Losers Want More
by Tanja Maljartschuk
Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)
A certain man lived up to age 33 in peace and harmony. He had a job, he had a family, he had relatives and acquaintances. He had two good friends with whom he met up once a month. Together they would put back four mugs of beer each, they’d talk over their jobs, families, relatives and acquaintances, then would part ways, happy and tipsy, to their respective homes to sleep. The wife of this man was wise and beautiful just enough that occasionally, while watching her preparing dinner, he would catch himself thinking that his life had turned out quite well and that he wasn’t wanting for anything more or anything different.
But one day, precisely this blissful and involuntary thought startled the man very much. He thought to himself: “How is it possible to not want anything more or anything different? Have I died? Only the dead don’t want anything more.”
The man had arrived at this notion of death in a six-month university course in philosophy, in which he had gotten an A once upon a time. And this notion was likely completely faulty, but that day it struck the man as the most significant thought he had had to date.
The man grew scared. It was evening. He holed himself up in the bathroom and stripped down to the nude. He meticulously inspected his still young body. The irises of his eyes seemed colorless to him, his hands seemed thin and trembling, his stomach flabby, his back hunched. The man decided that this is exactly what losers look like. He didn’t want to be a loser.
He returned to the living room, where his wife was dozing sweetly in front of the TV. He glanced around the room, and it struck the man as cramped and stale from laziness and apathy – musty, as if someone had died here long ago already and the body forgot to be taken away. He barely held back a scream.
“I’m going out in the hallway for a smoke,” he told his wife, and she just nodded drowsily, as if to say, go, I don’t mind, you’re entitled to your little vices.
The man put on some sneakers, grabbed a jacket and walked out of the apartment.
At that moment the newscaster was talking about a young Ukrainian woman who had been raped and burned alive. Then the newscaster smiled, as she always does before each subsequent sentence, and announced that it would be warm in Ukraine tomorrow, only in the east were light frosts being forecasted.
The first thing that the man did upon walking out of his home was to get seriously drunk. In the closest bar, which he earlier never frequented due to its questionable regulars. “It’s actually not such a bad place,” thought the man, pouring liquor down his throat in imitation of everyone at the bar. Lazily, but always in a timely manner, the bartender would hand him his next drink. The other guests paid him no heed. Only some old man gave him a sympathetic slap on the shoulder and said:
“So what, she dumped you? Mine dumped me too. She wrote me a note that she can’t live with me anymore, packed up her things and vanished. I thought to myself, I’ll kill you if I find you. I didn’t find her.”
“My situation’s different,” the man replied at this.
The old man thought a little and then exclaimed:
“I know! You’re just an alcoholic!” and walked off, making it clear that he had never had and never will have any dealings with alcoholics.
The bar closed at two am. The man was shown the door courteously and left to his own devices. “It’s really not such a bad place after all,” he thought to himself. At that moment the man could recall only two things – his name and that he WANTS MORE.
He lay down on a bench, which fortunately turned up quite close by, and fell asleep. It really was warm in Ukraine that night.
He woke up early in the morning from someone trying to pull off his brand name sneakers. The man tucked his feet under himself and barely managed to swing his wooden body upright. He sat up. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 boomed in his head. Alongside him a bum stood and smiled so amicably, as if he hadn’t just been the one trying to take off the sleeping man’s shoes.
“Don’t sleep like that,” he said in a chummy tone, “or you’ll get your stuff stolen.”
And he took a seat on the bench too.
“In the next courtyard over,” continued the bum, “there’s a whole bunch of cops. Some guy went missing. He went out for a smoke and disappeared. So much for the good old days! It’s gotten dangerous to go out in the street!”
The man wrapped his arms around his head. “They’re looking for me already,” he thought, “my wife called the cops, she’s probably crying right now.”
“Do you want a snack?” the bum asked and offered a grease-spattered newspaper bundle. The pungent smell of spoiled smoked fish wafted from inside.
