This year’s Halloween excerpt is Chapter 83, “Halloween Happiness,” of A Dream Deferred. It’s set in 1950, in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and NYC.
The day before Halloween, after finishing a late breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes, lox, and poached eggs, Lyudmila throws open her wardrobe and pulls out the second drawer of her bureau, gazing upon her prized pinup clothes. Since Denis left for boot camp at the beginning of the month, she’s been at liberty to purchase as many sexy clothes as her heart desires, and to stop hiding her pre-existing sexy clothes. When one of her photographers suggested a Halloween shoot, Lyudmila eagerly accepted. The studio will provide the props, and she’ll provide the clothes.
Lyudmila throws a black bikini, a black bathing suit with a barely-there swing skirt, a black dress with silver spiderweb patterns, a gauzy white dress with a very short skirt, a black velvet dress with silver stars and moons, a black satin blouse with a plunging neckline, an orange skirt with pumpkin faces, a red saloon girl Halloween costume from three years ago, a lady pirate costume from two years ago, a ghoulish green dress, and black fishnets onto the bed. She slips into a strapless black dress with a skirt barely meeting the fingertip rule. Denis would give her a good spanking if he saw her strutting around like this, but he can no longer control what she does. Lyudmila isn’t looking forward to the war ending, when she’ll have to relinquish this restored freedom.
Lyudmila puts her clothes into a leopard print carrying bag, slips into black high heels and a red wool overcoat, and heads out the door. She’s relieved she menstruated like normal after Denis left. If she’d been left pregnant, her pinup career would be indefinitely over, and she’d be stuck in the same unhappy position as Raisa.
At the studio, Lyudmila hangs up her coat and reports to her photographer. She smiles under his lustful gaze, idly thinking about the possibility of advancing her pinup career through affairs with the right photographers and agents. Most of these men are at least ten years her senior, exactly the kind of partner she’s long wanted. Having to settle for a husband only two years older remains a great humiliation.
“You’ll make a lot of GIs very happy, Mrs. Kotova, long after Halloween.” The photographer devours her large bustline with his eyes. “A sexy witch lights a man’s fire any time of year.”
Lyudmila puts on a witch’s hat and straddles a broom, against a large paper cutout of a moon. She gives the camera her come-hither look, perfected after eight years of doing this. Over the next eight hours, with a brief break for lunch, she poses in all her outfits, with a revolving door of props and backdrops. Some of the photos feature black cats, owls, cauldrons, jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows, rustic wooden fences, other pinups, men in costumes, fortunetelling cards, crystal balls, mirrors, handguns, swords, Ancient Egyptian symbols, spiders, bats, rats, and spooky trees. Since Denis left, she hasn’t had a day-long shoot. If this continues, she’ll earn enough to support herself on just modelling, and won’t need to take a so-called real, respectable job to supplement what little money Denis sees fit to send.
“Mrs. Kotova, do you mind if I show these photos to other photographers and agents?” the photographer asks as Lyudmila puts on her coat. “Unlike other photographers, I never make my models sign an exclusivity clause. The primary recipients of these photos are GIs, but industry professionals need to see them too. You could go so much further with your career with wider exposure.” He pulls out a business card and writes something on the back. “I’m inviting my sexiest models to a party tomorrow, where there’ll be a lot of people who can advance your careers. If you turn the heads of the right ones, you could be as famous as Lisa Fonssagrives eventually.”
“I’d do anything to advance my career.” Lyudmila takes the card. “Well, almost anything. I’d never do something illegal or unethical.”
The photographer gazes upon her bustline. “Keep in mind how influential and networked the other photographers and agents are. The right man could help you advance your career. If I weren’t such a no-name Minneapolis photographer, I’d make you my mistress and recommend you to the editors of Vogue.”
“Thank you for thinking so highly of me, Mr. Branting. If my husband didn’t want me to commit adultery, he would’ve behaved better, and given me reasons to love him.”
“That’s my girl. Almost everyone has side lovers. Only saps remain faithful to a spouse for an entire marriage. The right lover will have money for you to take care of any mishaps, if you know what I mean.”
Lyudmila nods. “No, that’s not something I want ruining my career. I can’t wait to meet all these fellows at your party.” She picks up her carrying bag. “I’ll wear the sexiest costume possible, if your dress code allows it.”
“By all means. You can’t impress these people by dressing like a Victorian schoolgirl.”
Lyudmila tingles with anticipation and excitement as she walks out to catch a bus. Finally, the life she should’ve had all along is beginning in earnest.
Irina wakes an hour earlier than usual on Halloween and pulls a tray on a strap out of her closet. When she saw that at Andrey’s belovèd antique store several weeks ago, she knew she had to be a cigarette girl this year. Irina fills it with candy cigarettes, bubblegum, jellybeans, gumdrops, nonpareils, chocolate-covered peanuts, chewing gum, cheap costume jewelry, yo-yos, and a pack of Gauloises.
She sets the tray on the bed and slips into the dress she designed herself, a red halterneck with black accent lace, barely meeting the fingertip rule, hugging her body in all the right places. Irina complements it with red fishnets, red gloves with black sequined swirls, and red peep-toe wedge heels. She covers her bobbed hair with a red pillbox hat with black accents.
