I was sitting alone in a booth at a sweetshop on Fort Street waiting for Mitch. We would usually end up there after all of our home basketball games. I’d been in that place more times that I can remember with teammates, fans and their high school girlfriends, chatting about the game, drinking Coke or Pepsi, having fun, but that afternoon, waiting for someone whom I had not seen for thirteen years, made me feel strange. I had felt alone and out of place; nervous to the point I had wanted to leave.
After all, only forty-eight hours before I had been at the National Hotel in Moscow, checking out for the last time, waiting for a cab to take me and my one piece of luggage to the Sheremetyevo International Airport where I would be flown to Copenhagen and to freedom.
Unquestionably I was home, this was not a dream. I remember hearing my heart pounding in my ears as I glanced around the restaurant, listening to the jukebox playing songs I have never heard before. Young couples were sitting, chatting, eating and laughing. I held back my tears of joy.
Before I had left for the USSR Mitch had always been that “divine voice” of wisdom, praising me when praise was needed, and chastising me – yes, when I was way off the track. That is what friends are for, right? I was so anxious to talk, to share my adventures…and my pain. But could I? One could not wipe clean a slate of despair and fear of that “midnight knock at the door!” that had be written over thirteen years in one night.
Where was Mitch? He had been adamantly opposed to the Armenian Americans repatriating to Soviet Union. “Don’t go,” he had told me. “You’ll regret it,” Mitch had warned. “You’ll never come back – believe me.” His words had chilled my blood then, and they do whenever I recall them.
My heart warmed as Mitch walked through the front door and directly over to the booth where I was, as it does whenever I think about my friend Mitch.
“Damn it, you look good!” I had said, slipping out of the booth to greet him
“You sonofabitch!” he had said.
His words stopped me in my tracks.
He tossed a newspaper on the table and said, “This damn newspaper scooped us. Do you know what that means? We had to rewrite this crap from the AP wire services. When I told my boss that I grew up with the idiot, he blew his stack – he wanted to know why I haven’t got an exclusive.”
I didn’t understand what he was talking about and it must have shown on my face. He stepped back and looked at me, noting that I had acquired a strange accent and was shaking. Mitch realized that I really didn’t understand. He grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks as most Armenians do to show their affections when they meet, and said, “You sonofabitch…we all believed you were dead.”
“They almost got me, Mitch…they almost did…”
“You’re home. You’re safe. And damn it – that’s all that counts.”
We sat, he ordered Coke – or was it Pepsi – took out a cigarette, offered me one and I rejected it.
“You mean those Soviets didn’t get you to smoke?”
“Nope…but I can drink Vodka with the best of them.”
Mitch laughed and then shoved the newspaper he had brought with him to my side of the table. The front page had my high school photo, with a story about my return home. “Self-exiled to the Soviet Union for 13 years, a 32-year-old American was secreted in his Detroit home today…”
I continued to read, “…Mooradian’s father, Paul, barred visitors from the home ….”
I looked up at Mitch. In a calmer voice he explained, ”My editor was pretty pissed off when I told him I knew you, that we grew up together and went to the same high school. His immediate response was, ‘Why the F—don’t we have this story?!’ I told him your father barred all the reporters from talking to you.”
I tried to apologize that he didn’t get a story, but Mitch brushed it aside. He didn’t seem to be irritated.
“O.K. What’s the story – how did you get out?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
I explained that a year before I had been in Moscow with a team I coached and after a game a stranger, who I later discovered was a high-ranking KGB officer, approached me and told me that “they” had decided that I was going to be allowed to return home, to the United States….And here I am.”
“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?!”
“Mitch, believe me, you know I would not lie to you…that’s what happened, and the irony is I had given up believing that I would ever come back.”
Mitch gave me a strange look, “What happened to the others?”
“The elderly – they didn’t last a year. Most couldn’t survive – the bread lines, the lack of almost everything we take for granted – there was no soap, or sugar, or running water or electricity in the apartments. Everything your father has told you and what you read in the papers, was true; my father didn’t have a clue about what was going on behind that Iron Curtain.” I started to share some of my experiences.
But as we continued alarms were going off in my mind, memories of the many interrogations I had withstood in the Soviet Union, signals that warned me I needed to be on guard. But, I had argued with myself, this is Mitch! I was so hungry to keep this deep friendship. Mitch and I had shared so much in our early years. I naively asked, “I hope you’re not going to write all what I told you.”
“If what you are telling me is the truth, why wouldn’t you want this story to get out?”
“Mitch, I came of age in a country where everybody is suspicious of everybody else. They’re vicious – they’re killers – “
“Who are you talking about?”
He looked puzzled.
“That was over there, and you’re here now. You’re safe at home.”
I told him that the agent who handled my case warned me that if ever I became a tool of the capitalists and spread “lies” about the USSR, they would find me because they have friends everywhere.
Mitch repeated that I would be safe here and that our counter-intelligence agencies were considered among the best in the world.
I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I did remind Mitch that the Cheka and Premier Stalin didn’t stop looking for Leon Trotsky after he escaped from Alma Ata, and they eventually caught up with him in Mexico City.
I trusted my friend, I wanted so desperately to believe him.
Read the full “Mitch and Me” series:
Mitch and Me: A Posthumous Tribute to a Childhood Friend
Mitch and Me: The Years of the Great Depression
Mitch and Me: Iconic Moments of Friendship
Mitch and Me: Challenges in a New World
Mitch and Me: Explaining the Inexplicable
Mitch and Me: A Divergence
Mitch and Me: The Final Chapter to an Epic Life
Mitch and Me: The “Contract” is Null & Void