“Orgies!” Elvira said, then looked around. Her eyes were wide, but she was smiling. Markus snorted a laugh through his nose.
“Yes, orgies!” I said. “She just blurted it out, calm as you like, as if telling me she’d been to a flower show. No context, nothing!”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t know what the hell to say! I lay there a few seconds, then told her I’d been in a threesome.”
Markus let out a belly laugh. “Have you? How come we never heard about this?”
“No, I’ve not been in a threesome! If ever I am, I’ll be sure to call you halfway through. For some stupid reason I thought I should say something to match her confession. It was a daft thing to say, but that’s why I said it.”
“How did she react?”
“As if I’d said I’d kissed a girl behind the bike sheds at school.”
“Maybe it was something she was keeping a secret, and wanted it out in the open,” Elvira said. “She might have been baring her soul in an intimate moment following sex.”
I’d already thought about that plenty of times, and I shook my head. “No. If she’d said ‘I did some stuff I need to tell you about’ with the tone and demeanor of someone confiding in a person they trust, I’d agree that’s why she told me. Or say we were talking about sexual experience and sharing our guilty secrets. I’d have at least understood why she said it. We even had a discussion like that when she told me she’d been shagging a boyfriend in his parents’ bathroom and someone walked in. That didn’t bother me at all. I’d also have been fine with her saying she’d gone with a boyfriend out of curiosity, and they found the whole thing hilariously awkward and left pretty quickly. But no, it was none of those things. One minute I’m telling her my dream, the next she’s telling me that she’s been to orgies!”
“Did she say when it was?” asked Markus.
“No! It could have been a month ago, for all I knew! If she wanted to confess something shameful or to break her past to me gently, she would have provided some context and assured me this happened years ago, and it’s not stuff she does any more. But she didn’t. She just left me alone to think what I pleased. I didn’t want to start asking questions, because I knew I’d not like the answers, and I was worried she’d think I was insecure. All I knew for sure was she’d been to more than one because she used the plural. How many I don’t know, but it made me feel sick.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if someone told me that,” Elvira said. “What happened afterwards?”
“She got up and went for a shower, and I lay there wondering what the hell I’d just heard. Part of me was saying I should leave at once, but the greater part was hoping it mightn’t be as bad as it seemed. I asked myself if I was being jealous and old-fashioned and whether going to orgies was normal these days. I stayed for some breakfast and then went home.”
Katya flew to Madrid that evening to join a group of Russians on a week-long literary and history tour. I spent the day in my flat, thinking about Katya at orgies in New York. I was angry with myself. I’d got far too attached and should have known better. I should have taken it easy until I was sure I knew who she was, but that was always my problem. When it came to women, I fell in love first and found out they’d been to orgies second.
I woke early the next morning still angry and sent Katya a message with a photo attached. A few minutes later my phone rang.
“What the hell is this?” Katya said. “I can’t believe you’ve just sent me that!”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just assumed you’re more into adventurous sex and physical stuff than love and affection.”
“Why the hell would you think that?”
“Katya, you dropped a bombshell on me yesterday morning!”
“Yes, because you told me about your threesome!” She knew that was untrue. Chronology sometimes gets mixed up, but not like this.
I kept calm. “No, that was a stupid response to what you told me. It wasn’t true, and I should never have said it. And I’m sorry about that photo.”
“I thought you’d be more open minded,” she said. “It was a long time ago!”
“Why the hell did you tell me about it?”
“Because I trusted you,” she said quietly. It was a nice thing to hear and I softened, but it wasn’t much of an answer.
“Katya, didn’t I tell you just before that ignorance is bliss? That I didn’t want to know this stuff?”
“I didn’t know you were talking about me!” she wailed. Then who? I wondered. This was getting stupid.
“Did you tell me because you wanted to seem more exciting?” Girls do this. A woman once told me on our second date that she’d fucked the guy who took her profile photo, a man she’d met at a wedding the same day. In their thirties and looking to settle, some women get struck by a fear that a man might find them boring and, in a panic, start spilling details of sexual adventures. I could only assume Katya had done the same.
“No!” she shouted. “Why the hell would I do that? I’m interesting and different already. I don’t need to impress you like that. Isn’t rat taxidermy strange enough for you?”
The conversation was causing her obvious distress, and her tour group was waiting, and I had to work. If Katya felt obliged to explain herself to me, she wasn’t going to do it right now. We exchanged forced pleasantries and said a curt good-bye to each other.
To say I was distracted throughout that day is like saying a dose of dysentery mars a day at the beach. I spoke about it with my colleague Ricardo. “Is this normal?” I asked him, seeking assurance.
He laughed. “No mate, it’s fucked up! You need to be careful. What else don’t you know about her?”
That was a good question. There was a lot I didn’t know, and I’d been operating mainly on faith. She’d not done or said anything to set alarm bells ringing, but the confession about orgies had changed all that. I was wondering if I should have ended it there. I could have deleted her number with her out of the picture in Spain for a week. I could simply have stopped talking to her and ignored her texts. It shouldn’t have been too late, not at that point, but the truth was, I’d fallen for her badly, much more than I’d realized. I didn’t want to leave her, not just yet. The best I could do was try to convince myself things weren’t as bad as they seemed. I had to ask her some questions.
We spoke that night. “So when did you move to New York?” I asked.
“When I was twenty-one.”
“And you went to be with your Slovenian boyfriend?”
“That was a pretty big step, wasn’t it? What made you decide to do that?” I guessed it had something to do with getting out of Russia.
“Because I couldn’t imagine life without him.” True love then. Cynic!
Something occurred to me. “Wait, you were twenty-one!” I did some math. “Ah, I didn’t realize you married the Slovenian!”
“Oh,” I said, confused. I rechecked my math. It seemed okay. “So when did you get married?”
“When I was twenty-two.”
