'She's from Odessa,' Fyodor began. He shot his drink down his throat and sighed before putting the empty glass down on the table. 'My nephew's second cousin, actually. And his girlfriend, so to say. More of an arranged marriage match. But the two of them, from what I know, got along very well and liked each other. Or at least, the girl liked my nephew. That's why I'd say yes, she was his girlfriend.'
'And they split up?' Damia asked.
Fyodor looked at her. 'My nephew is dead,' he said matter-of-factly.
Damia's eyes widened. 'Oh. I'm sorry.'
He shrugged. 'Don't be,' he said and took a deep breath. 'I don't want to sound like an arsehole saying that I don't care that my nephew died, but …' Fyodor looked over to his empty glass an twirled it in his hand against the table. 'All right, my nephew wasn't exactly a peaceful young man and the story is that he had been harassing some bum that hung around the school and that this bum actually killed him. I don't know. The case is still open and supposedly no one caught and arrested this bum. So I don't know. Another reason why if I ever have a child, I would never send them to that school.' He scratched his head. 'So, the girl from Odessa …' He looked at Damia. 'She and my nephew were friends all their lives. She got along well with my niece, too. She hates me, just like Konstantin hated me. Do you know the story «The Scarlet Flower» by Sergey Aksakov? She used to say that I was like the ugly monster from that story. Konstantin and his sister always thought that was a hilarious thing to say.'
'How young were they?'
'Kids,' he answered. 'At least with the monster references. Then they made that animated film some ten or fifteen years ago. I certainly don't look that bad, but I was already the ugly monster to her.' Fyodor shrugged. 'She was annoying. She didn't play practical jokes like Konstantin did, but she threw out insults like he did. She had a vicious streak if she didn't like you and she certainly didn't like me.' He paused. 'She liked to say in a screamy voice that I shouldn't come too close to her because I might sit on her. That was when she was a teenager.'
'Teenage girls are horrible,' Damia said.
Fyodor smiled. 'Were you?'
'Ehm …' She rubbed her neck. 'When I was fifteen and if you asked me to dance, I probably would have said no.'
'Would you have just said «No» or would you have said, «No, you greasy blob don't touch me I don't want your blubber belly jiggling against me»?'
Damia picked up her drink. 'I wouldn't have been unnecessarily mean. What's the point?' She took a sip and then looked at her drink and finished it.
'The point is to be unnecessarily mean and then to laugh because what you did was so funny.'
'Did she really say something like that to you, or were you just sort of picturing what she might have said under the circumstances?'
'I'm not sure I understand.'
'I mean the theoretical saying no to a dance with the jiggling belly comment.'
'Oh, that,' he said and took a deep breath. 'Yeah, she's said that. I mean if I sat next to her or walked too close to her. Remember, this is Crimea. Beaches, the Black Sea. Let's just say she and Konstantin shamed me to the point that I felt I couldn't take my shirt off at the beach. And I know, a lot of people there would be shirtless looking a lot worse than me, but they didn't have those brats harassing them. And I won't even bother to start telling you about the comments about my blushing and my breath smelling like herring.'
'I never asked Valeria to dance, if that's what you're wondering,' Fyodor said. 'Oh, that's her name. Valeria. In case I hadn't mentioned. She's not attractive to me at all. Even if she weren't my nephew's age, I wouldn't want to touch her, either. Too pale, too short, hair so blond that it almost looks white like an old hag, too bony like a pseudo-skeleton.' He looked at Damia. 'All right, you're very thin to me, but you're not her, you're not like her and you've got some life in your complexion and soul instead of being just cold and pissy.' He looked at the full serving of brandy on the table in front of Damia – the second one he had ordered for her that she didn't start to drink yet. 'Do you mind if I have it?' he asked and pointed to the glass.
'Yeah. It's fine.'
Fyodor picked up the glass, brought it to his mouth and shot the entire thing down his throat.
Damia watched him as he plopped the glass back onto the table. 'Maybe we shouldn't talk about this Valeria,' she said.
'We shouldn't. She gives me indigestion.'
'Yeah. I can see that.'
'Who's the Budapest boy?' he suddenly asked.
'The boy you went to Budapest with.'
Damia slouched a little. 'Right. Him.'
Fyodor snickered. 'Do you need another drink?'
'Do you need another drink to talk about him and not feel like you'll explode?'
Damia rubbed her neck. 'I – I don't know.'
Fyodor brought his hand to hers and gently slid it off of her neck. 'You don't need to keep doing that,' he said. 'It's not going to break.'
