Paying off high interest loans and finding hookers whose English is so poor that they can never say anything clear enough to make you feel bad about yourself – those are the only reasons to go to Russia House, the behemoth four level, gothic Kremlin of Washington that looms over DC’s high rent Dupont Circle.
Everybody knows that.
Maybe not everybody. I have read reviews of their Borscht on Yelp, and I’ve seen their stroganoff mentioned in DC fine dining magazines. But you know what I’ve never seen? I’ve never see anyone eating Borscht or stroganoff at Russia House. I’ve never seen anyone eating anything.
But I guess that brings me to a third reason for going there, as was the case last night. If you aren’t there for shift-work companionship, and, on your own, you can get a legitimate loan at the bank, then you’re probably at Russia House for the same reason I was – to get blackout drunk on the five-ounce, Russian vodka fishbowl martinis.
And that was the chapter in last night’s ‘choose your own adventure that lead to me shivering on Connecticut Avenue in the 17-degree windy weather while waiting for my friends to finish smoking.
My friends, high level political operatives – one a neurotic gear head and the other a hippy, ostensibly reformed. Both yuppy liberals with a shared rationalization that organic cigarettes are somehow on a delay when it comes to lung cancer. I love those guys, but as a non-smoking asthmatic with a healthy fear of hypothermia, I wasn’t about to wait outside for them. I decided I was going inside Russia House to get a drink and that they should text someone else for help should frostbite begin to kick in.
Inside I ascended the stairs two at a time. Not that anyone should ever feel that confident there, but I’d been to Russia House before and am at least aware that it is a mob front that thrives on the off-the-menu appetite of most of its patrons.
As was usually the case, the dimly lit, hardwood encased, mostly red lounge was void of customers. At the bar, one on each end, sat two beefy men, both in tight black shirts and wearing a thin layer of stubble on their cheeks.
As I stepped up and between them, they each gave me a once-over then shared a brief look between them. I noted that they didn’t have drinks in front of them. They weren’t customers.
Waiting behind the scarlet mirrored bar was a stoic silhouette that came into frame after my eyes adjusted to the dark. Pale skin, brunette, square shoulders, black blouse, black pants. Let’s call her Dominika
Obviously I did. Now six ears were waiting to hear just what that was.
“Hi, yes…can I, uh, get a martini please? Straight up…um, dirty,” Not bad, I said in my head. Pretty smooth.
“Is that…all you want?”
The words dripped out her mouth and I felt the muscled bookends on either side of me flex a bit, becoming interested in my answer. If I did, in fact, want something else, it was probably their job to get it for me.
“Oh…yeah,” I said with a knowing grin. “I get it. Not right now.”
Silence reigned. I reconsidered my response. Wait, not right now? What the fuck was that? She’s asking me if I want a whore, bag of coke, something else or all of the above. Not right now?!
“I’ll just stick with the martini,” I said, wavering confidence noted.
“We have one hundred thirty-four vodkas. I can’t read your mind. Maybe you want menu.”
It wasn’t a question. It was an invitation to dismiss myself from Russia House if I couldn’t understand and appreciate the gravity of my order. Ugh, What a rookie. Ordering an $18 drink like a frat boy at an Applebee’s happy hour. I decided to try and turn the tables.
“What do you drink? I’ll have whatever vodka you pick.”
Cool, right? Perfect balance of old-school macho and female empowerment, yes?
Without pressing for more instructions, and without ever breaking eye contact, she reached under the bar and produced an obviously repurposed water bottle. The wrapper was missing, but the bottle was full of clear liquid. She paused for a second, maybe giving me a chance to reconsider, then turned the bottle upside down, letting it drain completely into a waiting martini glass. My martini glass.
“I’m guessing that isn’t water,” I said sheepishly.
“You guess right,” she responded. There was no lifeline; Dominika had no intention of helping me feel better about what I was about to pour into my body.
I cursed myself in my head. Though what I meant to do was lighten what was inherently a veil of heaviness that they like to maintain in Russia House, what I did was put myself on stage.
Now the bartender was waiting for me to follow through with my end of the deal.
Now the two big guys on either side of me were turned inward, speaking to each other in slippery Slavic
Now I was wondering why the fuck I can’t ever just keep to myself and order like a normal person.
But I knew what needed to happen. I was going to drink whatever Dominika gave me, then I would grab a coaster and scribble a quick note to my two friends outside. I’d let them know that I’d been poisoned by a Russian seductress but ask that they make up a better story for my wife, kids and life insurance policy, then I’d tell them to order off the menu.
I looked left, looked right, lifted the mystery drink off the sticky wood and toasted Dominika.
The lightening hit my brain just as the door chime rang announcing my two friends who had come in to join me in the red room. I nodded at a table, indicating they should sit, while trying to breathe again without anyone noticing my struggle. I took two shaky steps towards the table, already feeling my face start to numb.
“You forget your drink,” Dominika said, reminding me I still had four ounces to go.
“Yes, thanks,” I was barely built to respond.
As I walked away from the bar, the two men begin talking to each other, and then to the bartender. And even though I don’t speak Russian, it was clear that I existed somewhere between those words.
And I was floating at that point, so what I heard was, “You are very brave to take this communion from us comrade, as we usually guard from westerners like treasure from Kremlin. You are now one of us.”
That’s what I heard. But then again I don’t speak fucking Russian.