I was sitting with Toya doing grammar exercises, just minding my own business at my desk at the Writer’s Union, when an opera singer comes in to speak with the manager who shared my office. The manager had left. Actually, when Chilaajav was just now in Taiwan for the poetry festival there, the manager watched TV and didn’t wear his usual suit and left early and came late. What does he do? Asks Toya quietly when he leaves early for the day. I don’t know, I say honestly. Makes a poem, maybe, suggests Toya, and we laugh. She has been on a kick lately of bringing cake or beet and mayonnaise salads to our lessons. Friday she texted me to come to lesson with two forks.
Mr. Opera, whose name turns out to be Batsukh, is immediately curious about me and ends up serenading me in Mongolian, Spanish, Russian, and Italian. He translates operas, which is why he’s in the union. He invites us to the opera. One is that night and the pianist and singer are from Italy. It’s the first chamber music concert ever in Mongolia. She wears a deep blue spindle-sparkled dress like night sky and her voice is a cloud we float along on, night-day-dream.
Afterward Batsukh points to the sky where the moon is waxing next to the slanted blue mirror-walled bank festooned with lights that it the landmark I direct cab drivers to toward home. 11th moon, he says. His jacket is covered in what we call the Russian word for snow and it’s my fault—its lint, and I cant for the life of me find a lint remover or even satisfactory tape to remove it and he hung our coats together at coat check. We eat in a hole in the wall. Goulash. My Mongolian just got to the point where I can string together whole sentences around twenty minutes ago. He knows Russian. We patch together conversation between the two languages and hand language. His wedding ring has coral inset. His daughter lives in Korea and his son works in Tokyo. He asks me how old I am and he puts his hand down like Demetri the forester did in Russia when I said nineteen. Maaaalanki! They both say. Little! He tears up though the food isn’t spicy. Is there onion in your food, I ask. No. Why is he sad? Then he says something about how when he eats he tears up if the food isn’t of good quality. I might have misunderstood. I thought the goulash hit the spot.
The next day we go to a very Mongolian opera—the National Opera, in fact. It’s the first opera I have seen wherein a yurt is part of the stage scenery. And there are quintessentially Mongolian things that happen like when the lovers do not kiss but inhale each other deeply, as Mongolians still do instead of a kiss on the cheek.
Let’s go to the second floor, Batsukh suggests during intermission. I think maybe I misunderstood again. The balcony maybe? The second row? We had tickets for the front rows but he said middle was better for sound…no, he means backstage and up to the second floor. On the way there we pass women dressed for the show in amazing headdresses that look like upside down bull horns. They’re the first Mongolian women to openly glare at me. Together with the headpieces they look like poisonous snakes with their hoods out about to strike. The guys are much more fun. We enter an old soviet dressing room. A couple of posters make it more cheery and there’s a piano. It’s packed with Mongolian men in traditional costume, doing scales between their acts. They all have on dels and hats or kerchiefs and black eyeliner and red smudged lips. The guy in front of the mirror is polishing his makeup case. They sit and talk to me and to tease me speak really fast in Mongolian, pausing to sing scales.
The only lecherous attention I’ve gotten, actually, is from guys my age after dark and in the black market. The older guys, the ones at the Writer’s Union, just smoke and drink vodka and quiz me on Mongolian words and feed me and smell my hair and tell me not to go anywhere after dark by myself.