21 March 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 1
If Distance Had Its Charm
Jared Witherspoon and Emily Berkeley stood in Sheremetevo II near the departures hall, Emily crying and Jared extremely aware that he wasn't. Emily's hand vaguely steadied her overpacked bags as she looked at Jared, her eyes clear and blue but red around the edges.
"You'll text me when you get in, won't you?" asked Jared with his hand on the skin above her jeans.
"I'll text you from Prague," she replied. "If that's okay."
Jared gave a small, solemn laugh that he gauged just right. "Of course it's okay, baby. Of course it is, my sweet little baby."
"Maybe you should stop calling me that."
"Not yet," he said as he moved closer to her warm, tan body and her smell he knew would stay around the apartment for a few days. "Not yet."
Fifteen minutes later he was speeding down the Leningrad Highway, passing the monolithic furniture warehouses and car dealers as Moscow gave way to an uneasy kind of night. The kind that gets all up in your nose and ears and your eyes, rubbing, and the van he was in with the seven other passengers swerved past a tiny Lada chunking away in the right lane. When the driver exclaimed something in his native Caucus tongue, the old woman sitting across from Jared looked over her right shoulder and narrowed her eyes, and then slowly looked back to her hands. She played with her gray and pink fabric purse.
Jared assumed she was fidgeting because she wanted to cross herself.
"Oh, I don't know when we'll be back in town… I know I hate the vans… it'll be good if we don't hit any more traffic…," said the blonde over to his right, from whom, to Jared's surprise, he wasn't stealing glimpses.
A text came in: "Hi there Jed just getting on the plane. I know I said I wouldn't look back at you but I did I know I know—bold. Looks like the plane is full, I'm next to some Germans, and I really miss you. Love, Em."
He wrote back a short message with a lot of x's and settled back to let the van bear his body to the crowds on the street by the Rechnoi Vokzal metro station.
The next Wednesday Jared found himself lying in his bed and examining the silence of the apartment. It was good it was Wednesday, Jared decided, because he didn't feel like going anywhere—not to the smoky little basement café around the corner on the Pond, or downtown to the clean and unsmoky café on Kamergersky, or to the pasta restaurant down Pokrovka. He had no desire to get up and out of his apartment, and he reflected on his luck that he had eggs, pasta, and sauce. And it was nice because no one would know or fault him because it was still Wednesday and there was nothing really to miss out on, and it was very quiet in the room.
One of his friends, Masha, had decided she would set Jared up this very week, and Jared knew he should feel excited about it but somehow couldn't.
"I just hate the long-distance relationship; I just hate it when it feels so abstract. You're just living a third here, a third there, and a third in some future time when everything will be great," he had told her two weeks before.
"I know." She had brushed a little of her hair over her ear and over the seven sparkling earrings all the way up the cartilage. "I think you're doing the right thing. I do like Emily, though."
"I like her, too."
He tried to remember some of Masha's friends but couldn't remember which ones had kids and had a terrible time with their names because most of them were named Tanya. There was this one girl he had thought was really cute: long, black hair, a surprised expression on her face whenever she talked, and honest, glittering brown eyes. She was a singer and also loved Gogol.
But it all just seemed like so much work, and that thought frightened Jared, so he rolled over and stared out the window at the Moscow rooftops, gleaming an uneasy kind of red as the sun smeared the smog and the horizon down to the pasty grays and steely sheens.
He got a text: "I promise this will be the last one tonight, I just wanted to say goodnight and kiss your face and your bum—okay, that's it, I promise or I'm going broke, and London's killing me."
The rest of the night while he tried to sleep he was thinking about her, but he didn't tell her that in his texts because then she would know. He certainly didn't tell her how much he wished they could meet in Prague for a weekend.
The next day he was walking down Tverskaya, from Kamergersky up past the bookstore and up towards Pushkinskaya. He had just eaten some kiosk pasta, which was settling awkwardly, and he was glad the sun was on his back. It was starting to get dark much earlier, and there was already a smell in the air like it could snow that night even though it was still well above freezing and the girls weren't wearing hats or jeans yet.
He passed a sushi restaurant with a long line of Muscovites waiting outside. It seemed like half of them were holding flowers.
