Velvet Unicorn

“You’ll know it when you see it – or, more specifically feel it,” a hopeless romantic once told him (but since divorced).

With further elaboration, the “it” being the elusive unicorn Mark was seeking…and was lead to believe was out there.

Somewhere.

Just where this magical, mythical being was hiding, was anybody’s guess. Living with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, perhaps? He truly wanted to believe it existed. Once upon a time, he had no doubt. But it’s always only a matter of time before reality overshadows fantasy.

He certainly had ample reason to have his doubts – especially lately. But he was willing to suspend disbelief and give it a shot, joining the ranks of those who not only believed that unicorns existed, but believed that it was just a matter of waiting for the universe to help you find your very own.

Of course, it’s much easier to believe in such a thing when you are young and naïve – akin to a child’s belief in Santa. But as time goes by, it eventually fades into the rabbit hole oblivion of myth.

When we’re young still young, we are often struck by Cupid and can’t help but believe in it. But overtime, most come to see it as fool’s gold. And though Mark’s belief in true love was almost fully extinguished, there were still embers burning beneath the ash.

Even the most hopeless of romantics feel the foundation begin to crack by the time they reach 40 if they are still single. If married, their views of love have probably been significantly altered. As well.

Mark was certainly no hopeless romantic. And certainly way less now than before his marriage deteriorated beyond the point of repair. Not even marriage counseling could crack that nut. Or, more accurately, the nut was already cracked beyond repair.

Yet, despite fading faith, there was still a part of him that believed that his magical unicorn was lingering out there.

Somewhere.

And quite likely sharing the same thoughts and doubts as he was.

Holding on to hope wasn’t such a bad thing.

At 37, Mark was still young enough to be considered young. In the eyes of his students, however, he was ancient. And he couldn’t help but feel that way.

The downside to still believing that your special someone is out there at Mark’s age meant dealing with an avalanche of anxiety attached to the realization that even though you believed your soul mate existed out there somewhere, the universe was determined and conspiring to keep you apart at all costs.

And that time was running out.

He couldn’t help but wonder if this was worse than the contrary belief that one’s soul mate never existed to begin with.

When you truly believe that their special one is out there, life becomes an endless scavenger hunt. A game driven by the realization that every outing is rife with the possibility that your unicorn might be waiting around every corner, at every bar, at every café, or in every bookstore, which means leaving no stone unturned, for fear of missing out on the one thing you are searching for more than anything.

Because you are in search of that one person who not only truly gets you…but that you will truly get yourself. The one person who is like mirror reflecting your best self, deflecting all the things you fucking hate. Yet, despite the fact that you have everything in common, there are still several mysteries waiting to be unraveled. And it all seems too good to be true. And you can’t eat. Because your stomach is filled with the constant flutter of butterflies.

A unicorn is also someone that makes you feel compelled to write out long messages on a note pad before you type it out to make sure you get it just right. It’s regretting that you didn’t phrase a message just so. Or, that you left out a line. It’s hearing a song in your car and you’re convinced she’s hearing the same song, even when you know it’s not even possible.

And the world is never more full of color. Even during a dreary Michigan winter.

And then reality sets in. Before you fall out of love. Before the sex drive is gone. Before some one cheats. Before the dream is given up on. Before you feel like strangers, despite all the familiarities and similarities you once shared. When the allure of romance and endless potential becomes mundane, annoying, boring. And all you see are not only the worse parts of that person you were once so obsessed over, but the worst parts of yourself, which are now somehow, deeply and horrifyingly magnified. Once you get to this point, there is no turning back. You either go through the heartbreak of break up, or you both live with the heartbreak of wondering if the unicorn was fool’s gold.

A false flag.

And before you know it, you suddenly find yourself searching for your missing unicorn once again. And it’s doubly sad, because the person you thought was your unicorn is probably thinking the same thing about you. Or, possibly fucking someone behind your back. Or, perhaps, you are on your own private, lonely island, which means they are either oblivious, or they have become too complacent to give a fuck.

Of course, none of it really comes as much of a surprise. We are used to thinking the person who just might be “the one” actually isn’t – no matter how much and intensely you shared the same wavelength. In fact, it is often the ones that come on the most sudden that are often to be most disappointing. Sometimes, life simply gets in the way and despite doing everything in your power to make it work, you end up going separate ways. But we cherish even the failed or false unicorns because if even for a moment – a drunken night, an all nigh chat session, or whatever the case may be, it was fucking beautiful. Like a comet that goes as quickly as it came. Sometimes, a temporary unicorn comes into our life when we most need it.

And sometimes, this means realizing when it’s time to move on.

And evolve.

Coming to the realization that that our true unicorn is probably still out there somewhere.

But then we remember that it is called a unicorn for good reason: it’s not only elusive. It probably doesn’t even exist. Yet, we keep searching anyway. And falling into the same pattern that ultimately leads to disappointment, rejection, resentment, loneliness, desperation…which is more than often the case.

Which is exactly how Mark ended up drunk most nights at his neighborhood dive, notebook in hand, with the aim of putting a dent in the novel that he had been toiling over for 15 years. Spinning in its tracks.

Fifteen fucking years. Longer than his marriage by half. And perhaps even more frustrating and abusive. But yet, it was his first love. And he figured since he had already put so much blood, sweat, and tears into something that never reciprocated (much like his marriage – though he was equally at fault), he would stick with it, till death do him part (unlike the marriage she finally put out of its misery. Because, as she said “You’re too much of a fucking coward to end it.”)

Although his optimism regarding finding his unicorn was quickly fading, he still had full faith in his novel – his elusive Moby Dick. Though he was certain he would never give up on his dream, his biggest fear was that fucking novel would never see the light of day. It was this very fear that motivated him to keep poking away at it. In fact, the more time passed, the harder he worked at it. If only he put this much effort into his marriage. Then again, it was his “stupid” writing dream that played a huge role in dissolution of his marriage. Of course,

She would never understand how much it hurt him that in 10 year of marriage, she never read a goddamn word of what you wrote, nor did she ever ask what he was working on. Nor, get excited when he shared a new idea. She simply didn’t give a shit. And it hurt like hell. Eventually, he got to the point where he stopped sharing things with her. It was also around this time that he reached the beginning of the end.

And it wasn’t like he didn’t take interest in her pursuits. He understood it took two to tango. She just never wanted to dance.

For years, they were two people living under the same roof, but living two separate lives. Of course, not having kids only expedited this existence. Perhaps, if they had kids, they would have fought harder. Or, stayed married for the kids. Then how miserable would they have been? Maybe kids only would have made it worse.

As far as his book was concerned, he knew he ultimately had no control over whether would someone actually publish his book. But he would never stop knocking at doors.

