Monday night goes sour when the grocer fucks him over.
“Where’s beets?” Zhenya snaps, pawing through the boxes the driver has stacked next to his walk-in.
The delivery boy flips the papers on his clipboard. “Uh, no beets in your order, Mr. Malkin.”
“Yes, always beets.” He snatches the clipboard away and scans it himself. He recognizes the shapes of the words more than he reads them, but beets is nowhere on the list. “Why not?”
“You didn’t ask for any?”
Zhenya feels like the steam escaping from a kettle. “It’s fucking Russian restaurant! Always have beets!” His yelling earns a wince from the delivery boy, who gingerly offers Zhenya his pen to sign for the groceries.
Then the left side of his main grill goes out again. There’s a midday traffic accident that causes most of his staff to be late for work. He drops a bowl of oily dressing and it splatters all over the floor. The phone keeps ringing with some little old lady who has the wrong number. And on top of all that, he has to reconfigure most of the menu because they only have four lonely beets left in the walk-in from the weekend. He doesn’t get the chance to go to the grocery store to make up for missing ingredients. By the time they open, Zhenya is pissed off and doesn’t care who in his kitchen knows it.
He barks out orders and covers for missing prep work more than he does any actual cooking. It’s busy as hell, for the first day of the week. They’re understaffed enough that Phil has to abandon the bar to lend a hand in the kitchen, and Seryozha comes in from the office to take over plating. Still, they’re slow, and nothing irritates Zhenya more than sluggishness.
“There’s a guy out there who wants to know about the borscht,” Olli says, quiet enough in their hectic kitchen that Zhenya has to strain to hear him.
“No beets.” Zhenya doesn’t look up from quartering potatoes as fast as he can.
Olli sighs. “I told him that the borscht is off the menu for tonight—I offered him the pelmeni soup—but he’s kind of insistent.”
“Tell him no fucking beets! No beets, no borscht!” Their handful of beets had been reserved for the slaw on their burgers, and they certainly didn’t have enough for soup. Olli flinches and backs away, so Zhenya yells after him, “Those words, exact!”
“Relax, boss,” Horny says as he dumps another armload of washed potatoes at Zhenya’s station, and takes the chopped ones to the fryer. His voice is tight with stress.
Zhenya lets loose the entire Russian lexicon of curse words, and Horny magnanimously pretends he doesn’t know what any of them mean. Later, Zhenya will probably feel bad about being mean to Olli, but for now he can’t spare the brain cells.
In fifteen minutes when Zhenya has moved on to halving and pitting cherries, Olli comes back to the kitchen, his jaw set. “He wants to know how much longer.” He says it to the kitchen in general, but Zhenya is the only one close enough to hear.
Zhenya very carefully does not upend the bowl in front of him. He even puts his knife down.
“What’s he order?”
“The salmon,” Olli says. “It hasn’t been that long, but—”
“Hags! Where salmon?” Zhenya barks.
“It’s fucking coming,” Hags yells back. The oven door slams.
Zhenya turns back to Olli. “So you say: ‘it’s fucking coming.’ Say, 'fuck off, Borscht guy.'”
“Like that, you say.”
Olli grits his teeth. His stubbornness is stronger than Zhenya’s, but he’s also trained in proper restaurants. “Yes, chef,” he says. “I’ll tell him.”
Good. Now maybe borscht guy will be offended enough to leave and never bring his impatience back. The worst he could do is leave a bad Yelp review, but so what?
The restaurant doesn’t quiet down until well after eight.
After they close, Horny and Hags wipe down the stations. Rusty finishes up with the dishwasher. Phil is out by the bar polishing the glass while Amanda rolls silverware into napkins. Zhenya prepares pelmeni for the next day and lets Olli watch while he finishes off the liquored cherries from dessert—an apology as best as Zhenya can give without struggling through English and his own feelings about the night.
Seryozha comes in and hands out the tips to Zhenya’s staff. It’s lighter than it should be, given how busy they were, but it’s also not surprising. Someday Zhenya will have enough staff that he can just skip Mondays and stay home.
“Sorry,” Zhenya says as Olli pockets the scant handful of bills. Olli has student loans to pay off, and Zhenya can only pay him so much.
“Not bad,” Olli says around the spoon still in his mouth. “Borscht guy gave me forty.”
Zhenya raises his eyebrows, incredulous. “Borscht guy? After you say no fucking beets?”
Olli puts the spoon down, scrapes the inside of the bowl with his finger, and sticks it in his mouth. He pulls it out with a pop, and smirks. “Maybe he liked it.”
That gets a few laughs from guys as they put their aprons in the laundry bag. Hags bumps Olli as he passes. They all start to file out, grabbing jackets from the rack and leftovers from the walk-in. It’s pretty late.
“Need us to stick around?” Amanda asks as she and Phil head for the door, the last ones out.
“No, you go,” Zhenya says. “I’m stay, finish.”
Phil pounds him on the back. “Alright, see you tomorrow.”
Zhenya likes when the kitchen is bustling, but it’s also nice when it’s empty and quiet. When Zhenya was little, he would help his mama make dinner in their tiny apartment in Magnitogorsk. The snow fell in grey little clumps outside their window, and with Denis completing his homework in the other room, they worked together in silence. There’s a flavor in home cooking that Zhenya can’t replicate, no matter how hard he tries. But this—making pelmeni by hand in his restaurant alone—is as close as he’s gotten yet.
By the time he locks up, it’s a little after midnight. The streets are dark and it’s raining a little. Zhenya pulls his jacket around him tighter, and walks the six blocks to his apartment.
Soup is right at the door when he arrives home, a shadow in the dark. She greets him with a single, plaintive meow, reminding him to refill her bowls before he collapses into bed. She refuses to be picked up until Zhenya puts his wet jacket in the closet, but then she goes easily into his arms.
“Did you miss me, sweet little mouse?” Zhenya asks as he carries her through the apartment, flicking on the light in the kitchen. Soup doesn’t say anything—she’s a lady of few words. She appeared behind the restaurant three months ago, and sat politely until Zhenya fed her after close, and then she followed him home. “Yes, yes,” Zhenya agrees, interpreting her silence. “It’s hard to run the house on your own while I’m away.”
Zhenya feeds Soup, and then gets ready to sleep—a long and arduous process that involves shucking his pants and shirt, and brushing his teeth. Then he crawls into his cold bed, and is practically unconscious by the time his head touches the pillow.
He gets to the restaurant a little bit later than usual the next day, having gone personally to the grocer dispatch center and making sure he’ll never be without beets again. To his surprise, his staff are all at the restaurant already, an hour and a half early. They’re crowded around one of the tables, and when Zhenya comes in the front door, they all look up with identical expressions of guilt.
“What’s happen?” Zhenya asks. Maybe all their second-hand grills finally gave up the ghost and they’ll become one of those trendy raw food salad places. Maybe the sewer backed up and they’ll have to shut down to strip the floors and sanitize everything. Zhenya does a head count—none of them killed each other, at least.
“It’s nothing!” Rusty yelps, and leans over the table.
“Can’t fix if you don’t show.” It’s still too early to really work up to his chef’s roar, but Zhenya could probably do it if he wanted. For now, he exercises patience.
“I really wouldn’t worry about it, actually.” Dumo adds his own body to shield whatever is in front of them. “It’s probably fine.”
Seryozha, the most reasonable of them all and forever Zhenya’s saving grace, rolls his eyes. “Just show him.”
Zhenya walks over. Dumo and Rusty are hiding a newspaper. With reluctance, they let Zhenya pick it up.
“Sidney Crosby was here last night,” Seryozha explains.
Zhenya freezes. His English reading skills are limited to culinary terms, but he can read the symbols at the top of the restaurant review column: two out of five stars.
He stares. Then he stares some more. Then he says, “Can’t fucking read,” and thrusts the paper away from himself.
No one moves for a moment, but then Phil takes it from him. “Here, I’ll—” He breaks off, then clears his throat. “I’ll read it to you.”
Zhenya nods. He doesn’t want to hear it, but he has to listen.
“Many people have praised Chasha’s efforts at Russian-American fusion. It’s a restaurant that strives to use the best parts of both styles of cuisine and create a flavor that satisfies the homesick and the heartbroken,” Phil reads. It’s a nice compliment, Zhenya thinks, but then Phil goes on. “However, what Chasha and its head chef and owner Evgeni Malkin offer in creativity, they negate completely with service. Unfortunately, this restaurant struggles in ways that might only be expected from a much less experienced restaurateur.”
Phil keeps reading as Crosby completely rips apart Zhenya’s work and passion for the past eighteen months. Crosby criticizes everything from the food and service to the lighting and the type of napkins they have. He doesn’t neglect to mention that nothing on their menu was as advertised that night, that their signature borscht wasn’t available at all. By the time the article ends, the room is ice cold. For a moment, no one dares to even breathe.
“It’s my fault,” Olli says, breaking the silence. Zhenya stares at him, but he doesn’t look guilty, only angry. “Crosby—he was the borscht guy. He had this little notebook next to his plate. I didn’t even think about it.”
“No,” says Zhenya. “I tell you to tell him fuck off.”
Olli’s eyes burn a hole in the floor. “I could have ignored you! I’m an adult.”
No one else says anything.
Zhenya likes Olli a lot. He likes all his staff a lot. They’re rude to him, and ignore his leadership, but they’re hard workers, and they share his dream of seeing his restaurant’s success. If Crosby’s review is anyone’s fault, it’s Zhenya’s.
“Screw this.” Zhenya snatches the newspaper back, and stomps to the door. “Start prep!” he calls over his shoulder.
Back in his car, Zhenya Googles Sidney Crosby. He scrolls past the reviews until he finds Crosby’s own restaurant, and sets his GPS for The Grill & Leaf.
When Zhenya moved to Pittsburgh with plans to open up his own place, everyone had some kind of advice for him. People told him where to build, what to serve, how to act, how to hire—as if he were completely new to the industry. One thing that everyone told him, though, was to watch for Crosby’s review. It would make or break the restaurant, they said. Places that received critique from Crosby ended up closing within six months. Crosby wouldn’t go back on his word; when he made his review, his decision was final.
Well fuck that, Zhenya thinks. Crosby hasn’t met him yet.
The Grill & Leaf doesn’t look like much from the outside. It has a hole-in-the-wall entrance squished between two skyscrapers downtown. Zhenya has a hell of a time trying to find somewhere to park. But the door opens when he yanks on it, even though it’s the middle of the day, and the posted hours list dinner at 6 o’clock.
Inside, the restaurant is the kind of bare-beams, eclectic contemporary nonsense that Zhenya tended to avoid. One of the walls is entirely covered in leafy green plants, which looks like a pain in the ass to maintain. There are a few customers, but no wait staff to attend them. None of the steam has run out of Zhenya yet, so he stands there, fuming.
Finally someone comes out of the kitchen. He’s a handsome man, dark curling hair, black t-shirt, thick arms, broad shoulders. “Hey, how’s it going?” he asks, wiping his hands on the apron tied at his waist.
Zhenya feels his jaw click. “You Crosby?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” His posture shifts, just slightly. “Can I help you?”
Zhenya holds up the newspaper, crumpled in his fist. “The fuck is this?”
Crosby looks at the paper, and then back at him. Then he raises his eyebrows, “Oh, Chef Malkin.” He licks top lip, then presses his lips together. “I’m really sorry about the bad experience last night. Usually I catch restaurants on a more typical evening.”
“So you take back,” Zhenya says. It had been a bad night, and it was as much Zhenya’s doing as fate’s.
“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that. It’s already been printed, and I don’t rescind reviews,” he says, “as a rule.”
“You write new one. Come tonight and it’s two times better. Five times.”
Crosby shakes his head. “I’ve got my own business to run, Chef Malkin. Unfortunately, the review will have to stand. I don’t think many people read the paper, though.”
“Everyone say Crosby’s word law,” Zhenya snaps. “You give bad review, my place die.”
At least Crosby has the decency to look marginally sheepish at that. “Well, that’s not true. I just have a good sense of which restaurants have the ability to stay afloat. It’s luck more than anything. You could pull through.”
Zhenya narrows his eyes. “Fuck you,” he spits, and punctuates the statement by balling up the newspaper and tossing it on the floor. “What you know? It’s lunch and you have two, three customer? In downtown, on Tuesday? You don’t know what’s good for run restaurant.”