For jewelry, she puts golden bangle bracelets on each arm, and fastens a red pearl choker and a gold chain with an onyx rose pendant around her neck. Irina takes out her earrings and replaces them with red pearls in her third piercings, black pearls in her second, and heavy golden coils in her first. That finished, she puts on dark red lipstick, black mascara, teal eyeliner, and dark blue eyeshadow. Since her hands are covered by gloves, there’s no need to change her nailpolish.
Ivan almost drops the teapot when Irina saunters down to the breakfast table. Lyuba shrieks and crosses herself, while Sonyechka and Tamara look at Irina in admiration.
“Must you dress like a harlot every Halloween?” Lyuba asks. “You’re in high school, not an adult, and you wear these costumes in public the entire day instead of for a few hours at a party.”
“Exactly.” Irina takes off her tray and sets it on the counter. “I won’t be able to get away with that before long, so I need to milk it for all it’s worth. No boys will see me. I’ll have my coat over it on the way to and from school.” She picks up a fork and piles her plate with lox, scrambled eggs, and apple cider doughnuts.
“Look how modestly and ladylike your little sisters are dressed,” Ivan pleads. “Why can’t you wear something like that? You could’ve used the extra fabric to make your own adult version.”
“Because I’m seventeen, not eleven or eight. There’s nothing wrong with their costumes, but that’s not who I am. I like expressing myself and adopting a new identity one day a year.”
“I like my costume, but it’s not as original as Irisha’s,” Sonyechka agrees. “How many other girls will be dressed in seventeenth century costumes?”
“Probably not nearly as many as you think.” Irina pours orange juice. “Stefania Wolicka might be extremely radical, but that doesn’t mean most of the students will consider original costumes. I bet we’ll see lots of the same old boring witches, princesses, fairies, ghosts, spiders, bats, monsters, Indians, and mummies. The boys’ school will probably have similarly clichéd costumes.”
Tamara smoothes her Medieval princess skirt. “Can I go trick-or-treating without my crutches? I can walk around the house without them.”
“The house isn’t the same as around the neighborhood,” Ivan says. “You won’t have to use them forever. By next Halloween, you might be walking normally again.”
“I shouldn’t have to use calipers and crutches so long. My stroke was almost a year ago.”
Lyuba cuddles her. “Your mobility’s returning at its own pace. Sometimes when the body has a big shock, it shuts down and doesn’t heal as swiftly as it ordinarily would. It’s also difficult to heal when there are so many injuries at once. The body doesn’t know which to heal first, or in what order.”
“Can I go back to school soon? I like Professor Edi’s lessons, but it’s boring to not be with any other kids during the day, and not learn the way I’m supposed to.”
“Your little boyfriend Marek gets his lessons at home with a tutor, and he’s learning everything normal sixth graders do. Though as radical as Katrin is, I’m surprised she never put her kids in Walden. Marek wouldn’t have been bullied out of progressive school.”
Ivan puts his tableware in the sink. “Toma, when your calipers come off, we’ll have a big party to celebrate. In the meantime, the rest of us need to leave for school. Think about all the candy you’ll get tonight, not having to use crutches.” He gives Irina a pleading look. “Irisha, is there anything I can say or do to make you change your mind and put on a more demure costume? You can never go wrong as a Gypsy or Victorian girl. Those costumes are last-minute classics, and don’t look thoughtless.”
Irina shakes her head. “I’m a cigarette girl, Papa. It’s not like I dressed as a striptease dancer or burlesque actress.”
“Thank God for small miracles,” Ivan mutters as Irina clears her place.
Lyuba crosses herself when she gets an eyeful of the Gauloises. “Irisha, where in the world did these come from? Have you been smoking?”
“The cigarettes? I bought them only for this costume. A cigarette girl doesn’t only sell candy. I’ll never open them. Smoking might be fashionable and look glamourous, but I don’t understand the appeal. I’d probably feel much differently if I’d been raised among smokers.”
“You promise you’ll never smoke?” Ivan asks. “We raised you better than that.”
“I’m not interested in smoking. You’ll never catch me doing it behind your back or smell cigarettes on my clothes. That’s one thing modern American thing you don’t have to guilt-trip me about.”
Irina pulls on her amauti, grabs her schoolbag, puts the tray around her neck, and heads out the door with Sonyechka. Kleopatra and Fridrik, dressed as Edwardians, are waiting for them across the street. During the walk to school, they join up with the Kahns. Benjamin is wearing a magician’s hat, and a long navy blue skirt is visible under Yaël’s coat. Léa has a phony sword in a scabbard on her left side.
“Is your mother’s health better?” Benjamin asks Sonyechka.
“She’s not sick. There was another reason she had problems breathing at your bar mitzvah. She wouldn’t tell me any details, but she said something in the Bible upset her a lot.”
Léa transfers her sac à dépêches to her other hand. “Just one thing? So many things in that Torah portion are disturbing. A lot of things in the entire Torah are bothersome, but they’re usually not clustered together. It’s little wonder many Christians think our Bible is too depressing and violent to still follow.”
“We have the same Bible,” Irina says. “Christians just have more books in it.”
“I wish we had a shorter Bible,” Sonyechka says. “It’s hard to remember all the names and events.”
“Christ’s law made the Old Testament obsolete for us,” Fridrik says. “The Kahns must to obey it, but we have different rules.”
