I’ve chosen to copy the title of Neal’s infamous blog post of a few years ago since I’m sure that this is even more scandalous. Since the people who usually read the stuff on here are interested in Georgia and the life of a foreigner in this weird and wonderful land, I’d like to give you a story that’s extraordinary even for this country, and will also explain my six-month silence. Pay attention, reader, because this beats all.
I have recorded on these pages and elsewhere how I came to live in Tbilisi, a succession of events that began in 2007, descriptions of which are to be found on earlier posts here. If I do say so myself, it’s an unlikely tale, and one that I didn’t think that could get any more unusual, but as the saying goes, you never know what’s around the corner (Christ, they’ll be putting that on my gravestone).
But to those readers who can’t be bothered to trawl through my ramblings (because X Factor will probably be on soon and your coffee might get cold), I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version; I came here seven years ago when my mother was contracted to work for the government, I met a girl called Nino, came back for her three years later, she dumped me, and I ended up with a different girl called Natia (and now I can’t help but feel I’d have saved myself some time if I’d written it like that two years ago, but ne’ermind).
Natia and I started our relationship at the beginning of 2011, but even from the get-go we had problems, most of which were in the bedroom. I was always rather lucky at home with the opposite sex; not, you understand, that I’m claiming to be any kind of Casanova in style or Errol Flynn in looks, and I’d be willing to bet I’ve had a lot more ego-destroying disappointments than you have, as a result of my own pig-headedness, a stroke of bad luck, or some other folly. But I did markedly better than most, which I personally put down to a combination of luck, looking older than I truly am, living on an island where the behavior of the young women would shock the working girls of Amsterdam, and two career paths that attract women like flies. Firstly, when I was 14 I was playing in a lot of bands, and young women take to musicians like Finnish sailors to Schnapps, and I was greatly helped by lying about my age and claiming to be 16; which, due to whatever malefactor that has aged me before my time, was entirely believable. And then, when I truly did reach 16, I enlisted in the Army, and all the world knows that women love a man in uniform (and I wonder why that particular piece of folklore hasn’t inspired fresh theories as to how the Nazis came to power).
Anyway, the point is, I was used to a hedonistic life of promiscuity, but the truth is I’m the sort of chap who likes the quiet life. Unlike my best friend Rob, I couldn’t go nightclubbing and pick someone up; I’m a wildly unscientific dancer whose moves provoke ridicule rather than arouse any interest, and so my own successes came from the most unusual places imaginable…but if my life has taught me anything so far, it’s that unusual seems to be my line. Airports, train stations, pubs, gyms…this was where I nurtured my romantic endeavours, because I was born to be a talker (and for a man of my methods, you simply can’t tell self-deprecating anecdotes in a club, since your ears will be bleeding from all the dreadful noise). But the point is, I have no interest in night life. Oh, I can drink with the best of them (or I try, anyway, but my mother’s liver is made of titanium and I inherited a smattering of her genes) and love to do so, but always somewhere where I can converse, talk and listen, although more often than not I simply can’t be bothered to leave the house (as anyone who has read George MacDonald Fraser will understand, there are simply better things to do, either reading one of the great man’s works or playing two backed beastie with a female friend).
So I didn’t mind settling down with Natia for a quiet life, especially after that whirlwind experience of noise, hilarity, danger and comradeship born of freezing cold nights and unimaginable discomfort that the public know as military service; besides which, she was a sweet, loving, caring and friendly soul who was a pleasure to live with, not only because she tolerated me and cooked food which would have done credit to a restaurant. Natia had had a hard life, full of bad experiences that you or I can’t really imagine, and so to do things for her that she’d never had before, like giving her a place of her own to live in, taking her to restaurants and showing her the foods of the Orient or even taking her on holiday and getting her to stay in a hotel for the first time…well, it made me feel good, and in a lifetime of evil, wrongdoing and mistakes, I felt very satisfied when she told me I had changed her life completely, and all for the better. But we were not without flies in the ointment.
First, there was the age problem. She was 28, I was 19, and to make matters worse she believed I was 24, since she was acquainted with my ex-girlfriend Nino; in 2007, as an ignorant youth of 16, I had told Nino I was 21, thinking we would have a brief one-night stand and that would be that. However, since I had resumed things with Nino in 2010 and then started a relationship with Natia after Nino dumped me, I didn’t see that I had a choice but to keep the ball of dishonestly rolling. In the event, though, when I finally told Natia the truth, she thought it was one of the funniest things she’d ever heard and said it didn’t matter a damn…but in the back of my mind there was always the worry that if we stayed together (as Natia said we would do, because this is Georgia), the issue of age would raise its ugly head again sooner or later.
Secondly there was Natia’s family, which is unique in Georgia, I believe, for being so small; she had lived with her mother and her half-brother all of her life, her mother’s various partners parting company with her for one reason or another, and their extended family is itself small and rather distant. Natia came to stay with me on my first night back in Georgia and then stayed for another three days after, and we decided that we did not want her to return home to sleep on the sofa in her family’s apartment. Her mother knew where she was and didn’t mind; she was glad, if anything, for as you may well be aware, a woman of 28 years in Georgia who isn’t married is as good as finished in the minds of the society here. The real obstacle was her brother Giorgi. Natia said that if she was going to live with me, we would need to tell him the truth.
Even back then when I was totally ignorant of Georgia and its interesting and wonderfully contradictory society, I knew that Giorgi would most likely be a problem, especially after Natia told me more of his character. He was, she said, a very serious and typically miserable individual, given to bouts of aggressive shouting and who held very traditional Georgian beliefs (which most Westerners would describe as sexist). Though he was younger than her at 23, she said he was aged before his time (I shifted uncomfortably at these words, though she didn’t notice) and apparently always acted like her older brother, telling her what to do and enjoying being the ‘man of the house’, despite the property being owned by their mother. She told me that it was she, Natia, on her salary of 500 Lari per month who had bought the washing machine, fridge and the computer that he dominated the use of whenever he was home, to say nothing of paying the bills; his own salary of 1500 Lari was spent on his computer games, his friends and God knows what else. One word summed him up: bastard.
Giorgi is also a big believer in the spirit of the fighting Georgian man, the male who has masculinity bursting from his very person, the living persona of those Georgians who routed the Turks at the Battle of Didgori or gave the Russians hell before incorporated into the Soviet Union; the kind of man who was once famous for being the most gifted and talented lovers across all over the USSR, whose desirability as husbands was matched only by their willingness to fight their enemies with an aggression typical to Highland races.
The fighting Georgian man is real. He exists. I’ve met him when I’ve talked to Georgian soldiers, and I’ve felt his power in the boxing ring (God, haven’t I just?), and take it from me, he hits like a hammer. He won’t give up if you knock him down and he has blood coming from his mouth and nose and he can’t see so well because the skin above his eye is swelling; he’ll keep coming at you, and he’ll keep hitting you…and while I’ve never served with Georgian soldiers, I’m pretty sure that the Americans, French, Dutch or Danish are no better (I exclude the British and Germans here, sorry. I’m biased, I know, but our militaries are, quite frankly, something else).
…yet not every Georgian man is the warrior he might like to think of himself as. Go down to a boxing gym or rugby club here, or better yet to a military barracks, and you’ll see the real fighting Georgian man, dressed in his rugby uniform or his boxing shorts or his combat fatigues. But you will not see him in the body of a skinny or fat young man with a cigarette in his mouth and a plastic glass of beer in his hand squatting on a street corner with his friends, endlessly muttering bicho.
I mentioned all that for a few reasons. Firstly, because Georgians are never really over-awed with my military service and boxing endeavours; not that they should be, of course, and I feel like the most arrogant swine for even mentioning it, but telling people what I’ve done with my life does produce a different reaction in other countries. In Europe or America, for example, having served in the armed forces (and the fighting infantry, at that) and indulging in a sport wherein the objective of the game is to batter your opponent to a fine red paste does tend to produce a certain reaction, as they nod their head slowly and decide never to get on the wrong side of you; in Georgia, it’s different. They are not impressed. At first I thought that it was because they could just see into my soul better than other nationalities, and they somehow knew that despite my military service and years spent in the ring I still feel about as hard as a jam doughnut, but even now I’m not sure what it is. For a while I thought it was simply because they assumed they could do those things too if they felt like it, and then I had a theory that perhaps they just didn’t want to show what they really felt, because it’s shameful to be impressed by foreigners. Certainly the lack of respect shown to foreign soldiers stems from the fact that Georgia still has conscription, but the man who looks you in the eye and says he has been a soldier because he served for three weeks or part-time for one year really can’t see the difference between you and him. He doesn’t know (and couldn’t see even if he did) that there is a vast difference between the professional soldiers of Britain, whose Army and regiments are centuries old with victories littered all over the planet, and a conscript who has only rudimentary training. In his eyes, he was a soldier too, you see. (Although, in all fairness, that’s still better than having been a civilian all of his life.)
Don’t misunderstand me, I am simply not one of those chaps who likes to go around saying ‘Oh, you’re a waiter? How lovely, I learned how to kill and beat the living daylights out of people, so don’t damn well argue with me, d’ye hear?’; the kind of men who do that aren’t men at all. But I always did wonder why they never seemed to feel the same way I did when I met people who’d had those kind of careers. I remember being awed to the point of speechlessness when meeting soldiers, and my imagination would run riot when I met boxers or martial artists as I pondered how badly a fight with them would go for me and all the ways I would end up being rearranged. It might also have something to do with the fact that Georgians don’t really seem to respect anyone (this isn’t always true, of course, since Georgian soldiers have a high opinion of my former colleagues in the British Army, but then, these Georgians know what they’re talking about), but do demand a lot of respect from everyone else without really giving any in turn. A bit like the British, I suspect.
Anyway, I was nervous when Natia and I went to her family home to tell her brother the truth, especially as we had to wait for him to come back from work. I wasn’t afraid of him; had he been Georgia’s cage-fighting champion or a sergeant in their army I probably would have been, but I did not want to cause any family drama just because I wanted Natia to live with me, although from what she’d said about him I was sure he’d swing a punch sooner or later.
He came home, and his suspicious eyes fell on me as I smiled my greeting, and I can’t recall any other time in my life when two people have so wantonly disliked each other from the first meeting. Natia explained our situation to him, and it was quite a study. He looked me over a few times, never really meeting my gaze, only speaking to ask a question to his sister here and there. Natia’s leg was shaking from the nerves, and I wondered if a sudden explosion was imminent. Eventually he stood up and walked out of the room into the kitchen, and I was half-expecting him to return with a knife and made myself ready for a nasty fight as my own legs turned to jelly.
In the event, he came back with two bottles of beer, one for him and another for me. He wasn’t friendly, and I could tell he wasn’t exactly bursting with happiness at the glad news; if anything his reluctant toast to me and Natia looked more like a concession of defeat than any kind of congratulatory gesture (or maybe that’s just me looking back with hindsight). At any rate, that was that.
He visited our home from time to time, and was cordial but never friendly, even with his sister (although Natia said she could never recall having got on with him so well before, which gave me quite a strong idea as to what their relationship had been like before. But he didn’t shout at her or try to tell her what to do, which was welcome, and probably all because she didn’t live with him anymore). Once or twice I felt his eyes on me, but whenever I went to meet his gaze he would look away or busy himself with his phone, and I still don’t really know what to think of that. Occasionally I would take him and his sister out for meals and receive no thanks (which is simply not Georgian: as a people they are given to being polite); he was always miserable, bitter and morose, and I wouldn’t blame him for that if he hadn’t had chances that many Georgians dream of. He’d made about 2000 Lari a month for three years in a row, but would complain that he never had any money (because he spent it all instead of saving it) and that he still lived with his mother (despite the fact that he made more than enough money to move out and be on his own). He looked for all the world like a child who breaks all his toys and then complains about having nothing to play with. Anyway, we preferred not to visit Natia’s family apartment, instead inviting her mother to our own home and were grateful that Giorgi’s visits to us were very infrequent.