Since the divorce, Mark devoted most of his evenings to his writing. Bourbon was his muse. When he wrote at home, he usually ended up passed out at his computer earlier than he would have preferred. So he started frequenting bars more often – not to pick up women, but so he could stay awake and write. He always wrote best when surrounded by stimulation. He fed off it. Every now and then, an attractive stranger would catch his eye and become his unknowing muse.

Lately, however, his he started to feel like perhaps the time had come to give dating a try, for the first time since he was last single – 15 years ago to be exact. He doubted he would be any better at the game now, than he was then. In fact, he was likely to be worst with rust.

It didn’t help that when it came to the opposite sex, he felt anxiety anytime he had to talk to a cute female – a waitress, cashier, whatever the case may be. So how the fuck was he going to ever start dating? Perhaps he would give a dating app a try. Or, two.    After all, his elusive unicorn could very well be a right swipe away. Narrowing things down could only help!

It was time to get serious about finding a muse, rather than his usual barista or bartender crush he was prone to falling for without their knowledge of his existence. Sometimes, he would fall for a fellow customer, going so far as to project an entire life’s history on to her. Yet, he would never give himself the opportunity to discover if his projection came anywhere close to the truth because he didn’t have the goddam balls to do anything about it. At least it wasn’t all for naught – often, these “one night muses” ended up populating his stories.

Lately, he was frequenting bars fare more coffee than his usual coffee shops. Part of it was the fact that caffeine seemed to be keeping him up at night, more so than in the past. But the truth of the matter was that he was depending on alcohol more and more lately, going as far as to convince himself that drinking was making his writing better. Much like his writing, his Mark’s life lately was one very rough, unending draft. And it was time for some major polishing.

Part of time hope that by frequenting bars – and increasing alcohol consumption – he would somehow find the courage to strike up a conversation and maybe – somehow – get back into the game.

Perhaps some girl will be so fascinated by a guy writing in a bar, she would approach him! It was only natural that if she his true unicorn would be turned on by his writing. Of course, in reality, he was aware of what a pretentious douche bag he probably looked like.

Then again, did he really want to drag another woman into the murky swamp of a writer?

He realized his desire for a muse was a bit selfish on his part. But he sure loved the idea of writing stories secretly just for her. Stories that she inspired. And then she would read them. And then they would have dinner. Watch a movie. Make love. And life would be good. Life could be good. If only he could just get out of his own way.

Of course, it was usually while riding the high of a writing session, combined with ample amounts of bourbon, that he was more convinced than ever that his elusive unicorn was out there.

Somewhere.

But where?

And then…

“Are you writing a book?”

Peering over his shoulder was the ginger angel of his dreams.

“Yes. Trying to, at least.”

Where in the hell did she come from? How had he not noticed her until she appeared? She was exactly the type of he would have typically instantly noticed.

“What’s it about?
“A thriller about a guy who realizes that ‘s an alternative version of himself living the life he always wanted.”

“Oh, wow. That sounds fantastic! String theory stuff, right?”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

“Me?” she said with a laugh.

“No. But I am an avid reader. Mind if I sit here?”

“Sure!”

What is happening?

            Surely some sort of prank. He kept waiting for a camera crew to jump out of some dark corner.

Was he dreaming?

This type of shit never happened to him.

Never.

Three hours later, they were still talking.

And drinking.

And sharing an appetizer.

Their conversation was effortless; their mutual interests endless – especially as it pertains to film, music, and literature. And despite everything in common, he realized how many mysteries remained to be explored.

From a physically standpoint, she was just his type. Red head, with a punk edge exterior, but a sweet interior.

And perhaps most importantly, she was so damn curious about his writing! He wasn’t used to this. Why would she give a shit? She hadn’t even read a single word he had written – but that was soon about to change.

“So what made you want to talk to me?” he awkwardly asked.

“Because you seemed so cute, writing away in your little notebook. And it was refreshing to see a guy in a bar who wasn’t there to pick up chicks.”

This. Cannot. Be. Real.

So what next? His lack of confidence was certainly still intact. Because he just assumed that even after this amazing conversation, they would go their separate ways.    Closing time.

He walked her out, an assertive action, aided by the fact that he had no choice since the bar was closing its doors.

Standing out the parking lot, a light snow flurry fell on them, as they awkwardly stood there awaiting an unwritten goodbye. Both seemed unsure as to what to do next, despite both likely wanting the same thing.

And then:

“Want to come back to my place?” she asked.

            No way this was happening.

“Yes,” he said in response to her question. “That would be great.”

With nothing to lose, he followed her back to her apartment just conveniently down the road, listening to “Across the Universe” as the replayed his unexpected evening in his mind.

Nothing seemed forced.

Or, awkward.

Just two people at a bar.

Just as he fantasized over and over again. Just like he had seen in the movies, time again. And now, somehow, it was happening.

But was it really?

It was happening.

And of course, how fitting that what happened next was the best sex of his life.

Surely, it was too soon to assume she was his true unicorn. Right?

“You’ll know it when you see it – or, more specifically feel it.”

And the second he entered her bedroom – moments before he entered her, he had as close to an answer as he could ever expect to get.

Hanging above her bed, was a giant, velvet painting.

Of a beautiful, glorious unicorn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vampire Style: An Essay

Years ago, I dated a vampire. Things started out very well. We had a lot in common, despite the 586 age gap between us. But she certainly looked good for her age.

And though she could only go out at night, it gave us plenty of time to snuggle during the daylight hours… as long as the shades were pulled. Good thing I was a night owl, anyway! Though it sucked that we couldn’t do daytime outdoor activities (like picnics under the summer sun, or trips to the zoo) we made up with moonlight picnics in the park. We also attended the annual Zoo After Hours event. They served cocktails!). The important thing was, we were in love. And we were happy.

At first, I had to get past the fact that the number of partners she had far exceeded my own personal resume, I just had to remind myself that she had been around much longer than me. Once I did the math, I realized she had averaged less than one partner a year. And then I no longer worried about it. Besides, her experience paid off between the. She liked to play rough – especially as far was biting concerned. Hickies are one thing, but for obvious reasons, I had to put an end to that before things got too far out of hand. The consequences would have been too severe.

And once she started talking about being together forever, I have to admit – I sort of freaked out. This was about six months into our relationship. And that was really when things began to turn.

When she first brought it up, I made it very clear that I would need more time to think it over (even though I knew deep down, I would never change my mind). I had never been in a relationship quite like this before and didn’t want to rush into anything. For awhile (at least), we both agreed to just enjoy the present. No relationship is perfect, but in case, the good things far outweighed the bad. And for a few months, we both seemed to be on the same page about this and things were relatively smooth sailing. But soon enough, the topic of forever was brought up again. After she dropped numerous hints – and soon enough – fanged threats, I knew the time had come to cut her loose.

It was certainly fun while it lasted and, of course, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. And plenty of life left to live. Especially as far as she was concerned.

