The Sensualist

By Daniel Torday


April 2012


The events leading to the beating Dmitri Abramovitch Zilber and his friends would administer to Jeremy Goldstein at the end of my junior year of high school—an act that would make them the talk of every household in Pikesville for months after—started before Dmitri and I even met.

I was sixteen then, and reluctantly finishing my final two years at a high school in Baltimore. At that time I was plagued by an old excoriating Greek gym teacher named Mr. Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos was in his early seventies and had taught at that same school for over forty years, and there was no end to the emasculating aphorisms he had developed to remind young men of their insecurity and weakness. He had served for three years in the European Theater, having enlisted when he was seventeen. He took this former bravery and paired it with the paucity of experience he'd accrued in the fifty years since and transformed it into the kind of didacticism only young men in public school are made to endure, and which can only be doled out by hoary old men with war stories no one wants to hear.

I was a moderately talented southpaw pitcher on the school's JV baseball team, and Stephanopoulos was the team coach. He called me into his office on a humid afternoon the last week of my sophomore year and asked me to sit down.

"Gerson," he said. "Your arm looked strong at the end of the season. Fastball has some real pop. I want you as my number two starter next year on the varsity." I did my best to hide my elation as he continued. "But your changeup needs work. Your curveball won't break. You're gonna have to play summer ball, and get out with Mr. Fischer on weekends." Mr. Fischer was the team pitching coach, a silver-haired sauna buddy of Stephanopoulos' and the purported source of a well-traveled rumor that Stephanopoulos had only one testicle, the other one lost during the war, a rumor that mercifully never would be substantiated. "You need to learn to change speeds."

"I want to do that," I said. "But my parents are sending me on a trip to Israel for all of June and July. Maybe I could work with him in August."

Stephanopoulos furrowed his brow—it was substantial, peppered black and white, and it loomed over his rheumy Mediterranean eyes like a dirt-stained snowdrift. "Well, what are you gonna do then, play in the Kosher League?"

He put his eyes back to the line-up card he was filling out and refused to look back up until I'd left his office.

I left the room after hesitating for a second. Pikesville High School was a public school, but in the ghettoized demographics of Baltimore, nine out of every ten of the kids who comprised the student body were Jewish. I had always harbored a suspicion that my teachers were anti-Semites. I had, in fact, developed a strong conjecture that anyone who stood in the way of any of my aims—from my teachers to my parents to the tattooed senior named Leibowitz who sold me Ziploc bags of pot—was an anti-Semite. Faced with the possibility of real anti-Semitism, I was confounded and flattered by the idea that only the insuperable historical accident of my own Judaism might keep me from one day pitching for the Baltimore Orioles.

I didn't officially quit the baseball team that day. Come baseball season, I would simply fail to show up for pre-season training. Over the summer that followed I repeated to anyone who would listen the story of my tacit abdication of the pitching slot.

By the time I returned to school after Labor Day, my insubordination had ossified into an angst-riddled mass. I was the sole whiner in October who refused to go out into the fifty-degree air in only a pair of scabrous, grey nylon-and-polyester school-issued gym shorts. So when Stephanopoulos called out to us on the first wintry day in November and said to suit up for flag-football, my anger had peaked. Stephanopoulos said, "All right, Gerson, go grab us some of those shoulder jobs from the closet"—he meant for me to get the shoulder pads so we could practice in gear, but he referred to everything as a "job"—"so we can get out and play some football."

I stared at my feet.

"What'll it be then, Gerson? Too cold out there for you? You think you're a man, ignoring me? Why don't you pull down your pants so we can see who's a man." This last line was his favorite, along with, on any poor play, "You've only got three brain cells and two are giving the other CPR," and on a dropped ball, "You couldn't catch a cold in a germ factory." I was ready to raise my voice and erupt with two years and one long Middle Eastern summer's worth of anger when Dmitri Zilber, a boy I didn't know, spoke up.