That’s what I’d thought. My math was fine. But a year didn’t give her much time to leave the Slovenian and meet her husband. I could tell she was getting nervous, so I switched tack. Katya had a prolific online presence, including websites containing her photos. One of these came under her Russian name, only joined to another with a hyphen. I’d meant to ask her about it before, and now seemed like a good time.
“Who is this?” I asked. “Is it you?”
“Yes, that was my married name. I used it to confuse people,” she said, and giggled.
“Oh. Was he American?” The name looked Asian.
“Yes, but of mixed Puerto Rican and Korean descent. That’s common enough in New York.”
I was surprised. Until now I’d assumed she’d married a Caucasian, although there was no reason why I should have. I tried to imagine a Korean–Puerto Rican in his twenties and came up with a slim Vin Diesel in a sharp suit.
“Was he good looking,” I asked, fishing for more information. “Mixed-race people like that often are.”
“He wasn’t especially good looking, but he was very charismatic and charming, at least at the start.”
“He didn’t stay that way?”
“No,” she said, and paused. “I don’t want to talk about it, not like this. It would be better in person.”
“I know,” I said. “But there are things we need to discuss, and I’d rather do it now.”
She was right in theory. We ought to have done this face-to-face, ideally with a bottle of rum nearby. But if she wanted to apprise me of her past in person, she’d had ample chance to do so, rather than blurting out a history of orgies and taking off on holiday. I can’t say I had much sympathy for her, and besides, I was glad she couldn’t see me pacing ellipses on the floor, my throat dry, and in quite some distress.
She sighed. “Okay, so what do you want to know?”
“How long were you with your ex-husband before you got married?”
“A few months.”
Jesus. I hunted for a response that wasn’t insulting. “Why so fast?”
She sighed again. “Okay, it was like this. The company I was working for screwed up my visa, and I was going to get deported, so my boyfriend at the time asked me to marry him so I could stay. At first I refused because I didn’t want to get married, but eventually I agreed.”
“But why not go to Russia, get a new visa, and come back?”
“Because I was completely in love, and I couldn’t imagine life without him.”
I’d heard this line already, not five minutes before. But my annoyance at that was eclipsed by the knowledge that Katya, in line with the worst clichés of Russian women, had married for a visa. I’d never even considered that she’d be one of them. I’d charitably assumed she’d got US residency off her own back, not on it. I was furious, mainly because of her rank hypocrisy. She was openly critical of “typical” Russian women who she considered low-class and portrayed herself as a proud, independent American woman to whom contemporary Russian traits don’t apply. I was processing this when I remembered she described herself as a feminist. My fury doubled. What kind of feminist gets married for a visa? What would a Russian man’s options have been in the same situation? So much for the patriarchy. My head spun. I tried to calm down.
“How long were you married?” I asked.
Fuck me. This was looking bad.
Then it got a whole lot worse.
“Katya, you went to those orgies ten years ago, the same time you met your husband. So either you were going to orgies just before you met him and got married, or you went together. Which is it?”
There was a pause. “I went with him.”
I saw Vin Diesel, suit off, cock out, leading Katya into an orgy. I preferred it when he was clothed.
“I see. You were in love with this guy you’d just met, and couldn’t imagine life without him. But he took you to orgies. Got it!”
“Look, I was exploring my sexuality, all right? There’s nothing wrong with women having sex, and I really fucking hate slut shaming.” I’d heard women use that expression before. I never knew if they objected to being called a slut, or being shamed for behaving like one.
“How old was he?” I asked.
“Because I want to know.”
She paused. “He was much older.”
“How much older?”
“I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about this any more.”
“How much older?”
“About twenty years.”
That would have put him over forty, older than I was now. Vin Diesel put his suit back on and vanished. I tried to imagine a middle-aged Korean–Puerto Rican, and failed. I tried not to imagine a middle-aged Korean–Puerto Rican leading a twenty-two year old Katya into an orgy, and failed at that too. I was feeling sick, and the anger was bubbling over.
“So you went to orgies with a man your dad’s age? And you were supposedly in love with this guy?” I spat the words out.
“And he loved you?”
“So this is what you meant by him being very charismatic and charming? Taking you to orgies?” I realized this was hurting her, but I didn’t care.
“He was! He was very romantic,” she said. I hoped she was defending herself, not him.
“Uh-huh. Well, it sounds like he was pimping you out.”
“No!” she yelled. “He didn’t fucking pimp me out. I went with him because I wanted to! And I hardly did anything there anyway!”
These last words wouldn’t have reassured me even if I’d believed them, and I didn’t. I sat down on the edge of the sofa in a cold sweat. My mouth was still dry despite drinking plenty of water. Things had gone terribly wrong. I’d started the day thinking Katya a proud, independent woman who’d gone to the US and wedded a normal American boy. The marriage had failed, but these things happen. Now it was evening, and I was crushed by the knowledge I’d been badly mistaken, and Katya was not who I thought she was. Yet I was still hopelessly in love with her. How did I get into this mess?
Katya was still on the end of the phone. The facts were in; now I wanted to see what she thought of it all. “So was the age difference a problem with your husband?” I asked.
“I don’t know if his age was a problem, but his lying and drinking certainly were.”
“Yes, he was a pathological liar. He used to lie about things for no reason at all.”
“I see,” I said, with a twinge of sympathy. I guessed she meant that he cheated on her. That always hurts.
“And he was also an alcoholic,” she said. “In fact, I’m amazed he’s still even alive.”
“And you didn’t know this before you got married?”
“There were some red flags, but I didn’t see them.”
“Blinded by love?” I asked with a healthy dollop of sarcasm.
“He was very charming. I completely fell for it,” she said, ignoring my spite. “You could say I was youthfully naive; there was a lot of stuff I should have seen.”
“Did your friends not see what was going on? They didn’t warn you away from him?”
