Her beauty was so extreme, such blond Slavic cheekbone perfection, everyone who saw her was forced to take note of it and, rather than admiring her, they were inspired to seek out her flaws, to say that she was bit shorter than optimum or too full-figured for her height, or that her eyes, a pale chartreuse, were set a smidgen too widely apart and that her lower lip had the merest touch of superfluous fullness. Itemized, then, added up and totaled, she rated a B minus—a 10.6, let’s say--on the scale by which supremely beautiful women are judged. This process of itemization, a process of which Larissa was aware, created a gulf between men and herself that made possible certain unique resolutions, enabling things to be left unsaid that were typically the subject of negotiation, and permitting things that often went unspoken to be discussed openly.
“When I was a little girl,” she told me once, “when we still lived in Moscow, Andropov would stop by my father’s apartment. Do you know Andropov? Yuri Andropov? He was premier after Brezhnev. Big fat guy. Not so fat as Brezhnev, but still he was very fat. He would come to our apartment and sit in my father’s chair and put me on his knee. Like so.” She straddled the arm of an easy chair, facing its back, and glanced at me over her shoulder. “It was uncomfortable, but he would say how pretty I was and move his knee. You know, up and down, up and down. I start to like the feeling I get.” She made an amused noise and sat normally in the chair.
“Did he intend it?” I asked. “I mean, do you think he knew his behavior was inappropriate?”
She shrugged. “All men wish to be inappropriate, but this is not important. He stole nothing from me. He would tell me stories. I think now they were true. They all take place in a huge room, an underground room bigger than a city, with machines and laboratories…but no walls dividing them. And always there were prisoners. Hundreds of prisoners.”
“You remember any of the stories?
“Not so much. Terrible things were happening. Bloody things. They scare me. I don’t like to hear them.”
“He’s telling you horror stories at the same time he’s trying to turn you on? Where was your father all this time?”
“It’s never just Yuri, you understand. He brings guys with him. They’re scientists, like my father. They go in the kitchen and scribble on paper and yell at each other.”
“So these occasions, they were basically a dodge that allowed the leader of the Soviet Union to be alone with you? So he could molest you?”
“Maybe…I don’t know. It didn’t feel like he was molesting me. I was very sad when Yuri died, but then I learn to give myself pleasure, so it’s okay.”
Larissa recognized the commodity of her beauty and traded upon it with skill and aplomb. She had dated movie stars and financiers; she made use of these connections and lived well. The astonishing thing was, being so beautiful did not appear to have weakened her psychologically. Perhaps this could be attributed to her Russian-ness. She tried to explain to me what it was to be Russian, but I was too wrapped up in estimating my chances with her to pay close attention.
“In every apartment in Moscow, no matter how poor,” she said, “is enormous piece of furniture. A china closet, a thing like a miniature city, full of plates and precious things, mementos, heirlooms, photographs. It’s bigger than anything else in the place. I used to think this is because we love the past; now I believe it’s because there is something granite in our souls that loves memorials and tombs.”
When I first saw her I thought she was a hooker, a reasonable assumption since she was hanging out at the Room, a Hollywood lounge club, with four women who were, according to a friend Stan Reis, high-priced call girls. Stan had recently sold a screenplay, his third, and was celebrating. I had been in LA for three-and-a-half years and sold nothing, so letting me be seen with him was for Stan a conspicuous act of charity. We went over to the sofa grouping where the women were seated. Stan started talking with one of them, whom he’d met at a party. The women studied me with cool appraisal, making me feel ill at ease, out of my league. I imagined they knew everything about me, the thickness of my wallet, the size of my dick. It was like being stared at by five predators who had judged you unpalatable. Larissa, sitting closest to me, asked what I did for a living. I told her, with a display of attitude, that I was an unsuccessful screenwriter.
“Don’t let him kid you,” Stan said. “This guy is going to have massive heat around him before long. He’s a fantastic writer!”
“You have project?” Larissa asked me.
“Not yet,” I said. “Not with a studio. But I’m working on something good, I think.”
I told her about the screenplay, a thriller concerning descendants of the Donner Party, while the background music went from Sinatra to Kraftwerk to King Crimson, and the dim track lighting waxed and waned. She interrupted me from time to time, asking questions in a throaty contralto. They were, for the most part, intelligent questions. I became entranced by her and extended the conversation by inventing side characters and sub-plots. She wore a cocktail dress that shimmered blackly whenever she crossed her legs or leaned forward to have a sip of her drink. Her pale skin seemed to hold more of the light than did any other surface. Her narrow chin and delicately molded jaw emphasized the fullness of her mouth and lent her face an otherworldly fragility, a quality amplified by those strange yellowish eyes; yet I had the sense that this was illusory, that she was anything but fragile.
