Sweet Saturday Samples—Nikolay’s Birthday

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This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is from the opening of Chapter 4 of The Twelfth Time, “Seven Years After the October Revolution.” The women gather at Katrin’s Upper West Side penthouse in November 1924 for the seventh birthday party of Nikolay, who was born at only 28 weeks and 2.5 pounds. The female doctor Eliisabet saw the day after his premature birth went to the St. Petersburg State Medical University, Russia’s first women’s medical school, which was founded in 1897.

***

“Can you believe today already makes it seven years since the October Revolution and dear little Kólya’s birth?” Eliisabet asks as she and Lyuba enter Katrin’s penthouse suite with their children. “It seems like such a lifetime ago, and yet seven years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things.”

“It’s hard to believe your miracle baby, my darling godson, was born the same day those heartless Bolsheviks took over.  One blessed event and one cursed event share the same anniversary.”

Nikoláy’s eyes light up at the sight of all the brightly colored balloons, streamers, banners, and decorations set up by Katrin’s maid Mrs. Samson.  He rushes to the birthday chair of honor and boosts himself into it.  Eliisabet winces a little at how he’s still a little small for his age, even though he’s not grossly undersized.

“That’s so amazing how he was born out of a hospital, didn’t even have an attending doctor or midwife, and yet turned out perfectly normal.” Viktóriya sits doing a crossword puzzle in lieu of studying the geometry and French homework she brought home for the weekend. “This proves that doctors are not gods and don’t always know everything.  I wonder if any doctor would even treat a baby born at twenty-eight weeks.  I’ve studied the eugenics movement, so I know these things.”

“Lyuba was my midwife,” Eliisabet says. “And the next day, Pyotr brought over a doctor.  She said we’d done the right thing by not cutting off his cord till it stopped pulsating and not rubbing off his vernix, and said we had to make sure to keep him extra-warm, not to let him get wet, and keep him close to the stove for warmth.  And our Grand Duke Dmítriy Pávlovich was born at only seven months too, and he’s perfectly normal.  Little Dárya here was also born seven weeks early.”

Anastásiya falls into a swoon at the mention of her belovèd Prince Dmítriy’s name.  Everyone rolls her eyes.

“Who do you like more lately, Dmítriy or Rudy?” Viktóriya taunts her. “I’d pick the prince over the actor, after that godawful costume drama I had to suffer through.  Who finds a guy handsome when he’s dressed in some powdered wig and seventeenth century outfit?”

“You little brat, you’re going to pay for that!”

Viktóriya laughs as Anastásiya gets up to chase after her and trips over her high heels and long skirts. “You’re probably the only woman in America under thirty who still walks around in clothes our grandmothers wore.”

“First we’re going to have a birthday supper, then games, and finally birthday cake and ice-cream,” Katrin announces. “Nástya, leave Víka alone.  At this point, you’re the guest in my house, not my little sister.”

“Leave her alone?  She was the one who was taunting me!”

Katrin’s cook Mrs. Oswald brings out several platters and bowls.  Eliisabet and Katrin selected the menu, but Nikoláy got to approve it within reason.  He wishes they could only eat cake, candy, pie, and ice-cream, but had to agree with his mother and unofficial aunt that too many sweets aren’t good for anyone.  They ended up selecting corn, tomato, cabbage, and pickle salad, roasted chicken, shashlyk, kisél, hard boiled eggs, spinach quiche, vegetable soup, and blinchiki.  Several pitchers of grape juice are also brought out.

“You trust these kids to drink purple grape juice on a white tablecloth?” Anastásiya pesters.

“Mrs. Samson is a miracle-worker about getting out stains.  She’s gotten out all my postpartum bleeding from my sheets and clothes so far.”

“You’re lucky Ványa isn’t here,” Lyuba laughs. “He said he couldn’t look you in the eyes again after reading your paean to hospital birth.”

“That’s so typical of him.  I never understood how your husband could be so modern and enlightened about some things and so horribly old-fashioned and prudish about others.”

“I have to admit, I was a bit scandalized too,” Eliisabet says. “You really didn’t blush as you wrote some of that?  Now everyone will know what your unmentionables look like!”

“They’re not so unmentionable if I wrote about them in public.  Besides, it’s a very left-wing publication, not some cleaned-up affair like The New York Times or some snooty society publication.”

“You only gave these kids one fork and spoon, Kátya?” Anastásiya demands. “And you’re letting the younger ones eat with their hands!”

