It felt like Vanessa had walked miles, but she still could not find the man’s apartment. She was late and lost so as she crossed the Eastern Parkway she texted him saying, I’m close.
K hurry, he texted back. And then immediately after, as though he had already been drafting it:
Can you pick up olives? Otherwise it’s caper martinis.
Vanessa exhaled down her coat to warm her neck. She was afraid she passed the last bodega, and no supermarkets were open past ten.
Out of bodega territory, Vanessa texted back. Capers are fine I guess.
She guessed? Sure, capers were fine. She patted at her hair, which she had recently dyed a light green after bleaching it a snow white. She took her phone out and switched on the front-face camera to see what she looked like. The tip of her nose was red and maybe she had colored in her eyebrows too dark, but ringlets of curls were still flowing from the carefully constructed updo on top of her head. She had created each curl herself, by twisting a chunk of her wavy hair around a finger, which she’d dipped in gel, and counting to twenty. She had just learned how to do this today—kind of dramatic, but she liked it.
It turned out she had memorized his address wrong, solving the problem by going back in their texts to double check. The building number was 674, not 746.
I’m five minutes away, she texted him, when really it was more like ten.
Sheesh. K, he texted. Was trying to time dinner!
She upped her pace, the heel of her leather boots clicking at the sidewalk. She could not tell if she was annoyed or horny at his impatience.
Warm air hit her when he opened the door to his apartment, revealing himself in person for the first time.
“You exist,” he said, his eyes wide and hungry. She could smell meat being broiled, and a sweet orange incense.
“Hi,” Vanessa said, and it was only now that she began to wonder who he was.
“Let me take your jacket.” Vlad had a soft, deliberate voice. He was tall, built, and bald, like his photos had advertised.
“Sure.” Vanessa shouldered off her floor-length pea coat and gave it to him. Vlad touched the coat’s right arm, feeling the material.
“It’s nice,” he said, in a way that made Vanessa think that she should feel honored by this compliment.
“It’s my dad’s,” Vanessa said.
“That’s stylish,” Vlad said, hanging it for her. Her eyes were being drawn to his mouth, which was small and gummy and corporeal. His teeth made their own inner circle inside of his lips when he smiled. It reminded her of Gumby’s mouth, but she wasn’t sure if it was word association, because she could see a lot of gum, or what. Aside from his mouth she found him sexy. He led her into his kitchen by gently clamping two of his fingers over two of her fingertips, like he was taking her pulse and walking away with it.
“I forgot the olives,” he repeated. He stared at her like he wasn’t expecting her to forgive him.
“It’s really okay,” Vanessa said, picking up a cigarette from the pack on the windowsill and lighting it with a match. The window was open. His kitchen was spacious with lots of cabinetry.
“You sure,” he said, more a sentence than a question. “Like I have olive juice, so they’ll be dirty. But no olives.”
“Oh, good,” Vanessa said, exhaling smoke out the window. “As long as they’re dirty.” She spotted the spire of the Empire State Building in the distance, flickering blue.
“You’re so far out here, and you still have a view.” She was trying to act very detached, which was easy since her defense mechanisms were doing most of the work. She imagined what she looked like, sitting here with her leg up on this man’s windowsill, in a tight cream turtleneck one size too small. Desperate or hot? She never did this kind of stuff.
Vlad was at the oven checking on the food—filet mignon, he told her, was what he was making. She smelled saffron. He stared at her like he wanted to do or say something but then returned to prodding the meat.
“Yeah, well,” he said finally, with the belabored voice of an old man. “My friends make fun of me for living in Hasid town, but look how big this apartment is.”
For a one bedroom it really was huge. Well-decorated, too—a Persian rug and a giant plant, taller than Vlad, loomed in the living room.
He started to make the martinis, which Vanessa had requested in the app’s chatbox a few hours before. She watched him measure two shots of Grey Goose, then one and a half shots of Vermouth, into two glass cups.
“I meant gin,” Vanessa said, putting out the cigarette on an ashtray. She noticed how much liquor was in each glass and already felt lightheaded with the tobacco in her blood. “So Russian of you.”
