The bridges begin to open at 1:25 a.m. That’s what the guidebooks say and we’ve crisscrossed the city waiting. At eleven we eat facing an art installation which celebrates the endless days. Rows of primary-colored umbrellas are strung up above the walk, shading us from dusk at nearly midnight. Paintings of Petersburg allow us places to pose, to shave off bits of time. We walk away from the strip of restaurants, into the hulking shadows of not quite Soviet, not quite European buildings. We cross parks abandoned in the lateness, try to sound out store signs. We get the itch of non-belonging, the sense we’ve crossed a barrier into residential, into ‘no trespassing,’ so we turn around, back toward the glowing lights. The bridges. The stone alcove we will find and claim as ours.
In the center of a wide, bare park glows an eternal flame for those who died unknown. Teenagers huddle over it like a barrel fire, coaxing warmth into their hands. We find a bench on the edge of the square, sorry to have not brought vodka for the walk like those laughing nearby. In the moonlight, the candy-like domes shine on the church named for the Spilled Blood of an emperor. Inside we saw stories-high saints. Mosaic flower scrolls crawling up the walls. Cross yourself and bow. Regard the dark monument. We talk of this while we wait, bracing against the wind for which we are ill prepared.
Guy Fawkes stares out at us. Four of him actually, through lowered windows. House or trance blares from speakers built a decade ago; music made for rolling, for glow sticks throwing shapes with the beat. In the darkness we see only their masks, turned the same direction, hoodies cinched beneath. One dangles his hand out the car window, bare fingers chapped as he signals toward us. As they wait for no one. They are the only ones on the road by the river this late at night. Maybe they speak, but we can’t understand—not through their trilled consonants. We pretend we see through them. That we are not scared.
The old man with the DSLR stops before our stone alcove, the one we have been hunkered in for half an hour. His thinning hair is wild as he asks if he can take our picture. Three windswept girls. I turn my face away, willing my rogue curls to distort my features, hoping the gentle backlighting washes me out. That he will show shadows to his patrons, not bodies. Not us. We don’t say no, but with stiffened backs wait for the aperture to open, for brightness to stream inside as he presses the shutter. We wait for him to focus and hear the click. To hear another. I can’t remember if he thanks us as he shuffles off down the road.
At 1:35, with little fanfare, our bridge opens, the right third raising so boats can pass through. They have always done this in summer when the river isn’t frozen. There are photographs of an ice road in the 1890s traversing its surface. Troikas and travelers following the same path, forgoing the bridges. It is 2016 now, and it isn’t until boats begin flooding from the other direction that we realize we’ve made an error. We’ve watched the wrong bridge rise. We feel foolish and exhilarated, laugh openly in our exhaustion.
Beyond the golden spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the sky glows red from the hiding sun. It is nearly two a.m. and the closer we draw to the bridge we were meant to have watched, the more the world turns into a rave. Cars blast music. Hookahs send smoke into morning air. Tourists throng in the thousands, struggling for a cab for a drink for something. We ignore them, weaving through bodies. It is late and we are cold. We accept a ride for 500 rubles from a cabbie in black sweat pants reading Zero Fucks Given on the pocket. We appreciate his honesty.
The stairwell of our hostel reeks of stale cigarettes. Tenants prop windows open on each landing and smoke leaning out, looking over the courtyard. Smoking is prohibited inside, but they must assume that stairwells are now outdoors. The wall paint is fractured, spider-webbing cracks from corners down to the floor. The elevator is coffin-sized and we ride it only when we have to, preferring the freedom of the six floor walkup despite our protesting legs. We place our shoes just inside of the door, and pad quietly to our single room which they have converted to a triple for us. We draw the blinds against the wan light and don’t struggle to fall asleep.