Anyway, back then that was all by the way. For the most part, Natia and I were happy living together, we got on very well and we both enjoyed a degree of freedom we’d never really known before. Which leads me back to the problem of the bedroom, and why I mentioned all those other things about my youthful dalliances a few paragraphs earlier.
I, like you (I hope), like sex to be passionate, interesting and, occasionally, quirky. In this liberal day and age we can discuss our sexuality with perfect strangers on the Internet and nothing is thought of it, and while I won’t go into too much detail, suffice it to say that the missionary pose of the capital act and nothing else is really not my idea of a good time. I’d had my first taste of Georgian sexual conservatism with Nino, and it came back with a vengeance with Natia, but I couldn’t for the life of me think what the hell I was going to do about it. She wouldn’t try anything new. My ideas, which your average British or French girl wouldn’t even blink at, were ‘disgusting’, and we couldn’t even watch TV shows that had any sex in them. I was not desperately happy, especially after having lived a life in Britain that couldn’t have been more different.
Back then, I thought that this was just Georgia, that every Georgian girl was probably just as much of a puritanical prude as Natia was, but since sex is not something really openly discussed here, I had no way to know if I was right or not (and I’m not too sure even now). The other problem was that everything else seemed to be perfect. We got on like a house on fire, we shared the same sense of humour (well, more or less, since she didn’t like my bedroom jokes too much), and life was easy and comfortable.
But what with the age gap as well, I knew that sooner or later I would have an impossible choice to make. I could either consign myself to never having a good time in the bedroom again for as long as I lived, or I could leave Natia, break her heart and ruin her life…all because I wanted to have a good shag. A rotten situation, no matter how you sliced it, and our lack of physical interest in each other led us both to put on a lot of weight, which as you can imagine didn’t really help. From time to time I would look back at the old days in England, and wonder what the hell had happened to that young, carefree soldier with the lazy smile and the abdominal muscles, and how he had turned into this fat, sexually frustrated student, who only seemed capable of making one mistake after another. It would have made you weep, it really would.
Many Georgian men gawp at women, but I was just as bad as the years rolled by and my belly grew as my personality descended from the cynically bitter to the clinically evil. It was not, I thought, even as though I could go to a bar and have a quick fling, this being Georgia; for I was more than ready to do that as the years marched on. As much as I hated the idea of being a cheater, desperate times called for desperate measures: it was not as if I was even trying to get Natia to be more open-minded anymore. Now I just wasn’t physically interested in her (and she wasn’t in me, either, and small blame to her), so I didn’t even try to lose weight, and she never bothered shaving her legs (or anywhere else) and didn’t care how much chocolate and cake she wolfed down. Things were made even worse because Natia was so damn loving in every other way; you couldn’t meet someone more caring.
But what disgusted me the most is that I was living the life of the Georgian men who I despised, having married a woman I wasn’t sexually attracted to and looking for fun elsewhere. I had become the very thing I never wanted to be. At any rate, my attempts to find a lover all proved fruitless (and really, I wonder even if I had found a willing dance partner whether or not I’d have gone through with it. Well, probably. I’m not a saint, you know). The women who were themselves in loveless and sexless marriages told the world they loved and wanted their husbands in the hopes that maybe one day they might believe it, and the younger girls who looked as though they might have been open to the idea of a good time turned out to be as frigid as their older sisters. Anyway, my life as a soldier-boxer was gone, and with it had gone my old physique. And what was the point of toiling in the gym? One-night stands do happen in Georgia (apparently), but it seemed like so much hard work for such little reward; the more I learned about Georgian women, I doubted that many of them would be gifted lovers and therefore hardly worth the effort.
So that was my life, such as it was, and I’m sure you’ll agree it was as pregnant with disaster as I looked at the time. Anyway, back to Giorgi.
My parents visited Georgia in September 2012, the significance of which is that my birthday lies within that month and I hadn’t seen my mother and step-father for about half a year. To celebrate my 21st, we held an enormous supra for my friends and Natia’s family and their own friends, and naturally Giorgi was included in this eccentric entourage. I should point out that my parents had ordered made a customized lighter with his name inscribed on one side as a gesture of good faith; he took it without a word of thanks in any language and pocketed it without a glance at my parents, which naturally to their minds confirmed all the things I’d said about him over the previous 18 months. Anyway, with him came his girlfriend of about three weeks, Mariam.
Mari was a classic Georgian beauty with her olive skin and brown hair, but with eyes that bordered slightly on the Oriental; it was these eyes that made her stand out to me, the intelligent look behind them as well as their slightly exotic shape. She was gorgeous, there was no doubt of that; to quote my step-father, she had the message for the chaps. Beyond that, she was cheerful and friendly, and was just a year younger than I was, with her birthday having been about ten days before my own. That, however, was about as much as I talked to her on the first day; Giorgi left with her early on, even before the music started to play. My step-father, a man whose interest in other cultures is matched only by his courtesy, listened to the traditional music and declared it strange in a rather beautiful way…not strange in an annoying manner like those pop singers who polluted the radio waves, with names like Lady Gaga and Lady Sovereign. Probably not titled women at all, he suspected.
Natia and I saw Giorgi and Mari again the next week when I offered to take them out for Indian food having been given a substantial amount of money by my parents, and a few days after that event I again took them out, this time for pizza. Naturally, as ever Giorgi didn’t try to talk to me since he despised me, so he muttered at his sister while I talked to Mari. Obviously my taking them out was just a rotten way of trying to impress her, but while I had evil intent towards her, she felt nothing about me beyond friendship; we got on very well, but perhaps with Giorgi’s influence we saw less of them as the weeks rolled by, and our very cordial acquaintance did not blossom into friendship like I’d hoped it would (oh, I’m terrible, aren’t I?).
Anyway, Giorgi then had a job offer to go to Kazakhstan and work as a head chef in a Georgian restaurant somewhere in Astana. I learned through Natia that he had been planning to take Mari with him, but for one reason or another she could not travel out there with him right away, and for other reasons that were not quite clear, all was not well between them. She refused to go with him to the airport, but I was there with a crowd of his friends, his mother, his uncle (who had just been released from jail for attempting to stab a taxi driver, you’ll be charmed to know) and his sister. He was angry, which was not in itself overly surprising since it seemed to be his default mood, but the truth of the matter was (Natia told me he had confided this to her in a rare moment of intimacy between them) that he was afraid. He had never before left Georgia, never been on a plane, and he had never done anything on his own in his life, and as I saw his friends crowding around him crying encouragement, I felt rather sorry for him.
That sympathy quickly vanished when he angrily shook hands and half-heartedly embraced his friends and his uncle and his mother, but not your correspondent. He actually had the brass neck to scowl at me as I nodded goodbye, which was pretty cool of him I thought, seeing as I’d paid for two taxis, God knows how many meals out in the previous week, and given him a lump sum of 300 Lari (although, to be fair, he had paid for our wedding supra that year, which had been about 300 Lari. I pay my debts as well as a Lannister, but I was always more generous with him than he was with me; he never took me and Natia out to dinner, and I did it a score of times…not for his benefit, of course, but you get the idea). But the hell with him, I thought, I hope he’ll be bloody miserable over there…and that was prophetic, if you like.
It turned out that Giorgi, like many of his countrymen, simply can’t bear to be away from Georgia. I respect that about Georgians, to be honest, since they couldn’t be more different from my own people, who scatter themselves around the globe, colonizing either by force or by charming the natives and then breeding with abandon. The Georgian love of their homeland is, I think, something really quite special, and in its own way, rather beautiful.
He came back after three weeks, despite boasting to us before he left that he would make good money out there before returning to Tbilisi after two years. Yet my brief feeling of sympathy that had come and gone so rapidly in the airport was never to return; it might have done, if he had been honest enough to admit that he missed Georgia, his mother and his home, and come back to his homeland like Valiko Mizandari in that cinematic masterpiece, Mimino (and if you’ve not watched that film, do so immediately; it’s on YouTube). In the event, it turned out that he’d abandoned his post as head chef simply because the kitchen wasn’t clean, the staff were useless and the equipment old. That simply didn’t wash with me, and my understanding is that the head chef is roughly equivalent to a battalion commander; when it comes down to how things will be run, he is the man. Hence I am confident that he could have fired the staff and hired new ones, had the damn place cleaned and ordered a new cooker.
I’m a bad man, I’ll admit that and gladly, and even though I’d never liked Giorgi I did feel something soften when he knocked on our door and Natia opened it having only been given twenty minutes’ warning of his arrival. She squealed with delight, and even he was smiling (which was unprecedented) and condescended to shake my hand. He did slightly ruin the effect of his prodigal return for Natia, however, when he said that he wanted to go and surprise Mari, who had no idea he was coming back from Kazakhstan and worked in the centre of the city near our home. He invited us to go along with her; she’d be so surprised, he smirked, we’d never see the like.
We waited at a table in her restaurant for her to finish work, Giorgi for the first time in his life looking excited, Natia looking at her brother in a contended sort of way, and yours truly scowling into his pint and wishing he was back in his home with a book before bed, since it was nearly two in the morning. In the event, though, it turned out to be something of an anti-climax, and not at all what Giorgi hoped for.
Mari caught sight of him and stopped short, her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide. Rather than the loving embrace and tearful relief that Giorgi had hoped for, she looked suspicious, confused…and even hostile. Her first words were a demand as to what he was doing there, which seemed to deflate him somewhat, and then they took their jolly discussion outside, leaving Natia and I to riot over our drinks and wonder what the hell was happening. Giorgi came back about half an hour later, all the bounce having been taken out of him sending him back to his old self, though shock seemed to have been added to the expression of perpetual misery.
He admitted to Natia later that Mari had told him she did not feel as though he was the man for her. They were, she said, simply too different, and she thought he was selfish. He had not, for instance, asked if she wanted to go to Kazakhstan, he had simply told her they were going, and that was that. There had, apparently, been other instances wherein he had put his own desires first, but that was the biggest one and, more importantly, the clincher. None of that was hard to believe; selfish, miserable and greedy seemed to sum him up fairly well to me.
But personally I was delighted, since it seemed that the brute had finally got what was coming to him. Natia had told me many times how, during their years living together, he would do things like invite all his friends over and tell her to make their coffee and food, before stinking out the house with cigarette smoke and filling the room with roars of ‘Bicho!’, regardless of the fact that Natia was trying to sleep since she had to work early in the morning…and many other instances of a similar nature besides. It was about time that he knew what it felt like to not get what he wanted.
All that ceased to matter when it transpired that Mari was pregnant.
It was an unsavoury situation, and would have been made all the worse if it was known exactly how she had come to be pregnant by Giorgi (though I didn’t find that out until very recently). The long and short of it was that Mari had to go and live with him and his mother in their one-room apartment (as is right and proper in Georgia, and bugger what Mari wanted), and Natia and I were there when she was due to spend her first night in her new home. It was New Year, 2012.
She was a right state, sitting on the bed and staring blankly at the floor. Giorgi, Natia and their mother were all in the kitchen, leaving the two of us alone and me with nothing at all to say (and that was a first, too). She had never been difficult to talk to, but the life had gone from her eyes and there didn’t seem to be a happy thought left in her head.
‘So,’ I began awkwardly, forcing myself to smile. ‘Parenthood, eh? Must be exciting?’
‘Not really,’ she said in a monotone voice. ‘I’m too young.’
Now that we were chatting like old friends again, I decided to change tack, and ask her if she’d seen a TV show I’d been watching (which I can’t even remember the name of), but I may as well have been talking to myself, and small blame to her. She had had her life taken from her and was contemplating facing an existence she never wanted (and while you may say it takes two to tango, wait until you hear how exactly it was she got pregnant. Then say it was equally her fault).
