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

Happy Halloween!

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.

2

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.”

3

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.”

4

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.”

5

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 Kotova?”

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.”

“GPU?”

“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.
********************************************

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

WeWriWa—Tamara’s Christmas surprise

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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. This year’s Orthodox Christmas-themed snippet comes from the last chapter of Part I of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Much of this chapter is set over Russian Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Lyuba, Ivan, and their three youngest daughters recently left the fictional town of Melville, Minnesota, after a brutal attack on their youngest child Tamara by her second grade teacher and classmates. The school nurse refused to help, and Tamara had a stroke. Now she’s finally home with her family, in their new house in St. Paul.

Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, is the granddaughter of Dyed Moroz, the Russian Santa. She helps him distribute presents, and is the only female assistant of any Santa character. While the U.S. version of Santa has Mrs. Claus, she’s not depicted as helping him in that way.

“Toma, come take a look at who came to see you,” Ivan calls.

Tamara throws her hand over her face when she sees Dyed Moroz in a long blue coat with white fur trim and embroidered silver swirls, a round fur cap, and leather boots.  He carries a staff in his right hand, a velvet blue bag in his left.  When Tamara uncovers her face and looks again, she sees Snegurochka, dressed in a matching dress, with long blonde braids and white boots.  Snegurochka is wheeling in a turquoise Huffy Convertible bicycle, with new-fangled training wheels and foot steps.

S Rozhdestvom, Tamara,” Dyed Moroz says as he walks up to her. “The American Santa Claus at the children’s hospital told me how much you wanted me to visit you and give you a present.  He also told me the presents you wanted.  After the horrible thing that happened to you, you more than deserve a home visit.”

“Am I still asleep?” Tamara asks.

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

Happy Halloween!

To mark my favouritest holiday, this year’s Halloween story comes from Chapter 45, “October Oblectations,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Most of the chapter is set over Halloween 1949.

Irina wakes up an hour earlier than usual on Halloween and goes right to her closet for the costume she designed over the last few weeks.  This year, she decided to dress as a flapper, in a teal knee-length velvet dress with shoulder straps and hundreds of silk tassels she spent countless hours sewing on.  Every time she moves, the entire dress moves with her.  The dress is very form-fitting, and shows off the still-developing but larger than average bustline and curvaceous hips she’s so proud of.  Her legs are covered by turquoise silk stockings held up by black satin garters with orange rosebuds.

 

Irina takes a deep breath, then ties her long hair back and severs it.  She sets the ponytail on her bureau and trims off the rough edges until her newly-bobbed hair has a smooth, uniform length.  None of the girls and women Irina knows still wear bobbed hair.  It’ll make her stand out even more, but the style she’s begun cultivating over the last few years has never been about blending in.  If she wanted to be just like everyone else, she’d have shoulder-length hair and dress like a miniature version of a housewife.  Irina has given herself the shortest bob she had the nerve for, stopping just short of being a shingle bob.  She doubts she’ll ever be brave enough to cut her hair as short as a man’s like Katrin, nor that she has the facial features and personality to pull it off.

After Irina covers her hair with a dark turquoise silk cloche hat she found in the St. Paul antiques shop Andrey frequents, she begins piling on the jewelry she picked up when she bought the hat.  A waist-length necklace of alternating black and red Bakelite beads; a three-tiered choker with purple pearls of all different sizes and shades; lapis lazuli French hook earrings in her first set of ear piercings; onyx French hook earrings in her second set; seven Bakelite bangle bracelets on each arm, in a rainbow of colors.  To avoid overcrowding and too much attention, she’s once again left off her costume rings.

Irina opens her top bureau drawer and pulls out a vial of kohl.  She slathers it liberally around her eyes with her mascara brush, then applies it to her eyelashes, just as thickly.  Irina combs her eyebrows across and down before smothering them in the darkest eyebrow pencil she has.  She coats her eyelids in dark teal eyeshadow.  Though she normally prefers unconventional colors for lipstick, today she applies very dark red.  Flappers never wore purple, dark blue, black, or dark green lipstick.  She painted her nails deep red last night, so they’d be dry in time.

Finally, Irina steps into evergreen leather pumps with embossed Sphinxes and spritzes herself with Shalimar.  She wishes Vadim were here to see her, but she could arrange for him to see pictures of her costume the next time their families get together.  Irina smiles as she pulls her new shawl around herself, imagining Vadim putting it on her when she’s old enough for him.  If she’s lucky, the ladies will stay away from him on account of his red hair, as they overwhelmingly stayed away from Yuriy, and he’ll be hers, all hers, once their age difference has levelled out.

Ivan almost drops the teapot when Irina comes to the breakfast table, while Lyuba crosses herself.  Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a pirate and Renaissance girl, look at her in admiration.