“He charmed them too. And I found out later he did the same to a much older woman, so it wasn’t just me.”
I found this statement odd. So he’d been married before? If so, how come she only found this out later? He sounded like a serious player, and she’d been exploited to no small degree. Only she’d come out the end with a US passport, so perhaps not. The more I learned the more confused I got, but I pressed on. “You stayed with him for two years?”
“Yes, and it was awful. I was terrified of leaving because I had nowhere to go, and we had the same circle of friends. I was completely on my own.”
“Your parents didn’t know about this?”
“Well, they knew I got married, and when we divorced I told them. But they never met him, and I spared them our problems.”
“They didn’t come to the wedding?”
I could guess why. Katya’s father likely enjoyed meeting men his own age, but not if they’re fucking his daughter. I decided to stir the pot a little. “See, this is why you need older brothers.”
“Because they would have kept him away from you.”
An edge came into her voice. “Are you saying that women need men to look after them?” I’d dipped my toe in a bucket of feminism.
“No, but there’s a reason why societies are structured as they are; it’s partly to prevent older, experienced men exploiting younger women.” I wasn’t convinced this was true, but I’d read it somewhere and I had to say something.
Katya lost her temper and began to shout. “My God, that is so sexist! I don’t need men to tell me what to do!” Her conviction was admirable, but if feminism can’t prevent twenty-two year old women being carted off to orgies by men in their forties, it’s hard to know what it’s for.
“Okay,” I said, backtracking slightly. “But don’t you think it might have helped if you’d had some man in your life, with your best interests at heart, that could have pointed out those red flags?” I genuinely meant this; I wasn’t just being a dick.
“I suppose so,” she said through teeth that I imagined were gritted. “But it’s hard to find guys who’d do that and don’t want to sleep with me.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s why brothers are good in this role. But what about the Slovenian? You said you’d stayed friends after you split.”
“Yes he was around, but he’d started dating this crazy woman and had his own set of problems.”
“But he didn’t mind you marrying this guy? He never said anything?”
“No, in fact he came to the wedding.”
She was getting increasingly agitated. I guessed a bottle of wine had been swallowed at her end by now. I was guzzling water, but my throat was still dry. I wanted to find out where all this sat in her mind, but I knew she’d not tell me voluntarily. Somehow I’d have to coax it out of her.
“It seems to me you were completely exploited,” I said. I waited for a response like a teenager at the reading of Grandpa’s will.
The edge returned to her voice. “Who says I was exploited?”
“You don’t think you were?” I asked, wishing she’d said just about anything else. A feeling of bitter disappointment began to soak through me.
“No, why should I? I have no regrets.”
“None at all? You wouldn’t have done anything differently?”
“Maybe some things, but who knows how my life would have gone if things had been different? Things might have been better, but they might have been worse, and I’m happy enough now.”
I took this to mean she thought it all worth it for an American passport. This wasn’t good. I’d heard enough, but I wanted to make sure. “So you don’t feel ashamed about any of this?”
“Why the fuck should I feel ashamed?” The bucket of feminism was kicked across the room, the contents spilling over everything. “There’s nothing to feel ashamed about because I’ve done nothing wrong! I went to therapy and dealt with it, so stop trying to make me feel guilty! I don’t need this shit!”
Americans go to therapy like they take showers, and the quality of therapist varies greatly. Katya’s sounded like she did it for a hobby. “So no regrets. That’s good,” I said. It wasn’t good at all, but it calmed her down.
“No,” she said, lowering her voice with an effort. “It’s in the past, and I can’t change anything, so there’s no point. I don’t believe in regrets.”
I fell silent, emotionally exhausted. I was still trying to process everything I’d heard, but the feeling of deep disappointment had already set in. I wished that somehow none of it was true. I wished a lot of things.
Markus and Elvira wore pained expressions which may have reflected my own. I wasn’t finding this easy, but it was helping.
“I wanted to hear her say she’d made poor decisions that she wouldn’t make today,” I said. “I don’t mean she ought to have jumped off a bridge or humiliated herself, but it was vital she acknowledged her bad choices, and she didn’t. There was no self-reflection, no lessons learned.”
“She wasn’t embarrassed telling you all this?” Markus asked.
“She was wary of how I’d react, but there was no embarrassment.”
“So she’s comfortable with it,” said Elvira.
“She is, and that was my problem. She talked of going to orgies with this guy as if she’d gone clubbing with a friend. Clearly this behavior was normal for Katya, and I wondered what sort of person that made her.”
Neither of them said anything. Elvira looked at her hands and Markus was staring at me, shaking his head. This had stopped being funny a long time ago. I took a drink from the bottle and went on.
“Look, most of us did stupid shit when we were young, and part of growing up is recognizing that. Being ashamed of past behavior is a sign you’ve matured, that you wouldn’t act the same way with the knowledge you have now. It’s okay to defend it if that’s what you believe, but it would show your mindset hasn’t changed in the meantime. When you start dating someone, you want to know the choices they’ve made, but more important is how they view those choices today. You remember when I first went to Russia, chasing that girl?”
Elvira smiled. “Of course.”
“I look back and think I must have been nuts. I met her in a nightclub, for God’s sake, I didn’t even know her real name.”
“But you had an adventure.”
“I did, but I should never have gone. She was an awful woman, and I’d die of shame if someone were to read back the things I said to her. I’m embarrassed because I wised up and my standards improved, and I don’t want it known I used to date such a person, let alone loved one.”
“Ah, you were young!” Elvira said.
“Which along with being stupid is my only defense. You’d not think much of me if I still carried on the same way, would you?”
“Dating women like that.”
“So I changed, and I want people to know it, which is why I don’t justify it any longer; few would take me seriously if I did.”
I paused to take another drink.
