There’s nothing lonelier than breakfast on a broken heart, so Yuri’d gone to work hungry. A real starving artist, just like that asshole Stepan had wanted. Only now, standing in the middle of the forest outside Moscow State, dressed as a clown and trying to impress the climate crisis on young minds, Yuri’s stomach wept.
The whole grief-and-hunger mess had turned environmentalism into some faraway concept, one the kids in front of him were only half-listening to. Which was fine. Maybe they sensed his heart had gone missing, and not only because his growling stomach had started eating his insides to fill itself with something. And maybe also the kids smelled it on him, that today Yuri cared so little about this stupid rock he and these brats and their teacher swirled through space on, the rock his and Stepan’s boots stomped across, that he had half a mind to grab a bag of chips later (something he never failed to give Stepan shit for) and let the single-serving packaging languish in some dump for centuries, long after Yuri’d died and saved himself from ever having to lead a field trip again.
Besides, why would these kids give a shit about rising sea levels when, like Yuri himself, they’d probably never so much as driven past a beach? Beaches were something for airline ads on the metro, not for this group of public school saps tromping through a bandaid of wilderness clapped across Moscow’s sooty knuckles.
He’d once been Yuri. Fucking Yuri, the Performance Artist of Arbat, whipping scenery out of sky. Audiences had gasped as yes, yes, my God, a kitchen bloomed right there on the street outside Teremok and, oh, their noses caught the round scent of the bay leaf over the reek of piss and cars as he dropped the herb into an unseen soup bubbling on the stove – and, sure as music, their ears found the shuffle of his invisible lover’s slippers while he and Yuri danced across loose parquet tiles conjured up from the sidewalk. His humble hands had done that all – no props, only his body, carving universes. Now what did he do?
Nothing. Just led these stupid kids through this stupid forest, while nobody once had stopped to ask why his stupid frown was practically dripping from his painted-on smile.
A thud; leaves scattered behind him. One of the kids had tripped, his glasses somersaulting into the dirt. Everyone except Yuri snickered, two of the boys laughing louder than the rest. The taller one slapped the arm of the one whose mouth was small as a kopeck.
Jaws quivering like a bowl of jellied meats, the teacher rushed to the boy as even she tried (and failed) to muffle a smile. Ignoring them all, the kid snatched his glasses and heaved himself up, refusing to acknowledge the damp knees of his khakis. Only the blush creeping up to the edge of his brows gave him away.
Yuri thunked his bag down at the base of the birch behind him, unhooking every pair of eyes off the boy and back where they belonged: on him.
Spotlight wrangled for now, Yuri hoisted his pants, rubbed his palms – making a real show of it – and began to climb the tree. In truth (something Yuri generally avoided), he could climb this exact birch in his sleep; he’d done it twice a week for months now. But gripping an audience is easiest when they’re sure you’ll fail. So, shimmying two meters up the smooth trunk, Yuri stopped, raised his greasepaint-blue eyebrows, and slackened his hold, sliding down the trunk and sprawling onto the forest floor. The kids’ laughter washed over him – even Damp Knees Boy’s. Good. This was good.
Jumping up, Yuri cracked his knuckles and again scrabbled several meters up the tree, then a few more, until he reached the first branches. Autumn flared in his nostrils. This time, he held on. If it weren’t for the paycheck, he’d have stayed there all day, hissing at the children until they fled. Inhaling the quiet one more time would have to do; the bark was cool against his nose.
He forced a smile before hooking one boot over the other. It helped that he liked this part. He tightened his thighs around the trunk and leaned back, further and further – there went the gasp from the teacher, reliable as rent, good God he had their attention now – inverting his body, coat flaps hanging batlike below his head. One time while doing this, his wallet had fluttered to the ground mid-act. A girl’d snatched it up, hooting and running around with it above her head while the kids laughed, Yuri dangling there forgotten. A born performer, that one. He’d taken to emptying his pockets first after that.
Locking eyes with the crowd (okay, bunch of snot-nosed eleven-year-olds, but he’d take whatever he could get), Yuri spoke. “See the autumn leaves falling around me?” Some of the kids nodded. “Russia’s short summers make our deforestation problem, well, an even bigger problem. Without long growing seasons, our trees need extra time to become big and strong.” He flexed his arms. “When we cut down trees, they can’t trap carbon dioxide – the stuff that makes our air so hot. Without trees, all that bad stuff lurks in the air.”
