Fiction

Hard Currency

“Alexei hasn’t seen such lovely imperfection in a long time”

Illustration by Marlena Zuber

The last time Alexei paid for sex, he was eighteen years old. How’s that for a beginning, a secret, the truth? It had been his eighteenth birthday, only weeks before he and his parents left for the United States. And now, twenty-eight years later, everything is different: the city is named Saint Petersburg and its crumbling facades are being rebuilt and repainted. But walking down the street at midnight, the northern sun turning the canals pink, it’s as if Alexei is a teenager again, as if he never left. He’s no longer in touch with the friends he grew up with, but it’s as if they are beside him, drunk and singing as they lead Alexei down Leningrad’s bright streets. On his birthday, they’d laughed, collapsing against each other, saying, “Good luck!” as they pushed him toward an apartment block. It overlooked the Neva, and though the apartments were communal, the building was grand. Alexei felt dizzy and warm as he rang the doorbell.

The woman who answered was older than him by at least twenty years and wore her greying hair tied back. This was not what he’d imagined. He figured it was a joke, and waited for his friends to reappear, doubled over and laughing at him. But they were gone, and he was left in front of this woman with broad hips and a tired face. She said her name was Oksana. “Please come in.” Her voice was softer than expected.

When she led him to her room, he could hear voices belonging to the apartment’s other tenants. The hallway was littered with boots and coats, and smelled like his own family’s apartment: of tea and dust and sweat. Alexei had to lean against the wall to keep steady as he followed her. He watched Oksana’s back as she walked. Her black sweater was rough and pilled, and her skirt made a scratching sound against her legs. Had he been less drunk—or less timid—he would have left.

“Excuse me. I’m not sure—” Alexei didn’t finish the sentence, and Oksana didn’t acknowledge that he had spoken. She led him to her bedroom, and closed the door quietly behind them. There was a narrow cot against the wall, and a lamp beside it. She stood with her arms hanging at her sides, and seemed to see his disappointment. “Please.” She pointed to the bed. “Be comfortable.”

Then she took off her shoes. She unbuttoned the coarse sweater, then undid the zipper of her skirt and slid it off her hips. She folded both the skirt and the sweater, and placed them on a chair. She reached behind her to unclasp her bra, then slipped her tights and underwear down her thighs. He had seen his neighbour, Yadviga, coming out of the bathroom in only a towel. But he had never seen this: a woman entirely naked.

Oksana’s body was more pleasing than he’d expected: full breasts, pale skin, a small round stomach. She looked tough and capable, but not without vulnerability. He could see that, without clothing, she was cold. She had goosebumps on her arms, and her nipples puckered.

She sat on the single bed, and the springs made a sound that reminded him of loneliness. “Don’t be shy,” she said. That’s when he got down on his knees in front of her, and put his mouth to one of her breasts.

Now it’s his forty-sixth birthday, and the street along the Fontanka, the one he stumbled down with his singing friends, is full of entrepreneurs advertising boat rides to tourists. He’s long since lost touch with his friends—those young men he studied with, who understood loyalty better than anyone he has met since. Most of them must still live in this city, but Alexei probably wouldn’t recognize them if they passed him on Nevsky.

And the prostitute he has hired is nothing like Oksana. She is young and thin and she speaks proficient English. She tells him her name is Svetlana and she is from Novgorod.

“A nice city,” he says. “Do you miss it? ”

“No,” she replies.

They are at a bar made to resemble a beach, in an empty courtyard where sand has been poured onto the pavement. They sit at a plastic table, under a wide umbrella, and drink glasses of bad wine. From this table, Alexei can see the bright domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

He is trying to get as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible, so that he doesn’t have to think about the fact that he has bought a woman. He never planned to do this, and if his friends or his ex-wife found out, they would be appalled. North Americans, especially the educated, liberal type he associates with, don’t look kindly upon men who pay for sex. They are idealists. They don’t seem to understand that nearly every touch that passes between a man and a woman is exchanged on the most costly and devastating black market.

Besides, Alexei has been in Russia for two weeks now, and the women of Saint Petersburg—those exquisite creatures in stiletto heels—have got to him. Their faces are as cold as this climate in winter, and their eyes the same blue-grey as the northern sky. They scare him in a way even New York women never do, and he knows that the only way to tame his fear is to buy one of them.

And there’s also this: he is lonely. He’ll admit it. It’s his birthday, he is in a country that is no longer his, and he is alone.

“In Novgorod, we have a beautiful monastery where monks still live,” says Svetlana. There is a false rhythm to her voice that reminds him of a tour guide. “I think you would like it.”

“I’ve been there,” he says in Russian. “It was years ago. The church was being used to store grain.”

“You would prefer it now,” she replies in English. “It is very beautiful. Just the way it was in the twelfth century.”

An acquaintance of Alexei’s, an elderly professor at the state university, arranged this meeting. He guaranteed that Svetlana was clean and high class, that she was within Alexei’s price range, and that she was beautiful. This last part is not exactly true. She has stunning cheekbones, but there is something strange about her face. Her eyes are too far apart, and her chin is too sharp. It’s a face like those of the feral cats that roam the streets at night. Also, Alexei is no longer used to women who wear this much makeup: her eyes are rimmed with black, and her cheeks shimmer.

