Window on a Burning Man – Part 4 of 7

I had showered and was unpacking when the intercom rang. I pressed the entry button, then opened the apartment door and waited for the lift to arrive. Katya stepped out and broke into a smile when she saw me. Once she was inside I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her against me, and kissed her lips and cheeks. They were cold, and as I took her hands in mine, I could feel they were as well. It had been warmer in Vilnius.

“How are you?” I said.

“I’m fine!”

“You need to warm up!” I hugged and kissed her again, and this time her lips parted. When I pulled away, she smiled at me with a slightly idiotic look of expectancy that was, I knew by now, the face she wore when truly happy.

“You want a drink?” I asked as she took off her coat and scarf.

“Sure.”

“Beer? Wine?”

“Beer’s fine,” she said.

We went into the kitchen and I ferreted around in the fridge. I plucked a beer out and waved it at her. “You need a glass?”

“Oh, no thanks, the bottle’s fine.” I took a second one for myself. “So how was your trip?” she asked.

“It was good,” I said, flipping off the caps and handing her a bottle, “really good. It’s a nice place, Vilnius.” We went into the living room and sat on the sofa.

“I got your pictures,” she said. “It does look nice.”

“How was Spain?”

“It was okay. A bit more traveling and lectures than I expected, but it was fine.”

“Did you take any good photos?”

“Some. The best ones were in Castilla-La Mancha; the other places weren’t that great.”

I grinned. “Oh, is that where your windmills are?”

“Yes,” she said in a condescending tone. “The extremely famous windmills that you’d never heard of.”

“All right, all right! Just because I didn’t have a classical education in Moscow like you. But I make up for it with my rugged good looks and rustic charm.”

I thrust my chin at her and she laughed, pushing my face away playfully. “That’s just as well, caveman!”

We were sat close together with my hand on her thigh. I kissed her again, and she wasn’t as cold as before. She turned her head and we kissed on the mouth.

“It’s good to see you,” I said. “Really good.”

“You too.”

“I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

She waited for me to make a move. “Shall we go somewhere else?” I asked softly.

“Yes,” she said, putting down her bottle with an inch still left in it. I’d already finished mine. I stood up and took her hand, pulling her upright, and led her into the bedroom.

It was gone nine o’clock by the time we emerged, and we were hungry. “I could make us some pasta,” I said. “It’s not very fancy, but it’s quick.”

Her face was flushed and her hair a mess. “Yes, that would be fine.”

“I’ll open a bottle of wine and you can join me in the kitchen, or make yourself at home on the sofa. It’s up to you.”

She smiled. “No, I’ll stay and chat with you.”

I should have been happy too, but I wasn’t. The problem I had was one that affects all men, whereby the postorgasm mindset differs dramatically from the one that preceded it. When I’d greeted Katya at my front door, all doubts and apprehensions had vanished. When we’d had sex, it was with such passion and energy that I knew we’d been pushed into emotional territory we’d not yet discovered, at least with each other, and I was euphoric. We were a couple in that wonderful stage of a relationship where physical comfort is absolute, yet the boredom of familiarity is still several months away, and nothing could have been better.

Yet as I lay on the bed and watched her as she went to the bathroom, her naked beauty mine to enjoy, I imagined this very same body being led into an orgy of strangers by a man she claimed loved her. I’d imagined the lecherous look on the participants’ faces, their eyes widening with desire, grasping hands reaching out . . . with an effort, I had forced myself to think of something else.

My respite was temporary. Try as I might to banish them, the same thoughts returned. Was she nervous when she entered the room? Did her husband take the lead? Did she speak to anyone? What exactly did she do?

I’d leaped off the bed startling her, pulled on some clothes, and gone to the kitchen. Now I was lining up onions, garlic, and tomatoes on my counter top, ready for chopping. I tossed an idea around in my head, then jumped right in. “Katya, you understand that some people might not react very well to the things you told me, don’t you?”

She was barefoot, leaning against the doorframe wearing a pair of cotton slacks she’d brought with her and a T-shirt printed with a map of the Moscow Metro she’d found in my wardrobe. Her face darkened. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, some guys would just walk away after hearing all that.” Deep down I wished I could have been one of those guys, confident I would forget her and find someone else and never look back. But I wasn’t one of those guys. Cryptic conversations in kitchens was the best I could manage.

“Why?” she said.

“Because of your past. Didn’t you think it would make it a lot harder to meet someone in future?”

Her eyes narrowed and she stood up straight. “What, you think because I’m divorced that no guy would want me? Like I’m damaged goods, or something?”

Damaged goods was an apt description. What I didn’t know was if she was beyond repair. If self-awareness was any guide, the signs weren’t good. Of all the things in her past that could serve to put off a boyfriend, she’d assumed it was the divorce I was referring to. Not the orgies. Not marrying a man twice her age. Not marrying for a visa. I didn’t know what to say to that. I backed down.

“No,” I said in a conciliatory tone. “I don’t think anyone would judge you for that.” But I wasn’t ready to give up completely. “Can I ask why you got involved with a much older man? Were there no men around your own age?”

“I told you, he was very charming and didn’t act like his age at all.” The line of questioning was clearly confusing her.

“Okay, but a lot of guys would say it’s a sign you have daddy issues.”

She put her glass down heavily. “Oh fuck off! That’s a stupid term used by people who just want to judge a situation without finding out what it is!” She’d obviously heard it before.

I was in no mood to fight. I backed down completely. “Yes,” I said. “That’s why I wouldn’t use it.” This was a lie. She was a dictionary definition of a girl with daddy issues, which is why I’d said it.

Katya picked up her glass and drank it empty. Her anger simmered in the silence, and the discomfort grew, but I held my tongue. Another minute went by as I chopped an onion with intense concentration. Eventually Katya spoke, her voice straining. “Would you like some help?” she asked.

***

“It sounds as though you were conflicted,” Elvira said.

“You could say that,” I replied. “Part of me wanted to leave her. But the rest . . .”

“You loved her.”

We were cutting through pastureland outside of Lille. A herd of beef cattle, fat bullocks enjoying what was likely the last few weeks of their lives, idled in a field.

“Yes, but it wasn’t just that,” I said. “I was afraid I’d come across as judgmental.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d be bothered by that,” she said.

“It seems I am. All I keep hearing is how I shouldn’t judge, how we shouldn’t judge, how nobody should judge. When you’re dating at my age this word comes up all the time.”

“Women ask you not to judge them?”

“They tell you not to judge them. They make out being judgmental is the worst offense you could possibly commit.”

“What do they mean by judging?” asked Markus. “Criticizing them for going to orgies, for making bad decisions?”

“If you question any aspect of a woman’s past, even if you’re just trying to clarify what happened and why, you’re likely to get scolded for being judgmental.”

“But you should find out a bit about your girlfriend’s history,” Markus said. “You’d be stupid not to, in fact.”

“Of course!” I said. “It’s not so much judging as assessing, trying to work out if you’ll be compatible with that person. The thing is, I know guys can be judgmental about women, and sometimes they might react unreasonably to an aspect of their past. But it all depends on what that past looks like, doesn’t it? Where do you draw the line? It seems men are expected to simply accept everything, no matter what it is, without passing a remark. But there must be some limit.”

“I think what you were dealing with goes beyond any reasonable limit,” Markus said.

“I can see that now, but at the time I was worried I was being unreasonable and judging her unfairly. And yes, I was also in love with her; I realized that in Vilnius. The upshot was that I shoved it to the back of my mind and carried on seeing her.”

Elvira raised her chin slightly and asked, “Were you trying to save her?”

I knew what she meant. “Yes, in part. All men have this inbuilt desire to be a white knight to a fallen maiden, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t happening to some degree with Katya. I’ve been around long enough to know not to do it, and generally I don’t, but there is always a part of us that can’t help it. But it was more that I felt I ought not to judge, that I’d be a better person if I understood her past and accepted her for who she was, and she’d see this and be grateful. Which was fucking stupid, because women don’t think that way, but that was my reasoning at the time. Plus, I’m a bit of a masochist.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. Whenever I’ve had a choice between an easy way and a hard way, I’ve picked the hard way just to prove a point. It’s almost like I take a perverse delight in making things difficult for myself. And I’m also stubborn. I’ve managed to achieve quite a lot being pigheaded and not giving up on anything, just pushing on regardless. But the downside is I sometimes stick with something when I really ought to quit.”

We passed a flock of sheep, and I recalled a day spent as a teenager in a farm shed with an Australian who could shear one in under a minute, leaving no marks on the animal. My job was to collect the wool and stuff it into giant nylon sacks, and I was soon drenched in lanolin that I couldn’t wash off. A wave of nostalgia brought with it memories of a dry, dirt floor and the stench of the animals before fading away.

***

My confusion over Katya tumbled around in my head like a rock in a cement mixer, and whatever work I performed the next morning would best have been thrown in the bin. By the afternoon I wasn’t even trying and went to see Ricardo.

Mi pana, I told you: you need to fuck her and forget her!” he said when I’d finished my briefing. He was in his forties and tall, and looked more Italian than Spanish, with dark hair and a close-cropped beard, both of which were rapidly going gray. I joked this was due to the presence in his life of a South American wife and a toddler, and I never heard him deny it.

I grinned at him. “I know. It’s not that I didn’t listen to your advice; I just chose to ignore it.”

“Where is she now? Is she still in Spain?”

“She’s back here,” I said and then added, “she stayed at mine last night.”

Ricardo laughed out loud. “Mate, what are you doing?”

“I know, I know. But we still get on well, and she’s been absolutely fine with me. It’s just her past I have the problem with.”

“Well, yes,” he said as if I were stating the obvious.

“The thing is, why should I care about her past if everything now is going well?” This question had been bugging me all night.

“Is it in the past, though?” Ricardo asked, giving me a skeptical look.

“She says it is.” It wasn’t much of an answer.

“My mother used to say that any girl who’s been wild will always, eventually, go back to being wild.” I nodded, thinking Venezuelan mothers probably knew a thing or two about wild women, and he continued. “Just remember mate, right now you’re not the captain of this ship.”

I sniggered at the analogy, and thought for a few moments. “Let me ask you something,” I said. “Would you have got involved with a woman like Katya?”

Ricardo grinned like a bandit in a western who’s just blown the vault and is making off with the loot. “Yes, but I’d have fucked her once and that’s it.”

“You wouldn’t have got involved like I am?”

“No, mate. No way.”

“Why not?”

“Just because, mate. She sounds fucking crazy, I wouldn’t want the headache.”

“Yeah,” I replied, interested in where this was going. “But even supposing she wasn’t crazy, you wouldn’t want a woman who’s fucked around like that, right?”

“No, no way,” he said.

“Because I’m saying to myself, who cares what she’s done before, the past is the past. But I feel sick thinking of her doing that stuff, and I’m struggling to get past it.”

“Of course!”

“So you’d feel the same, right? It’s not just me?”

“Of course! The only guys who wouldn’t care are those who just wanted a fuck. Or maybe guys who are desperate.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s what I thought.” I left it there and went back to my office.

A blue dragonfly buzzed close to my face and I waved it away, trying not to wake Katya, who had fallen asleep with her head in my lap. Midges clustered near the water’s surface where the fish made rings as they fed, undisturbed by our little rowing boat rocking gently. Katya’s arms were burning, her sleeveless top offering no protection from the midday sun. She’d hitched up her skirt exposing her long, white legs and had taken off her shoes. She sometimes joked about avoiding the sun in order to preserve her “Gothly pallor,” but she made an exception today.

It had been three weeks since I returned from Vilnius, and a period of fine weather had lured us to the countryside. We’d stopped at a stately home with terraced gardens, giant trees, and a boating lake. I’d rowed us to the middle, pulled the oars in, and let us drift on the minuscule current. The sporadic shouts of children playing on the bank and the splash of another boat were the only sounds. There was no wind, and the temperature soared.

Katya stirred and smiled up at me.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello.”

“Did you have a nice snooze?” She’d only been asleep a few minutes.

She smiled again. “Yes, I did.”

I closed my eyes, and listened to the occasional plop from the water. “Day after day, day after day,” I said.

“What?”

“Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion. As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s from a poem we studied at school. It goes on forever. My mother liked that verse.”

“She was a teacher, right?”

“Yes, English.”

“You don’t talk about her much.”

“No, I don’t. I do like that poem, though.”

“You had to learn it?”

“No, it’s too long; I just remembered a few verses. ‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free. We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.’”

Katya sighed. “That’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you like poetry?”

“Some, yes, but I prefer literature,” I said. “For me, a good passage of English prose is the epitome of art!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t like visual arts!”

“I like films, though.”

“Yes, we need to watch some together. I have a few good ones to show you. Let’s watch one tonight.”

“I’d like that.”

We fell silent, and I closed my eyes again, letting my cap take the brunt of the sun. Katya’s head was heavy in my lap, and her dark hair hot to the touch. We’d not talked about her sexual and marital history since that time in my kitchen, and we both felt better for it. I couldn’t say it didn’t still linger in my mind, but the edge had been taken off, and it no longer plagued me. Watching her chest rise and fall as the boat swung lazily on a whisper of breeze, I thought I must have dreamed it, so hard it was to believe. I still loved her and loved being with her, especially at moments like this.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” Katya said. “I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, thank you. I didn’t know what to expect when you said we should go somewhere, and this place is really cool. I like it!”

