Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I liked the capital because you could always find something to do there. Booze, women, dancing, food—you name it. As for the rest of the country, the guidebook writers could have the place. They didn’t even have toilets outside the capital. Please realize I require very little as a human being: bread, water, flush toilet. Something about living on the cusp of the millennium and still shitting over a hole calls into question the entire concept of historical progress.
I’ll tell you a little about the country. It was one of the old Soviet republics with a drinking age of birth and more inflation than Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It wasn’t one of the European former Soviet republics; this was a Central Asian republic you’ve never heard of. As for the culture, I’ll say this: its combo of Soviet paranoia and Islamic xenophobia made red wine and fish look like peanut butter and jelly in comparison.
You didn’t see a whole lot of tourists hanging out in the capital, needless to say, but there were a few Americans around. (There are always a few Americans around.) First, you had the Professional Expatriates at the embassy. Their ranks were filled with a lot of uptight stuffed shirts, stuffed blouses, stuffed heads. Most of them couldn’t stray a block from embassy row without their cell phones, chauffeured cars, and International Herald Tribunes. Second, you had your Do-Gooders. These people, God bless ‘em, needed a serious fucking clue. Each fall I’d see a new group of hatchlings turn up in the capital, their first day in-country, snappily dressed, taking pictures with disposable cameras for Mom and Dad back home in Iowa and Nebraska and Michigan. Then they’d get shipped out to the villages. Three months later I’d see them back in the capital shopping for Snickers bars and deodorant, crazed and dandruff-ridden. Finally, you had your Sharks, men and women whose in-country presence consisted solely of pocketing ducats. This wasn’t as evil as you might think, not even by folksinger standards. After all, the more money the Sharks made, the more the country made (in a perfect world), and then everyone was happy. Sometimes Sharks were Do-Gooders who’d stayed but got wise on how to live; sometimes they were Professional Expats who’d had their fill of Embassy politics; and sometimes they were 24-year-old ephebes with liberal arts degrees pulling down 75 grand a year—tax free—serving as “consultants” for Price Waterhouse or Boeing or British-American Tobacco. As for me, I had an in-country sinecure but didn’t consider myself one of the Sharks. Although I was around the embassy a lot no one would have mistaken me for a Professional Expat. A Do-Gooder, then? Hardly.
I was the ambassador’s son.
* * *
A dilemma: What do you do when you’re sunk to the hilt in the lovely, splayed pussy of bent-over Olga, who to your utter, surprised delight is finger-diddling the lipsticky and raven-haired Svetlana, when suddenly you hear your mother coming down the stairs? Did I mention that these stairs and the darkened basement they lead to are found in a home belonging to the United States Embassy? Did I mention you live in this palace, which supplies for you a chauffeur named Sergei and an idiotically generous stipend? Finally, and most significantly, did I mention you’re two caterpillar-lengths away from an orgasm of Vesuvian proportions?
When the lights came on two things struck me. The first was that Olga had an American flag tattooed on her porky left rumpcheek. The other was the difficulty of the choice I suddenly faced. The light switch was found halfway down the staircase, so I knew I had a second or two to pull on my pants and do at least a modicum of damage control. But Svetlana was spread-eagled on a large purple leather couch, bent-over Olga was before her on her knees, I was screwing Olga from behind—this is not an easy situation to extricate oneself from. In all honesty, I was too close to destroying Pompeii even to have considered stopping. I suppose it would be fairly easy to second-guess my judgment but I’d never screwed two girls at once. My only defense is that you do not ask Columbus to turn around when the guy in the basket starts screaming “Land ho!”
How long my mother watched before I heard her outraged gasp I’m unsure. I should point out that I loved my mother. She’d stuck with my dad through his long, often dreary embassy-to embassy career. (“A diplomat lives the life of a dog,” Jefferson said, and he was in fucking Paris.) First, until it blew up, we were in Beirut, where Dad was a staffer, then we spent a tense decade in the Soviet Union, where Dad was an ambassador’s aide; then to Dad’s first real gig as American ambassador to Afghanistan, which was about as much fun as you’d think; and then to our reward, the capital. My mother was a woman who made an effort to learn the language of every country she traveled to. She shopped in the bazaars shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals. She cared. And this is what she had to see: an orgasmic Svetta hooting “Da, da!” and slapping the couch cushions with her hands, Olga’s finger rubbing her blood-swollen clit with the blurry speed of a hummingbird, and me, her son, ejaculating with enough torque to cross my eyes. When I was done—the process took a bit longer than I would have liked—I had no choice but to turn to her.
Mom was no shrinking violet. She’d been in bullet-peppered cars in Beirut, she’d had a rotten cabbage pitched in her face in Kabul, and by the time we locked pupils she’d composed herself. She wore a fuzzy white bathrobe with the American Embassy insignia embossed smartly into the breast. Her hair was flattened and color-drained to the shade of gray found only in black-and-white movies. Her eyes were dry, unforgiving. “Oh,” she said, except it was more of a sigh. “Oh, Alec.”