“And you happen to be affecting the experience of my customers, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Crosby says. He takes a step towards Zhenya, far more threatening than it should be.
“May all your dumplings taste like rat shit,” Zhenya curses him in Russian, “and your dick fall off in the night.”
Zhenya drives back to Chasha, thinking primarily of all the ways he could destroy Crosby and his reputation, but by the time he’s through the midday traffic, he’s cooled—marginally. He’ll prove to Crosby, and all of Pittsburgh, that his restaurant will survive. Fuck the review.
The beets better be there by time he gets to the kitchen, because he’s ready to cook.
Zhenya tries not to let Crosby’s review dig its claws into him and burrow down deep, yet he’s always been sensitive to criticism. His mama had once told him that he’d burned the toast he’d made for her when she was sick in bed, and though he most certainly had, Zhenya had pouted about it for a week. This is no different, although Zhenya thinks his method of dealing with hurt is a lot better than it used to be.
He’s been suffering for creativity lately, but he still tries. He needs new recipes as they transition their spring menu into summer. Every time he goes to start something different, the review hangs above his head. Zhenya’s work is subject to the whims of the strange American palate, constantly a contradiction of itself. Neither spicy nor bland. Salty, but just enough. Crisp and still tender. Rich and also light. Unique but familiar.
So Zhenya experiments, seeking the elusive.
He tries pickled daikon and pork belly and sunchokes and quail eggs and little green chilies and enoki mushrooms and mangoes and cream cheese and okra and fried paneer and Brazil nuts and purple asparagus and fifteen varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Zhenya works on his recipes even during restaurant hours, making a mess of his space and leaking over into others’ stations. Horny yells at him in indistinct Swedish, and Hags dumps anything that comes near him directly into the dirty sink. Zhenya tests his creations out on Phil and Amanda and Dumo, his Americans. When they chew and swallow and smile, and say, “It’s good, Geno,” he knows he hasn’t got it yet. If something is truly great, they won’t say anything at all, just tip their heads back and sigh.
Russian food is his strong suit. Ultimately, Zhenya does best with cabbage, beets, pickles, and things wrapped in dough and then boiled. Anything else frustrates him.
So he sticks with what he knows, and wonders if it’s enough.
Pittsburgh Plates is a weekend food festival designed to showcase all the top restaurants in town through over-priced small portions of limited selection. The festival-goers buy tickets and then exchange them for tiny plates of food, with half of the proceeds going to the restaurant, and half going to a handful of local charities. Despite their struggles in the late spring, Chasha had been selected to participate months ago. This is why Zhenya is suffering the July heat, in small tent occupied by Horny and Hags and a steaming grill, trying to convince groups of picky people that beets belong on a burger.
They’re doing chicken pelmeni on skewers and their Russian burger in slider form. Dumo is out on the sidewalk in shorts and a polo, and Zhenya wishes that were him, asking people, “Hey, why not try a twist on an old home favourite?”
There’s a prize for whichever restaurant sells the most over the weekend, and at this rate, Zhenya doubts they’ll be winning it.
Still, business is good.
“Two more burgers!” Hags calls from the front of the tent. He has the best English of the three of them, and—as they tease him—his blonde surfer hair is surely a hit with the ladies.
“Yep,” Horny chirps back, and slaps four more tiny patties onto the grill. They sizzle satisfyingly, and as much as Zhenya complained all week about the festival, there’s something really nice about cooking outdoors.
Zhenya keeps folding pelmeni. They made enough to last the day, but he’s trying to get a head-start on tomorrow while he waits for the current batch to boil. The dough softens in the heat, sticking to his fingers, but it’s a new challenge that Zhenya is only half-irritated by.
Dumo sticks his head in their makeshift kitchen. “There’s some customers who wanna talk to the chef,” he says.
“Tell them I’m busy,” Zhenya replies, but feels a little zing of delight. He puts his work back in the fridge and tromps out front.
“Are you the chef?” a woman asks through a mouthful. Zhenya nods. “These are like— really good. I just wanted you to know.”
Zhenya puts on his best bashful smile. “Thank you.”
“You’re open all the time?” she asks, looking up at him through her eyelashes, and Zhenya’s pretty sure she’s flirting. It’s nice—she’s pretty—but Zhenya is on the clock.
“Not Sunday,” he says. There’s a banging two stalls down, then a crash, and some shouting. It would be normal in a regular kitchen, but they’re all trying to keep it civil while the customers can see right into their workspace. “Uh, please come by soon,” Zhenya says, “thank you.”
He gives the woman the slip, too curious to bother making a personal reservation for her, or whatever she was hoping for.
The commotion is coming from the back of the stall. Zhenya looks up at the name and smirks. It’s The Grill & Leaf’s stall, and right on their menu is the chef’s portrait of Crosby, arms folded and smiling. If they’re having trouble, Zhenya is downright gleeful.
He weaves through the busy sidewalk, people quickly clustering together to check out what the noise is about. “What’s going on?” asks a teenager at Zhenya’s elbow.
“I’m find out,” Zhenya says, hoping his smile isn’t as manic as he feels.
Zhenya slips between the stalls, and catches Crosby and another man in a heated argument. There’s a bowl on the ground between them and, Zhenya thinks, dark mushroom caps scattered across the sidewalk. “No one cares! No one can tell! We can’t stop selling half our menu, Sid,” the other man hisses.
“We won’t win,” Crosby argues. His arms are crossed like on his photo out front, but his face is red and his eyes glimmer.
The man throws his hands up in the air. “Sacre —no one gives a shit if we win! It’s a silly competition for bragging rights. Just let me go to the store and buy some more oil.”
“No,” says Crosby, his jaw set.
“No one will be able to tell the difference!”
“So you’re going to sacrifice today’s sales because of it?”
“You need cooking oil?” Zhenya hears himself asking. Shit. Goddamn his stupid mouth. “I’m have.”
Crosby turns, and must recognize him. “That’s not necessary.”
“Have lots,” Zhenya says. They had brought an extra box, though it turns out they really don’t need it. It’s high-quality oil, and Zhenya was planning on just bringing it back to the restaurant to save on next week’s grocery list.
“That’d be very helpful,” says the other man, cutting off Crosby’s incoming protest. “Are you sure you can spare?”
“No problem,” Zhenya says.
“I’m not cooking with it!”
“Then go run the front,” the man turns and barks at Crosby, who scoffs and walks back into the tent. Then he faces Zhenya again and holds out his hand. Zhenya shakes it. “Thank you so much. I’m Flower.”
The man laughs, sharp once and then devolving into a giggle. “Yes, it is.”
“Malkin,” he replies.
“Well, I really appreciate it,” Flower says, “As does our fearless leader.”
“Sure,” Zhenya says. He walks with Flower around the back of the tents.
“Sid’s just picky. He doesn’t mean to be rude. Actually, he’s usually unbearably polite.”
Zhenya points to the spare box of oil at the back of their kitchen, and Flower hefts it easily. “You’re not win competition, though,” Zhenya says to him.
Flower scoffs. “Yeah, we’ll see.”
Zhenya ducks back into his tent.
“Where’d you go?” Horny asks him as he washes his hands at their tiny portable sink. “Why are you giving that guy our stuff?”
Zhenya feels really silly about it, now. Crosby doesn’t deserve his help—hadn’t even seemed to want it. His parents had always taught him to be generous, though, especially when he didn’t feel like it. He can’t shake their lesson. “Couple stalls down, they run out,” Zhenya says. “So I’m give because we don’t need.”
“Oh, that Leaf place?” Horny goes back to flipping burger patties. “I tried some of their stuff and it was really good. The—what was it?—mushroom thing. The holy shittake.”
“You eat at Grill & Leaf?”
“Nah, I tried everything down our row.”
Zhenya tries to keep his voice even. It’s important to try out the competition, but— “It’s Sidney Crosby’s restaurant.”
Horny looks up from his task. “No shit?” he asks, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t know. It was really fucking good, though. Like, mushroom cap, swiss cheese, little peppers, garlic, some other stuff. Sweet, salty, spicy.”
“Fuck his mushrooms,” Zhenya grumbles.
“Okay whatever, bud,” Horny says, and cooks silently for a while.
When they’re cleaning up for the evening after all the customers have gone home, and the wind above the tents carries the hot, dark promise of a thunderstorm, Chasha receives a delivery. Dumo brings it inside as Zhenya scrapes the grill of burger residue. It’s four little chocolate-coated ice cream bars, each stamped with the local hockey team’s logo: a non-threatening penguin on skates.
“What is?” Zhenya asks.
“Uh,” Dumo says, lifting the dish and the dessert up to eye level. “They’re called Diet Iceburghs. Like the mascot, I think?”
Hags reaches over Dumo’s shoulder and snags one from the paper plate. “What makes them diet?” He takes a bite before he finds out. The penguin logo cracks.
“They’re vegan. That’s what the guy from Grill & Leaf said, anyway. He had this look—I dunno, like he was up to something.” Dumo shrugs and takes one for himself. “Oh, and he told me to tell you that it’s a peace offering. Do we have beef with those guys?”
Zhenya doesn’t want to have anything with Crosby, nor his restaurant and staff. Some dessert won’t make up for the review, and if it weren’t for Zhenya’s distaste for wasting food, he’d tip them right into the trash.
“You have mine,” Zhenya says, and scrubs the gunk from the grill with renewed vigor.
Zhenya spends his Sundays catching up with the rest of his life. He usually wakes up early to pretend that he’ll go to church or find somewhere nice for brunch, but tends to stay in bed for too long to bother with either. Soup will jump up onto the bed and sit on his chest if he lounges past her breakfast, but waits patiently for him to decide it’s time to face the world—or at least the rest of his apartment.
He pads lazily to his kitchen, pours Soup a bowl of kitty kibbles, and a bowl of sugary cereal for himself. They eat together while Zhenya scrolls his phone; Twitter for news, then Instagram for recipes and snapshots of home. He pretends that the week has exhausted him enough to sit there idly for half an hour after he’s done eating and run out of apps to refresh. Then he gets up and rinses his bowl in the sink.
In the living room, he pushes his sad, saggy couch out of the way and lies down his mat. Yoga helps him stay limber. They have black foam mats on the floor at the restaurant, but his feet and his lower back still ache. His shoulders are stiff as stone. Zhenya rotates through the simple routine he learned from YouTube. Soup doesn’t do anything cute like climb on his back and generally make herself a nuisance. Instead, she sits in the patch of sunlight coming through the window and bathes herself.
After he gets bored of the yoga—feeling not quite relaxed and left once again with the sense that he’s doing it wrong—Zhenya lies on the floor and plays a few rounds of his chess game with Phil on his phone, and does online poker while he waits for Phil to make his move. He captures a knight, but loses a bishop, and he closes the app.
He sharpens his knives while he talks to Seryozha on speaker phone. He enquires after the girls first, listening to Seryozha decry the supposedly devastating lives of teenagers, practically hearing the eyeroll over the line. Once that subject is exhausted, they move on to discussing the restaurant. Their numbers aren’t up, but they’re just about breaking even. They need to try to put some money aside in case of emergencies.
Zhenya finishes with the sharpening, and goes to organize his laundry, holding the phone up to his ear with a shoulder. He throws his work clothes in one pile—hot water—and the rest in another pile for cold water. Seryozha asks if he has plans for that evening, and Zhenya lies. If he acts like he has no life outside of the restaurant—which he doesn’t—he’s liable to be tacked on to whatever the Gonchar family is doing that evening, or else pawned off on one of his employees. He sees enough of them.
“I’m just finishing some chores, and then I’ll go out,” Zhenya says, closing the laundry machine door and punching the right settings. “You worry too much, old man.”
Seryozha snorts. “What I worry about is that you’ll be old like me one day and won’t have half as much in your life.”
“Good-bye,” Zhenya says, and hangs up. He has friends, actually. He’s just busy.
Finally he gives up and goes to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him to keep Soup out, who gives a protesting meow.
He never meant for jerking off to become such a production. At nights, he’s too tired and just collapses into sleep. In the mornings, he wakes up late and forgoes it in favor of a longer shower. So outside of an emergency persistent erection, Zhenya really only does it on a Sunday, and it’s become something of an indulgence.