“I might have money, but that doesn’t make me a snob.  What’s the point of having twenty different forks and spoons for one meal?  Kids learn to use utensils when they’re ready.  Thank God you’re never reproducing, though I’d love to see what a kid of yours would look like.”

Six Sentence Sunday

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Since this week’s Six Sentence Sunday, 18 December, is my birthday (32nd), I decided to use a birthday-related six sentences. This is from Chapter 19, “Allen Steps Up,” of Little Ragdoll. It’s 11 July 1962, Adicia’s eighth birthday, and her 18-year-old big brother Allen has just come over to say she, her 3-year-old sister Justine, and her 14-year-old sister Emeline will be moving into his nice new apartment in the West Village. While this is all the birthday present Adicia could’ve wanted, she still wants to know if Allen has any cake or other party favors for her.

***

“Are we going to have balloons and streamers for my birthday?” Adicia asks as they walk up the steps and into the building. “I’ve never had a real birthday before.”

“Just a cake for now.  Have you ever had real cake before?”

“I can’t remember if I ever had real cake except at Gemma’s wedding.  Do I get to have the biggest piece?”

Sweet Saturday Samples

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This week for Sweet Saturday Samples, I’m presenting another excerpt from Chapter 29 of Adicia’s story, “Allen and Lenore’s Romance.” It’s the day after Lenore’s 18th birthday, and Adicia, her sisters, and their friends have come over to the apartment to give Lenore their presents and celebrate with her. Bit by bit, Lenore confesses to them what happened last night.

***

Adicia, Justine, Ernestine, Julie, and the Ryans come up to the apartment on Saturday afternoon, carrying a shopping bag with their birthday presents for Lenore.  Lenore seems a bit moony-eyed as she greets them.

“You seem different,” Ernestine says. “Does that happen to everyone when they turn eighteen and magically become adults?”

“Did you feel different overnight when you turned thirteen and became a teenager?” Lenore asks her.

“A little,” Ernestine says. “Girl says she didn’t feel like a teenager right away.”

Girl pulls up a seat at the kitchen table and sits with her head in her elbows, an annoyed look on her face.  When Lenore offers the children birthday cake, Girl gives a little sigh and accepts a thin slice.  She says nothing as she slowly chews the cake.

“What’s eating you?” Lenore asks. “You’re usually so animated.”

“She started menstruating last night,” Ernestine tattles.

Adicia looks at Girl with a mixture of jealousy, admiration, and surprise. “Why’d you keep it a secret?  You didn’t say anything about that when Justine and me met yous guys at your place.”

“I was not looking forward to this,” Girl grumbles. “I wanted to hold out till I was seventeen.  Lucky Ernestine still ain’t gotten hers.”

“She went across the hall to Mrs. van Niftrik for help when she realized what was going on,” Julie says. “She said Mrs. van Niftrik thought her homemade washable napkins were ingenious, and so much more practical and thrifty than the Modess napkins and the belt she uses.  Betsy turned thirteen in March, but she hasn’t menstruated yet.  I’m glad I have at least two more years left to not have it.”

“What did Allen get you for your birthday?” Baby asks, glad she’s only eight years old and too young to be dealing with such a situation.

“A stuffed monkey, perfume, blue flat-soled shoes, and an emerald bracelet,” Lenore smiles. “He spends too much money on me.”

“A guy only spends so much money on a girl when he really likes her,” Ernestine says. “You think he’ll come home from work this evening with more gifts?”

“Even if he does, I’m not wishing for anything more!” Lenore says. “Your brother has already gotten me a miniature zoo, and now he’s gotten me jewelry, shoes, and perfume!”

“Can we go out to the park after you open your presents?” Infant asks.

“Sure, that’ll be fun,” Lenore says.

She takes the bag from Boy and pulls out the presents, wrapped in newspaper.  Ernestine and her friends pooled together their money and got her a mauve-colored jewelry box with seashells and bits of rounded colored glass for decoration, Adicia got her a compact mirror with rhinestones with some of her windshield-washing money, and Justine got her a potholder she made in her kindergarten class.  All of the other girls were making them for their mothers or grandmothers, but only Justine had to make hers for an older female friend who serves as one of her surrogate mothers.  She used green, white, red, and yellow loops.

“Someday when we’re older and have jobs, we’ll get you presents as nice as the ones Allen got,” Adicia promises.