“I wish Christianity had a special ceremony to mark the start of young adulthood,” Irina says. “Once we were baptized, that was it. There’s no ritual for people to confirm their belief and commitment of their own free will.”
“I often think the bar mitzvah age should be increased,” Léa says. “Benjamin did very well, but the same can’t be said for other thirteen-year-olds. It’s painful to sit through generic, stilted speeches, stupid attempts at humor, and frequent stumbling. It’s a very awkward age, and many care more about the party than the religious ceremony.”
“I bet girls are a lot better-prepared,” Kleopatra says.
“Girls don’t do that in large numbers. Every so often, a girl will read Haftarah or deliver a lesson on something she learnt, but the vast majority of girls never have any ceremony marking age of bat mitzvah. I didn’t have one, and Yaël probably won’t either. It’s very unequal and unfortunate, but some things we must quietly, begrudgingly live with. What would arguing accomplish but making us look even odder?”
“That’s not fair,” Sonyechka says. “Why does the world hate us so much?”
“Eve ate a stupid piece of fruit, and we’ve been paying for it ever since,” Irina says. “God willing, society will continue slowly changing. By the time we’re great-grandmas, girls may have greater rights and roles. Life’s not supposed to be easy, but it’ll be somewhat easier to navigate if the most difficult obstacles are removed.”
Milena pulls Meri’s wheelchair backwards up the subway stairs in Marble Hill, as Tarmo walks behind Meri as a spotter. Over the last three weeks, everyone has given them sympathetic looks, and men routinely offer to pull and push Meri’s wheelchair up and down the stairs.
“Can I go trick-or-treating without this stupid thing?” Meri asks as Milena pushes her to the house. “My leg isn’t broken as badly as my arm.”
“You can’t walk on a broken leg or with only one crutch. We can make you up like an accident victim, to play up your cast and brace as part of a costume instead of reality. Would you like me to paint you with fake blood?”
“No. I want the pretty costume you made me, not ugly makeup.”
Milena unlocks the door and pushes Meri inside. “What would you like for a snack before starting your homework?”
“Pretzels drizzled in melted peanut butter,” Tarmo declares. “And hot cider.”
Milena takes Meri into the kitchen and puts peanut butter into a small pot on the stovetop. “You can get the pretzels and cider yourself. Do you want cinnamon sticks?”
“I always do.”
“Do we have to do homework on Halloween?” Meri asks. “I never have a lot of homework. I’m not old enough for real homework.”
“All homework is serious.” Milena stirs the melting peanut butter. “There’s a very radical school in my neighborhood, which your isa might put you in once your English is a little better. Father Spiridon only employs me through charity, and you’d be a better fit in a school that’s not Russian and religious.”
“I like our school,” Tarmo says. “But I’ll go anywhere Isa tells me to. I know we’re only at Father Spiridon’s school temporarily, as much as I like my friends and teachers.”
“Will you be our ema when we go to a new school?” Meri asks as Lumi jumps into her lap.
Milena takes the cider from Tarmo and pours it into another, larger pot. “I’ll never be your ema. Your ema’s with Taara, and your isa doesn’t want a new wife. Palun, don’t you dare pull another dangerous stunt to try to get me to move back again. I believe you didn’t mean to fall out of the window, but you shouldn’t have risked it in the first place. I’ll still be your nanny until you’re old enough to not need me.”
“I’ll always need and love you.” Meri pets Lumi. “Isa likes you a lot too. He smiles at you a lot, and he’s so happy you came back.”
“For the simple reason that it’s easier for a woman to take care of you than a man. Men aren’t supposed to help their daughters with bathing and dressing past a certain age. We’re only prolonging the inevitable. Once your brace and cast are removed, I’m moving home permanently.”
“Isa needs to marry you,” Tarmo says. “He can’t get along without you. Everyone needs a spouse. One person can’t run a house and raise kids alone. I barely remember my ema, and want a new one too.”
“I’m too old for normal men to want to marry. They want young, fresh models, not twenty-six-year-olds.” Milena drops cinnamon sticks into the cider. “If your isa ever remarries, he’ll want a widow with kids, not someone who never married or seriously dated anyone. I have no real experience with men, and have nothing to offer him.”
“You take care of him, us, and our house,” Meri pleads. “He likes you as as friend too, not just because you do chores and babysit us. Isa’s being stupid when he refuses to find a new wife. Grownups aren’t supposed to be alone. Every man needs a woman.”
“I no longer believe that.” Milena stirs the peanut butter and turns off its burner. “Not everyone is meant to find a mate in this lifetime. Some people are fated to be alone forever. It doesn’t have to be a sad, empty life. Women without husbands have a lot more freedom, and can adopt children as single mothers. I may eventually have children, and I’ll love them more because they became mine through love instead of blood.”
“We can be your children, and you can have real children with Isa,” Tarmo says. “You’ll have two kinds of kids, and love us in different ways.”
Milena turns off the cider’s burner. “No, if I end up with blood children in addition to adopted ones, I’d never love them differently. I’d love them equally, and would never make the adopted kids feel inferior and less loved.”
Meri silently eats the snack set before her, then starts her English homework. She tightly grips the pen in her left hand, producing shaky, barely legible print. After she completes the assignment, Milena wheels her into their newly shared room to change her into a homemade princess Halloween costume. Meri asked for dark pink fabric, and Milena chose chiffon. Tarmo’s ringmaster costume is also homemade.