“How long have you lived in Petersburg? ” he asks her.

“Three years. I came with my sister.”

Alexei had been nervous and had arrived at the bar early to meet her. She’d walked in wearing a purple dress made of thick, glistening material. The dress had thin straps and no back, leaving the bones of her spine exposed. She wore matching purple heels and carried a gold purse that seemed to have many superfluous buckles.

She recognized him right away; though he has spent nearly half his life in this country, locals immediately pick him out as foreign. Maybe it’s his clothing: he wears a linen shirt, pants that are wrinkled from being in a suitcase, and soft leather shoes. Svetlana walked to the table and held out an anemic hand for him to shake.

“You’re Vladimir,” she said, because he had given a fake name over the phone. He’d bestowed Nabokov’s moniker on himself, and this seemed fitting, not extravagant at all. Many reviewers had already made the comparison.

She sat down across from him, lit a thin Vogue cigarette, and he bought them both a drink. Since then, she has seemed anxious to leave, to get her work over with, and twice she’s checked her cellphone for messages. It’s obvious that she doesn’t like him, and he isn’t sure why he insists on conversation.

He swallows the last of his wine. “I suppose we should go.”

“Of course.” She smiles in a deliberate, disdainful way, stretching her perfectly painted lips.

Alexei would have hated that smile if it weren’t for her crowded, cigarette-stained teeth. Most of the young American women he meets would have had them straightened and bleached by now. Alexei hasn’t seen such lovely imperfection in a long time.

Since he arrived, nothing has gone as planned. For one thing, he’d hoped to stay in the Astoria. This would have been a triumphant gesture—to return to this country and be treated like a success in the place that makes him most crave recognition. But money is tight right now. His investments aren’t healthy, books don’t sell the way they used to, and divorce is more expensive than he’d predicted.

So Alexei rented an apartment from a woman named Galina. He’d been impressed with the ad she’d placed on the Internet: she lived near the Fontanka, in a stately building where Tolstoy had once resided. But Galina lived at the back of the apartment block, past a courtyard so narrow and dark that to walk through it was like wading through a well. A pack of half-starved cats crowded around the door, and inside, the stairway was something out of Dostoyevsky—dank stone steps, mosquitoes, peeling paint.

Inside, there was a mattress on the floor, covered in flowery sheets. Thick, dusty curtains hung over the windows. The shower ran only cold, and the tiles smelled as though something was rotting behind them. Also, Galina had not tidied any of her possessions before she let her apartment. Her clothing filled the closet. The fridge was full of her food: yogurt, cottage cheese, and Koka Lite. The bathroom was the worst of all. Her makeup was strewn across the counter, and a box of tampons sat on the back of the toilet. This was why he would never live with a woman again. They invaded and spoiled domestic space, the way beer and souvenir kiosks ruined the view of the Kazan Cathedral.

He dropped his suitcase on the bed and looked around the apartment. He had left Manhattan and travelled for twenty hours to arrive here. At home, he owned a small but stunning loft. At home, he was important—one of the best writers alive today, according to the New York Times. His modern, spotless apartment constantly acknowledged that fact, reminded him of it, stroked his ego in the way of an attractive, devoted lover.

Looking around Galina’s apartment, this haven for cockroaches, he could have wept. Instead, he unbuttoned and removed his shirt, folded it, and placed it on the bed. He wondered briefly about the cleanliness of the sheets, then decided it was best not to consider such things. He went into the bathroom, which had a door that hung off only one hinge. He turned on the tap, leaned down, and put his head under the cool stream of water. Only a few weeks ago in New York, his hairstylist, Sylvia, had washed his hair. She had leaned over him, and he had seen down her artfully ripped T-shirt. She talked—probably about a club or a restaurant or her backpacking trip to Thailand—but he didn’t listen. With the water running, her words sounded muted and foreign. He’d closed his eyes and let them wash over him.

Here, he felt cold water hit his head, nothing like the comfort of Sylvia’s hands. This was how his grandmother had washed his hair when he was a boy. She did this in the evenings, before bed. He would lean over the kitchen sink with his shirt off. The water from the tap was so cold that it made his head hurt and his ears sting, but still, he loved this weekly ritual. She scrubbed his scalp with soap that smelled of wood chips, and he was able to forget the ordeals of his childhood: his loud neighbours, his drunk father, his worn and silent mother.

And now here he was, years after he had last seen his grandmother, years after his father had received a letter stating that she’d died in her kitchen at age fifty-five. Here he was, with his head under water, waiting for that familiar, comforting ache. And yes, there, he felt it—that pain behind the eyes. Welcome to Russia, he said to himself. Welcome home.

This is not the first time he has returned to this country. He’s been back on three previous occasions, and has written six novels set here. These novels have earned him prizes, and have been called deft, profound, and full of insight.

But he has turned his hand now to non-fiction. He took this journey to research his latest book, a biography of his grandmother. She was born in Leningrad in 1929, and lived through the war and Stalin. She organized and paid for his family’s exit visa from the USSR, while she stayed behind and died before Alexei had a chance to go back to visit her. She’d lived through it all, marrying at fifteen, and giving birth to Alexei’s father at sixteen. “Everything happens quickly for me,” she had liked to say, and this turned out to be true even of her death. One minute she was boiling potatoes, the next she was dead of a heart attack on her kitchen floor.