“He took me out to a Greek restaurant for supper too,” Lenore says. “He held my hand part of the way home.”

“How romantic!” Ernestine says. “I think hand-holding is very underrated.”

“And then when we were watching television after we got home, he put his arm around me.”

“How exciting!” Julie says. “I bet you didn’t put up a fight when he did either of those things.”

“He asked my permission for both things,” Lenore says proudly. “I know a lot of guys would just make their move and not even think about if the girl was interested in that.  You should’ve seen how nervous he was about asking me if he could kiss me.”

“What!” Ernestine gasps, a big smile appearing on her face. “My brother really kissed you, on the mouth I’d assume?”

Lenore giggles nervously. “It was very nice.”

“What does it feel like?” Girl asks, suddenly interested in her surroundings. “Not that I wanna do that with anyone till I’m a bit older, but I’m curious.  I should know what to expect.”

“Like being tickled by butterflies,” Lenore says. “You can feel invisible electric sparks and you get butterflies in your stomach.”

“I don’t know why anyone would wanna do that,” Infant says, wrinkling her nose. “It’s like chewing on someone’s face.  Older people do lots of stuff I think is goofy.”

“You’re only six, sweetie.  When you’re my age, you’ll probably think a lot differently.” Lenore picks up her purse. “Now who wants to go out to the park?  I’ll buy yous guys snacks or ice-cream if we pass a vendor.”

“That’s it?” Girl asks. “You’re gonna drop the bomb that Allen kissed you last night and then leave it at that?  No other details?”

“I wouldn’t want to bore you with details when you’ve never had your own boyfriend.  I don’t think you could really understand what I’m talking about if you haven’t experienced it yet.  Besides, I think Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine might be a little grossed-out if I go into any more detail about their own brother kissing me.”

“You’re right,” Adicia says immediately. “I hope no boy kisses me till I’m at least eighteen.”

“When you’re eighteen?” Justine asks. “I don’t want to do that ever, with any boy!”

“I told you,” Lenore says.

Girl looks at her in awe as they file out of the apartment, as though she’s now a species from another planet.  She knows Lenore is five years older than she is, but now she seems even older by mere virtue of having a boyfriend.  That’s the kind of growing up experience she’d prefer to be having right about now, instead of being stuck having her first unwanted menstrual period.

Sweet Saturday Samples

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This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples picks up where last week’s left off. It’s from Chapter 29 of Adicia’s story, “Allen and Lenore’s Romance,” and Lenore is opening her birthday presents after getting home from dinner at a Greek restaurant. The more time passes this evening, the more and more convinced she is that she’s either dreaming or the luckiest girl in the world. Then her insecurities start to get the better of her and she questions why her dream man would choose her of all people.

(Interesting side note: Lenore’s surname, Hartlein, is one of several surnames in this book I plucked from my own family tree. It’s a South German name roughly translated as “brave little one” or “strong little one.” My five-greats-grandmother was named Mary Eve Hartlein, and I decided to give Lenore both her middle and birth last name in her honor.)

***

Lenore opens the larger box first.  It contains yet another stuffed animal, a smiling monkey, a bottle of perfume, and a pair of light blue ballet flats.  Allen looks at her for approval as she encounters each thing in the box.

“These are very thoughtful gifts,” she says. “I guess you found out my shoe size the same way I found out yours.”

“I insisted they find me flat shoes for you instead of those high-up shoes all the girls your age are supposed to wear.  I don’t want you tripping and falling again with high heels, after you already tripped with regular boots.”

Lenore opens the small box next.  A folded note is lying on top of a bracelet with dark green stones.  She hopes she isn’t blushing too much as she reads the note, “Happy birthday to the prettiest girl I know, Miss Lenore Eve Hartlein, on her 18th birthday, June 25, 1965, Friday.  Love, Allen Théodore Troy.”

“You can’t really think I’m the prettiest girl you know,” she protests. “And my mother once told me it’s improper for a man to get jewelry as a present for a lady unless she’s his mother, sister, grandmother, wife, or a very serious lady friend he’s going to marry.”

“You have really beautiful green eyes.  I got you emeralds so they would go with your beautiful eyes.  Here, let me put it on your wrist for you.”

Lenore feels butterflies in her stomach as Allen is putting the bracelet on her left wrist.  She’s trying to put the idea of him meaning anything more than friendship out of her mind when she hears him asking, “Would you like to go to the movies on Sunday?”

