In his apartment on Gagarinskii alley, Lucas Tiller was awake too early - once again. Outside his window, the dawn was an embryo, a pinprick flaw in the velvet drape of sky.
It was October - almost winter. He had arrived back in Moscow last New Year, so now he had lived half the time here with his wife, Marianne, and half without. It still seemed strange to wake up alone. Every morning his eyes flew open hours before the sun. He sat up, double-paned comforter wrapping his legs. Marianne had always called it the Russian tamale. He dozed, forehead resting on his two raised knees.
He felt as if he had been dreaming of Viktor, his old Mormon mission companion. Ever since Marianne had left, Viktor had been visiting Lucas's mind, a not-quite-welcome guest, a beautiful pestilence, like the window doves at dawn. He thought of waking up those mornings, on his church mission half a dozen years before, and seeing at the end of his couch-bed the top of Viktor's blond head bowed in prayer. Lucas thought of how Viktor always had to be first in everything. First another time, too, that one time - just that once, really: the rest doesn't count - when he'd been bowed over Lucas on the couch-bed until Lucas had begged him, begged in both their languages, to stop.
Fall mornings in Moscow. The sullen faces of the residential slabs, their windows unlit even beneath an overcast sky. The humped and pitted sidewalks, the mud puddles crackly with their dermis of frost. A trail of rotting leaves, like the spore of some giant, suffering beast, led to the open-air market at the corner. The gold-toothed women at the kiosks beamed whether the front pages blared "economic crisis" or not. They seemed always so delighted to serve you a plastic cup of tea, which you held gingerly between your fingertips at the rim; or a sausage pasty, or a banana. You could buy cigarettes, or cheeses, or tins of kerosene. At seven a.m. the bar kiosk opened, and the men leaned on their elbows on the formica table stands, quaffing their Baltikas or gin-and-tonics-in-a-can or their vodka in paper cups. The chilly air was suffused with the smells of stale tobacco and exhaust fumes from the idling delivery trucks, peat-brown or drab green like the Army vans that also idled in the lot, attended by clusters of uniformed youths with sulky mouths. But around the square of the market the oaks and birches still shed their slimy leaves, and dogs ran loose and often rutted in the spaces between the kiosks, and at the perimeter of the market, unsheltered, stood a line of old people from the country selling potatoes or carrots, still crusted with dirt, directly from their buckets. So beneath the chemical burn lay always the smell of earth, one indistinguishable from the other, as if even in this craven and polluted city the richness of the soil still staked the final claim.
Lucas clutched his copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People under one arm and manhandled the glass door to Kropotkinskaya metro with the other. He glanced behind him to ensure the monster of a door (it had no spring mechanism) wasn't about to brain anybody on the outswing. "Thing could bloody kill a bloke," his friend Clyde was always saying. He took the steps into the hole at a slow trot, keeping it up past the tables displaying copies of Russian Elle and Vogue, past Lenotchka and the other babushki with their rose bouquets.
Since he'd left Russia at the end of his church mission six years before, all he'd wanted was to return. He'd saved, scrimped, cut his honeymoon short. He'd worked seventy-hour weeks as a programmer. The goal had been to save enough money to return to Moscow and start a small software firm. For Westerners to do such things in
Russia was still just possible. And he'd done it - done it with the help of a silent partner, his wife's father.
On the platform, the electronic bell sounded its two-tone welcome, and Lucas joined the forward surge into the train.
Last year, just before he and Marianne had left for Russia, he had read in his church stake newsletter about a bishop in New York City who had been called upon to minister to a subway victim. This was a man who had been pushed to end up jammed between car and platform, condemned to death within an hour from a crushed spinal cord.
What, Lucas would often think as he boarded the metro, if such a thing were to happen to him here? Who would he ask for, who call on to be brought to him in his last half-hour of life?
"Ostorozhno, dveri zakryvaetsya. Take care, the doors are closing. Next stop, Park Kultury," announced the robotic female voice in the grammar-lesson tones that he had always found comforting.
