Illustration by Douglas Young
Inna Tsirlin was born in Russia and has since lived in five different countries and three different continents. She spent the first ten years of her career as a researcher in academia, studying the intricacies of human vision. Six years ago, Inna moved with her family to the Bay Area to work in tech as a user experience researcher. Inna authored many academic articles in psychology and neuroscience, but only recently started developing her creative writing skills. Since "The first time" Inna wrote several other short stories and is currently working on a supernatural dramedy novel.
"The first time" is loosely based on real-life events that happened in a different place and at a different time from the ones I described. The original story affected me deeply when I heard it from a friend more than a decade ago. It has been fascinating me since, waiting to be told. I finally re-imagined it in the St Petersburg of the early nineties, the setting of my childhood. "The first time" is also my first time writing a short story.
The judges all agreed that "The First Time" was one of the strongest adult-category stories we've seen in years. Russian teenagers and best friends do the things young people everywhere do, yet the sense of dread is palpable to the reader even as Sasha and Miron remain obliviously engaged with their friends. And the tragedy that results is convincingly, gorgeously, and movingly delivered. No pair of Dr. Martens will ever look the same.
T he black leather boot was poking Sasha's side painfully as the gray morning settled in, but he kept pressing it tightly to his body. Its sole was full of dry mud, and pieces of it chipped off and crumbled all over the bed sheets, speckling the whites with gray and brown. The police had brought back the boots and clothes yesterday afternoon. Pantera t-shirt, old acid wash jeans, mismatched socks, a grey one with navy stripes and a brown one with a hole on the big toe, and the boots. These boots were a cause for envy among all Sasha’s classmates. Dr. Martens, a generous gift to Miron from his cousin who immigrated to the US two years ago. Miron swore he will get Sasha a pair when he finally goes to visit his cousin in New York. Now, one of the boots lay on the floor by the wall, a useless piece of shaped leather, and the other was poking Sasha's ribs, as if trying to kick him in the heart.
Yesterday morning Sasha woke up at 5am. He stayed quietly in his bed, not to disturb mom in the adjacent room, and thought about how the day was going to unfold. It was going to be a slow day at school, only math, Russian and gym, and a group of them had been planning to ditch after the first double period. Miron and the others were going to hang out by the Nameless Lake and had tried to convince Sasha and Lenka to come along. But they had other plans. Better plans. Sasha felt an emptiness in his stomach and shut his eyes tight, invoking Lenka's image in his mind. Lenka had soft ash blond hair with an uneven fringe and an edgy body, as if it was roughed out by a sculptor's chisel, waiting to be refined. Her eyes were the dark gray of St. Petersburg's winter sky. She was a beloved of the neighborhood's strays and the homeless, with her casual kindness and pockets full of dog snacks, cigarettes and small change. Sasha imagined her leaning over him with her bangs prickling his face, smiling with her full lips, a little dry from the warmth of the room. They will do it today. Sasha clenched his fists tight, pleasure filling his body, almost painfully.
Later that day, Sasha met Lenka at the back of the school after math. She was wearing a green puffy jacket, unzipped and flapping around her slim body and a knitted black and white hat with panda ears and nose. Her bangs were sticking out from under the hat, giving the panda a rough unshaven look. Lenka slowly walked towards Sasha, smiling and then threw her backpack at him and climbed over the old, rusty fence. He followed, tossing their backpacks over and then vaulting the fence in one motion and landing right beside her. She took his hand and they ran towards the bus station. The rest of their friends poured over the fence, shouting and whistling at them, "You are missing out, traitors!"
The loud group turned around the corner, away from the school, and headed towards the metro, stopping on their way at the booze kiosk to get two bottles of tequila and a couple of packs of red Magna. The fat cashier in an orange beany squinted her eyes and shook her head, but took their money and handed them a white plastic bag clinking with the heavy glass.
