Dry heaves at midnight in St. Petersburg
It was near midnight and bright as day when my friend George and I walked to the kiosks on Chkalovsky Avenue to get some beers. An eerie St. Petersburg light was refracted by the puffy clouds above—a listless light with no sun, no motion, no time. The shadows on the pavement cast by the art nouveau buildings, the umbra of oak and asp—even my own walking shadow—all seemed dead. Like you could nail them down and they’d stay there like corpses forever.
At the first set of kiosks, a man behind us said, “Got a light?” It was two guys, late twenties and tough-looking.
George stopped and produced his lighter.
“Spasibo,” one of them said.
When he said they were Chechen war veterans, George, who had served in Vietnam, plunged into conversation with them in his blend of Russian and English. “Avtomat Kalashnikov, you know—ak-47 — best avtomat in world! Me Amerikanets. Vietnam, bam-bam-bam. Like Chechnya, net? War—voina—no good, shit! De- vushki—girls—good. Yes?”
George then introduced me as another Russia-loving Amerikanets. I would have preferred to walk on, but the guys suggested—without smiling, and too quickly—that we go and drink some vodka together, and George accepted the invitation.
They led us to a large nineteenth-century building with colourful frieze-work on the upper façade. We climbed six flights of dilapidated stairs—walls covered with graffiti for the rock groups Alisa and Kino, windows smashed ou—and neither of our grim-faced companions asked us what Russians always ask foreigners: What were we doing in Russia? How did we like it?
George fell silent as we entered the large, sparsely furnished apartment. Three more people sat there, two men and a nondescript young woman, all of them as expressionless as our companions.
The seven of us sat around a small, wobbly table in the living room and stared at each other between shots of rotgut vodka that one of the men poured out of a bottle with no label. Good vodka is clean water and distilled alcohol. We were drinking dirty tap water mixed with more than forty percent wood alcohol.
I stole a glance at George and saw real fear in his eyes. He must be thinking what I though—that these people were going to try and kill us. From time to time he tried to resume his friendly banter, but it came out chaotic and rambling. The Russians didn’t respond except to stare coldly at him.
What a relief when their foul supply ran out two bottles later. Never in my life had I suppressed so many dry heaves. My eyes watered, my head spun, my senses were dulled, I had lost charge of my faculties. The Russians seemed not to have changed one iota—they wore the same morose, zombie-like visages, as if the litres of vodka hadn’t affected them in the least.
One of them suggested we go out and buy more. Nodding silently, we all stood up and made for the door.
Out in the street, I could barely move my feet as I followed George and the guys we’d met at the kiosks. But we didn’t go back there. We made our way through side streets, dead and deserted, phantasmagoric and obscene in the strange light of the White Nights.
It struck me that I’d been talking with the man beside me, one of the guys from the apartment, about what I hadn’t the faintest idea. Where were we going? To get more vodka, I recalled. I’d never been to these streets in Petrogradskaya Side before. It felt as if I were both present and absent. A few colourless trees, a deep brown ledge separating a barren courtyard. Simple geometric lines, not unpleasant to look at, yet unreal and lifeless, as it must seem on your deathbed, as life leaves you.
What were we talking about, me and this guy? He was bigger than me, and a slash of straight black hair swept over one of his eyes. Confused and angered by his amoeba-like response to whatever I was saying to him, I fell silent and walked on as we headed down another street, lined by smaller two-storey houses built by German prisoners of war in the 1950s. At some point I noticed that we were walking single-file now, all seven of us, like the red guards on patrol in Piter’s streets, the ones in Aleksandr Blok’s epic poem The Twelve, about the twelve Red Guards. I couldn’t see George. Was he third in line? Yes, third. We walked down more empty streets. I turned and looked behind me for the other five—there must be twelve of us—and the mangy dog, the one representing wasted old Russia. No old lady either, no long-haired intelligent mumbling insults, no whore Katya, no trakh-tarakh—gunshots. Were we soldiers, steel rifles slung across our backs on black leather straps, wandering the haunted streets? No, we were not. Not apostles—devils. I was one of them. My head ached, I could smell blood. I was suspended between life and death. There would be bloodshed, but no redemption. We weren’t going to set a fire, a world-wide fire, a fire in blood to punish the burzhuis, the capitalists. I looked back again. No mangy, hungry dog. And up ahead, with a bloody flag invisible, untouchable, walking slowly, wearing a white crown of roses—ahead—no Jesus Christ.
I quickened my pace and caught up with my strange interlocutor. He looked at me and spoke. “You stupid American, you don’t know shit about nothing.”
Insane from the alcohol, the fear, the seven ghosts drifting between the living, the dead and the infinite, I opened my mouth and shot out my entire arsenal of profanities at him, barely aware that I was switching back and forth between Russian, English, French and Greek.
He struck me in the face with his fist, and I fell to the pavement.
“You bastard!” I cursed, spitting blood, rising, seeing astonishment on George’s face as he and the others turned around and approached us.
I swung at my aggressor, missed, and fell forward, right into his chest. He tried to grab me by the throat. I raised my head, jumped up and smashed my forehead into his nose.
“Eh, bliad!” He shoved me away and swung at me with one hand while holding his nose with the other.
I took a grazing blow to the cheek. Screaming even louder, I lunged at him but failed to knock him off his feet. I threw two more punches that hit him but didn’t slake my rage. My right hand hurt vaguely, but I had to break my fist on his face.
In the split second that I drew up for another head butt, I saw a smear of blood under his nose and became conscious of how weirdly quiet everything was. George and the other Russians stood there paralyzed, waiting for the fight to play out. They weren’t going to break us up, but I was stopped by the quiet, the brown houses, the trees, the surreal light and most of all the awareness that there must be a police car around one of the corners, and that this nightmare might continue in the police department over on Chkalovsky Avenue.
I raised my eyes to the guy, who was shaking his head at me and holding up his hand. “Enough,” he said. “Enough.”
I lowered my fists and shook his hand. We hugged. It was over. Everyone stared at me as if I were a madman, and I felt like one. I just followed them quietly as if none of this had ever occurred, walking side by side with the guy.
We came to a kiosk that was open. In my own world, still awed by the strange emptiness of the streets, I gazed up at the sky, grey but cloudless now.
“Well, damn it, are you going to buy the vodka or aren’t you?” one of the Russians grumbled.
It took a couple of seconds before I understood that they were waiting for me.
“Right.” I shuffled up to the kiosk and bought two bottles of Moskovskaya. George and I exchanged a few whispered words, agreeing that we would have to go back to that damn apartment. It wasn’t possible to walk away just like that. Who knew what reaction that would provoke? No, we’d go back with them, drink a glass or two and then leave.
Sitting in that dark living room again, around that wobbly table, wondering what might happen next, certain that this was the biggest mistake of our lives, we drank. We may as well have been dead. No one spoke. No one’s eyes met. Everyone focused on the vodka.
“We’ve got to go,” George said after we’d polished off the first bottle.
I stood up with him and followed him to the door, staggering but catching my balance with a two-step jig.
They didn’t stop us. They didn’t so much as look up as we walked out. There was plenty of vodka to go around.