When Alexei heard this from his father, he didn’t believe it. It was impossible that his grandmother was dead. She had always been a survivor. She’d lived through the blockade by making soup from cattle horn buttons and the leather of her small shoes. The winter of 1941 gave her such severe frostbite that she lost two fingers on her right hand, but still, she set up traps and caught stray cats to feed herself and her sisters. Once, she’d pulled out her dead grandmother’s gold teeth and exchanged them for food.

This is his material: the personal and costly reckoning of history. He has written nearly the entire manuscript except for the epilogue, wherein he, the author, returns to his childhood home. Not to the communal apartment where he grew up with his parents—that was torn down years ago and replaced with a Pizza Hut. No, to his true home, outside the city centre, where his grandmother had lived.

He has already imagined it: the older man, the writer, will return to Moskovskaya after a twenty-eight-year absence. The current occupants will embody today’s Russia perfectly: they will be young engineers or computer programmers, perhaps newly married. They will be kind and listen to the reason for his visit. Perhaps they will recognize his name, and they will surely recognize his desire. They will understand the simultaneous pull and fear of the past.

They will allow him to walk through the apartment again. He will see the kitchen where he ate blini with his grandmother, and the closet-sized room where she slept. He will smell the same dusty smell that the rooms always had. He will be offered tea. This ending, the one he can see so clearly, will encapsulate the past and look toward the future.

There is only one problem: he can’t do it. He travelled twenty hours by plane—taking a circuitous route through Paris, Frankfurt, and Moscow because he used Air Miles—and now he can’t bring himself to get on the metro and go the seven stops to Moskovskaya. He has been here two weeks and makes an attempt every day. He enters Nevsky station. He buys a token, then stands on an escalator that seems endless, descending into the deep belly of the city. Here is where his troubles begin. This far down, the air smells slightly of sulphur, and he has trouble breathing. He can read Cyrillic easily, but the small blue signs confuse him. People push past him and crush themselves onto trains, and the thought of so many bodies next to his own makes him feel ill. Once, last week, he tried to imagine he was in New York, taking the subway to see his agent or his hairstylist, but even that didn’t work.

Maybe he’s depressed. He has reason to be. His marriage recently crumbled like Saint Petersburg’s plaster walls—a marriage that was ignored and badly maintained, abandoned to the elements and given only the occasional coat of paint. You see, he’s not himself: even his metaphors are tired. Maybe it’s lack of sleep. Here, the constant sunlight and mosquitoes keep him up all night. He has been unable to do anything since he arrived. He avoided bathing in Galina’s cold shower until he began to smell like one of the drunks who sleep on the sidewalk. He craved Uzbek mutton and Georgian bread, but the idea of entering restaurants by himself—looking at menus, dealing with slow service, paying exaggerated prices—was too exhausting. So for two weeks, he lived off street food: blini with jam, ice cream sandwiches, and Fanta. He supplemented this diet with Russian Standard, which he drank by himself in his rented apartment.

Maybe it’s the uncertainty. He doesn’t know what he’ll find at his grandmother’s apartment. What if the tenants are drunk or stupid or not home? And what if the apartment has been torn down, or transformed so fully—into luxury condos, say—that he doesn’t recognize it? Whatever the reason, he never made it to his grandmother’s apartment, and now it’s too late. His flight for New York leaves tomorrow morning.

As they walk down Nevsky, Svetlana hooks her arm in his. He understands this gesture means only that she requires support in her high heels, but still, it gives him courage. “Would you like to have dinner? ” he asks. “I haven’t had a good meal in a while.”

She shrugs her thin shoulders. “Yes.”

He takes her to a Georgian place, and since it’s his first decent meal in two weeks, and his last night in Russia, he orders extravagantly: eggplants stuffed with almonds, pikeperch soup, lamb shashlik, bread baked with cheese and egg, and 200 grams of vodka. The alcohol arrives first. Alexei pours from the small, cold carafe and watches Svetlana’s cheeks and neck flush from the first shot.

The restaurant is perfect: it’s so loud they don’t have to make conversation. A singer with a microphone, an electric guitar, and a synthesizer croons folk songs. And a group at the table nearby celebrates the birthday of a chubby blonde named Tanya. The singer dedicates all his songs to her, and she dances in front of him unsteadily.

The food arrives: crushed almonds rolled in strips of roasted eggplant, fatty lamb on metal skewers, and bread with a bright, raw egg on top. Svetlana and Alexei eat in silence. She serves herself minuscule portions—she must be counting calories—and he wants to tell her of his grandmother, a woman who survived the Siege by making pancakes out of cottonseed and sawdust. But he resists the urge to be didactic; it’s one of his major faults, according to his ex-wife. Instead, he watches Tanya dance. The birthday girl sways with her soft arms in the air, her eyes closed. Every few minutes, a friend steadies her and leads her back to the table, where they pour her another shot and give a toast in her honour.

“These are the happiest people I’ve seen since I arrived,” Alexei calls to Svetlana over the music.

“That woman is not happy.” The prostitute waves her fork dismissively. “She is terrified of how old she is becoming. Look. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring.”