By now Olga and Svetta knew the score. They were huddled naked against each other, whispering in Russian. I draped a nearby blanket along the three of us, and we sat there, the girls looking at the floor and me looking at the girls while my mother shook her head. I didn’t care about Olga and Svetta, really. They were Russian strumpets I picked up in a nightclub. They didn’t care about me, either. All they wanted was a chance to apply for the Alec Tuscadero Visa Program.
“Mom,” I said, vaguely remembering my mother’s oath after my urine showed simultaneous traces of cocaine, marijuana, and opium that it would be the Last Time she’d forgive me. She made that quite clear—it would be the Last Time, as opposed to the last time. You still have seven or eight “last times” left once you get that first one, but once you’re given a Last Time, it’s serious. (The drug test was on the request of the embassy’s regional security officer, a doughy guy called—not to his face—Genghis Ron.)
“Alec,” she said again, closing her eyes, her face hardening.
I figured I had one chance to fix all this, to say the right thing. (Before I tell you what fell out of my mouth I feel it’s germane to point out that I’d spent a better part of the evening smoking Afghan poppy seeds Svetta had seemed surprised to find in her purse.) I put my arms around the girls, hugged them to me and said, “Two chicks at once, Mom.”
After all, I was already 25.
* * *
The Hotel Ta-Ta was a nice place. Built by Indian investors—anything built by Soviet architects had a tendency to fall apart—it relieved you of 300 dollars a night for the privilege of stepping into its marble lobby and sleeping on its crisp, laundered sheets. I could afford it; I could have afforded twice that much.
The next morning, ten steps past the hotel fountain, I saw Sergei, my chauffeur, sitting on the hood of a gleaming, freshly washed white Toyota Land Cruiser, reading the capital’s Russian-language newspaper. The night before he’d helped me haul all my shit into the suite.
“Sergei,” I called, waving. “Zdrahstvootyah! Kag dela?”
“Ah, preekrahsnah, Alec,” he said, just about extinguishing our basic shared vocabulary. (I knew roughly enough Russian to fill the backs of two postcards.) Sergei folded his newspaper into a small square and held it pinned under his arm as he opened my door for me.
I fell into the embassy-supplied Land Cruiser’s backseat and rubbed my hangover-tenderized temples. Seconds later Sergei was weaving through the traffic on Mustakalik Street like an out-of-control darning needle.
“Sergei,” I said. “Café, pazhalsta.
In the rearview mirror his vodka-reddened eyes flicked onto mine. “Amerikanski Café, da?”
“Da,” I said, leaning forward. “Sergei. My father. Moi … um, ahtyehts?”
“Da,” Sergei said with a solitary nod.
“Where is he? Uh, gdye moi ahtyehts? Do you know?” I knew Ambassador Tuscadero was in Kiev at a human rights conference sponsored by all the former Soviet republics. That morning on CNN International, though, I’d seen that a bomb threat had ended the conference three days ahead of time. Was he home, did he call, had my mother debriefed him?
“I no know,” Sergei said with the typical shrug that followed all his heroic efforts at English. “My father, I no know where is he.” He looked at me again in the mirror. “Kharasho, Alec, da?”
Still, after several months, I was pleased to see the fruits of Sergei’s and my daily five-minute English lessons. “Kharasho, Sergei. Great. To the café. Me want coffee now chop chop.”
“Chop chop,” Sergei said, shifting, and I sat back and watched the capitals weird, oppressive architecture fill the spotless square of my window, then, after a moment, slide soundlessly away. I dozed off for a few blocks and woke to the sound of Sergei beeping his horn at a big-bottomed Tatar girl wearing black stretch pants and a tight white T- shirt. She was standing on the corner of the trendiest street in town, the street on which one found the New World Café. Sergei turned around, grinning, showing me his mouthful of substitute gold teeth. “Alec,” he said, grinning. “Beeg tits, nice ahs, da?
“Da,” I said. “Good. Big tits. Nice ass.”
“Beeg tits, nice ahs,” he said, his hands up like scales, weighing the desirability of each description. He jerked the steering wheel over, slid into a space three hairs bigger than the Land Cruiser, turned and gave me a big thumbs up. “Beeg tits, nice ahs, I love Amyerdica!”
* * *
The new world café was the capital’s one reliably American hangout. Inside was a woman I recognized as Genghis Ron’s secretary and who was thus my archenemy, a pair of guys in bran-colored suits who worked for the capital’s American Chamber of Commerce, and the smiling Korean triplet waitresses, daughters of the New World’s owner. I paid for my customary four cups of coffee, my cold hamburger, my roll that was as hard as a piece of chipped-off foundation, and sat down at a table alone.
