“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
-V. I. Lenin.
“Mr. Ruslan, we’ll be landing soon.”
I looked up at the stewardess and nodded quietly, “Thank you dear.”
She walked down the aisle way as I glanced at the mountain of a man who crammed himself in an already oversized seat. Flying was simple for me, but for Ivan Stanislav, flying was a challenge unto itself. While I watched him shift and grumble under his breath, I was flooded with bygone memories of our travels decades ago, during active competition.
When we traveled, Ivan often enjoyed immersing himself in the words of Lenin, Stalin, and our other great leaders. But today, Ivan stared out the window of the airplane, towards the deserts of Nevada below. Instead, it was I who had the book in my lap, reading the words of our inspirational leaders while Ivan busied himself elsewhere.
I watched him for a moment, before I turned my attention back to my own window and gazed out at the foreign landscape. I hadn’t traveled with Ivan in twenty years. Where had the time gone?
Two decades was a long time and a lot of change. OSW had closed down long ago. Yet, I tried to find solace in the things that remained the same. It looked as if Ivan had emerged from a time capsule. He had lost none of his prodigious muscularity and weight. Ivan was not “jacked” as the children say, not in the way that some have rippling abdominals and bulging muscles aplenty. His arms were enormous and his barrel chest was impressive, but he carried himself like a true man of strength. Ivan was solid and substantial. His build was not the product of vanity, but the product of genetics and steadfast resolve. He never changed the flat top hairstyle, nor did he bother to pluck the gray and white hairs that infested his bedraggled beard. Even down to his clothing, Ivan continued to wear t-shirts, pants, and suspenders. Typically of the crimson and black variety.
I cleared my throat as I read a passage that caught my attention and spoke up, “Ivan Sergeiovich? It is funny how some things become more profound with time, hm?” I turned the book toward him, so he could read the passage:
“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
To my surprise, I realized at that moment that things weren’t all the same with Ivan Stanislav. He instinctively fished a large pair of half rimmed glasses from his pocket and stretched them onto his head to read. He had never needed glasses before. He read the passage, and looked up at me, his brown eyes amplified by the lenses. I was staring.
“What?” He asked. It wasn’t threatening, but it was pointed.
I could not help but just smile, “Nothing, Ivan Sergeiovich.” He turned to look out the window again and failed to remove the glasses.
We had gone our separate ways after we left OSW. I returned to Moscow. Speedy Riggs, our Red Army referee, returned to Cuba. Loyal Communist Party Member Wang and The Two Round Faced Women returned to The People’s Republic of China. As I glanced out the window and looked at the vast array of sand, I thought about how the grains of The Red Army had scattered across the globe. The fates of Riggs, Wang, and The Women were stories for another time. But Ivan? He secluded himself in an apartment in his hometown of Arkhangelsk. Much like his airplane chair, his apartment was a small, uncomfortable space hardly worthy of a man of his stature and importance.
What did he do then?
From what I could tell? Nothing.
When he was younger, the military had hardened Ivan’s political ideology and had brought the two of us together. Just two young communists wishing to make the world a better place. Two comrades from different aspects of society, working together in the name of our great Revolution. It was the essence of the Struggle. Wrestling, however, made Ivan into something even greater than the military man. It made him a hero. Perhaps not to everyone. Many saw him as a villain. But, uncaring to such short sightedness of his detractors, Ivan gave our Motherland relevance when it was viewed as irrelevant. Ivan was able to project his ideological dream with pride on a worldwide stage.Yet, when we were recalled to Russia and left the OSW, Ivan lost that heroic platform. Did he also lose his ability to live his dream?
Perhaps more shocking than newfound relevance, however, was the newfound love that Ivan discovered in OSW. He found the love and admiration of a woman in the most unlikely of places: Trapped in the People’s Republic of the Congo on a forced “vacation,” Ivan had to travel with an energetic, charismatic, and zesty purple haired pixie. He went from being annoyed with her antics to smitten with her heart. Somewhere, despite what Ivan projected towards his enemies, that Tempest of a woman had seen the true honorable man buried beneath the threatening laughter and Red Scares.
