The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko


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For Josephine



The following
words were found in a children's hospital in Mazyr, Belarus, by an Irish journalist during the filming of a documentary. They were written on a pile of ragged papers, in a nearly indecipherable script, and stained with various substances ranging from coffee to borscht. A few years later, through a series of serendipitous events, they landed in the hands of an eager NYU graduate student, W. P. Kalish, who consolidated, edited, and typed them up.

The words on those pages were first written by a seventeen-year-old patient named Ivan Isaenko. For reasons that will become clear, Ivan can, and will, do a much better job of telling his story than we can, so we will leave that to him. For now, we only wish to make two points in order to help clarify the context of the story, as well as our role in its publication.

First, like most of the other children living in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, Ivan was undergoing treatment for several medical conditions likely resulting from the catastrophic radiation released into the atmosphere following the explosion of a nuclear reactor near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. While Ivan's exact medical diagnosis is unknown due to a lack of cooperation with the hospital administration, consultations with U.S. doctors suggest that Ivan was born with the connective tissue disorder Beals syndrome, in addition to several other genetic abnormalities.

Second, while we have maintained the integrity of Ivan's original story and writing to the best of our ability, we felt it best to make a few minor changes where necessary. We have corrected errors in Ivan's grammar and spelling in situations where the intended meaning was obvious to us. There were also several instances where Ivan used a word that is unique to the Russian language or whose connotation has no direct translation in modern English. In these cases, we were careful to use the Russian word in the text, but clarify the meaning in a footnote. Occasionally, there were Russian idioms with no direct English translations. In these cases, we simply substituted the closest English idiom in its place or translated the sentence in an alternative way to preserve the meaning.

Before turning you over to Ivan, I would like to share an anecdote. I'm often asked at dinner parties and cocktail hours about the secret life of an editor. By now I have a canned response for this question; I pompously suggest that my job is Godlike. I help create worlds and decide which dreams of men are released into the cosmos to become woven into our collective consciousness. After years of making this comparison, I'm sure some part of me believes it.

Yet every so often a story finds its way to me for which the choice is not mine at all—to not package it, polish it, and let it flutter off into the world in its most honest form would be unforgivable. It would be unforgivable because there are corners of the world where voices cannot be heard; voices so tortured and yet so alive, so singular and yet so familiar, that they beseech the able for a path to hearts and minds.

Ivan's is one of those stories.

—James C. Begley
New York, NY
June 2014



The Count Up


Currently, the clock reads 11:50 in the

It is the second day of December.

The year is 2005.



The Anesthetization of Ivan Isaenko

Dear Reader, whom I do not know, who may never be, I write not for you but for me. I write because I can't sleep. I write because Polina is dead.

Currently, I'm drunk from three capfuls of vodka on a three-day-empty stomach. I have Nurse Natalya to thank for this. She is the only one who knows what I've lost. She is the closest thing I've ever had to a mother, and I know she thinks of me as a son. Like any good mother, she watches over me. For the last two days, she's checked on me every fifteen minutes. She checked on me seven times tonight, and every time I was wide awake. On the eighth time, she discreetly entered my room with a bottle of Stoli.

“Open your mouth, Ivan,” she said. “It'll help you sleep.”

She poured a capful into my mouth, and I coughed and heaved. As she pulled away, I grabbed her arm and asked for another. Hesitantly, she produced another capful and emptied it down my throat.

“One more,” I demanded.

She glanced at me menacingly as if to terrify me from asking again, but nevertheless sympathetically poured one last capful down my throat. Now I feel right. It's not enough to get me to sleep, but it is enough to help me write.

I need to share this place with you, Reader. I need to share my friends who I would never admit were friends. I need to share with you my beloved, whom I would never admit I loved. For if I don't document our world right now, on this ambiguously stained paper, with my fading pen, in my delirious left-handed penmanship, we will risk fading into the foam of history without mention. Reader, I hope after this you understand that we are entitled to more than that.