“Wedding rings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”

Svetlana leans toward him across the table. “‘Cracked up to be? ’”

“It’s an expression. It means that something isn’t as good as it seems.” Alexei looks at her as the neck of her purple dress gapes open and exposes part of her bony chest. “How old are you? ”

“Older than I look.” Her smile—that false thing she flashes like a piece of jewellery—convinces him she’s lying.

“It’s my birthday today,” he says. “I’m turning forty-six.”

“What? ” She points to the singer. “I can’t hear you.”

“My birthday,” he yells. “It’s today.”

For the first time, Svetlana laughs. “You and Tanya,” she says.

The combination of the vodka, the prostitute’s laughter, and the food—so rich in his mouth—gives Alexei courage. “Can I ask you a favour? Will you go somewhere with me? ” He speaks loudly and in Russian, to be certain she understands. “I want to see where my grandmother lived before she died.”

“You want to fuck in your grandmother’s house? ” Svetlana seems unfazed.

“No.” He pours them both another shot of vodka—it can only help. “I just want to see it. I haven’t been back in a long time. And I don’t want to go alone.”

She puts down her fork. “It will cost more.”

“I understand that.”

She tilts her head and looks at him as though she finds him curious. She laughs, and it’s a laugh he could learn to like.

“Fine.” She raises her glass. “Happy birthday.”

Here is another secret: he hates this country. His books have been hailed as full of genuine affection for his country and its people, but he has no love for his motherland. And he will never be one of those expatriates who become nostalgic for Soviet life. He is not writing this memoir out of a sense of loss or regret, but to rid himself of this place. His grandmother’s is the only memory that ties him to Russia, and once he has paid tribute to her, he’ll never return. After this, he’ll write books about New York, California, Boston. About anywhere but this country that slowly destroyed his parents, and allowed his grandmother to die alone.

What he hates most is the way this place ignores him. New York will forget you, but at least—for a brief moment—it takes note. On occasion, it even celebrates you and seems to belong to you. He has written six books, and they have received prestigious prizes, but Russian translators, newspapers, reviewers, and publishers—who are so attentive to other, lesser writers—don’t seem to care for Alexei. Being here reminds him of being a child, mostly ignored by his parents and the other inhabitants of their apartment.

He hates this place, but like a needy lover, he has worked tirelessly for its attentions. He has chronicled the country’s political shifts. He has invented characters that moved through Moscow’s overwhelming streets. He has borrowed the people’s accents, their pain, their jokes, and transformed them into stories, into something he can almost own. For his efforts, he has won prizes in America; he has made money. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is much better than those young writers, those naive MFAs who spend a month in a place then decide they are experts, decide they are owed something. He feels sorry for them, poor things, always tourists in their own settings. He has done better than them, and no worse than the politicians, the oligarchs, the police officers, the mail-order brides, the men who sell stolen umbrellas and bubble blowers and mechanical rabbits in the streets. He only did what he had to do. He only took what was his, and a little bit more. He only used this place, like the sad and glorious hooker that she is.

The metro lines are so deep below the city’s marshy surface that the escalator ride down takes at least four minutes. The station is far below Petersburg’s street level of bruising commerce—an underworld of electric light and bad air, a separate city that seems more real than the actual one. The long ride down reminds Alexei of the first minutes of sleep, a slow descent into dreams.

Four minutes is a long time when you have nothing to say to your companion. So Alexei is grateful for the second bottle of vodka, which they’d bought from a store on Nevsky. Svetlana had pointed to what she wanted, then reached into Alexei’s pocket and taken out a 100-ruble bill. She must have noticed, earlier, where he kept his wallet.

On the escalator, she keeps the bottle in her purse. She takes it out and sips furtively, careful not to be seen by police. For a woman who can’t weigh much over 100 pounds, she has an impressive tolerance for alcohol. Despite the vodka and the high purple shoes, she is steady on her feet. She is unlike the young women he’s met in the States, women his ex-wife called “groupies.” The ones who approach him at readings, holding his books against their chests. Those young women are pleasantly surprised when he listens to their youthful literary opinions, when he buys them a glass or two of wine. They seem to feel as though they are breathing a different kind of air when they’re with him, and they’re flushed and thankful for it.

Svetlana is not thankful. When he tells her that he is a writer, she looks him up and down as though appraising him for value. “Are you a famous writer? ” she asks. “Or just a writer? ”

“I’ve done well. I’ve worked hard.”

“You’ve been fortunate,” she corrects him, then tips vodka into her mouth.

“I’ve won a National Book Award,” he says, before he can stop himself. “And a Pulitzer.”

But Svetlana points to a gypsy who stands at the bottom of the escalator, selling live kittens on leashes made of string. “Oh,” she says. “So cute.”

“Don’t touch those. They’re probably diseased.”

She doesn’t seem to hear him. She steps off the escalator and bends toward the cats. Some listlessly lift their noses to smell her hand.

“Good price.” The vendor picks up a white kitten by the scruff of its neck. “This one.” Svetlana points to a thin black cat with eyes similar to her own. “I like this one.”

“It looks sick,” says Alexei. “It’ll be dead in two days.”

“It’s weak.” Svetlana reaches to stroke the kitten’s head. “I’d feed it milk and sausage.”

“It’ll grow to be an attractive animal.” The vendor slips the collar off its neck and speaks to Alexei. “As beautiful as your girlfriend.”

