“Do your friends actually call you La?” He tried and failed to stifle a laugh.
“Close friends.” The label on the beer bottle would not come off no matter how hard she scraped at it. “So you, for example, would have to refer to me as Nelly.”
“Where did Nelly come from?”
“Full name’s Leonella.”
He began to say something else. La’s gaze wandered downward. On the street below, a garbage truck was trying to turn around. Its path was blocked by a flashy sports car with its hazards on. She saw the truck’s driver jump out from the cabin and shake his fist in the direction of the sports car. The driver of the sports car leaned on the horn.
From up high, it was hard to tell whom to side with.
“… It’s kind of like Coachella, you know?”
He was talking very fast, and it was hard to keep up. “I mean, there are all sorts of fancy names out there. They sound fancy, but aren’t fancy in origin? Like, they seem like they try too hard? Why would you do that to your kid? Why do celebrities do it? You know?”
More honking and yelling below. The driver of the garbage truck hopped back into the cabin. The garbage truck began reversing. Class status had won over bulk. La took one last sip of her beer and placed the empty bottle on the windowsill amid all of the other empty bottles.
“You know, I like you.” He said it in a voice one would normally reserve for children and small animals. For the first time that evening, La looked at him closely and saw how blandly handsome and well-dressed he was.
“Yeah, I like you. You’re…” He searched for the right word. “Scrappy?”
“That’s a very warm-hearted and generous thing to say.”
“Aw.” He had missed the sarcasm in her voice, or else deliberately ignored it. “Just telling it like it is.”
She glanced back at the room, hoping to spot a familiar face, but all she saw were people like him, people with extremely clean clothes and teeth, the human equivalent of glass mountains – too smooth, an aberration to nature.
Once, she knew exactly how to behave in a crowd like that, could be as polite and unassailable as the rest of them, but Moscow had chipped away at her social skills. Either that, or she had gotten impatient with age. Life was short, the time was always later than she thought, there was no point in being pleasant for the sake of being pleasant.
“By the way, that woman over there has kind of been staring at you,” he said, his gaze darting sideways.
La turned her head and saw Eleonora. For a second, she was even glad to spot her. Eleonora looked more beautiful than usual, and her dress was so low-cut that it almost distracted one from the fact that she appeared to be spectacularly wasted. She was holding a giant, heart-shaped cookie in one hand and scraping crumbs out of her cleavage with another. The sight of her was a nice change of pace.
When Eleonora realized she was being acknowledged, she came over and put an arm around La’s shoulders in a proprietary fashion.
“This girl right here,” Eleonora told the man (God, what was his name? James? George?), “This girl right here is DANGER.”
James or George or whoever he was looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to be frightened or excited.
“DAN-GER,” Eleonora repeated, and took a big bite of her cookie. More crumbs rained down into her cleavage.
“So you two are friends?” Jack or Justin said.
“BEST. FRIENDS.” Eleonora leaned in close. La could smell whiskey and perfume and something even more mysterious.
“Sweetheart,” Eleonora whispered in her ear. “It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but one of these days? I will have to end you.”
La started to laugh. Eleonora started to laugh. Jason or Jacob (she was tired of guessing, but asking him his name again would have been impolite even for her) joined in.
“I’m going to go,” La said. She didn’t want to leave the party – something about Eleonora’s absolute ridiculousness had made her want to stand her ground – but it seemed like the appropriate thing to say just then.
“So early. I hate to say it, doll, but you got old way before your time.” Eleonora chided through a mouthful of cookie.
“I have to let my nanny go.”
“Shit, you have kids?” The guy whose name she couldn’t remember looked genuinely stunned at this, as if she had revealed she was keeping a Siberian Tiger in late-Soviet housing, or something.
“A number of them, yes.”
“Pshh. She only has two,” Eleonora told him, her tone conspirational. “Two is not exactly ‘a number of kids’ now, is it?”
La left them at each other’s mercy.
She wanted a drink for the road. Not anything strong, just something to smooth the edges of the evening. In the enormous kitchen where every available surface was covered by bottles, a floppy-haired, red-headed boy was cheerfully mixing himself a cocktail. She thought he was Russian – something about how his white shirtsleeves were turned up to show the right amount of muscle – but then he spoke to her in English, with the kind of accent that reminded her of Boston. Boston diluted by long international sojourns, to be precise.
“Oh yeah, not only is a mimosa a possibility – I can just make one for you,” he chattered smoothly. “It’s brunch time somewhere in the world, right? And I hope that asshole over there wasn’t boring you too much.”
“Why would you think he’s an asshole?”
“He’s my brother.” He popped the nearest bottle of champagne open. “So. I don’t think it. I know it.”
“You guys don’t look the same. You don’t even sound the same.”
“Now you’re just flirting with me.” He winked and poured the orange juice in a manner that suggested that he had spent many hours of his life behind a bar.
The notion of suddenly having someone worthwhile to talk to was surprising. For a few seconds, all she could do was stare at him as she drank.
“Thank you. My name’s Nelly.”
“Wrong.” They shook very formally and it was hard to keep from laughing. “The drunk woman with the boobs?” He indicated Eleonora’s proportions with his hands. “She said your name’s La.”
“I go by La sometimes. What else did that woman say about me?”
“Lots of pleasant stuff. Like, she wants to murder you. She like a very dear friend of yours, or something?”
“Ohhhhhhh.” He nodded in a knowing fashion. La couldn’t decide whether he was possibly an actor, or a bartender, or both. What he was doing in the Kerrigans’ kitchen at that late hour was another mystery altogether.
