Posted in 1940s, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Zhenya arrives

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year, my Thanksgiving-themed excerpts come from Chapter 13, “Thanksgiving Break,” of A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. It’s 1948, and one of the holiday celebrations is at the home of Lyuba’s mother and stepfather. Also in attendance are Lyuba’s stepsister Dinara and her husband Yarik, who were concerned about their three adult daughters being late.

Second and third daughters Marina and Bogdana just arrived, and Marina came with her new boyfriend Yulian. When Yulian said his family doesn’t observe any American holidays and only follows Russian customs, he was invited to stay. Bogdana then said oldest sister Zhenya went to a Chinese restaurant for breakfast with her new boyfriend Kuzma.

The bell rings loudly and insistently, followed by frantic knocking. Mr. Lebedev sets his newspaper on his armchair and opens the door to find Zhenya supported by two strange men. The younger man, on Zhenya’s left, has honey blonde hair and dark blue-grey eyes, and wears a full Army dress uniform. Zhenya holds onto him more than the other man, and has a very odd standing position that looks more like one of Lyolya’s ballet poses.

The younger man introduces himself first. “I’m Zhenya’s beau, Second Lieutenant Kuzma Demyanovich Nikulin, and this is our accidental chauffeur, Clarence Palomer. Some svoloch ran a red light and plowed into Zhenya while we were crossing Lafayette onto Canal to get to the subway. We don’t think anything’s broken, though he banged her left knee pretty badly, and drove right over both of her lower legs. Mr. Palomer offered us a ride, though I was prepared to carry Zhenya on my back the rest of the way.”

Mr. Palomer tips his hat.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“The maniac who did this had an orange Bentley. From what I could see of him through his windows, he was extremely fat and had an odd pipe clenched in his teeth.”

“His name is Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov,” Ilya says from his easel. “He just got out of debtors’ prison over the summer. We ran into him on our way over here. That jerk dropped me on a hard hospital floor when I was six weeks old, and did lots of horrible things to my mother.”

“He was indirectly responsible for a medical emergency I had when I was a newborn too,” Igor chimes in. “He runs an opium den now.”

Zhenya hops into the house, still supported by Kuzma and Mr. Palomer. Vsevolod and Rostislav get up from the davenport to give her enough room.

Posted in 1950s, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Fortune cake charms

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year’s Halloween excerpts come from the currently-numbered Chapter 122, “Heterogenous Halloween,” of A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, in 1951. The seventh and final section takes place at the apartment of cousins Andrey, Tomik, and Vilorik. As on all other years, their party features a fortune cake.

Ilya, dressed in an Oktoberfest costume, walks up to the fortune cake and picks up a large ivory-handled knife. Milada, whose costume as always matches his, closes his hand over his as they cut the cake.

“Those charms are a load of premodern, superstitious nonsense,” Tomik scoffs when Luiza, dressed as a tavern maiden in green, hands him a plate. “People create self-fulfilling prophecies, or the charms just happen to coincide with things that would’ve happened regardless.”

“It’s a fun Halloween tradition.” Zhdana perches on his lap and slides her hand up his Viking robe. “Someone’s really hot and bothered. I’ll have to come home late tonight so I can relieve you of that uncomfortable congestion. A good Viking wench always satisfies her man.”

“We didn’t need those images!” Igor shouts.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

Luiza hands Igor and Violetta plates. Igor pokes his fork into the cake at several places to make sure he doesn’t bite into the charm. Unlike other fortune cakes, this one doesn’t have charms baked in with ribbons.

“A ring!” Zoya exclaims when Igor holds his up. “You’re next to marry!”

Violetta looks at the floor as she holds up a rattle.

“Next to have a baby!” Zoya smiles at Violetta and Igor. “You can’t write that off as coincidence and superstition.”

“You gave us these charms on purpose,” Violetta says.

“It was completely random,” Vilorik says. “You shouldn’t believe in that bunk. Modern, rational, sensible people know fortunetelling isn’t real.”

Zoya turns pale when she beholds her charm, bells.

“You’re soon to be wed!” Zhdana says. “I wish I’d gotten a charm proclaiming an upcoming wedding. A shamrock just means luck is in my future.”

Posted in 1950s, Couples, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

Happy Halloween!

This year’s Halloween excerpt is Chapter 122, “Heterogenous Halloween,” of A Dream Deferred, set in 1951 in St. Paul and NYC. To keep it as Halloween-specific and non-political as possible, I edited it down to 5,470 words from just over 9,000.

Irina rises early on the morning of Halloween and goes to her closet for the costume she thought up months ago. She pulls a short-sleeved, knee-length Lincoln green dress with four layers of pleats over her head, as always one of her own creations. She slips matching gauntlets onto her arms and fastens the brown leather straps. Irina savors the feeling of the brown leather belt going around her waist. This is a man’s belt, not a feminized version meant only for show.

