I have known Jesus for a number of years – since my first day at the university, in fact, when he spilled coffee on the canteen floor and the faculty dean slipped on it. Jesus was his nickname, which he acquired chiefly on account of his appearance, as he bore – especially on his rougher days – a remarkable resemblance to actor Ted Neeley from the 1973 film “Jesus Christ Superstar”.
Our friendship was not altogether happy. There were, at various times, prolonged bouts of resentment, but there was also a strong attachment. We drank too, a little unheedingly perhaps, but never letting it get in the way of reason. Besides, the drink helped generate the vigour and spite required for our wilful rejection of having to be part of the daily danse macabre that we thought our life was.
Though we were quite fond of one another, things started to go rotten sometime toward the end of the university. Jesus was out for some while – trouble at home, he said – but when he was back, he began to lose his edge. His temper would often fail him, and on several occasions we had massive rows. There were no more conversations about wanting to be the tough rebels who buck the system. In fact, there were no more conversations at all, just fleeting phrases exchanged whenever the circumstances required it.
After our final class together Jesus asked me to hang on. Now, Jesus was a talkative man – and the joke doing the rounds was that he could never ride into Jerusalem as he would talk the hind leg off the donkey – but the one thing he was not given to talking about was his family. I knew that his father was in the furniture business and mother long since in another marriage, but I never really bothered to find out.
When only the two of us remained in the room that late May evening, Jesus was silent for a long time. Finally, he lit a roll-up – which was, of course, strictly against fire safety rules, but a fire would probably have improved the 1970s concrete box that was the college – and confided in me the cause of his sulk.
His father – I suppose I might call him Joseph just for the hell of it – had, out of a sudden impulse of honesty perhaps, confessed that he had in fact been in the lower ranks of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, and that his furniture job was a smokescreen. I should, perhaps, establish context here: of all the things that Jesus and I reserved our contempt for, the FSB, alongside the majority of the university staff, the people at the post office and the United Russia party, were abhorred the most.
To have a father who was actually part of this system was something beyond bearable for Jesus. He was leaving home, he declared. “Everything stinks of blood now in my flat,” he said. “I can’t go on like this.”
I took this disclosure as an intimation that our friendship was going back to how it had been. After all, wasn’t that what friends were for? To give consolation in adversity? But alas, I was wrong.
Jesus seemed to have despised himself for his admission, so as soon as we received our diplomas, he was gone. They said he took to traveling, not that I knew for certain. I remember in the months that followed I would often experience a pang of fear – as I recall it I experience it again – that my own relatives might also be connected to any of these groups we hated. What if they, too, were forced, through some inexplicable twist of fate, to take orders from some gray, stone-faced general?
I had not heard from Jesus for about two years. Until, at an opposition rally here in Moscow this winter, who should I meet but the man himself, looking all the more like Ted Neeley with his robe-like overcoat and messy hair.
“Father had a stroke after I walked out, he’s in the hospital now,” Jesus said.
Joseph retired following the row with his son, and whatever savings he had accumulated had gone toward his treatment – but that was not enough, Jesus told me.
“I’m collecting money for him. He’s my father – do you think I would abandon him when he’s dying?” He snapped, noticing my somewhat incredulous glance.
“You want to donate or what?”