In Prague. He arrived from Amsterdam by bus—his first such trip, and for a few hours, he thought of himself as one of those carefree hitchhikers whose oversized backpacks accentuated their worldly elan, their gravitas. He was not free of worries. Quite to the contrary: he was full of them. But as long as he stayed on that bus, he could feign nonchalance. A free spirit is easy enough to fake.
And he had some experience. It used to be his habit to plop down on the steps of the metro escalator during rush hour. Sitting on that escalator seemed like the most iconoclastic act in the world. And it probably was. The other riders disapproved and either demonstratively ignored his performance or scolded him for it. The nastiest of them, the grim Soviet urbanites, mocked him. The less imaginative ones called the police, the militsiya. No, he didn’t really feel free—not at all. He felt the humiliation deeply.
But in Prague . . . It was easy to find a cheap short-term rental. A worn-out young woman approached him at the station as he exited the bus. She spoke some Russian and a smattering of English—enough to explain what she had to offer: a top-floor one-bedroom in the old district, a few tram stops from the railway station, no elevator. That was fine, better than fine. Remarkably cheap. And he didn’t need the elevator. Would he be staying alone? “No, a friend will arrive this afternoon.” A woman? “Yes.” That’s fine. Just don’t throw any parties. Some Russians like throwing parties. “No, of course not, no parties, it’s just going to be the two of us. And, frankly, I’m not really a party type.”
After this exchange, they didn’t have much to discuss. They took a tram together and got off after a short ride. She led the way up a steep street to an old residential building that looked remarkably similar to the one in which he grew up. The pavement was cracked and he caught glimpses of the old cobblestones underneath the veneer of dirty asphalt. The chipped marble staircase—a wide, late-nineteenth-century affair, its surface polished to perfection by generations of shuffling feet—again reminded him of childhood. As they climbed the stairs to the fifth floor, their steps echoed in the stairwell and bounced off the graffiti-covered walls. He exchanged the money for a key. The landlady left her phone number in case of emergency. There was no phone line in the apartment, but he could always find a payphone.
“I couldn’t find a babysitter for more than two days,” she announced to him at the airport, dodging his welcoming kiss. He immediately felt tense—a familiar, unpleasant feeling. She had always set the parameters for their time together—ever since, some two years earlier, she took him by the hand at that party in Mark’s art studio. She led him to the bathroom. “Wait,” she said then, the first thing she had said to him since Mark introduced them hours earlier. She left and soon returned with a pile of towels, which she spread on the floor to cover the tiles. “Here.” She pointed at the towels. He was taken aback by this display of unsentimental practicality. They made love in almost complete silence. She moaned a little, a self-directed sort of sound, as if she was having a quiet conversation with herself. Even inside of her, he felt superfluous, absent from the scene. He didn’t know then that the sensation was not fleeting. Afterward, he attempted pillow talk, but she shrugged at the foolishness of holding such conversations beside a leaking faucet. He volunteered to walk her home. She said, “Sure, why not.”
They walked through falling snow. He racked his brain to find the words that wouldn’t make him sound dull. But every single word that came to his mind sounded like a disastrous cliché that he dreaded to utter. She didn’t seem like someone who would forgive a cliché.
Finally, she relented. “Do you keep track of the number of your lovers?” she asked. He did. Of course, he did. She spread out her gloved hands as a peace offering.
“You’re my number ten if you care to know,” she said.
“It’s a nice, round number,” he joked.
It was easy to absorb such revelations at the beginning of a fling. Flings allowed for such banter. Flings were like easy friendships until they withered away or else turned into something one couldn’t control.
Later, her confessionary tales would haunt him. Tossing and turning on a mattress in his East Village sublet, he couldn’t stop thinking about those other nine. From thousands of miles away, he tried to invent ways to emasculate them, to reduce them to insignificance, to dust. But for that, he needed to know more about them, about each one of them—and that’s where he set up a tripwire for his own inflamed imagination. He would roll off his mattress, pick up the phone and make another forty-dollar phone call—just to hear her tired voice, attuned to its modalities, trying to get the full measure of her mood, searching for scraps of tenderness.