The next costume components are a smart Lincoln green derby with a black feather on the left side, skintight Lincoln green pantalettes, and dark brown knee-high boots. Irina opens her wardrobe and takes out items she knows her father will have a couple of hemorrhages over, a dark brown leather quiver with two dozen arrows. Irina fastens a black leather sheath around her waist and puts a miniature sword inside. With the aid of her full-length mirror, she straps a bow to her back. She picks up a Lincoln green loot bag before going downstairs.

Ivan almost slices his thumb off instead of a slice of ham when Irina saunters up to the breakfast table. “Irisha, you’ve got to stop wearing such scandalous Halloween costumes! What’s wrong with your sisters’ costumes?” He motions to Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a suffragist and Roman princess.

“It’s called having my own sense of style.” Irina pulls out her sword and slices an apple.

“Where did that come from!” Lyuba shrieks. “How did we not know you had that, or the archery equipment?”

“I got the bow and arrows in the sporting section of Golden Rule, and refused to pretend I was buying them for a boy. The sword came from Andryusha’s antiques store. There’s lots of neat stuff there.”

“Can you really shoot arrows?” Sonyechka asks.

“We sometimes do that in physical education.” Irina puts bacon, scrambled eggs, dried apricots, and herbed goat cheese on her plate.

Ivan puts cherry jam on his toast. “A more important question is what Irisha’s dressed as this year. Is this a historic woman archer?”

Irina laughs. “Don’t you recognize Robin Hood in a female form, Papa? The Lincoln green should’ve given it away immediately.”

“But that’s a man’s costume! I’m relieved you didn’t cross-dress, but if you liked Robin Hood that much, you should’ve been Maid Marian. What’s wrong with her?”

“Too passive and boring. Robin Hood gets all the action and glory.”

“How about being a woman warrior, not just a lady’s version of a famous man?” Sonyechka asks. “We should write our own stories and not let men get all the glory.”

“That’s true, but there’s also a long tradition of women playing certain male roles on the stage, like Peter Pan and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. Other actresses were famous for playing male roles, and many operas have trousers roles. If men could play female roles for much of acting history, why can’t we do it in return?”

Ivan shakes his head as his womenfolk resume eating breakfast.

2

Lyudmila sends a smoldering gaze to Anton as he photographs her in a wizard costume barely meeting the fingertip rule. The studio of their Ditmas Park estate is littered with various Halloween props—crystal balls, brooms, paper moon cutouts, jack-o-lanterns, Tarot cards, stuffed black cats, cauldrons, owls, graves, zombie scarecrows, ravens, witch hats, bats, spiders. Several large trunks of Halloween costumes are off to the side. Musidora, Behemoth, and their five ten-month-old kittens prowl around and consent to being held by Lyudmila for some of the photos. These photographs will go out to clients seeking Halloween pinups, and the usual agents in charge of distributing pinups to GIs. Others are just for Anton’s eyes.

“I bet you know what this is for.” Anton hands her a heavy plastic jack-o-lantern. “You’ll get more treats tonight, but the treats in this are the kind you can keep.” He squeezes her right breast. “Not that I’m complaining about our fleeting treats. Those are a lot more fun than permanent treats, since they’re never the same twice.”

Lyudmila reaches into the jack-o-lantern and closes her hand around what feels like jewelry. She pulls out a long necklace with rough-hewn orange and black crystals first, followed by a strand of tiny, delicate pearls with a black crystal bat charm, a very wide bracelet with orange and black beads, large silver disc French hook earrings with dark blue spiderwebs painted on, and a black Bakelite brooch with nine black cherries suspended from it. At the bottom is a gold-leaf, illuminated manuscript of Rumi’s love poems.

“One year ago today, I met my zolotse and began realizing the greatest happiness of my life,” Anton says. “Little did I know I’d soon feel compelled to possess all of you, not just seduce you and have fun for a little while. I can’t wait till you’re my legal wife.”

“It’ll be too long till we have our first child.” Lyudmila pets Musidora. “Can’t we start coupling without rubbers? Dr. Sandvik said I have lowered odds of conception even after that surgery, so we might not be successful for awhile. By the time I’m free, our baby might be on the way. I hope I have identical girl twins first like my mother and Raya.”

“All things in due time, zolotse. You’ve got a great career, and shouldn’t cut it short by early motherhood. Don’t let any doctors scare you about supposed risks of having children over thirty. That’s not ideal or possible for everyone.” Anton smiles at Diana and Pamela toddling into the room, respectively dressed as a peapod and carrot. Raisa isn’t far behind them, looking more vibrant than she has in over a year.

“I’m going to miss this place when we’re back in Minneapolis,” Raisa says. “Can you arrange for Zotov to stay in Rochester even longer?”

“That’s beyond my power. Even if I could do that, Zotov can’t be too suspicious. You want a quick, clean divorce and full custody of your girls.”

Raisa kneels and puts her arms around Diana and Pamela. “I’m disgusted when I think about how I used to believe I was supposed to have one pregnancy after another, with barely any time in between. Why should I care about making up for lost time when my Diya and Melya deserve my complete attention until they’re out of babyhood? Had dear little Innokentiya and Mnemosina survived, Diya and Melya would’ve felt so cheated and ignored. Forget about the miscarried twins surviving. No woman in her right mind needs six children under the age of two.”

