"The Mayor of Flashback"
from Volume 5: Wild Mercury
by M. M. De Voe
Svetlana Grimskaya. For twenty years he had assumed her name was an alias. Twenty! Can it have been that long? The Russian barfly had whispered her name across his throat, back in the dank St. Petersburg hole where he had found her lurking like a viper, glittery and lethal. He believed it was a lie, a slippery dream invented to separate stupid Americans from their wallets.
Turns out, nope, that’s her actual name. Go figure. And she has to be in her forties now. Or at least thirty-eight.
She asks to “friend” him on Facebook, and a memory like the woozy bitterness of absinthe scrapes across Jim’s hard-won happiness. Svetlana Grimskaya is a buried past life—American Jim lost to Russia, a young, proud MBA student staggering to keep upright in a cage of velvet walls hung with taxidermy. The underground bar could not have been more stereotypical. Tsars would have laughed into their sleeves to see how wide his eyes grew as he followed the clatter of his grad-school friends down the stone steps. Their faces glowed with naiveté born of extreme self-confidence—the arrogance that announced them as perfect victims to all but other Americans.
Without leaving his luxury apartment at the South Street Seaport—even this is a measure of his success: the loft had tripled in value since the school had opened across Peck Slip, the run-down New York City neighborhood redeemed and labeled historic, its citizens newly wealthy—Jim leans back in his ergonomic desk chair until the black leather groans and he travels to January, 1999.
A trio of tarnished, low-hanging chandeliers set to their dimmest glow allowed the yellowed teeth of a stuffed bear to glint in fierce final pretense. Svetlana lounged against a furry elk, calling to mind every vodka ad Young American Jim had ever taped to a dorm room ceiling.
A vibrant licorice scent sailed arrowlike through air dense with other smells; even Svetlana’s tar-thick cloud of cigarette smoke was pierced. He was suffocating, unable to breathe. Was it the surreal situation or this superblonde’s too-direct gaze? His twenty-six years had diminished in comparison to the age of the underground bar, the age of this Russian city’s foundations (replete with echoes of a tour guide reciting numbers of the dead beneath the streets, if those echoes held any truth then this bar was surely surrounded by skeletons), the jaded look in Svetlana’s eye, daring his American voice to mention death or sadness and not sound trite.
A buff Estonian waiter lit the liqueur on fire, inverted the brandy glass on paper, warmed sugar with a spoon. Jim dazed at the liquid green whirlpool in its fragile glass globe. Thought of an alien apocalypse. Verdant flames, dancing on a syrupy sea.
She was laughing at his shock; he was paying. She staggered against him…The images jumble and include sheaves of blonde hair sweeping across his stubbled chin and bare shoulders, and fingers exploring the musty corners of his unwashed body, which embarrassed him now, and certainly all must have happened much later in the night if they’d happened at all. Names were brushed lightly on bare skin: his, hers, mingling with lies in a cocktail of international accents.
Jim tastes the anise of those memories through the layers of his current very-adult life each time he checks Svetlana’s Facebook status, which happens two or three times a day, for weeks. In February, Svetlana posts she is in town for a six-month rotation at her investment firm. He never calls, does not message directly, he only “likes” every Facebook status and discovers she finds the outmoded Foursquare app scintillating. This amuses him the same way it had bemused him when she’d been intrigued by the handful of tech toys he’d brought to Russia. To him they were passé, to her a window. He immediately downloads the ridiculous app and then haunts her check-ins through late winter, early Spring and into summer:
at a Meatpacking District restaurant
at Lincoln Center
in Central Park
at work, always at work.
She is often the Foursquare “mayor” of her office, even though she is still only a junior analyst. He tries not to think of how old she must be, tries not to wonder why she hasn’t truly made it in the world. He is embarrassed by his own wealth, his multi-million-dollar home. His wife and child. His credit card debt and mortgage and his indifference to it all. Seeing her pop up like that on social media, memories naturally follow. Then fantasies.
The dream of Svetlana soon overpowers the reality. Specterlike, he flutters through her virtual day, imbuing each location with assignations, repetitions, conversations, and above all with sex.
