Like a Real Man

Deep into the small hours of the morning was the bedchamber astir. Gossamer swirled, bracelets tinkled, hips swayed, myrrh poured but the sheikh was not amused. Again and again, the toy tower erected for him by deft fingers collapsed. He was already going to shoo the slippery flock away when his eyes fell on a new concubine from far away, whose name no one could pronounce, with hair of amber and thighs of snow, if the sheikh had known what snow looked like. The sheikh beckoned the foreign concubine forward, hadn’t he paid eleven camels for her, after all.

Ralf Schweiger, accountant, dabbed his stomach neatly with a frayed blanket. He yawned and turned to the wall. It had taken him long, but now he would doze off at last. The sleeping car reeked of spirit and bad digestion. Ralf’s co-traveller on the berth opposite was snoring spasmodically against the ragtime of the train. The man had been ranting on the whole evening long without introducing himself or asking for Ralf’s name. Neither had he inquired whether Ralf liked vodka or spoke Russian.

‘What are you doing in this train, fine German? No money for the plane ticket? I don’t believe you. I know you are a spy. Drink with me.’

Sergey Konovalov, hawker, wiped two smudged glasses on the curtain and poured the vodka out, the glasses full to the brim.

‘I said, drink with me. It’s not a request, it’s an order. Don’t you squint at me like that, the glass is clean. To us! No, no, you cheat, in a single gulp, as real men drink… Here’s a good boy… I know your breed. You drink vodka with ice and tomato juice. You drown the spirit in cream and suck it through straws because you are puppets and not men. You are scared of doing bold things, you wear condoms all over, and for your little finger you have a condom, too.’

Sergey poured himself another glass.

‘Why are you in this train, sly German? I will tell you why. You want to take your condom off and haul your canned brains away for dogs to eat. Don’t look at me like that with your blue eyes, smile at me, pretty German, show me your white teeth, you must have fifty of them.’

Sergey poured out the third glass.

‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘I am a man and I live a good life. I don’t wallow in black caviar as you do but I have butter to spread on my bread and the girls are all mine. But I love her and I am coming back to her and she will fucking have me back. I have an offer she will not resist. What, you don’t believe me, fisheye, stop looking at me. You don’t respect me, son of a bitch. We’ll see you on your way back with your pickle all sore in your pants.’

Sergey leaned over to Ralf as if to tell him a secret.

‘You need a piece of mind from a real man,’ he whispered. ‘First thing you do when you arrive, spray yourself with your fine perfume from head to toes and go to Lenin Avenue. Walk slowly and sway your cashmere coat, like this. It doesn’t matter that you are bald, the girls will not care. The waitress will put a bowl with a golden fish on your table, or she will bring you a snake in the bowl, just as you want. Grab her ass and say you’ll fuck her on the table, she will not answer back. Say the coffee was shit and the cakes tasted like monkey’s balls and you will not pay. Then the girls will say, pretty German, pretty German, take us, we’re yours forever.’

The bottle was now empty. Sergey tried to reach out his arms to embrace Ralf but it seemed too much of an effort, so he thumped down onto his berth and fell asleep at once.

Ralf understood that Sergey had been talking about food. He had also recommended Ralf to dress warmly and wear a condom.

The train reached Muhosransk on Sunday afternoon. Ralf found himself part of a black-and-white photograph, as if the vodka had bleached the landscape. It was snowing.

Sergey, foul-breathed and heavy-gaited, looked at Ralf as if he had never seen him before. The passengers were quickly absorbed by the snow.

Ralf was on the platform alone, his cashmere coat clinging between his legs to get warm. Grey creatures skulked up to him to lure him into a taxie, taxie, taxie. Ralf wondered if there was a café in the station building but then, if he went there he would miss her.

Britta would burst of schadenfreude if she saw Ralf standing like that in the middle of Russia, a monument to stupidity, with little more than ‘da’ and ‘net’ at his disposal and obviously chasing a mirage. He remembered an expensive department store of seven floors in Berlin where she used to drag him every month, ‘Aren’t these thongs hot, Schatz? I know what turns you on, you are only too shy to say, red or black? Just look at him, he is blushing!’

Nature had been parsimonious in distributing physical beauty to Britta. It cast her roughly, without particular love to detail or colour, but instead endowed her with an elaborate concept of stylish life and a mighty will to live according to it. A partner for such a life was responsible for making Britta happy. He would admire her career advancement. He would buy her roses every week, be her dancing partner in a tango class, vacuum-clean the apartment they shared and cook Italian, French and other invigorating food. He would light a candle on the dinner table to make the tomato sauce glow seductively. Afterwards, when the candle was burnt to the stump, he would lick off the leftovers, tongue up, tongue down, a secret domestic mischief. Then the dishwasher would slam closed and an hour later he would be allowed to fall asleep, duly processed and desiccated.