“I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Why not? It’s lovely!”

“I guess I’m still getting to know you,” I said. “But I’m glad you like it. I’d hoped you would or at least find it different. I don’t suppose you go to places like this very often.”

“Only with my parents. And it’s a lot more fun being with you.” I squeezed her hand, and wished days like this were all she’d ever known.

I rowed the boat back to the jetty and let the attendant tie it up before we hopped out. We followed a path that ran beside the lake, heading in the direction of the mansion.

“So did your parents bring you to places like this when you were a child?” she asked.

“Yes, they brought me here.”

“Really?”

“Yes, our family had friends who lived nearby. We went when we were staying with them.”

“How old were you?”

“I’m not sure. About eight or nine, I think.”

“Was your mother with you?”

“Yeah, it would have been her idea to come. She loved gardens like these.”

“How old were you when she died?”

“Sixteen.”

“She had cancer, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What sort?”

“The shit sort.”

Katya smiled. “Aren’t they all?”

“Yeah, but some are shittier than others. Lymphoma, the same as Jackie Kennedy.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

We passed through a portal into a walled garden with a greenhouse running the length of one side. Dark green leaves pressed the glass from the inside, threatening to pop a pane. We found an empty bench in front of a fish pond with a fountain at its center and sat down.

“It must have been hard losing your mother so young,” she said.

“Yeah it was, looking back. But I denied it for years, and made out it didn’t affect me.”

“It must have done.”

“Yeah, it did, but as I said, I denied it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Immaturity, I guess. And it’s not like there was anyone around to help me.”

“What about the rest of your family?”

“We each dealt with it in our own way. I was pretty much alone.”

“That’s sad,” she said.

“I suppose it is, yes.”

“Are you all right talking about this?”

“Sure, I don’t mind, I dealt with it a few years back. An elderly woman, the wife of a colleague, made me realize I’d been in denial. We were having a conversation, and I flippantly remarked that my mother’s death didn’t affect me. She then said ‘Don’t be so stupid, of course it did!’ Now, I couldn’t stand this woman, and it made me furious. Do you know why?”

“Because she was right.”

“Exactly. I wouldn’t have got angry if it wasn’t true. Back in Russia, women used to tell me I was in denial about not wanting children, that I wanted a family but was afraid to admit it. God knows why they thought that, but they were so wide of the mark, I’d laugh at them. But what this woman said rattled me, and it took me some time to understand why. Since then I’ve stopped kidding myself and accepted it had an effect.”

“Did you talk to anyone about it?”

“A professional? No, I never felt the need to. And I guess the damage is done now,” I said, grinning at her.

Katya smiled. “How did it affect you, do you think?”

I thought for a few seconds before replying. “There were periods of isolation, and I became very self-reliant. The downside was it made me socially inept.”

Katya snorted a laugh. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that, it’s just the way you said it! Socially inept how?”

“I had a hard time dealing with people and the world in general. I didn’t really know how to talk to anyone or fit into my peer groups. To be fair, I can’t pin this all on bereavement. I dare say I’d have struggled anyway, but it didn’t help.”

“You seem to have dealt with it, though. You’re okay now.”

“Yeah, mostly. But I’m still difficult to be with. You must have noticed by now.”

She laughed again. “Yes, sometimes you can be a bit of an ass and say some horrible things.”

I nodded. “I’m aware of that. Trust me, I’m better than I was.” She squeezed my hand and smiled.

That evening, in my apartment, Katya pulled a hard drive from her bag and plugged it into the TV.

“I’ve got two films to show you,” she said. “One is quite short, so we’ll have time to watch both. The first is a bit weird, and I’m not sure you’ll like it, but the second one I know you will.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Let’s see.”

I fetched a couple of glasses and some ice from the kitchen and poured generous measures of a Venezuelan rum that Ricardo had given me. “Mi pana,” he’d said. “I will give you a bottle of proper fucking rum!”

Katya and I touched glasses and drank, and we looked at each other, nodding. Ricardo had been telling the truth.

Katya’s first film was obscure as they come, a 1972 Spanish short which could have been made by students. It chiefly concerned a man trapped in a phone booth, and we watched as he became increasingly distressed. There was almost no dialogue, but an upbeat soundtrack made the whole thing charmingly bizarre. In the final minute, the story took a dark and horrifying twist, and I wondered who the hell would come up with that.

“Jesus!” I said as the credits rolled.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” Katya said, beaming.

“I didn’t see that coming.”

“That’s what makes it good.”

“Where did you find it?”

“Oh, I’ve seen lots of strange films. I used to interpret at film festivals in Moscow, and once I did Sundance.”

“Wait, you went to Sundance?”

“Yes.”

“I’m impressed!”

“That’s where I heard about this film. I didn’t see it, but some guys I was hanging out with were talking about it, so when I got back home, I checked it out.”

“Do you know what it’s about? Whether it’s a political allegory or something?”

“I have no idea.”

“Well, it was excellent. Thanks!”

“I’m glad you liked it,” she said, visibly pleased with herself.

The second film was a thriller set in the 1920s starring Humphrey Bogart at the head of a cast that would put a modern production to shame. For an hour and forty minutes a colorful array of characters with dubious morals attempted to outwit each other to gain possession of a valuable object. It was more a character study than a story, and the dialogue was everything. Bogart delivered his lines with clarity, even at speed; contemporary actors only seem able to mumble.

“Well?” Katya said when it finished. “What did you think?”

“I loved it. I always loved the Fat Man’s final line to Wilmer.”

“Oh! You’d seen it before?”

“No, but I’ve read the book. Most of it’s been lifted verbatim.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“Because I wanted to enjoy the film, and I did. Thank you!”

I went to fetch more ice; the bottle of rum was emptying. We were both quite drunk.

“You know what I liked about that film?” I said when I came back.

“What?”

“Not a single one of the characters is very nice. Even Sam Spade, who we’re supposed to be rooting for, is a bit of a dick.”

“Exactly!”

“He’s hardly upset over the loss of his partner, is he?”

“No, and the way he treats the wife afterwards, and the Brigid woman. He’s a real asshole!”

“They all are. They’re horrible people, but you still like them,” I said. “It’s very clever.”

“I thought you’d like it.”

“I did. Thanks again, they were two excellent choices.”

Katya looked delighted. “I have a lot more too. Let me know when you want to see another.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be here plenty of times in the future. To watch films, of course.”

“Nothing else?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Except maybe for sex. Let’s go.” We practically ran to the bedroom.

The next weekend we went to the birthday party of Ruslan, a Russian artist Katya knew. We arrived at his gallery, an empty unit opening straight onto the street, and a burly man who’d been setting out food on a table saw us and strode over, his footsteps echoing off the bare concrete floor.

He greeted Katya in Russian, they kissed, and we shook hands. “I’m Ruslan,” he said. I surprised him by replying in Russian. “Where do you know Russian from?” he asked.

“I lived there awhile.”

“Very good!” he said, grinning through his beard. He looked slightly Arabic and I guessed he was from the Caucasus somewhere, perhaps Dagestan.

A young woman who’d been helping him joined us, and Katya introduced her as Natasha. She was dressed like a student in a denim skirt with green tights and trainers, but I guessed she was around twenty-seven. As we shook hands she smiled, bringing a hint of beauty to an otherwise plain face. The three Russians talked in their language, too fast for me to join in.

Wooden frames were hung on the walls, covered in Bubble Wrap protecting the pieces underneath. I wandered over to the table, my shadow dancing under nasty fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Sliced vegetables, dips, and a whole load of stuff people from Wigan don’t eat was being laid out, a task our entrance interrupted. A makeshift bar stood nearby, and Ruslan told me to help myself.

“What do you want?” I asked Katya.

“Red wine if there is any.”

I poured her a glass from an opened bottle, took a beer for myself, and returned to the group. More people arrived and Ruslan went to greet them, leaving Natasha to finish with the food. Katya lent a hand, and the two of them gossiped in Russian.

Within half an hour, a good thirty people had come, and all were enjoying themselves, Ruslan included. I was curious about his paintings, and when I thought no one was looking, I snuck a peek under the Bubble Wrap by tearing at a loose corner. There was nothing underneath but the wooden frame. I walked over to another one, peering into a hole in the wrapping. Same thing. Ruslan was as productive as the local council.

I went back to Katya, who was talking to Natasha and a tall, scruffy-looking chap wearing sneakers that looked half rotten.

“I’m Ken,” he said as we introduced ourselves.

“Where are you from?”

“Archway, just up the road,” he said, giving me a friendly grin. “How about you?”

“Wigan originally, but now I live in London.”

“Cool. How do you know Ruslan?”

“I don’t; I only met him tonight. I came with Katya.” I nodded toward her.

Ken appeared to hesitate a fraction of a second. “Oh, are you her boyfriend?”

“Yes.” An unpleasant tingling ran across my scalp.

“Okay, cool. I heard she’d started seeing someone.”

Something in my stomach shifted. “You know her?”

“Yes, we’ve met a few times. I’m Natasha’s boyfriend.”

“Right!” I blurted out, and Ken gave me a funny look. I’d half-expected him to tell me they’d met in the dungeon of an S&M club.

I needed a stronger drink, but they didn’t have much. For a Russian party, there was a distinct lack of vodka. Ken and I chatted about sports for a while, then Katya and Natasha came over excited about something.

“Hey,” said Katya. “Natasha’s just told me there’s a Burning Man in Holland at the end of July.”

“Cool!” said Ken. “Are you gonna go?”

“I’d like to,” Katya said, looking at me. “We should all go!” I smirked and said nothing. “What?” Katya said, disappointed. “You don’t want to go?”

I shook my head. “Nah. It’s not my thing, you know that.”

“But you don’t know what it’ll be like,” she protested. “I think you’d really enjoy it.”

I kept my tone pleasant. “Katya, I’m not going to Burning Man. I know what festivals are like. I’m not completely thick; I’m just not into them.”

“It’s a shame,” she said, giving me another disappointed look. “It would be good to go together.”

Anyone who knew me like Katya did would be pretty daft to think I would like Burning Man. At times she could be a bit dense, unable to grasp the most obvious things, and this was one of those times. But I appreciated her efforts to find stuff for us to do together. Burning Man meant a lot to her, and it would have been churlish to get grumpy over her trying to involve me in her life. I’d have to let her down gently.

We’d turned away from the others, so the conversation was just between us.

“Okay, I’m assuming you’ll be doing a shitload of drugs,” I said.

She smiled impishly and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Maybe. And you know I don’t do drugs. So what am I supposed to do while you’re off your head being chased around the fields by six-foot toothbrush men?”

She laughed. “It’s not like that. You can—Well, you can do whatever you want! That’s the whole point, it’s really open and—”

“Katya,” I said gently, “I’m not gonna go. I’m quite happy for you to go with your friends and do whatever you want, really I am. In fact, I’m glad that you have your own interests. But we’ll have to find something else to do together.” I thought she’d given up, but she gave it one last shot.

“You know, my Slovenian ex was just like you. He said he wasn’t interested in Burning Man, but I talked him into going and he loved it!” I kept quiet, and she went on. “When we split up, he went back the next year by himself.”

“Katya,” I said softly. “I’m not him. Sorry, but I’m a different person.”

“I know,” she said smiling, and stood on tiptoes and kissed me on the lips. We looked at each other in silence for a moment.

“What happened with you guys? The Slovenian, I mean. Why did you split up?”

“Oh, we started having problems,” she said. “He was working really hard, doing his legal training and studying for exams. He wasn’t interested in going out at all, whereas I wanted to meet people and party.”

“He was a bit older, right?”

“A few years, yeah.”

“I guess you were at different stages of life.”

“I suppose so. We had some issues, anyway.”

Katya didn’t seem to mind talking about this, but she wasn’t giving up many details.

“But you stayed friends afterwards?” I asked.

“Yeah, for a while anyway.”

“You’re not any more? Is he still in New York?”

“No. He lost his job during the financial crisis and got really depressed so moved back to Slovenia. We somehow lost touch, but I heard he got married.”

“So how did you get into Burning Man?”

“I read about it when I was in Russia and really wanted to go. Then when I moved to New York, I persuaded my boyfriend, the Slovenian, to go with me.”

“So who did you go with after you split up?”

“The first time I went, I met a group from New York and afterward started hanging out with them. They’re still my friends now.” I nodded. Another piece of Katya’s past had slid into place.

I chatted with Ruslan and another man for a while, then went over to the table where a stick-thin girl in a brown woolen dress loitered.

“Would you like anything?” she asked. Her voice was tiny with a pronounced Russian accent.

I switched to Russian just to show off. “Yes please. What do you have?”

She giggled nervously and waved her hands over the spread. “What you see,” she said, replying in Russian. She looked about twelve, from which I deduced she was around twenty. She handed me a paper plate and I helped myself.

“What do you do in London?” I asked.

“I’m in school.”

I stopped grabbing food and looked at her. She was wearing a wedding ring on a tiny, bony finger of the left hand, where most Europeans wear it. If her husband was Russian, it would have been on the right. “You’re in school?”

“Art school.”

“Oh, you’re an artist?”

She giggled again. “Yes.”

“You like it here in London?” I put what I hoped was a pork pie on my plate, knowing full well it wasn’t.

“Yes.”

“Where are you from in Russia?”