She slipped her hand out of his grasp. 'If you kept rubbing your nose, I wouldn't tell you that you don't have to do it because it wasn't going to fall off.'
Fyodor laughed. 'Do I rub my nose?'
'No. The Budapest boy did.'
He laughed again. 'He did? I don't even do that.'
'You aren't exactly abnormal, you know. This guy was … weird. But you're completely normal. Don't compare yourself to him.'
He grinned. 'Do you mean to say that I'm better than the Budapest boy?'
Damia snickered. 'You've definitely got nicer teeth.'
'Mine are nicer than his?' he asked. 'Are you telling me that a young guy – I assume he's young – has worse teeth than an old man like me who's killing his teeth with sugar, cigarettes and tea?'
Damia sighed. 'You aren't old but yeah. And this Budapest boy as you call him smokes pipes, drinks a lot of sugary black tea and is a macaroon addict.'
'You come across a lot of low-grade men,' Fyodor said. 'You're so beautiful. I'm sorry that we aren't taking better care of ourselves.' He reached into his pocket to take out his box of cigarettes and held it in front of Damia. 'Would you like another?'
'Yeah, sure,' she said and took one out of the box.
Fyodor reached into a different pocket to take out some matches when a pair of keys fell out onto the floor. Damia eyed him curiously, seeing that he didn't notice them fall out of his pocket. She waited another moment, watching as Fyodor lit his own cigarette before she bent down to pick the keys up.
She held them up to him. 'Ehm, maybe I should hold onto these.'
'Hm?' he asked and lit a match. He pointed to the cigarette Damia held between two of her fingers and waved his fingers for her to bring it closer to him.
'You dropped your keys,' she said and leant forward to place the cigarette closer to him.
'Eh, keep them,' he said. 'No, put the cigarette in your mouth so I can light it properly.'
Make up your mind, man, Damia thought and put his keys into her pocket.
She let him light her cigarette for her, seeing how his eyes seemed to sparkle as he did, despite the fact that he was also somewhat leering at her. She was tempted to jokingly blow some smoke in his face, but decided not to since she knew how he was freshly distracted from some deep-rooted personal pain that had already crept into and dominated the conversation. As she smoked the cigarette, Damia watched as Fyodor stared at her and leant back into his seat. He crossed one of his legs over the other, resting his ankle on his knee, where Damia could see one of his perfectly-polished dark brown leather shoes. She looked down at her own feet, checking her distance from Fyodor's as a precautionary measure to not accidentally scuff his shoes.
'Pipes are for a bow tie wearer,' Fyodor said.
He puffed out some smoke. 'Didn't you say your male friend smokes pipes?'
'Ehm … yeah …'
'Was he the one I called an intellectual earlier? Or an aspiring intellectual?'
'Yes. Because he's a wine drinker.'
Fyodor chuckled. 'Of course. I remember now. The complaining little pantywaist.' He took another puff of his cigarette. 'Was he smart?'
'Sort of,' Damia replied and took an inhale of her cigarette.
He nodded. 'Sort of. Hmm …' He twirled his foot on the axis of his ankle a couple times. 'Book smart, but not really smart. An intellectual.' He snickered. 'I hate intellectuals.'
'With all you had to read to become a lawyer, aren't you one, too?'
Fyodor looked at her and smirked. 'Sort of.' He blushed a little. 'Nobody actually reads all of that stuff and for people with our abilities learning at the universities with the masses, it's easy to cheat on the exams. No, but obviously I took it more seriously once I actually got the job at the attorney office and was able to establish my residence here in Moscow. Anything to not go back to Crimea. And of course, I wanted to learn what I could get away with.' He took another inhale from his cigarette.
'So, you're a sneaky man?' Damia asked playfully.
He shrugged. 'When I need to be, and who wouldn't be? You can't tell me that you aren't sneaky yourself.'
'Ahh but you know I can't talk to you about that.' She winked at him.
Fyodor laughed. 'You know the same about what I can and cannot say too, my dear.' He glanced towards the ceiling and snickered. 'Too bad that you have your intellectual Budapest boy. We could have been partners in crime.'
'Do you mean that literally?'
'That depends on what you call a crime.'
'What do your law books say?'
'That I'm not hiring myself to fuck myself over.'
'I fuck over others, not myself,' he continued. 'That's something you'd like as well.'
'To fuck others over?'
'You're not an intellectual and you're an amoral girl.' Fyodor smiled and kept on gazing at the ceiling. 'You live for yourself and you do what you have to for yourself. It's not about morality, it's about survival. You and I …' He paused. 'We're a lot alike.'
