Electric City Colors
by Maxim Salnikov
I was eight. It was a cold Russian night; I was too young to be thankful for the comfort of heating. I had everything: parents who loved me and brought me to trips around the world, a home, even a friend. But on that night, I have experienced what I for at least fifteen years could not bring to talk myself about without tears of fear in my eyes. I’d been damaging the latter with reading either The Three Musketeers of The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in comprehensible Russian, when I decided to go to the bathroom. I climbed down from my bunk bed (I was, and still am, the only child, but bunk beds are cool), and took the spiral wooden staircase down from the second floor. The lacquered dark orange steps creaked under my weight. They must have been a hundred years old, as old as the house. On the first floor I turned into the foyer, with the entrance to our house: a solid bullet-proof slab of steel, painted black with a four-bolt lock. Opposite to it was the wooden door to the bathroom. I could not tell you what time it was, which is perhaps solid evidence to the theory which I later forced myself to make, that what happened on that night was a dream. But I know one thing for sure: it was after sunset.
I took walked into the bathroom, instinctively preparing to turn on the lights, when I noticed the reflection in the window across the entrance. My reflection was layered over the rose-pattern security bars protecting the window. It was just me. I was looking at myself. And then, my reflection raised his hands up.
I did not move.
This paralyzed me. My brain was skipping gears in overdrive, trying to create an explanation for what I knew was impossible.
I do not remember how I got back to bed.
But I remember the fear.
Perhaps it was a hallucination, but the fact that I did not have visual hallucinations for 22 years since seems to make that theory unlikely. Perhaps it was a dream. What was most definitely not a dream was what happened the next day.
A friend of our family came through the heavy duty steel door and said that my godfather has been killed.
Now, to give you context: this is Russia in the nineties. The age of privatization. Moscow roads are littered with burnt carcasses of Mercedes cars and tanned-window SUVs. The age of the rise of the Russian mob.
Hell, the age of the mob, period.
My city, Ulyanovsk, didn’t have these problems at first. My father and his friends had set up a very successful business, repairing, and then selling UAZ cars (the famous Russian jeep? UAZ stands for Ulyanovsk Auto Factory).
But soon enough, a crime syndicate from Samara, a bigger city nearby, moved in, and decided that all businesses need to play ball.
There were problems the details of which I most likely shall never know, but it ended with how, the night after what to this day remains the most terrifying experience in my life, real or imagined, a friend of our family came through the heavy duty steel door and said that my godfather was killed. A man came by to his BMW, knocked on the window, and shot him three times in the head through a plastic bag.
I remember the 1,000 kilometer race down the night highway to Moscow. How, when stopped by patrol, my dad and his friend got out of the car and reached for the passports in the back pockets of their jeans. The GAI patrolman grabbed onto his AK-47 for his life. These were dangerous time.
I remember Cyprus, where we’d lived for three years. Private British School. My first maths lesson, with the only two words in English I can confidently say “fuck” and “you,” which I do to some jerk bully in class.
We have to wear little grey uniforms. Kung fu class. Earthquakes on Cyprus. The heat. Greek language class. I gave up after I saw a letter that looked like a cactus.
And from then one, let my apathy push me through life like a splinter in a river. I cared not for where the river was bringing me.
I cared not for anything.
Nights were Fallout 1 and 2. And drawing. When I realized I can’t express everything what I want to say in an illustration, and that it would take years to get any good, I decide to paint pictures with words.
I wrote hundreds of flash fiction stories, broken little things. When we moved to Hungary, I went to an International American Christian School … I think I was 13. I remember arguing with the Bible teacher about iron chariots, and getting a shrink to talk to me because of a poem I wrote mentioned genocide (my teenage inspiration: System of a Down).
Next: English language school by the BME Hungarian technical university. Leather jacket. Punk concerts. Tablet wine.
First hit of weed.
Fast forward, it’s college. First college. I am 17. I fail miserably.
The only good session I make is about macroeconomics, and I remember writing explanations instead of drawing charts, because I had not studied whatsoever. Second college. This one a proper university, ELTE, considered to be a good one. I get a stipend which I am too lazy to ever collect.
Russian Language & Literature. I fail because I hate being told what to think, but I meet a girl. There is always a girl. We become friends.
On a bet, we drink 14 bottles of Martini and try to see if sex can get in the way of friendship. Turns out it can. I end up marrying her a year later. We have a daughter.
I get a job at a call center and write stories at night.
I even get published by a pro-rate paying e-zine.
We have a son.
One year into our marriage, I ask her to treat me with some respect, and if she won’t, then I would divorce her after a year.
Two years into our marriage, I divorce her.
The reason I give to the lawyer, is, “irreconcilable differences.”
