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Kenneth Radu: Sex in Russia

Sex in Russia

***

Murdered on this very spot in St. Petersburg– can you believe it? Delia did because the guide insisted upon the fact in her Russian-accented English. Delia had never before heard “clothes” pronounced with two syllables. She was charmed, yes, not charm-ed, one syllable if you please, by the ebullient young woman’s wonderful attention to historic detail blurted out in a mispronounced second language.

The tourists gathered thick as cooped-up chickens in the cathedral, so difficult to breathe, but how was it possible to visit the sight alone? Russia, you see, not England or France where Delia had travelled by herself, picking up and dropping lovers in scenic locales, and knowing the language, but Russia – never mind the language. Perestroika and glasnost notwithstanding, she had read about the Russian mafia and – did you get a look at those security guards in the Moscow airport? — it was not advisable for a western woman who understood little spoken Russian and fumbled among the brambles of the Cyrillic alphabet to wander about the country alone, even if it were permitted.

Here she was, a foreign bird, her feathers crushed, gasping under the painted ceiling and hemmed in by the painted walls and stepping on painted faces, staring at the very cobble stones where Tsar Alexander II had a leg severed and his stomach exploded open by a revolutionary’s bomb on the Catherine canal. Over the bloodied cobbles they had erected the Church of the Spilt Blood, which Delia had originally assumed to be a reference to Christ, in commemoration of the Tsar Liberator. He had begun well, the guide said, freeing the serfs, and ended badly.

Oh, the good die young, Delia sighed. Having just turned sixty herself, she extended the boundaries of youth until middle age completely vanished and decrepitude was a distant country. Anyway, she had dedicated most of her travel money to Russia because after she had read Dostoevski’s ponderous novels, a pinch of Pushkin, and the tragic story of Nicholas II and his slaughtered family, she had no choice but to cruise the Volga.

Yves, her lover, twenty-odd years younger (she did not like to be more precise than that), tall and slender, black curly hair which he dyed, firm of body, a high school French teacher with a penchant for older women of a certain income, had mournfully pleaded with her not to go. He couldn’t bear to be parted from her for a day. An absurd statement considering they met only one or twice a week, never on weekends because he went to Quebec City to visit his kids who lived with their mother. They dined at her expense in out of the way Montreal restaurants (apportez votre vin), the kind with half a dozen tables, and five over-priced dishes on the menu where he’d never meet anyone he knew. Then her apartment after creme de caramel, but Yves seldom stayed overnight because it was too far from the school. She recalled that Catherine the Great had enjoyed young lovers, but an autocrat created her own rules, an enviable position.

Professionally coiffed and toned herself — all those hours on the treadmill, diets, and careful cosmetics — and only one nip and tuck on the face around the eyes three years ago — no repeated surgery or Botox injections for her, thank you very much, Delia didn’t want to look like plastic. People did notice that she was old enough to be his mother, as one waiter had mistakenly assumed. She was also too mature to believe in the folderol of romance and sex, however enjoyable. Truth to tell, the struggle against gravity and the thousand natural shocks to which flesh was heir had taken their toll. Fortunately, she had never equated looking good with looking young and had avoided the trap of surgical desperation. After Yves’s hard and vigorous lovemaking, although he preferred to call it something else that one read on toilet walls and insisted she do the same, Delia woke up with aches, pains and sore nipples. She couldn’t remember if the climatic peak had been worth the climb to get there.

Speaking of “there,” she noticed how a young steward on the cruise ship made a special effort to approach and ask if she needed anything. He had those sweet pouting lips of boyish Russian youth, tousled curly blond hair suggesting Scandinavian blood mixed with Russian, possibly a gymnast’s physique under his white uniform. Did he provocatively pose to give her an unobstructed view of his derriere? What message did she send? Was her body exuding desire? Did she carry an invisible sign that only young men with misunderstood or socially scorned appetites could read? Perhaps she had cast an obvious, admiring glance, returned the stare, not retracted her hand fast enough when accidentally touching his on the deck, in the bar or dining room. Delia had no intention of letting the body control her heart or mind. Gracious, a boy in bed was one thing, not that Yves was a boy despite puerile tendencies like fits of temper and sulking she had learned to soothe by dollars and talking dirty, but commitment to a man with his hands and other appendage out — sooner or later she paid — was quite another.