“Saint Petersburg.” I could hardly hear her over the background chatter.

“Okay, nice.”

“Do you know it?”

“Yes, I’ve been twice.”

She twisted her hands in front of her as if she were shy and gave me a come-hither look. I half expected her to ask me to spank her. Instead she asked, “Did you go during summer?”

“Yes, during the White Nights.” She giggled again. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

She looked down at her shoes, then back up at me. “Your Russian is nice. I like your accent.”

Now it was my turn to blush. “Oh, thanks,” I said. I had enough food to live on for a while, and I had no intention of eating it around childlike sirens from Saint Petersburg. “It was nice to meet you,” I said as I turned away.

She half-waved at me. “It was nice to meet you too.”

I ate my way through things I couldn’t name and didn’t like, then threw the rest in a bin feeling bad about the waste. I took another beer and stood on my own until Katya came over.

“I’m going outside for a cigarette,” she said. “Do you want to join me?”

“Yes.”

It was warm enough to stand outside without a coat for short periods, but Katya was shivering already. She was hopeless in the cold. I put my arm around her shoulders and held her close, the cigarette smoke rising in my face whenever she put it to her lips. Katya noticed and fanned the fumes away.

“Sorry,” she said. “Is it bothering you?”

“Not at all. Are you having fun in there?”

“I am, yes. You?”

“It’s not bad. There are some interesting people here,” I said, meaning they were weird. “Did you look at the pictures on the wall?”

“No,” said Katya slowly, looking at me as if I were about to let her in on a prank.

“I did. There’s nothing there. It’s just frames covered with Bubble Wrap.”

“Oh. Well maybe he’ll put something up later?”

“Sure,” I replied. “It would be most unlike an artist to have produced fuck all, wouldn’t it?” I immediately felt bad. I was at Ruslan’s party, drinking his beer and chucking his food in the bin. “Okay,” I said, apparently arguing with myself. “I’ll stop.”

“Yes,” said Katya playfully. “Please do.”

A portly gray-haired man wearing a black turtleneck and thick plastic glasses stepped outside and hovered with a cigarette between his fingers before asking Katya for a light.

“Are you French?” Katya asked, picking up on his accent.

“Yes,” said the man. “Where are you from?”

“New York,” she said. “Are you an artist?”

He nodded. “Yes, I’m a film producer.” I believed him. If anyone were to design a French film producer using only stereotypes, they’d come up with this guy. The only thing missing was a beret. “And you?” he asked Katya.

“Yes, I’m an artist,” she said, nodding.

“Yes?” the Frenchman said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, a photographer.”

He pulled a dismissive face. I guessed he met a lot of photographers in his line of work. He looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. “What about you? Are you an artist?”

“I’m a biscuit designer,” I said evenly. Katya’s face swiveled upward to glare at me.

“A what?” he asked, knitting his brow.

“A biscuit designer. I design biscuits.” The man’s face turned from confusion to annoyance.

Katya had heard enough. “He’s joking. He’s a chemist, aren’t you?” she said in a tone that implied I must tell the truth from now on.

“Yes,” I conceded. “I’m really an industrial chemist.”

The Frenchman glowered, dropped his cigarette on the floor, and marched back inside without another word. I can’t say I blamed him. “He seemed fun,” I said.

Katya unwound my arm from around her and stepped back. At least she was laughing too. “Why did you say that? Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know, I was just taking the piss. Anyway, you told him you were an artist.”

“I am!”

“You are?”

“Yes! Photography is an art!”

“Yeah, but you’re not a photographer, you’re a translator.”

“Now I am, yes. But I was a photographer, and I still do photography.”

“So you consider yourself an artist on the basis of that?” I asked.

“Yes, why not?”

“I don’t know. Did you ever do it professionally?”

“I have done, yes. I worked freelance for a while.”

“Okay,” I said. I wasn’t convinced, but I had no interest in arguing. “Are any of your professional photos online? I might have seen some of them.”

“Yeah, there are some I took at a book launch for a friend in New York. And also the ones from my Tunisian trip.”

“Oh, that wasn’t a holiday?”

“No,” she said. “It was a tour organized by some Russians, and they needed a translator and photographer, so I went along.”

“I see. That must have been fun. Was that where the photo of you holding a monkey was taken?”

“What photo of me holding a monkey?”

“There’s a photo of you holding a monkey. At least, I think it’s you. I’m pretty sure it’s a monkey. Or maybe it’s a boyfriend?”

Katya slapped me playfully on the arm. “Are you sure? I don’t remember a photo like that.”

“I’ll dig it out when we get home. You’ll see.” Katya finished her cigarette, and we went back indoors.

After an hour we were outside again, thanking Ruslan for everything. I looked over his shoulder and saw the waif in the woolen dress with her arm around the Frenchman. He was engaged in conversation, seemingly oblivious to his young wife beside him. I snorted a laugh.

“What?” Katya said, looking at me puzzled.

“It’s nothing,” I said but kept smiling.

I shook Ruslan’s hand, thanked him again, and said good-bye. Katya put her arm through mine and we walked toward the Underground.

The next morning we were lying in my bed, having woken up earlier and had sex. Neither of us was in a hurry to get up. Katya propped herself on a pillow and started browsing her phone; she was checking her email, something she did habitually every morning. After a minute she lowered it. “Do you remember I told you I might have to go to Paris for a conference?” she asked.

“Vaguely. I might not have been listening.”

“Well, it’s not for a couple of months but I need to book my tickets. It’s from Wednesday to Friday, and I was thinking maybe you could join me on the Friday, and we’ll make a weekend of it.”

I brightened up. “Yeah, that sounds good! I’ve never been to Paris.”

“Oh great!” said Katya. “Let’s get the tickets together and take the same train back to London. But I’m traveling business class. I get reimbursed for that. Is that okay with you?”

“Sure, no problem. It should be fun.”

I gazed at the ceiling. Suddenly I remembered something, and sat up. “Oh, let me find that picture of you and the monkey.”

Katya laughed. “Ah yes, I want to see this.”

I got out of bed, leaving her playing on her phone, and booted up my laptop in the living room. Her photos were published across half a dozen platforms, and I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d seen the one in question; the best I could do was a web search of her name and see what I recognized from the results. Some looked familiar but none jumped out as being the ones of her Tunisian trip. I opened a few, skimmed through the albums, then closed them. Then I opened another.

My first thought was that I’d made a mistake because these were photos I’d not seen before. I wasn’t sure they were even Katya’s until I saw collections of Burning Man and New York. I’d barely scrolled down half a page when I saw one entitled “Our Wedding.” I hesitated for a second then opened it. There were thumbnails of about twenty photos, mostly of a woman in a white dress and a man in a dark suit. A quick pulse of adrenaline ran through me, and I thought about Katya lying in the next room. Masochism posing as curiosity got the better of me, and I delved in.

The first photo was a portrait of a man with an Asiatic face, olive skin, and a close-cropped goatee. He was bald at the front giving him a large forehead, but black hair grew thickly on the back and sides. He was in need of a haircut, but a few tubs of gel had been applied for the occasion. He was smiling at something off camera, revealing yellow, uneven teeth, the front two of which protruded giving him a slightly goofy look.

It took me only a few seconds to take this in, but an unpleasant sensation was building. I’d always imagined her husband was suave and handsome, a banker or businessman who used his alpha maleness to charm young women into pleasing him. Had such a man appeared in the photo, it might have explained her choice of partner, but here her husband looked like a cook who worked nights. The more I was finding out, the worse it got. I shook my head in disgust, then browsed through the rest of the set.

What passed for a ceremony took place beside a lake in Central Park, attended by a gaggle of misfits dressed as though each had come expecting something other than a wedding. Her husband was short and wore a suit that was three inches too long in both leg and sleeve, but he’d made an effort and looked no worse than those you see loitering outside Liverpool Crown Court. Katya was wearing a sleeveless dress with an open back, a long pearl necklace with matching bracelet, and a headpiece adorned with small white feathers with netting that covered the top half of her face. As an outfit, it was gorgeous and was easily the best thing in the whole sorry scene. She was standing deathly pale and skinny, her body barely filling out the dress, and her nipples could be seen through the fabric. She’d dyed strands of her hair scarlet and applied lipstick to match, which stood out in contrast to the white of her dress. Her face, adorned with piercings, showed none of the bright innocence I’d expect to see in a young bride. She was gaunt, like someone who doesn’t sleep well and uses recreational drugs to the point they’re no longer recreational. Standing hand-in-hand by a granite rock, she a head taller than he, they looked like part of a film set more than a bride and groom on their wedding day. A feeling of bitter, angry disappointment soaked through me.

I heard the bed squeak, reminding me Katya was next door. Before I closed the browser I looked at one last photo, a close-up of Katya. Hard, beady eyes stared out of a face much older than the one she wore now, her expression set in a smirk of defiance. If this was the face of Katya’s love, then she had never known it.

I closed the laptop and returned to the bedroom, my head spinning. Her smile faded when she saw me, and she asked, “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Nothing,” I lied. “I just stumbled across your wedding photos, that’s all.”

Her expression didn’t budge. “Oh,” she said casually. “I didn’t realize they were still online.”

“Yeah, they are,” I said emptily.

“Did you find the monkey picture?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Neither of us spoke for a minute. The silence grew uncomfortable. “What happened with him?” I asked. “Your husband, I mean.”

She started to speak, then stopped. Then her eyes hardened and she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I let it go.

I took a shower and got breakfast ready while Katya was taking hers. Nasty elements of her past had shoved their way to the front again, and couldn’t be ignored any longer. I’d taken it for granted that her husband, although older and with dubious habits, was at least outwardly normal. I’d also assumed the rest of her partners were ordinary men, although bar the Slovenian I had no idea who they were; Katya rarely spoke of her previous relationships. I now saw my assumptions were based on naive optimism and a wish to think the best of any woman I’m with. That had to change.

We’d just finished breakfast and were still at the table. “Katya, can I ask who else you dated? You never mention your exes, except for the Slovenian.”

Katya frowned. “Why are you asking this?”

I kept my tone pleasant, knowing how quick she was to anger. “I’m just wondering what they were like. I told you about my ex-girlfriends, even though you never asked. It’s normal to discuss this stuff, isn’t it?”

“There’s nothing to tell, really.”

“Nothing? You didn’t date anyone since your divorce?”

Katya shrugged. “I had some flings but nothing serious. The longest I dated anyone was six months, and then I ended it.”

“Okay, that’s something. Why did you end it?”

“I didn’t love him and didn’t see the point in carrying on if I wasn’t in love.”

I nodded. “That’s fair enough. Was this back in New York?”

“Yes.”

“American?”

“Yes.”

“I see. Did you date a British guy before?”

“No.”

“How about Russians?”

“No, I don’t date Russian men.”

She seemed happy to answer my questions, so I asked another. “Did you date anyone in London?”

“Yes, sort of. I dated an American guy fairly briefly.”

“Okay. How did that go?”

“We met at a party, I knew his sister. He was younger than me, about twenty-seven. At the beginning I thought he was like me, but it turned out he wasn’t.” I wondered what she meant by this, but decided not to ask. “Anyway, he was quite immature. Once he turned up on a date with a load of his mates.”

I suppressed an urge to laugh. “So when was this?”

“About a year ago.”

“And he was the last guy you were with?”

Katya paused for a second, uncertain of how to answer. “I met two others online.”

I kept my voice level, but I could feel heat rising in my neck. “Katya, on our first date you said you’d not really met anyone.”

“Well, I meant I didn’t date them properly.”

My heart pounded. “So it never got physical?”

She exhaled sharply through her nose. “Is this important? Why do you want to know?”

My voice rose, betraying the stress I was trying to keep down. “It’s not really important, but I’d like to know all the same. Obviously something happened with these guys or you’d have told me otherwise.”

“Okay,” she said. “I met two guys on that site before you. One was Swedish and the other French. Okay?”

“Did you sleep with them?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. Well, I slept with the Swedish guy.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, we got on really well, and I ended up going back to his and—”

“After how many dates?”

“Three. I went back to his after the third date.”

“Okay.”

“Anyway, I went to New York for two weeks right after, and when I got back, he’d met someone else.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He said another woman kind of overlapped with me. You know how it goes, you talk to a few people at once. I guess he liked her more than me.”

“How did you feel about that?” I asked.

“I was pretty pissed because we’d got on really well. But a few weeks later he called me and said he’d split up with this other woman and asked me out again. I met up with him for a drink and then he tried to get me back to his, but I said ‘No, I’m not happy about this.’”

“I can see why. How old was he?”

Katya laughed. “Well, it turned out he was forty-two, but he’d put thirty-eight on his profile. He said he had to because he kept meeting women who wanted kids, which was odd because at first he told me he wanted a family. So I don’t know what was up with him. Anyway, I didn’t see him again.”

The tension eased, and Katya now seemed quite relaxed talking about this.

“And the French guy? What happened with him?”

“Oh, he was really strange,” she said.

“Yes, of course. He was French.”

Katya grinned. “Yeah, he was a weird kisser. And on the first two dates he asked me to come home with him, but each time I said no. Then after the third date, I went back to his place, and suddenly he told me he couldn’t sleep with me because he didn’t know me well enough.”

It was my turn to grin. “What? Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“So what, you were actually in bed when he told you this?”