It is after Kiki’s bedtime when he sees Svetlana has checked in at the Seaport. She is within walking distance, and the stomach drops out of his games. As if fate has orchestrated reality to harm him, he and his wife are not semi-intertwined on the sofa in the middle of their usual Netflix binge—tonight, of all nights, Rose wanted to finish reading her novel, leaving him at odds. Bored.
Like in Russia: it’s destiny. He spots the check-in and then there’s a few words, a quick peck on the cheek, and an airy, wifely: “Of course. Say hi to your friend for me. I’m fine; I have a book.”
Just like he’s always imagined.
They are having a beer in his local Irish pub and they sit like a dating couple just below the windows of his apartment. Her mouth whispers his name as if it is pronounced with multiple consonants and strange Eastern European vowels. Džym. In her accent, his name is a luxury item. A taste of caviar on the tip of her tongue, salty, fishy, unobtainable, hypersexual.
“Svetlana,” he replies as if to blot out the fantasy, as if her real name attached to a real human will remind him that these particular cobblestone streets belong to old New York, not to czarist Russia. And then he mentions his wife and his daughter. His wife. His wife again. Rose. Kiki. Rose. Rose. He speaks their names again and again, like a fatal cancer he can’t stop describing.
“After the playdate, Kiki stopped to smell the tulips.”
Why is he telling awkward stories of Manhattan in April? It is midsummer. The breeze off the East River is too brief and halfhearted to affect the heavy and hot air. Like in a Russian bathhouse when someone opens the door, then reconsiders. Svetlana’s nose wrinkles but her forehead remains utterly smooth.
“I was surprised to see tulips here,” she says. “They—decorate? Is this the word?—every sidewalk in Manhattan. Springtime here was like Holland. I was in Holland when you posted the thing about your nine eleven experience. Too terrible.”
This was not a conversation he wanted. He never wanted to talk about 9/11 again. It had happened so long ago, he usually could avoid the subject with locals. He stayed in on the anniversary, hid out with his wife, watching Netflix. There was a beautiful new mall there, now. Gorgeous fountains. A park with rows and rows of trees. Kiki’s preschool was on the far side of the site. He always took the long way around. He was on the verge of revealing this, his darkest secret, to her. Would a Russian understand this impossible attachment to history, the fact that he had never gotten over that day? That because of that day, he still feels mistrust in his bones—not of Arabs but of humanity in general? Would she recognize the underlying fear that at any moment life could be stolen from you?
Or would she laugh at him?
Her eyes lit up: “Oh! Did you ever make it to Amsterdam? Remember how we dreamed of it? That Museum of Sex we were so excited to see? It was just a boring tourist trap. Imagine? Very, very stupid.”
“Tulips have a bad smell. Kiki was so disappointed that something so lovely would smell so bad.”
Again, her nose wrinkled and there was a slight pause. “She should try corpse flower.”
Now the pause was his. “Is that real?”
“In Borneo. It can make you sick. Remember when we talked about running to Borneo? I went for vacation one time. Nice beaches. Such good fruits. And lots of crazy monkeys. Shit-crazy monkeys. I couldn’t believe.”
Her long legs cross and uncross and he watches through the glass tabletop as if it were porn.
“Isn’t this view so gorgeous?” she finally coos into the awkward silence, “I’m so happy you wanted to meet.”
She tries too hard. It makes him stammer. There is too much effort at this table. His unfinished craft beer sweats onto the coaster. She should be done with him; he’s a married man. She should stalk off. Then he could follow her, grab her arm, twist her around. Steal a kiss.
His wife is reading that sort of novel upstairs while his daughter sleeps.
“Three bedrooms,” he tells Svetlana, “bought in anticipation of two kids, only the second child never happened. We only have Kiki. Even she was a little hard to come by.”
Over low brownstones that used to house bordellos for lonely sailors, the Brooklyn Bridge twinkles against the summer night sky: she is right, the view is lovely. Over the last few years, he has stopped noticing. Outdoor seating. History. Possibilities. His head swims with looking up. He focuses these days on sidewalks: steering his three-year-old past broken glass and the all-too-frequent landmines that local dogs leave. He has become a guide to playgrounds and swimming pools. He used to know where absinthe was served in St. Petersburg. Now he knows where public bathrooms can be found on the way to Montessori.
