Harvard would not consider his application without letters of recommendation from his teachers. But as an emigrant, and a troublemaking one at that, Michael had nothing but scorn coming to him from the Soviet authorities. Even under the aegis of glasnost and perestroika, turncoats were not to expect testimonials. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Michael wormed himself into U.C.L.A. by way of summer school and extension courses. Almost immediately his academic course was bifurcated by his intention to read Les fleurs du mal in the original, standing at odds with his interest in formal logic. Michael’s curriculum comprised studies of French language and literature and the foundations of mathematics and intensionalities with Alonzo Church. Unconcerned with degree requirements, he haunted the Philosophy Department’s library day and night, writing out term papers in a single longhand take, with a fountain pen. He distracted himself by weightlifting and sword exercises at the school gym. The handling of his loud Italian motorcycles inspired confidence that reached unto their scuffed tire sidewalls, his toes dragging on innumerable canyon roads. His black leather outfit drew volunteers for bitch perch duty. As he pulled away from the pub at 2 a.m., his hair was likely blowing in the wind, his crash helmet gallantly adorning the head of a freshly bagged bimbo. Not that he was averse to finding true love. But such attachments were not to be found by looking. His father often regretted having once inspired him in a moment of candor compelled by a cognac fumes, to follow a time-tested recipe: «Всякую тварь на хуй пяль ― бог увидит, пожалеет, и хорошую пошлëт.» If he crammed every creature on his cock, God would take note of his diligence, take pity on him, and send him a good one.
A year later, Eugene decided to move to Los Angeles. The midwestern climate was not as tolerable in a Northside brownstone flophouse as it had been in a lakeside high-rise. The A-list party hosts that formerly welcomed Eugene as Adrienne’s cut-up escort were no longer issuing their invitations to the solitary victim of his own cutting. In addition to Michael, he had a local friend and erstwhile colleague in Henri. Eugene’s West Coast counterpart was a genial Central European of jumbled nationality. His upbringing in a postwar DP internment camp turned him into a casual polyglot capable of holding forth in heavily accented versions of all major European languages. A prescient procurer, Henri had the presence of mind to get out of his last line of flesh peddling just before a local law enforcement policy shift drove it underground. Together, Henri and Michael shouldered the initial responsibility for their friend’s upkeep.
Southern California ruled out pedestrian locomotion. Automobility was the very first order of business. They jointly mustered a modest vehicle budget. Ever the mod, Eugene spent it on a red Honda scooter. A month later he reemerged as a he-male in control of his destiny. Buzzing around town on unspecifiable errands, Eugene boasted private accommodations in Silver Lake just south of Sunset Boulevard. Between the two of them, his housemates ran the gamut of local wildlife. One was a lithe, pneumatic black girl of nineteen. Her gentle disposition balanced the aphrodisiac and the soporific. In contrast, the other was a skinhead in his mid-twenties out on parole for a homicidal indiscretion. The Nazi regalia that decorated his room seemed at odds with miscegenation committed therein. It might have been excused under the Aryan Brotherhood bylaws by the unlikelihood of offspring engendered by his adolescent Filipino mate. Not wishing to cause any trouble for his friend, Michael withheld his opinions of jailbait buggery along with revelations of Jewishness. In no time, the nature of his friend’s employment became clear. Delivering paperwork for a law office enabled Eugene to cultivate the extracurricular favors of its secretary by day. At night he accompanied his dishy neighbor to her regular gig at Jumbo’s Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard. This last enterprise was a cause of pride. Eugene regaled Henri and Michael with the spectacle of his ostentatiously covert gathering of the nightly spoils, a wad of singles and fives stuck in the girl’s G-string by her appreciative customers.
This last outburst of Eugene’s womanizing dissipated over the course of several months. The opposite sex had shifted its affections towards younger and smoother studs. Eugene was stumped by this slackening of sexual popularity. Inured against betrayal, he found unwelcome novelty in rejection. This middle-aged golden boy had no means of adjusting to snubs. Michael did his best to reverse this trend by building Eugene up to the opposite sex. But the old chemistry was no longer there. Cruel bemusement supplanted cordial interest in women responding to his solicitude. One of them, a statuesque Yugoslav blonde, was wont to downplay the relevance, if not the perpetual presence of her spouse among her homeland entourage. But whereas Eugene had always made it a point of honor to swive taller women, Natasha insisted on mates approximating her own stature, disdaining the assaults of her pint-sized suitor. Her palpable contempt seemed to rend the fabric of Eugene’s life. In a rapid succession, he lost the graces of his lovers, employers, and customers. One night he called Michael from a police lockup. He had been arrested on a traffic citation that progressed to a warrant. None of his friends could produce the bail on a Saturday night. Powerless to do anything about his friend’s predicament, Michael wished Eugene a smooth weekend stay.