Svetlana looks at Alexei with an expression he recognizes. He remembers seeing this same look on his grandmother’s face, and it’s one he appreciates seeing on his agent’s brow. Svetlana is a negotiator. “If you buy it for me,” she says, “I’ll name it after you.”

“My ego isn’t that fragile. I don’t need a stray cat named after me.”

She touches Alexei’s collar. “But what is your name? ”

“You don’t remember? ”

“I mean your real name.”

Her casual knowledge of his deception makes him feel as though there’s been some intimacy between them—something so quick and subtle that he hadn’t noticed it. “Alex,” he says, without being able to help it. “Alexei.”

“Oh.” She looks disappointed. “That’s not a good name.” She lifts the kitten to see its underside. “Anyway, it’s a girl.”

“Fine.” Alexei pulls out his wallet. “I’ll get it for you.” In his wallet, he finds only a 500-ruble bill in with his American dollars. The vendor insists he doesn’t have change, and in the end Alexei hands over the 500. There isn’t time to argue; Svetlana has already walked off with the cat.

Alexei runs after her, and is out of breath when he steps on the train. These facts—his aging, fallible body and the way the vendor ripped him off—have made him irritable. And the kitten does seem sick; it’s too docile, and its eyelids are heavy.

“You should say thank you,” says Alexei.

Svetlana looks at him, then blinks—her eyelashes dropping and lifting like theatre curtains. “You seem like a nice person,” she says, without sounding impressed.

This was not what he’d wanted. He’d hoped for a sweet girl, someone willing to be charmed, or at least to fake it. And he doesn’t understand why she insists on speaking English, as though to make him feel even more like a stranger here. They stand beside each other in silence, and as the tracks curve, she tilts toward him. Their hips touch, but he doesn’t put his arm out to steady her.

“What about you? ” he says, as they approach Frunzenskaya. “What’s your real name? ”

“I don’t tell men that.”

“It’s only fair now.”

“No, it’s not the same for me to know your name. I meet so many people. I’ll forget your name by tomorrow.”

“That’s comforting.”

“If you want, you can call me Lana. It’s what I like.”

“Sure.” The train speeds up, and air whistles through the windows. “Lana.”

She isn’t listening. She buries her face in the scruff of her nameless kitten’s neck, and whispers to it in Russian.

“I love you,” she tells it. “I love you, my dear one.”

It’s one in the morning when they reach their stop, and Moscow Square is nearly empty. There are only a group of teenagers drinking beer and performing skateboard tricks, and a woman selling dahlias from a plastic bucket. She entreats Alexei to buy a flower for his “princess,” but he speaks a resolute “nyet,” and walks toward Lenin.

The statue is not as big as he remembers, but still, it presides over the setting sun. Lenin looks handsome and dapper in a three-piece suit, like a man ready for the office. He still has dignity, despite the teenagers drinking beer in his shadow. Despite Alexei himself, the prostitute beside him, and the kitten she holds in her arms.

“I used to love this place,” says Alexei. “I used to play here.”

“This is what you wanted to see? ” Lana taps a nail, painted with glittery polish, against the side of the vodka bottle. “You could have bought a postcard.”

The more she drinks, he notices, the more she hates him.

“Were you alive then? ” He points to the House of Soviets. “Do you remember any of this? ”

“I’m not a child.”

“You could have fooled me.”

“I don’t like the expressions you use.”

“Here.” He takes out his wallet and hands her 500 American dollars. Far too much. “Here’s some money for a cab.”

She stares at the bills as though she’s never seen cash before. “What for? ”

“This was a mistake.”

“You want me to go? ”

“For one thing, I’m still officially married.”

“Are you joking or are you serious? I can never tell with Americans.”

“Please leave.”

“You don’t like me? ”

“That’s not it.”

“You’re too famous for me? ” Her voice has simpering, insulting edge. “Too famous in America? ”

“Go home,” he says. “Go home to your mother or your pimp or whoever buys you that ridiculous perfume.”

She grabs the money, and he turns and walks the way he knows by heart.

“I buy it!” she yells after him. “I buy my ridiculous perfume!”

As a boy, he took the metro every Saturday. He counted the seven stops on his fingers, then got off the train by pushing past strangers’ legs. He walked up the station’s staircase into the bright outdoor light, and crossed Moscow Square. He stopped to salute Lenin, then marched down Demonstration Street, humming military songs and imagining he was the leader of a great parade.

When he reached his grandmother’s courtyard, he began to run. He ran up the stairway, then knocked on her door. She always answered with her arms crossed and a smile on her face. “What’s this? ” she said when she saw him. “What’s this precious thing on my doorstep? ” Right then, his love for her threatened to make his heart explode. He’d throw himself against her legs and hold onto her skirt.

This is why he needs to return to his grandmother’s house, because he hasn’t felt anything like that since. He loved his grandmother so dearly. He loved the pancakes she served him, covered in condensed milk. He loved the way she boiled water on her gas stove, and the way she served tea in china cups—cups she wrapped in newspaper and hid under her bed, so the neighbours wouldn’t see that she kept such beautiful things. He loved how she poured milk into those cups and how the milk formed clouds in the tea, clouds that moved quickly, like those over Palace Square. He loved how the china felt hot in his hands, and the way his grandmother crushed half a lemon into the bottom of her cup.