“You can’t mean as a date,” she says in embarrassment.

“Would it be so bad if I were taking out on a date?  You’re old enough now to go out with me.  You don’t have to go out with me if you don’t want to, but it can’t hurt to give it a try.”

Lenore gives him a slight smile. “Yes, I think I would like to go to the movies with you.  Can we watch television now?” She hopes to shift the conversation away from the idea of going on a date and a potential relationship starting.

Allen pushes the on button on the television set and goes up through ABC, CBS, and NBC to find something to watch.  After settling on NBC, he turns to Lenore and smiles at her again. “Is it okay if I put my arm around you?”

Lenore looks straight at the television set. “I don’t see why not,” she decides after considering it for several long minutes.

She settles into the crook of his arm as her heart beats a little faster, as they both continue to look at the television and not one another.  By the time Allen gets up to get a glass of water after the show ends, she’s starting to feel very comfortable sitting there with his arm around her.  He has always made her feel very safe and protected, though she knows that right now he’s probably motivated by something other than mere goodness of spirit.

When he takes his seat after coming back with the water, he puts his arm around her again without asking this time.  At the first commercial break, he reaches down for a drink and then fumbles the glass when he puts it back down, almost dropping it.  He turns to Lenore, looking very nervous, and starts stuttering and pausing when he addresses her.

“I was…thinking, maybe…if it doesn’t bother you…maybe…I mean, would you mind…would you be okay…how would you like it…I’d like to…I really want to…I’ve never asked a girl for permission before…Can I kiss you?”

Lenore involuntarily smiles, too nervous and surprised to answer.

“Is that a yes?  If you don’t want to, I won’t make you.”

“I’m scared.  When you’re my age and you’ve never done that, it seems really scary when it finally has a chance to happen.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t be rough.” Allen knows better than to bring up the fact that he gave a number of his ex-girlfriends their first kisses, and that he was nervous too when he had his first girl, the eighteen-year-old who invited him up to her place when he was a mere lad of thirteen.  That would be the last thing Lenore would want to hear, comparisons to other girls. “I mean, if you don’t want to do that, it’s fine with me.”

“Yes, you can do it,” she says, feeling her throat getting dry and her palms sweating.

Allen reaches over and gives her a soft, gentle kiss on the mouth that only lasts several seconds.  Lenore’s heart skips a beat.

“You look really happy,” he says. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

She can only nod her head and smile an excited smile.

“Again?” he asks.

“Yes, please,” she manages to squeak out in a whisper.

The second time he kisses her for a little bit longer, while Lenore still feels her heart beating very fast and has a warm, fuzzy feeling inside of her.  When he pulls away and asks, “More?” she nods excitedly again and this time closes her eyes.  She can hardly believe her good fortune.  A little under three years ago, she was running away from Brooklyn and found some charming little girls and their cute older brother at the bus stop, and now she’s being kissed and held by her handsome older roommate whom she’s had a crush on almost since the beginning.  Never in her wildest dreams did she ever think the older Allen would ever reciprocate her teenage crush on him.  At her age, a twenty-one-year-old seems like an older man instead of someone from her own age group.

“You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to do that,” he smiles when he comes up for air. “Do I pass your test?”

Lenore suddenly feels insecure and turns her head away from him.  Perhaps it really is too good to be true and he just feels sorry for her after her ordeal in the winter, or he just intends to pass the time with her until he finds someone his own age.

“Something wrong?” he asks. “Don’t you like my technique?”

“That was wonderful, even though I have no one to compare you to.  It’s not that.  Why did you pick me, Allen?  I’m only turning eighteen, and you’re twenty-one now.  Why would you pick me over some woman your own age?  I’m not the prettiest girl I can think of and I have absolutely no experience with men.  You’re a good-looking guy and have had a bunch of girlfriends already.  You shouldn’t want to be with a girl my age you actually have to give a kissing lesson to.  I don’t even know how to kiss you back without embarrassing myself and showing you just how dumb and inexperienced I really am.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

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This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is from the beginning of Chapter 29 of Adicia’s story, “Allen and Lenore’s Romance.” After Chapter 26, “Rendezvous with Destiny,” this was my favorite chapter to write and the one I most looked forward to reaching. In my original plans for the book, when I was writing the discontinued first draft many years ago, Allen and Lenore were going to get together a lot sooner instead of waiting three years. But then I realized that would be pretty unrealistic, since not only has Lenore just run away from an abusive, degenerate father when she meets Allen and his sisters in 1962, but she’s also 15 to Allen’s 18. Three years is a pretty big age difference at that age. In waiting for Lenore to turn 18, I also thought it increased the tension between them and made the final payoff even sweeter, since they both had to wait so long.