“I hope Zotov doesn’t immediately knock you up after your reunion,” Lyudmila says. “He doesn’t deserve any children.”

“They won’t be his children much longer, God willing. If I can finagle a divorce, Filya will adopt them. They must be so confused about who their real father is. I’ll be ill if they ever call Zotov Papa. He hasn’t done a damn thing to be worthy of that name. Even Batya is too gracious for that thing.”

“My lawyer will make sure you get an excellent divorce settlement,” Anton says. “You’re so lucky you’ve got a great second husband waiting in the wings. Most divorcées are left destitute and frequently passed up for employment.”

“Let’s not think about this now,” Raisa says. “The only thing we should care about today is having a happy Halloween.”

3

Milena, now in her fortieth week of pregnancy, sets off up the sidewalk with Tarmo and Meri by the hands. This year, she made Meri a bumblebee costume, a green dinosaur for Tarmo, and a gumball machine for herself. She barely fits behind the sewing machine anymore, and had to sit on her side. The sooner this baby comes earthside, the better. Milena wishes someone really could insert a nickel into her costume and cause the giant gumball to come cascading out.

Ilme and Milena come up behind them, holding Endla and Siiri by the hands. They’re each in matching mother-daughter costumes, French milkmaids and Rosie the Riveter, respectively. Endla and Siiri look around with wide eyes at all the bigger children in costumes.

“I can’t wait till mine is old enough for her first Halloween costume,” Milena says. “Though I’m glad she’s still baking. I’d hate to be housebound or in the clinic on such a fun holiday.”

“Are you afraid you’ll go into labor while we’re trick-or-treating?” Meri asks.

“Dr. Bellamy explained the difference between false and real contractions. None of the contractions I’ve felt over the last month were genuine. They’re just a dress rehearsal for the big show.”

“First-time mothers tend to go overdue,” Ilme says. “It’s not so common for a woman with a normal pregnancy to launch at exactly forty weeks.”

“You’re so lucky you’ll get to deliver in the new clinic,” Mireena says. “I wish I’d been able to enjoy such a personal experience. Dr. Bellamy’s rule-breaking didn’t extend that far. I got the next-best thing, but it wasn’t the same as birthing in a progressive clinic. Sulev and I will start trying for our next baby as soon as Ema’s free.”

“Taavi and I are waiting for that too,” Ilme says. “We would’ve begun trying already, but we didn’t want her to miss knowing another grandchild.”

“What’s the use of waiting?” Milena asks. “She might never get out.”

“She has to be freed,” Tarmo says. “Bad guys never stay in power forever. Do I have to testify at her retrial?”

“We’ll see what happens.” Milena smiles at Bogdana approaching them, pushing Eva’s pram.

“I’m a ladybug!” Klara announces. “Mama made my costume.” She leans against the pram and smiles down at her halfsister. “Evi’s an octopus.” She sounds out this word. “Očka says that word means having eight foots. It’s Greek. Evi’s a lot cuter than the pictures I saw. A real octopus isn’t purple.”

Bogdana lifts Eva out of the pram. “I had so much fun making their costumes. Being a wife and mother is so much more fun than pretending to care about studying music. I never want to resume my bachelor’s degree. That was so boring.”

“You might regret not finishing your degree someday,” Mireena says. “An educated woman is a valuable woman. Your girls will benefit from having a mother with a college education. Even if they choose to be wives and mothers only themselves, they’ll have an example of a woman with a higher education.”

“I suppose it’s not the end of the world if you never complete your degree,” Ilme says. “Life would be boring if everyone were exactly the same.” She rings the bell of a house with a blue door.

Mireena gently nudges Siiri forward. “What do you say, kallim?”

“Trick-or-treat,” Siiri says in unison with her cousins and Klara.

“Don’t they grow up so fast?” Bogdana whispers as the mistress of the house puts Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews into the children’s bags. “One day they’re babies, and the next they’re starting to become their own little people. I already feel time’s passing too fast with Evika.”

Klara runs to show her stepmother the candy in her bag, and Bogdana smiles at her. Mireena and Ilme take their daughters’ hands, and they continue to the next house.

“Do you miss not going to a college Halloween party?” Ilme asks.

“I loved going to parties and having an active social life, but Fate had other plans for me. I couldn’t imagine not being Achilles’s sweet little wifey and Klari and Evika’s mamashka. This is my life now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Achilles often told me I was screwing myself over by living my life by a set in stone checklist instead of following the dictates of my own mind and heart. It took a long time to figure out, but now I’m finally exactly where I most belong.”

4

Viivela smiles at Nikita and Marek as they set Halloween food on card tables and the coffeetable. Since she can’t go out, the Halloween party will come to her.

“I helped a lot,” Marek says. “Mr. Rhodes was right about how crummy Mrs. Oswald’s food wasn’t as gourmet as we thought it was. It only tasted and looked good on the outside. Inside, it was pure poison. The grub we eat now is a lot better.”