Ralf had been single and chaste for a year. He didn’t want to be a supplement for a stylish life any longer. He wanted to be a Husband and have a Wife. Their union was to be stamped, wedding-ringed, family-booked and blessed with posterity.

Ralf moulded his fair lady in his mind. She is pretty. Her lips are lips, not pale rags. Eyes are wide open, not slits cut in the face. She is a self-sacrificing mistress and a good cook. She is as playful as a kitten but with claws clipped short. Appearance aside, there is a dignity to her, and clear principles. Simplicity and admiration for the partner. Sensuality and eagerness to please.

Ralf knew that he would not find her in his everyday life. He had to explore new thoroughfares and fight virtual battles. So he shook his wallet full of eager dimes all over the world-wide web, where there was no lack in eagerness to please. Dating agencies unfolded whole carpets of beauties to trade off. He zoomed and dreamed. He appraised and compared the parameters. What he found out was that Malaysian and African faces were for him too remote a species, but Eastern Europeans, being of customary shapes, were more generously endowed with colour. In the small hours of the morning Ralf found her. Short glossy bob, skin of a honey tint, big brown eyes, enticing round mouth, half-reclining in leopard pattern bikini, no doubt the whim of the agency photographer, well-tempered figure in the juice of early thirties, bra cup B, and a strained suffering smile, as if she resented being next to naked in public.

My marridge was very early, it was my mistake, I was very young and unexperienced,’ Sasha wrote in her letter of introduction. ‘In due course I have understood that only love is not enough for family life, the love passes and it is nothing if people don’t have any understanding, trust and respect. The importance for me in my life is to love and appreciate simple things. Easy azure sea, cloudless star night sky, singing of birds, pure morning dew – such trifles around us, and this is a life. I’m glad to each moment. I want very much to find the person and divide together these instants.’ Wounded, experienced, no doubt abused by rough men, she will love noble Ralf with all her heart.

But how was Ralf to know that she was sincere? If he invited her to Berlin she would not be her real self. No, he would, despite the ordeals of the journey, go and see the mermaid in her own muddy waters. If she proved fit for the handsome Ralf, he would pull her out by the hair, slit her tail in two and cut out her tongue. He would not descend on her like golden rain but approach her slowly in this train shimmy – this was his egalitarian tribute – and a good bargain too if compared to a plane ticket.

Ralf did a Russian crash course, knowing, though, that languages were not his specialty. She spoke some English anyway. On the Second Advent he took a week’s leave from his office. He took out his suitcase and packed warm things in neat piles. He expanded his traveller’s medicine kit: Baedecker advised to have a cortisone liniment at hand for possible allergies or rashes.

Sasha Konovalova, waitress, came forty-two minutes late. She was muffled up in a scruffy fur coat obviously made of tabby cats. Here were the dark guilty eyes and the red round mouth, a beacon in the sea of greyness. ‘I am so sorry because I came too late, my marshrootka was in a traffic marmalade,’ Sasha gasped. ‘You are not angry that you must wait? Be silent so that people don’t see you are a foreignlander.’

A ramshackle vehicle with horns on top opened its mouth to let in the passengers who seemed to be thinking they were using their last chance to get onto a transatlantic ship.

Sasha elbowed her way through the swearing grey crowd to occupy the last bare wooden seat.

‘Sit down,’ she whispered. ‘We’ll be home in half an hour.’

Ralf was perched beside a person of indistinct sex. Sasha remained looming above Ralph, squeezed by fiercely breathing fur-coats. She was eating him with her nostrils and caressing his black suitcase all the jolting way through. Ralf couldn’t see the streets, the windows were clogged up with fat frost ornaments.

Ralf and Sasha were spat out of the trolleybus, he on the verge of throwing up, into a vast area of crumbling blocks of flats with no hope of telling one from another. Their way was hindered by a brass band in wailing cacophony. A dead old man floated by, his blue nose pointed to the sky. Women in black shawls followed the coffin, sobbing in pagan trance. Sasha crossed herself in the Orthodox way, from right to left. At the tail of the funeral procession a hag turned round and looked Sasha in the face. ‘Good people die but sluts don’t care, fuck is what they care for,’ she jibed.

‘Shut up, old bitch,’ Sasha snapped back without a change in her countenance.

‘We wished each other a nice day,’ she explained to Ralf. As far as he vaguely remembered from the crash course, ‘nice day’ sounded differently in Russian, but this was probably a regional dialect. Ralf didn’t care. He was cold and hungry. It was getting dark.

