It all began with a case of mistaken identity. What was to become my most humiliating experience in at least a year, a thing so terrible it seeped into my dreams, began with a girl calling Ames' pad looking for him. I've been staying there while he's in the Golden State. And ultimately I have only myself to blame for the total emasculation that was to follow.
Two Sundays ago, some Marina called looking for Mark, and it took quite a while to convince her that I was not him. She was quite disappointed. But once she realized the lay of the land, reformulating her plan didn't take long at all.
"You, perhaps, are not a local?"
True. Soon she had established that I, like Mark, was an American journalist, and single.
"Great, that's just what we need! Mark's worked with us several times before. We need you to be on a talk show for Channel 1 tomorrow. Do you know the show Gorod Zhenshin (City of Women)? You'd love it - lots of pretty girls, a ton of fun. It's a show about Maslenitsya (Russia's pre-Lent holiday). So will you do it?"
I told her I'd think about it and to call back the next day at noon. It's certainly flattering to be invited to be on national TV, but I'd never heard of this City of Women show. Appealing as the title might seem, I planned to do a little research to find out what it was all about. Instead, I ended up getting massively drunk on free booze while losing several hundred dollars of someone else's money at a casino. By the time I stumbled home at five in the morning, the show was a distant memory.
It remained so until about eleven, when I was awakened by Marina's call. My hangover hadn't really gathered momentum yet, but I could already feel my pulse in my eyeballs, which trembled with every heart beat. I felt horrible. As I am wont to do when I get startled awake, I denied that I'd been sleeping. It's never a convincing act. This time, to add veracity, I told her I'd thought about it and agreed to be on the show. She told me to get to Ostankino by five that afternoon for the taping.
I didn't know it at the time, but City of Women is sort of a Russian Oprah on crack. It combines talk show elements with vaudeville acts that zoom between six different areas on the stage, never settling on one area or topic for more than a minute or two. Or at least that's the impression the viewer gets. Not surprisingly, watching the filming of it is excruciatingly boring. Nor is that just the judgment of one very hung over man watching a show for lower middle class teen girls. The constant and pitiful pleas by the producer to get the audience to crack a smile were so painful that the all-woman audience would occasionally look deep within itself and offer up a sympathy cheer that no-one in their right mind would confuse with authentic emotion. More on that later.
My first profound sense of foreboding was when I was getting made up, plastered with a thick layer of grime. The guy getting painted next to me was in traditional Russian peasant garb -- bright red stitched shirt, goofy pants and Cossack boots -- and exchanged several friendly words with Marina. It's tough to imagine Russia's long suffering peasants ever had such a well-fed, smug look about them, but the really disturbing thing is that this guy was clearly heading to where I was. I had already been prepped that I wouldn't have a very big roll -- just some generic questions about what I was doing in Russia -- but I didn't quite see how the peasant would fit into a talk show format. I was fairly sure, though, that it would be obnoxious.
When I was lead to the studio, the full extent of my poor judgment started taking shape. The set was decorated with colorful wallpaper of oversized sunflowers and the like. The audience, while filled with pubescent girls, was totally asexual. Rather than those wonderful Lolita-like sluts so common over here, these were the good girls, with meek eyes, bows in their hair and zero sex appeal. They were the types that supply the class with cheat sheets, the kind of girls that, if in America, would never learn to smile without showing their braces and swollen, disfigured gums. The balance of the crowd was made up of chaperons and some flamboyantly dressed provincial women who clearly looked to this chance to be on City of Women as one of the highlights of their lives.