Guest Author: Chris Bohjalian

The Guest RoomDear readers,

I am delighted to offer you this gift – a short story by one of my favorite writers, Chris Bohjalian.

From the publisher:

As Chris Bohjalian writes in his preface to the following short story, “I often feel a postpartum sadness when I finish a novel—I know how much I’m going to miss the characters and I’m not quite ready to say a final farewell.” 

And so he wrote Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There so that he could spend more time with Alexandra, the young woman at the center of his forthcoming novel,The Guest Room.  Bohjalian’s first novel in nearly two years, The Guest Room is a page-turner for certain, but also emotionally rich, often shocking, and beautifully crafted.

Spend some time with Alexandra. Look over her shoulder as she stares wistfully into the windows at Tiffany’s. Feel free to share her story with your friends and followers. It’s our hope that you’ll be inspired to follow her into The Guest Room.

 

From the author:

I often feel a postpartum sadness when I finish a novel—I know how much I’m going to miss the
characters and I’m not quite ready to say a final farewell.

That was the case with The Guest Room. And so this month I wrote a short story about
Alexandra, the young woman at the center of the novel—at the center of the bachelor party that will
forever change the lives of suburbanites Kristin and Richard Chapman, and their nine-year-old
daughter, Melissa.

And while The Guest Room is a literary thriller about human trafficking and that one moment
you wish more than anything you could take back, this short story is a little softer. It’s set in
Manhattan in the days before The Guest Room begins. It’s called “Nothing Very Bad Could
Happen to You There.”

Writing “Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There” was a little gift to myself and so I am
sharing it with all of you to thank you for your faith in my work. Yes, it stands alone as a short
story. But perhaps you can view it as a prologue to the novel, as well.

Regardless, however, I hope you enjoy it—and meeting Alexandra.

Have a happy holiday season. May somehow our world find peace in 2016. — C.B.

 

Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There
By Chris Bohjalian

The young woman stared at the jewelry behind the glass window, a great waterfall of
diamond necklaces above a basin of ruby bangles and black and white pearls. She pressed
the side of her hand against her forehead like a visor against the midday sun. It was only her
third day here, and she was finding the new city—the new country—a little overwhelming.
The fellow beside her, a Russian at least twice her age who’d been in America at least as long
as she’d been alive, glanced once and shrugged.

“You’ll see better,” he said.

“Is it real?” she asked him.

“At Tiffany’s? Yes. All real. No fake here.”

She guessed this was possible in a place like Manhattan. Neither Moscow nor
Yerevan had stores with jewelry displays this ostentatious. They certainly didn’t have any
street as crowded as this section of Fifth Avenue. The building itself reminded her of the
stone monoliths—great imposing blocks of tufa stone—that once housed important
communist officials (and history) in Yerevan.

“Come on,” Kirill said, and he placed his hand on her elbow and started guiding her
through the crowd and into the lobby of the skyscraper just south of the store, a building she
had been told had both offices and apartments. “Next guy’s waiting upstairs. His name is
Sergei.” When they were inside, she pulled a compact from her clutch and checked her
makeup. It was fine. She almost couldn’t believe how much money Kirill had told her the
fellow upstairs was going to give her when they were through.

When she emerged from the apartment an hour later, she saw Kirill waiting for her at the
end of the twenty-seventh-floor corridor in almost the exact same spot where she had left
him. He was leaning against a wall near the elevator bank, thumbing through—she
presumed—either soccer scores or porn on his phone. They’d told her that if she behaved,
in a year they might allow her to have a phone of her own. She hadn’t had one since she was
fourteen, and that was almost six years ago now. If she had a phone with a camera, she
imagined taking a picture of Central Park from the living room. The apartment’s view had
felt a bit like the vista from an airplane.

Now she handed Kirill the money and he guided her into the elevator.

“We take the subway back, yes?” she asked.

He shook his head. “You shower?”

“Of course.”

“Then you do one more. I just got text. They say he want Alexandra. You know the
guy.”

She nodded. As he pocketed the bills, all hundreds and fifties, she wondered whether
it was enough for anything at the jewelry store downstairs. It had to be. It was just so much
money.

The next morning she awoke to the sound of sirens outside the small window in her small
bedroom. It was almost lunchtime, the sunlight casting a lemon haze in the room. She was
just sitting up when one of the other girls who had been brought here from Russia with her
came in and peered out onto the street. Sonja was wearing only the ratty T-shirt in which she
slept. She had worked last night through a bladder infection, and Alexandra was shocked
that she was so spry.