He has lube and a curated collection of fantasies—favourites that have grown worn on the edges like an old photograph. He throws a towel down on top of his sheets just in case, and strips down completely naked. He lies down.
Zhenya pours a little pool of lube in his cupped palm, rubs his hands together until he’s slick and warm, then takes his cock in his right hand and his balls in his left. He relaxes back, stares at the ceiling for a moment, then closes his eyes. Lately, his thoughts have strayed towards men. He blames it mostly on where he lives. Women are beautiful anywhere in the world, but he’s discovered he really likes American guys.
He imagines a swimming pool, a crisp blue surface broken by a man emerging, water sluicing down his body, tanned and toned. Zhenya pictures abs, and shorts that cling wetly to the clear outline of a cock. The man in his fantasy slicks back his hair, and tilts his head suggestively towards the locker room. Zhenya tightens his grip on his cock, and it slides slickly through his grasp.
The scene shifts, and they’re in the shower together. Zhenya lets himself be pinned by the swimmer against the cold tile, and he's kissed, tasting chlorine and heat. Then the man grasps Zhenya’s dick, his strokes matching Zhenya’s own on his bed. He traps Zhenya’s arms above his head, and then lets him thrust his hips forward, chasing friction. The man doesn’t say a word, but sometimes leans in and puts his mouth on Zhenya’s neck and sucks his pulse.
His fantasy starts to fracture, the hotter Zhenya gets from his own pleasure. Usually he edges himself a bit when he indulges in jerking off, pulling away when he gets close, letting his thoughts go unfocused. He’s suddenly being fingered open in the showers with the swimmer, and then in the next moment he’s reliving a hookup he’d had at New Year’s three winters ago, frantic in the bathroom of a club in Moscow. Zhenya’s on his knees, tight pants squeezing his dick while he sucks off the handsome stranger, thick and trying to wedge impolitely into his throat. He’d felt the stretch of it for the rest of the night, and then Zhenya thinks of what would have happened if he’d stayed there in the bathroom, let everyone have a turn.
Zhenya moans, thinking of being used, thinking of being fucked hard and put away wet.
He thinks, for a moment, of Crosby, with his black t-shirt and his pink, full lips falling open, there in the Moscow bathroom and in Zhenya’s mouth.
His eyes snap open and he lets go of his cock and balls.
He resets, thinking of something else, slipping his hand down to play with his asshole.
He thinks of a hotel room—a penthouse—sheets as full and white as clouds. He imagines running his hands through long hair and down over muscled shoulders, someone mouthing at his chest, then pushing inside him deep and unforgiving. Zhenya pushes inside himself, and lets a whimper claw its way out of his throat. Please, he thinks. He imagines strong hands, thick fingers, trying to push in alongside the cock thrusting into him, overwhelming him.
Zhenya needs more, and finally he lets himself slide into the final stretch. In the fantasy, he’s flipped over, face pushed against the mattress and ass in the air, barely able to breathe as he’s slammed into. He slides his other hand over his cock, pleasure building, and building, and cresting, and then he tips over. Zhenya spills over his fist and breathes out in a heavy sigh.
The next part, he imagines, too. He thinks about being held, maybe stroked a little where he’s extra sensitive. He’s not proud of it, of how lonely it makes him feel, but it’s still nice in its own right. Zhenya floats there until the tingling golden satisfaction drains.
Then he rolls over and goes to shower.
As a rule, Zhenya goes to the regular grocery store for himself. Mostly, he eats at Chasha, or else gives his patronage to the other Russian restaurants. There are some things that he needs for the apartment, though, and the little time he spends there. Food and litter for Soup, milk, eggs, tea, sugar—those household staples he buys primarily from the nearby corner store. The Korean lady who runs the store eyes him with vague disapproval and doesn’t speak to him except to say how much he owes, and it stays open late, so it’s really all he needs.
Yet in the summer, the lure of the farmer’s market is irresistible.
Zhenya doesn’t go as often as he’d like. He enjoys the sun, and the way you can smell the fresh produce, earthy and sweet. No one is in a hurry. He’s forgotten his sunglasses in the car, but the various stands offer shade. Zhenya snaps a few semi-artistic pictures for his personal Instagram and buys peaches and pears and cherries to make snacks for his staff.
“How much?” Zhenya asks, lifting a furred, yellow-and-orange peach to his nose, smelling ripe sunshine.
“Seven for small, twelve for medium, eighteen for case,” the old farmer says, his arms crossed, daring Zhenya to haggle for something lower.
It’s more than a fair price, though. “Case,” Zhenya says, and pulls out his wallet.
He’s long stopped feeling ridiculous for the little grandma cart he tugs along to the market. It’s easier to tote several kilos of fruit on wheels than in a bag. There’s no one to impress at the market.
Zhenya is thinking about fruit tarts as he walks, contemplating how to coax the finicky oven to produce something he’d put on the seasonal menu. He’s focused far more on whether the oven at work will bake a large tart evenly on its own, or if he’ll have to turn it every five minutes, so he isn’t paying attention when he runs into a wall. More precisely, it’s a Sidney Crosby-shaped wall.
“Whoops, sorry!” Crosby exclaims, and then sees the fool who smacked into him in the middle of the sidewalk. “Chef Malkin,” he says, blinking.
“Crosby,” Zhenya says, cursing the market internally. Fruit would have been just as good coming from Trader Joe’s.
“How are you?” He’s not wearing the black t-shirt Zhenya’s seen him in the past two times, but a blue-and-green flannel instead, with grey jeans. Zhenya attributes this to the sense of displacement he feels.
“I’m fine,” Zhenya replies. “What you do here?” By which he means why are you at this market, the one I chose, when there are half a dozen other markets to choose, and not please continue to provide small talk. Crosby completely misunderstands.
“Oh,” says Crosby, “I try to source all my produce locally in the summer.”
That’s ethical. And pretentious. “You think you better than everyone?”
Several expressions flicker over Crosby’s face, but then he shakes his head as if to clear them. “Not at all. I just—that’s the theme of Grill & Leaf—fresh, local, healthy, innovative. It’s important to my customers that—well, never mind. What brings you to the market?”
Zhenya points down at his cart. “Fruit.”
“Cool. Uh, listen, I’m glad we bumped into each other.” Crosby rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “I feel like I was a bit of a dick at Plates. You saved my ass and I was rude. Can I make it up to you?”
“No need. Flower send your ice cream thing, so all good now.” Being owed a favour by Crosby makes him more uncomfortable than he would expect—a little squirmy, like he swallowed a tiny worm and it’s having a dance party in his stomach.
“The coconut bars? That’s not much of a thanks.”
Zhenya shrugs. “Don’t need thanks.” He was just a better person than Crosby, leave it at that.
“Let me make you lunch, at least.”
“Please, c’mon. I feel bad.”
Zhenya huffs. Apparently he’s left his dignity in the car with his sunglasses, because he acquiesces too easily. “Fine, whatever! I come to you place, eat rabbit food.”
The tension drains from Crosby’s shoulders, which Zhenya hadn’t realized was there. “Awesome. Any day in the coming week is fine. I usually open the door at eleven.”
“Sure.” Zhenya has no intention of going, but he wants out of the conversation before he agrees to some other stupid thing. “See you, Crosby.”
“Call me Sid,” he says, and reaches out to grasp Zhenya’s arm. “Seriously, any time this week.”
“Sid,” he insists. His eyes are very brown.
“Yep.” Zhenya dekes around Crosby, and walks away as fast as he can without looking like he’s actively escaping.
The tart fails completely. Zhenya fucks around with the sugar, so it’s too wet and the crust won’t bake. The whole thing comes out raw and sloppy. He tries it again, bakes the shell first then puts the fruit in fresh, and decorates with piped whipping cream. That one nearly works, but it isn’t what he wants. His staff happily picks apart both attempts. Zhenya refuses to go to the internet for help.
He doesn’t plan to go to The Grill & Leaf at all. Zhenya doesn’t like Crosby—Sid.
Zhenya doesn’t like Crosby. But he’s downtown on Friday morning, renewing the business license, and filing paperwork in English makes him ravenous. He could stop at McDonald’s on the way and dispose of the evidence before he gets to the restaurant. He could wait until he gets to work and make something for himself. He could even drop his car off at the apartment and grab some instant noodle soup from his own pantry. But he was promised free food. In the end, he can’t pass that up.
Parking is easier this time, and Zhenya finds a spot less than a block away. He wonders idly how Crosby manages to fill the place every night if no one can park anywhere. Maybe it’s all millennials who take Ubers or the bus. Maybe he’s two weeks from bankruptcy and he’ll have to write another cruel review of some other poor chef’s restaurant to pay the bills.
Just like the time before, and like Crosby had said, the door opens easily. Zhenya seats himself so that he can make a quick escape if he needs to.
Crosby emerges from the back within a minute. A smile cracks his face, a bit lopsided. Zhenya hadn’t noticed its crooked charm before. He makes a note to forget it. “Hey, you made it!” Crosby says.
Zhenya nods, and tries not to find interest in his napkin or his shoes.
“Well.” Crosby turns, looks at the kitchen, then back at Zhenya. “I’ll whip something up for you. Can I grab you a drink?”
He knows what kind of things will be most expensive—the top-shelf liquors that Crosby is bound to save for his patrons with deeper pockets. He knows the drinks that’ll take forever to make, and that Crosby will screw up if he hasn’t got the bartending experience. Zhenya has to work later, though, so he just says, “Coffee.”
Black, Zhenya should say, but he doesn’t hate himself. “Lots,” he says instead.
“Gotcha. I just finished brewing a pot, so I’ll bring it out in a sec.” Crosby disappears into the kitchen, and then reappears within moments. He bears a silver tray with a carafe, a mug, a creamer, and sugars. “So you don’t have to yell for a refill,” he explains. “Are you allergic to anything?”
Zhenya shakes his head. “Unless you put penicillin in food.”
“No, you’re all good,” Crosby says. “Alright. See you in a few.”
Zhenya scrolls his phone while he waits. He tries to have very few expectations of Crosby’s food, but if it isn’t absolutely stellar, Zhenya is going to pitch a fit. So Crosby better not be talking out of his ass when he’s critiquing every place in town.
The coffee, at least, is half-decent.
The door opens, and two scruffy-looking women enter. They smell like stale beer and cigarettes, but they sit confidently at a table like they own it. One of them takes off a hole-ridden knit hat, and her hair beneath it is lank and greasy. From the kitchen, a different man comes out, one who Zhenya vaguely recognizes from the Grill & Leaf stand at Pittsburgh Plates. He’s wearing a black buttoned shirt, but the same apron that Crosby wears.
“Well, if it isn’t my two beautiful favourites,” he greets the women. “Have the modeling agencies called back yet?”
The second one grins gummily at him. “We’re on the cover of Vogue next week.”
“Finally!” exclaims the waiter. Zhenya decides his accent is kind of French, like Flower’s. “Something to celebrate, then?”
“We’ll have the usual, Kristopher,” says the first woman.
“No champagne? Caviar?” He frowns and bats his eyelashes at them, and Zhenya can feel the breeze from where he sits. Kristopher is the kind of man who is painful to look at.
“Wouldn’t know what to do with any of that fancy shit,” cackles the second woman. “Bring me my soup, pretty boy.”
“Of course.” Kristopher bows slightly. On turning back to the kitchen, he looks at Zhenya. His eyes narrow, and then he walks away. Zhenya feels a little warm under the collar, and he drinks his coffee.
Zhenya fucks around on his phone while he waits. He sorts out some shots of his menu that Olli has texted to him, trying to pick the best one to put on Chasha’s Instagram for the weekend post. He settles on the picture of the soft pretzel, and messes with the filters until the different sauces are the right colours and the salt crystals on the pretzel look sharp and delicious. Soft Pretzel is fun to share, but also good to eat alone. Get two! #chasha #datenight #friday #pghdining, he captions it. Then he throws the rest of his favourite pictures into the story.
Kristopher brings the bowls of soup out for the women, and sets them down with a flourish. “Bon appetit,” he says. He looks at Zhenya again and glares.
“Where’s Sid?” asks the first woman while the second starts in on her soup.
