Men’s Travel Gold Winner: Russian Girl Rules

by Kevin McCaughey

A blind date in a small bed.   In theory it seemed a pretty ideal proposition.

The girl’s name was Dasha, a friend of Aylita’s.  Alyita was Warren’s girlfriend.  And Warren was my friend and teaching colleague.  The two girls planned to visit us in Samara, taking the overnight train from Kazan, 300 miles up the Volga River.  Because Dasha had no boyfriend and I still hadn’t landed a Russian girlfriend, we were deemed a natural fit, and the idea was proposed that Dasha stay with me.

I had a one-bedroom, one-bed apartment, where there was no place to evade intimacy.  Not that I was afraid of intimacy, but I wanted the chance to meet Dasha first.

Warren took my refusal stolidly.  It meantsince he wanted these few nights alone with Aylitathat they would have to book a hotel, and he would be left holding the bill.  “You can’t let a Russian girl pay for herself,” he told me.

 

This upcoming weekend, Warren made clear, was going to require some pretty chubby wallets.  It was Dasha’s first time in Samara.  Not only did we need to show her a good time, but we needed to show her that such good times were par for the course for Aylita.

And so we began, on a dark and frozen Friday evening, at La Cucaracha, a faux Mexican restaurant that enlisted Doritos in its nachos.  Few Samarans knew or cared what Mexican food was, as long as the prices were chicly high.

We were heading to the cloak desk.  My date at this point was still mostly blind.  By that I mean, I had only seen Dasha in a winterized condition:  her leather beanie cap down her forehead, a scarf up to her cheeks, and her thick coat straightening any curves in her figure.  I was curious to see, and thus, as she was taking off her coat, I neglected my duty.

“Kevin,” Aylita said.  “Why don’t you help Dasha “

Warren was better trained, already helping Aylita peel and unwrap her winter cocoon to reveal a tall, dark, high-cheeked Tatar girl.

There were rules with Russian girls.  You helped them with their coats.  You reached out your hand to them when they got out of a cab.  You carried any bag that did not have ornamental value.  You surprised them with flowers once a week.  You always paid.  And most difficult of all for a casual and indecisive California boy like me, you didn’t ask what they wanted; you knew and you did it.

*

Downstairs, the mirror ball speckled us with light as we ate Russ-Mex.  At one end of the room a singer turned knobs on his DJ machine and assaulted the low ceiling with Russian pop.  It was hard to talk cross-lingually, so the girls sat together with their pink drinks in tulip glasses, Warren and I across the table with our beers.  It offered us a chance to observe.

“What do you think of Dasha ” he asked.

“She’s okay.”

Dasha was cute and simple: she wore black slacks and a white sweater.  Her hair was short and businessy with a sidelong flop.  None of which excited me much.  Cute didn’t really cut it here in Samara, which, like many Russian cities, was reputed to have the most beautiful girls in the country.  Mostly, though, Dasha just didn’t gravitate toward me.  During my teaching presentations around the region, some women looked up with eyes that positively sparkled, what one American colleague described as  “take me” eyes, although he did not use the word take.  No matter that I was thirty-eight; I was something of a star, like a Back Street Boy.  Dasha, I could quickly see, would never have eyes for me.  I was nothing special.  And I wasn’t happy sentenced to a whole weekend as the unspecial guy.

*

We moved on to the nightclub complex Zvezda, and Warren had bribed our way past the line to our own pool table.  Aylita held a cue stick in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

“How do you find Dasha ” Aylita asked.

“She’s cute,” I said.

I watched Dasha play.  She took her shots seriously, although she didn’t have much skill.  She monitored the progress of the game in between turns.  I admired her powers of concentration, even if they were never directed at me.

“So do you think you will love her ” Aylita went on.

“Do you think she’ll love me ” I asked.

“Yes,” Aylita said.  “I think yes.”

*

Around midnight I was left to escort Dasha back to the Hotel Volga.  I wasn’t allowed to send her off in a taxi alone, not at this stage.  That was another Russian girl rule.

So I rode with her, and then she wanted supplies, so we stopped at a 24-hour mini-mart.  I held the door open for her against the wind blowing off the river, and I followed her inside.  It was my duty to pay.  That I knew.  And I probably should have selected a few things for her, not offering, just knowing that she should have them, but I couldn’t put forward the effort.  Instead, I came off as submissive, taking the goods she selected from her hand, one by onered apple, green apple, bottle of water, Marlboro Lightsand putting them into a wire basket.

We crossed the street and climbed the steps of the Volga Hotel.  Dasha was one stride ahead of me.  I had to maneuver fast to get in position to open the door.  These things took forethought.  I was learning.  I made it without slipping on the ice, pulled the door open, and Dasha stepped inside.  I was carrying her grocery bag, so I had to follow into the bare and echoey lobby.  Halfway to the desk, she turned and said, “I’m sorry but I can not invite you to my number.”  She took the bag, and I retreated.

