Window on a Burning Man

He wasn’t looking for convention, but he’s learning there are limits!

When a middle-aged British man meets a charming New Yorker with a passion for photography, he thinks he might have found what he’s looking for. But she lets slip a secret and everything changes, forcing him to confront her past and try to understand the choices she’s made. Seeking answers but filled with self-doubt, he plunges into the world of Brooklyn’s artists where relationships don’t follow the normal rules, and third-wave feminists join misfit hipsters in an annual pilgrimage to Burning Man. But the more he discovers, the more questions arise. Why did she leave Moscow and move to America? Why did she divorce a husband she loved? And why is she sticking with him, a man with a complicated past of his own?

Provocative, funny and refreshingly honest, this is a story of an ordinary man in love with a very modern woman.


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Chapters 1 & 2 – FREE!

In the festering criminal toilet that is Paris Gare du Nord, I looked at the board for the Eurostar and noted the time. I was in the most savage of moods and not hiding it well. If I went through passport control like this, they’d chuck me in jail. I needed some air.

Stepping out of the glass-covered annex and onto the Rue de Dunkerque, I saw a man break off from a group and amble over. He fell in beside me, matching my pace, while playing with a folded banknote in the palm of a dirty brown hand.

“Taxi? Where you go?” he said.

He looked more con artist than taxi driver. You could be sure he’d not understand the word “meter” whatever language you tried, and he’d be tragically short of change, even for a ten-Euro note. He turned away when I shook my head. A young African with a pointy beard looked at me twice before addressing me in French. I ignored him by staring vacantly across the street at hotels whose windows hadn’t been cleaned since de Gaulle was in charge. Groups of tourists sat on the pavement eating sandwiches around clustered suitcases. One of them was shouting at a tough-looking Chinese woman who’d kicked her as she walked past. If it was accidental, she didn’t look too sorry about it. Two men of Slavic appearance hovered like a pair of crows, one wearing three-stripe tracksuit bottoms and the other filthy denims, speaking in low voices and looking up to no good. More men loitered, assuredly with intent, and one peeled himself away from a wall and approached me. Turning around to avoid him, I nearly collided with a scooter that was moving too fast along the sidewalk, ridden by a pale youth talking on the phone. A row of standing stone figures on the station’s facade watched matters below with swords and shields to hand. I wondered if they ought not step down occasionally and put them to use.

The sun was warm and I raised my face towards it and closed my eyes, hoping the rays would induce some calm to counteract the fury within me.

“Hello sir, what’s your name?” It was another African, holding out his hand.

“Oh, fuck off!” I said and went back inside.

The French immigration officer waved me through after a brief glance at my passport, utterly uninterested in who was leaving his country. A lengthy queue had formed at British immigration, and I wondered how a simple process could take so long. As we inched forward at the pace of a snail, my frustration grew. I was perspiring, a cold, nasty sweat that comes from distress rather than heat. Eventually I arrived at the red line and waited while an overweight man in an ill-fitting nylon suit and greasy tie took an age to process the person in front. It would be my turn next.

The officer looked at my passport and studied me carefully. He seemed to pick up on something.

“How long have you been in France?” he asked, flicking through the pages.

“Since last night.”

“What was the purpose of your trip.”

I thought for a second, annoyed by the question. “I’ve been trying to work that out since I got here.”

“I’m going to ask you again. What—”

“I came to meet someone.”

“Who?”

“The daughter of a Russian diplomat.”

“What was the nature of your meeting?”

“We never met.” I was skating on thin ice, but it felt good to take out my anger on someone, especially a pompous authority figure.

“Look, I need you to answer the questions and—”

“It wasn’t official, if that’s what you’re thinking. She’s someone I know, and I came to talk to her, but she didn’t want to see me, so now I’m going home. That’s all there is to it.”

He stared at me again, and I thought about asking why he was wearing a hi-viz vest. There was a time when they were worn only by people doing jobs that were dangerous, manual, or both. Checking documents in a glass booth in a railway station didn’t seem like either. He ran my passport through the scanner and looked at the screen, then handed it back to me without a word. I was almost disappointed.