“Thank you, but I have to go!”
The man sprang to his feet and, teetering, set out in the direction away from his apartment.
“You?! We haven’t seen each other in seven years!” his grade school friend was completely surprised upon seeing our man at the doorstep to his apartment. “What happened?”
“Sania, I’ve got problems,” said the man and immediately beelined for the kitchen to slurp some water from the faucet.
“Don’t drink out of there. There’s bottled water in the fridge!”
Sania looked the same as he had seven years ago. His long unwashed hair symbolized his artistic nature, the multiple rows of silver earrings in his ears were a symbol of his eternal struggle against “post-soviet clone-like monotony.” Those were his own words. That’s precisely why they had stopped talking a long time ago. Sania thought that his friend had turned into a philistine zombie, while the man thought that Sania wasn’t growing up at all. Back in the day Sania had tried to form an alternative rock band, an alternative theater group and an alternative environmental protection group. After that he was a DJ for a radio station, from where he got kicked out due to routine truancy and his intoxicated state while live on the air. After that Sania delved into Buddhism and, if memory serves, even traveled to India once. It was right at this stage that the relationship broke off.
“Sania,” the man began despairingly, motioning at his throat, “I’ve had it up to here with my life already! I can’t go on like this! Teach me how to live! You’re the only one who knows how to live. You always knew, but I didn’t understand you.”
Sania looked a little confused.
“What happened?” he mumbled. “Dude, calm down. You’ve got problems at work? At home? Do you owe a lot of money to a loan shark?”
“No, the opposite! I have no problems! Corpses don’t have problems. And I’m a corpse. Here, pinch me! Go on, pinch me! I won’t feel anything.”
“It’s called a midlife crisis, dude.” Sania called all men dudes. Women he called chicks.
“Go to a therapist. They can fix this problem in a few sessions.”
“No-no, Sania, it’s not all that simple. I need to fundamentally change myself, but I have no idea how that’s done. I need to do something, something important. In order to not be a parasite. Because I’m a parasite, you know? I’m amoebic! So now tell me, what are you up to these days?”
Sania again looked confused.
“Well, I’m working.”
“At a PR firm.”
“You? At a PR firm?”
“There’s some serious money to be had there, dude. We work for prominent politicians. We create an image for them, we wage information wars against their opponents. I’ll be honest with you, I knew before that they were monsters, but didn’t know to what extent. All of them, without exception, are monsters.”
The man sank down into a chair in disillusionment. The orchestra in his head changed and now the notes of Strauss’ Radetzky March jingled in there.
“Why are you doing this for a living, Sania? Why, earlier you…”
“Because I realized one important thing. In this world you need to scam everyone, otherwise you’ll get scammed yourself. Either the stronger or the craftier survives. At first my conscience bothered me, I’ll be honest, but then it passed. The conscience is an illusion of the mind, understand? It keeps us from evolving and moving forward.”
The man fell into silence. He hung out at Sania’s apartment till the evening, then together they went to a night club, where the man once more drank himself into a stupor. Drunk, he was approaching the club regulars, who were drowning in the loud music and the thick cigarette smoke, with the words: “Do something, because you’ll end up just like me! Do something!”
The man woke up once more on a bench, this time next to the train station. He remembered that he had wanted to go somewhere, to get the hell out of there, but all the night trains were heading somewhere wrong. Sania was gone. He had been urgently called in to work in the middle of the night, because some prominent member of Parliament had killed a pedestrian while driving drunk and now it was necessary to urgently salvage the remnants of his good name. The train station bums had decided that the man was one of their kind and promised to cut his throat with a dull knife if he didn’t scram from their turf. So the man trudged off obediently without a concrete destination or a glimmer of hope.
