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January 19, 2021 Fiction


LJ Pemberton

Moskva photo

It was one a.m., Moscow time, which meant five p.m. in New York. None of us were thinking about New York though. We were thinking about how our feet hurt in these stiletto boots and how goddamn cold it was, and whether we would be pretty enough to get in the door. We’d read in a tour book that the Moscow clubs had shoe and face policies, which meant your shoes had to be killer and your face had to be hot, and so we put on our sluttiest best and prayed our American-accented Russian would make us seem exotic—the kind of bar candy that anyone would want in 2003, even in a Cold War bomb shelter cum dance club, even on a Friday night. The guy at the door was dressed in all black—black cowboy hat, black vest, black shirt, tight black jeans, black belt, black cowboy boots, with silver accents where a straight American white guy wouldn’t dare—a draping wallet chain, an embellished buckle, his front tooth. He leered at Anna when she approached ahead of us. The alley was dark but I caught a flash from his tooth in the doorlight after she bumped into him chest first. Izvinichye, she smiled. He waived her by and she turned to hurry us on, the ragtag stragglers, slamming our heels like ice picks along the frozen and icy road.  We were dumbass college students playing hooky from good sleep for a chance at—I don’t think we knew. We believed two things absolutely: that surely Russia was different than America and that our youth would protect us. We weren’t wrong, exactly, on either count, but we had no justification for our faith.  

I’m just going to say da to everything, said Mel, as we finally arrived and the man in black muttered something in Russian that none of us understood. Da! she said, da! and he sneered and waved us in and turned to block the way of the locals who had arrived behind us. The way in was a door and then a staircase that became a ramp. The walls were close and the only light was a periodic and soft green that filled the darkness in plump and overlapping circles of illumination. Like all of Moscow in winter, it was HOT. Stifling and humid from the citywide boilers. We pretended we weren’t scared. At the bottom of the ramp was a small foyer with a coat check, and we peeled ourselves down to our nearly naked dresses and took our tokens and stumbled further into the complex. A door, two, three—restrooms, we surmised—and then to the left: a small bar, packed from ledge to wall, and to the right, a dance room, where the music—unheard from above—was a deafening electronica with a sure beat as regular as a heart.

I want absinthe! I screamed at Anna, who was more fluent than any of us, and she pushed her way through the young and bored bar crowd with the startling and hateful surety she had learned from her immigrant mother in Sheepshead Bay. She returned to our huddled group with five drinks balanced in her hands. We drank in the strange and tight underground with the reverence of supplicants before the iconostasis. Things like the iconostasis and the Revolution were now things we knew about because we were here to see the artifacts of the literature and history and theology we had studied. The day before we had stood in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, rebuilt on its original site—where a public swimming pool had, for decades, replaced it in the Soviet Era—and listened to our guide gesture at the icons with careful slander: how Italianate they were, how unlike the divine vision of Rublev. What is lost cannot be replaced!, he said, lamenting the destruction of the original building under Stalin, and we nodded, just as we had nodded at Fallen Monument Park, staring at statues of Lenin, when a different guide had said in serious and stilted English: the past is broken. 

Mel finished her drink first and lunged into the dance room, gyrating with abandon beneath the periodic strobe and lazer spotlights. A Russian boy—or man, they all looked so young—joined her and they communicated with their eyes and bodies, no words necessary. Lust as inertia; muteness as perfection. By two-thirty they were making out against the wall by the restroom doors, pressing harder against each other every time someone passed. Of course, said Anna, with her usual jadedness—because of course Mel danced and met someone first, of course she was sloppy with a stranger, of course she was better than any of us at enjoying herself, come what may. The others, Sarah, Ellie, and Jenn, had stationed themselves in the bar room, practicing their Russian in scream articulation with a bemused and attentive coterie of bookish-looking young men. Anna and I hung back in the hub, still sipping our absinthe as though we had had absinthe before and pretending that nothing about the night was new.

