Imagine a Google Maps globe. If you are anywhere in the Americas, locate your city, and start rotating the globe in either direction. When you’ve rotated it half way and you can no longer see your country, stop and find the banana-shaped islands of Japan. Cross the Japanese Sea and zoom in, but avoid the Koreas. Instead, keep zooming in on the kidney-shaped peninsula slightly to the north. There is a lot of land, but focus on the coastline. Pick a spot just off the point where the three borders converge by the sea in a modern-day geopolitical estuary. If you picked the right spot and pressed “+” long enough, you’ll be able to see a beige rectangular block with a number “52” on it. Exact coordinates: 43.1056° N 131.8735° E; Ulitsa Kirova 52, Vladivostok, Russia. Somewhere, in the sub-cellar of that “52” rectangle, is the apartment 12/1, in which I spent the first two years of my life together with my oldest cousin.
Of course, my memories of that apartment do not come from those years, when eleven of us—my parents, my older brother and I; my uncle, his wife, and their 3 sons (including my oldest cousin); and my maternal grandparents —used to live together under the same roof. Instead, I got to know that apartment later, from the safe distance of my new—nuclear family—home. I’d come to visit my relatives who stayed behind at 12/1, exploring its every nook and cranny, studying dust on the old shelves. Windows half submerged into the ground; the kitchen no bigger than a closet, with a tiny table and only two chairs; one bathroom and one toilet for everyone to share. A stuffy 3-bedroom sub-cellar, that apartment felt like it was from a different world, its rooms—the carriers of family secrets to which I was not, and would never become, privy. Yet, at the same time, that was and always will be the place from where I started.
Although I remember the rooms, the memories themselves are non-engaging: I don’t recall ever eating in that kitchen or ever using that bathroom. Instead, it is the space right outside the apartment, a portion of the dimly lit communal hall tucked away under the staircase, that is still alive in my mind. That spot never failed to attract my attention, mainly because of its constant transformation: contrary to the institutionalized permanence of the apartment, the staircase nook was in a continuous state of flux. At various points throughout my childhood visits, it was used as:
- a storage space for my aunt’s fruit preserves;
- my uncle’s DIY workshop;
- a spot to play Chupa Caps (for my youngest cousin) and to smoke my uncle’s cigarette butts (for my middle cousin as he approached his puberty);
- my oldest cousin’s place of refuge when things started to go south for him.
I remember how my middle cousin invited me once to come inside, with the excuse of sharing a smoke. Among the clutter of plastic buckets, no-longer-needed glass jars, and old suitcases, after I was done coughing from a single puff, he finally confided to me that something didn’t feel quite right at home. That must have been right before my uncle did the final renovation and cordoned off the nook, cutting off access from my oldest cousin, who was by then wanted by the police on a second-degree murder charge.
Just like with the kitchen and bathroom, I don’t recall much detail about my oldest cousin’s conviction. I was at least 12 years old when the charges were brought against him, so I cannot attribute this lapse in memory to my young age. Instead, I’ve come to realize that it was the way my family, both nuclear and extended, handled the situation. At first, the subject was avoided; then, after I overheard my mother whisper my cousin’s name together with “prison” and “convicted” over the phone, it became an outright taboo. My other two cousins and my older brother, who presumably knew more due to their age and their gender, were forbidden to talk, and I was forbidden to ask. At family gatherings, every time my grandmother inquired about her absent grandson, the adults slurred some prefabricated lie about his whereabouts—needed to study, out with friends—and then quickly switched topics.
