Project Wife

In which one American, armed with a visa, a score card, no small measure of hope, and thirty names plucked from the internet, seeks true happiness.

THIS HAPPENS IN RUSSIA to a man I know named Spencer, who travels there to find a wife. He meets Elvira. He meets Tamara. He meets Alla and Eva and Ksenia and Irina and Ekatarina Lebedeva, who chose these words to describe herself: faithful, kind, bright, and honest. He meets Marina and he meets Galina and he meets many, many Natashas. He meets twenty-three-year-old Olga Dionisieva, with chestnut hair and periwinkle eyes and a smile that reads as forced, crimped by anxiety or boredom or collapsing desire … it’s awfully hard to tell.

He meets Nadia. He meets Valavia and Julia. Through a simple scheduling error he manages to meet Maria Chergsheva at the same moment he meets another woman, and Maria’s voice turns dark and her eyes glitter and as the scene becomes farce he pleads a foreigner’s confusion and calls for forgiveness, just a mistake, they can meet again of course, maybe a drink, anything she likes. He meets Anna and Victoria and he meets Tatiana, just beginning her eighteenth year, still coltish, who folded her schoolgirl frame into a wooden seat aboard a local train for nine numbing hours, all the way from Moscow Station, coming to see the American.

In thirty days he meets thirty women and more, a perfumed column of hope and abrupt reality. Some days he meets four or five young Russian women; on other days, understandably, he rests. He keeps a neatly lettered log: name, age, height, weight, and language proficiency. He gives grades.

There’s 1+, 1, 1-, 2+, and so on, he says. The number is my derivative of all the factors. It’s an indication of how badly I want to meet her, or see her again. This system is a little inexact. You know, it really would help if I had their measurements.

He is thirty-eight years old, five feet nine inches, 150 pounds, and he speaks to the women in a high, flat timbre and with an exacting deliberateness, so that they may understand. He owns two manufacturing plants, windowless boxes on the edges of industrial centers, nothing special unfolding within, just business. He holds an M.B.A. He lives on a willow-lined park in Denver. He flies planes, and climbs rocks, and in the winters he skis. He loves Italy. A four-inch gash crosses the bridge of his nose and runs into the valley of his narrow-lipped mouth, the fading shadow of an instrument panel from a Cessna prop plane he ditched hard in a field outside Calgary ten days earlier. It might have been mechanical failure. He has a reputation for unwise decisions. He is partial to peril and broad humor, has thinning hair and an eager, wanting face. He has an evolving circle of friends. He’s lonely. He hasn’t had a serious girlfriend in quite some time.

He says, I’m not suggesting that every American woman is screwed up, but the last five relationships I’ve had, these women had psychological issues that were … I don’t know. I’ve tried to find an attractive girl who doesn’t have issues. Women are just more complex in America. And I got … I got tired of it.

One day he took a phone call from a climbing buddy, a man named Thor. You’ve got to see this, Thor said, describing an online site he’d found, studded with exotic and willing loveliness. This is the thing. It must be, how could it not?

In the weeks after, he cataloged a dozen more such collections, the tip of an iceberg of basic human need a thousand sites deep, each with hundreds of posed women, their selves compressed into hard dimensionality, into statistics and poorly translated clichés, a drift net of hobbies, interests, dislikes, the awkward threads of personality tightly knotted and cast out upon the world, where they might settle on one of the more than five thousand men who each year fly from America, bound for Russia, a pair of return tickets in hand.

And yet, he wondered, was this who he was, was this really the thing? He’d been seeing a woman — or trying to see her, at least, a twenty-six-year-old venture capitalist who lived in a town at the base of red sandstone cliffs. Good climbing. But to manage a date with her was an ordeal. Every few weeks there would be dinner or a film, just the two of them and her cell phone, and the evenings always expired in the same quiet way, her work or lack of interest pulling her from the door, stranding him at the threshold of something possible. It was exhausting, this constant modulation of tone, the weekly plotting of relative position. Then, one night, he felt some things align.

He says, I know we’re getting close to having sex. She lit some candles, and I’m in her bed. She gets out of the bath and gets into this leopard negligee thing. I start to make some moves. And I get no reaction. No encouragement, no passion, nothing. Nothing. So I just roll over and go to sleep. And that was it. That was it. That was the last straw.

He says, I pretty much went right from there to here.