“Supposing Katya had said ‘I was young and naive and this older guy charmed me, and I fell for him completely. I did things I shouldn’t have, and I wish I hadn’t done them, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.’ I’d have been okay with that. Many people have a story like this, and the smart ones bury it and never mention it or tell it in a way that shows they’ve grown up, learned, and moved on. It’s not what happened that matters so much as how it’s presented. The way Katya told her story, she’s still the same person, the one who went to orgies with a man twice her age, married him for a visa, then divorced after two years.”
My phone beeped and hope surged through me, making my heart pound. It sank when I saw Ricardo’s message, asking what time I’d be back in London. The sick feeling that I’d never see her again returned. That was what I hated about breakups, the finality, never getting back what you had, as if the person had died or never even lived. Every time, I’d ask how did we get from there to here? It was always quite simple, but I could never believe it had happened, and that it was forever.
“You didn’t suspect any of this?” Markus asked.
“You’ve seen her photo. Would you?”
“Not on looks, but I meant in her behavior.”
“She hid it well. She’d disparage low-class Russian women who sleep around and marry for money and told me how relieved the Slovenian’s parents were to discover she wasn’t one of them. I wonder what they’d think now?”
“That sonny boy had a lucky escape?”
I laughed for the first time in days. “And remember, we’d sat through an episode of 90 Day Fiancé, mocking that poor Russian girl for marrying an American as old as her dad. Katya remarked that she must have been desperate. She wasn’t trying to deceive me, to throw me off the scent; she just had no self-awareness.”
Elvira chimed in. “She obviously thinks she’s different.”
“She does, and I didn’t like it,” I said. “There’s a certain dishonesty in portraying herself as a proud, independent woman while forgetting that she’s had a major leg up from men along the way; she ought to at least acknowledge their support. Look, I’m a realist, I do understand how life works. If she’d said ‘I just had to get out of Russia, and I saw a chance and took it,’ I might have run off, but she’d not be lying to herself. In some ways I admire a hardheaded survival attitude. It’s why I never judged the hookers working bars in oil towns. They don’t pretend to be someone they’re not, whereas Katya . . .”
I left the sentence unfinished and looked out of the window.
Still on the phone, Katya shook me out of my daze with a question of her own. “So what about your ex-wife? What was she like?”
She’d never asked me anything about her before even though she’d had every right to. I had got the impression she wasn’t interested, perhaps thinking the past was best left uncovered. With a history like Katya’s this might have been sensible, but with everything now out in the open, I guessed curiosity got the better of her.
I kept it brief. “Her name is Olga, she’s one year younger than me and from Moscow. Well, Sergiev Posad. She’s small and dark haired, half-Tatar. She’s very westernized. She left Russia when she was eighteen to do an exchange program in Germany and has lived abroad most of her adult life. She’s well educated. Went to Moscow State University to study finance then went back to Germany to do a masters. She’s fluent in English and German. Not your typical Russian either in looks or mentality.”
“Where did you meet?”
“In Saudi Arabia. She was working for one of the airlines in Riyadh, and we met at a party. A mutual friend introduced us.”
“When did you get married?”
“In 2006, a few months after we met.” Katya was not the only one who’d married in a hurry.
“Why so fast?” she asked. Indeed.
“I got a job in Russia, the one in Nizhnekamsk. She was fed up with Saudi and wanted to stay with me, so she quit her job and followed. She hated Russia and gave up a good job, and I thought I owed her some commitment in return, so I proposed. Plus, being in Russia with an expat boyfriend is an altogether different experience than having a husband. If you tell people you have a British boyfriend, they’ll ask whether you met him the night before in the dodgy bar where all the foreigners go. If you say you’re married—no more questions. It was important to her.” I was sure Katya would understand this.
“How long were you together?” she asked.
“We lasted about two years in Nizhnekamsk before things started going wrong. I had a great time there because, for me, it was new and exotic, but for her, it was just a shithole. She’d left Russia a decade before and worked her way abroad, and now I’d barged into her life and taken her straight back. It wasn’t even Moscow. Nizhnekamsk is an absolute dump. Or at least it was; I don’t know what it’s like now.”
“I can imagine.”
“We tried living the conventional married life, but it didn’t really work. I don’t think either of us wanted it. We started drifting apart, living increasingly separate lives, then eventually she went back to Germany to take a job with a multinational. We did the long distance thing for a while, visited each other a couple of times and went on holiday together, and it was friendly enough, but we were heading in different directions. Then my job in Russia finished, and I went to Nigeria, and that was pretty much it. By the time I came to London, we’d both moved on.”
“So you got divorced?”
“Yes, a couple of years ago.”
“So where’s she living now? Do you guys still talk?”
“She splits her time between Hamburg and Moscow. And yes, we’re still friends. We never hated each other. We just grew apart. And I still help her out with stuff occasionally.”
“Mostly references, letters in support of visas, that sort of thing.”
“She’s not got a British passport?” Katya asked, surprised. “How long were you married for?”
“Five years but it’s not about that. To get the passport, you need to live in Britain, and we never did.”
I resisted the temptation to point out that not all Russian girls marry for a passport. “Neither of us wanted to. Back then I had no intention of returning and she preferred Germany. She never liked the UK much.”
“Okay,” Katya said and went quiet. I would happily have answered more questions, but she seemed satisfied for now.
After a long silence I said, “Katya, I have a lot to lose here.”
“Can I play asshole for a minute?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, can I just play at being an asshole for a minute?”
“So long as it’s just playing, yes,” she said.
“Okay. You went to the US on the back of a long-term boyfriend, who you left shortly afterwards. You then immediately married a wealthy American in order to get a visa, and two years later, you left him as well. Now here you are in your thirties with no property or other assets, you’ve recently been living with your parents, and now you’ve met a moderately wealthy, successful British guy. Do you see where I’m coming from?”