See, Jared thought to himself, it's good to be free. It's good to be young and healthy and walk up Tverskaya with a little money in your pocket and look at the girls. They're beautiful, here on Tverskaya, not the kind you'd even have anything to say to, but you can look at them now, and you can look at them later. You can call Masha's friend.
As he walked up, he noticed himself looking at the neon billboards, and the Mercs parked on the street, and kiosks steaming with hot dogs and what looked like fresh bread, and he didn't take any enjoyment in looking at the girls.
He promised himself he wouldn't text Emily today.
It was getting late and the traffic on Tverskaya was heavy.
Damnit, he thought to himself again, following a group of three girls in thick fur coats and three-inch skirts on two-inch red heels with giant, painted faces under streams and pulls of blonde hair. Look at the girls, he told himself. They passed him and one looked over slightly with her almond, blue eyes but Jared was already looking up at toy-like clouds above the Pushkin statue.
The air was light and clear and Jared Witherspoon wondered what it was like in London, if Emily had met any nice London lads with hilarious names and good taste in music. He shook his head visibly when he realized he was getting carried away, and bought another kiosk beer.
"It's cold today—but not as cold as in Moscow," Emily texted a week later. "So rainy and I forgot my brolly and I'm going to change the subject so you don't make any more English and their weather jokes. How's it going with the chapter?"
He was sitting in the American-style café on Pokrovka at a table way too high for his chair next to a steamed-up window. Every time the door opened he felt a cold rush against his neck and a little down his fingers.
He wrote back: "Good, good when I have time—so busy and running off to another meeting—I'll probably have my phone off all night. Jared xx"
The café at least looked American, but the drip coffee was foul, and Jared had forgotten and now he was sitting with a full, steaming cup. He had to finish a chapter for his dissertation that week so he had the excuse he needed not to talk on the phone. They had agreed on hour-long conversations the weekend before but had talked well into the night, late even in England.
"This is stupid," she had said, "we're just prolonging the inevitable."
"I know," he had said, suddenly aware how much he wanted to tell her, 'it's so much easier to talk to you know now than not to, and I miss you terribly.'
He had said: "It is nice to talk to you, though."
He would plunge back into the chapter, he decided, he could stop thinking about the little hard bumps around Emily's breasts and the little blonde hairs on her lower back and the way she would twist up her brown hair into pigtails when she was playing stupid, he could stop all of that up if he could just focus on the chapter and be sure she wouldn't be on his mind when he came out the other end. Finishing chapters always made him want to drink whiskey, and drinking whiskey made him sharp with the Moscow girls.
It'll be good this weekend, he thought, and decided to turn off his phone right there so if Emily sent a text she wouldn't get the delivery report.
That weekend came and passed, the chapter was off to his advisor, and then another weekend came and passed, and then another.
"Why don't you come with us tonight?" asked Masha. "We don't see you at all anymore."
"I haven't been feeling that well," said Jared, a moment too late.
"I know you don't feel well." And she added playfully, "What is it, temperature, cough?"
"You know it's nothing like that."
"I know it's nothing like that. Look, Misha"—her husband—"is getting some guys together tonight and they'll bring along some great girls and you can have some fun."
"The weird thing is, Masha…" And he waited. And she waited.
"Nothing." He hung up and looked out the window. It was dark around eight now, and he could only see the billboards and one of the Seven Sisters' imposing, bluish spires cutting through the fog and metallic gloss. He could see some streetlight, too, pushing heavy light on the yellow sides of three-story Soviet buildings.
Two hours later, Jared Witherspoon was crying just outside downtown Moscow, and Emily Berkeley was crying just outside the center of London.
"You mean it?" asked Emily, bright and hurting.
They were the words Jared had known himself capable of saying the last month and had suddenly decided to say tonight:
"I do—I miss you terribly. Let's meet in Prague in a month, maybe you can fly to the States in December. I have to get to Princeton for a week, see Shayer, but then I'll be going back to Madison for almost a month. And I want you to come with me."
The line was quiet and muffled by what Jared assumed was a tissue or a sweater sleeve, and he imagined her pretty eyes closed and her dark eyelashes wet.
Finally, she said, "When did you decide this, Jed? Just now?"
