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I fell in love on the interstate and I didn't even need to leave my car.

It's the nature of roads - no matter what direction you're going you're always going to be leaving something behind. In one direction it's traffic and smog and cheap bagels and in the other it's peace and quiet and the most insistent crickets you've ever heard, but there's always something in the one that's desired in the other, something too unique to transplant that, if you had your way, would live a city block away in a building visible only to you, a seemingly abandoned warehouse containing a thriving ecosystem of cheap cosmetics, twenty-four hour diners and rocks dropped by glaciers thousands of years ago that we still haven't figured out how to get rid of.

Cigarettes, at least, are available pretty much anywhere.

As demonstrable as this is in theory to anyone with a V6 and an atlas, there's still something missing by not doing it yourself, something governed more by a throw of the dice than by geography and an overabundance of free time.

Speaking of free time: given enough of it to devote to this little project of apathy and exhaustion born, the road changes under your tires, abandoning straight and true for curvy and eventual, and finds itself meandering through hills too expensive to build over and neighborhoods too wealthy to demolish. A driver paying the minimum amount of attention to keep from careening of the road enters a trance where the trees frame the road, engulfing whatever light there is and breaking only occasionally for puddles of even darker night.

It's calming, really. It's also the last place you'd expect to find a neon sign glaring at you as you crest another anonymous ridge, and as far as signs go, this one was a doozy.

For starters, it wasn't attached to anything. Power, I'm sure, but whatever structure it was meant to advertise had disappeared long ago or had been eaten by the treeline. From a distance it looked like it was attached to a tree itself, dangling from the forest like a phosphorescent caterpillar. The closer I got to it, the more readily apparent it became that this was impossible.

It was huge, three stories tall and and covered in ivy that was only visible on the sections of it that weren't receiving power at that moment.

It was also (and this is what made me loop back for another look) a woman. An incredibly tall, glowing, naked woman writhing in the forest.

You know those neon signs that are illuminated in stages so that they look like a cowboy is tipping his hat to you (and, in fancier versions, winking) from a quarter-mile down the strip? It was like that but not. That's kitsch; this one was art, or at least kitsch elevated to such a level as to be indistinguishable from the genuine article due to the craftsmanship that went into its construction.

There must have been thousands of filaments at work there, all wired into a diabolical brain encased deep in the ground at its base and slowly succumbing to the temptations of the undergrowth. From where I had stopped my car some fifty yards down the road, it was like being parked at the drive-in for a movie that nobody wanted to see. It was lifelike as hell and yet still obviously something that would've belonged in Atlantic City during its less geriatric years, cuz here's the thing: what it was doing was amazingly fucking dirty. I watched in something close to awe as this electric woman did things to herself that I'd assumed lived only in the minds of men.

There was something else, too, something undefinably feminine about the whole affair. Maybe it was the edenic symbolism of an overgrown road to nowhere or maybe I noticed something in the way her incandescent hair fell in an intimation of gravity, but I was convinced this was the work of a master craftsman, a lover of the translucent, and a woman.

I had fallen in love, first with the woman in front of me and then with the woman who started growing in my head, a woman who, through some artistic fervor, crafted breasts with a blowtorch.

The sculpture's cycle took about thirty seconds to complete, start to finish. I must have watched it forty or four hundred times before I caught the name spelled out in a delicate, feminine script, hidden with a degree of skill that would've given Al Hirschfeld a heart attack if he hadn't already died from one.

Ольга

Olga, like the river, cascading from shoulder to breast in the blackest neon I'd ever seen, so black it stood out in the night like an ink stamp on my retinas.

I've driven that road hundreds of times between then and now, looking for my Olga, or at least looking for a distraction from her. As much as I love her she really has destroyed me, left me precious little space in my head to store much else except the unsteadily burning lights of her afterimage, her shadow, hiding behind my eyelids when I try to sleep. Escaping the city is just too much these days, though I did try to go back to business as usual - every valley I entered seemed too dark for me, too emptied of possibility. All I have now is the memory of an artist and the image of a whore, both dampened by the utterly unsatisfying incandescence of a red light district at midnight.

Olga showed me a photograph. The colours were faded and it looked older than it was. Too much time in the sun, maybe, or cheap Soviet paper. It showed a laughing girl, perhaps six years old, in fancy dress with a red top hat. So she had known how to laugh, once. She still could smile, but sadly.

I met her at a pick-up party, not as shameless as its adverts, but its purpose still clear. I only went the once, and I picked up Olga, so you could say it was effective. I don't know what she was doing there, and I don't think she did, either. She was from Novosibirsk and illegal. She worked illegally and lived illegally in a flat that belonged to her employer. He was too friendly. She spoke catastrophic German. I kissed her and we made a date for the next evening.

She sent me to a bar to wait while she got ready. An hour later she joined me, perfectly dressed, perfectly made up. "I am a cow," she said, "a real cow." After some drinks she leant against me, after some more we left. The bill was huge.

She told me to be quiet, because I shouldn't be there. She showed me her photograph. She told me Novosibirsk was a beautiful city. She told me I could undress myself a little. I undressed us both. She was small and perfect. It was the wrong time and the wrong place. She gave herself briefly to the wrong man.

She had to sleep and I had to go. We had dinner together some days later, but she hardly spoke or looked at me. That was the last time I saw her. I expect the photo is even more faded by now.


LateQuest 2007 | BrevityQuest07

.

I was tired.
It was late.
I was an American in St.Petersburg,

breathing air so cold it
froze my eyelashes.

Nadia, the bartender,
poured me a tall glass of vodka
that burned my throat, but warmed my chest.

Late, she shared her callused hands and
soft hips
then sang me to sleep

I didn't expect the handcuffs

It was late.
She was Russian.

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