Andrew Day

Our Agreement

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 a scene?
     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.
     Settle up?
     Yasha names a figure. He pays it and says, as usual, Keep the change. He stands up, keeping a hand on the bar to steady himself.
     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 other cabs.