Tsar Alexander II typically enjoyed his extra-martial affairs. He had even possessed a private collection of pornographic drawings she had seen in a book. Quite arousing, the pornography of the nineteenth-century being more erotic to her taste than the twenty-first. Picasso’s erotic drawings did nothing for her, if they were supposed to, but Delia enjoyed Zichi’s drawing of little, goose-like, flying phalluses, and The Witch and the Devil. No wonder he became the Tsar’s pornographer. Imagine, a personal pornographer! Oh God, Delia, not here in a Cathedral dedicated to the memory of an assassinated emperor. You’d think a woman her age wouldn’t be prone to fantasies and scenarios that heated the blood and flushed the face. No way was she entering an ecstatic swoon surrounded by prophets and saints.

“Are you hot?”

“It is stuffy in here,” she replied, not missing a blink because she was an old hand at deception and secret desires.

“Would you care for something cool to drink?”

She recognized him from the cruise boat, not a member of her particular group. He was too old for her: approaching seventy, completely white hair, a pointed white beard and moustache, white shirt, slacks, and pale complexion. He could have walked right out of a flour sack. Upon closer inspection, Delia saw that he bore a startling resemblance to Nicholas II.

“If you like, we can skip the rest of the tour and walk along the Nevsky Prospekt to a wonderful little restaurant, Russian-French, you’ll love it, and, please, let me buy you lunch. And we can enjoy the street, very beautiful, a UN heritage site, many points of interest, and converse in peace.”

He spoke like a man uncomfortable in his skin who harboured a state secret. As there was no likelihood that she’d go to bed with him after lunch, even if she suspected motives, Delia agreed. Besides, she had given away her box lunch provided by the tour group — dry cheese between drier black bread, overripe banana and warm yogurt. Not far from the Cathedral she was sitting in a public square earlier when a group of snotty, barefoot beggar children gathered around and held out their hands for rubles.

She offered the box. They snatched and scurried away with the prize to a red-shawled young woman sitting on a blanket and nursing an infant just a stone’s throw from Falconnet’s bronze statue of Peter the Great rearing a horse on incredibly thin-ankles, trampling a serpent in Decembrist Square. How had the statue survived the German onslaught against the city during the Great War of Liberation? Had the workers carted Peter and his horse away to safety like the art and artifacts of the Hermitage? Delia reminded herself to look it up. Was it also a restoration like so much else in this so-called Venice of the North? Buildings bombarded and burned, a devastated city. Beautiful now, yes, albeit frayed around the cuffs and dirty about the hems, but how much remained entirely authentic? She didn’t even want to begin thinking about the starvation and countless dead during the siege.

The Church of the Spilt Blood had been used as a warehouse after the revolution. Mud, the guide said, lay thick on the floor, slime covered the frescoes. Virtually everything Delia saw had been cleansed and reconstituted. Passing by the souvenir kiosk in the cathedral where she would have purchased a glossy post card of the interior, perhaps an icon, from a cabbagy sort of woman with stumpy fingers and rose-splattered babushka, Delia allowed Frank to lead her out of the crowded interior into the brilliant light of a St. Petersburg noon. Immediately attacked by hawkers peddling postcards, T-shirts and matiushka dolls, pushing into their bodies, Frank waved them aside like a man in familiar surroundings who knew the lay of the land and the methods of malefactors. The hawkers did not persist especially when Frank spoke sharply to them in Russian.

“You speak Russian?”

“Just a few words. I find it handy to know a bit of the language.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yes. This is my twelfth trip.”

“On business, I presume.”

“Oh no, not business. I’m retired. Just pleasure.”

Twelve times to Russia for pleasure? Was the man a historian or masochist? Delia instantly recognized that he’d be a useful companion for the last week of her trip. He was pleasant and did not smell like an old man. She caught his scent: a cologne with a floral base. White hair, yes, but youthfully thick and wavy, and he carried himself regally as if to the palace born. Perhaps it was the Romanov resemblance.

