Chapter 5: I Can’t Believe I’ve Written Five Chapters of This
When your alarm goes off, your first thought is that the whole thing was a terrible and wonderful dream.
Then, with a start, you realize that only the part where you were starring in a Broadway adaptation of Independence Day was a terrible and wonderful dream. The part where you were whisked away on a romantic getaway with Vladimir Putin, and then kidnapped, and then rescued by Vladimir Putin was all too real. (Well, maybe not too real. Just real enough, let’s say.)
You sit up in bed, suddenly wide awake. It’s only been a few hours since Putin returned you safely to your apartment in Moscow, but you are already aching to see him again. You haven’t been this excited to go to work since Taco Wednesday (which was last Wednesday).
You spend an extra long time choosing your outfit, finally settling on a prom dress that somehow made its way into your work-clothes rotation. You arrive at the Kremlin a few minutes early and take the long way to the mailroom, including several unnecessary trips up and down the elevator, to maximize your chances of running into Putin on his way into work. Finally, when you can’t put it off any longer (because now you’re like an hour late), you go down to the basement mailroom and turn on the light.
The room is cold and silent, the stacks of mail untouched since your sudden departure a few days ago. You’re still buzzing with nervous energy, and you get right to work sorting envelopes into different mail carts based on size and color, because they look nicer that way.
You’re eager to start your delivery rounds, because it means another chance to see Putin. While you work, your mind wanders. What is going to happen when Vladimir Putin sees you? Is he your boyfriend now? Probably he’ll just smile and maybe wink at you, so as to be discreet around your coworkers. Or maybe he’ll invent an excuse to hold your hand and gaze deeply into your eyes, like by telling your coworkers that he’s an accomplished hypnotherapist and he’s trying to help you quit smoking.
You push a full mail cart to the elevator and start working your way through the building, tossing envelopes into random cubicles with more gusto than usual. You’ve only made it to the second floor when you round the corner, and there he is, at the other end of the long corridor, walking quickly in your direction.
He’s surrounded by half a dozen cabinet members, but they blur into the background as you gaze at Vladimir Putin. Even though you’ve only been apart for a short time, seeing him again feels like coming home (like if he were your home, and you rode around on his back like a turtle shell). Heart pounding with happy anticipation, you look up at him with a shy smile.
He walks right past you, without glancing in your direction.
You stand there, frozen in place, listening to their chatter recede into the distance. You feel like if someone brushed against you, you would shatter, just like the frozen reindeer Putin keeps in his walk-in freezer.
Eventually you resume pushing the mail cart, walking in a daze as you try to make sense of what just happened. Maybe Putin didn’t see you, you tell yourself. He did seem sort of distracted. On the other hand, the corridor is pretty narrow, and his cabinet members had to form a single file line just to get around your mail cart. One of them even stepped on the train of your dress.
On your way back to the mailroom, you stop by Accounting and dump the contents of your mail cart onto Olga’s desk, because you don’t like Olga. This cheers you up a little.
Later that afternoon, you have a lucky break. An express package arrives addressed to Vladimir Putin himself! You stop what you’re doing (filling a large box with packing peanuts so you can swim around in packing peanuts) and walk to Putin’s office as quickly as you can without arousing suspicion (which is not all that quickly. Basically just regular speed.)
Outside his door, Putin’s secretary tries to stop you by saying something angrily in Russian.
“I’m supposed to deliver this personally,” you insist, brushing past her. You push through the heavy door before she can stop you again, and you walk into Putin’s office.
Vladimir Putin looks up from behind his desk, and for a split second his eyes meet yours. Before you have time to read his expression, he turns back to his game of Tetris.
“Just drop that anywhere,” he says in a bored voice.
You set the box down on the far corner of his desk and turn toward the door, feeling crushed and confused. Part of you wants to get out of his office as quickly as possible…but who knows when you’re going to have this chance again? You force yourself to turn around and face him.
“Thank you again for rescuing me last night. I don’t know where I would be right now if it weren’t for you. I mean, I guess technically I do know where I would be…”
“Will that be all?” he interrupts. He doesn’t even look up at you.