He never understood how his grandmother acquired her own apartment, not to mention the tea, the lemons, and the good flour to make pancakes. She always knew which store had goods on which day, and was always one of the first in line. He never questioned this. He only knew that in his grandmother’s apartment, he never felt alone and always felt safe. He has lived in the United States for twenty-eight years, and has travelled extensively—Amsterdam, Paris, Prague—but never again has he found such a place.

What he loved most were his grandmother’s stories. After lunch, over the sound of hot water dripping inside the radiator, she told him of talking wolves, women who turned into crows, and winter that appeared in the shape of a man, wearing a long fur coat and a beard. He was in love with those stories. Is that possible? Can a boy be in love with his grandmother’s words? If we expand that frail little word—love—if we breathe into it and stretch it like a balloon, fill it like a lung, then yes. Yes, it is possible. A boy can be in love with his grandmother’s stories, with his grandmother herself, in her apartment off Moskovskaya, eight floors up. Because when his grandmother spoke, ghosts appeared, witches had teeth of iron, and geese could lift and carry little boys away in their beaks.

He had worried that he wouldn’t remember the way, but he finds it easily. He turns left down Demonstration, then takes another right. There is one long block before he reaches his grandmother’s apartment. He passes a small pink church that—since his acquaintance with American pastries—reminds him of a cupcake. Everything has changed. This is now a nice neighbourhood. The trees, which had been thin when he was a boy, are tall and leafy. There is grass in front of the buildings, and it appears as though someone waters it, someone mows it. There are BMWs parked on the streets. Somewhere nearby, a car alarm rings.

Only the apartment buildings themselves haven’t improved. They’re made of the same cinder blocks, with iron bars on the windows and small balconies. They’re all identical, but still, he recognizes his grandmother’s. He walks into the courtyard, where there’s now a swing set and a teeter-totter.

Alexei doesn’t do what he’d planned to do. He doesn’t pause to look up at his grandmother’s window, eight storeys up. He doesn’t even stop to consider the lucky accident that the building’s heavy metal door has been left unlocked. He doesn’t climb the stairs slowly, noticing the smell of cooking from the apartments. He takes them two at a time, the way he did as a child. If he had slowed down, he would have had time to be angry with himself, angry that he came back like this: drunk, taking the train with a hooker on his arm, and without dignity. The dignity he treasures. The dignity he’s worked his whole life to acquire, the same way some people work to buy a house or a car.

He reaches the eighth floor and doesn’t wait to catch his breath. He walks straight to his grandmother’s apartment, number thirty-one. And without pausing to take this moment in, without stopping to check his watch—which would have reminded him that it was nearly two in the morning—he knocks on the door.

Alexei isn’t so drunk that he expects his grandmother to answer. So when she does—when his grandmother opens the door and whispers, “Who’s there? ”—he can hardly breathe.

“Babushka,” he whispers. “My little grandmother.”

The hallway is dark—only a dim light comes from within the apartment behind her—and she has opened the door just a few inches. But Alexei knows it’s her. She wears her same white nightshirt that reaches to the floor. And she still has those fierce, intelligent eyes. She does not look surprised to see him.

“It’s me,” he says, then reaches out to take her hand. “It’s Alexei.”

That’s when a man appears and stands beside her, opening the door all the way. “What’s going on? ” He wears track pants, a green terry cloth robe, and slippers. The robe is undone and shows his wide, sunburned chest. His hair is thinning, and there’s grey stubble on his face. He looks the way Alexei might, if he’d never left Russia. “Who are you? ” he says.

That’s when Alexei’s grandmother speaks in a stranger’s voice. “It’s just some fool,” she says. “He’s drunk.”

That isn’t her. That isn’t his grandmother.

“I’m sorry,” says Alexei. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“Yes, you have,” says the man. “You’ve disturbed my family.”

“I’m sorry.” Suddenly, Alexei is sober. “I forgot about the time. I got confused.”

“You woke my mother up.”

“Who cares? ” says the woman. “I was awake anyway.”

How could he have mistaken this woman for his grandmother? It’s true that the white nightgown and the shadowy light make her look like a ghost. But this woman has the harsh voice of a lifelong smoker, a sneering expression, and bad posture.

“And you frightened my wife,” says the man with the red chest—how did he get a sunburn in this climate? He must work outside. He must be shirtless on some scaffolding all day.

“Now you’re getting angry,” says the woman who is not Alexei’s grandmother. “I’m going to bed.”

“You woke me up.” The man stares at Alexei. “I work in the morning.”

“I’m a Russian American writer.” Alexei begins a speech he’d rehearsed for this occasion. “I was born here in 1963. I’ve returned now because I’m writing a memoir of the past.”

“I remember the past, too,” says the man, switching to thick, accented English. “But I don’t wake people up to tell them about it.”

“My grandmother lived in your apartment.” Alexei tries to keep his voice steady. “That’s why I’m here. It’s meaningful to me.”

A younger woman appears in the doorway; this must be the wife. She puts her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Who is it, Misha? ”

The man’s eyes don’t move from Alexei’s face. “He says he used to live here.”

“Lucky him.” She yawns, covering her mouth with the back of her hand.

“I’m sorry I woke you.” It’s not just the vodka that’s turning Alexei’s stomach. There’s something familiar about this scene: a man—like himself, about the age he is now—showing up at this apartment in the middle of the night. This has happened before, he’s sure of it. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“He’s writing a book.” Misha says this without irony, so perhaps he is a person who likes books. A reader. This gives Alexei hope.

