It all began with a random act of terror. I’d just gotten back to Jerusalem after being away for a month. It was late afternoon and I took a shared taxi from the airport to the city center. I’d frozen my phone line while away and needed to reactivate it, so I went to the Central Bus Station, where the provider had a kiosk. I got off across the street, dragging my suitcase into the building, and went right up to the young woman at the counter. I told her what I needed, but she refused to help.
“This is a sales counter,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do for you here.”
I tried to argue but she just rolled her eyes. And, as I stood there, thinking about how to get her to change her mind, I saw her face change. The stubborn expression dropped away, the sides of her face hung down, and for a split-second I thought I was getting through to her. Then I saw her step back and duck down behind the counter.
All this took less than a second. Only when I saw her fall back did I register the sound that my ears had already heard: pak, pak, pak. And only after my brain processed this noise as gunshots did I notice that everyone around me was running away from open spaces, going into stores, looking for cover.
It took me that long to figure out that there was an attack. By then, it was already over. I wasn’t sure what to do—I was still without a working phone—so I rolled my suitcase outside, where the police blocked off the street. I saw the body of a young man lying motionless on the sidewalk across the way. Ambulances were arriving. People were being loaded onto stretchers. To my left, I saw a young woman sitting in a plastic chair, hysterical. Someone was trying to comfort her, but she was inconsolable.
I kept walking. All I wanted was to go home.
I lived on Narkis St., which was too far to reach by foot with a suitcase, and with all the main streets blocked to traffic, I walked further down Yaffo St., looking for a taxi. There was none—so I just kept walking, until I saw I was getting close to the outdoor shuk, where my friend Vadim lived. So I changed my plan, figuring I’d go there, get my phone working, and order myself a cab.
Vadim lived alone on the third floor in an unrennovated three-room apartment for which he paid next to nothing. He did manual labor on archeological digs, waking up early and staying out in the sun all day in exchange for minimum wage. He’d immigrated from Russia and learned Hebrew well, but he’d never been able to make things happen for himself. He’d always have several plans in the works, and then take a job like this, which that made him get up at the break of dawn, leaving him too tired to do anything for the rest of the day.
I didn’t know whether Vadim would be home, but I still I carried my suitcase up to the third floor and knocked on his door. After a few long moments, he opened up. By the look on his face I could see I’d woken him up.
“Hey,” he said, “I thought you were away.”
I told him I had been, and that now I was back.
He let me in, and I asked whether he’d heard the news. He said hadn’t—he’d fallen asleep as soon as he’d gotten back from work. I told him what happened, and he smiled.
“Welcome back,” he said.
Vadim said he’d make us coffee, and I asked for his phone to reconnect my line. Meanwhile, he set out two small cups of piping hot black coffee.
I took a sip.
“So what’s new?” I asked.
He sipped his coffee.
“You probably think I’m going to say nothing much,” he said. “But actually there is something new.”
I was a little surprised—though just as doubtful. New things in Vadim’s life were usually some version of old things. And it usually had to do with a woman with whom he was infatuated.
“I’ve been spending time with someone,” he said.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pretending to be surprised.
“Maya,” he said. “And don’t think you already know the whole story. She’s different.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“For one thing,” he said, “she’s religious.”
“That’s different,” I admitted.
“That’s very different.”
“It’s not exactly how it sounds,” he said. “She’s separated, waiting for her husband to grant her a divorce. And she’s not as religious as she used to be.”
I sipped my coffee, which had cooled a little.
“You realize this is bad news,” I said.
“It sounds bad,” he said, “but you have to meet her to understand. Actually I’ve been waiting for you to get back so I could introduce you two. I want to know what you think.”
“What does that matter?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m just curious. She’s special, but she’s hard to figure out.”
I didn’t especially want to be involved in evaluating anyone. But I could see by the look on his face that Vadim was looking for support. And I figured I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt.
So I said, “Great, let’s get together sometime next week for a drink.”
“No,” he answered. “I’m seeing her tonight. And you’re coming.”
I shook my head.
“I just got off a plane,” I said.
“That’s just it,” he returned. “You got off the plane—and came straight here.”
“Because I just witnessed a terrorist attack!”
“Exactly!” he said. “It must mean something!”
