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June 27, 2022

Bonfires

By Sand Pilarski

The encounter was just chance, but both of them knew that there is a fire that can be sought when one is cold and alone. Sometimes the world seems so cold, and a life can seem like such a lone spark in a vast emptiness, that finding fire is the only solution human eyes can see...

"Call me Anna," she said to him, shaking his hand, looking up into his icy blue eyes, and having no intention of ever telling him her real name. This snooty little university town was isolated enough along the coast to feed ravenously on its own populace, lapping up every droplet of gossip as though it were the Water of Life. "Anna Davis."

"Anna," he echoed, his accent changing the sound of the vowels. Said that way, the simple name sounded foreign, exciting. "And you must call me 'Sasha', not 'Doctor Khorodov.'"

"Thank you, Sasha." A little thrill flashed over her skin; inviting her to call him Sasha and not Aleksandr proved she was correct -- he was inappropriately, overly interested in her.

She'd thought as much over dinner earlier. Her table was not very far from his, and her seat happened to face him. They'd had a clear view of each other without having to duck and peer around other guests. She'd looked up from her soup and saw him looking at her, much to her surprise, and then, though she'd tried not to, she'd kept finding him with her eyes, and more often than not, had found him looking at her.

Then she'd become certain that he was looking at someone behind her. Embarrassed by her vanity, she'd resolutely refrained from looking in his direction ... until dessert plates were being cleared away, when she'd looked up in time to see him raise his wine glass, pause, and with the tiniest of gestures, toast her before drinking.

Oh, she knew who he was. The local newspaper was kept lively with articles about him, and editorials acknowledged what an honor it was that the great Dr. Aleksandr Khorodov had come to Port Laughton University from Moscow State University for a series of talks during the summer semester. He was sixty years old, had been married for thirty of them, had engendered three children, all grown now and with doctorates of their own. His lecture series had been about therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and Agoraphobia. He was not a clinical psychiatrist, but no one really cared if his hypotheses about treatment were valid. Judging by the reaction of the Psychology Department, the most amazing thing about Professor Khorodov was that he acknowledged the existence of Port Laughton University at all. They, and the rest of the Liberal Arts faculty, adored him, accent, nationality, flashing blue eyes and all.

"Do you teach at the lovely Port Laughton University?" He asked.

"Merely a student," 'Anna' smiled. "No one at all."

"But you don't act like 'no one at all,' Anna. You meet my eyes with courage, and do not giggle."

"Your eyes freeze my giggle into a gasp," she said, looking out over the balcony toward the ocean.

"My eyes can't be the problem, it must be this cold wind from the ocean. Shall I put my jacket around you?"

"No, thank you. I came out here after dinner because it was so warm inside."

"And I followed, because without you in the room, there was no warmth inside."

There was something about him that made her want to be pursued. Perhaps it was the eyes, perhaps it was that he was seducing her with words rather than fumbly gropes, or was it just that she was tired of the young students with whom she sat classes, who chewed gum noisily, scratched at their fading acne, and communicated in grunts? Sasha was a man, not a boy; a foreigner, not a tiresome local. He was old enough to make her feel young again, a refreshing change from feeling like a has-been amongst kids.

"What on earth brought you to Port Laughton, really?" she asked, turning back to look at him squarely again.

"They told me I would be going to California, to the coast. What other reason did I need? I didn't know that it would be so cold in the summer. I thought that I would go back to Moscow tanned and knowing how to surf." He shrugged.

"But you are tanned."

"Between lectures, I have someone drive me to Sacramento, where I lie beside a hotel swimming pool. There is no opportunity to learn how to ride a surfboard there, but it is warm."

She laughed. "April and October are our warm months, but Port Laughton is not a good beach town. Next time, you should look for opportunities in San Diego, much farther south, or on the East Coast -- but then the surfing isn't as good there."

"This was the chance of a lifetime," Sasha murmured. "I don't think I'll have it again."

"When do you return to Moscow?"

"Next Tuesday. What an unremarkable day for travel. And such a short time left."

Some nameless person appeared to collect Sasha from the balcony of the dining room, so that pictures could be taken, and comments noted for the newspaper's society column the next day.

Probably that was the best outcome under the circumstances, she thought. She'd got to call him 'Sasha' and been 'Anna' to him. His absence left a great cold spot in the open air, so she reentered the stuffy dining room where most of the worthies attending had gathered in a voluble knot near the open bar. Collecting her purse from her chair, she walked slowly and carefully on her unaccustomedly high heels to the door. It had nearly been a night to truly remember, even though her use of an alias would have made his memories untrue. She sighed. For a few minutes, she'd left her everyday persona behind, and become someone sultry, someone desired, someone ... else.

She stopped at the coat check room to pick up her wrap, and while she waited for the girl behind the counter to retrieve it, a young man brought her an envelope, unsealed, with a note inside it.

Frowning, opening it, she read, "Will you take time with me tonight? -- Sasha"

Her heart flooded, and she glanced at the clock. Ten at night. She pulled a pen from her purse and wrote on the bottom of the note, "Eleven PM, at 437 Fillion Street, Apartment 2A."

A taxi was idling at the curb. She slithered in. "Wal-Mart," she said.

The cabbie said, "What? Did you say, 'Wal-Mart?"

"Yes, I did. I want to do some discount shopping. Must have been the wine."