If Only…

If only he got her e-mail….

It could have all been avoided.

He wouldn’t have left work early.

He wouldn’t have headed to the bar.

He wouldn’t have had his first Manhattan.

And then his second…

…and then his third.

If only he got her e-mail…

He wouldn’t have dropped his phone in a shit-streaked toilet.

He wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with the bartender,

who also happened to be talking to the attractive woman seated next to him.

And then a conversation among three people,

wouldn’t have become conversation between two.

If only he got her e-mail…

He wouldn’t have opened up to a stranger about everything.

He wouldn’t have explained how his marriage was over.

He wouldn’t have offered to buy her a drink.

And then a second.

He wouldn’t have had his fourth cocktail.

He wouldn’t have gone back to her place.

He wouldn’t have driven drunk.

He wouldn’t have gotten her pregnant.

He wouldn’t have been in a car crash.

He wouldn’t have broken his leg.

He wouldn’t have killed that little girl.

He wouldn’t have gone to jail.

He wouldn’t have been accused of date rape.

He wouldn’t have lost his job.

He wouldn’t have been divorced.

If only he got her e-mail..

He could have had children with his wife.

And another unborn child wouldn’t have been aborted.

If only he got her e-mail…

He would have known she was sorry.

He would know she didn’t really want to leave him.

He would know she still loved him, as he still loved her.

They would have gone for counseling.

They could have laughed about it all later.

They could have lived happily ever after.

If only…

 

 

Tinder is the Night

For a man who lived life on the straight and narrow for over 30 years, snorting coke and fucking a total stranger over the course of back-to-back weekends was an unexpected twist.

The coke caught Eddie completely off guard. However, fucking a stranger came with a pre-meditated sense of guilt.

His foray into uncharacteristic debauchery started in L.A., where spent a weekend meeting potential investors for the film he had been trying to get off the ground for over six years. (Things developed slowly for Eddie).

A Hollywood acquaintance that he met at a conference five years ago invited him to a party. And after one too many bourbon-soaked cocktails, he lost his sense of self.

When in Hollywood…

For most of the night, he sat on the sidelines, reminiscent of his elementary school playground during recess – an outsider looking in.

“Want some?” his acquaintance asked.

“Want some what?” Eddie said, oblivious to the line of coke awaiting him.

When he realized what was going on, he responded without trepidation, as though he were being offered a mere cookie.

Though he had stopped drinking over an hour ago, he apparently had just enough to impair his ability to say no to drugs.

Goddam bourbon.

Within seconds he went from a booze-induced zombie-state, to hyper-drive. He didn’t just feel high. He felt like he was fucking in flight.

As for his actual flight home the next day, he could barely remember a damn thing.

Had he even slept? He had no fucking clue.

His wife noticed his frazzled condition the second she greeted him at the airport. He blamed it on jet lag. No further explanation needed.

Despite still feeling the effects of his bourbon and cocaine cocktail, it didn’t stop him from attempting to have sex. Though it had been months, he figured five days away would be his best shot.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder?

He was wrong.

Not only did she reject his advances…but it led directly a prolonged argument. And as usual, she would rather argue about what a sex fiend he was for two hours, rather than just throw him a bone every now and then. In the rare instances they did have sex, she acted as though she was receiving a botched root canal from a crazed ape. She blamed her non-existent sex drive on her anti-depressants. But it was even worse when she wasn’t on them. At least when she was on drugs, she could do a better job of pretending to like him.

“If all you want is sex, why not just find someone else?” she asked him for not the first time, not the second time, but God knows how many fucking times.

“All I want? It’s been five fucking months! And how? Who? I never had game when I was single. Let alone now. Plus, I don’t want to risk you leaving me.”
“I won’t leave you. Just make sure it’s not someone I know.”

Though tempting, he couldn’t grasp his head around the fact that that she was willing to risk him falling for someone else, rather than just having sex with him every now and then. It had been over a year since he received anything as much as a hand job. Three years since his last blowjob.

This time, he wwawould do something about it. He spent the better part of the next day at work perusing sites like Ashley Madison and AdultFriendFinder, but quickly realized that he was too cheap to keep footing the bill. Plus, it was too risky, even though he did handle the credit card bills. Ultimately, he couldn’t but feel as though he were soliciting prostitution (though, in someway, prostitution would have been much easier). As desperate as he was to get laid, there was still part of him that wanted to first find someone he shared a strong mental connection with. He was never one to have random hook-ups. Not even in college. But he now found himself in a situation where he had no choice but to have exactly that. Of course, the last thing he wanted to do was fall in love with somebody else. At least, he didn’t think so….

Furthermore, after doing a fair amount of research, he realized that these sites were rife with “bots” – fake profiles that closed the lopsided gender gap with the sole aim of trying to lure men into spending more on the site And then there were the professional. “escorts” disguised as regular women. Which was worse? At least the latter scenario led to sex. The former just left you with a sad dick in your hand and a ball of wadded up tissue paper in the other at the end of the night. He settled on a tie. Then there was his fear of being cat fished.

Enter Tinder.

Despite being aware of its reputation as a hook-up site, he was a tad reluctant to become a Tinderfella. The fact that it interfaced with Facebook seemed just too much of a risk. And what if those he knew saw him? In fact, he had to make sure that the person he swiped had no mutual connections between them, which for most people, was probably a selling point. He had to remain discreet, yet he knew that not using a photo at all would give him no shot whatever. To limit detection, he avoided using a close-up and left part of his face hidden.

Once he got past his initial jitters, Eddie quickly learned to appreciate the left-right ease of the whole thing. It felt more like a video game to him, than real life. With potential to quickly turn into a wormhole. Perhaps, just right swipes alone would give him all the ego boost he needed. It wasn’t just sex he wanted. He needed to feel wanted. Needed.

However, the high of racking up matches could only last for so long before you just had to reach out and touch someone. It wasn’t long before he mastered the skill of being able to formulate a message short enough not to sound desperate, but enticing enough to get someone to take the hook. His initial interactions were a mixed bag (he once right-swiped a cheeseburger). His decision to be upfront from the start (married…but with a greenlight!) backfired. He got it that most women didn’t reply back. He wasn’t exactly an ideal catch… but he was tad surprised at how judgmental Tinder could be!

Many matches reacted to his honesty by immediately disappearing off the screen in a simple Poof! Some expressed some form of condolences before they disappeared. Some thanks him for his honesty. Some preached morality. One simply wrote: “That’s fucked up.” Another said: “sounds like a personal problem.” Another asked: “Why are you telling me this? I don’t get it.” Several asked point blank: “Why don’t you just get divorced?”

Great question. Why didn’t he? It wasn’t like he hadn’t pondered it before, but he couldn’t convince himself that lack of sex was a good enough reason for divorce.

Or maybe it was? And their relationship was certainly far form perfect in other categories, too.