I was bored. Days in the capital were the worst. Usually I holed up in my bedroom, listening to Let It Bleed on my headphones, sometimes putting in an appearance at my job to make a few ceremonial bribes. I don’t know if I had one friend in the capital I’d ever seen while the sun was up. I was puzzling over the unbelievability of that when he walked in.
Of all the young American Do-Gooders I’d seen dragging their crushed aspirations behind them, gushing stale idealism the way a slashed tire gushes air, I don’t know why I felt any urge to pal around with this one. Maybe it was my hangover, or my remorse at how I’d treated my mother. Maybe it was guilt: so many times I’d seen the Professional Expats dick around with the Do-Gooders in the New World. One of the poor, glassy-eyed kids would stumble in, looking to hear some English after going without for weeks, deluding himself into thinking that just because we all knew which sport the San Diego Chargers played we were also friends when we saw each other. The Expats would ignore them, then start talking extra-loud about their satellite televisions. Even though I thought the Do-Gooders were crazy, this stuff made me wince. The only people who deserved that kind of torment were country music singers.
The Do-Gooder stood in the cafe’s doorway, his eyes moving in their sockets like a couple of caged hamsters, his fists clenching and unclenching five times a second. His blond hair was butched on the sides and slightly longer and tousled on top (a haircut he’d probably given himself). In his hand was a cache of official-seeming white papers. He hopefully scanned from table to table—looking for someone I already knew was not there—and by the time his gaze fell on me his face was crushed, long and pliant.
He ambled over to the cash register, ordered in bad Russian (all three triplets spoke English), and turned to face the café holding a paper cup of Fanta and a grease-spotted boat of warmed-up french fries. That was when I stood, pulled out a chair from my flimsy plastic table, and invited him to join me.
He considered me with a sort of queasy smile, then looked over his own shoulder (like a complete nimrod) to make sure I was talking to him. “Yeah,” I said. “You.”
He shook his head in a surprised, flattered way, marched up to me, set his order on the table and extended his hand. “Hey, thanks,” he said. “I’m Ryan.”
“Howyadoin,” I said, briefly shaking with him. His grip was lackluster, his hand moist. “Alec.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know. The ambassador’s son, right?”
“That’s right,” I said. We looked at each other and smiled. We sat down. After a few moments Ryan quietly ate a french fry and picked at a silvery psoriatic scab on his forehead. I finished what was left of my third cup of coffee.
“So,” I said after a minute or so of silence, “who were you looking for?”
Ryan looked at me with a french fry peeking out of his mouth; his chin swarmed with small red stars of acne. “Huh?”
“When you came in here. You were looking for someone.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He briefly looked into his lap. “Someone was going to meet me here. She said if she wasn’t around when I got here she wasn’t coming. I wasn’t really expecting to see her.” He bit the tip off a fry. “I’m leaving the country tomorrow.”
“Vacation?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “For good. Forever.”
I didn’t say anything. Ryan didn’t either. Instead he straightened the edges of what I now knew were his dismissal papers.
I looked at him. “Which organization are you with?”
He stared at the papers and didn’t answer me. I asked him again. He looked up, startled, and rubbed his eyes. “God, I’m sorry. I just … I can’t think. CARA. I’m with CARA.”
I nodded. CARA: the Central Asian Relief Agency. Missionaries were illegal anywhere in the country, and CARA was one of the first groups to figure out that since volunteers could be invited by the capital as engineers and nurses and teachers, why not start a relief agency that sent Christian engineers, nurses, and teachers? So you can imagine what it was like for the locals: you sent your kids off to their English lesson only to have them come back blabbing about King Solomon and John of Patmos. My dad got more official complaints about CARA than he did about any other American agency. The capital wanted them gone.
“So you were a missionary,” I said, wanting him to know CARA’s cover was blown.
To his credit, he immediately fessed up: “I guess so. I mean, I tried to be. It’s hard.”
This I believed. Though the country surrounding the capital was supposedly Islamic, everyone—including the non-Russians—drank vodka like water and smoked cigarettes like laboratory chimps in nicotine experiments. “Well,” I said to Ryan, “I’ll give you guys credit for having gargantuan balls.”
“For trying to convert a bunch of Muslims to Christianity when they’re not even interested in being Muslims.” “Oh,” he said. “Thanks.” He sat there holding a half-eaten french fry, staring again at his dismissal papers. That was when I noticed the wedding ring—a simple, dimmed gold band.
I looked him in the eye. “You married?”
He nodded, frowning.
“Is she here or back home?”
He cleared from his throat what sounded like a fist-sized wad of phlegm. “Home,” he said with difficulty.
“It’ll be good to see her again, I bet.”
He smiled a little, lifted his hand off the dismissal papers, delicately slid his ring from his finger and dropped it into his glass of Fanta. With a soft plunk it struck the cup’s bottom, leaving a trail of chemically reactive bubbles popping at the soda’s orange surface.