“What could it possibly mean?” I asked.
“That you have to come with me tonight to meet Maya.”
“I’m tired,” I countered.
“There’s still time,” he said. “You can rest. You won’t be sorry.”
He used those actual words.
I stayed—but not because I was interested in meeting Maya. I stayed, I think, because I was scared. I’d fallen asleep, I guess, because when I woke up it was dark. Vadim had been in the other room. When he heard me stir he came over and asked how I was feeling. I told him I felt confused. I wasn’t even sure where I was. He smiled and said I was in the holy city of Jerusalem—and that it was time to get up and go out for a drink.
Outside, the October evening cold had already set in, and I told Vadim I hoped we weren’t going far, because I didn’t have the energy to go out for long. He smiled and said we were meeting Maya at a bar just around the corner.
I saw her as soon as we arrived: sitting in the courtyard, her upper body wrapped in a thick woven shawl, her hair covered in the religious hippy style common around this neighborhood. My first thought was that it wasn’t cautious of her to be seen out in public with a man while still in the middle of a divorce. That’s when I realized the real reason I was there: with two men present, it would be harder for anyone to claim they saw her alone with a man at a bar. I could hardly imagine this ending well for Vadim. But then, I thought, what could really come of it aside from a little heartache?
We sat down and as I took a better look at Maya, I could also understand his attraction. The look in her eyes suggested she was smart, independent, a little standoffish, but with a hint of warmth just on the other side of her toughness.
“Hello,” I said in Hebrew settling into my chair. “I’m Marc.”
“So I was told,” she answered me in English, and then added in Russian, “Hi Vadim.”
“Hi Maya,” he said, and though he’d arranged for the three of us to meet, he seemed more uncomfortable than anyone else at the table.
“Are you here to check me out?” Maya asked me. “Or just get a view of the goods?”
“Maybe both,” I said. “Or maybe I’m here to give you two cover for meeting in public.”
Vadim raised his eyebrows and looked around, paranoid, to check if anyone had heard what I’d said. Maya smirked.
“He’s more careful than I am,” she said. “It’s one of the things I like about him.”
A waiter came over, one of the usual art students who worked here, and asked whether we wanted anything to drink. Vadim ordered whiskey, Maya ordered a gin and tonic, and I asked for a coffee.
“So you already know that I’m in the middle of a divorce,” Maya said to me. “What other personal details has Vadim divulged?”
I could see that he was about to defend himself—but I interrupted.
“None,” I said. “I just got off a plane, so he hasn’t had much time. You’ll have to divulge them all yourself.”
Maya smiled. She liked that I didn’t like her the way Vadim liked her.
“Tell him about how you came to Israel,” Vadim said. “It’s interesting for him. He’s a journalist.”
“Are you looking for subjects to profile?” she asked.
“So if you’re a journalist,” she said, “ask me something.”
“I don’t work that way,” I said. “I let people talk about what they believe is important—what they think needs to be said.”
The smile fell from Maya’s face, she lowered her eyes, and her gaze seemed to turn inward. When she raised her eyes again her face had turned pale.
“And if I don’t find anything important,” she asked, “then what?”
“I guess I’d ask you whether something had happened to make you feel that way.”
I saw Maya absorbing my words, and then her eyes began to water, and her face softened and reddened and began to tremble.
“And if it was something very difficult to talk about,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady, but unable to stop the tears that flowed from the corners of her eyes. “Then what would you do?”
“I would tell you that you didn’t have to talk about anything you weren’t ready to talk about.”
The tears still flowed but her trembling lips steadied, turned upward, and soon even her eyes were smiling.
“I want to talk to you about it,” she said. “But not on the first date.”
And she winked at Vadim—who was happy to have her attention again.
Look, I don’t remember us talking about anything noteworthy that evening. But somehow, we became a threesome and had, without quite noticing it, bonded our fates.
The three of us met again several times over the next few weeks, every time they went out in public. Maya and I were never in touch directly—Vadim would always plan our three-way dates and update me on the time and place. And despite my doubts, I couldn’t but be struck by her. She’d grown up in a secular home and hadn’t known much about Israel before coming on a college trip and connecting with Jerusalem’s hippy religious scene. She decided to stay, got a teaching license, and started working in kindergartens. She’d met her husband her first week in Israel—and they were married three months later. Four years passed and all her friends had at least two or three kids, but she’d insisted she wasn’t ready. In the end her husband put up an ultimatum – kids or separation—and she made her choice.
