She grabbed her backpack, swung it over her shoulder, pulled her blouse shut to keep me from peaking at her breasts, and stormed toward me with such conviction that I put my hand up to block any unannounced blows to my face.
As she blew by me she bumped me with her hips and for a moment I thought there was something sexual in that act. I should have known better.
He waited outside. That idiotic muscle-car of his - what was it, a sixty nine Camero? The damned thing must have had twenty coats of wax on it, and it sounded like the muffler had fallen off, though I'm sure it was like that because he fixed it up to sound that way.
I hated him. He did more than steal my wife; he stole my future. The kids we'd never have ... the big house we'd never buy ... the horses she said she'd wanted since childhood. And for me, my little room overlooking the grove of apple trees, writing novels, listening to the birds twitter, no longer worrying about the headache of showing up on time for work and having the boss breathe down my neck all day saying things like "isn't that file done yet?" or "what happened to Mr. Smith's case?" or "Why can't you take your files home like everyone else so you won't miss deadlines?" I felt robbed and beaten.
As I stood there leaning against the wall, my hand inexplicably still in front of my face in a defensive posture, I heard the car door slam and it wakened me from my musings. I walked to the front window and saw through the chiffon curtain that she was putting her seat belt on and he was reaching over and giving her a big wet smooch on the lips as his left hand was sliding down across her chest. His long blonde hair curled down his back and I knew there wasn't even a hint of scalp showing through the top of his head. I had lost nearly all my hair long ago; some said it was the stress of accounting, but my doctor assured me it was purely genetic. My dad had had a full head of hair until the end, but granddaddy, it seemed, was the one who passed his genetics down to little-old sorry-for-hisself me. I was as bald as an eagle, and far less appreciated.
There was a roar and a screech of tires and she was gone. I'd have thought good riddance, but my heart was sinking down below my knees, and I had no point of reference with which to relate to these torturous feelings ripping me up inside like a tornado full of razor blades. Before I met her, I'd had a full head of hair and lots of women friends, many of whom came begging at odd times because they knew I was always in heat, and if they had an itch, I was the guy to scratch it. It's not that way anymore. I guess the years took their toll and now the only women feeling a need to talk to me are the ones who call at supper time to try to sell me a rug shampoo or another phone line. I admit I've become so needful I don't hang up on them right away like I used to. Once I even said yes to a rug shampoo even though the floors are hardwood and the only rug in the house is a throw-rug and we just toss that in the washing machine. That's how pitiful I'd become.
As if expecting her to make him drive her back home so she could run from the car, throw her arms around me and beg for forgiveness (this only happens in the movies) I waited by the window. I didn't know what else to do. The house was empty now. Even the cat had disappeared two days ago as if she wouldn't have wanted to be left alone with a loser like me.
I felt my eyes water and I fought it with every bit of strength I had. On one hand I wanted to feel sorry for myself. On the other hand I didn't want to spend the rest of my life being a jerk, drowning in self pity. I put my hand in my right pants pocket and found the piece of paper I'd hidden there a couple of days ago. Did I mention my wife was the one who did laundry?
It was a web site, quickly scribbled, from one of those TV adds. It said Russianwomen.com, though I knew I'd have to add the www in front.
I left the window. There was nothing to see anymore except memory trails which only existed on the inside of my brooding mind. I climbed the stairs and it felt like I'd gained fifty pounds - every step was an excruciating effort. I turned on the computer and waited impatiently. I opened my web browser and logged on then punched in the address. I'd seen the add on TV a few days ago, and while she was in the shower, daring to be naked in our house for one of the last times, I'd flipped through the channels. Satellite TV really does bring the world into your home if you let it, and it was then that I discovered a strange channel advertising women from Russia to men in America. Some of the women were being presented and they were dressed in long skirts and dresses and they seemed warm, caring, and if you used your imagination, even sexual. I had thought it silly at the time, but considering the options - eternal loneliness and chastity - I'd jotted the information down on a piece of brown paper bag I'd ripped from the recycle pile. Funny thing: she asked me later what had happened to that bag and I'd put both my palms up and shrugged as if to say I didn't know. She runs away with Don Juan and I lie about ripping a corner off a grocery bag and I feel guilty. Go figure.
