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At first, Lev had chalked it all up to a physical illness— a slow, and strangely asymptomatic disease that made his stomach sink each time he smelled certain notes in the air. It was agreeable enough; his mother always complained of migraines whenever the poet women would wear too much of their cloying perfume oil that lingered in the air hours past their departure. But if this were the case, he would get similar headaches. Instead, he merely felt slight nausea deep within him each time he lay beside any woman. It was embarrassing, something not even God could force out of him on a supposed day of judgment. He certainly hesitated to tell Kolya, whose prowess with women and adoration for sex was perhaps unrivaled. Every day, his closest friend would speak of last night’s conquests as if he had reinvented the wheel with each stroke. Lev had learned to nod along to his stories and to divulge only enough information about his own sexuality to avoid further questioning. He knew he might crack if too harshly interrogated.

He tried to please the few women he dated, though that was an overstatement for what their relationships really were. There would be a date or two, and he would follow the steps he knew to be most successful for impressing a woman— making her feel loved in all ways possible. Even so, he fell dreadfully short most times. Lev would fumble in conversation— either too quiet or talking ad nauseam to try to stimulate the conversation that utterly bored him.

It wasn’t always like this. He carried on fine conversations with Vika, though he was undoubtedly awkward in the time of their brief stint of a relationship. They tried to be intimate, though despite Lev’s graphic and active imagination of such acts with the girl who he had previously seen as the ideal woman, it was never worth writing home about. She was funny, in a biting sort of way. She impressed him with her every word, a genius in her own way without any sense of haughtiness. Vika taught him just about everything he needed to know about the realities and practicalities of a relationship. And through her guidance and the experience, he came to realize he found no pleasure in the whole affair. It was no longer harmless pining and fantasy, and instead a connection with which he was forced to engage. The daydreams became real, her hands on his thighs and even the sex, which he had so previously desired. He didn’t shy away at the moment, eager to fulfill these arbitrary standards he kept in mind, considering his first lay to be a milestone of sorts that was simply an obligation rather than something that should be propelled by desire alone.

The disappointment he felt after his largely unsatisfying romp with Vika, a woman he had kept on a pedestal for years after their first meeting, was only bested by the jealousy he felt in subsequent discussions with Kolya, who maintained that bad sex was inevitable and that he should only need to sharpen his skills (though this seemed inapplicable to himself.) He couldn’t tell if he was being unclear in the way he vocalized the thoughts he had regarding his experience, or if Kolya was simply so hellbent on getting Lev laid that it didn’t seem to matter how it went. Again, it seemed to him to be some sort of milestone like one’s first job that needed to be accomplished in order to progress in life. Lev wished he could adopt that mindset, though he came to realize it might be easier to feel so neutral about each fuck if he were actually attracted to the woman he slept with. So, he tried again, and then again. To no fault of their own, the women weren’t even half as satisfying as Vika. Kolya had to be lying to him about sex because no matter how much the girls seemed to enjoy it, he found his own left hand more productive than their bodies. But they were kind, always, and he always left with the guilt and lingering jealousy that he felt each time the matter of sex even came up in conversation.

Lev was 21 by the time he found himself in bed with another man. This time, a journalist he had met through his work. Never had sex been so enjoyable, at least he could now say that. It was a casual, one-off sort of thing, something that he feared bringing up to Kolya, despite his tendency to be honest to a fault with him previously. There was never a time nor a place where such a discussion seemed like one he was comfortable having. It might serve as the catalyst for a far too honest session of questioning by the other man. For some reason, though, he told Vika immediately after he had left. She had moved to Leningrad for one reason or another—though not for him, thankfully— and was shocked but oddly empathetic to some level. It was the best reaction to really hope for from a girl he had fucked many times before. The friendship was something he valued after that, though she brought Lev to some dreadfully hopeless conclusion: that he was in love with his best friend, the ever-unattainable lover who made his way around Piter like hunger or sickness. She had gotten her moment of “I was right, you were wrong,” and that was to be expected, really. And it was true. As she gloated about her fantastic foresight, Lev realized that she had always been right in her assumptions and snide jokes during the week they had first met. His juvenile thoughts were not only those of jealousy but to some significant degree admiration, if not longing. He hadn’t quite thought of stripping Kolya naked then, but the thought would not have been too out of place among the ones he did shove aside and label as mere envy.