His pulse was hammering in his earlobes. Only two kids were on their phones. “With less trees doing their jobs, the air gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter.”
Flicking away invisible sweat, Yuri slacked his thighs’ grip and let himself wilt down the trunk – first a meter, then another, then another. And right when the kids all were whipping out their phones to livestream a man’s death, Yuri snapped open his eyes, braced his hands below his head, and backflipped off the tree to land in front of them. The second his feet met the earth, the kids whooped; Yuri did too, because yeah – why not? There he stood, an environmental warrior, a savior in the making, tossing artichokes and possibilities to the masses on the battlefield and this, yes, this was art, too. This was art for changing the world. Styopa could go fuck himself. All thanks to Yuri, these kids would flip the rising seas, make them sink back down – was that how it worked? He’d have to Google – and whenever Yuri scrounged up the money to fly to Spain and touch the Mediterranean with his bare feet (just one flight wouldn’t end the world), he’d find the water pristine, the perfect place to kiss some hot Spaniard for all the world – especially Styopa – to see.
But as his next question for the kids vibrated behind his lips, the one where he asked how many trees loggers cut down each year nationwide (twenty-thousand square kilometers, if you asked the infographic Eco Clown Services™ had sent him upon hire), a memory of Stepan roared from the radio tower of Yuri’s heart:
“You used to be an artist. A real fucking artist. What happened?”
The bit about loggers dissolved against his teeth. His Stepan had said that – although technically, Stepan wasn’t “his” anymore. Hadn’t been for a long time. This year, they hadn’t even celebrated their anniversary. They’d meant to, of course they’d meant to. But when it rolled around, Yuri had said the paper lantern they’d bought to light at Gorky was bad for the environment. Stepan had shrugged and kept reading. Neither of them mentioned their anniversary again.
Last night on the balcony, when Stepan had asked that question – what happened – he’d blown the words into Yuri’s face alongside his cigarette smoke. Peering through the window, between the slats of his empty easel, Yuri searched his apartment, hunting for some crumb proving yes, he was still an artist. He was still an artist.
He found nothing.
“I have to pay bills somehow, Styopa. Not every adult gets a, a cushion from Daddy each month.” Christ. Even Yuri hated how whiny he sounded.
The shadow under Stepan’s jaw made him one of those metro statues, the ‘60s kind, all made up of angles. “That’s not fair – you always do this. I didn’t ask my father to work for Gazprom. I don’t ask him to give me money.” Stepan did. Frequently. Yuri hadn’t had the heart to correct him. “So just, grow up. Life doesn’t work that way.”
“The man’s gone frozen!” Back in the forest, Kopeck Mouth laughed, pointing at Yuri.
Right as the teacher thwacked the kid on the arm, Yuri’s stomach growled and the misery of the present rushed to greet him. Shouldering his satchel, he stuck his hand into one of the pockets, a paper lantern’s plastic packaging crinkling under his touch. He may not have lit one for Stepan, but he sure as hell never failed to light lanterns twice a week with stupid children. Now, hours later, the thing he should’ve said to Stepan was obvious – how where we come from is the starting line of our lives, and that Yuri’d started about a hundred thousand kilometers behind Stepan. And that, even if they had started in the same spot, Yuri would’ve obviously refused oil money since, in case Stepan failed to notice, Yuri’s entire reason for doing anything at all was saving the fucking planet.
One of the kids was picking her nose, glancing to see if anyone noticed. They didn’t. The others were buried in their phones.
“Come on.” Without waiting for them, Yuri continued down the path, pulling a small accordion from his bag. The brats’ gazes lifted from their phones; Yuri sensed it even with his back turned. Instruments had a way of grabbing people’s eyes. His spine straightened and he sang.
“The woods are full of swans and squirrels
Who sing rewardingly.
But they’re dying ‘round the world –
So act accordingly!”
He’d sung this one so often he nailed it without noticing. Sure, he wasn’t the best singer, and fine, writing lyrics wasn’t his strength, but God if music didn’t have a way of drawing audiences – and confidence, that was what people were after, wasn’t it? Not whatever “talent” was. Well, he could be confident. Like he’d been last night when he finally tossed a comeback at Stepan’s feet.
“You asked to date a starving artist, didn’t you? You just loved – what was it? – ‘the brooding romance of hunger?’ Well here I am, baby – starving. Just the way you like me.”
