by John Dolan
It all began in Narva, an overwhelmingly Russian city in eastern Estonia. Mark Ames and I had gone there to see how the Russian population felt about various barriers to Estonian citizenship they faced. But that story fizzled out for the simple reason that none of the Russians in Narva gave a damn about Estonian citizenship. Their attitude seemed to be that being excluded from the Estonian polity was roughly like being blacklisted by the San Leandro Lions Club: a snub which was more than bearable, and kind of a relief. All the Russians in Narva cared about was clubbing and sex. I went to the clubs with Mark, though it was a painful experience...Mark is tall and young and Sephardic; I look sort of like Jesse Helms. Before they put his makeup on. The second we went into a club, the tallest most beautiful girls would find some excuse to sidle up to Mark, often giving me a good shove for position like the born rebounders they were. I was left with the weirdos, like the woman who insisted she wanted to practice her English with me, and took me back to a booth to work on those irregular verbs. It was all going fairly well--I remember drunkenly stroking her hand, massaging he shoulders, telling her that her nonexistent English was wonderful, fluent, Faulkneresque...until a fish-faced man slipped in beside her and looked over at me with none of that welcoming spirit the lonely foreigner so hopes to find. There was a rather uncomfortable silence, with the newcomer glaring at me silently; then the woman explained: "Eto moy muzh. On Estonskii." In a way, the two of them--the stiff, miserable Estonian and his sinuous, fickle wife-- already explained a great deal about Russian-Estonian relations.
The cuckold stopped glaring at me long enough to start hissing at his wife.
After three days of wandering around Narva all day in the vain hope of finding some ethnic rioting or at least some decent hatemongering grafitti, and three nights of hitting the clubs, trying to look cool while the green lasers bounced off my bald scalp, I was more than ready to give up. We discussed the possibility of bribing an Estonian cop to beat up a Russian while we took pictures, but decided we'd probably have to coach him: "No, don't apologize after you hit him! Hit him again, you idiot!"
On our last day in Narva we went to check out the local Hungarian restaurant, more out of morbid curiosity than hunger. Every other restaurant in Narva was so bad that we had to see if this one lived down to the local standard in grease-based cooking.
The girls by the bar looked at us when we walked in. We settled down at our table, aware of the two girls looking at us. They seemed sleepy, but interested. (We found out later they looked sleepy because they'd been dead drunk for two days.)
They were guzzling red wine. One was wearing a shiny lycra shirt. She was the livelier one: she would stand up every few seconds and dance loosely, by herself, to the very, very bad European pop the restaurant featured. Aqua, bands like that...
It was getting me down, the whole death-of-Europe thing. What the hell is wrong with these Europeans? A half billion of them and, except for the Russians and the Serbs, not a flicker of their old, mad intensity. From the Eastern Front to Aqua in a half-century--Jesus, what a fall!
They were getting really wild over there by the bar. The lycra-shirted girl was shaking it for the benefit of anybody watching. Her friend, a haggard, lank-haired woman with the magnificent, deep-sunken eyes Russian women often have, stared at us with a dreamy look. All we wanted was some decent food. Not that that was likely either.
As we tried to make sense of the menus, another customer came in, a creepy little man in a bum's plaid cap and big overcoat. He looked like the dishwasher, but when the hat and cap came off he turned out to be wearing a business suit. He sat down at a table by himself, turned on a reading lamp and went to work on a pile of papers: a caricature of the New Russian workaholic. He was depressing. We hated him on sight, but only vaguely.
We ordered, and all was quiet for a while. Then, out of nowhere, there was a big thump. I looked up from my plate of greasy "Pork on Gypsy" to see that the haggard woman with the beautiful eyes had fallen, knocking the table over with her. She was sitting on the floor, looking puzzled. There were glasses and cutlery all around her. Her friend, the girl in the lycra shirt, danced on, laughing. I was amazed. People don't act like that in California. They'd sooner die than let anybody see them in a vulnerable position.
Then the yelling started. Real yelling, loud, angry yelling. We looked up to find that it was the little businessman, yelling at the dancing girl. He had a huge voice, as little guys often do. The little man was telling the lycra girl that she was behaving abominably, and that--worst of all--she was acting like people did back in the old days, in the Soviet Union.
That was too much. That was a bridge too far, damn it. It was as if the little businessman was taunting me. He was demanding the extinction of hedonistic Russian girls. First the letdown of discovering that our expected interethnic conflict didn't exist; then Aqua; and now this concerted effort to wipe out the most precious endangered species of all: the Dyevushka.