In the event, it was a rotten New Year, the only interesting moment being when I made a faux pas of declining any more khinkali since I now felt pregnant. I tried to salvage the situation by suggesting to Mari that she and I form a club, but even Natia didn’t laugh. I resigned myself to the fact that Mari was destined for this life, this cloying existence in a tiny apartment filled with Giorgi’s moody criticisms of everything, his mother’s incessant nagging, his awful friends and to top it all, a baby she didn’t even want. Not really a situation I wanted to be a part of, but my heart was utterly broken whenever I looked into her eyes…and I wasn’t really sure why. Sympathy would have been natural enough, of course, but I felt a great anger at Giorgi for what had happened (a rage that I didn’t really have any right to feel), especially as his friends and Mari’s family and society as a whole viewed him as a good man who had ‘done the decent thing’ by letting her live with him as his wife, as though it was all her fault (quite a typical attitude for Georgia, though). But I couldn’t explain my own anger, really. Mari was not my best friend, she was just a pretty, clever young girl who’d had her life taken from her. But that happens a lot in Georgia; she was not the first I’d known it happen to (although in other cases the circumstances of the pregnancy had been more…conventional), and she wouldn’t be the last.
We didn’t see them so much over the next few months, and my news of their life came from either Natia, after having spoken to her mother, or from Facebook, seeing the updates from Mari’s page on my newsfeed (or whatever the hell they call it now). I could see that she was slowly settling into her new life; gradually there were pictures of her smiling with her friends while they touched her steadily-growing stomach, though I couldn’t imagine what her relationship with Giorgi was like. We talked on Facebook now and then, and as I was wont to do with many married Georgian women who must have been miserable, I asked her if she loved Giorgi.
‘Of course I love him,’ she told me. ‘What a silly question. Do you love Natia?’
That, incidentally, was looking to be ever more in doubt, not that I could have admitted as much; and with that thought I knew that even if she didn’t feel any love towards the miserable man who had ruined her life (and who she had said the year before was not the right person for her), she could never admit as much. In the same way, another girl I knew called Nino who complained incessantly about her husband Irakli, calling him fat, boring, obsessed with computers and never thinking about what she wanted in life…but would never admit that she didn’t love him, simply because she couldn’t afford to.
Mari gave birth to her son Nikoloz in June, when Natia and I were in England. We visited them when we came back to Tbilisi, and I couldn’t help but feel the same irrational anger I’d felt when I’d learned she was pregnant. This beautiful young girl who was so obviously highly intelligent and with a great sense of humour had had all her chances in life taken away and her young body put through such trauma…by a man who looked like he could not have cared less, sitting on his computer playing video games. I could have thrown him out of the window without a second thought then.
As a young man of 21, I had no experience with babies and had no natural talent in that regard either, so our visits to Natia’s family home were infrequent and brief; I found the experience decidedly depressing, too, seeing Mari like that. The biggest bonus was, however, that Natia decided she didn’t want children. We had had some arguments about it over the years, with me claiming I was too young and she retorting that she was older than I am and we didn’t have much time left…but seeing what Mari had had to go through had put her off the idea completely. Ironic, eh?
But don’t make the mistake of thinking, reader, that Giorgi and Mari were at the forefront of my mind last year. They were not. I felt so sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do about any of it, and on the very occasional times I asked her if she was happy with her life (having been scarred by the sight of her sitting there on that New Year), she would always tell me she was.
By the time it came to last September, I was having enough problems of my own to give Mari and her sad story a second thought. I’d written a book which some literary agents had requested to see the full manuscript of, thereby sending my hopes of finally being a legitimate novelist and not a self-published loser through the roof, only to have it rejected at the last minute for the most pathetic reasons. I was also tired of Georgia; the hypocrisy (which I indulged in myself, had I had the balls to admit it), the cloying society…and…and…and…well, the truth was, I wasn’t tired of Georgia, I was tired of my relationship.
I went back to France and Britain for three weeks in September and had a good time, reminiscing with old friends and girlfriends and remembering the life I’d once had (which, really, wasn’t that great, but being in a failing marriage can make even the most bitter memories seem sweet). I had dinner with my old friend Helen, with whom I’d once frequently rolled around the sheets with, and told her just how miserable my life was these days. It was a real wake-up call, talking to her; I’d treated Helen terribly in the past, used her when it had suited me while she had thought we could have been in a relationship together, only to be snubbed by an arrogant and carefree (but much thinner) version of myself years earlier. I’d really upset her and not felt so sorry for her back then, since we’d agreed we’d simply be friends with benefits and hence, I reasoned, it wasn’t my fault. Looking back, I deserved a slap and a kick in some very uncomfortable places.
Seeing as my life had now gone to hell and I’d made all the wrong choices, it seemed as good a time as any to apologise to her for the way I’d been years earlier. Helen, however, just laughed, and I was both surprised and impressed with the way that she’d changed – she was more confident, more attractive and with a lot of new life experience that had transformed her from an awkward girl who didn’t know her own looks to a very strong individual. I was the pathetic one, and quite why she was interested in being friends with me or giving me some very useful advice I have no idea; full credit to her, she’s a better person than me, no error.
Anyway, she recommended I try and change things in my life, and while I was adamant that I couldn’t leave Natia, I could, at least, maybe go back to a job I knew I could do or go to a different country: perhaps both. I sent off a few emails to try and change things up, and the result was I had a job offer to return to the British Army, enlist in the New Zealand or French military, or carry over my university studies to Sweden, Finland or back to England. But in the end, I felt I couldn’t do any of it; it would break Natia’s heart, I couldn’t leave her like that, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a long-distance relationship again. My resolve would break, and I would find someone else. I came back to Georgia, resigned to my old life again.
Curiously, though, for the first time in a long time, I found myself wanting Natia. My reluctance to return to Georgia faded slightly as I thought about her…she was, really, quite pretty, and she had lost a little weight, and we hadn’t done it for over a month…might not be as exciting or sexy as things used to be, but still, got to take what you can get, old boy…
In the event, on my first night back, she didn’t want to make love even a little, and my reluctance to be in Georgia came back with a vengeance. I decided I would write another book and try and make it as a writer again; seeing her cry when I admitted I hadn’t really wanted to come back made any thoughts of returning to any kind of military life unthinkable. But what shocked me most was that she said if I cheated on her, she wouldn’t be surprised or even blame me; it didn’t sound like permission, but it was good to know she was as painfully aware of the sexual rift as I was.
I devoted myself to writing once again, although it came (as it always bloody does) to nothing in the end. But it was okay. I had another idea for a book which wasn’t as controversial, and it was well-written (if I do say so myself) and just the kind of thing that usually got published but with a more unique plot, so I didn’t give up (that one has also since been rejected, and I have given up).
It was during October that Mari started talking to me more, really because she had nothing to do all day sitting at home with the baby, and I was also at rather a loose end. We talked about nothing really. Neither of us had much to say, until she told me in early November that she and Giorgi would be getting married in a church ceremony.
Once again I found myself feeling irrationally angry…and jealous. God alone knows why. She’d had a baby with the man, it wasn’t as if she could get any more closely tied with him…but even so, the idea of her being married to the swine by some bearded old men just seemed like she was being even more deeply absorbed into this stuffy, claustrophobic world that she’d never had a choice to be a part of, like many Georgian women before and since. Whatever, I told myself that I would attend this wedding dressed to impress, regretting only that I didn’t have my top hat and tails in Georgia (morning dress being the typical attire of the English gentleman at weddings) but contented that I did have one of my suits that had, at considerable expense, being tailored and cut for me years before. Though it wasn’t morning dress, with one of my old elegant ties it would at least look as smart (albeit in a very different way) as the traditional Georgian outfits the men usually wear at weddings.
It was a blow to my ego that the suit that had once fitted like a second skin was now too tight to even close properly around my middle, but when I’d finally wrestled myself into it I didn’t look too bad…devoid of what little elegance I’d ever had as a man in much better shape but still, I thought, it was better than jeans and trainers.
Natia and I arrived at the church on time, but nobody else seemed to feel like being punctual, so we went to a nearby restaurant and I drank two big glasses of wine rapidly…I’m not sure why. I remember feeling quite excited, really. I think I thought that Mari would finally notice me that day, and looking back I squirm at my own vanity; it was her wedding day, why on Earth would she want to look at her sister-in-law’s overweight husband? Even now I don’t know why I wanted her in particular to see me. There were other good-looking women there too, either single or married to men almost as uncouth as Giorgi, but it was Mari that always captured my attention and my imagination.
I was, naturally, secretly delighted when everyone else turned up looking like a sack of potatoes. Georgian weddings can be wonderful affairs, when the women wear those sweeping white dresses and the men are clad in those traditional costumes with the swords tucked into their belts; this one, however, was not going to be conducted in the same style. Jeans and trainers seemed to be the rule of the day, but I even saw some people wearing tracksuit bottoms and sports jackets, which gave me the overall impression that not many of them were taking this wedding seriously, and if they were, then it was just a formality, a ritual that needed to be gone through; it seemed to matter that it was done, rather than how it was done, which to most people (including many Georgians) would simply be unthinkable.
It wasn’t just the fact that your correspondent was the only one dressed halfway to decency. It was a farce because the church itself was being renovated, and while the ceremony was being carried out the workmen did not bother to cease their labour, and bits of falling debris clattered on the floor with abandon. Stranger yet was the fact that Giorgi and Mari would be being married at the same time as two complete strangers. But nobody else seemed to think that this wedding was ridiculous.
After the priests were finished, the other couple left with their own friends and family, while the rest of us stayed for little Nikoloz’s christening. I watched this with interest as many other people did too; Giorgi, however, was not one of us. He walked out of the ceremony a few times to talk to his friends on the phone, and was barely present. I, at least, can claim I was there for the whole thing.
With all the fun and games concluded at the church, it was time to go to the supra. Supras can, at times, be tedious affairs, and Natia and I were not even put on the family table (which pissed her off more than it did me, I didn’t really want to sit near Giorgi and Mari for obvious reasons), and instead we were seated on the other side of the room with the most distant relatives her family have. I dubbed our table ‘Siberia’, but even so I had a good view of the main table from where I was sitting, and that was when the crushing depressing feeling really sank in, especially when the toasts started.
Toasts at supras are always long-winded and usually leave me, the evil foreigner, wishing the speaker would just shut the hell up because my food is getting cold (you can’t eat while the bugger is talking, you see), and if he really must speak, then he can damn well think of something to say other than ‘My friends, you are my family’ over and over again (when you’re at a supra next time, try and count how many times the tamada says ‘chemi megobrebi’ and ‘chemi ojakhi’. You could even turn it into a drinking game, if you like). The most annoying thing for me was that they were toasting Giorgi and Mari as though they were really meant to be, that this was true love at its purest, when most of the room knew they were together because of an accident, and the ones who didn’t could probably have guessed.
But worst of all to my evil mind, Mari actually looked happy, especially when she and her two friends started to sing. She had the most beautiful singing voice, I was really rather taken aback, I had no notion she was a singer…but nobody else seemed to find the songs she was singing melancholic; perhaps that was just my mood. Why did it provoke me into drinking myself into a stupor? It wasn’t just because I despised Giorgi and hated that this clever and attractive girl was now bound to him…I can’t be exactly sure as to why I felt like that, but I have a theory that I’ll come onto presently…a corny theory, but a theory nonetheless, and one that you will have to judge for yourselves.
When I had recovered from my hangover the next day, I delighted in telling my friends (Georgian and foreign) just how much of a joke the ceremony had been, my cynical criticism covering up an unusual and inexplicable sorrow. It provided an amusing story to tell for a few weeks as life returned to normal…and Mari and I continued to talk on Facebook.