This uncalled-for rejection irked me.  Tomorrow night I would say goodbye well before the lobby.

*

Dasha was my responsibility for the whole of the next day, at least until evening when we were to arrive at Warren’s apartment.  I was relieved that she didn’t phone until after twelve noon, and that I wouldn’t have to appear at the hotel until three.   I told her to meet me downstairs.  I had no intention of going to her number.

I didn’t know how to entertain Dasha.   So I asked if she wanted to walk.   We crossed the street from her hotel, passed through bare trees and reached the promenade along the Volga.

No one else was walking.  It was December, and the city had been iced for months.  The frozen river had the look of a field, and if it weren’t for the misty black of the tree line half a mile across, you wouldn’t have known where the river ended and the sky began.

Out on this field, we saw black forms of ice fishermen on stools, and here and there near the embankment, a little tent next to an opening hewn in the ice, through which a few brave men dunked themselves.

This was our first chance to communicate, unfettered by noise and expensive distractions.  Dasha was twenty-five, never married.  She had a car, an apartment, an office job at Coca Cola in Kazan.  I asked her if she had a dream, and she said wanted to improve her English.

Near the end of the promenade, we turned away from the river and climbed steps that ran between apartment blocks, up towards flat and trafficked streets.

It started to snow.

City snow is rarely beautiful.  Most of the time it hardens into clumps against trees or craggy snow-hedges that line the roads, and these are blackish and perforated by the splatters of passing Ladas or Sputniks.  The snow on the sidewalks is tramped, melted, and refrozen into glasslike sheets.

But sometimes, not often, when the fresh snow comesand the right kind of itit sticks to the world, to trees, and balconies, and hats.  It turns the sound of cars into whispers.  It softens the cold.  It sweeps the bad of winter under the rug.

It was snowing this way now.  And with the sky cover so low overhead, the cold had coziness.  I realized that Dasha looked more Russian today, prettier.  She was wearing a fur coat and her lipstick was very red.

We held gloved hands.  This was one of Russia’s pleasant rules.  In inclement weather, on slopes or stairs, you could take a girl’s arm or hand at will: if it was a gesture of affection, or a sensible effort to increase stability, this was left unsaid.

“I do not want to be too early,” Dasha said. “Perhaps Aylita still sleeps.”

“It’s almost four o’clock,” I said.

“Aylita likes sleep.  She’s like animal, domestic pet.  Big cat.  Do you know,” she went on after a moment, “that they will be married “

I hadn’t heard a word on the subject from Warren.

“January,” Dasha said.

“In January   That’s soon.”

“Yes.  One month.  Warren did not say “

“Well,” I lied, “he might have.  But he doesn’t really talk much sometimes… about personal things.  He’s from New Hampshire.”

*

It was dark when he reached Warren’s apartment.  Aylita and Dasha sat in the kitchen looking through photos.  One was a shot of me in action at a teaching conference, gesturing to a flip chart.

“Take,” Aylita said in Russian, and Dasha, without a word, filed it inside her purse.

This occurrence, right in front of me, suggested that there was already something between Dasha and me.  It suggested, too, that my opinion on the matter wasn’t really required.

I joined Warren in the main room and told him I had a thousand rubles in my pocket.  Aaron nodded in a way that meant he wasn’t impressed.

“I can’t go out with less than three thousand, ” he said.

“It’s not that I mind spending all the money,” I explained.  “It’s just that I don’t enjoy going to these clubs and hip restaurants.”

“Nobody does,” Warren said, “but you gotta do it.”

When it was time to go, and we were in the entry hall, I made sure I positioned myself next to Dasha early.  In Russian moments like these, you had to think clearly.  It wasn’t just the coat and the door; there were gloves, scarf, hat, purse.  You had to calculate the proper order of things.

*

The four-lane Zvezda bowling alley was dark, night-clubby, with black lights and hip music, rich guys in black with skirted blondes, foreigners and their dates.  It was Dasha’s first bowling experience, and she bowled the way she played pool, devoting herself to it, concentrating.

I was happy when, afterwards, we all agreed to call it a night.  It was just eleven when I got Dasha to the Hotel Volga.  I stopped on the sidewalk outside and said goodnight.   Without preface, she kissed me and went inside.

The kiss was simple.  It was neither slow, open, lingering, moist, or sexy.

But I thought about it on the way home in my taxi.  There’d been something different about that kiss.  It was soft, but not too soft, her lips spongy and luxuriant without any effort.  What was it exactly

The phone was ringing when I got into my apartment.  It was Warren.  He wanted to know if Dasha was with me.

“No, still at the hotel.”

“You haven’t brought her home   That’s expensive.”

It struck me that this was true.  My not sleeping with Dasha was adding up.  Someone had to pay for that hotel room.  Was it Warren or I

“She kissed me goodnight,” I said.