There I was in front of the computer and all these women were being flaunted in front of me like so many prize heifers at an on-the-hoof auction. There was Tasha and Alina and Vladlena and Malvina. All of them were pretty and a few of them were beautiful, and unlike the women I'd seen on TV, some were wearing string bikinis. And believe me, I mean string. I read the postings below the pictures and saw they represented themselves as lawyers and dentists and doctors and educators. Probably hookers, I thought. Still, there was something about them beckoning me. Out loud I said "baby, I hear your call." I thought do you like bald men? Of course if these women really wanted to get to America they probably wouldn't care what kind of man got them citizenship. Even a nerdy bald-headed accountant might do.
I heard a car roar to a stop in front of the house and I ran to the window so fast I surprised myself. Just a couple of kids - the neighbor's daughter and some clean cut guy who looked like he'd just gotten out of boot camp. It figured Rachel would never fall for a guy like that ... then again, if she didn't mind short hair, she might have stayed with me - short hair, bald, what was the difference?
I tiptoed back to my computer, ashamed of myself; she was never coming back. I'd made sure of that. When we'd gone to the supermarket and I'd accused her of shopping for men instead of vegetables because of those sideways glances at the males walking down the aisles, just for her viewing pleasure, it seemed to me, she'd made it clear she didn't like where I was going with that. You look too, she'd said, and of course she was right. I did look. But not for the same reason as her. I was admiring natural beauty. She was looking for someone. When she found Paul, she blamed it all on me. If you hadn't accused me of looking this never would have happened, she'd said. Ha!
Like the time when I was a kid and this neighbor's dog attacked me and the neighbor said it was because I showed fear. Nothing wrong with the dog, it was all my fault. Just like that. Except her bite hurt a lot worse. And the pain is probably going to last longer.
Back at ye ole computer screen, surprisingly enough, there was a button you clicked on that brought up another screen asking what schedule you wanted to fly Air Russia and when you wanted to return. Next came a secure site asking for credit card numbers and expiration date, name, address and all that. I swear it took less than three minutes for me to be booked on a flight, complete with hotel at the other end, car rental, and probably a complimentary case of Russia's finest vodka. By the time I figured out what was happening inside this skull of mine, I was sitting on a Boeing seven-four-seven and I was drinking a martini and talking to some overgrown guy named Morris who was seated next to me and who was sipping Lipton out of a paper cup, compliments of Air Russia, and who spoke with such an obvious British accent that I thought it must have been a put on.
We landed in Moscow Sheremetyevo International. I felt like I was in a dream. It was only a few dozen hours ago that Rachel had stormed out of the house with that leech with hormones. Now I was in another country, one America had been in a cold war with for decades. And thanks to the internet, I was potentially about to find a new wife to replace the old so-and-so who just ditched me for Goldilocks. Or maybe I'd get the complimentary vodka first and spend the week getting drunk. Either way I was in for a time.
Morris waved at a woman much younger than him and quickly walked away with his arm around her waist. She reminded me of a very young Rachel Welsh, that famous actress, back in the day. We were all young once and some of us can even remember it. I walked around for a few minutes not knowing what to do. I knew I was supposed to find my luggage, but everything was in Russian and I couldn't read a word of it. There was a dankness about the place, unlike American airports which can be so full of life; here people seemed like they just wanted to get it done and get out of the watchful eye of some unseen strongmen. Yet, though the fear was as thick as London fog, I sensed a certain intrinsic strength in the people, the kind of subtle power you find in a root or a tree trunk or a large block of cement.
You had to be strong to weather the huge flakes imploding beyond the flexing glass windows. I shivered in apprehension and I wondered if my stylish black leather jacket was warm enough. I noticed the locals were clothed in multiple layers of quilted down.