At Park Kultury he had to change to the Ring line. Some days he brought along a bun for one or another of the panhandlers at the Ring stop, but this morning he'd left late. He hated to give them money; that was only supporting their operators. Reportedly they all had operators: even the ten-year-old girl with only one leg, even - perhaps especially - the veterans with no arms or legs, the "samovars," he'd heard they were called, propped up on skateboards against the stone pillars. He remembered bringing up the question with Marianne and her not wanting to discuss it. It had been one of many topics regarding Russia that she never wanted to discuss. She wouldn't say anything, just hunch her shoulders and gaze ahead with an inscrutable expression.
Back home, she'd been funny, vivid, mournful, irascible, by turns. They'd known each other since high school. She'd been one of the rich girls in the Cambridge ward of his church: a rich girl, sparkling-smart and ironical with a voice that sometimes cracked with excitement and then she'd shut down, mortified, for the rest of the afternoon, and only her bright brown eyes would seem to speak for her, staring out of her English-rose face.
But in Russia she had seemed to put her whole soul in brownout. Finally, in the middle of May, she'd departed for home. She had simply bought a plane ticket for a week later - no discussion.
One Saturday afternoon a month after Marianne had left, Lucas was standing in the bottled-spices section of Stockmann's, that favorite of Western expats, trying to decide if it were cumin or cayenne he needed more of (at these prices, you didn't want to go wrong), when he felt himself jostled from the side in a way that suggested the trolleybus. This was not a typical sensation in Stockmann's. "Ostorozhno," he growled.
A voice drawled back at him in what he vaguely recognized as a native-Mancunian racking of the vowels, "Sorry, friend. You were standing there so long I pegged you finally for autistic. You mind letting a bloke in to nab some turmeric?"
"How'd you know I spoke English?" demanded Lucas - he had no idea why, other than that the guy had startled him. And the guy being such a fruitcake was unnerving too. He barely reached to Lucas's shoulder, a pink-faced little mug with a receding hairline, blond eyebrows, and granny lenses tinted blue.
"Wild guess, lad," said the pink-faced individual, reaching up to sweep three bottles of turmeric into his basket, which he carried, in good fruit fashion, over his forearm. "Yank, then, are you? How long here?"
Thirty minutes later, against his better judgment Lucas found himself still standing in the parking lot talking to the guy, shifting the weight of his plastic bag from hand to hand.
Neither of them suggested finding somewhere to go sit. It didn't seem worth it. Lucas assumed - then as later, whenever the two of them would meet - that it would be the last time he'd ever see Clyde.
But Clyde had a way of finding Lucas, and Lucas had a way of succumbing long enough to loneliness and boredom to let himself be found. As the summer went on he met Clyde's friends, mostly other hedonistic Westerners from Clyde's brokerage firm and Russian gay-boys Lucas's age and younger picked up at clubs and parties and online.
They accepted Lucas, alternately ignoring him and making google eyes at him, which he affected not to notice. They were vulgar flirts and would have made his stomach turn if he had taken them seriously.
He told himself it was good for Clyde to have him around; he was a helping hand, a calming influence, in a way none of Clyde's other friends could be. Sometimes - like when he was clutching Clyde's belt loop in the back seat of a gypsy cab to keep him from toppling out the window as he vomited, or mopping blood from his forehead in the alley beside Propaganda at two in the morning after an exchange with a pair of mafia flatheads - he would realize he was primarily Clyde's Jeeves. He didn't mind the role. He was grateful enough, that year, to feel needed.
Lucas disembarked at Taganskaya and headed down Zemlyanoi Val. This was a good neighborhood to have an office in. Although it was still downtown Moscow, the buildings were older and stood no more than five stories, and the sidewalks were less cratered. A squat church with a burgundy dome dominated the central square. At work that day he had to lay off two more people. This had been happening regularly ever since the ruble had crashed, two months before. One of them was a clear case of deadwood: Valery Afanasyevich, a salesman who had taken to showing up hours late and sometimes not at all. The grounds for the other one, Tanya, who worked in support, were sheer lack of seniority.
He greeted his motherly office manager, Olga, and endured her daily arm-squeeze. Then he gathered up the day's messages so far - no cancellations, thank God - and closed himself in his office.
His office doubled as the computer training room, but there was no one else in it right now. He sat in front of the window and gazed through stripped branches at the downward sweep of Zemlyanoi Val - trolleybus wires above and puddles below, and the crumbling yellow plaster of the building (he'd heard it was an old convent) behind the wrought-iron fence across the street.
