“As your ship’s doctor, I prescribe a night of drunken debauchery,” Anatoli said with a gurgling chuckle.
Rosie highlights adorned the doctor’s sallow features. Mikhail had considered it ironic that the ship’s physician seemed in the poorest of health amongst the crew. But though he appeared only a wrinkled drape of skin on a knobby boned skeleton, the doctor’s constitution always withstood the harshest treatment, especially when drinking.
Mikhail pulled his shipmate closer. “I know Anatoli, you’ve said this three times tonight.”
The doctor snickered as he collapsed into his drink. “So get drunk already.”
Mikhail surveyed the smoky bar and shook his head. Half the officers of the K-389 stood along a wall, leaning over the high tables or sitting in the stools. Their objective, a row of women dressed and painted to negotiate their evening, a sailor’s wages for a night of passion.
A bench made of thick wood ran the length of that wall. The women here guarded their purses more closely than their modesty or pride. They winked and nodded, laughed and gasped with practiced skill at all the proper cues.
Posters plastered the concrete walls, a collage of propaganda, health reminders and factory slogans. In a few small niches, minute pieces of crude art hid the blistered paint, a tug boat, the shipyard landscape, a faceless portrait.
From a bar whose lacquered surface faded away years ago, shipyard workers eyed their naval comrades, not a cheerful face amongst them. The bar tender and his staff served as ambassadors between the two crowds as much they did vodka, black bread, and goat cheese. Komsomolsk-on-Amur stood a city besieged by lonesome young sailors anxious to squeeze a lifetime of revelry into every evening ashore.
“I think we’ve enough drunk sailors for one establishment,” Mikhail cautioned. “I only came to sickbay hoping to play another game of chess. My heart belongs to the K-389.
Anatoli followed Mikhail’s gaze and snorted. “Not to worry, after you saved the ship with a fountain of turds and toilet paper, I gave you enough immunizations to protect you against anything these tramps carry.” He nudged Mikhail. “Go on, like the submarine, you need some upkeep if you’re to stay together in the upcoming patrol.”
Mikhail studied each of the remaining solitary women. Uniquely unappealing to most, the dregs of Komsomolsk’s gutter, one caught his eye. Scrawny even by gulag standards, she met his gaze with cool blue eyes unwavering and unashamed. She raised her shot glass to salute him without a false smile or a forced twinkle in her eye.
An iron hammer drove between his shoulder blades and Mikhail’s drink tumbled to the floor with a crash.
“Go on, latrine commissar,” a raspy gravel voice commanded. Mikhail winced as he looked over his shoulder.
Gavriil Pelyovin’s goading grin completed the block-headed missile officer’s taunting efforts. “She’s thin as a fishing pole, but just as flexible. If I couldn’t break her, you’re in no danger.”
Mikhail drew in a deep breath and held it while he sought a suitable retort. With an exhale through clenched teeth he forced a smile. “I’ve no intention of breaking the lady. I’d rather treat her like a gentleman and see where that leads.”
“She’s no lady,” Gavriil snickered. “And gentlemen don’t shower themselves with the crew’s filth.”
Mikhail stood, turned, and looked down at the stocky lieutenant. He mustered his sternest glare. “Better a filthy survivor than a tidy corpse. I know you don’t think much of me or the woman over there, but give us both a break.”
“You’re drunk, Lieutenant Pelyovin,” Anatoli observed. “Go on and bother someone else.”
Gavriil stepped back, frowned and examined Mikhail from beneath his broad Neanderthal brow. His fists clenched and unclenched. He shifted his footing to a boxer’s stance.
“Are you looking for a fight?” Gavriil asked with a crooked grin.
“I’m not,” Mikhail explained as he took a defensive posture, “but I’ll not back down from one, ever.”
He leaned in and slapped Mikhail’s upper arm. With a devilish grin and a sharp laugh he replied. “We’re going to have fun at sea, I can see that already.”
“Damn your foolish pride,” Anatoli cursed in a low shaky voice. “Take your frustrations out some other way, or I’ll have you both taken back to the ship in irons.”
A hand gripped Mikhail’s shoulder from behind and he whirled about, ready to fight. His jaw dropped as his fierce gaze met that of an equally fierce woman. Something seeped in from the hard edges of her eyes and showed in her faltering thin frown.
“Would you rather spend tonight in a hospital bed, or mine?” Her stern set features softened and she smirked. “I can provide the irons too, if you like.”
Gavriil chuckled and retreated to join Anatoli. With no seat to go back to, and everyone watching, Mikhail offered an arm to the slim woman.
“Lieutenant Mikhail Koryavin, of the Red Fleet, at your service.”
“Nika, simply Nika,” the woman replied. “Unless you prefer another name, I’ve had several.”
He ushered her to the bar and ordered a bottle of vodka and two glasses. He leaned against the thick wooden bar. “You’ll not find I’m not nearly as rambunctious as my shipmates, hardly any fun at all, really.”
Nika set the glasses atop the bottle and nodded toward the stairs. “As long as you’re paying, I’ll be fine. I could use a break from rowdy sailors.”
The stairs and hallway felt drafty and were littered with merriment’s debris, cigarette butts, cans and bottles. Nika looked to him while she unlocked the door. “You can pay, can’t you?”
More concrete greeted him, though devoid of posters to hide its peeled skin of paint. A bed, a hotplate on a table, a bathroom, and four factory sized windows with only whitewash to offer privacy or shield against the bitter winds rattling against the thin panes. Inside the drafty apartment, Mikhail still felt the heat of his anger, and something else, fear.
