“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
When he escaped from the Soviet Union—smashing through the Berlin Wall or slipping through the Iron Curtain, however you wanted to put it, it amounted to the same thing—Sergei thought he had left behind the cold, dark nights without power, without light, without heat in a distant past he would have been content to leave in black recesses of memory, but here he was, trapped in a hotel in Calgary with a comforter tucked beneath his chin, huddled in a fetal position without the benefit of a mother’s warm womb, waiting for the power to turn back on. A sudden ice storm had torn down a line somewhere that apparently was vital to keeping their hotel illuminated and at a habitable temperature, and goosebumps rippled Sergei’s flesh, and the background noise of the radiator streaming out hot air had been replaced with the sound of Sergei’s teeth shivering against each other.
From the bed opposite, there was a rustling of blankets as Nick, Sergei’s roommate, shifted to—by the look of it—massage numbness out of his toes.
Remembering all the freezing, black nights when his old line mates, Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny, had clambered into his bunk at the military barracks, where they had all trained as members of the national team together, Sergei whispered, “You awake, Nick?”
“Of course I’m awake.” Nick’s words formed a frost in the air like a ghost flitting across the dark. “It’s so cold you could probably freeze to death if you fell asleep.”
“I heard freezing to death isn’t that bad a way to go.” Sergei would have bitten his lip if he wasn't terrified of ice crystalizing from the saliva in an instant. “You feel all warm at the end like you’re floating in a jacuzzi when really you’re sailing off into the oblivion, so long, sucker.”
“I’ll take your word on it.” Nick’s voice was muffled, as though he had pressed his face into his pillow for extra warmth. “I’d rather not find out for myself.”
“Me neither.” Sergei rubbed his hands together to create friction, hoping to ignite a fire in his palms. “That’s one area where I’ll be happy to trust gossip without discovering the truth for myself, but if we both don’t want to freeze to death, I’ve got a way to keep us from turning into snowmen.”
“What way would that be?” Nick’s tone was skeptical.
Bristling at the implication that any of his ideas were ever anything less than brilliant, Sergei answered in his most know-it-all fashion, “You can climb into bed with me.”
“What?” Even in the blackout, Sergei could see Nick’s blueberry eyes widen into oceans that brought Sergei out into their depths and made Sergei sink into them.
“You heard me.” Sergei figured the charm of an invitation wore off if he had to offer it twice. “That’s what we used to do many nights when I was on the national team because it could get cold in those barracks since the government liked to skimp on heating, as hardships are apparently good for the athlete’s soul.”
As Nick, whom Sergei had almost expected to refuse the opportunity to share his bed, lurched across the gap between their beds, bearing a blanket in each arm, Sergei recalled another night—which simultaneously felt as if it had happened forever ago and not so long ago—when he had curled up between Pasha and Sasha, their limbs entwining because there wasn’t space on the narrow bunk for the three of them to lie side-by-side unless they rested their arms and legs on top of one another.
“Thank you.” Nick’s breath blowing into Sergei’s ear as he dove under the covers and wrapped the two blankets he had carried with him in a cacoon about them was the only warmth in the room, and Sergei could feel his frozen earlobes flaming to life. “I was getting so cold I was starting to worry about frostbite.”
Just like that, without any warning, Sergei was once again thrust unceremoniously back into his memory, where Sasha was stroking feverishly at his toes and muttering, “My toes are going numb. If I get frostbite in my toes, will the doctors have to amputate them?”
Before Sergei or Pasha could assure him that he wasn’t developing frostbite in his toes, Sasha went on, the bitterness they all felt toward a communal society that guaranteed that everyone was equal in the sense that they endured the same eternal deprivations, “If they cut off my toes, I won’t be able to skate anymore, and then they’ll be sorry for what they did to me.”
Neither Sergei nor Pasha needed to ask who “they” were. It was obvious the pronoun referred to all those higher-ups who only saw their talents as skills to bring glory to the fatherland with no care to the toll intense training in spartan conditions took on young bodies and souls. As far as “they” were concerned, individuals did not matter. It didn’t matter how many individuals broke in the name of the collective. To the government, they were all toy soldiers to be sacrificed at whim for any reason or no reason at all.
“Don’t think about the cold,” suggested Pasha. “That will just remind you how cold you are. Think about something else—like food.”
“That will just remind me how hungry I am.” Sasha grunted. On the national team, where all their meals were carefully designed and doled out to them according to some government-ordered medical assessment of what the optimal amount of nourishment for them would be based on their size and sport, they weren’t exactly starved, but they never had what they wanted to eat or got to consume as much as they wished. Everything down to the last pea was strictly regulated.
“We won’t always be hungry.” Sergei spoke for the first time with a conviction that came from a dream more than from certainty. “We’ll escape to America and play in the NHL. In the NHL, you can eat anything you want…”
“Steak?” interrupted Pasha, eyes aglow.
“Yes.” Sergei nodded, because he’d heard that America had loads of cowboys, so it followed logically that there had to be steak to be eaten by the pound because those cowboys had to be herding something.
“Ice cream?” Sasha’s stomach growled but he sounded happier.
“Of course.” Sergei flashed a smile that was more confident than he felt. “Don’t you know America is brimming with cows? What are cows good for except steak and ice cream, huh?”
To drown out the voice of the boy he had been—because America had turned out to be everything and nothing like he thought it would be, paradoxically fulfilling and shattering his dreams of an idyllic life of freedom—Sergei stretched out a hand to massage Nick’s toes, which did indeed feel as if they had been swapped with ice cubes in a prank by some poltergeist, and advised, “Don’t think about the cold, Nick.”
Even that made him think of that night when he had cupped his palm around Sasha’s chapped heel—abraded by a day’s tough training—to try to rub some heat and sensation into the chilled foot and how Sasha had moaned in mingled pleasure and pain, “That feels good but it hurts, too, you know. I’d murder for a painkiller.”
“In America,” Sergei murmured, unable to stop describing the castle in the clouds that was America because that fantasy of a land of plenty when they were stuck in a country where there was never enough of anything but shortages (there were more than enough of those), “you can buy painkillers over the counter at pharmacies whenever you want.”
“I can only imagine that.” Sasha’s wistful sigh transformed into a snore as he slid into sleep.
“One day we won’t have to imagine,” Sergei had sworn even though he knew that Sasha was deep in Dreamland.
“You’re quite a master of foot massages.” Nick’s remark ripped Sergei out of his past with a jolt that might have given him whiplash.
“I had a lot of practice in the Soviet Union on cold nights like this after the torture sessions they called practice.” Sergei’s lips quirked into a semblance of an ironic grin. “Nice to know something positive came out of our pain, and we didn’t suffer in vain, because I was able to acquire the skills necessary to make your feet happy.”
“You could just say thank you.” Nick jabbed an elbow in Sergei’s ribcage. “You don’t have to offer a snappy, sarcastic comment in response to anything anybody ever says.”
“Now that’s news for me.” Sergei’s smile had swelled to a full-fledged sardonic one, amused as much by his words as he was by the thought that he, Nick, and his memories of Sasha and Pasha made for strange bedfellows indeed, but at least his companions, even the ghosts of his past, kept him warm while the icy winds crashed against the window, creating drafts that turned the room into a refrigerator.