One thing he knew for certain: though he was willing to cheat on his wife, he didn’t want to become a serial tenderizer. If he could just find a married person in the same boat as him. But did he want that extra layer of guilt? Cheating on his own spouse was one thing, but to cheat on someone’s spouse while cheating on your own spouse?

By the third day, he finally found a match willing to meet in person.

Enter Catholic guilt.

It was one thing to let his fantasy play out behind the safe confines of a screen.

But real life was a whole other situation. Dating was never his strong suit when he was single and he lacked the confidence to assume that any woman would be that willing to hook with him right off the bat. He doubted he could ever live up to a right swipe in person. And on top of the guilt he was already feeling, there was a growing sense of paranoia that he was getting himself into something that would require payment when it was all said and done.

And though he technically he had “permission”, he still felt like he was doing something wrong. The implied “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of finding a sidepiece still demanded a fair amount of sneaking around. He just had to keep reminding himself that he didn’t choose the circumstances that lead to this point in his life. But he could choose to accept them. And therein lies the rub.

And what could he have done more of himself to make things better at home? And should that be his focus now? Or, was it already too late?

Would his physical desperation be enough to eclipse everything else? He thought so. As he drove to the bar, every possible negative outcome swirled in its head. He arrived almost a half hour early and found a table outside on the patio. The chill of early spring was in the air, but he needed the fresh air. He would let her decide if they would move inside when she arrived.

In the meantime, he hoped that one Manhattan would be enough to both warm him up and take the edge off of his nervousness. But it didn’t. It only gave him more time for his conscience to kick in. What also wasn’t helping matters was the fact that he felt a massive shit coming on (a problem he remembered from his dating days). Everything pointed in the direction of just getting the fuck out. So he high-tailed it back to the parking lot, hoping to go undetected.

Back in the safe confines of his car, he sent her a text: “Can’t go through with it. Sorry. Pretty sure I will regret this.”

“Your loss,” she texted back.

And he immediately regretted it.

He took a day off of Tinder.

But like a gambler who just can’t help rolling the dice one last time, along came Maggie.

He right swiped and discovered that she was already waiting in the wings as a match. What ultimately appealed to him even more than her physical beauty was her quirky profile. Most profiles played it safe and cliché. Some didn’t even include a profile. Even though he was looking for someone to fuck, he knew deep down, he needed more than that. He needed a poet, which of course put him into dangerous emotional territory. If past history was anything, he simply wasn’t wired to have random hook-ups. But in his particular situation, it was probably best for the sake of his still salvageable marriage.

But was it salvageable?

However, there was one red flag at the end of her profile: “I’m not married. And neither should you be.” It certainly wasn’t the first profile he encountered with such a disclaimer, which proved one thing to him: Tinder was a breeding ground for desperate married men like himself. Though this made him feel a tad icky, he reminded himself that he had been granted a “permission card.” But then again, did he really? Did she really mean it? And how good would he be about covering up his tracks? It was probably only a matter of time before she found out. And then what? Would she stick to her promise? Or, leave him? Would she be curious to know who he was fucking? Would this somehow turn her on? The questions that clouded his mind were endless.

But his hormones finally won out.

Three hours later, through the sheer magic of his writing skill, lit aglow by a new, much-needed muse, a date was set for the next night.

“All you have to do is ‘woe’ me,” Maggie wrote.

“You mean, ‘woo’?” Eddie wrote back.

“Yes. No woe. Just woo.”

Though he lacked confidence in his ability to woo, he was confident that a wee amount of bourbon could be just what the love doctor ordered.

Their situations were a perfect fit. She was at a point in her life where she was tired of looking for the “right” guy and wanted a casual fling – a NSA FWB. Based on her looks, personality, and interests, she was exactly what he was looking for. But did he have the balls to go through with it?

As for his wife, he used the guise that he was headed out to write done, which he usually did a couple of times a week. He mind worked better when surrounded by the buzz and whirlwind of humanity…and more importantly, it kept him awake. Furthermore, he didn’t have to sit around and dwell on the sex he wasn’t getting at home. Out in public, anything felt possible.

As long he made it back home around his usual time round midnight, give or take, he was at least confident that his plan was relatively foolproof, lest in the circumstances of a car crash – or even, worse – death. His wife would have to live out the rest of her days wondering where he had been heading to. And why. Would she blame herself?

It was a risk he would have to live with.

Aside from that concern, the ease in which this was all happening sent off the alarms of paranoia.

He mulled over one thing in particular that she wrote: “You found me at a very vulnerable time. So you can fuck me anyway you’d like. But just be sure to cuddle with me when we’re done.”

Can’t be that fucking easy, can it? Was this another red flag? Do “real” women actually say this?

After all, it had been 12 years since he last dated and way before the social media age. A lot had changed.

As far as cuddling was concerned, it was even more absent from his marriage as sex. In fact, even more so. Both cuddling and any form of foreplay was strictly verboten.

Next thing he knew, he was on the road, concerned that the half-hour drive that loomed ahead would sound the trumpets of morality.

You want this. So stop prolonging it.

Surely, this is a ruse.

            If she’s fake, you will be able to tell in person.

            Are you sure?

            Nobody can ever be sure about anything.

Of course, if she did turn out to be legit, he had little faith that he wouldn’t come across as a complete, socially awkward weirdo, which would severely cripple his “woo-factor”.

Just be yourself.

That’s exactly part of the problem.

He finally arrived at the bar she suggested, which was conveniently not very far from her place. Before he got out of the car, he took a deep breath, and then said aloud: “You can do this.”

His window was down, along with the car next to him, of whose inhabitant happened to hear him. The awkwardness had already begun.

As he got out of his car, he checked his phone and saw a text: “Seated by the bear.”

Presumably neither a real bear; or a gay man.

As he approached the bar, he wondered if he was being tracked through the window and became self-conscious of the fact that the second she saw him, he would no longer be just a picture in her mind. It would be the real him. And he feared the real him couldn’t live up to a single, static picture. Since when did women find him attractive, anyway?

Maybe she feels the same way.

He finally reached the entrance, took a deep breath, and entered. He scanned the room, figuring he had a better chance at recognizing a bear before her.

But he couldn’t find a bear anywhere!

Where is the fucking bear?

He approached the hostess.

“Can you please point me in the direction of the bear?”
“I’m sorry. Who?”

Fuck. Am I in the wrong place?

“A bear. Is there a bear in here?”

“Oh, yeah. Right over there.”
She pointed toward a back corner. And sure enough was a bear, carved-out of wood. And just to its left, Maggie. She was as beautiful as advertised.

He nervously approached, feeling totally out of his league. She smiled eagerly.

“Maggie?”

“Yes. Hi, Eddie.”

