The Midway Plaza was one of those hotels that was always a popular rendezvous spot. It was a well known downtown landmark, and ironically not very far from the Saxon Club, where Anton and I had first arranged to meet. The décor of the hotel was slightly intimidating. It was swanky and plush and seemed to allude to a lifestyle that was characterized by finery and money. The lobby had a highly polished marble floor interspersed with deep velour carpets, and there were ornate carvings and bronzes on pedestals dotted about the place, and decorative pillars with elaborate crystal chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. The whole place had a hushed, businesslike air to it, as though all undertakings in such surroundings were expected to be conducted with the corresponding etiquette and decorum. It was exactly the type of establishment I used to frequent when I was with John. We chose to meet Roman at the Midway Plaza not just because it was an easy landmark to find, but because it could also afford us some anonymity without a feeling of isolation. It was an indication of Roman's commitment that he had been prepared to fly in all the way from Saint Petersburg for the meeting with Yura, which represented an investment of considerable time and money on his part. Since he was leaving again the next day, it was destined to be a rather hectic twenty-four-hour round trip.
Elena had called me to confirm that the paternity test on Roman had been completed via the Moscow City Police. His DNA sample was compared with a swab from Yura and the match had come back positive. Roman was definitely Yura's father. There would have been little point in things proceeding any further if he wasn't. That left the way clear for Yura and his father to finally meet. Roman had been granted a special visa and it was agreed that he would fly in from Saint Petersburg for the meeting. The whole thing was progressing frighteningly quickly, and I was barely able to assimilate the potential impact of it all. I only knew that it was what Yura wanted. That being the case, Yura was going to see this man for the first time knowing that he really was his father.
That morning, as we were preparing to leave, Yura had come into my bedroom with the tube of hair gel in his hand and asked me to fix his hair for him. I took the tube of hair gel from him and we stepped into the ensuite bathroom in front of the big wall mirror. Yura studiously remained still as I applied the gel with my fingertips into his beautiful thick black hair. As I was doing it, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of resentment that I was in fact helping him to look good for the benefit of another man - another man who would possibly take over the role of being his primary carer; the man who would, if all went well, soon take the reigns as his guardian on a more permanent basis, and thus usurp my somewhat tentative position as an interim parent to Yura. Yura's azure blue eyes were shining out at me as I attended to him, sparkling with the loving innocence that only a boy of his age could know, and a little stab of regret shot through me at the prospect that Yura's affection for me might soon be transferred elsewhere. The pity of it was that Yura would probably never know how much I really loved him.
"How's that?" I asked him, stepping back to admire my handiwork.
Yura turned to face the mirror, cocking his head this way and that, and nodded approvingly. He smiled assuredly, causing those two little dimples to appear on either side of his lips, like quotation marks, and I couldn't help thinking how much I was going to miss that smile.
Afterwards, Yura even asked me what clothes he should wear. It was clear that he was anxious to secure his father's approval. I was pretty sure his father would approve of him no matter how he looked.
Roman was already at the Midway Plaza when we arrived. He was sitting well forward on one of the sofas in the lobby. As we approached, Roman spotted us, and stood up immediately. Yura stopped a few feet away and I was very close behind him, with Anton, Elena and Vladik out to the side somewhere. Roman smiled and immediately focused on Yura. I guess it was one of those moments when it was difficult to judge what kind of greeting was appropriate, but it was pleasing to see that Roman came forward and held out a hand to Yura even before he greeted the rest of us. He smiled, very clearly moved to be setting eyes on Yura for the first time. I nudged Yura forward. He hesitantly stepped towards Roman and Roman leaned over, not just shaking Yura's little hand, but closing in to give him a quick cheek-to-cheek hug, with a passing squeeze of his shoulders. It was an appropriate and affectionate gesture, without being overly emotional. But I could see that Roman's eyes were moist and maybe he too was struggling with the momentousness of this meeting.
