In the afternoon, I sit down to study some Russian. M is off somewhere doing a thing that M does. Belly, his dog, sleeps at my feet.
Today’s vocabulary list is about food. The podcast I follow says the best way to learn is to say the words out loud three times. I say the word for cheese five times, it rolls off my tongue like sandpaper.
I try out a few more. Each time I repeat a word is a nail in the coffin of my sanity. I take a break, make a drink, light a cigarette, try to say ‘milk’.
“Moo-moo-fuck milk!” I shout at Belly. Belly smirks in his sleep.
I move on. Halfway through practicing the word for cabbage, something happens. The air next to my face prickles and splits. An old man in a bright blue robe and pointy hat steps out of the universe and into my kitchen.
“Ah!” I cry.
“Ah, yourself,” he responds.
“Who the fuck are you?!” I tell him.
“Who the fuck are you?” the old man demands.
“I asked first,” I say.
“I agree,” the old man says, “and that is a much better way to start a conversation, in agreement.” He smiles. I frown.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing, what are you doing using that word?” he says.
“The word. The one you just said.”
I look down at my notes. “Cabbage?” I ask.
“What?” The man joins me in examining my list. “What is this?”
“I am studying Russian,” I say. The old man looks out my window.
He looks back at me. “Why would you come to Russia?”
I sigh. “I like it here. Why are you here?”
“You summoned me here,” he says, “with the spell.”
“What spell?” I search my notes for some secret I’d missed, it still only says, ‘cabbage’.
The old man raises an eyebrow at me. “You did not mean to summon me?”
I shake my head.
“Oh. So you don’t want a wish?” he says.
“Huh? A what?”
“A wish. You used a wishing spell, so, I am here to grant your wish.”
I look back at my notes, I say the Russian word for cabbage. “That word?” I ask.
The old man shakes his head, “close, but no”
I try a few more times. The man shushes me. “That isn’t even Russian, you’re just saying nonsense, do you want a wish or not?”
I think about it, then, think about why I was thinking about it in the first place.
“Of course,” I say.
The old man gestures for me to continue. “Go ahead, anything you want,” he says.
I think for a moment.
“A million dollars?” I ask, sheepishly.
“What!” The old man’s eyes go wide. “No, hell no, that is ridiculous. Pick something else.”
“Oh…okay, how about a boat?” I ask.
The old man lifts his chin in mockery. “Aren’t we greedy. Pick something reasonable,” he says.
I scowl at him. “You said I could have anything I want,” I remind him.
The old man sighs. “Yes,” he says “well, it is more like when your parents tell you to choose anything from the grocery store. They mean a candy bar, not—I don’t know—two hundred pounds of blowfish. So, pick a candy bar.”
“An actual candy bar?”
The old man closes his eyes and digs the nub of his ring finger into his temple. “No, it is a metaphor.”
I wince at the sarcasm. Slowly I ask “…so, not a candy bar then?”
The old man’s eyes snap open. “No, do you not know what a metaphor is?”
“I do, it’s just, you’re hard to read,” then I add, quietly, “didn’t want to seem like an idiot.”
“You failed,” The old man says, “now make a wish, my brain hurts.”
I say the first thing to pop in my head, “I wish to be an inch taller.”
“Brilliant.” The old man snaps his fingers and steps back out of the air. He is gone.
I stand up and shake my head clear. I look down at the dog, still asleep. I walk out into the hall and stare at myself in the mirror. I stretch my arms high above my head and try to remember where they used to reach.
The door to the apartment swings open. M walks in. He whisks off his hat and scarf and looks at me curiously.
“What are you doing?”
I turn around and straighten up my back.
“Do I look taller?” I ask.
He looks me up and down.
“Nope,” he says, and walks past me into the kitchen.