“Food always tastes best when it comes from your own hands,” Mrs. Samson says. “Even the simplest, cheapest meal feels more personal and delicious than five-star food prepared by a stranger in the world’s fanciest restaurant.”

“When you’re able to attend school again, perhaps you can join a cooking club or take cooking classes,” Nikita says.

“I’m never going back to school,” Marek says. “Even if Ema gets out of jail, the other kids will know what happened and never leave me alone. They’ll bully me every single second.”

“They won’t do that at a progressive school,” Mr. Rhodes says.

Nikita pulls a small samurai costume out of his schoolbag. “Guess who this is for, Marek.”

“Are my nieces coming?”

Nikita smiles and pets Baku. “Our furry little buddy, of course. What better costume for him? He’ll feel like he’s back in the land of his birth.”

“Can dogs wear clothes?” Viivela asks.

“Why not? I’ve seen them in catalogues.” Nikita lifts Baku onto his lap and gently maneuvers him into the costume. “You look like a million bucks now, Baku, and you match us.”

“I hope you don’t feel cheated, Nikusha,” Viivela says. “You must want to attend a real party with your friends.”

“I belong here. I’m too old for college parties. Every year, I feel more and more like a dirty old man among people barely out of high school. I barely have anything in common with the new freshmen, and they likewise feel the same.”

“But you’re only five years older than them,” Marek says. “Age differences aren’t supposed to be a big deal to grownups anymore. It’s the same reason time’s supposed to pass quicker.”

“Time doesn’t pass as quickly for me as for people well into adulthood, and age differences don’t level out like you think they do. Freshmen are barely my peers, just as I’m barely a peer to someone in his late twenties. We have different life experiences and maturity levels.” Nikita smiles at Marek. “But we’re still buddies. I’ve never seen you as a stupid, immature little kid I’m humoring. We’re genuine, equal friends.”

“Will we still be buddies after you marry Viivela?”

“Nikusha and I haven’t even gone on our first date or kissed yet,” Viivela says. “It seems obvious we should marry, but that can’t happen overnight. I’d also like to wait till Ema’s free. Mila and Vahur are waiting till then for their formal wedding, and Ilme and Mira don’t want to have more kids before then either.”

Marek takes a green hard-boiled egg out of an orange bowl and bites into it. “It’s not fair we have to put our lives on hold. More people need to protest. Mr. Brinarsky says silence is worse than active assistance, since those people know something’s wrong but choose to do jack to stop it.”

“Will you take your own advice and begin going out more?” Nikita asks. “You’re letting our enemies win when you hide at home all the time.”

“That’s different. They’re bullies who want to kill me.”

Nikita puts his arm around Marek. “No one’s going to kill you. I doubt anyone on the blacklists will be killed either, even very high-profile people.”

“Look at history,” Viivela says. “A hero always arises when it seems like things can’t get any worse. Redemption never happens overnight.”

5

Léa tucks her sword into its sheath and surveys herself in the full-length mirror before leaving for the Barnard-Columbia Halloween party. She spent the last week making a suit of armor from dark grey metallic fabric Pavel gave her. Had she had access to metal, she would’ve made a real suit of armor. Léa also made birthday girl Dessie’s costume, a turquoise and blue dress in the style of a Celtic warrior princess.

Beatrisa and Regina respectively assembled scarecrow and green witch costumes from storebought clothes and accessories, while Hestia bought a Little Red Riding Hood costume from Macy’s and Aelita repurposed a voluminous black velvet dress with an attached cowl and white silk cord bodice into that of a Medieval wise woman and healer who’d be accused of witchcraft.

“Dressing in men’s clothes makes me feel so powerful,” Léa declares. “I most prefer skirts and dresses, but trousers transform me from a helpless sex object to be gawked at into someone to be taken seriously. How could Jeanne d’Arc have led her troops to victory if she’d worn a damn dress? She’s my hero.”

“We call her Joan of Arc in English,” Regina says.

“I know, but that’s not her real name. No one in France called her anything but Jehanne or Jeanne, just as people in your parents’ homeland never called that incompetent buffoon of a Tsar Nicholas instead of Nikolay.”

“My father says similar things about Latinized Greek names,” Hestia says. “It’s understandable Latinized names became popular after Rome rose to power, but in the modern era, we ought to revert to proper Greek names.” She picks up her Little Red Riding Hood basket.

“Mira, can’t you take off that toothbrush moustache?” Beatrisa begs. “Everyone will give you dirty looks and immediately guess you’re not just a generic vaudeville performer.”

“What for?” Revmira adjusts her derby and swings her cane. “That Nazi goon shouldn’t have ruined this style of moustache even for a Halloween costume. I’m obviously not dressed as him.”

“Charlie Chaplin’s one of the most wanted public enemies on the blacklist,” Regina says. “Better safe than sorry.”

Revmira sticks her hands in the pockets of her baggy pants. “I’m dressing as Charlie Chaplin as a protest against his mistreatment. He was one of the most beloved people in the world for years, but now he’s worse than dirt.”

“His reputation, and the reputations of everyone else on those blacklists, will eventually be restored, and there’ll be full apologies,” Beatrisa says. “But in the meantime, it’s very dangerous to dress like him.”