“You’re not fair. You’re never fair.” Stabbing out his cigarette, Stepan glared into Yuri’s studio. All that shiny rich-boy skin puckered as Stepan puzzled out how a guy like himself had wound up shirtless on a crumbling balcony a whole tram ride north of Rechnoy Vokzal.
As Yuri’s song ended, he twirled to face the kids, stopping them in the center of a platform on a pond. Stepan was an idiot; Yuri was so an artist – a focused one, one who used his skills to show children the nature spilling from their own city. Look how their eyes were all on him!
Mostly. Those two fucking boys were still nudging each other and whispering about Damp Knees Boy, who pretended not to hear. The stripes on the kid’s shirt strained against his belly in a way that tightened Yuri’s throat. The teacher flicked her eyes between the three children like a cigarette, silent.
Focus. Yuri needed to focus. If not for the paycheck, then for Damp Knees Boy, who was obviously queer. That degree of suffering didn’t emanate from straight kids. Maybe Yuri could be an example. Didn’t he say it all the time? If they banded together, queers would save the world. Good God, he saw it now: queers, restoring silverback habitat. Queers, pulling every last silica bead from the ocean. Queers, ressurecting the Dodo and turning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into a wildlife preserve with seahorse breeding grounds and –
Oh, no. He’d done it again; the shits were back on their phones. Clapping his hands peeled their eyes off their screens.
“Bliss. Magic. This pond amongst the trees has it. Sometimes we’re too busy on social media to notice.” The only kid left scrolling blushed, shoving her phone in her pocket.
“But look –” Leaping onto the wooden rail, he pinwheeled his arms as if to catch his balance. Most of them laughed. “What do you see here, I mean really see around us?”
As if to prove she hadn’t been on her phone, the girl from before spoke first. “Water.”
“Okay, yes, good.”
“Um, dead leaves?”
“Yes! Good! Birch. Trees do have names.”
Damp Knees Boy pointed towards the water. “Swans.”
Of course he’d notice the swans. Every muscle in Yuri’s body clanged for him to leap, to jump off the railing, grab the boy by the shoulders, shout it – that everyone nowadays knew some swans were gay, that actually most animals were gay sometimes, that it was beautiful and healthy and normal, so long as one of the swans wasn’t a rich asshole living off Daddy’s paycheck.
But if he wanted to feed himself this week, he couldn’t say shit. God forbid he ruin young minds with a true story he loved so much he knew it by heart: once upon a time, two male swans raised a plastic cup like it was their own child. As the cup (in their swan eyes, anyway) grew, so did their attachment to their plastic baby. They were such fierce protectors, such good fathers, they attacked any human who approached their pond, scattering the straight couples stupid enough to dare toss hunks of bread into their precious angel’s water. Last Yuri heard, those swans were still guarding that cup with everything they had.
He said none of that, instead smiling until his cheeks hurt. “Swans! Yes, good eye. Swans, you know, have impeccable memories. They always remember if you acted like idiots or not.” He pointed at the boys in the back. A few kids snickered.
Yuri’s smile widened, aching even more, as he pulled a thin balloon from his pocket. Out of all the things, nothing deflated the sense that this job meant anything quite like balloon animals. Devil only knew why his bosses thought they were some vital puzzle piece in the fight against climate change. But there was no escaping it; balloons were in his contract. It had to be done. With each puff of air, Yuri visualized another thing this paycheck would put in his cupboard: adjika, kidney beans, bread. As the cupboard filled, the plastic tube stretched and expanded, and a dread yawned in his belly, rumbling below the hunger. Grimacing at the children, Yuri tied the balloon off.
Twist. “In Australia, most swans are black.”
Twist. “The only continents that don’t have swans are Africa and Antarctica.”
Twist. “Like all animals, sometimes swans are gay.”
That last one he kept for himself, instead handing the twisted swan to Damp Knees Boy. “For the one who discovered the swans.”
Kopeck Mouth wrinkled his nose. “Of course the goluboi gets the balloon.”
Laughter erupted. The teacher sniffed and settled her gaze over the swans, who now had better be gay as hell. All eyes were on the boy, either jealous of the balloon or agreeing with fucking Kopeck Mouth, either way hungry to feel larger than Damp Knees Boy, who was blinking hard at the wood below his feet.