They slowly descended into the deep gut of the metro, standing like soldiers in a neat row on the steps of the narrow escalator. The cavernous halls of the famous St Petersburg metropolitan met them with a bleak shine of the gold ceiling decorations and the familiar smell of the worn-out steel. The train was at the station and the automated announcement had already started. Miron jumped for the doors and managed to squeeze himself between the closing halves, letting the others, running behind him, push through into the car. They all collapsed onto the brown seats in a pile, panting, laughing and swearing, cheeks shining pink from the effort. Miron dove with his hand into the white plastic bag and after a few careful manipulations, pulled out a bottle, took a quick gulp of the yellowish liquor and passed it to Galina. She smiled at the bottle and took a long thirsty drink, spraying tequila all over the floor with a loud snort, when Miron poked her side with his finger and a "Don't hoard it, Galka!". They laughed and kissed, hugging each other too tight. Galina was tiny but determined and athletic, a reigning champion in the regional swim team. She let go of Miron slowly, looking into his eyes a little longer than necessary. Miron was a difficult person to dislike. He was recklessly generous with his looks, money, time and possessions. He welcomed everyone and everything in his life. They kept looking at each other, while the bottle was passed around from hand to hand.
On the other side of town, in front of his tiny apartment, Sasha was trying to dig the keys out of his vast backpack with slightly shaky hands, as Lenka pretended not to notice, studying the spider webs sprawled across the ceiling. They finally entered the dark corridor and decided against turning on the lights. Backpacks on the floor, they stood facing each other, electricity accumulating in the dusty space between them. Lenka brushed her palm over the side of Sasha's face and then ran her fingers through the cloud of his long curly hair. She took his hand, kissed it and placed it on her waist. Sasha drew her close, and an endless embrace began. They performed a slow intertwined tango, faces merged, finally entering Sasha’s room and throwing themselves onto his unmade bed. The landing startled them, and they broke apart for a moment, Lenka looking into Sasha's bright blue eyes and biting her chapped lower lip. He reached out and unbuttoned her gray shirt with the concentration of a brain surgeon. She wasn’t wearing a bra and he cradled her small breasts in his palms, closing his eyes for a minute, overwhelmed. Lenka pulled his shirt up and drew him tight against her lean, smooth body, covering his mouth with hers.
The others had finally reached the lake and were now sitting on an old checkered blanket by the water. In the summers, the narrow gravel beach was packed with gray-faced people, escaping their wallpapered apartments for coveted sunlight. That autumn morning, Nameless lake was abandoned, not a soul wandering around, wading or feeding the ducks. It was unusually warm for an October day. The sun generously laid its rays on their upturned faces and bare feet. The lake was calm like a dark mirror, glistening in the sunlight. Miron took out a pack of Magna and passed it around while others sang one of Victor Tsoi’s songs to quiet guitar tunes:
Wait, don't walk away!
We waited for summer,
But got winter instead
We covered in buildings
But it was snowing inside
We waited for tomorrow
Everyday waited for tomorrow..
"Why so dark?" Miron smiled, "Play 'Aluminum Cucumbers' instead." He was lying on his back, cigarette in his mouth, his hand holding Galina's. She snorted and exclaimed "I have one!" then started on an old folk ballad about a girl falling in love but having no courage to tell her beloved. They all sang it a capella for a while, their voices rising to the tops of the tall pines and then broke down in maniacal laughter, rolling on top of each other. Miron fished out the half empty tequila bottle and poured it in hard plastic cups he took from his backpack.
"Non-single use? Fancy!" Galina exclaimed "We are like the royals!".
They smoked and drank and sang and repeated. One couple got up quietly and disappeared into the forest. The sun was climbing higher and the air was getting warmer. Miron took his jacket off and rolled up his pants.
"It's not that warm, you're making it look like it’s July," Galina told him.
"It is July in my soul! I'll prove it to you!" he got up, and started undressing.
"What are you doing, you imbecile?!" Galina laughed, "You are going to blind the ducks with your blue tan!"
Miron stripped to his underwear and jumped into the water, disturbing the quiet lake with a giant splash.
"Shit!" Miron screamed, popping out of the lake like a jack-in-the-box, "It's freezing! Gotta keep moving!"
He dove in and swam towards the foggy outline of the other shore. He was an OK swimmer but was self-conscious around Galina, with her regional glory. Galina looked on, a slight frown on her face as Miron's head moved farther away. She turned around to grab a box of cigarettes and rummaged through the pile of clothes and bags, looking for the lighter. She finally found it and sucked in the smoke, closing her eyes for a minute. Her best friend Veronika was tugging on her sleeve. She looked up and saw her friend’s face, suddenly gray and drawn against the brilliantly blue sky. Veronika pointed at the lake and shouted "Help him, help him!".