“Yeah, we were fooling around and we got into bed naked, then he told me he couldn’t go any further. And we just went to sleep, it was really awkward.”

“That’s fucking bizarre,” I said.

“Yes, it was.”

I didn’t know what to make of all this, and confused thoughts were crashing through my head. I’d learned something, but it hadn’t enlightened me much. I sat in silence as Katya played on her phone, then I picked up the breakfast dishes and took them to the kitchen. I was halfway through washing them up when I turned off the tap, dried my hands on a towel, and went back into the living room.

“Katya,” I said.

She looked up from her phone. “Yes?”

“You told me you’d not met anyone from that dating site, but it turns out you did.” She opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her. “Wait, let me finish. Now it’s up to you what you tell me or don’t tell me, and if I ask an inappropriate question then you’re not obliged to answer. But if you tell me something of your own accord, I expect it to be true.”

Katya’s eyes blazed. “I never told you I didn’t meet anyone!” she said, trying to suppress her anger. “I said I’d not really dated anyone, and I don’t consider that I dated those guys seriously.”

“Katya, your exact words were: ‘I’ve had a few dates, but not really met anyone.’ This doesn’t describe meeting guys for multiple dates and then going home with them, does it?”

“So what if I went home with them? Like you’ve never taken any other girls home!” She spat the words out, giving me an evil look I’d not seen before.

“Yes, but I’ve never told you I didn’t. And you made out that taking me home was significant, so if sleeping with a guy means something to you, then you shouldn’t have told me that you hadn’t really met anyone.”

Katya’s voice rose. “What, so I have to tell you about every guy I’ve slept with?”

I was struggling to keep my own voice down. “No Katya, you don’t. It’s up to you what you tell me or don’t tell me. But if you tell me something voluntarily, I expect it to be true.”

Katya picked up her phone and stared at the screen, furious. I stood and watched her for a full minute.

“Katya,” I said. She didn’t flinch. The only sound was the buzz of the fridge coming from the kitchen. I gave up and went back to finish the dishes. I heard Katya walking about, then the front door open and close.

Ricardo was grinning again. “Mi pana, the more you are telling me, the more fucked up it gets. You’re not going to listen to me, are you?”

“No, I’m not. What do you make of the Swedish and French guys? It’s a bit weird, isn’t it?”

Ricardo stuck out his bottom lip. “The Swedish guy—no. He’s a player, told her a load of shit, fuck her once, tell her fuck off, and find someone else. Then calls to fuck her again. Simple.”

I smiled. “How the hell did she fall for that? She ought to spot guys like that a mile off at her age.”

“Maybe she’s stupid?”

I thought about that. Maybe she was? “And the French guy?”

“Mate, that one is strange. French would fuck anything, and she was in his bed already. What’s left to lose?”

“That is weird, especially as he was trying to fuck her from the start. You’d not bring a woman home if you didn’t want to fuck her, would you?”

“No.”

We sat in silence for a few moments then I said, “What did he see that I didn’t?”

“I don’t know, mate. Maybe the nipple-ring scared him?”

“Could be.”

“Have you spoken to her since she walked out?”

“No. I sent her a few messages but she ignored them.”

“What did you say?”

“I just asked how she was. Then I said we need to talk, and this silent treatment is stupid.”

“How long has it been?”

“Three days.”

“Fuck.”

I looked past his shoulder out the window. I could see the BT Tower, which I always thought looked a bit naked since they removed its microwave dishes. It had rained earlier and dark clouds threatened, but a solitary ray of sunshine was glinting off the tower’s curved surface as if telling Londoners not to give up hope.

“What bothers me most is the state of her husband,” I said. “Let me show you.”

I took out my phone, found the website, and chose a photo. I made it fill the screen then handed it to Ricardo. His eyes widened a fraction as he looked at it, then he shifted his gaze to me.

“Is this him?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes.”

“Why would she get involved with a man like that?”

“I don’t know.”

“What was his job?”

“I don’t know, but apparently he kept losing it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ricardo handing back my phone, “but she has no fucking standards.”

The sun disappeared, and the sky got darker.

“Remember when you were younger,” I said. “You’d always ask a girlfriend how many guys she’d been with? The answer would always bother you; if she said two or three you’d be disappointed. But that changes with age; when you’re with a woman over thirty you don’t care how many, but you want to see that they were decent, normal guys, and she was with them for the right reasons. You don’t want to hear she’s had one-night stands or been with a string of losers or men twice her age. It’s not the number of guys a woman has slept with that matters, it’s the standards she’s kept.”

“Yes, you need to see she’s applied some sort of filter.”

“If she’s got no standards, it reflects badly on you. It means either she sees you on the same level, or she’s scoring out of her league—in which case you should probably aim higher yourself. Whereas if she’s maintained her standards, it shows she values you.”

“You think Katya sees you the same as that guy in the photo?”

“She’s never told me she doesn’t.”

“You might want to find out, mate.”

Later I went to look at the wedding photos again. They’d been deleted.

Katya finally answered her phone that evening. “I don’t want to talk,” she said. Her voice sounded raw.

“I know, but we need to. What other choice do we have?”

“I don’t know.”

“So let’s talk.”

“What about?” she said.

“Can I ask why you got so upset on Sunday? What was it that made you so angry?”

“How about you calling me a liar?” she snapped.

“Katya, can we talk nicely?”

“We are talking nicely.”

We weren’t, but I wasn’t going to argue. “So that was it, that I called you a liar?”

“Not just that.”

“What else?”

“You keep having these problems with me! It’s like you’re super jealous or something.”

“Katya, I’m not jealous. I don’t mind who you hang out with, and I never worry that you’ll go with someone else. As I told you in the restaurant, I trust you.”

“Then what’s your problem?”

I plunged in. “Katya, your communication skills are terrible!”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t tell me anything! I’m left guessing how you feel because I never hear it from you.”

“But I’m an introvert!” she protested. “I don’t share my feelings!”

An introvert with a history of seeking attention, I thought. I kept that to myself. “So because you’re an introvert, you can’t communicate? Is that it?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Some affirmation would be nice. Just give me some idea why you’re with me.”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Katya said. “These are your insecurities, not mine!”

I dug in. “You know, maybe I am insecure, but that comes from you not talking to me. Am I really asking too much?”

“No, but I hate saying things just for the sake of it. I find it pathetic!”

“It’s not for the sake of it, Katya. Reassurances are important for anyone, including us.”

“I don’t need reassurances from you.”

“Maybe not, but I give them regardless.”

“You do? Like what?”

“You have small tits, but I told you I like them.”

“Oh, fuck off!” she yelled. “You think I care what anyone thinks of my tits?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps you don’t, but I reassure you anyway. It’s what normal people do. But if you don’t like it, I’ll stop.”

“I like it, but not if you’re just saying things so I don’t feel insecure.”

“Jesus Christ, Katya! I say things because I mean them, and if I didn’t, you’d notice. This is how people who are dating communicate. I can’t believe I have to explain this to you!”

“I’m not asking you to explain anything!” she shouted. “It’s you who has the problem!”

“Yes, because I’ve made the effort to make you feel comfortable. But you? No, you’re an introvert and you don’t do that. Well that’s fucking great, isn’t it?”

“It’s not my fault you’re insecure!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” I said. “You dump shit on me and offer no explanation or context. I’m finding stuff out, then scrabbling in the dark and relying on guesswork because you won’t communicate. So yes, I am insecure! Who wouldn’t be?”

“What stuff? What do you mean?”

I’d had enough. It had to be said, and it might as well be now. “This shit from your past, you just shoved it in my face and left me to deal with it. You gave me no explanation, so for you it was all normal. So let me ask you straight. Do you have any standards?”

“Yes, I have fucking standards! Are you going to insult me again?”

“So what standards? The same as before?”

“What do you mean?”

“Katya, I saw your wedding photos. Your husband was a right fucking mess. He was twice your age, an alcoholic who couldn’t keep a job. Are those your standards?”

She fired back: “You mean the husband I divorced when I was twenty-five?”

She had a point. I didn’t care. “So what are your expectations of a guy? That he isn’t some shambling alcoholic?”

“My expectations are that I am not fucking insulted!”

“I’m not insulting you, I’m trying to see if you care who I am.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means I consider myself a reasonable catch. I’d like to think if I wasn’t, you’d not be with me, but from what I’ve seen, I may as well be some fucking loser.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do you see me differently from the men you’ve been with before? Or am I on the same level as your ex-husband?”

“I’m not going to compare you to my exes!” she said, her voice rising. “That would be crass.”

“Great! So to avoid being crass, you’ll leave me thinking I’m no different to some asshole who took you to orgies! Thanks a lot.”

“Oh, fuck off!” she shouted. “I knew you’d bring that up again! You need to deal with your own insecurities!”

“Then how about you help me by talking to me?”

“What? I’m not your fucking therapist!”

“I’m not asking you to be my therapist; I’m asking that you talk to me.”

“I’m not going to say things just to massage your ego!”

“Fuck me!” I said. “You have no idea what I’m on about, do you? I can’t believe I’m explaining to somebody of thirty-two how normal people communicate in a relationship.”

“Oh, you think this is normal?” she yelled. “Insulting me every few days?”

“How am I insulting you? All I’m doing is reading your own history back to you!”

“I’m tired of this arguing,” she said. “I’m fucking sick of you having these problems with me.”

“I’m tired of it too,” I said, and I was.

She quieted right down, which scared me. “I can’t take this any more,” she said. “I’ve been in a relationship like this before, and I was miserable the whole time. I can’t be like this.”

“I need you to help me!” I said. It was too late.

“No,” she said. “I’ve had enough. I need time to think.”

“Think about what?”

“Whether I can be with you.”

“Come on,” I said, pleading. “We need to talk.”

“No, I’m tired of all this arguing. I’m going to hang up, and I don’t want you to call me.”

“For how long?” I asked pathetically.

“I don’t know.”

“Wait!” I said. “Don’t be like this.” I felt like my whole world was falling apart.

“I’m sorry; I have to go,” she said and hung up.

I frantically called her back, but she’d switched off her phone. I stood there numb, then sat down on the bed and cried.

***

An uncomfortable silence had fallen. “Give me a minute,” I said, blinking.

“Of course,” Elvira said. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

I blew my nose on a napkin, shaking my head. “No, I do.” The train hummed along. “I didn’t handle it well,” I said, finally.

“It sounds like you were a bit of a jerk,” Elvira said. “But I can understand why.”

“I’d given up hope of her telling me subtly, letting me know how she felt, so I tried to put words in her mouth. Compliments are important to men, same as they are to women; we all need our egos massaged sometimes, and praise from a partner is a big part of it. Despite her bravado, Katya needed assurances, same as the rest of us. If I’d never told her how pretty she was or remarked on her wit or let her know I found her intriguing, she’d wouldn’t have slept well at night. It’s true that actions speak louder than words, but that doesn’t mean that words don’t matter at all. I said plenty to Katya, but she’d said nothing back, and that’s why I asked her to say things outright.”

“You can’t ask a woman to say you are better than her ex,” Elvira said.

“Normally you can’t, but with Katya I had to. A man wants to see that the woman he’s with has been dating her peers, people like her or better, in terms of class, education, and age. If he looks at her ex and sees a guy like himself, one of his peers, he’s happy enough, pleased that her standards are comparable to his. But if he finds she’s been dating lower-grade men, guys he’d not respect or associate with, he’ll want to know why. If she doesn’t explain, and Katya didn’t, he’ll think they’re the best she could get or begin to question her standards. And let’s be honest, it’s no different with women. They’ll look at their partner’s ex-girlfriends and judge him on what they were like. If he has a history of low-grade women, it’ll turn her right off; she’ll think she ought to do better. If he doesn’t make her feel she’s superior to them, the relationship is practically over.”

“True.”

“I didn’t mind she was with the Slovenian. He was her peer, a fellow student, a man of her class. I’d never ask her to tell me I was better than him or that she liked me more. I wouldn’t even want her to imply it, because that, as she said, would be crass. But her husband? She should have been out of his league! That he wasn’t was down to her lack of standards, and what did that say about me? It wasn’t jealousy putting words in her mouth, it was deep disappointment I was trying to reverse.”

“You think her bad-mouthing her ex would have helped?”

“Oh, she’d done that plenty already! I’m always wary when a woman does this, and generally I don’t like it. But if you’re going to engage in slagging your ex, at least tell the new guy you know that he’s different or else he’ll think that you don’t.”

“And what about the other guys, the Swedish and French? You had a problem with them, I think.”

“There was some jealousy there, I admit. You don’t want to hear your girlfriend has slept with a guy who ditched her straight after. If anything else, it shows she lacks judgment. But that I could handle, the husband I couldn’t. If it weren’t for him, the argument over the others might never have happened, but everything got mixed up together. Like I said, I didn’t handle it well.”

“So what did you do?” asked Markus.

“I wept in frustration and anger, feeling helpless and scared I’d never see her again. I wished I’d never said anything or could take the words back so the row would never have happened. Deep down I knew I’d done the right thing, that I had to confront her, but I didn’t expect it to end like this. I’d fucked up badly, and I didn’t know how I could fix it. I got to sleep around two in the morning, and when I woke up, I called her. She didn’t answer, and when I tried a second time she’d switched off her phone again. I was in no state to work, so I called in sick and tried to sleep just to kill some time. I spent the whole day in bed.”