We never really talked about much, but we started to talk more frequently, and then it turned out we watched the same TV shows which naturally made conversation flow more easily and our casual friendship became slightly more intimate. I took Natia to Batumi for a few days in December and hence was checking my computer less frequently than I normally did, but whenever I did deign to check my Facebook amidst my frolicking in a city which is no less beautiful in the winter (and all the better because the place is devoid of people), I always had a message from Mari. Our conversations became longer and slightly more personal, and I think both of us were deeply shocked that we’d known each other for well over a year but never really…well, known each other – talking to each other was easy, fun, and neither of us wanted it to end. But it was a few days after I came back from Batumi that we first started to talk about sex.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances which kicked that jolly discussion off, but I think it was some chance remark or joke that I made that led her to ask her what my life had been like in Europe, and so I told her, feeling rather pleased that she had asked. She then stated more explicitly what she wanted to know, and I was equally candid in my responses; I described my set menu which had produced such good results in Europe, America and Asia (my one experience on the latter continent having been with a Japanese lass I met in Kyoto whose nimbleness could, for my money, have secured her a place on her national gymnastics team. Christ, I can’t complain at the end of the day, can I?), and to my surprise she had follow-up questions; having re-read my replies to her and realized just how decadently explicit I’d been, I’d wondered if she would have been as put off as Natia had been.
Not she. It turned out that a lot of what I was describing was completely new to her, but she was eager to learn. Oho, I thought, what’s this? Giorgi’s never leafed through the Karma Sutra, eh? It wasn’t that surprising. There are certain people in this world, men and women, with whom it’s just so easy to see that they’d be a riot in the bedroom, but Giorgi would never rank amongst them in my mind, and Mari’s sexual ignorance was all the proof I needed. An excellent chef he may well be, but a creative lover he apparently was not. I’m sure there are probably Georgian men who are, but I’ve not met many yet who strike me as the type; Georgian women, for the most part, still seem to view sex as something they have to go through rather than something to savour and enjoy, and my conversations with Georgian men bear me out. What I mean is, the way that a Georgian man will tell you ‘I fuck her very hard’ and the like, which gives the impression that his personal satisfaction is rather more important than his dance partner’s; it’s not true for everyone, of course, but as a general rule it seems fairly accurate. Don’t get the wrong idea – I’m not suggesting that every Georgian man is terrible in bed and every European is some kind of god; there’ll be good and bad performers wherever you go (and I’ve known plenty of Europeans who are clueless), but Georgian males don’t seem to value female pleasure over their own.
But, for the time being, I thought it was probably a better idea to play it safe and answer her questions without directly mocking Giorgi’s lack of ability and/or imagination; it seemed like her queries were already doing that for me, anyway. At any rate, we talked for about three days before I finally asked her if she liked me; as in, that she was sexually interested in me. She said yes, and I reciprocated. Suddenly it was time to get back down the boxing gym straight away and watch the pounds fly off.
Just so you know, my feeling of total triumph didn’t stem from the fact that she was married to someone who I’d always hated and wanted to physically damage, or even that there was finally someone once again interested in my after-hours amusements. No, it was because she was one of the most beautiful girls I’d ever laid eyes on, with a wonderful sense of humour and a very gifted mind. We got on so damn well, and as I thought back to the memories I’ve already described here, I wondered if I had, on some level, always had quite strong feelings about her. In fact, the more I thought about it, even when we’d first met it was always the two of us who ended up talking to each other at those dinners I paid for…and yes, even when me and Natia had to visit her family home, we had gravitated to each other (or rather, I had gravitated towards her because she was ridiculously good-looking with an easy smile and a great sense of what was funny and what was not…by which I mean, for some reason, she laughed at my jokes).
Of course, then came the panic of what the hell we were going to do about this. Not only were both of us married (and her with a child), our spouses were also siblings, which naturally made the whole sticky mess that much more complicated. It was no use, she said. It was too hard. We had missed our chance, and it would never happen. She then said we should stop talking to each other and stop being friends – ‘more talk, more feelings’ were her exact words, and we said our sorrowful goodbyes.
I was disappointed but not quite heartbroken – it felt good to know that somebody so beautiful, so funny and so clever was interested in me, especially as I’d had an underlying interest in her for so long, and however awful I looked compared to how I once had, and it was also nice to think that I’d got one over Giorgi (d’ye know, if he’d been even a little polite to me or not make it so obvious he hated me I do believe I’d have restrained myself. But there you go. Think about it next time your wife has a male friend you decide not to like). Still, it was a shame…we could have been so good together…we could have had such an amazing time…if only…
These unhappy thoughts lasted about twenty minutes when Mari messaged me again to say that she couldn’t stop talking to me, which was all to the good. Our emotions over the next few days were a mixed bag, veering from the bitter realization that nothing would happen between us because it was much too late, to the joyful contentment that as we talked more and more and truly came to know each other’s characters and we knew we were just so damn right for one another. I decided to do something drastic, and without warning her set off in secret to Natia’s family apartment when I knew Mari would be alone.
I’m not sure what I’d been hoping for, really. I don’t know if I expected her to jump on me or burst into tears over the fact that the romantic experiences we’d talked about were never going to happen, but all I got was a rushed invitation inside before she told me to leave at once, which was something of a kick in the ego. You will know, of course, that in these sorts of places the eyes of neighbours and friends are everywhere, and she was rightly worried that somebody would have seen me. So with my tail between my legs (literally, and if you understand that joke then you and I have more in common than you might think) I set off back home, with a stern warning from Mari never to do anything like that again.
We went back to a familiar routine of talking over Facebook, alternately describing our romantic fantasies and feeling happy and then lamenting our circumstances and hating the world. To my readers less familiar with Georgia, I should perhaps explain that divorce is almost unthinkable in this country, and whenever a breakup does occur it is invariably the fault of the female party in question. Adultery is no more uncommon here than elsewhere (though in truth I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens here a lot more), and it is generally accepted that a man may cheat on a woman during their time together but woe betide his wife if she dabbles with someone else. To elaborate, I’ll use the example of my friend Mischa, who is a wonderful chap as well as being a shamelessly jolly hypocrite; he is traditionally minded, but well aware that many of the conventional Georgian rules are decidedly unfair. He states, for example, that he could never marry a woman who had been with someone else, but visited loose women and prostitutes with abandon during his younger days (and I wouldn’t put it past him to start again after a few years). He also once told me that he wasn’t sure what he would do if his wife cheated on him, but he would not, he was sure, attempt some kind of revenge on the other man – to his mind, the other male was only doing what was natural to him. So there you go. In addition, I feel I should mention that marriage typically happens when Georgians are in their mid-twenties; if a woman is not attached before she hits thirty, she is as good as finished.
That, then, may explain why Mari and I could not simply abandon Giorgi and Natia and try and make a go of it ourselves (to say nothing of her having a small child). We barely stopped talking, and Natia soon became aware of the strength of our friendship – I was human enough to feel guilty that she thought it was great I’d found someone I had so much in common with, and encouraged me to visit Mari when Natia herself was at work (although, as you will see, I didn’t have much cause to feel ashamed in the end). Hence, in a new faux spirit of family togetherness, we arranged for a party at Natia’s family home, the only attendees being myself, Natia, Mari, Giorgi and their mother. Since Natia, her mother and her brother would all be at work during the day, but Mari and I had nothing to do, Natia suggested I go to spend some time with Mari alone.
Mari had said more than once over the past few weeks that any physical activity between us was not going to happen. It was, she said, too wrong, and since the kind of things we’d discussed doing in our fantasies would have given His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II a heart attack, to actually carry out any of the acts would just be too much. ‘I’m strong,’ she told me again and again, though it turned out that when the time came, she was not, it seemed, strong enough.
We talked a lot before we finally kissed for the first time. Perhaps because of the way I’ve described our situation so far it seems like it was mostly about doing Giorgi a bad turn and playing a terrible trick on Natia, and indeed those two things had been the factors holding us back, but when we actually got down to business nothing else seemed to matter apart from us. That, of course, naturally sounds awfully corny, but romantic descriptions usually do I suppose, so let me try and put it to you another way.
In the past, there had been women I’d desired and eventually got, through perseverance, luck, alcohol or sympathy (probably). As I’m sure you yourself know, every experience with every different person will naturally vary, even though they may all have the same rushing feeling of success in common – but with Mari it was all different. Nothing had felt more right. It wasn’t just that it had been so long since I’d been so attracted to someone, it was just that she seemed a perfect mix of everything I’d liked about all the others (if that makes any sense at all).
Yet however strong her feelings were, Mari was still Georgian, and when I got home and we talked on Facebook she told me that she didn’t think it could happen again. It was too risky, and she had Giorgi and I had Natia, and we had missed our chance. This time I was pretty devastated, but the feeling didn’t last, since on New Year’s Eve we went back to Natia’s family home and once again I went early, being alone with Mari before the rest of them arrived. This time she was even more passionate, all restraint and hesitation having been thrown out of the window which, I thought, was all to the good. Giorgi came home later and, predictably, spent the evening scowling at all and sundry, but I incurred his ire in particular that night. Not only was I wearing, in the spirit of the season, a snowman earring (I had my left ear pierced when I was 15), I was also making Mari laugh; she herself was talking to me incessantly, and wearing the same green dress she had worn on her wedding, which naturally he didn’t feel very happy about (although if I had to make a list of all the things Giorgi didn’t feel happy about, I’d be here until the end of my days). He took out his frustrations when Mari accidentally spilled some wine and he started shouting at her, and only with Natia squeezing my arm did I stop myself from smashing his teeth in.
We held hands in secret under the table that night while Giorgi busied himself watching TV, having given up trying to have a conversation with his wife, his sister and his mother, they being women and obviously not interesting enough for him. Incidentally, I did upset Natia that night since I spent most of the evening talking to Mari, and I did have the gall to feel bad about it. But she said she understood; she knew that there are precious few people I have much in common with as much as I clearly did with Mari, and she was happy that we had found each other (and so was I, though she didn’t know all the reasons I was so glad).
This pattern continued until it was time for me to go to England in early January for three weeks. For once, I had no desire to go home; I feared that if I went, Mari’s sense of Georgian propriety would return to her, and being so far away it would be rather more difficult to keep our spark. Never have I been happier to be so wrong.
I missed her terribly, and she felt the same; God alone knows how much money I spent on texts back to Georgia, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t stop talking to her, whether texting on the phone, talking on Facebook or on Skype, we just couldn’t get enough of each other. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, indeed.
But once again I was hit by the contradictory nature of Georgians when, despite our conversations which would have had the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey bawling for an encore and an exchange of photos which Playboy would have paid good money for (well, hers anyway), she insisted that she still did not think we could ever make love, and that she still loved Giorgi.
I felt that I was sufficiently close to her now to ask exactly what it was about that moody and miserable bastard she loved so much; needless to say she never gave me a good answer, but she did ask what it was that I loved about Natia. It seemed to her, she said, that we had almost nothing in common, which was true enough, but it seemed to be equally true for her own marriage. I cared for Natia, of course – live with someone for three years, especially when they’re as kind, caring and sweet as she was, and of course I felt strongly about her. How could I not? But in truth, I’d never really missed her when I went home to England or France to see family – at least, not in the same way that she missed me. It was upsetting watching her cry over Skype every time I went home, but I never went for longer than two weeks and it was hard to enjoy my time with family and friends who I hadn’t seen for at least half a year (and often longer) when Natia was demanding we should Skype for hours on end, even though we had nothing to say to each other and would pass the time mostly in silence; my mother remarked tartly that Natia saw me all day every day back in Georgia, so she could just let some other people see me for a few weeks and not be so damned dramatic about it. Perhaps that’s British callousness, I don’t know. But I certainly never found myself missing her the way I was longing for Mari this January.
But this January wrought a change in Natia, which I thought was all to the good. She didn’t want to Skype all the time, and when she did we limited our conversations to when we actually had something to say, which was all to the good. It turned out she was spending more time with her friends, which was something she said she always wanted to do but never did because I never wanted to. This, I thought, was unusual. She had never expressed much of a desire to see her colleagues outside of work, and when they invited her I always told her she could go if she wanted to; I’m not a Georgian man to tell his wife what she can and can’t do. But what struck me as strange was that whenever she said her workmates had invited her to go out, she always said she never fancied it. Not that I was gone, she was telling me she only never went because I didn’t want to go. Damned odd, but I thought nothing of it at the time. If she was having a good time and not crying over Skype, then that was all to the good.