He offered his hand. She stood up and greeted him with an unexpected hug, which did more to calm his nerves than he would have guessed. It had been over a year sine he last hugged his wife. And not for a lack of trying. As his wife liked to make clear: she wasn’t a “huggy person”.

Maggie smelled so nice. Would his wife smell it on him? Would that be all it took? Nothing he could do about it now. He could always blame it on a strip club.

They took their seats and he realized she was already halfway through a beer. Was she impatient? Or was she nervous?

He hoped the latter.

The waiter approached. He ordered a 7 & 7.

“Nervous?” she asked.

“That obvious?”

She smiled.

“So, are you?” she asked.

“A little,” he said, suddenly growing less so.

“You?” he asked.

“No. Should I be?”

“No.”

“This is all so surreal,” he said.

“What is?” she asked, with what sounded like genuine curiosity.

“All of this. Being here. With you. On a date. It’s been awhile.”

“You’re going to be fine,” she said, placing both of his hands into her soft, warm ones, dissolving his anxiety.

And she was right. Their conversation couldn’t have gone more smoothly – an endless, effortless stream-of-consciousness. Based on their chats the previous night, this shouldn’t have been too surprising. He honestly couldn’t remember a conversation with

somebody who seemed to interested in what he had to say. It felt like therapy.

“I feel like you should be charging me!” he admitted.

“Oh. You will pay me back,” she said. It sounded like a threat, but her seductive smile let him know that it wasn’t.

But where was it all heading? Should he wait for her to make the next move? And what exactly would that move be?

He would get his answer soon enough.

“So, I have gerbil who is an asshole,” she offered out of the blue as she finished her third drink.

The ensuing explanation wasn’t as important as the fact that she said it. Because somehow, it broke through the last remaining layer of ice.

“So when do you turn into a pumpkin?” she finally asked him.

“As long as I’m back on the road by 12:30, I should be good.”

She looked at him seductively:

“Would you like to come to my place and meet my gerbil?”

“I would love to meet your gerbil.”

And with that, he picked up the tab (she insisted they split it. He insisted otherwise. She graciously accepted).

He followed her back to her place – a five minute rive that ended on a dirt road at a dead end. He ignored all the signs.

If anyone should have felt in danger, it would be the female allowing a complete and utter stranger back to her home.

Is this normal?

He got out of the car and took in his surroundings. Though it was pitch black, the sound of honking geese made it evident that a pond was nearby. He looked up at the sky.

“Wow, you can really see the stars out here,” he said. She nestled in closer to him.

“It’s one of the main reasons I love living here. Even though I’m still close to the city, I’m still far away enough to see stars.”

“And the geese!” he replied. “Why are they still awake?”

Is that the best I can fucking do?

“Those are swans,” she explained. “And they’re probably looking for mates,” she said turning to face him, with a seductive glint in her eye. He pulled her in for a kiss, as though he had no other choice, even if he wanted to. Five minutes later, she was disrobing him in he upstairs bedroom and issued this mandate: “I want you to do to me whatever you want. But only after I take you in my mouth.”

“What about you?” he asked.

“I want you to do to me whatever you want.”

They made out passionately, before she decreed:

“I want you to fuck me,” she finally said.

“Shit,” he said.

“What’s wrong?”

“I left something in my jacket. Downstairs.”

“What?”

“Insurance…” he said.

“I’m covered.”

“Aren’t you worried about diseases?”

“Should I be?”

Eddie wasn’t about to take any chances and started to head downstairs.

“No, I’ll get it,” she demanded. “In your coat pocket?”
“Yeah.”

He found her reaction slightly askew, but assumed that she didn’t want him to freely wander around her home, which was certainly reasonable.

While she disappeared downstairs, his cock turned limp, which gave him time to gave pause and ask himself:

What the fuck am I doing?

            Exactly what you have been wanting.

A cool, but comfortable breeze wafted through an open window, which faced the pond where the gees—swans!— honked their midnight melody. The curtains even bellowed, like something right out of a goddam movie. As his cock turned limp, he twirled his wedding ring for a second, then took it off. He wanted it out of sight. He didn’t want her to see it. He set it on the dresser and tried to ignore the fact that it was the first time it had ever come off. He felt a slight tinge of sadness, but it faded the moment Maggie returned with his the three-pack of condoms he purchased en route.

They continued to make out and his cock was returned to its full glory in no time.

And then they fucked.

It was a quick finish, which was not a surprise considering how long it had been. But for sake, he was able to keep going.

“Don’t you need a break?” she asked.

“No,” he said, thrusting harder. “It’s my superpower.”

“Wow. You’re amazing.”

And they continued to fuck.

And fuck some more.

And fucked and fucked and fucked.

And fucked some more even after they were done fucking.

And the geese trumpeted outside the window.

And the curtains continued to bellow.

And he knew he would be sore tomorrow in a way he hadn’t felt in years.

Every few minutes, he asked her if there was anything she wanted him to do, and she whispered the same refrain into his ear: “Whatever you want.”

What he wanted to do was give pleasure in equal measure.

“I want you to do to me whatever you want,” she repeated.

So he made her come three times. He came with her on the third time.

The third time, they came together.

They collapsed into one another’s arms, though he got the sense they could both go another round if they wanted to.

Instead, neither spoke. They held each other, their limbs interwoven like a pretzel, as swans echoed in the night.

“Thank you,” Eddie finally managed to mutter.

“Thank you,” Maggie said.

He looked at the clock, then loosened himself from her grip.

“I hate to do this, but…”

“You gotta go…”

He nodded.

And then, like an unexpected hammer to his face:

“So, you can leave $250 on the nightstand before you leave.”

He laughed nervously, but her face appeared to mean business.

“You’re joking, right?” Eddie asked.

“Don’t tell me you’re surprised…” Maggie said with a whole shift in demeanor. A mere flick of a switch.

“Surprised?” Eddie asked. “We just had sex. And now you are asking for money. How do you expect me to react?”

“Don’t tell you don’t know how to this works…”

“Prostitution? Yes. I do. But I didn’t think that – this – is what it was. You’re joking right?”

“You had voids that needed be filled. And I filled them. So now, it’s time to fill mine and pay. You got what you what you wanted, right?”

First, cocaine. Then, prostitution. What the fuck came next?

“I’m sorry for the confusion,” she continued. “I thought this arrangement was clear from the start.”

He scanned his mind for any evidence this would have pinpointed him toward this direction. But aside from the general paranoia he had felt, nothing specific came to mind.

“So, $250,” she said, as though he had forgotten.

“Yeah, well, there’s just one problem. Do you take credit cards?”

She laughed.

“You’re cute. But no.”

He fumbled for his wallet, opened it up, and revealed that he had only about $30 for cash.”

“Where is the closest ATM?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know…”

“Yes, I would, actually.”

“You got to be fucking kidding me…”

As he threw on his clothes, she gave him directions.