After kneading grey snow in the tangle of turns and roundabouts for another quarter of an hour they finally dived into a hallway.

‘Last floor, tenth heaven,’ Sasha said.

Pressed to his snow-powdered dream in the elevator cabin, each millimetre carved with local sex lore, Ralf saw her face close-up and Photoshop-free. It was almost as good, only very slightly tickled by time. Sasha took off her hat. Her hair surged up in a fizz, sweeping his chin, and in a second subsided into the strict hair-to-hair tranquillity Ralf had so often fantasised to in the world-wide web.

Sasha’s flat was not much bigger than the elevator cabin, a musty warm den in a tight embrace of Father Frost. One room – a table, two chairs and a sofa, a kitchen and a cage of a bathroom. Ralf hurriedly locked himself in. He decided that here and now he would relieve himself standing, like a real man, beyond the fear of missing, beyond the wrath of German Hygiene. If only Britta saw him now!

Ralf washed his hands and looked into the rusty mirror. He felt dizzy and formidable at the same time, his crown scratching the ceiling. The master of Heaven Ten he wtaould be, whatever happens, and only the final slippery inches were to be gone through.

Ralf walked through the bathroom door into a wonder. Candle lights were pulsating in all signs of the Zodiac. The parlour lined with costly carpets was whispering tales in burgundy and vermilion. A rich burgh of delicacies arose on snow-white damask, its daring spicy fumes dancing up to the ceiling. Velvety stew in varnished pots, a scarlet-and-black chessboard of caviar canapés, with a lemon curl on each, a mound of golden pasties and dreamy sturgeon under a beetroot blanket, circled by dragon-breathing tomato guards. A vodka decanter kremlined in the centre.

The hostess emerged out of nowhere wearing a long embroidered gown, knolls and valleys well in view.

‘Sit down, dear guest,’ she said bowing and inviting Ralf to sit down on the sofa.

She took two small glasses of Bohemian crystal and poured the vodka out, glasses full to the brim.

‘To our meeting! No, no, in a single gulp, as Russians do… Here’s a good boy, smile to me, what fine teeth you have.’

The hostess put a silver fork into Ralf’s left hand and a silver knife into the right.

‘Taste the stew, dear,’ she said, ‘it is made of the best beef in town, and the mushrooms my granny picked in dark forests. Caviar is good for men’s health, it makes them strong and untiring.’

Ralf knew that even one single roe cost a fortune, and there were spoonfuls of them on each canapé. Sasha must have stolen food from the restaurant she worked in. He bit into the juicy legion of beads.

‘To meet you in dignity I borrowed the beef and the caviar from Zeus,’ Sasha said. ‘It is a restaurant I work in. Drink to me.’

‘I am the best waitress in the restaurant,’ Sasha went on. ‘I serve the Mayor of the town, and other important people too, in suits and ties. The Mayor likes golden fish in a bowl on his table. He likes to catch the fish with his hands and is very angry if he can’t. Then he pinches me here and here and says he’ll fuck me on the table but he never does. But when the Procurator General comes he wants a snake in a bowl. He teases the snake with his cane and the snake hisses and sticks out her tongue – like this… Eat the garlic, dear, don’t worry, I’m eating the garlic, too.’

Ralf ate and ate until the delicacies piled up in an incandescent pillar from stomach to throat.

‘Important people are difficult to please,’ Sasha said sadly. ‘Procurator General pours the coffee on the floor and says the cakes taste like monkey’s balls. How does he know what monkey’s balls taste like?’

She moved nearer to Ralf.

‘I love my work,’ she said. ‘I only missed one day in ten years. It was when I had to go for a scrub – the Procurator General gave me a thousand roubles to pay for it.’

Ralf drank the last glass in a single gulp. He was well prepared for the final inches now. His chest swelled with kindness. His heart was now the home for the strange and the lost. Tomorrow he would propose to Sasha. He would take her home to Berlin and rent a nice wedding dress for her.

‘Tomorrow I’ll show you beautiful places,’ Sasha whispered. ‘We’ll go to the theatre on Lenin Avenue and to the zoo in Gogol Street.’

Sasha clung to Ralf. Big eyes, not slits cut in the face, can weep a whole lake.

‘Will you take me away from here? Will you marry me, nice Ralf? I will cook more delight for you and I will give you a very good love.’

Sasha got up and went to the bathroom. When she returned she wore nothing but her honey tint.

Baedeker strictly forbids drinking tap water in Russia even for the sake of extinguishing the hangover, but this morning Ralf didn’t care. He had been crowned and survived the fireworks, so a bit of chlorine wouldn’t kill him either. He opened the kitchen tap. Interrupted in the middle of a morning stroll, a cockroach family dashed out of the sink, the father leading the way in a flapping brown mackintosh, the mother lugging a bag full of freshly-laid eggs on her bottom, the little ones in striped overalls hopping after them. They all made it save one toddler who was washed away into the dark hole.