“I only wanted to see the apartment for a few minutes,” says Alexei. “Would that be all right? I would come back some other time, but I leave for America in six hours.”

Misha has stopped looking at him. He is carefully belting his robe so it covers his chest. “You want a tour? ”

“I have some money.” Alexei takes out his wallet. “I’ll pay.”

Misha looks at the wallet. “My home,” he says, “is not a museum.” There is a tired, long-harboured fury in his voice. He reaches out with a slow assurance and grabs Alexei’s neck. He grips a tendon hard enough to leave a bruise. “Why don’t you go to the Hermitage? ” His face is close now, and Alexei can smell onions and tobacco on his breath. “They’ll take your money.”

“Don’t do this.” Alexei uses the same hopeless voice he’d used during his first days of high school in America. When he showed up for class with a Russian accent and the wrong clothes, and was kicked to the ground for it. “Please,” he says, though he knows it won’t do any good. He knows the ending to this story. It has been years, but he remembers the way it feels to be punched in the face. He remembers the taste of blood, and closes his eyes in expectation of it.

It doesn’t come. What happens instead is even more humiliating. He hears, in the stairwell, the click of heels on the steps, and the slosh of vodka in a bottle. Then the stairwell’s door swings open, and there she is. In her purple dress, with the kitten slung under her arm. She looks at Misha, his wife, then at Alexei. She smiles, showing those teeth. Then she laughs.

“I knew he’d get in trouble,” she says.

“Who are you? ” Misha still holds Alexei by the neck, making it difficult to breathe. “Are you a friend of his? ”

“He says he’s famous in America,” says Lana. “But I’ve never heard of him.”

Misha lets go of Alexei’s neck and looks at him as though perhaps this man is simply what his mother said: a fool, bothersome and insane. Alexei leans against the wall to regain his balance and what remains of his dignity.

“I’m rescuing you,” Lana whispers to Alexei. “You should say thank you.” Then, to Misha and his wife, she says, “Do you want a drink? ” She holds up the half-full bottle. “And maybe you could give my cat some milk? I think she’s hungry.”

The older woman appears in the hallway, silent in her bare feet and her ghostly nightgown. She takes the kitten from Lana’s arms. “Look at this,” she says. “Look at this precious thing.”

Everything has changed. A wall has been knocked down, and the apartment is twice the size it used to be. The bedroom where Alexei’s grandmother slept now belongs to Misha’s mother, and she has filled it with Orthodox icons. The kitchen has been modernized: a dishwasher and a laundry machine stand side by side. The walls have been painted green, and there is linoleum on the floor.

Misha leads Alexei and Lana to the table, takes out three shot glasses, and Lana fills them. The kitchen lights are bright and buzz like mosquitoes.

The wife takes out a can of mushrooms to eat with the vodka, and the three of them—Alexei, Lana, Misha—drink the first shot unceremoniously, without even a toast. Lana refills the glasses immediately.

“Drink,” she says to Alexei, as though offering medicine. “It’s your birthday.” Then, to Misha, she holds up the second shot and says, “To your home.”

Lana and Misha talk and laugh—Misha is drunk now, and friendly. But Alexei hears them as though they are far away, in distance and in years. He is a boy again, six years old. His grandmother stands in the kitchen—this kitchen—with a man who has arrived in the middle of the night. A man who seems somewhat older than Alexei is now, wearing a pressed suit and a wool coat. It is always the same man. He looks to be someone high ranking, and Alexei despises him.

“He’s a celebrity in America,” says Lana, and Alexei hears her cruel laughter, feels her hand on his leg. “He’s very important.”

Alexei watches this man and his grandmother from the doorway—they don’t see him, because they have left the lights off, because they think he is asleep, and because he is a small, clever boy. He climbed from his bed without making a sound. He moved silently to the doorway, and he stands there without breathing. He watches as his grandmother and this man whisper as though they are friends. She even laughs at something he says as she accepts payment. He gives her currency, of course, but also marvellous things that she’ll share with Alexei the next day: a fresh pineapple, mandarin oranges, or a box of candies.

“He’s asleep.” Lana touches Alexei’s neck, which is still tender from the way Misha choked him. “Wake up,” she says, without gentleness. “Wake up.”

Alexei opens his eyes and drinks what they put in front of him. “Let us live long,” he hears them say. “Let us meet again.” Alexei thinks of that man, the face he didn’t know he remembered, a shadow in his mind, and he feels sick and unsteady in his chair. He’s avoided this place for years. He remembers, now, his reasons.

By the time Alexei and Lana leave the apartment, the metro has stopped running, so they negotiate with a driver on his way to an early shift at work. He agrees to take them as far as the Zagorodny for 200 rubles, and he drives quickly, blasting Abba’s “Mama Mia” from the stereo system. In the back seat, Lana leans against Alexei, her face pressed to his chest as though she is listening to his pulse. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open, and Alexei thinks she’s asleep until she says, in Russian, “I’m going to throw up.”

