The Russian Easter masquerade party in a Fifth Avenue loft in trendy downtown Manhattan was an event to be awaited with anticipation. What I was not looking forward to was my boyfriend’s costume, and for that matter, my costume too. No matter the occasion or the season or the phase of the moon, Alex dressed up as a Gestapo officer in full regalia. One had better make a lot, and I mean a lot of hoopla, heaping praises on him—how masculine he looked in it and how sophisticated the whole affair was, when in reality I hated, hated, hated the whole thing.
Things might necessitate a persnickety consideration if I ever found myself in need of filling the vacancy to father my future children. The way things were at the moment, I figured I could afford to take my time, keeping it simple and not pondering too long over the implications of such a decision. Change the way you see the world and your reality will change too, or so I have heard. I should point out—and was not it ironic?—that no matter what changes took place in my outlook on the world, the reality refused to comply. This stubbornness gave no indication of going away, but swelled like a river in flood instead. Why didn’t it work? I would wonder. What was I doing wrong?
As one might expect, the other parties we had attended over the past few years were hardly ever costume affairs, though such an insignificant fact never deterred Alex. The part of his brain responsible for the dressing-up bit had short-circuited a long time ago. Things were never any different. To him going to parties meant an excellent chance to show off his Nazi uniform in its hard-to-forget glory, even if one tried and tried. The idea of putting on a regular shirt and pants (and appearing ordinary, God forbid), to shine in some other way aside from showcasing his tendency for absurd apparel, seemed too much for him to handle. Ah well…Nowadays everyone seems to be dealing with their self-esteem issues on one level or another, and I am almost certain you yourself have heard of such incidents, though Alex’s flaunting it was a very different matter and nothing short of alarming. But I have long since stopped dwelling over others’ absurdities; I will let him struggle with it on his own terms and pray for a happy end.
Alex rummaged through the flea markets of New York and Europe for uniforms and trinkets, his every find celebrated with a pomp as a personal victory, only by him. Not to mention that humanity at large found those Nazi dudes neither glamorous nor charming (and I was in perfect agreement with those who said so); this fact did nothing for Alex. The nuance that he was not exactly the Aryan archetype affected his determination not one bit. Short, stocky, and balding with short arms and no chin to speak of, he overcompensated by pumping iron at the gym for two hours every day. Though still paunchy, he ended up with a mountain of muscles and looked like a lumpy, overstuffed sofa.
We had been arguing about this too-passionate hobby of his forever, and—I do share your skepticism—it looked more and more unrealistic that such an issue would go away on its own. I want to take this opportunity to inform everyone that this had been just one of the thorns in our relationship, and a big one at that. Alex had no clue what the whole fuss was about while I failed miserably to explain it to him many times over. Many. Though even today I do not fully understand the chain of events that had brought us to this point in time, what seemed to be at the root of the underlying issue was nothing more sinister than blocked communication passageways between us in general—the absence of a dialogue that ought to be the cornerstone of any decent relationship, but seldom was.
I was not surprised when, against my feeble protests, Alex dressed up yet again as—you have guessed it!—a Gestapo officer. Fed up with the whole concept, I had no plausible explanation as to why I went along dressed up like a provocative lady of ill repute (“ooh là là!” or, if one preferred, “hubba hubba”), hanging on to the officer’s arm. In Alex’s thinking, my dressing up like a harlot, even if lacking in social refinement, looked irresistible, so he suggested I wear the outfit. Um…let me rephrase that last statement, please. He did not suggest it so much as he demanded it, so I have little to say about that. It occurred to me then, this time with full clarity, that the chasm between us was growing deeper by the minute, although Alex, giddy with happiness and with a smirk on his face, seemed to think we made a charming couple. Disillusioning him required more energy than I could spare at the moment. I had no heart for it either.
. . .