I looked at the bubbles. “Your marriage could be better, I take that to mean.”
He ran a hand into his hair, plowing it back from his forehead and revealing a thinning widow’s peak and a bright red sore at the hairline. “Yeah.”
Things began clicking into place. “This person you were meeting, this ’she’—are you porking this girl?”
With his hand still in his tousled-on-top hair, his head lowered, some affirmative sound grunted out of him.
“And your wife found out.”
He shook his head back and forth.
I leaned back in my chair, having heard about CARA’s method of dealing with indiscreet adulteries, premarital dalliances, and other generally evil living: outright dismissal, no trial, no appeal. Just because I’d heard about this punishment didn’t mean I believed they actually enforced it. In a weird way I was impressed. From a pragmatic standpoint, though, enforcing rules like that was no way to run an overseas operation, since eventually everyone figures out that fucking is one of the only things that improves the farther you get from America. “CARA found out,” I said.
Hands still clenching his hair, he nodded.
“Well, Ryan,” I said, “that’s a tough one.”
He looked up at me with sudden dry-eyed conviction. “I’m a sinner, and a fornicator. My forgiveness lies in the hands of God.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
“It’s what they told me. I just left their office.”
“Who told you?”
“The director of CARA. Mr. Vandewiele.”
I burst out laughing. “Let me tell you something about your Mr. Vandewiele. First of all, he’s a major-league, drinks-his-own-after-shave drunk. Second of all, the guy’s embezzled half of CARA’s dough into a private stateside account.” This was such common knowledge around Embassy-folk it seemed weird everyone else wouldn’t know it, too. “Man,” I said, shaking my head, “it’s one thing for them to boot you out, but I can’t believe they let that hypocritical old lizard call you a degenerate before they do it.”
Ryan folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “You think CARA’s staff knows what he’s doing?”
“Of course they do. The KGB’s got their offices bugged. The American Embassy gets all the transcripts hand-delivered. All in the New World Order’s spirit of cooperation.”
Ryan looked away.
I said, “You don’t seem very surprised.”
“In the past nine months,” Ryan said, “I’ve repeatedly had to go to the bathroom in a hole. Horse has been a dietary staple. I’ve been stoned, mugged twice, and harassed by the KGB. I’d never tasted alcohol in my life before I came here, but I managed to spend an entire week drunk. I’ve been in three fistfights, two of them with children. I cheated on my wife 27 times, nearly lost my faith in God, and in the meantime successfully managed to evangelize only ten people.”
“That’s not too bad. Only two less than Jesus.”
“So if you tell me that Mr. Vandewiele is a drunkard and an embezzler, then no, I’m not surprised. Not anymore. I am beyond surprise as an experience or as an emotion.” He blinked, his eyes the veiny, cloudy red of boiled shrimp. “All I want now is to go home. That’s it.”
“New Jersey. That’s where my wife and my divinity school are.”
“What possessed you to leave New Jersey for here?”
Ryan pushed away his boat of french fries. “I have no idea.”
He looked at me, a fist up to his mouth. “How about you? Where are you from?”
I shrugged. “Nowhere, everywhere.”
“Where’d you go to college?”
“College of Life.” He stared at me, puzzled, then nodded sharply and looked away. He chewed at his thumbnail, his right leg bouncing under the table. How he’d made it through nine months of life outside the capital I had no idea.
I clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, there. Cheer up. When’s your flight leave?”
“Tomorrow afternoon.” This said like it was two thousand years away. “Okay. Perfect. I’ve got it. Tonight we’re going to a restaurant that isn’t a certifiable shit hole. Then we’re going to a dance club to watch Russian breasts bounce up and down. And then it’s back to the Hotel Ta-Ta for your first good night’s sleep in months. Now how does that sound?”
His eyes widened. “The Ta-Ta?”
I showed him the palms of my hands. “Relax. It’s my treat. All of it.”
“I don’t know …” he said with a new, almost streetwise wariness about him.
“Yes you do know. Where are you staying now?”
“Look, Alec,” he said, standing, “thanks for the offer, but I have to go and—”
I grabbed his rayon sleeve and eased him back down. “Listen to me. You’ve lived like a goddamn animal for, what, months, right? Don’t you deserve one night, one measly night of splendor? How much does CARA pay you guys, anyway?”
He told me.
“No, seriously,” I said. When he didn’t answer I realized he wasn’t joking. I continued, delicately: “I think you need this, Ryan.”
He looked away, shaking his head. Suddenly he coughed out a disbelieving laugh, turned to me and said, “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I’m a hell of a good guy. Why do you think?”
He looked around the café. “It all sounds nice,” he said, “it does. I just … I don’t think I could repay you.”
“Nonsense. I’ve got more money than ten popes.”