Of course the last thing the boy’d wanted was attention; every queer anybody could have seen that. Yuri had humiliated the kid, and for what? The boy would likely end up tossing the balloon into the pond like the girl had the week before, and then it would pop, and then one of the swans would choke on it and die, leaving the other swimming alone in circles honking out tears, and meanwhile Damp Knees Boy would get some nickname like Swan Boy and kill himself and then whose fault would that be? Yuri’s.
Oh, God. Was Styopa right? What was he doing here? He could’ve been performing outside St. Basil’s right now, his speaker case gobbling fistfuls – fistfuls! – of coins. But when was the last time he’d cracked open tubes of paint or lugged a speaker onto the metro and danced all done up in tin? Weeks? Months?
The boy gripped the balloon in his fists, no sign of throwing it into the water. It was enough.
“Moving on.” Yuri pulled out the accordion and walked ahead, swallowing the lump in his throat to bellow another song he’d performed so many times the lyrics interrupted his sleep.
Since last night, honesty had been oozing from his pores. A nasty habit. Because now that he’d thought it, he couldn’t look away: it had been a long, long time since he’d painted. Months since he’d last performed. If it was anyone’s fault, it was the news cycle’s, really. How dare he bother with pantomime when climate refugees were drowning? His fingers pressed the accordion keys and his mouth sang about sunflowers while his heart ground itself to ash.
After he’d told Stepan that thing about being a starving artist, Stepan had snorted and shoved inside. Yuri scrambled after him. Stepan had already plucked his shirt off the floor and was putting it back on.
“What’re you – are you leaving? Hey – talk to me. Talk. Anything.”
But Stepan swept into the kitchen, snagging his bar of cornflake chocolate. “I didn’t fall in love with a thirty-two-year-old clown.”
At that Stepan brushed past him to the main room to pilfer every shred of lint that proved he’d spent most of the past three years sleeping there in Yuri’s arms. Downing the remaining wine from his coffee mug, the one with the smiling dog in suspenders, Stepan shoved the cup in his bag.
A clown, a clown, a clown, the word had filled Yuri’s gut with stones and he’d slumped onto the futon, cupping his head in his hands.
That was when Stepan had finally shouted. “Nothing? You have nothing to say? Come on – fight for me.” His voice broke. “Fight for me.”
Yuri’d only peered through his fingers, throat lodged with every little thing he could say to make Stepan stay. Nothing came out.
“Fucking coward.” Stepan kicked Yuri’s journal by the end table. It spun out like the dancers at the Bolshoi the lone time Stepan had taken them, twirling to a stop in the center of the room. Yuri’s head stayed in his hands for a long time after Stepan slammed the door and left.
Coward wasn’t the right word. Yuri wasn’t a coward. It was that somewhere along the way, Stepan stopped being worth it. Why did Yuri have to starve for his art when Stepan only read up on color theory to sound blasé at parties? The swans and trees? They were worth it. So were the kids singing along behind him, even if they picked their noses and checked their phones, even if they were miserable shits like Kopeck Mouth. They deserved goodness, especially the ones wailing along as he bleated the final chorus:
“Tender caring rearranges
All despair back into hope.
Use less plastic; with these changes
Mother Nature can still cope.”
Were they his finest lyrics? Of course not. But since when was art about perfection? Real art was about showing up. And while he had no idea when he’d paint or perform next, he was instilling the future with hope. Inside Yuri, a moonbeam glowed and stretched like caramel. This was his job – and with the right mindset, it could be a career. People changed. Yuri changed. Yuri, the art teacher. Yuri, the activist. Yuri, the artichoke farmer. Something like that. Yuri, saving the world, starting with emailing his boss (again) about the balloon animals.
As he and the kids burst from the park and up to the paved overlook above the forest, Yuri bounced on the balls of his feet. Things would be okay – no, fuck that. Things would be great. Damp Knees Boy was still gripping the balloon, talking with the girl beside him. The balloon (and therefore Yuri) had facilitated that friendship. Probably.
“Kids, before we go, one last thing.” Even Kopeck Mouth drew closer when Yuri pulled the paper lantern from his satchel, crumpling its plastic wrapper into his pocket. Another thing to email his boss about, but for now, a little paper and plastic wasn’t the end of the world. These kids would change the planet anyway. Look at their eyes! It was obvious they’d chain themselves to trees and end logging. All of it. No more logging – logs were done. Flicking his lighter, Yuri ignited the burn block and held the lantern between his palms.