My mother always said Moscow was such a shithole, said Anna, and I said, this isn’t so bad though? and she said it was probably different in 1975, and I said, no doubt. We didn’t have any profound insight to deliberate over. Conversation was hard in the noise and there was little we could offer by way of comparison. The few Russians we had met seemed to think of Communism as this strange and short blip in their history—what comprised the totality of most of America’s understanding of the country was barely worthy of their judgement. Less than a century, said one older merchant woman, you Americans have no sense of time. Meanwhile, to emigrants like Anna’s mother, Russia had become frozen by memory, stuck in those decades when the Soviets were America’s greatest enemy. What we had found on our trip was a combination of the past and present existing simultaneously; high rise edifices topped by statuettes glorifying Bolshevik workers stood alongside Imperial architecture stood alongside new 24 hour grocery stores and nightclubs full of coke-addicted oil barons. Store windows offered consumption, but the cultural take-over of the market was less complete than at home. Name brands and luxury goods were novelties, and like all novelties, they offered only a temporary diversion from the long slog of living—a truth we Americans seem to have forgotten before we were born.

You feel anything? I screamed over the music as we bottomed out and Anna screamed, nothing! And I said we should drink more—and she said she would be back. I wasn’t a club kid in New York, even though I had been in New York clubs on rare occasions—dragged there by more social friends—and so I had no script for how to behave. I bobbed my head. I avoided eye contact with anyone. Anna came back with a bottle of vodka and laughed at me when I raised my eyebrows at her. She handed it to me and I threw it back like a professional alcoholic and soon the floor was swaying and she was laughing and we were both grooving on the dance floor like surfers finally catching a wave. Who knows what time it was? We danced and twirled and shimmied. The music was more German diskotek than House or London dub and there were no steps to follow and no one knew us and we had given in to easy oblivion and pure dilated feeling and then Jenn came up, right in my face, angry—we have to go! she screamed—and she grabbed Anna too and dragged us through the hall where Ellie and Sarah were extracting Mel from her temporary lover and then there were dropped roubles on the floor and then wadded roubles stuffed into the tiny hand of the coat check attendant and we were pulling on our coats and wrapping scarves around our necks as we stumbled into the cold February morning, still before sunlight, and Ellie was PISSED. They fucking asked if the color rubs off, she said, referring to the dumb utterances of the boys down below, and Sarah said they only said stuff like that because they had never seen a black person before, and Ellie said what the fuck? are you making excuses for them? And Mel went immediately to Ellie and laced her arm into her side and said I love you and I’m glad we left.

We closed our coats more carefully and pulled up the edges of our scarves to shield our ears from the intense and truthful wind. I was still drunk and I was grateful because I didn’t want to feel my feet or understand how cold I actually was. Somehow, we had to make it back to the Rossiya in time for breakfast lest we be considered unaccounted for and lost. Anna saw a pod of parked cars at the end of a wide median and ran up to get us cabs. She came back and said they were asking more than market rate because we were tourists but she didn’t give a fuck and maybe it was time to call it a night. Sarah said she wasn’t done—how often am I in Moscow, anyway? she said—and so after yelling and some apologies and a few drunken offerings of love, we decided (at last) to hit up one more club. The winner was a multilevel behemoth complete with different genre dance rooms, a bowling alley, and randomly placed stripper platforms. Topless, neon-thong-wearing young women walked around offering lap dances to seated patrons at tables with bottle service. Black light gave our own club dresses a hyperglow in the muted darkness. We were surprised when one of the nearly naked strippers grabbed a man’s hands and put them on her chest. No ‘no hands’ rules here.

Feeling protective of Ellie after her encounter at the underground, we slipped into a bitchy and suspicious intolerance of everyone around us. Anna volunteered as our drink liaison again and Sarah, Mel, and I listened attentively as she ordered us a bottle with beer chasers to split. Our cruel disinterest gave us a new camouflage—many men who attempted conversations as we drank together were surprised to find out we weren’t Russian. None of us wanted to bowl and the heady drunkenness of the previous stop had broken into an uneasy, tired alertness. A stripper came by. She was petite and beautiful and her puffy nipples were nearly invisible in the black glow. It didn’t seem fair to think so, but I wished for a moment we could know her, and then I reminded myself that’s the rub—all the smiles, all the interest, is feigned—it’s all part of the uniform for the gig. After Anna told her no dances, she moved on, and another young man approached, sitting in the booth before even speaking.