‘Cockroaches!’ Sasha screamed. ‘I swear by God I’d poisoned them all before you came. They were lying on the floor like a carpet and I swept them all away with a broom.’

In his newly-gained right, Ralf opened the cupboard. He saw a green corpse of a bread loaf. Then he allowed himself to open the refrigerator and saw a lonely piece of hairy schmalz.

‘I’m so sorry because we have nothing for breakfast”, Sasha confessed. ‘But I will go to the gastronom now, it’s five minutes only.’

She pressed herself to the small of his back and put her hands around him to make up for the alimental shortage but then she was interrupted by an adenoidal bong of the doorbell.

‘Oh it’s the neighbour, she maybe wants to borrow some matches,’ Sasha put on Ralf’s T-shirt and flip-flopped to the corridor. ‘Go back to the room,’ she ordered Ralf.

The neighbour was apparently male. There was a suppressed murmur at the door, the male voice getting louder.

‘What, I have returned to start a new life with you, little fool. Here is the chocolate and here are the flowers. Come to me, my goddess! How is it that you are not alone!’

Loud steps drummed into the room. The two men stared at each other through bewilderment into a thrilled recognition.

‘I knew at once you were crooked,’ Sergey exclaimed. ‘I thought you were a spy but you are a thief. You steal other men’s honey.’ He looked at the empty dishes on the table and the creased bedclothes.

‘Now let us all sit down,’ Sergey commanded. He took place on the sofa next to Sasha, forcing Ralf onto a chair, opposite to himself. Half a pack of Spearmints had almost diluted yesterday’s alcohol rainbow oozing from Sergey’s mouth.

‘Of you,’ Sergey pointed at Ralf with his thick finger, ‘I’m not even jealous. Look at yourself. You don’t exist, you’re a nought, a used condom. I blow – you vanish into thin air. Your Germany is a mirage, you hear me, Sasha, a mirage. Are you really going to marry this gubbins?’

Ralf understood that the talk was about condoms again. Indeed, he hadn’t used one.

‘Listen,’ Sergey went on. ‘I live in Moscow now. I’ve been dry for a year. I don’t wallow in black caviar but there is butter to spread on my bread. I rented a room in a suburb – just two hours by underground – and you are on Red Square.’

‘Go tell these tales to your sluts,’ Sasha said.

‘Baby, I haven’t told you everything yet. Did you see that restaurant near the Bolshoy Theatre? The chef is my friend now. They need a good waitress. You’ll get tips we’ll buy a nice flat uptown from in no time. Putin, hear me, Putin himself often goes there. Sasha, don’t be a fool.’

Sasha went pale. She lowered her head to scrutinise the tablecloth.

‘How soon do they need a waitress?’ she asked.

‘Tomorrow.’ Sergey proudly produced two railway tickets out of his pocket. ‘You have an hour to pack. Sleeping carriage first class, just you and me.’

Sasha slowly raised her eyes from the tablecloth to Ralf.

‘I will order a taxie for you now,’ she sighed.

The blue velvet seat, second class compartment, feels like a throne. The silver needle of International City Express is stitching the hem of the city with its scarlet thread, along the frills of trade centres, through pre-Christmas mirth. A few more stitches – and Ralf will be in Berlin’s bosom again. His co-travellers are dallying with their laptops or chatting over their mobiles in the train’s self-confident drone. Ralf serenely drifts on the native tongue waves – they are so warm, so breast-milk familiar, not a single obscure splash to mar his bliss.

Not even the itching crotch is bothering Ralf any longer – the cortisone liniment has proved effective.

A courteous conductor approaches with a reverent bow to scan his ticket. Hips swaying, a blond waitress sweeps past with a coffee tray. Ralf’s mobile phone tinkles shortly – someone has texted him.

Hello Schatz, I did a belly-dance course. Want me to come over to perform for you on the Christmas Eve? – Your kitty Brittie.

What’s beauty, after all, Ralf thinks. A touch of red lipstick – and here it nearly is. Who measures the length of a thigh if it’s covered in gossamer? Who cares for the size of the eyes if they are closed in languor?

Resourcefully, inconspicuously will Ralf reshape their stylish life to be centred around him. Britta won’t yield to rude power – they are not in Russia – but with a gentle push from the real man the belly-dance will flow into a hoover waltz alternating with a saucepan tango. Then it definitely won’t take her long to learn the nappy foxtrot – and Ralf will lead her ever further… But what if Britta were to spot him at the loo standing?

© Svetlana Lavochkina