"No, I've been thinking about it for a while now. I want you to come back with me to the States. Maybe I can even fly through London before New York."
Again, a long pause. Jared prepared himself to make sure his will was still there and to his surprise it still was—there was no clench, no desire to fly away and disappear in black magic and shade and litter somewhat pretty Russian blondes in his wake. "Then what about after December?"
It was this question that he had to have an answer to. And he checked himself again briefly to see if he was thinking about Masha's friend, but he wasn't, and whether he wanted some of that leg out on Tverskaya, but he didn't, and whether he would rather be out hitting on some hipster girl in cool glasses and a funky skirt in the American café, but he wouldn't.
And so, he said, full of mystical calm, "Maybe we can work something out for the summer."
An hour later he was on his back, facing away from the window with the cornflower-blue Ikea curtain down and feeling happy for the first time in a month. Happy, he thought, and let the word ring around a little—yes, lonely and happy. And December will be wonderful. And he thought about his mom and aunts meeting Emily and driving her to downtown Madison to some of the student bars and to that one theater that his friend worked at and finally felt like going out.
"Yeah, we're still here—why, where are you? Not still in bed?" said Masha, and he imagined her smiling with her angled little face and green eyes turned slightly away from Misha, who was probably watching her from the couch with some of the guests.
Forty minutes later, Jared was going up the narrow, dank elevator meditating on how you could rent an apartment for thousands of dollars a month in this city and still have an elevator made out of what looked like poster board.
Maybe it would be best to leave Moscow, the little journalist job he had, the magazine editing, the interpreting, and move to London in the summer. It gave him an erection, he noticed with surprise and a little embarrassment as he passed the twelfth floor, and then he thought, I could find something to do in London—a magazine or some translations or something. Then he thought about Emily crying back at Sheremetevo.
The party was mostly Russian—Misha was sitting on the couch with a giant bottle of Jameson and stood up when Jared walked in.
Moscow outside the window in the early evening: gleaming yellow surfaces, tin roofs, old wooden windows spotting the squat buildings, neon, and in the distance spires and shimmering glass. It was a cold, clear evening, and the clouds were thin and white.
For a second he thought about the next day: he would call Emily on her landline and her mother would answer.
"Hello there, Jed," she would say with a touch of irony over the pronunciation of his name.
"How's the weather up there?"
"Fine, thanks, it rained all week but…"
And he gave Misha a big hug and Misha kissed his cheek and produced a glass of whiskey with a few ice cubes in it.
"That's for me?" Jared asked in Russian.
"Yes, it's for you!" answered Misha in English.
God it was nice—Jared swallowed this first one almost in one go with the ice cubes chilling the bottom of his upper lip—Misha always bought the really good stuff. It was so good that he was embarrassed about the four-dollar champagne he had brought, though he knew they didn't really care.
And he settled into one of the couches with a little red plastic plate of Cuban-style food, beans and rice and little sausages everywhere, and let the whiskey hit his brain and started smiling around the soft imported leather couches at all the people at the party sitting around in a circle whom he knew but whose names he had completely forgotten. They were listening to Cuban-style music and the girls were drinking mojitos, but Jared would stick to the whiskey with Misha.
Five hours later, Jared's head was swirling, he was speaking to a couple and trying to trick them into giving up their names in the back of a gypsy-cab heading to some club he had read about a few times but never been to. He had been told not to worry about getting in—Misha's friend Sasha or Oleg knew someone there, so he was settling back and letting the neon and sushi signs and electronics boutiques melt against the glass and the streets that were somehow quite wet.
And he was on the dance floor holding, in one hand, vodka, neat in a chilled shot glass, and a lemon slice in the other hand.
Misha shouted something and he leaned in to clink glasses—there were about eleven of them in the group and they were standing near the tables and the bar and the dance floor.
Jared was about to make a joke about ribbed shirts, but then he realized that he didn't know the Russian for it—and then he realized it was good he didn't know the Russian because Sasha or Oleg or whoever was wearing one.