She did not recoil when he clasped her elbow as they cross a bridge over the Catherine canal to the shady side and chatted about various buildings of interest as they sauntered towards Nevsky Prospekt. He knew as much about the city as the guides she had been following along with her well-clad troop of seniors and ex-patriots returning to the land of their ancestors with bored, teen-aged grandchildren. A couple of honeymooners from England drank themselves silly every night after dinner as they played cards with another noisy American couple. Sailing through the heart of Russia, they shuffled cards and guzzled gin and rum on deck while she stood by the rail and swallowed every segment of the landscape.

“This is my first visit to Russia as you’ve no doubt already guessed,” she confessed over an enamelled samovar in the restaurant. Pedestrian hordes made a leisurely stroll along the Prospekt to admire the architecture too stifling and awkward. Each time a man or woman brushed against her, Delia grabbed for her money belt under her crisp, blue and yellow-striped cotton blouse. Even Frank had cautioned her to be watchful, con artists and thieves abounded during the tourist season.

“Yesterday I was swarmed in a Metro station. If that happens, simply yell as loud as you can, they usually panic and run away.”

“How do they know who’s a tourist and who’s not?”

He had arched an eyebrow at the question and Delia realized that, of course, she and the other tourists with their cameras, sunglasses, sacks and excellent shoes, stood out like flocks of flamingoes on ice flows.

“Locals are bothered by them as much as anyone else. There was an article in the St. Petersburg Times last week about the problem and the effect it might be having on the tourist trade. Have you seen the paper?”

“No, I didn’t know an English paper existed here.”

“Oh, yes, there’s quite a population of Anglophones in the city, especially since the collapse of the Soviet regime. Let me pour you another cup of tea.”

They lunched on cold cucumber soup, fish, and marinated mushrooms. On the bus trip to the Pavlovsk estate not far from the city, Delia had seen people in the fields gathering mushrooms, a national past time, the guide said

“How do they know which are safe to eat?”

“They know. But, yes, it is true, some people die every year. To your right you will see several dachas with five windows and not three. Five windows tell you the owners are more prosperous than people of three windows. The more windows the more money, this is what it means.”

Delia told Frank about her work in Human Resources for a pharmaceutical company, and tried to keep the conversation light and impersonal, especially when he sighed over a puffy millefeuille as if preoccupied with profundity.

“The lunch was delicious, thank you, Frank, but we have to get back to the bus. We don’t want to miss it.”

“Don’t we?”

Oh dear, his voice dropping and his hand reaching across the table to her napkin ring suggested that he wanted to make love to her. Had she in any way indicated that sex was probable? Now, if he were the young steward, what was the boy’s name? She must find out. A floury-white man of seventy did not ignite her libido, imperial associations notwithstanding. Still, he was kind and pleasant. They had enjoyed a stimulating conversation about Russian history of which he knew much, and the Nicholas II of whom he knew intimate details like his favourite brand of tobacco.

Frank’s eyes were a compelling blue, the kind romance novelists said pierced you to the soul. Delia stiffened in her chair, shielding herself against penetration. The tour group would visit Tsarkoe Selo next day, now called Pushkin, where she’d actually walk the palatial corridors of Catherine the Great, and saunter through the parks where the last Romanov children played before being shipped by rail to their slaughter in Ekaterinburg: Olga, Tatiana, Marie, Anastasia and Alexei, poor dears.

“Catherine’s palace was used as a headquarters by the Germans during the siege. Before leaving, they dynamited the premises. You’ll see photographs of the ruins in the gallery. Rather brilliant restoration, I’d say.”

“My God, not even that was spared.”

“Not much was.”

But she’d rather run her hands up and down the steward’s provocative thighs than caress Frank’s attenuated chest. No, she preferred to catch the tour bus even though he offered to hail a cab, certainly something she would never have done on her own in St. Petersburg or anywhere else Russia.

“Thank you again, Frank, this has been lovely.”

“May I sit with you on the bus tomorrow? I enjoyed our conversation, you’re such a wonderful listener, Delia, a rare quality, and there’s so much to say.”