In Prague, on the bus from the airport, she fell asleep on his shoulder, which grew numb because he was afraid to wake her. She always complained about the lack of sleep. He fretted that she wouldn’t like the apartment and wished he had the money for nicer accommodation. But he didn’t really have any money. At the final stop, he gently roused her.
“What? Already?” She sounded annoyed, and he felt like apologizing for everything that provoked her: for the bumpy flight from Moscow, for the bus that didn’t take long enough to get to the city center, for the necessity (once again) to find a babysitter, for the shabby apartment that awaited them, for his own fretfulness, for Prague—in all its drab, post-socialist glory.
“We’re almost there. Just ten more minutes and we’ll be home.”
How strange that he already thought of a newly rented fifth-floor apartment as home. In the apartment, she undressed and went straight into the shower. He waited anxiously for her to return. He tried to read but couldn’t focus; he couldn’t even pretend to read. He paced across the living room until she finally opened the bathroom door, wrapped in a towel, and let him embrace her.
“I missed you so much, so much,” he whispered pitifully.
She smiled—a condescending smile, a smile that gave him some hope—untucked the towel and let it drop on the floor.
“You’re such a fool,” she said with a sigh. “You act as if I were unavailable. But here I am, right here with you in Prague. Okay? Now come.” She took his hand and nodded at the massive, unsteady-looking futon in the corner.
Later that evening, they walked around Prague and it almost felt like a regular sightseeing trip. Before they left the apartment, she unpacked her bag and put on a snug-fitting red dress that he had never seen before.
“I bought it for the trip,” she explained. “Mother thought it was way too tight on me, so I thought I should go ahead and buy it. Don’t get too excited, I didn’t buy it because of you.”
They approached the clock tower in the Old Town Square just in time for the hourly show. The four figures framing the clock came alive, turning the arrival of the top of the hour into an animated performance.
“Look,” he said. Eager to show off, he pointed out the figure of a skeleton. “Death marks the passage of time. But the sinners—the other three figures—refuse to accept it. See how they shake their heads?”
She shrugged. “That’s understandable,” she said. “No one wants to grow old. But you can’t argue with Death; it’s silly. They can shake their heads all they want, but the skeleton will still strike on the hour. It’s fate. How old is the clock?”
“I don’t know. Sixteenth century or something?”
“Well, you see,” she said. “It’s what . . . five hundred years’ worth of dead people? Proves my point.”
It probably did. He was not sure.
They crossed the Vltava on Charles Bridge, whose length was occupied by a parade of souvenir stands and roaming hawkers. They bought a bottle of red wine, which he was prepared to drink straight out of the bottle, but she insisted that they buy plastic cups. They drank the wine on a park bench on the slope overlooking the river. Sightseeing boats dotted the water. The illuminated Old Town simmered on the opposite bank. The Prague Castle loomed grandiose behind them.
“What an unbelievable view,” he said. He meant it.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I’ve seen worse.” Her smile was vacant, vaguely standoffish. She had a way of smiling like that, as if establishing a defensive perimeter. “I’m exhausted. Let’s head back. We can grab something to eat on the way back to the apartment. Did you notice that weird café near the Jewish cemetery? Did you see its name? Pushkin! Can you believe it? Why would they name a café after a poet? But, whatever—we can still buy something there and pretend the name means nothing to us.”
Back in the apartment, they made love again. And then again. The second time, she grumbled.
“You’re wearing me out,” she said. “I’m not used to these acrobatics. I’m an overworked single mother, remember? Enough, let me sleep, okay?”
She kissed his neck and at that very second, he thought that he could not be without her—not even for a day. He would not be able to go back to his studio in Alphabet City. He could not spend another lonely night on that mattress, her voice ringing in his ears, obsessing about those nine who had known her body. The tension, the angst, the exhausting, unending lust would never go away. He was still hard. That inability to relax, to let the tension out of his body, created panic in him. She felt his erection and slowly ran her fingertips along the rigid shaft, all the way up to the smooth and vulnerable tip, which she flicked lightly—a casual dismissal, not a promise of relief.