“Should I tell him, then?” he had asked, with little hope for what the answer might be. Vika was honest, and he wasn’t sure he wanted honesty any more than he wanted to live with the delusion that Kolya may respond in his favor.

“You can,” she said. “You know him better than I do, and if you think something might come of it, it may be appropriate. You shouldn’t be so drunk when you do it, though.”

Lev didn’t listen to her, though he hadn’t planned to resort to heavy drinking after a brief flash of jealousy. To look back on it felt pitiful, really.

***

He had met with some associates for drinks, and when they had left he had found himself eager for more: just one or two more drinks to push him from tipsy to intoxicated that had turned into three or four more. He never could carry himself well while drunk, though he lacked the self-awareness of this flaw. As he made his way back to the small apartment he shared with Kolya and another flatmate who was hardly there on the weekends, he walked along a bridge that stretched across the Neva. The sun had long set, and the sky might have been full of stars if he were not in the center of the city with nothing but light pollution reflecting on the dark canvas above. By some stroke of misfortune, he made eye contact with Kolya—despite the millions of others who lived in Piter, it had to be him. It took him a moment to register that there was a short, young woman beside him, with her arms draped around Kolya’s bicep as they strolled. His best friend smiled weakly before nodding, a meager acknowledgment of Lev’s existence. The woman with her arms around Kolya played with her curly hair flirtatiously, quickly tearing Kolya’s attention away from him.

Lev tried not to care that the woman was so easily able to distract his closest friend and years-long person of interest. But, as the world would have it, he did. He quickened his pace, simply hoping to make it back to the familiar apartment that he might have to himself for another hour or so. There, he might be able to reconsider the vindictive thoughts that gathered in his mind. Nearing a runner’s pace, he finally made it back, dashing up the stairs despite his visual disorientation and burning lungs from the cold night air. It was hard—no, impossible— to shake the jealousy he felt. It had only ever been in his nature to be a deeply envious person, and before he had realized his feelings’ true form, it seemed to be foundational to his friendship with Kolya. Now, he no longer wished for Kolya’s perfect looks and undeniable charm, and instead for the way he looked at that woman who hung off his arm as they took a romantic walk on the river. The woman who, in the drunken eyes of Lev, seemed to be a simple female offshoot of his own appearance: dark curls, slender frame, and even the slight bump in the center of her nose to which Lev had grown largely ambivalent.

Sitting in the living room, with not even a table lamp lit, he finished off a bottle of… something that he had found in the refrigerator. It tasted stale, almost, but he couldn’t bring himself to care much at that very moment. Instead, he felt somewhat pathetic with the thoughts he had. They were just as juvenile as the ones he had formulated years prior, though now they felt even worse from a considerably more developed brain. He wondered what the two lovers were talking about—if they were even saying anything but each other's names in pleasured moans. The mere idea made him ill. Did they talk about Kolya’s writing? Doubtful, he was a man plagued with shame somewhere deep down. Did she ask who he had exchanged such a strange glance with, and did he brush him off as some friend of a friend? Kolya never cared about divulging much personal information with women he’d realistically only know for a night. But, and the fear grew within him as he considered this, it might be something more. Kolya was fully capable of finding a woman to make his wife. It was a truth that was simultaneously inevitable and uncertain. As far as Lev knew, the man’s longest relationship was with Sonya, and that had formally ended only a few months after the siege. If it weren’t her, he wasn’t sure any woman would stay long enough to be his wife. But maybe the girl in whom he saw himself in female form might be permanent in Kolya’s life, outlasting all others.

