On Uncle Vanya: Part Three


First Person

But the reason I was telling this story was because I was reminded of that night in St. Petersburg when I saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Like Vanya and Astrov, I am middle-aged, a drunk, often despondent—perhaps I am having a midlife crisis—and yes, I am an adulterer. (Vanya and Astrov are only would-be adulterers.) At the time I was trying to pick up this Russian waitress—sitting drunk in the snow-covered park, watching a bear dance at the end of a short rope—I was already an adulterer. Two years before, I had left my first wife for my assistant, who worked in my jewelry store. I drank my way into that affair, and I would drink my way through the divorce.

But the sad fact was I did not get to sleep with the Russian waitress. This is what actually happened.

The man with the bear would not leave me alone. The bear was tired and discouraged, and every time it dropped to its four paws the man would pull on the rope until it stood again. It wobbled back and forth and then dropped. For several minutes I watched with my hands deep in the pockets of my coat: it was freezing cold, the coat I had brought on my trip was not heavy enough—I would lose it a few days later, running from the police in a jewelry factory—and I had no gloves. At last I realized, drunk and confused by jet lag though I was, that the man would only leave me if I gave him some money, and I had no small bills. One thing that annoyed me about Russia, at that time, was that no one had the proper respect for money. Everywhere I went I flashed the large wad of money I had in my pocket, I overtipped as I’ve always done and continue to do, I spent lavishly in the few places I could, I took the most expensive room they offered at my hotel: no effect. They did not have capitalism in their veins yet, and to them it was vulgar. In fact it is vulgar, but in countries with market economies it produces the desired result. These people were not yet ready to turn cartwheels for money.

That has since changed, and now, as everyone knows, Russia is even more capitalist than our own country. I was recently in a car in Northern India and the driver asked one of the other passengers—there were seven of us in the car, from four different countries—what was the wealthiest country in the world, and one of the passengers, a Swiss, said, “Russia.” He was wrong but I understood what he meant. Russia is the nouveau riche of the world’s nations.

But I could not rid myself of the man with the bear, and I spoke no Russian, and he spoke no English, and every time I said, “No money,” he frowned and made the bear dance again. I couldn’t get up and leave because I was waiting for the waitress. I wanted a drink; the exhausted bear and the cold were sobering me up. I was beginning to wish I had never attempted the liaison. I was tired. I was at that point in the night that happens every time you call a prostitute to your hotel room: you are full of drunken enthusiasm flipping through the yellow pages or Web sites of escort services, you order the kind of girl you want, the woman promises she’ll arrive in an hour, and two-and-a-half hours later, after you’ve fallen asleep on top of the bed in your suit with the TV rolling the credits for a pay-per-view movie, there’s a knock on the door and you think, Fuck. The hooker. One time, I tried not answering the door, but she wouldn’t stop knocking.

The thought of that beautiful waitress tucking her husband into bed and then sneaking down the stairs and into the cold to find an empty park bench was depressing; soon I would have to leave anyway to meet my friends, but to sit there on the park bench, trying to explain the situation to the man and his pet was more than I could take. I wanted to stand on the park bench and shout at the man and hit him with a stick. I wanted to take the rope off the bear’s neck, tie it around his, and drag him around the park like Dmitri drags the man by his beard through the streets of that little provincial town in The Brothers K. But there was nothing for me to do. So I stood with my hands in my pockets and began to walk through the snow. I was wearing the wrong shoes—they were black loafers—and they were filling with snow. One came off and I stood on one leg and put it on again. The man followed me. The snow was knee deep or higher; it was shoulder deep for his bear. The bear, we both knew, had had enough. I forged ahead, toward the center of the park. My pants were wet to the knee and I wanted to lay down in the snow and sleep. Once, as a teenager, I had taken an entire bottle of Librium—I was an anxious kid—and drunk half a bottle of Canadian Club, removed all of my clothing, and laid down in a field full of snow, in a misconceived suicide attempt. It didn’t work.

Then I saw the waitress crossing the street toward the park. The man and his bear were still following me so I waved to her. I broke into a kind of half-run, and fell and scraped my palms on the ice beneath the snow. When I stood and brushed myself off, I hoped she would see the humor in the situation and be charmed. She stood at the edge of the park and watched me. As we got closer she shouted at the man and I turned again to look. He was standing there, with his bear, in the middle of the park, with my path through the snow stretched out in front of him. I wondered if he would go forward or back. But he stood motionless. Something about standing in the middle of an empty park in the snow at midnight. With lights on around the park, and the trees, and the darkness in the middle. The stars in the black sky. I could see why I had felt completely hopeless when I had stood where he was. And I had at least been running away from someone. He had been in pursuit of someone he knew he wouldn’t catch.

When I reached the waitress she looked at me as though I were a different man than the one she had come to meet. I had lost my confidence.

“You came,” I said. “I’m glad. Thank you for coming. I didn’t know if you would. Let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here.”

“I am not staying,” she told me. “I am going back to my home.”

“Just one drink,” I said. “We could go back to the restaurant. Or to my hotel. Or you could join me and my friends. We are going to a night club. I can’t remember the name. But it is supposed to be a nice place.”

I knew she would not be welcome at the club. Plus, we were meeting other women there, after talking over some business we were pursuing the next day.

“I am going to bed,” she said. “I just came to tell you.” She looked past me into the park. “He is still standing there. He has a bear.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s not a very happy bear.”

“Good night,” she said. She turned and walked away, before I thought to take her into my arms and kiss her.

I watched her go. She crossed the street without looking back. So I turned and walked back into the park to meet the man with the bear. I decided I’d give him one of my large bills. Part of the money might go to the bear.

Later, at the club, with women squeezed between us, my friend told the story of how I had fallen in love with one of his waitresses, and all of us laughed, and the woman who was with me asked me in her surprisingly good English if she was very beautiful, and I lied and said, “Yes, she was lovely. But not half as pretty as you.”

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

Read first installment here and second installment here.