On Uncle Vanya: Part 1


First Person

I was in Saint Petersburg, at a restaurant owned by a friend. It was in a strange building, a kind of old mansion. He took me back through several empty ballrooms—you could feel the springs beneath the wooden floors, installed many years ago, for dancing. We sat together in a small room. It had only two tables, and its windows were hung with heavy curtains. It was one of those private dining rooms that you read about in Russian novels, and my friend began to bring me different dishes. I recognized only the blini with black and red caviar; everything else was new to me. At this time, thirteen years ago, I was a wine drinker, but they did not have wine worth drinking in Saint Petersburg then, and he was pouring me glasses of vodka. Then several government officials arrived, important men, and he left me alone.

I noticed my waitress was beautiful. She was taller than me, with high aristocratic cheekbones, pale skin, lips full of blood, big firm tits. Very much the woman you want, if you want a Russian beauty. The type that has since made exported Russian prostitutes famous throughout Europe, the Middle East, and (lately) even large cities in the U.S.

I was determined to have sex with a Russian whom I did not have to pay.

She faked a smile every time she bent to serve me. I could see she was unhappy. She wore a simple black dress with expensive-looking seams sewn in the back. I wanted to ask her where she had bought a dress like that in Saint Petersburg. It must have been a gift from a lover. It was not revealing, though beneath it, from the knee to the ankle, her legs shone. The dress was expensive and it had worn well, but I could see its lining drooped below the hem in back. Her cheap heels were practical for waiting tables.

My friend had complained that they were not doing business.

“The problem is, people still don’t understand money here,” he said. He had gotten his M.B.A. at Northwestern before returning to Russia to become an entrepreneur. “They would come to the restaurant if I gave them a government coupon, but they think there is something servile about hard cash.”

“Is it a slow night?” I asked her.

She spoke precisely, but I could hear that her vocabulary was limited.

“I work in the nighttime,” she said. “It is nice to have an American here.” I realized I had used a colloquialism.

I did not tell her that I was Canadian. By the corners of her eyes and the way she held her mouth I could tell that she’d been drinking. I wondered if my friend let them drink or if she had been stealing drinks. I was in the jewelry business at this time, but I also owned a wine bar, and my waiters were always stealing glasses of wine from me. I didn’t mind so much if it was a cheap bottle. But naturally they stole what they wished they could buy.

“Will you have a glass of vodka with me?”

She looked over her shoulder, and then nodded. The bottle on the table was half empty. I poured her a heavy glass.

She drank it in two swallows.

“I will bring you the fish.”

I patted the sofa beside me. It was a small love seat in gaudy blue and green velvet, very worn, with gold tassels hanging around the base.

“I cannot sit,” she said. But then she sat and drank another glass of vodka. She’s tall, I thought. I didn’t want her to get drunk. I put my arm around her. She stood again.

Fortune favors the bold. I began to lie. I said, “I am an American billionaire. I’m opening hotels here. We could have a drink together after work. If you can’t sit now.”

She shook her head. “I am married.”

“So am I,” I said. I had been separated for two years, but the divorce was right around the corner. “You could put your husband to bed and then meet me.”

She was frowning. But she hadn’t walked away.

“One drink,” I said. “With your new American friend. Perhaps Karel”—that was my friend’s name—“has a bottle of champagne. Do you like champagne?”

Karel had no champagne. I had asked him earlier.

She said, “I cannot. I go home in half an hour.”

I said, “Before you go, come sit and have one more glass of vodka. I’ll buy it.”

She didn’t say anything.

I said, “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t know.”

A different waitress, a middle-aged woman in an apron, brought me my next courses. Before dinner was over, my friend came back and I asked him about the waitress. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t really know her husband,” he said. “He is an electrician.”

Now I really wanted to fuck her. So I stood up and apologized to my friend—I knew he would not allow me to pay for the meal—and headed for the door.

“I forgot about a date,” I said to him. “I will see you later at your club.” We were meeting with the friend who had brought me to Russia after midnight. “Where is the waitress? I should give her a little something, and say goodbye.”

“Oh don’t leave her a tip, that’s not necessary. But if you want to see her she is around the corner there.” He smiled at me, and I could not tell if it was conspiratorial or he was simply amused.

I found her resetting a table—the government officials were drunk, calling to her loudly—and I waved to her politely and began walking out the door. I walked quickly, as though in a hurry. But before I got into the first ballroom I slowed so that she could catch me. I heard her plastic shoes on the wood behind me.

“You are leaving?” she said. “But there is more food.”

“I forgot about a date,” I said. “With a friend.”

Her face changed.

She wasn’t drunk.

“You don’t want a vodka?”

“I forgot,” I said. “My friend.”

“Oh,” she said. I could see she was disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and began to walk away again.

“We should have vodka,” she said.

“Are you buying me a vodka?” I asked.

“You said we would have a vodka.”

“I could stay if you are buying me a vodka,” I said. “If you will have one more with me. But then I have to go meet my friend. Afterward I could come back if you like.”

She took me to a different room, an unused room, and came back with a bottle of vodka and two glasses. We sat together and drank the vodka quickly. I kissed her. I held her mouth and her neck when I kissed her—the way you kiss a woman the first time you kiss her. She had bad breath. I thought of fucking her right there in the dinner room. There were only four chairs but they were sturdy armchairs and one would have worked nicely.

She said, “Across from the restaurant there is a park. You can wait for me there. I will come. First I put my husband to bed. Then I come.”

I stood up and left. I went back to my hotel, and I drank, and I waited. I was watching myself, making sure not to get too drunk.

After midnight, in the park, I brushed the snow off a bench and sat. It was an enormous park with few trees and lanterns all around the perimeter. The snow was three feet deep on the ground but none was falling. It was very cold, too cold for snowfall. The sky was black and the stars were bright like they only are on a bitterly cold night in winter. I saw a man walking his dog—a huge brown dog that shuffled its legs—a few hundred feet away. They came toward me. As they got closer I saw that the dog was a bear. The man held it by a rope. Then I saw its neck was raw from the rope and he was not eating well. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. I had never seen a skinny bear. His owner started pulling on the rope to make the bear dance. I gave him some money but he kept pulling on the rope to try to get the bear on its hind legs.

“Go away,” I said. “Get out of here.”

He would not look at me but he yelled at the bear, and the bear rose to his hind legs and rocked back and forth.

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.