Apart from the few pictures of my oldest cousin, I had nothing on which to build a cohesive narrative around his disappearance. So, I returned to the family album again and again, trying to find some nuggets of truth inside the flat squares of the Polaroids. I studied his exterior carefully. Could it be true that this boy, this slightly chubby, average-height boy with a head full of dark curls and a smile full of slightly crooked, stained teeth, was not a boy at all, but a violent creature who deserved to be locked away? Could those hands, those square, rough-skinned hands that used to throw me up high in the sky and helped me balance every time we crossed a particularly rickety bridge on the walk to our summer house, take the life of another human being? Here, inside the photo album, he was holding a bream he fished out with my older brother; he was sitting on my grandmother’s couch with an open book on his lap, no trouble in sight. There must have been something: something that would help me make sense of my cousin’s predicament and, more importantly, of the way my family was responding to it. Yet, I couldn’t see anything.
Then it dawned on me: I must have been looking at those pictures from the wrong angle. Silence meant acquiesce: I needed to forget the curls, forget the hands; I needed to look for the murdered instead. And once I understood what the silence surrounding my cousin’s conviction required me to see, I found exactly what I was looking for. Gaze always averted, expression withdrawn; the body never quite aligned with anyone or anything. Why is he not hugging my brother in a victorious embrace? What book is he reading alone, and where are the rest of us? If before I used to see a smile, now I saw an expression that was impossible to read. I convinced myself that it was my cousin’s eyes that made the contorted lines of his mouth unreliable. His eyes, I decided, looked wrong; I decided that even in those early photos he already looked troubled.
It was smooth sailing from then on: prompted by both the pain of his absence and the imagination of my youth, I concocted my own horror story around my cousin’s misery. With no one to contradict me, I re-drew my recollections of him in the darkest colors: rude, abrupt, never the one to do well in school, never the one to help his parents around the house. And those dark, thick curls I loved so much, they were always greasy and reeked of smoke and sweat. Now that I thought about him from this angle, I realized he was nothing but a stranger. At the age of 12, I’d already learned—from the TV news and from other stories floating in the air—that strangers were capable of anything.
Somewhere, on a deeper level, I must have always been afraid that when—if—my oldest cousin gets out, the walls of our silence would collapse and our past would rush in to haunt us. As the years went by, I often wondered how his story would have played out had we acted differently, had there been a safety net to catch him when he started to fall through the cracks. Yet, my wondering became less taxing with every move I made away from my hometown, just like the forgetting became easier with distance. First, college; then, law school; then, marriage. Another city; another country; another culture; another life. Gradually, Vladivostok, my extended family, the walls we’ve built, and the secrets we’ve buried disappeared from my worldview.
Zoom out for a second, and look how vast and beautiful our world truly is. Zoom out to the maximum and admire the perfect sphere of the Earth, its pale-blue oceans and continents the color of baked brie. Rotate the globe; whichever way you chose to move it, feel the freedom that comes with the movement, with the unrestricted possibility to get away. Zoom in on any spot you fancy, be it a part of a vast capitalist empire, or a landlocked country you forgot existed on the map. Feel the elation of uprooting, leave the past, and lose yourself in the unknown. Now zoom in really fast and really close, and see that all of this is nothing but illusion.
I might have placed a hold on my relationships with most of my relatives, but I always stayed in close touch with my mother. Although she and my father also changed the geolocation of the house they called “home” and were now thousands of miles away from Vladivostok, my mother continued to be my conduit to my former life. Unlike me, she never felt like she was meddling when she spent hours on the phone and, later, on various video-chats, trying to keep abreast with the life in our hometown. Unlike me, she felt justified in doing so. And I can see why. While I selfishly shedded my Vladivostok persona and focused all of my energies on becoming someone—anyone—in my new present, the only thing my mother ever strived for was to belong to her past.
But that didn’t mean she was willing to divulge its secrets. From time to time, we’d speak about our extended family, about how my cousins were doing. During those conversations my curiosity would peak, and my tongue would itch with the unvoiced questions, yet I never dared to ask them. Plus, there was always enough to fill the air: my youngest cousin’s shotgun wedding, his ‘unexpected’ second child, and subsequent divorce complicated by the still-ongoing custody battle; my middle cousin’s attempts at entrepreneurship, constantly crushed by the oppressive, yet unpredictable political regime; my uncle’s chronic illness and his subsequent untimely demise. I listened to all those news as if through a screen of plastic wrap: too human not to feel compassion; too removed not to come off as an insulated hypocrite.
