7. Valentine’s Day
After a few days of not seeing each other and not speaking, I phoned Yulia to invite her out for a real sit-down dinner, in a real restaurant on the Bolshaya Pokrovka, to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Like Christmas, western holidays were in vogue with the students but in the city, there was very little observance. To my surprise, Yulia accepted my invitation to reconciliation very graciously.
A few days before my invitation to Yulia, while walking between classes together, Marina pointed out to me that an acquaintance of hers had recently bought a newly privatized restaurant and it was open for customers. This, of course, piqued my interest. Marina and I stopped to look at the menu of traditional Russian foods. I noticed immediately that there were no listed prices on the menu. I stepped inside to ask for a reservation for the evening of St. Valentine’s Day. Marina was all starry eyed at how romantic it was going to be, and she wasn’t even invited. She was like that.
When Yulia and I arrived for dinner we were met, greeted, and seated promptly by a well-dressed and well-mannered waiter. Yulia approved immediately. The dining room was in a sous-terrain, basement with a vaulted brick ceiling. There was a shabby-chic feeling as the basement had been decorated to feel as if the diners were eating in the wine cellar. The white paint peeling off the red bricks of the faux vaulting added to the feeling of being someplace other than snowy, frozen, pickled Russia.
The tables were covered in proper linen table cloths and napkins. The silverware was shiny and heavy in the hand. The lighting low and focused creating an intimate and private atmosphere. Yuila thought she was Sophia Lauren and that diamonds were to be served as the appetizer and couldn’t stop smiling. Everybody was so polite and chivalrous as professional waiters and services should be. Menus were brought and aperitifs presented. This boded well to help patch things up between us.
“It all looks so good!” Yulia beamed as she inspected the menu offerings.
“I haven’t had chicken Kiev since I was in Kiev a few years ago,” I said with some wonder. “I think I will try that tonight.”
“I’ve never had it. I hear it’s really good when it’s cooked right,” she said with stars in her eyes.
We both ordered the chicken Kiev but enjoyed a five-course presentation with starters, both warm and cold, an in-between chef’s surprise, a buttery chicken Kiev with a gourmet potato puree with fresh green vegetables, and ended with a traditional Russian jam of berries in an unsweetened cream. We drank chilled sparkling mineral water from Austria. The waiter took a photo of us. I was curious but didn’t speak about it with Yulia, but noticed that still there was no mention of a charge or a single price on the menu for the royal treatment of this gourmet dinner.
“Peter, I feel really horrible for the things I said to you that night at the bus stop. I don’t know what came over me. I think you were right that my nerves were still raw from, well, you know what. I don’t want to speak of such things in such a nice place.” It was the first time I ever heard her apologize. It made me uncomfortable.
“Listen, don’t worry about. We all say things sometimes that we don’t mean. Please just let it go.” I reached out and held her hand across the table for a few moments before dessert was served.
As the evening grew later the dining room filled to capacity, not with elegant diners or couples celebrating Valentine’s Day together, but with groups of young men in their twenties in purple suits. For every table of four or five young men in flashy shoes and ties, short hair buzzed off, there were one or two girls, about the same age at the table hanging on the arm of one of the diners. The ladies were not dressed for dinner.
Yulia finally noticed the other diners and gave me a concerned look across the table, and in a low voice commented in English, “Peter, do you see the people here? They all are criminals. Look at their clothes. Normal people cannot buy these clothes.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed. I like the purple suits!” I said with a grin.
Yulia screwed up her face and looked away.
“This a private restaurant,” I said to her in coded language. She understood.
“What private?” she gasped.
“Meaning that this restaurant is privately owned. I wanted to come here to see what a private restaurant meant. The food has been excellent. The service has been great. Don’t you think so?” I asked innocently.
“Peter, the only people who can pay for a restaurant are criminals. I can’t believe you brought me here,” she huffed and tried not to be too conspicuous about not looking around her.
As Yulia was becoming very uncomfortable I politely asked for the check. The waiter told us that the charge would be forty dollars and retreated to his service station. Yulia was shocked!
“Peter, forty dollars? That is two month’s rent for your apartment! How many rubles is that? My mother and I can feed ourselves for a whole month for that amount! How are you going to pay for that?” she was genuinely concerned that we were in trouble with the wrong people.
“Shhh,” I hushed my date’s growing hysteria. “I expected this and came prepared. You don’t have to worry. I have plenty of money.”
I signalled the waiter again. “Do you accept payment in rubles?” I asked him.
“No, unfortunately only in hard currency, dollars or marks.”
I cheerfully paid the waiter with two twenty-dollar bills from my billfold with one hundred dollars in it. The waiter retreated again to his station.
