This is an excerpt of a bigger work of fiction.
The train paused briefly in the tunnel between the stations – a rare occurrence for the circle line. La leaned against the door, pressed right up against the place where it said “No Leaning,” and thought about disaster. Images from the trailer of a movie she had failed to see in the theaters – something about the river dramatically rushing into the metro tunnels – shimmered briefly in her mind.
She wasn’t sure how she would like to die in the event of a real metro disaster. Quickly? Or in some equally horrific and heroic fashion? Either way, Slava would probably be sad, at least for some brief and crucial moment.
He would have to hide it, of course. His sadness could not go beyond the boundaries of propriety. She imagined him drinking forlornly in some Soviet-like establishment with no seating spaces and lots of kitschy posters, surrounded by nostalgia-driven hipsters. She remembered that he no longer drank. She imagined him sitting in his car, his big hands gripping the wheel, as his knuckles turned white. He had told her that this happened sometimes.
Then what? Then he would drive home, pick up some groceries on the way, exchange gruff pleasantries with a neighbor in the parking lot, kiss his wife at the door as she urged him to take off his snow-caked boots, and park himself in front of the TV with a Playstation and the kids for company. It would snow lightly outside – she imagined delicate, ghostly snowflakes soundlessly hitting the glass. The kids would fight over the second Playstation controller. The neighbors would laugh and murmur on a nearby balcony. And La would still be dead.
She was angrily thinking about how Slava would never even notice the beauty and futility of the evening snowflakes bashing themselves against the glass when she realized the train was in motion.
Resigned to living for the time being, she focused on being angry. Why couldn’t he just break things off with her like the normal sort of cheating bastard who inevitably gets tired of a mistress? Why couldn’t he make her into a proper mistress while he was at it? Why was he talking about “confusion” and making plans that meant nothing?
The soldier profiles ensconced in marble at Taganskaya station side-eyed her as she got off the train. “The real problem here is that you spend too much time thinking about him,” one of them said. “He doesn’t think nearly as much about you.”
“Unless it’s to ruminate very briefly on the way your tits tasted in his mouth that one time,” another one piped up.
“Trust us. We’re men. We would know,” a third one laughed mirthlessly.
“For God’s sake,” La mumbled as she walked past. Still, they made her blush a little.
The purple line was packed as always. On the jerky, old-model train, she found herself pressed up against a tall man in a cashmere coat – a rare kind of coat for that particular stretch of the purple line. She wondered if she should take it as some sort of sign, then reminded herself she didn’t believe in signs. She concentrated on guarding her purse and pockets. The train car was too crowded for flirting, and what would be the point, anyway?
The hollowness inside her chest was normal, the therapist had said. A woman not in touch with herself, her body, her instincts, a woman unsure of herself, a woman who had about as much luck turning off her mind as one would have turning off a miles-wide electrical storm – she always felt empty, he had said. “Maybe that’s why you came to Russia,” he mused in his low voice, not bothering to take the pen out of his mouth. “You may not have wanted to acknowledge that – but you wanted to live differently. Get in touch with the nature of things.”
“And Russia… well,” he scratched his head and smiled. “You know, I’ve traveled a lot – but nothing is as real as it is around here, right? It’s all so…” He searched for the right word.
“Primordial,” she offered.
“Maybe. That’s a big word. I want you to concentrate on smaller tasks now. I want you to do real work. To visualize yourself as you are at your present stage.”
She visualized herself to be a hollowed-out tree, concentrating on what kind of tree she would ultimately be. An oak was boring and predictable. Poplars drowned the city in fluff every spring. A cypress would not thrive in this weather. Maybe she would be a birch – tall, slender, slightly fragile-looking, filled with a secret sweetness on the inside. Why wasn’t there a man out there who would write a poem about how she resembled a birch? Why did she have to do all of the heavy-lifting herself?
The train began to empty out somewhat as it traveled east. The man in the cashmere coat hid his face behind an iPad, but peeked out from behind it every once in a while. He was handsome and he kept looking at her, right into her eyes, in an unambiguous fashion. Her unrequited longing was probably coming off of her in waves, like radiation, and somewhere inside his heart (or in other parts of him) a little counter had begun to click.
But what would be the point? Everything had to have a damned point, surely. If she had any rule, it was that. And in the absence of all other rules, in the dark chaos that went sloshing upward out of her stomach and up her windpipe, it was a comfort for the time being.
She walked deliberately slowly from the metro station to her apartment building. It was a cold winter evening, but not as cold as the winter evening that had preceded it. The planet was turning, time was going by, the future grew nearer. It should have frightened her, but Slava had made her too tired for all that. Maybe that had been the point all along?
At the ice rink, a group of boys was playing a noisy game of hockey. A delicate paring of moon hung above them in the sky. La stood by and watched the boys through the fence, envying their energy, their utter ignorance of the moon and its delicacy, their probable lack of interest in poetry and divine signs. They would grow up into men like Slava – which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, ultimately. Either way, she wished them well.
A small dog in a pink coat came over to join her, its owner busy chattering on the phone and smoking a cigarette nearby.
“It’s not about him,” La told the dog. “It’s about the fact that my life is in shambles. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what will happen next. I’m just sublimating. It’s not about him.”
The dog cocked its head to the side incredulously, but seemed as though it could accept her argument if she bribed it with a biscuit.
“I’ve got nothing,” La admitted.
The dog sniffed the air for other opportunities and promptly trotted off.
“Traitor,” La said. “You are all traitors. You pretend that you care, but you are only after one thing, which is your own gratification.”
She watched the hockey game for a little while longer. How come she had never noticed it before – this strange, coarse beauty of the sport? She thought about writing some wistful Facebook status about it. Slava would read it, sitting at his home computer, wearing one of those sleeveless shirts he favored around the people he was comfortable with.
She thought about that one complicated tattoo on his shoulder. Maybe the point of falling in love with him had been to press her face against that tattoo every once in a while, to no purpose other than the world being what it was.
“I will miss the tattoo,” she told the moon, feeling herself briefly to be part of that ridiculous and solemn sorority of people on earth who tell things to the moon. Surely, Bunin and Shakespeare and Akhmatova had all done it at least once.
It was too cold to cry so she saved her tears for the apartment. On the ice rink, a goal was scored. Slava was home. The cashmere man was home. It was time for her to go home too.