“If you feel any pain, Merike, let me know immediately, and we’ll go home,” Milena says as she pushes Meri out the door at 5:00. “Your comfort comes before any candy.”
“But I like candy, and it’s free.”
“I’ll buy you five dollars worth of candy if you have to go home early. It won’t be any less special or delicious.” Milena locks the door. “Don’t tell people any tall tales about how you got injured. They’ll feel sorry for you regardless.”
Halfway down the street, Milena feels a tap on her shoulder. Her heart jumps, imagining the miscreant who grabbed and followed her on the subway. When she turns around, her heart continues beating rapidly for a different reason.
“Sorry to startle you, but I got off early from work because of the holiday,” Vahur says. “I thought you and the kids would appreciate me coming along, particularly with Merike’s injuries.”
“Sure, come with us. Tarmo and Meri are your kids, not mine. I have no right to tell you what you can and can’t do with them.”
Vahur smiles at her. “You’re their nanny, not an impersonal stranger. If I ever gave them a kasuema, I’d want one just like you.”
“I’m glad you think so highly of me.”
“Do you mind if I push Meri? You’ve worked so hard all day, and deserve a break.”
“If you insist, though you’ve worked all day too.”
“Not as hard as you.” Vahur smiles at her again. “You ladies have much harder responsibilities and tasks than we do where it really counts.”
Milena tries not to walk too close to Vahur as they take Tarmo and Meri trick-or-treating. During their canvassing of the neighborhood, they run across Bogdana and Achilles with Klara, dressed as a strawberry.
“We’re almost finished trick-or-treating,” Achilles says. “Klari can’t handle much more walking than she could last year. Are you coming or going?”
“We’re about halfway through,” Milena says. “We may go home early, since Meri’s not a normal trick-or-treater.”
Achilles smiles at Meri. “Do your bones feel better?”
“I take medicine to remove pain,” Meri says. “My bones hurt more by cold.”
“I had a broken leg too, a lot worse than yours. It healed eventually, but it felt like forever while it was healing. I know time feels like it passes a lot more slowly at your age, but your bones will be healed before you know it. You’ll spend more of your life without broken bones than with, and you’ll be running and playing normally by Christmas.”
“Thank you for kind words,” Vahur says. “Meri learnt a big lesson from that fall. She’ll never do something so dangerous again.”
“Don’t be too angry at her. Kids don’t have very developed, mature brains. They get an idea, and lack the ability to think about thinking. Possible consequences are never considered. She also had a good reason to want Milena to return. All children deserve a loving mother figure.”
“I’ll, how you say, yearn by Mila after she leaves again.”
“I think you mean ‘miss,’” Bogdana says. “Your English has become very good.”
“Thank you.” Vahur gazes after Milena walking with Tarmo to the next house. “Though there are certain things I can only express in Estonian. There are no proper words in English, or I can only speak from the heart in Estonian.”
“Do you have romantic feelings for Mila?” Bogdana whispers in Russian.
Vahur turns white. “What makes you suspect that?”
“A woman knows these things. If you like her, you need to let her know before she slips out of your fingers forever. My Achilles had a very difficult time figuring out how to express his own feelings, but he eventually manned up and spat it out.”
“How could I do that? It’s just a stupid fantasy. We both know ours can never be a romantic relationship. She’s a friend and my children’s nanny, nothing more.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” Achilles says after Bogdana translates in a whisper. “The greatest happiness could be waiting for you just around the corner, but you’ll never know it if you don’t take that chance and ask for what you want. No relationship ever started because both parties were too scared to make a move, and no relationship ever progresses if the couple stays in the handholding stage forever.”
Igor almost trips over the chalkboard in front of Vsevolod’s restaurant in the gathering darkness when he sees Violetta approaching from the other direction with Maja, Zoya, Luiza, and Zhdana. Ilya grabs his arm and yanks him back up.
“Your costume this year is so different,” Igor breathes. “Your other costumes were great too, but this one makes you look so beautiful.”
Violetta is dressed in a ground-sweeping purple velvet Medieval gown, with gold laces on the bodice tightly hugging her bustline, and gold trimming along the sides. Her sleeves billow out from the elbows, and golden combs with three rubies each festoon either side of her long, nearly-black, wavy hair. An amethyst necklace is nestled against her cleavage.
“I’m glad you like it.” Violetta runs her hand through her hair, and Igor desperately wishes that were his hand. “The popular image of Medieval women’s hair is incorrect, but I like my hair too much to wear it up and cover it. Unmarried maidens also had long, loose hair.”
“You’ve got beautiful hair. It wouldn’t be done justice if it were covered.” Igor reaches out to stroke her hair. “I hope you always keep it long. Those short styles in fashion now would look so out of place on you.”
Violetta steps closer to him and puts her arms around his neck. “Did your great-aunt make your Medieval costume?”
“My cousin Marina. It gave her something to do to take her mind off her boredom with housework and motherhood.”
“Green is your best color, golubchik. It’s hard to picture you in anything but green. You’re even more handsome in green.” She stands on her toes and kisses him. “I’m such a lucky lady to have such a handsome, sweet, intelligent, kind-hearted boyfriend. The thought of another woman taking you fills me with horror.”
Igor kisses her, wishing he could put his tongue in her mouth instead of building up to it while he learns the basic ropes. “You’re the only one I want, Letta. No one could ever steal me away from you.”