“Oh, no, not again,” she said. “What is it, a circus performance? You need to let me sleep, dear. Get some rest. You’re being too dramatic.”
She pulled away and rolled over to the other side of the futon, next to the wall, where she buried her head under the pillow and said goodnight.
There was no release. And he took no pride in his stubborn erection. It scared him, made him worry about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow when she would be back in Moscow and he . . . What would he do then? After she had left again?
He eventually dozed off, but real sleep evaded him. These days I sleep fitfully. Not so much sleep as a strange state of semi-wakefulness. I see images floating just above my eyelashes; sometimes, it’s the faces of my late parents, but often just landscapes, riverbanks, gorges. Things like that—sort of like an Andersen fairy tale. His gravely ill father confided this in him a few years later, three days before he died. It would be their last phone conversation. “Dad, I know exactly what you’re talking about,” he told him then—a response that puzzled his father, who was too weak to demand a full explanation.
He woke up in the middle of the night to the steady sound of rain beating on the rusty cornice outside the window. He crawled out of bed and tiptoed across the room. The street below showed almost no signs of life. It was possessed by the rain, by the streams of water that flowed down the incline towards the poorly lit tram stop at the corner. The water collected in vast puddles before the dark mouths of the courtyards opening onto the street. He spotted a lonely drunk splashing through the puddles, moving slowly uphill on a precarious but determined mission to reach the peak.
She stirred in bed. He tensed up, fearful he had interrupted her sleep. Suddenly he heard a muffled sound. She was not asleep. She was crying, her face pressed into the pillow. He leaned over and touched her shoulder, but she waved him off with a vehement shrug.
“What’s wrong? What can I do?” he pleaded with her, understanding full well what was coming.
“Fuck you,” she sniveled. “There is nothing—nothing—that you can do. You’re weak, indecisive, You’re a disappointment.”
He stared at the wallpaper. Its flowery pattern reminded him of his childhood room that he shared with his parents. Once, when he was seven or eight, he was awakened at night by his mother’s sobs. And there was another sound: the drone of his father’s whisper, cajoling her, talking her out of her tears. He had pressed his tiny palms against his ears and entered a realm of silence, where he remained for what seemed like hours. When he finally allowed himself to hear again, all was quiet in the room; the parents appeared to be asleep. The next morning, they looked their normal selves and he promised himself to forget the bad dream. Only one rarely forgets such dreams.
Facing him on the bed, she continued. “I thought I wanted to be with you. I thought you were different. But you’re fucking weak. I was so happy, so happy . . . last year. Last year? It feels like last century.” She recoiled as he reached to comfort her. “Don’t touch me. And I don’t even like Prague, and I don’t care about the clock and the old square, and what’s his name? Kafka? I don’t care about him, either. And Pushkin . . . why did they name a beerhall after him? I’m so tired of this. I want to be home with my daughter. There is no future. None.” She turned her tear-smeared face to the wall and refused to talk to him again.
They didn’t speak on the bus to the airport. She knew how to remain silent and her silence drained him of any will to live. There was no joy. He thought of a possible dramatic resolution to this crisis, of some bold move that could have made her looming departure less final. But the closer they got to the airport, the less likely such an intervention appeared. He was losing her. She was right, he thought. He was weak.
At the terminal, without so much as looking at him, she headed straight for passport control. He lingered by the barrier. In films, he had seen miraculous happy endings at airports. Last-minute changes of fortunes. He watched her present her ticket and passport to the border guard, who examined them briefly and stamped both. She crossed the border and stopped. His heart jumped. Will she run to him? Will she offer him one last chance? She motioned for him to come closer. He obeyed instantly.
“Shit,” she said. “I left my red dress in the apartment. Just the perfect ending to this nightmare.”