Alex, as sarcastic fate would have it, was fourth in a row of boyfriends, none serious, who had come and gone in the last four years since I had moved back to New York; an indecently long trail of people I would rather not remember, added to the disturbing procession of predecessors who must be forgotten if the last sliver of my self-respect is to be kept alive. Their voices and faces were an untidy, chaotic jumble, the sort of jumble that upon my looking back and pondering with regret, made me wish I could forget entire chunks of my life. Let me make it clear right away that all those predecessors, without exception, had been good neither for my ego nor for myself. Some were pleasant and kind, some not exceptionally so; some were attractive, some not so much; some were smart and others not at all. At all. One was brilliant, a real rocket scientist, who also had an extreme case of advanced-stage manic egotism beyond redemption. I am sad to report that one hand, one meager hand was all that was needed to count the relationships that had made any sense for me to have been entangled in. And yet…
At some points in time, in moments of inexplicable, prolonged weakness, I managed to fool myself over and over again into believing that indeed, it was somehow all worth it—it would work itself out in the end. It never did. What one might find downright puzzling was the simple fact that in my preoccupation with these very matters, the matters so close to my heart, I chose to ignore in its entirety the teeny-weeny distress ping that went off in the back of my mind every time I happened to stumble—not unlike a tumbleweed—upon what seemed to be an eligible suitor, or, as in the alarming majority of cases, he stumbled upon me. You know, that feeling that something is not quite right, but it is hard to pinpoint what is wrong? That is the one. As long as some human warmth is in the offing, I thought to myself, like a starving dog. Interesting. Who was I trying to fool? Even so I would feel a distinct bewilderment and all-too-familiar frustration—I should have known!—such was the feeling at that moment, the end result…well, I had expected this to happen. This last fact would make me wonder how I had managed to live so long and stay so despicably dumb. I have nothing to say about that one.
New York boyfriend number one was interesting beyond belief: a bit of a recluse, in no sense an unkind person, though not an especially caring one, a walking, talking encyclopedia who knew everything there was to know about anything—when he was sober. He drank himself unconscious from morning till night for weeks at a time, an uninteresting phase when he had trouble recalling his name. Then, what is in a name? “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it is said. At times like this, he had not the slightest idea who or where he was, nor whom I might be. He addressed me as his mother, and there was no charm hidden in it anywhere. Then he would bashfully snap out of it, and with a guilty smile and a conciliatory manner be interesting beyond belief again…until the next drinking spree. Always drowning in misery when sober, while serene and sentimental when drunk.
I assume it will come as no shocker that boyfriend number one was soon replaced by boyfriend number two. Boyfriend number two, a horse of a different color, drank not as much as boyfriend number one did, which was an improvement in itself, but then again, he earned nothing. He refused to get entangled in anything remotely material because as a sculptor, his higher destiny was to dwell nowhere else but in the abode of spiritual realms, or so he adamantly declared to anyone who cared to listen. Ah, the creative type. The thought of wasting his God-given genius on the mundane and earthly carried no appeal for him. How noble of him. This motto in no way prevented the man from living under my roof and putting away food I brought to the table, the same roof and food that, in my humble opinion, no matter how one might want to look at it, belonged in the category of very material objects in the material world.
It was to be commended (despite the fact that he stopped in front of any mirror-like surface he walked past to admire himself), that at forty-six he had managed to stay young at heart, a free spirit. And this is indeed important—to keep one’s spirit young. Neither fame nor riches had found him thus far, but in case he was discovered, he was prepared, already on a pedestal. He had erected this sky-high pillar by himself, of course, a colossal edifice to enable everyone to reflect upon his special value, and then, with no assistance, he had climbed onto the top. He was ready for fame, riches even more so. My place was at the foot of this glorious contraption; my job was to adore him. From morning till night. For weeks at a time. In this ritual of exalted adoration, with barely suppressed eagerness, I was to clap my flippers like a trained seal with a snub nose while sighing and barking, half-expecting him to toss a small mackerel, preferably unspoiled, into my wide-open mouth.
Boyfriend number three was a tall, dark, and handsome fellow. I went gaga. In that period of my life, I was in a state of despair and needed someone, anyone, to go gaga about. No one had to be dashing. The sex god was British, in episodes even funny, and always sober. He worked, owned his apartment, and was also, while almost generous and somewhat interesting, a nag and a pessimist in full bloom. As for his belonging to a breed notorious for their superb emotional restraint, he was an atypical Englishman. Each morning he added measured portions of psyllium fiber into a glass of green smoothie to cleanse his bowels and aura, nibbled on homemade granola, and went on to predict doom from morning till night. He nagged and nagged, which was less fun than it promised to be and was hardly inspiring…well, for anything. Guess how that relationship ended and how soon.
