One night a year is “Museum Night” in St. Petersburg. The museums are open all night, subways too. My friend E invites me to the Water Museum.
There is a two hour wait.
“It’s supposed to be cool, make you more, hm, conscientious?” E says, shrugging convincingly.
“Lovely,” I tell her, with nothing else to do.
The tour guides take us in schools of fifteen to twenty. It is 1 am as we descend the stairs. The museum is underground. Water lines the walls. Fish watch us. We begin at the far corner. Behind the glass, flitting about, a mermaid waits. A headset is weaved into her mauve hair; water-proof, I imagine.
“Hello,” she says in Russian, “Welcome to the water museum!”
Two girls step forward. They snap a selfie with the mermaid. The mermaid doesn’t smile. A babushka shuffles up, barrels the two aside. A girl, who might be her granddaughter, takes a picture. The babushka is displeased with it. The girl snaps another, shaking. We all wait.
“Okay,” the mermaid manages, after a dozen or so more people have selfied with her. She swims onward. Her Russian is good, mine is bad.
“What is she saying?” I ask E. The mermaid is scooping gunk and garbage from the bottom of her tank and explaining something.
“People suck,” E tells me.
We walk on. The mermaid comes to a board covered with household appliances. She begins explaining things about each one. There are numbers next to each. The mermaid takes a remonstrative tone. I get the gist. I turn to E.
She nods. “You understood?” she asks.
I shrug. “They’re a bit on the nose.”
“Excuse me,” The mermaid calls, in Russian, at me. She begins to reprimand. E cuts her off.
“Sorry, he is American,” she says. The Mermaid nods, resigned. The babushka growls. The two teenage girls take the opportunity to snap a group-selfie with the cut-out of a washing machine.
Knowing my place, I stay silent for the rest of the tour. At the end, we are led into a room, There are chairs, black and sturdy. The walls are no longer water; white, psychiatric.
The door closes. There is an innocent little click.
A voice comes from nowhere. The air, maybe. It says some things I don’t catch. I frown at E, she looks upset.
E looks at me. “Uh, the final exhibit is locking us in here.”
I laugh. “Huh?”
“To die of thirst,” she finishes.
I stop laughing. “Excuse me?”
“They said it’s the only way to truly appreciate how our water usage impacts the planet. So, we can see what it will be like when there is no more fresh water.”
I slump into one of the solid black chairs, take a breath.
In the corner, a few younger boys are playing rock paper scissors; one loses, the other gets the iPad. The babushka holds her weeping granddaughter, unmoved. One of the two teenage girls has fainted.
I sigh and pull out my cigarettes. I light one. E takes a seat next to me.
“How can you smoke at a time like this?” she asks.
I watch the still-conscious teenage girl bend down, make a kissy face; snapping a selfie beside her passed out friend.
“It’s stressful,” I say.
E eyes the end of my cigarette.
“Alright,” she sighs, “give me one.”
I pass her the already lit one, light another.
We smoke, wait, and eventually, die.