Chess, Guns, And Roses

Chess, Guns, And Roses

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It’s 1985. Somewhere, on the outskirts of beautiful St. Petersburg, Russia, stands tall an apartment building. Somewhere in that building lives an ordinary family – father, mother and a 5-year-old son, Alexander. They call him Sasha, or Sashka. He likes doing most things that every other 5-year-old kid likes – eating ice-cream, playing in the park, watching cartoons … and he likes chess. But tomorrow his life will change forever.

Tomorrow. Sashka’s mom is boiling a huge pot of water to do some laundry (that’s how it was done without the laundry machine during those times). Sasha runs near the stove and something happens. The pot of boiling water covers him head to toe, causing horrific burns.

A few months later. “Are you ready to go outside to see the world, Sasha?” asks Sashka’s mom. “No? Ok, we can stay home longer and play more chess,” she quietly sobs.  She can tell he misses the outside, he misses his friends. But it is not Sashka who is not ready. It is the world that is not ready for Sashka, for half of his face is no longer recognizable. Its skin is now wrinkled and deformed. That half, I’m afraid to say, resembles the face of Freddie Kreuger, from the Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Most of his hair is permanently gone too.

“Show me more chess puzzles, mom, please. I want to stay in my room.” And so, into the chess world, Sasha goes. It is the world where imagination is at its peak and once you are in it, you can forget everything else.

At the age of 6, Sashka had to face the reality and go to that scary place called “school”. It is scary because many children haven’t learned what compassion is. When faced with something un-ordinary, like Sashka’s appearances, they don’t know how to respond. And so sometimes they resort to bullying.

“How was your first day of school, Sasha?” asked mom, even though she already knew it in her heart. Sasha fell into her arms and broke down in tears. “Would you like to play a game of chess?” asked the mother. Sasha nodded. Come into the chess world Sasha. It is safe. It is beautiful. No one will hurt you there.

At the age of 7, Sashka was now called, and widely known, as “Goreliy” (or “burned”). Kids either walk wearily or terrified around him, or they poke fun at him. It took a very long time for everyone to accept his new look, to find the courage to look him in the eyes with a straight face. Stay home and play more chess Sasha. Focus on the beauty of your mind; not your physical appearance.  

At the age of 8, Sashka’s mother suddenly passed away from an illness. There isn’t much more to say. Come back mother. Come back. Who will take Sasha into the chess world now, if it’s not you? How will he stay safe?

Sashka’s father did the best he could to take care of his son. But he had to work long hours. There were no other relatives to get help from. Sashka often found himself wandering around on the streets, by himself.

At the age of 10, Sashka is sitting on a bench, all alone, in the park. He is observing other kids play together. He wants to be a part of that group, but he is not. A mother comes over to pick up her daughter to take her to the chess club. The girl is 6 years old. Off they go. Sashka follows them with a gaze until the two disappear behind the trees.

abandoned toy panda

“What is it like in the chess club?” Sashka asks the little girl the following day. “I wish I could come.” The girl wants to say a million gentle things to Sashka but no words fall off her lips. She is too young, too shy, too insecure, too … intimidated by his look. That little girl is me.

Come, take my hand. I’ll take you to the chess club. You will love it,” she wants to say, but doesn’t. Instead, she freezes. Sashka lowers his eyes and moves on. He misses his mom; their chess games; his ‘old’ life.

At the age of 12, Sashka is finally “accepted” into a new circle of friends. They are local hooligans, consisting of teenagers, smoking cigarettes. They cause no harm to people, but they love to destroy playground equipment, draw on the walls and break all the lightbulbs in the entry hallways of the apartment buildings. Sashka makes a great addition to the gang given his scary looks. After all, that’s how one could cause terror, effortlessly. Don’t join them Sasha! Meet me in the rose garden where the flowers bloom, near the fountain, I will teach you a new chess opening. We can play a game. We can grab some ice-cream. Don’t join them!  

At the age of 14, Sashka’s love for chess is now being replaced with card games and smoking. But, at least, he feels like he belongs somewhere in this world, with his hooligan friends.

At the age of 16, despite being a part of a destructive gang, Sashka still has a good heart. He always had it. He will always have it. He helps a pregnant woman carry heavy groceries. He holds a door open for elderly when they come in and out of the building. He temporarily “adopts” a stray dog, found on the street, until he finds the dog owner. He yearns to play a game of chess. He yearns to see his mom. But there is no one to play chess with. Grab a chess book Sasha, do it alone. And one day you will have people to play against. One day you will have true friends.

At the age of 18, Sashka gets summoned into a local mafia. He’s learning new skills. These skills won’t serve you well Sasha. Come back to the other side … while it’s not too late. Do you want to play a chess game? Shall I meet you at the rose garden? We can grab some ice-cream.

At the age of 20, Sashka finally finds some peace, but not on earth. He gets caught up between the quarrels of two mafias … and takes an accidental bullet to his head.

White light.

Petals of pink and white roses on the ground.

There is nothing left.

Rest in peace Sasha.

This article is about a boy I used to know when I was a little girl. I dedicate it to all the Sashka’s out there, to all the mis-fits, to all the children and teens that get bullied. Know that there are people who are willing to lend a hand. They might be too young, too old, too shy, too oblivious … too late … but they do exist.

giant hand

Today: As a society, I feel like we’ve failed Sashka. And we are still failing many children like him today. Perhaps we cannot take a “Sashka” to a chess club (or any other club for that matter), but what we can do, is teach our children compassion. We can teach them to look beyond physical appearances and find goodness in other people. What we can do, is share stories like this and raise awareness of issues, such as bullying, that should not even exist.

It is small actions like these, that make a big difference in someone else’s life.