“Yeah ” he said flatly.  “How was it “

“It was cushy,” I said.  That was it.  Cushy.

*

The girls were leaving for Kazan on the evening train.  That day, Dasha and I walked again and held hands.  We went back to the Zvezda complex, drank coffee in the café, and saw a film, a romantic comedy where Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer quarreled and made up in the Russian language.  Dasha watched the movie the way she did everything.  Totally.  She was absorbed.  I spent a lot of time looking at her.  She was wearing a warm green dress that reached down to her ankles and showed a lot of shape.  I wanted to kiss her there in the theater, to see if that cushy experience had only been imagined, or if it was a one-shot deal, or if it was something that could return again and again.  I took her hand.  She gave it without resistance.  I leaned close, but her attention was on the screen.  What would it be like when the cushy lips kissed, I mean fully kissed, so that nothing else was on her mind

*

At the reception desk in the Hotel Volga, at five p.m., I paid the bill.  It was my duty, but I didn’t even mind.  I phoned up to Dasha’s number.   For the first time that number of hers seemed an inviting place.  I had never been behind a closed door with her.  But her bags were already downstairs, and we were late, in real danger of missing the train.  “I am descending,” Dasha said casually into the phone.

*

We used sliding steps over the sheet ice in front of the train station, funneling down through a passage between tented kiosks, lit from inside by candles.  I had Dasha’s luggage in both hands.

“It won’t be so bad,” I said, “If you miss your train.  You could stay here. If it’s not a problem.  With me. “

She laughed.  “I think it will not be problem.”

Inside, we scooted among the crowd to the departure board.  According to the clock, our train had departed five minutes ago.  But then we both recalled a simple Russian rule:  station clocks show Moscow time.  The Samara-Kazan train doesn’t operate on Samara or Kazan time, but Moscow time, and so we had nearly an hour to spare.

We found a plastic table at a snack bar.  I stacked her luggage.  I brought tea for Dasha and a beer for myself.  Dasha opened her purse.  She took out a mirror and her lipstick, and I watched her trace it over the soft lips, making them glimmer with moistness.  I scooted my plastic chair close to hers.

I watched her mouth, feeling inside of me a rare confidence born from the clarity of knowing what I wanted.  “Do you plan on kissing me goodbye ” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Can we start now “

She laughed. “You are funny, Kevin. “

“No, I’m totally serious. “

But instead she wrote down her phone number in Kazan.

*

On the platform it was windy, and the wind picked up ice crystals and threw them upward like glitter.  I hauled Dasha’s bags up the steep metal steps of the train into the light of the aisle.  Warren and Aylita were already there in the compartment.  We only had a few minutes now, and I wanted to spend a few of them kissing.

Then Warren and Aylita kissed goodbye, it was my cue.  I stepped close to Dasha.  I went directly for the cush.

But Dasha turned her face.  She did it neatly, definitivelyoffering access only to her cheek.  Our cheeks touched, and that was it.  I stepped back, stunned with disappointment.  I tried not to look pouty.   Dasha’s fingers found mine and squeezed a gentle hold, and then Warren was leading me down the corridor and the metal steps, and we were standing on the platform while the girls leaned against the orangey square of the window, iced at its borders, and gave cock-wristed good-bye waves to us, the kind you would give to a baby in a crib.

“She didn’t kiss me good-bye,” I said.  “I don’t get it.”

“She was wearing lipstick,” Warren said.

“So “

“Russian girls don’t kiss when they’re wearing lipstick.”

“They always wear lipstick.”

“Yeah, but there’s different situations.  She’d just put it on.  For the train.  It was obvious.”

“What does it matter  Who’s going to see her in the train compartment “

“That’s not the point. “

The girls were still there, looking happy.  Their lips had color; I could see even through the train window.

“She could put it on again,” I said.  “It’s an overnight train trip.  There’s plenty of time.”

“No, Kevin.  It’s just one of those rules,” he said.  “She put on lipstick, she doesn’t want to mess it up.”

The girls put their hands to the glass trying to see out through the glare.  Maybe they couldn’t even see us.

“But she promised.”

“We have to wait for the train to pull out.  It’s a Russian tradition.”

Still the train didn’t leave.  At last, Aylita made a walking motion with her fingers, and Warren said, “All right.  We’re clear.  They probably want us to leave so they can start drinking beer.”

We headed up the steps of the tunnel toward the bars upstairs.

“I guess now I know the lipstick rule,” I said.

Pursuing it with Warren would have irritated him.

Customs survive.  That’s all.  They have evolved.  And if so, there must be some kind of imperceptible Darwinian usefulness.  All I could do was learn them, experience them through time, and accept what I had learned.  No use dissecting.

“Just one last question,” I said to Warren.  “Okay, assuming that Dasha and Aylita are drinking beer right now, doesn’t that mess up their lipstick too “

“Yeah,” he said, “but that’s different.”

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