The security check, when compared with the pantomime ubiquitous to airports, was mercifully brief, and I avoided arrest and torture. Perhaps they saw I was spoiling for a fight, but more probably they didn’t even notice. At the door of the business lounge I silently showed my ticket to an assistant, who waved me in with a few words of French. I took out my iPad from my backpack and sat down. With a dry mouth and a nauseating feeling of anticipation, I checked my email, and in the time it took to load, I imagined a message I so desperately wanted.

Nothing.

I checked my phone for messages, pathetically hoping I’d missed a beep in the noise of the station.

Nothing.

Sinking further into angry depression, I rehearsed conversations in my head that I wanted to have but never would. I tried to eat a sandwich I’d bought earlier, but it was dry and felt thick in my mouth, and it wasn’t the fault of the baker. After two more bites I gave up even though I was still hungry. A bottle of juice went down more easily. People nearby were looking at me strangely, and I wondered if I’d been talking to myself out loud. That sometimes happened, and I’d get that look. I didn’t care.

Sickening thoughts spewed forth in my head, violent acts carried out by a stranger on the target of my hate, while I looked on, unmoved. A coward’s revenge, the fantasy of choice for those who know they are wrong or don’t fancy doing a decade inside.

A voice called my name, and I looked up and saw a slim woman with black hair and wide cheekbones coming toward me.

“Elvira!” I said, standing up and smiling for the first time that day.

“Hello!” she said.

She wore a blue summer dress and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag, which looked too big for her, and as I said hello and kissed her cheek, I caught a whiff of perfume.

I turned to the man who was with her. “How are you, Markus?” I asked as we shook hands. He was tall, like most Dutchmen, with straight hair parted to one side and a classically handsome face of the type you see on aftershave adverts. Even the pink sweater draped across his shoulders looked good on him.

“I’m fine,” he said, with a smile that showed a row of straight white teeth. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I lied. “This is a coincidence. What are you doing in Paris?”

“We were in Nice,” Elvira said. “Just a short break. We flew down on Monday and took the train here on Thursday. We’re on our way back to London now. What about you? What are you doing here?”

I let the question hang as I thought of an answer. “I’m not really sure,” I said finally. “I came here last night and drank myself silly in a bar full of strangers. I woke up early, took a walk down to Concorde and through Tuileries to the Louvre, then wondered what the hell I was doing so decided to get the next train home.”

“Why?” Elvira asked as confusion gave way to concern. “What happened?”

“How long have you got?” I said bitterly, my cheerful facade falling away.

They glanced at each other as if quietly agreeing to adopt a sick puppy. “Which carriage are you in?” Markus asked, looking at the tickets clutched in his hand. Boarding had started already.

“Carriage four.”

“We’re in three, the next one along. Come and join us. We’re at a table, and the other seats might not be taken.” He looked around. “It doesn’t look busy, so wait until we’re moving, and come to our carriage.”

“Okay,” I said, attempting a smile. Underneath my misery I was pleased; I needed company badly.

As the train pulled away, I moved to the carriage where Elvira and Markus were sitting. My luck was in, but perhaps not theirs, as both seats opposite were vacant.

“Hello again,” I said, trying to be jolly. I put my bag overhead and sat at the window, directly across from Elvira. I looked at them both but said nothing, unsure of where to begin.

“So what happened?” Elvira said, prompting me.

“I met a woman. A Russian.”

“Where?”

“Online, on a dating site.”

Markus gave me a funny look. “Really?”

“I’m afraid so.” I looked at them both. “Are you sure you want to hear this? It could take a while, and it’s a bit fucked up.”

“Yes, tell us,” said Elvira. She was highly strung and worried too much but was kindhearted and possessed an almost infinite curiosity that made her a good listener. Markus was much like his wife.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start at the beginning.”

