Sipping Stoli straight from the bottle and strolling through the Russian store of randomness, we were starting to feel pretty giddy aside from the odd flock gathering.
The local Russians were not only trailing us, they were starting to touch and by this I don’t mean the shoddy merchandise– I mean us. And to be more specific, Abi.
I’ve never seen a celebrity mobbing but I suspect it must be similar. I thought perhaps they’d mistaken her for someone famous, maybe Naomi Campbell, the “it” model of the moment. Abi’s hair was considerably shorter and her hips wider “from birthing babies bigger than my husband’s mouth,” she liked to say, but she was tall and perhaps this was her qualifier.
While I was contemplating this, Betty Lou laid it out.
“They’ve never seen a black person.”
A Russian elder reached out to touch Abi’s hand. Touch isn’t quite the right word — More like rubbed her hand. The woman looked at her fingertips.
As if this was the signal, others reached out to touch Abi. Nearly lost in a sea of clamoring hands, the look on her face was flight attendant protocol: What The—?! screaming under a porcelain veneer.
Time to go.
Without a word we moved en masse toward the door.
Captain Dave tunneled through the crowd and grabbed Abi’s hand while we beat a path to freedom. The smooth exodus of our captive Abi from potentially threatening admirers seemed almost too easy and as it turns out, it was. We spilled onto the sidewalk and our flock came with us.
“C’mon!” I charged opposite the direction from whence we came.
Maybe it was the Stoli’s, maybe it was the bizarre feeling of being feasted upon like delicacies in a prison encampment but whatever it was, I didn’t want to go back to the hotel. Not yet. There was nothing waiting for us back there we couldn’t sample tomorrow. The dreadful fascination of a life long tethered to the stake of Communism was out here, waiting.
I had to see more.
I doubt the others were feeling this way (especially Abi) but they followed out of the strange sense of crew camaraderie we have in foreign circumstances. And to be frank, I think Captain Dave was a little nervous we’d follow the course of Stoli’s right into the Russian Underground, which wasn’t so preposterous given the night’s events.
A couple more pulls on the Vodka bottle and we darted left and then right through the cement bloc maze. I’m certain we lost our flock long before I came upon the door but by then the spirit of adventure had spread and laughter trailed behind us like breadcrumbs so we couldn’t be certain.
It was the door that stopped me and it stopped me because it stood out.
In a city of gray it was a deep red, deep as dried blood one might’ve mistaken for granite had the light been different. It was just a glimpse below street level and a glimpse was all it took.
THE RUSSIAN UNDERGROUND
In every city, there was a place like this.
A place existing in the shadows, separate from societal norms and socialist dictates where freedom crawled out of its cage for a moment, a night, a memory.
This was that place.
The door was not locked. We pushed into the darkness, hushed by an inexplicable weight settling onto the chest like a warning. The air was thick with the stench of cigarettes but the room itself appeared to be empty.
We entered quietly like naughty children trespassing on the forbidden grounds of an unknown neighbor. It was a long narrow room, probably a basement the length of the apartments above. Did they have basements in Russia? There were a few chairs scattered about but not much more. It appeared abandoned.
“I don’t like the feel of this,” Abi whispered.
“There’s no one here,” I said. To the FO Steve, “Close the door…”
Captain Dave shook his head. “Always leave a way out.”
“Yea, this is ripe for an American kidnapping plot.” Betty Lou took a hearty gulp off her Vodka bottle.
“Really?” I looked at her.
“Let’s go. I’ll deal with my admirers.” Abi backed toward the door.
Toward the back of the room, a hint of light appeared.
It was just enough to make out the cigarette smoke curling toward the ceiling and the shadow leaning against the wall, watching us.