Most admirably, Tempest did not try to change Ivan Stanislav. She accepted him for who he was, flaws and all. Shockingly, fans emulated her sentiment. After years of being boo’d out of buildings, people were cheering the “First Couple of OSW” and Ivan Stanislav!
For my part, I first thought Tempest was a detriment to our focus on the task at hand. And yet, Ivan did find happiness. And she was, in many ways, harmless. She defended him. She stood by him. She understood him. As time went on, I stopped trying to dissuade Ivan’s heart, and instead I embraced this unique and beautiful moment in his life. She was not after money. She did not try to manipulate him, or use his strength or presence for her own good. She simply respected him, cared for him, and yes, Tempest loved him. For better or worse.
Eventually, Bear and Pixie went their separate ways in a painful split that caused a wound greater in Ivan than I could have fathomed. I didn’t believe he ever fully recovered and I regretted my initial feelings against Tempest. Because I suspected Ivan missed her.
While trapped in my musings, Ivan looked over from the window, through his glasses frames.
“Why do you stare at me, Alexei Gregorovich?”
“I am not staring, friend, I promise!” I grinned through my words and Ivan lifted a brow, smirked, and exhaled hard enough that I felt it where I sat.
With a start, Ivan realized he had his glasses on. He recoiled with a grimace. Mercifully, I fished into the breast pocket of my own jacket and produced my own new glasses and put them on. I pretended to go back to reading. I didn’t look at him, but his body language relaxed in the periphery. Still, he removed his glasses and pocketed them quickly.
I smiled to myself. We both had changed.
Ivan Stanislav stood triumphant atop the mobile staircase as he exited the airplane. Below him, throngs of PRIME fans and the press clambered behind the makeshift barricades. I watched from the ground as he roared and raised his huge arms over his head. The quiet Ivan in the airplane was gone. The Russian Bear was finding his stride.
I gazed to the other side of the staircase to see the young, twenty-something aide who was assigned to both of us, Maksim, looking down at his phone rather than up at a return that was twenty years in the making. I did my research. This punk’s father was a wealthy Russian businessman, and thus was given the task of “helping” us while we both were in America. Back in the day, that was my job. With his khaki shorts and polo shirt, he looked less like an aide to us and more our golf caddie.
Ivan thudded to the ground next to me and grunted as sweat slid down his face, “Lenin’s balls it is hot.” Neither of us enjoyed the desert.
The press were quick to bombard Ivan, considering these tumultuous times. Their questions flew like bullets.
“Stanislav! Why have you returned?”
“Ivan, your thoughts on the state of the wrestling industry?”
“Mr. Stanislav, do you support the butchering of Ukrainian civilians?”
The Bear bit at that. He turned to the female reporter and growled, “I am so proud of our brave boys who fight against the fascists in the Ukraine. Many hide like wolves in sheep’s clothing and pose as civilians. They are not all innocent. Our special operation is necessary for Russian security and every day brings us one step closer to victory. Your fear mongering and propaganda is laughable!” He laughed as insults started to fly at him from the audience.
“Big man, saying that while taking American dollars from PRIME!” a man yelled.
Ivan rounded on him and roared, “And every dollar goes to the families of our brave Russians fighting against the fascists!”
Another reporter called out a question, “Mr. Stanislav, your feelings on the death of Queen Elizabeth II?”
He answered immediately, “All this talk about an imperialist monarch who represented the subjugation of so many downtrodden people in the world. Why did no one give so much attention to Comrade Gorbachev?”
“Because he was a commie pinko bastard!” came a scream from a man who I was fairly certain was inbred.
We had our own opinions of Gorbachev, not all positive I admit, but still he was a communist and worthy of far more attention than the Imperialist Queen.
Still, in these moments, I saw the Ivan of old: proud, intense, and defiant. He wasn’t quietly looking out a window. He was fighting hard and without reservation. It was euphoric to see. I had waited twenty years for this!
When we managed to break away from the throng, I opened my mouth to speak to Ivan, but Maksim, that young upstart pencil pusher from Moscow, approached Ivan with his phone. “Sir! Great news! You are trending on all your social media channels!”