Violetta snuggles against him. “I’m cold. Why don’t we go upstairs?”
“Your wish is always my command.” Igor looks around and realizes everyone else already went inside. “I’ll lend you my coat when you go home.”
“There’s no need. It’s not like there’s a raging blizzard.” Violetta takes his hand and starts around back.
Igor goes up the fire escape slowly, timing his steps to keep pace with Violetta, and holds the door open. The central heating hits them in a welcome blast, though Igor remains in his coat for a little while to let his body adjust. As the heat takes its blessèd effect, Igor surveys the costumes. Luiza is an aviator, in a body-hugging leather jacket and pants she would’ve had to hide from her parents if she still lived at home. Maja is a Harlequin clown, while Zhdana, Zoya, and Susanna are barely dressed, as a sailor girl, nurse, and Little Red Riding Hood in extremely short skirts and low-cut, short-sleeved blouses. Once again, Ilya and Milada have matching costumes, genuine Edwardian outfits Valeriya and Mr. Golitsyn let them borrow. Aelita has costumed herself like her literary namesake. Tomik is dressed as a lion tamer with a real whip, while Vilorik is a Vampyre and Nikita is a Pharaoh. Andrey is the most old-fashioned one there, in an 1890s golfing outfit.
“I bet I know what you were doing out there so long,” Tomik smirks.
“We were just talking,” Igor says. “Just because you have poor morals doesn’t mean everyone does.”
“I’ve only slept with five women, and seriously dated maybe five more.” Tomik cracks his whip on the floor. “You should’ve seen the sexual antics at Summerhill. A lot of the students who boarded slept together and had mock weddings. I even heard talk some of the oldest students were sleeping with teachers. I wish City College were that open.”
“What kind of school was this!” Ilya exclaims. “That’s a lot more radical than my little sisters’ school!”
“I didn’t say I agreed with everything. But it is one of the most progressive schools in the world, and much closer to real Communism than our Minsk schools.”
“Getting up an hour earlier each day was more than worth it to go to such a progressive school,” Vilorik agrees. “Our parents couldn’t let us go to a regular British school, with all that sickening classism and corporal punishment. No school could be as perfect as Summerhill, but my siblings and cousins love Walden. It’s a shame there aren’t more progressive schools like those.”
Igor shakes his head and goes to the refreshments table. Just as last year, Andrey has piled it high with all manner of Halloween-themed foods, both savory and sweet, in addition to all-purpose foods like stuffed mushrooms, squash soup, and broiled salmon.
“Would yous guys like to try a fortunetelling game after you eat?” Luiza asks. “Letta, please don’t beg off having fun like you always have before.”
“Why would I do that this year?” Violetta takes Igor’s hand and smiles at him with her entire being. “I’ve got a great boyfriend now, and it’ll make him happier to see me having fun.”
“Fortunetelling is a load of superstitious nonsense, religion by any other name,” Vilorik asserts. “If something comes true, it’s a coincidence, not foretold by tea leaves, apple peels, floating eggs, dreams, charms baked into cakes, lines in hands, or animal guts. I don’t know how so many otherwise sensible, modern people can believe in such silliness.”
“What’s wrong with having a little fun on Halloween?” Zhdana asks. “We know it’s all fun and games, not serious. If something comes true, so much the better.” She sinks onto Tomik’s lap and rubs her foot against his leg. “I’d love a prediction saying we have a long, happy future together, or that some other kind of luck is coming our way.”
Igor puts his arm around Violetta. “I don’t need any fortune cake charms or other divination to tell me my future, that my happiness will continue increasing and I can look forward to being with Letta for a long time to come.”
“It’s high time you advanced beyond handholding,” Zoya says. “Though I feel bad for Lucha, Nikusha, and Lita. They need steady dates too.”
“Viivi suggested we might eventually date,” Nikita says. “If we’re meant to be together, it shouldn’t be rushed. I was stupid to think I’d immediately find an Estonian in New York. The best relationships happen gradually, not by being forced.”
“What do I need a boyfriend for, or any dates?” Aelita asks. “I’m too busy studying, and a lot of the blokes at mixers are very shallow and want the kind of woman I’ll never be. The longer I stay single, the more of that lot will be weeded out.”
“It’ll happen when it happens,” Luiza says. “I don’t consider myself an irreparable old maid. I’ve got a few more years to have fun casually dating and keeping my options open. Then, when I least expect it, I’ll find my future husband at exactly the right time and place. Many of the greatest relationships come from chance meetings, not blind dates and marriages of convenience.”
Lyudmila gives her cheetah-trimmed sable to the coat check lady at the Halloween party. Though the building has central heating, Lyudmila shudders. Her black cat costume consists of a strapless bathing suit with a sewn-on tutu and long, curled tail, peep-toe heels, bicep-high velvet gloves, a headband with fuzzy cat ears, round onyx earrings, and a black pearl choker with a silver tag advertising her as Very Naughty Kitty-Cat. Lyudmila notes with pride how she’s wearing one of the sexiest costumes. Many of the other pinups are wearing more modest costumes, as though they don’t routinely show as much skin as possible during their photo shoots. That’s not how one gets positively noticed by higher-profile photographers and agents.