I saw that Vadim’s affair with Maya was having a deep effect on him, so I obliged him and went with them each time they met. But after about a month, as their relationship developed, I found myself feeling increasingly like a third wheel. I told Vadim how I felt, but he insisted I couldn’t abandon him. Maya was about to get her divorce, he said, and then it would be a non-issue. I told him I didn’t think my presence or absence mattered, but he insisted again.
I don’t know whether he shared my concerns with Maya. But one day I got a phone call, in the late morning, from an unknown phone number. I answered and it turned out to be Maya asking me to meet her for coffee at noon at a nearby café.
She was already there when I arrived a few minutes late and, to guess by the way she swished the straw in her glass, she’d already been there a while. She was about to say something as I sat down—but a waitress came over to ask whether I wanted to order. I asked for a double-espresso. She told the waitress she’d have another gin and tonic.
“Starting early,” I said.
“It’s my third,” she answered, and offered a bitter smile.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
I remember she held the tip of a short black straw between her fingers and, swirling the ice cubes in the empty glass, bit her lips. She kept her eyes down and said nothing.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
She closed her eyes, held them shut, and opened them—looking directly at me.
“You know, right, that I’m not interested in Vadim?”
I sighed. I had no desire to be involved in anything more complicated than it was worth. All I wanted was to extricate myself without seeing my friend get too hurt.
“You should tell Vadim,” I said. “He likes you a lot, but I imagine he’d appreciate the honesty.”
“I don’t need advice on how to break up with your friend,” she said.
I nodded. “Then what do you need?”
“Vadim’s a good person,” she said. “And so are you.”
I lowered my eyes—it’s possible I blushed.
“He and I are friends,” I said looking at her again. “We appreciate each other.”
“What about me?” she said. “Do you guys appreciate me?”
“We appreciate you very much.”
The waitress returned with our drinks and set them down on the table. Maya bent her head down and slurped from her glass while I raised the cup to my lips and sipped.
Putting the cup down, I said, “I think you’re a very strong person.”
I said what I felt – but she smiled with bitterness.
“I like you,” she said, “more than I like Vadim.”
I nodded—wondering what her words really meant.
“You don’t really know me,” I said. “You only think you like me.”
“I know what I like—and I know what I think,” she said. “My only question is what do we do now?”
“Yes—since now it’s about me and you and not about me and Vadim.”
“I don’t think anything’s about us until we both decide it is.”
“I haven’t even had time to consider what we’re talking about.”
“We’re talking about us,” she said. “About the possibility of us.”
I tried to smile—but I’m pretty sure I looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
“You’re married,” I said. “And you’re dating my friend.”
“I’m separated,” she said, “and I’ve already broken up with your friend.”
“He didn’t mention anything to me,” I said.
“I sent him a text message a few hours ago,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets off work.”
My phone rang. I took it out and saw Vadim’s name on the screen. I answered and stepped away from the table.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“She fucking broke up with me!” he yelled into the phone. “With a fucking text message!”
I took a deep breath and considered what to say. I wasn’t sure whether I should tell him I was with her now.
“I know,” I finally said. “She called me and asked to meet over coffee. She wanted to talk about what happened.”
“What?!” he screamed. “She’s there with you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I stepped away from the table, but, yes, she’s here.”
“I’m on my way.”
“I’ll try to keep her here.”
I ended the call and went back to the table.
“It was Vadim,” I said to Maya as I sat down.
“I can imagine,” she said, and then asked, “Is he coming here?”
I nodded and asked, “Will you wait for him?”
She leaned back and smirked.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“I don’t think we can discuss that until we’ve settled the matter of you and Vadim.”
“It’s settled,” she said.
“Not for him.”
She smirked again.
“I’ll leave you two to settle the matter of me and Vadim,” she said getting up, “and hopefully you and I will meet on our own soon.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” I said, and I was actually surprised at my ability to be so direct.
“Don’t be too sure about not being sure,” she said. “There’s more to you than you might think.”