Ivan was jolted out of his rhythm with the crowd. His confusion was palpable. Maksim might as well have been speaking gibberish.
I interjected, “Maksim, why not go to the bus and make sure all is in order.”
Ivan turned and jawed at the crowd again. Back to comfortable footing.
Our executive style bus housed Ivan in a way that gave him comfort and privacy. The last thing one ever wanted was The Bear to be angry in a confined space. However, the raucous Russian Bear stayed on the airstrip. In the bus, Ivan was quiet once more. He sat in his custom swivel chair and once again peered out the window. I watched my friend and wondered what he was thinking in these moments?
I decided to ask this question and leaned forward to speak when that dumb bastard Maksim slithered to him and, regrettably, spoke. “Mr. Stanislav?”
“Praporschik,” came the reply from Ivan. He didn’t even stop staring out the window.
Maksim blinked, “Pardon?”
Finally, Ivan swiveled in his chair and was eye level with the standing fool. “I am Praporschik Stanislav. That was my rank in army. Surely you knew this?” Great. Ivan was annoyed.
Maksim sputtered stupidly and got to the point, “Uh… with your return to PRIME, uh, Praporschik, we need to give that organization some information. I wanted to make some suggestions.”
Ivan blinked slowly, “You want to give me suggestions?”
Tread carefully, dear pencil pusher.
Maksim was nervous, but stupidly confident in himself. He rubbed the back of his neck, “Well…” then he glanced at me for help, but there was none to be had from this Russian. “I think it is best for you not to give your birth year. We can explain that it’s protected information.”
Ivan tilted his head to the side, “Why?”
The boy sighed, “Well… your age could be seen as a liability. All of your contemporaries from your last run aren’t active. They’re, well, retired. Also, while our national anthem is a fine way to be introduced, some new music with synthesizers and a more pop type of beat might suit you better.”
Ivan pushed his gray/black brows together more but said nothing. He was practically handing the boy his own rope.
“Also, perhaps you can dye your beard to remove the gray and shave your head? Bald is a very common look right now.”
Like a bull exhaling a cloud of smoke through his nostrils, Stanislav’s large shoulders rose and fell as he breathed, “Maksim?”
The boy nodded.
“Your suggestions are denied. Now, get to front of bus, and if you need to return, be sure to bring a coroner with you!” Ivan’s eyes were nuclear.
Ivan may have just invented the teleporter. Because that boy disappeared quicker than the eye could see. “Why do we have these fools here?” Ivan lamented, “Full of stupid ideas.”
That idiot Maksim had insulted Ivan’s age, ideology, and military service! Ivan turned and looked back out the window, quietly, and I could actually hear his teeth grinding together in thought. I decided this might not be the best time to talk.
The moon shone across Ivan’s angular, creased face as the bus drove quietly through the night. Still, he gazed out that window. His grizzled features reflected the moonlight and the hairs of his gray/black beard glittered like obsidian shards stuck in stone. With courage, I decided to talk to him.
“Ivan?” I said softly. He grunted but didn’t look at me. I spoke again, “Why did you stay in your apartment?”
He turned his eyes, and then his head toward me with a frown, “What?”
I repeated firmly, “Why did you stay in the apartment for twenty years?”
For as big of a Russian as he was, Ivan could be quite evasive. At least, verbally, “What does it matter?”
“It matters to me.”
The Russian Bear sighed. He almost bared his teeth in thought and ran his tongue along the inside of his lips. He had been quiet, save for being out on the airstrip, where the old Ivan had exploded against the masses. But now his words gained volume, “Alexei, I come home from OSW and there is nothing for me. I was too old for military because I was non-commissioned officer. I could not go into politics because those bastards have no principles save for gaining more rubles. I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go.”
I didn’t like arguing with Ivan and it rarely happened. Still, I wasn’t letting my stubborn friend off the hook, “So you stayed cloistered in your apartment for twenty years and surrounded yourself with ghosts.”
Ivan nearly sucked the oxygen out of the bus when he inhaled. His broad shoulders and impossibly large barrel chest expanded and he held the air for a moment, “Alexei, no one cared.”
