I knew him only as Alexey. He might have said his last name but I can’t seem to remember it. He lived in a studio apartment in Brighton Beach and was a handyman. He had business cards. He did odd jobs all around New York City. I supposed he earned a decent living. He paid his rent on time. Kept the lights on. Kept bottles of Polish and Russian vodka in his refrigerator. I know this from his neighbor. An elderly lady with two dogs. She was an old Polish woman who professed to desiring Alexey. Alexey, I should note, was seventy years old. But he was agile with hardened muscles. He complained of tiredness frequently, despite having the fortitude to work seven days a week, and I pointed out it was likely his liver rebelling against the vodka. He laughed.
“A Russian can’t be Russian without vodka.” He patted my back.
Alexey was my Russian teacher. I met him in Central Park. We sat on the same bench. I was reading a lesson book for Russian. I had dreams of reading all the great pieces of Russian literature in their original language but I was floundering. I worked at the Metropolitan Museum as an archivist. When I met Alexey I was studying and digitizing a Bible from sixteenth-century Sweden. I knew German which gave me some understanding of Swedish.
“Why, pretty lady, are you learning Russian?” Alexey asked. I explained my love of Russian literature. I noted Alexey had a distinct Russian accent. I feebly attempted to speak Russian to him. He was supportive and polite. I decided then I would pay him his hourly rate once a week and get instruction in Russian.
Alexey was very vague about his life in Russia. After three months, he confessed to being in the Gulag system for twenty years on political charges. He had been a professor of economics at a university in St. Petersburg.
“I was arrested because I was an intellectual. That’s what they did. Imprisoned intellectuals.” Given his age and what I knew of the history of the Gulags and Russian politics, I thought he might have been incarcerated for another crime. A more criminal crime.
After a year, I invited him to The Russian Tea Room as a celebration of my improved Russian. Alexey was dressed sharply in a suit. When he was seated I could see the suit was faded in spots.
We ordered borscht and blinchik to start. I ordered the swordfish for the main dish and Alexey ordered veal pojarski. We both had vodka tonics.
“Here’s to a wonderful student.” Alexey lifted his glass. His suit jacket bunched up and I saw two tattoos that I had been wondering about for the past year. Alexey said he got them in the Gulag. One tattoo was a circle with a dot and the phrase, надейся только на себя. Trust only yourself. The other tattoo was of a hooded executioner.
“Alexey…” I hesitated. “What do those tattoos signify?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Ничего такого. Nothing.”
The dinner went on and we said goodbye. As he turned to walk down 57th Street, I yelled his name.
“What happened to your family?”
“I have no family. I’m an orphan. Trust only yourself. Farewell, beautiful lady.”
After that, Alexey no longer returned my messages and I found another Russian tutor. As I was finishing my work on the Swedish Bible, a colleague came in with a stack of photos. Men with no shirts displaying their tattoos.
“What is this Elena?” I asked.
“Oh, archival work for Gulag tattoos. We’re considering an exhibit.”
I described Alexey’s tattoos to her. “The circle with the dot means he’s an orphan but the hooded executioner means he killed a relative. Russian prisoners literally told the story of their life in their tattoos.”
I shivered. Who did Alexey kill? I spent an entire year with a murderer. But I softened when I realized he was also an orphan.