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The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 7

Alison Christy 7 December 2008

www.lablit.com/article/444

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

This would be a terrible experiment: you would need a control party, one without alcohol, or possibly without Russians

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 7

The Impact of Elevated Cortisol and Other Stress Hormones on Reproductive Strategies and Social Attachments

Materials and Methods

Recruitment and Screening of Study Participants:Moscow-residing American citizens (n = 4) and Russian citizens (n = 4), with an English citizen (n = 1) were housed for approximately 6 hours in a small apartment (50 m2). Subjects were selected for English-speaking ability and connections to the Moscow expatriate community. Citizenship was determined by oral reporting.

Preparation and Analysis of Comestibles: Russian blini were prepared as previously described from all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour, white sugar, non-distilled water, active dry yeast, whole milk, butter and eggs (local markets, Moscow) and provided to study participants ad libitum. The flavor and texture of prepared blini was analyzed subjectively by study participants.

Induction of Oral Intoxication:Beer (5% EtOH), wine (12% EtOH) and vodka (40% EtOH) were procured from local markets in Moscow and provided to study participants ad libitum.

**********

This would be a terrible experiment, Anna thinks as the door closes behind Sasha and Sergei. You would need a control party, one without alcohol, or possibly without Russians. Not to mention a blind, disinterested observer.

She can no longer pretend to be disinterested.

It is awkward to be alone with Frank, who begins to do things: pulling out the couch-bed and putting on clean sheets while she hops around his apartment, picking up used plates and glasses and bringing them into the tiny kitchen area. She manages to get comfortable on the couch, and closes her eyes as Frank turns off the lights.

“Good night,” she says.

When Anna opens her eyes the next morning she knows exactly where she is, and how long it has been since she showered or brushed her teeth. Her teeth are coated with yesterday’s wine and blini and her hair is falling out of its ponytail. And she desperately needs to use the bathroom.

Frank is asleep in a worn gray sleeping bag on the floor, his face pressed into his pillow, exposing a thinning patch of hair on the crown of his head. Anna climbs carefully off of the couch and hops as quietly as she can toward the door she assumes is the bathroom. There is a sink and a bathtub in this room, but no toilet; behind the door next to it there is a toilet and no sink.

After she pees she hops to the sink room, where she washes her face with Frank’s hand soap and rinses out her mouth with his mouthwash. Her hair is limp and stringy around her pale, puffy face. And now she has to decide whether to wake Frank, or hop back to her couch and pretend to sleep until he wakes up – or to try to sneak out and get back to her hotel before he notices she’s gone.

But as she hops back into Frank’s living room he rolls over on his pallet and groans.

“You’re up already?” he says hoarsely. “Jesus. Coffee’s in there.” He waves his arm at the kitchen area and Anna hops over to look around.

She brews the coffee and pours herself a cup, wondering if she is supposed to wake Frank again or let him sleep longer. But he gets up, his face creased with lines from the pillow and his legs emerging pale and hairy from his boxer shorts, and holds out his hand for coffee.

“Thanks,” he says. “I’m not a morning person.”

Anna looks at her watch. “It’s almost noon.”

Frank grunts and drinks the coffee.

They eat leftover blini, and Frank offers to walk Anna back to her hotel. “What haven’t you seen yet in Moscow?” he asks her. “Or better yet, what have you seen?”

“Not much,” Anna says.

**********

It is after two o’clock by the time Anna has limped back to her hotel, showered in the frustrating drizzle from her hotel room faucet and dressed in a plain dark outfit: indistinguishable, she hopes, from the faceless Russians populating Moscow. Frank suggested that they meet later at her hotel. But when she makes her way slowly into the lobby Frank is not there.

But Marina is, pacing by the doors. She tuts and folds an English-language paper under her arm when she sees Anna.

“Frank told me to wait here for you,” she says. “He said that something came up and that I should show you Moscow.”

The bubbly energy of the night before is gone. Marina’s eyes are narrow and her arms folded across her chest.

“It’s okay, if you don’t want to –” Anna starts.

Marina turns quickly and walks away, so that Anna has to hurry after her to catch up. Marina’s heels are ridiculously high and her skirt stretches tightly over her slim rear. “Ah, I see your ankle is better,” she says.

“It still hurts,” Anna says. “Actually, if we could walk a little slower –”

“We will take a car,” Marina says. She holds out her hand and almost immediately an unmarked, rusty car slides over to the curb. She opens the door on the passenger side and speaks briefly with the driver in Russian; then she gestures for Anna to get into the car.

“Is he a friend of yours?” Anna asks.

Marina raises her eyebrows. “Get in.”

The backseat of the stranger’s car is covered with a gray plaid blanket and Anna has no way to get to the seatbelt, if there even is one. She holds on to her seat and tries to brace herself when the driver turns. The air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror is shaped like an American dollar sign and emits a smell of artificial watermelon. The fake leather back of the driver’s seat appears to have been slashed with a knife, and the stuffing is falling out onto the floor.

