When I loved Anya, my teeth were the yellowest they’d ever been. I used to call her on Sunday mornings, reaching out from the monastic austerity of my single bedroom in a flat I’d been living in for too long – a mould-ridden house in Newtown. Then it would be late Saturday night in St. Petersburg, and I could hear alcohol in the thickness of her vowels and her Rs and Ls. Smoking cigarettes outside her apartment, she would let me tell her the details of my preceding day before turning the conversation dirty. From the clarity of my Sunday mornings, a futuristic vantage point, I worked myself up under the sheets, whispering to her that I was naked, or pretending that my flannelette pyjamas were only a pair of boxers. There’s nothing like distance to keep lust alive, I thought. Even if she had been able to hear my morning breath, I took comfort in the knowledge that she couldn’t see my yellow teeth.
After these phone calls were finished, I’d get up and shower, then catch the bus out to Seatoun to visit my grandmother. I enjoyed knowing that Anya would be asleep, passed out in a drunken Russian coma, which meant that my mind was now working for both of us. I loved looking up the Russian translations of words like embrace and suck and mulling them over while the bus wound its way around my quiet city. I’d press my forehead against the glass of the bus window, and the thought of Anya’s sleeping body made me feel alive.
For a long time, my grandmother had been asking me whether I was going to bring a young man or woman to meet her. I didn’t want her to worry that I had some kind of love defect, so one Sunday morning I told her about Anya.
“We met last year when I was in Russia. I was waiting for my train to Moscow when I saw her, the most beautiful girl smiling straight at me – me! Never before have I believed in first sight.”
“But is she a girl or a woman?” Grandma asked.
“A woman, definitely a woman. I didn’t mean to be diminutive.”
“Ah,” she said, “the Russians are diminutive, though.”
“She’s wonderful, Grandma. We talk all the time. She’s going to come and visit me soon. We’ll go on a road trip around the North Island.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said, and looked at me over her glasses. “Make sure you start brushing your teeth properly before she comes, they look yellow, and you don’t want her to be disappointed by your breath.”
Little pieces of Russian culture had been itching their way into me: a tattered copy of Chekhov’s stories I found at the local Salvation Army shop; some crudely mass-produced babushka dolls from Kmart. A tin of recently expired borscht with a Russian label from Uncle Bill’s, which I immediately pushed to the back of my pantry. All of these things drew me closer to Anya. On Sunday mornings before she called, I dedicated myself to reading Solzhenitsyn and praying that my grandmother would pray for our relationship. When my lips curled around the warm pierogi I held in a little container at the night market, I imagined that I was licking Anya’s soft edges.
A few weeks later Anya stopped answering my calls, and would only respond to my messages hours later. Tsvetok, dorogaya!, I messaged her the next Sunday morning. Please pick up the phone.
I disrupted our schedule and reached out into the light of her day. “Ya lyublu tebya,” I said when she picked up. It was late on a Friday night and I was in a taxi on my way home from Courtenay Place, drunk enough to be slurring my words. I spoke to her seriously.
“Anya, you already know I love you. Come over here. Let me buy you a plane ticket.”
“Sweetie,” she replied, “I’m just having lunch with some friends! I’ll call you back tomorrow.”
“Did you hear me?” I knew that my voice was too loud. “I said I’ll buy you a plane ticket. I’ll bring you over here Anya. We can finally be together.”
I wrapped the length of my headphones around my pinkie finger, as tight as I could. She was so close to me and I was hanging from a precipice, waiting for her to grab my hand. My offer, I felt sure, was heroic; an appropriately extravagant gesture.
She escaped to the background of the call and started talking in rapid Russian, too fast for me to pick out single words. She laughed, called out loudly. I imagined that she had told her friends about my offer.
“Sorry, sweetie,” she said when she came back on the line, “I’m busy with lunch right now, can I call you later?”
I was hurt, and hung up the phone before she had the chance to say anything else. It was just a small display of aggression on my part, but I hoped that it would be enough to jolt her into certitude, to show her that I was serious. All the same, I felt the idea of us sinking slowly inside me.
I tried to put her out of my mind. Every night that week I drank vodka before I went to bed, so that my dreams were as murky and agitated as I was during the day. I went to university and to the gym and to meet friends and was in a foul mood the whole time. I also knew that my breath smelt worse than ever, and enjoyed watching people recoil from me when I spoke to them.
The following Sunday morning, I opened up her tiny WhatsApp profile picture and was so moved by the sight of her round cheeks and dark hair that I called her, and called her again, and then a third time. For every one of those lonely international dial tones that I was forced to listen to, I felt worse.
Finally, she picked up.
“Hi sweetie, how are you?” she answered brightly.
“I need to see you again!” I told her, my voice breaking a little. “Please come over.”
She was quiet for a few seconds, and I could hear a crackling sound on the line.
“Oh yes,” she said abruptly. “I meant to tell you it’s not practical for me to come over right now. Maybe you could come and see me in Petersburg next year?”
“Next year?” I responded dumbly.
“Yeah! Come for the Russian summer, darling. You’ll love it.”
“Anya, I was there last summer.”
She broke away from the call and started talking in Russian to her friends – and in that moment, I found it impossible to believe that I’d once been charmed by this rude habit of hers. I realised with startling clarity that it wasn’t the language barrier that had been our downfall, but the time difference. How had I ever thought it was possible to reach out from the tender clarity of a Sunday morning, to the indistinct chaos of a Saturday night?
Anya continued talking to her friends and I took the phone away from my ear and put it on speaker so that I could watch the call. This time, I didn’t watch her profile picture, or scroll back through the little chat messages sitting under the call as I waited. I only focused on the call timer which showed how long we had been connected this time. I thought about how miniscule those minutes were compared to the time difference between us, and how even if she had accepted my invitation, the hours of flying would never make up for our time zones.
I heard her brush close to the microphone again and return to me.
“Sorry about that,” Anya said, “I’ll call you back tomorrow, ok?”
“Yours or mine?” I asked her.
“You said you’ll call me back tomorrow. Your tomorrow, or mine?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said.
After we said goodbye, I sat with the phone to my ear and waited for the line to go quiet.
Anya didn’t call me on my tomorrow, or her tomorrow, and I finally knew that it had nothing to do with the time difference. She didn’t care, so I tried my best not to. I decided that I’d never brush my teeth again.