She lifted the glass up to her mouth, downed what was left, and walked away. The waitress caught her leaving and came over, smiling a little awkwardly, to ask whether I wanted the check. I said that I didn’t and, waiting for Vadim, drank the rest of my coffee.
That should have been the end of Maya—and, if it had been, I would have never been arrested.
For about a week I heard nothing from Maya or Vadim. Then Vadim called me out of the blue—telling me that he was engaged to Maya and asking me to be his witness at the wedding.
“I can’t be a witness for you,” I told him, and completely ignoring what he’d actually told me, added, “I’m not observant. I can’t sign a ketubah.”
“We’re not having a religious wedding,” he said laughing, “we’re doing a personal ceremony. Maya has a friend who’s going to be her witness. It’ll be just the four of us. It’s symbolic.”
I didn’t know what to say—but I wasn’t particularly interested in these games.
I said, “Do you want to tell me what the hell happened?”
Vadim laughed again. And now I could hear Maya in the background laughing too.
“Am I on speaker?”
“Yes,” Vadim said, “and Maya’s hearing every word, so be careful what you say. We’ll tell you everything as soon as you agree to be my witness.”
I hesitated a moment—I’m not sure exactly what I thought was going on—but it was too crazy for me to want to be involved.
“I don’t agree,” I said, and ended the call.
I wish I could say it ended with that call. But I got a text message from Vadim asking me to meet so he could explain. I told him I’d meet him on his own, without Maya, and we ended up going to a bar just across from his place, sitting in the back room in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Vadim insisted on buying me a beer – though I knew he had no money – and came over holding two pints and with a big grin across his face.
“Don’t you want to wish me mazal tov?” he said.
“Only when I talk you out of this stupidity,” I answered.
He sat down, still grinning, and took a long sip from his beer before setting the glass down.
“I love her,” Vadim said. “Why does that make you so mad?”
“Because she doesn’t feel the same way about you,” I said. “And you don’t seem to want to face that fact.”
“You mean that conversation she had with you? She told me all about that. Don’t you see? She was confused because I was bringing you along all the time. She felt like I was forcing her to like you—and wanted to make sure you weren’t interested so that she could focus on our relationship. That’s the whole point—she was trying to protect us from you.”
“I’m not a threat,” I said, “and if you can’t see that saying so is pretty weird, then I’m not sure I can really help you.”
Vadim smiled again.
“You’re a good friend,” he said. “That’s why I want you to be my witness. I need someone I can trust.”
“Vadim—right now the main person who can’t be trusted is you.”
“Relax,” he said. “We just want to have a ceremony to commemorate our commitment to each other.”
“Is she at least divorced?” I asked.
“Then she can’t get married,” I said. “Not even as a joke.”
Vadim turned serious.
“It’s not a joke,” he said. “It’s just not official. There’s a difference. I don’t understand why you can’t have a sense of humor and be part of our personal ritual.”
“So it’s not a joke,” I said, “but I need a sense of humor. It sounds like a riddle.”
Just then I saw Vadim raise his head and look behind me—and a big smile appear across his face.
“Hi!” he said, getting up, and as I turned my head to see who it was, I was—admittedly a little more than I should have been – surprised to find Maya coming over to us.
“You two didn’t really think I was going to let you have this conversation all by yourselves,” she said.
I should have known better—and I might have guessed we wouldn’t have much time together. So I said, “Actually, I thought we’d earned a little time on our own.”
“But how can you catch up about me—without me?”
She laughed in a way that frightened me, not because I thought she was evil, but just because I couldn’t quite understand what was driving her.
“I think it’s time we tell him,” Vadim said looking up at Maya.
She nodded and sat down next to Vadim. That was when I noticed she didn’t have a drink.
“You’re pregnant,” I said.
She laughed and hugged Vadim.
“How’d you know?”
“Wild guess,” I said.
And then I understood. They wanted a ceremony so that the child would not be considered a bastard. She was no longer observant, that was obvious, but I could see how spiritually she’d want to have a ceremony—so that, at least privately, she could consider the child legitimate.
I looked at Vadim and saw that he was beaming. He was going to be a father, and he had in his arms a woman who, quirks aside, brought life into his eyes in a way I’d never seen before. So I raised my beer, wished them mazal tov, and said I’d be their witness as soon as they set a date.
