V. is the closest I've ever had for a brother.
I was my parents' only child, surrounded by two first cousins on paternal and four on maternal side, — all six of them girls. Gorgeous, awesome, intelligent, — but girls nonetheless. Akin to me in quite a few character traits and even bearing some outward resemblance, — but hopelessly separated by the merciless gender divide. My dad's elder niece was my beloved and admirable little sister, one to be entertained and protected, until 1990 when her family fled the country and my dad chose to stay, — and yet she projected no sense of a deeper mental alignment. There were male second cousins, but already too distant and too dissimilar to feel like close relatives. I grew up proclaiming that blood bonds were irrelevant, — possibly because I was denied the experience of a same generation close male relative, the ultimate spiritual Doppelgänger.
I met V. during my high school years, though he wasn't at the same school as I. My then best friend (whose friendship I still cherish, but am too lazy to see him more often than once a year) introduced me to a circle of folks who were seriously digging biology and associated with a couple of teenager hobby groups. V. was two years younger than me and also part of that cabal. My high school was the period when I arguably had the most spare time on my hands in my whole life, as I crassly ignored homework for all the subjects except math and physics (and even those two took half an hour a day at most). So, I didn't have much to do after school day was over, and rather often went to the lab with the guys and hung out there. I was a permanent outsider, frequently present and in a sense a familiar part of the landscape, but not really an approved member of the gang. Later, when my school friend and I entered our respective universities, I would often visit him and hung out in the ancient dusty rooms of the Zoology department at the Twelve Collegia, — fully open back in 1989, but nowadays admissible only via a guided tour, which sadly will not take you to the most interesting places.
I remained good friends with the bio gang and especially enjoyed the company of several of them, V. included. My life, however, was tugging me far and farther away from my earlier ways. After some strange and crazy times, I began to date my wife-to-be and got so immersed in the relationship that for a few years I abandoned my network of friends and acquaintances completely. We did meet with the bio guys from time to time, mostly at their birthday parties, but soon I effectively parted ways with most of them, except for my school friend and V.
The reasons I continued to maintain a close friendship with V. were rather plain — I liked him and Julia liked him too. His views, his interests, his sense of humour were strangely close to mine — which was so much more valuable in the days before online social networks, that give us today an instant exposure to hordes of our virtual kinfolk. V.'s background was just a tiny bit different from mine. My parents were mechanical engineers and the fact I went to Polytech was thus not wholly inconsequential. V.’s mother was a renowned neurophysiologist, who endowed V. and his younger sister with her academic interests, so they had both joined that biology club and were aiming at the appropriate departments in the university.
V. finally began to study at Polytech, two years after me and Julia. Surprisingly, Polytech, a decent engineering school, had a Biophysics chair (with people mostly dealing with radioactivity impact on live bodies, or so I had been led to believe). Both this and Computer Science, where Julia and I were studying, existed within the Physics and Mechanics department, so some of our professors now taught V. and his classmates. We met him often in bleak auditoria covered with chalk dust, or in sleazy canteens over revolting mass-produced coffee, or in corridors, their dark-green walls in perpetual disrepair, decorated with graffiti of all imaginable degrees of wit and obscenity. These were early post-Soviet years, no one had any money and the whole idea of education was beginning to feel like a not especially bright pun on a long forgotten motto. For a couple of years we continued to meet at Polytech, but I was getting more and more absorbed by looking for sources of income, until 1993 when finally, tired by a turbulent stream of short-term freelance gigs, I found a full-time job and didn't get back to the classroom ever since.
It was at Polytech when someone first identified us as brothers. It did not happen immediately though.
We met almost daily and I gradually became well known to V.'s class. V. was once sitting an algebra exam with a professor whom I happened to dislike due to reasons completely irrelevant to this story. The exam was taking him longer than anticipated, while Julia and I were already free for the day and eager to snatch our friend out of the paws of dullness and take him with us to have some coffee and ice cream together. Being in a somewhat childish disposition, I stuck my head into the auditorium door and began, behind the algebra lady's back, to make some noiseless yet very expressive signs towards V., implying that he was not really spending his time in the best possible company and should leave the dreary place at once. V. threw worried glances at me, but boldly and dutifully resisted. Other audience members started to look at me in amazement, some of them smiling. Finally, the professor took notice, turned and angrily faced me. I promptly assumed a most dignified appearance, bowed her adieu and shut the door.