“Fire trucks,” Sonja said. “They’re at building down the block.”

“Is there any smoke?”

“No smoke.”

“Any police guys?”

Sonja left the window and sat down on the edge of the bed. “No.”

Alexandra rolled onto her side, relieved. They had told her what the police did to
girls like her when they were caught. There was a special prison called the Rikers Island. “I
saw the most beautiful jewelry store yesterday,” she said to Sonja. “Tiffany’s.”

“I saw catalog once. Everything was blue.”

“I saw it for real. It was on the Fifth Avenue.”

“You dragged Kirill into a jewelry store? How? My God, he must have been dying.”

“We didn’t go in. We just looked in the windows.”

The room had a narrow bed and a child’s pink dresser one of the girls had found
behind a rack of old clothes at a consignment store. Sonja pushed herself off the mattress
and picked up one of Alexandra’s necklaces. It was all costume jewelry. She held up the fake
pearls by one end like a worm. Alexandra almost never wore them. “Do you think men really
care if it’s pearl or paste? Did the black and whites?”

The black and whites were the men back in Russia who almost always wore black
suits and white shirts. They never wore neckties. They always had stubble—so much stubble
that sometimes Catherine or Inga, the women who ran the top-track girls such as Alexandra
or Sonja, would talk to them about not abrading the young girls’ skin. They seemed to
Alexandra to be rich, and sometimes they were old enough to be her grandfather, which
really didn’t mean they were all that old; Alexandra was a teenager then. She hadn’t yet
turned twenty. The black and whites were Russian and Georgian and Ukrainian. Very
international, it seemed to Alexandra. Many worked in “spirits.” Brandy and cognac and
vodka. None of them had any interest in her or in any of the girls as anything more than a
sex toy.

“It’s different here,” she reminded Sonja. “As Catherine said: Americans are more
sophisticated. They expect us to be arm candy. They expect us to watch more TV than just
Bachelor.”

Sonja looked a little feverish to Alexandra, but she pushed her bottle-blond hair back
behind her ears and raised a single eyebrow. “Arm candy? I think the last thing they think of
is arms.”

“You know what I mean.”

“So now you want jewelry? A sugar papa giving you real jewelry? Kirill and Catherine
would never let you keep it.”

“No. I just thought it was pretty. But I do want something nice.”

“In another life maybe you get something nice. In this one? Now you just get
dressed.”

“Have you taken your pill?”

“The antibiotic? Yes.” She smiled a little mordantly. “I am always happy to take
pills.”

The town house where the girls were kept was near Tompkins Square Park in the East
Village. They only left the town house with one of their handlers, and they knew their
handlers—even Catherine—always carried a gun.

And so it was in her second week in the city, on a day when it was raining and she
did not have to work until the evening, that Alexandra asked Catherine if she would take her
to Tiffany’s.

“What for?” asked Catherine. The woman was peculiarly ageless. Sometimes
Alexandra thought she was thirty-five, only fifteen years older than she was. Other times, she
speculated that Catherine might be flirting with fifty but simply knew makeup and face care
well from her own years as a high-end courtesan.

“I want to go inside. I want to see the jewelry.”

“Not today.”

“Maybe someday?”

“Maybe.”

She could tell that Catherine thought she was up to something. But she wasn’t. Why
would she try and escape here and now? The deal was two years in the city and she’d be free.
And she knew no one. She had no passport, no credit cards, no phone. All she had was these
older women and men who fed her, provided her with makeup and clothes, and pimped her
out.

“Can I ask you again in a week maybe?”

“Ask me again in a month.”

But only a week later she was back on the twenty-seventh floor of the residential and office
complex on Fifth Avenue on the same block as Tiffany’s. She was again with Sergei, the
Russian businessman she had met the day she had first peered curiously into the windows of
the jewelry store. Again it was lunchtime. When they were done and he had rolled off of her,
she climbed on top of his stomach and pressed her hands on his chest and looked down at
him. He was nearing sixty, but he was one of those Russian bears who still had the thick gray
hair of a commissar on his head and a barrel for a chest. The mattress gave a little beneath
her knees.

“Can I ask you something?” she began. She had won him over and clearly he liked
her, but she couldn’t risk his saying something negative to Kirill or Catherine. It had been a
long time since she had been disciplined, but a girl never forgot the ways they could punish
you without ever leaving a bruise on your skin or damaging the merchandise. (The worst for
her had always been the times they would hold her head beneath the water in the bathtub.