He felt a knot in his stomach. Though he could get away with charging anything and everything on his credit card, his wife kept close tabs on their joint ATM account. He thought about using his credit card to take out cash, but he didn’t know his PIN. And did he really want to deal with customer service at a time like this?

He realized that aside from the ATM issue, he was now going to be arriving home later than expected. Hopefully, his wife would be too sound asleep to notice, which was usually the case. And since he slept on the couch most nights, it was easy to slip in undetected. It was only when he came into the bedroom that she noticed him.

She led him to the door.

“I promise I’ll be right back,” he said as he headed out the door, where he

was greeted by the now familiar swan chorus, now accompanied by large black man with a parrot on his shoulder.

What the actual fuck?!

“This is Antonio,” Maggie explained. “Antonio, take this gentleman to Community Bank. He needs to make a withdrawal.”

“Come with me,” the man he presumed to be either her pimp, or personal bodyguard said. The parrot repeated: “Come with me!”

            You got to be fucking kidding me.

Antonio put a meaty, black hand on the back of Eddie’s neck and led him to his Navigator, complete with spinning rims.

Of course…

Antonio opened the passenger door.

“Thank you,” Eddie said, surprised to be the recipient of such special treatment, as he climbed in. He then realized it was more of a precautionary measure to keep him from bolting, rather than any sort of gentlemanly gesture.

Antonio went around and climbed into the driver’s side.

“Buckle up,” Antonio demanded, out of breath. Under ordinary circumstances, Eddie never neglected to buckle up. This was a rare misstep.

“Buckle up,” the parrot repeated, still perched on Antonio’s shoulder. Did this parrot hear this phrase often? Or did it just have exceptional repeating skills?

As Antonio pulled out of the driveway, he spotted Maggie in the doorway, half in shadow. He still couldn’t compute how a person that he connected to on such a dynamic level could turn out to be prostitute. He couldn’t help but feel impressed at her master con-artistry. In fact, he found it fucking sexy.

Antonio put on some slow jams and nodded his head to the music. Not a word was spoken. It was all so romantic. The soothing tones of Luther Vandross calmed Eddie’s nerves, which – considering his present circumstances – was quite a feat. Besides, what did he really have to fear? He owed someone money. And had the means to get the money. Problem solved. And nobody gets hurt. Not that he had any experience resembling any of this.

But then his creative paranoia conceptualized a whole new scenario: what if Maggie’s sole purpose was to teach cheaters a hard lesson? What if she were a black widow, who used Antonio as the hired assassin to finish the job? He certainly looked like a man capable of doing such a thing – at last as much so as any large black man with a parrot on his shoulder jamming to CeCe Winans could. Was this his mild prejudice kicking in? Nothing he could do about it now. But could he escape? Perhaps not without putting himself in even graver danger.

They finally arrived at the bank. Antonio must have trusted him enough to wait in the car as Eddie approached the ATM. Then again, he probably stayed in the car to make things appear less suspicious in the eye of any passerby or security cameras. At least now he could avoid the performance anxiety he was likely to feel had Antonio been looking over his shoulder.

“Buckle up,” the parrot said right on cue, despite the fact that Eddie already had beaten him to it.

Antonio drove them back to the Swan Queen’s house, serenaded by the soulful seduction of Isaac Hayes.

When they got out of the car, Antonio led Eddie back to the house with his strong hand on the back of his neck once again.

Maggie greeted them at the door. Eddie handed her the cash.

She took it without saying a word, clearly annoyed by the inconvenience he had caused.

“Are tips standard etiquette?” he asked.

“Up to you,” Maggie said.

He added an extra $10, wondering if 20% was standard. But fuck it. He never wanted to make this purchase to begin with.

She gave him a hug and even told him he was welcome back anytime.

As he headed home, he realized that despite the monetary setback (and the need to come up with a reason why such a withdrawal was made so late at night in a town he typically didn’t frequent), he realized that in the end, it was worth every penny. He got what he needed. And he looked forward to the following weekend, when he could simply just relax.

And maybe…just maybe…there would be a next time after all!

He pulled into his driveway, fully at peace with everything that had transpired that night. Hell, he finally had something new to write about.

He shut off his engine, then noticed something familiar was missing: his ring.

NPR Review of LOVE & VODKA by Zinta Aistars

“Worthy of Several Toasts”(***** out of 5)

by Zinta Aistars

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart.

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.

The Sobering Method

Mockup1Following yet another vodka-soaked, Ukrainian feast, I sat at the table and stared blankly ahead at the kitchen wall in Uncle Vladimir’s farmhouse. I was grinning like the village idiot, which was fitting since we were in a village.

Katya tried to get me to drink from a glass of water, to no avail.

“Bobby, drink this!” she commanded, putting the glass of mineral water up to my lips. I refused.

“Drink it!” she said, sternly.

“I have to go to sleep,” I said.

“No sleep. Drink.”

“I already drank too much.”

“This is water!”

I finally gave in and took a sip, dribbling most of it onto my chin and down the front of my shirt.

“This is all your fault!” Katya said, angrily pointing to her uncle and father.

“It’s not our fault that he can’t drink,” Uncle Vladimir retorted.

“We’d better get him to bed,” Elena said, concerned.

Katya’s worry deepened as I continued to stare at the wall, grinning.

“Maybe we should we take him to the hospital?” Katya suggested.

“No. I have a better idea,” Sergei said. “Remove his shoes.”

Katya knew immediately what Sergei was going to do next, and began removing my shoes.

“What are you doing?” I mumbled incoherently.

“We’re helping you,” Katya replied, as Sergei and Uncle Vladimir lifted me out of my seat.

“Where are we going?” I asked, as we headed for the door.

“For a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes, a walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

“Outside?”

“Yes, outside.”

“For what?”

“For your own good.”

As we headed down the porch steps, I lost my balance, almost taking Uncle Vladimir and Sergei down with me.

“Yeah … I’m floating,” I said, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei struggled to help me regain my balance.

“That was fun,” I said “But where are my shoes? I can’t go for a walk without my shoes!”

“You’ll get your shoes back later,” Katya promised.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, a small amount of concern and apprehension now starting to register in my vodka-addled brain.

“Siberia,” Katya replied.

“I don’t want to go to Siberia. What are you going to do to me?”

“Sober you up,” Katya said.

“Am I drunk?”

Elena, Aunt Nina, and Karina followed us outside into the chilly night, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei dragged me by the heels to the outdoor shower stall.

“Is that a gas chamber?” I asked in terror.

“Yes. Now take off your clothes,” Katya commanded.

Sergei opened the door and turned the shower on.

“I don’t want anyone to see me naked,” I pleaded. ”Too skinny,” I added, echoing Babushka’s earlier refrain.

“Then at least take off your shirt,” Katya demanded.

“Nyet!” I said, like a petulant little schoolboy.