Kristopher turns back to her. “Am I not good enough?” he asks with mock horror.
She flaps her hand in dismissal. “Your wife won’t let you run away with us. Sid is single.”
“I’ll tell him you were asking about him. How’s the soup, Josephine?” he asks the second woman.
“It’s good,” says Josephine. “Mary, eat up, will you? I want to make a depot run before it closes.”
Mary rolls her eyes. “It’s not even noon yet,” she grumbles, but tucks into her soup.
Kristopher glares at Zhenya again, and this time walks over. It’s too late for Zhenya to pretend he’s not eavesdropping. He can always say he doesn’t understand English. “I don’t know who you are,” says Kristopher, “but Sid seems to think your opinion is worth something.”
Zhenya is absolutely sure that’s not the case. He decides not to be threatened by Kristopher, though his forearms are covered in tattoos and he has more perfectly-sculpted facial hair than Zhenya could hope to grow in his lifetime. “He thinks he owe me.”
A light goes on in Kristopher’s eyes. “Oh, you gave us the oil!”
“You’re right. Sid doesn’t owe you,” Kristopher agrees. “Except maybe twenty-five bucks.”
“Forty,” Zhenya amends, because he buys the high-quality stuff, despite Crosby turning his nose up at it before.
“Kris!” calls Crosby from the kitchen. “I need you minding the roaster!”
“He’s making some fancy shit for you, so you better appreciate it,” Kris says, with the kind of tone Zhenya isn’t used to from strangers.
“Better be good,” Zhenya challenges back.
“Coming!” Kris yells, and walks away.
Zhenya regards Mary and Josephine. When he had come in to Grill & Leaf weeks ago, he had pegged the customers as hipsters or grimy university students. The two women eat their soup and bread with a single-mindedness that Zhenya remembers from his childhood, when what his parents brought home wasn’t enough for two adults and two growing boys.
He waits for another ten minutes, and then Crosby emerges once more. He’s carrying a plate with a bowl stacked on top, and another sauce dish on the side.
“Here you go,” he says, setting everything down in front of Zhenya. “Lemon-thyme chicken nuggets and a pesto pasta salad. Gluten-free—hope that’s okay. We make the pasta with quinoa in-house.”
It looks picture-perfect. Zhenya resists the urge to take out his phone and capture the moment. “Thanks,” he says.
“You’re welcome,” Crosby says, smiling. He doesn’t say bon appetit like Kris.
Crosby leaves Zhenya alone with his meal for a moment, and goes to talk to his other customers. The chicken nuggets are sautéed cubes, perfectly golden on each side and flecked with thyme, chili flakes, and lemon zest. There are two grilled lemon wedges on the edge of the plate, charred but still juicy. The pasta salad is bright green, cavatelli pieces tossed with cherry tomatoes, roasted corn, and avocado chunks, with a sprig of parsley resting on top just for show.
Zhenya unwraps his cutlery, picks up his fork, and shovels a piece of chicken into his mouth.
Zhenya’s eaten a lot of food, so he can pick out the notes of flavours that are probably lost on the majority of people. He can taste the roasted garlic and the almond-olive oil blend, and the meat must have been marinated. It’s crispy on the outside, but juicy on the inside. The salad, when Zhenya takes a bite, is invitingly fresh. It’s tangy and sweet, where the chicken is tangy and salty. Neither is overwhelming, but the flavor is complex enough that it makes Zhenya slow down to savor it.
“How is it?” Crosby startles him, sitting down across the table.
Zhenya finishes chewing before he says, “Chicken is dry.”
He watches Crosby’s face fall, and feels like he’s kicked a kitten. “Oh.”
“Kidding,” Zhenya says immediately. “It’s so delicious I’m mad.”
Crosby goes pink, then, just a shiny dusting across his cheeks. “Good. I haven’t tried this one out on anyone yet, so I thought I’d ask your professional opinion. Fair’s fair.”
“Is there anything you’d change?” Zhenya thinks about it, and has a few more bites. “It’s supposed to be an Italian-Greek fusion, but I’m not sure if I’m really hitting the mark.”
Zhenya hums. “Well, if you have to change, put cheese in salad, I guess. What’s kind of salty Italian type? Soft?”
“Yes. All chopped up, little piece.”
“I tried that,” Crosby says, “and it was—”
“Too rich,” Zhenya guesses. The creaminess of the cheese would bog down the sharpness of the tomatoes and lemon. It would muddle the salad. “Maybe fresh oregano for chicken,” he offers, “but it’s good. Don’t change much, if you do.”
“Thanks.” Crosby ducks his head, then lifts it and gazes out the window.
Not sure what else to say, Zhenya quickly finishes off his meal. It isn’t a particularly large portion, but it’s filling.
“You have room for dessert?” Crosby gathers up the plates.
“Have to go do prep for dinner,” Zhenya says. Suddenly he’s overwarm and irritated at himself. Why did he come here and eat Sidney Crosby’s food and let him sit across the table from him and ask for advice, with his face all earnestness and his black shirt filled out so well?
Crosby nods and stands with the dishes balanced in one hand. “Well, I’m glad you made the time. Come by whenever you want.”
“Okay.” Zhenya picks up his coffee cup and drains it in one uncomfortable gulp.
“See you next time.”
Zhenya gets out of his seat. “Yes, see you,” he says, and makes gets the fuck out of there.
Zhenya could admit, at least to himself, that he had been a little bit wrong about Crosby. The man fed the homeless. He supported local farmers. He made delicious meals as apologies and supposedly respected Zhenya’s advice. He probably shat rainbows, for all Zhenya knew.
He was still holding a grudge about the review, but Crosby himself, well. He wasn’t so bad.
“Geno, are you listening?” Rusty asks as Zhenya stuffs the chicken Kiev.
Zhenya looks up. He’s been lost in his thoughts about Crosby, trying parse just how genuine of a person he actually was. “Hm?”
“The barbecue, next week?” He says it with the exasperation of someone who has asked several times.
“Barbecue,” Zhenya repeats.
“At my friend Matt’s house,” says Rusty. He picks up the finished chicken breasts and transfers them to the walk-in. It slams shut behind him, but he pushes his way out in a moment. “You’ll come? We’re all going.”
Rusty rolls his eyes and slaps him on the shoulder. “I’ll text you the address.”
Zhenya likes his group of friends. He likes the Russians he gossips with, and enjoys the company of his staff. They're funny and mostly don't take his shit. Zhenya will go to Rusty's friend's party. He thinks Matt is the one with the smoker in his backyard who makes the good brisket. Zhenya will grill a steak and sit off to the side, letting English conversation wash over him.
What he’s not sure about is Crosby. Zhenya has been thinking about him more than can be attributed to his anger and frustration. He finds himself yearning to get to know Crosby better, but he’s still clinging to the review. It should still mean something. Zhenya shouldn’t be letting it go so easily.
He wakes up before the sunrise beneath muggy sheets, dreaming of Crosby’s crooked mouth asking him how he likes the food. He’s so distraught, he has to put on a shirt and sweatpants and leave the apartment for a long, early morning walk. Soup gives him the most judgmental stare when he comes back with coffee and a croissant. She knows exactly what’s going on with him—she’s that smart. Unfortunately, his cat doesn’t have any decent advice for him.
Bring him a dead mouse, she’d probably say, if you want to show that you’re someone worth noticing.
The barbecue at Rusty’s friend’s place is the day before Zhenya’s birthday, so he shuts the restaurant down by eight-thirty and gives everyone the next day off. After dropping home to change, Zhenya takes a cab to the address he’s given. Matt’s house is suburban with an enormous backyard. There are lanterns hung in trees and over picnic tables, casting a glow over everything in the dying evening light. Music plays over hidden speakers—American rock that Zhenya has learned to tolerate. No one he knows is there yet, but the party is well under way, and no one asks him what he’s doing there.
He would take his grocery bag with his steak to the grill, but the tall man standing there—probably Matt—is flanked by two black wolves. Zhenya will stay hungry until he can get someone to take it over for him. It’s a nice enough evening to just sit for a while. He grabs a nearly cold Bud from the cooler, and sits at an empty table at the fringes of the party.
Then, as if the universe delights in mocking him, the milling crowd parts just slightly, and there stands Crosby. He has one hand in his pocket, and the other holding the dark neck of a beer bottle. It’s just Zhenya’s luck that Crosby spots him right away and comes over.
“We keep running into each other,” Crosby exclaims.
Zhenya nods. He thinks maybe Crosby is a little tipsy. There’s a looseness to his limbs as he sits down, and he’s slightly flushed. He’s kind of shiny all over, oiled by the light of the patio lanterns.
“How have you been?”
“Fine,” Zhenya says, the way Americans do, like, as well as I can be, given the circumstances. He doesn’t mention that he’s been wondering what Crosby’s kitchen layout is like and whether he ever stoops to midnight fast food the way that Zhenya does. “How you?”
“Not so bad.” Crosby lifts his beer bottle. “Have you eaten?”
Zhenya gestures at his plastic bag. “Soon.”
“Murr can whip that up for you, if you’re tired,” Crosby offers.
“Ah,” says Zhenya, “maybe later. Dogs look hungry.”
Crosby looks over. “Beckham and Leo?” he asks. “They’re good boys. They won’t eat anything they aren’t supposed to.” He regards Zhenya for a moment, assessing. “I can take it over there for you, if you want.”
“Just watch my beer, eh?” Crosby takes the bag from Zhenya’s hand and goes.
Zhenya hasn’t been sitting alone for five seconds when someone else he knows sits down next to him.
“Kris told me you came to the restaurant when I wasn’t there,” Flower says, startling Zhenya halfway out of his seat. “He says I missed Sid being weird and awkward—which is one of my most favourite things in the world—and that you were brooding the whole time.”
He takes a moment to remember what brooding means, and then he’s offended. “I’m not brood.”
“I think you probably were. Kris is the king of brooding, so he should know.” Flower laughs at whatever expression Zhenya is giving him—something petulant and probably proving his point. Zhenya can’t help it. His face just looks like that.
“Why you here?” Zhenya asks, changing the subject.
“Matt and Sid and I are all goalie buddies,” says Flower. “We all play in the same beer league in the winters.” He brightens. “Their teams suck, of course. No one gets past me.”
“We didn’t win the playoffs last year, but that’s because my defense was too drunk to play for shit. Not my fault. I can’t control everything, much as I try.”
“You know, hockey? Ice hockey?” Flower pokes his arm.
“Yes, I’m know hockey,” Zhenya snaps.
Zhenya hadn’t realized before how irritating Flower was, but he finds himself not really minding at all. It’s keeping his spirits up and his mind off Crosby on the other side of the yard. “Thanks again for helping us out a couple weeks ago,” Flower says.
“Thanks for ice cream.”
“We didn’t win the Pittsburgh Plates playoffs, either,” he admits. “For the record, also not my fault. Sid was being a little bitch all weekend long. Scared all the customers away, I’m sure.”
Zhenya smiles, happy that Crosby isn’t good at everything. “Too bad,” he says.
“We try not to let him do competitions. He gets crazy. Kris got a better final mark than him in meat preparation class, and he wouldn’t talk to either of us for a week.”
“You go to chef school together,” Zhenya observes.
“Yep,” Flower says, “in Montréal.” He says it like Mon-ray-all. “Where did you study?”
Zhenya bares his teeth in a grin. He hates that question. “In kitchen.”
Most people thought there were only two ways to survive in Magnitogorsk—by working steel or by playing hockey—but Zhenya found a third way. It became his ticket out. He worked in all kinds of restaurants all over Europe, learning the trade through after-hours lessons, doled out over the years. Zhenya liked cooking because anyone could do it. He resented the implication that he had to pay money for a diploma that said he knew what he was doing, when he could just show people with his food.
Flower is saved from Zhenya’s building rant about culinary elitism by Crosby returning to the table.
“I should’ve asked how you wanted it, but I figured rare was okay. If you want it more done, I can slap it back on the grill.” He sets a plastic plate down in front of Zhenya, with a fork, a steak knife, and a buttered cob of corn.
“No, this fine,” Zhenya says, and tries not to be delighted with Crosby’s tiny smile. “What you have?”
Crosby sits down across from Zhenya again, “Oh, I had a couple burgers about an hour and a half ago.”