This can’t end well, Anna thinks, clinging to the seat as Marina chats animatedly with the driver. The English-language newspapers will probably write about her, like they did about Michael Perch, in their weirdly amateurish prose:

An American tourist died in Moscow today, in an automobile accident that also killed the driver and one other passenger. Dr. Anna Forsch (30) was visiting Russia shortly after receiving her Ph.D. in Cellular Biology and Genetics. She was lured into the fatal automobile by Marina ----, about whom she knew nothing except that she apparently liked to make out with American men at parties.

Frank ----, an American studying in Moscow, was the last person to see the doomed tourist alive. “There are Americans who can handle Moscow,” he told a journalist. “Anna was not one of them.” Frank has written a song about Dr. Forsch’s untimely demise. His CD, Folk Songs of the New Russia, has been picked up by Columbia Records and will be in stores next March.

Police have found no evidence of negligence on the part of the Moscow Traffic Authority or foul play resulting in the victim's death.

That’s assuming, Anna thinks, that the driver isn’t a friend of Marina’s, hired to take her into an alley somewhere, rob her and kill her. But surely Marina would try to be a little more friendly if she were trying to trick her. She glances over at Marina, who laughs loudly at something the driver has just said.

The car swerves again, throwing Anna into the door, and then stops, mercifully, by the curb. Marina pays the driver and gets out, slamming the car door behind her.

The building before them is delicate and colorful beyond an intricate wrought-iron gate, like a castle from a Russian fairy tale where the princess would braid her long blonde hair while the prince confronted the witch who held her captive. Anna stops on the sidewalk outside the gate. Her ankle aches.

“This is the Tretyakov Gallery,” Marina says, lighting a cigarette. “Russian art. Tourists like it.”

“Why don’t you go home, Marina,” Anna says. “I’m here, I can see the museum on my own, now that I’m here.”

But Marina just shakes her head.

An old man walks by them, slowly, awkwardly, swiveling his head from side to side. His sherbet-colored shorts and matching orange knee socks glow in the sunlight, and despite the warm weather he wears a cheap imitation of a Russian fur hat on his head. The old woman tottering behind him wears thin knee socks under her skirt and clutches a large black purse. She is saying, in loud American-accented English, “Jeffery? I think the entrance is over here. Jeffery, the entrance is over here. Jeffery!”

Anna starts to smile – she is certain that the Marina she met yesterday would have found the old couple funny – but Marina just draws her eyebrows together. She walks to the entrance on her high heels, leaving Anna standing alone on the sidewalk.

In the lobby of the Tretyakov gallery – full of people, in long lines, speaking a loud Babel of languages – Anna sits down defiantly on a low wooden bench. Marina stands in one of the lines and waits for her, arms folded. Finally she gives up and sits down next to Anna.

“Look, Marina,” Anna says, rubbing her ankle. “You clearly don’t want to be here. Why don’t I spend a couple of hours in the museum, and then, if you want, you can meet me here and we can go get coffee or something.” Her voice sounds wonderfully rational and calm to her. In truth, her ankle is throbbing and she doesn’t understand why Marina is treating her like this. In truth, she feels like crying.

“Did you sleep with him?” Marina asks suddenly.

“What?” Anna says.

“I do not know what you think you are doing,” Marina says. “You come to the pub and spy on us, you pretend to hurt your ankle when he is nearby, you tell him to have this party and then you drink too much so you will have to stay at his flat –”

“It’s not like that,” Anna says, astonished. “Really, it’s not.”

“Well, I would like to know what it is like,” Marina says. “Do you think you can just walk in and take over? Because this is what I am telling you now. He might sleep with you now, but soon he will be back with me.”

“I never –” Anna says.

“Because you are just another American whore to him,” Marina says. “Another stupid easy tourist bimbo.”

“And what exactly are you?” Anna asks, suddenly angry. “Some cheap Russian he sleeps with when there aren’t any Americans around?”

When in Rome, she thinks. If this is how we’re going to play this. She no longer feels like crying – in fact, she feels flushed and powerful. It’s not like she’ll ever see Marina again, and it feels so good to say it, spitting out the words with an insulting, self-satisfied smirk on her face, watching Marina’s eyes get wide and angry, as though they were both characters in a melodramatic soap opera and would soon be falling to the floor and pulling at each other’s hair.

But Marina’s eyes suddenly overflow with tears, and she puts her hands over her face. “Don’t say that, don’t say that,” she sobs, and Anna, embarrassed, pats her awkwardly on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Anna says. “Please don’t cry.”

She looks up and sees Jeffrey, who has finally found his way into the lobby of the Tretyakov gallery, in his striped shorts and cheap Russian hat, nudging his wife who is staring at Marina, sobbing on the bench.

{Continued next week}