“I’m sure plenty of people at this party will be dressed like Indians and Chinese. How many of them have that ancestry or any meaningful interest in those cultures? I’m dressing like Chaplin out of respect and solidarity.”

“You don’t want to end up like the Rosenbergs,” Regina says. “Better silent than a brutally honest blabbermouth.”

“What’s happening to the Rosenbergs is a complete mockery of justice,” Léa says. “I’m disgusted at all the Jewish organizations who’ve done jack, for fear they’ll be next. Dissent is what your country is founded on.”

“If I could get away with it, I’d take a ‘Free the Rosenbergs’ sign to this party and dress as a protestor,” Kommuna says. “Being Tituba is second-best, though I doubt any of these ninnies will guess the political significance of my costume, or even who I am.”

Léa leads the way to the social hall, wishing she could enjoy a private party instead of enduring a public circus full of people nothing like she is and unwilling to bend their views. The intellectual, Bohemian side of New York isn’t so felt in this Ivy League atmosphere, where everyone wants to blend in and be like everyone else.

Predictably, almost everyone has the same dozen or so popular costumes over and over again—witches, jack-o-lanterns, magicians, ghosts, wizards, Indians, Chinese ladies, cowboys and cowgirls, athletes, clowns, fairies, famous movie monsters. Léa, Revmira, and Beatrisa are among the few women not in skirts and dresses. Many people give dirty looks to Revmira, just as predicted.

Regina skips off to dance with Artur, who’s dressed like a baseball player. Hestia gently nudges Dessie towards Kasiodor, in a green velvet Renaissance costume. Léa crosses her arms every time a man looks in her direction.

“Are you free to dance, Miss Scarecrow?” a Russian-featured man in a friar costume asks Beatrisa.

“I’ll dance with any guy once if he’s not an ogre. Are you a freshman? I don’t recall seeing you at orientation.”

“I’m a junior. I bet you’ll never guess my name.”

“Is it Russian? I’d recognize your features anywhere.”

“You’re getting warmer, Miss.” He smiles at her. “But I’m no ordinary Sasha or Kolya. My name is much more uncommon, in any of its variants.”

Beatrisa thinks for a minute. “Is it Biblical?”

“No, it has other origins. All my siblings have very uncommon names, though the youngest and oldest escaped with fairly normal names. I bet you’ve never met anyone else with my name.”

“Do you have a modern Soviet name?” Beatrisa motions to Revmira, Aelita, and Kommuna. “They, and everyone in their family, have those names in lieu of traditional Russian names.”

“Belarusian,” Aelita corrects her. “We’re not Russian.”

“I was born in America, and my parents have no love for anything Soviet,” the friar says. “You can guess by letter, and see if you can match the correct letter to my unusual name.”

Beatrisa goes through the letters one by one, until he finally nods at the letter N. She tries to think of any unusual Russian male names starting with N, and unsuccessfully guesses Nikandr, Nikifor, Nikanor, Nikodim, Nikomed, and Nektoriy.

“My name is Niktopolion, after a fourth century martyr. There’s also a poet by that name, but my parents probably don’t know or care about him. They care less about modern culture. I go by Niko.”

“What a long-winded, pretentious name!” Beatrisa says. “Does anyone ever call you Niktopolion besides in official situations?”

“Never. Only my parents use my pompous real name. It’s pointless to give a kid a name he never goes by in real life, but my parents sure loved saddling us with rare names to show off their knowledge of Orthodoxy.” He smiles at her. “What’s your name?”

“Beatrisa, after my paternal babushka whom I’ve never met. What’s your surname? Perhaps we have a connection.”

“My surname’s just as unusual and long-winded as my first name. You don’t have to tell me Niktopolion Ugolnikov sounds like a joke name.”

Beatrisa’s eyes widen. “Might you be related to Captain Nestor Ugolnikov, a former Marine with a missing leg?”

“That’s my big brother, whom I haven’t been allowed to see since he came home from Iwo Jima. Our parents lied to our priest about Nestik becoming an atheist and violently rejecting Orthodoxy. Even after being excommunicated by all this city’s churches, my parents still insist they were in the right for disowning Nestik and lying about him.”

“Might you have any other brothers?” Kommuna asks. “We’ve got two first-year friends looking for guys to date. They’re at NYU’s women’s auxiliary.”

“I’ve got a freshman brother at Parsons. You’ll never guess his name either. Panteleimon, Panya for short. My sisters are Simforoza, Feofaniya, and Albina. Like I said, the oldest and youngest got the most normal names.”

“Why don’t we dance?” Beatrisa asks. “If you’re a good enough dancer, I’ll go out with you this weekend. Perhaps we can double with your brother and whichever girl he likes most.”

Niko smiles at her and steps onto the dancefloor.

6

Irina almost drops her cup of punch when she notices Rhonwen kissing a boy in a matador costume at the school Halloween dance. Rhonwen, dressed as Wonder Woman, returns to the refreshments table twenty minutes later, on the arm of her matador. She whispers to him before taking Irina by the arm and walking into the hall. Rhonwen pushes open a door under a barely-used stairwell, pulls on the lightbulb, and beckons to Irina.

