by Summer Block
His blood was dark, warm and thick. It had its own time, it ran down the walls of the sink quite differently from water. The sink was thick, cool porcelain; it gleamed more whitely now against the rivulets of blood that ran densely down its smooth sides. The red against white was as impersonal and perfect as an abstract painting, all except near the metal drain, where three grey teeth, split and misshapen, disturbed the balanced beauty of the scene.
It was less than an hour after midnight on New Year’s Eve. His teeth lay in Galia’s sink. He knew you weren’t supposed to drink Russian tap water, so he cautiously rinsed his mouth and spat everything out again without swallowing, blood and water and saliva and something that might have been bile, some deep, inward sign of his body's horror. On the back of the bathroom door, Galia had tacked up an index card with eighteen phrases to memorize written carefully in English. The first phrase was “I will be your tour guide.” Her handwriting was elegant and foreign-looking.
When he had arrived at the airport five days before, he had been surprised to find Galia waiting at the gate, standing very straight in narrow silver heels, and his name on a hand-lettered sign she held slightly too high, in front of her mouth. Beside all the bored, loose-limbed chauffeurs, she seemed sweetly eager. He had assumed she would speak English, since Timothy had said she was studying hospitality, but if she knew any English words, she kept them to herself. Instead, she smiled and pointed things out to him in the taxi on the way back to her apartment. When she became excited by an old church or a statue, she would rest her hand briefly on his arm, a gesture he could sense dimly through the layers of his sweaters and coats.
He was a guest of Timothy's, in a manner of speaking; it was Timothy who suggested he come here on vacation and Timothy who promised he could stay for free in Galia's apartment in exchange for helping her practice English for her hospitality exams. He wasn't sure how Timothy was connected to Galia and had no way to ask. Timothy had a cool, even way of speaking about her and hadn't been back to Russia for years.
In the mornings, Galia would walk out for bread, eggs, and fresh water, arm in arm with her pretty blonde neighbor, their voices rising and falling over the porch railings and up from the street. After dinner she would pour over her exam books, her downturned face a comic picture of concentration. Though she never spoke to him in English, she must have been able to read it: she brought him stacks of English tourism pamphlets. Once he found on his bed a British guidebook with several items neatly circled in pink ink.
Galia was always walking around the house in silk robes, or toweling her hair in the hallway, laughing with her neighbor or talking back to the television. She delighted in game shows and shouted clues to the contestants. He couldn't understand her speaking, but after five days he felt he knew the language of her eyebrows, hands, and hips. It seemed all the women she knew were beautiful. Galia's apartment was where they exhaled, came offstage, and took off their shoes. Galia's brother was sometimes there with his friend Alexei and he paid no notice to any of them, but talked importantly into a cell phone or pushed his food around his plate.
On New Year's Eve, a group of Galia's friends arrived in the apartment and passed around bottles. They were going to the clubs and he was invited, too, as their guest. Galia sent the other girls ahead while she stayed to change. He stayed with her and had tea in the kitchen, listening to the tiny backstage sounds of opening tins and vials. When she came out of the bathroom, she looked like a celebrity or a prostitute, wearing a short, thin sheath of silver and tall, shiny heels. She seemed very proud. She was smiling in anticipation of something.
"Are you ready to go to the nightclub?" she asked him in very clear English.
He stood up and put his arms around her quickly and tried to draw her in, his face buried in her stiff hair. Dimly, he felt her muscles rear up and twitch through his sweaters. When he loosened to let her pull back, she had a terrible look on her face, a steady, even look of hopelessness.
They were still standing in the kitchen. Simply and without theatricality, Galia picked up a cast-iron pan from the stove and slammed it twice into his mouth. It made an impossible sound.
After he fell down crying, Galia shed her apartment as quickly as a sweater. She took her coat and her little silver purse and walked out as though she never intended to come back again. As though she was giving this apartment to him and had no need of it anymore.
It was still New Year’s Eve, and it seemed he would have to go find a hotel. He changed his clothes, balled up the bloody ones, and threw them in the kitchen trashcan. He didn’t have a change of pants, but his were clean enough except for a few drops no one would notice at night. He put on his sweater, coat, and overcoat, then his gloves, scarf, ear muffs, and hat, and left the apartment with his duffel bag, feeling huge and overburdened as he squeezed past the piled house slippers in the narrow front hallway. His eyes were hollow and wet from pain; his mouth was small, stained and twisted. It was certain Galia's brother could find him anywhere in the city, but he wasn’t thinking of her brother. The cat watched him go with a triumphant look. He knew he had done some wrong thing, and he accepted some punishment, but now it seemed he really might die. Wasn't that too much? It was impossible.
Outside the street runs smooth and straight from the subway passage out into the outer darkness. Here the sidewalks are even, white, and new. Along the avenue stand tall glass-fronted boutiques, casinos, and nightclubs, each several stories high and reaching, each spilling light from their wide windows. The cold outside stops the light completely. Winter is like a soundproof wall. It is cold, and very quiet, and the smeared pink casinos are blinking impassively into the darkness, and the only beings there to see them are the wild dogs, whose casual pack lopes into the middle of the street and roils there, sniffing and pacing, until the sudden bright headlights of a Hummer send them loping calmly off again and back into winter.