The skill of being subtle isn’t about choosing the right words, but about choosing the right moment to say something.
For those who may not know this, there was a time in my youth when I researched the brothels of St. Petersburg. (It wasn’t lust that sent me there, but an order from my executive editor.)
Local denizens received this strange visitor well. I paid for the act of chatting at the same rate as required for the act of love, and they told me detailed stories drawn from their controversial labor activity. I’m far from romanticizing this way of life, and there was plenty of drama there. But cheerful, and I would even say uplifting, events also occurred there with some frequency.
One of the regulars at a brothel on Marata Street downtown was an eminent scientific personality. Let’s call him Arseny Kromme. The scientist was pushing 70, a sweet grandpa who considered it undignified to seduce his students. He didn’t have the strength to fulfill his marital duties with the love of his youth, who had become his wife some 40 years earlier. And neither did she.
Nevertheless, he loved his spouse with all his heart, which was something the brothel’s entire labor union knew about. He was faithful to her in all other ways, and even in the brothel he tied himself by the vows of depravity to only one girl. Her name was Alissa, known in the secular world as Antonina. She hailed from the provincial town of Luga.
The grandpa went to see Alissa with the same clockwork regularity he reserved for department meetings at his university—once every two weeks. He earned the right to call her by her given name, brought chocolates for all the working girls, and even kept his own pair of slippers in the apartment that housed the brothel.
At the bar, Dr. Kromme also kept a bottle of Armenian cognac, which the girls dismissed as cheap swill. Whenever the professor mentioned Churchill, the girls thought it was as a dirty word.
Aside from authoring scientific papers, Dr. Kromme concocted something lucrative in the heady years of the Soviet Union’s unraveling in the late 80s and early 90s. As a result he wasn’t poor, and his alma mater even provided him with a coachman.
As I said before, our scientist loved his wife, and so he treated the question of operational security with the utmost rigor of science on the reasonable assumption that his wife, being a woman of the old school, wouldn’t forget or forgive this level of adultery.
He dismissed his driver two blocks away from his destination, randomly changing the drop-off spot. But because Marata Street was home to several institutions vaguely related to his work, his trips there didn’t arouse suspicion.
The professor also paid careful attention to other details: he scrutinized his clothes for stray female hairs and took diligent showers. When leaving, he made sure to put all his clothes back on, and he stuck strictly to schedule.
One day in the Fall, Dr. Kromme arrived at his regular time, and was immediately escorted to the room where he sat down on the bed and asked for his cognac. Alissa-Antonina was chatting with other girls, and showed up in the room about five minutes later.
The professor was asleep. She tried to wake him up, but out of respect to her client’s flawless track record, her efforts were tender and caring.
“Tonya, dear, let me sleep a little, don’t wake me up just yet. I’ll pay for everything. It’s just that I got up really early this morning.”
From his pants, which he was still wearing, he pulled a wad of cash to cover two hours, gave the money to Antonina, and went on snoozing.
The girl from Luga had a kind heart. She undressed the grandpa, covered him with a blanket, and asked her colleagues in adjacent rooms to moan at a reduced volume.
Without fully gaining wakefulness, Dr. Kromme extended his nap twice, and the evening gradually crept up on the city.
Around 9 pm, the phone rang at the brothel’s reception desk.
“Ma’am, good evening. Could you please let me know if Dr. Kromme is still at your place? I’m his wife. And I’m starting to get worried. Don’t hang up on me, I know everything. He visits you every other Wednesday. Today, he’s wearing a gray suit, a red tie and white underpants with green stripes. So I really am his wife. Just do me a favor and try to understand me correctly. He’s an elderly man, and he usually leaves your establishment after one hour. But now he’s stuck there. His driver is chomping at the bit to come upstairs to your apartment, keeps calling me to ask “what should I do?” Do we all really need this scandal? So tell me, is he OK?”
The head of the reception, a woman who had seen a lot in her life, temporarily lost her gift of speech, and permanently acquired respect for the institution of marriage.
“You see… he’s asleep. He said he’s tired, but we checked on him just half an hour ago, and he’s fine.”
Alissa, who was sitting nearby, started making wild gestures and attempting to cut the telephone cord with her eyes.
“Are you sure? Has he already accomplished the thing he’d come there to do? Or not yet?” The professor’s wife asked this question in a steady voice as if talking about formalities at the library.
By this point, the brothel’s manager had already lost all sense of reality, and answered the question in a librarian’s voice.
“Not yet. He lay down at once, and asked us not to bother him. We are even behaving more quietly. Should we wake him up?”
“All right. Go ahead and wake him up in half an hour. Otherwise, he’ll get stuck there forever, and will get all anxious. He’s such a bad liar that it pains me to watch his torments. And since we are having this conversation, tell me… as a man, is he healthy? Is everything OK with him? I’m sure you understand, as long as he visits you, he’ll carry on living.” The voice of the professor’s wife contained neither tearful sentimentality nor hypocrisy. She was simply inquiring after her husband’s health.
“Well, we have such skillful girls that anyone will be healthy,” the chief librarian joked from another dimension she was inhabiting at the moment.
“But everything is in good working order with your husband, he’ll live a long life.”
“Thank God for that. Oh, and one more thing. If you want Dr. Kromme to keep returning to this particular establishment, do not say a word to him about this conversation. All the best to you.”
After a few minutes of silence, both girls slowly began regaining consciousness.
“Wish we had someone who loved us this much…” the manager said.
“Wish someone endowed us with such a brain,” Antonina replied.
By the deadline set forth by the chief executive, Dr. Kromme was woken up. Looking at his watch, he started fretting and wringing his hands in search of an explanation to offer his wife later.
Within 10 minutes, he “prematurely ejaculated” himself from the welcoming apartment. Things never got as far as love.
I heard this story half a year later from the brothel’s manager who’d taken the wife’s call. By then, Alissa had already quit, having saved enough money to pay for her final year of college. By the way, industry professionals say that some girls somehow manage to escape the trap, but only if they spent less than year in this line of work. After that, irreversible changes occur in one’s soul and one’s worldview.
Dr. Kromme mourned for a while, but as a true gentleman, he didn’t seek Alissa’s replacement in the same apartment.
In memory of this miraculous story (which, it is possible, wasn’t recounted only to me, or only by me), his Armenian cognac retained its spot at the brothel’s bar. I took a sip and picked an argument with Leo Tolstoy. All unhappy families may indeed be unhappy in their own ways, but happy families are also not alike in their happiness.