They said you’re Americans, he said, in a competent but foreign English accent, and we said we were, and he nodded and sipped from the metal cup in his hand. How do you know English?, asked Sarah, and he said his mother defected from England before he was born, and we laughed and said no, really, and he said she wasn’t as famous as the Cambridge Five, but most people don’t know how many Brits and Germans and Americans actually chose Russia. Fair, I said, and he introduced himself as Ivan, and we went around and were equal parts drunk, tired, and interested, making small talk, asking what Moscow was like in summer. Anna was watching him and sipping with suspicion or lust—they looked so similar at this hour—and then suddenly she pushed her drink aside and handed her purse to Jenn and stood beside the table, towering over him. Tants—, she started, and he interrupted: da.

They left us for another room.

We settled into conversation, mostly sure that the other people around us couldn’t understand what we were saying, not that it mattered. What’s the itinerary tomorrow? asked Sarah, and Ellie said, SLEEP, and Jenn said, I think we’re supposed to tour the Armoury at the Kremlin?, and I said fuck, I’ll have to live on Nescafé—we had seen no other coffee, anywhere—and then Ellie said what we were all thinking: you know she’s going to bring him back with her. We knew she meant to the Rossiya—not New York—and Jenn said she wished she had that kind of gumption. It helps to be fluent, I said, and she said sure, but Mel wasn’t and she still did what she wanted, and Mel perked up at the sound of her name and leaned forward. Jenn, she said, almost slurring, I get hurt as much as I have fun, she said. It’s all down to cost/benefit analysis, said Ellie, and Jenn said just once she’d like to know what it felt like to not be afraid.

Yeah, I’ll drink to that, said Mel, and we all bottomed up what was left in our glasses before topping off again. Our heads were swimming. Jesus, I think I’m fluent enough to order bottled water, said Jenn, and waved the attention of the server. It was so loud. I sipped the water and moved as little as possible to avoid feeling as drunk as I was. Looking towards the back booth of our room, I watched two middle aged men getting simultaneous lap dances from two nubile young women probably the same age as us, maybe younger. It was hard to tell. All the Russian women we had seen were young or babushka. There was no in between. They gyrated over the men, who ran their hands up and down the sides of the women’s bodies. The men slipped roubles and American dollars and euros into the strings of the women’s bright bikini bottoms. When the song ended, the women dismounted as if from horses, and walked away, gathering their bills together and counting, before disappearing into a back room. After they were gone, the men drank and reenacted what had just happened in pantomime next to each other, moving their hands in the empty air to recreate the excitement—share the joy of consumption. They laughed and smoked. They reminded me of men in New York. 

Anna came back more sober than any of us. Shaking your ass will do that. Let’s go, she said, and we gave her cash to pay up at the bar. Ivan, her new personal attaché, joined her, and we saw both of them yelling at the bartender when he tried to overcharge us. We re-costumed for the cold and emerged with the first hint of morning, like a threat, on the horizon. Anna and Ivan procured cabs for us and we packed in tight and quiet, watching the city become the domain of bread delivery trucks and street vendors. At the hotel, we stumbled in smelling of booze and sweat and cigarettes. Ellie asked if she could stay in me and Sarah’s room for the day because she knew Anna was going to want some privacy. I said sure, and she came up with us. Jenn and Mel traipsed off to crash. I showered first, laid down for half an hour, and then put on new clothes. I looked like hell but I didn’t want to miss the tour.

Mel showed up at breakfast too. We picked through the room temperature meats and cheese and pickles. Avoided the room temperature juice. Nescafé, Nescafé, Nescafé. Some bread. Okay now some cheese. The alumni on the trip were chipper and rested and attempting small talk with us between knowing glances. We told the group leader that our absent friends were accounted for and then retreated like vampires to the darkest corner we could find. Willed ourselves sober. On the tour bus we crashed, only to be roused awake five minutes later as the tour guide announced we had arrived. The museum was just on the other side of Red Square. Hell, said Mel, joining me off the bus. Indeed.  