***

The first photo on the profile showed a pale young woman looking to the right with a smile that showed her teeth. She had spiky hair dyed a reddish color and a nose piercing and was wearing a black sports top. A second picture showed her in a limousine, decked out in a formal purple dress, looking directly at the camera and smiling. Her hair was different in this photo: brown, straight, and long enough to sweep behind the ears. The profile said she’d been in New York for ten years but was now living in London, and she was aged thirty-two and looking for men between thirty and forty-five for a long-term relationship. Her nickname implied she was Russian, and she wrote that people are often surprised to find English is not her first language. She looked fun, and I’ve always liked Russians so decided to give it a shot.

My initial message was short. There was no point writing an essay to someone who might not be interested. I referred to her nickname and asked her how long she’d been living in London, writing it in Russian to make it stand out. After a couple of days she replied, and we chatted online. She said she’d been in London a year and a half, and asked me some questions of her own: what I did for work, where I’ve lived before, and other such basics. She asked me why I’d chosen my nickname, the Russian word for hedgehog, and I told her I’d been called it before. She laughed and said she got called the same thing too, and we joked around this subject for a while. I learned that she worked as a freelance translator, and she’d grown up partly in Canada. The initial conversation didn’t last long; they typically take place late in the evening midweek, and wrap up within half an hour.

I restarted the conversation a few days later, but it took a full week for her to respond, during which time I’d assumed—as happens quite often—she’d simply lost interest. She apologized, saying she’d been away for work, but immediately suggested we meet in person early the following week. I was glad about this. The sooner you meet them for real the better; nobody signs up to a dating site in the hope of getting a pen pal. We agreed to meet in a pub of my choosing that’s quiet and easy to get to. Before we signed off, I gave her my number and told her my name. She replied with the words, “I’m Katya.”

I arrived at the pub about ten minutes late, guessing she’d be there already. It was a long, narrow joint tucked away down a side street, squeezed between a shop and a cafe. Several people were sitting around but only one woman who could have been Katya. The photos weren’t any help at this point. They could easily have been of two different people. I paused, then looked straight at her and said “Katya!” in a voice loud enough to hear. She was thin with dark hair and sat alone at a table with a glass of red wine, facing me. She looked straight through me as if I wasn’t there, and after holding my gaze on her for a second, I turned and went to the bar. I ordered a beer, and as I waited, I talked with the barman. It had taken a moment to realize the woman was Katya, but I wasn’t going to stand there and look idiotic.

I paid for my drink, collected the change, and strode to her table, beer in hand. “Katya!” I said with a grin, and she jumped.

“Oh, I thought that was you, but I wasn’t sure!” she said in a hard, deep voice. We shook hands and I sat down opposite her.

“You have a strong New York accent,” I said, hoping she’d take it as a compliment.

“Thanks! Yes, I do,” she replied, with a smile that was more of a leering grin. “I grew up partly in Canada, so when I came to New York it was just a matter of changing my accent.”

Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail about four inches long, too short to reach her shoulders if she ever let it down. It was dyed much darker than the brown in the photo, which made the white skin of her face look even paler. If she wore any makeup, I couldn’t detect it.

“How long were you in New York?” I asked, trying to remember what her profile said. It usually helps if you’ve read it properly.

“Ten years.”

“I’ve been to New York,” I said. “But only for two weeks. I couldn’t say I know it well, I only saw Manhattan. I’ve always envied those who lived their twenties in New York. It looks like a great place when you’re young and full of energy before you start a family and need a decent house.”

She listened with a serious face, her wide red lips held tightly together forming a line. She had delicate wrists with surprisingly large hands, which caressed her glass as I spoke. Her nails were tidy and unpolished.

“I love it,” she said. “I found, after Canada, I struggled with Russia, but I could fit right into New York.”

“How come you grew up in Canada? You were there for your father’s job?”

“Yes. He’s a diplomat.”

“He worked in the Russian embassies?” I conjured up images of granite-faced KGB officers.

“Yes, exactly.”

“Did you live in them, then?” I wanted details of the torture chambers.

