I was riding the escalator up from the Kievskoe Metro, on my way to my first date with Alexei, the Russian I’d met the night before.
“Where will he take me?” I wondered. I was scared it would be Pizza Hut.
I’d been to the Moscow Pizza Hut before, in 1991. This was right before the coup that led to the dissolution of the Communist Party and the collapse of the USSR. The coup plotters wanted to lock everybody down again, to get rid of Perestroika. But these people weren’t about to be locked down. These people were hungry for a taste of anything that wasn’t battleship gray, and Pizza Hut became a totem for them, a window into everything they’d missed for the last 75 years.
The paper menu liner from Pizza Hut trays, with its photographs of engorged breadsticks and lashes of bright red sauce? This was a high-status item. People -- educated, serious people -- added the framed liners to the décor displayed in their living room hutches, so guests would see. Muscovites stood in line for 7 hours, 8 hours to get a seat at this table. But they’d do more than stand in line.
We called these girls the Pizza Sluts. That’s unkind, I know. But we were young, and it rhymed. We were sitting at a table next to the big plate glass windows that wrapped around the restaurant. At the table next to us sat four large men in suits. Outside the window, five feet away, the line snaked back and forth around poles that had been set up and then disappeared way off down the block. The Russians outside had been standing there, staring at our pepperoni pizza as it disappeared into our mouths, for 20 minutes. It didn’t seem right to talk.
Six or eight girls pushed their way through the line and stood right up next to the window. They spread out so all the diners could see and hiked up their acid-washed miniskirts, fixing their stockings. Leaning forward from their hips, they applied lipstick, puckering their lips at their reflections. A few of them even stepped forward, spread open the collars of their blouses, and pressed their cleavage to the window. They jiggled and wobbled, smashed up against the glass like that. My classmates and I sat silent, slices drooping in our hands.
Two of the men at the table next to us stood up and went outside. They returned with two girls from the line. The girls immediately plopped down and fell on the pizza. Nobody at the table spoke, and after a while the whole party got up and left together. As for the girls who weren’t selected, they scooted further down the window and resumed their preening.
I was appalled by these girls, who would sell themselves so cheaply, and to anyone. It never occurred to me that they might be buying something more valuable than substandard pizza. All I knew was that under no circumstances did I want to have my first date with Alexei at Pizza Hut.
Alexei did not take me to Pizza Hut. He took me to a vast room that took up the entire upper floor of an otherwise decrepit Peter-the-Great-era building. There were chandeliers, and glossy parquet floors. Mirrors in gilded frames and plush, heavy furniture. There was no sign of it at all from the street, just a burly man standing in a courtyard. This restaurant, hidden in the middle of a collapsing city, was definitely the fanciest one I had ever been in.
The only other patrons were two men who were sitting across from us. They were methodically, silently drinking vodka. The bottle they’d already finished sat on the table beside them, next to their guns. They were small machine guns, and I could not stop staring at them. I had never seen people bring guns to fancy restaurants before. Who were they? What were they doing here? One of the men looked up and caught me staring at him. He held my gaze, his face expressionless.
“Robin, stop looking at those men and look at me,” said Alexei, his voice a warning. “Do you like your sushi?”
I looked down at the octopus tentacle that lay there on a rectangle of rice. I had never eaten sushi before; never even seen it. In North Florida, where I came from, fish was fried and served with ketchup, period. I’d heard that sushi was raw fish, and so I was intrigued. Now that it was really here, though, I was having some trouble. I had no problem using the chopsticks to pick up the tentacle, but it was so chewy. There was no way to bite through it. I had already tried, twice, gnawing at it like a river otter before giving up and setting it back on the plate. Was I supposed to stuff the whole thing in my mouth at one time? I was willing to try, but it would take two hands. And that was the problem.
I’d had my left wrist in my lap the entire time and was not about to move it. It was still wrapped in the same white bandana and was so swollen that I could no longer get it through the arm of my coat. If Alexei had noticed that I wore my coat like a half-cape, with my left arm hidden inside, he hadn’t said anything. If I could just keep my arm down, maybe he wouldn’t see. But then, how was I going to eat this octopus tentacle?
I sat there not answering Alexei’s question about how I liked my sushi, staring at my plate. I’d had this burn for three days, and not only was it not healing, it was getting worse. It was soaking through the bandanna every few hours, and the skin on the edges of the burn was a frightening grayish-green color. Also, and it was very hard to think about this but there was no denying it, my arm was starting to smell. I had to do something about this and I had to do it now.
“Alexei,” I said, “I need some advice.”
I refused to show him the burn at dinner, so as soon as we got back in the car (which was a shiny black town car, with a driver who had waited for us during our meal – “who is this 20-year-old boy?” I kept asking myself all evening), he demanded to see it. I unwrapped the bandanna and he made a sharp sound of disgust. During dinner he’d been talkative, and funny, but now, on the ride back to my dorm, he just stared out the window in silence, a stern look on his face.
When we got to my dorm building, I gathered up the roses Alexei had greeted me with five hours before, when it looked like the evening might go well, and struggled to open the car door.
“Well,” I said, looking back over my shoulder into the car’s interior. It was empty. Alexei had gotten out and now stood on my side of the car, pulling the door open for me. He took my arm and helped me out of the car.
“I have to walk you to your room,” he said in a wooden voice. “These dorms are not safe.”
We waited for the elevators in silence, Alexei staring hard at the ground. I was not scared of Alexei, but I didn’t want an escort to my room. Obviously my oozing injury was so disgusting that it had changed the equation. He wasn’t going to help me, probably didn't ever want to see me again, so why drag it out? I was already busy thinking about tomorrow, and where to find a doctor, when the elevator finally came.
When we got to my door Alexei put his hand on my good arm and squeezed it in a friendly way. He looked relaxed and cheerful again, like he had at the start of the night. He looked like he had decided something.
“You must meet me at Prospekt Mira metro tomorrow morning at 11. If you do not come, I will come here myself and get you.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek, then turned and walked down the hall into the darkness. It looked like Alexei was going to help me after all. I unlocked my door, trying not to drop the roses.