She regretted saying yes instantly, but it would have been hurtful and rude to deny the request. Although Frank walked her back to the bus, he did not accompany her to the cruise ship at the docks, explaining that he had an appointment to keep. He helped her up the steps, then disappeared before she turned around to thank him again. No matter. In the evening they would meet in the dining lounge. And it occurred to her that Frank had not in fact divulged any secrets.

In the evening Delia did not see him, and ate with several other tourists who exchanged their views of the day’s excursions. For the first time Delia noticed the gold-framed name tag on her favourite waiter’s white jacket: Alexei, like the Grand Duke who was murdered in July, 1918 only a few weeks before his fourteenth birthday. Difficult to exchange secret signals and meaningful glances over a crowded table, Delia nonetheless admired his every move and stared directly into his face as she placed her particular order, wondering about the taste of his luscious pouty and deeply pink lips. Such strong, masculine fingers holding the wine bottle as he poured and so adroitly gave it a twist to prevent dripping. Oh yes, indeed, if all possible, she wouldn’t hesitate. Just fantasy, of course, as she sipped white wine. Did he smile during that swift acknowledgement of her admiration?

“Delia, you look flushed.”

“The wine, I think, and it’s been an exhausting day. My feet are killing me. I wish I had worn my other pair of walking shoes. By the way, I discovered a wonderful little restaurant on the Nevsky Prospekt.”

Changing after dinner into something more suitable for a coolish evening on deck where she would enjoy a drink before leaving for the evening’s excursion, glad that she had not chosen the trip to the Maryinsky theatre to see the Kirov ballet, Delia admitted that she missed Frank. Perhaps he had not returned to the ship after all and dined in the city. On deck, her shawl loosely wrapped over a white blouse, she sat in a lounge chair staring over the railing at the distant bridge. Alexei and another staff member served drinks and cleared tables. Alexei periodically glanced in her direction, but did not approach. His co-worker asked if she would care for another drink.

“Thank you, Oksana, but one is my limit. What time do the buses leave this evening? Do you know?”

“At seven-thirty, madame for the theatre, and eleven for the city tour.”

“Thank you, dear.”

Closing her eyes and drifting off into a dreamy doze appealed more than trundling along the streets of St. Petersburg again, or to sit in a crowded theatre, however famous, only to be numbingly bored by the performance. Why did tourists suddenly develop a passion for the Bolshoi or Kirov when they completely ignored ballet back home? The midnight excursion through the city streets to experience the famous white nights of St. Petersburg, stopping off at suitable viewing points appealed and, if she did decide to go, Delia wanted to conserve energy for a potentially taxing adventure of sorts. Alexei paused at the door and nodded his head in her direction before he disappeared. At what point he got off duty Delia didn’t know.

“Ah, there you are.”

She quickly marshalled proper tones of delight.

“Frank, I missed you at dinner.”

“Were you expecting me?”

Perhaps the colour of the night altered his expression from smile to leer. Delia immediately sat up and wished to correct the implications, if any implications, had gathered in their conversations.

“No, not really, I simply didn’t notice you. On this cruise you generally see everybody at dinner.”

“I had business in town.”

“Well, I hope you had a good meal on the Prospekt.”

“Not there, in a friend’s flat, and yes, it was very good for Anna is a superb chef.”

“I see. Well, I must get ready for the excursion this evening. The white nights of St. Petersburg are not to be missed.”

“Are you going then?”

“Of course, we’re all going except people with tickets for the ballet. What else is there to do?”

Delia blushed. Another innuendo? She did not wish to give Frank the wrong idea. Or had she in fact given the wrong idea by letting him buy her lunch? A woman had cooked him a meal in her private flat. Those Russian trysts — one had read Chekhov — so one knew about love affairs. Ah, a rendezvous of lovers during the white nights of St. Petersburg! What an alluring image, more compelling than a Venetian gondola gliding under the Ponte dei Sospiri. She could imagine herself embraced by a hunky Russian soldier looking suspiciously like Alexei on the stony beach below the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Winter Palace ghostly and shimmering on the opposite side of the Neva river. She did not decline Frank’s request to join her on the excursion.