You don’t answer. Fighting tears, you turn and walk out of his office.
Days go by, and then weeks (because that’s how time works!) You don’t speak to Putin again, and he continues to act as if nothing happened between you. You start thinking that maybe nothing did happen between you. But then why did Putin take the time to personally rescue you when you were kidnapped? Maybe that’s just a service he provides to all Russian citizens? Except technically you’re not a Russian citizen. So maybe it’s something he does for everyone staying in Russia on a work visa?
These thoughts are still swirling through your head a few weeks later, as you stare at Putin from across the cafeteria. You’re at your usual table with your friends from the copy room and Ivan, who works in security. You suspect that Ivan has a crush on you, but you’ve managed to avoid dealing with it by pretending he doesn’t speak English.
“I keep telling you, I do speak English!” says Ivan. “I was born in Bethesda.”
You give Ivan a confused shrug and let your eyes wander back over to Putin.
Putin sits at the “popular” table, of course, with all of the coolest Kremlin employees. Dmitry Medvedev is there, and so is Stepan, a bear. Putin never so much as glances in your direction anymore, so you usually spend your entire lunch hour staring at him freely. But today you’re feeling bitter, so you turn away and try to focus on sculpting your porridge into the shape of a smaller bowl of porridge.
“Hey,” whispers Ivan, leaning in close. “Guess who’s staring at you.”
Your head jerks up. As usual, Putin is ignoring you—he and Dmitry Medvedev are arm-wrestling. Olga from Accounting is staring daggers at you, but that’s nothing new.
“I don’t mean Olga,” Ivan adds, as if reading your mind. “I’m talking about Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus.”
You glance over at the table where the Belarusian delegation is sitting. They’re in town this week to negotiate a trade deal, and Ivan is right—Alexander Lukashenko is staring at you. When your eyes meet, he quickly looks away, cheeks flushed.
You’ve been seeing Lukashenko out of the corner of your eye for the past few days, but you hadn’t given him much thought until now. You notice for the first time that he’s actually pretty handsome, in a mustachey way.
You give Ivan another shrug and carry your tray over to the conveyer belt that takes dirty cafeteria trays somewhere. Probably a giant fire pit.
Back in the mailroom, you’re busy wrapping yourself in bubble wrap when there’s a soft knock at the door. For a moment your heart swells with hope. Then you look up, and Alexander Lukashenko is standing in the doorway.
Trying to hide your disappointment, you force a polite smile.
“Er, hello,” you say. “What can I do for you?”
“I was expecting a letter today.” He hesitates a moment before walking in and extending his hand. “My name is Alexander Lukashenko. I am the president of Belarus.”
You reach out to shake his hand, but to your surprise, he pulls your hand to his mouth and gives it a gentle kiss.
“Just a moment,” you say, a little flushed. You start digging through plastic mail bins, your bubble-wrap outfit making loud popping noises as you move around. Finally you find an envelope addressed to Alexander Lukashenko in neat handwriting.
“Do you mind if I open it?” he asks, pulling a letter opener out of his pocket. You smile politely again, wondering if he always carries a letter opener around in his pocket. Because that’s a little weird, right?
“Why, look at this,” he says, peering into the envelope. “Someone sent me a gift certificate to Cafe Mu-Mu, my favorite cow-themed Moscow eatery. Have you dined there before?”
“I haven’t,” you say, because you haven’t.
“You must join me then.” Lukashenko smiles warmly. “I could hardly spend 500 rubles on just myself.”
“That sounds nice,” you say vaguely, uncertain if this is an actual invitation or if he is just being friendly.
“Wonderful. Then I will meet you at seven o’clock tonight, at the Mu-Mu on Manezhnaya Square.”
“OK,” you say, still a little unsure. Did the president of Belarus just ask you out on a date?
“It’s a date!” says Lukashenko helpfully. He gives you one last smile and turns to leave. (Then he actually does leave.)