“Not in Canada, no. We lived in apartments, which were not that great, but it was better than staying in Moscow.”

“Ah yes, this would have been in the nineties, right? You did well to get out of there then.” I’d heard plenty of stories about life in Russia in the post-perestroika era.

“That’s right. I loved it in Canada; everyone was so open-minded. Having spent my formative years there, it made me who I am now.” I was left to guess who that was.

“So is that how you also know French?” I asked. Her profile said she was fluent.

She nodded. “Yes, we learned it in school, and I still have an accent, which French people sometimes pick up on. But how come you speak Russian and know about Russia?”

“It’s a long story,” I said, preparing to tell it for the thousandth time. “I was conscious of being a typical monoglot Brit and decided to do something about it. I thought German or French was too common so settled on Russian. I’m not sure why, but I was always intrigued by the Iron Curtain and this mysterious country behind it. I bought a textbook and worked through some chapters, but I found it useless in Leeds and gave up. But a few years later I went to Bahrain and found it full of Russians, some of whom were pretty young girls, so I started learning it again. I ended up going to Russia with one of them and found it amazing, a fascinating place. This was in winter 2004.”

Katya was smiling, absorbed. “You went to Russia with a girl? In winter?” She had natural brows above deep brown eyes, which would have been beautiful had they been large; instead they were small and too close together, hinting at cunning deceit.

“Yes,” I said, as if confessing a crime. “I knew nothing about the place and even less about her, but I could speak a little Russian by then. I was living in Saudi, and she sent me a message inviting me over, so I thought ‘what the hell’ and I went. Looking back, it was stupid. I was daft when I was young. Plus, I was seeking adventure. I actually went to the embassy in Riyadh and got myself a visa; I think they were so surprised this idiot Brit wanted to go to Russia in winter, they didn’t know what else to do but give it to me. I still can’t believe I got it.”

Dimples formed in her cheeks when she laughed, making her truly delightful. “And what happened?” she asked.

“It was a disaster!” I said. “I couldn’t stand her, but I loved the place. Everywhere I looked, there was something bonkers going on. It’s changed now, of course; it’s all cleaned up, and Moscow is much like everywhere else, but back then it was still the Russia of old. You still had kiosks in the underpasses, and you could get a lift by sticking your arm out into the road. I remember a young guy taking me somewhere in his Lada, smoking a cigarette, Diskoteka Avariya blasting out the open windows, and getting frustrated because of the traffic. Suddenly he mounted the pavement and started driving up the footpath, people jumping into the snow to get out the way. “Shortcut!” he said. I thought the people were nuts, and I loved it. I decided I had to go back on my own, but I needed to improve my Russian. So I found a teacher and spent the next two years practicing on everyone I met and visiting Russia as much as I could. Eventually I moved there for work, and I improved pretty fast. I was there four years in all.”

“Dear Lord!” she said, laughing again. “When you wrote to me in Russian, I assumed you had some other connection, like a Russian parent. It’s impressive you learned Russian from nothing. Where were you living, in Moscow?”

“No, Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan. Halfway between Kazan and Ufa. There’s a giant petrochemical complex there. I worked on a project in that.”

Katya frowned. “I’ve heard of that town but never been there.”

“There’s no reason to go,” I said. “It was fun as a foreigner because it was different, but it was an absolute shithole.”

“I can imagine. It was bad enough in Moscow. At one point my parents bought an egg incubator. They thought we might have to breed chickens to survive. It sat on top of our wardrobe for years.”

I laughed at that. She had an oval face that ended with a sharp, square chin above which was a hole halfway to her mouth. “What happened to the piercings?” I asked.

“I had an interview today at one of the banks. I’ve not worked with them before, and I wasn’t sure how formal I should be. When I work with people for the first time, I usually take them out because I don’t know how they’re going to react.”