“I … I don’t know.” With his finger he fished his wedding ring from his cup of Fanta, wiped it off on his shirt and pocketed it. He bit his lip, the pink draining to white where tooth met skin, and then he nodded hard, to himself. “All right. What the heck. Let’s do it. Except for that club part. I don’t know if that’s my speed, exactly. Despite everything I just told you, Alec, I’m still, you know”—his nose scrunched up—“a Christian.”
I smiled and stirred the contents of a sugar packet into the last of my four cups of coffee. “Golly, Ryan. You don’t say?”
* * *
We walked out of the café to see a violent struggle going on in the backseat of the Land Cruiser, but I realized it was only Sergei fooling around with the Tatar girl. My heart sank a little, seeing something my father often said once again proved true: every beautiful girl in the capital was either for sale or willing to negotiate. Sergei was always dropping my name to get girls, promising them one-way tickets to California if only they’d blow him, fuck him, jerk him off. It would be easy to get all judgmental on Sergei, but the guy had had an awful life. His family was exiled to the capital after Stalin killed his father, grandfather, and three of his brothers. Now he was just a measly percentage point in the capital’s shrinking Russian population. He could have used my name to get down the pants of every girl from the capital to Islamabad for all I cared.
“That’s my truck there,” I told Ryan as we approached the Toyota. “I’ll break this up and we can split.”
Before I could, though, the Tatar girl fell out of the Toyota with her shirt on inside-out and backwards, wiping her chin. I figured for Ryan this would trigger a rectitudinous meltdown, and I turned to him and started to say something. Ryan just stared at the girl as she reached around and fixed her twisted bra strap. When she finished he looked over at me and said, “Let’s go.”
* * *
I soon realized that Having Fun was a pretty dainty concept to withstand all the weight I was piling onto it for Ryan’s sake. (There isn’t even a word for “fun” in Russian—how’s that for revealing?) As much as I tried, he wouldn’t cheer up. In his hotel room, Sergei and I were laughing and kicking roach corpses at each other while Ryan packed up his gear. In a lull we looked over to see Ryan sitting cross-legged on the floor, his face plunged into his hands. Sergei hoisted Ryan up, took him into his sausagey arms the way only a Russian man can, then removed a flask of vodka from his breast pocket and tenderly proffered it. The stuff Sergei drank belonged in a medicine cabinet, but Ryan tipped the flask up and dumped it down his gullet. Ryan nodded in thanks, took a bleary-eyed steadying sidestep, and returned the flask to Sergei, who peered into its shadowy opening in astonishment. I took advantage of this situation by crying out, “To the Ta-Ta!”
And now he and Sergei were drinking in the Ta-Ta’s restaurant like they’d fought Napoleon together. We’d had our four-course dinner, half a dozen appetizers, drinks, everything. Inviting Sergei may have been a mistake. The guy had the alcoholic equivalent of the Strength of Ten Men, and surprisingly Ryan wasn’t faring too badly against him, getting down one drink to Sergei’s every three. The restaurant was large and empty-spaced, its decor severe, its atmospheric lighting like that of a fish tank. The tab we’d started at the beginning of our evening was creeping into territory so astronomical waiters and cooks and waitresses were all huddling around the restaurant’s bar, peering at the tab and then, hands to breasts, looking over at us.
I was drinking Black Label. Ryan and Sergei were chasing tequila shots with bad Turkish beer. Between Sergei’s long Russian toasts I listened to Ryan dissect his troubled heart. He was young—my age—and had been married for two years. His wife (“a good woman,” he kept saying, “a good woman”) treated sex like it was something she was allergic to. Her father was CARA’s stateside accountant, which made Vandewiele’s improprieties even more vexing. I asked why he was here alone, and he explained they were prepared to evangelize together until his wife failed her physical. “She’s a little overweight,” Ryan said quietly. But he still wanted to do it, and she wanted him to do it, too.
“She sounds like a wacko,” I said.
Sergei took delighted, sleepy-faced note of this word. “Vacko,” he said, chuckling thickly.
“She’s not a wacko,” Ryan protested, softly shaking his head. He closed his eyes, his face dark with resignation. “You don’t understand.”
“Vacko,” Sergei said again, nodding off.
Unbidden came Ryan’s tales of Christian persecution. Thrown rocks, KGB wiretaps, outright assaults. None of it was Saint Paul on the Appian Way or anything, but scarring enough for a divinity school grad from New Jersey, I’d imagine.
Finally we arrived at the shores of his unfaithfulness. By the standards I was familiar with, the story was tame. Moist things developed between him and another CARA volunteer named Angela, Ryan flushing as he described how their trysts became progressively more “wicked.” I pressed for details but, sadly, received none. Now he was afraid of who he’d become. He had desires now, cravings and doubts, and felt adrift on a sea of whims and decidedly unchristian stimuli.
“Sounds like you’ve become a human being,” I said.
A hollow smile spread on Ryan’s face. “I belong to the world.”
