“We are divorced, like everyone else in Moscow.” –Katya Orlova (The Russia House by John le Carré)
I tried not to stare at her. “You've got to be kidding, Sasha.”
Her dark eyes were serious. “I'm afraid not, Dmitri.”
“What could possibly have put that sort of idea into your head?” I asked.
“Because we're both poor,” she said. “Something I don't enjoy being.”
“Nor do I,” I said. “I'm not sure we can convince them that we're really a couple.”
“It has to be just long enough to convince them that we're the real thing,” Sasha said. “If we win, we collect the prize money, split it in half, and then go our separate ways.”
“But how long is 'long enough'?” I asked warily.
“One week,” she said and handed me a printout. “Here are the rules to the reality show's contest. Read them and then tell me whether you think we can act like a romantic couple or not.”
This time I stared at her. “Like a what?”
“You heard me,” she said. “A romantic couple.”
“No, no, no,” I said, pushing the printout away from me without reading it. “Absolutely not. This is insanity.”
“Then you'd rather stay poor?” she asked.
I bit my lower lip. “There has to be some other way.”
“We've tried them,” Sasha said. “And failed at each one of them. This is our last option. One week and then we don't even have to stay together afterward. Though … the reality show's producers might think it's a bit odd that we suddenly broke up after winning.”
“Which means we'd have to continue the masquerade a little longer than a week,” I said.
She nodded. “I'm not any happier about this than you are, Dmitri.”
“I don't think either of us could fake love,” I said. “Maybe a professional actor could, not not us.”
She sighed. “We could at least try. And if we fail, we fail. But if we win –“
“How big is the prize?” I asked.
“Almost seventy-seven and a half million rubles,” she said. “Or one million US dollars.”
She nodded. “Do you think you can pretend to love me for a week, then?”
“I'll give it a damn good try,” I said.
“So will I,” she said.
“When do we have to start?” I asked.
“After our first appearance on the show,” she said. “And then seven days later we have to be on the show again.”
“How far do they expect contestants to go in a week, in order to win?” I asked. “Betrothal? Wedding?”
“Far enough to win the prize,” Sasha said. “Please read the rules, Dmitri. Because if we bend or break any of them, we're disqualified.” She sat down across from me, legs crossed, hands on her knees, and waited.
My apartment's little living room felt claustrophobic for the first time.
I picked up the printout and read it. It wasn't as complicated as the Electronic User Liability Agreements that American software companies force on their customers. But it was complicated enough.
“We're only human,” I said. “Mistakes can happen. Did they take that into consideration?”
She nodded. “As the Americans say, 'three strikes, you're out'.”
“ 'Desperate times call for desperate measures',” I quoted.
“Do you think you can swing it, Dmitri?” she asked.
“It'll be just like a game of lapta,” I said. “When is our first appearance on the show?”
“Tomorrow morning,” she said. “0900. We can't be late.”
“We'll be there,” I said.
“Oh, and there's one other thing,” she said.
I waited, expecting the worst.
“We'll have to spend each night together,” she said.
“Here or at your apartment?” I asked.
“Neither,” Sasha said. “At a local hotel.”
“It sounds more like a mixture of the old KGB and the Big Brother reality show,” I said. “Are they going to be filming everything we do together?”
“Almost everything,” she said. “Cameras won't be allowed in the bathrooms.”
“God be thanked,” I said.
“What's your decision, then?” she asked.
Hoping this wasn't a huge mistake, I said, “Let's do it."
At the TV studio, we sat down on the long couch, next to the chair where the show's host sat. He had blond hair, which probably came from a bottle, and pale blue eyes that were probably colored contact lenses. But when he spoke, I didn't hear a Muscovite accent. Instead, he sounded like he was from one of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. So maybe the hair and eyes were the real thing after all.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” we both echoed.
“You have read the rules?” he asked.
We both nodded.
“Your names, please,” he said.
“Ladies first,” I told Sasha.
“Sasha Pietrovna Karenina,” she said.
“Dmitri Mikhailovitch Varenkov,” I said.
“Excellent,” the host said. “A Zil limousine will take you from our building to your hotel. Clothes, meals, and everything else will be provided by the hotel. We will pay for it. However, if either of you tries to leave the hotel grounds, you will both be disqualified. Understood?”
We both nodded.
“Good,” the host said. “We'll have a short interview here, so that our audience can learn a little about you. Then you will leave for the hotel.”
The interview was fairly painless. Nothing overly personal had to be revealed. Just a little background information about ourselves and how we met.
The hotel was one of the huge, monolithic hotels that had been built back in the 1960s when Khrushchev was premier. Its exterior made no pretense at being beautiful. But it looked strong enough to withstand a large bomb and any violent civil disturbances (or even Nikita slapping a tabletop with his shoe like he did at the UN).