The next, the Interloper, did not last long. Not sure if this classified as a relationship per se, but I feel obliged to mention him for statistical purposes. On our third date (we had progressed from drinks to the meal—yay!), while I contemplated dispensing with the goodbye handshake and getting to more intimate stuff—say, a kiss—his cell rang. And what do you know—his lawful spouse ordered him home for dinner. An interesting development, no? That is, interesting only to a point. Preoccupied with other, more urgent matters, it had slipped his mind to bring up he was a little bit married. What I got out of it, while recollecting the lost expression on his face, was a wholehearted laugh all the way back home and then some. I laughed as I have seldom laughed in my life, a guffaw that brought me to tears. I had to blow my nose, and then I still laughed. I did not crack up on his account—well, perhaps I did a little—but for the most part I laughed at myself for volunteering to walk into yet another predicament, not entirely unlike the million others I had found myself in before. On second thought, I had experienced as much fun as I could handle. I’m done with dating, I thought. Finito, I thought. Then, soon after, Alex showed up. Please contain your surprise. As wise Yoda once said, “Impossible to see the future is.”
Alex drank socially in pleasant moderation. Not amazing or interesting, he was an inarticulate man but with air of dependability and homeyness. He worked, swore he was unmarried, and his nagging was bearable. Even if some things were mildly annoying, by default these were overall excellent qualities to have in a man—perhaps not the exciting sort to sweep one off one’s feet and curl one’s toes, but solid basics, dependable, that were essential to have if the relationship was to go somewhere. Something was not quite right with him, though…hmm.
But Alex had a major, major point of attraction—he made me laugh. A killer sense of humor, his most fantastic feature, got him out of a jam on many an occasion. Allow me to reiterate—it hurt less when I laughed. Alas, his funny side was not all. Wait till you hear this—Alex loved me just the way I was without changing anything about me, or at least that was how things were at the beginning. I was unaccustomed to such treatment. It was a novel sensation, a huge plus, a wonderful triumph of the soul, an amazing experience for me to relish, which took an ever-increasing hold on my heart and mind. The universe can be so accommodating at times.
Except—and why did it always have to be this “except” thing?—he would blow up like Krakatoa with huge plumes of smoke and dust, killing everything in its path with pyroclastic flow, unleashing tsunamis while it blew itself out of existence; he was almost as loud. Thank heavens the repercussions were less devastating than in the case of the volcano itself. No volcanic winter followed. These fits happened on occasion at first, once in a blue moon, but increased in frequency as Alex relaxed into the relationship. Gradually, bit by bit, they had progressed to daily occurrences over the last few weeks. No physical violence accompanied them, not yet, but there was a lot of thunderous yelling. His rages became the norm, which by itself was not enough to set me running half-breathless to the nearest police station to file a complaint.
All this fighting was no foreplay, not even a suggestion of it, but was something more prosaic—Alex vented his frustrations with the world’s imperfections. Not counting that the wrongs with society in general became more and more my fault, the list of my flaws, nonexistent at first, were soon blown to mind-boggling proportions. With each new day, his narcissistic side thirsted for additional verification that he was the cream of the crop, but why bother proving his worth to the current population of the earth when being domineering toward me required less effort on his part? And while he nurtured his delusions of entitlement, this domineering bit was easier to execute by isolating me from other people.
I silently watched my friends dissolve out of my life one by one, into the swirling black nothingness that devoured my world whole, all while Alex’s chances of feeling like my master skyrocketed. To his genuine surprise, I wanted no master, not for all the tea in China. His drinking picked up momentum too. More nights when I stayed in his place, he would have quite a bit to drink, stumble across the rug, then pass out on the floor. The relationship deteriorated faster than you can say “restraining order.” What was wrong with me? Why could not I have the sort of problems that normal people had? You know, like do not leave the toilet seat up, put the cap back on the toothpaste tube.
. . .
Enough of that. So here we were at the Russian Easter masquerade party. At the entrance to the loft, Alex bumped into his fervent “I will forego the food if you let me talk about the Great Patriotic War” * buddy, who was in his late sixties and garbed as a Soviet army general with the polished Order of Lenin and two Gold Stars of the Hero of the Soviet Union modestly pinned to his jacket. Both uniform junkies had made a strict pact concerning who would wear what—wandering into one another’s territory was verboten.
