Between us, S held the record for smuggling: a handle of vodka, a bottle of scotch, and two of wine, divided into one-liter pouches taped around the ankles, stomach, and stuffed in a sports bra. She said it was the only time she found small breasts to be a blessing, though I still never knew how to take it when she joked about her body. My record was less, but body jokes were about the same.
After two late-December weeks spent between Moscow and St. Petersburg, we had begun to prepare for our departure back to Kuwait the following morning. As Americans living in a dry country, our final vacation hours often took on a frenetic, gluttonous pace. Beers. Bacon. Unedited movies. We hopped in the elevator in search of what would soon be contraband.
Outside of the Leningradskaya, one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters, I asked the Bellman to point me to the closest liquor store, with my hand in the international shape of a cup, bringing it to my lips several times. He looked perplexed. Misread, I thought, the action might too closely resemble the sign for blowjob.
“Vodka, vodka” I said, pointing outward to the city, a longer, more conspicuous “O” than I’m used to as an attempt to sound local.
“You know you look like a crazy person, right?” S said behind me.
“Hop in anytime, honey.” I replied, and she laughed at my tacit acknowledgment that she was right.
He pointed us toward what appeared to be a deserted bridge, mimed that we should pass beneath it to the other side. It looked abandoned, desolate, with no signs of anything beyond but more of the same. Still, where normal people might have turned away, our need was dire: she, an elementary school teacher, I, a journalist, regional stressors to our jobs had caused our alcohol quotient had grown similar. For me, the pruno wine and pot-stilled liquor ubiquitous on our Western Expat-filled compound had given me a terrible case of rotgut and I wasn’t sure my colon could survive another batch.
We nodded our heads in agreement and poured our way down Kalenchevskaya Street, huddling against each other for warmth, exhaust fumes assaulting our already frozen noses. Sarah was bundled up so high on the neck, I could only trust that she was in there, her long blonde hair sticking out the back of her beanie, a waving flag of pseudo-confirmation.
Halfway through the tunnel, we began to see that we were indeed sent in the right direction. A train station was in the near distance, a bank, some shopping ahead. We passed a government looking building with guys, seemingly drunk, hanging out outside. They appeared to be neither homeless nor going anywhere; it was a strange time to be loitering given the below freezing temperatures.
As we approached a busy intersection we noticed a small neon sign with two clanking bottles pointed underground, beneath which sat an ambulance, parked on the sidewalk, nearly blocking access. A crowd was forming and watching something unfold intently. I wormed my way between the bundled and huddled crowd, with S’s hand now pulled close to my back protectively, as we made our way through and descended the steps.
Two paramedics walked upstairs, carrying a man with a baseball-sized welt on his forehead, well-bloodied. His mouth hung open, moist with spittle. I thought I heard the guttural sound of throat singing. We looked and tried not to, simultaneously, while still descending into what could only be described as a haze that you could feel but not see. We entered the store to an entire aisles-worth, of bottles broken on the floor, the wreckage wet, smeared, and smelling of the pungency of alcohols that shouldn’t mix.
There is a palpable fog in spaces where a large and public trauma has just happened, where a post-rage vacuum sucks out the breathable air like a collective gasp, the off-putting strangeness of a group ignoring. The store was holiday-packed: every cashier’s lane five people deep, nobody acknowledging the disaster at the door, or the two guys who seemed responsible for it all, still inside, drunk and combative, wandering the aisles. Mostly, they could be avoided, until we found ourselves, finally, waiting to check out. S gasped, noticing my grip on a bottle of wine changed from cradling its midsection upright, to choking its neck from above, held low like a newly sprouted appendage.
S was pregnant at the time, though we didn’t know it yet.
And, a few weeks later, back in the gulf, during Arab spring, where regional tensions flared, and the rhetoric of U.S. politicians increasingly left us feeling exposed in the souks, it became increasingly less important for me to throw caution to the wind for the adventure. I thought about timing. Of hits and misses. The timing of when we walked into that store, of a child conceived. Truthfully nothing happened that night—to us anyways. Truth is, I didn’t even think about it again until the next time I watched baseball.
Bio: Brook McClurg received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University (Fiction) and an MFA from Rutgers University-Camden (Nonfiction). Originally from Southern California, he currently lives in Lubbock, Texas where he is pursuing a PhD at Texas Tech. His work has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Exposition Review, HeartWood Literary Magazine, & others. His Spanish language translations have appeared in the Loch Raven Review.