Lyudmila looks to her left and sees a very tall, handsome man with deep blue eyes and sable hair like her own, in a gladiator costume. His upper arms and legs are quite muscled, much better than Denis’s physique. The cranberry cloak brings a splash of color to the otherwise all-black outfit. Almost as an afterthought, Lyudmila realizes he pronounced her name with a Russian accent.
“You recognize me from my pictures?”
“I reviewed a great deal of them today. You’re fresh in my memory.” He extends his hand. “I’m Anton Dubov.”
“Pleased to meet you. Are you inviting me to a photo shoot?”
“That’s only the tip of the iceberg I have in mind for you, if you’re willing to work with me.” His gaze travels up and down her body. “You should mingle with other people at this party, but I’ve got a lot of ideas to discuss with you tomorrow. Would you like to drop by my office? I’m on Hennepin Avenue, though I do a lot of shoots in my home on East River Road.”
Lyudmila’s eyes widen. “Do you live in one of those old estates?”
“Indeed I do. I’m too old to be happy with an apartment. There’s no one but me to fill it with, but it’s got a lot of space for conducting business, and my ladies feel more special when I take them back to a large, private estate instead of a tiny apartment where everyone can see them coming and going. I’ve also got a summer home on Lake Minnetonka and a mansion in Victorian Flatbush, Brooklyn. Minneapolis isn’t my home year-round, and I often have to travel to New York for work.” Anton’s gaze drifts to Lyudmila’s Rubenesque figure. “Would Mr. Kotov mind you going to my home alone for a pinup shoot?”
“My husband just left for bootcamp, and he’s going to Korea afterwards. He can’t control anything I do. Thank God I don’t have to worry about him spanking me when I do something that annoys him, or curtail my pinup career. I had to refuse so many offers because he didn’t approve, and wanted me to waste most of my time with housework.”
Anton lets out a low growl. “It sounds like you deserve a spanking for going behind your husband’s back.”
Lyudmila steps back. “Do you want to be my ally or not? Why would I let a photographer do that?”
“You’re much more innocent than you look, Mrs. Kotova. Have you never heard of erotic spankings? They’re not done to hurt or truly punish someone. With the right person and frame of mind, they’re quite fun and sexy.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Lyudmila moves towards the refreshments table.
Anton follows her and pours her a flute of champagne. “I’m a double threat, a photographer and agent. I can speed up your rise to the top if you let me. Promise you won’t accept any other offers from agents until our meeting tomorrow? You’re welcome to take as many photography assignments as you want, but I’d like to reserve you. Consider yourself a library book who can’t be checked out by anyone else until the first person in line gets a turn.”
Lyudmila sips champagne. “How can I be sure you’re on the level? All agents talk a big game about their success rate and how much they can do for clients. No agent would sell himself by saying he’s a no-name without influence and talent.”
“I’ve got plenty of influence, Mrs. Kotova, and have so many suggestions for how you can advance your career. All shall be revealed tomorrow.” Anton pulls a business card out of a pouch attached to his shoulder harness. “What time is good for you?”
“Anytime. I don’t have any other job but modelling, though I’d like to go full-time.”
“Excellent.” Anton slips the card into her cleavage. “Enjoy the party, Mrs. Kotova. I look forward to getting to know you better tomorrow. Let’s set a date for one o’clock.”
Over the course of the evening, Lyudmila talks to many photographers, who come from the Twin Cities as well as Rochester, Duluth, New York, and Chicago. Every time someone asks when she’s free for a modelling shoot, she says she has an offer from an agent and doesn’t feel right accepting anything until he approves. Lyudmila would love nothing better than to return to New York and have her pick of modelling agencies and photographers, but the largest city in Minnesota is nothing to sneeze at. In New York, she’d be a tiny fish in a giant pond, but in the Twin Cities, she has a greater chance to gain attention.
Lyudmila has twenty business cards by the end of the evening, in her black sequin nécessaire attached to her waist. Only Anton was so bold as to put his business card in her cleavage. Denis never did anything like that with her either. He couldn’t romance a brick.
“Do you have a ride home, Mrs. Kotova?”
Lyudmila’s heart beats a little faster. “I take the bus or streetcar everywhere. I’ve never owned my own car, and my husband made no movement towards buying one. It’s easier to take public transportation in a big city.”
“Where do you live?”
“Ulysses Street Northeast, in Waite Park. I’m on the fifth floor.”
“That’s a far piece from here. It’s better if you get a ride.” Anton gives his receipt to the coat check lady. “I’ll put your coat on for you.”
Lyudmila mutely hands her receipt to the attendant and lets Anton put her coat on her, tingling with desire when he accidentally-on-purpose brushes his hands against her breasts. Denis barely touched them, or any other part of her body. From what Raisa has said about her own unhappy sex life, Denis seems marginally better than Gustav, but not by much. Denis never even accidentally stumbled into giving her a satisfying experience.
“Is there a reason you chose Waite Park?” Anton asks on their way out to his car.
“My husband and brother-in-law made that decision. They liked how large the apartments are, and as much as we want to distance ourselves from our backwater families, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of residents are of Slavic descent. It guarantees a nearby church. My sister and I have begun going more often, though we rarely went until recently. You didn’t hear this from me, but we also like how it’s very working-class. We wish so badly we could be part of the upper-middle-class world our parents came from, but we weren’t raised like that. Bourgeois people would instantly realize we’re not one of them. We can only pretend for so long, before we inadvertently give ourselves away.”