"Mr. Johnson," a voice called, and I turned in time to look into innocent blue eyes. He was nearly a foot shorter than I was and he had blonde hair cut in Beatles style, and he was thin and awkward and he wore a sign on his neck that said LOOKING FOR DAVE JOHNSON. Well bubba, I thought, you've found him.
The next thing I knew he'd led me into a cab waiting outside. I protested ... my luggage. He assured me he'd already retrieved it, which I thought nearly impossible, yet in that boyish way he convinced me it could be done. Maybe, I thought, but only by greasing a palm or two. I wasn't being cynical, really I wasn't, it's just all that stuff you learned about Russia in school. I tried to persuade myself that this country deserved a chance before being trounced upon by the black-belt thought-whip of the great though under-loved Mr. Johnson.
We drove through snow. There were brick buildings covered with snow, tiny Russian cars covered with snow, military vehicles covered with snow, pedestrians waiting for busses covered with snow (to say nothing of the pedestrians) and yes, there were even a few bicyclists covered with snow, bless their foolish freezing hearts. I know, I know, it was probably necessity. My cynicism is showing again, and I apologize for that. The scene outside reminded me of the proverbial picture of a white cat in a snowstorm and I almost laughed until I remembered that when the cab stopped I was destined to be among the still-living-but-severely-frozen. Once out of the cab I looked up at the tops of ancient architecture and of course snow. A flurry of dime-sized crystalline flakes floated down to my face and sucked out body heat. I patted my coat pocket to make sure my return ticket was in its place. I smiled to myself when I heard the crinkling of paper. If the KGB knew what I was thinking about their country they probably would have killed me right there.
We stopped and Surgei paid the cab in money that looked remarkably like it had just been lifted from some poor Russian kid's Monopoly game. The Hotel was a large brown brick building covered with snow. I never would have guessed it would be.
The blonde guy with the Beatles haircut pointed and said otel then said das vedanya and headed out of my life forever. Natasha took his place and led me to my room. Her short squat body was capable of moving at near the speed of sound even in clunky brown shoes. I was half afraid she was going to wrestle me to the ground and steal my wallet; instead she smiled at me with surprisingly white teeth and said bashalsta when I handed her an American five dollar bill. I was hoping you could buy a pair of shoes for five bucks in Russia. For all I knew the KGB would torture her to death to find out where she got American money. Natasha would keep my name secret right up to her grueling demise. She was that kind of woman.
The room was yellow. Sure, it had probably been white when it was first painted, back when the Bolshevik ruled Mother Russia, or quite possibly the pre-Cambrian era, but it was decidedly yellow now. The single unshaded sixty watt light bulb in the middle of the ceiling only served to intensify the mood. The bed was single and the covers dark green wool, reminding me of my two year sentence in the Armed Forces back in the day when they could take you whether you wanted to go or not. Instead of the Army I'd been drafted into the Marines, lucky me. The long jagged crack in the wall looked like lightening had struck and been immortalized for future study. The floor was dark brown linoleum, if you can believe that. The only window looked out on a court where other windows from other rooms faced, and the only good thing I can say about it was that all the time I was there I did not see even one cockroach. Thank God for small favors. And Raid.
I slept so hard that I felt like I was made out of hot lead and poured molten into the bed. I was proof Jet lag wasn't just something some prepubescent scientist made up. The knock on the door the following morning announced breakfast in five minutes. I didn't even shave. I hadn't showered either. I hoped none of the other guests could tell. We sat around a long oak table with several lit candles in the middle of it and there was a plate with buttered dark brown toast on it where they seated me, and a polished silver carafe filled with fine tea. I served myself a cup of the steamy liquid and spooned in some tan sugar while mentally estimating what the carafe might be worth back home. I'm guessing they don't use bleach in food in the motherland like they do in the land of baseball and apple pie and cars that keep running. Maybe that's a good thing.
I felt awkward. None of the other guests spoke English and I didn't know a word of Russian. Scratch that: I knew Nyet, and Da. I came to Russia to hear more Da's. Five years of bad marriage will get you all the Nyets you could ever hope for. And now Mr. Potatohead was getting all the Da's that rightfully should have been mine. Him and his blankety-blank phallic Camero.