I leaned to look at the side of her nose, which was slightly long and turned up at the tip, and saw the small hole when she turned her head. I found the facial piercings the most off-putting thing about her. I’ve never been a fan of them, just as I’ve never liked tattoos on a woman (unless she plays bass in a rock band). My initial impression of someone with piercings like that is they’re seeking attention, and if they’re over twenty-five, I reckon they ought to have outgrown them by now. But I turned a blind eye because Katya was Russian, friendly online, and willing to meet early on. Anyone who goes internet dating without being able to ignore a few things will spend a lot of time at home on their laptop and not much in bars, restaurants, or someone else’s bed. It wouldn’t have made much difference had Katya worn her piercings that night, but it probably helped that she didn’t.

As if reading my mind, she said, “I keep saying to myself I should let the holes close, but they’re a part of me, and I’m not quite ready to give them up yet. I’m a reformed Goth,” she said, laughing, “and I’m still hanging on to parts of my Gothness.”

I gave a belly laugh. “You were a Goth? Wearing all the black makeup and stuff?”

“Sure! I was one of the weird kids in high school, an introvert hanging out with all the other misfits.” She took a swig of her wine and looked at me with a defiant smirk.

“I can’t say I was one of the cool kids either,” I said, feeling confessional. “For a start, I was rubbish at sport, and that matters when you’re a kid. Plus, looking back, I was also a bit of a twat.”

“No! I’m sure you weren’t!”

“Oh, I was. I was an obnoxious know-it-all and had no self-awareness. Even the teachers hated me; I kept arguing with them.”

Katya laughed. “Oh no, really?”

“I’m afraid so. Of course, I’m totally different now.” I gave her a smug grin, which got me another laugh.

“We’re a couple of misfits, then?” she said.

“It looks that way. I guess there’s hope for everyone.”

“I guess so.”

We looked at each other for a second or two, smiling slightly. She took another sip of her wine.

“So how did the interview go at the bank?” I asked.

“I think it went well,” she said. “I just had to do a test in the booth; it took a couple of hours. And yes, that’s why I’m dressed like a priest, in case you were wondering.”

I was. She had a long, slender neck and wide, bony shoulders, and the blouse she wore was finished around the throat like a padre’s dog collar. I’d thought it an odd piece of clothing, especially to wear on a first date. It was tight enough to see she had small breasts and long, thin arms.

“Yes,” I said, deadpan. “I was just about to ask you to carry out an exorcism.”

“No problem,” she replied smoothly. “You’ve caught me on the right day.”

“So is that what you normally wear on a date?”

“No, I’m usually in black with some skulls on me somewhere. Like I said, I’m a Goth.” She gave me a mischievous smile.

“Oh! No pretty frocks, then?” She looked as much like a frock girl as I did a Speedo man.

“Sadly not. I have dresses, but I don’t wear high heels.”

I looked under the table. She was wearing a pair of two-tone oxfords, which I’d never seen on a woman before. I wondered what possessed her to buy them.

“Very formal,” I said. “I hope they give you the job.”

“We’ll see. I’m freelance, so they could call me any time. I’ve already got the certification I need, but these guys make you do a test as well. I don’t know why.”

“You do both interpretation and translation?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Russian, French, and English? In any direction?”

“Yes.”

“I’m impressed. Do you do that real-time interpretation where you translate as the person is speaking? I knew a couple of girls back in Russia who did that. They were brilliant.”

“Yes, that’s what I do, usually anyway. Either face-to-face meetings or conference interpretation.”

“Is that where everyone wears headphones, and they pick the language they want?”

She nodded. “Yup, we sit in a booth, usually at the back of the room looking down on the audience and speaker. We work in fifteen- or twenty-minute shifts because it’s very intense. Any more than that and your brain starts to fry. Normally after my shift I run outside for a smoke, and then I’m straight back on again. On that note,” she said, “I need to go outside for a quick cigarette. Is that okay? Do you mind?”

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll be right here.”

She slid herself sideways off the stool, picked a pack of cigarettes from her handbag, and went out to the street, leaving the handbag behind. That was a good sign. At least it meant she’d be back, rather than hailing a taxi outside. It was going well.