***

Tatiana

He sees them for the first time at the Fortuna Marriage Agency, in a windowless sitting room angled off the main office. He likes to be late, so that they are kept waiting. It sets a tone. The host has arranged cups of tea and soft drinks on the table, and cruelly inedible candies, but the women never touch a thing. They sit erect with their fingers intertwined, their coats buttoned, their eyes on the door. Who knows what might walk through? Fall is coming and already it’s cold. What they know of him is a spare line drawing sketched by a voice over the phone: that he is polite, that he is a businessman, that he is serious about marriage and the possibility of family. And he would like to meet them. The agencies rarely know anything more. Ludmilla Andreeva, the agent assigned to him at Fortuna, has never asked. He’s a bit unusual, though, that’s for certain, a little younger than the norm, no gray hair, sort of handsome, without the heaviness or blankness she sometimes sees in the men — not that she’ll turn these types away … after all, it takes many kinds, and there might be a girl out there who wants such a man. It’s not for Ludmilla to say. One other thing that strikes her: He doesn’t have a beard. Funny, but they all seem to have beards. Is that an American thing?

He comes into the room smiling. I’m Spencer, he says. He takes the chair beside them, leaning in to show his interest in them as individuals, as something more than snapshots seen online. He read this in a book.

So what is your job, he asks.

Do you have brothers and sisters, he asks.

Do you have hobbies, he asks.

He awaits some electrical current of connection, some rationale to extend the interview and propel it out into the world, onto the beautiful crumbling St. Petersburg avenues, to a cafe or a bench along the tidal Neva River, where the circumstances of their meeting can be ignored and the byplay might assume a more natural rhythm, as if they had merely chanced across each other on a warmer day. Not all of the women choose to go. Sometimes he chooses not to ask. Ten or fifteen minutes later there is a handshake, and the woman out the door and him back to his notebook log, scratching in a final grade.

After three weeks his score card yields four finalists, a winnowed quartet of women he thinks have potential as a wife: Tatiana, Alla, Anna, and Elvira.

He keeps returning to the books, though, fat with photos, some three thousand women grouped by age, eighteen to twenty-one, twenty-one to twenty-five, and so on: He thinks of it as wife-shopping. He has a timetable. He has a goal. He knows what he likes. He wants a woman who is between five-one and five-six, between 106 and 114 pounds. He wants a woman between eighteen and twenty-one years old, but recently, as a concession, he moved up one range. He says, I like to be open-minded. I don’t want to overlook anyone. You never know.

Flipping through the binders, he says, Did I meet her? This one I didn’t want to. I can’t believe she’s twenty-four, she looks a little old. She’s never available, the ones that are really, really good-looking are hard to meet, I think they’re ringers. I met her. Met her. We had two dates, she’s very nice, but no spark. This is one I met the other day. I liked her, we went out to dinner. Alexandra, number 3589. She supposedly knew some French, but she was hard to understand. Olga, number 3294. There are too many Olgas. She’s cute, though, a lawyer and an accountant. I’d be remiss not to have the opportunity to spend an hour with her. He says, What do you think?

On occasion he meets the women away from Fortuna’s offices. The agency doesn’t object, everyone’s an adult. Pay the $25 for the introduction and consign the rest to fate — to, as Ludmilla says, the many emotions of the heart. He meets eighteen-year-old Tatiana Horohorin near the Russian Museum. Studying her snapshot he’d said, I like how young she looks, she’s still got puppy fat in her face. Tatiana arrives straight from the Moscow train, a shiny young thing swaddled in a large black coat, cheeks pinked from the chill, ready for the high school game. I’m Spencer, he says, approaching her. Do you have hobbies?

She is a student. She has a twin sister. She is clever and oddly funny and when she laughs she tucks her chin into the dark folds of her coat and the sound escapes from the sleeves. She went to Fortuna almost a year ago with a girlfriend, as a lark, lying about her age. She hoped to meet Americans to practice her English. Because she lives in Moscow now, she has accepted few dates, but school just let out, and she hasn’t been to St. Petersburg in a while, so she thought … Why not? She says to call her Tanya. Her eyes are quite beautiful, as is her smile, both features tilted slightly up, making everything merry. He told her that he was thirty-five years old. She thinks he seems nice. They look like father and daughter. Her father, putting her on the train, said, You be careful, now, you never know.

She says later, I’m not thinking about marriage. It is not my priority. To my mind love is the most important thing, and if I meet a Russian man and fall in love I will marry him. Of course, I love my country, it is my motherland, I’m proud of it. But I think Russia is not the best place to live right now, and we only have one life, and we have to use it. She says her girlfriend met an American through Fortuna, and they are to marry in the spring. She suspects he treats her badly, is abusive, perhaps physically so.

He takes her to his rented apartment, four unheated rooms above a central courtyard off Nevsky Prospect, $700 for the month, heavy locks on the dented steel door. He uses the kitchen stove to warm the flat, and asks visitors to wear slippers to protect the floor, as the landlord requires. He might have taken a hotel room for the month, but he doesn’t want the women to get the wrong idea. He says, I don’t want them to see me as a billfold.