I'm seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children. I first learned of the name of this hospital—the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children—from spying on random documents lying around the Main Room, but I wouldn't be able to find it on a map if you asked me. I only know it is somewhere in southern Belarus in a city that is most likely called Mazyr.

I've never met my parents, but as far as I know, when I squirmed out of my mother's nether parts, she took one look at the abomination that had been cooking inside of her and dropped it onto the doorstep of the nearest church in fear that she had fallen victim to the Soviet curse that she had heard so much about on the radio. Incidentally, this was the same curse that resulted in the random explosions of horse thyroids and in Eastern European fauna enduring more hair loss than Gorbachev.

I, for one, am hideous, and consequently, I've developed a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces (and anything else that reminds me of what I look like). But I will bravely face this fact for the sake of my story and describe to you what nature dealt me. My body is horribly incomplete. I only have one arm (my left), and the hand attached to the end of it is deficient in digits (I have two fingers and a thumb). The rest of my appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort. My skin is nearly transparent, revealing the intricate tapestry of my underutilized veins. The muscles in my face are only loosely connected to my brain, resulting in a droopy, flat affect, which makes me look like an idiot, especially when I talk. Of all my privations, this one has come as an advantage, since it helps me to feign a comatose state, which has allowed me to remain largely undisturbed by my doctors and peers whenever I'm uninterested in interaction (which is most of the time). Mostly, I choose to leave the hell of my surroundings in favor of the slightly more palatable hell of my mind. At least there I can create fantasies of the lives I'd rather have lived, such as King Leonidas, the Dalai Lama, Miles Davis, Oskar Schindler, Wilt Chamberlain, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, Larry Flynt (pre-wheelchair), any Russian who's ever written a book, and Confucius, to name just a few.



The Day I Came Online

Not many people have the luxury of recalling their first memory. I know this because I've asked Nurse Natalya, Ridick, and my eleventh therapist, Dr. Dubov, but none of them can remember. My first memory, however, is like glass—I came online with a swift slap across the face, which resulted in at least one tooth flying across the room, which I never found. I was four years old, so luckily it would grow back. Before that, there was nothing. Not even blackness. Just nothing. Nothing and blackness are different. Most people don't understand. I, for one, prefer nothing over blackness.

“Take them, Ivan! Take them now!” she hollered while squeezing my cheeks so hard my mouth popped open like an origami change purse. Into it she tossed a few white Soviet-mandated pills, which I spit back into her face.

“Ivan, you little
hui morzhovy
Take your medicine!”

Apparently, I was a menace even before I was old enough to choose to be one. I don't remember what kind of pills she was trying to feed me or why I resisted (it was my first memory). I only remember the look on the face of the nurse, which spoke so many things.

It said, “I hate menstruating.”

It said, “I've come to hate other things too, but I can't draw a line between what I really hate and you.”

It said, “What the
is the meaning of all this?”

It said, “I wasn't born this way.”

It said other things too, but you probably get the point.

I hated that nurse. In my opinion, no one with all her parts in all the right places deserves to have any of those thoughts. Before I even got to know her name (I nicknamed her
after the hairy mole on her upper lip), she died after falling off the hospital roof in near-hurricane-like weather during a smoke break.



Coma Boy

Most of what I know about the world outside of these walls comes from the images that flicker across the antique black-and-white TV mounted in the Main Room. However, when I'm not watching TV or gazing through the barred windows scattered throughout the institution, my favorite pastime is to act catatonic and eavesdrop on conversations among nurses and doctors. This feigned obliviousness disarms the adults into lengthy streams of uncensored talk; it's the only way I can get accurate news and information. Anything they speak directly to us or around us is either nonsensical baby talk or lies crafted for the purpose of making things appear better than they really are. Despite the smallness of my world, I'm able to mix my observations with a bit of imagination into compelling story lines in which I star. I will play anything from the hero to the villain, but at no time am I the observer, because that is what I already am, every minute of every day. I appreciate the freedom; I learned a long time ago that there are no consequences to the things that happen inside my mind.

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