Katya wasn’t gone long, and by the time she came back, I’d replenished the drinks. She didn’t look to be going anywhere, and I certainly wasn’t.

“Tell me, what do you do?” she asked, the smell of smoke wafting off her. “For a job, I mean.”

I kept it simple. “I’m a chemist in the oil business, specifically refineries.”

“That explains all the traveling,” she said, referring to my profile. “Where have you lived?”

“All over the place. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, and now London.”

“Interesting! How long have you been back here?”

“Just over two years. I left the UK twelve years ago and didn’t intend to come back, but I got a good job offer. And it was either this or go back to Africa, and I’d had enough of that.”

“It sounds like an interesting life,” she said.

“It is. Well, I like it anyway. I’ve traveled the world, seen things most people won’t, and made some money too. I’ll not pretend my life is awful; it’s not. I’ve done pretty well.” Few first dates have gone badly due to overconfidence and a flush of arrogance on the man’s part, at least compared to those where the girl wants him to stop mumbling and look her in the eye. “But the downside,” I said, “is I had to live in places like Saudi and Nigeria, whereas you were in New York.”

“Yeah, that’s true! I’m not sure I could handle being in places like that, away from my friends. I have a group I hang out with here, but I really miss my friends in New York.”

“Yes, friends are important. Mine are mostly military, and they were being sent abroad the same time as me, which made it easier to leave. If I’d lived in a small town with family and friends and suddenly I left, it would have been hard. But as it was, most of my friends weren’t at home anyway, so I wasn’t missing out on much.”

“How about your family? Did you miss them?”

“Not really,” I said. “I have a big family, but we’re not very close, which made it easier to emigrate. I see my father and sister quite often now because they live in London, but I hardly came back when I was abroad. How about you? Are your family still in Moscow?”

“Yes, but we’re not close either. My parents and I clash a lot; we’re always arguing. And I never got along with my sister although we tolerate each other now.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Just two years younger, but she’s nothing like me.”

“Do you see them much? How often do you go back to Russia?”

“About once a year. But I was living with my parents here for a year, so I obviously saw them a lot then.”

That surprised me. “You lived with them here?”

“Okay, it’s a bit of a long story. I was in New York, and I’d just started doing translation full time when a friend recommended one of the law firms as they have steady work and pay pretty well. But they wanted a qualification, and I didn’t have one even though I knew all the languages. Then I found a masters program in conference interpretation in London, and as my parents were here, I decided to come and study and move in with them.”

“So you lived in the embassy?” I hadn’t yet given up on the torture chambers.

“Yes, they have apartments there. We had one of them.”

I was intrigued. “How was it, living there?”

She took another sip of wine; her glass was below the halfway mark. Mine had a sizeable dent in it too.

“It was okay, but living with my parents was hard. And obviously I couldn’t bring anyone back.”

“I can imagine,” I said, wondering who she’d have brought home, absent her parents and an FSB guard. “But why did you do it?” I couldn’t understand why someone over thirty would move in with parents they didn’t get on with.

“I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. I couldn’t work full-time because of my studies, and I can’t pay rent if I’m not working.”

“Fair enough. So when did you move out?”

“My parents went back to Moscow at the end of my course, and I rented the room I’m in now.”

“Good timing,” I said, with a small hint of snark. Something bothered me about this, which I couldn’t put my finger on.

“Sure, it worked out well,” she replied. “But yeah, living with them had its moments.” She looked down at her glass and fell silent.

I’d had enough of family feuds. “What do you do in your spare time?” I asked.

“Before I answer that, can I go outside for another cigarette?” She smiled and rummaged in her bag.

“Sure,” I said. “It doesn’t bother me.” And it didn’t.

By the time she returned I’d got the drinks in again. She thanked me, and I picked up where we left off. “You were going to tell me what you do when you’re not translating weapon manuals from Russian into English.”

She laughed, looking cute as a button. “Oh, I mostly hang out with friends, go to art shows, chat to people in New York. I’m also a photographer but haven’t done much in ages. I need to get my motivation back.”

