"Tbilisi Riverside" by Rezo.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
SEPTEMBER 1 IN TBILISI
by Irakli Kobiashvili
On the morning I’m supposed to start sixth grade, I learn that Vakhtang the Bull has sworn on his mother’s grave to kill me and drag my body through the streets of Tbilisi.
Of course, this is the Republic of Georgia, and people say these kinds of things all the time. Last year we told the Soviet Union to fuck off, thank you very much, and for most of 1992 the whole damn country’s been living without electricity and eating nothing but beans and onions. All the gasoline’s disappeared, we used some of our furniture for firewood last winter, and every night you hear gunfire in the streets. It’s gotten to the point where people swear they’ll kill you and then forget about it a minute later. But Vakhtang is different, because he’s crazy. Also, he truly hates me and he’s never backed down on a threat before. It’s not good news.
“Saying is one thing,” says Mamedov, who whistled and threw rocks at my window until I woke up and came downstairs. “Doing is a whole other story.”
“You mean, you don’t think he’ll kill me?”
“Killing he'll probably do,” Mamedov says. “But the thing about dragging your body through the streets, that was very childish. It makes me respect him even less than I did before.”
Once, I heard some guys who had fought in the war up north say they would spit on the ground while they were waiting in ambush. They said they did that to prove to each other that fear hadn't dried up their mouths. I try to do the same, but no spit comes. It doesn't matter. I thank Mamedov and turn to go, when I feel his hand at my elbow.
“Do you think I came to tell you this and not offer help?” Mamedov says. “Don't you know I'm your brother, and your enemies are my enemies?”
He puts a hand on one cocked hip and waits for an answer. On our street, they call him “little sister,” and that’s a terrible thing to be called in Tbilisi. That’s not all, though. Mamedov is a Kurd, which is the least respected of all the different nationalities here. His mother doesn't sweep the streets like I’ve seen the rest of the Kurd women do, but tells fortunes and picks pockets and fucks for money. Also, his feet stink, and he shakes and twitches when in the grip of powerful emotions. But Mamedov is my only friend in the entire city, and I've always considered him lucky because he doesn’t have to spend his time wondering why people hate him. Why they hate me is a bit more complicated.
“Tell him,” Mamedov says, raising a finger in the air, “that if he touches you I’ll come to his house and fuck his mother. I will do this personally.”
“His mother’s dead, Mamedov.”
“You tell that whore,” says Mamedov, getting louder, spraying spit, “that I’m not afraid of him, and I couldn’t give a fuck how big he is. Or that his brother walks around with a gun and steals gasoline from people.”
I put a hand on Mamedov’s shoulder to calm him down. He feels like a bag of chicken bones, but I don’t pull my hand away.
“Thank you, Mamedov. Thank you, my brother. But you won’t have to fuck anyone because there won’t be any trouble,” I say. “Remember what I promised all of them? No more fighting. I don’t want to fight Vakhtang, or anyone else.”
Mamedov groans and smacks his forehead like a stage actor.
“Vakhtang the Bull swore he’s going to kill you,” he says. “Do you think it really matters if you want to fight or not?”
Vakhtang the Bull got his name for his thick neck and wide shoulders and the way he puts his head down and charges when he fights. That’s exactly what he did on the last day of school, but I got lucky and hit him with a right hand as he was coming at me and busted his nose in front of the entire fifth grade. There was lots of blood, I remember that. But the Bull didn’t cry, just looked at me while the teachers led him away and said he would get me in September. I remember that, too.
Of course the teachers told my mother what happened. When I got home, she grabbed me by the collar and dragged me around the place. She said that since my father wasn’t around to beat me, she would have to do it herself, but when we passed the couch she just threw herself on it and started crying. My uncle got home a few hours later and calmed her down, but later we still woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother screaming from the balcony that the family is unnatural and violent and cursed. The neighbors all heard. After that, my uncle and I had a long talk, and I’ve tried to fight as little as possible.