To my surprise, she took this well. “Fair enough,” she replied. “So can we say that, if there are no financial entanglements, you have nothing to worry about?”
“I guess so,” I said, not meaning it at all. I was living a nice life and not just financially. In terms of overall happiness and emotional stress, a lot could go wrong if Katya turned out to be bad news, and the signs weren’t good. I could protect my income and assets from her easily, but I’d otherwise be fully exposed if I continued to see her. In “playing asshole” I’d hoped to get an assurance from Katya that she was not going to upset the relative prosperity of my life, but the answer hadn’t been the one I’d hoped for. It wasn’t only about money.
Much later I realized she’d employed a neat little piece of verbal jujitsu on me, which I’d missed completely.
We bid each other an uneasy goodnight, and I went to bed.
I hardly slept, waking up exhausted. It was too early to start drinking; I had to go to work and modern corporations frowned upon employees who turn up smelling of booze. These things got brought up in annual appraisals.
The thought of waiting almost a week for Katya to get back wasn’t appealing. I needed a distraction and to demonstrate—to which of us I don’t know—there was more to my life than moping about London thinking of her. I saw an offer flash on my screen and, on impulse, booked a flight to Vilnius for Friday. Katya was due back on the Sunday, but I chose to return the day after, in an effort to prove I had bigger priorities than her. If this upset her, then so much the better.
There was a hurt tone in her voice when we spoke that evening. “I thought we were meeting on Sunday!” she said. “I was looking forward to seeing you!”
“Yeah, well I’m going away,” I replied with all the aloofness I could fake.
“What time will you be back on Monday?”
“Sometime in the evening. I’ll have to check.”
“Okay, then maybe we could still meet?”
“We’ll see,” I said. I was being a real dick. For a while I felt good. And then I didn’t.
It was perhaps her disappointment that caused me to weaken, or the emotional mangle we’d been through had drawn us closer together, but the next day I regretted booking the trip. We both wanted Monday to get here so we could fuck each other’s brains out. Make-up sex with Katya would likely be good, yet somehow I’d managed to postpone it. I thought about not going, but I’d already paid for the flights, so I went.
I’d never been to Vilnius, and on the first morning I went exploring. I walked up a steep, curving path of uneven cobblestones to the castle and took photos from Gediminas’s Tower as the bright stripes of the national flag snapped above me in the breeze. It had been warmer out of the wind down by the cathedral, but the sun was out, and there was no sign of rain. I could see the whole city, from the modern blocks across the river to the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town. A television tower, typical of ex-Soviet capitals, rose from behind a set of low hills away to the west. On the way down I passed a hall housing an art exhibition and went inside. The paintings were of volcanoes erupting, with lava depicted in orange and yellow paint and the surrounding terrain in dark blue or black. The lights had been dimmed, and ultraviolet lamps made the lava fluoresce as it shot in the air and poured down the sides of mountains silhouetted in the gloom. I took some photos and went outside. I was halfway down the path toward town when my phone rang. It was Katya, and she sounded chirpy.
“How’s it going?” she asked once we’d greeted each other.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Where are you now?”
“We’ve just arrived in Toledo. We’re going to have some lunch, then go on a tour.”
“About an hour from Madrid. It’s where Don Quixote’s windmills are.”
“Don Quixote. Cervantes?”
“I have no idea what you’re on about.”
Katya snorted a laugh. “Are you serious?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Don Quixote is a book by the Spanish author Cervantes. It’s a literary classic.”
“Katya, I’m from Wigan. We’re most famous for our rugby team, and our childhood heroes spoke in grunts. Although George Orwell wrote about us, I think.” I was enjoying this.
Katya laughed again. “Okay, have you heard the expression ‘tilting at windmills’?”
“Yes, but I’m not too sure what it means.”
“Well, it’s from the book. It’s about a guy, Don Quixote, who is a bit of a fantasist and goes on an adventure where he comes across a row of windmills he thinks are dragons.”
“So these windmills are in Toledo, and we’re going to see them later. I can’t believe you’ve never heard of them!”
“Well you’ve never heard of Martin Offiah. Anyway, I’ve just got back from an art exhibition.”
“You have? I’m impressed!”
“Yup, at the castle. Hopefully it wasn’t paid for out of taxpayers’ money.” She laughed. Public subsidy of the arts was something we frequently bickered over.
“What sort of art?”
“Yes. Wait, I’ll send you some pics.” I lowered the phone and selected two photos, attached them to a text message, and sent them through. I waited a few seconds and asked, “You got them?”
“Yes, give me a sec.” There was a pause. “This looks pretty cool. So what was it about? Who did them?”
“I don’t know, I was too busy trying to ascertain the funding regime.”
“Oh God!” she said, then laughed. “You’re beyond help!”
“I know, but the paintings looked nice. Better than the rubbish you took me to see at Tate Modern.” I was trying to get a rise out of her, but it was in vain. She just laughed again.
“Okay,” she said. “I need to join the others. So far I’ve been doing the translating at lunch.”
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“No, but the waitresses see I speak English and descend on me, and I end up ordering for everyone.”
“Then you’d better go, Miss Translator. I’ll talk to you tonight, yeah?”
“Sure! Enjoy the rest of your day.”
“You too,” I replied and ended the call.
I walked to the bottom of the hill and turned into Bernadine Park. I veered off the main path and strolled alongside the Vilnia River as it curved around, passing the odd young woman with a kid in tow and benches where old folk sat. A family of ducks quacked in the water near the bank and swam away from my shadow. A musty smell of aquatic flora filled my nostrils as I walked.
I emerged from the park into Uzupis, an area on the eastern edge of the Old Town which claims the status of an independent republic. I spent the next hour walking the streets of this charmingly bizarre district, and I’d just begun to think about lunch when I spotted a restaurant with a terrace built over the river. I grabbed a free table and a waitress brought over a menu in both Lithuanian and English. I took my time going through the pages and settled on what sounded like a heart attack in a dish: fried meatballs with potatoes in a cheese sauce.