I used the familiar of his name, to at least tell him I was coming from a place of friendship, “Vanya. I cared. Wang cared! The Women cared! Speedy cared!” He winced and his eyes moved to the floor. I continued to batter the Bear, “And regardless of what happened, Tempest still cared.” He shot a look that nearly frightened even me. Then I said what I never thought I would utter, “You were a coward, Ivan.”
His growl was threatening, “Do not call me coward, Alexei Gregorovich.”
The fact that he didn’t use the familiar back to me gave me pause. But he needed to hear this, “Yes, you were.” I said pointedly, “We all missed you.” I allowed that to sink in before speaking once more, though with less volume, “Do you still love her?”
Ivan tried to retreat to the window. He stared through it and nibbled his lip for several moments, and did not look at me, “Tempest is better without me, Alyosha.” He used the familiar of my name. Thank Stalin. His words had pain in them and spoke quietly, “I cannot even remember who said what wrong now. Or was anything even said? Perhaps it was just something that happened?” He pushed his brows together and focused and I realized that he wasn’t looking through the window, but rather at his reflection. Was he staring at himself this entire time? He sighed, “But of course I still love her. How could I not? You can love someone without being… together.” He still stared at himself as he spoke.
I nodded quietly. I almost regretted pushing so hard. Almost. “Vanya, then I am sure she still loves you. In that saccharine, bright, glittery, and tremendously garish way.”
It was a chuckle that turned into a cough that exited my friend’s frame, and he finally looked back at me. “I have always been haunted by the past, Alexei. Our country, our government, Afghanistan, PCW, and OSW.” He shifted in his seat, “A year after I went home, I tried to find footing in world, but it had moved on, Alexei.” He spoke slowly and his words were tired, “What we fought for was irrelevant. It was easier to stay inside with the ghosts.” He drew his large hands together and wrung them.
“Ivan, I reached out to you with offers for work many times and you never took them. Why was this different? What brought you out?”
Ivan’s shoulders sagged, “Those ghosts coalesced into a specter, Alexei.” He glanced upward and to the side, as if searching for it, “The memories became nightmares. The specter told me that all my fears were true. That I was relic from bygone age. That all I fought for and dedicated life for was nothing but footnote in great big book.”
I gave him space, said nothing, and just waited. He finally inhaled and spoke through his exhalation, “But, I don’t want that specter to be right, Alexei. I am worried it is right. I cannot really know until I face it.” Ivan produced a small, sad smile, which turned into a frown rapidly as he rebuilt his walls, “There, are you happy now?” His voice was defensive and angry. I was so close.
I scrambled to tear down the wall he was trying to rebuild, using words so soft it was but a whisper, “Your apartment became a prison, Vanya.” He nodded, “You were brave to finally break out of it and leave the ghosts behind.” I reclined in my chair, “My line of work does not allow me to love, or be loved, much. I know your heart is wounded, Ivan. But those people on the airstrip? The ones who yelled at you? They still hated you, hm? That means they never forgot you.” His brows raised thoughtfully, “Our comrades asked about you for years and they still do.” I inhaled slowly, but I had to go for it, “And… maybe, like you say, it was best that you split from Tempest, but hiding will not heal the hurt, Ivan.” He glanced at me and I spoke sincerely, “She would not want that for you. That would break her heart.”
Ivan nodded and looked thoughtful. I had said my piece and left him something to chew on. We didn’t talk about that subject again. Russians rarely talk about such intimate topics. Actually, we didn’t converse at all the rest of the evening. But Ivan no longer stared at his reflection. Instead, he read Lenin in his lap, like in the old times, with a book comically small compared to his enormous dimensions and with his glasses on. Then, he slept in that custom made, but still uncomfortably small chair of his. I hoped it was a peaceful rest. It would take time for Ivan Stanislav to find his balance in this strange, new world. But the big man had taken an even bigger step.
As I reflected on the events of the day, this reaffirmed several things that I already knew about Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav: He was unstoppable. He was unbeatable. He was indefatigable. And on that night, I, Alexei Gregorovich Ruslan, reaffirmed something about myself that I suspected I always knew: I loved him as a brother always would. I would help him regain his life with as many decades as I could squeeze into each week.