He produces pictures of his fine house, his foreign car, the snow-dusted mountains and bright blue air of his Colorado home, gorgeous possibility captured in every snapshot, an implicit chit to play. They talk. She plays something on the piano. She curls into the corner of the sofa, coat still on, her bare feet snuggled beneath. She didn’t like the slippers.

Later, they go to dinner, then to a nightclub whose neon lights illuminate the gold-leafed onions of a neighboring chapel, the Church of the Resurrection. He says, She ordered a margarita and I knew she was on a mission. Then I got her more shots of tequila, and then we did body shots. She was getting pretty passionate. I don’t think she’s a little too young, but maybe she is. He says, Do you think she should be on the list? He says, I think she’s on the list.

***

Anna

He knows how things work. He has seen the websites of the other agencies, knows he might have initiated a correspondence with a woman or two, put down in words the things that are important to him, sent soundings into the uncharted depths. He might have used one of the agencies that holds socials for visiting Americans, swirling cotillions of craving, a hundred women and twenty men, a frenzy of connubiality and dead-end couplings. In the end, though, he settled on Fortuna because … well, it was closest to his flat.

He meant to find out some things, like the specifics of the K-1 Fiancée Visa, and the details of the I-134 and I-864 Affidavits of Support, which describe how he must produce tax returns proving an income 125 percent of the current United States Poverty Guideline. He knows enough, though, knows that his income will never be an issue and that he can grease a ninety-day fiancée visa easily, can spirit his intended home, settle in, test-drive the domesticity. He knows that after three months he’ll need to marry her, but isn’t that the point? A blushing bride. And in two years she’ll be a citizen, an equal, and everything will be rosy.

He’s heard a few stories, and he doesn’t want to hear more. He doesn’t want to hear of the women who, once in America, continue the game, leaving their photos on the sites and collecting names, collecting options. He’d rather not hear about the women who take a single love letter, preciously translated and photocopied, and scatter it to a hundred men in a direct mailing of woo, the names penciled in as required. He doesn’t like to hear about the woman who arranged for her Russian boyfriend to come to America, or the one who did the same for her girlfriend, or the one who, after two years, had her husband killed. He doesn’t want to know of stateside changes in attitude, of sweet young wives who suddenly begin to refer to their beloved as Grandpa.

No, he’d prefer not to listen to stories of misdirected love, of sudden abandonment, of shopping sprees and bankruptcies and mistaken notions of wealth, of women who, coming from a country with no tradition of credit, can’t parse the reality of mortgages, installments, interest. He says, I know my heart, I know what is real. He has an engineer’s mind, a lover’s soul. He knows he can make it work. He says, I can tell about people. I’ll know. He says, I’m doing the romance that leads to marriage. He says, I’d like a bride by Christmas.

One afternoon he has a meeting that goes badly. He says, She’s the toughest cookie I’ve met so far. She was just, boom, boom, boom, sorry, gotta go.

She is blonde and angular, a law student, already with a cool litigator’s gaze. She has been on fifteen of these dates in the last year. Her name is Tatiana Alexandrova. She says, They feel that they are special, these Americans. They think that all Russians are poor and they can do what they want. But after a while these meetings are just boring. The men, they are not old, but they are not young. They act superior. They may have money, but they don’t have something else, they lack something .… She has a word in mind, but can’t manage the translation. She flips the pages of a Russian-to-English dictionary, finds the word, holds it aloft: dignity.

He returns to Fortuna every morning, searching the books for the hundredth time, panning for gold. You never know. He asks Ludmilla if there are new entries. Ludmilla is growing confused. She says, To my mind it is quite enough to stop, to make a decision, but he keeps looking.

One day he says, Now, she’s a new one. She’s got a cute little body. He asks Ludmilla for details. She says, Anna Menovschikova, studies ballet, seeks faithful, kind, loyal person for a future husband, an optimist, loving, and not greedy. He says, Okay, that’s me.

He meets her in a coffee shop set below the crowded sidewalk, morning commuters shuffling to positions that hold little interest and less pay. She orders a juice. She peels off her layered sweater. She smiles. She is twenty-four years old, chesty and slim, auburn hair, wearing slacks that sit low on her hips, which she swings this way and that as she strides, lengthening her frame, throwing a little steam into the curves. She works in the theater. She dances. She has two dogs and an orange cat.

He says, I don’t like people who are too closed-minded. I like to try new things. I like to learn, to try new situations. Maybe that’s a reason I like foreign women, because there’s so much to learn.

Afterward, he says, She’s got a spark, she’s moving toward number one.