He was dancing opposite Masha—Misha was checking something on his "mobile phone" out by the toilets—when he saw the girl who would turn out to be Antonella. He first saw her from the side and noticed her taught midriff, the slimness of her shoulders, and then he realized he was staring so he went back to playing with Masha but all the while keeping an eye on her. She was dark, with delicious and huge brown eyes and a mischievous smile that didn't seem to leave her lips, even when she would sip the cola and whatever she was drinking.
She had a little pack of guys around her—Russian from the looks of it—and Jared enjoyed watching as they went up and down one by one. But many of them didn't give up easily, they would go get her a drink after she had turned her shoulder on them, one even stayed right in front of her while she turned, pretending he wasn't looking at her either.
Well played, thought Jared, well played.
The music was loud, old-school American rap, like Snow and C&C Music Factory, but Jared was the only one who seemed to find that hilarious. Jared felt the vodka burning something in his gut on top of the whiskey that had already transformed into blood, and he felt happy and approached the dark girl after making a gesture to Masha.
It was five in the morning and Antonella was leaving the club with her roommate a nondescript kid from California who was loving dropping the I-live-with-the-hot Antonella card to anyone who would listen. She waved at Jared and Jared waved at her and through the wash of liquor and smoke and what was left of his eardrums, ringing like about to hit water, both of them were gone.
He also waved at Antonella's little friend as she left, a pretty girl who no doubt would have had plenty of guys circling her if it hadn't been for her taller, leaner friend, but she did get a few drink offers from Antonella's rejection pool and she screamed something at them in Italian that made Jared and Masha and Misha laugh.
And Jared was walking home, the day dragging itself up around him, old women already in the streets, cars going by like it was morning instead of night, and he was composing text messages to Antonella that he didn't intend on sending.
She had been a good dancer, was from Sicily, had never heard of Amherst, and was working for some Italian company in Moscow that had something to do with kitchens.
He tried to sleep through the pigeon chirping outside his window and the light slowly stretching across the ceiling and the reek of the smoke on his pillow and the thoughts of what he'd like to do with Antonella's tan little hips.
On Tuesday, he texted Emily all day. It was a day he spent mostly in cafes and wandering around the boulevards, when he didn't really wake up.
"Great, great, yeah, still busy, just going to go finish up some writing things," he texted while he was going over strategy with Antonella in code on a napkin.
"God, I love you baby—please come see me in Madison," he sent Emily twenty minutes later, wondering if it was too early to send Antonella a line or two. And he wanted to throw in a little Italian but couldn't get his Internet working.
He talked to Emily's mum for ten minutes that night while Emily was finishing dinner. Roast lamb with a mint sauce. She told him she thought she could pay for Emily's ticket to Madison, just please take care of her over New Year's, and is it really as cold over there as everyone says?
The next morning Jared was walking up Tverskaya—a cold, harsh wind was blowing straight south, and he regretted not bringing his hat and thought about buying a street hot dog and a street beer but decided he'd just walk up hungry and thirsty and sober and see what would happen with the light and colors.
The sky was a dull paste, sitting over the city and getting in his hair and making it somehow hard to hear. The cars ten yards to his left seemed distant, even though Tverskaya was as choked as ever.
He stopped at the bookstore and checked the new shipment of English textbooks that had come in, again looked in vain for some George Eliot among the Dickens and Dreiser, and then started walking again towards Pushkinskaya.
It opened gradually, the square, revealing the fountains on the right leading to the movie theater and the trees that stretched past what had been the world's largest McDonald's; the largest now, he had heard, was somewhere in Japan or China.
He looked at his phone—the text was ready to send to Antonella and had been for a few hours. He had delivery confirmation on and walked up by the trees and the fast food kiosks and watched the light slowly, slowly change in the haze and spit-cold for half an hour or so. Then he sent the message, got the delivery confirmation report, and sat on a bench feeling the cold weight of his phone in his palm and watching his breath up and out, then melt.
It was Monday and Emily had her tickets to Madison. They celebrated the news by each opening a bottle of Shiraz, and then talked for three hours.
"You sure I won't be putting anyone out?" she said at one point.
"Not as long as you keep up that cute little English accent."
"Oh, you think I can't speak Yank?"
"No, actually I know you can't—you always sound like a Southerner with a speech impediment."
"God I love you. What sport do the Packers play, again?"
"Don't worry, they're terrible this year. We'll have to see what sports are playing on campus. Ever see women's soccer?"