We all greeted Roman in turn with the usual formalities and sat down with him, surrounding him on the sofas and armchairs that formed an intimate little huddle amidst the to-ing and fro-ing and general commotion of the hotel lobby. We arranged ourselves so that I was on the sofa with Yura and Elena either side of me, Roman in one armchair, nearest to Yura, and Anton and Vladik sat together on another sofa opposite us. There was a very low, broad table between us. We ordered coffee, tea for Roman, and juice for the boys. Ordering the drinks broke the ice somewhat, and there were further formalities as we passed around the cream and sugar. In true Russian style, Roman drank his tea black.
In the flesh, Roman looked very distinguished. His face was a variation on Yura's familiar features, with the same arrangement of nose and lips, and of course those very distinctive cobalt-blue eyes. He had that same thick head of wavy black hair, although slightly shorter and rather more carefully groomed than Yura's. He was an extremely handsome man.
From what I surmised, Roman worked as a doctor back in Saint Petersburg. He was a pediatrician, in fact. He was clearly very educated and highly accomplished in his field, and had reached quite a senior level for someone of his age. He was warm and receptive and seemed quite attentive, with good eye contact and plenty of positive gestures and expressions. Something told me that this man was well versed in the art of conversation. His mannerisms and choice of words were very much in keeping with someone who was obviously advanced in the social graces and who could no doubt interact effectively at all levels. He was confident, self-assured, intelligent and personable.
The discussion was slightly tentative to start with. But it was delightful to see that Roman spoke both English and Russian, and he seemed to have no difficulty switching from one to the other. For Yura's sake, we all settled into speaking in Russian. I could see Roman really making an effort to talk to Yura. He seemed surprisingly composed, and extremely well informed about things that Yura might want to talk about, like the types of video games he liked. It was clear that he was comfortable talking to Yura on his level and I had no doubt that stemmed from having another son back at home. He and Yura chatted quite animatedly for a while, just getting the feel of each other, to begin with not exchanging any words of great value. It was mostly polite pleasantries, very superficial, not contrived, just relaxed and unpretentious.
A little way into the conversation, Roman pulled out a large envelope that he had strategically placed by his side on the armchair he was sitting in, and he gave it to Yura.
"This is for you," he said, "Nikita made it for you."
Yura looked at it, then tentatively accepted the oversized envelope. He opened the flap, which was not sealed, just tucked in at the tip. Curiously, Yura pulled out a handmade card. It was unevenly cut, and folded crookedly, with a childish drawing of two little hollow figures on the front, heavily scribbled into the card in erratic crayon. Inside was a message, written in Russian in spidery, childish letters. Yura held it up for me to read.
"For my new brother. I love you. Nika."
"Look Mark," said Yura, with a look of wonderment, "It's from my brother!"
I smiled encouragingly, genuinely touched that a little six year old boy on the other side of the world, whom Yura had never even met, could be so thoughtful. It was a lovely gesture.
Yura looked at Roman, visibly moved by the card.
"Thanks," he said, "I wish I had something to give him too."
"I'm sure you will have plenty to give him when you see him," said Roman, prophetically, "He loves the idea of having an older brother."
There was a pause, then Roman reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a photograph.
"I have something for you too," he said, and handed Yura the glossy picture.
The photo was of a bicycle, propped up against a wooden picket fence.
"That bike is yours," said Roman, "Call it an early birthday present. I'm sorry I won't be around for your birthday."
Yura grinned happily and showed the photograph to Vladik.
"I couldn't bring it with me," Roman went on, "But it will be waiting for you when you come to visit us in Saint Petersburg."
It seemed Roman had it all worked out. Frighteningly, he had already resolved the entire matter in his mind. He seemed so sure that he had even bought Yura a new bicycle. He seemed to already know how it was all going to pan out. Yura would go to Saint Petersburg and, if all worked out as Roman intended, that's where he would eventually return, the next time to stay permanently, with him and Natalya and little Nikita.