“That bad?”

“I was a fucking wreck! I desperately wanted to speak to her, to hear her tell me it wasn’t all over. She needed time, but waiting is something I hate, and the day dragged on. It was torture. I drank cough mixture chased with whisky, trying to sleep, but even that didn’t work.”

Elvira gave me a pitying look, the one that I’d seen in the Gare du Nord. “How did she hurt you so much?”

“I loved her completely and thought that I’d lost her. All I wanted was to have her back, but she wouldn’t even answer her phone. I hit rock bottom in the afternoon, wallowing in pity and despair. But a few hours later, as evening came, I decided it couldn’t go on. I got out of bed, stood up straight, and swore I’d not be like this again.”

***

I woke the next morning feeling a whole lot better and arrived in the office with a tale of miraculous recovery from the illness I’d suffered the day before. I’d done everything I could, and I wasn’t going to do any more while Katya was behaving like this. I sent her no more messages, and later I booked a table for two in a restaurant for the next evening, a Saturday. I planned to send Katya a short message that night giving her the time and place, and if she didn’t show up, it would be the last she’d hear of me. It was a bold move, but I was determined this situation would not drag out any longer. I’m confident I would have gone through with it had things turned out that way, but I never got to find out.

I was cooking dinner when my phone beeped:

I don’t want to lose you. Please call me.

A wave of elation flooded over me, and with unsteady hands, I threw the pan of lumpy meat and tomato sauce to the back of the stove and called her number.

“Hi,” she said softly. “How are you?” Her voice could have cured me of bubonic plague.

“I’m okay! Thank you so much for your message; I’m so glad.”

“Me too! I was so unhappy yesterday, thinking about us. And today I saw the T-shirt you left here, and I started crying. I don’t want to lose you!”

“I don’t want to lose you either.”

“Can you come over?”

“I’m on my way.”

A short time later she was opening her front door, the slightly idiotic grin smeared across her face. I stepped in, wrapped her up in my arms, and kissed her for a long time. I don’t think we even bothered speaking before going to bed. Make-up sex is always good. It was this time too.

Her head was on my chest, both of us sticky with sweat and breathing hard. In our haste we’d not pulled the curtains, and I could see The Shard with its blueish glow set against the fading sky. I kissed the top of her head and pulled her closer. I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, my emotions all over the place. I thought for a full minute, feeling her heartbeat against my skin.

“I love you so much, Katya,” I said. If she heard me, she gave no sign.

It was late in the night when we broached the subject of the past two days. We were sitting at the half table, empty plates in front of us and a bottle of wine down to the last inch.

Katya drew hard on her e-cigarette. “I’m terrified of having these arguments,” she said, her voice soft, pleading.

“I know,” I whispered.

“I’ve been in a relationship like this before, and I couldn’t stand it.”

“Your marriage?”

“Yes.”

“Were you arguing about the same things we are?”

“No,” she said. “We argued about different things, but it was still awful, and I’m getting the same feeling with you.”

“It’s not easy for me, Katya.”

She didn’t say anything, just sat there staring at the floral pattern on the plastic tablecloth. It looked like something my grandmother would own. I guessed it had come with the flat.

“Katya,” I said as gently as I could. “If the worst you experienced in your marriage was an argument like we’ve just had, you were pretty lucky.”

She looked up at me, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Our argument was bad, but it’s not the sort of thing people get divorced over. Couples fight worse than that, much worse.”

She thought for a moment and then said, “It wasn’t just the arguments. There was other stuff too.” I had no desire to find out what, not right then anyway.

“Okay,” I said. “Neither of us like arguing, so we’re just going to have to try not to in future. I really don’t want another argument like that one.”

“Nor do I.”

“But please believe me that I’m not jealous, I’m not.”

She looked me in the eye. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. Katya, I have no problem with you talking about the Slovenian, for instance. From what you’ve told me he sounds like a decent guy. In fact, I’d say you were lucky to have him.”

Katya tried to reply, but her voice cracked. She let forth a howl of anguish, and her head pitched forward into her hands, hair concealing her face. I sat there stunned as she wept with high-pitched gasps as if struggling to breathe. It went on for a while. The sobbing gradually stopped, and after a few sniffles she spoke, the emotion straining her voice. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

“It’s okay.”

“His name was Janez. You know, you remind me of him,” she said before her voice broke again. Huge sobs rose from within her, and tears poured down her cheeks.

I moved closer and put my arms around her, pulling her tightly against me. I kissed the top of her head and her cheek through hair matted by the wetness of tears, and soothed her with whatever words I could find. Slowly she regained her composure, and I relaxed my grip.

Sniffling, she looked at me with red, wet eyes. “What you said in there before. Did you mean it?”

“Of course I did.”

“I love you too!” she said, her voice threatening to crack again. “I wanted to reply, but I didn’t want you to think I was saying it just because you’d said it first! But I do love you, really!”

I smiled, my own tears forming. “That’s good to know,” I said.

I held out my arms and she sat on my lap with an arm around my neck. Her face was red, a mess of tears and hair, but I kissed her with more love than any time before. We kissed until my legs went numb and I shifted awkwardly.

“I need to wash my face,” she said, standing up. “But there’s something I need to tell you when I come back.” The look on my face must have said it all because she added, “It’s okay, nothing bad. Give me a minute.” I finished the wine while Katya was in the bathroom. I wondered whether I should brace myself for another bombshell. There couldn’t be more, surely. Could there?

She didn’t take long. She sat down, picked up the e-cigarette, and took a long, slow draw before blowing the vapor out of her nose. “A couple of days ago, just before we started fighting, I got a call from a company in New York. They want me to go there for an interview, but it’s in two weeks.”

“Okay,” I said.

“We’ve obviously never discussed this, but I’d like to go back to New York at some point, and this job was something I applied for ages ago. I never got a response so assumed they weren’t interested—until now.”

“That’s great you’ve got an interview, but what’s the catch?”

“I don’t know how long I’ll stay. I haven’t been back for ages, and I need to check on my apartment. My tenant moved out recently, and I have a lot of things to do, so I might be gone a few weeks.”

I shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll miss you, but I’ll not hang myself from a rafter. I’ll still be here when you get back.”

“I was thinking you could come and visit me.”

“In New York?”

“Yes.”

I thought about it and said, “Sure, why not? I have a friend there who I haven’t seen since he left London. I could pay him a visit too.”

Katya beamed. “So you can come?”

I grinned back. “I think so.”

“Oh, that’s great!” she said. “I can finally introduce you to my friends, they’ve heard so much about you.”

“It’s in two weeks, you say?”

“Just over.”

“It’s probably best if you go first, do the interview, and I’ll join you a few days later.”

“Yes, that would give me time to sort things out and get my apartment ready. I have no idea what state my tenant left it in.”

“So we’ll be staying at your place? Is it nice or a complete shithole?” I asked with a grin.

“It’s nice!” she said. “It’s small, but I bought a good bed.”

“Yeah, I was going to ask about that. It’s important.” Within a few minutes we were back in the bedroom.


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Window on a Burning Man – Part 3 of 7

“Orgies!” Elvira said, then looked around. Her eyes were wide, but she was smiling. Markus snorted a laugh through his nose.

“Yes, orgies!” I said. “She just blurted it out, calm as you like, as if telling me she’d been to a flower show. No context, nothing!”

“What did you say?”

“I didn’t know what the hell to say! I lay there a few seconds, then told her I’d been in a threesome.”

Markus let out a belly laugh. “Have you? How come we never heard about this?”

“No, I’ve not been in a threesome! If ever I am, I’ll be sure to call you halfway through. For some stupid reason I thought I should say something to match her confession. It was a daft thing to say, but that’s why I said it.”

“How did she react?”

“As if I’d said I’d kissed a girl behind the bike sheds at school.”

“Maybe it was something she was keeping a secret, and wanted it out in the open,” Elvira said. “She might have been baring her soul in an intimate moment following sex.”

I’d already thought about that plenty of times, and I shook my head. “No. If she’d said ‘I did some stuff I need to tell you about’ with the tone and demeanor of someone confiding in a person they trust, I’d agree that’s why she told me. Or say we were talking about sexual experience and sharing our guilty secrets. I’d have at least understood why she said it. We even had a discussion like that when she told me she’d been shagging a boyfriend in his parents’ bathroom and someone walked in. That didn’t bother me at all. I’d also have been fine with her saying she’d gone with a boyfriend out of curiosity, and they found the whole thing hilariously awkward and left pretty quickly. But no, it was none of those things. One minute I’m telling her my dream, the next she’s telling me that she’s been to orgies!”

“Did she say when it was?” asked Markus.

“No! It could have been a month ago, for all I knew! If she wanted to confess something shameful or to break her past to me gently, she would have provided some context and assured me this happened years ago, and it’s not stuff she does any more. But she didn’t. She just left me alone to think what I pleased. I didn’t want to start asking questions, because I knew I’d not like the answers, and I was worried she’d think I was insecure. All I knew for sure was she’d been to more than one because she used the plural. How many I don’t know, but it made me feel sick.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone told me that,” Elvira said. “What happened afterwards?”

“She got up and went for a shower, and I lay there wondering what the hell I’d just heard. Part of me was saying I should leave at once, but the greater part was hoping it mightn’t be as bad as it seemed. I asked myself if I was being jealous and old-fashioned and whether going to orgies was normal these days. I stayed for some breakfast and then went home.”

***

Katya flew to Madrid that evening to join a group of Russians on a week-long literary and history tour. I spent the day in my flat, thinking about Katya at orgies in New York. I was angry with myself. I’d got far too attached and should have known better. I should have taken it easy until I was sure I knew who she was, but that was always my problem. When it came to women, I fell in love first and found out they’d been to orgies second.

I woke early the next morning still angry and sent Katya a message with a photo attached. A few minutes later my phone rang.

“What the hell is this?” Katya said. “I can’t believe you’ve just sent me that!”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just assumed you’re more into adventurous sex and physical stuff than love and affection.”

“Why the hell would you think that?”

“Katya, you dropped a bombshell on me yesterday morning!”

“Yes, because you told me about your threesome!” She knew that was untrue. Chronology sometimes gets mixed up, but not like this.

I kept calm. “No, that was a stupid response to what you told me. It wasn’t true, and I should never have said it. And I’m sorry about that photo.”

“I thought you’d be more open minded,” she said. “It was a long time ago!”

“When?”

“Ten years.”

“Why the hell did you tell me about it?”

“Because I trusted you,” she said quietly. It was a nice thing to hear and I softened, but it wasn’t much of an answer.

“Katya, didn’t I tell you just before that ignorance is bliss? That I didn’t want to know this stuff?”

“I didn’t know you were talking about me!” she wailed. Then who? I wondered. This was getting stupid.

“Did you tell me because you wanted to seem more exciting?” Girls do this. A woman once told me on our second date that she’d fucked the guy who took her profile photo, a man she’d met at a wedding the same day. In their thirties and looking to settle, some women get struck by a fear that a man might find them boring and, in a panic, start spilling details of sexual adventures. I could only assume Katya had done the same.

“No!” she shouted. “Why the hell would I do that? I’m interesting and different already. I don’t need to impress you like that. Isn’t rat taxidermy strange enough for you?”

The conversation was causing her obvious distress, and her tour group was waiting, and I had to work. If Katya felt obliged to explain herself to me, she wasn’t going to do it right now. We exchanged forced pleasantries and said a curt good-bye to each other.

To say I was distracted throughout that day is like saying a dose of dysentery mars a day at the beach. I spoke about it with my colleague Ricardo. “Is this normal?” I asked him, seeking assurance.

He laughed. “No mate, it’s fucked up! You need to be careful. What else don’t you know about her?”

That was a good question. There was a lot I didn’t know, and I’d been operating mainly on faith. She’d not done or said anything to set alarm bells ringing, but the confession about orgies had changed all that. I was wondering if I should have ended it there. I could have deleted her number with her out of the picture in Spain for a week. I could simply have stopped talking to her and ignored her texts. It shouldn’t have been too late, not at that point, but the truth was, I’d fallen for her badly, much more than I’d realized. I didn’t want to leave her, not just yet. The best I could do was try to convince myself things weren’t as bad as they seemed. I had to ask her some questions.

We spoke that night. “So when did you move to New York?” I asked.

“When I was twenty-one.”

“And you went to be with your Slovenian boyfriend?”

“Yes.”

“That was a pretty big step, wasn’t it? What made you decide to do that?” I guessed it had something to do with getting out of Russia.

“Because I couldn’t imagine life without him.” True love then. Cynic!

Something occurred to me. “Wait, you were twenty-one!” I did some math. “Ah, I didn’t realize you married the Slovenian!”

“I didn’t.”

“Oh,” I said, confused. I rechecked my math. It seemed okay. “So when did you get married?”

“When I was twenty-two.”

That’s what I’d thought. My math was fine. But a year didn’t give her much time to leave the Slovenian and meet her husband. I could tell she was getting nervous, so I switched tack. Katya had a prolific online presence, including websites containing her photos. One of these came under her Russian name, only joined to another with a hyphen. I’d meant to ask her about it before, and now seemed like a good time.

“Who is this?” I asked. “Is it you?”

“Yes, that was my married name. I used it to confuse people,” she said, and giggled.

“Oh. Was he American?” The name looked Asian.