There was even a word for this, she would learn: noyade. It meant execution by drowning and
was first practiced during the French Revolution.)

“You can ask me anything,” Sergei said, and folded his hands behind his head. They
were speaking in Russian.

“I have never seen a wristwatch as handsome as yours. I love the phases of the
moon and the stopwatch. I love the diamonds around the edge.”

“It’s called a chronograph.” He hadn’t bothered to take it off. She could see the
leather strap and buckle on his wrist.

“Is it from America?”

“It’s from Switzerland. But I bought it here. Why? I can’t believe there is a man in
your life you want to buy a watch for. I can’t imagine Kirill allows for such things.”
She leaned into him. “No. You are the man in my life,” she said, which they both
knew was a lie, but it was the sort of thing she said playfully all the time.

“Then why?”

“Could you find such a watch at Tiffany’s?”

“Probably.”

“It reminds me of my father’s,” she said, which was another lie. This one, however,
she expected him to believe. “Yours is nicer—much nicer. My father died when I was a little
girl, but my mother kept his watch. Then, after she died, my grandmother kept it.”

“How old were you when your mother died?”

“Fourteen.”

She sensed he was about to ask another question reflexively, but stopped himself. He
must have realized that no good could come from knowing the answer to how and when she
started doing . . . this. But the idea that he almost had was a good sign, she decided. It meant
that she had judged this Russian bear correctly. Somewhere inside Sergei was a streak of
tenderness.

“So, do you want my watch? Is that what this is about? I promise you, it cost a lot
more than you, Little Girl.”

She laid her head on his chest. “Maybe I just want to go with you when you go
shopping for your next one. Maybe together we go to Tiffany’s.”

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her almost tenderly. “It will be years
before I buy a new one. Years. But I will keep in mind that you want to be my consultant.”
Then he slid out from beneath her and went to the bathroom to clean up.

The girls were expected to read newspapers and fashion magazines, and Alexandra had
begun to rip from them the color ads for Tiffany’s. She was especially attracted to the ones
where young women and men in love were starting their lives together with engagement
rings or—in one case—picking out their china. Sonja told her that of all the things there
were to become obsessed with in New York City, it was a little crazy to become fixated on a
jewelry store.

“Have you seen the building?” Alexandra asked her. “Have you seen the windows?”

“No.”

And so that afternoon, before going to work, Alexandra convinced Catherine to
show Sonja a picture of Tiffany’s on her phone.

And then that night, when Kirill brought her to a man at the Plaza Hotel, she asked
the fellow if they could stroll outside past the fountain and the hansom cabs and enjoy the
night air for a moment. He refused. She had only wanted to glimpse the regal building with
its great cascades of emeralds and rubies in its windows—Would they still be there after
dark, or did they hide them away at night?—and it fascinated her that she was so close and
yet couldn’t see it. It was one more thing in a universe of one more things that she could
approach but never quite reach.

In the morning, Kirill threw open her door, allowing the way it slammed into the wall to
wake her up. He ripped the sheet off her and grabbed a great rope of her dark hair and
pulled her head back so fast and so far that she felt the muscles in her neck stretch and it
was impossible to swallow. With his other hand he pressed the tip of a long knife near what
she knew—because he had taught her—was the jugular.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he whispered into her ear.

“Nothing, Kirill, nothing. I promise,” she wheezed.

“You escape, where do you think you go?”

“I’m not. I won’t.”

“You can have it all in two years if you don’t screw it up. Don’t you embarrass me.
Don’t you embarrass Catherine.”

“What have I done?” She felt him press the blade of the knife into her skin. He
sliced ever so slightly—the keen pain of a shaving cut, but worse—drawing blood. Then he
let go of her hair and pushed her back down onto the mattress.

“Sergei called for you,” he said. “But he didn’t want you at his apartment for lunch.
He wanted you to meet him at that jewelry store.”

“He wants me to help him pick out a watch. That’s all.” She was crying and she
wanted nothing more than to press a tissue on her neck. She could feel the blood trickle
down her collarbone. She saw the first drops on the bed.

“No. We told him you’re sick. We made it clear he can’t have that.”

“But you said you want us to be real courtesans here. You said—”

“Enough!”

She went quiet.

“Enough,” he repeated, his voice more controlled. “We have girls who never see
light of day. We have girls who never leave their room and do ten, twenty men a day. You
want to be one of them?”

She shook her head.