The next Tuesday Michael went to Silver Lake to check up on Eugene, hampered by the impounding of his ride. Eugene’s house phone had been disconnected some time ago, leaving no discreet way to inquire about his spirits. Michael’s knock on a bedroom window went unanswered. He came around the house to call on the stripper. From the looks of her window, the room was now occupied by somebody else. His hirsute buttocks undulated atop a similar set. Cutting short his inadvertent intrusion on this exchange, Michael retraced his steps.
A day later, Eugene called Michael with the good news. He was moving into a Bel Air mansion of a Fifties pop singer about to embark on her annual European tour. He urged Michael to visit the premises, conveniently located up Copa de Oro, overlooking the university campus. On this occasion, Michael had just the right housewarming gift. Natasha’s friend Sandra, concerned about her expired residency status, had invited him a few days earlier to help her out with a marriage. Of course he was welcome to avail himself of her energetic charms. A matrimonial romantic, Michael proposed instead the candidacy of his twice-divorced friend. He never knew Eugene to shy away from whatever it takes to score a lay. Thus Sandra the bride, Natasha the maid of honor, and Michael the best man, made their way up the Bel Air canyon to meet the groom.
It took all of them several heartbeats to recognize Eugene. The figure that opened the door could not be reconciled with their nuptial expectations. Sandra’s would-be husband was propped up by stiffly starched khakis. His billowing black gauze shirt was topped with a mock photographer’s vest, ironically embellished with Soviet Communist youth badges. His makeover was a credit to his attendance to females of a certain age. The foundation was laid down with a subtle hand. The blond tresses bounced in a retro shag. The rouge and the lipstick were sparingly applied. A mere hint of mascara and eye shadow complemented Eugene’s baby blue eyes. He represented himself as an object of his previously formed desire. The grand entrance of Eugene’s new companion compounded his guests’ astonishment at this transformation. The quinquagenarian wore a gray buzz cut. His outfit was a spitting image of Eugene’s getup, but for the substitution of a brass “Dr. Who” badge in place of an assortment of red stars, hammers and sickles, and baby Lenin bas-reliefs. Oppressed by the air of mutual discomfort, following the obligatory tour of the grounds, the wedding party beat a hasty retreat.
The next day Eugene called Michael with an explanation. It comprised several variations on “any port in a storm”. Michael felt ill-equipped to inquire about, let alone respond to, this turn of affairs. He recused himself from judging the proportion in which this transformation was precipitated by the decline of Eugene’s attractiveness to women, as opposed to being genuinely wished for. Still, his friend took visible pride in benefiting from the attention of his swain. A gaudy diamond stud sparkled in his newly pierced right ear as a reminder of enduring sex appeal.
They kept running into each other at the late night gathering spot of the moment, a coffee house called Pikme-up, for several months thereafter. Bereft of personal transportation, Eugene came and went with an epicene posse. Their conversations got less awkward without becoming more meaningful. They rehashed recollections of past tomfoolery. In keeping with his nostalgic turn, Eugene seized upon the idea of visiting his family. He decided to fly to Moscow. Another subscription was undertaken by all concerned parties. To Michael’s surprise, they included his mother. He delivered his cleaned-up friend to an Aeroflot terminal for a two-week trip to his home town. Five days later, their coffeehouse compatriot, free versificator Armen broke the news. After arriving in Moscow and visiting his mother and sixteen year-old son, Eugene drank himself into a liver coma. He died in the desultory setting of a Moscow hospital.
He was thirty-three years old.
Men learn to relate by proximate example. Michael used his friend for his moral example. He tried to emulate Eugene, fascinated by the childlike attraction he exercised on others. He tried to reform Eugene, appalled by the wanton destruction he visited upon himself. He was misguided in both attempts. He no longer rescues stray dogs. He no longer judges people by the standards of domestic pets, for their capacity to love and be loved. He no longer enjoys that aspect of innocence. Can he express his regret by bemoaning opportunities lost? To color his memory with hindsight informed by present judgment would do it a disservice. There is nothing beautiful or poignant about the foregoing: another soul wasted away; more misery handed on from man to man. Eugene’s son is 35 now. Will he fare any better than his father or his grandfather? The damage that we selflessly visit upon ourselves cannot fail to infect others. Who can boast of never having damaged anybody else with his suffering? Yet one advantage to be derived from this story, is in persevering in the realm of palpable possibilities ― not from knowledge but from spite, the resource of last resort to enable the placing of one foot before the other, drawing in after letting out. Men endure through contempt for quitters, through resenting the dead for having given up, through refusing the weakness that urges them to pull the plug. Should they regret the surfeit of spite motivating them far more effectively than love? Should they despise the dead for lacking the malice to turn against their betters in struggling for survival? If there be anything worthy of emulation in a suicide for his survivors standing by, it is his final refusal to make them responsible for his self-loathing.