“Like, it’s healthy burger?” Crosby tilts his head in question. “Veggie, you know? No calorie?” Zhenya clarifies.
Flower bursts out laughing next to Zhenya, startling him for the second time that night. “Sid eating healthy burgers—that’s hilarious!”
“Stop it,” Crosby grumbles, and lifts his beer bottle to his lips. He darkens a shade or two.
“This guy,” Flower jerks his thumb at Crosby, “would put whipping cream in his coffee.”
“I like rich food! There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Oh, of course.”
“I’m a chef,” Crosby protests, but the corners of his mouth twitch with a suppressed grin.
“But,” Zhenya says, “your restaurant is like—”
“Weird, right?” asks Flower, a wicked glint in his eyes. “You would think that a man who likes sugars and fats so much would own a bakery, at least.”
Zhenya turns fully to Crosby. “So you’re like cakes and things?”
“It’s why his ass is so fat.”
Crosby is bright red now, clear even in the dim light. “Are you gonna eat that steak, or let it get cold?”
Zhenya slices of a piece, pops it in his mouth, and chews deliberately slow. He likes the way Crosby looks when he’s teased—half embarrassed and half delighted. He’s gone freshly shiny across his cheekbones.
Finally some of Zhenya’s staff appear. Rusty and Dumo walk in the backyard’s gate and make a beeline for Matt—or Murr—and Horny isn’t far behind them. He catches Zhenya’s eye, and reroutes from the grill to the table. “Hey boss,” he says, sitting down next to Zhenya on the bench, not quite bumping his hip, but still close enough to broadcast solidarity. “Hi, I’m Patric,” he greets, holding his hand out.
“Flower,” says the man himself, shaking Horny’s hand before Crosby does.
“Oh,” says Horny, “from Grill & Leaf, right?” He narrows his eyes at Zhenya, judgement in the set of his eyebrows. “We hanging out with these guys now?”
“Just learning their weakness so we can destroy,” Zhenya says, because the truth is so much more childish than that.
Horny nods, seeming to accept it for now, but Zhenya doubts he’ll get away with it for long. Probably Horny will tell Seryozha and then Zhenya will have an uncomfortable heart-to-heart about just what the fuck it is that he’s doing. Horny smiles sunnily at Crosby. “I’m very good with knives.”
Crosby looks caught between unsettled and amused. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, and drinks his beer.
Zhenya eats his steak so he doesn’t have to watch Crosby’s throat as he swallows.
hellooooo is this chef malkin?
Zhenya stares at his phone. It’s going to be a busy Friday, with a bachelorette party at seven and an office party at eight, and he has far too much prep to do. Enough time to deal with weird texts later. He puts his phone down next to his wallet and keys in the office.
He’s setting up the stand mixer when Olli appears beside him, in that silent, freaky way he does when he’s nervous. “Geno, can I talk to you about something?”
“If you quitting, do it after shift,” Zhenya grunts. The bowl never wants to lock into the base of the mixer, and he yanks on it with all his strength. It clicks into place, but at the expense of a halved lemon, which Zhenya elbows off the counter.
Olli picks it up. “I’m not quitting.”
“Okay, wait until eggs mixed.” He dumps the whites into the bowl and flips the stand mixed to low. The kitchen is almost louder during prep than during dinner, all the machines going at the same time, and Dumo’s playlist blasting over the restaurant speakers. Zhenya spoons fine white sugar into the eggs. Olli hands him the washed lemon half, and he carefully squeezes it into the mixture. Then he throws a towel over the mixer so it doesn't splatter the wall, and cranks it to high.
“What’s the meringue for?” Olli asks over the roar of the mixer.
Zhenya leans on it to keep it from jumping on the counter. “Little tarts,” he says. He’s figured out how to make the peaches behave with whiskey and a little extra cornstarch, so he’s going to serve the tarts at dessert. For the bachelorette party, he’s preparing peaches-and-cream jello shots to accompany. They’re cooling in the walk-in.
Meringue doesn’t take that long to set up, as long as the kitchen is dry enough. He’s made sure to do it while the ovens are running, but the dishwasher hasn’t been used yet. He checks under the towel after a few minutes, and deems it ready enough to test. He switches off the mixer, lifts the towel, and then the head of the machine. The whisk resists being pulled, clinging to the soft white fluff, and the peak it leaves behind is tall and stiff. Perfect.
“I’ve been working here for a long time,” Olli says right away, measured but shaky, like he’s reading from a script. His voice is higher than his usual deep register. “I work hard and follow instructions. I’m attentive and I always put the success of the restaurant first.”
Zhenya tugs on the bowl and it pops free, easier than it went in. “Olli, don’t give me speech. Just ask, like we friends.” He turns, and Olli is standing stiff as the meringue.
He looks down where the lemon had fallen, between his feet, then up at Zhenya. “I want a promotion.”
“Hm,” Zhenya leans his hip against the counter, “you want head waiter? Dumo is probably fight you for it, and his English better for customers.”
“No, I want to work in the kitchen,” Olli says.
“You already wash dishes after close. Don’t need dishwasher, sorry.” Zhenya is being difficult, but if Olli won’t ask, then the job isn’t for him.
And Olli, true to his nature, doesn’t sigh or whine or pout, just tightens his jaw. “I want to learn how to cook. I want to be a chef.”
There it is. “It’s hard work,” Zhenya says. “No social life.”
“I like hard work,” Olli replies. “Please, Geno.”
“Some conditions,” says Zhenya.
“You have to be here before me, do prep every day.”
“Prep every day,” Zhenya continues, “wash vegetables, slice, start soup, start salad. Stay after close, clean up and prep for next day. Open hours, you’re still waiter—that’s your job. You make waiter money, and tip. You’re not real chef here until I say. You want certificate, I can’t give. Have to go to school.”
“I can do all that.”
“Also, I’m busy. You ask other chef if they’re help you, too. Horny, Hags, Kessels.”
Olli smiles, a subtle upturn of his mouth, kind of cute if you know to recognize it. “Already done.”
Zhenya’s staff are the best—they’re a team, even without him leading them. “Okay, so tomorrow, you bring me best food you already can make. Then I decide if you can be baby chef.”
“Thanks, Geno,” Olli says, and ducks his head like he’s waiting for Zhenya to ruffle his hair.
“Stop stand around!” Zhenya barks.
Zhenya points to the sink with his free hand. “Wash lettuce.”
“But you said—”
“Triple times, go!”
Olli scoots away, a little fire lit under his ass. Good.
The peach tarts turn out well. Zhenya tops them with the meringue and toasts it with the tiny torch he received from the Gonchars last New Year’s. They go into the walk-in to chill, which will keep them from going abruptly soggy in the heat of the kitchen.
“That roast won’t be done in time,” Horny says, peering over Zhenya’s shoulder as he comes into the kitchen.
“You’re late, so I’m have to do for you,” Zhenya says, lacing up the pork which had been marinating over night.
“Nah, I told you I was going to the dentist this morning. That’s all on you.”
Zhenya swears at him cheerfully.
“You’re in a good mood,” Horny observes, dodging his ticklish side away from Zhenya’s questing fingers. “Olli asked you about the chef thing, eh?”
“I don’t decide yet.” Zhenya picks up the roast and sets it on a bed of sliced apples and fresh thyme. “Maybe he’s shit and have no talent. It’s late for him to start.”
Horny claps him on the back. “You’ll be fine. Having an apprentice is like raising a child—scary, but good. You know what to do naturally, and the rest you just make up and hope it doesn’t kill him.”
“Go cook and leave me alone,” Zhenya orders, and Horny goes to bother Hags instead.
It’s a nice night at the restaurant, despite how busy it is. The big parties tip heavily, and several compliments come back to the kitchen about Zhenya’s peach tarts. He splits the two left over among the staff—barely a bite for each of them, but they all make appreciative noises and then disperse for the night. Zhenya leaves Olli with all the remaining dishes, but kicks around for a while with him.
After tinkering with the next day’s menu for a while, Zhenya remembers his phone and goes to get it from the office. Seryozha is in there, finishing with the week’s paperwork.
“I’m going to bring Olli on as an apprentice,” he says, and Seryozha looks up, his glasses perched on the end of his nose. He looks like such an old man, and Zhenya is tempted to tell him so.
“We can’t afford that, Zhenya.”
“He agreed to the same wages.” Zhenya reaches over and plucks things from the desk. “He’s just going to learn in the kitchen in the off hours, and keep minding tables. Eventually he’ll decide he needs to go to culinary school, or that he wants to learn from a proper chef, and he’ll leave. Then we can hire another waiter at minimum wage, so we’ll save money in the long range.” He turns his phone over in his hands.
Seryozha’s face softens. “You are a proper chef. You’re the one he wants to learn from.”
“I know that,” Zhenya says. “He has his student loans to pay, anyways. I’m just pointing out that he won’t be at Chasha forever.”
Seryozha nods, considering, then changes the subject for the unfortunate worse. “Patric says you were hanging out with Sidney Crosby at that barbecue.”
“It was a professional courtesy.” He should invest in a better air conditioner for the office, because his neck is sticky-hot.
“What were you doing with him?” Seryozha asks.
“I’m not doing anything at all with him. Whatever Horny said to you, it’s not the whole story.”
“Then what is the whole story?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“I just don’t know if you can trust a man like that. He destroys restaurants without thinking about the people that work there—who rely on the business to make their living.”
What was there to fear about Crosby? He couldn’t touch Chasha unless he came with a bulldozer. It had been two and a half months, and they were doing even better than before. Sometimes Seryozha acted like he was Zhenya’s father, because he was older and had been his only anchor in America when Zhenya was twenty-four and still stupid. But Zhenya was a grown man, and his family was still in Russia, waiting in a tiny apartment for Zhenya to make enough money to bring them across the ocean. Seryozha could save his advice for the business.
“I’ll be cautious,” Zhenya promises, and leaves the office.
He unlocks his phone and checks his messages.
hellooooo is this chef malkin?
is it weird to call you that? i dont know your name
anyways its sids birthday this weekend and we are having a surprise party for him. wanna come?
sid will get so red itll be great
hes turning 30!!!!!!
theres still an opening spot to jump out of his cake naked
okay well its at that barcade that just opened. sunday at 8 but show up whenever
i checked your website and youre closed on sundays so you have to come
bring a present if you want! sid likes ocean things and hockey but dont get him any equipment or he’ll freak out in a bad way. okay see you there!!!!!!
It takes Zhenya a moment to parse out the texts, and then he types back: who is this?
The reply comes right away. it’s flower!! from G&L ;)
how you get number?
horny gave it to me, Flower replies, and then: he can come too but only if youre too chicken to come alone
i think about it, Zhenya texts back, and then shoves his phone in his pocket as deep as it will go.
On Sunday, Zhenya wakes up late and firmly decides that he is not going to Sidney Crosby’s 30th birthday party. He’s going to hang out with his cat, and then probably jerk off, as always. Maybe he’ll go see a movie at the art house that doesn’t use subtitles for their French films and he can pretend he’s still living in Nice. He could pop in for dinner at the schnitzel place that really just makes chicken strips, and then go to bed early.
By noon, he’s pulling on jeans so he can go shopping and buy a present for—fucking—
To buy a present for Sid.
Zhenya likes the mall because it’s one of the great equalizers of America. Everyone goes to the mall, old or young, rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, no matter where they’re from. Malls are the promise of America—the solution to all your problems summed up in the cha-ching of the cash register. Food was love, but shopping was salvation.
Zhenya hates malls because they are a swirling nightmare vortex of English. The fact that he was willing to suffer through it for Sid said more than Zhenya was prepared to contemplate.
What do you get for someone who you don’t know that well, but desperately want to be closer to?
He discounts most things he would’ve normally picked out for friends: expensive vodka, raunchy joke gifts, albums that he likes. Nor does he go for the safe things, like candles or gift cards. For a moment, he contemplates a hanging plant in a pop-up gardening store, but worries that maybe it isn’t Sid with the green thumb who maintains the green wall at Grill & Leaf. He spots a travel mug that says Eat Dessert First on the side, but nixes it because everyone always seemed to have a thousand travel mugs they never used. He stops in a collectibles store, but thinks that if Sid wants hockey pucks emblazoned with the Penguins logo, he probably already has them.
