John was sitting at his table at the café trying desperately to hear the conversation between the two girls at the table behind him even though he was supposed to be concentrating on his translation. One of the girls was this classic radiant Russian blonde, the kind with pale skin and mysteriously dark eyes who would fade when she hit twenty-five or twenty-six but for now she was young and was wearing this black turtleneck that beautifully cupped her c-cup breasts. The other was a redhead with a tan, and had a short, funky haircut, and squarish, funky glasses. The blonde likes the redhead because she knows how to improvise and have a good time, and she introduces her to new music and different kinds of guys who wear leather and know where Bristol is, John decided. The redhead likes the blonde because she elevates her league, and all kinds of businessmen buy the pair of them drinks at expensive bars and she can always have a fun time of it and order the expensive snacks and not have to pay for her cab.
Besides inventing backstories for the two girls, John was translating the subtitles for a Russian TV show he had never heard of a week before. And while he was supposed to turn it in that night, and he was pretty sure this was one of those real deadlines, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the redhead was the just the kind of funky girl who might start up a conversation with an interesting-looking foreigner in a café.
This was why he was leaning back a little in the creaky wooden and wicker chair, trying to exert a mysteriously intense expression onto his face and half-turning it towards the girls. This was also why he eventually decided to go up to the counter and get some more coffee and maybe a salad: by the time he returned, god willing, the two of them might just be gone and he could finally do his work. Or maybe they would be impressed by his athletic build and follow him up to the counter and ask him if he liked the Russian girls.
John knew the girl at the register – that is, she had served him many times before. She was short, with badly dyed blonde hair that fell in streams and tumbles around her neck, and he was reasonably sure her name was Olya. He smiled and ordered a double espresso.
“Would you like the salad with that?” she asked with a smile in her eyes and what John thought might just have been a blush.
“Actually, yes, that sounds good. Tuna, please.” And he dug in his pocket for exact change.
“I know which kind you want. No tomatoes, right?” And she smiled with her mouth now, which made her cheeks round and had the misfortune of exposing a little of the teeth. Almost like rubber bouncy balls her cheeks are, thought John. And the more he thought about it, the more sure he was that her name was Olya.
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” he said and put him money on the table. By this point John was reasonable sure the two girls wouldn’t be following him up to the counter, so he sighed. He really hoped they’d at least have the decency to be gone when he got back to his table.
“You know it’s my birthday today,” she said as she scooped up the 112 rubles.
“Oh, happy birthday,” he said a little abstractly.
“Super,” he added with a little more conviction.
“Thank you. Would you like some champagne?”
Long ago he had realized that, no matter how much Russian you learn, there are some times when you jut have no idea what the hell is going on. “Sorry?” he said, trying not to make eye contact with her teeth.
“Would you like some champagne?”
John paused another few seconds to run the exchange through his brain another few times. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“Okay,” she said, setting his coffee on a stone-green saucer and giving him a little more smile than he deserved. “We’re sitting in the back corner.”
She moved to help the next guy in line and John hid his confusion by trying to find a stir stick. He grappled for a few seconds with the act ploy of pretending to answer his phone and then shout, “What, an emergency?! Which hospital?!” and then run out the door. But his phone was in his backpack. So he was stuck with the inexplicable champagne.
“The sugar is right behind the napkins, and I’ll be right back there to join you, with your salad,” said Olya between pauses in the next man’s order.
The man seemed to take her interruptions in stride and only added at the end in the meekest, calmest tone imaginable, “And no carrots or I will kill myself.”
John walked back to his table carefully balancing the coffee cup on the stone-green saucer. The two girls were still sitting there, John thought with a pang of regret, and he was almost positive the blonde was staring at him as he gathered up his translation papers. At least I have an excuse to disengage myself from this party, or whatever it is, he thought as he walked to the back part of the café, and it’s really too bad I run the risk of alienating the only non-terrible café in walking distance from my apartment. That is, if I don’t somehow follow this through. He decided he’d be nice and friendly for twenty minutes and then go home and finish the translation in his kitchen. Have a shower, open a beer…. So just be good and friendly and helplessly foreign, he thought, and then you won’t have to find another café, and he looked outside as he disentangled his messenger bag from one of the wicker chairs.
It was an amazing Moscow winter’s day – dazzlingly bright, the snow and dirt packed hard under foot, where you can see your breath long after you breathe it out. It almost has a physical presence, this dazzling freeze. And somehow the exhaust from the cars and the factories in the distance is all compressed by the frost and suspended in tight, twirling tendrils.
He walked through to the dark, smoky part of the café and eyed the table he assumed had to be his. There were three girls, none nearly as interesting as the blonde or the redhead, one skinny guy who looked like someone John had known and hated in high school but had to pretend to like because all of the girls he knew were really into his “intensity,” and three bunches of roses.
