Ryanair’s stuffed plane was about to take off from Berlin. Mira was devastated by the window. He was pushing his way through, greeting the passengers and flight attendants like they were old friends. “Please don’t sit next me,” she thought.
The small seats gave in to his weight so that she couldn’t help but sink towards him. He was in his seventies; she was in her early thirties. He was Bill. There is this art of having a conversation that both Mira and Bill had mastered well enough to start a discussion on why he had voted for Brexit just after the plane gained enough altitude so they could unbuckle.
“I know, I know, I’ve lost a lot of friends over it,” Bill said. “We cannot make the slightest change without their bureaucracy. Our hands are tied. Believe me, we will be freer without them.”
She had nothing to say back.
“What about you? Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from Kazakhstan.”
“Ah, you look quite Central Asian to me. I’ve met your president.”
“I was Head of the Soros Foundation for Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region, including Kazakhstan.”
“Oh, wow. I was a student there in the early 2000s. I remember the first video art screenings there, their seminars. Do you know Valeriya Ibrayeva?”
He did. “I’m glad Ryanair gave me the seat next to you.”
Some warmth filled her in this no-drinks-no-food flight. She remembered the old colonial Russian wooden building on one of the central streets of her hometown under the heavy shadows of the Soviet poplars. Packed gatherings of artists, poets, and writers inside the nearby Soros office in Almaty. At one gathering, Mira’s own brother couldn’t find her. He said, “I didn’t recognize you,” he told her. “You look just like them, all these artsy people.”
Bill told her on the plane that Almaty was quite lovely. “I don’t remember the name of the other city.”
“There are more than two cities.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I assume you mean Astana.”
“Yes, and I flew there in your president’s private jet because I had to deliver an urgent message.”
His smile uncovered his dentures. It reminded her of her mother’s smile. His bravado charmed her against her will.
“We also made an educational TV program– to teach people to live in a free-market economy.”
“Was it ‘The Crossroad’?! That show had a great impact on us. Doing business became kind of fashionable after it aired.”
“Perhaps that was the one.”
“Can I touch you? You’re a historical figure.”
The project Mira had worked on in Moscow was supposed to be cancelled three separate times in the last month. She met this American-Israeli writer-and-filmmaker on Tinder at the beginning of summer with whom she had sex within an hour and a half of matching. He left the next day to Berlin where he lived, and they started a game called Who visits who first. They e-mailed each other almost every day. Their correspondence became an epistolary pornographic domination/submission novel (she loved Joyce’s dirty letters to Nora, he said that he could do better). She sent him a piece of her creative writing, he edited it, revising the ending to: “I will fuck you like there is no tomorrow.” She scribbled, “I will fuck you like there is no tomorrow,” on a long strip of paper, put it in the middle of the smelliest part of her laced lingerie after she masturbated, and sent it to him. He said nobody had ever done anything so intimate with him. She decided to make a short stop in Berlin on her way to London. She told him she was coming and he told her he, “met someone.” She was at a friend’s summer house then, the WiFi connection was poor. She and her friend decided to watch a movie as a distraction. The film was downloading slowly and they were drinking a shot of vodka every ten minutes while the video was buffering. She passed out, before the middle of the movie. She cried the whole weekend.
She went to a psychologist. In an hour, she realized that this devastation was caused by losing her father too early. When she arrived in Berlin, she lost her hand luggage with her favorite tumbler cup, a heavy old Kazakh silver bracelet – her father’s present, a DSLR camera she used to make short film diaries. She was never sober for those couple of days in Berlin, and she was happy to finally start her real vacation in London.
“This Friday, I am going fishing with my daughter on the English Channel.” Bill’s comment was like a voice-over to the view of brown waters outside her window. “Would you like to come over and try some fish?”
Come home to a stranger from a plane? To a person who influenced the creative formation of the art scene in her country (and probably, her)? To a real ‘British’ home in which the owners prepared ‘just-caught fish’ from the ‘English Channel’? “Ah, that’s just British politeness,” she thought.
“Great! My daughter and I really love fishing. Sometimes, she catches even more than me.”