As he foresaw the terrible fate for himself unfold in his mind, the one where he was perpetually lonely and unsatisfied with the relationships he found himself in and the ever-unattainable prospect that was his best friend, he heard the sound of the apartment door unlocking and subsequent shutting. There was a dread that sat within his stomach which could have simply been the alcohol. Though, less realistically, he felt as if he could sense that Kolya had brought this girl home. Sure, his best friend hadn’t said a word since returning, but maybe he was whispering sultry lines into her ear, inaudible to Lev from in the living room. In a move that felt far riskier than it must have appeared, Lev glanced over to the entryway. Kolya was pouring himself another drink, something Lev couldn’t even consider doing without conjuring a wave of nausea. More importantly, he was not accompanied by another. Lev craned his neck to get a better look, freezing as he made eye contact with Kolya.

“See something you like?” his friend asked, smirking as he shook his head and began to walk towards the couch on which Lev sat.

“No,” he said, his voice a childish grumble.

“Hmm.” Kolya’s eyebrows raised in surprise and he took a drink of whatever he had poured prior. “What has you all upset, my friend?”

Lev opened his mouth to speak honestly before he hesitated. If he were to be honest with Kolya, the things he would regret saying would tumble out of his stupid mouth like a landslide. “Nothing,” he said instead.

Kolya made another pensive hum, finishing off the drink. “You smell like booze. Did you go a little overboard tonight?”

“You smell like sex and perfume.” Lev glared at him, abandoning any aim of discretion.

“That’s odd.” He made a show of sniffing his shoulder and wrists. “I haven’t fucked in… three days!”

“It’s… the principle of it,” he said, rolling his eyes and gesturing vaguely with his hand. He could tell by the look of amusement on Kolya’s face that it was clear that he was quite intoxicated, but he made no effort to curb this. “Why are you always out on dates and having sex?”

“The gift from above of free will and a deep passion for my craft,” Kolya sighed happily, smirking.

“No, seriously.” Lev scowled. “When I was with women it always felt like such a chore and yet I see you walking around with some broad every other night just hoping to win it big with her.”

The words he had said were not chosen with the dutiful care they were owed. Kolya was clever, he knew this all too well. At that moment, from minuscule shifts in his friend’s expression, he knew that he had shown his hand completely, and his dignity and desire to keep private affairs private were now only protected by the thinnest layer of ice. But, again, he knew Kolya. He could predict what came out of his mouth nearly every time he spoke, and his poker face was notoriously awful with respect to the moments he wished to make whatever sarcastic or otherwise unserious comment.

“Maybe you don’t like women,” he said, though to Lev’s utter surprise there was not an ounce of humor behind his voice. It wasn’t cold, nor hostile. He simply offered it as a suggestion.

“You think?” he asked, avoiding his friend’s gaze.

“Well, it's possible.” Kolya shrugged. “There was a guy in my battalion who was like that. You know, homosexual or whatever. Have you slept with men?”

“Have you?”

“I’ve just asked you.”

Lev frowned, furrowing his brows tightly and creating lines across his forehead. For whatever reason, Kolya’s detached neutrality towards it all was… unnerving. He knew the answer to the question his friend had posited, of course, but in his drunken state, he could not internally dissect the intricacies of his tone, nor the words he chose. It may not have been an intentional choice of words—it certainly didn’t seem like Kolya thought very carefully about the nature of his speech often—but what if he had? Perhaps his nonchalant tone was crafted in order to further detach himself from the subject at hand. Lev figured his speech was not all too delicate at that moment either. He should have denied it, though perhaps there was still some saving himself.

“Were you the homosexual one you just described?” he asked, and it hardly felt like a suitable response after such careful deliberation.

Kolya laughed. “Again, my friend, I asked you first. If you give me an answer I’ll happily oblige with my own.”