The problem was, Olya wasn’t there to introduce him. And when you added that to the fact that he wasn’t even sure that was her name in the first place, well, it added up to quite an awkward approach. John walked up hopefully with a little smile on his face hoping someone from the group would look up and invite him over. Olya, or whatever her name was, might have told them he’d come over, after all.
But instead he found himself standing at the edge of the rectangular table for a good ten seconds before one of the girls looked up. She was fat, with rubbery cheeks and bland brown eyes, and she didn’t look inquisitive or challenging or even remotely curious. She simply looked up, and then looked back at the hipster girl sitting next to her with a cool hat flipped up at a jaunty angle and bad skin.
John felt such a wave of pain at his ridiculous position that he was a few seconds from bailing completely and going out into the fresh and cold city air to find another place where he could work and order double espresso and hold the tomatoes on tuna salads when the skinny guy said, not fully looking up at John, “So, you here for the birthday party?”
John made his best non-verbal indication that he was.
“Well, there isn’t any birthday party here!” the skinny guy announced triumphantly and just as “intensely” as that guy in high school would have.
The fat girl started a rumbling, fat-girl laugh and the skinny guy waited a few seconds like a real profession before he joined in. Bad to laugh at your own jokes, someone must have once told him.
“Yes, well,” and now John was really close to begging some excuse, any excuse, a sick Ambassador or whatever, when the hipster girl pointed to the empty chair next to her.
“Hey, man, this chair is free,” she said in English through a smack of gum.
As John moved over to the other side of the table he had time to notice this girl wasn’t really a hipster – with her overly distressed jeans, shiny-red “crazy” shoes, and ironic hat it was like she had just seen a picture in a magazine. And not a particularly cool magazine, at that. All that was missing was a hemp necklace or a hilarious screened t-shirt.
After three minutes or so of not saying a word and not feeling particularly compelled to, John decided he would plead an engagement and get out of this fiasco. Sure it would look a little strange, but he had put in the effort, and Olya would still be obligated to bring him his tuna salad and coffee every other day. She was the one who hadn’t shown up to her own party yet.
But this was not to be John’s day in terms of timing.
He was jerked out of his deliberation on which Russian phrase would be the best to indicate that he really had to run because of important business by a resounding cheer of “Happy Birthday!” Olya sat down next to him and smiled a huge, fake-embarrassed smile, and looked down the two short rows of her friends. John had never noticed how yellow her teeth were until this very moment.
Dima, the skinny guy, had the courtesy of translating the Happy Birthday into English for John, and give a bit of a sneerish smile to the hipster girl who mostly held her face in an aloof one-eyebrow-cocked attitude.
John thanked him for the kindness to which Dima responded with a request for a high five. When John gave it the fat girl squealed with glee and John was suddenly struck by the horrifying vision of these people adopting him for one of their own and then coming in here every single day, like that café in Friends, and somehow he’d end up coming in and telling them about what was new for him and what his problems were and he would get so used to the fat girl squealing he soon wouldn’t even really notice it.
And they could talk about who they were dating and who they liked and which of tem was pregnant…
Olya, he realized, had her hand on his arm. Maybe not her entire hand, but at least a few fingertips. He vaguely wondered if he had a fever.
Now how to get out of it? Be nice and friendly, he told himself again. Twenty minutes. So start the countdown.
But she has her fingertips on my arm.
I don’t give a fuck. Just be nice and foreign and confused and everything will be fine, I swear.
The hipster had just asked him something.
“Why did you decide to come and live in Russia?” she repeated to the puzzlement on his furrowed brow.
“Because of the secure political climate,” John responded without hesitation.
“But John,” Dima said with a frown, “Russia is not at all a secure political climate.”
And that bit had gone so well with his journalist friends.
“Well then I’m here for the Soviet nostalgia, I love statues of soldiers and tanks,” he rallied together, but that one didn’t go very well either and he thought he noticed another of Olya’s fingers on his arm.
It was at this exact moment, with Dima frowning, the fat girl saying something about how it seemed no country was really stable any more, what with terrorism, and how she couldn’t even remember the Soviet Union that well, the hipster girl and Dima exchanging some strange look that John elected was best to pretend not to have noticed, when a brilliant scheme came to him.
“Let’s sing!” he said and raised his hands up to a slight clap. It’s okay, John, you’re the foreign guy, they’ll tell people they met this weird American and it won’t be anything about you because they’ll just chalk it up to your general foreignness and in no time we’ll be back home and finishing that fucking translation and we’ll check the personal ads site for an hour or two and then masturbate or something and then sleep and it’ll all be fine I swear and you can watch DVDs in bed all day tomorrow just survive a little more of this.