Our room was on the tenth floor. It included a table with chairs, a wet-bar, a small kitchen, a couch with a coffee-table in front of it, and a large television with a remote control. Nothing to read. I guess they didn't expect couples to do any reading. After all, that wasn't why we were here.
The balcony outside the living room looked down on a swimming pool. There were several people lounging near it, and a few people in it, throwing a brightly-colored inflated ball back and forth.
“How's the view?” Sasha asked as she joined me. The only change was that she was barefoot.
“Better than the view at home,” I said. “At least it's not a courtyard with piles of trash in each corner and a fountain that hasn't worked in twenty years.”
“I've never been in a hotel room this big before,” she said. “It's more like a suite.”
“Maybe it's their bridal suite,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” she said.
I carefully put one arm around her waist. She glanced at me, then nodded and leaned against me. We hadn't seen any miniature cameras or microphones. But no doubt there were at least several in each room (except the bathroom). The cameras in the bedroom probably even had night vision capability for when the lights were turned off.
“Do you think we'll be able to go to St. Petersburg the next time, darling?” she asked. “I'd like to visit the Hermitage and the Winter Palace again.”
“As long as it doesn't conflict with my work schedule, I don't see why not,” I said.
She whispered in my ear, “I'm going to change into something less formal. Then maybe we could go get some lunch in the hotel restaurant.”
“Good idea,” I said. “I'll get changed, too.”
Sasha nodded, gave me a soft kiss on the lips and left the balcony.
For pretense, this was almost enjoyable. No wonder actors liked their jobs.
Sasha changed into a short-sleeved white blouse, a knee-length dark red skirt, and sandals. I changed into a plaid shirt, jeans, and sandals. It felt more like we were at a Black Sea resort than at a Moscow hotel.
The hotel restaurant wasn't anything fancy. There were couples at some of the other tables. The waiter was polite but not overly talkative. Since we weren't paying, we could order anything we liked, accompanying it with a bottle of chilled Finnish vodka. I poured the vodka into two glasses and handed Sasha her glass. first.
“A toast?” I suggested.
“To what or to whom?” she asked.
“To us,” I said.
“To us,” she agreed.
We clinked glasses and took sips. The vodka was more expensive than the cheap varieties I was used to drinking. When we returned to our real lives, I wondered if I'd be able to tolerate the cheap vodkas anymore. I'd have to … if we lost.
“I could get used to this,” I said.
Sasha smiled. “So could I. Imagine living in a hotel on a daily basis. Practically everything done for you. All you have to do is relax and enjoy. You should see the bathroom. There's both a bathtub and a jacuzzi.”
“Decadent,” I said. “Only the best for our modern czars.”
“Careful,” she said, nodding at my half-full glass of vodka.
“Criticizing our government isn't against the show's rules,” I said.
“Still,” she said. “Dmitri, maybe you shouldn't drink too much before the food comes. Just to be on the safe side.”
“I thought we were supposed to enjoy ourselves for a week,” I complained. “This isn't a monastery or convent.”
Sasha sighed. “Maybe we should've ordered juice instead of vodka.”
“You sound like my parents,” I said. “They used to fuss about my drinking habits.”
“At least they cared about you,” she said. “My parents were overjoyed when I got married. I was no longer their responsibility. But how furious they were when we were divorced less than a year later. As if I would ask to live under their roof again.”
Our food was served and then we were left alone again.
I reached across the table and held her hands in mine. “Sasha –”
She looked at me.
“I'm sorry,” I said. “You're right. I shouldn't drink so much. I used to use alcohol as a way of deadening my thoughts and feelings. But I don't want to do that around you. I want to be alive when we're together.”
“Warts and all?” she asked.
I nodded. “Warts and all.”
We let go of each other's hands and mostly ate in silence.
Masquerading as a romantic couple wasn't going to be easy. But maybe it wouldn't be as difficult as we had expected it to be. After all, we were friends already. How hard would it be to pretend to be more than that? But it meant that I couldn't be sure if her reactions here were real or just acting. I was never a good actor. What you saw was what you got.
After lunch, the hotel staff announced that there would be a dance party each evening. Live music. Each evening's theme would be a different fairy tale. Tonight would be the Firebird. Followed by Beauty and the Beast, the Nutcracker, Snow White, and Cinderella. Special clothes would be provided to fit each fairy tale.
We spent the afternoon at the swimming pool. But once evening came, our clothes were brought. I looked like someone from the 18th Century. Sasha – well, Sasha, looked beautiful with long dark hair on bare shoulders and her long, dark blue gown.