"My father," he said, his words deliberate with the articulation of one who has only just acquired a command of English, "my father says is too cold weather to be running around in shorts. Even in gulag they would not have us playing out in such weather."

I'm not sure if I knew before that day that Dmitri spoke English at all. Stephanopoulos was stunned too. He paused for a second before walking over to Dmitri—the boy stood across the locker room from me—and, pointing his index and middle fingers out straight, Steph poked him hard in the middle of his sternum:

"I doubt your father knows a thing of what happened at a gulag," he said, "and I can damn well guess he hasn't ever played a down of football."

He turned and faced me again, his head not a foot from Dmitri's and said, "Now Gerson, grab some of those goddamn shoulder jobs and flag jobs and a couple of cone jobs and let's get out there."

I'd begun to mope towards the equipment closet when I heard Dmitri say something under his breath. Stephanopoulos barked, "What?"

When Dmitri mumbled back, Stephanopoulos flushed a shade of red only his olive Mediterranean skin could turn. He grabbed Dmitri by the arm and said:

"Get out of here. I don't want to see you again until you've served a suspension." He almost threw Dmitri as he swung him, letting go at the last minute. "I don't care if I ever see your Russian ass again. Get to the principal's office."

I knew next to nothing of this Dmitri Zilber. He had only started at Pikesville the year before. There must have been more than a hundred immigrants from the former Soviet states amongst the twelve hundred students at Pikesville. They were all Jews who had distant relatives in Baltimore and had arrived with some help, offered grants to live under care of family. All we really knew was that these Russians hung out in large groups and rarely talked to us. They were stolid and unapproachable.

Those of us who'd grown up here weren't entirely unaware of our good fortune. We'd helped our mothers fill Glad bags with our old clothes and brought them to Synagogue on Park Heights Avenue—there were five shuls on the seven-mile stretch of road—to be passed on to immigrant families.

After Dmitri was sent to the principal's office the rest of us went off and, kinetically charged from the altercation, we played our football game. And while it would be impossible to attribute it to that frigid day, I fell ill with a cold that had me bedridden for the next four days—the same four days Dmitri was suspended. When we both returned the following week, I walked up to Dmitri as he was opening his locker.

"I couldn't talk to Steph like that," I said.

Dmitri stared at me. He had a button nose, thin at its bridge and round at the end, and pale blue eyes that contrasted sharply with his black hair. His hair wasn't long and wasn't short, and in the front it was trimmed into a line of inconsistent bangs.

Dmitri also had a thin moustache on his upper lip that appeared to be comprised of the first hair that had ever grown from those follicles. It was as if the ends of those hairs had been present when he was born; there was something ideological in his not shaving them, as if he was saying: "These hairs on my upper lip have picked up the smells and collected the invisible matter and seen everything there was to see from the first fifteen years of my existence, from the inside of my mother's womb to Moscow to Baltimore."

"What'd you say to get him so pissed?" I said.

"I asked him if we should wear gloves for cold," Dmitri said. "Then he asked me what. I told him if he wanted me to, I'd go get us some hand jobs."

I laughed, though Dmitri only cracked a smile. Then, from his locker, he pulled out a pair of stonewashed jeans and a black sweatshirt with the Baltimore Orioles logo on front. The plastic print was cracked, and there was a faint patch of gray on the right shoulder where it had come into contact with bleach at some point in its long life.

The sweatshirt had been mine. My mother had sent it to a synagogue rummage sale. It was so pilly from countless washings that for years I'd only worn it to bed. Before I left for Israel the previous summer my mother had sewn tiny cloth tags with my name into the collars of all my shirts. It had been the cause of a vicious argument between us before I left. Now Dmitri was walking around with that tag inside his shirt. I turned and walked away without saying anything else.