'Stop reading my energy.'
Fyodor looked at her. 'I can't help it,' he said. 'No, I'm not prying into you. I wouldn't bother to do that. I'm just sensing what's there, and we're a lot alike.' He twirled his cigarette in his fingers. 'Our energies balance each other out like two halves. And you don't expect anything from me.'
'You're sounding like an intellectual.'
'Am I that dry and boring to you?' He sighed. 'I wouldn't read Franz Kafka on a park bench for fun. I can't be that bad.'
'If I can make you laugh, I'm not that bad.'
She laughed again.
'Are you marrying the Budapest boy?'
'Why would I?'
'Ooooh …' Fyodor brought his cigarette to his lips. 'He's that bad.'
Damia rolled her eyes. 'Why do you care?'
'I don't … care.' He stuck his cigarette in his mouth and started to stare at the ceiling again.
'Then why do you keep asking about him?' she asked with a slight sharpness in her tone.
'To get a sense of what I … can and can't do …'
Damia said nothing.
'I want to ask you to marry me.'
She looked at him. 'What?'
He shrugged a shoulder. 'It's an option if you want to take it.' He continued to stare at the ceiling and started to chew on his cigarette. 'I know I'm not the greatest catch in the world, and you could do much better than me. But I can give you a nice life. I can take care of you. We can have a child or not, it's up to you. Well, we should, I suppose, but we can adopt. I wouldn't blame you for not wanting to become pregnant, especially with a baby that could end up looking like me. We can have regular sex or not. You can have an affair if you'd like. I don't mind and I wouldn't blame you for it.'
'How many people have you said this too?'
Fyodor looked at her, a bit stunned by her reaction. 'Not many,' he replied and nibbled on his cigarette some more. 'I tried it with someone else a couple years ago and got slapped in the face because apparently I insulted her by assuming she'd want to have affairs.'
'Then why are you asking me?'
'Because you're going to say no,' he said. 'I'll never see you again, you'll rob me, so why not try? And I like you, so if you said yes, I'd be very happy.'
Damia didn't know what to say. 'I only met you a few hours ago,' she said flatly, finding the entire situation to be bizarre. 'And I can't marry you.'
'I'm not surprised,' Fyodor said. 'Believe me. And I'm not offended, either.'
'I thought you said much earlier that you don't want to ever get married.'
'Then why are we talking about this now?'
Fyodor took his now-dead cigarette from his mouth and took a deep breath. 'It's complicated,' he said. 'Ehm …' He scratched his head. 'Do you have the time for me to tell you?'
She nodded. 'Sure. Why not? As you said, after tonight I'll never see you again.'
Fyodor smiled weakly. 'A lot of time to put in just to rob a man.'
'I'm not going to rob you.'
'If you've been reading my energy, you must have picked up on that.'
Fyodor said nothing and aggressively rubbed his cigarette into the ash tray on the table. Damia eyed him curiously and dropped her own cigarette into the ash tray as well. She watched as Fyodor looked at her blankly before he took her cigarette and brought it to his lips. He closed his eyes and took a long, deep inhale of it, as if savouring the taste of her mouth having been on that end of it, and then bit it. He took it from his mouth and rubbed it into the ashtray as clouds of light grey smoke continued to burn out from the lit end of the cigarette, twisting themselves around his fingers and hand until it was put out.
I don't know how to take this, Damia thought and stared at his face. I just hate my mother even more … and Sergey …
'So, ehm … why are you so desperate to get married?' she asked.
If not for you, Mother, I'd have died long ago and would have never met him.
Fyodor stared at her. 'Yeah, I'll tell you.' He pushed the ash tray away from him. 'Just not here. We've been here too long.'
If not for you, Sergey, I wouldn't be so infatuated with him.
'Okay. Where do you want to go?'
'My hotel room,' he said and reached into his pockets looking for his keys.
Damia took them out of her pocket and jingled him.
Fyodor looked at her.
'Do you want them?' she asked.
He stared at the keys. 'No. I'll probably lose them.' He got up from his seat and extended his hand to her.
Damia looked at his hand, bewildered by his gesture.
'Well, what are you waiting for?' he asked.
'Right … yeah …' she said and took his hand as she slipped the keys back into her pocket. The moment she got up, Fyodor started to lead her away, holding her hand tightly and firmly in his. He said nothing to her and didn't even look at her as they left the bar, though through his skin touching hers, he sent her a cluster of incomprehensible sensations that tingled her palm, transmitting to her a bitter, jittery anxiety that Damia would have never suspected to be laying underneath the surface of his character.