They arrived at Gatwick. They lost each other at the baggage claim, but then he clenched her arm to keep his balance and walked her slowly to the closest vending machine. He explained how to buy a train ticket, turned around, and sent her a kiss.
It turned out that he lived just twenty minutes away from the place where she was staying. She walked through his neighborhood, gazing at the white mansions and old trees. He was already waiting in front of his door, waving at her.
“Hello, my dear. My condolences about the death of your president.”
“That was the Uzbek president.”
“Ah, sorry… Yours is still alive and healthy. How old is he?”
“76. God save him.”
She stayed at the entrance while he rushed to the kitchen to rescue the potatoes from burning in a pan. The corridor was dark, full of random things, one of which was an abstract painting on the wall. It looked familiar. “Yuriy Avvakumov”, it read in one corner.
“Beautiful!” she shouted from the corridor.
“Thanks!” he shouted back. “That’s Yura, my friend.”
“He held a lecture at the Paper Architecture exhibition at Pushkin Museum,” she said while walking into the studio.
“He’s very talented. Did you like the exhibition?”
“I worshiped it.”
Modest sunlight dispersed from a door to the garden. She smelled a mixture of damp and fresh air, fried butter and a raw fish.
Inside, the table was set for two. The expectations to meet a big family and dive into British life rapidly transformed into a creepy feeling: an obscure house, an old man dining with a stranger, a young Asian woman he had picked up in the plane.
“Wasn’t your daughter supposed to come?” Mira asked.
“Ah, we had a fight,” he said irritated. “See, my daughter has a cafe in East London…Anyway, she’s so stubborn sometimes.”
Seeing a lonely man with family issues calmed her.
“Anyway, I hope you don’t mind spending this evening with an old man. What would you like to drink? I’m making a Pimm’s cocktail.”
“Sure,” she had no idea what that drink was supposed to be.
Cheers! He was cute. His age had taken some of his height, so they were almost equally tall. He was even sexy in a light brown apron, energetically grilling the baby potatoes.
She went to wash her hands. Behind the toilet, she saw a portrait of a smiling Sergey Paradzhanov. It was a little weird, turning her back on him and raising her skirt to pee. She washed her hands, trying to find a women’s presence. She did that in every man’s bathroom. No pink-colored products, no bands with tangled hair, no perfume ‘for her’. Although it was too tidy with a “fake? real?” lavender pot on a shelf. “There might be a cleaning lady.”
On the way back, she found a long row of the packs of salt of Soviet design on a shelf under the ceiling. They looked both like an art project and an old man’s stock for a ‘dark day’, as they say in Russian.
She sat down at the table and took a sip from the glass to try and signal she was ready to eat.
“How come you started working for Soros?”
“See,” he started serving potatoes with butter and a salad, “after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to take my bike and travel Eastern Europe. I met him there and I shared the ideas of the Open Society. So I decided to join the Foundation and work with artists in the post-communist block, connect them with the West.”
She imagined him young: a lonely traveler on his bicycle, suddenly meeting George Soros somewhere in the middle of a Hungarian pastoral while fixing a busted chain.
“In Belarus, it was awful. I had a very enjoyable visit, met many talented young people. But once I left, I heard they were all arrested and imprisoned.”
She touched the table. The wood was dry and cool.
He told her how he had worked at the Institute for Contemporary Art: ‘their office is close to the British Council,’ as if she knew where the British Council was. He was the first to bring Basquiat to London: ‘he was a charming man, although he was constantly high.’
She relaxed too much. She drifted off while listening to him, figuring out how she would go home, still not realizing completely what she was doing in this house with this stranger. Was she some exotic entertainment for him? Or the other way around? Was it a date? Was sex on the table?
“Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the 20th century. It is passing from our memory. I thought I could ask you as a real witness: what was it like?”
“Well, I remember how we arrived in post-war London from Canada.”
“Ah, so you are not really British.”
“No, I’m not. I remember I had this feeling about the bombed city– it was like a mouth with beaten-out teeth.”
She remembered the exhibition about children in WWII she liked at the Imperial War Museum. The exposition was set in a kids’ room where you could sit and check the softness of the bed, touch the toys, and hear the sirens. There were old phones where you could listen to the stories told by people whose childhood passed in those years.