Fuck. This was becoming a pathetic game, one Lev would never be able to escape. He was sure that Kolya would, as always, get exactly what he wanted out of him. He never failed to in the past. His friend would maintain an iron-tight hold on the conversation and nothing would get past him, it seemed.

“So what if I don’t like women? What does it matter?” he scoffed. It was hardly the tactful response that he had been hoping for, and it was clear that Kolya registered the shameful deflection.

“Oh, it matters nothing to me,” his friend said. “I hardly care either way, though it seems all these years I’ve neglected to teach you anything that might be useful in your field.”

“For fuck’s sake.” He stood up to retreat to his room, having had quite enough of this psychological arms race that he was so pitifully losing. “You don’t know shit about ‘my field’.”

Now, he had returned with some semblance of consciousness of how he spoke— subtle, but purposeful. If Kolya took the bait, Lev’s question may partially have been answered. Sure, he took ownership of something risky. He would not yet know if his feelings for Kolya were reciprocated, but if by playing on the man’s ego he were able to get him to admit that he was similar to him in that regard, it may be possible. Though it may be possible, there still lies the issue of its probability. That was a question for a later date, Lev decided.

Kolya paused for a moment, pursing his lips slightly. “I know a great deal about romance, and my scope is rather wide. I’ve not conjured my teachings out of thin air, either.”

“So you’ve slept with men?” Lev turned around, staring at him in a likely uncanny manner.

“Sure, if that earns me the credibility to teach you of such things,” he said.

“You said that if I answered, you would answer my questions,” he whispered harshly. “Do you want me to spell it out for you? No, I don’t fancy women like you seem to, and yes, I’ve slept with men.”

His friend nodded, a satisfied look spreading across his face. Lev could feel his cheeks heat up, the embarrassment of what he’d admitted overwhelming him suddenly like a great wave.
“Then yes, as have I,” Kolya said with a smirk. “Thank you for your eventual cooperation, my friend.”

“Fuck you,” Lev muttered, practically stomping back to his room.

“Is that what made you so gloomy all night? Your unspeakable attraction?” Kolya laughed, following him despite Lev’s silent prayers for the night to end in peaceful silence. “You’re like an embarrassed child.”

He should have never engaged. Lev wished he could return to a time twenty minutes prior where he could restrain himself. If he had the chance, he would wipe off the sadness his face so clearly displayed in order to avoid the questioning he knew would come with any form of leeway on the subject.

“Why are you acting like this is funny, Kolya? Can you ever be serious, just for one moment?” He swung open the door, preparing to slam it in his friend’s face.

“Wait, Lev.” Kolya put his foot in the doorway, blocking it from shutting him out. “I shouldn’t be such an ass. I’m sorry.”

“Sure, now leave me alone.” Lev rolled his eyes.

“No, I’m serious. I’m really sorry. Do you forgive me?”

There was always a certain charm to him that Lev hoped was seldom reserved for anyone but himself. His charm didn’t simply lay in the terrible at worst and endearingly unfunny at best, but in his plain honesty when he felt like setting aside his little games. Lev came to tolerate the jokes over the years, but the effects of his friend’s honesty were often more profound. He suddenly could not think of a reason to shut the door in his face, refusing his wish for forgiveness. At that moment, it felt as if the stupid genuine emotions painted across his face and the almost unbearable sad look in his eyes had achieved their goal of winning him over.

“Yes, Kolya, I do forgive you,” Lev said, leaning against the doorframe. “My head is killing me. I need rest.”

“Lev?”

“Yes, Kolya?” He groaned.

“I saw how… angry you were tonight.” Kolya gestured vaguely with his head, seemingly referring to the brief instance on the bridge. “I’d rather have been with you.”

“I’m sure.”

“Honest to God, Lev,” he said before smiling lightly. “Goodnight. We can discuss this tomorrow, I hope.”

“Whatever you wish.” Lev nodded, slowly shutting the door on him.