And I won’t fight today, I tell myself, opening the door to our apartment. Inside, the air is thick with morning silence, and a beam of sunlight holding a million specks of dust cuts across the living room. My new school clothes are laid out on the couch, looking just as horrible as I expected them to be. On the opposite wall, my father smiles down from a wooden display case. “Mikhail Gvenetadze, Lightweight Champion of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic,” reads a plaque on the top shelf. Lower down is a picture of both my father and uncle standing next to a black man with dangerous eyes — Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns, who they met during an exhibition match in Germany. On the bottom shelf there’s a photo album, and on the sixth page there’s a newspaper clipping that says “Gvenetadze Shot Dead While Robbing Drug Store.” My father died two years ago, at thirty-one. Old for a boxer. Young for a father.
“You get those new clothes dirty and your mother’s gonna kill both of us,” my uncle says.
He walks into the living room, an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. Uncle Givi is my mother’s older brother. He was my father’s trainer. Hollywood Givi, they call him. He’s gotten fat over the years and lost some hair, but if you squint hard he still looks like a movie star, with green eyes and high cheekbones and a nose that’s never been broken. It’s not what you’d expect an ex-boxer to look like, and he says that’s because no one was ever good enough to hit him.
“Does she even know there’s school today?” I ask him.
“Well, how do you think those clothes got here?”
“Me? I wouldn’t know where to get clothes like that.” He lights his cigarette, pads over to the armchair and sits down.
“Your mother got up first thing this morning and went to those Armenians who live on the second floor. They took her to their cousin on Pavlov Street and that’s what he had left. Come on, they’re not so bad.”
I flop down on the couch, trying not to look at the clothes next to me. Givi may have dealt with everything that's happened in the last few years better than the rest of us. Before the bad times started, people used to show up here with envelopes full of money, boxes of Italian clothing. One guy even brought a car, just so Uncle Givi could train their sons. But then my dad got killed and the war started and most of his fighters went to work collecting money for gangsters. Now my uncle hangs out in the park all day and plays dominoes with men twice his age, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference to him. All that’s changed is his expression, as if he’s waiting to hear the end of a joke he doesn’t really think is funny.
“She’s getting better,” he says. “She got up for a bit yesterday, made some soup.”
“Is she still talking to Daddy all the time?”
His eyes dart to the picture on the shelf.
“Less,” he says. “She’s trying her best.”
“She was talking to him last night.”
Uncle Givi looks down at the floor.
“She’ll be okay,” he says.
We both go quiet. My uncle smokes. I look at the trophies in the display case.
“So how many rounds did Dad go with Thomas Hearns?” I ask him.
“Thomas Hearns again? Your Dad fought the greatest boxers in the Soviet Union, don’t you want to hear about those?”
“Nope. Thomas Hearns.”
“They went three rounds,” my uncle says. “But they were just sparring.”
“But how did Dad do? Thomas Hearns was a lot bigger than him, right?”
“They were different weight classes. Thomas Hearns was pretty heavy by then, a middleweight. But Misha kept moving around, popping jabs, even nailed him with a hook.”
“And then what happened?”
“What happened? Your Dad invited him to come to Tbilisi, Thomas Hearns invited him to come to America, they took that picture, and that was it.” He looks at me and adds, “But you could tell Misha got his respect.”
The story is like sunlight breaking through the morning’s clouds. It’s like that every time he tells it.
“Do we have fifteen minutes to train?” I ask him.
“Train? They had eggs today. I was about to make you an omelet.”
“I’d rather train. Just for fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll have to eat your omelet then,” he says. “Let’s see some shadowboxing, nice and slow. But don’t bounce, the floor’s creaking again.”
I get in front of the old brass mirror, twirling my wrists and forearms, rolling my neck. Putting the weight on my back foot, I go into my bob and weave routine, bending at the waist and knees to slip imaginary punches.
Just as I start feeling calm and forgetting everything, my mother’s door opens and I hear her shuffling footsteps in the hallway. Her bone-dry voice says “Darling? My darling?” and I grab the ridiculous clothes she got me and run to my room.
White sun and dusty heat wash over me the second I step outside. My new clothes are so stiff it feels like I’m wearing boxes, but I hardly notice. Too many other things on my mind.