It still did him good to walk in here. The place had the most calming effect on him of anyplace he went all week. He loved to come in before anyone else and look into each of the three rooms in his suite plus the open area, with its dozen felt-walled cubicles, at the end of the corridor. He loved the plastic ferns in the lobby and Olga's high wooden desk, like the lip of a red-rock cliff here in the middle of this chilly concrete forest. The smell of the office was a mixture of the dust that settled on those ferns, old tea leaves at the bottom of the spice tins that lined the kitchenette shelves, and the new nylon carpet that had been imported from Sweden.
Almost a year in and even after half a dozen layoffs, he still liked to come in before anyone else and stare at the floor-plan blueprint that hung in the cubicle area, with its colored flags representing each worker. It still seemed to him a small miracle that it was his - a living thing that he had made - and that even in these difficult times he was holding it together by dint of sheer will and heart and tireless attention to detail.
At eleven the office had been officially open for an hour, and he couldn't put it off any longer. He called Valery in first.
The man came in with a lopsided smile, as if he were gathering reserves of ironic humor to meet what he knew was in store. Lucas almost relaxed, seeing this. "Valery Afanasyevich, my friend, sit down. You received my letter?"
Valery's reserves seemed to crumble in an instant. His jaw dropped open. He slumped in his chair as if he'd suffered a stroke. When he finally closed his mouth, it was only to let out a succession of bull-like snorts. Valery in fact looked a little like a bull - full-lipped, wide-nostriled, with small commas of black hair, like horns, curling at each temple.
"Valery Afanasyevich--" said Lucas.
"My wife," said Valery.
"Your wife. What does she need?" said Lucas quickly.
"My wife has somebody else," said Valery.
Lucas - wisely, he congratulated himself - said nothing.
"You know," said Valery, "she never ordered me out of the house. As she should have done. She never slammed the door and told me the sight of me was sickening to her. No. She only shrugged and smiled. A little smile like this." He simpered. "Shrugged. And smiled."
"I'm sorry," said Lucas. "I truly am. You've been with me since the beginning. You can go back to the vocational agency, you know. You can go back there and not have to pay. I will call them and explain the situation."
"The agency. What can they do for me? They trained me to get this job. Now you tell me I must leave it."
"They can train you for another job. Or they can help you find another one like this."
Valery simpered again. The effect, on his broadly drawn features, was faintly diabolical. It was reminiscent of the times when Lucas's father had dressed as a clown to dispense presents on the children's birthdays.
"Look, I'm very sorry," said Lucas, suddenly impatient with the idea of groveling for forgiveness. "The crash is tough on all of us right now. I'll do what I can for you. I'll give you a good recommendation. I won't mention any of the irregularities. You were a satisfactory worker."
Valery made no reply. He continued to sit in his chair, hands on the armrests as if he had been strapped to the seat. Lucas went to open the door and stood by it. He said Valery's name and got no response; he repeated it, and Valery finally stood up.
"You'll receive a month's severance pay," said Lucas. "Again, I'm sorry."
After lunch - a homemade one that the company ate all together, every day - he sat by the window with his face in his hand. He had to keep up a good front or Olga would come in and start worrying over him. The motherliness of Mother Russia. It made him want to grow a shell, crawl inside it, and roll himself down the street: down, down Zemlyanoi Val, down toward the banks of the river until it met the highway, rolling until he came to rest in one of those roadside parks - one of those random outcroppings of nature that were possible even in the dead-flat, marrow-drained outskirts of Moscow.
One Sunday afternoon last summer, Clyde and some of his groupies had taken Lucas to one of those parks off Leningradskoe Shosse. They had spent hours there until evening climbing trees and snapping pictures of each other with Clyde's Nikon. Clyde's latest flame Vanya had been there, and so had Boris: Boris of the North, gaunt and pale blond. "Anemic," Clyde sneered, but Boris was no ice-prince; he was too short for that and too much a monkey-face. That wide, rubbery mouth of his. The slight asymmetric puffiness - one side a little softer than the other - of the upper lip.