“Yes, but of mixed Puerto Rican and Korean descent. That’s common enough in New York.”

I was surprised. Until now I’d assumed she’d married a Caucasian, although there was no reason why I should have. I tried to imagine a Korean–Puerto Rican in his twenties and came up with a slim Vin Diesel in a sharp suit.

“Was he good looking,” I asked, fishing for more information. “Mixed-race people like that often are.”

“He wasn’t especially good looking, but he was very charismatic and charming, at least at the start.”

“He didn’t stay that way?”

“No,” she said, and paused. “I don’t want to talk about it, not like this. It would be better in person.”

“I know,” I said. “But there are things we need to discuss, and I’d rather do it now.”

She was right in theory. We ought to have done this face-to-face, ideally with a bottle of rum nearby. But if she wanted to apprise me of her past in person, she’d had ample chance to do so, rather than blurting out a history of orgies and taking off on holiday. I can’t say I had much sympathy for her, and besides, I was glad she couldn’t see me pacing ellipses on the floor, my throat dry, and in quite some distress.

She sighed. “Okay, so what do you want to know?”

“How long were you with your ex-husband before you got married?”

“A few months.”

Jesus. I hunted for a response that wasn’t insulting. “Why so fast?”

She sighed again. “Okay, it was like this. The company I was working for screwed up my visa, and I was going to get deported, so my boyfriend at the time asked me to marry him so I could stay. At first I refused because I didn’t want to get married, but eventually I agreed.”

“But why not go to Russia, get a new visa, and come back?”

“Because I was completely in love, and I couldn’t imagine life without him.”

I’d heard this line already, not five minutes before. But my annoyance at that was eclipsed by the knowledge that Katya, in line with the worst clichés of Russian women, had married for a visa. I’d never even considered that she’d be one of them. I’d charitably assumed she’d got US residency off her own back, not on it. I was furious, mainly because of her rank hypocrisy. She was openly critical of “typical” Russian women who she considered low-class and portrayed herself as a proud, independent American woman to whom contemporary Russian traits don’t apply. I was processing this when I remembered she described herself as a feminist. My fury doubled. What kind of feminist gets married for a visa? What would a Russian man’s options have been in the same situation? So much for the patriarchy. My head spun. I tried to calm down.

“How long were you married?” I asked.

“Two years.”

Fuck me. This was looking bad.

Then it got a whole lot worse.

“Katya, you went to those orgies ten years ago, the same time you met your husband. So either you were going to orgies just before you met him and got married, or you went together. Which is it?”

There was a pause. “I went with him.”

I saw Vin Diesel, suit off, cock out, leading Katya into an orgy. I preferred it when he was clothed.

“I see. You were in love with this guy you’d just met, and couldn’t imagine life without him. But he took you to orgies. Got it!”

“Look, I was exploring my sexuality, all right? There’s nothing wrong with women having sex, and I really fucking hate slut shaming.” I’d heard women use that expression before. I never knew if they objected to being called a slut, or being shamed for behaving like one.

“How old was he?” I asked.

“Why?”

“Because I want to know.”

She paused. “He was much older.”

“How much older?”

“I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about this any more.”

“How much older?”

“About twenty years.”

That would have put him over forty, older than I was now. Vin Diesel put his suit back on and vanished. I tried to imagine a middle-aged Korean–Puerto Rican, and failed. I tried not to imagine a middle-aged Korean–Puerto Rican leading a twenty-two year old Katya into an orgy, and failed at that too. I was feeling sick, and the anger was bubbling over.

“So you went to orgies with a man your dad’s age? And you were supposedly in love with this guy?” I spat the words out.

“I was!”

“And he loved you?”

“Yes!”

“So this is what you meant by him being very charismatic and charming? Taking you to orgies?” I realized this was hurting her, but I didn’t care.

“He was! He was very romantic,” she said. I hoped she was defending herself, not him.

“Uh-huh. Well, it sounds like he was pimping you out.”

“No!” she yelled. “He didn’t fucking pimp me out. I went with him because I wanted to! And I hardly did anything there anyway!”

These last words wouldn’t have reassured me even if I’d believed them, and I didn’t. I sat down on the edge of the sofa in a cold sweat. My mouth was still dry despite drinking plenty of water. Things had gone terribly wrong. I’d started the day thinking Katya a proud, independent woman who’d gone to the US and wedded a normal American boy. The marriage had failed, but these things happen. Now it was evening, and I was crushed by the knowledge I’d been badly mistaken, and Katya was not who I thought she was. Yet I was still hopelessly in love with her. How did I get into this mess?

Katya was still on the end of the phone. The facts were in; now I wanted to see what she thought of it all. “So was the age difference a problem with your husband?” I asked.

“I don’t know if his age was a problem, but his lying and drinking certainly were.”

“Lying?”

“Yes, he was a pathological liar. He used to lie about things for no reason at all.”

“I see,” I said, with a twinge of sympathy. I guessed she meant that he cheated on her. That always hurts.

“And he was also an alcoholic,” she said. “In fact, I’m amazed he’s still even alive.”

“And you didn’t know this before you got married?”

“There were some red flags, but I didn’t see them.”

“Blinded by love?” I asked with a healthy dollop of sarcasm.

“He was very charming. I completely fell for it,” she said, ignoring my spite. “You could say I was youthfully naive; there was a lot of stuff I should have seen.”

“Did your friends not see what was going on? They didn’t warn you away from him?”

“He charmed them too. And I found out later he did the same to a much older woman, so it wasn’t just me.”

I found this statement odd. So he’d been married before? If so, how come she only found this out later? He sounded like a serious player, and she’d been exploited to no small degree. Only she’d come out the end with a US passport, so perhaps not. The more I learned the more confused I got, but I pressed on. “You stayed with him for two years?”

“Yes, and it was awful. I was terrified of leaving because I had nowhere to go, and we had the same circle of friends. I was completely on my own.”

“Your parents didn’t know about this?”

“Well, they knew I got married, and when we divorced I told them. But they never met him, and I spared them our problems.”

“They didn’t come to the wedding?”

“No.”

I could guess why. Katya’s father likely enjoyed meeting men his own age, but not if they’re fucking his daughter. I decided to stir the pot a little. “See, this is why you need older brothers.”

“Why?”

“Because they would have kept him away from you.”

An edge came into her voice. “Are you saying that women need men to look after them?” I’d dipped my toe in a bucket of feminism.

“No, but there’s a reason why societies are structured as they are; it’s partly to prevent older, experienced men exploiting younger women.” I wasn’t convinced this was true, but I’d read it somewhere and I had to say something.

Katya lost her temper and began to shout. “My God, that is so sexist! I don’t need men to tell me what to do!” Her conviction was admirable, but if feminism can’t prevent twenty-two year old women being carted off to orgies by men in their forties, it’s hard to know what it’s for.

“Okay,” I said, backtracking slightly. “But don’t you think it might have helped if you’d had some man in your life, with your best interests at heart, that could have pointed out those red flags?” I genuinely meant this; I wasn’t just being a dick.

“I suppose so,” she said through teeth that I imagined were gritted. “But it’s hard to find guys who’d do that and don’t want to sleep with me.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s why brothers are good in this role. But what about the Slovenian? You said you’d stayed friends after you split.”

“Yes he was around, but he’d started dating this crazy woman and had his own set of problems.”

“But he didn’t mind you marrying this guy? He never said anything?”

“No, in fact he came to the wedding.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

She was getting increasingly agitated. I guessed a bottle of wine had been swallowed at her end by now. I was guzzling water, but my throat was still dry. I wanted to find out where all this sat in her mind, but I knew she’d not tell me voluntarily. Somehow I’d have to coax it out of her.

“It seems to me you were completely exploited,” I said. I waited for a response like a teenager at the reading of Grandpa’s will.

The edge returned to her voice. “Who says I was exploited?”

“You don’t think you were?” I asked, wishing she’d said just about anything else. A feeling of bitter disappointment began to soak through me.

“No, why should I? I have no regrets.”

“None at all? You wouldn’t have done anything differently?”

“Maybe some things, but who knows how my life would have gone if things had been different? Things might have been better, but they might have been worse, and I’m happy enough now.”

I took this to mean she thought it all worth it for an American passport. This wasn’t good. I’d heard enough, but I wanted to make sure. “So you don’t feel ashamed about any of this?”

“Why the fuck should I feel ashamed?” The bucket of feminism was kicked across the room, the contents spilling over everything. “There’s nothing to feel ashamed about because I’ve done nothing wrong! I went to therapy and dealt with it, so stop trying to make me feel guilty! I don’t need this shit!”

Americans go to therapy like they take showers, and the quality of therapist varies greatly. Katya’s sounded like she did it for a hobby. “So no regrets. That’s good,” I said. It wasn’t good at all, but it calmed her down.

“No,” she said, lowering her voice with an effort. “It’s in the past, and I can’t change anything, so there’s no point. I don’t believe in regrets.”

I fell silent, emotionally exhausted. I was still trying to process everything I’d heard, but the feeling of deep disappointment had already set in. I wished that somehow none of it was true. I wished a lot of things.

***

Markus and Elvira wore pained expressions which may have reflected my own. I wasn’t finding this easy, but it was helping.

“I wanted to hear her say she’d made poor decisions that she wouldn’t make today,” I said. “I don’t mean she ought to have jumped off a bridge or humiliated herself, but it was vital she acknowledged her bad choices, and she didn’t. There was no self-reflection, no lessons learned.”

“She wasn’t embarrassed telling you all this?” Markus asked.

“She was wary of how I’d react, but there was no embarrassment.”

“So she’s comfortable with it,” said Elvira.

“She is, and that was my problem. She talked of going to orgies with this guy as if she’d gone clubbing with a friend. Clearly this behavior was normal for Katya, and I wondered what sort of person that made her.”

Neither of them said anything. Elvira looked at her hands and Markus was staring at me, shaking his head. This had stopped being funny a long time ago. I took a drink from the bottle and went on.

“Look, most of us did stupid shit when we were young, and part of growing up is recognizing that. Being ashamed of past behavior is a sign you’ve matured, that you wouldn’t act the same way with the knowledge you have now. It’s okay to defend it if that’s what you believe, but it would show your mindset hasn’t changed in the meantime. When you start dating someone, you want to know the choices they’ve made, but more important is how they view those choices today. You remember when I first went to Russia, chasing that girl?”

Elvira smiled. “Of course.”

“I look back and think I must have been nuts. I met her in a nightclub, for God’s sake, I didn’t even know her real name.”

“But you had an adventure.”

“I did, but I should never have gone. She was an awful woman, and I’d die of shame if someone were to read back the things I said to her. I’m embarrassed because I wised up and my standards improved, and I don’t want it known I used to date such a person, let alone loved one.”

“Ah, you were young!” Elvira said.

“Which along with being stupid is my only defense. You’d not think much of me if I still carried on the same way, would you?”

“Dating Russians?”

“Dating women like that.”

“No.”

“So I changed, and I want people to know it, which is why I don’t justify it any longer; few would take me seriously if I did.”

I paused to take another drink.

“Supposing Katya had said ‘I was young and naive and this older guy charmed me, and I fell for him completely. I did things I shouldn’t have, and I wish I hadn’t done them, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.’ I’d have been okay with that. Many people have a story like this, and the smart ones bury it and never mention it or tell it in a way that shows they’ve grown up, learned, and moved on. It’s not what happened that matters so much as how it’s presented. The way Katya told her story, she’s still the same person, the one who went to orgies with a man twice her age, married him for a visa, then divorced after two years.”

My phone beeped and hope surged through me, making my heart pound. It sank when I saw Ricardo’s message, asking what time I’d be back in London. The sick feeling that I’d never see her again returned. That was what I hated about breakups, the finality, never getting back what you had, as if the person had died or never even lived. Every time, I’d ask how did we get from there to here? It was always quite simple, but I could never believe it had happened, and that it was forever.

“You didn’t suspect any of this?” Markus asked.

“You’ve seen her photo. Would you?”

“Not on looks, but I meant in her behavior.”

“She hid it well. She’d disparage low-class Russian women who sleep around and marry for money and told me how relieved the Slovenian’s parents were to discover she wasn’t one of them. I wonder what they’d think now?”

“That sonny boy had a lucky escape?”

I laughed for the first time in days. “And remember, we’d sat through an episode of 90 Day Fiancé, mocking that poor Russian girl for marrying an American as old as her dad. Katya remarked that she must have been desperate. She wasn’t trying to deceive me, to throw me off the scent; she just had no self-awareness.”

Elvira chimed in. “She obviously thinks she’s different.”

“She does, and I didn’t like it,” I said. “There’s a certain dishonesty in portraying herself as a proud, independent woman while forgetting that she’s had a major leg up from men along the way; she ought to at least acknowledge their support. Look, I’m a realist, I do understand how life works. If she’d said ‘I just had to get out of Russia, and I saw a chance and took it,’ I might have run off, but she’d not be lying to herself. In some ways I admire a hardheaded survival attitude. It’s why I never judged the hookers working bars in oil towns. They don’t pretend to be someone they’re not, whereas Katya . . .”

I left the sentence unfinished and looked out of the window.

***

Still on the phone, Katya shook me out of my daze with a question of her own. “So what about your ex-wife? What was she like?”