Somebody whistles at me and laughs. Standing in a doorway across the street is Paata Shanidze, one of Vakhtang’s friends. He can barely stand straight, he’s laughing so hard. He’s pointing at me, at my clothes, probably. Paata calls me over. I keep walking.
Paata’s one of the worst. He talked so much shit before the summer that I called him out one day, but he just spit on the ground and said fighting me was beneath him. One day he’ll just beat me with a stick like a dog, he said.
He leaves the doorway and goes into the middle of the street to shout something after me, but it’s like he’s shouting through thick glass. The voice I’m hearing in my head, the voice I heard through the walls of my room last night, is much louder. It’s my mother’s voice, talking to my dead father, and it sounds like dead leaves blowing across a graveyard and my guts shrivel up every time I hear it. Last night she was telling my father that next time she won’t just yell off the balcony but...jump, Misha, I wanted to jump but I was too scared. Ahaaaaa. Why Misha, whyyyy. Haaaa...All night, like that.
Through my bubble of darkness, I make out the shapes of other kids headed for school. Kids who haven’t seen each other all summer hugging and kissing, groups of kids picking up other kids in ones and twos like magnets. Kids waiting to spot their friends walking down the street. But no one waits for me except Vakhtang the Bull, and if he doesn’t get me today he’ll get me tomorrow. Then I’ll come home with my clothes torn up or a black eye, and this time my mother won’t just yell from the balcony.
My eyes close against the picture in my mind, but it comes anyway, the same one as always. Mom is falling so slowly she could be floating, her white nightgown fluttering in the air. I reach out for her, my fingers brush cloth, then everything speeds up and she drops, scraping the sides of the building with a terrible raspy sound before hitting the ground.
My whole body jerks, as if I just woke from a nightmare. For one second, I stand perfectly still, and then I’m running. I run up a sloping, potholed street, cut through an abandoned gas station filled with the rusting skeletons of cars. Down a set of stairs carved into the sidewalk, through the courtyard of the old ballet school, and suddenly the view in front of me opens up and I’m looking at a sea of treetops with a forested mountain rising from its center — Vake Park. I climb a low stone fence and scramble down towards the woods.
This is the plan, then. I’m still going to school, but I’m taking the back door. My school is just a minute from the other end of the park, so I can run into class right after the first bell and back into the forest as soon as the day ends. If I keep it up long enough, the civil war will get bad again, and they’ll cancel school and problem solved. I’m choosing the life of a rat, and that’s fine. As long as I don’t fight, anything is fine.
There are plenty of rats in Vake Park and wild dogs, too, and worse: refugees, drunk soldiers, people hiding from the law. Every kid in the neighborhood knows not to come here, even in broad daylight.
I cut through the park’s fairground, which is a long rectangle of gravel surrounded by forest. Stands used to be all along here. You could shoot air rifles and buy popcorn, and in the center stood a carousel. The last time I was here, Mom looked young and normal and Dad was alive. Right here is where we ate cotton candy and watched them take down a statue of Lenin. People spit on Lenin once they finally pulled him to the ground. A few months after that, everything started going to shit, as if Lenin left a curse on this place.
In the forest, it’s cool and dark. If you look hard, underneath the roots and weeds you can see the narrow asphalt paths where people once strolled. As long as I stay on a path, I’ll be fine. For a while, the only sound is the swishing of my feet on the forest floor and the singing of cicadas. Then I hear the voices. Faint at first, but getting louder. Men’s voices, grunting, cursing.
I walk faster, following the path up a hill, and at the top I see them through the trees — two men in a clearing. The men are bearded and rough, and hanging from a tree branch behind them is something white and pink and black — a dog with half the skin flayed from its body. I’m seen a second later, the men’s heads turning at the same time, and I want to run again but I don’t. Instead I think of this summer, how my uncle and I stayed at the cottage in Tskhneti, went running every morning, passing the neighbor’s skinny cows that hung around by the side of the road, passing the rusty fence of the old graveyard, running until we got to old Rezo’s place where the well had the coldest and most delicious water I’ve ever drank in my life. We’d get a pail of that water and rest for a few minutes, and my uncle would show me punch combinations and footwork and talk about strategy in that calm, slow way he has. It was the first time I was happy in years. That’s what I think about until the forest ends and I’m at the bottom of an uphill slope where the grass reaches my waist. Only then do I turn and see that nobody’s behind me.