“Together, today, we’ve made a difference already. Do you feel it?”
“We’re committing to Earth, right here, right now – to saving it! And it starts with you. What do you wish for the planet? Don’t be shy, say it!”
“I’ll pick up trash.”
“I wish my apartment starts recycling!”
“I wish for the swans.” Damp Knees Boy smiled at Yuri and Yuri smiled back and the sun wept behind a cloud and the sky was that blistering grey that broke hearts. The lantern swelled with hot air, puffing out its chest, and as the children shouted out wishes and hopes, the space behind Yuri’s eyes burst with either hunger or holy light.
“To peace!” Yuri yelled. “To Mother Nature – let’s always, always love her enough!”
He released the lantern into the sky. Up it went, higher and higher, the kids craning their necks as it carried their hopes beyond the clouds, so beautiful – when a gust of wind slammed the lantern north over the forest and right into the fork of a tree. Fire leapt from the lantern and flared on the branch, smoke stretching skyward.
The teacher screamed, clutching her chest, and the children shouted, all while Yuri stood there so still his heart stopped beating, fingers steepled over his mouth. The fire crackled, catching on dying leaves as embers bounced up the branch. A single moan escaped him. And then his own body began to sting, needles of pain nipping across the bridge of his nose. Good God, an ember must have floated out and singed him; Yuri was burning alive, the bite of the flames whipping across his cheeks and his fingers and –
And it took physically seeing the droplets drip from his lashes to realize the embers consuming him weren’t, in fact, embers at all.
It was rain. Rain. Another minute passed, the drizzle beating at the branch. The flames sputtered, then died. The kids groaned; fire would have made a better story. Hand still clutching her chest, the teacher muttered up a prayer before gathering the class and walking toward the metro without another word. Only Damp Knees Boy glanced back, first at the tree, then at Yuri, swan clasped in one hand.
Yuri stood there until greasepaint dripped into his eyes and the rain soaked through the hole in his boot. In the underpass outside the metro, the stalls burst with technicolor chip packets, but the fire had burned away Yuri’s hunger, leaving a cold and miserable clarity in its wake. Riding down the escalator towards the platform, each passing face looked away. It was okay. In the plexiglass covering ads for Krushka and the Circle of Light festival, his face warped and danced, greasepaint half gone. If he could, he’d look away too.
Waiting at the yawning metro tunnel, Yuri was alone again, not even the fucking swans to keep him company, only the wail of the oncoming metro rattling and vibrating in the empty foyer of his chest, stronger and stronger and –
No. Wait. That was a text. Stepan.
Can we talk? I was rash yesterday.
A few seconds later, another came:
Please? Call me.
When he raked a hand down his face and onto his neck, his palm came away grey and red. He shut his phone off and stepped into the metro carriage. It lurched forward, the train hissing louder and louder. Stepan who? That squeal of metal on metal – that was music. Life. By taking the metro, wasn’t everyone in this train car saying they trusted they’d get home safe to their families or TV sets? Trusting one another to bring them home. What was purer than that? The tears that hadn’t come for Stepan or the boy or the fire streamed down Yuri’s cheeks, strumming the column of grief shooting from his navel to the roof of his mouth.
It felt so, so good to cry.
Holding his arms out, the invisible dance partner he’d abandoned in that kitchen back on Arbat all those months ago rushed to hold him. Here in the old train car, there was enough space for the two of them; it turned out there’d always been enough space. Maybe, in a few stops, they’d make soup – but not yet. For now, he held that lost lover, shuffling from one foot to the other. A girl with a red bob glanced up, then an old man stuffed into his shapka. Both returned to their books. The metro car was squealing now, really roaring, God, this music was it. Clasping unseen fingers in his own, Yuri began to dance.
Nikita Andester is an interdisciplinary artist with an MA in Professional Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Raised in the deep south, Nikita’s writing draws on her past lives as a waitress, cashier, and ESL teacher to uncover the magic lurking in the lives of working-class characters. Their work has recently been published in “Bourbon Penn,” “NiftyLit,” and “Typehouse Literary Magazine,” and she is currently working on both a novel about Hollywood during the Lavender Scare and a screenplay about murder in 1990s Moscow. Based in Toulouse, France, Nikita runs Snail Mail Sweethearts, a newsletter and postcard club where they mail folks postcard-sized original art each month.