“In that case, you’ve invited to be my Pygmalion, not just my client and model. I’m a self-made man, and had to learn how the upper-class lives through a lot of difficult, sometimes embarrassing trial and error. We’re still different species where it really matters. I just learnt how to pass for one of them in the most important ways.” Anton unlocks a dark blue Nash Ambassador.
Lyudmila breaks into a smile. “Is that your real car?”
“The one I took here tonight. I’ve got five others, two in New York and two in Lake Minnetonka. My other Minneapolis car is a blue-grey Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith.” Anton opens the passenger door.
Lyudmila slides inside and shudders under her sable. “I can’t get home soon enough. I accept the price to pay for looking sexy and fashionable, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the cold. My folks were crazy to crawl all the way to Minnesota instead of moving to a more spacious New York City neighborhood.”
Anton turns the car on and starts out of the parking lot. “There’s a lot to be said for living in a relatively smaller big city. I love New York and other big cities, but nothing compares to the bigger green spaces and wealth of actual houses in a city like Minneapolis. I’ve lived in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London, and I like Minneapolis and Lake Minnetonka best.”
“So you were born in Russia, and don’t just have an accent from your family.”
“My family was taken away by the GPU on my fifth birthday. I came home from visiting a friend and found them gone.”
“The Cheka’s successor, the secret police. They’re the MGB now. I fell in with the besprizorniki, and earned money taking photographs for people. I also stole cameras and film to document how my friends and I lived. After my fifteenth birthday, I realized I’d soon be in danger of prison, no longer seen as a harmless, cute homeless kid. To make a long story short, I waded across the River Bug with a knapsack full of several cameras and never-developed film.” Anton turns onto the road. “I continued documenting my story as I made my way across Poland and into Germany. My stay in Germany coincided with the Nazis’ rise to power, and I was able to photograph that too. I also worked for photographers in Berlin’s Russian colony.”
“I’ve heard about how many White Russians settled in Berlin. It’s hard to understand how they could do that so soon after the First World War. Enemies don’t forgive each other overnight.”
“I’m not well-versed on the hows and whys of it. All I know is Berlin was a wonderful place for Russian expatriates, even teenage boys who never had a day of formal schooling.” Anton stops for a red light. “We tried to tolerate living under Hitler’s rule, but on my eighteenth birthday, I left for France with some of my photographer friends. In Paris, I got the tip to work for lawyers. I made a killing taking photographs for legal cases, and continued taking photographs of everyday life in the Russian colony. It wasn’t long before I was involved with fashion photography too. I could’ve stayed in Paris forever, but the Nazis caught back up with us. Once again, I took my ever-increasing portfolio when we fled to England.”
“Were you in the war? If you tell me you were nothing but a photographic reporter and didn’t fight in any battles, I’ll have to break tomorrow’s appointment.”
“Is the lady that shallow? Lots of honorable, decent men served in noncombatant positions or only were called in for battle out of desperation. But to set your mind at rest, I served with the Free French Forces in addition to taking photographs. I became a second lieutenant. After the war, I was invited to work at a New York studio, and did more photography for lawyers on the side. Once I earned and invested enough money, I decided to move to a city where it was easier to get noticed in the crowd. I started my own business, offering all kinds of services, and now have three lavish homes, millions of dollars, six cars, two servants, and a menagerie of pets to show for it.”
“What years did you live in each country?”
“If you’re trying to guess how old I am, you can just ask. I’m thirty-three, and was born the day the last Tsar abdicated.”
Lyudmila holds in a grimace. “I’ve no reason to cancel our meeting, but I’m afraid I can’t be anything but your model and client. We’ll have a strictly business relationship.”
“What, because of my age? Am I too old for you? I don’t know how old you are, but you don’t look like a dewy-eyed starlet. You couldn’t be younger than twenty-five.”
“I’m twenty-eight. You’re quite handsome, and may have a lot to offer, but if you were serious in your flirtatious advances, you must forget them. I’m not opposed to sleeping with someone to advance my career or becoming someone’s mistress while my husband’s away, but I want someone at least ten years older.”
Anton turns onto a side street. “That’s too bad. I wouldn’t have bedded you immediately, but if you were interested, I’d have given you a great time. How much older is your husband?”
“Only two years, to our great shame. I wanted someone at least five years older.”
Anton takes his right hand off the wheel and rests it on her thigh. “So you would’ve accepted me in your bed before, but not now? What made you up your preferred age?”
“Five years is a bare minimum. Ten or more is even better.”
“You want a man who’s pushing forty? Tell me how many things you have in common with the average person, man or woman, who’s a decade or more older.”
“It’s not about having things in common. Older men naturally bring money, reputation, a nice house, professional contacts, prestige, cultural and social normalcy, the usual reasons ladies marry much-older men.”
Anton puts his hand back on the wheel. “I’ve got so much wealth and opportunity to offer you, whether or not you became one of my lovers. Are you holding out for someone even richer? I’ve got a lot more energy than a fellow in his forties, not just in bed, but for lots of other things. Would you want someone a decade younger?”
“What for! Those guys are barely adults, and so immature. How could I relate to someone who was born after the Stock Market Crash, who wasn’t old enough to fight in the last war, who’s only seen talking movies?”
