Moscow. The bar where they met. The end of a long late-summer night. The
end of a summer of long nights.
Yasha comes over, sets down another vodka on
the rocks. On me, he says, we’ll miss you two.
Ted arrived in late May, sent by Citibank,
on a short-term job, setting up a programming team in a new local office.
Gabrijela came in early June, a graduate student, on a language program.
Tomorrow they’re going home, he to New York, she to Zagreb. They’ll
probably never see each other again.
That’s why the summer’s been
so good, he reminds himself, so he can remind her, when she gets back
from powdering her nose, or whatever she’s doing in there. Knowing
that nothing can come of their relationship—that’s why they’ve
been able to relax, enjoy their time together. That’s what’s
liberated them. Him from his usual obsession, treating every situation,
every interaction, like a technical problem, trying to perfect every little
thing. Her from her year-long funk over Zoran, her department’s
hot-shot junior prof, who left her for another grad student, not even
the prettiest one.
They both know that. They’ve gloried
in it, all summer.
He looks at his watch. She’s been
gone almost ten minutes. He drains his drink, asks Yasha for another.
He glances at her glass. It’s empty. She’s had three, her
limit. But tonight that doesn’t matter. He calls to Yasha, Another
for her too. Yasha shakes his head and smiles.
He’s always dreamed of this, a relaxed
bar, with an interesting crowd, where he could be a regular, liked and
respected. Feel at home.
In New York, he’s got no time for
that, and anyway his life is set up differently. You don’t go to
bars when you’re married. And any Manhattan bar where he’d
feel comfortable hanging out—a guy from deep Jersey, a glorified
programmer hiding behind an upper-management suit—it’d be
too dull to be worth his while.
But here in Moscow, he’s got his evenings
free, and even at a place as hip as this, he’s a big man. A young
American businessman, successful, with money, who speaks Russian—his
parents were émigrés, he learned it at home, that’s
why the bank sent him. And he has a beautiful, sophisticated girlfriend.
The prettiest girl in the bar, every night. The smartest one, too.
What luck that he met her. What luck that
he came here in the first place.
He’d been in town two weeks, hadn’t
gone out once. Every day, he’d taken the subway to work, then come
back for dinner at the Czech place across the street from his apartment.
Pork cutlet, fried potatoes, cabbage, maybe a beer. If it wasn’t
raining, he’d take a walk, along the tree-shaded boulevard in the
middle of the Garden ring road, or down Tverskaia Street, the main drag,
to Red Square, and then along the river. Seeing the places his parents
had told him about, trying to imagine their youth, during the war, under
Stalin. Once the twilight grew dim, he’d head back and watch tv.
cnn, maybe an old Soviet movie. Then he’d call home. Things are
going well, I’m making strides, he’d tell Jill. Things are
fine here, she’d say, over the racket, the other brokers calling
in orders, talking to clients. A conversation they’d had thousands
of times. He’s twenty-nine, she’s twenty-eight, they’re
married seven years. It could easily be fifty.
One afternoon the programmers said they
wanted to take him out. That night, if he was free. They liked him. He
wasn’t the usual oblivious American. They didn’t go to bars
themselves—they were all married, and anyway, drinking, for them,
meant drinking at home, in the kitchen, with friends, playing guitar and
singing, eating pickles your mother had made. But one of them had heard
of a bar that was big with foreign businessmen. A place to go on a special
occasion. A place that turned out to be a glorified whorehouse. With expensive
décor and beautiful whores, to be sure. But a whorehouse nonetheless.
They drank too much and ate too little,
and talked about sex, and programming, and their wives, and the eternal
friendship of the Russian and American people. They tried not to look
too long at any of the whores, lest one come over to their table. They
nearly fell asleep waiting for their change, then had to run to the subway,
to catch the last train of the night.
The next day, he asked for another recommendation,
a quiet spot, where he could have a quiet drink. Out of the way is fine,
he said. None of them could go out with him—they were all too hung-over,
and embarrassed about the night before. But one of them had a younger
sister who was an artist, had been abroad, knew people, knew the new places.
She suggested he come here, a bar in the basement of an apartment building,
no sign, done up in rough wood rather than glass and mirrors, Beatles
and sixties Soviet folk on the stereo, playing soft, rather than techno,
blasting. A student crowd, it seemed, at first glance. Writer’s
Block, the place was called. Crowded enough, that first night, for a Thursday.
But not too crowded.
He saw Gabrijela the minute he walked in.