Anyway, my time in England was also a significant point for me and Mari, not only because we’d both been shocked at just how much we missed each other. As ever, we were talking bitterly about how we had missed our chance, that if we’d just tried to get to know each other when we’d first met we wouldn’t be in this mess…or rather, the mess we would have been in wouldn’t have been quite so bad. Of course this discussion put us on shaky ground, since if we’d got together at first then young Nikoloz would never have been before, which as a mother is something Mari simply couldn’t contemplate, and rightly so. He is her everything. But the fact that she would tell me ‘I’m dreaming of another life’ told me everything I needed to know about her relationship with Giorgi; whatever she said about loving him, it was clearly only the little child that kept them together and, she said, prevented herself from falling in love with your correspondent.
Eventually, though, we confessed our love for each other when we pretended that Natia and Giorgi weren’t in this world and it was just the two of us, single Pringles in a free world. At the end of the discussion she told me she wasn’t pretending when she said she loved me anymore, and I admitted the same. I was taken flat aback when she told me she had really started to have feelings for me since our first kiss in December, not that I felt any different; you’ve probably had the same thing, that one intimate interaction when you just know that this one is different. Not, of course, that it changed all that much. If anything it just made us even gloomier, since we would have both very much preferred to be with each other rather than our respective partners. However, I was sure it would never happen. She had a young son, and aged just 22 I was not keen to be a parent. Giorgi did know that we were talking a lot and told Mari that he was jealous, just as he had been on New Year; he hated, he said, the way that I could make her laugh and she had so much to say to me, while with him she rarely spoke unless he spoke to her first, and her answers were concise and to the point, but that was about it. Personally I think that’s a bit rich; he’s a sullen, quite type of man, and whenever he did speak to her it was either to tell her to shut up (when his friends were there) to go away (when her friends were there) or that she was dressing like a whore (when she wore clothes that left the lower parts of her arms and legs bare).
I came back to Georgia towards the end of January, and Natia and I visited Mari that very night, since I’d brought some real English beer (that is to say, ale) back with me which she was keen to try. Natia didn’t think anything of my desire to see Mari; she knew we were very close and still was not particularly suspicious. At any rate, we had a fantastic night, and me and Mari felt as though we’d been parted for longer than three weeks, and though we had to keep our joy to ourselves, I could see it in her eyes and she could see it in my mine (although privately I felt that she was probably just pleased that I’d put myself through an old Army physical training regimen during my time in England and the results were showing).
We made love for the first time three days later. It was, Mari said, in her mind the first time she had ever had sex. Giorgi, apparently, simply clambered aboard, whaled away until he was done, and that was that. She admitted that after every time (which apparently wasn’t often, since they lived with his mother in one room) she showered immediately afterwards. But Mari told me she was never under the impression it was her he wanted, he just wanted to fuck something (which wasn’t very surprising, given what I knew about Georgian men). More unnerving was the way she said he liked to bite her skin; apparently it hurt her, which a hickey never does, and my loathing for the man became rather more acute.
Of course, this naturally made things even more complicated, since the desire to be together had now increased tenfold, along with our need to do it again. But it was the events over the following three weeks that really sealed the deal for us, especially after the second time we became intimate.
If you aren’t familiar with Tbilisi, you should know that the city’s name literally translates to something like ‘hot springs’ – the story goes that King Vakhtang (in the seventh century, if memory serves) was hunting pheasants when one of the birds abruptly disappeared in front of him. It turned out that the bird had fallen into a natural spring, and the King decided that this would be a damn fine place to build a new city. Above the hot springs themselves are now a series of bathhouses, one of which I’d visited the previous year with my American friend Jon. These places are of ill-repute, supposedly crawling with prostitutes, and I advised Jon that perhaps we shouldn’t go (as sexually frustrated as I was, I don’t pay to play. I don’t think any man who wants to look himself in the mirror can), though he wasn’t to be dissuaded; he had been recommended a specific bathhouse by a Georgian friend, and while that set all of my alarm bells to ringing, he was adamant that we should go.
In the event, I needn’t have fretted. As I understand it, of the several bathhouses in the area, the one Jon’s friend had recommended was the one that didn’t suffer any kind of prostitution to take place within its walls, so in the event Jon and I spent a relaxing hour in blissfully hot water drinking beer and talking. Looking around me at the elegant stone room, however, I did understand the appeal it held for Georgian men; it would have been a damn fine place to have some female company rather than this American man with the whiny accent. I was quite sure that the stone massage bed had been used for things beyond relaxation of the muscles in the past, prostitutes or no.
So when Mari said that the only day in the week that she could leave her son with her parents was also Giorgi’s day off work, I told her not to panic. Natia was at home all day too, but I told her I was going to teach my student English (which was true, I just did it later in the evening) and Mari told Giorgi she was going to visit friends. She was hesitant about going to the baths – she had no desire to be mistaken for a prostitute, and she was nervous about being seen with me in public. If you live here too, you’ll know as well as I do that Tbilisi is a small place, and that someone’s cousin’s uncle’s aunt’s friend has probably seen you somewhere when you had no idea that they were there. So it was not as if her fears were unfounded.
She told the owners of the place that we were a husband and wife (and I inwardly glowed when she introduced me as ‘my husband’) and said that I had visited the place a year earlier with my friend and had wanted to take her there ever since; which, as it happens, was all true. We spent two blissful hours in a private room before going for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Mari herself was a study. Before we went to the baths she had been furtive and nervous, looking over her shoulder every ten seconds. On exiting, her eyes were as wide as saucepans, her hair was bedraggled and, she said, she couldn’t feel her arms (she was, I believe, in what I once heard a French naval officer described as ‘a state of swoon’). As we walked to the restaurant, me feeling more contented than I ever had done before and her stumbling along in some kind of trance (but probably even more satisfied than I was), we passed the church where she had married Giorgi just two months earlier. I scowled at the place and shook my head, but Mari didn’t even notice it; I had fully been expecting a guilty glance at the place, but no (although if the priests inside had known about all the new things Mari had learned about anatomy in the baths they probably would have burned her at the stake or called the police. Conventional sex is of no interest to me, as I hope it’s not to you, too). After lunch, she looked in me eye and told me flatly it had been the best day of her life (which meant to my ears that I’d forgotten nothing from my decadent teenage years and given off one of my more memorable performances).
That was the first week. Over the second week I started to spend more time with her and her son, Nikoloz. I knew nothing of baby care beyond prodding them in the navel and saying ‘Grrrtsh’, but Mari taught me, and soon enough I began to understand why it is that all parents say children are a blessing. He was such a funny little bugger, rolling around and laughing, and Mari educated me in childcare, something which I’d always avoided in Georgia but now fell to with a whim. It was actually fun, and I was never annoyed even when he was crying for some inexplicable reason; making him laugh and stopping the tears made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but the real show-stopping moment was when Mari admitted that I tried a lot harder (and did a lot better, apparently) than Giorgi ever did. Even little Nikoloz seemed to think so, seemingly, since Mari said he reacted a lot better to my attention than he did to his father’s, whenever Giorgi deigned to give it.
I felt a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, because one of the biggest obstacles to us being together suddenly didn’t seem to matter at all. Why, I’d grown up with my step-father since I was three, and if you can find a better man than he is then I’ll show you a green dog. My own father never gave a damn about me (though oddly enough he does talk to my brother when he hasn’t spoken to me in six years. Bastard). My step-father, Nick, got together with my mother when he already had a son of his own and she had two. If I was to be with Mari I would only be taking on one, so, I reasoned, if I could even be half the man that Nick was when he came to live with us, then we’d be fine.
Of course, it was now not a question of if we would ever be together; now it was a question of when. Both of us knew that we could not go on living like this forever. There are some people, I know, who have married the wrong person and find someone they know they could be happy with, but never take the plunge; in Georgia I believe this happens a lot more than it does in the West. The question was how to do it.
I didn’t give a damn about Giorgi. Mari confessed to me one night that he had hit her in the past; I wasn’t surprised by this news (he’d always seemed the type who was capable of that), but I did see red. I contemplated waiting for him outside his place of work and doing him some serious harm; he would not, I reasoned, be able to hit another woman if he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. If that sounds melodramatic to you, then to my mind you’re made of stone. Violence against women has always touched a nerve with me (as it would with any real man, I hope), and then in that moment I wanted Giorgi to know what I’d been doing with Mari. He could come for me, if he wanted. He had told Mari in the past that if I ever left Natia he would try and murder me. Well, let him try, I said. He’d be finding himself standing in front of someone who can hit back, and rather faster and harder than he can; I’d be willing to bet that I learned more of violence in the boxing ring and the Infantry Training Centre than he did working in a kitchen. You might think all that sounds pedantic. Well, think away. You’d feel the same if it was your loved one, I’m sure, and if you wouldn’t…well, you don’t love them.
Eventually she soothed me, saying it was alright, it had been a long time ago when she broke up with him the first time, and he had said he was sorry. Not, of course, that that made it any better in my mind – if he was going to hit her just because she didn’t want to be with him, what else was this bastard capable of? It made me especially nervous if she was going to try and leave him, as she wanted to; I didn’t mind the idea of him coming screaming and shouting for me with a gang of his bichos behind him, in fact I relished it, but I was very scared of what he might do to Mari. If he hit her just because she didn’t want to be with him, what would he do if he knew she’d been rattling around with a foreigner, (foreigners, Giorgi says, aren’t real men. Make of that what you will), and worse yet, a foreigner whom he really hated? Mari said he wasn’t stupid (we agreed to disagree about this), she doubted he would try and come for me, since he would not be sure whether he would come out of the exchange as the victor; I had some good wins in the boxing ring earlier this year, including one particularly nasty incident when I broke another chap’s jaw (he was a professional boxer, who laughed through the blood and shrugged, saying ‘that’s boxing’. That, my friends, is a real Georgian man, who’d been winning that fight until then), and Natia had shown him (I forget why) videos of my Army regiment on YouTube. But what he could do to her beyond what he’d already shown he could do in the past was something else, especially as she was always alone with him.
The other worry was Natia. Our relationship had been failing since last September (and before, really, but it was my birthday month when it all became obvious) and we both knew it, but she was still so loving and caring, and while I didn’t particularly care what happened to Giorgi (in fact, the worse things that befell him, the better), I had no desire to hurt Natia and ruin her life, which is what I felt I would be doing if I broke up with her. How wrong I was.
Since last August, Natia had been talking about a girl she worked with called Lela, who was Georgian by birth but of Turkish/Kurdish extraction. It was her style, apparently, that made her stand out, with her dreadlocks and tattoos and piercings, to say nothing of a very independent lifestyle for Georgia; she had a car and an apartment of her own, and her attitude of ‘damn what the world thinks’ appealed to Natia, who was always very conscious of what other people said about her.
Natia talked so much and so often about Lela I started to make jokes about her being attracted to her, which she found very funny indeed. One day, I’d gone to spend time with Mari and Natia said she would join us later that night; she said that she would be spending the evening with Lela and a few of her friends first. In the event, Natia never came to see Mari and I, and judging by her texts she was more than a little drunk. I asked, playfully, if she wanted Lela, and she admitted candidly that she did. She added that she was really sorry.
I chose not to type out to her my shout of triumph that made Mari cry out in alarm and drop a plate. Here, we thought, was a way out for me, and all that left was for Mari to extract from her own relationship…of course, that would be more complicated, but still, halfway there…
I went home and the next day Natia and I had a frank discussion about our relationship. She was not, she said, attracted to me, and never really had been. I confessed the same, but we both felt that we’d loved each other in our own fashion, but it was not the kind of love necessary for a marriage to work or to last. She was sure she was not a lesbian, she said, because she’d looked at a lot of other men and wanted them since we’d been together, which initially made me want to demand why the hell she hadn’t told me this years earlier, until I humbly remembered I’d done exactly the same thing and said nothing, too.