* The term “The Great Patriotic War” is used in former republics of USSR to describe the period from June 22, 1941, to May 9, 1945, in the many fronts of the eastern campaign of World War II between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany with its allies.
The general’s neat, thick mass of silver hair gave off a restrained luster, yet this noble image was tainted by the shifty eyes on his oily face and his hippopotamus of a belly peeking out of the rank jacket; the lowest three buttons had to be left undone, such that his stained undershirt made a public appearance. The general’s cap was pushed back so that it sat on the crown of his head at a jaunty angle. The fact that he sweated stale alcohol was sublime proof of him being an inveterate drinker, and sent any freshly germinated sprouts of respect awakened by those highest-distinction awards on his chest down the drain, even if he had earned none of them.
“Hey, Obergruppenführer!” ** Alex extended his right arm in a bombastic “Heil Hitler!” salute, clicked his heels, and cried darkly, eyeing his competitor’s medals with open envy. Only one tarnished Iron Cross shone among the assemblage of metal on his chest.
** Senior group leader (German).
“Parteigenosse!” *** The general swayed and produced a gurgling sound, scratching his stomach. “Sieg heil.”
*** Party member (German).
I knew exactly where this was headed, and within the next ten seconds I was proven right. With all due respect, the fascination of Russian males belonging to a certain age group and older with the subject of rise and fall of the Third Reich has never failed to amuse me. I was in no mood to stomach yet another war debate tonight. About five minutes into it, as any polite person would, especially those with innate good manners, I got away without a peep, pasting on a beaming, almost angelic smile to compensate for the too-obvious deficiencies of my wardrobe. A little nervous at first, I drifted from group to group. As a lady of ill repute, I was greeted with ovations—ooh là là, très bien!—by the prevailing majority of partygoers, who were for the most part male. The room buzzed as a giant beehive, the costumes dazzled, the background music was pleasing.
“…was supposed to separate my laundry,” an Imperial Stormtrooper explained to the finest of Robin Hood’s gang. “My girlfriend moved in with me. Now we have white…what do you call them, ‘linens’? Oh man, I’m telling you, the thread count is everything!”
“…can’t say I admire his latest piece,” were the words exiting the semistitched slit of a scarecrow’s mouth. “His art is too controversial. His colors are offensive and depressing…”
“…the latest model of BMW? That thing can make a grown man cry.” Toulouse-Lautrec was on the verge of tears.
“…We showed him! Hitler better think the next time he decides to attack Mother Russia.” Mad Hatter twisted in his fingers a button attached to the vest of Hot-Pink Rabbit, whose pants were missing entirely.
“…done with control-top pantyhose,” the moonfaced Catwoman said to two almost-identical witches (one was a head taller and a strawberry blonde), a puff of smoke curling out from the corner of her generous mouth. “I’ll try a panty girdle…”
“…what Putin had told them?” a barrel-chested executioner leaning on his ax asked a prince. “If it were up to me, I’d waste no time with all this yada yada. I—”
“Where the hell have you been all night, pumpkin? I’ve been looking for you!”
Combined with a slight push, this last question was addressed to me. His fleshy neck bent forward, my angry boyfriend, the benevolent Gestapo officer, was breathing noisily through his nose and looking at me with disparagement. Unnoticed, several hours had elapsed.
“In this room,” I said.
Based on the speed at which his stunned expression morphed into the familiar one of fury, my calm tone had come as a shock to him. Believe me, it had surprised me too, though not unpleasantly. This was not a polite expectation forming on his physiognomy. No, no, not the facial expression of a happy person. I could tell rage was building inside him, the explosive outcome inevitable—though I did not want to be the alarmist here. He was getting ready to blow, but I was unstoppable. I had crossed a line that I never suspected to be there in the first place, and was gaining momentum.
“How exactly were you looking for me?” I said.
“What?” Alex managed with a grimace of impatience. He cracked his fingers, blinked a few times, cleared his throat, and repeated louder, “What?”
Fed up with being fed up, I had had it. This time I was standing my ground, though I did not quite know how this was to develop, nor exactly what I would be forced to face later on. But it was a bad time and place to indulge in speculations. My backbone itched for a while, trying to come out. The sensation of itching intensified.