She’d never asked me anything about her before even though she’d had every right to. I had got the impression she wasn’t interested, perhaps thinking the past was best left uncovered. With a history like Katya’s this might have been sensible, but with everything now out in the open, I guessed curiosity got the better of her.

I kept it brief. “Her name is Olga, she’s one year younger than me and from Moscow. Well, Sergiev Posad. She’s small and dark haired, half-Tatar. She’s very westernized. She left Russia when she was eighteen to do an exchange program in Germany and has lived abroad most of her adult life. She’s well educated. Went to Moscow State University to study finance then went back to Germany to do a masters. She’s fluent in English and German. Not your typical Russian either in looks or mentality.”

“Where did you meet?”

“In Saudi Arabia. She was working for one of the airlines in Riyadh, and we met at a party. A mutual friend introduced us.”

“When did you get married?”

“In 2006, a few months after we met.” Katya was not the only one who’d married in a hurry.

“Why so fast?” she asked. Indeed.

“I got a job in Russia, the one in Nizhnekamsk. She was fed up with Saudi and wanted to stay with me, so she quit her job and followed. She hated Russia and gave up a good job, and I thought I owed her some commitment in return, so I proposed. Plus, being in Russia with an expat boyfriend is an altogether different experience than having a husband. If you tell people you have a British boyfriend, they’ll ask whether you met him the night before in the dodgy bar where all the foreigners go. If you say you’re married—no more questions. It was important to her.” I was sure Katya would understand this.

“How long were you together?” she asked.

“We lasted about two years in Nizhnekamsk before things started going wrong. I had a great time there because, for me, it was new and exotic, but for her, it was just a shithole. She’d left Russia a decade before and worked her way abroad, and now I’d barged into her life and taken her straight back. It wasn’t even Moscow. Nizhnekamsk is an absolute dump. Or at least it was; I don’t know what it’s like now.”

“I can imagine.”

“We tried living the conventional married life, but it didn’t really work. I don’t think either of us wanted it. We started drifting apart, living increasingly separate lives, then eventually she went back to Germany to take a job with a multinational. We did the long distance thing for a while, visited each other a couple of times and went on holiday together, and it was friendly enough, but we were heading in different directions. Then my job in Russia finished, and I went to Nigeria, and that was pretty much it. By the time I came to London, we’d both moved on.”

“So you got divorced?”

“Yes, a couple of years ago.”

“So where’s she living now? Do you guys still talk?”

“She splits her time between Hamburg and Moscow. And yes, we’re still friends. We never hated each other. We just grew apart. And I still help her out with stuff occasionally.”

“Like what?”

“Mostly references, letters in support of visas, that sort of thing.”

“She’s not got a British passport?” Katya asked, surprised. “How long were you married for?”

“Five years but it’s not about that. To get the passport, you need to live in Britain, and we never did.”

“Why not?”

I resisted the temptation to point out that not all Russian girls marry for a passport. “Neither of us wanted to. Back then I had no intention of returning and she preferred Germany. She never liked the UK much.”

“Okay,” Katya said and went quiet. I would happily have answered more questions, but she seemed satisfied for now.

After a long silence I said, “Katya, I have a lot to lose here.”

“Like what?”

“Can I play asshole for a minute?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, can I just play at being an asshole for a minute?”

“So long as it’s just playing, yes,” she said.

“Okay. You went to the US on the back of a long-term boyfriend, who you left shortly afterwards. You then immediately married a wealthy American in order to get a visa, and two years later, you left him as well. Now here you are in your thirties with no property or other assets, you’ve recently been living with your parents, and now you’ve met a moderately wealthy, successful British guy. Do you see where I’m coming from?”

To my surprise, she took this well. “Fair enough,” she replied. “So can we say that, if there are no financial entanglements, you have nothing to worry about?”

“I guess so,” I said, not meaning it at all. I was living a nice life and not just financially. In terms of overall happiness and emotional stress, a lot could go wrong if Katya turned out to be bad news, and the signs weren’t good. I could protect my income and assets from her easily, but I’d otherwise be fully exposed if I continued to see her. In “playing asshole” I’d hoped to get an assurance from Katya that she was not going to upset the relative prosperity of my life, but the answer hadn’t been the one I’d hoped for. It wasn’t only about money.

Much later I realized she’d employed a neat little piece of verbal jujitsu on me, which I’d missed completely.

We bid each other an uneasy goodnight, and I went to bed.

I hardly slept, waking up exhausted. It was too early to start drinking; I had to go to work and modern corporations frowned upon employees who turn up smelling of booze. These things got brought up in annual appraisals.

The thought of waiting almost a week for Katya to get back wasn’t appealing. I needed a distraction and to demonstrate—to which of us I don’t know—there was more to my life than moping about London thinking of her. I saw an offer flash on my screen and, on impulse, booked a flight to Vilnius for Friday. Katya was due back on the Sunday, but I chose to return the day after, in an effort to prove I had bigger priorities than her. If this upset her, then so much the better.

There was a hurt tone in her voice when we spoke that evening. “I thought we were meeting on Sunday!” she said. “I was looking forward to seeing you!”

“Yeah, well I’m going away,” I replied with all the aloofness I could fake.

“What time will you be back on Monday?”

“Sometime in the evening. I’ll have to check.”

“Okay, then maybe we could still meet?”

“We’ll see,” I said. I was being a real dick. For a while I felt good. And then I didn’t.

It was perhaps her disappointment that caused me to weaken, or the emotional mangle we’d been through had drawn us closer together, but the next day I regretted booking the trip. We both wanted Monday to get here so we could fuck each other’s brains out. Make-up sex with Katya would likely be good, yet somehow I’d managed to postpone it. I thought about not going, but I’d already paid for the flights, so I went.

I’d never been to Vilnius, and on the first morning I went exploring. I walked up a steep, curving path of uneven cobblestones to the castle and took photos from Gediminas’s Tower as the bright stripes of the national flag snapped above me in the breeze. It had been warmer out of the wind down by the cathedral, but the sun was out, and there was no sign of rain. I could see the whole city, from the modern blocks across the river to the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town. A television tower, typical of ex-Soviet capitals, rose from behind a set of low hills away to the west. On the way down I passed a hall housing an art exhibition and went inside. The paintings were of volcanoes erupting, with lava depicted in orange and yellow paint and the surrounding terrain in dark blue or black. The lights had been dimmed, and ultraviolet lamps made the lava fluoresce as it shot in the air and poured down the sides of mountains silhouetted in the gloom. I took some photos and went outside. I was halfway down the path toward town when my phone rang. It was Katya, and she sounded chirpy.

“How’s it going?” she asked once we’d greeted each other.

“I’m okay,” I said. “Where are you now?”

“We’ve just arrived in Toledo. We’re going to have some lunch, then go on a tour.”

“Where’s that?”

“About an hour from Madrid. It’s where Don Quixote’s windmills are.”

“Who?”

“Don Quixote. Cervantes?”

“I have no idea what you’re on about.”

Katya snorted a laugh. “Are you serious?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Don Quixote is a book by the Spanish author Cervantes. It’s a literary classic.”

“Katya, I’m from Wigan. We’re most famous for our rugby team, and our childhood heroes spoke in grunts. Although George Orwell wrote about us, I think.” I was enjoying this.

Katya laughed again. “Okay, have you heard the expression ‘tilting at windmills’?”

“Yes, but I’m not too sure what it means.”

“Well, it’s from the book. It’s about a guy, Don Quixote, who is a bit of a fantasist and goes on an adventure where he comes across a row of windmills he thinks are dragons.”

“Okay.”

“So these windmills are in Toledo, and we’re going to see them later. I can’t believe you’ve never heard of them!”

“Well you’ve never heard of Martin Offiah. Anyway, I’ve just got back from an art exhibition.”

“You have? I’m impressed!”

“Yup, at the castle. Hopefully it wasn’t paid for out of taxpayers’ money.” She laughed. Public subsidy of the arts was something we frequently bickered over.

“What sort of art?”

“Volcanoes.”

“Volcanoes?”

“Yes. Wait, I’ll send you some pics.” I lowered the phone and selected two photos, attached them to a text message, and sent them through. I waited a few seconds and asked, “You got them?”

“Yes, give me a sec.” There was a pause. “This looks pretty cool. So what was it about? Who did them?”

“I don’t know, I was too busy trying to ascertain the funding regime.”

“Oh God!” she said, then laughed. “You’re beyond help!”

“I know, but the paintings looked nice. Better than the rubbish you took me to see at Tate Modern.” I was trying to get a rise out of her, but it was in vain. She just laughed again.

“Okay,” she said. “I need to join the others. So far I’ve been doing the translating at lunch.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“No, but the waitresses see I speak English and descend on me, and I end up ordering for everyone.”

“Then you’d better go, Miss Translator. I’ll talk to you tonight, yeah?”

“Sure! Enjoy the rest of your day.”

“You too,” I replied and ended the call.

I walked to the bottom of the hill and turned into Bernadine Park. I veered off the main path and strolled alongside the Vilnia River as it curved around, passing the odd young woman with a kid in tow and benches where old folk sat. A family of ducks quacked in the water near the bank and swam away from my shadow. A musty smell of aquatic flora filled my nostrils as I walked.

I emerged from the park into Uzupis, an area on the eastern edge of the Old Town which claims the status of an independent republic. I spent the next hour walking the streets of this charmingly bizarre district, and I’d just begun to think about lunch when I spotted a restaurant with a terrace built over the river. I grabbed a free table and a waitress brought over a menu in both Lithuanian and English. I took my time going through the pages and settled on what sounded like a heart attack in a dish: fried meatballs with potatoes in a cheese sauce.

The waitress returned, a tall, skinny teenager with mousey brown hair and red lipstick. “Have you chosen?” she asked in the slightly American accent that comes from learning English by watching TV.

“I’ll have the meatballs, please. And could you recommend a local beer?”

“What about Svyturys? That’s good.”

I was in no position to argue. “Okay, one of them, please. Small.”

The sun had come out, warming the terrace, but I fidgeted in my chair. I was troubled. I couldn’t reconcile what Katya had told me with the impression she’d made in the three months I’d known her. I seemed to have got her badly wrong. I’d known from the start she wasn’t your typical girl. The piercings, clothes, and peculiar interests told me as much, and she’d never pretended she was. But she was well educated and from a good family, and I assumed her style was a carryover from her youth, a few endearing quirks in what was otherwise an ordinary, decent woman who shared my values. A colorful personality is something I like, and I’m happy to accommodate eccentric traits in a girl if it makes her a more interesting person. There are limits of course, but I’ll take the slight oddball over dull conformity any day, and I’d charitably assumed that Katya’s oddities were mainly cosmetic, rather than signs of a dubious character. Nothing I’d seen would have led me to think I’d made a mistake; even with the piercings, she could be the sweet girl next door that your mother would approve of. I was trying to accept that Katya’s past proved I’d been wrong, and I wasn’t finding it easy.

The waitress returned with a glass of beer and a cardboard mat. I took a sip, and then another. It was good. I picked up the mat and turned it over. I read that the Svyturys brewery in Klaipeda was founded in 1784 by one J.W. Reincke. German, then. No wonder it was good. I silently thanked the Russians for not wrecking the place when they found it and sat back and enjoyed the sun while I waited for my lunch. It arrived in an oval dish half filled with grease on a plate with a solitary, wrinkled lettuce leaf no bigger than the beer mat but less appetizing. I thanked the waitress and was on my second mouthful when I thought about Katya again.

I’m realistic. I expect there are wild periods in the lives of most women that are best forgotten or at least not shared with partners years later, and I wasn’t so naive to think Katya was innocent. I’d guessed she’d played around and done a few things she’d not be too proud of but nothing like what she’d confessed to. This was a whole new territory for me. I’d never had a girlfriend who’d been to an orgy. Hell, I didn’t know anyone who’d been to an orgy. Of course, I’d known many Russians who’d married older men for a visa, but they’d been nothing like Katya. They came from broken families in decaying provincial towns and looked as battered and scarred as the concrete blocks they grew up in, leaving home with no education, no skills, and very few options. Katya had no such disadvantages. By any standard, let alone that of post-Soviet Russia, she was remarkably privileged, yet she’d made choices usually reserved for the desperate. Try as I might, I just couldn’t understand it.

After lunch I explored the Old Town, and wandered through narrow, winding streets where I noticed a surplus of churches. Some of them were grand, others more humble, and most were in good condition, but occasionally I saw one that hadn’t been touched since the days of Soviet neglect. Katya would like it here, especially the artists’ commune in the Uzupis Republic. I was thinking about Katya when I went back to the hotel to take an afternoon nap, and she was still on my mind when I got up. By then it was dusk, and the old man who’d been playing the accordion in the square outside my window had packed up and gone.

I sent a message to Katya and went for a shower. By the time I’d finished and dried myself off, she’d replied, with a photo attached:

Today I did something I rarely do. I took a picture of myself.

She was wearing a pair of big sunglasses, her red lips curled into a half smile that didn’t quite bring out her dimples, and it made her look young. There was a canyon in the background with trees clinging to its edge and villas on top of the cliff. It looked like a nice place, and I wished I was there too, standing beside her. I replied:

Thank you. You look beautiful.

It was true, she did.