In the meantime, things were restless in the center of town. Upwards of a hundred people were slowly moving down the main street with banners in hand and were chanting antigovernmental slogans. The man didn’t realize what was going on when he found himself in the epicenter of activity. “Down with the dirty regime of gravediggers!” the protesters were crying out. “Down with the scum from Parliament!” “Politicians! Choke on our money!” “Donbas! Get up off your knees!” The man joined the demonstration, because either way he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. The column was moving toward the Parliament. The man gingerly asked his neighbor:
“So what is it that’s going on here?”
“Did you fly down from the moon, dude?” the neighbor replied somewhat offendedly. “Don’t you see what’s going on with the country? Don’t you see that crooks came to power and are killing us off one by one like cockroaches?!”
“I do,” lied the man.
He had, of course, heard something along those lines earlier, but had disregarded it because, for one, he didn’t trust the press, two, he didn’t have time to keep up with what was going on in the country after work, and three, he believed that any kind of government constituted violence against the person and that’s all there is to it. He had arrived at these banal conclusions in a six-month course in political science at the aforementioned university.
“When I see these fat-mugged dimwits on TV,” butted in another neighbor, “my whole body shakes in anger. We have to do something, because IF NOT US, THEN WHO?!”
This last phrase the protester yelled out very loudly, and the entire crowd snatched it up with a new wave of enthusiasm. “If not us, then who?!” the people chanted and continued moving in the direction of Parliament. The man did as well.
“Here I served in Afghanistan,” the indefatigable neighbor said to him. “I was 18 years old. They shipped me off and didn’t ask any questions. My leg got torn off,” and the man rapped his fist against his plastic prosthesis. “And now they pay me a pension that’s no better than pig slop. So I spit on their pig slop! I’m no beggar! I life off 500 hryvnias a month like a pauper. I can’t find a job…”
“What job?!” someone else chimed in indignantly. “As if there are jobs to be had in this country?! Even if you wanted to do your own thing, you’ll get saddled with such bad bribes that you’ll go broke before you even get started. These guys are crooks! This is a country of thieves!”
“Down with the crooks! We want to live with dignity!” the crowd joined in, now close to the Parliament already. The Parliament Building was surrounded by an iron fence and was guarded by armed cops. The leader of the demonstration was directing the people like a conductor directs a choir. He was repeating: “This is a peaceful demonstration! We don’t want any violence! We don’t give in to provocation!”
“Yes!” our man suddenly cried out too. “This is a peaceful demonstration! We want to be heard! We want MORE!”
Some young guy made his way forward from the rear and launched into breaking down the fence that separated the demonstrators from the law enforcement. The crowd began to rumble. The claims of a peaceful protest drowned amidst yelling and cursing. The fence fell, a fight broke out. The people forced their way through the chain of cops and rushed to storm the Parliament. The clang of shattered glass was heard. The cops pulled out their batons and tear gas. Someone was yelling: “Murderers! They’re killing their own!”
Our man was in the lobby of the Parliament Building already when the world suddenly went black from a strong blow to the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground, making way for the stronger and braver.
He came to on a chair in a room with no windows. His entire body ached unbearably. A bitter, unpleasant tang lingered in his mouth, and it struck the man that this, apparently, is how blood tastes when there’s a lot of it. From the ceiling hung a solitary light bulb. The man’s hands were bound behind his back with iron handcuffs. A stranger entered the room – he didn’t look like a cop, but in this country, thought the man, no one looks like anyone.
“Well what, rebel,” the stranger said calmly, “have you had your fun? I’ve really had it with you guys.”
“Why am I here?” asked the man.
“And where is it you wanted to be? Wait a while, you’ll end up there too, maybe even faster than you think!” and the stranger kicked the man in the gut with his knee. The man curled into a ball.
“Does it hurt?” the stranger grinned sadistically.
“We were having a peaceful protest,” the man mumbled.
“Peaceful, you say? Ten of my guys are down with skull and brain injuries. All the windows in the Parliament are shattered. The doors need to get changed out. I should let you rot here!”
“There was an instigator in our midst. We weren’t looking for a fight. We want to live a better life.”