He saw a ray of light. Here was some hope, at least. “I’ll get it for you,” he gushed. “I’ll go back there right away and get it for you.”
“Don’t bother, the flight is in an hour. It’s just shitty all around, that’s all.”
“I’ll get it for you,” he pleaded with her. “I’ll get it and mail it to you. I promise.”
She looked at him doubtfully, then waved her hand dismissively. “Ah, you promise. You and your promises. I don’t believe you.” She shook her head and turned on her heels. A minute later, she disappeared into the terminal.
Some years later, he would reread Stefan Zweig’s Amok to better understand the state he was in during those last two days in Prague, the feverish days after her departure. He rushed back to the apartment, but the landlady had already cleaned it and left. He roamed the neighborhood looking for a working payphone and finally located one across the street from the tram stop. He called the landlady’s number that he had kept in his pocket. A child answered the phone, but they couldn’t understand each other. He stayed close to the payphone and continued to call every half hour. Each time, that same child answered the phone. “Krasnoye platye!” he yelled into the receiver. The child responded in Czech. “Tvoje matka tam?” he yelled. The child hung up and stopped answering the phone.
Exhausted, he looked up at the sky. It had gotten dark. Night descended on Prague. She must have landed in Moscow already. She was probably back with her daughter. The thought of her being, this very moment, two thousand kilometers away seared him with pain. He couldn’t go on like this.
He found a cheap hostel hidden from view in a small alley by the river. The room sported a dozen beds, half of which were occupied. He didn’t really care. He asked a woman at the front desk to wake him at six. That turned out to be unnecessary; he couldn’t fall asleep. At five, he quietly got up, picked up his bag and left the hostel.
Early morning, he walked through a still empty city to the railway station and deposited his bag in one of the lockers. Half the night he had agonized over the appropriate time to call the landlady and, without much reasoning, resolved that seven in the morning would be just right. To his delight, she picked up the phone. Oh yes, it’s okay, not too early, she was about to leave for work. And yes, she has the dress, she wanted to return it but had no idea how to find him. And no, unfortunately, they cannot meet right now—a company bus is picking her up in ten minutes to take her to her forty-eight-hour shift at a steel factory in Kladno. And if he wanted to get the dress that day, he would have to come to Kladno—an hour’s journey from Prague by bus or commuter train.
They agreed to meet by the factory gate during her afternoon break. It was still early, and he could have spent a few hours strolling about Prague, but he was too anxious, too depleted by insomnia to indulge in sightseeing. He took the earliest commuter to Kladno. Once there, he found an empty bench in the small park by the station.
It was a workday morning with few people strolling through the park. An old woman, in a blue polyester windbreaker, occupied an adjacent bench. A paper bag filled with bread crumbs rested on her lap. Now and then, she fished a handful of crumbs from the bag and spread them copiously on the ground in front of her, much to the delight of the fluttering pigeons. Such scenes were all too familiar. They belonged to his own past, his Leningrad childhood. The pigeons looked exactly the same: the greedy street urchins whose brutishness he disdained. But he felt, in his heart, for the old woman feeding them. She belonged to a timeless breed of caretakers—the survivors of wars, of famines, of foreign occupations and endless personal tragedies. The compulsive pigeon feeders of his childhood were like this woman. Only they did not wear polyester windbreakers.
He met the landlady by the factory gate. She looked even more tired than she did when she approached him at the bus station two days ago. She handed him the dress in a plastic bag and hurried back to her workroom. There was a run-down post office around the corner from the station. He made it there forty minutes before closing time to mail the package to Moscow. The clerk, a friendly middle-aged woman, spoke basic Russian. He tried to extract from her some assurances that the package would reach the addressee. She couldn’t give him any guarantees.
“Russia, you know . . .”
She waved her hand, conjuring up the unpredictable fate of postal packages crossing the Russian border. “Hopefully, it will arrive . . . at some point.” He had hoped for more, for something more definitive, for at least a semblance of certainty to relieve his anguish. But certainty remained unattainable. There was no release.