“What’s your flavor, sailor?” Nika asked as bent down, unzipped and peeled off her plastic boots. At his silence she looked back at him. “Oh, did you like the boots?”
“They’re nice,” he whispered.
“Ah, I’ll put them back on then.” She sat on the edge of her bed. Rusty bedsprings squealed at her waifish frame. “Anything else you’d like me to wear?”
“All of it,” he murmured.
Nika’s eyes widened. “What is this? Are you here to arrest me? The bar tender told me he took care of all that.”
“No,” Mikhail said.
“What’s wrong with you?” she wondered with a scowl beneath eyes alight with fear. “You were full of fire downstairs, but now…
As her voice trailed off her fear faded in favor of a snide crooked smile. “I’m not exactly your type, am I?”
“What?” Mikhail asked his shock came out, barely a whisper.
Nika sprang up from the bed, raced to him and put a finger to his lips. “Shush, there’s no cause for alarm. As long as I can get a finder’s fee, I’ll fetch you a handsome young man to keep you warm. I know a few in town.”
Mikhail grabbed her by the wrists and pushed her backwards until he threw her onto the bed. “Don’t you dare say that,” he growled. “I’m no pidor and I’m no policeman either.”
“Alright, don’t pick a fight with me,” she cried as she rubbed her reddened wrists. “I only wanted to figure you out so we can move this along. I’ve got a long night ahead of me and I’d just as soon get the pleasantries over if I’m to make any money.”
Mikhail bent down and pulled her skirt off and threw it across the room. He grasped the waistband of her leggings and started to peel them off. Nika squirmed backwards on her elbows until she lay diagonally across the bed in only a sweater and a leather jacket.
Mikhail unbuttoned his tunic and pants, letting each drop as he shed them. He crawled onto the bed over top of Nika, examining her as he inched up to meet her astonished gaze. She brought her hands up between them.
“No kissing,” she whispered with a pouting frown. She began rubbing her hands together.
“What’re you doing?” Mikhail muttered.
“Getting ready to do… this.” She grabbed him and all his muscles drew taught. From the shadowy corners of his mind, unwelcome demons leapt. Memories of his stepfather and their evenings together flooded in. The way he’d groped and grabbed, whispering kind words, loving words all the while.
“You sick bastard,” she yelled. “I don’t do that!”
Mikhail examined her, panicked by the loss of time between nightmare and chaos.
In his shock induced stupor, he’d puked, all over her. He scrambled to his feet as Nika shoved him away.
“Nika,” he began, his voice trembling still from the wake of fear and hurt a decade old. “Nika, I don’t know what happened. I’m so sorry.”
“What was that?”
“Shut up and let me think,” Mikhail spat back. “If you hadn’t been so damned pushy… I tried to tell you…
Nika stood and marched into the bathroom. The pipes groaned and thumped as she turned on the faucet, cussing under her breath all the while. Soon she emerged with a bucket, a sponge, and disinfectant.
“I’ll buy you a new mattress and new sheets,” he promised.
“Where?” She shook her head and peeled away the soaked bedding. “There’s none in Komsomolsk to buy, comrade.” Her final word stung Mikhail with its tone. “This isn’t some naval academy dorm. I had to steal these from a hospital.”
She turned from her work and glared. “The least you can do is clean up after yourself.”
As the layers of sheets came off, Mikhail heard the mattress crinkle; a layer of yellowed plastic protected the mattress. Nika shrugged as she noticed Mikhail’s surprise.
“This isn’t the first time someone’s messed up my bed.”
Once they’d finished, Mikhail stood and stumbled to a nearby chair.
“And I thought I was fucked up,” Nika observed.
Mikhail ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t even know where to begin, how to…”
Nika dropped her sponge and bucket, shuffled closer and took his hand in hers. As she did, Mikhail realized how much it trembled.
“I think I understand,” Nika whispered.
Mikhail’s lungs seized up. He looked into her eyes and felt himself growing fragile, like newspaper dissolving into embers in the fireplace.
“I was a shivering mess the first few times as a teen.” Her gaze lowered and drifted into dark memories.
“I’m no pidor,” Mikhail insisted. “I like women.”
A harsh laugh escaped Nika. She offered an apologetic glance and a wry smile. “You’ve a funny way of showing it.”
“I would love to bed you,” Mikhail continued, his voice sounding like a plea. “It’s just… hard.” He let out a nervous laugh. “I mean, difficult.”
Nika turned from him and walked to where her leggings lay. As she bent to retrieve them, Mikhail admired her long legs and firm bottom. Were she not a continent away from Moscow, she might’ve been a gymnast.
After a long silence between them, Mikhail marched to the table, poured himself a tall glass of vodka and gulped it down. As the liquor slid down his gullet and stung every inch on the way, he let out a great sigh. Eyes closed, inhaling the odors of a filthy apartment, old garbage, mildewed shower curtains, and the musky undercurrent of sex; he turned to face Nika.
“I don’t suppose you play chess?”
“You’re still paying, right?” she asked with a half-smile. It faded as she explained. “I’ve got people to pay. I don’t pay, I sleep in the street. The whore commune has some pretty harsh rules.”
Mikhail grinned and shook his head. “What else have I to spend my money on except a quiet night with someone who understands me more than anyone else?”
“Calm down, sailor, I’m nobody’s counsellor or confessor.”