“We’re toilet training Kiki for the second time. Her old preschool used to put her in Pull-ups for their daily walk—it undid all Rose’s work. We changed schools. They’re teaching her French.”
The table shakes with—What was that? Gunshots? Earthquake? Explosions? Loud popping sounds jostle his ribs and echo off the flat spines of the nearby skyscrapers. He is suffocating. His breath catches in his throat. The reaction is physical. His chest tightens as if he is again buried in the dust, running for his life, not knowing what wall will crumble. The air is thick. Too thick. He forces the air into his lungs, feeling like something has him by the ankle and is dragging him down, down, down. Back to the place where he left his sense of safety. Back to the moment his arrogance died. Back to the few ugly days of history that lodged themselves between his DNA and ribosomes and forced him to relive his helplessness and acknowledge his mortality whenever there is an explosion, however harmless.
She has gone silent. Watching him. Interest has wrinkled the corners of her eyes and the smoothly Botoxed skin in the center of her forehead; it has puckered her ruby lips into a sphincter. She looks forty. Forty-five. Older.
He tells himself that he is safe. Safe! It’s not a terrorist bomb… Construction. Just construction. Lower Manhattan is always under construction. He works his jaw while Svetlana looks at him with the expression of a cat glimpsing the tip of a mouse’s tail. Another pop: They look up at the dark sky in tandem. The skyscrapers surrounding them light up in a pale blue, then a red. Not construction explosives. Fireworks. Just fireworks.
They echo off the facing buildings, sounding like ordnance. He can smell sulfur on the breeze. His intestines go soft, and he feels compelled to get to his feet to check and make sure that there really are fireworks. (There are, he knows.)
She follows him, wordless.
Beautiful, sexy Svetlana has come to the Seaport for the annual jazz festival. The weekend of music is ending now in the way of all American traditions: with noises and lights that simulate the beautiful side of violence. Fireworks, meant to impress. He makes himself breathe more slowly; embarrassed to be so terribly upset by an ordinary if sudden sound. She pretends she doesn’t notice, and he is grateful to her. The twirl and hoot of distant saxophones remind him that he has pulled her away from a party. Across the large cobblestone plaza, the swanky Italian restaurant is lit in splashes of blue and green and gold. Young couples gripped in romantic passion disentangle to pull out cell phones and document the unexpected shower of lights. After each burst the couples kiss, as if playing out choreography.
Meanwhile, he’d nearly ducked under his table thinking he was in danger. Bombs. Explosives. He’d even thought God might be striking him down.
PTSD of the civilian. Brief. Stupid. The sort that is too embarrassing to medicate or explore in therapy. The sort you live with and laugh off as best you can.
From the shadow of the pub’s awning, Jim can’t see the sky blossoms, just a corona of purple light. He wipes sweat from his forehead, his temples; winces at the next loud bang and almost walks off alone, but reaches back to take Svetlana’s hand. She accepts. The contact is time travel, and takes him to Russia, years before terrorism hit home.
January 1999: the explosions are centered in his groin, his heart, his soul. Her hair sweeps his chest, his stomach. Vibrant green liquid swirls in a lost bowl of glass. The sulfur stinks of licorice and sex.
Svetlana says he looks pale; asks if the fireworks have frightened him. He laughs it off in his practiced way.
He was right there when the towers fell, he admits to her. Covered in acrid dust.
He stops talking and remembers.
Eating it. Too numb to weep. First, keeping his clothes in bags for evidence, then throwing them down the compactor after the EPA told them to get rid of the couch and equally contaminated rug. Down the chute. Incinerated. Lost.
He regrets it, even now. What if that dust could have helped someone? Proved something? People are dying of cancer and no one believes they got it from inhaling pulverized fuselage decades ago. Rose’s brother has been embroiled in a lawsuit since 2005. He could have kept a souvenir. One jar of the ghastly gray powder. It could be saving lives. What does he have instead? A huge pencil with Novgorod etched in its side in Cyrillic. (He does not remember Novgorod, though he remembers the vendor with his dwarflike beard, who insisted on carving the word with a hunter’s knife while Jim watched.) He also has a pile of sugar packets from various Russian palaces. He has an ashtray lined in amber. He doesn’t even smoke. These things gather dust of the ordinary kind in his office, where he rarely works, preferring to work from home, to be near Kiki and Rose.
