By Glen Philip Hansman
I met Betina on the stairs; she was about to go down and I was returning to my room where Carsten was still sleeping. I wasn't sure what to say, so I didn't.
"I'm going to town," she offered.
"What are you going to see?"
"Nothing - just going to town." She pulled back the coat sleeve from her wrist revealing a tight bandage. "I'm so embarrassed," she moaned and then went silent for a moment. Her eyes were as bloodshot as mine must have been. A whisper: "I can't even do this right . . ."
The four of us try to find a room to hang out in, but everyone was either sleeping or paired off and not wanting to be disturbed. One of the teachers was out in the hall, and it seemed like something serious was going on, but no one was around to tell us anything.
We found the other teachers in the lobby, obviously intoxicated and not in the mood to deal with my broken stabs at a third language.
Peter wanders off, and Tina's friend conveniently vanishes. The two of us make a bet over who would fall asleep first. She keeps falling over on me, giggling, and brushing her face close to mine. I don't know what to do.
That's when her friend returns and we find out what all the gloomy faces were about. Betina had been found a couple of hours ago in her hotel room bath with her wrist cut open. Someone found in her in time, though, and I don't really know more.
"Maybe we should have been nicer to her," Tina said. Her hand gripped my thigh tightly.
At this point, I didn't feel like staying up any longer. Peter reappears and tries to keep me in the room with Tina, but I force my way out. I eventually find myself under my own covers, trying to ignore the banging on my door and the female voice outside yelling: "From now on, you're going be called Coward, okay? Everyone is going to call you Coward . . ."
Around eleven I went downstairs, bumping into Soren and Peter. "Hey," Soren acknowledged me with a laugh. "'I'm fucking pissed', ha! You should've heard him, Peter: 'I'm bloody fucking pissed.' Ha ha!" He turned back to me: "Do you want to go to town with us tonight?"
A few minutes later, Torsten, Bungard, Soren, Peter and I are piled into a taxi outside the hotel. The cab driver didn't understand where we wanted to go, and we weren't too clear either.
"Piva!" instructed Soren. "And vodka! Take us to a place where we can dance and feel girls."
We were taken to this German-owned bar on the Prospekt. Beer, whiskey, vodka: pay as you go. They tried to get me to play the piano, but fortunately some Swede came forward and took over for me after I had only played a few notes. The whole bar joined in wailing "Let it Be" and other Beatles songs. Soren and Torsten sang off-key louder than anyone else.
Soren kept pointing out women for me: "Look at her! My dick, you know . . ." He gestured a growing movement with his finger.
Some girls from our group showed up and I struck up a conversation with Tina whom I had never spoken to before. They wondered how we had found our way here. After a couple of hours, Peter pulls me aside and asks me quietly so no one else would hear: "Are you trying to make a pass at Tina? If you want, I can tell her that you like her. She really likes you . . ." But before I can answer him, he runs to her and they disappear. When he returns he grabs my arm and tells me: "We have holidays once we get back home, and you can see her as much as you want . . . you know, fuck her and things. That's how we do it in Denmark." Hell.
Eventually, Peter, the two girls and I leave the bar, leaving the others slumped over in a corner by the piano.
I wake up. Ten seconds later it occurs to me that I don't remember leaving the restaurant, or going to my room, or even finishing that second bottle of white wine. Carsten claims that I was "acting stupid" when I arrived, but I tell him not to tell me because I didn't want to know. As far as I was concerned, if couldn't remember it, nothing happened. "You were very polite, though," he said. "You asked me to 'Wake me up in the morning if you would be so kind.'"
No one seems to be doing anything - just sitting in hotel rooms vegetating. I go for a walk in the dirty back alleys and the field nearby, watching the children, scratching the heads of stray dogs. When I return, some have left for a performance of modern ballet while the rest had decided they were going to stay in the hotel's restaurant to eat and get pissed again.
Soren has informed me that I was very drunk last night. Apparently I had been running around to everyone to let them know how I was "fucking pissed." Relentlessly, Soren comes up to me and spits in my ear: "fucking pissed" . . . I don't remember, so it doesn't bother me.
In and out, in and out of the hotel after my walk I spot Lis, Line, Hanne, Peter and Carsten trying to flag down a cab. After a few unsuccessful minutes, an empty bus approaches. The driver leans out the window when the vehicle stops and he waves us over. "I will drive you around for one dollar per person," he says.
I thought it was a fair offer, but the Danes weren't too impressed by the price. Too high. But after they haggle him down to three dollars we are on our way --- seven of us, driving in an empty bus, going wherever we want. I get off at the Nevsky Prospekt to explore on my own.