Eventually Zhenya finds himself in a board game store in front of a rack of playing card decks.
Often at Chasha, if the work is done but some of them feel like sticking around, or with extra desserts to finish off on a slow night, someone will break out the cards and challenge the others to any number of games. Zhenya, of course, is the best, regardless of what Phil says. He wins pocket change off them, or sometimes favours, but it’s mostly good fun. It repairs the friendship between them after a stressful day.
Zhenya pulls several decks from the shelf. He waffles between several options. What would Sid like? The classic red- or blue-backed ones seem like his style, but they don’t amount to much of a birthday present—Zhenya has seen the same ones sold at dollar stores or gas station checkouts. The slick, all-black cards he sees are beautiful, and remind Zhenya of Sid’s arms straining the sleeves of his dark t-shirts, but they’re almost impossible to read. He definitely isn't getting Sid the ones with the pin-up girls on the backs. After far too long standing there, and two different staff members asking him if he needs help finding anything, Zhenya makes his decision.
After several hours at the mall, Zhenya treats himself to an expensive coffee at a drive-thru on the way back to the apartment.
He considers not going, all through wrapping the card deck in butcher’s paper, and agonizing over what to wear. He settles on his baseball jacket with the leopard embroidered on the back, which he never finds occasion to wear, and the only sneakers he has without food stains on them.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go,” he tells Soup.
She ignores him, unimpressed, and licks her hind leg instead.
“Sid didn’t invite me, after all. We don’t really mean anything to each other.”
Soup keeps washing herself.
“Well,” Zhenya says, “if you’re going to be that terrible of a conversationalist, I think I will go.”
He can just—go to the bar, leave his gift, say hello to Sid, ‘happy birthday, congratulations’ and all, and then come back home.
“Fuck,” Zhenya mutters. He snatches his keys, and the gift, and clomps out of the apartment and into his car, cursing the whole way. He wants to go. He wants to see Sid.
He plugs the address Flower sent him into his GPS, and drives.
By the time he gets to the barcade, it’s after eight because he has to stop for gas and gets stuck in front of the hotdog display thinking about how easy it would be to just go back and watch Nailed It on Netflix all night and let Soup sit on his chest until he suffocates. Then he’s slowed down by two old ladies driving side-by-side way under the speed limit, who apparently are both deaf to his honking.
Zhenya goes into the barcade and is stopped by a bouncer who pays her nails more attention than him. “You here for the birthday party?” she asks over the din of top-40s blasting.
“Yes,” Zhenya says.
She jerks her thumb. “Okay, go on in, then.”
Zhenya nods, and slips past her.
There are a lot of people at the bar, and crowded around one of the long tables. A tell-tale glow comes from the arcade at the other end of the room.
“There you are!” Zhenya is accosted by Flower immediately. “I thought you were going to skip out for sure.”
“I’m here,” Zhenya says.
“So you are.” Flower lifts the hand he has entwined with the fingers of the beautiful woman standing next to him. “This is my gorgeous wife, Vero. I know, I know, she’s too good for me—”
“Marc-André,” she admonishes.
“But I can cook, so she stays,” he kisses the back of her hand that he’s holding. Then he points. “Over there is Kris and Catherine. Sid is around somewhere. The rest you can figure out on your own. Bye!” In a blink, Flower and Vero melt away into the crowd, and Zhenya is left alone.
He’s not about to go converse with Kris or his partner. They both look like they belong on a magazine cover, in skinny jeans and matching leather jackets. Instead he looks for Sid, skirting around the edges of the crowd until he can spot him. Sid is talking to two young men, one blonder and the other shorter. God, Sid is wearing a plain grey shirt—he really must not own anything colourful at all. Zhenya uses his height to his advantage and squeezes through.
“Hi,” he shouts above the music, and Sid turns to him. “Happy birthday.”
“Oh my god.” Sid’s face lights with mirth.
Zhenya is at a loss for something else to say so he just shrugs.
“Thanks for coming,” Sid says. He gestures his elbows at the two guys next to him. “This is Jake and Shearsy,” he shouts, “and guys this is, uh, Chef Malkin.”
Zhenya, he—okay. He shouldn’t keep letting people call him that if he wants to be friends. “Can call me Geno,” he says.
Jake and Shearsy give him chin-lift hellos, and then Jake says, “Okay, see you later, Sid.” And they both take their beers and go, with conspiratorial looks. Zhenya wonders what the fuck that’s about.
“They work with me,” Sid clarifies. “Can I call you Geno, too?”
Zhenya wants Sid to call him Zhenya, but he’s either going to butcher it or say it perfectly right, and he’s not sure which would be worse. “Yeah, can use Geno.”
Sid’s answering smile is cheesy, but thankfully Sid doesn’t make a big deal out of the whole thing. “Well, thanks for coming. I didn’t know Kris and Flower were planning all of this.”
“I brought present,” Zhenya says. He digs it from his jacket pocket and hands it to Sid.
“Can I open it?” Sid asks, but doesn’t wait for permission. “Oh, nice!” He flips the deck of cards around, examining it, as the wrapping falls onto the table.
“Thought I use lots, so maybe you can too,” Zhenya explains.
“It’s great! Purple is my favourite colour, actually.” Sid picks at the cellophane around the eggplant-coloured box, the gold embossing glinting in the dim bar lights.
“I guess,” says Zhenya. He likes the deck because it’s different, and the design is almost regal. “It’s not much.”
Sid shakes his head. “I love it.” He puts the deck in his own pocket, and asks, “You want a drink?”
“Not now,” Zhenya replies. If he drinks, it won’t be until later.
“Alright then,” Sid counters, and taps a plastic cup on the table which is full of tokens, “do you wanna play some games?”
Sid, as it turns out, sucks at video games. At first, he laughs off his losses. Zhenya decimates him at Street Fighter, which Sid takes good-naturedly with a next one, eh? They play three more rounds, and Zhenya still wins. So they switch to Daytona, but Zhenya still beats him every time because Sid is too focused on the rules of the road instead of taking advantage of shitty vintage graphics and smashing through corners.
“You’re cheating,” Sid insists as Zhenya’s blue car slides across the finish line in first place again.
Zhenya grins. He never really played games growing up, but everyone he knows in Pittsburgh did, so it’s nice to win once in a while. “Okay, we play air hockey and then you win.”
But Sid isn’t good at air hockey, either. It doesn’t matter, though, because the version they’re playing unexpectedly dumps twenty tiny pucks onto the table. Sid cackles in delight, and Zhenya is so enamored with the goofy sound of it that Sid smacks three of the small ones in without a fight. Zhenya still trounces him, but it’s closer than he’s comfortable with.
“It’s not fair,” Sid whines, and Zhenya can only smile.
“You’re just bad.”
“No, I’m good at this, I swear.” Sid scans the room for another game. They’d run out of tokens, but a server had appeared with a fresh cup-full for the birthday boy. “Bet I can beat you at basketball.”
“I’m taller,” Zhenya points out.
Sid ignores that. “If I win, you owe me a beer.”
“It’s your birthday, I buy anyway—”
“And if you win, I’ll—I don’t know. Whatever you want.”
Zhenya licks his bottom lip and forces down the dirty retort that bubbles to the surface, and the vision that comes with it. “Let’s go,” he says.
Neither of them are great at the basketball game. There’s four machines and two of Sid’s other friends keep their machines going for multiple rounds while Sid and Zhenya can’t get past the second round once the net starts moving. It’s ten points per basket, and Zhenya beats Sid 110 to 90.
“Again,” Sid says, already digging the tokens from the cup. He’s damp at his temples and in the dip between his collar bones. “I know how it works now. I’ll get it this time.”
Zhenya doesn’t like that the game bested him because he’s usually not bad at basketball. Still, he has a feeling that if he lets Sid, they’ll be practicing all night. Sid’s ignoring his other guests right now, and as good as it feels to have Sid’s attention focused on him, Zhenya feels a little selfish. “Come on, you owe me drink,” he says, and tilts his head back towards the table section of the bar.
He loses Sid for a while, and ends up making small talk with a guy named Trevor who seems to broadcast warmth. Then he laughs with a blonde-haired woman with a nice smile about the shitty playlist in the bar, both agreeing that it’s a good thing they turned it down a bit.
“Actually, I think it’s Sid’s playlist,” she comments.
“Really?” Zhenya asks, baffled. “I guess he’s not so perfect.”
“You don’t even know the half of it,” says the woman. “But everyone here would deep-fry the moon for him if he asked, so playing his garbage music is the least we can do.”
“Oh good,” Sid says, appearing with a basket of nachos, a plate with a heaping slice of chocolate cake, and two bottles tucked into the crook of his arm. “I see you’ve met my sister. Geno, this is Taylor. Taylor, Geno Malkin.”
Her eyebrows lift halfway into her hairline. “Oh, this is Chef Malkin?”
Sid stops partway through his struggle to put all his stuff onto the table. “I don’t know what Flower told you—”
“He told me everything.”
“Wow,” she turns back to Zhenya, “it’s so nice to meet you, Chef Malkin.”
“Geno is okay,” Zhenya says, lost.
“We’re all big fans,” Taylor says.
“Alright, scram.” Sid nudges Taylor off her seat. “Go get a piece of cake or something.”
“Ciao for now, Ge-no,” she sing-songs, and dances away from Sid’s attempt to push her again.
Zhenya blinks after her. “She seem nice,” he says.
“Please ignore her.” Sid pushes the food closer to Zhenya. “I brought some snacks. Sorry I got distracted.”
“It’s fine,” Zhenya replies. Sid is red in the face, but Zhenya isn’t going to mention it.
The nachos are just sub-par, but the cake is great. Sid always gets icing when he loads his fork, but Zhenya finds it’s delicious and moist even without the extra sweetness.
“You make?” Zhenya asks.
“Hm?” Sid has his fork in his mouth, but pulls it out to speak. He has a smudge of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. “Oh, no. I mean, I offered, but Kris insisted he do it because it was my birthday and I wasn’t supposed to work. I didn’t know it was because they were doing this big party thing.”
“Thirty is big year,” Zhenya offers. He thinks Sid is probably embarrassed about how many people showed up, because Zhenya felt the same way last year for his thirtieth, even though by the end of the night he was drunk and telling everyone how much he loved them.
“Yeah, I’m old now, I guess,” Sid says.
Zhenya wobbles his hand. “Yes and no. Next year it’s not so different.” He pauses and thinks of the English expression, and says, “Age is just mindset.”
Sid laughs. “If you say so.”
Zhenya leaves the rest of the cake, but keeps crunching through the nachos. “Can ask you something?” Zhenya asks after a few more bites.
“Of course,” Sid replies.
“Why you think red napkin is bad?”
Sid blinks at him, then seems to remember the details of the review Zhenya is referring to. Of all the things to criticize, Zhenya found the napkins the most ridiculous. “Oh, red napkins themselves aren’t bad.”
“You have white,” Zhenya observes.
Zhenya clicks his tongue. “Expensive.” The cleaners were good, but they weren’t miracle-workers. Every three months, you had to replace your napkin stock that was lost to stubborn red wine stains. Zhenya had seen it happen hundreds of times.
“Running a restaurant is expensive,” Sid says, which Zhenya agrees with wholeheartedly, “but customers see a clean white napkin, and they’re impressed, and reassured that they’re fresh.”
“You learn that in fancy chef school?”
Sid shakes his head. “No, that I learned when the health inspector in Dallas threw one in my face.”
“You from Dallas?” Zhenya asks.
“I’m from Nova Scotia, originally,” Sid says. “You know, up in Canada.”
That explains a lot.
“Where’d you learn to cook?” Sid asks. He scrapes chocolate frosting off his plate.
“At home, in Magnitogorsk,” Zhenya says, and starts ticking off places on his fingers so he doesn’t miss one, “then Moscow, Amsterdam, Nice, bunch of places in India, Munich, Naples, back to Moscow, then New York, and here. Pittsburgh.”
Sid looks surprised. “Wow. You must be pretty flexible then, eh?”
Zhenya shrugs. “Have to be. Maybe no beets in grocery, have to change whole menu, and some asshole still complain there’s no borscht.”