Irina props her bow against a broken chair and has a seat on the beaten-up tan corduroy loveseat with Rhonwen. “Have you been drinking?”

“Not one drop. Where would I have gotten alcohol?”

“Then what were you doing with that guy? Did he force you?”

“I’ve been interested in Steve for awhile. This isn’t recent. Believe me, I very carefully thought about the situation from all angles before making my decision. I’d never do something like this lightly.”

Irina calls to mind images of Léa and Rhonwen exchanging little looks, touching one another for a split second before anyone could take note, and doing the intimate things she walked in on. “But you promised to stay faithful to Léa. If you lost interest in her, you should’ve been honest before starting to date guys again.”

“I truly loved Léa and thought we’d be together for always, but since she’s been away at Barnard, our lives have begun going in different directions. I suspect she’s cooled in her feelings too. Her letters aren’t those of a passionate lover, even considering the consequences of discovery. Léa’s building a new life, and it doesn’t include me, just as my life no longer includes her.”

“How long did you wait before giving up on your love? People who deeply love one another don’t just shrug and abandon the relationship after a short separation. My parents had several separations, and they never fell out of love, even during the times when they weren’t a couple.”

Rhonwen pulls her simple gold cross necklace out of her costume. “They had a much longer, stronger relationship. Maybe Léa and I were only meant to be together for a year and a half, in a very passionate burst, and then go our separate ways. Not all relationships are meant to last forever, no matter how deeply the couple loves each other.”

“But liking boys isn’t who you really are. No girl has a secret affair with another girl if she’s not a real Sapphist.”

Rhonwen shifts position on her pillow. “I don’t think I can handle a lifetime of secrecy and lies. My love for Léa was very real, and I really did believe we’d live together happily forever in a Boston marriage, but feelings are allowed to change. Call me a coward and sellout if you want, but my future no longer includes Léa.”

Irina removes her quiver and sets it on her armrest. “But if you truly love only women, you won’t be happy with any man. You’ll be faking your way through life and hurting someone who loves you. It’s not fair to date or marry anyone you don’t feel equally about.”

“I never stopped liking guys, though it’s difficult to readjust. It felt so right with Léa, but this feels right in a different way.” Rhonwen looks down at her necklace. “Even if Léa were a boy, we have a religious divide. Some couples might make it work, but I can’t see a way over all those stumbling-blocks. I never thought about the longterm repercussions of not only a Boston marriage, but an interfaith relationship.”

“Does Léa have any idea you feel this way? You can’t decide your relationship is over without informing her. She’ll keep making plans for your future if she assumes you’re still a couple.”

Rhonwen tucks her necklace back into her costume. “I don’t know how to tell her, and breaking up in a letter seems so cold. As cowardly as this is, I’d prefer she guess from fewer and fewer letters, with less and less personal content. There’s no easy, nice way to tell someone you’ve lost interest.”

“Saying nothing and putting it off sets the stage for an even harder confession and uglier fallout. I’d hate for a guy to tell me he lost interest and was seeing someone else. Don’t you think Léa would appreciate knowing sooner than later? Better to yank off a bandage than gently ease into it. Get that fear over with at once.”

“I know I should, but I don’t want to hurt Léa after how much and long I loved her. We had such a great relationship.” Rhonwen crosses her ankles.

Irina adjusts her derby and puts her quiver back on. “I ought to drive Sonya and Klepa home soon. We’ll discuss this more later.”

Rhonwen stands up. “This party will probably be over soon, and I need to be back in my dormitory by curfew.”

“School dances and parties are so boring.” Irina picks up her bow and opens the door. “I hope college parties are much more interesting.”

7

A large fortune cake is at the center of Andrey, Tomik, and Vilorik’s table, ringed by bowls, plates, and platters of Halloween-themed snacks and baked goods. Since Andrey has been so preoccupied with Katrin’s retrial, Tomik and Vilorik had to decorate the apartment and do almost all the food preparation. Every so often, the couples in attendance step onto the fire escape balcony or into one of the spare rooms to make out. Igor, dressed as a magician, feels queasy every time they do this.

“It’s such poor manners to excuse yourself to do that,” he whispers to Violetta. “Makeout parties are bad enough. Don’t they get enough every day?”

“Obviously not.” Violetta flaps the owl wings sewn to the back of her brown dress. “Since we’ve been on third base, I wish we could do that every single day. It was stupid to avoid anything beyond handholding for so long. Don’t you want to go all the way while we’re still together?”

“We’ll be together for the rest of our lives if I have anything to say about it. Why wouldn’t we be? You’re my unofficial fiancée. Before you know it, we’ll be man and wife.” Igor puts his hand on Violetta’s abdomen. “By next year at this time, Baby Koneva could be growing inside you.”

“If only I could have children.”

“You shouldn’t be so pessimistic before we’ve had a chance to try. Even if you are unable to have kids, I’ll still love you. We’ll have a great life together as just the two of us, or adopt a few kids and love them just as much as if we created them.”