Vlad smiled at her with his eyes, not with his small circular lips, and pulled out a baguette. He grasped it like it was moving torque, or a living snake. Then he dropped it on a wooden cutting board, where there was already a wheel of white smelly cheese, and told her to help herself.
“Nostrovia,” he said as he handed her the martini. It had little capers floating near the bottom, like tadpoles swimming in a shallow lake.
Vanessa clinked her glass against his. “Does nostrovia mean ‘I know where this is going?’” she said, jokingly.
“No,” Vlad said, taking a long slow slug of his martini. “It means, ‘let’s get drunk.’”
When dinner was ready Vlad asked Vanessa not to put her shirt back on. It had come off soon after they began kissing against the pantry door, halfway through the drinks. Both Vanessa’s turtleneck and her bra had ended up in a pile during the proceedings.
“Seriously?” Vanessa said, make-up totally ruined now, a swirling hickey already forming under her collarbone, the buzz in her head a pillowy buffer between her brain and her body.
She took a few steps away from the pantry and scratched at her head, near the crux of the updo.
“Stay like that?” Please?” Vlad asked again, between deep breaths. “If you’re cold I’ll shut the window.”
In case Vlad had an extraordinary penis—so far she had only felt it through his slacks and did not have a read—Vanessa decided to indulge him. After all, she was here to get laid.
“Fine, perv,” Vanessa said, sitting cautiously at the table without her shirt on, her palm-sized tits just out like that, someone’s fantasy.
“My fantasy,” Vlad said, as if he were reading her mind. He sat down across from her at the little table.
“Your kink is a girl eating steak, while you stare at her boobs?” Vanessa said. Vlad reached over, his face inches from hers, and pulled her head back by grabbing some fallen hair at the nape of her neck. He twisted it towards the window. She stayed in this strained position for a few seconds, at his discretion, and she got turned on knowing he was studying her compromised profile, at her long neck curving backwards like a dying goose. “Yes,” he said softly, then let go to pick up his knife. Vanessa rolled her head around her neck until it was back on it normally, set her napkin in her lap, and gently, cut into her steak. Blood juice flowed in a parting stream to the edges of the porcelain plate, right at the level where her nipples were.
“Is it good?” Vlad asked her, preemptively, which annoyed her. His eyes were doing small loops from her chest to her mouth.
“I mean, I’ll tell you in a second,” she said. She sounded angry but a blush spread across her neck. She popped a piece of steak into her hungry mouth and chewed. Then she ate a fingerling potato. There, she knew it. The saffron.
She slept with him after dinner, obviously. The penis was not extraordinary—in fact, it was what her friends referred to as bad dick, dick that never really got hard, even after it rose with blood to its most functional form. But the bad dick didn’t seem to be getting in his way. Vlad kept sticking it in, cumming, pulling it out, reviving the boner, going again. He was rough with his hands. He whispered things in Vanessa’s ears she’d never heard before, creative things that made her feel useless and worthless and hot for it.
Yes, it was technically bad dick, but it wasn’t all bad. Vanessa usually reserved orgasms for when she was alone, in her room with the door locked, just her joystick and porn from the internet. But on round two, something alchemized while he was squeezing her tits and slapping her stomach and she didn’t even see it coming until it was a freight train two inches from her face and then—pop. Pleasure, heightened by the vodka. To Vanessa this felt like the kind of sex one would expect to have with an alien—too weird and sick and consummate for earth.
They cleaned up and lay in bed for a while, him spooning her a little, both of them spent. Vlad’s eyes were closed but Vanessa was studying the tableau of his bedroom window, the view outside it, like it was a painting in the Met. What might have been buildings and sky during the daytime just looked like shadows now, but she could still see the spire from the Empire State, only it was in the left corner of the window frame, not below front and center like it had been in the kitchen. The gauzy translucent curtains surrounding it were skewed to one side. She liked the curtains; they looked well-made. She wondered where they were from.
“Let’s take a bath.” Vlad stood up suddenly, awake and energized. His legs were long, and with his penis at her eye level for the first time Vanessa noticed that it was not circumcised.
