Katya hadn’t been going to the language school six months when her tutor slipped a phone number into her hand, told her she could make some money speaking English if she were interested.
Of course, she was interested, she thought on the way home and while she dialed the number and after the pleasant-sounding man told her to meet him Friday evening at a café she knew well. Of course.
There were so many possibilities, she imagined herself to sleep all week long. Translation services for government officials or famous athletes. Speech transcription. Deciphering paperwork buried deep in the city’s archives, or perhaps even documents nabbed from some uncareful person on the Internet. She thought of the covert and the glamorous, yes, but she also thought of the mundane. Office work. Fielding telephone calls from British customers.
Still, these were better than the jobs her classmates took selling matryoshka dolls or fake Armani shirts at the market. Just a week ago, she passed by her friend Marta at a mall kiosk. Katya had lifted her hand to wave, but Marta was ensconced in work, pulling two pair of men’s briefs from their boxes so a balding, paunchy customer could feel the fabrics and grin.
Katya walked quickly, forgot about reconnecting. No: even the most boring linguistic work must be better than that.
Friday, she arrived at the café in heels and a dress, careful makeup, glasses so she’d appear smart.
The man who had sounded so pleasant on the phone looked strikingly like the man to whom Marta had marketed briefs.
He carelessly folded her resume and shoved it in his pocket as he looked her up and down, then shrugged. “Speak.”
“My name is Katya. I am from Irkutsk. I like to—”
“Good,” the man said. He handed her a sheet of typed questions. “Find tourists. My name is Vasilliy. I pay cash.”
Katya had her own questions but focused instead on the sheet.
What is name?
What does name mean?
Do you like Russia?
Where are you from?
Have you been to the Baikal?
Would you like to buy me drink?
She wondered if it was a test, filled with errors she must correct. In her mind, she added articles, transposed orders in preparation for what must come next.
Instead, the man tapped her shoulder and pointed: “Him.”
Katya squinted. The pleasant-sounding man rolled his eyes. “Talk. Make men stay. Spend.”
Reluctantly, Katya stepped forward. Three, four, five steps, until her shoulder nearly touched a strange man’s arm.
“What is your name?” she asked. The tourist put down his empty glass and the bartender asked if he’d like another.
He looked back and forth, as though caught in a great dilemma.
“Where are you from?” Katya asked.
The man nodded, turned to the bar: “Yes, or—da. Adin pivo.” One beer.
She glanced back at the pleasant-sounding man. He flicked his wrist: turn around.
A meter away, a taller girl with a shorter dress asked a handsomer man, “Have you seen the Baikal?”
Katya swallowed hard. She stepped closer. “Would you like to buy me drink?”
She hated the error.
The man waved down the bartender, grinned.
Katya thought of the cash. She thought of her family. She hoped that if Marta passed by, she’d walk quickly, forget about reconnecting.
Brooks Rexroat is the author of Thrift Store Coatsand Pine Gap. He holds a B.A. from Morehead State University and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. He was a 2016 Fulbright Scholar to Russia and 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Connect with him on his site (brooksrexroat.com), on Twitter (brooksrexroat), or on Facebook (brooks-rexroat-writes).