When breakfast was over Natasha literally took me by the hand and delivered me to a great hall which must have been the conference center. There was a stage and an auditorium and I was seated in a plush red chair. There was only one other guy and he was so old that next to him I was a prize catch and even I thought so. There was one man and six women on the stage, and they sat in chairs like they were waiting for the music to start before they performed. They weren't wearing bikinis like on the web site, and for now I could see that their dark colored dresses went far beyond their knees. From where I sat with the lights dim as they were, I couldn't really tell what I was looking at, but I was somewhat intrigued and I figured after popping three thousand bucks onto my credit card, the least I could do was try to enjoy myself.
That was when I saw her.
She wasn't one of the seated women - she was coming on from stage left. As she walked I swear I could almost see her aura, if I believed in that kind of nonsense.
Her sweater was just tight enough to outline her feminine lines and her jeans fit her like a glove, leaving nothing to the imagination. As if those assets weren't enough, there was a glow about her gorgeous face that reminded me of one of those paintings of Christ in which He's surrounded by Light Everlasting. It's not right to mix holiness with sexual attraction, yet she had both qualities and plenty of them.
I was either in love, or the combination of jet lag, staying in strange quarters and having my heart stomped on had put me in some kind of alternative consciousness that made me even more susceptible than I usually was. She could have sold me a dozen telephone lines; I would have had the entire house carpeted, wall to wall, just to have her company clean them. I wasn't in love with her; I was insane over her.
Instead of going center stage, she came right to me as if she knew what I was thinking. For the few seconds it took her to reach me I continually doubted she was actually coming towards me. It wasn't until she was right in front of me, shoving all that wonderful equipment practically in my face that I allowed myself to believe. A moment can be a thousand years, and I wanted to treasure that one, to hold on to it, never let it go, not allow it to pass into something else, something less worth savoring for eternity. I expected her to say you're in my room, dirt-bag, or you parked in my spot needle-brain, except I didn't have a car and no one who looked like her would have wanted the room I was staying in. In perfect English she said "would you like to go out to dinner? My treat."
I thought it was going to take emergency room paddles to get my heart started again. Who was she and how had she singled me out? I was nobody, just some down-on-his-luck accountant with no hair who couldn't manage his clients' accounts and who definitely couldn't keep a woman happy. At least not recently.
What happened next was the strangest thing that had happened so far: I said yes.
We drove to Gorky park. I remembered seeing a movie by that name and told her so. Her lack of response told me she wasn't impressed with the American movie industry. Maybe she thought all capitalist ventures were decadent. Her old Fiat was faded blue and the muffler was loud. She took a pair of windshield wipers from beneath the driver's seat and hooked them on to the wiper arms. I asked about that and she told me that in Moscow ever since the Soviet Union fell thieves will steal your wiper blades. I was stunned. In America the worst that could happen to you in a major city was murder.
She shifted like a race-car driver and she ignored speed limits and common sense and I found myself squeezing the door handle and clenching my teeth. Dentists must love her. Maybe they give her a percentage. I wondered how much it would cost to fix broken teeth in Moscow. You could probably pay in Rubles or windshield wiper blades. Of course if you had neither they might reluctantly accept Visa or Mastercard.
When we got to the park we were alone in the storm; giant snow flakes the size of Chicago were being bullied by the wind and even if you watched carefully it never seemed any of them made it all the way to the ground. Paradoxically the snow was several feet high and in some places higher.
She pulled on the emergency brake which made a rasping sound and she looked me square in the eye - and what beautiful eyes she had - and asked "drink?"
We were like a couple of high school kids guzzling dad's booze. Vodka burned going down at first but after the third drink I stopped noticing. We handed the bottle back and forth until a full quarter of it was missing. They say men die young in Russia because of all the booze they drink, but in this weather I think vodka was the only thing keeping me alive.
Through the thick snow I thought I could make out an indistinct form moving toward us. Soon I noticed she was rolling down her window and I pulled my leather jacket tight around myself.
"Yorgi," she said, "this is him."
