In my childhood, the rats were my friends.
My parents were not aware but I fed them every day after school. If my mother and father had known I was squandering food for my rodent friends Krushy and Peter when food itself was scarce, I would’ve been reprimanded, so I kept it to myself. The first time I brought dinner to the rats, they scurried over to me as if they already knew what was coming. I liked the sound of their feet pattering across the cement and the sight of their pink noses twitching at the scent of meat. Dropping the gristly beef on the floor, I would back away as they pounced on it with glee and gorged on their wet, soggy meal. Meanwhile, my mouth would start to water and my stomach would growl as I’d think to myself, the rats dined better than the people in my country.
They looked hungry when I’d come home every day, hovering in the darkness under the stairwell of my apartment building’s lobby. I’d begun this ritual one day at school lunch by stuffing the meat from my goulash into my coat pocket. They kept getting thinner and thinner, so I dedicated myself to making them healthier, stronger.
The goulash in my pocket stunk all day long, which caused my classmates to sniff at the area around me, asking, “Vladimir Putin, is that you that stinks?” Another boy added, “Goulash Pants—his new nickname—Goulash Pants.” A third said, “What about Mr. Goulash Pants?” In the end I was called “Goulash Pants,” but I didn’t care; they weren’t my friends. I hadn’t any of those. And when they taunted me from then on, my hand would close around the slimy beef, thinking, I HATE YOU.
On weekdays, I left my apartment building at seven, walking the streets of Piter to go to school. I looked down into the canals at the murky water, which did not stir. Sailors strolled by in their navy uniforms and I thought to myself, a sailor’s life is the best, waking up early, walking in peace along the street, no one bothering you.
I’ll never forget one morning in particular. Ten minutes into my walk, I rounded the corner of the Church of the Savior on Blood. I grew panicked and looked from left to right. I saw no one and continued walking. Then I heard several footsteps from behind me. I walked faster, soon jogging then trying to run. Suddenly someone grabbed me and wrapped his thick fingers around my neck. Another pair of hands gripped my bony triceps while my books clattered on the pavement. I started to scream but a fist came out of nowhere and smashed into my cheekbone as a knee jabbed me in the groin. I doubled over, fell to the ground and began to wheeze. They gave up when the wheezing began. They released me and ran off in another direction.
I lifted my head and saw the golden onion dome of the Church, the sun reflecting off it, making it appear more gold and majestic. I wanted to be on top of that dome, high in the sky so no one could get to me. I would sit up there and look out over all of Piter like a king on his throne. The wind would lift me up and guide me over my kingdom. At that moment, it sounded nice and I smiled through the pain in my face, pushing myself off the ground and gathering my books. I continued on my way to school—bruised, scraped, bleeding—and went to class after class, yet the teachers never questioned my appearance, which was routine. They probably assumed it was a family matter, that my father was an alcoholic. Other boys came to school with black eyes and welts on a regular basis. I wasn’t anyone special.