Truth be told, I wasn’t bothered by the fact she’d never wanted me; everyone has a type, and I wasn’t hers, and she definitely wasn’t mine. She said that she liked men who were skinnier and less…well, less manly (she hadn’t really liked me even before I was fat, you see). You know the types, the pretty boys, that kind of thing. I understood completely. My best Rob is one of those, and in Europe (where his type is popular in the extreme) he drew women like a magnet; when we went on holiday to New York, he was disgruntled to find that American women prefer men with big shoulders and broad chests like myself. Not that I can claim to be of a size with the lads in the NFL, but I was delighted at the look on Rob’s face when for once he saw that he was playing rhythm guitar. I also couldn’t gripe because I’d never been that drawn to Natia, either. We’d gotten on as friends, not partners, and to hear her say what I’d been thinking for so long was deeply relieving. If she wasn’t happy with me and wanted to move on, I was all for it.
I wasn’t going to say anything else, until she frowned and said, ‘This hasn’t been working for either of us…I think you need someone more like you. Have you honestly never thought about being with Mari?’
You know those moments, when you know that the next thing you say will either elevate the conversation to an even more agreeable level or cause things to crash and burn within seconds. But really, I was tired of the secrets and the lies. I didn’t mind cuckolding Giorgi, for if ever a man deserved it I thought he did, but Natia was an innocent, and I had no desire to hurt her feelings.
‘Well,’ I said carefully, ‘would you be against that?’
‘No,’ she said flatly. ‘I’ve thought for a while that you were just made for each other.’
‘Yes,’ says she. ‘You can’t look at the way you are together and not see it.’
‘Well, the truth is that…Mari and I are in love.’
I suppose it’s a testament to the fact that Natia and I were never supposed to be married in the first place that it was at this point that she started to laugh. It was good news, she said; her brother had never been the right man for her, and she had never been right for him. On hearing this I suddenly confessed everything, that we’d been having an affair and that we wanted to be together, and that we just didn’t know what to do next. I don’t suppose anyone’s ever confessed adultery to their spouse before and found the victim to be glad about it; it turned out that Natia was just as desperate to be out of our marriage as I was. If there’s any lesson to take away from this, it’s that communication between you and your partner is everything. Anyway, perhaps there has been such an amicable divorce before in human history, though personally I doubt it.
Mari was stunned at the news, but glad that this was one down, one to go. We then told Mari’s mother the truth, who knew me and we’d always gotten on, and while I hadn’t shared Mari’s confidence that this was a good idea just yet, to my surprise she supported us too. I wasn’t there when she confessed everything to her mother, and it wasn’t until several days later that Mari told me just what she’d meant when she said she’d told her mother ‘everything’. God knows why, but she’d told her mother almost everything new about her sex life, which caused her mother to shoot me some very thoughtful glances in my direction when I went to meet her for the first time in the capacity of her daughter’s lover and prospective second husband. Anyway, it turned out that she supported us since she had seen us together and suspected what was going on, but liked me because she thought I was (and I agree) a jolly soul who was given to laughs and smiles more than barks of anger and scowls. She was especially unimpressed when Mari admitted that Giorgi had hit her in the past, or when he told her to serve him and his friends at their awful supras, telling her to shut up when she tried to get a word in. But overall her support came from the fact that she had made the wrong choice in marrying Mari’s father but had never left him; their marriage was, apparently, volatile, and she had feared that her daughter had been destined for the same fate. Not so, said Mari, and with her mother’s help she began to plan how best to leave Giorgi. With the certainty that Mari and I would eventually be together, she began to admit that she had never loved him that much or even liked him as a person (which I’d always suspected), and while she had had a certain regard for him as the father of their son, she said she had always had a feeling that she would leave him eventually.
I had lived in Georgia for three years but it was at this point that I began to feel like the rawest outsider again. To my mind, the ignorant European, in order to leave Giorgi it would have been enough to say ‘I don’t love you. You can see our son whenever you like, but I am not in love with you, I don’t even like you as a person that much, so let’s call it quits’. Apparently not; it would simply not be enough, they said. That, I confess, baffled me; what is marriage without love? It’s different in this country of course, and most Georgians are, seemingly, not big believers in what you might call true love; ‘I learned to love him’ is what many Georgian married women have told me over the years, apparently oblivious to what an awful thing that is to admit (but it does go some length to explaining why an attractive young woman in her early thirties ends up with an ugly fat older bloke, especially when he’s not rich). Mari and her mother insisted it must be done carefully over time. A fine ground work had already been laid by Mari, since she had refused to have sex with him after her first time with me, which by this point had been over a month and a half ago (and I know that she was telling me the truth rather than what I wanted to hear, since Giorgi had apparently told his mother his wife was rebuffing him, and his mother subsequently told Natia, who told me).
By this time I was thoroughly tired of the secrets and the lies and the skulking about. Natia’s mum had apparently said that she thought Mari and I were attracted to each other, and even Giorgi had told her ‘I hate the way it looks like God made you to be together’ (and for once I found myself in agreement with the bastard). I suggested to Natia and Mari that we all sit down together and talk about this; Natia and I would say that we hadn’t loved each other properly for a long time (if ever), but me and Mari had fallen head over heels in love and wanted to make a go of it. I only said that we should leave out the part wherein me and Mari had been having sex. That, I admitted, might have been pushing it a little. But no, they said, we could never do that. This, they reminded me, was not Europe, and Giorgi had never been rational, which was all true enough.
A few days after the summit between the conspirators (Mari, her mother and I), Giorgi made further advances towards her, which she again repulsed, before telling him she did not enjoy sex with him and never had. Furthermore, they were too different, she said, for their marriage to last.
She told me that he was stunned by this. He’d had no idea she’d never enjoyed their sex, and in his mind there was nothing wrong with their marriage. Before you start to feel sorry for him, hear me out first.
Giorgi had told Mari and Natia that he’d had sex with quite a few girls over the years, and I have no reason to think that he is lying; whatever else he might be, I don’t think he is dishonest. But he could not fathom how Mari did not enjoy it with him. Everyone else, he insisted, had loved it. Well, maybe, but personally I doubt it. In my experience it’s quite easy to tell when your partner isn’t having a good time, as I saw with Natia; she was just not reacting the same way everyone else had to what I was doing. Which leads me to believe that none of the other girls Giorgi had been with had ever known anything different; make of that what you will. Mari described to me his routine, which sounded like a very dull affair indeed, made only more exciting in his mind when he decided to bite her…which hurt her. Also, the only one of his past lovers that I know anything about was a woman who had two children and no partner. Natia said that Giorgi paid for her shopping and her bills, and he stayed over sometimes in return. That, to you, might sound like some form of light prostitution. I know it does to me.
You see, as far as Giorgi was concerned, his marriage was perfect. He went to work, Mari raised his child, and when he had free time he played his computer games or went to see his friends. If he felt like it, he would rattle his wife and get his release, and he enjoyed that, so what was wrong with it? He never bought Mari a surprise bottle of perfume, or flowers, or burst through the door and said he was taking her on a surprise weekend away to Batumi. He never did those things, and Mari said with confidence (and I’m inclined to agree) that it would never occur to him to try doing anything like that. This from the man who likes to claim that Georgians were the most romantic men in the whole of the Soviet Union (to which a foreigner might well ask, ‘Then what the hell happened after 1991?’).
So Mari’s revelations to Giorgi that she was miserable and had never been happy with him were something of a shock, which in itself might be surprising to you or me. Their problems, aside from a few similarities, were rather different to me and Natia’s. We hadn’t communicated properly, but Giorgi and Mari had a child together, and even if Mari had told him all the ways in which she wasn’t happy (as she eventually did), nothing could have been done about it. They were simply too different. But to be honest, since he told her he hated her going out with her friends for no other reason than the fact that ‘she should be at home’, you know you’re probably going to struggle with him whatever you talk about. He told her that after he got her pregnant and she came to live with him, he said he had wanted to change her, which probably sounded terribly romantic in his head. What he really meant by this (and he admitted this, too) is that he wanted her to stop going out with her friends, to stop doing what she wanted to do. Like I said at the start: bastard.
Anyway, I eventually confessed the truth to my own family, who said they’d suspected it for some time and at first were deeply unhappy with the situation. They didn’t mind so much that I’d been sleeping around, since my mother and step-father did a fair bit of that in their own initial marriages before finding each other, but they thought I had broken Natia’s heart (my explanation of her not wanting me and preferring her Turkish girlfriend having fallen on deaf ears), that I was risking incurring the wrath of Giorgi (which didn’t bother me, but I understood their concerns about that) and that Mari was only after a better life for herself and her son, since she was aware of my family’s affluence. The latter statement actually made Mari cry, and for a long time she didn’t want anything to do with my parents, who were eventually persuaded that Mari was genuine. They apologized, and asked only to get to know Mari better, which they did as the months rolled by. But Mari herself had a few worrying moments for me, for Giorgi was getting ever angrier about her refusal to open her legs and her incessant talks to him about how they were too different to stay together. I was sure that he would figure out that she and I had something going on; once or twice he’d given off hints that he was suspicious, such as when he told her he thought she’d worn her nice dress on New Year for my benefit (which she had, and it was especially galling to the bastard because it was the same dress she’d worn on their wedding, ha ha!) and that if she ever cheated on him, he would murder her (a real man, as you can see). But these were very infrequent, and he never seemed to suspect anything.
I’m not sure why. It seemed fairly obvious to me. We’d started to become close in December, and as he’d guessed she had worn that dress for me on New Year’s Eve…what else? Oh, his mother had walked in on her Skyping with me, only for her to abruptly cut the call off which definitely looked suspicious, to say nothing of the way that we were together (Mari’s friends, who didn’t know about us at first, said they had guessed everything because we looked more like a couple more than she and Giorgi ever had). He also knew that her uncle, a police officer, was helping me buy a rifle and a pistol, and she was visiting me in the town to go shooting and browse gun shops. Did he also not realise that she had never complained about sex before, but suddenly tells him she never wants him to touch her again shortly after she’s friends with me, a man who he thinks she might have an interest in? To you and me, it might all look painfully obvious, but Mari said he simply never believed she would dare to cheat on him. After all, he had threatened to kill her if she cheated on him. Why, then, would she dare?
If you’re a Georgian and reading this and hating every word (which most Georgians seem to when they read the opinions of foreigners, without stopping to think about the content), you will probably write a comment below saying that not every Georgian man is like Giorgi. Well, I know that’s true; I’ve known a lot of good Georgian men who are nothing like him…but they may have things in common when it comes to romance and relationships. It seems to me that Georgian men can be romantic, and try hard to keep their girl happy…until they marry them. Then they never try again. They believe that marriage and children guarantee that their woman will never look at another man. I’ve seen too many Georgian marriages that look like what was a great idea before the wedding didn’t turn out to be so wonderful years later; at least for the woman, anyway.
Giorgi, then, remained blissfully ignorant, and none of us were really sure why. Natia thought that maybe, in his heart of hearts, he knew, but didn’t love Mari enough to create drama; then she changed her mind and decided that while he probably did know, he didn’t fancy starting fights with me since he guessed he didn’t have enough mates who would back him up and doubted he could kill me (as he said he wanted to if I left Natia) or do me serious harm on his own. Natia also said he probably wasn’t encouraged by the fact that he knew I now owned firearms; he might not respect my military career but he was not stupid enough to try anything against a trained soldier who was armed. Mari disagreed. He was arguing with her too strongly about not having sex with her and telling her she ‘couldn’t leave’, and she doubted that if he knew about us he would keep it to himself – she agreed that he might not try and attack me, but she was fairly sure he would do something to her, no doubt judging by her past experiences.