This sounded promising to me. “Now you’re talking straight, Ryan. You’re goddamn right you do!”
“Because you do not belong to the world,” Ryan said, “I have chosen you.”
I frowned. “What the hell was that?”
“That,” Ryan said, “was Jesus talking to his disciples.”
“My opinion on Jesus,” I said, “is that he was probably a nice guy who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I raised my hand, ordering another round.
Ryan rubbed his face and said, “Wonderful. Can I go to my room and sleep now?”
I felt frustration spread its wings in my chest. I suddenly wanted to reach across the table and slap him, grab him by his boyish tousled hair and remind him that, unlike some of us, he had a life to go back to. I was within moments of throwing silverware when a skullful of soothing perfume wafted into my nostrils and I felt a hand fall lightly on my shoulder.
I turned to see a tall Russian woman in a short, tight, black dress standing next to me. She was one of those capital women you only saw in places like the Ta-Ta or in pricey clubs. Her wrists were ringed with onyx bracelets, her earrings were stylish black hoops, her head was an enormous black vortex of spray-hardened hair. “Comrade Tuscadero,” she said, smiling. Her lipstick was either black or a deep, sooty red.
“Zdrahst,” I said, seeing Ryan’s jaw drop open. Sergei had passed out.
Her hand rose from my shoulder and fluttered around stylishly. “Oh, no, no, no, zhis Russian greeting is unnezhessary,” she said in accented, flawless English. Her lips pouted. “You don’t remember me, Alec?”
Had I screwed this woman? I didn’t think so. If I had I would have run around spray painting it on the sidewalks. “I—I’m not sure,”I said.
“How embarrassing for me,” she said with a loud, solitary laugh. “I am Lena, an acquaintance of your friend Trenton. Ve met at a party, two months ago, I tsink.”
Trent was a Shark who worked for Boeing, the kind of guy you wound up doing cocaine with if you were around him for longer than five minutes. I remembered the party—at least, I remembered arriving at it. “Oh, yeah. Trent’s party.”
She laughed again. “You are a terrible liar, Alec.” She extended her hand. I took it and she yanked me up from my chair. “You vill make it up to me vith a dance at ze Dutch Club.”
The Dutch Club was a mobster-haunted hive across town, a place I knew Ryan didn’t have a chance in. I looked over at him, eyebrows raised in apology. “Well,” I said, glad to be rid of his sadsack bullshit.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, standing up, wobbling a little. “Thanks for everything, Alec. Maybe, you know, I’ll see you again sometime.”
“No, no, vait, vait,” Lena said, stepping between us. “Your friend”—she put a black-fingernailed hand on Ryan’s acne-splotched cheek—“von’t be coming to ze Dutch Club vith us?”
“I’ve got a flight tomorrow,” Ryan said, swallowing.
Lena nuzzled up against him—they were the same height—and put a hand on Ryan’s left hip, her fingernails raking across his blue jeans. “Alec,” she said, looking over at me, “vhat is your silly friend’s name?”
“Ryan,” I said.
“Vhy is your friend Ryan such an idiot?”
“Maybe you should ask him.”
Her face moved toward his, stopping when her black lips brushed against the cracked fissures of his. “Vhy von’t you come to ze Dutch Club, idiot? Come dance vith me, fuck your stupid flight.”
Ryan looked at me for help, his face a twitchy, nervous white orb. I said nothing.
Lena stepped away from Ryan and looped her arm through mine. We started to walk away, Lena’s rump swaying so broadly it smacked me on the hip with her every third step. “Wait!” Ryan called. We turned. With a guilty-looking smile Ryan was behind us, dragging Sergei, one of the table’s chairs upended behind them.
* * *
Underneath the Dutch Club’s neon sign were the words American Dance Club in English, and even though it was probably the hippest place in the capital, it fell a little short of this. For one thing, you don’t find many Kalashnikov-toting security guards in American dance clubs, and usually the hookers don’t outnumber the patrons, a mathematical goof tricky enough to send that Malthus guy home thinking. The rest of the formula—seizure-inducing lights, manufactured smoke, music so loud it felt as if something were laying eggs in your eardrum—they had down cold.
We deposited Sergei in the back of the Land Cruiser and stumbled up to the Dutch Club’s entrance. I was drunker than I thought, and by this point Ryan was having trouble finishing his sentences. Already I could tell Lena and I were not going to happen, at least not tonight. I’d taken it upon myself to drive, and Lena spent the trip across town sitting in Ryan’s lap, sticking her tongue down his throat and fishing her hand into his pants. Ryan fought back with a weird mixture of total surrender followed by violent rebuff. When he pushed her away Lena would laugh—throaty, loud, off-putting—and throw back her head. The Dutch Club guard manning the velvet rope recognized me and waved us inside, past the surly line that spanned two blocks.