In the Armoury, our group was incohesive, breaking off into twos and threes to peek at the displays. The museum was full of national treasures and royal gifts from the pre-Bolshevik era. German silver from the 1700s. Full suits of armor. A carriage, with mica windows, that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. Next to it sat a miniature carriage, sized for the royal children. How novel. The tour guide wrangled everyone back together at the Fabergé egg display. He was speaking, something about Easter gifts—I was barely awake. We filed by and I stopped at a silver one. The shell of the egg was engraved with a map of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. On display in front of the egg was its toy surprise: a tiny, working gold train, windable like a clock with the key included. I smiled, imagining being small enough to enter its carriages and travel around, barely noticed at everyone’s feet. Mel stopped with me. We think of ourselves as so modern, she said. I guess money has always had access to invention, I replied.

After the tour, the group stood around in Red Square, taking turns getting pictures in front of the church we all recognized from Tetris—Saint Basil the Blessed. A line of people had formed at Lenin’s tomb, preparing to file in one by one. We kept moving to stay warm. It was weird to be at the Kremlin of all places, the Kremlin!, that had featured so prominently in news broadcasts from our young childhoods. Little had we known that almost every town in Russia has a Kremlin—Kremlin is just the word for the central citadel where the government offices are housed, hardly different from the medieval walled cities common throughout Europe. Mel and I convened and decided to walk back to the Rossiya on our own. Neither of us had the legs for another museum nor the patience for more group small talk.

As we approached, the Rossiya was gray and Soviet and immense. In the daylight it had half the cheerfulness of the night before. We entered and hardly spoke. Parted to our rooms. I took another shower and slipped into bed next to Ellie, hugging the edge, and was soon fast asleep on the square and divine down pillows. When I woke, Sarah was trying to open our floor-to-ceiling window without falling out, just to make it a little less stiflingly hot. She’s alive! said Ellie as I sat up. She was eating crackers and drinking wine. A little hair of the dog?, she offered, and I did not refuse. Has anyone heard from Anna? I asked, and we decided then, to bombard her. In pajama pants and oversized tshirts and above-all, comfort, we paraded through the hall to Anna’s door. Ellie knocked boldly. A kind of joy excited us—it was so fun to be annoying.

Anna opened the door with her facemask pushed up onto her forehead. Unlike the rest of us, she’d brought a silken peignoir set to sleep and lounge in. In New York, we had attributed her tendency towards luxury—caviar, unrepentant and small cruelties, a refrigerator that was never without champagne—as pretension. In Russia, in situ, I suppose, she was appropriate, and we, now gathered in front of her, were naïve children. So? asked Ellie. SO, said Anna, breaking into a smile and throwing the door open for us to join her. We piled in.

Outside it was dark again—sunset happened in mid-afternoon this time of year. A frigid, but welcome wind blew in through her cracked window. We lounged on the beds, snacking on the bags of potato chips Anna had bought at a grocery store some afternoon on her own. We were as close and intimate as a slumber party back home. I had always known that countries were places people lived in and visited, but I hadn’t realized until now that countries were also places we carried with us. I thought about the small Russia that Anna had grown up in, so far away from Moscow, and yet more Russian than this room at the Rossiya now, so full of our American expectations.

He was more British than Russian, she said, and laughed like this should explain everything about him. We giggled with her, pretending to understand, as though we all had deep wells of experience with men from other countries and could compare their differences with precise insight. Come on, out with the rest, said Mel, and Anna poured herself some wine and finally indulged our rabid curiosity:

Okay it was nice, she started. We got back, and we were making out you know, along the wall to the bed, and honestly, he was a decent kisser—not too much tongue, but playful, cocky, I like that (she smiled, remembering)—and then I put my hand on his chest and told him to hold up so I could go to the restroom, cause you KNOW I had to clean myself up after all that dancing, and so I did and then downed like a whole bottle of water—I don’t know, it’s always so hard for me to get wet when I’m dehydrated from drinking—and then I came back out and he was sitting on the bed. I handed him a water and sat down next to him and then we started kissing again and I pushed him against the pillows and it was getting good, so I move to go down his chest and take his pants off but when I get down there, he taps me on the shoulder to stop.

She took a sip, left us hanging. She looked like she was deciding what she thought now about what had happened then.

