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Dinner was cordial as usual. The menu doesn’t seem to vary much at these things, thought Ivan, as he finished off his grilled beef ribs. Immediately above his plate, on the white tablecloth, he had arranged eight or so business cards, as if he had been dealt a hand in a game of Texas Holdem. Matching names to faces was always difficult. Lisa, John, Peter, Sarah, Jacob. Jacob? Ivan glanced back and forth from his hand of cards to the laughing, chewing faces at the table. A merry round of poker. Cards were laid out in front of each player – manager, senior manager, associate, partner. These cards were dealt out only after ceremonious hand shakes, but that was more than an hour ago, before the beef, the fish, and the soup.

In between reaching, chewing, swallowing, and smiling, Ivan was busy jotting things down on the legal pad in his lap. He had considered placing the legal pad on the table – to ease the discomfort of having to keep his legs closed to support the legal pad – but the thought of bright yellow on white restrained him from doing so. That would upset Dmitri, his boss. Eat, write, smile, eat, write, smile. Dmitri’s orders. The meal, that’s right, remembered Ivan, there was a meal. Everything tasted the same.

To be honest, he didn’t quite remember what was ordered by whom, or what tasted like what. He did remember Dmitri briefly closing his eyes in prayer before the meal. But the food was a blur. Surly not a problem with the chef or the kitchen, thought Ivan, as the restaurant and staff were impeccable. Rather, Ivan’s mind and right hand were racing to catch every phrase uttered at the table. Lisa from blah said blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Peter responded to Lisa’s blah with his blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Like a mad court room reporter with no computer and only a pen, Ivan scribbled incomprehensible blahs left to right, up and down. The bright yellow of the legal pad was quickly invaded by blue ink, like mutant worms crawling for their lives across a vast yellow desert. Not to worry, thought Ivan, deciphering this mess would come later in the hotel room, when he drafts his nightly report for Dmitri.

The check for the dinner was about to come. Did the waitress bring it over already? No, wait, that was Ivan’s job, to prearrange the tab on the Department’s corporate account. He had forgotten all about it. Buried in checklists, rental car agreements, itineraries, hotel receipts, Ivan had forgotten to call the restaurant in advance to arrange the payment. The Department did not give Ivan and his team a corporate card. Rather, the Department’s account information was to be given at each destination as pre-approved payment. Consent and authorization forms had to be faxed back and forth with the Department, and although Ivan thought the system was convoluted and dysfunctional, there was no way around it. Dmitri’s orders. Now, he had completely forgotten this backwards payment ritual. Dmitri’s wrath was already palpable as he reached in his wallet for his personal card.

Card swiped. Tab signed. Receipt received. Glare.

Late autumn nights in Los Angeles were wrapped in a cool breeze. Smog had relentlessly covered any hopes of stars in the sky, but the coolness and absence of humidity were certainly inviting. Ivan, Dmitri and the dinner party slowly stepped outside, exchanging farewells and ceremonious handshakes. Ivan was about to turn the ignition in the rented Jeep Liberty when Dmitri’s cellphone rang. It was Tzesar, one of Dmitri’s seniors at the Department. Tzesar was in town on unrelated visit, had heard Dmitri was here, and wanted to meet up for rounds at a nearby karaoke joint. Dmitri was visibly tired but could not refuse. After all, pleasing his seniors was the only surefire way to secure his next promotion at the Department. Bailing out was out of the question. The digital clock next to the dashboard read 10:17 pm when Ivan’s team arrived at the karaoke bar.

Tzesar and his minions were already half drunk. With rosy cheeks and less than stellar balance, less ceremonial handshakes were exchanged, as everyone plunked down on the sofas in a good-sized room. An ugly strobe light twirled slowly, flashing bits of colored light on the bottles and empty glasses on the table. Jack Daniels and Heinekens were ordered, along with bland fruit platters. Tzesar had been in Los Angeles for a few days on official business, and was scheduled to head back to his office in San Francisco the next day. Shots of whiskey were exchanged. Tzesar was obviously glad to see Dmitri, especially during a business trip. Don’t worry about a thing, he said, everything tonight is on the Department, so drink up. More shots were exchanged.

The ties came off, the jackets came off. Shirt sleeves were rolled up. Terrible singing ensued, but who cared. As Tzesar’s associates were dancing to the music, clapping, and keeping the beat with tambourines, Ivan preferred to sit back and enjoy the nonsensical combination of booze and shitty music. But to ruin this odd sense of peace, Dmitri nudged him, whispering in his ear, get up there and dance or something, you’re making me look bad. The last thing Ivan wanted to do was imitate these baboons and dance to Tzesar’s unforgivable singing. But a few more nudges to the ribcage sent Ivan to the front of the room, with tambourine in hand. Baboon.

The whiskey and the dancing were not enough. The room was full of testosterone, said Tzesar, we need women to really lift our spirits. One of Tzesar’s associates, with his tie around his head like a headband, ran out. Minutes later, he returned with two young women. Neither looked much more than twenty years old. Marina cuddled up next to the alpha male, Tzesar, her black skirt barely reaching her thighs. Pouring him another shot of JD, Marina asked him if he wanted to sing a duet. Tzesar was all smiles. Tatyana swept across the sofa towards Dmitri, with the other JD bottle in hand. The sage Tzesar was right, the testosterone level was reduced by two plaster-faced twenty-somethings, and their spirits were lifted, both literally and figuratively. In no time, Marina had Tsezar in the front of the room, slow dancing with her like a middle school dance. Tatyana was serenading the couple with her favorite ballade, while Dmitri rattled his tambourine in approval.

Hips swayed. Mouths whispered. Glasses clanked.

As if the clock had struck midnight in the Cinderella fairytale, Marina and Tatyana said their heartfelt farewells and left, exactly one hour after they were led to the room. An unhappy Tzesar was told that he would have to rent them out for another hour if he wanted to prolong their presence. Glancing at his wrist watch, Tzesar muttered something under his breath and reached for his jacket. The night, sadly, was over.

Dmitri rushed to the cashier, in an attempt to further appease his alpha male by grabbing the tab. But giddily drunk Tzesar waived his hand in disapproval and handed a card to the cashier. I told you not to worry, said Tzesar, the Department will take care of this, it’s all part of the trip. The alpha male always wins these battles, and the night belonged to him and the Department. No handshakes this time. Drunken hugs were exchanged as the party exited the smoke-filled building into the even cooler Southern California night. Next time, declared Tzesar, he would treat them well in San Francisco. Better women, he snickered.

Ivan the designated driver lowered his window as he steered the Jeep towards the hotel. The wind pounded his face, oncoming headlights rushed passed him in surprising consistency, and the darkened silhouettes of mile-high palm trees painted the skyline. In the hotel elevator, Dmitri uttered something about a report on the dinner meeting, how he shouldn’t have to pull out his personal card ever again, how Ivan should learn how to dance with the ladies. Ivan nodded silently, his mind still attached to palm tree silhouettes. The elevator door opened on the tenth floor.

Ivan sank deeper into the hotel bed. His head was spinning.

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