Him. I wondered what that meant. I wasn't sure I liked being a him. Since she was driving and I had no clue where I was and I'd probably freeze to death if I tried to get anywhere on my own, it didn't seem like I had any choice. Yorgi stuck his bearded face in the window to look me over. He nodded, in approval, I surmised. Though I couldn't see what anyone could approve of about me.
She handed Yorgi the bottle and he took a swallow. I thought about how she and I had shared the bottle and how I had felt like that was a personal thing, maybe a prelude to something more, but now I felt repulsed. I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve. Yorgi handed the bottle back and she shoved it at me. I pushed it away and she put it to her own lips and swallowed the corrosive liquid.
As if this is him was all the communication needed, Yorgi walked away into the white dizzying night.
I saw lights. Two. Four. Six. They weren't like headlights - some were green, some blue, some red, and one was bright yellow, and their intensity burned right through the snow to such an extent that they lit up the inside of the tiny car. Then I saw what the lights were attached to and I think now that my jaw must have dropped halfway to my ankles.
It looked like a giant wasp about fifteen meters long and five meters wide hanging over the park, and though I could barely make out his fading form in the storm, it seemed like Yorgi was heading straight for it. I looked at her and she smiled and I again noticed how pretty she was. I grabbed the bottle from between her legs, took a swig, then another. I held the bottle away from myself and looked at it, half wondering if maybe it had been spiked with some hallucinogenic substance. I looked back at the giant wasp-thing and it seemed to be shimmering, then without warning it moved away, slowly at first, and then in a flash of blue light it was gone.
She was grinning at me, I could feel it. I didn't know what was going on, but I felt an urge to get out of the car and run until my legs failed me. On one hand that would have been incredibly dumb, on the other hand it was incredibly dumb to be there in the first place. Why hadn't I stayed at the hotel where the girls were lining up just for me and that other guy? Oh yeah, did I mention she was beautiful? The things men will do for a beautiful woman.
"What was that all about?" I asked as I handed the bottle back to her. She took it, looked out at the snowfall as if pondering the answer. She took so long to respond I thought maybe she forgot the question.
"It was nothing," she said, and I discovered I was capable of getting angry with her. What was all this cloak-and-dagger stuff? What was that bug shaped thing? That bearded guy who poked his head in the window sure didn't look like a Martian, at least none of the ones you see in the movies. The only thing I could think of was that this was some kind of secret Russian military project and for some reason they wanted me.
Wanted me. Can you imagine? I was a flunky accountant, at the bottom of the heap with no chance of moving up the corporate ladder. I was one screw-up away from the unemployment line. I could wind up taking my degree and washing dishes at some seedy nightclub for a living. I didn't make it as a husband either and I had no children so I couldn't be said to be a likely father.
Back in the Marines I had scored a perfect five hundred on the boot camp physical training test. Few men had done that before and I attributed it to playing wide receiver throughout high school and doing it well. So I was once in good shape. So what? Why would that make them want me now, and who were they and why did I need the bearded-one's approval? And approval for what?
I suppressed my anger at not knowing; she didn't seem inclined to let me in on her little secret though I figured in time all would become clear. At least that's the way it usually happens on TV. I know: that's not real and this is.
I jumped when she started the car again and I hurriedly put my seat belt on when she jammed it in gear and shot off, wheels spinning in the snow, rear end precariously sliding back and forth. The snow had let up and now I could see the park was quite nice - towering evergreens, rolling hills - I thought I'd have to come back here during the day sometime when my life was right. Then again I wondered if my life would ever be right. No matter how hard you try to stick with positive thinking, doubts have a way of creeping back into your mind.
She didn't say a word though she took an occasional sip from the bottle as she worked the clutch and gearshift. Soon we were in a business strip which I assumed to be on the outskirts of Moscow but we could have been on the moon for all I knew. She got out and signaled me to follow. I was half inclined to sit there and brood, demanding to know the answers or I wasn't going anywhere, like some spoiled brat. Somehow I thought she wouldn't put up with that kind of behavior, that she might hit me over the head with the near-empty bottle and drag me to wherever she was going. I guess I stopped visualizing her tender side. At least she couldn't drag me by the hair - how's that for positive thinking?