From then on, if I saw Dmitri in the hallway, I would pretend to open a locker and watch him. Mostly he and his friends stood up against the gunmetal lockers looking at their feet, aloof. I overheard his friends call him "Dmitri Abramovitch," which wasn't the last name Stephanopoulos called him in class. The only times Dmitri was away from this group he was with the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Yelizaveta had pumice-black hair and pale white skin, soft and smooth unlike Dmitri's, which was pasty, and he was always composed around her. Like Dmitri, Yelizaveta had only started at Pikesville at the beginning of the previous year. I watched as they kissed on the cheek hello. It seemed there was nothing he could say that wouldn't make her laugh. When she laughed, the chirping sound rang like a clever song.


A few weeks after I started paying Dmitri attention, fall assumed the quiddity of winter. Somehow we still were forced to march outside for gym class each afternoon. Dmitri stepped into his role as scapegoat in our gym class, and I became a restored teacher's pet. Dmitri now did duty fetching lacrosse goals from the equipment closet and collecting sodden towels at the end of class. Stephanopoulos forced him to run laps at the most innocuous offense, while I moved throughout the early winter weeks with utter impunity.

The last week of November brought one final limpid day. There were record highs into the sixties, and it had been an unseasonably dry month. There was dew instead of frost on the grass and the sun came out early, straining a pale yellow through the diffuse scrim of fog. That day, Steph volunteered me to help Dmitri bring out the bag of rubber-laced, imitation-leather footballs.

"Zilber," Stephanopoulos said. "Take Gerson with you and grab the flags and balls from the closet."

"I will not!" Dmitri said.

He said it too loudly, but his face evinced no embarrassment. The whole class hushed.

"I will do it myself," Dmitri said.

Dmitri had caught me looking at him a few times during those past few weeks. Feeling like some strange interloper, I'd always averted my eyes when he saw me. Maybe Dmitri had grown weary of me. While he was gracious enough to keep up a bit of camaraderie, he wasn't without his pride. Stephanopoulos viewed his refusal as undistilled truculence.

"Look who's turned into a real man!" he said. "Why don't you drop your pants and show us who's a man?"

Dmitri smoldered. Again he said, "I will not."

"Now Gerson," Stephanopoulos said, "get over to the damn closet and get a hand on those balls." A snicker rippled through the group. "Dmitri, go with Gerson and the rest of us will see you out on the playing field. Dmitri, two laps when you're done. Gerson, you're running with him."

The boys' locker room was down a short flight of stairs from the rest of the high school. It reeked the cloying reek of teenage sweat. Dmitri walked through it, picked up two huge bags of footballs. He was headed back into the room to grab the flags we would wear to delineate our teams. But then he walked back to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and turned to me so we were face to face.

"I have taken care of it," he said. "You go and grab bags and we take them out."

We walked out to the girls' softball fields, which were confined by a chain-linked fence and circumscribed by a red clay track. Dmitri dropped his bag of footballs. There were hundreds of girls playing on the fields.

"We go down now," Dmitri said. He gave me a look I recognized—an expression of a son looking at his father as he awaits some inarguable line of reasoning he'd be forced to follow. I could have decided against following Dmitri. I had the choice to steer him from trouble.

"We'd better put these bags somewhere in case someone comes," I said. In the short period we had known each other, Dmitri had rarely smiled, but he did now.

"Bring it here," he said. We stashed the bags in the trees next to the football field and stopped at the fence at the bottom of the hill. Dmitri grabbed one of the metal links and let his weight fall back, his chin down against the tops of his hands. In the middle of the track there were two hundred high school girls, all dressed in identical gym uniforms—purple shirts clinging to their bodies, gray nylon shorts swaying off their young hips. The uniforms stole something of their physical disctinctions, leaving them defined instead by their competitive personas, their gaits and speed.

Dmitri walked along the fence, and he called out to Yelizaveta. She stopped and turned. Yelizaveta was five-feet-seven, and her straight black hair fell to the middle of her shoulder blades, tied up at the base of her head with green elastic. She looked at Dmitri and shook her head. She said something that sounded firm but loving. Then she turned to me.