Once we were in, Lena got behind Ryan and shoved him out onto the dance floor the way a bully might push a kid into a school bathroom for a beating. The dance floor was not too crowded and Lena hit its scarred vinyl planks atwirl, then lapsed into some incredibly intricate serpentine rumba that had her wrapping herself around Ryan, who I was starting to see was way out of his fucking league. I was tempted to get him out of there but stopped myself when I saw the look on his face. He stood in the floor’s precise center, grinning, clapping out of time, bobbing like a cork, while Lena vamped all around him. Soon the floor filled up with fat, tie-less, Nike-wearing mafiosos and their teenage whores in sheer black stockings and fake pearls. Lena and Ryan disappeared in the tangle. He had one night left, I thought. It might as well be a good one.
I waded through the ocean of whores to the bar, ordered a drink, and struck up a conversation with a fey young girl named Tanya. The next thing I knew I was getting blown in a corner of the Dutch Club’s women’s bathroom while a bevy of women crowded around the mirror to reapply their makeup. It wasn’t very good—Tanya kept nicking me with her teeth—and the fact that I wasn’t yet sure if she was a whore or not made it a little hard to concentrate. Paying for sex is just about the biggest turn-off I can imagine. Well, that, and shitting in a hole. Tanya must have sensed my distance from the situation because she wrapped her lips around me even tighter and squeezed my balls with her free hand about twice as hard as necessary. Two people were fucking in one of the stalls next to us. Outside the bathroom techno-base pounded in Kong-summoning booms. I closed my eyes and imagined Lena blowing me instead. It seemed unbelievable that I wouldn’t remember her, especially if she was at Trent’s party. I’d screwed some mutty German girl at Trent’s party, hadn’t I? I suddenly remembered freebasing a thimble full of coke with Trent that filled my head with glassy winter air and then stumbling into a bedroom with her. And wasn’t it a little fucking odd—this I thought with sudden, startling clarity—that Lena would introduce herself as being a friend of “Trenton” since everyone pretty much knew that Trent was as gay as a picnic basket?
My eyes opened. I glanced down to see a puzzled Tanya shaking my non-tumescent dick. She looked up at me with a shy, wet-lipped smile and said in heartbreaking English, “Me no good, Meester Alec?” Oh, Ryan, I thought, oh, buddy, zipped up, gave Tanya ten dollars American, and strode out of the bathroom to find him.
It didn’t take long. They were still on the dance floor, grinding and making out like two teenagers, Ryan’s hands clutching the globes of Lena’s ass. There was no other way to do it: I walked up to them, peeled them apart, and then pushed Lena away hard on her breastless chest. She tumbled back and sat down on the floor, looking up at me open-mouthed and muss-headed, her lipstick smeared all over her face and one of her strappy black shoes hanging from her big toe. “You stay the fuck away,” I shouted, then grabbed Ryan by the arm.
I got across the dance floor before he figured out what exactly was happening. When we reached the edge Ryan started to wander back, his face a twist of angry, drunken spite. “What the hell, Alec!” he said, trying to pull away. “Just what the hell!” His arms were flailing, his eyes half-closed.
“Come on,” I said, “we’re leaving. Fun’s over.”
“I want that girl,” he said, looking back at Lena. She was still sitting on the floor, watching us, lights flashing across her black dress.
“No you don’t,” I said, giving him a good hard yank on his arm. “Come on, Christian. Time to go.”
A low blow, maybe, but it worked. He stopped struggling and looked back at her briefly. When he turned to me, some shiny sense of belated recognition was sparkling in his eyes. “Why don’t I want her, Alec?”
“Let’s go, Ryan.” Even though he’d figured it out, I couldn’t bear telling him, I just couldn’t.
Now he grabbed me, both his hands digging into my white button-down shirt. “Why don’t I, Alec?”
“Look,” I said as the music winded down, “we’ve got to go. All right?”
What happened next is kind of hard to describe. Something caught my attention—I don’t remember what—and at the same moment Ryan wildly swung his arm back to free it. He’d caught me off guard and so his arm went flying without any resistance. The song had ended, the floor was clearing, and walking right behind Ryan was a squat, crooked-nosed gangster. Ryan’s elbow caught him in the face, breaking his sunglasses and from the look of it doing some serious damage to the guy’s eye. He swore, bent over, cupping his eye, and when he looked up at us it was as if his eyeball had been injected with a syringeful of blood. He started saying something in Russian—too quickly for me to understand—and then a flat-topped goon in a squarish suit had Ryan in a headlock. Ryan didn’t fight, didn’t do anything—he just kind of hung there, like a Puritan in the stocks. It was left to me to punch the guy, and when I hit him I guess the force was with me. I mean, I killed him, though I didn’t find that out until a lot later. All I remember is this satisfying feeling of something hard going splat under my knuckle—that was his nose—and he let go of Ryan as if I’d said the magic words.