“I’m Ben,” he said, and grabbed her hand and shook it very formally again. “Asshole brother’s name is Jay.”
“Why DO you keep calling him that?”
“Painful family drama behind that. I’d have to get to know you first before I actually told you. For now, I have to drop hints.”
The Kerrigans’ eldest daughter stomped into the kitchen and began to root through the cabinets with a look of concentrated fury on her face. La could never keep track of how many kids the Kerrigans had exactly, but their eldest always stood out – perhaps because she was always in such opposition to her parents social alcoholism, while the rest just fell in line.
Over the years, La had met a number of such kids. Where the expat parents saw adventure and opportunity and the chance to be cool again, at least in certain company, in a certain slant of light, the children saw chaos and lack of routine. Some of these kids withdrew, others actively disapproved. The Kerrigans’ eldest was active. La had seen her go after her inebriated father with a mop once.
“Do you guys know if there is a point of having a Valentine’s Day party two weeks before actual Valentine’s Day?” She wheeled around to face them, her hands on her small hips, her face a perfect grimace of disgust.
“The chance to do it over again if this one sucks?” Ben offered.
“They all suck,” the Kerrigans’ daughter said and stormed out as suddenly as she had stormed in.
Ben stared in the direction she had left and scratched his chin thoughtfully, then turned to La. “Does that mimosa have enough kick in it?” He said, smiling. “Or do you want to switch to whiskey?”
She left much later than she intended to, as a nasty wind began to blow sideways and throw handfuls of wet snow in the faces of anyone who was unlucky enough to have to venture outside. The evening’s edges were not so much rounded as obliterated, and she could already feel a hangover coming on like a rough tide.
Exiting the echoing courtyard, she promptly got lost – because she always got lost after leaving a party at the Kerrigans. As usual, she didn’t bother to take her phone out and bring up a map. It had become a kind of ritual by then, a chance to walk off the excess alcohol and whatever regrets she may have had. Not that she noticed any particular thorns of regret in her side just then. Had she said anything stupid to the Ben guy – whoever he was – before she left? Didn’t seem so. And avoiding stuffing a handful of cookie down Eleonora’s throat was a feat in and of itself.
“I’m OK,” she told the dapper statue of Alexander Blok as it emerged from the gloom, her marker in the chaos of snow. “I managed.”
“If you say so,” said Blok.
It was very quiet, save for wind that swished between the buildings like a blade. For a second, the lack of noise had her unnerved, until she remembered that it wasn’t the weekend yet.
“Also, it’s very cold and dark,” said Blok, reading her thoughts.
On evenings like that, it was especially hard to leave the center of the city and go east, to abandon that bit of Moscow that seemed genuinely suited for life, as opposed to survival. There was charm in the poorer, industrial neighborhoods close to the Moscow Ring Road, but she didn’t feel it in the wintertime after too many drinks.
“And the impossible is possible,” she told Blok. “The long journey is easy. When by a distant roadside. A passing glance flashes from beneath a shawl.”
He could have said, “Don’t you have better things to do that to recite poor translations of my own poetry to me?” but he didn’t. The best thing about Blok was how he never tried to be too clever, whether in life or in death.
Having failed to locate her gloves in her pockets or her bag, she had to acknowledge the fact that she was cold – and would only be getting colder. “Have I told you I spent two weeks nearby with a woman named Love?” Blok sounded wistful. “And that we had just gotten married? It was winter then too.”
“You’ve mentioned it before.”
“I’m just pointing out the obvious thing.”
“That it goes by fast?”
“That it’s a miracle. Not always a very dignified or poem-worthy miracle, but still a miracle”
She kissed her fingers and pressed them to his feet and he laughed and said no more.
On her way to the metro, she remembered something Ben had said to her as she was leaving. He had told her to be careful. It was strange, coming from someone so cheerful and vague and red-headed and almost entirely unknown to her, and it was stranger still to have him whisper it in her ear. She had wanted to write it off on the whiskey – David Kerrigan’s perfect, 25 year old whiskey – but something told her that it had been a Serious Moment, something to Pay Attention To. Just in case.
As if on cue, her phone vibrated in her pocket. A text message sent from a web service – virtually untraceable. “CUNT,” it declared boldly.
“Honestly, Eleonora. This is so obvious. This is just so OBVIOUS.”
She put her phone back in her pocket and observed her mood crash suddenly, catching her by surprise. Trudging to the metro on autopilot, she was briefly confused by the pain she felt and the sheer scope of it, as though the wind had concealed a slow bullet among the snowflakes and the bullet was now lodged in her gut.
She took stock of herself and searched for the fault line. Found it. Felt the corners of her mouth slip down of their own accord, as if she were a disappointed child.
If Slava had been there, they would have laughed about it together. Slava had made the trolls and the weirdos and people like Eleonora seem small and ridiculous, simply by virtue of his generous, enormous presence. And he had a nose for danger, could smell it before it came into view. She remembered how, on a crowded metro platform right before a football match, he had grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from a group of calm-looking riot policemen right before a vicious fight erupted between them and a group of equally calm-looking Spartak fans, sending commuters scattering.
Slava would have never told her to be careful and close the door behind her – not if he actually thought she had a real reason to take care.
At the entrance to the metro, she spotted a homeless woman begging, a plastic beer mug with an incongruous smiley face in her outstretched hand.
“If you pray – can you pray for Vyacheslav?” Las said as she dropped a fifty-ruble note into the mug.
“What, like I don’t pray?” The woman scoffed. “We all pray, friend. What else can you do?”