There’s not much left to walk. On top of the hill there’s a wall, then a street, and then a little later, my school, with classes already in session by now, which is perfectly fine with me. I climb the slope, knocking the grass down with my body. Above me, the wall is black against the sun. Soon the ground levels off. The wall is straight ahead of me now, grayish brown, and I walk into its shadow.
A familiar voice says, “There you are, you cowardly little whore.”
Vakhtang the Bull jumps off the wall and lands in the grass in front of me. He’s wearing black pants and a dirty white shirt and he’s gotten bigger over the summer, much bigger. His neck is so thick the shirt barely closes on the second button and his sleeves are rolled up over bulging forearms, the kind of arms you get from working on a farm. There’s fuzz on his upper lip and angry red pimples on his forehead. But most of all, what I can’t take my eyes away from is his nose, the nose I broke, crooked as a comma in the middle of his face.
“Been watching you scurry around down there,” Vakhtang says. “Had a feeling you’d come this way. Did you think you could run from me?”
Something funny happens when I see Vakhtang. A weird sort of happiness flows through me. The world becomes clear and sharp, like somebody wiped a dirty pane of glass that was in front of my eyes. This has happened to me before. When I told my uncle about it, he said it used to happen to him and Daddy and just about every fighter he knew who was worth a shit. That’s the reason most of them do it,
he said, for that feeling.
“Vakhtang,” I say. “What did you just call me?”
He folds his arms. Even his face is thick and mean, like a bull’s.
“Disgusting little whore.”
There were many reasons I didn’t want to fight today. They’re still out there, like shapes in a fog. Right now, though, I can only think of one.
My mother asked me not to ruin my new dress.
This itchy white and blue dress that I’ve had to lift a dozen times to keep from getting dirty. These white stockings and black shoes with their little bow ties. The dress my mother got me this morning, even though she was sick enough to talk to her dead husband the night before. She begged me so many times not to fight, to act like a girl, to be normal. I’m trying now, mother, but it’s not easy. With every second, the real world rushes away like air from a balloon and in its place I see that other world, the one where I was meant to live. Daddy’s world and Uncle Givi’s world. The fighting world.
And in front of me is this fucker, who dares to call the daughter of Misha Gvenetadze a whore.
But still I make one more try. For you, mother, I use the words Uncle said would shame any boy who wanted to pick a fight.
“In our country, Vakhtang,” I say, “Men don’t fight women.”
“In our country,” says Vakhtang the Bull, “men beat women who misbehave. Today you’re fighting boys, tomorrow you’ll be fucking them, and I’m going to set you straight.”
The same thing they all say. They love their mothers and defend their sisters and walk the neighborhood girls to school, but in me they see something that makes them sick and mean and they want to grind it out like a cigarette butt. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it will be forever, and it’s fine. It’s fine.
“Vakhtang, tell me something,” I say. “What happened to your nose? Looks like somebody might have broken it?”
I plant my feet and wait for his charge, but he doesn’t charge. Instead, he picks up his hands and starts circling, edging closer in half steps, dirty fists hovering in front of his face. Vakhtang the Bull wants to box, and those fists are like hocks of ham. A man’s fists. I have a sudden, stupid hope — maybe he won’t hit me because I’m a girl — and something in my heart flickers like a candle hit by a gust of wind, and that’s when Vakhtang attacks.
His first punch is an overhand right, slow as a falling tree, and I pivot to the side and watch it go by. But then a hook whistles in front of my face, faster, tighter, and he follows it with a big uppercut that could have knocked my head off if I hadn’t stepped back in time. I put some distance between us, bouncing on my toes.
Vakhtang isn’t here, I tell myself. I’m training with Uncle.