That we made it out of the club was a miracle. That we made it to the Toyota was a miracle. And that no one shot us as we were peeling out was a miracle. But I realized the miracle quiver was empty when minutes later I looked in the rearview mirror and saw two Mercedes Benzes on our tail and rapidly closing the distance. There was a cellular phone in the glove box, which I had to scream at Ryan 12 times to get for me—he was gone, he’d lost it—but finally he did. He said, “Here! Here! Take it!” and covered his face with his hands. That was the last thing I heard the poor kid say: “Here! Here! Take it!” Pretty shitty last words, I think. Anyway, I called the Embassy switchboard, shouted into the phone what was happening, where we were, that I was driving there as fast as I could. Sergei woke up in the backseat, said something to me, and then I heard a pop and another pop. Suddenly I couldn’t steer worth shit and knew they’d shot out the Land Cruiser’s tires. The next thing I remember is picking glass from my hair. I’d flipped the Toyota, apparently, trying to turn too fast on three tires, and we went tumbling through the front window of an optyeka, a pharmacy.
I didn’t have a scratch on me. I looked, too. Not a single fucking mark. And I hadn’t even been wearing my seat belt. The Toyota was upside down, all its windows shattered. A lot of the broken glass from the optyeka’s big windows had splashed inside the Toyota, too, so my only problem was all the glass in my hair. Relieved, happy, I started picking the shit out piece by piece. When I looked over at Ryan I stopped. There’s some debate whether or not he was dead by then. All I can tell you is that if he wasn’t dead he was going to be soon: a massive, nasty shard of glass had pierced his throat, severing his right carotid artery. His eyes were open and there wasn’t much blood yet, and it was so tempting to start talking to him because he didn’t look that bad. Of course, he looked hurt (a huge piece of glass was sticking out of his throat) but not anything too bad. I tried to get out of the car but couldn’t, and so I sat there next to Ryan, looking into his eyes, while somewhere behind us tires bit into cement and car doors slammed.
They pulled Ryan out first. The instant they moved his body blood started squirting. Sergei and I were next. Sergei’s nose looked like a smashed ketchup bottle, and he was bawling—too drunk, think, to understand what was happening—and they dragged us into the middle of the deserted street and pushed us to our knees. I’ll never get over how empty the streets were. It wasn’t even that late yet—eleven, maybe midnight. I saw Ryan’s body, face-down, next to an open manhole, the guy he’d hit with his elbow standing with one foot on Ryan’s neck. He kicked Ryan in the ribs a few times—still with a cupped hand over his eye—then pulled out a small handgun and shot Ryan twice in the head. Again, there was no blood, and Ryan’s body didn’t even seem to register that it had been shot. It was like the guy had blanks in his gun. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but it was strange. They pushed his body into the manhole. I don’t remember hearing a splash.
They shot Sergei next. This happened so quickly I’m sad we never got to say anything to each other, to look at each other one last time. One moment we’re kneeling there side-by-side, the next a pop explodes next to my ear and Sergei flops face-first onto the pavement. Why they waited to do me, I don’t know, but the guy who shot Ryan and the guy who shot Sergei had an impromptu conference while the third and fourth guy held my arms behind my back. I’ve been told it was because they knew who I was, but I doubt it. Why, then, would they have executed Sergei? You don’t fuck with the embassy and every gangster knew it.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Genghis Ron and a fleet of embassy security vehicles pulled up half a minute later. The mobsters gave up without a fight, probably since they knew they had the receipt on every judge in the capital. Back at the embassy Genghis Ron read me the riot act. The next day I was on a plane back to Washington, where I spent a week eating room service and sleeping with a medium-attractive congressional page I picked up on the Mall and not answering the phone in my hotel room, which rang every 17 seconds. Back in the capital, my father was a dervish of spin, working the hush-up gears like a seasoned apparatchik. Not that it mattered. A BBC reporter (a young lady, it retrospectively occurs to me, I probably should not have jilted) broke the story and … well, there’s no need for me to go on. You know the rest.
I do feel awful that my dad lost his job. None of it was his fault. I feel awful for Ryan’s family, too, which is a big part of the reason my lawyer wanted me to tell my side of the story—to demonstrate that their wrongful death suit is, in his words “misguided.” It’s my hope that I’ve done so.
As for the man I killed, there might be some trouble. I doubt anything much will come of it—I was the ambassador’s son, after all—but I’m being arraigned, if you can believe that, in the capital next month. As slight as the chance may be, my lawyer says, I have to prepare myself for the feet that I might yet see the interior of a capital prison cell. Prepare myself, the guy says. Gee, if you put it that way, I suppose I can prepare myself. Why I hired an American lawyer I have no idea. I’m told, though, that some of the cells have flush toilets. I’ll have to look into that.
Tom Bissell is a writer and an editor at Henry Holt and Company. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Esquire, the Boston Review, and Harper’s, which nominated him for a National Magazine Award. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, which he edited, was published in May.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.