Daniel sat in the corner, next to his bag, watching the man in the corner who was watching him. Several decades divided them, and on the floor separating where each of them sat was the generation in between. They were mostly men, old enough to be Daniel’s father, or the sons of the one observing him, but here and there a woman stood too, idly smoking or drinking, bemused, not quite fitting in. From time to time they would step aside and the eyes of Daniel and the man would meet. Then the people would cross back over, blocking the view, and the two again would have to wait. But they would not wait long, this much Daniel knew. He looked again at the man and thought: this night is for me and you.
The stranger stood up from his chair and started to cross the floor. As he came out of the shadows and into the light, his years visibly increased: the slick grey hair was thinner than it had seemed, and around the mouth, with the pearly teeth that had glinted in the darkness, were grooves that ran to his cheeks and down his chin. But his gait was straight, and even if the buckle of his belt was partly obscured by the belly that hung low in his shirt, a flame of vitality shone in his eyes, the sort of flame that shines so bright on the very cusp of its final decline.
“English?” he asked as he stopped by Daniel’s side. His tone was complacent, as if even a negative answer would be no hindrance.
“English,” Daniel replied.
The man smiled and sat on the seat to Daniel’s right. He had a glass of white wine which he placed on the table, beside Daniel’s water.
“Daniel,” Daniel replied.
“I’m Lev,” the man said, and held out his hand.
Daniel took the hand and shook it. He noticed how the man didn’t look straight back at him, at least not for long, rather his gaze flickered up and down, taking in Daniel’s brow, cheeks, mouth and chin, as if assessing a sculpture rather than a human being.
“Where are you from?” Lev asked.
“Near here.” It was the same Daniel said to everyone, and they seldom pried further, even those who returned a second time.
“You?” he inquired, not because he cared, but to be polite.
“Oh, my home is the world,” the man replied, as if exacting a subtle revenge for Daniel’s evasive answer. He had a strange, mongrel accent that was hard to place.
“But anyway, don’t worry, I’m just passing through here.”
“I’m not worried,” Daniel took a sip of his drink.
Again a smile passed over the man’s face. It was a smile of confidence, of one who enjoyed a challenge.
“I was born in Latvia,” he said. For a moment he paused, as if sunk in some childhood memory of his mother, of his home, of those decades far behind him. Daniel watched him closely, wondering was he drunk. “My parents called me Lev – the lion. But you can call me Leo if you want. Most people do.”
“I’ll call you whatever you want me to,” Daniel said, and for the first time he too now smiled. This seemed to relax his companion.
“Very kind,” Lev said, then asked: “Are you here every night?”
Daniel shrugged. “It depends. Sometimes.”
“But you’ve been here all night. I’ve been watching you.”
“Yes,” Daniel said, “I noticed. And I’ve been waiting all evening for you to come over.”
“Oh.” Lev reached for his glass. “If I’d known that, then I might have joined you earlier. I wouldn’t have wasted my time over there. There’s a lot of riff-raff here tonight.”
“If you say so.”
Looking up, Daniel noticed another man standing at the bar, gazing over: He was about 50, slim and well-groomed, probably a politician or entrepreneur of some sort. He’d been eyeing Daniel earlier, too, but had lacked the courage to approach of his own accord. Now that he saw another in his place he stared all the more intensely, as if to say: “See what you’ve ended up with. If you’d been a little smarter it could have been me.” There was a trace of scorn in his eyes, but also regret. Daniel stared coldly back at him until the man looked away. Then he turned back to his companion:
“You know, I don’t share my seat with everyone.”
“Oh. Then I suppose I should feel honoured,” Lev said, though his voice rose at the end, as if he were not quite sure whether to phrase this as a statement or question.
They looked at one another a moment, saying nothing. They were like two players who were still trying to establish the rules of their game. The man gestured to Daniel’s glass, which was nearly empty.
“Another drink for the young man?”
Daniel looked at the glass, then that of the older man, which contained not much more than his own, and back to where the offer had come from.
“You know somewhere nice?” Lev asked.
“I thought you might. Where are you staying?”
The man smiled, and Daniel asked himself, as he often had before: does he think I’m an easy one? That I’m his plaything now? That he has me in his hand, ready to be devoured?
“I can’t remember the name,” Lev said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “But I can tell you it’s very nice. I’ll show you, if you’re willing to come with me. If you have the time.”
With an offer like that, from a man like this, Daniel was not going to refuse.
“Let’s go,” Daniel said, and stood up.
It seemed only natural that Lev paid for both their drinks on the way out.
* * *
It was a large room with a king-sized bed and a grand old chair in the corner. Golden curtains framed the windows, which looked out over the city and its cracked and rusty rooftops, now bathed in a murky, nocturnal light. On the middle of the bed was a silver bucket with a bottle of champagne in a bath of ice, glistening under the glow of the lamp. Next to the bucket were two fine glasses, tall, engraved with double-headed eagles, and a folded white napkin, laid out on a tray. It had all been there when they arrived. Either Lev had expected company or had somehow, without Daniel noticing, managed to order ahead.
Daniel sat on the bed, clothed apart from his jacket and shoes, which were placed side by side at the door, while Lev went into the bathroom to take a shower. Daniel had asked should he, too, have a wash but his companion said no, all Daniel should do was relax and make himself comfortable. Lev invited him to read, pointing to a collection of dubious stories he’d picked up in a bookshop called Another Country while out sightseeing that day. And yet as Lev showered he left the bathroom door open, as if to say that were Daniel to invite himself in, his company would not be refused. Daniel did not move, but stayed, his little bag by his side, the book untouched, and waited for Lev to return.
Five minutes later the older man emerged, feet bare and still dripping wet, not seeming to care if they stained the floor. He was wrapped in a navy dressing gown that was a size too small.
“Pour yourself a drink, it’s what it’s there for,” Lev said, gesturing to the champagne on the bed.
He almost sounded put out that Daniel hadn’t helped himself. Some were like that, insisting on informality. Others were the opposite – nothing to be done without their command.
“I don’t drink,” Daniel said.
It was a lie, he drank when occasion called for it, but it was time to see what the man would permit and where he would draw the line.
“Very well,” Lev said, wandering over to the bed and loosening, but not untying, the belt on his gown, “then I’ll have to drink alone.” He sat down and poured himself a glass, his lips forming a pout. His stomach forced the folds of his gown open and a mound of fat, covered in grey fuzz, peeked out.
He tried one more time: “You’re sure? It’s the very best, you know. You won’t taste champagne like this every night. And it is so lonely to drink on one’s own.”
“All right,” Daniel said and smiled, “but just a small one.”
The old man grinned like a child. He even filled the two glasses to order: his own to the brim, Daniel’s halfway to the rim.
As they drank, Lev pulled up his pillow and sat leaning against it, his back at the head of the bed, the base of his glass resting on the dome of his belly, which gently swelled and subsided, like an ailing balloon. Looking down the bed, Daniel saw that there was no nail on Lev’s big left toe.