Boris had been like a creamy, petted version of Viktor. There he was again, in Lucas's thoughts. Viktor had been Lucas's first assigned companion when he had come to Russia as a Mormon missionary, eight years before. Viktor had been a Northern blond as well: from far up North, in Vyborg, near the Finnish border. Once, early on - it had still been summer - Lucas had come home to their apartment in the early evening to find Viktor sprawled across his couch-bed, naked except for his eyeshade. Lucas had stared and stared, feeling he was looking at his twin.
It's like he's me, he remembered thinking, if you left me out in the desert - lighter-haired, tanner, and more - carved. And he had thought what a study Viktor made, lying like that, and how much he would have liked to draw him. Oh, I wish I could draw.
They had never done very much: just lips and tongues and hands - it had managed to be enough somehow, and just short of far too much. Night was their time; they had never spoken of it by day. Like a dream, Lucas's memory of kissing the skin at the top of the neck beneath tangled hair and how he'd pressed his tongue to it so he could taste as well as smell the piney tingle he liked to think had settled into Viktor's pores from the massive forests of his home.
Night had been their time. It had been, Viktor, man. Vika. You awake?
Lyushka. I'm awake. It's cold in here.
They had never talked about it. The only time they ever had, it had ended in a small and sneering exchange of words and then Lucas saying, I'll show you and pulling Viktor to the floor and making Viktor - making him - take it in his mouth - in some misguided plan of Lucas's to try to humiliate Viktor - which, to put it mildly, had backfired.
Then, five days later, Viktor had left, reassigned to a mission in France - his heart's desire. He'd been studying French for years. He wanted to go to graduate school there.
Lucas jumped when the phone rang and was momentarily stunned to hear Clyde's voice on the line.
"What's up, old son?"
"Nothing. Had to let some more people go this morning."
"Hemorrhaging, eh?" said Clyde cheerfully. "Shall we hit Rosie's tonight, then? We haven't been there in far too long."
"I'm sorry, baby. I guess I can't tonight."
"Baby?" snorted Clyde. "What're you - trying to let them think you're on the line with wifey?"
"That's it, my love," said Lucas, mock-purring. "Natashka, my wife, my Kiss-dot-com bride."
Clyde laughed mirthlessly, a sound like hiccupping. "Don't try so hard, lad. Good God, just be yourself. Whatever that is."
"Fine. As myself, I'll say that I'm afraid I can't make it tonight. I've got an appointment to talk to a higher-up in my church. I know you say not to mention my church around you . . . Wilkins?" He stopped, moved the receiver away from his ear, stared at it a second, then shrugged. The line had gone dead.
The mission office was located south of the city center in a neighborhood that looked so much like any other outer-ring district that Lucas was momentarily disoriented. Finally, he was able to navigate a path to the correct apartment slab by using as a landmark an office building draped with a Pepsi banner over a row of blown-out windows.
Once buzzed inside, he saw no one in the lobby but a kid - obviously a missionary, almost certainly American. The boy was sitting on the edge of a low sofa, hunched over a coffee table, writing busily on a sketchpad.
The lobby hadn't changed since he'd last seen it. It was a tiny, cozy room with a single window high in the back wall. The other walls were lined with metal bookcases that held rows of Latter-Day Saints literature in English, Russian, and German.
"Is Brother Mallard in?" he asked in English.
The boy at the table looked up. He had a pale, strongly sculpted face with black-framed spectacles that magnified a pair of green eyes. The nerd effect this produced was offset by broad shoulders encased in the standard-issue missionary dress shirt. He had loosened his tie, it being late in the day.
"Yeah, sure man, he's in," said the kid. "Sasha went to get him when you buzzed. Elder Adam Held," he said, extending a hand.
"Lucas Tiller," said Lucas. He sat down on a folding chair facing the couch.
"You're a missionary?" said Adam.
Lucas laughed. The kid must not be too observant. Lucas's hair was way too long for a missionary, and he was too old as well, though his being so tall and thin and lopy still often fooled people into thinking he was younger than he was. "No. I was one in 90-92. Zelenograd."
Adam pursed his lips in a gesture of being impressed. "Cool. Back at the start of things."
"Yeah, I guess so.” Lucas tried for a moment to recall what it had felt like, that sense of having been chosen by divine grace. “And you? How long've you been in country?" he said.
"Just into my second year."