“Fine,” Katya said, before helping Sergei shove me inside the stall, and slamming the door shut.

I screamed as the frigid water pierced through my clothing. So much for waiting until we returned to the apartment to shower.

I tried to escape, but Sergei and Uncle Vladimir held the door closed. This was waterboarding, Ukrainian-style. I pounded on the door, begging to be let out, but it was no use. I was completely at their mercy.

“Katya! Please! Let me out!” I pleaded, but to no avail.

After a few minutes, Sergei opened the door. I stumbled out, shivering like a wet dog, already starting to feel more sober. Aunt Nina handed me a towel.

And just when I assumed that the worst was over, little did I know that the worst was actually about to begin.

Still dripping wet from my arctic shower, Sergei and Katya proceeded to frogmarch me, barefoot, along the rocky, pothole-laden gravel driveway— beginning my own personal Bataan death march, Gulag-style, as the rest of the family watched along the sidelines.

Sergei counted in broken English: “One! Two! One! Two!” keeping me in step, as we marched back and forth along the broken path.

Hearing all of the commotion, a nosy neighbor approached, muttering: “Ah, to be young again.”

“One! Two! One! Two!” commanded Sergei, trying to keep my drunken march in rhythm. “One! Two! One! Two!” he barked, leaving me yearning for an occasional “Three! Four!”

As I struggled to keep tempo, Katya joined in on the count. Before long, even I joined in, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from my sore, sure-to-be bleeding feet.

Fifteen minutes into this drunken parade, I demanded to know how much longer I would have to endure this.

“Until you’re sober,” Katya responded.

“I am sober. I’m fine,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be going through this if you were fine.”

“I want my shoes back.”

“When we’re done,” Katya replied.

“Why?”

“Just trust us. We’re professionals”

“I don’t understand why I can’t wear my shoes.”

“Because a little pain will help sober you up.”

“But I’m not drunk, any more” I pleaded.

Katya proceeded to kick off her own shoes in a show of solidarity.

“Look, now we’re in this together.”

“Put your shoes back on!”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Just do as we say … or else,” Katya said, in a thick, exaggerated accent.

Minutes later, Sergei brought us to a halt. My feet were throbbing.

“Are we done?” I asked, hopeful that my torture was now at an end.

“Not quite,” Katya replied.

And before Katya had finished answering, Sergei pushed down on my shoulders from behind.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei commanded.

Previous to that night, I may have done squats once in my lifetime. And certainly not drunk.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei continued.

Up and down I went. This went on for quite a while.

The worst was yet to come.

Sergei demonstrated the next step in his patented Ukrainian style sobering program, by pretending to stick his fingers down his throat.

I looked at Katya in desperation, who was now standing over by Elena.

“You gotta vomit now, Bobby,” Katya stated, ever so matter-of-factly.

“What?! No way!” I exclaimed.

You have to! If you don’t, you’re going to waste our last few days together with the worst hangover of your life.”

Realizing that Katya was probably right, I attempted to stick a finger down my throat. All I produced was a dry heave. Sergei grabbed my hand and proceeded to “help” me stick two of my fingers further down my throat. Still nothing.

“This is inhumane,” I pleaded, almost in tears. “Nobody should have to endure this.”

“You’ll thank us later,” Katya said. “Trust me.”

Sergei decided that he needed to lead me up and down the driveway of destruction one more time.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“I gotta pee!” I said, grasping for any excuse to end this torture.

At Katya’s request, Sergei led me behind a tree and held me up so I could pee. When I was done, Sergei forced me to do more squats. When my knees felt like they were about to burst open, Sergei held up three fingers and aimed them towards his mouth. I shook my head in protest. My refusal prompted him to grab me by the wrist, prying open three of my fingers from my fist. As he began to cram them down my throat, I shouted for Katya.

“I’m over here, Bobby” Katya yelled back. “You’re doing great!”

“Your dad is trying to kill me!” I exclaimed.

“No, he’s not trying to kill you. He’s trying to help you.”

I was no longer convinced. No longer able to resist, Sergei finally succeeded in shoving my fingers down my throat. You have not truly lived until you have had a grown man jam your own fingers down your throat in an attempt to sober you up.

I dry-heaved a couple more times before spitting up a tiny bit of vomit.

“There! I threw up!” I proudly proclaimed.

“That wasn’t throw up!” Katya exclaimed.

“What do you mean it wasn’t throw up? Something was thrown up. Didn’t you see it?” I argued.

“Keep trying,” Katya demanded.

“No! I refuse to be tortured any longer.”

But my pleas went ignored, as Sergei once again began to march me back and forth.

“Be thankful you’re drunk. And remember; you’re in good hands,” Katya continued.

I wasn’t convinced.

“This is torture!” I exclaimed.

“It’s not torture,” Katya replied.

“Sometimes!” Sergei blurted out.

“I’m walking barefoot on this stone driveway and your dad is forcing my fingers down my throat. How is that not torture?”

“Okay, okay,” Katya said, heading inside.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“Katya! … Katya!!!” I shouted.

Moments later, Katya returned—with my shoes.

“I’m here. And so are your shoes,” she said, bringing them over.

“My shoes!”

I reached for them, but Katya pulled back.

“Not until you vomit,” she insisted.

And so I did.

The Fish are Swimming! (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2-1Uncle Vladimir poured three shots—one for me, one for Sergei, and one for himself. He raised his glass for a toast: “Here’s to food. May we eat to live, not live to eat.”

After clinking our glasses, Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots, then immediately sniffed their sleeves.

“What’s that all about?” I asked, confused.

“Just a tradition,” Katya replied, “to help soften the harshness. Sometimes, people choose to eat a pickle instead.” Sure … why not?!

I took a baby sip from my shot glass. Uncle Vladimir noticed this and laughed, saying something in Russian to Sergei.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Katya replied. “Don’t worry about it. He’s an alcoholic.”

“You not finish?” Uncle Vladimir asked, pointing to my glass.

“Da! Of course!” I replied, forcing myself to finish it off in two more sips, in a feeble attempt to impress. Involuntary gagging, however, ruined any chance for redemption. Uncle Vladimir immediately attempted to pour me another shot.

Nyet! Spasibo!” I begged. But judging from the look on his face—not to mention Sergei’s—something told me this was going to be a long night.

“A man who drinks too much, he has nothing to say,” Uncle Vladimir proclaimed. “But a man who drinks too little, he also has nothing to say. So … I say chut-chut!

I played along, flicking my neck.

“Bobby … please don’t,” Katya warned as Uncle Vladimir eagerly filled up my glass. She tried to stop him at half, but it was no use.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for another toast.

“To Bobby! Control toast!”

We clinked glasses.

“What’s a control toast?” I asked.

“It means to the bottom in one go,” Katya replied.

“No … I can’t,” I said, nervously.

“Time to prove that you are a man,” Sergei said.