After work, you have just enough time to go home and change clothes before you have to turn around and head back downtown. “This is a good thing,” you tell yourself on the metro. “The president of Belarus is a handsome and accomplished dictator. It’s not healthy for me to keep carrying a torch for Vladimir Putin, when he won’t even look at me.”
You do get a few strange looks from other metro passengers, because you are speaking aloud. They must not understand your plight, even though you’ve laid the whole thing out pretty clearly for them. So, whatever.
When you arrive at the restaurant, Alexander Lukashenko is waiting for you. He’s sitting at a secluded table next to a floor-to-ceiling window with sweeping views of the Kremlin. He stands to greet you, taking one of your hands in both of his and kissing it again.
“Thank you again for inviting me,” you say nervously. “This looks really nice.”
“What can I say,” Lukashenko beams, “I’m a pretty romantic guy. Now, let me show you where we pick up our trays.”
Mu-Mu turns out to be a cafeteria-style restaurant, which is your favorite type of restaurant, because you can eat nothing but dessert without having to answer a bunch of questions from some judgy waiter. You select something called “tartlet with protein cream,” and something else called “potato cake.” Lukashenko chooses the “borscht and pepperoni pizza for two” special. Then he shows you how you can take all of the free condiments you want from the condiment station. He insists on filling your coat pockets with packets of salt and a 12 oz squeeze bottle of honey that you’re pretty sure is supposed to stay at the table.
“I have a confession to make,” Lukashenko says when the two of you sit down again. He leans in conspiratorially.
“Is it that you’ve been rigging the elections in Belarus?” (You skimmed his Wikipedia page on your way here.)
“Well yes, that too,” Lukashenko says, laughing heartily. “Actually, my confession is that I was the one who mailed myself that gift certificate to Cafe Mu-Mu. It was all an excuse to meet you and ask you on a date.”
“Wow.” You can feel your cheeks burning. “No one has ever created such a bizarre ruse just to ask me out before.”
“The truth is,” he says, looking down, “I have been trying to summon the courage to ask you out for a long time. Ever since I first saw you when I was in town for the Belarusian-Russian Super-Friends Summit. I mailed myself so many gift certificates to restaurants that week, hoping that I would get to meet you. But you never delivered any of my letters.”
“I’m sure I probably delivered them to someone!”
“I knew I had to give it another chance. So I invented this whole trade deal just so I could come here and see you again.”
“I did. Although I’m surprised that President Putin fell for it—Belarus doesn’t even grow bananas, let alone export them. But something has been off about him lately. He seems…distracted.”
“Really? Distracted how?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Forget I said anything—we don’t want to spend our whole evening talking about Vladimir Putin!”
“Er…we could spend part of our evening talking about him though…”
“No no, I want to tell you about Belarus. You would love it there. Do you like books?”
“Sure. I mean, as much as anybody can like books.”
“You should see our national library,” he says with a smile. “It is 22 stories high and shaped like a rhombicuboctahedron, which is a shape that I invented.”
“It’s the only rhombicuboctahedron-shaped building in the world! Though I suppose that’s because the rhombicuboctahedron is very structurally unsound. One of the walls could topple down at any moment and crush a library patron. But we have a little saying in Belarus, and that is ‘Even if we have to crush a million library patrons, we will not have normal-shaped libraries.’”
“Belarus also make very fine tractors. We are the number one exporter of tractors from our region, right after Russian tractors and antique horse-drawn Prussian tractors.”
“Tractors!” you say enthusiastically. (You are not great at small talk.)
“But really,” he continues, “the best thing about Belarus is the people. Belarusians are a warm and fun-loving people. Sometimes they even like to ‘prank’ me by protesting outside my office. Then I ‘prank’ them back by having them arrested. But it’s all very playful! We have some good times together.”
As Lukashenko goes on about how he also likes to prank journalists, you turn to look out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun setting behind the Kremlin walls.
Instead what you see is Vladimir Putin’s face. He is standing on the other side of the window, only a few feet away, his features illuminated by a streetlight. And he is staring right at you.