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  • "Skating is like dancing," he said; "relax your knees and lean forward a little, take my hands." I did. His grip was firm, but my knees and nervous smile trembled a little. "Trust me," he said; "I will catch you if you fall."

    Later, when we walked toward the hidden gem of a Russian bar, he asked why I wasn't wearing a coat, and when I told him someone had stolen it while we were on the ice, he immediately offered me his. When I refused to take it, he took his gloves off and offered them to me. When I didn't accept them either, he put them in his coat pocket, took his coat off and said that if I was going to suffer, then so was he, and huddled together against the biting cold we continued. Eager to share his opinions, he apologized for his accent, the gaps in his vocabulary. I could sense that he was embarrassed, although his English was beautiful. "Trust me to catch your meaning," I said; "relax, lean into the conversation, into my understanding, into my eyes." He did. "Language is like music," I said; "or like dancing, like skating, like kissing, just shake loose and go with the flow." He smiled, widely, his blue eyes twinkling like ice crystals.

    His insistence on the superb combination of pickles and vodka had me laughing out loud. "I'll take your word for it," I said. "No, no, you have to try it, you'll love it," he insisted, hurrying me along through narrow alleys in the back pockets of the city, left here, right there until I lost my sense of direction. "Once inside, you'll never want to leave," he promised, and he was right. Not only because the imported pickles really were a perfect fit for the vodka, but because the colorful interior immediately transported me to Russia, to Moscow, to St. Petersburg, to Bulgakov and Chekhov and Tolstoy. Hours of eager conversation, loud music, tiny blinis loaded with caviar, and sweet, salty pickles flushed down with vodka shots, and suddenly I hear myself exclaim da! and njet! and spasiba with authority, with lungs full of air, with a chestful of sonorous voice, yes, suddenly I'm Russian, and by my side, close, closer; a Russian man explosively drunk on a shot of sudden love.

    When we stumbled out of the bar late at night, falling into the snow, I exultantly raised my arms toward the golden, white-speckled sky and he grabbed my waist with both hands and sang, loudly, while he spun us around and around, as if we were still on the ice, and I knew, I knew I would fall, but I trusted him to catch me, his beautiful voice echoing between the brick buildings and the cobbled street, his lovely accent ringing in my head, still, days after.

    You see, my sweet, this is how it is: Life is invariably on a date with death, and must play up its charms. Night is a drunken lover in need of some consolation, and must be embraced with forgiveness. Come now and dance with a man, opa! One step for Russia, two steps for love, three for the circus we're in. Come now, take my hand - opa!
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