Ilya, dressed in an Oktoberfest costume, walks up to the fortune cake and picks up a large ivory-handled knife. Milada, whose costume as always matches his, closes his hand over his as they cut the cake.

“Those charms are a load of premodern, superstitious nonsense,” Tomik scoffs when Luiza, dressed as a tavern maiden in green, hands him a plate. “People create self-fulfilling prophecies, or the charms just happen to coincide with things that would’ve happened regardless.”

“It’s a fun Halloween tradition.” Zhdana perches on his lap and slides her hand up his Viking robe. “Someone’s really hot and bothered. I’ll have to come home late tonight so I can relieve you of that uncomfortable congestion. A good Viking wench always satisfies her man.”

“We didn’t need those images!” Igor shouts.

Luiza hands Igor and Violetta plates. Igor pokes his fork into the cake at several places to make sure he doesn’t bite into the charm. Unlike other fortune cakes, this one doesn’t have charms baked in with ribbons.

“A ring!” Zoya exclaims when Igor holds his up. “You’re next to marry!”

Violetta looks at the floor as she holds up a rattle.

“Next to have a baby!” Zoya smiles at Violetta and Igor. “You can’t write that off as coincidence and superstition.”

“You gave us these charms on purpose,” Violetta says. “You know I’m not destined for marriage and motherhood.”

“It was completely random,” Vilorik says. “You shouldn’t believe in that bunk. Modern, rational, sensible people know fortunetelling isn’t real.”

Zoya turns pale when she beholds her charm, bells.

“You’re soon to be wed!” Zhdana says. “I wish I’d gotten a charm proclaiming an upcoming wedding. A shamrock just means luck is in my future.”

Andrey holds up a heart.

“Your love is a true love,” Luiza says. “Don’t you think it’s long past time you admitted you and Zosha ought to marry? No one goes steady for over two and a half years if they’re not in love. If you were going to break up to seek greener pastures, you would’ve done it a long time ago. The same goes for you, Letta. You might’ve convinced yourself this relationship can’t culminate in marriage, but your actions speak louder than words. We all know you love each other.”

“I’ll marry when I’m good and ready,” Andrey says. “Maybe Zosha and I do love each other, but that doesn’t mean we need to marry. She also needs an Orthodox husband.”

“Don’t rule anything out,” Milada says. “Just a few months ago, I let myself believe I couldn’t marry Ilyushka till he graduated, and now I’m the happy Mrs. Koneva. You’re only helpless against circumstances if you let yourself be held hostage to them instead of asserting yourself as master of your own destiny.”

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Why I wanted the Konevs to move back to NYC

During the writing of Part III of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, I latched onto what I thought was an awesome plot development, the Konevs deciding to leave Minnesota and return to NYC near the end of the book. While it did inject a needed boost of conflict for the last half of the story, it quickly became unfocused and never came together well.

Why did I come up with this idea and hold onto it for so long?

1. Their entire extended family lives in NYC. All these years, they’ve been by themselves in Minnesota.

2. They miss the convenience of living in the same city as so many loved ones. Celebrations either have to be missed or scheduled in chunks.

3. Lyuba’s mother and stepfather, and Ivan’s aunt and uncle whom he feels much closer to than his parents, are now elderly. It would give them comfort to be nearby in these twilight years.

4. Ivan latched onto the daydream of starting a farm in the Midwest not out of genuine passion for that lifestyle and area, but to escape into a remote place where he believed his abusive father would never find him and hurt him again. His true passion has always been art, a love his father beat out of him as a boy and which he only reclaimed at pushing fifty.

5. Lyuba and Ivan also moved to rural Minnesota in 1929 to save their marriage and give their kids a real house to grow up in, with wide-open spaces to play in, sunlight, and fresh air. But had their personal circumstances been less desperate and strained, they would’ve found a more rural location nearby instead of 1,000 miles away.

6. They were raised in cities, and finally belatedly realize rural life isn’t who they are deep down at all. They miss everything cities offer so copiously.

7. Lyuba has often said she misses living in New York. Even before moving, she felt twinges of regret at leaving so many wonderful things behind.

8. Their friends Eliisabet, Aleksey, and Kat, who moved to Minnesota with them, are inspired to go to university in their fifties too, and since they long ago promised to always stay together, they must return to New York too.

9. Nikolas, Kat’s husband, has decided to stay in the city after Katrin’s retrial to start a law firm in the tradition of Clarence Darrow.

10. Tatyana and Nikolay return home to start their own farm after graduating Barnard and Columbia not only because they feel they have to, but as an unrealized overreaction to the drama with Boris. Like their parents, they see Firebird Fields as a safe haven from the ugly real world. Now they’ve keenly grown to miss their friends, and are afraid their kids aren’t being exposed to enough of the outside world.

11. Fedya likewise returns to Minnesota out of blind duty and not wanting to disappoint his parents, and Novomira is severely guilted and pressured into it by her parents. Now they want to take charge of their own lives.