"Good for you." I sound about sixty, he thought to himself. “And how do you like Russia?"
"Oh, man." The kid was certainly a charmer. He acted as if it were the first time he'd ever been asked the question. "I don't know if it's a matter of like. The Lord's given me so many gifts here. The people I've met. It's so different from home. You can see right away how you can help."
An even younger-looking boy - presumably Sasha - interrupted, sticking his bristly dark head in from a door in the far wall.
"If you're here to see Dr. Mallard, you may enter," he said to the room at large.
Dr. Mallard, a middle-aged California blond in a crewneck sweater, had called Lucas in to present the idea that Lucas should help recruit the other young Latter-Day Saint professionals in Moscow into a more formal network affiliated with the mission. Missionaries could come to the workplaces to make presentations; there could be social events . . . it just seemed to Mallard that the professional Saints in the community had remained an untapped resource for far too long.
Lucas kept nodding. Out the corner of his eye he saw wisps of hair at his temple had escaped the draw of the ponytail. Through the window behind the older man's shoulder, he could see that dark had already fallen completely, and he felt a jab of hunger and of longing for the yellow-lit cube of his apartment.
Mallard was talking about how successful businessmen like Lucas could be a model for young missionaries. "They see all the types of futures available to them."
"Yes - I met one of them just now," said Lucas. "Elder Held, out in the lobby. He's impressive. Seems very committed."
"Yes, Adam," said Mallard. "He's very energetic, you're right. Astounding energy in that boy. The question is how usefully it's being directed. Adam would like to save the whole world and foresees doing it in his lifetime. This year it's Russian teenagers." He stopped and shook his head, smiling with a shrug that seemed meant to signify rueful. "He could probably use a few models of humility."
"Well, you've come to the right source then," laughed Lucas. "If you want humble. I gave up all my high ambitions months ago." He was about to add something about just being happy to get through the week, but he heard his own voice teetering on the verge of self-pity.
Mallard rewarded him with a quick grin. "I hope you'll come back to the meetings, son. The spiritual sustenance is there. You just have to reach out and take it." He shifted in his chair. “And how's your family, then? How's your wife?”
"She's fine," said Lucas. "You may have heard she decided to try going back home for a while." He paused, attempting to negotiate a path in his mind through his most recent memories of Marianne, the way they had left the future so perilously open, and the urge strong now to confide in Mallard, to confess to Mallard, really. If only they were Catholic, if only Mallard were a priest and the two of them were hunched right now inside the confessional, their two heads bowed on either side of that sexy little grille!
But he didn't know what he wanted to confess - he hadn't sinned - unless you counted witnessing Clyde sin at least once a week.
Lucas met Mallard's eyes, neutral and politely waiting. "I'm honored that you thought of me, sir," he said. "I'd consider it a privilege to help out in any way I can."
Mallard stood, holding out his hand, ready to see Lucas off with a squeeze of the forearm. "Well, I hope you'll consider it a good time as well. It's a stressful life here, as we all know. It can be easy to forget to loosen up and have yourself some much-needed fun."
Lucas dream-walked his way through the metro run home. It was almost seven, the air clear and cool, with that still, composed - splinted - quality of Moscow evenings before the fall of total night. The metro stations felt like that, too: the crowds thinning as the dinner hour advanced. At such a moment the clopping of women's high heels down the metro's vaulted corridors sounded almost comforting, like the tolling of a grandfather clock.
In the passageway at Kropotkinskaya he passed the same line of old ladies, flower-sellers, who had been standing there ten hours earlier. He nodded, said hello, slowed down. It was tempting. He hadn't done anything for anybody today. He had taken jobs away from two people.
He almost did it. But the bouquets cost four hundred rubles now, and he hadn't paid himself a salary since before the latest currency crash, in August. The remainder of the wages for the two he'd just laid off would have to come from his own savings.
He fell upon the brain-a-bloke glass door and had just stumbled through it when he saw the truncated figure out of the corner of his eye. One of the "samovar" quadriplegic veterans, nothing but a head and torso, propped up on his skateboard outside the station this time, in a circle of streetlamp light.
The man wore the jacket of his gray military uniform; the sleeves hung empty, trailing off the board onto the ground. He looked to be in his early thirties - an average-looking, perhaps even once upon a time handsome, man with curly brown hair under his gray beret. He wore a pair of steel-rimmed glasses.