The driver pulls over near the Obvodny Canal and tells them to get out; he doesn’t want anyone being sick inside his Ford. Alexei pulls Lana from the back seat, and watches as she vomits on the road. Then he sits beside her on the curb. She rests her head on her arms, her knees curled to her chest. The kitten seems to sense that she isn’t well, and brushes up against her legs and her sides, leaving fur on the stiff lamé of her dress. Alexei tries to flag down another ride, but the few cars that pass don’t stop. Lana lifts her face and squints into the morning sun.

“Come on.” The makeup around her eyes is smudged, and her lipstick has worn away. “We’ll have to walk.”

She takes off her heels and goes barefoot, watching the ground for broken glass. Alexei carries her purple shoes and her gold handbag, and she holds the kitten. Neither of them speak, but walking sobers them up.

There is hardly anyone in the streets: they pass only a man collecting garbage and a group of girls who walk tipsily home from a bar. At this hour, in this light, there is something sad and spectacular about the wide, empty avenues. The buildings look worn but proud behind the mesh and scaffolding and advertisements for anti-cellulite cream. They walk slowly, and Alexei has time to read the graffiti. He’s especially fond of the words I love you eternally, sprayed over a crumbling bit of sidewalk. He sees where plaster has chipped away from walls, where red brick shows through like scabs that have been opened. Without people and cars, the city seems to have generously slipped off her clothes for him. She seems to show him her truest nature, her deepest secret: that she hates him, and everyone else. That she is not meant to be inhabited, only admired.

They pass the Anichkov Bridge, then the circus with its rooftop puppets that bend and shake with the wind. They walk all the way to the Summer Garden, through the lime trees, to the bank of the river. Here, they stop at a kiosk to buy breakfast: two glasses of kvass served in plastic cups, a Twix bar for him and a Bounty for her.

It would have made a better ending if they were somewhere else. There is nothing romantic about this side of the river. The view is of the Samsung building, Megaphone Telecommunications, and a huge advertisement for the Baltika Breweries. The neon signs are reflected in the Neva’s dark surface.

For the first time, Alexei wants her. He wants to bring her to his rented apartment, unzip that purple dress, and lay her down on that flowery bed. But sex seems implausible now, and he has a plane to catch. “Where do you live? ” he asks her.

“Far away. Near Grazhdansky.”

Alexei can’t imagine her in the suburbs, living on one of many geometric streets, in a building that resembles every other building. Her clumped eyelashes and shiny dress belong only here, among the exquisite facades of central Petersburg.

“I don’t have time to go home,” she says. “I have to be at work in an hour.”

“Aren’t you at work right now? ”

“I’m also a tour guide. I have to show the Russian Museum to a group of Canadians.” She looks down at the kitten, which stays close to her ankles. “Maybe one of the babushkas will look after her while I do my tour.”

“Canadians? ”

“They’re worse than Americans. So boring and polite.” Lana leans on the cement barrier, the only thing between her and a sharp drop to the river. “What was your grandmother’s name? ”

Alexei leans against the barrier, too, and feels the cold granite against his arms. “Anya.”

“That’s pretty.”

“That’s what you should name the cat.”

“Maybe.” Lana straightens her dress. “Is this all right? Will the Canadians think I look fine? ”

“The Canadians will love you,” he says. “I’ll buy you a coffee before you meet them.”

“It’s okay. This is normal.”

Her eyes close slowly, and she leans into him. He feels the jut of her hip against his own. She doesn’t smell like perfume anymore, but like her own sweat.

“Lana,” he says her name quietly, as though it’s hers.

Her eyes remain closed, and he wonders if she’s asleep. He doesn’t mind. And when she reaches into his pocket to pull out his wallet, he doesn’t mind that either. She takes some bills, and slips the wallet back into his pants.

“Take more,” he says. “Take it all. You saved my life.”

She laughs. “That man wouldn’t have killed you. And we didn’t even consummate.”

She says this word—consummate—without a hint of irony, and it nearly knocks Alexei over. When was the last time he heard someone use that stunning, antiquated word? It’s a word that seems thrilling and magical, like it belongs in a fairy tale. He wants to repeat it over and over. Then he wants to attach it to another word: love. Yes, love. Liubov. A word he uses so rarely.

Is that possible? Has he fallen in love? How stupid—he knows better. This girl doesn’t even like him, and she’ll forget his name tomorrow. He also knows that his own feelings—so pure, so generous—can only occur when a person is far from home and hasn’t slept in weeks. As soon as he gets back to New York, to his deadlines and his ex-wife, he’ll get over it. And he will not write about it. This old cliché of a feeling doesn’t belong in the kind of books he writes. It is at home in the kind he doesn’t allow himself to read, even on airplanes. Books full of false promises and hopeful, misleading logic.

He remembers seeing his grandmother with that man in the kitchen. They were all business in their quiet, breathless proceedings: they never removed any clothing, never kissed. He was too young to fully understand what they were doing. But once, after, he saw them press their bodies together as though money and favours hadn’t changed hands. It was summer, and though it was night, light filtered through the kitchen’s thick curtains. So Alexei leans against Lana and smells her unclean hair. He lets her reach up and touch his face. She does this gently, as though she means it. And beside the dark, well-used waters of the Neva, he buys it.

This appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Deborah Willis was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories.

Marlena Zuber contributed a series of maps and drawings to the monograph Stroll, published in 2010. She illustrated Fear of Fighting, a novel by Stacey May Fowles, in 2008.