Mari put it down to his arrogance that he couldn’t see the blindingly obvious; he believed that I was harmless and that Mari would never dare to do anything against him, more fool him. To Scottish Highlanders, this could be considered the ultimate victory – the one your enemy doesn’t know about. But to me, an Englishman of Saxon blood and Teutonic traditions, it didn’t really answer. I didn’t feel sorry for him; not much, anyway, mostly because of his own behaviour. He did a wonderful job of arguing against logic. Mari’s main reason for wanting to leave him was because they were, she said, too different, which was gospel truth. Even his mother said it was difficult to disagree with that, but urged Mari to stay with him, predictably stating that ‘you will learn to love him’. Mari, however, pointed out to her that she saw how Giorgi swore and shouted at his own mother – she guessed she would be subject to the same sort of treatment within a few years, as if she hadn’t already been given a fair dose of it already.
Mari admitted to me that she had always felt if it hadn’t been for me she would have left him eventually anyway. When she first said this I was a little put out by it – it did rather destroy the romantic notion of me lighting up her heart and persuading her to abandon him in favour of yours truly. On the other hand, it told me that I’d been right all along – no matter how many times she’d said she loved him and she was happy, she’d always known it wasn’t really true and it would never last forever.
While Mari twisted and turned trying to get out of her relationship with Giorgi, I had problems of my own, all caused by Natia. She was happy for three weeks after I confessed the truth about Mari and I, but on the fourth week her attitude abruptly changed; her brief relationship with Lela had ended. Suddenly she wasn’t so happy for Mari and me, and things went from ‘I’m so glad you’ve found someone who’s right for you’ to ‘You were cheating on me with my brother’s wife’, which was distinctly alarming – and quite contradictory since she’d said she wanted our marriage to end as much as I did, and hadn’t wanted me as a husband anyway. Mari was angry with me for having told Natia everything – I could have left her without confessing the total truth. She said she’d had a feeling something like this would happen, but I’d had no idea. It had seemed like it made perfect sense to me when Natia listed all the reasons she wasn’t happy and why she didn’t mind I’d gone off with Mari; I couldn’t really imagine someone who’d not been bothered about something so serious ever really changing their minds about it, but there you go.
Natia then fell into some kind of depression which lasted about two weeks, though in truth my sympathy was rather limited, since she told me frequently she’d never been attracted to me and never wanted me in bed (which was fine, because Mari could easily be on the cover of a fashion magazine and so could some of her predecessors; God, I’ve been lucky) but wasn’t happy with the idea that it would be Mari who would now reap the benefits of being hitched to me. I asked her what the devil she meant by that, and she enlightened me by saying that the best time of her life and her best memories of me had been in England, and now she’d never get to go again.
That didn’t do much for me. I wanted to be with someone who wanted to be with me regardless of geographical location and financial benefits, and I thought if that was how she felt she could have said so some years previously. It was bitterly ironic that it was Mari my parents had suspected of having financial motivations when it seemed to be only Natia who really cared about the fancy holidays and the inheritance. Mari has shown very little interest in Britain and France; she has no desire to live in either, and only apparently wants to see England as a point of curiosity to see where I’m from, and would prefer my parents to come to Georgia rather than visit them in France. As I’ve said, Georgians are very attached to their homeland, and she fully intends for herself and her son to live in the land of their ancestors.
I had always suspected that Natia was easily influenced by the people around her, and had been taken advantage of in the past by ‘friends’. There were two groups in particular who stick out. The first are Trinidadian students, who befriended Natia before I knew her in some bar. Natia would take them out to dinner, have them over to her house and cook for them, take them for drinks…but never did they offer to do anything in return. I saw this when I met them, and after a month of having them over to our house, taking them to restaurants and bars and never once being invited back to their homes even for a cup of tea, I did begin to wonder what it was that Natia was getting out of this friendship, especially as they would come to our house, stay for five or six hours at a time and not say anything to either of us (and I wish I was exaggerating). After pointing this out to Natia, she concluded that I was right – they were using her, and with some fierce words cut off her friendship with them.
Now, it wasn’t really what I’d been after. If she’d disagreed with me, then I’d have said fine, you go and be friends with them, but I’m not paying for them anymore. I’m not the kind of man to tell a woman what to do. But no, at the time, she’d said I was right. Bear that in mind for the next bit.
The other group of friends were three lads of Russian descent who I didn’t meet until this year – two of them were called Alex, the other Oleg. They didn’t work, so Natia said she would take them out for beer quite frequently, and they in turn would do…nothing. The worst thing was that one night, after drinking far too much, one Alex took her back to his apartment and borderline raped her. She said that she was so drunk she couldn’t stand but that hadn’t stopped him from restraining himself (a bit like what her brother did to Mari, actually). Anyway, that persuaded her to cut those friendships off.
Anyway, back to this year and Natia’s sudden depression, during which she decided she wanted friends. She complained that I had never wanted to go out with her work friends, which was true enough, since they would only talk about their jobs, football and cars – I have no interest in the latter two, and while I know that being a waiter or waitress is harder than many people think, I still don’t find that it sustains conversation for a whole evening. But I’d always said she could go out with her friends whenever she wanted – I wasn’t a Georgian man to tell her what she could and couldn’t do, but she always told me that she wouldn’t go without me because she wouldn’t enjoy it…nor would she enjoy it if I went, since she knew I hated every minute of the tedium. She, however, could see no way out of the paradox.
For some reason it was after her relationship with Lela broke down that she decided she suddenly wanted to be friends with these people again. Alex and Oleg claimed they were no longer friends with the Alex who had forced himself on her (which, judging by their Facebook pictures was quite an obvious lie), but Natia said it was of no consequence anyway. Personally, I’m pretty sure that if I was raped I wouldn’t want to be friends with the rapists’ friends – I don’t think anyone would. This caused Mari to doubt whether Natia had been raped at all, and had just made a drunken mistake (as she herself had) which she preferred to remember as not having been her fault. That shook me; I’d never imagined that Natia would be dishonest, even with herself, but why she would want to be mates with the friends of someone who had done something so unspeakable was beyond me.
Natia’s honesty was in question rather more when it turned out she was telling Alex and Oleg that she’d stopped being friends with them because I’d told her she couldn’t be. That was nothing more than a barefaced lie. For a start, I’d never even known who they were beyond the fact they were mates with the man she said had raped her, and it was her who had said over the years that Alex and Oleg were both bastards for letting that happen to her; she said they should have stopped their drunk friend from taking her away, which I thought was reasonable. But no, it was my fault, apparently. She also resumed friendship with the chief culprit of her Trinidadian user-friends, and while I will admit I tried to steer her away from them, I’d told her countless times over the years she could re-establish contact with them as she occasionally said she wanted to.
Our apartment was tiny, two rooms with a bathroom outside, and even with two people inside it was always a squeeze. Natia took to bringing her friends over, which was infuriating because a) these people were, to my mind, morons and b) I had nowhere else to go while they sat and drank themselves stupid. At this point, we were still unsure as to exactly what it was we were going to do about living arrangements. Mari was changing her mind a lot – she was relatively sure she couldn’t live with me immediately, but sometimes said it might be possible, although she needed to leave Giorgi first, and what would her father say…Natia and I were, for the most part, getting along fine, since I kept my criticisms of her friends to myself, mostly because I didn’t want to upset her but also because I was keenly aware of the fact that she could, at any time, tell her mother and brother the truth about everything. Both Natia and Mari suggested that we could keep living together, which was bizarre – Natia said she didn’t want to live alone and wanted to stay friends with me (and selfishly I thought it would my own life easier, with Natia’s help of cooking, cleaning, washing, etc.), while Mari said it would be useful if Natia’s mother and brother thought we were still together. We looked around a few apartments but to my mind it was never going to work; Natia wanted to pack the place out with her friends rather frequently, and while she said that Mari and her son could come and stay and eventually live with us (Christ!), I just couldn’t see it working.
Our friendship crashed and burned altogether when she decided to bring Luka home. Luka was a seventeen year old colleague of hers, a pretty youth who was tall for a Georgian, with that schoolboy smirk you see on many teenagers’ faces when they think they know best. She had said in the past that she was attracted to him, which I didn’t much mind – I could see that he was a pretty boy, much like my own friend Rob, so she brought him over to our house with a horde of her friends. What I did mind, however, was the way they slobbered over each other in front of everyone, which was especially embarrassing since not all of Natia’s guests knew that she and I had broken up. I took Natia outside and asked her politely but firmly to just exercise a little discretion – her amusements were her own, and if she, a 31 year old woman, honestly wanted to bed a boy who had only just turned 17, that was her choice, but some of her guests were her colleagues who weren’t aware of our divorce, and it was rather embarrassing. I pointed out that Mari and I never behaved like a couple in front of her, but by this time Natia had the drink in her, and I couldn’t see anything of the person I’d known for three years in the smirking woman in front of me who was trying to act like a teenager.
At this point, Luka himself comes out to see what the bother is, putting a condescending hand on my shoulder and telling me with a little smile not to be aggressive towards my wife (though I wasn’t being aggressive, just talking quite firmly). Well, you can imagine what that did for me. Firstly I told him if he valued his fingers to remove his hand from my shoulder, and then said if this was indeed my wife, then he should apologise for embarrassing all and sundry in our home. This sent him into a rage, and he stood shouting and screaming at me outside while I smiled at him and told him he was a little Georgian boy who needed to calm down before he hurt himself – and yes, I was trying to provoke him, for I’d had about enough of this little bastard. I’m not a violent chap really, but I’d been at the whisky myself, you see, and when a teenaged Georgian who thinks he’s some kind of player comes into my house, embarrasses me and then tries to be condescending…well, it won’t answer.
But he plainly didn’t fancy his chances. I know how self-defence laws work in this country, and knew that if he threw the first punch I could do some middling harm (providing there was no permanent damage) without getting into too much trouble with the police, but for all his shouting and screaming I was left disappointed. He just didn’t want to risk it, and he walked away shouting, but not daring to wipe the grin off my face. Ah well.
(Incidentally, that’s something I’ve seen a lot of all over the world. When men want to fight, no matter if they’re British, Georgian or American, they just get stuck in. These pathetic bodies who just scream and shout never seem to actually do anything. Curious, ain’t it?)
The guests left soon after that, and Natia and I went to bed in foul tempers. She spent the next few weeks squandering her money on hotels so she could spend time with Luka, but eventually she ran out of money because he couldn’t (though I suspect ‘wouldn’t’ entered into it just as much, since he had money enough to see his friends and other girls, I later learned) pay for anything. Natia and I struggled during this period too, since she was at great pains to tell me how much she enjoyed sex with Luka, which angered me since she knew I’d never liked sex with her either, but had never felt the need to tell her how much better it was with Mari (or Helen, or Lizzy, or Isabella, or Georgina, or Mutsa, or Kim, or Catherine, or Josephine, or Olivia, or Laura, or Emma, or Alexandra, or Poppy, or…). But under provocation, I did remark quite casually that I thoroughly enjoyed bedding her brother’s wife, too, and then gave a brief but graphic description of what we’d done several days previously. To my satisfaction she turned quite pale, and the old look of disgust at all things sexual that I remembered so well was back in force. Mission accomplished.
I wasn’t the only one to warn Natia that she was being taken advantage of, but she ignored me like she ignored everyone else. Paying for hotels and restaurants to spend time with Luka was fine, she said, she was having fun…but in moments of doubt (which were a bit too frequent for someone who was sure about what they were doing, I thought) she would confess that she found Luka annoying and immature, and worried that he only wanted her for sex. When she asked him if that was true, naturally he denied it, but would then stare without hesitation at the next female who walked past, and even told Natia he thought some of the new girls starting to work at Marriott were lookers. But no, Natia would say, he’s not using me. I’m using him. Personally I don’t think she ever believed it, and she looked hurt when I told her that all she was to him was a funny story to tell his mates at school (yes, he still goes to school) over a high-five. It had clearly occurred to her, too.