"My god, there's a women's soccer now?"
He got off the phone and watched the light on his ceiling again and wondered if he could wake up before the next day and actually get started on the next chapter, and why Antonella hadn't written back or called.
Good, good that she didn't write back, he thought sometime around 9 a.m., watching the icons in the upper corner of his room sparkle. The room felt very cold.
On Friday, he was walking on a small side street that had tons of pretentious cafes with names like "Posh" and "Moscow-Tokyo" and all of them served sushi and a whiskey would cost at least six dollars and they would stare at his sneakers and he suddenly felt violence towards Moscow. The sense of the capitol's wonder that he had felt so acutely with Masha and her friends dancing near Antonella was gone—the charm of the randomness of the city seemed stale. It seemed like a giant, crowded, overpriced brick façade about to tumble down when he turned his back on it, and he wondered what the weather in London was like. The day had been warmer, a few degrees above zero, and it was already mostly dark, the streetlight slowing pulled into focus.
He got two texts almost at the same time, just as he turned on Tverskaya near the pasta kiosk. He wandered over to a bench where some toothless old men in what looked vaguely like leather jackets were sitting on newspapers and pulled out his phone.
The first one was from Emily: "Oh darling it's rained all day, it's rained all day and I've been thinking about you God oh God oh God. Write back and let me know about the chapter."
The second was from Antonella: "Hello Jared! Was in Vladivostok on business forgot my phone in Moscow!!! It was awful!!! How are you? I also had fun time dancing)))))"
Jared blinked, almost dropped his phone, and held his breath until he thought he could control his heart again.
That night, after he had emailed Emily a goodnight, he and Antonella texted for about an hour.
Jared woke up the next day feeling hot, stupid, and somehow very alive. It had taken him about two hours to fall asleep the night before, and he was almost getting used to the insomnia, to the little imperfections on his ceiling and how long it would take the pillow to heat up on either side until he'd flip it and how the light would crack through his cornflower blue curtains and which parts of the icons would start glittering first and which last.
He had decided at some point that he wouldn't text Antonella anymore. It had even seemed a done decision at the time, but now he wasn't feeling so solid. It wavered around and he tried very hard to remember what Emily felt like when he was inside of her.
Could Antonella handle academic life back in the States, moving from cornfield town to cornfield town, caring about me while I spend all of my time writing very important articles for even more important journals that have a circulation of about 4,000 copies? Jared wondered in the shower. A ridiculous thought, but telling himself it was ridiculous didn't stop it from hovering over him all through breakfast.
He had made a mistake somewhere with the coffee, and it tasted like drain water. The cornflakes he ate dry right from the box.
He would get to work on the new chapter the next day, he told himself; he needed a little more time in the library. He left the house but realized he had left his library card in his apartment, and then he spent the rest of the day surfing the Internet on his dial-up.
It was Sunday, and he had heard nothing from Antonella since Friday. Good that she hasn't written, he thought, but half of his brain was lingering in some university in Iowa with Antonella—probably some aftereffect of the other half lingering in London. It was absurd, making plans with Antonella. Maybe they would just fuck and then have nothing to say to each other the next morning. That would be ideal. But he doubted it. Their eye contact had been good and Jared was wrong rarely wrong about that. The absolute fear of becoming one of those guys who gets a rejection shoulder turn from the pretty girls but keeps on trying had trained him well.
He was sitting in an Italian restaurant waiting for his beer and for Masha and feeling very dull. Nothing was coming into his head when he sat in front of the paper and the computer. He had already stalled his adviser with one computer problem and one flu, and his funding review was coming up soon. Fuck it, he thought with sudden bravery, if they cut me off I'll just pick up more lessons—besides, they know it's already half written. He slumped in one of the giant green booths and slipped his hand around his beer, his skin against the cool glass.
The magazine was also asking for less and less from him. His brain was a funny, tight conglomerate of worries about beautiful women and worries about how he would pay rent next month.
It was at two that night, sitting in a basement noodle and beer bar, that Masha leaner over a little tipsily and said, "Oh, so the Italians are coming over in an hour."