For me, this was the end of my friendship with Vadim. I couldn’t stand by as he tied his life to these circumstances. Paradoxically, we’d never been as close as we’d become since he met Maya – and yet his connection to her was also bringing our friendship to an end. I’d attend their so-called wedding, I decided, and then I’d let them pursue whatever life they thought they could have together.
I’d resolved to devote no more thought than this to Vadim and Maya and to focus on my work—which was starting to involve more media analysis. As a Russian speaker, I had been asked to write about the reaction of the Russian-language Israeli press to Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war. It had been an intense few weeks: a commercial Russian jet was blown up mid-flight by Islamic State terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula, a Russian warplane was downed by a Turkish fighter jet near the Syrian border, and Israel had entered into regular military contact with Russia in order to avoid clashes as each one pursued their own—clearly conflicting—policies in Syria. And the coverage was pretty disconcerting: a combination of trolling and disinformation which pushed Russia’s propagandistic line into the Israeli press. This, it seemed to me, was exposing a significant sector of Israeli society to an influence campaign run by Russia. I wrote as much in my article and hoped it would stimulate debate. I didn’t think it would, but I needed something to hope for if I was going to put all this effort into writing these articles.
I was going over this article, preparing to send it to my editor, when I got another call, this time from a blocked number. I answered and a man who knew my name but who wouldn’t tell me his asked me to meet him at a nearby café to talk about a “certain issue.” I told him I was not going to do that unless he told me what he wanted. He told me he was Maya’s husband and that he needed to tell me something about her for my friend’s sake. I told him I wasn’t interested—and that, if he had something to say to my “friend,” he should tell him directly. The man insisted he needed to talk to me because I wasn’t involved and said it would be best for me and my friend if I agreed. I told him I wasn’t interested and hung up.
I was a lot more nervous after that call than I realized at that moment. I went over to the door to make sure it was locked – and then looked out the peephole to see whether anyone was standing on the landing. I looked out the window to see if there was anyone out on the street. And I took my phone out again, waiting for him to call back. A few moments passed without the phone ringing again and I set it down, trying to put the conversation out of my head. I tried to go back to my piece and prepare a final edit. I sent it to my editor and then couldn’t help myself anymore – I started thinking about Vadim and that phone call again. I decided to call Vadim and tell him about the strange conversation I’d had with the person claiming to be Maya’s husband.
“Marc!” Vadim answered, more excited than I would’ve liked.
“Are you alone?” I asked. “Am I on speaker?”
“You’ve gotten a little paranoid,” he said. “Maya’s not home.”
“I got a very unpleasant phone call,” I said.
“From her husband?”
“How did you know?!” I said.
“Because I got a similar call,” he said.
“How did he get our numbers?”
“He supposedly works for the Prime Minister’s Office—which means he’s part of the security establishment—so he has access to any phone number he wants. I think he’s been watching Maya long before she met me. And long before she moved in here.”
“Maya’s moved in with you?!”
“Marc,” he said, “we’re going to have a baby.”
“She’s also married, Vadim, and her husband works for the Mossad.”
“Mossad, Shin Bet, whatever. He’s an administrator. Anyway, that’s why she can’t live with him—too many secrets.”
“Maya can choose to live whatever life she wants,” I said. “I don’t want it having anything to do with me.”
“He doesn’t want her to leave,” Vadim said. “He told her wants her to abort the child and come back to live with him.”
“Are these the kinds of conversations she’s having with him?”
“He sends her crazy text messages all the time.”
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t care what kinds of text messages she’s getting from her husband as long as I’m not getting phone calls from him. Understand?”
“I wish there was something I could do,” he said. “Maybe he’s realizing his failure and trying to intimidate anyone involved with her.”
“I’m not involved with Maya,” I said.
“You’re close to someone who’s involved with her.”
“I’m not sure how to put this in a way that you won’t find insulting,” I said. “I really hope that you and Maya have a good life together. But I don’t think it’s going to involve me at this point.”
“You’re my witness,” he said. “You’re going to let him scare you off with a phone call?”