Anyway, eventually, just as Mari was leaving Giorgi, we found a new home for me, conveniently located close to Mari’s family apartment. The trouble was, the owners hadn’t yet finished building the damn place, and while it was reasonably priced and was perfect for us, it would mean a wait of three weeks before I could move in. It was at this point that Natia admitted she had run out of money and so she would be bringing Luka back home with her. Naturally I protested; three weeks was all I was asking for, just three weeks of peace and then she would never have to worry about having her friends or lovers over ever again. But no, she was adamant. She would be bringing him back home with her, and it was far too late for me to go to a hotel.
She claimed that they were tired and would just be sleeping, but as they went upstairs it became quite obvious that it would not just be sleep. It was the first time I’d ever had to sit and listen to people have sex effectively in the same room as me, and I do hope it’s the last; I went for a walk outside in the rain and wondered what to do. I could, of course, throw a bucket of cold water over both of them and then throw him bodily out of the house into the night, perhaps breaking his nose or jaw along the way…but no, it wouldn’t do. Even if I did somehow avoid police trouble (this again? I thought. This little bastard was just trying to incite me to violence, by the look of it) then Natia could always tell her brother and mother the truth about everything.
I left home the next day, taking with me my valuables and going to stay in a hotel while I waited for my new home to be fixed. I did return home to pick up a few more things, and lo and behold Luka and his friends were there using my Xbox. Natia insisted there was nothing wrong with this.
(Here’s a wonderful piece of hypocrisy; Natia once remarked to me that people couldn’t know about what Mari and I have done because it’s ‘really terrible for Georgia’ – apparently oblivious to the fact that most Georgians don’t take too kindly to having sex with women and children, either. I’m sure there’s a screw loose with her somewhere.)
But eventually, Mari left Giorgi, who alternately shouted and screamed at her and then calmly told her she should stay, and if not, she would regret leaving (the bastard really thinks he is quite a catch; at least I know all the ways in which I’m inadequate), and as for me, my new home was finally ready. It always gave me great pleasure when I would take Mari and her mother and little Nikoloz to a restaurant and the staff would remark how wonderful our son was; I would agree (for he’s an easy-going little chap, just like his mum) and feel so happy that they thought he was mine…and then I would feel sad, because I knew that he and Mari would go back to Giorgi’s indifferent (yet angry) behaviour, and her mother return to her own home.
But no longer – our new life had started. Giorgi could scream and shout at his mother until he was blue in the face (she never tells him to shut up because he’s the man of the house, you see), Natia could have sex with as many children and women as she wanted, and we could honestly say now that it had nothing to do with us. We bought a new bed for our home, a new fridge, changed a few things…and though Mari wouldn’t be living with me yet, it just made the whole thing feel like ‘our’ home, especially when she brought some of her clothes and jewels to leave here.
Which leads me more or less up to the present. Natia and I are cordial now (well, she says she wants to be friends but I have no interest in hearing about how she suddenly realized that Luka was using her and her subsequent second lesbian experience with her old Trinidadian friend), and for reasons best known to herself she still hasn’t told her family about Mari and I. She’s even perversely been helping us by telling all and sundry I am in France visiting my parents until September; her mother was very suspicious, since she had seen how Mari and I were together, and both of her children’s marriages collapsed at almost the exact same time. I do feel sorry for her, because she’s now very worried about the future of her children, but there’s nothing that can really be done about that.
She can still see her grandson whenever she likes, nobody will stop that, and if his natural father ever decides to act like he gives a damn then naturally he’ll be welcome to see him too – providing he can be man enough to be civil to Mari when he finds out who she’s moved on to. I will not tolerate any violate behaviour, verbal or otherwise. Anyway, Mari, her mother and I are quite sure we have done the right thing not only for us, but also for young Nikoloz; her mother has told me many times that I am infinitely better with him than Giorgi was and is, which I think might well be the most touching thing anyone has ever said to me, and I was deeply moved. Mari and her mother do not want young Nick growing up being told that aggressive behaviour towards women is acceptable and that people of other countries and cultures are worth less than the dirt on his shoes.
(Just as an aside – if Giorgi was a learned man who knew a lot about the world but still didn’t like it, I’d understand him even if I would still be short of sympathy. But considering he thought that Tbilisi’s new Buddha Bar would be staffed by Muslims because he thought Buddha was something to do with Islam…well, when he then says that foreigners aren’t real men even though he himself hits women…what can you do with a man like that? Especially as he prides himself on his historical knowledge…which is woefully incomplete, but there you are.)
Life is very good now, though the future remains uncertain and things aren’t quite perfect. Mari insists it still isn’t the right time to tell her father about me (with whom she has a very volatile relationship), and only her mother and sister are in the know, though the rest of her family are now aware that she left Giorgi, and are wagging their heads over what a terrible mistake it was.
This, I have to confess, annoys me in the extreme. Of course, the last thing I want is to make life difficult for Mari and her mother (which it would be if they knew that a) Mari had been having an affair and b) that her mother had been aiding and abetting her, and c) the evil foreigner she’s been playing away with is her old sister-in-law’s husband), but I do, on occasion, feel like a dirty little secret, and that rankles. My ire really stems from the fact that her family believe that leaving Giorgi was a grave error, despite the fact she did not love or even like him, while if they’d knew about me they would be furious; the idea that being together with someone you hate because you had an accidental pregnancy with them (with her being so drunk she was barely able to stand, apparently) is better than being with someone who you truly do love and have everything in common with…well, that makes no sense to me. But there you go. #Georgia
But really, it’s not so bad, and those issues will change in time. Giorgi is out of the picture, coming back into it only when he feels like telling Mari she made a big mistake, or that he misses his son – I was almost (once again) moved to sympathy when he said he missed little Nikoloz, and so Mari went with her mother to see him, taking the little tyke with them. Apparently Giorgi held him for about five minutes before saying he had had enough and handed him back to Mari, saying that he doesn’t like his son’s ears because they are the same as Mari’s, and that little Nick has hair like a girl. A loving father…I don’t think. Mari’s mother later told me that she thinks he doesn’t miss Nikoloz because he likes being around him or enjoys playing with him, but believes he should be with his son because he is son, and that’s the way it should be. He never looked like he gave a damn before, and by all accounts that hasn’t changed.
But to finish up, there are a few things I’d like to leave you with. Firstly, about me and Mari.
As I said all the way up there, a long time before Mari showed any carnal interest in me, it had always been she and I together who’d ended up talking whenever we saw each other. To be honest, I always wanted her, and although she had not always wanted me (and small blame to her, fat thing that I was) she admitted that she had always been interested in me in some way. I can’t explain why I hated so much the idea that Giorgi had gotten her pregnant or that she was marrying him a year later…other than that maybe, on some level, I’d always known that she and I would be good together, which is why even when the room was full of other beautiful women, it was her that I was always drawn to. Soul-mates, fate…these are things we’ve talked about, and while I can’t be sure about them, it does seem very unlikely for us to both to end up being so happy after such a roundabout and bizarre journey. My time with her is…well, I’ve never had anything so good, and we are both sure that this will last (although knowing my bloody luck, she’ll probably turn out to be a lesbian or announce she’s having a sex change fairly soon).
Secondly, if there are any lessons to take away from this, I think it’s these:
I told Natia that I can’t take her seriously as a person because the idea of a 31 year old hanging around with teenagers is just ridiculous. She insists that they are her friends; to my eyes they look like young kids who like the idea of sleeping over at her apartment because it’s better than staying at home with mum and dad (Luka, for instance, sleeps on the sofa because his brother is married with a baby ; to those of you not in the know, most Georgians will live most of their lives with their parents), and this mad young woman approaching middle age cooks for them, buys them alcohol and even washes their clothes…but unlike their parents, won’t tell them what to do.
But Natia told me that she liked living like this because she never had the chance to. When she was their age, she was going to church every Sunday, crossing herself at every church she walked by, and acquiring a healthy dread of anything the Church said was ‘unclean’ or ‘sinful’ (which you and I might call ‘fun’). I understand that, but I don’t think that the youth of Georgia today are living their lives as liberally as they might like to – you’ll note that Natia’s new friends don’t have any other venue to meet at other than her apartment, and Luka, despite being a self-professed ‘player’ who’s slept with a lot of women, really hasn’t had that many conquests compared to someone living a similar life in Europe or America…and I saw one of the girls he’d slept with, a colleague of Natia’s, and she looked like the back end of a bus (I say that without scruple since she is not desperately pleasant in personality, either). Besides, if he was as successful as he liked to tell Natia he was, why did he need to devote so much time to a 31 year old divorcee?
Georgian society naturally needs to become more liberal – and I use the word ‘naturally’ implying both meanings. We can’t force it, and we shouldn’t want to; if you’re Georgian and reading this, I am absolutely not one of these foreigners (Americans, mostly) who want to see Georgia changed to their specifications. I just want to cut the bullshit: older Georgians can’t criticize their children (male or female) for wanting to roger each other until they’re in the face since they themselves would have wanted to do the same when they were the same age. In addition, this thin veneer of piety needs to go – the fact that I know a Georgian girl who dresses like a slut (nothing wrong with that, really) with a tattoo that says ‘Play ya cards right’ on her hip, and posts pictures of herself in bikinis on the beach on Facebook will also tell you she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage and won’t even talk about the capital act in fun…it’s ridiculous. Of course, she may well be lying, as Natia said she thought she was – but the point is, she shouldn’t need to lie about that sort of thing. If she wants to take more poundings than Omaha Beach than she should be free to do it; she certainly looks like she wants to.
I think that Georgian society does drive people to extremes, as you can see by Mari’s and Natia’s actions…and mine, too, I suppose. Mari never enjoyed sex with Giorgi, but felt that it was something she had to go through, and Natia has really changed as a person, now that she feels that she can finally do what she wants to do. In Giorgi and Mari’s case, it just sounds like Giorgi has absolutely no idea what he’s doing in bed, and if he thinks the other girls he’s been with enjoyed it just because they didn’t complain, I’d be willing to bet he’s mistaken. Ironic, really, given how obsessed Georgian men are by sex that he should turn out to be so bad at it…I’d wager he’s not the only one, either. As for Natia, I’m not sure if this is who she always was and her activities this year are simply the result of her true character emerging, or if she’s just been corrupted since she is so easy to influence. It was amazing how one week she was saying she wanted to talk to a priest about her life and ask for some spiritual guidance, and the next she was going to hotels with Luka. There’s some screws loose there, whatever the causes. Her mother is mad too, though.
Anyway, the lesson I wanted to divulge was the importance of communication. Mari agrees that it isn’t unfair to say that Giorgi actually has no idea who she is, and that it wasn’t me who changed her personality when I was around, it was just her feeling like she could be herself. He never wanted to get to know her, and on the occasions that her personality would emerge, he would shout her down or fire off another criticism. Giorgi told her once, just before she left, that he really hated her sometimes – this preceded a few more commands that she should stay with him. It would never occur to him that telling her this sort of thing might (possibly) make her want to leave him even more; I think he had some idea that if he listed all the ways she disappointed him, she might be overcome with guilt and stay. Who knows?
But d’ye know, Giorgi and I do have that in common. He couldn’t communicate with Mari; I couldn’t communicate with Natia. She had said to me over the years she would not be surprised if I cheated on her, and wouldn’t blame me, since she knew I was dying to have a good shag…but it never occurred to me that she might want the same thing with someone else. You see, Natia was so anti-sex, everything to do with it was ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrible’, I’d never thought that the pious protestations were just covering up her own natural desires.
Mari and Natia have something in common, too. Natia told me a few months ago that there were men that she’d liked during her marriage to me, but she’d never apparently imagined she’d enjoy herself as much as she says she does these days. Mari, likewise, says she never thought sex with anyone else would be that much different from her experiences with Giorgi, she only thought that with someone else they might be more gentle, and smile at her rather than look like they were trying to attack her (so help me, it’s what she said). It all adds up to my remedy for Georgia’s social problems: a hundred damn good shags in the teenage years would do everyone a power of good.
So there you go. Our story, and I challenge you to find a more scandalous one than that. There, now. Doesn’t that blow Neal’s ‘Sex in Georgia’ out of the water?