With all eyes on me, I realized that it was now or never. It was time to take off the training wheels and knock back my first full shot of vodka. I looked over at Sergei, who saluted me in encouragement with his own glass, and slowly raised the glass to my lips.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Katya said.

I took a deep breath, tilted my head back and let the vodka slide down my throat, before sniffing my sleeve. It went down surprisingly smooth. I was becoming accustomed to vodka consumption, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing—but not necessarily a bad thing, either—especially if I were to marry into this family.

Everyone applauded. I pumped my fist in triumph. Sergei and Uncle Vladimir issued congratulatory handshakes. Even Katya applauded, despite her growing concern for my well-being.

I was surprised at how quickly I became buzzed. Uncle Vladimir poured another round of shots, finishing off the bottle.

Aunt Nina tried to stop him, but Uncle Vladimir barked at her in Russian. How dare a woman interfere with this manly ritual!

“I think I’ve had enough vodka for now,” I said, holding my ground. But it was already too late. I stared down at the full shot glass in front of me on the table. “How about some wine instead?” I suggested, eyeing an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table.

“Normally, wine is saved for women,” Uncle Vladimir said, handing me the wine bottle and corkscrew. “But let’s see how well you can handle a cork.”

Never having used a traditional corkscrew before, I might as well have been handed the controls of a Soviet space shuttle.

I struggled mightily, causing several fragments of cork to fall into the bottle. When he could bare it no longer, Uncle Vladimir grabbed the bottle out of my hand and effortlessly removed the cork, before pouring a glass of wine for Elena, Katya, Aunt Nina … and lastly, me.

“Bobby, you should eat,” Elena wisely suggested.

“Here. Have some chicken,” Katya said, putting a roasted leg down on my plate. As I filled my plate with chicken and took a large helping of borscht, I could feel the effects of the vodka going to work on my system; my vision became a little blurry and my motor functions became slightly impaired. I started to feel detached.

I took a few bites of food, noticing how the rest of the family ravenously devoured their chicken legs until there was nothing left but bone, which they then gnawed on down to the nub. First lemons; now chicken bones.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for yet another toast.

“Here we go again,” Katya said.

This time, both Uncle Vladimir and Sergei stood up.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“The third toast always goes to the women,” Katya explained.

Sergei tipped his glass toward me.

“For women,” Uncle Vladimir said in his thick Russian accent, tipping his glass toward me , winking, and chuckling. Was he calling me a woman? I quickly stood up with my glass of wine to join my fellow comrades.

“To women. And all their beauty. Like vodka, may it never run out,” proclaimed Uncle Vladimir with great gusto.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots. Uncle Vladimir then reached over and took my shot glass, poured my vodka into his empty glass, and downed it in the blink of an eye.

“To women,” I said, with not quite as much gusto as Uncle Vladimir, before taking a sip of wine.

After we had continued eating dinner for a while longer, Uncle Vladimir pulled a brand new bottle of vodka out from underneath the table, and passed it over for me to examine.

Ukrains’ka Horilka z pertsem,” Vladimir said in Russian, referring to the popular Nemiroff honey and pepper-flavored vodka—which is made by steeping hot red peppers in vodka.

No way, I thought to myself. I smiled, and passed the bottle back to Uncle Vladimir, trying to look enthusiastic..

“Bobby … I love honey!” Sergei added, as Uncle Vladimir quickly opened the bottle and began pouring a new round.

“No Bobby … don’t,” Katya said with dread in her eyes.

Aunt Nina and Elena both shook their heads in disapproval, but said nothing. Uncle Vladimir and Sergei were firmly in control of the proceedings at this point.

“I’ll just try a sip,” I said, realizing that I had no choice if I wanted to prove myself to be a real man. “I ate a lot of chicken. It’s fine.”

Katya glanced down at the three discarded chicken bones on my plate.

“You only ate half the meat off of them,” she observed. “And you didn’t touch the bone.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Bobby! You are now ready to give a toast of your own, yes?” Sergei said, raising the stakes.

“Compared to your toasts, I’ll only embarrass myself,” I replied, echoing my response from my first evening in Ukraine.

“Not if you drink this,” Uncle Vladimir said, raising his glass.

“To vodka!” I proclaimed. “Control toast.”

I raised the glass to my lips, determined to down my shot in one gulp, thanks to the liquid courage I had already consumed.

“Always remember,” Uncle Vladimir added. “A good, warmed vodka makes a carnation bloom inside your stomach.”

Uncle Vladimir and Sergei downed their shots. I tried … but my body said no. And without warning, I immediately, involuntarily spat my pepper vodka out, all over the spread of food. No carnation for me.

“Ach! It tastes like varnish!” I exclaimed, quickly grabbing my wine and taking a big gulp in an effort to wash the burning sensation off my tongue.

Uncle Vladimir shook his head and once again poured the remainder of my shot into his glass.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let good vodka go to waste,” he said, slamming the empty glass back down in front of me.

Katya pushed it away. “No more, Uncle” she warned.

I grabbed it back. I hadn’t quite given up on being a real man just yet.

I could sense Uncle Vladimir staring at me, but didn’t look at him. And then, form out of nowhere, he asked me: “So, Bobby… how do you like Ukraine?”

“I’ve never been here before,” I replied. I was kind of aware that my answer didn’t make much sense. However, at this point, I was beginning to feel beyond buzzed … and beyond caring.

Everyone waited for Katya’s translation. Katya simply shrugged.

Uncle Vladimir looked puzzled.

“And … I am very happy that I don’t live here,” I continued, slurring my words.

I felt Katya kick my shin under the table.

All eyes were on Katya, awaiting her translation.

“Bobby said that he loves Ukraine and that he loves the food,” Katya said in Russian. “Especially the chicken.”

“Spasibo!” Aunt Nina said, smiling.

“Bobby … let me tell you what I think of America,” Uncle Vladimir began. “America’s imperialist days are numbered. It’s time for a new superpower to emerge in its place.”

“Vladimir! Enough!” Aunt Nina demanded.

Uncle Vladimir actually seemed to take notice of Aunt Nina this time. We continued eating, in silence.

And that’s when I noticed the plate of pickled herring, swimming in their own juice.

It is important at this juncture to point out that the course of events that transpired over the remainder of the evening are foggy and fragmented in my mind. I am simply piecing everything together based on descriptions given by eyewitness accounts and from my own brief flashbacks.

As I continued to stare transfixed at the herring, I began to grin from ear-to-ear like a fool, before mumbling to Katya:

“Look, the fish are swimming.”

“No, Bobby. They’re not.”

“Yes! Look! They’re swimming in their own fish juice,” I insisted, poking at the fish.

Katya—realizing that she had no other choice, given that everyone wanted to know what I was saying—translated.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir burst out in uncontrolled laughter.

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© 2015 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved.
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