“Yes, someday you will be ready to be real courtesan. Not yet. Now? Now you are a
stupid girl from a stupid country and you know nothing. Nothing. I don’t know what game
you think you’re playing, but it stops now. We clear?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.” She started to reach for her neck, but Kirill slapped at her hand so
hard that she banged it into the wooden bed frame and feared for a moment that one of
these men had once again broken one of her fingers.

That night Catherine dressed her in a beaded choker to cover the long, thin scab that had
formed at the front of her throat. No man would bother to unclasp it or ask her to take it
off; it actually looked pretty hot, Sonja had reassured her.

She noticed over the next four days that a lower caliber of man was brought to her
or she was taken only to clients in the garment district—men who worked far from the
jewelry store. She was, for the moment, forbidden from reading Bazaar and Vanity Fair and
Elle. One time when she returned with Kirill, she found that all the pictures she had ripped
from magazines were gone from her small room.

Catherine pulled her aside and told her that on the following Friday, she and Sonja were
going to be taken to a party in Westchester. It was a bachelor party, and it was going to be at
a rather elegant home. There would be a lot of wealthy men, and they would all be
American. She told Alexandra she should view this as an important test.

Beforehand, however, Catherine told her that Sergei had asked for her again, and this
time there should be no funny business: she shouldn’t hint about wanting his watch or
visiting that jewelry store. She promised she wouldn’t. She was going to be escorted to his
apartment that Thursday at lunch and spend the afternoon with him. For reasons Catherine
didn’t know, he had paid for three hours, and so Alexandra should expect there would be
other men there, too.

When she arrived, she was relieved to find that Sergei was alone. He greeted her in a white
terrycloth bathrobe. She expected him to immediately undress her, despite the amount of
time they had together. Instead, however, he led her by the hand to the couch in his living
room. For a moment she knelt on it so she could look behind her and down at the trees, still
rich with foliage, in Central Park. Then she turned around and he was seated on an ottoman,
facing her with the remote for his television in his hand. The screen was massive, and she
assumed he wanted to watch an adult film as foreplay. (She always felt a little insulted when
men did that. Was she not enough? But she had never complained, and she certainly wasn’t
about to today.)

“I leave for Moscow tomorrow and I won’t be back until after the holidays,” he told
her. He sounded grave.

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything is as fine as it can be. This country is trying to suffocate ours with
economic sanctions, but we’ll weather the storm.” She was pleased he was viewing her as
something of a confidante. This boded well. “It’s just . . . business.”

“I’ll miss you,” she said.

He smiled. “How’s your English? Good, right?”

“I think so.”

“You eaten?”

She shook her head.

“Perfect.” He stood and went to his kitchen. He returned with a silver tray with a
coffee service and pastries, and placed it on the coffee table.

“I think I got you into trouble the other day,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“No, not at all. Why would you think that?”

He smiled a little mordantly. “I am old. Not senile.” He poured her a cup of coffee
and without asking put two sugar cubes in it. Then he handed her the cup and the saucer.
“You like movies, yes?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Today we watch one. Sit back.”

She did. She was going to be nothing if not obedient right now.

He pressed “play” and she heard strings and a piano and she thought a harmonica.
She watched an old yellow cab coast to a stop before a building—and there it was, the
jewelry store, the one twenty-seven stories below them and on the same block. And then a
young woman emerged from the cab in a black evening dress with a Styrofoam cup of coffee
and a Danish, and she went right up to one of those exquisite windows of jewelry. She was
all alone. The girl wasn’t her, obviously, but suddenly Alexandra felt a lump in her throat.
This could be her. Someday.

“Is that courtesan?” she asked, unable to hide the quaver in her voice. She
understood that even if the girl at the jewelry-store window was a courtesan, this wasn’t an
adult film.
He shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“Does she get inside?”

“Not right away.”

She thought about that: Not right away. But that also meant that eventually she did.
She would. Someday.

“She’s Audrey Hepburn,” he said. “Pretty girl. But you are prettier.”

She was about to ask something more, but he raised his hand, palm flat, to silence
her.

“No more questions,” Sergei said. He was smiling. “Sit back. Today? Today your
only job is be movie critic.”

Chris Bohjalian’s “The Guest Room” arrives wherever books are sold on January 5, 2016. You can order it here.

Copyright © 2016 by Chris Bohjalian.

2 Responses to Guest Author: Chris Bohjalian

  1. Laurie C says:

    Thank you to the author and you!

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