Two of the women went to dance and a third drifted to the bar. Stan and his friend migrated to one of the private rooms, leaving me alone with Larissa. There was still a lot of small town left in me. I wasn’t used to dealing with women like her and her physical presence overpowered me. Losing my natural restraint, I inquired as to her price and availability. Her face remained impassive and she asked how much money I had.
“Not enough,” I said.
She smiled, an expression that developed slowly, and nodded as if in approval. “This is a very good answer. Very smart.”
“I wasn’t trying to be smart.”
“That makes it even better answer.”
She handed me a gold lighter shaped like a cricket and I lit her cigarette. A stream of smoke occulted her. “Tonight I am not working,” she went on. “But you must call me. Tomorrow is no good. I have business. Another day. I would like to read your script and talk more about the movies.”
She refused to speak about her mother. The lady was dead, I assumed, or else had abandoned her daughter to the care of her husband, a scientist who could be cold and distracted for months at a time. She wouldn’t say much about her private life, either. I never understood whether the people she brought home, both men and women, were friends or lovers. My confusion in this regard was intensified by the fact that I never understood her relationship with me. I was in love with her, but it was not the kind of love that breaks your heart. So many things were unstated between us, and there were so many unknowns. It was similar to a crush you might have on an actress, a person you know from screen roles and the tabloids, about whom you have gleaned scraps of information that raise more questions than they answer. My emotions were safeguarded by a built-in temporality: I realized our movie would soon end.
When she was eleven her father was sent to work at a secret Soviet city inside the Arctic Circle, a vast factory-like habitation without a name or a past where weapons systems and space technology were developed. She was one of approximately forty children who were posted to the city along with their parents, but she made no real friends among them. They were closely surveilled and, though the environment bred countless illicit adult affairs, it was not conducive to friendship. A bright child, she took refuge in her studies and became interested in anthropology, especially as related to the nomads upon whose hunting ground the city was situated. Her attempts to study them were hampered by the soldiers who escorted her on field trips.
“When we entered their camp they would stop talking,” she said. “Sometimes we surprised them and they would hide things from our eyes, tucking them under a blanket or inside their coats. I found designs cut in the ice that are reminding me of Mayan calendars. You know, like wheels? They have been defaced, so I could not make accurate sketch. I ask them about the designs and they look at me with amused expressions, as if they knew something valuable, something I could never know.”
“How’d you get rid of the soldiers,” I asked. “Or were you able to?”
“Eventually. My father says it’s too dangerous to visit them alone; but they are not dangerous. You see, the soldiers have put them in a camp and take their weapons. That way they don’t tell anyone about city. The camp is nicer than gulag. More like a reservation, but there are fences. Now they are no longer nomads. They are prisoners. Because they cannot hunt, they lose their spirit. Each winter many die. The women prostitute themselves to the soldiers. Their birth rate is in decline.” She made a rueful face. “It’s very bad, so I stop visiting. When I’m fifteen, I’m bored and I lose my virginity. I’m not serious about the boy. The experience was only clinical, and I start to have sex with other boys. Soon I’m bored with that, but the boys talk about me and my father hears. He beats me, he drinks, he weeps. For a few days, it’s awful. Then he comes to me and says he has wangled permission for me to visit the camp alone. I’m not interested in nomads anymore, but he makes me go. Worrying about me, he claims, is interfering with his work. It’s like he prefers me to be in danger than to sleep with boys.”
I could see she was tired of talking, but I kept asking questions, prolonging the contact—this had become one of our patterns. She told me she had gone to the camp every day for a couple of hours and had become friends with the shaman, who revived her interest in anthropology, teaching her the rudiments of his craft and explaining that the wheel-like markings she had noticed were ritual in nature, designed to attract game to the camp. He hinted that he was contriving a ritual that would significantly improve the nomads’ lives. Then one afternoon she found the camp abandoned. The nomads were gone. Shortly thereafter, the project on which her father had worked was shut down and they were sent back to Moscow. Not long after that, the city itself shut down.
“I guess the government decided to get rid of them,” I said. “With the city no longer a priority, they didn’t want the expense of guarding them, and they couldn’t afford to have them running around loose.”
“There is a frozen pond at edge of camp,” she said. “When I go to look, I see designs carved in ice. Every inch of the ice is carved. There are four wheels at the corners—they are scratched out. And then little houses, like the houses in camp. In the middle of the pond, there are carvings of animals. Foxes and deer. All kinds. In the middle of the animals, there is circle, and inside the circle is nomad family.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So?”
“So…it is the shaman’s ritual. They are gone.”
“You’re saying like a hole opened in the world and they crawled through?”
She glared at me, as if daring me to deny it.
