One July morning during a hot, leap-year summer, Elizaveta Andreyevna Bestuzheva walked out of an apartment building on Solyanka Street, the home of her latest lover. She lingered for a moment, squinting in the sun, then straightened her shoulders, raised her head proudly, and hurried along the sidewalk. It was almost ten, but morning traffic was still going strong – Moscow was settling into a long day. Elizaveta Andreyevna walked fast, looking straight ahead and trying not to meet anyone’s gaze. Still, at the corner of Solyansky Proyezd, an unrelenting stare invaded her space, but turned out to be a store’s window dressing in the form of a huge, green eye. Taken aback, she peered into it but saw only that it was hopelessly dead.
She turned left, and the gloomy building disappeared from view. Brushing off the memories of last night and the need to make a decision, Elizaveta felt the relief of knowing she was alone. She was sick of her lover – maybe that was the reason their meetings were becoming increasingly lustful. In the mornings, she wanted to look away and make a quick retreat, not even kissing him good-bye. But he was persistent, his parting ritual enveloping her like a heavy fog. Afterward, she always ran down the stairs, distrusting the elevator, and scurried away from the dreary edifice as if it were a mousetrap that had miraculously fallen open.
Elizaveta glanced at her watch, shook her head, and picked up speed. The sidewalk was narrow, yet she stepped lightly, oblivious of the obstacles: oncoming passersby, bumps and potholes, puddles left by last night’s rain. She wasn’t bothered by the city’s deplorable state, but a new sense of unease uncoiled deep inside her and slithered up her spine with a cold tickle. The giant eye still seemed to stare at her from under its heavy lid. She had a sense of another presence, a most delicate thread that connected her to someone else. Involuntarily, she jerked her shoulders, trying to shake off the feeling, and, after admonishing herself, returned to her contemplation.
Old Square gradually came into view, revealing the church that once stood over public executions, and the commercial section next to it crowded with merchant stalls and cars parked willy-nilly. Elizaveta navigated like a seasoned pilot, her shoes squelching in mud seemingly left over from centuries past. Finally, she reached the flimsy fence that, by some strange design, had no gate. She shook her head, stepped gracefully over a massive chain, and found herself in a park with the cool shade she longed for, even though it was still early in the day.
Then began the long journey up the hill. Elizaveta winked at Saints Cyril and Methodius, who stared bleakly at a plaque reading “From a Grateful Nation” – a bitter joke about a nation that never learned how to be grateful. She skirted a bench with a sleeping bum who exuded an unbearable stench, and, after a brief hesitation, took the left alley, which was slightly more shaded than the right.
The promise of another blistering day loomed over Moscow. The park was full of people – victims of morning hangovers, refugees from the nearby office buildings, clutching their beer cans. The adjacent bar was also far from empty. The waitress wandered lazily between the tables, fully aware of the power she wielded. Elizaveta surveyed the unfriendly territory. She noted the casualties dispassionately, without registering their faces, which looked blank in their identically aloof, self-absorbed expressions. She walked with virtually no effort, pretending to float above the sidewalk, the meager greenery, and the bushes filled with trash. Only once did she stumble – and it brought back the sense of that persistent, hidden gaze. She was probably only imagining it, but her heart remained heavy and her thoughts disintegrated into a confused jumble.
As she reached the top of the hill, the sun sliced into her eyes, and the smell of asphalt and burned gasoline filled her nostrils. Elizaveta crossed the road and arrived at the Polytechnic Museum, which cast a much better shadow than the despondent trees. Many years ago, this spot housed a zoo. The museum had fallen on hard times – possibly the hardest since the zoo’s Indian elephant broke under the persistent attention of gawkers and went on a rampage. The fate of the museum, much like the fate of the elephant, was regrettable, but Elizaveta had her own concerns. She continued to feel uneasy and even glanced over her shoulder. There was nothing there. She hesitated at a theater poster framed behind glass, watching the wavy reflections, but they looked harmless enough. Then she snorted, frustrated with herself, and read the advertisement inviting passersby to learn about varieties of packaging at a Packers’ Club that had found a home in the impoverished building. For a moment, she felt amused, and her unease took on a mystical, ghostly quality. Past the museum, Elizaveta gave the menacing Lubyanka building a cursory look and descended into the underground walkway, which led to her office building on Maly Cherkassky. With a glance at her watch, she hastened up the stairs – but the exit beckoned her with its bookstalls, and she gave in and began to examine the covers.
One of the books caught her attention. She opened up an imposing black tome, but somebody jostled her elbow and the book tumbled out of her hands, wreaking colorful havoc on the neatly arranged stand. In the resulting commotion, the woman next to Elizaveta yelped with surprise, a man’s deep voice muttered an apology, and the proprietor of the kiosk rushed to straighten out his wares, worried he might get robbed. Elizaveta tossed an absentminded “It’s okay” in the direction of the voice, whose owner’s face she never saw, and stepped aside to leaf through another book with a picturesque dust jacket. Its contents, however, proved to be too serious, and the second page was branded with a triangle that nearly covered the entire sheet. She immediately remembered something she once read: The triangle is a grand figure; it controls souls. It was an ill-timed sign, a dumb hint verging on mockery. Embarrassed, Elizaveta cast a furtive glance around, set the book down, and hurried away from the racks toward the old, five-story building that housed small companies and underfunded government offices.
Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13
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