12. Darya’s husband Andrey wants to specialize in psychotherapy for Shoah survivors, veterans, and other people with traumatic wartime experiences. Per capita, there are far more of them in NYC than all of Minnesota.

13. What better city for Lyuba and Ivan to get master’s degrees in and realize their full academic potential?

14. Mr. Konev will be leaving his townhouse in Greenwich Village’s Gold Coast, and everything inside, to Igor, so why shouldn’t Igor and Violetta stay there longterm instead of only while they’re in graduate school?

15. People from upper-middle-class families who went to gymnasium never grow up to live in farm country! They long for the company of other intellectuals besides their three families.

16. Why wouldn’t Ivan and his sons want to live in New York? It’s the country’s largest Mecca of artists.

17. They all feel like they’re wasting their potential in rural Minnesota. Next-youngest child Sonyechka, the most brilliant by far, particularly feels she could do so much more with her brain in New York.

18. Sonyechka also wants to live near her new friends Pravdina and Zikatra, who encourage her to convince her parents to move. They’re so much more sophisticated, intellectual, political, and exciting than her friend Kleopatra.

19. Nonconformists were safer in big cities in this era.

20. Why would anyone want to live in the Midwest?!

21. An apartment suits them much better than a big ole farmhouse. To sweeten the deal, let’s make it a penthouse Ivan buys with the ample money his father leaves him.

22. Lyuba and Ivan must redo their New York experience “properly.”

23. Katya shouldn’t be alone in California while Dmitriy’s deployed.

24. Youngest child Tamara will have ample opportunities for baking classes.

25. Who wouldn’t want to live in New York?!

And then all my reasons fell apart like a flimsy house of cards. To be continued.

Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

DeWitt Clinton Park

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DeWitt Clinton Park was created in Hell’s Kitchen in 1902, designed by landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. It originally encompassed 7.4 acres and extended to the Hudson River, with a running track, gymnasium, bathing pavilion, curved paths with viewing desks of the Palisades and Hudson River, and playgrounds.

At the center was a children’s farm, the first of its kind in the city, with a pergola, flowerbeds, observations plots, and 356 4×8 vegetable gardens. Each vegetable garden was assigned to a “little farmer.”

The land for this refreshing urban oasis came from the Striker, Mott, and Hopper farmsteads. Their houses were torn down in 1895 and 1896. Other buildings on this site were demolished in 1902.

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In 1904, in The Atlantic Monthly, Albert Shaw wrote of the area on the eve of its rehabilitation:

“The most vivid imagination could not have conceived a more desolate spot than this was in the summer of 1902. Approached from the east, through filthy streets crowded with noisy, dirty urchins, it loomed up a dark blot upon the beautiful background of cool river, green hills, and blue sky. Rows of tumble-down houses, disused carts, piles of rubbish, stones, rags, and litter, among which the children played, made even the streets seem neat and orderly by comparison.”

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In 1930, a statue of a doughboy was added, designed by Burt Johnson (whose sister Annetta was a sister-in-law of Augustus Saint-Gaudens). The children’s gardens were taken away in 1932 to build the West Side Elevated Highway. The soil was taken to Central Park to fill in the Lower Reservoir, which later became the Great Lawn.

The park shrank even further in 1935 when the New York Passenger Ship Terminal was built. Gone were the beautiful, unobstructed views of the Hudson River and Palisades. Also gone were the music stands, big arbor, and undulating lawn, replaced by baseball fields, a playground, basketball and handball courts, and a dog park.

Today the park is 5.3 acres.

In 1959, locals tried to rename their neighborhood after the park, because who wants to live in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? Though regardless of the name, this was a tough, violent neighborhood in that era, rife with gang activity and murders. Some people steadfastly call it Clinton, but its name officially remains Hell’s Kitchen.

Many people had left the area by the 1980s and 1990s, and the park was well-known as a drug den and homeless encampment. In October 1986, three teens murdered a homeless man there.

In 1995, the park slowly started returning to its former glory, though it’ll never be as large and beautiful as it was long ago and worlds apart.

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My character Igor Konev is driving his sister Irina’s friend Léa Kahn to Barnard’s new student orientation weekend in September 1951 when a red tabby with a kitten in her mouth appears in the road. Léa insists Igor follow her, since it’s not right for a cat with kittens to be homeless.

They finally see her entering DeWitt Clinton Park, where she deposits her kitten by one of the sycamores lining a curved path on the western side, in a spot with five other kittens. The cat promptly takes off, and Igor gets back in the car to follow her while Léa stays with the kittens.

When Igor returns with the mother and seven other kittens, including a chimera runt much smaller than most runts, he finds Léa sitting by the sycamores and talking to a a little African–American girl and her rather young mother. They’re all petting the kittens.

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“So much for your claim about most people in this city only associating with their own kind,” Léa says as the car starts back towards Brooks Hall on Broadway, the mother cat and runt on her lap. “They saw I’m different from the others in my own way, so they started conversation with me. Anyone with green hair, three earrings in each ear, and flamboyant fashion isn’t a conformist who only cares about people exactly like herself.”