Sid gives him a sheepish grin. “Look,” he says, “I really liked eating at your restaurant, actually. It was refreshing. Like you didn’t give a shit about being a fancy restaurant, but you weren’t obsessed with going in the other direction, either.”
“Olli tell you to fuck off,” Zhenya reminds him.
“That was great!” Sid exclaims. “It was bad, don’t get me wrong, but it was also really, really great. I hope he’s still working there.”
“He’s promoted,” Zhenya says, and Sid goes absolutely pink with laughter.
Olli had brought him a baked whitefish on Saturday morning. It was utterly bland, just a pinch of lemon and salt with not even any pepper, but well-made, flaky and moist. Even Zhenya hadn’t known how to spice things as a beginner until he backpacked through India at nineteen. In Tamil Nadu, an old woman took pity on him and made him practice with her until his fingers were stained orange. She judged his work in their shared English vocabulary of yes , no , and fuck . He learned more from her in three days than he learned his entire year in Amsterdam.
“Can I come back sometime?” asks Sid, digging through the nacho basket but not finding any chips left with cheese on them. “I don’t mind if your waiter yells at me some more. I still wanna try that borscht.”
“My soup, not best,” Zhenya admits.
“Everyone says it’s the best thing on the menu. All the Yelp reviews, anyway.”
“No, my borscht, it’s fucking awesome,” Zhenya says, picking at a napkin, “but I balance flavor with colour, and lose some flavor, texture. People like hot pink soup, you know? Sour cream swirl. Nice for Instagram.”
“Sure,” Sid agrees.
Zhenya leans in. “You want best soup, it’s Mama’s borscht. Secret recipe, special order only.”
Sid looks up at Zhenya through his eyelashes, kind of. He’s very pretty. “So how do I get some?”
Zhenya swallows. “I know guy.”
“Nice, well,” Sid pulls his phone from his pocket, unlocks it, and hands it to Zhenya, “put his number in here.”
Zhenya contemplates putting his name into Sid’s contact list as ‘Chef Malkin,’ but he doesn’t really get the joke. He just types ‘Geno’ instead, with the soup bowl and Russian flag emojis. “Here,” he says, and gives the phone back.
Sid pecks at the screen for a moment, and then Zhenya’s phone buzzes in his own pocket. Then Sid sighs. “I guess I should go socialize some more.”
It’s not too late, but if Sid isn’t going to stick around with Zhenya, then he might as well go home. He’s made it a lot longer than he’d anticipated. “I’m head out.”
“Well, thanks for stopping by.” Sid stands and stretches, his shirt riding up and revealing a pale strip of his belly. “Text me, eh?”
“Maybe,” Zhenya allows.
He does check his phone once he gets home, and refills Soup’s water dish. There are two unread messages from an unfamiliar number, which must be Sid. The first is just a smiley face, and the second, half an hour later reads, I think this basketball game is rigged.
Sid is pretty good at texting Zhenya every day. It’s always either before or after restaurant hours, which is for the better, because Zhenya is too busy to be checking his phone that often. Still, he’s grinning at the screen so much that people start noticing and pestering him about it.
“Who’s that?” Hags asks as he comes in the back door of Chasha.
Zhenya shoves his phone in his pocket. “Not your business,” he snaps without any heat.
“Ohhh.” Hags’ smile becomes manic. “Is it your new boyfriend?”
“Go away,” Zhenya says, and walks past him into the office for privacy. He can hear Hags shouting to the rest of the kitchen, but ignores it as best he can. Sid had texted him at breakfast that morning with Keep going to this donut shop before work every day and it’s making me fat, to which Zhenya had asked for a picture. He spent the walk to the restaurant worrying that it sounded like he had asked Sid to send evidence of just how fat he was getting.
He wouldn’t mind if Sid sent that kind of picture.
Instead, Sid sent him a perfectly innocent shot of a half-eaten donut with freckled red icing. It’s raspberry-mint and vegan, Sid says.
raspberry is fruit, Zhenya sends back, you not get fat.
Sid replies after a minute: You don’t know how many I’ve had. It’s a real problem ha ha. Zhenya, happily, would give Sid artisan donuts until his sweet-tooth heart was satisfied. It also looks like a really good pastry.
They don’t just text about food—although it’s the bulk of their conversations. Sid seems to text about anything that comes to mind. He doesn’t care whether or not Zhenya has anything to say on the subject. One morning Zhenya wakes up to Sid asking him what he thinks about the trade, and Zhenya has to Google what the fuck he’s talking about, which turns out to be a Penguins acquisition of a European player made in the middle of the night. Sid asks if he’s watched some World War II documentary and if Zhenya agrees that it’s a lackluster representation of Canadian involvement. Zhenya learns to reply with unrelated emojis, which often makes Sid change the subject back to food.
This goes on for a full week before Sid figures out that it’s a pain in the ass for Zhenya to text in English.
sometimes better to call, Zhenya admits, and then within moments his screen is lighting up with a call from Sid.
“Oh my God,” Sid says, voice crackling over the line. “I’m so sorry, Geno. I should’ve known better.”
“It’s okay. I’m not mind.” As much as Zhenya misses Sid’s pictures, it’s so much easier to talk after that. It’s pleasant to hear Sid’s voice, which is especially nice when he’s laughing at his own dumb jokes or telling stories about growing up in Nova Scotia.
Zhenya listens with one earbud in while he helps Olli with knife skills. “My dad was a goalie, so I wanted to be a goalie, you know?” Sid explains. There’s the soft sound of metal scraping metal on the other end—a whisk in a bowl, maybe, Sid’s latest whipped omelette recipe in the process. “He warned me that it would be too hard, but I didn’t listen. So when I didn’t get drafted, I didn’t want to go to college and try to make it to the show through that. I wanted something different, and universal. Everyone has to eat.”
“Food is love,” Zhenya agrees.
“Food is magic,” counters Sid. “Anyway, I think there’s a lot I would have missed out on if I ended up in the NHL.”
Sid is open and considerate about everything, and Zhenya doesn’t mind sharing things about himself in a way that he hasn’t before. It brightens his day to the point where nothing seems to bother him as much as it used to.
Zhenya also jerks off a lot more than usual.
A mid-August heat wave sweeps through the city, causing the temperature in Zhenya’s upper-floor apartment to skyrocket. The air-conditioning unit is shitty and a drain on the utilities, so Zhenya almost spends more time sweating than sleeping. The only remedy that he can find to help him pass out despite the warmth is to masturbate.
After a few days, he’s fantasized something new and worn it thin and comfortable with use. He thinks of Sid with him in the kitchen at Chasha after hours. Sid distracts him from folding pelmeni, and bends him forward over his work, rutting into him hard enough that the counter’s metal edge bites into the crease of his hips. The Sid in this fantasy is relentless, and won’t touch Zhenya’s cock. Instead, he hooks his fingers into Zhenya’s mouth. He tastes like sugar and salt.
The fantasy is short, replayed in a loop until fantasy-Sid finally asks him, “What are you waiting for?” and Zhenya comes with a jolt.
He tries not to think about it when he’s on the phone with Sid because he definitely doesn’t have the time for mid-day boners.
“So when can I see you again?” Sid asks, and it’s lucky that Zhenya is so experienced in the kitchen and doesn’t cut his fingers right off.
Zhenya fumbles for the microphone on the wire of his earbuds. “What?”
“I feel like it’s been forever,” Sid murmurs in his ear.
“Been, uh,” Zhenya calculates, “two weeks.”
“You keep talking about food and it makes me so hungry,” Sid says.
Zhenya blinks down at the cubed potatoes in front of him. “You’re always talk about food.”
Sid sighs, and it sends a shiver down Zhenya’s spine. “I think you owe me dinner or something. Don’t you?”
“Okay,” Zhenya agrees, too easily. He doesn’t think he owes Sid any favours—but maybe he’s wrong.
“So I can come over?”
“Yes, sure. After work?”
Sid hums in the affirmative. “What time are you done?”
“Ten-thirty,” Zhenya offers. He can probably leave all the clean-up to Olli at this point. And Olli can enlist his fellow waiters’ help if he really needs it.
“Alright, see you then.”
Zhenya stands there for long after Sid has hung up that Phil comes and pokes him in the side so he can get into the drawer for the spare mandoline to make lemon slices. Zhenya squeaks and moves aside, and the look that Phil gives him is incredulous, and Zhenya has to excuse himself to calm down. It’s not a date, Zhenya reasons, and then has to get through the rest of the day trying to keep it from his thoughts.
At ten, Zhenya fills a paper bag with take-out: steak bites, their house pickles, a soft pretzel, some pink beet slaw, and the leftover blackberry cream puffs.
“We have beers?” Zhenya asks Amanda as she’s headed out.
“You know we don’t, Geno, come on,” she half-laughs. “There’s a couple of those tiny Freixenet bottles at the back of the bar cooler, if you want. But you said to save them for special occasions.”
“See you tomorrow, boss,” Amanda says, and lets the door swing closed behind her.
Zhenya goes to dig around in the bar, and he’s shoulder-deep in the shelves when there’s a knock on the glass of the front entrance. Sid stands out there in his black shirt but without his apron. He has a liquor store bag in his hand, and he salutes a wave with the other.
“Hey,” Sid says as Zhenya opens the door for him. The hot night air wafts in with his voice, and Sid steps just a bit closer. “You ready to go?”
“Almost. You drive?”
“Yeah,” says Sid.
“Park behind restaurant, in alley. We walk.”
“To your place?”
Zhenya nods. “Three minutes, then we go.”
It ends up being closer to ten minutes. Zhenya explains to Olli how to lock up when he’s done, and then he spends too long in the little mirror by the empty staff coat rack trying to make something nice out of his hair. When he leaves out the back, Sid is leaning against a silver Camry and staring up at the dark sky. He turns his head when he hears the hinge of the door creaking.
“Hope it’s alright that I brought some drinks,” he says, and then, “Lead on.”
Zhenya likes Sid more than he should—he more-than-likes him. Sid might just want to hang out tonight. He could have no further intentions than taking advantage of Zhenya’s hospitality and free leftovers. Zhenya doesn’t mind. He’ll take what he can get; Sid has charmed him too much to say no.
“Here’s home,” Zhenya says, after they’ve walked the distance back to the apartment and up the stairs. He unlocks the door, and shuffles inside. He dumps his paper bag on the kitchen counter, but returns back to the hallway when Sid doesn’t follow him.
“Uh. What’s that?” Sid’s voice comes out of the near dark, by the door.
Zhenya looks around, confused, but then Soup brushes by his ankles. “It’s cat,” Zhenya replies.
“I don’t always, uh,” there’s an uncertain tremor in Sid’s voice. “Could you just—”
Zhenya flicks on the light. Of all the ridiculous things, to be afraid of a cat.
“Oh,” says Sid, blinking in the sudden glare. “It’s a grey cat.”
“She’s blue,” Zhenya defends her.
Sid toes off his shoes in the entryway, and kicks them aside. “I don’t do well with black cats.”
Zhenya rolls his eyes. “Why’s colour matter?”
“It’s a superstition.”
Sid chuckles. “I never said it wasn’t.”
“Her name is Soup,” Zhenya says, and Sid walks forward, crouches down, and attempts to pet her. It’s obvious she doesn’t trust Sid yet, but she lets herself be touched for a solid two and a half seconds before sauntering away. “She found me.”
Sid straightens up. “She’s pretty,” Sid says. Zhenya’s chest feels a little puffed with pride. “I’m gonna break into that food you brought while it’s still warm.”
He opens the bag, and rifles around. After a moment he pulls out his prize: one of the cream puffs.
“Nice,” Sid comments, “dessert for dinner.”
“I have other things,” Zhenya says. “Salad.”
“No,” Sid says and shoves the pastry into his mouth, whole. Zhenya watches, stunned, and then Sid moans, loud and unabashed. “Holy fuck,” he mumbles around his mouthful, eyes closed. He breathes heavily through his nose and sighs as he chews. Then he wipes his powder-sugar fingerprints onto his t-shirt. Zhenya doesn’t know where to look.
“Blackberry and basil.” Zhenya’s voice comes out all blurry. He feels hot all over. He clears his throat.
“You know,” Sid says, and then chews some more. “That first night? I had that cherry thing you made and I thought,” he swallows, “Jesus, that guy back there can bake.”