“Exactly. You admit people with a decade gap aren’t in the same place. Do you really have your eyes on a much-older man, or do you only think you’re supposed to because that’s what a certain segment of society has led you to believe?”
Lyudmila adjusts her hairband. “My sister and I had a checklist of how our lives were supposed to unfold—marry as soon as possible, immediately have kids, move to the big city, happily step into the role of housewives, find ultimate fulfillment in hearth and home, dress and act a certain way, distance ourselves from Russian customs, become whitewashed as perfect, modern, all-American women. None of that turned out like we expected, and now we’re stuck. The most we can hope for is having affairs and never being found out. It’s easier for me, since Denya’s indefinitely away. Thank God I never got knocked up.”
“That’s not how anyone should live. Real life doesn’t run according to a damn checklist. It happens how we least expect it. I never dreamt I’d live in five different countries, become a millionaire, fail to attend school, become a soldier, learn three other languages, or meet you, but it happened because it was meant to happen.” Anton turns on the radio. “You’ve got a lot more to think about than just your career, Mrs. Kotova.”
Lyudmila doesn’t speak to Anton again until they arrive at her apartment. Anton looks up at the modest brick building, then around at the downscale cars.
“Is there a doorman or lift operator?”
“We say ‘elevator’ in America, and there’s neither. The front door is always open.”
Anton holds the door open for her and walks beside her upstairs. He peers inside after Lyudmila unlocks her door.
“May I look around?”
“If you’d like.” Lyudmila hangs her coat up. “I’m dying for a hot beverage.”
Anton hangs his coat over hers and walks through the two-bedroom apartment while Lyudmila pours cider into a pot and heats it. Noticeably absent are family photographs. In their place are Halloween decorations, posters of Denis’s favorite athletes and actors, a handful of ikons scattered about, and framed photos of historic Minneapolis.
“You don’t even have photos of your sister on display?” Anton asks in Russian, using ty. “I’ve had a long day, and it’s too much work to keep using my fourth language when I don’t have to. There aren’t many people in this area I can use my native language with.”
Lyudmila stirs the cider. “Denya and I are too annoyed at our families to hang up their pictures. I have to keep things exactly as they are, or Denya will be really angry when he comes home from Korea. He’d give me the worst spanking of my life, just as my sister got her worst spanking yet after she came home from hospital with their twins. She dared to birth two girls instead of any boys.”
“If I were married, I’d be so grateful for any kids. It’s so difficult to go through life without anyone who shares my blood. A couple of my ladies had accidents, but I sent them to Dr. Spencer in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t let them ruin their careers or risk dying, and people should only marry if there’s a baby on the way because they truly love each other and want to be married anyway.”
Lyudmila ladles cider into two mugs she recently painted flowers on. “I hope these aren’t too girly. Denya wouldn’t let me buy anything but plain white and ugly solid colors. When I earn enough money from modelling, I’ll buy new tableware. Thank God I can earn what I’m worth now, instead of curtailing my career to assuage Denya’s stupid masculine pride. Mine is a marriage of desperation, not love.”
“We’ll have to talk about how much you’re worth tomorrow.” Anton closely looks at her ears. “Are those real pierced ears?”
“Do you think it makes me low-bred? None of my other photographers cared I have real earrings instead of those stupid clip-ons.”
“But you know the fashion for a long time has been clip-ons, and what many people think of women with real pierced ears.”
“So? My mother pierced my ears when I was ten, and I loved my new earrings. They made me feel like a big girl, mature, sophisticated. Everyone around me growing up had real pierced ears, since that was what upper-middle-class women in Imperial Russia did. Why should I remove my earrings and let them grow over? I wouldn’t be me if I wore clip-ons.”
“Exactly. Your genuine passion and conviction matter more than what the crowd tells you you’re supposed to do. A true all-American woman wouldn’t have real pierced ears, but you do, and have no shame about it. A customized life is much more fulfilling than a standard-issue one composed of items on an arbitrary checklist. My passion for photography took me to some of the greatest cities in the world and saved me from the fate of many other besprizorniki. Your passion for modelling could likewise take you from this boring, unsatisfying housewife life and loveless marriage, if only you let it speak to your heart and soul.”
Lyudmila drinks the rest of her cider in silence. After she and Anton finish their mugs, Lyudmila sets them in the sink and sees Anton to the door. She stands back from him and avoids eye contact.
“Have a good night, Mrs. Kotova. Think about everything I said. You can’t make a long-lasting, successful, memorable career out of conformity.”
After Anton leaves, Lyudmila locks the door and pulls the business card out of her cleavage. She sets it on the kitchen table so she won’t forget, wishing it were already tomorrow at 1:00.
As Lyudmila removes her Halloween costume, she imagines Anton watching her and touching her. If only she and Raisa had waited just a little bit more, they would’ve found much better husbands, and Raisa’s twins would have the right father.
There’s no one to play divination games with, and Lyudmila knows they’re a mixture of superstitious nonsense and wishful thinking, but it’s worth a shot to try a few of the tricks for dreaming of a future spouse. Lyudmila turns her blue nightgown inside-out, rubs lemon peel on her forehead, and puts a mirror and apple under her pillow. She may dream of Anton anyway, but the odds are now increased.
Lyudmila goes to sleep with a smile on her face, hoping her Halloween happiness parlays into something even bigger and better.