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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ugly duckling




These things happen so fast, you can't tell when it is they happened. One minutePete was in love, virtually engaged to be married, and the next, Lena had stormed out in a fit of disdain for his politics or his manhood.


Next thing he knew, he was at the Ugly Duckling getting bombed while the United States and Britain were bombing Iraq.


One minute he was surrounded by fairly normal-looking young women and young men, encouragingly fewer in number, and the next, everyone seemed to be up on the bar. While Pete's gaze was transfixed by a leather-clad derri?re that was still managing to catch some of the beats, his fingers were ground into the bar by someone else's leather sole. Jerking his hand away, he spilled two beer glasses, one of which may or may not have been his, but no one seemed to mind because the beer was free and everyone was spilling it.


The general carefree atmosphere, the willingness to let loose and lose oneself appealed to Pete so much that he didn't notice the obsessive, driven spirit of the party. All he knew was that he didn't need an interpreter, he was as qualified as the next guy, and, it seemed, he would likely get laid. He decided to dive in, the way he had dived into the Duma, into illegal business, into editing some Russian magazine and whatever else it was he had done in Russia, which now seemed as far away as if he had returned to Cornell.


Pete had his eye on a small group of young women who were dancing in one corner of the bar, some of them by the bar, some already on the bar. The ritual, he surmised, was that at first girls danced with girls and guys danced with guys and then everyone mingled and went home together.


Quaint, thought Pete and angled slowly closer to the girls. They appealed to him because somehow they seemed at once more world-weary and more, shall we say, innocent than the other women in the place. That is, they were older and dressed differently. They were not wearing tight pants or revealing tops and Pete found their sartorial decency somehow touching in a place like this. He angled even closer and began to sway his hips to the music.


There was one girl in the bunch he liked particularly. She was on the tall side with long dark hair gathered in a bun and she was a good dancer. Pete smiled at her, she smiled back, and the rest of the girls in her crowd laughed good-naturedly. Pete had a sudden inspiration, the sort of flash with which one can be blessed when one has had a bit to drink and which needs to be put into practice immediately before second thoughts kill the spontaneity. So Pete quickly, very quickly danced over to the dark-haired girl, tore the baseball cap off his own head and in one swift movement set it on her bun.


So one minute he was having good old-fashioned fun, and the next, he had his back pressed up against the bar and the scowling face of one of those nice girls looking down on him and telling him, in a Russian he suddenly understood, that that girl was with her and she had some choice words for him. Pete found this all that much easier to understand because he'd been in this situation, or a similar situation, once or twice or three times before. Like when his college girlfriend left him for another woman. And when Lena came around with that beautiful girl. Pete made an understanding face, squirmed, mouthed words of apology, which couldn't be heard over the music but could be seen on his face, and was finally released and given a firm kick in the direction of the other side of the bar.


There, next to three security guards on her very own and lonesome sat a young (he hoped she was of age, whatever that was) fair girl in a knit top that looked like whoever made it was short on yarn. Pete stuffed his mangled baseball cap in his back pocket, grabbed two plastic beer glasses from the bar and headed straight for her.


One minute he was handing one of the beer glasses to the smiling nymphet and the next he was counting the stairs he hadn't even noticed on the way in. He was counting them with his hatless head and his entire upper body and his lower body also and he noticed as well that they were black. He had realized, upon involuntary closer inspection, that the three guys were not security guards but regular Russian officers and apparently the girl's boyfriends or brothers or bodyguards. He also realized he didn't have his coat.