She was with friends, talking, laughing. He started coming in every night;
every night, there they were, at the same table. He sat at the bar, shooting
the shit with Yasha, who had an aunt in Queens and wanted to know everything
about the States. He tried to think of the words to speak to her, a slim
woman, in her early twenties, he figured, with delicate arms and long,
straight brown hair, parted in the middle, and green eyes and a sad face
that every once in a while exploded into a joyous, goofy smile.
Then one night she showed up alone, and
sat down next to him, and said Hi, in English, in an accent he knew wasn’t
Russian. By the time her friends came, he’d been talking to her
for an hour. He was nice to them, her fellow language-school students,
even the over-polite German guy whose heart she was obviously breaking.
He bought them a couple of rounds of beers. She ignored the group. The
few times they came in after that, they sat by themselves, and talked
more quietly than before, without laughing so much.
Her drink hasn’t come. He motions
to Yasha, who’s settling up with some guys at the other end of the
bar. Yasha nods.
Last Friday, they were sitting right here,
at just this time, 2:30, looking at one another in a way they’d
grown accustomed to, at the ends of nights, a little drunk, giddy, knowing
that in a few minutes they’d be in the back of a cab, kissing, as
they sped through the nineteenth-century streets, and in ten minutes they’d
wake the night watchman at her place, knocking on the grimy glass door
with a ruble coin, giggling as he stumbled toward them to open up, and
then they’d ride up in the rickety elevator, kissing some more,
she stroking his neck and the close-cropped hair on the back of his head,
his hands resting on the soft skin around her waist, and then they’d
get to the top floor and go into her apartment and she’d drop her
keys on the kitchen table and lead him to the living-room window, where
they’d undress one another, slowly, still kissing, by the light
of the moon, the sleeping city spread below them.
That night, as he waited for Yasha to bring
his change, she told him she could stay another couple of months. She’d
talked to her landlord about the apartment, to some people who knew people
about a visa extension, to her adviser about a term off, to her father
about another wire transfer. None of it turned out to be that big a deal.
If he wanted to stay too, they could have a great fall. A romantic one,
even. Together, what the hell, she said, smiling and leaning a bit closer,
just close enough, she knew, that he couldn’t resist kissing her.
No more, she figured, than he could resist a fall with her, their evening
walks in jackets rather than shirt sleeves, the window closed at the end
of the night, rather than open.
She seemed surprised when he looked down
at his hands, and rubbed his bare left ring finger, and reminded her what
they’d agreed. She seemed hurt when he said that his feelings for
her, which he had to admit were strong, only made him more certain they
had to keep their promise to one another.
He was harsh, he knows that now. But her
being weak, it confused him, made everything seem harder than it already
was. And he told her so, and added that if it was going to be like this,
better that one of them should end everything by walking out one night,
without saying goodbye. He worried that his voice would crack as he said
this, and he’d sound like a teenager. Thankfully it didn’t.
At least they have tonight. So far, it’s
gone just as he planned. They met here at six for a drink, then walked
around the corner to their favorite Georgian place, for khachipuri and
harcho and a bottle of Kindzmarauli. They sat for a bit over coffee, then
went for a long stroll, around the northern part of the Garden ring, the
walk they’ve done dozens of times. Once it was too dark to see,
they wandered back here, to get a nightcap, and say goodbye to Yasha.
In a bit, they’d go to her place, and make love for as long as they
could stay awake.
He’s suddenly seized by worry—is
she dolling herself up in there, so she can pour it on, try to get him
to stay? Is that what’s taking her so long? Is she going to make
Sure, in theory he could stay. He’s
got plenty of money banked, he could ask for some time off, make an excuse
to Jill. But his assignment’s done, and he’s got to get back
to his real life.
Here’s Yasha. About time, he thinks. He was starting to talk to
himself, and sounding like a fucking greeting card.
Yasha asks what’s up.
Another for her too, he repeats, pointing
at her glass this time.
But she left, Yasha says. A while back.
He checks his watch. It’s true, she
left for the bathroom a good half-hour ago.
He looks back up. Yasha shrugs.
Ted looks around. He recognizes most of
the people who are still here. He’s probably bought all of them
drinks. A few of them smile. One guy raises an empty mug in a silent toast.
He turns back to Yasha and says, in a soft
voice, Of course.
Yasha names a figure. He pays it and says,
as usual, Keep the change. He stands up, keeping a hand on the bar to
But Yasha doesn’t say, as usual, Until
soon. Instead he says, Goodbye.
Ted goes up the stairs and out into the
early September Moscow night. There’s a cab approaching. It slows,
then stops, the driver watching him, waiting. Gabrijela’s place
is across town, but this late at night the ride wouldn’t take more
than ten minutes. Her flight doesn’t leave until morning.
After a good minute, the cab pulls away.
There’s a chill in the air, the first hint of fall. There are no