*****

Most of the passengers had fallen asleep by midnight, but the alert among them, including Delia and Frank, watched the raising of the modestly lit Lieutenant Schmidt bridge, the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral visible between the two halves of the span. Allowing Frank to press against her upper right arm, Delia absorbed the atmosphere. Thousands of citizens and tourists milling about the streets rendered the event less romantic than Delia would have wished. If she resided permanently in this fabled town, Delia told Frank, she’d sleep in the day and walk the streets at night.

“A streetwalker?”

She appreciated the little joke and forgave the familiarity. How could she take offense under that extraordinary sky, pink and mauve wisps of cloud like a faded peau de soie gown worn by an exiled empress? Despite vodka and beer bottles, shirtless lads with their girl friends, and beeping Ladas packing the streets around the Winter Palace, Delia sensed the possibilities of romance and passion. Even Frank, his eyes so deeply blue in the northern night, appealed as a kind of gentlemanly satyr on his last legs.

“My grandmother didn’t much care for St. Petersburg.”

Delia was taken aback. Reference to his grandmother seemed unexpectedly irrelevant.

“She also visited St. Petersburg?”

“Oh, more than visit, Delia, grandmama came here to marry as a young woman and lived in Russia for the rest of her life. Which, sorry to say, was not long.”

His voice choked on the last word. Perhaps she had died in a terrible accident in this city, perhaps starved to death during the siege, or arrested in the middle of the night by Stalin’s police and exiled to a Siberian gulag. Why even mention “grandmama,” a term Delia thought quaint? Talk of one’s grandmother could lead to undesirable ruminations about time and mortality.

“Well, that certainly explains much about you, Frank.”

He looked at her with a kind of longing she did not care to see. His eyes could indeed penetrate, if she let down her defences. A clutter of raucous boys and girls hustled past them as Frank led Delia away from the embankment. Housing was scarce in St. Petersburg, families shared flats. Where was privacy to be found, where did the young make love? One of them hurled a bottle into the river.

“It is crowded here. I want to go someplace quiet, Delia where we can talk.”

She was flattered by the idea of his wanting her, but, try as she might under the multifarious sky to desire sex with an old man who reminisced about his grandmama, Delia could not. He led, she followed, pulled along Millionaya Street as Frank held her hand. Delia assumed he was leading her to another restaurant. She thought about the bus tour. The guide always counted passengers before departing any site.

“Frank, the bus.”

“Not to worry, I spoke to the guide earlier and said we’d return to the ship by taxi. Let’s go this way. Everyone wants to be on the Prospekt or near the river.”

Well, talk about presumption! But she had no worry about being alone with a virtual stranger under the white nights of St. Petersburg, jostled by happy people, not even when they turned a corner, walked a couple of blocks past historic yellow buildings, then passed between a spiky iron fence to enter a dark, heavily treed park of neglected garden beds, statuary, and wide, surprisingly deserted pathways. With any other man whom she had met on a Russian cruise, Delia would have perhaps felt some trepidation under the circumstances, but Frank inspired confidence rather than anxiety. He even carried her shawl woven from Russian linen and patterned with Russian roses. She could hear an echo of street traffic and the hubbub by the river banks.

“I spoke of my grandmama, Delia.”

“So you did.”

What was the man on about? They should be talking about firebirds, czars, dazzling eggs and palaces, the Russian character, Dostoevski and Rimsky-Korsakov whose grave sites she had visited.

“I knew from our first meeting that you were a compassionate, understanding woman.”

Oh dear, was he going to beg for sexual favours?

“Thank you, Frank, that is very kind of you to say so.”

“No, I don’t simply wish to compliment, Delia, but I think you have a truly comprehensive soul.”

As Delia hadn’t thought about her soul for years, she remained silent because she didn’t know what Frank meant. Being in Russia may have inclined his thoughts towards matters holy and mystical, twentieth-century history notwithstanding. Which was a pity because, although she enjoyed his company, Delia didn’t much care for religious people who constructed all manner of beliefs upon questionable premises. Anyway, how on earth could he know about her “soul” on so short an acquaintance?

