a straight military man would never wear such a thing. For the first time, still behind his back, we called him a fag.
That boring Sunday afternoon, Andrei had the misfortune to grab our attention. We were sitting in the smoking area, maiming flies and mosquitoes, and putting them into two separate piles near the trashcan. Andrei walked by in his shining boots and prissy outfit, and smiled.
“I hate this mister on-top-of-things,” Nikolay said under his breath. “The bastard’s going for a gold medal. Must be giving head to the officers, bugger.” Instead of carefully removing the wings of his next flying victim, he put it under his boot and smashed it.
“Say!” one of us said, winking. “Love-hate or hate-hate?”
“I feel the heat,” another said, putting his lips together as if for a kiss.
“Oh piss off, you lot,” Nikolay said. He was never too friendly. “Look at him. He walks like a girl. Wiggles his butt.”
I looked after Andrei, but did not observe much butt-wiggling. “I think he was smiling at you,” I said to counter Nikolay’s attack, which I did not find very fair.
“You’re blushing!” one of us laughed.
“Get out of my face!”
“Shut the hell up!”
“Methinks we have a clandestine fag among us,” I suggested, provoking him.
“When I want to hear from you, I’ll kick your bum,” Nikolay said. He still wasn’t taking it seriously.
We went on teasing him for a time, and he went on blushing. And then I abruptly stopped talking. For a while, I even forgot about the flies. “Nikolay,” I whispered, feeling lightheaded with the beauty of my sudden idea.
“What?” Nikolay shot back. He saw me light up like a beacon on the stormy seas; and he knew that the conversation was taking a dangerous turn.
“I know how to get it out of your system,” I whispered.
His eyes became guarded. “Get off me!” he said.
“Come in touch with your other side,” I cooed, feeling the sweet sensation of risk play in my stomach. I fixed Nikolay with a gaze and delivered my punch: “Spend a night with him.”
Nikolay stared back at me, shocked.
“Er…” one of us said. “Sounds like… hmm… fun?”
“I vote ‘yea’,” another said, still sounding unsure. Others, apart from Nikolay, joined with their own ‘yeas’, little by little getting into the thrill of the situation. Flies and mosquitoes attacked us with renewed vigor, but we no longer cared.
Nikolay spent a few minutes looking as if he regretted having started the conversation. Then, he said with a crooked smile, “I won’t do that.”
“I dare you,” I said, “for the jackpot.”
Nikolay stopped smiling and scratched his head. “Ten rubles is good money,” he admitted after some thought.
“Yes indeed,” I said, beaming.
“But not enough.”
I was on a roll. “If you do that and prove he’s gay, you’ll win another fiver from me.”
“What if he’s not?”
“Then you only get the jackpot.”
Nikolay looked at the others. “Are you in on the wager?” he asked, unsure.
Two others agreed, laughing. One cadet, Anton, who liked to do things topsy-turvy, decided to counter-bet a fiver, wanting to win if Andrei were gay. Five rubles was almost a quarter of our monthly pay. But we all thought the challenge was worthwhile.
Nikolay seemed uncomfortable with our excitement. He thought some more and said, “Damn, this is good money. But I won’t sleep with him. Maybe I just discover if he’s gay or not. And that’s all.”
“And how’d you do that?” I asked.
He caught a fly that got too close to his face, and studied it for a few moments, holding it by the wings. He had an unhappy look on his face. Then a humorous spark appeared in his eyes, and he stuck the tip of his tongue between his teeth, as if playing with the thought that came to him. He said, “This fly has five legs, but you could never tell by looking at it from a distance. I’ll take a peek at our friend from up close. I’ll get as far as his bed.”
“What exactly will you look at?” I asked.
Nikolay suppressed an immediate comment, and the smile disappeared from his face. “His response,” he said after a while. “All right. You prep the cash.”
Everyone accepted the idea.
The plan was soon ready. Our barracks consisted of four sleeping areas, about twenty-five or thirty beds each, in five rows. Andrei’s bed was in the middle row of one of those sleeping areas. In the middle of the night, Nikolay would sneak into Andrei’s bed, and try to seduce him. If Andrei protested, we’d switch on the lights and announce our betting gag. If he began responding to Nikolay’s advances, we’d still switch on the lights and make good fun of him and his girly uniform. Either way, we would know if he were straight or not. And we would have a good time.
We thought it was a brilliant scheme. Apart from Nikolay, the rest of us could not stop laughing in anticipation.
Night came. The cadets went to their beds. Many of the barracks’ straight inhabitants were in on our plan, and they were holding their collective breath, refusing to sleep. They had also been disturbed by Andrei’s new outfit and wanted to know what it was all about. Besides, they liked to follow our gags.
Soon enough, our spy planted in Andrei’s section signaled that the target was asleep.
“Watch out for me, you poor buggers,” Nikolay whispered as he got out of his bed, wearing only the standard-issue blue underpants. “When you hear the action, switch on the damned lights.”
“No worries,” we said. “Get on with it.”
Anton tapped his shoulder. “You’ll need these,” he smirked, pushing a small bundle of toilet paper into Nikolay’s hands.
