he 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.
ow 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.
ince 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.