"So what do you think?" Roman asked him, "Would you like to come and visit us in Saint Petersburg?"
Yura looked up at the ceiling, as though considering it, then looked back towards Roman.
"Yes. I would love to."
Then Yura turned to Elena.
"That is okay isn't it?" he asked her.
"It's up to you," she replied, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to."
Yura nodded affirmatively.
"It's okay," he said, sounding positive, "I want to."
Inevitably, the conversation moved from small talk to the more meaningful stuff, and this was where Yura really impressed me. He had said that he would have a few questions to ask his father, and he did not let the momentousness of the occasion get the better of him. He remembered exactly what he wanted to ask, and the first question was to do with why his father had abandoned him.
"The truth is, I didn't know about you. Do you think I would have abandoned you if I did?"
"I don't know. Maybe you didn't want me."
Roman smiled, letting Yura know that that wasn't the case.
"No," he said, "I was young and reckless in those days, but if I had known I had a beautiful little baby son, I would have been there for you. I would never have abandoned you."
Yura seemed reassured by that.
"So you really didn't know?"
Roman shook his head in confirmation.
"No. I didn't even know your mother was pregnant. It was a short, casual relationship and we weren't together for very long. So all this time, I didn't even know you existed. The first I knew of you was when Anton told me about you. It was one of the happiest days of my life when I found out I had been blessed with another son - you."
Yura blinked, his long seductive eyelashes betraying his surprise. He seemed taken aback by his father's sentiments.
"I only wish I had been there for you," Roman went on, "if only to save you from all the awful things you have had to go through."
"You know about that?" Yura asked.
"Some of it," Roman replied, nodding.
Yura looked disappointed, perhaps wishing that his father had been spared from knowing the sordid details of what he had been forced to do.
"Tell me about my mom," Yura asked, changing the subject slightly.
Roman looked uncomfortable.
"You want to know about your mom?"
"Yes," said Yura, nodding, "Why didn't she want me?"
"I think your mom did want you," said Roman, "But she couldn't look after you."
Roman took a deep breath, visibly discomfited by Yura's questioning, but resolved to tell him the truth.
"Your mother was a junkie," said Roman, with a hint of revulsion, almost as if the words left a bitter taste in his mouth, "the only thing she loved was angel dust."
"It's a drug that makes you do crazy things. She was out of her mind most of the time."
"What happened to her?"
"She became psychotic," said Roman, "You know what that is?"
Yura shook his head.
"It's when people lose touch with reality, they have delusions and hallucinations, that kind of thing."
"She was crazy?" said Yura, questioningly.
Roman nodded, vaguely amused.
"Kind of," he said, "She was disturbed. The drugs just messed up her mind."
"Is that going to happen to me?" Yura asked.
"No," said Roman, with a good natured laugh, "You can't catch it or pass it on."
"What about you? What do you do?"
"I'm what is called a Pediatric Oncologist," said Roman, "You know what that is?"
I wasn't sure whether I even knew what that was.
Yura shook his head, waiting attentively for the explanation.
"I treat children with cancer," Roman said.
"Children who are dying?" Yura asked.
"Some of them," Roman nodded, "But I cure most of them."
That sounded grand and heroic - a much more honorable profession than mine.
"Is that a hard job?" Yura asked.
I could see Roman was visibly impressed by the maturity of Yura's questions.
"Sometimes it's very hard," Roman confessed, "But I also get a lot of satisfaction out of it. The best thing is that I get to meet a lot of very sweet and very brave children. Very special children."