“The firebird would be quite envious of you,” I said.
She laughed. “Except that I can't change into a bird with a long flaming tail. You'll just have to imagine that I can.”
The dance party that night was magical. Complete with the right atmosphere, decorations, and music. It didn't end until some time well after midnight. The other dance parties were just as enjoyable.
Sasha was even more beautiful than Belle on the Beauty and the Beast evening, wearing a long yellow gown that swept around the floor as we danced. The Nutcracker evening included a tall Christmas tree, completely decorated, with a giant-sized nutcracker standing next to it. The Snow White evening included seven men dressed as the Dwarfs. Sasha was smiling and blushing as she played the part of Snow White. I was lucky to be her Prince Charming, kissing her awake.
Each evening made it increasingly harder to act like a couple, because we felt like a real couple. Learning more about each other, growing closer. Our kisses, which began like what your mother would give you at bedtime, were becoming softer, gentler, and more tender.
The final evening was Cinderella. The hotel pulled out the stops even further than they had on previous evenings. There was even a “carriage” to bring Cinderella to the ball, accompanied by four men dressed as four white mice.
Sasha – I didn't think that she could become even more beautiful – just glowed. I don't know how else to put it. She even wore transparent slippers.
While we were dancing, I whispered, “I do hope you don't have to run out of here when midnight comes.”
She shook her head. “But if I did, would you search for me like the Prince did?”
“I would search the entire world for you,” I said.
She looked at me. “You've changed, Dmitri.”
“So have you,” I said. “If you'd told me six days ago that this week would be the best in my entire life, I wouldn't have believed you.”
“Same here,” Sasha said and looked sad. “It's going to be something of a let-down when we return to the real world tomorrow.”
“Why does it have to be a let-down?” I asked. “Why can't we just continue this?”
“Because it isn't real,” she said. “You don't really love me.”
My left eyebrow rose. “I don't?”
“You've been a wonderful dream date,” she said. “But this was supposed to be just pretend.”
“I haven't been pretending since the first day,” I said. “Have you?”
She shook her head. “I didn't expect any of this to happen. I thought we'd just go through the motions and –”
Sasha caught her breath because I'd dropped to one knee.
I held her left hand in mine. And asked a question I'd been wanting to ask all week. For a moment she just stood there in disbelief, but then she nodded.
On the eighth day, we were back at the TV studio. This time, the other half dozen couples were also sitting on the long couch.
The host asked each couple how their week had been, and they'd mostly been just fine. The couples had gotten along for the most part. But I couldn't tell if they were going to stay together after being on the show a second time. They looked almost bored. We were the only ones who held hands throughout the entire taping of the show.
Then the host turned to us. “And how about you both? Did everything go well?”
Sasha blushed and nodded. “Very well.”
The host looked at me.
I also nodded. “We got to know each other better than before. And maybe we'd want to take it further. Make it long-lasting.”
“And do you?” the host asked.
We both nodded and held up our right hands so that the host and the other couples could see the betrothal rings we wore on our ring-fingers.
“Wonderful!” the host exclaimed. “But what made you decide to make your relationship more permanent?”
Sasha and I looked at each other and smiled.
“We fell in love,” we both said.
“I believe we have two winners, then,” the host said. “Sasha – Dmitri – congratulations from all of us on this show.”
The other couples clapped dutifully if not exactly happily.
“But what about them?” I asked.
“They were just actors,” the host said.
“But the prize?” Sasha asked. “Is that for real?”
“Very definitely real,” the host said. “Consider it our wedding gift to you both, along with a wish for a long, happy married life together.”
“I don't understand,” Sasha said. “Then why go to all this trouble and expense?”
“There are so many divorced people here in Moscow,” the host explained. “The church and the government both wanted to find a way to encourage people to meet and hopefully stay together for life. This show was created with that very goal in mind.”
“Did it ever succeed before now?” I asked.
The host shook his head. “You were the first success story. Hopefully the first of many. Congratulations to you both.” He paused. “And there's one more surprise.”
We waited expectantly.
“When you get married, your wedding is on us,” the host went on.
The other couples and the show's staff cheered.
“You'll be invited,” Sasha said. “All of you. If not for you and your show, none of this would've happened. Our masquerade turned into real love.”
“So – when is the wedding?” the host asked.
Sasha and I looked at each other.
“Would today be too soon for my princess?” I asked her.
She shook her head and smiled radiantly. “Today would be perfect.”
“Today it is, then!” the host exclaimed. “Let the preparations begin!”
The wedding was unbelievable. So was the reception. We have the pictures to prove it.
It's been a year after that magical week and wedding. I truly don't think we could be happier than we are here in our very own dacha in the woods outside Moscow.
All three of us.