As an adult, I had more than pictures in an old photo album to structure my narrative around those uncomfortable facts. I had my journals, in which I de-constructed and analyzed fragments of our shared past; I had my logic, which helped me to rationalize aspects that did not fit together in their natural unreasonableness; I had English, a new language that anesthetized me against the pain certain words carried in my mother tongue. This approach seemed like a mature and constructive way to handle things. Yet, at the basic level, I knew I was doing exactly what I did with the fact of my oldest cousin’s conviction: I was trying to concoct a sensible story—my story—that would protect me and my feelings.
It was not until last Christmas that life pushed me outside the safety bubble of my personal narration. Upon the invitation of my mother, I spent the 25th at my parents’ new house in Prague, and so did my middle cousin. Our reunion felt almost seamless, as if no time had passed since I last saw him in Vladivostok over 15 years ago. That’s another ‘collateral beauty’ of silence: the catching up is easy for those who never truly spoke to begin with.
But that evening, after drinks, and dinner, and more drinks, we finally broke into conversation. The progression was slow, yet, eventually, after discussing all the new movie releases and skimming over all things business and mundane, we finally reached the subject of my oldest cousin. It must have been the mix of liquor and distance that emboldened us to bring up that topic; still, even with our tongues unbridled, it felt awkward and bizarre to refer to him openly by name. For the past two decades I avoided it even in my own thoughts, afraid that it would somehow conjure my oldest cousin (and all the wrath he must have harbored) and plant him squarely in the middle of my new—non-Vladivostok—life.
Yet, the things I was learning during that conversation were anything but sinister. Apparently, my oldest cousin served his full term and was released two years ago. He was now working for my middle cousin, who retained a significant chunk of the partnership interest in a body shop back in Vladivostok specifically for that purpose. With the criminal record and lack of higher education, my oldest cousin was otherwise unemployable; he went in when he was 18, and now he was almost 40, with no skill or trade to sell. He lived with his mother, my aunt, in the same dimly lit apartment in the sub-cellar. No haunting was taking place either in 12/1, or in the cordoned-off nook, or anywhere else, but for my own mind with its deep-seated anxieties.
As we continued talking, the level of candor increased, and yet, I still wasn’t able to ask what actually happened on the night my oldest cousin hid amongst the nook’s clutter, trying to escape the police. What was the actual scope of the accusations against him? Did he ever try to fight it? Was the trial fair? I wasn’t able to ask about the conversations that must have taken place between my cousins prior to his conviction and in the days leading up to his incarceration. I didn’t ask for his email orphone number. I didn’t feel strong enough to do that; some kind of presence was blocking me from venturing that far. Presence is the closest our memory can ever come to materializing itself. Presence bypasses the narrative and touches the visceral: fear, pain, sense of loss. With the hair raising and goosebumps taking hold of the skin, the sensation is physical, yet there is nothing but the past that brings it.
But you are still in the present. Relax and take a breath. Now, rotate the globe again, and place your finger squarely on New York, New York. Zoom in pretty much anywhere, and you will see a law firm; move closer, and you will see an office. The room is small, but it has everything you need and it is private. There is a lock on the door, so go ahead and close it. Position yourself in front of the computer and adjust the height of your ergonomic chair. Open the electronic database for which your employer is paying, and wipe the sweat off your brow, because from your ethics class you know you are about to commit a small crime. Bite your lip and limit your jurisdictional search to that little geopolitical estuary where the three borders intersect across from Japanese banana islands; now, enter the name, which over the last two decades had become a family taboo. Zoom in; now, zoom in once more. If you zoom in close enough on the right spot, you’ll see what you were looking for: the word coward written across my reflection on the screen.