A bloom of colors explodes across the night sky and his arm is around Svetlana’s waist.
She giggles and he knows he should put his arm down. He does not.
“Really, I had such a great time at the Met, today; I managed to see the whole thing,” she is saying and he is biting his tongue, telling himself it doesn’t matter that she is wrong. She can’t possibly have seen the whole museum.
Let it go.
Twenty years ago, she had mocked him for seeing the Hermitage in one day.
The fireworks pop in red and silver.
He never lets anything go. He still harbors anger at her for Russia—her soft hair falls over his shoulder as she rests her head against him to better see the sky change colors—anger for the way she never made eye contact while dancing. She was twenty then, or said she was, and her miniskirt might have been the height of Petersburg fashion, but to him and his grad school buddies, it was little more than a flag of surrender.
She had mocked him then too, laughing that he was so jealous, an old man already, this American who had showed up in her country and, after sleeping with her once, treated her like a wife. I’m no one’s wife, she had bellowed to the crowded bar. The students drank their shots. The women continued their flatteries. In Russia the dance music is so loud, no one can hear you scream.
“I’m so glad we found each other again,” she whispers. Her breath tickles his neck. His body corrects and, as if she were made of supple clay, they fit together better.
He glances up at his living room windows. Rose would have also heard the fireworks. She had also lived through the towers; loud sounds in tight quarters can make her cry. Her brother—the fireman that lived. Together she and Jim carry the ghosts of friends in their sudden flare-ups of anger, the ghosts of strangers in their groundless fears; ghosts upon ghosts swim in every tear that falls when they are happy. (Crying when happy was a disease they had all caught that awful day; they had lost the ability to trust a smile.) Jim’s living room blinds are, as usual, half-closed against the amber streetlights, and he can’t tell if they are angled up, which is safe, or angled down, which means Rose can spy. Could right now be watching. Is that movement?
His cell phone rings and he leaps away from Svetlana as if she has caught fire. He brings the phone from his pocket and he looks up at the window again.
“What’s up, honey?”
“Sorry to bug you. Are you having fun?”
“Yes.” He thinks it will seem less guilty to be honest. “Why are you calling? Is everything okay? Is Kiki okay?”
He hears in Rose’s easy laugh that she’s nowhere near the window; hasn’t been all night. “Kiki’s fine. We’re just out of milk, and I wanted to know if you could run down to the Duane Reade and grab a gallon.”
“It’s open 24 hours.”
Now he hears her pause. Sees the blinds open. He waves, glad that Svetlana has taken a few steps to check her own email on her own smartphone, so Rose won’t have to see how well a Russian girl can preserve her looks.
Svetlana’s sleeves are long and translucent, but from a distance the fabric seems opaque, and her tight skirt does not ride up the way it did when she was seated. The Russian way: publicly demure, privately audacious.
“We were looking at the fireworks, did they bother you?” He says this to erase the knowledge of Svetlana’s deep cleavage, the gold clasp on the front of her bra, so inviting.
“I was reading. Is that her?”
Svetlana follows her texting thumbs across the plaza and back to the pub looking for better signal. Like all girls from northern European cities, she is an expert at walking cobblestones in stilettos. He gets a Facebook email notification that she has checked in at his bar, with him. It is disconcerting to still have Rose on the phone when this happens.
“That’s her. Milk. Anything else?”
“No. She’s pretty.”
“Yes. She’s Russian.”
“I was picturing a cleaning woman; you know, the fat dumpy kind.”
“Oh. She’s not like that.”
In the pause, fireworks explode into cascading waterfalls of blue and white. The white particles hover and shimmer until they wink out. Svetlana beckons from the shade of the pub’s awning where she has seated herself again.
“Well. I better get back. I don’t want to be out all night. I’ll get the milk. Kiki’s okay?”
“She’s fine. I told you. Have fun.”
“Bye.” He waves at her and she waves back and closes the shades all the way. Her trust lands heavy, like the final curtain of a tragic opera. She trusts him too much.
Svetlana’s skirt has ridden up. Her thighs are smooth and perfect. The streetlights paint them rosy amber. The fireworks sound like gunshots. Echoes that careen off skyscrapers. A rain of unexpected artillery. It is horrific.