“He’s not scaring me off,” I said. “He’s just reminding me that I never wanted to get involved in your relationship. I suggest you see all this for what it is—a fucked up situation that I hope, for your sake and for the sake of your future child, you can get on the right track.”
There was silence on the other side of the line. I hadn’t realized I was so angry—and I already regretted most of what I’d said. But the call from Maya’s husband, together with what felt like Vadim’s disregard, pushed me to the edge. I didn’t know what else to say—so I waited for him to speak.
But he didn’t say anything. He just ended the call.
It wasn’t long before my phone rang again. This time it was Maya. I wasn’t sure whether to answer. In the end, I decided to take the call.
“Yes,” I said.
“I need to talk to you.”
“You’re talking to me,” I said.
“Just say what you have to say,” I said.
“I can’t,” she answered.
“But I need you to tell you something.”
“Then say what you have to say.”
She hesitated—I felt like she was waiting for me to give in and say I’d meet her—but I was determined not to be pulled further into their situation.
“The child,” she finally said, “is not Vadim’s.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. And if I had, I wasn’t sure there was any point in saying anything anyway.
“I’m at the doctor’s,” she said. “They just told me the due date. It doesn’t work out right. The week of conception falls on the time that we were apart.”
The question I wanted to ask seemed too obvious to be pronounced out loud. But she didn’t say anything else, so I had to ask.
“Did you sleep with your husband during that period?”
She hesitated, then said a little embarrassedly, “He’s my husband.”
I felt my head whirl. I was glad that this wasn’t happening to me—but I also had to ask myself why I was the one who was on the phone with Maya. In a certain sense, I had to admit to myself, it was happening to me, and what I needed to do was to get more involved. I had to help Vadim—and Maya.
“You’re still at the doctor’s?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m scared to go back to his place—I don’t want him to be angry.”
“You’re going to have to find a way to tell him,” I said, “and then later deal with the fallout.”
“But how can I tell him something like this?”
“With words,” I said. “You have to go and tell him what happened and decide what you want to do with your life together. You don’t have to go back to living with your husband just because you’re pregnant with his child.”
“But I want to go back,” she said, and I could hear her voice faltering. “I love him. All I wanted all along was a child with him. I just didn’t think it was going to happen this way!”
And she broke down in tears on the other side of the line.
I held the phone to my ear and listened to her cry. I was reminded of the “little heartache” that I thought Vadim would face from this relationship, and it no longer appeared so little. Vadim thought he had a wife in the making and a child on the way, and instead he was about to find himself on the bad end of a marital drama.
Maya was still crying but I understood that, for her, this situation was actually good. So I began to think about how I was going to help Vadim extricate himself from these people.
“I need your help,” Maya began to say through her sobs, then added, “Please!” and again broke down in tears.
“I’ll help you,” I said, though I was thinking mostly of Vadim. “Just tell me what you need.”
I could hear her trying to get her breath under control.
“Tell him,” she said, unable to bring the words out for a moment, “tell him I’m sorry.”
This was the last time I spoke to Maya—and, in theory, this should have been the end of my account. But actually, everything I’ve reported until now was more like the background leading to the events that ultimately landed me in jail.
I eventually heard from Vadim and, when I did, I was surprised to find him calmer than I’d imagined. He wasn’t going to become a husband and father—and, taking into account his actual life situation, this probably brought him some relief. I, too, was relieved for him, and hoped that this experience would shake him out of his general indifference. In the end, that hope was realized, just not at all in the way I’d imagined.
It was late January, the Jerusalem winter had entered its coldest period, and everyone was keeping indoors. Vadim and I had planned to meet for a drink and I arrived a little worked up over the piece I’d just filed on Russia’s intervention in Syria. The Syrian government, I told Vadim, was now supported by Russian warplanes, wiping out entire towns in the provinces. There was talk of a ceasefire—but to me it sounded like Syria and Russia were just buying time until the next offensive. It seemed their strategy was clear: level everything to the ground and “recapture” the rubble. They used barrel bombs indiscriminately and had no issues dropping chemical weapons—as they’d already shown—especially now that Russia was giving them diplomatic cover. Even more maddening was that Israel, which was driven by realpolitik to cooperate with Russia, was, as a result, providing Russia cover, even as Israeli jets were in the middle of their own aerial campaigns in Syria, trying to stop the smuggling of weapons given by Russia to Israel’s enemies. The whole thing seemed like a mess from which nothing could be hoped for but more destruction. And after a couple of beers, I found myself unable to let go of the issue.
