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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion. As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.”
“It’s from a poem we studied at school. It goes on forever. My mother liked that verse.”
“She was a teacher, right?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“She had cancer, right?”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“Where are you from in Russia?”
“Saint Petersburg.” I could hardly hear her over the background chatter.
“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?”
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.”
“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?”
“I see. Did you date a British guy before?”
“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.”
“Anyway, I went to New York for two weeks right after, and when I got back, he’d met someone else.”
“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?”
“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?”
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?”
“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?”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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?”
“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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