At Wal-Mart, she kept the cab idling while she went in and bought a pair of jeans, a pair of sweatpants, and two sweatshirts. Just in case there was a morning to follow the evening, and two people chose not to go about in the sunlight in evening dress. "And next, Chellon's Deli on First." When they stopped there, she went into Chellon's and bought a bottle of red meritage, and a half-pound of their sharpest white cheddar. She returned to the cab. "Thanks for being so patient, now I need to go to 437 Fillion Street."

This is insane. Is he even going to know what I meant? She phoned her family and left a message, "I'm staying in town tonight, the Fillion apartment. Thanks, goodnight." She tipped the cabbie thirty percent (assuring herself he would remember her face in the future) and opened the door with her key.

The maid had been watching TV with her feet up on the ottoman. "Good evening," said Anna. "You now have the next sixteen hours off, with pay. Thank you very much, shall I call you a cab?"

"No, Ma'am. I'll just call my daughter and she'll come get me. We only live on Hammerly." The woman picked up the phone, dialed, and muttered. When she hung up the phone, she said, "She's coming right over, Ma'am."

Ten forty-five. Anna turned out most of the lights, helped the maid find her purse, her coat, her keys, her inhaler, and had her out the door and into her daughter's car by ten-fifty-eight. The daughter's car pulled out away from the curb just as a black Audi sedan pulled in. As Sasha stepped out of the Audi, Anna opened the door, and without a word, led him up the stairs to the apartment.

"Please, have a seat," she told him. "May I pour you a glass of wine?"

"That would be nice," Sasha said, looking out the windows over the ocean. "This is not so very far from where we were, is it?"

She handed him a glass, "We're about five blocks south. Are you having your driver wait, or did you send him on to wait for your call?"

"I told him I would call him, is that all right?"

"Oh, yes. We've no need for hurry."

Anna opened the window, allowing the cool maritime air to flow into the apartment, the sound of the surf against the storm wall making a gentle background noise.

"A very pleasant wine," he said. "A drink for savoring good company, unlike vodka, which acts as an anesthetic against the pain of winter, or despair."

"I'm glad that I didn't pick up a bottle of vodka, then! I thought about it, but I would have no idea how to serve it -- there are so many things that it mixes with."

"Traditionally, it is served in a glass," Sasha said, his eyes looking into hers, his face still. "Some fools mix pepper into it, but it only makes them cough. Are you a student of the Psychology college? I don't recall seeing you at any of my lectures."

"I might have been in disguise; generally people mistake me for a tall black man in a business suit." As Sasha's brow furrowed, and he looked more closely at her, Anna smiled. "But this time you are correct. I was not at any of your lectures, though I read about them in the newspaper, and had a friend of mine on the faculty tell me about them."

"And that would be who, may I ask?"

"Professor Ambris, from the Anthropology Department."

"I remember her. Very pretty woman, very expensive clothing, took many notes as only the truly bored participants ever do to keep themselves awake. Or perhaps she was writing letters."

"She was taking notes, most definitely. She was particularly interested in your suggestion that anti-anxiety medications were over-prescribed, and that the side effects of such medications could actually be the cause of some of the disorders."

Sasha put his hand on his forehead and looked up at the ceiling. "I am getting so flattered I am dizzy. I did not think anyone had actually listened."

"It was Dr. Ambris who asked me to attend tonight's dinner in her place. Here, let me refill your glass, and let us toast her for her misfortune -- her flight from Chicago was cancelled due to bad weather."

"Wait, we must do this just so -- a double measure of luck when we link arms -- this way." He looped his right arm through hers, so that as they drank, their forearms pressed against each other.

Anna's skin prickled with goosebumps at the intimacy of the touch. He noticed immediately; he might even have known she would react that way.

"Here, poor shivering lady, now I will put my jacket around you! And your hair, let me help ... " Gently he lifted the blonde braid from under the jacket, smoothing the foot or so that swung straight and loose from the jeweled clip. His gaze traveled to her temple, where the French braid began. He reached up and touched the first crosses of the braid. "Exquisite," he said.

In return, Anna put her fingers against his clean-shaven face, brushing against his high cheekbones, tracing the line of the edge of his lips. He shut his eyes, and leaned into her hand as she began to take it away. She shifted on the couch, while he put his arm around her. They were face to face, each feeling the heat the other radiated in the dim light of the apartment.

This is how it happens, since the first. We crave heat in the chill air of the world; it could be the fire, it could be the sun, but when it's cold and dark, the heat that we hunger for is the warmth of another human being, someone to whom we can get close enough to burn ourselves, like a funeral pyre upon which we can die to the loneliness in life.

Her family would be appalled if they knew about this, but the chill of the world had pressed oppressively at her back since she'd met Sasha Khorodov's eyes. He was searching her eyes, looking for something. "You are so far from home," she said to him.

He nodded in agreement. "And I have been lonely. Why did I not meet you weeks ago, when we could have taken so much more time?" He leaned forward and sweetly kissed her mouth, almost chastely.

"This is all the time we have," Anna whispered. "None of it should be wasted."

Aleksandr Khorodov kissed her again, this time with passion, her lips, her throat, the bare chest above the bodice of her evening dress. The electric arcs of desire pulsing through her body made her laugh aloud.

"What is it about you, Sasha? You make me feel like a bonfire on the beach."

"That is perfect! A bonfire on the beach! Anna, the bonfire, I the humble log."

"A log, Sasha?" she said, wrapping an arm around his neck. "Is that how you would have me remember you?"

"I am a log, Anna, and should I fall upon you, it would be dangerous. Have you no mattress to cushion that fall?"

"This way, come with me. We'll light a bonfire in the dark."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-05-05
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