That evening I roamed the bars of Islandijos Street, renamed in honor of the first country to recognize Lithuania’s independence in 1991. The crowd was young, mainly good-natured local men with pretty girls in blouses and jeans. Everywhere was busy, and I had to wait to get served but not so long that I got annoyed. I talked to some people here and there, but my heart wasn’t in it. If things had been different, I might have chatted to the girls, who were friendly enough, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Katya. After three or four drinks I went back to my room. I was a mess.

I couldn’t sleep, and lay on the bed with my iPad, clicking through Katya’s photos online. They were mostly of festivals, arts events, and parties, with an occasional holiday in Europe. The annual pilgrimage to Burning Man dominated, and I worked out she’d gone to five of the last six, but there were others as well: a summer arts and crafts day in blazing sunshine beside a body of blue water; a gathering of thousands of all ages dressed as Santa Claus in the streets of Manhattan; a dozen men and women sitting around a campfire in a clearing of a forest under slate-gray skies, which the caption said was somewhere in Maryland; birthday parties in nightclubs, bars, and private flats; an outdoor event that might have been themed around Alice in Wonderland.

Sometimes the photos showed street scenes or artifacts on fire at Burning Man captured at night with notable skill, but mainly they were of people. After a while I began to recognize faces, and I guessed they were Katya’s closest friends. Beards, piercings, tattoos, and hair dye were common, and the onset of middle age was no deterrent to dressing up and partying in homemade costumes. I noticed Katya was the youngest by quite some margin. I spotted the toy rat that lay in her bedroom in the pocket of a dinner jacket worn by a tall, handsome man at someone’s engagement party. There wasn’t a single photo of her sister and none that I thought could be of her parents. There was nobody I could see that was obviously her ex-husband, either. Katya appeared in very few of her photos, and when she did, it was usually in fancy dress and pulling a silly face. The color and length of her hair would vary, but the piercings stayed the same. She told me she’d had them since her teens, but her nipple wasn’t done until her twenties. I wondered exactly when it was, and if her husband had gone with her. It was gone 1:00 a.m. by the time I slept.

The next morning I went to the hotel restaurant where they’d laid on a decent breakfast. I piled my plate high with bacon, sausages, and scrambled eggs and took a table by the window overlooking the square, which was bathed in a warm, spring sunshine. The old man with the accordion was back, but I couldn’t hear him through the double glazing; he played in silence like a puppet at a theme park, gently swaying as I ate. My thoughts turned to the hundreds of photos I’d seen the night before and the sort of life that Katya led. It was clear she lived in another world, one I barely knew existed. I wondered if it was a world I wanted to get into and decided I probably didn’t, but I might be willing to hang out at the edge if it made Katya happy.

Later that morning I joined a guided tour, led by an energetic young woman who spoke good English in a sing-song voice that carried well. She marched us for two hours around the center of Vilnius, stopping every few minutes, and by the time we were finished, I was hungry again. I was having lunch when Katya called.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I’m okay. I’ve just finished eating, and I’m waiting for the others. We’re about to leave for the airport. How about you?” She sounded happy.

“I’m fine, thanks. I’m in a place called Meat Lovers Pub. Have a guess what they serve?”

“Meat?”

“Nope, it’s vegetarian! Can you believe that?”

“Really? Then why is it called Meat Lovers?”

“I’m kidding, it’s not really vegetarian. They serve huge burgers and I’m halfway through one now.”

Katya laughed. “Okay, smartass. Do you want me to call you back later?”

“No, it’s fine. I need a break anyway. I ate breakfast late.”

“Oh, you slept in?”

“Yeah. To tell you the truth, I was up until one looking at your photos.”

“Oh,” she said. “Which ones?”

“The ones of Burning Man, mainly. And the other festivals.”

“Okay.”

“Some of them seem a bit out there, at least if the outfits are anything to go by. What drugs do you lot take?”

Katya laughed. “Who says anyone takes drugs?”

It was my turn to laugh. “Oh come on! There are no drugs at Burning Man? Or those other parties? In one of the photos you’re dressed as a teapot. That goes way beyond alcohol!”

She laughed again. “Okay yes, we do drugs occasionally.”

“Like what? Pot? Coke?” Despite being a chemist and subject to jokes about cooking up meth in my kitchen, I knew nothing about recreational drugs.

“Yeah, we smoke a bit of pot, and occasionally do other stuff. I used to do coke, but not any more. I found it wasn’t for me.”

“Anything else? Heroin?” She didn’t come across as a smack head, but I was curious anyway.

“No, I’ve never injected. But I’ve done acid, mushrooms, pretty much everything. Why, does it bother you?”

“Not at all. What you do is your business. But you should know, I’m not into drugs. I never tried them and never want to.”

“Fair enough,” she said. “I don’t do much now anyway, it’s just when we’re at Burning Man or somewhere else that we do some stuff.”

“So you’ll not be passing round a crack pipe on the bus this afternoon?”

“No, I don’t think they’re quite the right crowd for that.”

“How about the cigarettes? Are you still plowing through a pack a day?”

“No, I’ve actually bought an e-cigarette, so I’m using that. But it’s a bit fiddly, and I’ve already managed to spill oil all over myself.”

“Oh, well done,” I said. “But it’s good you’ve cut down on the real cigarettes.”

“Yeah, I ought to,” she said. “Anyway I’ve got to go. What time are you coming back tomorrow?”

“I land at five twenty-five, so by the time I get home . . . it’ll be around seven, I reckon.”

“Okay, well send me a message when you land, and I’ll come over to yours.”

“I will, and have a safe flight this afternoon. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing you too,” she said in a purring voice.

“Take care, dorogaya.”

“You too.”

The call over, I went back to my burger.

That evening I found a live music venue down one of the narrow streets at the southern end of the Old Town. There was a hall full of tables with a stage at the far end obscured by a heavy black curtain. The place could hold a few hundred people, and it was packed. Squeezing my way through to the bar, I had to shout my order over the noise. I was waiting for my drink when the curtain pulled back exposing a five-piece band made up of men in their fifties, and the crowd cheered. They launched into a fast-paced rock song that had everyone on their feet and applauding by the third chord. I joined in for the hell of it. The lead singer was a stocky, long-haired man wearing mirrored sunglasses, a white blazer, and fingerless leather gloves who belted out words I didn’t understand in a deep, gravelly voice. When the song finished, he said something in Lithuanian and everyone clapped. The band leaped into the next song, which was a lot like the first.

The fans were in their twenties and fifties, with the generation in the middle missing. I tried to work out if the band was playing its own songs; everyone knew the words, but the crowd and venue seemed too small for anyone famous. A slim, balding man detached himself from a table and wriggled his way into a space beside me at the bar. He spoke to the barman in English with an American accent.

“Hi!” I shouted. “Do you know who these guys are?”

The man turned toward me and smiled. “Yes. Poliarizuoti Stiklai. Polarized Sunglasses.”

“They’re a local band?”

“Yes, they were big here in the eighties, but they tailed off afterwards. But as you can see, they still have some fans.”

“People nostalgic for their youth, I guess?”

“Yeah, and the younger ones grew up listening to their parents’ records.”

His drinks arrived, we nodded goodbye, and he returned to his table. A tall lady with wide shoulders and long black hair slid into the space he vacated, and ordered a drink in Lithuanian. When she was done I leaned toward her.

“I guess you can understand what he’s saying?” I said, flicking my head at the stage.

She smiled. “Yes, of course. This song is about summer.”

“Is it now?” I said, smiling back. “I don’t know much Lithuanian.”

“Where are you from?”

“The UK.”

“Are you here on holiday?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“I’m from Vilnius,” she said and switched her attention to the barman, who passed her a drink.

She had a round face with a long, pointed nose and wore a gray woolen dress over a turtleneck top, which hid a nice figure. A pair of leather knee boots went well with the outfit and brought her face almost level with mine. I reckoned she was about thirty.

“What’s your name?” she asked, and I told her. “I’m Indre, pleased to meet you,” she said, holding her glass up and displaying long fingernails painted a dark blue or black.

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, knocking my glass against hers.

“For how long will you be in Vilnius?”

“I leave tomorrow. You came here alone?”

“Yes.”

I nodded. The music was too loud for conversation so I went back to watching the stage, turning my back on her slightly. I expected her to walk off, but she stayed where she was. She wasn’t showing much interest in the band and I wondered why she was there. We spoke when we could, and I bought her a drink when I refreshed mine, which got me thanks and a smile, but otherwise we just stood there watching the show.

An hour later the front man spoke passionately to the audience before the band broke into a rhythm which sounded familiar. It was the same song they opened with. They signed off their set to rousing applause, the curtain closed, and the lights brightened. There was no call for an encore, and people started to get up and leave. I guessed they had work the next day, and it was past eleven already.

“What time does this place close?” I asked Indre. It seemed strangely quiet now the music had stopped, and I could speak normally again.

“I don’t know. Why?”

“I just wondered.”

“Where do you live?” she asked. “Which city?”

“London.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

An eyebrow went upward. “No?”

“I was married. It didn’t work out, and now I’m not.”

I drained my glass. Dance music came on and the lights dimmed. There were only a few of us left.

“Was your wife English?”

“Russian.”

“Russian? Really? Where did you meet?”

“Indre,” I said. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Yes, of course. Sorry, I am just curious.” She smiled coyly and took a sip of her drink through the straw.

“That’s okay.”

“Would you like to go to another place? There is one nearby.”

“A bar?”

“It’s a club,” she said.

“That’s open on a Sunday?”

“Yes, come on, I will show you.”

It was cool outside but not cold, and Indre and I walked along slowly.

“Did you like the band?” I asked.

“They were okay, but it’s not my kind of music.”

“Then why did you go?”

“I was bored,” she said with a shrug and left it at that.

The streets were deserted, and I wondered if this club existed and I wasn’t about to be lured up some back alley and murdered. We eventually came to a modern brick building near the town hall, and Indre led me down a passage to a door with a neon sign above it. If she was a murderess, she was keeping me alive for now. I paid a negligible cover charge for us both, and we entered a nightclub with a bar running the length of a wall and a steel dance floor ringed by sofas and tables. Cheap techno music was playing and lights were flashing, but no one was dancing. There were only six other people in there, and I couldn’t imagine why they’d bothered opening on a Sunday, but there we were. We picked a pair of stools at the bar and sat down.

“Are you still on mai tais?” I asked Indre. The barman stopped playing on his phone and came and stood near us.

“No,” she said. “I will have a gin and tonic.”

“I’ll have a rum and Coke,” I said, and the barman got to work. I swiveled on my stool to face Indre, eyeing long, toned thighs where her dress had ridden up. “Do you often come here on a Sunday?”

“No, not on a Sunday, not often,” she said, then, without warning, hopped off her stool. “Come on, let’s dance!”

I didn’t move, except to shake my head. “No way. I don’t dance.”

She made a disappointed face that was wholly an act. “Why not? Why don’t you dance?”

“Because I can’t, and when I try, I look like an idiot. I’d rather sit at the bar and drink. This is what Brits do best.”

“But I want to dance!” she protested in a whiny voice. Presumably this worked on some men.

I held firm. “You can dance as much as you like, and I’ll watch you from here, but I’m not going to join you.”

She pulled another face and walked to a spot a few meters away and started to dance. She raised her arms over her head and crossed her wrists and swayed into fluctuating S-shapes that emphasized the curves of her body. She tucked in her chin in a sultry pose, then threw her head back to expose her throat, her hair arcing as she dropped her hands to her breasts. It was a show worth watching and very much better for my having stayed well out of it. She kept it up for the rest of the track, then joined me back at the bar.

“Did you like that?” she asked and picked up her drink. They’d arrived at some point during the act, but it had taken me a while to notice.

“Yes,” I replied and hid behind my glass to avoid her gaze. A few seconds passed.

Indre looked at me sideways and asked, “What’s wrong?” She shifted, knocking her leg against mine. I wondered if it was deliberate.

“Nothing,” I said. “Why?”

“Something is troubling you. You’re still not over your wife.”

“Pardon?”

“You’re not over your wife. I can see that. You still love her.”

I shook my head. “You’re wrong. I’m over my wife, but there is someone else.”

“You have a girlfriend?”

I paused. “Sort of, yes.”

“Oh!” she said and lifted her glass to her mouth. She eyed me over the top as I stared back dumbly. “But something is wrong, I can tell.”

I paused again. Indre had picked up on something. Thoughts of Katya, dimmed to whispers for the past few hours, came roaring back. “Yes,” I said finally. “It is.” We stared at each other until I turned to the bar and worried the ice in my glass with the straw. I felt a hand on my thigh, and Indre was leaning in close.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I understand.” She kissed my cheek, sat back upright, and finished her drink. I thought about kissing her and imagined her naked back in my room, but it was gone in a flash. Another time, maybe. There was no need to say anything else to Indre; she was reading me like an open book. She stood up and said, “Shall we?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go.”

I finished my drink, paid the bill, and walked outside with her. We waited together until a taxi came by, and I flagged it down.

“Are you sure you’re okay walking home?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s not that far, and I need the fresh air.”

“Okay, well it was nice to meet you. Take care.”

I kissed her once on each cheek.

“It was nice to meet you too, Indre,” I said. “Thank you for the company.”

“Bye,” she said, and got in the taxi and closed the door. She blew me a kiss through the window as it pulled away from the curb, and I watched as it went down the empty street and disappeared from view. I didn’t move until the noise from the engine had died, and I was shrouded in silence once more. Another time, maybe. 


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