“What?” Vanessa said, not sure if she’d heard him correctly. She wanted to check her phone for the time—she guessed it was probably around midnight. She should call an Uber soon. It was still possible for her to get a full night of sleep before work in the morning.
“A bath,” Vlad’s low voice echoed from the bathroom. She heard the tub filling up, the scraping together of Epsom salt, a hiss of a lighter providing a flame. “I’m drawing a bath.”
Vanessa sat up to deconstruct her ruined updo, taking the bobby pins out of her hair. She shook out her curls so they fell down her shoulders, and imagining they were natural, tucked her hair behind her ears.
Just like the rest of the apartment, the bathtub was spacious, wide enough to hold both their bodies. Vlad slipped in first, then Vanessa slipped in second, the top half of her body leaning against the back end of the tub, facing him from the other side, her legs tucked between his legs, which he had spread open so that hers could fit between them. Only from here did Vanessa notice the six or seven tea candles adorning the toilet. Vanessa couldn’t remember the last time she had taken a bath.
“Let it be known you’re really beautiful,” Vlad said from the other end of the bathtub. His voice did have an echo in there, still soft but with a depth to it, like it had been harmonized on a sound machine.
“Thanks,” Vanessa said, sheepishly, rubbing some rose scrub she’d found on the lip of the tub gently into her kneecap. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had called her beautiful. Not that she was blown away by the gesture, or even found it particularly romantic.
“I mean it,” he said. “I was struck by you the second I saw your photo.”
“Okay,” Vanessa said. She rarely found men beautiful, and when she did she didn’t want to sleep with them, just look.
Vlad talked a little about his childhood in Arkhangelsk on the banks of the Dvina, the mouth of the White Sea. How his pee would freeze in his baby diaper. How he came to the states when he was ten, in the early nineties, at the same time as all the other Russian Jews, and started fifth grade in Seattle. He’d only been in New York a year.
“Jewish? But you’re not circumcised,” Vanessa pointed out, like a bad detective.
“My dad says it was safer to not know a rabbi,” Vlad said. Then he asked Vanessa if she had ever been to Saint Petersburg.
“No. I’ve not been to Russia at all.”
“This may sound forward,” Vlad said, reaching up with his arm and folding his wingspan in half to scratch the back of his neck, drops of water and tiny bubbles sprinkling onto his shoulders, “But, there is this sculpture of the goddess Isis, at the Museum of Fine Art there. It’s my mom’s favorite. You look like it.”
Vanessa blushed and, an automatic response, lowered herself into the water so that her head, and hair, were submerged. Oh, God, she thought, as she held her breath.
Then she came back up for air and Vlad said, “No I’m serious. The sculpture is only of her head, but the eyes, the nose, the mouth. It’s you. I didn’t make the connection until just now.”
Vanessa brought her hands up to her face and squished her mouth together. She slapped her cheeks, and combed her eyebrows with her wet fingers. She groaned. “Sorry,” she said, through the spaces between her fingers. “Trying to figure out how to deflect that corny flirtation.”
“I was being serious,” Vlad said, almost impatiently. “I’m not flirting. I’m just stating.”
“State something about Saint Petersburg then,” she begged.
And so as the tea candles burned, Vlad talked about Saint Petersburg. About two parallel streets and the flowers that grew on them, and a boy named Igor he befriended on a playground, who gifted him a tiny knife and then disappeared. Did she want to see the knife? Vanessa was only half listening. A calmness was seeping into her as she began to think about her work week, what she would wear tomorrow, the new films playing at the Angelika, and the party she was planning for Elizabeth, her first girlfriend to turn thirty. They had reserved the back room at a Szechuan restaurant, and an oversized piñata she had ordered online would arrive at her apartment tomorrow. What would she write on the party invitations? Something funny. She was looking forward to her week, rare for her on a Sunday, and in this calmness during which her life felt so full a radical thought came to Vanessa that maybe this was all she needed from a man—for one to view her as if she were a statue, a beautiful un-sentient composition, one that did not need to take but a breath for everyone to go, “oooh.”
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