I could not let this pass. But unfortunately my chivalrous instincts are balanced by a cowardice which passes all belief. I am scared all the time, scared of everyone always. Yet I knew I'd have to act. The physiology of cowardice and chivalry is odd: when you realize you're going to have to act, as I realized when the little man spoke, my knees buckled and my stomach, full of "Pork on Gypsy," began to heave like the North Sea.
The argument was now going nicely. The little man was still yelling, but the lycra girl was talking back. Not very coherently, it's true; but she was responding.
I whispered to Mark that I was going to have to do something. I asked him how to say "Excuse me, but I simply wanted to say that I enjoyed your dancing very much" in proper Russian. At last, already sick with fear, went over to the table by the bar and said those words, in stiff accented Russian.
They were delighted. The lycra girl embraced me, even. And she made me sit down at their table.
That's when I began to see why Mark had looked so dubious. The haggard woman, who'd moved very close to me, looked dully into my face and said slowly, "Dzhonnnnnn...." I nodded encouragingly. That's my name, don't wear it out! Then the lycra girl, who was considerably more conscious than her friend, insisted that Mark come over and join us. I was all for that too. I was feeling the way Westmoreland must've felt after Tet: Uh, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all... I could see now that the lycra girl wasn't really very attractive. Her skin was gray and shiny, sweaty...and her friend, the haggard one, seemed older and more thrashed than I'd realized. Very thrashed, in fact. The very incarnation of thrashedness, the Goddess of Thrashed.
Mark and the lycra girl danced, leaving me alone with the haggard one. She leaned toward me again, and repeated, "Dzhonnnn..." She may not have been clear on a lot of things but by god she knew my name.
Then I realized what I would have to do: take the Viagra. As some of my male readers may know (don't lie, you bastards! You know you know!), it's possible to buy a single 50mg Viagra tablet without prescription at almost any kiosk in Moscow. I'd bought two in preparation for our Narva road trip. Not--ahem!--that I, uh, you know, have any, uh, "problem" in, er, that regard...but I'm old and sickly and all my life I've been terrified of other people. The only way I could fuck a stranger would be with artificial help--and thanks to the prescriptive anarchy of Moscow, I wouldn't have to "explain" why I wanted the viagra to any smirking doctor! It did make me more confident, too, in our clubtours of Narva. Just knowing that that little tablet was tucked safely away in my pants pocket made it possible for me to dance and chat and do all that other terrifying stuff people do who feel confident of their sexual existence.
I fled the table and went to the WC, locked the door and popped open the single diamond-shaped blue pill. If I'd understood the instructions on the Russian packet correctly, the pill should take 30 minutes to an hour to kick in. So all I had to do was go back to the table for a half hour.
Mark and the lycra girl were doing well enough. But the haggard woman, my "date," was comatose again. After about five minutes of silence she stumbled away, knocking over a chair or two.
And that's when the whole plan collapsed: because the lycra girl, seeing that I had let her friend walk away with no attempt to stop her, looked at me and called me a "muschina lyogkhii." Literally that means "a light man" but if you saw a picture of me, you'd know she wasn't referring to my weight. I ran out of the dining room, then remembered that I had the cash, and Mark would need it to pay the bill. I can't even do a decent exit! I pulled Mark into the podezd and gave him the cash, told him I was leaving. He said, "Come on, you can't take that seriously!" All I could say was, "Yes, but I agree with her! I never said I was a man! I'm leaving!"
And I did. Wandered around Narva for a while, waiting expectantly for the sudden SPROING! which would signal that the Viagra was taking effect. I imagined that it would be a sudden, automatic erection. I was glad I was wearing a trenchcoat--no unsightly bulges to show.
But it didn't happen. I thought at first I might be one of the unlucky few for whom the miracle drug doesn't work; then I realized that we'd eaten all that disgusting, heavy "Pork on Gypsy" just before I took the pill. This happened to me with a hit of ecstasy once: I took it after a big meal and didn't get any effect for six hours.Had a miserable, sober time at this party; then suddenly at three am, alone in bed: POW!
Bad timing, story of my life. And that's how it happened this time. The Viagra worked. Oh yes, oh my brothers and only friends; it works! It works horribly, miserably well. Thanks to the "Pork on Gypsy," it took five hours to kick in; but then...oh boy. Not since I was a sick little adolescent, dreaming of inflicting tortures even Sade couldn't've invented, masturbating ten, fifteen, twenty times a night--not since those long-gone days have I