We got to a storefront and she took out a key and let us in. The store was nearly empty except for some wicker chairs and baskets and ceramic bowls and tins coffee and tea canisters and such. She led me to the back. We went through a door and we were in a small hallway with another door at its end. I thought it would be fun if that door led to another door and that one to another, like a twisted real-life version of a Salvador Dali painting. She carefully closed the door we had entered through and took me through the second door and the change of scenery hit me like a brick, sucking the wind out of my lungs.
It was a room about 3 meters long by 4 meters wide and it was filled with computers and computer operators. The florescent lighting was so bright I felt a headache coming on - and in fact several of the operators had sunglasses on. Whatever was going on in there was labor-intensive and it contradicted the mood the store front was meant to portray. A man in front of one keyboard looked up, saw her, looked at me, then hit two keys and his screen went blank. He stood up and walked over to us and she said "hello, Captain."
"Hello, Vierdell," he said warmly, and I realized it was the first time I had heard her name. "Welcome back to paradise, where you can be anything you want to be," he said in a thick accent.
"What I we need to be," said Vierdell," is gone.
"Passport and tickets are over there," and he pointed to a table with several printers on it, from the size of the large one I figured it must have been one of those pricey Xerox laser-jets. She went to the table, picked up an envelope, grabbed me by the hand again and led me toward the door. I was her puppet and she was my puppet-master.
Before I knew it we were at Moscow Sheremetyevo International airport waiting for a plane back to the states. I had one suitcase in hand and one tagged for luggage and on its way to the bowels of our 747. She was sitting next to me in a western outfit, her legs crossed and her short skirt showing me what I wanted to see more of. I was sipping a cafe latte, and she had bottled water. We'd each polished off a burrito with hot sauce, and it looked like I wasn't going to have any trouble getting her to like American cuisine. I still didn't know any answers and she was leading me by the nose like a prize bull. Maybe that's all I really was to her, but at the moment I didn't give a rip because I was so intensely intrigued by it all. And she was every bit as beautiful - and more - than she had been the moment I first saw her.
Back in Omaha we bought a fine mansion with seventeen rooms. We had servants - a maid and two butlers. A Grand Piano. A Mercedes and a Porche for me. It was no longer necessary for me to be an abused employee, so I quit my job and didn't bother giving two weeks notice. I can imagine you asking where all this money came from, but I'll have to admit I didn't know then and I still don't know now. Once she started to explain and I shushed her. I didn't want to know. Things were perfect; she loved me, or behaved like it. Every night she'd throw her arms around me in her special way and on a scale of one to ten, she was an eleven.
When we'd go to Safeway all she would shop for was food.
And as for her associations, and that strange craft, she never again tried to explain and I'm sure not going to ask. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, they say.
She did tell me that the only requirement of this arrangement is that every three or four years or so we have a kid. No big deal. Sarah is three now and Jason is eight. Jason can do more push ups than me, which is a lot because I never stopped doing them when I got out of the Marines. Jason and I work out together every other day, doing push ups, chin ups, crunches, curls (I only allow him to use the twenty pound dumbbells) and bench presses. Jason can bench press a hundred and twenty pounds. Sarah can already run as fast as me; we play soccer every Sunday. No one has called on my kids to do anything special, and for all I know they never will.
Once, after Vierdell and I had been together a couple of years, my ex called. She'd ditched her testosterone-laden-slime and said she now saw that it was me she'd always loved, and she ragged on about how sorry she was for walking out on me like that, and could I ever forgive her, yada yada yada, and that's when she put on this big sobbing routine. I hung up on her when I heard the first boo hoo, though I was tempted to laugh at her first. I don't have time for someone like that anymore. I've got my Vierdell now, and she has me. It might be love, it might be lust, and it might only be loyalty. Maybe there are ulterior motives. There could be an agenda. I don't know and I don't care. I'm happy with things just the way they are. And as an accountant I have to say, you can take that to the bank.