That was the nature of the conversation that afternoon, which resolved some of the fundamental questions about the course of Yura's life, and why Roman had not had the opportunity to be a part of it thus far. It seemed to answer a lot of questions for Yura. There was still a lot more that needed to be clarified. I was sure it would in time. By the time we left the hotel, it was clear that a tentative rapport had been established between Roman and Yura. So much so that when we all got up to leave, Roman's parting hug was more substantial than his greeting, and he pulled Yura to him tightly in a very affectionate embrace. It was clear that this man was determined to make up for lost time, given the opportunity. In his turn, I could see Yura hugging him back, his little arms squeezing with all the strength he could muster, but his apprehension still apparent from the way his hands were clenched into little fists as he did so. Then Roman did something which I thought was especially sweet and endearing - he gave Vladik a little hug too, just so he wouldn't feel left out, acknowledging him as Yura's best friend. What a lovely gesture. Like I said, it was gestures like that which told you what was in people's hearts.
For my part, I had put my feelings aside throughout the entire meeting. This was something that Yura wanted, and I had no intention of trying to influence him one way or the other. That was not to say that I had no view. I knew exactly what my feelings were as we bade goodbye to Roman. The truth was, I only wished I could say I hated him. I wished I could claim that he should not be allowed anywhere near Yura. I wished I could say that he was inept and ineffectual, and that he was totally unsuitable to be Yura's father. But that would just be downright selfish and mean. Not only mean, but also untrue. In fact, he was a decent man. He loved Yura. Yura had bonded well with him. They had established a good rapport and had genuine affection for each other. He was able to be the father Yura never had. He was a hero. A pediatric oncologist, no less. He saved children's lives. Even I couldn't compete with that. He was successful, learned and accomplished, and he would be able to provide a stable, loving environment and look after Yura for the rest of his life. And why shouldn't Yura have that? Why shouldn't Yura at long last be rewarded with a proper family with a father, a mother and even a little brother? God knows, after all he had been through, he deserved it. It was what everyone wanted for him. It was right that he should be with his natural father. Who was I to deny him that? I could not be a surrogate father to him in the same way as John was to me. Of course I loved Yura, and loving Yura meant wanting to do the best for him. But if I truly loved him, I knew I would have to let him go.
Meeting Roman was the first definitive indication I had that I was going to lose Yura. Of course, I had always known at the back of my mind that Codename Ivan had never been intended as a permanent arrangement, and my time with Yura would have to come to an end some day. But even so, now that it was almost a certainty, and that day was finally drawing closer, the prospect filled me with profound sadness. That day was no longer a distant blur on the horizon, but had now become actual and menacing. The prospect that I would be separated from Yura, to the degree that he would go off to live the rest of his life in peace, with people that loved him, was almost too painful to acknowledge. Yet I knew it was the only logical outcome. There was no future for me in his life. I had served my purpose, and I knew then that the days I had spent with this very special little boy would soon be over. It was with that knowledge that we gathered up our things and prepared to go. Having said our farewells to Roman, we headed for the door, stepping out of the plush, air-conditioned tranquility of the hotel lobby into the noise and bustle of the street, back to where we had parked the car. Behind us, Anton and Vladik walked with Elena, talking about how well they thought the meeting had gone. Beside me, Yura was quiet and thoughtful. As I walked with him, his diminutive little body striding confidently along the sidewalk next to me, I knew that this was now the beginning of the end of my time with Yura. I extended an arm affectionately around his precious shoulders, as we had become accustomed, and I couldn't help pulling him closer to me in a gesture of solidarity and love. It was almost subconscious, a token gesture of defiance in the face of that cruel inevitability. He noticed it, and reached out to take my hand. His little hand slipped easily into mine, and I grasped the little paw of my darling boy in my bigger, adult hand as naturally as if I had been his father. He turned to look up at me, and he smiled sweetly, reveling in the loving clasp of his hand in mine. At that moment, feeling the love he had for me, I smiled back, looking down into those magical, beautiful eyes of his, acknowledging his loving glance. And as I did so, I struggled to keep my emotions at bay and a silent little tear escaped from the corner of my eye. I knew that I was going to lose him, and although I was outwardly smiling back at him, looking pleased for him, inside I could already feel my heart breaking.