My neck and shoulders relax. Elbows in, hands by my face. Here comes the Bull with his big fists flying and suddenly it’s like I’m watching it all happen from somewhere deep inside myself while my body bobs and weaves and ducks on its own. Oh, everyone at the country house laughed so hard that day at the beginning of the summer when I talked Uncle Givi into showing me some moves. Even Mom laughed, and that’s probably why he did it in the end, because she hadn’t laughed in months. He told me if I’m going to fight boys than I better know how to throw the jab-cross-hook, and they all thought it was so sad and sweet when I repeated the combination he’d shown me, Misha’s little girl throwing punches at her uncle’s palm like her father used to do. But Uncle Givi didn’t laugh. I’ll never forget that look when he saw how well I did it on the first try, like he was surprised and tired of surprises at the same time. He told me to put my feet closer together and do it again. After that, he and I trained four hours a day, six days a week — footwork, heavy bag, jumping rope, defense — everything he used to teach his fighters.
Another big right sails past me. Vakhtang’s missing, but it doesn’t bother him. He only needs to hit me once. A flurry of punches backs me up. Vakhtang grins. Thinks he has me. He feints a right hand, tricks me, and then I’m stumbling sideways after he throws a big left hook and his forearm grazes my head. I catch my balance and bring my hands back up, expecting him on top of me at any second, but when I look he’s still standing there, mouth open and his hands on his knees. He picks his fists back up and grins as I wade in, but I’m not fooled. Vakhtang’s tired.
My jab flicks out, barely brushing his chin. I throw another one and he bats it away. The third time I make like I’m going to jab but throw my left hook instead, and it snakes around his guard and squashes his ear against his head like a fat bug.
“Did you call me a whore, Vakhtang?”
My next jab gets him under the eye, and I follow it with a quick right to his jaw. Then I double up on the left hook. The second one catches him on the cheek, a good solid punch that snaps his head to the side, and when I see the unbelieving, offended look on his face I almost laugh. What’s so hard to believe, Vakhtang the Bull? Don’t you know that training and endurance (jab) will beat strength every time? That you don’t throw punches alone (jab) but in combination? That my father (jab-jab) was the champion (jab-cross) of all (hook) motherfucking (cross) Georgia (HOOK)?
The last hook snaps his head to the side again, and this Vakhtang does not like. He loads up his right hand, puts everything he has into it, and misses so badly he stumbles and falls on one knee. His face turns red and I know the boxing is over — now Vakhtang just wants to rip me apart. He explodes from his crouch like a sprinter and goes into his bull charge, hands in front of him, spit flying from his mouth. Before I can even think about it, I throw the straight right again. His nose collapses under my fist.
Vakhtang takes a few steps here and there, like a poisoned roach, then falls to his knees in front of me. His hands go up to his face just as the blood starts. It pours through his fingers and down his forearms, drips bright red onto the hill’s grass. I watch him, rubbing my swollen knuckles.
“I’m so dizzy,” he says.
“Get out of here before I kick you in your throat,” I tell him. “And if you ever call me a whore again, I’ll take out your fucking eyes.”
He gets up, looking down at himself, blinking like he’s seeing the world for the first time.
“School’s starting,” he says.
“I know. Go there and let them all see your face,” I say. “Let them know Nino Gvenetadze did this to you. Your friend Paata insulted me today and I walked by. Tell him that I won’t walk by next time. Tell them all.”
Vakhtang takes a few shuffling steps, then stops and turns around. The look of hate he fixes on me is so pure that my breath catches in my throat. When he speaks, it’s as if they’re all speaking through him.
“We’ll get you,” he says. “Oh, I swear. We’ll get you really good.”
“Come and get me now, you little bitch.” I put my hands back up and laugh at the fear in his face. But I’m glad when he turns around and starts heading down the hill.
My uncle always said that the best feeling in the world is the glow you get after winning a fight, when you’re sore and hurting and happy at the same time, knowing your training paid off. He said it made him feel warm and at peace with the world. But as I watch Vakhtang’s retreating back, a chill runs through me, because for the first time, everything is clear.
Vakhtang grew at least half a head over the summer. All the boys will be getting bigger. Soon they will become men, with the strength of men. And they’ll still hate me, probably more than they hate me now. What will I do then?
I rub my arms and shiver, even though I’m standing in the sunlight. Then I raise my skirt above the grass, trying to avoid the dirty and muddy places on the way to school.
Irakli Kobiashvili was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and now lives in New York City, where he works as a journalist.