“Peter, that is illegal in Russia. Everybody must accept payment in rubles. You can’t pay in dollars anymore since the beginning of the year,” Yulia hissed into my ear.
“Yes, I understand that, but do you want to tell that to him and him and him?” I whispered back, looking at each thug with a nod of my head.
She looked confused as she turned to look around the dining room filled with thugs and their girls.
“Yulia, this is a mafia restaurant. You don’t argue with the waiter in a mafia restaurant. You pay. You smile. You compliment the chef. You leave,” I said as I stood up slowly from my chair.
The waiter came with our coats and handed us our hats to be put on outside. He helped Yulia into her long winter coat, this time to her great disapproval.
As we moved up the stairs from the sous-terrain, with the waiter following up behind us, we were confronted immediately with the blue flashing lights of a city police car that had just come to a skidding stop in front of the entrance to the restaurant. Yulia looked at me with panic in her eyes and a look of disdain that I had brought her once again into danger. I too stood frozen in place thinking about the forty-dollars I had just handed to the waiter, complicit in an illegal transaction.
The two police men bounded from their car, but instead of moving directly to the entrance of the restaurant, they moved to open the back doors of their patrol car. From the back seat, they removed two young men in handcuffs and bloody noses. They looked like they had taken a good beating at the hands of the police officers. The four men came through the restaurant’s main entrance and moved directly through a service door into and through the kitchen. Not a word was said, no polite excuses were given for the disruptions. It was as if they hadn’t even been seen by anybody around them. Yulia and I looked at each other in disbelief.
Before we could make any further movement towards the door, another car came sliding to a stop outside the restaurant on the snowy cobblestones. The headlights shined directly into the restaurant, blinding us. Before we could make a step towards the door, in walked three men who obviously were not going to yield the right of way nor hold the door open for us. We stood aside as three angry faces passed us, glaring and sizing us up for any potential threat; two identical-looking bodyguards walked in front of and directly behind a shorter, stouter man with a clean shaven bald head dressed in the latest fashions from Paris. The bald one looked directly at me, and his eyes stayed on me as his entourage passed us, trying to be as flat as possible against the wall. His eyes looked black against his bright white open collar and the concentrated fury in them frightened me, turning my gut into jelly.
After a slight pause in the lobby and some discreet instructions to the waiter who was seeing us out, these three men joined now by two younger cadets from the dining room disappeared through the same service door as the police officers and their prisoners. As they vanished from the lobby Yulia and I both scrambled for the door and exited in tandem, bumping shoulders over the threshold as we rushed out on to the street.
“You there, stand still!” a voice came from behind the precariously parked cars on the restaurant’s sidewalk. The blue lights from the police car twirled around, revealing and concealing a third police officer standing in the open driver’s door. “What’s your business here?”
Yulia was tongue tied and looked to me to explain our way out of the situation.
“I am very sorry. I do not speak Russian” I said calmly in English to the policeman. “Angliskiy?” I asked putting on a stupid American face as I approached him slowly, putting a hand to my ear. This seemed to defuse the officer’s suspicion and he spoke again without questioning.
“Please leave here immediately. This is an official police action,” he commanded while using sign language to move us on. Yulia didn’t speak. I nodded and waved in a friendly manner to the cop to acknowledge our understanding and we slipped away into Pokrovka Street towards Gorkiy Square.
Once we were out of sight and ear shot of the police cars, Yulia held nothing back and let into me in another tirade. “How could you, Peter? How could you do this to me again? Why do you think that you can play with fire and not get burned? You shouldn’t tempt fate like this, Peter…and certainly not with me around. They will figure out very quickly who you are, who I am. We just saw them kidnapping people with the help of the police. If those two guys show up dead tomorrow they’ll remember that there were witnesses. Do you think that they are just going to forget about that? Do you think this is normal? And then that stupid foreigner act? They’ll grab you before you know it. We warned you about speaking English with people you don’t know. You don’t know who they are or what they might do to you later, or at that very moment! How could you do this?” She was genuinely frightened.
Yulia stomped off ahead of me with a brisk, angry pace. I called after her, trying to calm her down, but she wouldn’t yield. I trudged up the street after her and finally caught up and reached out to touch her arm and ask her to stop for a moment and listen to an apology. Instead, she turned and hissed, “I think it’s better that you and I aren’t seen together for a while for safety reasons, and until you get these stupid ideas out of your head. Remember that if things go wrong, you can always leave. I have to live here. Don’t drag me down with your curiosity crusade, Peter!”
I didn’t see Yulia again until the ice on the Volga had melted.
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