Back in Prague, he managed to place a phone call to Moscow. She picked up the phone. The connection was poor, but he was thankful for that. At least he could pretend that the hostility he discerned in her voice was the function of faulty, dated equipment. He told her he had tracked down the dress and mailed it to her. “Whatever,” she said. He told her that hearing her voice always made him nervous. She said nothing. He told her how much he missed her, how desperate he was for her. It caused him to lose sleep and focus. She cut him off mid-sentence. “All you ever talk about is yourself. Always.” There was a long, static-filled silence. And, then, she told him it was over. No more extensions, no third chances.
Over. Over. Over.
“I only have an hour,” she announced briskly. Instantly he experienced a long dormant sensation—a tiny knot tightening in his stomach, a fleeting sense of déjà vu that dissipated as quickly as it arrived. “It’s been a craaazy day,” she continued, almost without a pause. “A partners’ meeting at the office, then a parent-teacher conference at Adam’s school, then I had to take him to his swimming lesson, dash back to work, back to the pool to pick up Adam and deliver him into the arms of his piano teacher. Damn! At least the other kid is all grown up. Who wants to be a modern woman?”
The rooftop bar of the posh Chelsea hotel was too swanky for his taste. She had texted him the address last night, soon after he checked into his Airbnb off Russell Square. He was not surprised by this expensive choice; he had come to expect no less from the moneyed Russian cohort in London. She exhibited the telltale signs of wealth, which were clear even to him: a Patek Phillipe watch, an inconspicuous ring of white gold encrusted with tiny stones (diamonds, he assumed), a white leather Gucci bag. He ordered a Martini; she asked for a glass of red wine. The Martini was excellent: well-balanced, not too dirty, terribly expensive.
She had pecked him on the cheek when she first walked in. Now, she critically examined his face and produced a handkerchief to wipe off the smudge of lipstick. “One would think I’m marking you. That’s what they call a kiss of death, right?” she said, laughing.
He smiled back. “You look great, terrific.”
She shook her head. “Bullshit, I’m old. No one is getting younger, my friend, no one. Each year it takes more effort to remain presentable. Effort and money.” She looked at him. “It’s so much easier for you men. So totally unfair, but that’s how it is. How long has it been? Twenty years?”
“Whatever, just proves my point.”
“The passage of time . . . ”
She shrugged. “It’s a cliché, but sure.” She received a text and appeared momentarily distracted by it. “Sorry, work stuff. So, where were we?”
“The passage of time.”
“Right, yes. Anything to slow it down. I work out like a maniac. I mean, whenever I get a breather. A gym rat with a yoga mat, that’s what my housekeeper calls me. Did I tell you? We just bought a new place in Notting Hill. So now our whole life revolves around the house. Well, and Adam, of course.” He didn’t remember her being that chatty and so eager to share the details of her life. She took another sip of her wine. “And my housekeeper, she is really something. I absolutely adore her. She tells me white women are terrified of their bodies. Can you believe it? I think she’s right. It’s so strange, I never thought of myself as a white woman. Not until we moved to London.”
He found it very easy to talk to her. There was a warmth and genuine friendliness about her that he didn’t recognize. It seemed as if he had just met a pleasant, if slightly too talkative, stranger. And then he remembered.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Did you ever get that package I sent? The red dress?”
She looked at him uncomprehendingly. “What red dress?”
“The red dress I sent you from Prague. Or, rather, from that other town—its name escapes me now.”
She strained to remember, but finally gave up. “Nope. Sorry, I don’t remember anything about that dress. A red dress, you say?”
“Yes,” he said, rummaging inside his computer bag. “The one you wore in Prague.” He pulled out a photograph. On it, she stood leaning on the balustrade of Charles Bridge in a red dress, looking past the camera. She took the photograph from his hands and studied it.
“Shit. I used to be so thin. Why did you have to show it to me? No one is getting younger and especially not thinner.”