“Ha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ppy birthday to you!” he started.
And his calculations were correct. They all joined in, especially Dima and the fat girl and the skinny pale girl in glasses at the very distant end of the table that John only just then noticed again, and sang. And, by the end of the song, not only had John broken the body contact with Olya from the enthusiastic nature of his vigorous clapping, but he had also learned that Olya was actually a Yulia.
Now that the pale skinny girl in glasses at the far end of the table had returned into his field of vision, it was like she had to take away the show. She pulled three bottles of Soviet champagne out of her bag and started telling a vague story about some “young men” and a parking lot and paper cups that John didn’t entirely understand but he laughed along on cue and felt like he was sweating a little. These boys in the park, it seemed, wanted them to drink something… and then it all went to hell.
Not too much longer now, he thought to himself as he drank some of the champagne out of a, ha ha, paper cup, and he was trying his best to pretend he didn’t notice Yulia smiling at him by paying strenuous attention to Dima. He was telling a story about his mother.
“Interesting,” John said so that no one would think he had fallen asleep.
“And so she never sleeps any more!” was the only bit he caught out of the triumphant conclusion. By this time the hipster girl had moved over to be next to Dime so the chair directly to John’s left was free. It would make the perfect getaway; no one would even have to move. The smoke was also getting to his head and he getting a headache from that as well as from the stupid half-smile he had stuck to his jaw like cheap paste and he remembered just how bright and crisp it had looked outside. Soon now, John.
“And how do you like Moscow?” the pale skinny girl at the end asked.
“It’s great. Casinos, expensive sushi, traffic, really my kind of place.”
“You like sushi?” asked the fat girl with her head slightly cocked.
Dima and the hipster’s eyes went up at the same moment and so John looked over his left shoulder to meet the gaze of a thick-set 30-year old with a fleshy red face and short brown hair, walking over to their table. He was looking intently at John.
“Hello,” he said, now staring at John right in the eyes. It’s good no little children walked out in his path, thought John, because he wouldn’t have noticed them at all and bashed their little heads in. The way the guy’s heavy frame came down onto the chair he ended up extremely close to John. The big guy’s knee was right in the sweet spot of John’s left thigh. Some weird outdated protection instinct send an odd thrill though John’s hips and genitals, and he was very aware of the smoke again. And also that he was too sober for whatever this was.
“Hello,” said John, feeling like he was about to cough and wondering why Dima was watching his so closely from the other side of the table. He smiled and raised his right hand out.
The new fattish guy slowly raised his own hand, looked at Yulia, looked at John, looked at Yulia, looked at John, and then shook John’s hand.
The man then looked hard at Yulia, Dima was looking hard at John, and John noticed that Yulia wasn’t making any body contact anymore. Suddenly it all made sense and John, realizing with a sinking heart he couldn’t very well leave any time soon, and that the day had somehow managed to become even more awkward, took a long drink of champagne. I’m too sensitive for this, he thought and thought again.
“Where’s your drink?” John asked the big guy with a casual jocularity that surprised even himself.
“I don’t have a drink yet,” said the guy still looking at Yulia. Oh, silly me, John wanted to say, but now certainly wasn’t the time for American sass. The guy stank of old sweat and something else that was unnerving because John just couldn’t quite place it as an odor.
“Grisha, this is Johann, he comes to the café all the time.”
“All the time…” repeated Grisha, and he looked around the table slowly enough to see if someone was having a good old laugh at his expense or maybe for a hidden camera. I may be a cuckold, John thought he read in his eyes, but I’m a violent enough cuckold.
That’s ridiculous, though John, how can he be suspicious of anything, these have to be all of their friends, and there’s no way even Yulia would have a public affair. In front of her friends. He can’t possibly think I’m trying to sleep with her, right?
“Where’s Svetochka?” Yulia asked between sips of champagne.
“She’s taking a nap after she watched some cartoons with your mom.”
Oh sweet Jesus, thought John. And he realized it was clearly too late to offer the big guy his own chair – that would look nervous, and John certainly didn’t want look nervous. After all, he could be excused from not giving up his chair when Grisha first came in – how the hell was John supposed to have known this fat guy was her husband after all? Or did it look worse that now he was blocking him off from his wife? Shit. Just the awareness that someone was watching to see if he was nervous made him feel more nervous, and he managed to spill some champagne on the front of his shirt.
If only I was fucking his wife, he thought, I’m sure I’d be acting much cooler than I am right now.
Yulia was telling them all some story about “the baby” when John started paying attention again after wiping down the front of his shirt. He could still feel Grisha’s knee on his thigh and the smoke in his skull and the smile on his jaw and what he though was one of Yulia’s fingertips on his arm.