The waitress returned, a tall, skinny teenager with mousey brown hair and red lipstick. “Have you chosen?” she asked in the slightly American accent that comes from learning English by watching TV.
“I’ll have the meatballs, please. And could you recommend a local beer?”
“What about Svyturys? That’s good.”
I was in no position to argue. “Okay, one of them, please. Small.”
The sun had come out, warming the terrace, but I fidgeted in my chair. I was troubled. I couldn’t reconcile what Katya had told me with the impression she’d made in the three months I’d known her. I seemed to have got her badly wrong. I’d known from the start she wasn’t your typical girl. The piercings, clothes, and peculiar interests told me as much, and she’d never pretended she was. But she was well educated and from a good family, and I assumed her style was a carryover from her youth, a few endearing quirks in what was otherwise an ordinary, decent woman who shared my values. A colorful personality is something I like, and I’m happy to accommodate eccentric traits in a girl if it makes her a more interesting person. There are limits of course, but I’ll take the slight oddball over dull conformity any day, and I’d charitably assumed that Katya’s oddities were mainly cosmetic, rather than signs of a dubious character. Nothing I’d seen would have led me to think I’d made a mistake; even with the piercings, she could be the sweet girl next door that your mother would approve of. I was trying to accept that Katya’s past proved I’d been wrong, and I wasn’t finding it easy.
The waitress returned with a glass of beer and a cardboard mat. I took a sip, and then another. It was good. I picked up the mat and turned it over. I read that the Svyturys brewery in Klaipeda was founded in 1784 by one J.W. Reincke. German, then. No wonder it was good. I silently thanked the Russians for not wrecking the place when they found it and sat back and enjoyed the sun while I waited for my lunch. It arrived in an oval dish half filled with grease on a plate with a solitary, wrinkled lettuce leaf no bigger than the beer mat but less appetizing. I thanked the waitress and was on my second mouthful when I thought about Katya again.
I’m realistic. I expect there are wild periods in the lives of most women that are best forgotten or at least not shared with partners years later, and I wasn’t so naive to think Katya was innocent. I’d guessed she’d played around and done a few things she’d not be too proud of but nothing like what she’d confessed to. This was a whole new territory for me. I’d never had a girlfriend who’d been to an orgy. Hell, I didn’t know anyone who’d been to an orgy. Of course, I’d known many Russians who’d married older men for a visa, but they’d been nothing like Katya. They came from broken families in decaying provincial towns and looked as battered and scarred as the concrete blocks they grew up in, leaving home with no education, no skills, and very few options. Katya had no such disadvantages. By any standard, let alone that of post-Soviet Russia, she was remarkably privileged, yet she’d made choices usually reserved for the desperate. Try as I might, I just couldn’t understand it.
After lunch I explored the Old Town, and wandered through narrow, winding streets where I noticed a surplus of churches. Some of them were grand, others more humble, and most were in good condition, but occasionally I saw one that hadn’t been touched since the days of Soviet neglect. Katya would like it here, especially the artists’ commune in the Uzupis Republic. I was thinking about Katya when I went back to the hotel to take an afternoon nap, and she was still on my mind when I got up. By then it was dusk, and the old man who’d been playing the accordion in the square outside my window had packed up and gone.
I sent a message to Katya and went for a shower. By the time I’d finished and dried myself off, she’d replied, with a photo attached:
Today I did something I rarely do. I took a picture of myself.
She was wearing a pair of big sunglasses, her red lips curled into a half smile that didn’t quite bring out her dimples, and it made her look young. There was a canyon in the background with trees clinging to its edge and villas on top of the cliff. It looked like a nice place, and I wished I was there too, standing beside her. I replied:
Thank you. You look beautiful.
It was true, she did.
That evening I roamed the bars of Islandijos Street, renamed in honor of the first country to recognize Lithuania’s independence in 1991. The crowd was young, mainly good-natured local men with pretty girls in blouses and jeans. Everywhere was busy, and I had to wait to get served but not so long that I got annoyed. I talked to some people here and there, but my heart wasn’t in it. If things had been different, I might have chatted to the girls, who were friendly enough, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Katya. After three or four drinks I went back to my room. I was a mess.
I couldn’t sleep, and lay on the bed with my iPad, clicking through Katya’s photos online. They were mostly of festivals, arts events, and parties, with an occasional holiday in Europe. The annual pilgrimage to Burning Man dominated, and I worked out she’d gone to five of the last six, but there were others as well: a summer arts and crafts day in blazing sunshine beside a body of blue water; a gathering of thousands of all ages dressed as Santa Claus in the streets of Manhattan; a dozen men and women sitting around a campfire in a clearing of a forest under slate-gray skies, which the caption said was somewhere in Maryland; birthday parties in nightclubs, bars, and private flats; an outdoor event that might have been themed around Alice in Wonderland.
Sometimes the photos showed street scenes or artifacts on fire at Burning Man captured at night with notable skill, but mainly they were of people. After a while I began to recognize faces, and I guessed they were Katya’s closest friends. Beards, piercings, tattoos, and hair dye were common, and the onset of middle age was no deterrent to dressing up and partying in homemade costumes. I noticed Katya was the youngest by quite some margin. I spotted the toy rat that lay in her bedroom in the pocket of a dinner jacket worn by a tall, handsome man at someone’s engagement party. There wasn’t a single photo of her sister and none that I thought could be of her parents. There was nobody I could see that was obviously her ex-husband, either. Katya appeared in very few of her photos, and when she did, it was usually in fancy dress and pulling a silly face. The color and length of her hair would vary, but the piercings stayed the same. She told me she’d had them since her teens, but her nipple wasn’t done until her twenties. I wondered exactly when it was, and if her husband had gone with her. It was gone 1:00 a.m. by the time I slept.