“Why do you think I’m willing to participate in your Hitler mania?” I heard myself vocalize. I cannot say I disliked the sound of it, regardless of whether or not it might be considered a perfectly irrational sort of behavior in some circles.
Ill at ease, Alex was visibly having problems finding the right words. Alex visibly had problems finding words, period. His face was strained, his mobile brows forming an inverted V. His voice burst with boiling anger that was urgently looking for a way out. “What?” he began. “But he was—”
“I don’t care what you think of your precious Hitler.” I dared to interrupt him, a cardinal mistake, and then, oh dear, I just kept on pushing, at the boiling point myself. “Mulling it over and over. Why does it have to be a monster? Get fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci.”
I was not sure what had come over me, but I had done it. He puffed up his chest and attempted two impossibles at once—sucking in his stomach while towering over me, despite the too-obvious fact that in my pumps, I was the taller one. Alex, so far relatively speechless, foamed at the mouth. Even if I wanted to have second thoughts, it was too late, him being the bullheaded man he was. Nothing to prevent him from blowing now.
He half-squatted and tensed, as if getting ready to jump over a fence. His face paled, reddened, then paled again with a bit of a greenish hue. He moistened his lips with his tongue and swallowed, his mobile Adam’s apple twitching. Then he stopped imitating a frozen-in-space chameleon, came to life, and blow he did.
“You think this all sounds cute coming from a whore,” Alex retorted in a loud whisper that could be heard at the other end of a huge room, as with an evil grin, he snapped the garter on my left thigh. He caught his breath, wrinkled his small forehead with an effort, and rubbed it with his beefy fist in jerky movements. After mulling things over for a second, then spitting and whirling like a dervish, he screamed, all but spelling out the words for me: “Why are you parading yourself in this whore outfit? To show your true nature? A whore—that’s what you are!”
This spectacle caught the attention of the people standing nearby. Step by step they moved away from us, making a circle to witness a rapidly rising calamity from a safe distance. The murmur of conversations in the room dissolved, swept away in a rolling, quick wave, as withering silence swelled in its place. A single “Yay!” was smothered in its infancy and died on the spot.
I tugged at the hem of my skirt to pull it down a little. Nothing changed—the skirt stayed short. Alex watched me with contempt.
“A whore! You’re lucky I picked you up,” he shrilled, articulating each syllable. “You’re nothing without me, nothing! What do you mean you don’t find the subject interesting?”
Alex was right about my devotion to his interests. All of a sudden I saw everything with new eyes. The rift had stewed for some time, as often occurs in these situations, and it is all too easy to become blind to the obvious until, prompted by some external event, it surfaces, in some cases at the speed of light. As for me, the lowly whore, so lucky to be picked up by him…I realized I was on the verge of blowing myself.
Distrusting myself to move or speak, I made no move. I kept my silence. My knees were doing something vaguely resembling melting away, with wispy swirls dissolving in the surrounding air. But true to myself, for some unfathomable reason not altogether ready, again I thought I should give the guy a break—and that, that, my last thought, made me very, very angry. Such a disturbing development, though it opened my eyes to the simple truth: how about several breaks, as if it made any difference!
“A whore!” A triumphant note crept into his falsetto.
Though I was under the influence of too many National Geographic specials, and some cultures had indeed proven the method successful, a quiet voice in my head urged, “No, no, no, the ‘let’s kill him and eat his liver’ approach isn’t the wisest one to follow here.” And as Aristotle said, “Intuition is the source of scientific knowledge.”
“A whore! A whore!” Alex half-squatted, waving his hands and spitting. There was no love shining through, coming at me from his slitted eyes—Rasputin’s had looked kinder. He lifted a little on his toes, slapped his thigh, squatted deeper, clapped his hands, tapped his foot. From a certain vantage point it looked like he was attempting a modest version of a Russian kick dance.
Bloody hell. A swift kick to the groin, however tempting, was out of the question, once I reflected upon the precarious nature of the stiletto pumps I was wearing, the more of an absence than a presence of a skirt, and a prevailing minority of sympathetic glances from spectators nearby, impatiently awaiting scandal. It would also involve the act of touching him, and I was in no mood for close encounters with maggots. A little disoriented, I got an image of a wild rhesus macaque swinging off a tree limb, throwing feces at things it did not like. Go, Banana Butt, go!