God, he suddenly thought, I hope I’m not supposed to be Yulia’s birthday present.
Shut up, you’re acting drunk and not making any sense.
Well then I’ll just have to drink more then. He remember something someone had once told him at a party, that good alcohol hits you behind the ears and bad alcohol hits you behind the eyes. These drinks felt right behind the eyelids.
Things we becoming increasingly chaotic around the table.
There was a wave of heat and pleasant light and John was vaguely aware that he was telling a story himself. It was an old story, one he could tell on auto-pilot, and the table was giving him polite attention. It was about this one time when he had been kicked off a train in Belarus, but, he realized, like he was just a spectator himself, he was telling it all wrong and getting the details all jumbled up. But still, everyone was quite polite, almost as if they hadn’t expected him to make any sense in the first place.
A few minutes later he had Grisha’s arm around his shoulder and was searching for another cup. Grisha had procured a bottle of vodka, really cheap-looking stuff, needles into the pupil, and had told John that they would drink it. Like an order. Yes, John thought, no way out of this. I will somehow get home and the translation will somehow get done and I will at some time be far, far away from this place in my bed with a book or watching a movie or lazily making coffee and looking out the window and down onto the tin roofs and this moment of excruciating awkwardness will all be a distant memory and you’ll never exactly remember how bunched up the muscles in your neck were and at least I can snuff out some of the tension with a dose of bad vodka and I’m sure I won’t care that much about my derailed stories or anything else at this table then.
The first and the second shots made his stomach feel unsettled and a little burning and grinding but the third and fourth went down smooth like sparkling water on a hot day. The pale skinny girl was sitting directly opposite him and drinking vodka, too, while the others drank champagne and the former told John that she really loved reading Dreiser. You know, Theodore Dreiser. How can you not know your famous American Theodore Dreiser?
He was also floating enough to take pride in the fact that he wasn’t listening to a word Dima was saying.
At one point one of the other waitresses brought John his tuna salad, it must have been at least two hours after he had ordered it, and while he hungrily ate it she had a little champagne, too, and Grisha still had his arm around John and was playing with Yulia’s shoulder every once in a while, and John could swear she was doing something with her foot.
The smoke was gone at this point, as was the tension in his jaw and the bile in his stomach. They sang a few more songs until John abruptly stopped them.
“I just had an idea,” said John with his pointer finger unsteadily up.
“You did?” said Dima, and the fat girl laughed again.
“Yes,” said John, and then he took his time in continuing: “I still come to Moscow because it throws me off. You see, when I went to London, I could see Dickens and Conan-Doyle and Walter Scott. Seriously, I could somehow feel that presence. When I went to Paris I could see Baudelaire and Camus and Hugo. Even in China I swear I could notice Lao Tsu – just… something Tsu-ish about it all. And the first time I came to Russia I had a lot of expectations.”
“Like what!” shouted Dima, laughing.
“I,” said John, ignoring him, “When I came to Russia I couldn’t see Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or even Chekhov. And I just can’t see it anywhere and so I guess… I’m here until I figure it out.” He leaned back and let the room swirl a little. “Does that make any sense?”
There was a pause at the table. The fat girl looked from one face to the next, trying to figure out how exactly to react but she had to wait until someone else committed themselves. Dima was the one to finally break the silence.
“But Chekhov died over a hundred years ago.”
“No, that’s really not what I meant, I meant…” but instead he trailed off and poured himself and the others another shot. The conversation quickly turned to something else and John sat quietly, feeling hot and embarrassed even though he had said the most honest thing he had ever said in his life, he was sure, and the conversations started washing over him again. He could tell they would all start singing and the possibilities of the night spun off through the smoke and fumes of alcohol and out onto the streets that must be dark by now; he imagined a cab ride to some apartment and then fighting Dima and Grisha in some hallway and smashing Dima’s spectacles against a railing and then pulling all four girls into a converted sofa sleeper and the fat girl would be awkwardly rolling around with her laugh and the skinny girl would blink, pale in the light and Yulia was be moaning “nyet, nyet, nyet” and the music would be loud but instead he found himself on his feet and passing through the café door.
It was dark outside, and sharply cold. The café door clattered on its hinges and stuck in place behind him. There was no moon, so the trails of snowy pavement wove off into the gloom like sleepwalking ghosts. John walked quickly towards his apartment, hands in his coat pocket, trying to remember what he had to do the next day. He would get home and shower. Then he’d drink a ton of water. Tomorrow he would call his editor and tell him the translation would just have to be a day late. All twenty minutes of the walk he tried his best not to close his eyes, and imagined Yulia watching him down every street.