It’s 700 kilometers from St Petersburg to Moscow. I noticed him immediately.
What do you do when you meet a 33-year-old who can’t help looking bougie as fuck despite his formidable beard and overstuffed backpack on a night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow?
It’s a riddle.
You fuck him. Obviously. Because he’s tall. And even though his glasses are stupid and his ridiculous Toms are stupid, he has that easy way of navigating the world that well endowed men usually have. Because remember the allure of Before Sunrise? And because, you know, a sense of adventure. Because why not.
And yeah, meeting a stranger on a train is a pretty obvious fantasy, especially in Russia, where the distances are vast and many nights are spent getting lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the tracks next to babushkas cradling baskets of hard boiled eggs and pickles, barrel chested middle aged snorers, and energetic children shamelessly wiping their snots on the windows. It’s 700 kilometers from St Petersburg to Moscow, and I’ve done this trip at least twice a year for the last 22. I’ve had plenty of time to consider the possibilities.
I wave good bye to my father who’s come to see me off. For most of my life he’s lived in Russia while I’ve lived in the States, so it’s sweet and sad but also kind of like I’ve been waving and looking wistful for five minutes now; my hand is starting to ache. When I see that big blue backpack board the train, I take note and welcome the distraction. Foreigners are still somewhat of a rarity in Russia. He’s got to be American; he’s much too tall to be French. The train lurches forward, my dad goes home, and I’m ready to shake off the feeling of acute nostalgia — a flirtation or a fuck, whatever.
The train is all red leather bunks and well-worn runner rug, some old timey sentimental kitsch. The stewards wear railway badges on the left arms of their blazers and caps like little blue pyramids. It feels safe and familiar.
I’m sitting in the corridor on one of the red flip-down seats—who even knows why they exist because every time someone walks past you have to stand up to let them through—so I sit hunched over, elbows on knees, pretending to be comfortable, pretending to read. I’m waiting for him to walk by, so I can pretend to ignore him. My plan is brilliant and foolproof: visibility. Everyone else is old and Russian; he has to talk to me. Inevitably he walks by, and I act all casually startled. He’s got a Moscow guidebook under his arm as a pretext for conversation. He’s from San Francisco and about to embark on some Trans-Siberian railway adventure sort of thing. I ask him if he’s seen that movie, but I guess everyone asks him that. “Sarah Polley’s so good, right?” And “Haha I hope you don’t have to kill some Spanish conman after he leaves a bunch of heroin in your bag.”
So he’s got his whole life together. He’s had grown up jobs all over, like the sort of jobs that only the people who have them know what tasks they entail: account executive or business manager or something. We're talking, and I'm bumming cig after cig from these three drunk Armenian ladies (of course, being from San Francisco, he doesn’t smoke) who won't go to sleep even though it’s way past 2 am. He repositions himself so we’re facing each other, him leaning on the compartment doors, and me against the windows. We do that thing where you maintain eye contact for maybe half a second longer than normal, and I guess if you’re really brave, you could just turn into some sort of sex staring contest. Though I don’t do that because I’m worried one of my eyelids will start to twitch.
Just as it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re either going to have sex, or I’m going to demurely insist that I’m tired, he asks, “So, uh, did you leave a boyfriend back home?” Instead of saying no and smiling mysteriously, I respond with some diatribe about long distance relationships and how they don’t work, and how it was casual anyway, and how I refuse to feel guilty all the time for stuff that will happen regardless of my guilt. Maybe I definitely talk too much as I have effectively steered the conversation away from the practical matter of are we going to fuck or aren’t we. Then he says, “Why should you feel guilty when there are so many fish in the sea?”
I guess you don’t need a way with words to be an account executive. I change the subject because I don’t know how to respond to that weird non sequitur. Luckily he’s not thrown off, and at the next lull, he pulls some cheesy move like a 33-year-old with a vague but lucrative sounding job would. “Would it be crazy if I did this?” he says; it’s not really a question. He kisses me.
And it’s fine. It’s all fine. It’s just what happens when you travel and you don’t care and you’re light and you’re free and beautiful people come into your life.
Before I know it I’m getting felt up in the smoking area in the back of the car. It’s grey and cold and cig smoke hangs heavy in the air. Sometimes the giddy Armenian ladies walk in to smoke more, and we all laugh together. We make our way to the bathroom which smells like pee, but we hardly even notice. We get naked carefully so our clothes won’t touch the rank surfaces. It's nice but quick because we're in a dirty train bathroom. He flushes the condom down the toilet with the foot pedal. It empties onto the tracks.
We make out for another two hours, and when his fingers toy with the idea of wrapping around my throat, I’m glad I ignored that stupid thing he said about fish. I fall asleep relishing the idea of being the train tramp, imagining how I’ll brave the looks of condemnation I’ll get in the morning.
In the morning, I go out into the corridor waiting for him to come out and do ritual morning giggles and knowing looks, but he doesn't. So I try to go back to sleep, but I can’t because there’s that pit in my stomach like I might throw up. I guess you only start caring at the first sign of rejection. I try to fix my eyes on the passing Kruschevkas of the Moscow suburbs and not to look up and down the corridor.
When the train pulls into the station, I get out and wait. He doesn’t come out, and I realize maybe it’s best to just leave—peace the fuck out—no last names no phone numbers—before he pops out, and we make small talk, and he might kiss me, and we’ll deal with banality of finding the metro. It could be over so simply. I could cut my losses. But I don’t, because I can’t; I want to see him again. So I wait. He’s the last person off the train. As expected, the next half hour is boring and trite as we exchange numbers and make small talk on the metro. We don’t even get coffee.
He’s elusive and hardly responds to my texts over the next couple days. But eventually he comes over, and we fuck again. He’s so patient and he makes me come and asks what I like and doesn’t hesitate to hit me when I ask him to. But the night is long and restless and not in a fun sort of way. More in that awful way when you can tell the stranger next to you would be more comfortable sleeping alone, and because you can tell, you’re not comfortable either. In the morning we hug for a long time and then he leaves. I don’t hear from him again.
Perhaps that’s why Celine and Jessie didn’t exchange contact information: it wasn’t naiveté or idealism, but rather, pragmatism and self-preservation. I’m sad for a while, and I try to remember what all those smart women wrote in The Atlantic about “hook up culture,” but I can’t really. Besides it’s just my ego that hurts; I didn’t even like him that much. Still, I spend the remainder of my time in Russia drinking and moping, while he no doubt sleeps with Russian girls with shaved pubes in Nizhniy Novgorod, which I’m pretty sure he still can’t pronoun
Image via Castle Rock Entertainment.