So I laid my head on his pants with his dick, like, right there but like still in his pants (she mimicked the proximity), and that’s when I realized he wasn’t hard. (She paused for effect and then started in again.) Oh my god, SO. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t stay anything. I kinda rubbed him a sec, but then I stopped when he knocked my hand away. He did this thing where he pulled me up to him and then I laid in the crook of his arm and that’s when he told me he wasn’t used to women being so willing? And then he was like, no, I like it, but it also weirds me out a little because I don’t know what to do. He said he was used to being the driver, I guess? Anyway, when he said it, he sounded scared, like he was expecting me to be mean to him for it, but I just told him it was okay, I guess, although I said I didn’t think it boded well for his future partners if he needed them to always pretend like they didn’t wanna fuck—and he laughed and said, yeah.

Fuck, said Mel. Jesus, said Sarah.

Yeah. We kinda laid around after that and I thought, maybe, we’d try again, but we didn’t. I don’t know, I think my whole deal turned him off? Too confident? Too American? The irony, jesus. After like an hour he left and I took a shower and went to sleep.

She shrugged.

Honestly, shit like that makes me wonder if men even like women, said Mel. I mean, not like-to-fuck, she said, I mean LIKE us. Like, want us when they see who we are.

So you didn’t get to see his dick at all? said Sarah.

Anna laughed. Not this time, she said.

At least he was honest, said Ellie. We agreed. She got up and pulled some yarn and a half-finished crochet project out of her suitcase. It wasn’t clear what the knotted yarn was going to be yet, but it was already serving its first purpose as a way to keep her hands busy.

Anna asked, then, about the Armoury and what she’d missed when she was sleeping and Mel and I did our best to describe the highlights. Fuck, I wish I’d gone, said Anna. Outside, snow had begun to fall. Sarah was flipping through channels on the tv. We all made small talk and Jenn said she was bored. No way in hell I’m going out again, I said, and Mel backed me up. Sarah settled on a Russian-dub of the first Star Trek series and slowly our attentions drifted to it. The contrast between Leonard Nimoy’s gravitas and William Shatner’s excitability was decidedly less distinct in the Russian. We congregated on the beds and on the floor, watching the tv stars of our parents’ Cold War childhoods bristle against the Klingon empire.

Tomorrow we would take the train to St. Petersburg and none of us would ever see Ivan, or Moscow, again.

Three years later, the Rossiya would be demolished—too costly to renovate, too Soviet to fight for. I looked it up online and there’s a park there now. Anna is a lawyer in Hollywood and Ellie’s bouncing between adjunct roles in poetry at various colleges in New York. Sarah’s married with two kids and three cats in Jersey and Mel’s doing improv and standup on the open mic circuit. Jenn moved out to Long Island and I’ve never visited because her finance bro husband made a pass at me at their wedding. I’m older too, divorced. It’s been more years since we were in Moscow than passed between the end of perestroika and our visit.

Sometimes in winter, I remember the bone cold of Moscow in February, and wonder about what must be changed now, what must be the same. A kind of war continues between our countries. For all I know, Ivan is on Twitter, pretending to be a pro-Trump housewife in Florida. When I feel nostalgic, I take the train to Sheepshead Bay and buy jam from the Russian market just to listen to the women ask for different cuts of meat from the butcher. On TikTok, kids are dancing to the sounds of Molchat Doma. Dobre utra, I say to the morning.

We passed through Moscow the same as time. It was 7 p.m., Moscow time, which meant 11 a.m. in New York. Star Trek had ended and Sarah was flipping through channels again. It was our last night in the city and we would spend it quietly, in the hangover of our previous adventures. Outside, the snow had dampened the noise of the city to an eerie stillness. In the courtyard of the Rossiya, hotel employees were smoking below us. Mel watched them—I watched Mel. Ellie said she was hungry and Jenn said, me too. Anna suggested we order room service, that if we picked out what we wanted, she would make the call. She pulled out a menu and started translating. We could have a feast if we pooled our money—salmon, marinated mushrooms, cheeses and pates, roasted potatoes, pickled vegetables, bread, beef stroganoff, beer. She became theatrical, exaggerating her pronunciation of each food. We could eat better than the Romanovs, she said.

So we did.


image: Brandon Sanchez