“I’m so fucking mad,” I said, “that Putin gets away with creating all this mayhem, not just in terms of war, but also in terms of confusing everyone with contradictions and disinformation. It’s not just that his planes are bombing the shit out of Syria—it’s that he also puts his propaganda machine to work to undermine anyone’s ability to try and know what’s actually happening on the ground. And all Israel does is give him whatever he wants in the hope that he keeps its concerns in mind. It’s been going on for a decade and you could really see it with the Sergei Building a couple of years ago. They moved government offices out of the building and gave it to Putin—in the hope that it would stop him from selling anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Since when has Putin kept a promise? All he wants is what he wants. He wanted the building—he personally came to visit it in 2005—and now it’s his. He gets what he wants. There’s no reciprocity. All he has to do is to promise not to do something that he knows will harm the other person. It’s crazy.”
Vadim nodded his head, smiling as if at a child.
“When you talk like this,” he said, “you really sound American. It’s funny that you even expect anything different from either Putin or any other politician—especially in this part of the world. I don’t think you can really understand what it means to be Russian. To think like you’re from Russia. It’s not the West,” he said. “Maya understood this about you. She always said you were innocent, no matter how much you knew, because you believed people should act according to some sort of logic—some sort of justice. It’s almost funny.”
“What’s funny about justice?!” I remember asking.
“That it doesn’t exist!” he told me. “Do you think Maya acted justly toward me?”
“No!” I said. “Which is why it’s wrong!”
“And according to your American idea of justice,” he said, “I should probably sue her.”
“You obviously can’t sue her, ” I said taking his joke literally, “since she didn’t do anything criminal. But you can still judge her.”
“What does it help me to judge her?” he said. “I want to punish her.”
“You sound like Dostoevsky.”
“It’s Dostoevsky,” he said in a tone more serious than I thought was warranted, “who sounds like me. You forget that terror was invented in Russia. And Dostoevsky knew that the only way to fight terror is punishment.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t think you read the book with quite enough nuance.”
“Don’t tell me how to read Dostoevsky,” he said. “How do you think people affect each other?” he said, and I remember this frightening seriousness in his eyes. “Terror,” he said. “You don’t know what happened between me and Maya. She would constantly say things that hurt and then apologize, saying she was a terrible person who deserved to be hated. I was sucked into a loop I couldn’t control—a loop of manipulation that, in the end, left me scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, even though, deep down, it had nothing to do with me. That’s terror. And people who terrorize others should be punished.”
I could see he was serious—and this, in itself, was frightening. He wasn’t a violent person, that much I knew, but, suddenly, I imagined that he could do something extreme.
“What are you actually saying?” I confronted him.
“Maya needs to be punished,” he said.
“For what purpose?”
“To make her regret.”
“Revenge,” I warned him, “never goes according to plan.”
“This is not revenge,” he said. “It’s justice. Like you said.”
“I didn’t say you should punish Maya.”
“Not in those words,” he said. “But you did give me an idea.”
He was silent. He looked at me intensely—I could see his mind was working—but he said nothing.
“You said Putin personally wanted that building?” he asked.
“The Sergei Building?” I said. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It has everything to do with everything. You don’t think like a Russian,” he said. “If you want to punish someone, you have to make it personal.”
I was confused—but at least I had him talking. And his thoughts seemed more scattered than his expression had suggested, which, at that moment, I considered to be a good thing.
“What does Putin have to do with Maya?” I asked.
“Nothing and everything,” he said. “All I can tell you is that I’m going to let them see what it’s like when someone uses your weak spots to terrorize you.”
I tried to get him to be specific—to tell me what he was thinking of doing—but he just smiled and told me I had no reason to worry. He wasn’t going to hurt anyone, he said, no one was even going to know it had anything to do with him.
“What’s it?” I asked again.
But he just smiled and drank down his beer.
At that moment, I knew I had to dissuade him from taking whatever action he was considering. I said, “It’s not worth committing a crime—even a moral one—just to punish someone.”