“What about the dress? Do you remember it?”
“I don’t. Sorry. You have a better memory than I do. It’s unfair, so unfair.”
Another text message interrupted them. Again, she apologized for getting distracted. “I would’ve turned it off, but I can’t. My business partner is a major pain. Well, since we’re sharing photos, let me show you my fam, the two handsome boys—the hubby and Adam.” She showed him photos on her iPhone. The kid looked about twelve, sporting an Arsenal jersey, blond with dark brown eyes and dimpled cheeks. A cute boy next to his good-looking father.
She ordered another glass of red, asking the server to make it quick—she would be leaving soon. When the glass arrived, she lifted it against the sunlight. The wine absorbed the light and filled with cloudy crimson. “You know,” she said, slowly, “sometimes I wonder. Especially after a couple of these.” She set the glass down on the table. “I wonder . . . that’s the wrong word. I need to be careful here. I am curious—yes, curious what it would’ve been like if . . .” She smiled innocently, apparently unsure about her inebriated flight of fancy. They fell silent, but the brief pause was not too awkward. She shuffled in her seat. “Well, curiosity killed the cat. That’s what the English say, and let me tell you, these chaps have a way with words.”
She asked for the check. When it arrived, she cupped her hands over it, refusing to let him pay. “My treat, my pleasure.” After paying, she picked up her phone and ordered an Uber. “Well, I have to run now,” she said. “But listen, you should stay here a bit longer, order their carpaccio. It’s the best in London, at least that’s what the website says.” She smiled again, an open, friendly smile. “And the museums are all within walking distance. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert are open late on Fridays. I think the V&A has a special exhibit on vintage dresses or something. Jesus, I sound like a tour guide. But you’ll enjoy it, okay? Shake hands?”
They shook hands across the table. She picked up her bag and was about to leave, then paused, furrowing her brow: “Wait a minute,” she said. “Would you believe it? I do remember that dress. Yes, of course I remember it. It did arrive—a few months later, I think. You know, the Russian post . . .” She made a waving gesture with her wrist that brought him back to that agonizing afternoon in Kladno—the Czech postal clerk unable to assure him of a timely delivery. The memory flickered for a second, too brief to knock the wind out of him. “I can’t believe I forgot about it,” she continued, sounding bemused by her forgetfulness. “I never wore it again. Well, let me qualify. I tried to wear it once, on a date. Even put the dress on but decided it would be too . . . I don’t know. Weird? Too dramatic? So, no, I took it right off. And you know what, you shouldn’t have shown me that photograph—I look so thin, so very young in it.” She sighed. “Alright then, now I really have to run. The Uber driver is texting me. Don’t be a stranger, okay? Next time you’re in London we’ll have you over for a dinner. You should meet my adorable boys.”
And she was gone. He stayed for another half hour as she suggested, sipping his second Martini and answering work emails on his phone. A late-afternoon visit to the British Museum sounded like an excellent idea, and he would enjoy the walk through the park. Ever since his elementary school days he had a sentimental attachment to London’s landmarks, whose names were hammered into his head from those tedious English lessons: the Tower of London, the Nelson Column, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park and Speaker’s Corner, the British Museum. And he grew up addicted to the long-winded British novels—Dickens, Galsworthy, Maugham—that, in his imagination, forged an intimate connection to the distant city. If only someone had told him back then that, one day, he would walk these streets and visit these museums and swap memories with an old friend while sipping a Martini in a rooftop bar.
He left the bar in a good mood. He chose not to think this through, not to search for the origins of this joy that now overwhelmed him. His flight was not until the next evening. There was plenty of time for museums, for sightseeing. He might even return to this stylish hotel. Why not? Sure, the place was expensive, but the Martinis were excellent. He felt so free, so relieved in a way not experienced since childhood when sudden bursts of happiness sometimes lit up his days. But that was long ago. And even then he understood that joy could not be preserved, that it lacked permanence, that sooner or later life interferes and drains it of its essence.