A man leads us up the stairs to the men's change room where we are handed white sheets to cover ourselves. So we remove our clothes and wrap the loose-fitting fabric around our waists and head into the main hall. Through the heavy humidity I see several showers, saunas and in the middle of the room, a huge tub several metres high. Our host informs us that the tub is filled with ice water meant to purge us of the impurities of our daily lives.
Some older Russian gentlemen were pulling themselves out of the tub as we entered the room. Freezing, they rush their naked selves over to the hot sauna where they beat each other with branches to bring out the heat. The men attempt to strike up a conversation with us in various European languages, but we haven't much luck understanding one another.
I had never been nude among my classmates before. I wasn't sure if I could do it and not give myself away. While everyone else had long since discarded theirs, I left my white sheet draped across my waist. I avoided eye contact and gazed at the floor instead. Eventually the air in the sauna became unbearably hot anyway and I took off for the cold tub.
Soren follows, and, suddenly confident (knowing that I would be submerging myself into frigid waters), I hand him my sheet.
I climb up the ladder and sit on the edge, waiting for him to join me. "After you, I insist," he said. Without another thought, I enter the tub. Sliding underneath the water, I steal a glance at the trail of hair leading from Soren's chest to his crotch.
A rhythmic squeak pulls me out of sleep. Bedsprings. It's night and I can't make out any shapes in the room, nor can I fall asleep again until Carsten finishes himself off. Finally, his heavy breathing from the across the room ceases and I drift off to the sound of precipitation outside.
"How did you get here?" I asked her.
"By bus!" she replied.
"By bus? How did you do that?"
"Well, I don't really know . . . I just hopped on one, hopped on another, and tah-dah! Here we are!" Betina looked at me with a grin. We got along fine, even though no one else seemed to like her. Both of us were similar in that respect. Our classmates may have been friendly to our faces, but they wouldn't have much to do with us. She wasn't pretty by her peers' standards and she slept with the wrong boys; as for me, I wasn't manly enough.
"Sit with me," I told her. The fifty of us were occupying a small restaurant, and a loud, boisterous affair it was. There were more bottles of wine on the table than there were wine glasses. Voices sang out "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" with incredible gusto. Food, much food. But I don't remember what any of it was.
Eventually it was time for us to leave, but while the rest of our gang filed into cabs, Betina had other plans for me.
"Look!" she shouted. "A bus!"
"Where does it go?" I asked.
"I don't know."
We hop on and took a seat, laughing like crazy at the silliness of it all. Our fellow passengers stared at us, but it didn't occur to me to wonder what they were thinking.
Either we weren't paying attention, or we missed something, but all of a sudden I notice that bus had entered into a dark, unfamiliar area. Slowly it began to dawn on me that we had no map, we couldn't read the street signs, and we weren't really sure what the name of our hotel was let alone know where it was. Nor did we know our present location.
I insisted we get off the bus. The driver stopped and we stepped out into an unlit intersection. I was very worried, but Betina was still too drunk to get a full sense of what was going on. A large, ragged man came about the corner and started chasing after us, waving a bottle in his hand. We both screamed and took off, running to the nearest lighted area we could see. A park was nearby and we raced over to it - except it wasn't really a park, more of a gravel field with a few patches of weeds. In the middle were three boys our age were playing soccer between a pair of broken street lamps.
"Think we should play?" Betina asked, crawling through the fence and walking over to the boys to see if we could join their game. All they were able to speak was Russian and French. But after a few minutes of Russian-to-French and French-to-English-to-Danish translation, after too much wine and vodka, after getting lost in the middle of who-knows-where, I find myself playing goalie in the middle of the night, wearing my good clothes, destroying my good shoes, laughing at life.
Afterwards, they invite us back to the apartment building where they live with their families. Out comes a map of the city. One of the boys works as a guard at the Winter Palace and he gives me a book featuring some of its collections. "We'll take you to the metro and show you how to get back to your friends," he said in French. "But remember not to speak English. Around here, someone might cut your throat if they hear you." The walls of his home were covered with boxing gloves and tennis rackets, Persian rugs, black and white photographs.
Snow started to fall as we walked to the metro. The station was closed when we arrived, so our new acquaintances flagged down a cab and gave the driver the directions to our hotel. Betina and I said goodbye to them and off we went. Stretched out in the backseat, we looked out into the dark night as the white flakes increased in their intensity. Is it the beginning of a long winter or the end?
The words slip out of her mouth: "Am I ever going to be happy?"
I wasn't sure how to respond.
We remained silent until the car pulled up at the front steps of our hotel. Almost inaudibly, under her breath, Betina says: "Welcome to Leningrad."
Glen is a 26-year-old Education student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.