My hands felt like something I'd stolen. My gym shorts had no pockets. I folded my arms across my chest, hands up under my armpits. Yelizaveta cocked her head with no small intimation of coquettishness.

"Hello," she said. She turned to Dmitri. "Who is it you brings?"

Dmitri looked at me as if he was as embarrassed by my hands as I was.

"Samuel from gym class," he said.

"Liza," the squat gym teacher called. "Liza, what have I told you about talking to boys in class?" Then she looked at Dmitri and me. Keeping her gaze locked on him she said, "And just what do you two think you're doing here?"

Yelizaveta called back at her, "Ms. Leonard, is my brother. He tells me something about mother. How I will be going home to school end of day." She turned her eyes to Ms. Leonard with the same sultry confidence she had directed at me just a moment earlier.

"All right then," Ms. Leonard said. "But let's get back on to class, then."

Concentrated afternoon sunlight beamed down on granite rocks as we walked back up the hill. The sounds of girls at their games carried up to us in dithyrambs amid my reverie. We came to the rock where we had stashed the footballs.

"That was quick thinking, Yelizaveta saying you were her brother," I said.

Dmitri knitted his brow.

"Yelizaveta is my sister," he said. "Is not some idea—is just truth. I always tell only truth."

"Oh," I said. "I just had always assumed that she was your girlfriend. I just always thought."

"Yes. It has been impossible not to see you are looking at her. Yelizaveta always thinks everyone is looking at her. Same when you walk by us in hallways. She wants everyone to look at her. She is like me in some ways."

"How do you mean?" I said.

"I am—well, it is what I am," Dmitri said. He paused. He put his hands on his hips. He pushed his shoulder blades closer together like a catapult drawn back to fire. "I am a sensualist," he said. "Do you know what sensualist is? Like in novels of Dostoyevsky." I shook my head. The word made me think of scented massage oils, hairy-chested men from the '70s. We had been assigned Crime and Punishment in sophomore English but I hadn't read it. The cover seemed too dark, the figure on it too bearded.

 "Like in Dostoyevsky!" Dmitri said, as if by saying it louder he might make me admit to having read it. "Like Prince Myshkin or Dmitri Karamazov. I don't care what people think of me. I say what I feel, when I feel it, and do what I like when I like. Also, Dmitri Karamazov is who my father names me after. Sometimes my mother calls me 'Mitya,' though I do not like it if she does it. Is better she calls me Dmitri."

"I don't like it when my father calls me Sammy," I said.

"If you like, as we are friends," Dmitri said, "you can call me by my name with patronymic. Dmitri Abramovitch. Is show of friendship." Then Stephanopoulos' voice hit us like we'd been jolted from a book we were reading together.

"What kind of bullshit horseplay is this!" he said. He was only ten paces from us. "How hard can it be to get a couple of bags of balls?"

"Some of footballs spilled from bag. It has hole in it," Dmitri said.

"Don't bullshit me, boy," Steph said.

"I am not bullshit," Dmitri said. "We are sweating. Have we not been running? We do not want balls spilled all around ground."

"He's not lying," I said. I reached down and flipped the bag over. Though none of the balls came out, the hole was substantial.

"All right, get those bags up and let's get over there and play some football. But first I want three laps." We picked the balls up and headed toward the field while Stephanopoulos stood. "And Zilber, I'm watching you," Steph said. "You slip up, son, I'll be there to put you down."

Dmitri took off ahead of me. He was fast at first, but by the middle of our second lap he slowed, and I caught him inside the first turn. His face was pale. Too many cigarettes to run that much. I felt it too. We both walked for a minute. Steph yelled, "Pick it up! You're not walking those laps. Hup to!"

When we started again I slowed my pace to match Dmitri's. He affected a runner's gait. We ran next to each other. Though I could have run much faster, now we didn't hear from Steph again. I moved my arms as if I was exerting a great force of energy, and Dmitri did the same.

We ran together that way until we were done.