An oncology center, an operating table, this is a place where tension runs high and nerves are tied up in knots. I’m half of my mind waiting for the verdict to come. I don’t want to see anybody. Feeling so let down but still unwilling to kiss and to make up with fate, I stumble out onto the street. Snow is falling, in big flakes that would normally make me happy, but it covers my head now, as if it’s sharing my sorrow. I walk a few kilometers, lost in thought. When my strength gives out, I hail a taxi and get in.
“Hotel Moskva,” I tell the driver, and tears spill from my eyes, like water from a brimming vessel when you pick it up. The cabbie, a plain, uncomplicated Russian, glances at me a couple of times, but doesn’t say anything and just keeps on driving. The streets are clogged with one traffic jam after another. After driving for close to forty minutes, we pull up in front of a small and entirely unremarkable eatery with a sign that reads: Night Café: Drivers, Eat Here. The driver turns to me.
“Hey, katso,” he says, calling me “man” in my own language, “be a pal and come in with me for five minutes.”
He is holding two bottles of Russkaya vodka. I had never wanted to tie one on so much in my entire life. Mute as a sheep to the slaughter, I followed him in. The few people already there turned around all together to see who it was. The waitress, whose name was Lyubasha, looked at my driver in the eye sympathetically and asked him a question carefully, “well then, Volodya, how did the surgery go?”
“It’s all over,” he replied. “For me, it’s all over.”
I saw tears in Lyubasha’s eyes. A deathly silence reigned.
Everyone stood silently and all of them, still without a word, came and shook his hand.
“Thanks, guys,” he said and sank into a chair, then motioned me to sit, too. I didn’t need to be told twice.
Lyubasha came out from behind the counter, sat by Volodka, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Listen, Vov, I’ll keep the children with me. Let them grow. It’s like God Himself sent them to me.”
“Oh, come on.” Volodka mumbled.
Lyubasha interrupted him. “Done deal. Not another word.”
Realizing that resistance would get him nowhere, he bowed his head, then poured vodka into three tumblers without lifting the bottle even once. He gazed sadly, wanly, into my eyes, and asked, “What’s your trouble, brother?”
Unable to speak through the bitterness bubbling up inside me, I told him with a look that I shared his sorrow. I took the glass of vodka and knocked it back in silence. He drained his own glass and poured another round.
Something opened up in my throat and, staring intently at the glass, I muttered, “I feel for you, brother. As for me, man proposes but God disposes.”
Lyubasha’s female intuition kicked in. Her sympathy now for me, she put her other hand on my shoulder and quietly asked, “Your wife’s sick, too?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Chin up, brother. Everything will be okay.”
Volodka raised his second glass and wished my wife good health. I thanked him and slammed my own drink down.
“Have something to eat, brother,” Lyubasha said, offering me a plate of lightly pickled cucumbers. No snack in this world could have tasted better to me at that moment.
Lyubasha then excused herself, turned to the waiting customers, and said, in her friendly way, “I’m off, boys. Auntie Tosya will take care of you.”
With a “See you tomorrow,” she took the two of us, Volodya and me, by the arm, and led us out to the car. She put Volodya in the back seat and opened the front passenger door for me, making me the honored guest. She sat behind the wheel, and a few minutes later we were at her house.
She rang the bell. The strapping man opened the door, hugged Volodka like his own kin and made me welcome, too.
Lyubasha was here, there, and everywhere, and soon the table was set with a splendid Russian feast. We spent the night without distinction of nationality, gender, or situation, in heart-to-heart conversations, comforting and just being there for each other.
The next morning, Lyubasha, her husband, Volodka, and I, now their friend, went to the hospital to take Volodka’s dead wife back to his home. On the day of her funeral, I walked behind the coffin, as if I were accompanying a part of my own flesh and a piece of my soul on that last, long journey. Afterwards, at home, several people sat around the table in commemoration of the departed.
I went back to the hotel. My wife was doing better, and I couldn’t have been more delighted about that. In the morning, I woke up, had breakfast, and was about to leave for the hospital when I heard a knock at the door. I opened it, and there was Lyubasha holding two large bags.
“Well then, are we going to the hospital?” she asked.
I wasn’t surprised. I had known these people long enough not to be caught off guard by anything.
“Thank you, sister,” I said, and we went down to where Volodka and Lyubasha’s husband were waiting for us. I said hello, and we all set off for the hospital together.
Lyubasha was beautiful, and that bothered me a little. I couldn’t see it making my wife’s day to have me show up with a lovely Russian woman in tow. As if guessing what was on my mind, Lyuba took her husband’s arm.
“Listen, Vlas,” she said. “I know Georgian women; they’re jealous. This show is yours to run.”
Lyuba had brought my wife everything but the kitchen sink, because a woman always knows what another woman needs. My wife looked first at me, then at Lyuba, with eyes full of gratitude, and said, “I know all about you. My husband has told me. Thank you for being part of our world.”
She took Volodka’s hand and squeezed it, then the tears came. “Your children have Lyubasha to be their mother,” she said, “but they’ll have a Georgian mother, too, if I ever get out of here.”
So began a love that, with God’s help, continues to this day. When we left Moscow to return home, their warm eyes and warm hearts sent us on our way. On the plane I settled down with my thoughts, reflecting on my friends from Moscow, from the upper crust, with their threadbare talk, their cold eyes, their faces worn out with living too well, and their icy hearts. I was boundlessly grateful to the Lord for clearing my way to those truly Russian people; people for whom inexhaustible kindness and a generous soul are life’s greatest treasure. Thanks to the Almighty for that priceless gift!