Lucas stopped. It was far from the first time he had seen one of them, one of these men who had no limbs at all. But he never wanted to face it, did he? He never wanted to believe that the Lord could allow one of his creatures to live on in such a debased state.
Back home, if you saw such people, they at least rode in wheelchairs, or maybe even had artificial limbs - the point was they had things around them, a whole cushioned apparatus, so that you could more readily accept that behind their eyes still resided a brain and a soul that functioned just like yours did.
Lucas walked into his line of vision and bent down so as to talk. He was tempted to crouch but decided not to. "Hello, comrade," he said. "How are you today?"
Though Lucas stood not more than a foot away, the man didn't appear to see him. Was it possible he was blind, and deaf, as well? But Lucas was close enough to tell that the eyes weren't blind. Behind the lenses they were fixed on a point across the street.
"What do you need?" asked Lucas. "You need anything?" He had already decided to ignore, just for now, the cautions about supporting the subway panhandling mafia.
"So, do you come out here every day?" asked Lucas. One-sided though it was, it seemed he had to see this conversation through. He didn't know why. He'd stopped expecting the man to answer, so he was startled to hear a staccato voice erupt into the space between them.
"Cigarette," the voice said. "You got a cigarette, guy?"
"Ah," said Lucas. Instinctively he glanced behind him, toward the line of kiosks. A brief movie flickered in his mind, in which, on a spring day alive with the twittering of birds and the rushing of melting snow in the creek banks, he crouched next to the limbless man under a tree, the two of them talking and laughing. "Now?"
Lucas would say, and the limbless man would nod, and Lucas would stick the cigarette in his mouth while the limbless man puffed.
But when he stepped closer, he saw that the tobacco kiosk was dark. It was already closed for the night.
"I'm sorry, comrade." Lucas felt stricken. "I can't help you."
The man registered no response. His eyes went back to the point they had been trained upon, across the street.
Maybe soon his operators would come to take him away. Who were those people? Dagger-thin, dark men with empty eyes? Or could they just as easily be women? Brawny, lipless types, outlaw matrons. They would have to be so intimate with the quadruple amputee. They would have to pick him up, to touch him, every day. But probably they didn't care about that. Probably they just scooped him up like a sack of meal and dumped him roughly in the hold of the van they used to transport their sorry charges back to whatever ramshackle squat they housed them in during off hours.
Still, maybe not. Maybe there was some shred of humanity - however hypocritical, however useless - that poked through even the cartilaginous fabric of such deadened souls as that. Maybe they joked with the limbless man; maybe they were all, in some rough way, pals. "Hey, watch the head - it's all I've got!" and then maybe one of those great, bluff, heart-of-gold matrons would wink and snort, "Well - not all" - and so you would know that everything was okay; you could relax, calm down now. Everything was tolerable in their world - and in yours.
When Lucas's feet hit the sidewalk, the chill night air lashed his forehead like a burst of sea spray.
Fall nights in Moscow. These nights were tinged with the smell of wood fires, and dogs with kingly ruffs barked in echoing stone passageways. On some blocks, the only light came from a single apartment window. Every few steps a doorway opened into a courtyard black as a shroud, perhaps with one square of tangerine light shining like a distant prize. The play of black and light had always seemed to him a code. What precise complex of disappointments and desires would you have to experience in life to gain the secret knowledge that would crack it?
Moscow was a dark, decaying place, where you ought to be afraid to walk the streets at night. Yet Lucas never was, because it was so dark that there were no shadows. Shadows were the source of fear. His mother had known that. That was why, in the room he'd shared with his brother Landon when they were kids, she wouldn't turn on the night light after he had gotten old enough to start school. She would pull the curtains yet more tightly closed, turn the mirrors to the wall, and leave the closet doors open so that the monsters couldn't hide, and then she'd sit on the edge of one of their beds and tell them how the dark was their friend. She'd tell them about cocoons and caves where ancient people had lived and remind them of the "house" they'd made under a blanket over her desk. "Why do you love that so much?"