“Now it’s my turn to ask questions.” She nodded. “Do you have a partner? A boyfriend or a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Why? You are such a delightful person!”
“I don’t know!” A sip.
“Ok, who would be your perfect partner?”
“You know, I always had this dream of a doctor-husband. I don’t really know why.”
“My son is a doctor.”
“Wow. How old is he?”
“Oh, I also like older men.”
He pointed at himself.
“Yes, right,” awkward laughter. “See, I always imagined myself with a man who did something I could never understand the details of, like a neurosurgeon or something.”
“How come your son is so young?”
“I’m not that old! I am a little bit younger than your president.”
“How many children do you have?”
“They are from two different wives.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
He walked her to the bus stop and hugged tight. She hadn’t been that intoxicated with happiness for a long time.
Soon after she had a date with a guy named Paul. Paul, originally Pavel, was a Russian-speaking journalist living in London. He was this type of a bit chubby middle-class-family boy whose dark side should be explored. They matched on Tinder and met in Soho – Paul had tickets to the Belarus Free Theatre, a play with Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot. The tight theater foyer was full of what she thought were intellectuals. Beautiful women with unruly hair and huge colorful necklaces were drinking white wine, middle-aged men in expensive shoes and woody cologne were drinking coffee.
The play was political, but artsy (which was a relief.) Alyokhina was monologuing from a beautiful bathtub and then a man forcefully drowned her in the water. During a long scene with four men holding a pile of plates on spread-out hands and another man adding other plates on top of the piles, she felt tears and fear. The play ended with the burning doors of prison cells. It was a tribute to all political artists who were persecuted by the Russian state.
“This theatre group is in exile,” Paul said excitedly during an intermission. They organized wedding parties back in Belarus to fool the police.” Only when the undercover cops got bored and left did the artists performances.
The lights were up and the press conference with the theatre team had started. She looked at Paul, he made big eyes. After another masterly formulated question about Putin from a person in understated but decidedly expensive clothes she felt nauseous and wanted to leave. For them it was shocking. But it was still entertainment. For her, it was a cold-blooded reality that could happen not in an artsy Soho basement with vivacious, sweaty, and sculptured male actors, but in a real cellar with the fat emotionless faces of hangmen.
They had sex that night and, in the morning, an enormous English breakfast. They never met again.
She met Bill again at King’s College for a screening of a friend of his, a film about technology. It was a smart montage of footage of different inventions, with voice over by Tilda Swinton.
She arrived early, took her seat in the middle of the screening room. He was late, waved to her from the entrance, and took the first free seat he saw.
She looked at him several times during the film, expecting to see him sleeping. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was whispering something in the ear of a blond girl sitting next to him. Against the dark theater the only thing she could see was her young and beautiful smile giggling at his jokes.
After the screening, he introduced his new friend — an art student from Moscow with an Elle Fanning grin. After a couple of questions, she and the new girl managed to find common names they knew from Moscow. The conversation was a little bit too long for her, but Bill was joking the whole time, and the girl was laughing. A sunny young face with crimped eyelashes: a lack of experience, a tabula rasa.
Mira went to the bathroom and considered never coming back out.
“Here she is,” Bill waved at Mira as she stepped from the building.
“Where shall we go now?” the young girl asked.
“Let’s find a place with beer!”
He clenched the girl’s arm and they started to skip away. Mira looked at their backs and suddenly felt what she sensed in that Soho theater basement: detachment, a fast growing distance between her, a stranger from nowhere, and those merry creatures connected by the art world.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” Mira said.
“I promised this guy Paul I’d meet him in an hour.”
“What a shame.” He approached her for a goodbye hug.
She walked to the tube station through the shadows of the backstage streets: empty Coca-Cola glass bottles, smashed greasy McDonald’s packages, and untouched cat food accompanied her. She couldn’t see too far ahead because of the stupid tears. She had been in the spotlight. It was a heavy and demanding light, yet she could handle it. Then, suddenly, someone moved it away and it was cold.