The woman behind the counter hands the bottle back to N. N closes it. We walk out. N opens it.
I take a swig of the cheap vodka and frown.
“Why did that woman just open the bottle then, you close it and take it away?”
N takes a pull off it himself. “It is illegal for stores to sell booze in Saint Petersburg after ten-o’clock,” he says.
N looks at me confused. “So, now they are a bar.”
I laugh. “That can’t be a thing?”
He nods with his chin up, genuinely, as he does.
The bottle is small. So, as with so many small things, we, as bigger things, erase it from existence.
The door we find ourselves at is on the fourth floor, in the fourth courtyard, off the fourth alley, on the fourth left, off of second street.
I have no idea where I am.
Inside, I take off my boots. They are new, and tight.
I go to the bathroom to wash my hands. When I feel enough time has passed that no one would doubt I used soap, I head toward the commotion.
Inside is a kitchen. The air is denser with gray poison than the smoking room of a Chinese airport. I cough, then, light a cigarette.
I hunt noise through the haze and find N chatting away with a simple framed portrait of our mutual friend. She looks out of the frame at me. Someone painted her nose a bit off center.
“Hey!” She cries. She tries to hug me but is stopped by the canvas.
“Oh yeah…” she mutters to herself.
She smiles instead. “How are you?” she says.
I reach out my hand toward her face.
“Don’t touch it!” she panics from inside the painting. “It is new. We only just finished.”
“Just finished what?” I ask.
“Painting each other.”
I peer through the room and notice all the walls are lined with paintings of many of the people I’d met in the past few weeks. Some smoke cigarettes, some dance to the music blaring out of the refrigerator. In the middle, there is a portrait of a man framed in golden plastic. He looks like a lion who, deciding one day to be human, stood up and lit a cigarette. He is gesturing wildly, making pronouncements I cannot understand.
I look at N, he rolls his eyes.
“Why would you do this?” I ask the painting of my friend.
She does a jig inside the painting and smiles. “This way we can be young forever!”
The other paintings in the room cheer.
“Now,” the painting of my friend says softly, “can you go mingle, I have to talk to N about something.”
I try to nod. My head does something well enough to justify moving on politely. I wander around the edge of the room. Many familiar faces peer out at me from their paintings. A man and woman sit together in one, not talking. One younger looking girl snaps a selfie, a bit of ash drying into the paint under her left eye.
I settle against a clean bit of wall next to a face I vaguely recognize from a more three-dimensional time. He seems to recognize me too. He instinctively lends his hand, hitting the canvass barrier. He shrugs.
“How are you?” he asks.
I shrug, lighting another cigarette. Somewhere, someone yells something in Russian I don’t gather.
I look back at the vaguely familiar face. It smiles.
“Why would you come to Russia?” he asks. I shrug again. My despondency seems to dishearten him. He picks at something along the inside of his frame. I take the opportunity to look longingly toward N. He is still engaged. I excuse myself and head for the hall. I put on my boots. They are new, and tight. I make my way into the hall and light a cigarette, alone.
There are dozens of books stacked in the sill of a hole that used to be a window. I pick up a top one and flip it open to an array of lewd sketches.
They turn and look out, “Pervert!” the one on top yells up at me.
Startled, I slam the book shut and throw onto the stacks. The whole lot of them tilt slightly then, plummet from the window shaped hole.
The screams echo through the courtyard.