***

Alla

He frequents a club, Hollywood Nights, a comic stew of Americana and disjunct celebrity, posters of Nicholson and Travolta, an industrial fog machine, low tables in the corner filled with mafiya. He passes through a metal detector to gain entrance, pays a hundred rubles, finds a seat.

He likes it that Russian women dance freely with one another. He likes it that he can approach such women. He says, As soon as they hear you speaking English, they’re happy to see you. They make you feel welcome. He likes to spot the prostitutes, and also the women who he believes are sincere. When he dances he keeps his elbows tight to his sides, his hands out, head back, feet moving at an unusual and unmatched tempo. Sometimes he snaps his fingers. He works at having fun.

One evening he meets Alla Komleva, a lithe shadow in a sleek black dress, button eyes in a heart-shaped face. He asks her to dance, and then to sit. His conversation is loud, rolling with slow assuredness, and neighboring tables turn at the sound of his voice. Russian men glide by, taking him in, but he doesn’t notice, doesn’t care. He tells her about himself, leaving out the central fact of his journey. He’s just a businessman, traveling. He gets her number, promises to call.

His apartment is on a canal several shadowy blocks from the club. Most nights prostitutes approach, wraiths in the predawn, and say, Sorry, sir, you take me? — the apology and offer fused into something solid and sharp. He should be more cautious, he knows. His pockets have been picked, the police have shaken him down. He carries a guidebook with him always, the Lonely Planet.

He calls Alla a few days later, arranges a date. In the daylight she is transformed, quiet and shy, seventeen years old, with daisies woven into her sweater. She carries a chittering blueberry-colored pager, gossipy messages from girlfriends who sign off, I kiss you, I kiss you, I kiss you. She goes to school. She lives at home. She’s learning to speak Spanish. When she was thirteen she appeared on a television game show. She says people recognize her still.

He likes her, likes her personality and slender body, and believes her to be a possibility. He says, Think I should marry her? She is number one on his list. He still hasn’t told her why he is here. He says, I don’t think it will be a problem for her or her parents, when they see that I’m serious about this. He takes her for a long walk one yellow afternoon, through the Napoleon Gates, alongside the peeling Winter Palace, past the soot-streaked statue of Peter the Great on his massive, rearing mount. He’s thinking about explaining everything, it’s time. She wants to tell him something first, though, something funny. She says her boyfriend — did she not mention him? — has been accepted to engineering school in America, and she might come over to be with him. She says, Here’s the good part, the school is in … Denver!

Isn’t that funny?

***

Elvira

She is the first. He met her before he found Fortuna, at an agency called Club Solly. She’s in the books at a number of places, Elvira Khisamova, also known as Ela. She came close once, with a man from Phoenix, their lives planned, only to have things dissolve at the last moment. She’s frustrated. She’s getting anxious. She’s twenty-six years old and lightens her hair one degree from blonde, has a cautious face, tentative eyes. She liked him very much upon their meeting, likes him fine now. Occasionally she asks him for money. Occasionally they argue.

As the weeks have passed she has moved up and down his rankings, depending on … just depending. She knows he’s meeting other women, she hears him on the phone. He says, Poor Elvira, it’s tough on her, I’m putting her through the ringer. He admires her spunk. She’s the only one he has slept with. He thinks that he could marry her. He’d like to decide.

She’s late for an appointment one morning, shows up tousled and flushed. She overslept, she’d been having a sexy dream from which she did not want to emerge. About him? She laughs and says, Be serious.

On a whim they take a week in Cyprus. He shows her how to parasail, how to dive. He says, In general she is easygoing and has lower expectations than high-end American girls. He worries that she might be an opportunist. He stops seeing her for several days. He says, I was giving her a little cold shoulder, to test if she’s serious. He says, Maybe I should call Anna one more time, or go see Tanya. You never know. He says, Here’s an analogy. Say I’m camping, and the first campsite I see looks perfect. It’s by a river and it’s quiet, it has a view of the mountains, it gets the morning sun. It’s perfect. But I’m the kind of guy who has to go check out every other site first, just to be sure. Then I know that the first one is perfect.

His visa is expiring, he has obligations. He’s running out of time. He wants to spend a few more days with Ela, settle in, see how it feels, see her as his wife. He says, I’m pretty sure about her, I am. He feels a little lost, at sea. He thought it would happen more quickly, happen with a click, like light blooming into a room. He thinks, Maybe things fall into place after you choose, maybe the confidence comes with the decision itself, maybe then I will know.

He says, I like Elvira a lot. She’s what I’ve been looking for. I should just do it. He says, Yeah, I feel fine about the process, yeah, heck yeah. He says, I think I’ll marry her. I could marry her.

He says, What do you think?

. . .

Originally published in Men’s Journal.