On that fateful occasion, Michael was attending a costume party given by Michelle M., the artistic American girlfriend of another underachieving Soviet immigrant. Jacob W. hailed from Latvia. He was the first to befriend Michael in America. Jacob introduced himself to the new immigrant at the Mount Sinai hospital, in-between well-meaning torture sessions aiming to remedy nineteen years of botched Soviet dental care. Jacob applied his education in social studies to a long term study of the effects of cannabis on the patterns of driving a taxicab through Chicago traffic. His claim to fame was a one night stand with an underage Olympic gymnast from another Communist country. Jacob spun his putative sexual experience with that stunted waif into learned disquisitions on vaginal morphology.
At the tail end of his teens, Michael’s exposure to vaginas was limited. He coasted through his elite high school on the strength of his performance in math Olympiads. Michael’s exposure to competitive sports had been consigned to these abstract realms in virtue of his physician mother exempting him from physical education with a medical excuse. Michael didn’t mind that. It left him with more time to read books and stroll around town. The downside was getting into fights with classmates vexed by a smart-arsed layabout. Michael didn’t mind that, either. What he lacked in strength and speed, he made up for in unconcern for pain. He was as undeterred by the prospects of suffering injury, as he was by the scruples of inflicting it on his aggressor. Few boys picked a second fight with Michael. And soon their first-time fisticuffs were curtailed once Michael reconnected with a former grade school classmate, Leon G. Standing no taller than he was wide was Leon’s single most distinguishable trait. At a solid 5’7", it yielded enough muscle to lead the city’s most distinguished band of junior hooligans. Without involving himself in their more extravagant enterprises, Michael enjoyed carousing with Leon and his friends nearly as much as he liked mentioning his supernumerary gang affiliation to quell thugs taking exception at his conduct. But something held him back from parlaying his skills as a jester, let alone his reputation as a thinker, into success with the opposite sex. Not that the opportunities were lacking. On one occasion, the second prettiest girl in his school recited an affectionate spoof dedicated to Michael in the course of a variety show penned by his high school friends. Another time, an electrical failure caused the lights to go out as he was entertaining a sophisticated female visitor with imported liquor presented by grateful patients to his father, the chief haematologist of the Odessa region. Each time, an irksome inner voice inhibited Michael from taking his chances.
By 1979, at the age of 21, Michael managed to overcome most of his inhibitions. While retaining all of its mystery, sexual congress was no longer rationed by scarcity and beset by awkwardness. Each social gathering created new opportunities for unpremeditated exchange of bodily fluids. As a well-paid, albeit self-taught techie, balancing his geeky vocation with newly found athletic dedication, Michael soon learned to rely on pheromonal nonchalance in pursuing his corn-bred Midwestern prey.
Clean living was not the order of the day. Although Michael bicycled twenty miles daily and practiced martial arts for several hours every evening, he also smoked a lot of cannabis and stopped at every Lincoln Park bar on his way to his first apartment, a self-sufficient bedroom in the lakeside mansion built shortly after the Great Fire by a 19th century steel magnate. In enjoying his share of attention from attractive women, Michael often thought of a quip attributed to Immanuel Kant by the student lore. It was said that Kant’s students were able to persuade him of the need to avail himself of sexual experience, if only for the sake of anthropological research. Upon exiting the chambers of the prostitute hired for the occasion, the great moralist was heard to evaluate sexual intercourse as a disorderly series of ill-considered and maladroit moves.
| Il n’est pas de vertus humaines que je prise autant ou aussi peu, suivant les cas, que le courage. Le vrai courage, disait Napoléon, c’est celui de trois heures du matin. Il voulait dire par là, sans doute, que le courage auquel il accordait estime était celui d’où toute griserie, toute vanité, toute émulation fussent exclues. Un courage sans témoins, sans complices ; un courage à froid et à jeun.
―André Gide, Journal 1889-1939, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1951, p. 1279
|There is no human virtue that I value as much or as little, according to the case, as courage. The true courage, said Napoléon, is that at three o’clock in the morning. Doubtless he meant that the courage that he valued was that left free of all intoxication, all vanity, all emulation. Courage without witnesses, without accomplices; the courage of goose flesh on an empty stomach.
— translated by MZ
Attending a party hosted by someone else was a welcome change. Michael scanned the crowd for fresh prospects. As a graduate of The Art Institute of Chicago, Michelle cultivated a single look in all her paintings exhibited to her guests. It was that of oversized windowpanes rendered uniformly in almost transparent blue. By contrast, the costumed revelers came in all colors and all sizes. Amidst a bustling loft crowd, Michael came across a drunken couple wearing matching outfits of a fop and his floozy. The man was in his mid-twenties, blond and blue-eyed. He stood about 5'4", and but for an immediate identification as a would-be Clark Gable, proffered by way of introduction, would have impressed Michael as a perfect likeness of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Piglet.