“Let’s sit.”

She followed him to a bench in front of a statue. The inscription on the plaque was entirely in Cyrillic. Frank held her hand.

“Sometimes the burden of history, Delia, is too much to bear.”

Delia had no answer to that because history didn’t weigh heavily on her Canadian shoulders. But if Frank’s grandmama had lived in St. Petersburg during the war, Delia could understand why he felt that way.

“It’s getting late, Frank.”

“All my life I have tried to keep silent about what I know, but now and then, when I meet a compassionate soul, I feel the need….”

The pressure of his hand on hers was not sexual. Delia knew the difference. He wished to unburden himself of private matters, it seemed, and she was his chosen auditor. Oh well, a good story in a St. Petersburg park during the white nights would itself become a lovely memory after she returned home.

“Please don’t think me mad…”

A dead giveaway: the usual, apologetic preliminary spoken by the mad. Delia shifted on the bench, freeing her hand and looking down the direction from which they had come.

“My grandmama…you see…Delia…this is so hard…but please….you’ll think I’m crazy.”

“For heaven’s sake, Frank, if you have something to say, say it. I won’t think you’re crazy at all.”

“Tomorrow we are going to Tsarkoe Selo, Pushkin as it’s now called, where the Romanov’s lived.”

“Yes, I am so looking forward to it, aren’t you?”

“Delia, you cannot begin to understand how I feel about that place.”

“I guess not, Frank, if you don’t tell me. The amber room in the Catherine palace, they say, is magnificent, even if it’s not the original. Didn’t the Germans cart the amber away with them? Obviously, you’ve been there before.”

“Oh yes, many times, some of my happiest memories were spent playing in the parks around Alexander palace, the family’s favourite home.”

She found this odd, for he spoke as if he had lived there as a child playing with his hoop and ball.

“My home…you see…Delia…”

Searching for the spark of madness, she looked into his blue eyes.

“My family….my grandmama…”

He did not look mad, if madness she could recognize in the first place.

“I am the grandson of…”

Relieved to see a young man and woman down the pathway, Delia made a move to stand but Frank grasped her hand. He wasn’t forcing her, the touch appealed, not demanded.

“I know it’s difficult to believe…”

She wanted to say nonsense, there were no survivors, pretenders were preposterous, history was filled with unhappy people pouring themselves into someone else’s life. Frank had not seemed to be of that ilk and, suddenly feeling a chill, she asked for her shawl.

“My father survived….such a long, involved story.”

The couple was approaching. Delia heard their laughing Russian voices and she was sorry she did not know how to say “help me” in Russian or “could you direct me to the nearest metro station?”

“Alexei….was…my father…he survived the execution…a long, complicated story, almost incredible…”

Oh, dear. Weren’t these kinds of stories always convoluted, implausible, dependent upon a kindly soul, sympathetic soldier, incompetent commander, conspiracy theories or otherwise miraculous intercession? As Frank looked at her impassive face, she saw not madness but utter trust in his eyes. How could she at this point desert him?

“I have told so few people…I did not want to spend my life trying to explain…”

He meant no harm. He was opening his soul. The Russians giggled and sauntered by, ignoring them as if they were two elderly people sitting quietly in the park while life in all its youthful exuberance conducted itself on the banks of the Neva. Delia wondered if they were searching for a private place to make love. Sometime soon they would have sex and she would not.

If Frank had moved in that direction, she would have followed his lead and perhaps have pretended more than participated. Even though a chill had cooled her bones and desire stiffened, she would have been as compliant as an effigy recumbent on her tomb. Delia wrapped the shawl around her shoulders like an old Russian woman glimpsing fragments of the imperial night among branches in that St. Petersburg park, listening to Frank relate a long, complicated story of slaughter and survival.

**

About the author:

Kenneth Radu was born in Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Quebec. He is the author of twelve books, including fiction, poetry and one memoir. A collection of his short stories, The Cost of Living, was nominated for Canada’s highest literary prize, the Governor General’s Award. He has twice won the Quebec Writers Federation prize for best English-language fiction. His most recent novel is The Purest of Human Pleasures (Penguin Canada).

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