Once he got the girl’s attention she sat up from the long grass, a pale stalk rising in the yellow breeze. Behind her in the distance a fishing boat made its slow way down the river. He thought her getting up meant she liked him after all or at least liked what he’d just said. Adam opened his mouth to go on speaking when the girl stretched her soft arms out and offered him a delicious peek at the tuft of dark hair coiled in her armpit. He felt a sharp hollowing in his guts and sensed the sky narrowing. The wind stopped carrying the sun’s heat away. He adjusted his trousers. There. One, two, three. Okay.
She’d been absentmindedly dispensing glimpses ever since they’d met. She was prettier than the photos, and Adam got hottest when he’d watch her dart gracefully through the rooms of the flat her clever mother had snatched from a departing colonel. The colonel had abandoned his furniture. The Red Army wouldn’t ship all of it back to his home in Kazan, apparently. The empty eye socket of a statue carved between two Juliet balconies on the Art Nouveau building across the street swallowed the sun each morning before Adam woke up. Danita’s mother had offered to put a sheet over the window, but Adam felt that would wreck the integrity of his first European experience, even though it meant he couldn’t wank in the mornings, when the carved-out eye would surely taunt him.
“What would we do with it, even if my mother could get it back? Look at that funny one.” The roundel decorated the landward wall of the abandoned camera factory. Adam looked at the one she was pointing at, a man with his tongue out and one eye closed. A troupe of heads were trapped motionless on the building’s frieze. For each face her grandmother had a different story, some made up, some not-so-made-up. All these stories came with light laughter because the family creed was to treat its misfortunes as no more significant than spilled milk or disappointing Georgian tea. One story stuck: her grandmother’s father swooning over an actress from St. Petersburg. Danita tried to imagine the stern bearded man from shoebox photos grinning like the boy with her now. He had wanted to turn the factory into a film studio, but that fantasy was swept aside by wars and invasions. The invaders were in the habit of stealing the machinery and scattering the workers.
Adam was having trouble shifting his hard-on safely out of view. Her downy armpits had been giving him erections for weeks, something he took a particular pride in, since he felt it made him somewhat more European. Only a really sophisticated young man got aroused by armpit hair. He’d spent some time considering how to turn this unexpected daily pleasure into a boast when he returned to his friends in Toronto but could never quite sort out how he might weave it into conversation without making it obvious that he was showing off to his less well-travelled friends. And there was always the risk it could backfire, and they would simply wrinkle their noses and make it clear that the addition of a girl with an unshaved armpit, no matter how European, to their collective stable of idle sexual fancies, stocked as it was with immaculate college girls, was unwelcome. He willed himself to think of French verbs. Danita was eyeing him curiously.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing, nothing . . . just admiring the statues on the wall.”
“It looked like you were mumbling.”
“Sell it to someone who could turn it into apartments.” Adam’s Latvian improved by the day but some words—like “developer”—never appeared at the door. Not only because he was just learning but also because some words simply had not made their way back into the streets from years of exile or hiding in old men’s secret libraries. The dreadful words of free markets. The sunlight passed through Danita’s hair and blazed around her pale shoulders and arms. She had the cautious, thoughtful, stoical expression people had in the former Soviet Union. At least the sober and intelligent ones.
“It’s cursed I think. Best to just leave it for my great-grandfather’s ghost to haunt.” Danita pretended not to notice Adam’s eager helpfulness or his hard-ons. The silly boy had come believing it was his important Western duty to help his poor benighted Eastern cousins. It was tiresome, forever fending off his hopeful suggestions, but she liked his attraction to her. He never made any advances, though. He was too timid, which she strangely relished. He was a young wolf at the edge of the woods.
Danita studied the faces in the roundels. Men and women with hats askew and lips curled in wild emotional expressions. They looked like they’d always known they’d been hung in the wrong place. They wanted to get out. Go to Hollywood. The machinery and workers, well, they had a rough time of it during the past century’s woes, getting stuffed in cattle cars to trundle to the Urals or Prussia, depending on who happened to be in a conquering mood, but at least they got out. The roundel people were left behind and had decayed, like listless old men in the park.
“What happened to your great-grandfather?”
