Boris had not stopped talking in the hour-and-a-quarter the pair had been standing on the dirt semicircle, hard-packed by thousands of feet which had, at one time or another, sojourned around the lonely iron pole, a pole which unnecessarily hoisted a pockmarked and faded orange sign with long-forgotten lettering—the only sign of its kind for thirty kilometers to the next village or fifty to the last, so what it had once said didn’t really matter: every child and every babushka knew its location simply as “the bus stop.”
George, of course, hadn’t listened to a word of the incessant Russian-accented noise. For all of his oppressive Slavic hospitality and grandiose assertions of lifelong friendship, Boris was an insufferable imp, amusing himself in the mild torment of others, and George was thrilled to have their decades-long partnership coming to an end. He found himself suppressing a smile as the one thought he had never dared express bubbled to the surface: he hated Boris, and always had.
Without waiting for Boris to finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of, George cleared his throat and spoke. “Can I bum a smoke, then, for old times’ sake?”
“Of course, dear friend!” Boris laughed a deep, hearty laugh and shook a cigarette halfway out of its cheap red-and-white paperboard box. He extended the box toward George and waited for the tentative reciprocation. When George’s fingers neared the proffered smoke, Boris jerked the pack away and shouted gruffly, “Two hundred rubles!”
George opened his mouth to speak, and closed it up again without a word. He lowered his eyes to his shoes and patted his pockets with both hands. “I’m sorry, Boris, I don’t have—”
Boris laughed again, a booming guffaw that reddened George’s face. “Is okay, George! Is joke!” He stuck the little box back at George. “You go on, take as many you like.”
George made no move to accept.
Boris smiled and tipped the box from side to side. “Hmmm? You not liking Russian cigarette now, George?”
George’s lip twitched—a slight snarl that delighted Boris—as he snatched the pack of cigarettes, destroying half of its poorly-rolled contents. He took one unbroken cigarette—not the one Boris had offered, though that cigarette still stood straight from the box—and put it in his mouth, crumpling the remainder in his hand. George jammed the other hand into a pocket and fished around, finally dropping his shoulders and pulling out an empty fist.
Boris fairly giggled—a low and rumbly titter better suited to a much higher voice. “You want lighter?”
George glared at Boris, jaw muscles flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing.
“Okay, okay, you don’t want lighter.” Boris shrugged, palms up and forward in an attempted show of sincerity, but he couldn’t suppress the ear-to-ear grin. “How about match?”
With two fingers of his left hand, George reached up to his mouth, eyes never blinking nor moving from Boris, and took the last unbroken and unlit cigarette from his lips. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground in front of him. He stepped toward Boris, placing one foot over the cigarette.
“Boris,” George said, twisting his foot in the dirt, “I hate you. Always have.”