Galina's heart sank into her stomach as she turned and ran towards the lake, tearing her clothes off and fixating her eyes on Miron's head silently popping in and out of the water like a wooden peg. She dove in and the icy water took her breath away with one steely blow. It was too damn cold and even the alcohol in her veins did not help. She tried to concentrate, regain her breath and get into the rhythm. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Her muscles were spasming, her chest burned, her lungs on fire. Stroke, stroke, breathe. She could see him. Still popping up above the water, but with larger intervals now. He opened and closed his mouth silently like a fish. Up and down. Open close. Stroke, stroke, breathe. She reached him, grabbed his torso and tried to turn him onto his back. He was too heavy, twice her weight and too stiff. His legs spasmed and were useless, pulling them both down like anchors. He grabbed on to her desperately as she tried to swim. Too slow, too heavy. Her lungs were about to explode, her muscles giving up, the shore still too far. Breathing heavily, she felt Miron loosening his grip. Galina looked at him and met his eyes, giant and dark, completely present.
"Let go," he mouthed, "let go."
Tears streamed down Galina’s face into the freezing water. On the shore, the others were getting into the water and shouting, but they were too far away and too drunk and none of them were any good in the water. Galina felt Miron pushing her arms away. She loosened her hold and he started to sink. His cropped crown slowly disappeared into the water. Galina was paralyzed now, tears clouding her eyes, heartbeat slowing down, body slowly freezing.
"Galina, Galina, come back! Come back! I beg you!" Veronika bellowed, pushing further into the water, falling and getting up again. Her shrill screams echoed over the lake and woke Galina up. She turned around and swam. Her right leg was not working anymore, but her arms were strong enough to pull her towards the shore. The others were running towards her, their wet clothes spread around them like tentacles, their faces white with cold, their teeth chattering. She collapsed at the water’s edge and they pulled her out onto the gravel and covered her with jackets.
Back in the dusty old apartment Sasha did not want to let go. His arms were wrapped around Lenka's naked torso, her head on his chest, their legs intertwined like twin trees. They were lying there, two halves of a whole, for what seemed like centuries. Lenka tapped her fingers on his chest.
"Is this the Turkish March?" he asked.
"Aha," she smiled, "I feel victorious." She raised her head and kissed him, "And I love you. But also, this was weird! Wonderful and very weird," she added planting many little kisses on his lips and nose and chin. Just then they heard the phone ring.
That afternoon the police brought Miron's body to the morgue. Galina was taken to the hospital on a heart attack watch. She was not speaking, just staring into space without blinking. Sasha spent the evening motionless on the couch in his living room, silently holding Lenka’s hand as she was sobbing next to him. Miron and his mom, Anna, were Sasha's next-door neighbours. They had been best friends since kindergarten. They lived in each other’s apartments, running in and out, sharing toys, food and secrets. They used a special code to send messages by tapping on the old water radiators that ran the length of the apartment building. They planned to leave Russia and hitchhike around the world together.
Sasha and Lenka saw Anna when the police told her the news, her desperate screams and curses still ringing in their ears. When the police returned Miron's clothes she collapsed onto the pile, clutching it with her fists as if trying to force Miron to come out of it. Later, after Anna came back from the morgue, she knocked on Sasha’s door and silently handed him Miron's boots.
That night, Sasha's mom came into his room and sat on his bed. He was sitting there, still fully dressed, clutching the boots to his chest. She put her hand firmly on his shoulder as if to reinforce his body.
"Mama," Sasha asked, "how could he let it happen?"
"Oh baby, he had too much to drink, it was just a stupid game," she answered.
"No Mama, God! How could God let it happen?" Sasha said looking straight in front of him. "Miron was pure. He was gold. He was the best of us."
"Sashenka," she said quietly, eyes welling with tears, "This is horrible. It should not happen ever, to anybody. To nobody! But it just does."
"There is no justice, Mama, there is no meaning in any of this! Fuck god!" Sasha shouted and threw one of the boots across the room, where it met the wall and fell down with a loud thump. This seemed to take away the last of his strength as he collapsed onto the bed, curling around the other boot, pressing it into his body. His mom continued to sit on the bed, her arm around her son, listening to Sasha whisper "Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me..."