Zhenya doesn’t have a good response. He just likes to cook.
“Tell me if I’m reading this wrong,” Sid says. He steps forward, cups Zhenya’s face in his hands, and kisses him, slow and deep. His tongue tastes like berries and cream.
“You do right,” Zhenya says as they both pull away.
“Oh yeah?” Sid slides his hands down onto Zhenya’s shoulders. “Lemme try again.”
They kiss, just standing in the doorway of the kitchen, Zhenya leaning into the jamb when Sid presses him back. He chases the traces of sugar from Sid’s mouth, and then keeps going, cataloging all the stifled noises that Sid makes. Sid’s lips are as soft as they look, but his teeth are sharp when they nip Zhenya.
Zhenya’s hands fall to Sid’s waist, and Sid falls into his body just a little more. They take a deep breath at the same time. Sid shifts against him, then curses and grips Zhenya’s shoulders tighter. He can feel Sid, getting hard in his pants, pressed against Zhenya’s thigh. And Sid bites off a whine as Zhenya slips his hands up Sid’s shirt and squeezes the softness he finds there.
“Okay,” Sid says as he breaks away. “My legs are fucking tired. Can we get more comfortable?”
Zhenya nods, brushing his nose against Sid’s temple as Sid starts grinding against him, a slow filthy circle. “Bed,” Zhenya says, and then when Sid doesn’t move: “Sid, let’s—please.”
“Yeah,” Sid sighs. He lets go enough that Zhenya can stumble to the bedroom.
He quickly kicks yesterday’s clothes under the bed and shoos Soup out of the room. There’s a garland of Christmas lights that Zhenya hung around his window for decoration, and after a moment’s thought, he plugs them in so they cast a blueish glow around the room.
“This isn’t too fast, is it?” Sid asks. “I don’t really want to stop.” Zhenya turns around and he’s already got his shirt off and is working on his pants.
“No,” says Zhenya, “fine with me.”
Sid is thick all over—baker’s arms and a love of desserts evident in his thighs and hips and stomach. He’s soft, and Zhenya hasn’t given the concept enough attention until now. Zhenya’s double bed is a little small for both of them, but they’ll make it work. Sid can lie down on top of him and stay there forever, or else Zhenya will crush Sid into the mattress and make him come over, and over.
“Geno,” Sid laughs, because Zhenya is staring, “take your clothes off already.”
Zhenya obeys, stripping down until they’re both equally bare. “Good?”
“God, yeah,” Sid says, and pushes him towards the bed. Zhenya lets himself be led easily, sitting down on the edge of the mattress with a thud. Sid swings his legs up and straddles Zhenya’s hips, and continues what they were doing in the kitchen. He kisses with unshakable focus—the same quality he applies to everything he does—and it isn’t long before Zhenya has to move his mouth to Sid’s jaw and neck out of concern that he’s about to explode.
Sid moans, working his cock against Zhenya’s stomach as he sits in the cradle of his thighs. “Geno,” he sighs, and the nickname has never sounded so good, “please.”
“Please what?” Zhenya asks with his lips on Sid’s throat. He stops Sid’s grinding with his hand and jerks his fat, rosy cock instead.
“Let me fuck your thighs,” Sid says and threads his fingers into Zhenya’s hair, yanking like he wants attention even though Zhenya is already giving him everything. “Can I?”
Zhenya groans and tightens his fist around Sid’s cock. “Can do anything,” he says.
“I need some lube, then.”
Zhenya takes his free hand off the edge of the bed and palms Sid’s ass. He wonders if Sid would let Zhenya eat him out—if Sid would sit on his face and ride out his pleasure on Zhenya’s tongue. He’d moan so sweetly. Would Sid be able to fuck him after that, or would he come and make Zhenya wait for it?
He lets go of Sid and pushes him aside, onto the bed, and then slides onto the floor himself.
“What are you doing?” Sid asks, sounding bleary and confused. Zhenya ignores his question and ducks his head to mouth at Sid’s cock. He holds it at the base and then sinks his mouth down, sliding his tongue against the underside. “Fuck,” Sid whimpers. He wraps his warm hand around the back of Zhenya’s neck, and selfishly twitches his hips, forcing his cock just that extra bit more into Zhenya’s mouth. It takes him right up to his limit, the crown of Sid’s dick rubbing along the back of his tongue.
It’s so good, so fast. Zhenya touches Sid’s thigh, urging him faster. Sid’s a lot stronger than Zhenya might have guessed; he just does what he wants.
When he does pull out, Zhenya is spluttering and coughing. He wipes his wet chin and uses it to pump his own cock, suddenly insistent between his legs.
“You’re amazing.” Sid brushes a thumb over Zhenya’s cheekbone, and so Zhenya licks Sid’s balls and then takes his cock down again. He wants to get wrecked on Sid.
Sid doesn’t fuck his face again, but he does hitch his fingers under Zhenya’s jaw and guides him how he wants for a while. Zhenya keeps his tongue soft and lets Sid use him. He zones out a bit on the feeling of it until Sid pulls away. His hand, still on his own dick, slows but doesn’t stop.
“It’s not fair,” Sid says.
“What is?” Zhenya gasps like he’s been running, voice craggy.
“You’re good at everything, even sucking my dick.”
Zhenya rests his cheek against Sid’s wide thigh and considers. “I like,” he settles on, “so it’s easy.”
Sid’s laughter is oven-warm, and a touch exasperated. “Well get up here so I can make you feel like this, too.”
“Knees broken,” Zhenya admits, and they probably are. He should’ve thrown a pillow down on the floor first.
“You just have to lie here and be pretty, c’mon.” Sid reaches down and hooks his hands under Zhenya’s armpits and pulls. It works well enough that Zhenya can get his feet under himself again, but as he stands he loses his balance as his knees lock, and he tumbles down on top of Sid, who lets out an “oof!” as they collide.
“What I say?”
Sid rolls him over until Zhenya is on his stomach. “I’ll get the lube then, since you’re busy.”
“Hurry,” Zhenya grumbles.
In a moment, Sid locates the little bottle and there’s the tell-tale sound of the cap snapping open. Zhenya spreads his thighs a little. If Sid wants to put his cock there, Zhenya is amenable.
Sid is exceedingly gentle as he rubs the lube between Zhenya’s legs. He massages and trails his fingers over the sensitive skin, which should be gross because that’s not what the lubricant is for, but instead it just feels kind of comforting. And hot. Sid rubs Zhenya’s inner thighs up higher, until Sid’s stroking over his balls. Zhenya whines and buries his face in the sheets.
“No, Geno, don’t. I want to hear you,” Sid says and then his lips are on the dip of Zhenya’s back.
Zhenya groans, but turns his head just enough that he doesn’t suffocate. His bedroom is stiflingly hot. Sid drizzles more lube onto Zhenya, and that at least is somewhat cool. Zhenya is pretty much on fire, but it’s a slow burn.
“Put your legs together.” When Zhenya does, Sid blankets his body over Zhenya’s back, lines up his cock and pushes it between Zhenya’s legs. “Little tighter,” Sid says, and then sighs as Zhenya complies.
It feels kind of weird, the plump bulge pressing into the muscle. Zhenya’s done plenty, but no one has ever asked him to do this. He likes being pinned down, and he feels overwhelmed with the scent and heat and weight of Sid, but still more empty than he’s used to in this position. Sid shifts, though, and then his cock is pressed up under Zhenya’s balls. Sid thrusts shallowly and rubs along the base of his shaft. Zhenya gasps.
“Yeah?” Sid asks, and repeats the motion.
“More,” Zhenya replies, keening as Sid does exactly that.
Sid slides his hands beneath Zhenya’s chest, finding his nipples and twisting them gently. Pleasure zings down Zhenya’s spine. “How’s that?”
“Just fucking—” Zhenya starts, but Sid thrusts between his thighs again, and that’s all the words he makes for a while.
Zhenya is dripping sweat and Sid keeps breathing hotly against the back of his neck, rutting steadily. It takes him what feels like an eternity to come. Zhenya is slowly dying, shocked over and over again by Sid’s fingers or his cock sliding against Zhenya’s groin, but none of it enough to push him over the edge. When Sid does come, it’s messy and more than Zhenya can really handle, coating his thighs and his balls and the sheets.
Sid doesn’t move for a while. His chest heaves against Zhenya’s back, and Zhenya tries not to squirm. Then he does roll off, and laughs. “God,” he says, “your thighs are perfect.”
There’s no time for compliments. “Sid,” Zhenya whines. He’s still dying.
“Right,” Sid agrees, and thankfully pushes Zhenya onto his side. Then he curls up so his face is level with Zhenya’s dick, and he swallows it down in one smooth movement. Zhenya shouts and tries to twist away, oversensitive, but Sid holds him until he comes, embarrassingly quickly.
Zhenya gapes like a fish as Sid lets his soft cock go. He thinks he’ll never get up again, but nor does he really want to.
“I’m hungry,” Sid says after a while. He sounds pretty normal, but when Zhenya lifts his head enough to look, his face is practically glowing.
“You crazy,” Zhenya counters.
“A good fuck makes me hungry.”
“You don’t even fuck—”
“Hey.” Sid scoots back up the bed. “All in due time.”
It’s fine. Sid’s cock inside him is more than Zhenya could handle right now. “Can’t eat in bed, though,” Zhenya says.
They end up on the shitty couch with the Chasha take-out bag between them and two beer bottles dripping condensation into rings in the coffee table. Soup reappears, and Zhenya has to keep pushing her away from the food. Zhenya’s put a fresh pair of boxers on, but Sid hasn’t bothered and sits next to him naked. Sid moans every time he puts something in his mouth, and Zhenya can’t help the little thrill of delight in his chest every single time.
“I really like you, Geno,” Sid admits, which might have more gravity if it wasn’t followed by Sid licking sugar from his fingers.
Zhenya smiles, catches Sid’s hand, and sucks the last finger into his mouth, tasting sweetness, but then a hint of salt. “Me too.”
Sid looks toward the window and sighs. “I should go home, but I don’t want to.”
“So don’t.” Zhenya shrugs.
“It might not work. This—thing. Us. I mean,” says Sid, fiddling with the blanket on the back of the couch, “you could decide I’m not what you want. Or we’ll just be too busy and drift apart.”
Zhenya loves every weird and wonderful and beautiful thing he’s learned about Sid since the beginning. Even when he was just the Borscht Guy, he was charming. Each bit of Sid is endearing, even the things that annoy the shit out of Zhenya. He still wants to know more. He won’t ever grow tired of it. “Maybe,” he allows, “but it’s worth trying.”
“I think you’re right,” Sid says. He tilts his head, then, and leans in again for another sweet kiss.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 21st, 2017
Mama Malkin’s Famous Borscht
By Sidney Crosby
It’s perhaps unfair that the last thing I review for this newspaper is something that is not available to the general public.
In reviewing the new and hopeful restaurants of Pittsburgh, I have endeavored to go in as a regular customer. This ensures that I am treated the way the same way that readers would be. Today’s review is the only exception, and I flexed my own special status to bring Gazette readers this exclusive review.
Mama Malkin’s borscht comes shipped from a little steel town in Russia called Magnitogorsk, a place with few options for a young person looking to make a name for themself. Remnants of the Soviet era cling to the houses and roads like a persistent rust. There, in a tiny apartment, lives a couple who have been together through both of their children growing up and moving far, far away. In this apartment is a special kitchen that defies the smoky gloom of the town.
The recent American tradition of the Social Media Age is to prize presentation over flavor, but this is a soup which has traveled a great distance and—despite being frozen and thawed—defies expectations. It is a soup that doesn’t invoke Instagramability, or glossy magazine spreads. It seeks only to remind you of that kitchen in a cramped Magnitogorsk apartment, and the history that swells there. Pretension doesn’t plague this dish, and therefore what remains is the flavor that no professional chef can hope to replicate: home.
I am sorry to report that you can’t find Mama Malkin or her borscht in Pittsburgh, but you’re welcome to search for her youngest prodigy, who chefs at the restaurant with the neon bowl flickering over the door, and who dared to give this reviewer a second chance at a first impression.
Thank you, readers, for supporting this column for so many years. As always, bon appetit.