“May I smoke?”
He smiles at her question, nods. Smoking feels quaint to him, a thing you do in college, a thing you eventually outgrow. It always surprises him when someone his age hasn’t yet quit. In Russia, Svetlana had blown the smoke directly into his face, to see if he would turn away. He watches her light up.
She exhales to her left, over her shoulder, as if whispering an aside to someone invisible. Through his sadness, he can’t bring himself to take up her free hand, though she has left it on the table: a treat between beers.
“I have an early day tomorrow,” he tells her. “Kiki gets up at 5:30.”
“That’s very early.”
“Since she was a baby. We can’t cure her.”
Svetlana nods. Blows smoke at the ghost behind her. “I wanted to have baby. Had a boyfriend, but he was so stupid. An Italian, stupid and pretty. I got pregnant and he got another girlfriend. So I got abortion. I am not sorry, but also, yes. Some days, yes.”
“I love my daughter.”
“I can see that.” A wicked smile. “Are you going to let her go to Russia when she gets grown?”
The image of a grown Kiki, that name on a lanky girl of eighteen or twenty. She will already have a tattoo, kept secret from her mother. Some other things she will keep: her curly brown hair, his eyes, her eagerness to try anything new. What else? Her love of sweets, of adventure, of dance, of music. Her tendency to fight the rules, her curiosity of all things bad. But she will also acquire breasts and legs and a fashion sense and a cell phone. And she will fall in love.
He is going to lose his daughter. She is going to grow up and become something else he wasn’t able to save.
His body feels pummeled. He struggles to keep his chin from quivering. Presses his fingers against his lips as if he is trying to suppress a little laugh.
“Of course,” he shrugs. “Why not. Traveling was a great experience. I don’t regret a minute of it.”
January 1999: holding Svetlana’s hair back so she could puke into what passed for a toilet in the absinthe bar. Vomit splashing his feet, causing them both to stumble against the shit-smeared wall. Grabbing her arms so they didn’t both fall.
Fucking against the sink. Next night, returning for more, though not quite so much, and the fucking happened in a bed. She had learned something. Had found a limit. He had done the opposite. They traded names. He had assumed hers was invented on the spot.
Svetlana Grimskaya. An impossible name.
“I’m here for the rest of July and half of August,” she says. “Four weeks.” It is an offer. Embarrassment hangs between them like underpants left to dry on a shower rod.
“Let me get this,” he replies, laying a platinum credit card over the check. Kiki, smelling the tulips, got furious that the different colors didn’t have different scents. She’d wanted flowers to have flavors, like lollipops. Reality had betrayed her. He signs for the beers, speaks his intention to buy milk on the way home. Svetlana offers to walk him to the store.
He nods once, as if the smallest movement on his part might sway his resolve.
They walk together the four blocks to the all-night drugstore, and to his surprise she enters the brightly lit space with him. He searches her face in the hard, fluorescent lighting, but despite the faint brushstrokes around her eyes suggesting lines that might become permanent in the next ten years, she is no less desirable. If anything, her eyes are brighter and her smile more open. If only time could age her faster than him.
Crowds spill down Fulton Street away from the Seaport. Everyone is drunk, staggering and laughing and waving bright smartphones and leaning on each other to take selfies, their arms embracing the air in a false hug. It is a river that Svetlana wishes to rejoin. He says something boring and forgettable.
Let’s do this again. Or possibly: It was great seeing you. He wants to clutch her to him, even here, at the head of the snack aisle, but instead his lips brush across her forehead in the dry, fatherly way he has honed with Kiki.
He watches the glass doors slide open to accept his offering. Watches how she adjusts her skirt. Watches her golden hair vanish into the tide of humanity.
Returns to reality where he must buy the milk.
The line is long and the cashier is sluggish, so he pulls up the Foursquare app on his phone and checks in at the drugstore. A message announces that as the mayor of Duane Reade he gets a 10% discount.
Rose texts: also decongestant. 24-hour. Ask at counter.
He texts back: I’m the mayor of Duane Reade.
His wife texts him a smiley face, the cashier calls next, and Jim is doing as well as anyone.
Care to hold this story in your hands? Volume 5 is available from our bookstore.