“Well, that’s taking the hopeful view,” I said.
At the time we met, things were going badly for me. My bank account was dwindling, my connections weren’t returning calls, and I was considering a move back east, taking a technical writing job I’d been offered. Better that, I told myself, than this ragged coatsleeve of a life, sharing a two-bedroom West Hollywood roach ranch with an out-of-work set designer, who smoked meth on the couch and talked semi-coherently about using our apartment as a model for the anteroom of Hell in his film version of Dante’s Inferno. The reason I hadn’t called Larissa, I was in the grip of depression and saw no point in acquiring a new friend. Then one morning the meth head appeared in my doorway, dropped a scrap of paper bearing Larissa’s name and address onto my desk and said in a terrible Russian accent, “Pliss tell Paul to come wisit me. I am at home today.”
“When did she call?” I asked.
“A minute ago. She wants to you bring the script you talked about. She claims she may be able to get you some…” He waggled his fingers and sang the last word. “Money!”
I glanced at the address—it was an expensive one. “Why didn’t you tell me she was on the phone?”
“You told me to say you were working. If you want your basic message personalized, you’ll have to give specific instructions.”
He was tweaking, spoiling for a fight. A good time, I thought, to take a drive.
The house in which Larissa lived was a hill-topper in Topanga, a multi-leveled architectural abomination that, come the apocalypse, would likely resemble a flying saucer crashed into a post-modern church. A molded concrete deck ran the length of its steel-and glass façade, bolted to the hill by cantilevers that sprouted from massive piers far below, and divided into two walkways, one leading around to the main entrance and the access road, the other extending farther out over the canyon, supporting a narrow azure pool shaped like a capital I. It belonged to a man named Misha Bondarchuk for whom Larissa served as a conduit and a scout for potential investments. I saw him perhaps half-a-dozen times in all the months I knew her. He was blandly handsome, tanned and fit, with razor-cut black hair, and sported a large diamond-and-emerald earring. His uncle had been president of the Ukraine prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Misha had since come into possession of the Ukraine’s oil leases. I doubted this signaled other than blind luck on his part. As far as I could tell, he had the IQ of wheat and spent his time skiing or at discos with one or another of his Korean girlfriends. He displayed a familiarity with Larissa--pats on the ass, casual caresses—that seemed to reflect a past intimacy, but she denied they had ever had a relationship, acting as if the prospect disgusted her, and said that was simply Misha’s style; he only liked Korean women and her association with him was strictly business.
The day she called, she kissed me on both cheeks at the door and led me into a sunken living room with China white carpeting and sofas rising from it like sculpted snow and a spiral, stainless steel staircase like the skeleton of some curious Arctic beast corkscrewing up past obsidian objets d’art and teak bookcases filled with fake books without titles made of black marble. It might have been a set for a 60s TV show about jet-set spies. Larissa flung herself down on a sofa and began reading. I went out onto the deck, leaned on the railing, and watched the progress of a small brushfire atop a nearby ridge. The smell of the burning cleared the vapors of West Hollywood from my head. It was so quiet I could hear wind chimes from one of the houses below. I lay down on a deck chair, thinking that was one great thing about being rich—you got to lower the volume whenever you wanted. I fell asleep in the sun and had a dream filled with noise, with the shouts of corner boys, traffic sounds, the meth head’s dry-throated cackle. Larissa shook me awake and sat on a deck chair beside me. I had to shield my eyes against the glare to see her.
“This is very, very good,” she said, gesturing with the script. “Too art house for studio, but it can be art house hit. And it’s inexpensive to shoot. I think we will put the money to make this movie.”
I was pleased, but expressed my doubts that someone in her line of work could pull the funding together.
“You think I am a prostitute,” she said. “I am not prostitute. I was playing a joke on you.”
She briefed me on her relationship with Misha and said he was in Russia, but would return in two months. I explained that two months might as well be two years unless she could give me an advance, and that if I didn’t get out of my apartment, I might be up on murder charges. I’d had more solid deals go south and I laid it on thick. She mulled this over and then led me into a wing of the house that contained an apartment with its own kitchen.
“You can stay here,” she said. “It’s quiet place for work. No one bothers you.”
I wondered why a beautiful woman who lived alone would be so trusting. Perhaps she didn’t view me as a threat. I found this notion rankling, but hers was the best offer I’d had since my arrival in LA. On my way out, making small talk, I asked why she had been keeping company with prostitutes—it was a dumb question, but I was attempting to disguise the eagerness I felt over moving in and might have said anything.
“They are friends. Nice girls. And they make it safe for me to flirt with guys. I love to flirt.” She opened the door and kissed me on both cheeks. “Other stuff with guys, it’s not so good for me."