After a few encounters like that, V's classmates began to confidently recognise me as his close relation. Sometimes I dropped by in order to have a chat with V. and maybe hand him some book. When I found him missing, I usually asked some of his fellows to pass the stuff over, oftentimes supplying a handwritten note, inviting V. to join us in the evening and hinting tentatively at our possible whereabouts.
One day, after the last lecture, Julia and I were hanging idly at the lobby of one of the Polytech buildings. V. suddenly emerged from the rear, smiling and with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. He slapped me heartily on my back and we began our usual exchange of trifling jokes. Then he abruptly paused and, after a few seconds of a very expressive pantomime, announced that I am now his true blood relative. It turned out his fellow students, whom I had lately asked to pass something to V., told him that the transmission came from “his brother” who arrived while V. was away.
We laughed. After that day V. took on to mockingly greeting me as "brother".
Years went by, Julia and I graduated, I changed jobs shortly afterwards and the life started to pull V. and us slowly away from each other. We continued to meet V. occasionally, but otherwise our life became much, much busier than it used to be during our university years. It came down to seeing V. once a month, then once every other month, then only a few times a year. Our social circles were drifting apart as well – the IT crowd did not really have a strong connection with the rarefied air of the academia, where V. was churning out his Master and PhD theses.
My career soon propelled me into low-rank management roles, over a series of successes too easily earned. I am a rather poor hiring manager now – and I was a genuine disaster at that time. I preferred to hire people I liked personally, not being wise enough to judge their merit. V. at the same time hit a rough patch – there weren’t enough high-paying jobs for molecular biology experts in Russia. His PhD labours aside, he was facing two main alternatives: emigrating or abandoning science. He was certainly bright enough to qualify as an entry level software engineer, so I was continuously luring him to come and work in my team.
I recognise now that I might subconsciously strive to have him close by, so that he would impart my working life with the bygone cheerfulness of our Polytech days. The seemingly adult life I was leading still felt somewhat irresponsible and game-like. Like good grades in school, money flowed in without any tangible effort and every urge still seemed very easy to satisfy. However, I was well-read enough to understand that the springtime was not meant to last.
V. chose science instead. There might have been some other personal reasons behind that choice, which pushed him out of the country. Some of those reasons I knew, some were vaguely hinted at by friends and family members, some never actually surfaced, though I thought I could read them from the unspoken. It was in the early 2000s and the emigration didn’t carry such grave and morbid connotations as it did for the generation of our parents. The airport did not feel like a crematory anymore. A few days before leaving St. Petersburg, V. threw a big party, where the old biology gang and university friends were gathering. I was there too. I don’t remember now if Julia came with me.
For the decade that ensued, V.’s career was oscillating between Britain and the States, taking him to Dallas, London, Sheffield and Baltimore. He met and then married F., a lovely and beautiful Italian girl. He comes to St. Petersburg every couple of years, to renew his passports and visas and to see his mother and sister. This whole story, as you can see, is pretty common after all.
He arrived in town last February and spent a week here, staying at his mom’s and mostly dealing with some academic paperwork issues (in part haggling over co-authorship, as I gathered). We met on Nevsky in a café that used to be posh just a few years ago. Still, the coffee and sweets were in a totally different league from what we merrily enjoyed together twenty years ago. I believe I had not seen him for four or five years.
We talked for almost three hours. His voice and his manners, his facial expressions and the ways he structured a joke, his outlook on life and the themes of his stories – all felt extremely familiar and at the same time utterly otherworldly. All throughout the conversation, I had a dreamlike, vague and weakening feeling of looking into a mirror and beholding something totally alien.
My inner self has changed, but V., my brother, has preserved an outward image of the years forever dead.
I was not, and am not, bold enough to ask what he saw in me.