We just moved to a new apartment in our building. One of the elements of moving is the need to delve into the deep, forgotten nooks and crannies of your dwelling, pulling out forgotten pieces of your past. I found such a box in my closet.
The box in question was labelled “P’s personal papers”. It was vaguely familiar. I had carried it essentially unopened for many years, as my semi-nomadic lifestyle drifted me from one place to another. For some reason (perhaps a desire to get away from the moving chaos, perhaps a desire to find something worthy of the trashcan), I decided to open it.
The box contained the archive of my writings from teenager to early forties, all the self-absorbed essays, diaries, poems, half-written short stories, op-ed pieces, etc. Some had been published, most had not. It was my freakin’ history. I suppose when one has sowed more than his share of wild oats in his youth, and has somehow survived the experience, then the one thing one might have to offer is his stories. Here’s one I pulled out of the box.
In 1987, I was part of a delegation of Vietnam veterans who visited the Soviet Union to meet with Soviet Afghanistan veterans. Needless to say, it was one of the extraordinary experiences of my life. Perhaps I’ll diary about it some day. I wrote an account of the trip that was published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The following was a part that didn’t make the final Times cut.
It is, perhaps, apropos of nothing. Yet, as I was sitting on the floor of my closet reading it again, it had a resonance for me that seemed as immediate as today’s headlines. Maybe that’s because I lived it.
But I decided to diary it in the hope that perhaps you might find some resonance, too.
Amir is a young man, twenty-one years old. His face is angelic, a reflection of the strength of character which gets him through each day. I first set eyes on him as he sits on a bench in the visitor’s room of the hospital, talking animatedly with Nadia, a dark-eyed, witty journalism student from Moscow State University. Sitting together, they seem like an ideal couple – handsome, obviously fond of one another, engaging in a serious yet friendly debate about some intellectual topic or another. In the budding Moscow Spring, such couples are as common as red stars and pictures of Lenin. The only distinguishing feature of this couple is the light blue hospital garb that Amir is wearing.
He has been in the hospital for a year, since shortly after a radio-detonated land mine exploded beneath the personnel carrier he was riding in, sending Amir, as he cheerfully describes it, “flying through the air like some great big bird.” One doesn’t notice the effects of that explosion, at first. It is only apparent later, when Amir tries to stand, balancing himself precariously on two canes and two grotesquely-fitting prosthetic devices, which substitute for the legs he left in Afghanistan.
Amir met Nadia several months after he got to the hospital. She had visited his ward to do a newspaper story. She offered to get him some water, and he refused, turning away from her on his bed. Later, he got her telephone number from a nurse, and called her at home, saying he didn’t mean to be impolite, he just didn’t want to be treated like a cripple. “Look,” she said, “It’s your water! If you want it, you can have it. I just offered to get it for you.” Amir asked if he could call her again. She said yes. Now, she visits every day.
We sit around a small card table next to Amir’s bed, as Nadia pours tea and cuts fruit and salami for the gathered guests. My friend Sasha has taken me with him on his weekly visit to Amir. We meet three other Afghantsi there, one of whom served with Amir in Afghanistan. This man has brought his recent bride with him. Nadia is clearly the hostess of this amputee ward tea party, but she never sinks to the role of servant. She maintains a friendly running feud with Sasha over which of them is more qualified to be my interpreter. She argues passionately about politics with Alexei. She chides Sergei for his off-color jokes, then tells one of her own. All the while, Amir sits there beaming with pride as he watches her in action.
Several times during our short visit, a man in a wheelchair rushes into the room, stays for several minutes, then whisks away in a mad raging dash down the corridor. Valera has been in the hospital for three years. He was a captain in Afghanistan. His chest and arms are massive, a once extraordinary specimen of a man whose magnificent body now ends just below his hips. His two prostheses stand idle against the wall near his bed. He hasn’t accepted it; he never will. He spends his days drinking vodka and watching television, occasionally putting on an x-rated video when the hospital staff isn’t around. Amir shakes his head sadly. Valera speaks much of suicide these days, he says. I invited him to join us, but he said he didn’t like tea. Each of the visiting Afghantsi takes a turn talking to Valera, trying to reach him, trying to break through. Valera’s face never softens.
After leaving the hospital, Sasha, Nadia, and I walk together to the Metro station. We have been talking about Amir, about his progress, about his prospects for the future. Nadia is intense, laying out a rehabilitation program for Amir in a manner which sounds like my old drill sergeant, repeating each word twice for emphasis. Physical therapy, physical therapy, study, study, work, work, struggle, struggle. I mention to her about the difference between Amir and Valera, and she suddenly grabs my arm and loses her confident demeanor.
She knows that she is the reason for the difference.
She asks me impossible questions about whether Amir can really make it in ordinary life, whether he can really ever expect to leave the hospital. It’s too hard, she says. It’s too hard.
Amir has asked Nadia to marry him. Nadia said maybe. Amir thinks maybe means yes, if only he can prove to her he has the strength to succeed in his rehabilitation.
Sasha is wiser.
Maybe means no, he says sadly. She just can’t bring herself to say it.