I sign up for kickboxing and break an elbow.
At this point I am paying alimony and living the ‘weekend dad’ lifestyle, but I’ve a comfortable middle management job, and, although am somewhat sad about the whole affair, am free like a bird. I try to read 50 Shades of Grey and decide that porn is what I’ve got to write next.
I write a psychedelic cyberpunk thriller with hardcore pornography in every chapter. Life is turbulent. When somebody asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m an e-mail manager.
I write after work in a pub where they hate me because I only order coffee which they never have, settle for tea, smoke weed, and write. They give the impression that they like people drunk.
There is music, a wooden column is littered with my poems, there is the occasional event. One day, I am forced to leave them forever.
After a good session of writing a Sherlock Holmes / Dr. Who / Star Wars crossover just to see how it could be done, my laptop battery is dead, and so I make a dangerous move: I order a glass of wine.
I am thirty years old. It is 5 AM in the morning. I am writing this after a game jam. Global Game Jam 2017. Maybe we will make a game about a crocodile. Maybe we won’t.
My daughter’s eight birthday is on Sunday, and I will give her a book my godfather gave to me when I was eight. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It is a book that changed my life.
It made me dream that I, too, can fly; all I have to do is set goals, and work my hardest to achieve them. And even if I don’t …
… at least I know to try.
I long thought that I could see the universe like it was, in all its vastness, and comprehend that I am but a grain in a desert.
It took me many years to learn to appreciate that this grain is the only grain that will ever exist in the said desert … and that I had to take control of my life before it was too late.
I am more unique than a snowflake, although, in the grand scheme of things, just as insignificant as everyone else.
And so are you.
Because, to come back to that glass of wine about 3 or 4 years ago, what happened was this: you can’t smoke inside in Hungary, so I come out, and see a homeless person walking down the street. My wine is in my hand. I’m stoned, not yet drunk. Perhaps a little. It’s my third glass of wine. Naturally, I go to talk to the bum. He tells me that drinking is bad for me, and, as we approach a tuts-tuts-tuts-music kind of club opposite to the one I came out of, two shorties start throwing insults at the bum.
“Get off our street, you animal,” they say.
I say, “Fuck you.”
The situation escalates, and soon the second shortie comes back with a metal baseball bat. At this point, I’ve been doing different martials arts on and off for several years, and so I visualize dismantling him. Kicking my foot into the bend of his knee, snapping it to the ground. I didn’t plan ahead for the second guy. It’ll go where it’ll go. Thankfully they back off, and I turn to head back towards my art pub across, and decide to stop doing Jeet Kune Do for a while on the basis of being prone to thoughts of aggression, which is when the bartend (the one who hates me) comes out holding a severed water tap in his hand. “You did this,” he says.
I am confused.
He points at the severed water tap, undoubtedly from the art pub’s public bathroom. He points at me.
“You did this,” he says again.
“But … I was here the whole time.”
“I know you did this.”
I did not cut off their damned taps. I finish the wine and call a cab. The cabbie answers to my sob story saying that perhaps I shouldn’t go to places where I’m not liked. I agree with him, and sign up for a writer meetup … a decision that will change my life forever.
The writer’s meetup was inside an illegal art pub, which my future wife used to run at the time under this charismatic cult-leader type character who liked sex, art, and was drunk most of the time. I liked him. She was a talented, published writer of visual poems, poems, prose, and articles in respected Hungarian journals, she loved science fiction, she wore her hair in dreads, and was synesthetic: she saw words in colors. Most importantly, she was, and remains to this day, the kindest, most loving woman I’d ever met. I liked her even more. We were made for each other. I believe we still are. She eventually left the club to be with me; we moved into her flat and, and with her encouragement, I could quit my email management job and freelanced something fierce for two years straight. I’d ghostwritten Amish clean romance. I’d ghostwritten science fiction. I’d ghostwritten Amish porn in space for a different client (I didn’t want all that research going to waste). A Polish indie Hidden Object Game and puzzle game developer gave me a break into writing for games. I’m writing ads with my friend. I might have to fly to New York to film an ad this year.
My father has been paying for his Weird-Al son’s third attempt at a higher education for 3 years now; Open University, arguably one of the best British distance learning universities in the world. My mother is healthy and is working a job she loves back in Russia. My grandmother’s wise. I have a wonderful family. Life goes on.
I am happy.
I am now wearing a ‘reggae scarf’, a scarf my beloved knitted for my thirtieth birthday, bearing the proud colors of Jamaica.
My pirate flag says, “Just Do It Tomorrow.”
I wrote a story about a deal with the devil once.
But it’s not the devil we’ve got to worry about.
It is each other.
— THE END —
Feature image: cover art for the album “Animals” by Pink Floyd.