"Because it's small, and only you can fit inside, and because it's dark, boys. It's a secret." She'd tell them about the darkroom where her uncle had developed close-up photographs of garden plants, making them seem as strange and foreign as jungle growths; and she'd tell them about how they had been before they were born, fish-like creatures curled up in a womb, a thing that was like a velvet-lined pocket of sea water.
Lucas went up to his apartment, the one he had lived in alone now as long as he'd lived in it with Marianne. It was a one-room, stripped of the worst excesses of the old tenant - love beads, wall-to-wall pile carpeting, and tapestries in vermilion hues that had clashed with the auburn of the couch upholstery. What it had now was a braided rug on a wood floor, a glassed-in cabinet full of science-fiction paperbacks, and a modular L-shaped desk in the corner with computer, fax, and stereo. The rug was a touch sun-bleached at the edges, but Lucas liked this feature. It made him feel warmer to look at it.
He lay down on the couch. The auburn vinyl was now covered with a white cotton throw. He told himself he would get up and eat something and not fall asleep for the night without pulling out the bed. He closed his eyes and thought about Adam and his loosened collar. He knew it was a sin, and he knew he made it even filthier by trying to excuse it as only thoughts.
If Marianne were here . . . well, what? She'd nurse him back - she'd fuck him back - to health?
He thought of what his father had said, that time in the cab riding back to the hotel after the temple ceremony in Washington. Lucas had married Marianne six months after he'd returned from his Russia mission in '92. He had never told anyone about Viktor.
Out of the corner of his eye that night, in the back seat of the cab, he could tell his father was staring at him as if trying to memorize his profile. It was a trick Sam used from time to time. Resolutely Lucas himself had stared ahead, not taking the bait.
That got easier when finally Sam started talking. "Hasn't sunk in yet, has it?"
Lucas had granted him a flick of his head to the side. "Guess not."
His father had nodded. "Maybe tomorrow, when it's just the two of you." He reached over to knock Lucas's knee with a loose fist. "She's a pretty girl."
"You have your faith in common. That's really what matters."
A minute during which the only sound was the relentless blowing of the cab's heater, a tiny sirocco. Then Sam had come out with it. "The sex part," he said.
"Oh, Dad - " Lucas threw a glance toward the cabbie.
"The sex part," repeated Sam staunchly, at the same volume, "is - I just want you to know this - the least important part." He reached to place the same loose fist heavily on Lucas's shoulder.
"Well, I don't know," said Lucas, trying unsuccessfully to shrug off his father's hand.
"No. No. It really is. You know, your mother and I - well - it was never exactly like we couldn't keep our hands off each other."
"Oh, good grief, Dad." And then it had hit him. "Wait a minute. Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because it's something it seems clear you need to know," his dad had said, and that had been the abrupt end of the topic.
Ridiculous, these worries. He loved Marianne. What they had together was real. It was not like his daydream of being buds with the "samovar." He and Marianne loved each other, and their sex life had been just fine.
Lucas was asleep. Outside, a light snow fell. It was nothing but a slightly thicker frost; it wouldn't stick; it would be gone by morning. Inside his front room, one lamp burned. It shone onto the courtyard through the uncovered window, a beacon for any passerby who might have come to Moscow from some other place. It shone - a lone, bright clue - for any traveler wishing to break the code of the secret city night...
I'll Be A Stranger
by Cara Diaconoff
A young software pro returns to Moscow -- with carnal memories of his old missionary companion.
His wife stays in Boston, waiting for him to return, to build a family and a Mormon way of life.
But it's the end of the 1990's, the end of Russia's gold-rush era, and the end of ideals stretched beyond good use.
I'll Be A Stranger To You is a portrait of a modern Mormon struggle, a man of good conscience divided between desire and faith.
As one critic writes, "I'll Be A Stranger To You asks us to confront questions about what prayers can be said that will return a person's innocence, what blessings can be given that will return a person's beliefs. It is an excellent novel of conscience."
Cara Diaconoff's novel won 1st place in the Utah Art Council's writing competition (2007).
Diaconoff lives in Seattle and is the author of "Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories" (2008) from Lewis-Clark Press.
Read more about missionaries, gays and the Mormon church, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights in Russia.
Diaconoff's shortlist of recommended videos and reading starts here.
trailer credits: soundcloud: Tanno Iozzi flickr: Vokabre