“Why would I need that?” Nikolay asked. He then looked toward Andrei and understanding flashed through his eyes. “Oh,” he said.
Nikolay grumbled and took the tissues.
A big fellow, he pussyfooted his way across the room, and sneaked into Andrei’s bed. The bed springs twittered.
After that, complete silence descended on us. We forgot the stench of unwashed socks and old uniforms that permeated the barracks. Even the cadet on duty near the entrance door tiptoed in to see what was about to happen; he was now standing near a wall in the grotesque pose of a zodiac animal with his knees bent and hands half-raised.
A few minutes crawled by, and nothing disturbed the silence.
In our corner, we exchanged glances. What the hell was going on?
“Nick?” one of us whispered.
“Are you all right there, Nick, old boy?” another whispered.
“Are you still there, Nick?”
And then, as if we all felt It enter the room, the crystallized evil from Stephen King’s famous novel, our eyes widened in our faces. Our jaws began to slide open.
We heard the slow, deliberate sound of bedsprings.
“It’s the…,” one of us said. Since it was exactly what all of us were thinking, no one answered.
I was in charge of the lights. The switch was on the wall near my bed, a mere foot away from my hand.
Andrei’s bedsprings went on singing.
I shifted my eyes to the switch, feeling the weight of the earth’s atmosphere on my shoulders. This unthinkable pressure immobilized my hand; in fact, my whole body was unable to move. I knew I should flick on the lights, but suddenly I needed time to think. My mind was full of the sound of the bedsprings and the mental picture of two boys doing it right there, a few perilous steps from me. Sitting there in the safety of my bed, I knew I was making all three of us outcasts if I didn’t flick the lights. Another burst of sound from the bed quickened my heartbeat until my chest was thumping.
The gag had gone out of control. Or had it? Press the button, I told myself, switch on the light and make a joke. I visualized the light-flooded scene and realized that I’d have to look at them both, all the other cadets looking, too. And then they will look at me, the fool, grinning near the light switch. Andrei would look at me, too. I moaned silently, imagining what I’d see in his eyes.
An inquisitive cockroach scuttled near my hand, but again I did not move. A curtain fell somewhere inside my mind, and I could no longer face what we were doing. I tore my eyes from the light switch, and looked over at Anton and others. They stared back at me, open-mouthed, from the shades near the wall. I wondered what was in their minds. None of us stirred.
After an eternity, the bedsprings stopped twanging. My hand had remained immobile where it was, and darkness still shrouded the barracks.
Nikolay crept out of Andrei’s bed. Like a tropical lizard of massive proportions, he darted towards the wall, into the thickest shadow he could find. However, the moon had risen, and his body was clearly visible to all those watching.
As if walking under water, he made it to our corner. He had to step around the guard, who still stood there in his frozen pose, with an expression of utmost stupidity on his well-acned face.
“I… I… I won the bet,” Nikolay stammered as he reached us. His eyes were wet. There was a tiny dark drop under the lower lip, as if it were just bitten through.
I was able to push only one sound from my throat: “How…?”
“He… he gave me a hand.” Nikolay could not continue the sentence, and simply raised his hands into the air. He no longer had the tissue that Anton had given him.
We went on staring at Nikolay. He adjusted his underpants, and we noticed a wet spot on them. There was nothing in the whole world that any of us could find to say.
Everyone else in the barracks was silent.
“And you—,” Anton asked, with a visible effort to avoid staring at the wet spot.
Nikolay shrugged, and the shrug grew into a tremor that ran through his whole body.
Then we all looked towards Andrei’s bed. In the dim light, oblivious of the drama around him, Andrei stretched like a cat, yawned, and turned over to sleep. He noticed the guard, and he must have thought in his cozy drowsiness that it was Nikolay.
“Oh, Nick?” he whispered dreamily. “Thank you.”
His bedsprings sang, as he finally nestled down in his bedding.
“Misha,” Nikolay turned to me, as if just remembering my existence. “What happened to the….”
He looked at the switch, and I noticed that I still had my hand near it. “I…,” I said, and shook my head. “I….”
I wanted to express the sudden shame that had caught me when I heard the bedsprings, and the feeling of either compassion or cowardice, I still couldn’t decide which, that had thwarted my moves. But I did not find the words.
“Fuck,” Nikolay said, and covered his face with his hands. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I said nothing, and just stared at him.
Three days later, I found Nikolay in the shower room. He had plugged the drains to make a bathtub, and was lying in the filthy, shallow water that was tinted by a mix of the old pipes’ rust and his own blood. There were ugly, torn wounds on his wrists. Resting atop his belly, I saw the bayonet with which he’d sawed through his veins.
I screamed, and others came, and we carried him across the campus to the medical room on a bed-sheet. Thin streams of blood and urine oozed through the aged linen and dotted first the aisle, then the stairs, then the asphalt of the road. “Idiot, idiot,” I remember repeating, without being sure which one of us I was addressing.
He survived, and, as soon as he could walk, he quit the Academy. Since he had already taken the oath, he went for two years of active duty as a common soldier somewhere in the unquiet South.
Andrei graduated with his gold medal, and got a good job in Moscow. Till the last days of study, everyone stayed away from him, and he stayed away from pretty much everyone.