The stranger burst out in a cackle and once again struck the man.
But this time the man didn’t even stir. Instead he yelled with all his might:
“Go on and beat me as much as you want! I have the people behind me – all you’ve got is crooks!”
The cop that didn’t look like a cop gaped in surprise. The man, admittedly, was also surprised at his own words. But in that moment, he felt this terrible strength in his body and fear abandoned him. He just smiled meekly as over the ensuing many hours he was beat in the stomach, in the chest, in the back, was doused in rubbing alcohol so that his wounds would sting more, but they didn’t sting. The man smiled and kept quiet. They stretched him out on the floor and jumped on him like on a mattress. From somewhere far away he heard the crunching of his own ribs, he heard his arms and legs breaking, his teeth cracking and the teeth rolling over the concrete, damp from his own blood. Later the man heard the two of them debating: “So what are we doing? Are we killing him or what? It’ll cause a ruckus. His wife’s been on TV already…” The other was saying: “F*ck, they should let me have a talk with these damn journalists. There’s no one keeping them in line.” Later the man got dragged off somewhere and he lay for a long time on something hard, his gaze fixed on a white-painted wall. He didn’t move, he felt nothing, he thought nothing. When after a number of days a doctor came to examine him, the man was fevering and was whispering the same thing over and over: “Did the parasite die? Take a look if the parasite is dead!” The doctor shook his head sadly and said:
“Intestinal worms aren’t your biggest problem right now.”
Meanwhile, the man’s wife really was on TV. The program she appeared on, according to the statistics of the opposition parties, was viewed by more than 10 million Ukrainians. The woman held very strong and only broke into tears twice. She was saying:
“They beat him half-dead and are now holding him who knows where. They won’t tell me anything, they just laugh brazenly in my face. The police are supposed to protect their people, not kill them. In our constitution it says that Ukraine is a democratic country. What kind of democracy is this if people are getting their arms and legs broken for having an opinion? Let my husband go!”
“Is it true,” asked the talk show host, smiling before each subsequent sentence, “that your husband shouted at the policemen in the detention facility, ‘I have the people behind me – all you’ve got is crooks!’?”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied and began to cry.
The show also featured a participant of that unforgettable demonstration next to the Parliament, the Afghan vet whose right leg was torn off by an artillery shell. He said that the man joined the demonstration while by chance passing by, that no one had known him or seen him previously, but that the man’s conduct was deserving of the highest honor and that the Veterans’ Union was going to fight for his freedom till the end.
Immediately after the broadcast, a humongous crowd gathered next to the detention facility, with portraits of the man and signs saying “Freedom for Political Prisoners!” The protest lasted a few weeks – volunteers arrived from all regions of Ukraine, set up tents or slept in the open air. Even the weather, which had deteriorated sharply, didn’t affect their resolute mood. The minister of internal affairs resigned immediately, but the people wouldn’t be appeased and began to demand the resignation of the prime minister and president. The foreign press was writing “There’s a new revolution in Ukraine” and “The murder of a passerby opened the eyes of Ukrainian society.”
But the man, it turns out, didn’t die. They patched him up slapdash, stitched up his lacerated wounds, put on casts where possible, and sent him on his merry way. The demonstrators greeted their idol with cheers. They carried him to the car on their shoulders. They handed him a few certificates of honor and a homemade Hero of Ukraine medal. They promised to not give up and to hold strong till the end.
Due to injury, the man, unfortunately, understood little and heard even less. The car brought him to his building, where a few volunteers helped him into his apartment and wished him a speedy recovery.
The wife of the man wasn’t at home. Neither were her things. Only the lit TV sadly announced the latest news from the field of battle. On the table in the kitchen lay a handwritten letter. “After what you did, I can no longer live with you,” wrote the wife.
“But what did I do?” the man grew indignant. “I went out in the hallway for a smoke! I’ll kill you if I find you.”
He didn’t find her.