The next morning I went to the hotel restaurant where they’d laid on a decent breakfast. I piled my plate high with bacon, sausages, and scrambled eggs and took a table by the window overlooking the square, which was bathed in a warm, spring sunshine. The old man with the accordion was back, but I couldn’t hear him through the double glazing; he played in silence like a puppet at a theme park, gently swaying as I ate. My thoughts turned to the hundreds of photos I’d seen the night before and the sort of life that Katya led. It was clear she lived in another world, one I barely knew existed. I wondered if it was a world I wanted to get into and decided I probably didn’t, but I might be willing to hang out at the edge if it made Katya happy.
Later that morning I joined a guided tour, led by an energetic young woman who spoke good English in a sing-song voice that carried well. She marched us for two hours around the center of Vilnius, stopping every few minutes, and by the time we were finished, I was hungry again. I was having lunch when Katya called.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“I’m okay. I’ve just finished eating, and I’m waiting for the others. We’re about to leave for the airport. How about you?” She sounded happy.
“I’m fine, thanks. I’m in a place called Meat Lovers Pub. Have a guess what they serve?”
“Nope, it’s vegetarian! Can you believe that?”
“Really? Then why is it called Meat Lovers?”
“I’m kidding, it’s not really vegetarian. They serve huge burgers and I’m halfway through one now.”
Katya laughed. “Okay, smartass. Do you want me to call you back later?”
“No, it’s fine. I need a break anyway. I ate breakfast late.”
“Oh, you slept in?”
“Yeah. To tell you the truth, I was up until one looking at your photos.”
“Oh,” she said. “Which ones?”
“The ones of Burning Man, mainly. And the other festivals.”
“Some of them seem a bit out there, at least if the outfits are anything to go by. What drugs do you lot take?”
Katya laughed. “Who says anyone takes drugs?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Oh come on! There are no drugs at Burning Man? Or those other parties? In one of the photos you’re dressed as a teapot. That goes way beyond alcohol!”
She laughed again. “Okay yes, we do drugs occasionally.”
“Like what? Pot? Coke?” Despite being a chemist and subject to jokes about cooking up meth in my kitchen, I knew nothing about recreational drugs.
“Yeah, we smoke a bit of pot, and occasionally do other stuff. I used to do coke, but not any more. I found it wasn’t for me.”
“Anything else? Heroin?” She didn’t come across as a smack head, but I was curious anyway.
“No, I’ve never injected. But I’ve done acid, mushrooms, pretty much everything. Why, does it bother you?”
“Not at all. What you do is your business. But you should know, I’m not into drugs. I never tried them and never want to.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “I don’t do much now anyway, it’s just when we’re at Burning Man or somewhere else that we do some stuff.”
“So you’ll not be passing round a crack pipe on the bus this afternoon?”
“No, I don’t think they’re quite the right crowd for that.”
“How about the cigarettes? Are you still plowing through a pack a day?”
“No, I’ve actually bought an e-cigarette, so I’m using that. But it’s a bit fiddly, and I’ve already managed to spill oil all over myself.”
“Oh, well done,” I said. “But it’s good you’ve cut down on the real cigarettes.”
“Yeah, I ought to,” she said. “Anyway I’ve got to go. What time are you coming back tomorrow?”
“I land at five twenty-five, so by the time I get home . . . it’ll be around seven, I reckon.”
“Okay, well send me a message when you land, and I’ll come over to yours.”
“I will, and have a safe flight this afternoon. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing you too,” she said in a purring voice.
“Take care, dorogaya.”
The call over, I went back to my burger.
That evening I found a live music venue down one of the narrow streets at the southern end of the Old Town. There was a hall full of tables with a stage at the far end obscured by a heavy black curtain. The place could hold a few hundred people, and it was packed. Squeezing my way through to the bar, I had to shout my order over the noise. I was waiting for my drink when the curtain pulled back exposing a five-piece band made up of men in their fifties, and the crowd cheered. They launched into a fast-paced rock song that had everyone on their feet and applauding by the third chord. I joined in for the hell of it. The lead singer was a stocky, long-haired man wearing mirrored sunglasses, a white blazer, and fingerless leather gloves who belted out words I didn’t understand in a deep, gravelly voice. When the song finished, he said something in Lithuanian and everyone clapped. The band leaped into the next song, which was a lot like the first.
The fans were in their twenties and fifties, with the generation in the middle missing. I tried to work out if the band was playing its own songs; everyone knew the words, but the crowd and venue seemed too small for anyone famous. A slim, balding man detached himself from a table and wriggled his way into a space beside me at the bar. He spoke to the barman in English with an American accent.
“Hi!” I shouted. “Do you know who these guys are?”
The man turned toward me and smiled. “Yes. Poliarizuoti Stiklai. Polarized Sunglasses.”
“They’re a local band?”
“Yes, they were big here in the eighties, but they tailed off afterwards. But as you can see, they still have some fans.”
“People nostalgic for their youth, I guess?”
“Yeah, and the younger ones grew up listening to their parents’ records.”
His drinks arrived, we nodded goodbye, and he returned to his table. A tall lady with wide shoulders and long black hair slid into the space he vacated, and ordered a drink in Lithuanian. When she was done I leaned toward her.
“I guess you can understand what he’s saying?” I said, flicking my head at the stage.
She smiled. “Yes, of course. This song is about summer.”
“Is it now?” I said, smiling back. “I don’t know much Lithuanian.”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you here on holiday?”
“Yes. What about you?”
“I’m from Vilnius,” she said and switched her attention to the barman, who passed her a drink.
She had a round face with a long, pointed nose and wore a gray woolen dress over a turtleneck top, which hid a nice figure. A pair of leather knee boots went well with the outfit and brought her face almost level with mine. I reckoned she was about thirty.