***

“Would you like to go out to supper to celebrate your birthday?” Allen asks Lenore. “You deserve something really special to mark your eighteenth birthday after all you went through this year.”

“You mean tonight?” Lenore asks. “Isn’t Friday night usually a date night? People might assume we’re out on a date.”

“Today’s your birthday, isn’t it? We’ll have a nice supper out, and then I can give you your present when we get home. I can’t wait to show you what I got you.”

“What if that girl you like sees us out and gets jealous?”

“No other girl is going to steal me away from you. Stop worrying about whatever I told you about some other girl. Now how’d you like to go out to a Greek restaurant?”

“I don’t think I’ve had Greek food before.”

“Then why we don’t we go and try it out? I hear Greeks make excellent food. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”

“Okay,” Lenore finally agrees, secretly thrilled she’ll be going out on something that looks like a date with Allen, even if they’ll only be going out as male-female roommates. “I guess I’m paying for my own meal.”

“I’ll pay for everything,” he smiles. “It’s not very chivalrous to take a girl out to eat and then make her pay for it. It’s my job to pay. Now why don’t you put on some fancy clothes while I put on that suit you got me, and we can be going.”

Lenore darts into her room to put on a green sundress, a lightweight dark green shawl, and yellow leather open-toed sandals. Allen puts on the dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes, leaving off the suit jacket since it’s too hot to wear it. He wishes he could offer Lenore his arm as they start down the hall to the elevator.

“I don’t look so bad without makeup, do I? For some reason I never got around to buying any with my money from when I was working.”

“You’re naturally beautiful. You’re not onea those girls who needs to put on a bunch of makeup to make herself look good. You should feel proud of having such nice skin and features without needing any extra help.”

Lenore blushes. “You really think I’m beautiful?”

“The most beautiful girl I know, both inside and out. I’m proud I’m going to be seen out and about with you.”

When they arrive at the restaurant, they’re given an outdoor table. Allen pulls her chair out for her and seems to spend most of his time looking into her eyes. Lenore tries her best to shrug it off as just a feeling of gratitude that she’s still alive after what happened to her, though she can’t help but feeling like she’s turning into a bowl of gelatin every time he looks at her. She wonders what it would feel like to be touched by him in a non-platonic way, and shivers with excitement at the thought of it.

For supper, Allen orders stuffed grape leaves and moussaka, and Lenore orders baked lamb and spanakopita. He won’t hear of her ordering anything that’s just a soup and salad just to save money and avoid overeating. Even after she’s regained her strength, health, and appetite, Allen is still terrified of Lenore having a relapse or becoming sick all over again. Only hearty, substantial foods will do for her in his eyes. He even insists she try several bites of the moussaka from his fork. For dessert, Allen orders karidopita, a cake made of crushed walnuts and soaked in syrup, and Lenore orders the closest thing on the menu to ice-cream, partially frozen Greek yogurt with honey mixed in and berries on top.

On the way home, Allen suddenly turns to her, his heart beating loudly enough for Lenore to hear it. “Do you mind if I hold your hand?”

“Sure,” Lenore says after thinking about it for a few seconds.

Allen reaches over for her hand and takes it gently in his, trying not to look at her for the rest of the walk home. Lenore doesn’t look over at him either, though her insides feel as though they’re on fire from the sparks of excitement coming from holding hands. She knows most girls her age probably think of hand-holding as baby stuff, but when you’ve never done it with someone special before, it feels electrically charged, marking a different kind of physical contact and maybe the start of a boy-girl relationship. But maybe Allen just wants to hold hands as friends and just never asked her before. Lenore knows not everyone who holds hands is doing it for romantic reasons.

When they’re back in the apartment, Lenore sits down on the davenport while Allen goes into his room to fetch her birthday presents. She still feels a tingling sensation in the hand he was holding. After what her father did to her, she never imagined she’d someday be longing for any man to touch her. Her whole body is aching to be touched by him again, even if it’s just hand-holding.

“Happy birthday, beautiful girl,” he says as he sets the gifts next to her. “You’ll get the rest of your gifts tomorrow when the girls come over.”