“You’re a photographer?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t done much in London. I did lots in New York when I was working for a magazine, and did some freelance shoots as well. And I took loads of photos at Burning Man and other events.”

“Oh, you’ve been to Burning Man?” I asked, sounding more surprised than intended. I’d heard of it once briefly, but only remembered it now.

“Oh yes, I used to go every year!” she said, growing excited. “All my friends in New York go; there’s this whole bunch of us. It’s amazing.”

I shrugged. “I can’t say I’ve ever gone to anything like it.”

“Yeah, Burning Man is amazing,” she repeated. Loads of people from all different backgrounds work on these really cool projects, and everyone does their own thing. Pretty much anything goes.”

“Okay,” I said, unsure of what else to say.

Katya went on. “That’s one thing I miss about being here. I’m missing out on events with my friends back home. I was pretty bummed to miss Burning Man last year; they all went and I was stuck here.”

“Do you play any musical instruments?” I asked, getting the subject off Burning Man.

“No, nothing,” she said. “I’m not musical at all. You?”

“Yes, I play the piano, but I’m not much good. It’s just a hobby.”

“I see.”

“What sort of arts do you like?” I asked, keeping things moving.

“All sorts but mainly contemporary or modern art.”

I smirked. “Modern art—as in the stuff that can be absolutely anything and everyone says how brilliant it is?”

She snorted a laugh. “Yes, a lot of it’s crap, but some of it’s really good. It depends on the artist and the theme. Have you been to any exhibitions, then?”

“No. I’ve never understood modern art. For me, good art is when a painting looks a lot like the subject.”

She snorted again. I suddenly got the idea she thought I was a caveman. “Okay,” she said. “There’s a bit more to art than that. Do you know the Impressionists, for example?” My face stayed as blank as a sugar daddy’s check. “Monet?” she said, raising a hopeful eyebrow. She was smiling like a teacher addressing a particularly thick child.

Water Lilies,” I said evenly. “And that’s about the limit of my knowledge. Wait, he was French, right?” I was having fun.

“Yes,” she said, with an air of playful condescension. “Didn’t you study any of this in school?”

“Katya, I don’t know what things were like in Moscow, but in my school arts class was the one you messed around in. Not as bad as music, where we made the teacher cry, but we definitely didn’t learn anything. I mean, why would you even try to teach art to eleven-year-old boys?”

“I see,” she said, with a coy smile. “I’m going to have to show you some art exhibitions, aren’t I?”

I smiled back, and there was nothing coy about it. For a guy on a first date, this was job done. It seemed a shame to leave this bright little Russian with the dimples, but it was getting late.

“I guess you’re working tomorrow?” I said.

Katya sighed. “I am, sadly. Shall we get going?”

I had my back to the door each time she left for a cigarette, so I couldn’t check her out without making it obvious, but as we stood up to leave I was able to see her in full. She was around five foot six, average for a Russian, and slim. Between the padre’s blouse and the two-tone shoes, she wore a loose pair of black capri pants with stockings underneath. It was an odd look, either for an interview or a date, but fashion styles are hardly my forte. Provided a girl’s not slovenly—and Katya wasn’t—I don’t worry too much about clothes.

We reached the Underground, went down the steps, and passed through the barriers. Our routes home diverged on the other side, so we stopped there. I kissed her cheek and put my hands on her waist, squeezing gently. “That was fun,” I said. “I enjoyed that.”

“Me too,” she said. “Thanks!”

I felt no stiffening of her body so squeezed a little more and kissed her other cheek. I let her go and stepped back, and she smiled at me. I was already smiling at her. We said good-bye and walked off in different directions. When I got to the platform, I looked to the opposite side to see if she was there, but she wasn’t. I was disappointed to leave her but happy I’d met her in the first place. A train came howling in, and I got on board.

The next night I had a date with a German girl arranged the previous week. She was pleasant enough, but all I could think of was Katya and when I would see her again.


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