“I’m not committing a crime,” he said, “I’m committing justice. And I’m going to do it simply by writing something. Writing isn’t a crime, right?”
When we separated that evening, I was concerned about what Vadim was going to write, but I thought it was going to be a text message, or an email, and I mostly worried that he’d just expose his emotions to Maya in a way that he might later regret—especially since he was a little drunk. I had no idea what was going on in his mind.
When I awoke the next morning and read the morning news online I saw that I had been completely wrong. He’d done something much stranger—and much more compromising—than anything I could have ever imagined.
The headlining story, splashed across every major Israeli news website, reported that someone had used hot pink spray paint to cover all sides of the Sergei Building with the words: FUCK PUTIN.
I opened every international news website I knew and every single one ran the same story—with large images of the spray-painted words alongside images of the Russian president. The effect was certainly powerful. And it was something far beyond anything I would have considered Vadim capable of thinking up. It was brilliant. But it was also extremely dangerous.
My first instinct was to pick up the phone and call him, but the calls went straight to voicemail. His phone was off. The question was only whether he had turned it off himself, or whether someone had done it for him.
I’ll admit I panicked. Mostly because I didn’t know what I should do—or whether I should do anything. Just knowing that this had happened, and that I knew who had done it, made me nervous. I had obviously not done anything wrong, but I felt like an accomplice, and that I’d be one step removed from the crime once the police had a suspect, which was only a matter of time since the Sergei Building was across the alley from the Police Department’s central compound. That street is one of the most surveilled places in the city. As brilliant as Vadim’s stunt might have been—I couldn’t take that away from him – doing it there was utterly idiotic.
As I thought about all this I continued to monitor the news cycle. And that’s when I realized this wasn’t just about hooliganism. Israel’s ambassador to Russia had been called to the President’s Office for a reprimand, and Russia’s ambassador to Israel was leaving Tel Aviv for “consultations” in Moscow. I suddenly remembered that my article on Putin had just been published and was began to worry that the police and intelligence services would connect the two.
That’s when I got worried. I remembered Russia’s imprisonment of Pussy Riot, and it wasn’t hard to guess what measures they’d expect from Israel once they caught whoever did this. The image of Putin’s face across world media alongside the words FUCK PUTIN in bright pink was not going to be ignored. Vadim was right: Putin was going to take it personally. I just didn’t understand what any of it had to do with punishing Maya.
I was still obsessively reading the news when my phone rang. In the split second before I saw the name on the screen my heart raced in a way I’d never experienced before. Then I saw the name: Maya.
I remember that I answered and hesitantly said, “Hello?”
But the person speaking on the other side wasn’t Maya. It was her husband.
“I understand his motives,” he said. “He wanted to get back at me—make my life difficult for a little while—and that way get back at Maya. But what did you need this for?”
“I wasn’t involved in this,” I said. “I found out about it just like everyone else: in the news.”
He laughed again.
“You’re like every other journalist,” he said. “A liar looking for attention. Twisting real events to your own benefit and, when the events you want don’t happen on their own, creating them yourself.”
And then he hung up.
I heard noises outside. And I was sure, at that moment, that they were already outside waiting to arrest me. As if it already happened, I knew what would come next: they would hold me in jail until my first hearing and then release me to house arrest. Vadim would be kept in a prison cell in the compound across from the Sergei Building. I’d get a lawyer, someone who does pro bono work for human rights and free speech, while Vadim would get a lawyer appointed by the state. The prosecution would try to prove there was an ideological basis for what happened – a conspiracy that was politically motivated – aiming to put us both in jail for years.
There would be lots of theories about my role in the affair. Journalists both in Israel and abroad would turn this whole thing into a brave rebuke of Putin’s grasp on media. As if I could ever be the hero they’re looking for. Because, in the end, I’m just someone who tried to think about things—and then to write those thoughts down.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, Speculative Nonfiction, Public Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of Old Truths and New Clichés (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and the reissue of Singer’s canonical story, Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition (Restless Books). His recent work includes “A Short Inquiry into the End of the World” (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his “Mister Investigator” series, and a follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew” (The Hedgehog Review). The third essay, “To Kill an Intellectual” (The Fortnightly Review), is now being published in installments.