Jared probably reacted before he realized that Masha would be looking for a reaction and so couldn't be sure. Instead of saying anything, he nodded slightly. Then, instead of nodding, he said: "Cool. Pass the pepper."
The music was soft, acid jazz, and there were black-and-white posters of Marilyn Monroe and old-school baseball players on the walls.
There were five around them around the table. Jared ordered a round of vodka shots.
Jared's nerves made him strong and talkative, and he started doing impressions and telling stories. He even did a dance that had won him a talent show in high school. It was strong stuff—even some of his older jokes Masha and Misha had heard several times were working, and they were asking him for stories, and he had the table relaxed and laughing and showing teeth and reddish cheeks.
"So I knew this guy from Newcastle who spoke great Russian. The thing is he stutters, which is usually fine. But he does it when he's saying the work kak. You all know what a kak is, don't you? So he'll be like 'Then I went to the store and kak-kak-kak-kak-kak went to buy some juice and kak-kak-kak-kak.'" His voice was rising and the table was loving it, and Jared so hoped that Antonella would walk in at that moment and see them all adoring him.
The music switched to big band and people got up and danced everywhere, swinging around and bumping into the back of his head. Jared danced with one of Masha's cute friends, Sveta, who had short, bright red hair and a belly-button ring, and he kept an eye at the bottom of the staircase for the Italians.
Later, he told them about the first time he dated a Russian girl:
"So I've been checking the dictionary the whole night, and finally I get embarrassed. Then she says something—I don't now what it means, but I'm pretty sure it's 'get off of me, sketchy foreign man.'" The table laughed, and Misha leaned over to grab the waiter by his shirt. "So I'm sitting there, feeling dirty and filthy, almost like a date-rapist, and finally she gets up to leave. And I mean I tried kissing her like five times and nothing happened. So she gets up puts on her coat, and…"
He feels a cooling, magnetic field to his side. He feels the shape of Antonella's body and her breath and that little smile long before he actually turns—feels the smoothness of her lower back and the softness of the nape of her neck. He watches Masha get up, and even has the composure to add, "and then… well, I'll finish the story in one second." Only then does he turn around.
First he sees the smaller friend. She's cute, wearing a little leather jacket, and was so light with the makeup it seems that all the color must be from her exotic diet. Her hair is up in a funky bun, and she's in the middle of a little hip-hop curtsy.
Then he sees Antonella, even though he's been aware of her presence all night, all weekend, all this week—she's in some skinny jeans, heels, and something like a sea-side wrap, a long piece of rainbow fabric that shows off her stomach and her neck.
And it's then that Jared notices the tall blond guy standing just behind them, expectantly looking at the Russians at his table, and he instantly knows that he's come here with Antonella and he'll leave here with Antonella.
He's a tall, blond Dane, a plunderer, a pillager, money-maker. He's a footballer, a rower, a banker. He'll coldly observe your American exuberance and trade on the Asian market while you're puking in the bathroom and still be able to make the gym before work the next day.
He has a perfect blond lock for every one of my fears, thinks Jared.
Antonella introduces him, his name is Jan, and he sits next to Jared.
"You were telling a story?" asks Antonella in English a few minutes later with a relaxed smile, when they're all sitting with drinks.
The Dane has cold blue eyes. Jared tries not to look at him as he starts from the beginning.
It's eight in the morning, and Jared is walking down Tverskaya. The Russians that hurry past him think it's Saturday morning, and so they do Saturday morning things—buy books, and wait for cafes to open, and wait for busses and trolleys and trams.
Jared watches the traffic and gets a bagel and some mint tea from a café by the Kremlin and the university. A few students are walking by through the gates, looking tired and wicked.
"God I miss you baby," he writes and sends to Emily. It doesn't deliver yet. He waits a few minutes—she's obviously asleep and has been for some time.
"God you are so beautiful, and I can't wait to see you, and my family is going to love you, and I don't think you have any idea just how much I miss you," he texts her, and waits for the energy to make it to the metro and home—a shower then, and a few hours of ignoring the light through the curtains.
About the author:
Joshua Walker is a Dublin-based writer, currently working on a Russian literature PhD. He recently published a volume of short stories, Anna Marie and Other Tales of the Germans in Russia. You can find more of his work at skij.blogspot.com.