I tapped my foot. I am a coward, I am. I do not like confrontations. Regardless of the common approach to similar situations, I suppressed my natural response. In a vain attempt to shake off the idea of such undertakings creating an even bigger spectacle, I avoided the fact that it was already too late for that. Not a thing will prevent all sorts of rumors from buzzing, multiplying in the circles of our mutual acquaintances and others made of complete strangers. With a few seconds to decide on a plan of action, I racked my brain for an infinite array of possible ways to deal with this mess. There was no array. I had nothing. I shrugged.
“And nothing to say for yourself, I see,” Alex gloated.
According to my best judgment—and believing it to be sound on the matter, even if I often proved to be prone to episodes of inconsistency—I thought the whole relationship too unilateral. Dealing with the Master of the Universe on an everyday basis happened not to be my thing. Go figure. It was my new personal low too—this was beyond demoralizing—down to the fireworks display ending, and, to top it all off, having such a spectacular display occur under the full gaze of the public. I had to do something radical. Pull it out like a rotten tooth.
I bid Alex no customary farewell—no crying, no screaming, no slapping his face—but turned around and walked out into the crisp New York night. Everything that had to be said had already been said. No matter how much Alex wanted to be revered for his greatness, in my eyes he would always remain a small man.
Fifth Avenue was empty and quiet at three in the morning. No pedestrians. A few impatient cars swooshed by, and again I was wrapped in silence—how strange such a lack of sound was in the Big Apple, even in the dead of night. I breathed in the cold, fragrant air and my newly acquired freedom. Freedom! And relief…immense, overwhelming relief. Life of lies—it was over. No more pretending, no innuendos, no more unfinished statements. I felt shaken and exhausted, yet wonderful. I felt elated. Weightless. I was a little apprehensive about getting arrested for my skimpy outfit, and I hoped there would be no need to explain, in my own words, what it was I did or did not do for a living.
Still, with all sorts of stimulating hormones overflooding my bloodstream, I had to walk for a bit to cool off and absorb what had just happened, and I was in no hurry to grab a cab. The subway was out of the question, as was hitching a ride. Did I have money for a cab? I opened my clutch, relieved to see a twenty snug in there, next to a modest collection of cosmetic items and keys.
Keys! I had my apartment keys. For a moment I contemplated retrieving my coat from Alex’s car, but no force in the world could make me go back and look at that face again. I breathed in a lungful of air. It smelled fresh and a little sweet—a good omen for the beginning of things new and wonderful. The chill of the April night had not registered with me yet. Off with my coquettish black half veil! Freedom! Spring was back!
An alien silhouette, too long-necked for the average New Yorker, was coming along the dimly lit street and heading in my direction, followed by another unfamiliar shape, just as strange, but shorter.
I was at a loss for what to make of them. They did not look particularly menacing. Would waiting for their approach be considered a good strategy? This was New York, you know. I had heard rumors. The word on the street had it that some strangers were less harmless than others. Setting all common sense aside, I stood still and waited. The distance between me and the shapes quickly diminished, such closeness becoming disturbing, yet still I was unable to determine what the hell they were. A bit closer yet. Closer. Closer…
My eyes recognized the creature now, but my bewildered brain refused to accept the reality of it in the middle of Manhattan. An inquisitive snout, soft and silky, parked itself on my naked shoulder with a loud snort. A warm breath caressed my cheek, and a big, dark eye looked at me from under long eyelashes.
I outstretched my arms and hugged the odd, yet magnificent, woolly creature. A good omen, indeed. I was hugging a llama.
In the crypt of the night, the overhead source of illumination swung and squeaked and creaked in a strengthening breeze. From shaggy shadows and into this unsteady cone of light stepped the wrinkle-faced animal’s guardian, wearing a rainbow-colored poncho and a hard-brimmed hat. He smiled at me with a broad, partially toothless smile.
“Good evening, madam,” he said. “Nice weather we’re having.”
Or that is what I thought he said. Or had it been, “Can you direct me to a number five train?” Or had he just inquired whether or not I wanted to buy his hat?
You will have to forgive me—my Quechua was rusty that night.
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