“Bang-bang. Killed him.” Danita spoke in English as she shot Adam with pistol-shaped hands. Learning English had become popular since independence. Only a year ago her mother had stuffed their Russian books under the couch where they could lament their loss of influence. Her friends threw theirs out, but Danita’s mother was always a bit more cautious. The country was still full of Russian troops, and who knows? They might just decide to stay. Danita put a blanket over one tattily upholstered arm to hide the books’ spines from anyone coming in the front door. She gamely tried to learn English to make her mother happy. But she handled it like she’d borrowed someone else’s car as she smashed into new obscenities and swerved into topics she’d steer clear of in her native tongue.
Adam and Danita
They approached the factory. Tomorrow Adam would fly home. It was late August now and the sun was starting to set a bit earlier. The faint odor of pee greeted them as they approached the factory’s busted door. Bolder inside, it spilled out of the dark corners, where all the history hid. It was cold. Bright beams of mote-swirling light pierced the stale air through holes in the roof. The floor was damp from a rain the day before. Rusted scraps of metal bolted to the cement floor resembled bloodstained bones. The emptiness trembled like a throat on the edge of crying out. They thought they could hear the sound of half-full glasses of cheap vodka clinked by crumpled men making forlorn toasts.
Her body felt loose and warm against his. The suddenness paralyzed him. His erection embarrassed and pleased him as it pressed on her softly hinting stomach. For a blistering moment he was ashamed of himself for wanting her. He turned his gaze away from her hair and long neck to the half-boarded-up window on the other side of the factory.
Danita knew her embrace had broken some spell for him. His vanity was satisfied, a secretive but sharper appetite than his physical desire. She relaxed and smiled. She took his hand and led him to the window he’d been looking at. It overlooked the river between the factory and the city with its church towers. Danita pulled aside a wooden slat that blocked the view. Adam shot her his anxious look. He was always afraid of getting into trouble with custodians or officials, but Danita was comfortable here. There was no one around in any case. The slat scraped against the brick, and the river opened up to show the small fishing boat still wending its way downstream.
Adam put his head closer to the window to let the fresh air conquer the factory smells that lingered in his nostrils. He thought of paint and new mops and coats hanging on round knobs by a door. His breathing slowed as his hard-on softened, leaving just a dull ache. The boat idled its way between the bruised shores. Everything had been smashed here, at one time or another. Above, gulls soared.
He watched, hopeful, his hands resting against the window frame, avoiding a rusted nail, while the boat drifted away to the faraway sea with its untrammeled cleanness.
Danita saw the river’s timeless self-assurance snaking away first east and then south, all the way to the Black Sea and the minarets of Istanbul, through the wide plains of Russia and Ukraine. She imagined men and women piling amber and hemp and treasures into wooden ships moored along the river’s grassy banks and setting out into the unknown to measure discoveries with their eyes and hands. In their minds they carried their homes. She too watched, waiting patiently, for the fishing boat to sail out of view and expose all of the land across the water, pockmarked with graves.
The fisherman gently turned the wheel. Through the smudged window of the wheelhouse he could see the southern bank of the river and the old factory whose purpose he never knew. Today’s trip would be quiet. No need to rush. He saw two young people looking out one of the windows of the factory, and it struck him for a moment that the girl resembled his daughter. That morning his daughter’s son had woken early and crawled on the kitchen floor while the fisherman was bent over the stove, stirring a pot of coffee. An ancient sunlight had seeped through the open door of their farmhouse. The fisherman had taken his grandson and brought him to the edge of the pool of light so he could feel its first laps on his fingers. The fisherman steered his old boat downriver, while at home the boy ate and slept, and the rising sun treated the boy’s growth and his own decay equally.
He leaned against the door of the wheelhouse and thought it would take most of the rest of the afternoon to make the mouth of the river and come to the open bay with its infinite waves and highways. One of the young people raised a hand in greeting, and he reflected on how unexpected seeing them there was, like a spray of seawater in his face on a windless day. He thought about how life arose from the mud of the earth, teeming unobserved except in brief moments of fasting.
Māris Leja is the pen name of a New York lawyer. This is his first publication.