“What’s your name?” she asked, and I told her. “I’m Indre, pleased to meet you,” she said, holding her glass up and displaying long fingernails painted a dark blue or black.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, knocking my glass against hers.
“For how long will you be in Vilnius?”
“I leave tomorrow. You came here alone?”
I nodded. The music was too loud for conversation so I went back to watching the stage, turning my back on her slightly. I expected her to walk off, but she stayed where she was. She wasn’t showing much interest in the band and I wondered why she was there. We spoke when we could, and I bought her a drink when I refreshed mine, which got me thanks and a smile, but otherwise we just stood there watching the show.
An hour later the front man spoke passionately to the audience before the band broke into a rhythm which sounded familiar. It was the same song they opened with. They signed off their set to rousing applause, the curtain closed, and the lights brightened. There was no call for an encore, and people started to get up and leave. I guessed they had work the next day, and it was past eleven already.
“What time does this place close?” I asked Indre. It seemed strangely quiet now the music had stopped, and I could speak normally again.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I just wondered.”
“Where do you live?” she asked. “Which city?”
“Are you married?”
An eyebrow went upward. “No?”
“I was married. It didn’t work out, and now I’m not.”
I drained my glass. Dance music came on and the lights dimmed. There were only a few of us left.
“Was your wife English?”
“Russian? Really? Where did you meet?”
“Indre,” I said. “Can we talk about something else?”
“Yes, of course. Sorry, I am just curious.” She smiled coyly and took a sip of her drink through the straw.
“Would you like to go to another place? There is one nearby.”
“It’s a club,” she said.
“That’s open on a Sunday?”
“Yes, come on, I will show you.”
It was cool outside but not cold, and Indre and I walked along slowly.
“Did you like the band?” I asked.
“They were okay, but it’s not my kind of music.”
“Then why did you go?”
“I was bored,” she said with a shrug and left it at that.
The streets were deserted, and I wondered if this club existed and I wasn’t about to be lured up some back alley and murdered. We eventually came to a modern brick building near the town hall, and Indre led me down a passage to a door with a neon sign above it. If she was a murderess, she was keeping me alive for now. I paid a negligible cover charge for us both, and we entered a nightclub with a bar running the length of a wall and a steel dance floor ringed by sofas and tables. Cheap techno music was playing and lights were flashing, but no one was dancing. There were only six other people in there, and I couldn’t imagine why they’d bothered opening on a Sunday, but there we were. We picked a pair of stools at the bar and sat down.
“Are you still on mai tais?” I asked Indre. The barman stopped playing on his phone and came and stood near us.
“No,” she said. “I will have a gin and tonic.”
“I’ll have a rum and Coke,” I said, and the barman got to work. I swiveled on my stool to face Indre, eyeing long, toned thighs where her dress had ridden up. “Do you often come here on a Sunday?”
“No, not on a Sunday, not often,” she said, then, without warning, hopped off her stool. “Come on, let’s dance!”
I didn’t move, except to shake my head. “No way. I don’t dance.”
She made a disappointed face that was wholly an act. “Why not? Why don’t you dance?”
“Because I can’t, and when I try, I look like an idiot. I’d rather sit at the bar and drink. This is what Brits do best.”
“But I want to dance!” she protested in a whiny voice. Presumably this worked on some men.
I held firm. “You can dance as much as you like, and I’ll watch you from here, but I’m not going to join you.”
She pulled another face and walked to a spot a few meters away and started to dance. She raised her arms over her head and crossed her wrists and swayed into fluctuating S-shapes that emphasized the curves of her body. She tucked in her chin in a sultry pose, then threw her head back to expose her throat, her hair arcing as she dropped her hands to her breasts. It was a show worth watching and very much better for my having stayed well out of it. She kept it up for the rest of the track, then joined me back at the bar.
“Did you like that?” she asked and picked up her drink. They’d arrived at some point during the act, but it had taken me a while to notice.
“Yes,” I replied and hid behind my glass to avoid her gaze. A few seconds passed.
Indre looked at me sideways and asked, “What’s wrong?” She shifted, knocking her leg against mine. I wondered if it was deliberate.
“Nothing,” I said. “Why?”
“Something is troubling you. You’re still not over your wife.”
“You’re not over your wife. I can see that. You still love her.”
I shook my head. “You’re wrong. I’m over my wife, but there is someone else.”
“You have a girlfriend?”
I paused. “Sort of, yes.”
“Oh!” she said and lifted her glass to her mouth. She eyed me over the top as I stared back dumbly. “But something is wrong, I can tell.”
I paused again. Indre had picked up on something. Thoughts of Katya, dimmed to whispers for the past few hours, came roaring back. “Yes,” I said finally. “It is.” We stared at each other until I turned to the bar and worried the ice in my glass with the straw. I felt a hand on my thigh, and Indre was leaning in close.
“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I understand.” She kissed my cheek, sat back upright, and finished her drink. I thought about kissing her and imagined her naked back in my room, but it was gone in a flash. Another time, maybe. There was no need to say anything else to Indre; she was reading me like an open book. She stood up and said, “Shall we?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I finished my drink, paid the bill, and walked outside with her. We waited together until a taxi came by, and I flagged it down.
“Are you sure you’re okay walking home?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s not that far, and I need the fresh air.”
“Okay, well it was nice to meet you. Take care.”
I kissed her once on each cheek.
“It was nice to meet you too, Indre,” I said. “Thank you for the company.”
“Bye,” she said, and got in the taxi and closed the door. She blew me a kiss through the window as it pulled away from the curb, and I watched as it went down the empty street and disappeared from view. I didn’t move until the noise from the engine had died, and I was shrouded in silence once more. Another time, maybe.
Want to read on? Buy Window on a Burning Man on Amazon now for just £2.91!