“This costume is at least as good as last year’s,” Sonyechka says.

“Irisha, please tell us that’s a wig,” Ivan stutters. “Surely you wouldn’t disrespect us by cutting your hair in secret.  Girls are supposed to have long hair.  Only adult women should have bobbed hair.”

“It’s almost 1950, Papa.” Irina puts scrambled eggs on her plate. “Hairstyles change.  I look much more adult now, and more distinctive.”

“You just turned sixteen!  You’re not supposed to look adult!  That makeup is even worse.  You’re only allowed to paint your face on special occasions.”

“Halloween’s a special occasion.  I never dress like this on regular school days.”

“Only prostitutes and other disreputable women wear makeup, particularly lipstick.  I grudgingly accept Tanya wearing it, but she never cakes on nearly that much.”

“Tanya isn’t a prostitute or disreputable,” Lyuba chides him. “She’s a respectable married woman having her fifth child.  Would Kolya have wanted her as his wife and the mother of his children if she were a fallen woman like I used to be?”

“What’s a fallen woman?” Tamara asks.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Did you just say Tanya’s having a fifth child?” Ivan asks. “When did this happen?”

Lyuba swirls her spoon in her tea. “She told me and Liza recently.  She and Kolya have known for awhile, but kept it secret.  Kolya wants another boy, after waiting so long for Vova.”

“Why are so many men obsessed with having boys?” Sonyechka asks. “Even modern men like Kolya act like having a boy is the greatest achievement ever.”

“It’s how history unfolded.  A lot of factors contributed to it, and these attitudes went unchecked and accepted for centuries.  By the time women and some enlightened men began questioning them, they were too deeply-entrenched to overturn overnight.”

“I wish I could study women’s history when I’m at university.”

“For now, all we want you to do is earn good marks in fifth grade,” Ivan says. “The sooner you finish breakfast, the sooner you can walk to school.”

“Don’t you want nice, respectable boys to notice you, Irisha?” Lyuba begs. “Even I never painted my face when I was a fallen woman.”

“Are you sure you can’t tell me what that means, so I can make sure I never become one?” Tamara asks. “I want everyone to like me, and want to find a nice husband and have a family when I’m old enough.”

Lyuba fondly smiles at her baby. “It’s a very grownup concept you’ll never have to worry about.  You’re being raised to love yourself, and have a wonderful father who treats his wife and daughters like diamonds.  Perhaps you’ll find your future husband among our family friends.  You’re just the right age for Petya’s Adam and Katrin’s Marek, and might not have to bother with outsiders.”

Ivan violently grimaces. “Don’t remind me of that.  I don’t want that crazy woman sharing blood with me.  It’d be an honor to share blood with Petya, but I’d be sick to my stomach if that crazy Katrin’s final child married our final child.”

“Oh, take it easy.  Toma’s more than ten years away from marriage age.  I was just thinking out loud.”

Irina takes her little sisters’ hands after they finish breakfast.  During the short walk to their respective schools, they all daydream about moving to the Twin Cities and then going to New York for university.  People in big cities are much more accepting of differences, instead of being hayseeds who lash out at anything outside their tiny bubble of experience.

4

Bogdana has been prevailed upon to put on a costume for Halloween and join Fyodora in the main house, though she’s refused to wear the type of fun, revealing costume she would’ve worn in years past.  She’s turned a baggy black sarafan as the basis for a nun’s habit, and made a veil and collar with black and white fabrics from Fyodora’s cast-off pile.  A prayer rope and the largest cross she could find hang around her neck.  Bogdana’s hemline drags all the way to the floor, covering the black flats she usually wears on Sundays.

Fyodora looks at the clock when the doorbell rings. “That couldn’t be trick-or-treaters already, could it?  It’s only four.  I’m not taking Ramona and Olik till six.”

“Maybe it’s Gilbert coming to play with me,” Oliver says hopefully, adjusting his firefighter hat. “He’s dressed like a policeman.”

Fyodora smiles when she gets the door. “Bogusya, come take a look at our first little trick-or-treater!”

Bogdana stands up and slowly ambulates over.  There stands Achilles, dressed as a bullfighter and holding a bouquet of orange, dark red, and white roses.  Only as an afterthought does Bogdana notice him holding hands with a tiny jack-o-lantern with big brown eyes.

“Happy Halloween.” Achilles extends the roses. “You deserve fresh flowers to make you happy.  I made them Halloween-colored, so they’d really stand out.”

“Thank you.” Bogdana takes the roses.

“I’ll put them in water for you,” Fyodora says. “Mr. Medved, would you like to introduce your companion?”

Achilles gently nudges her forward, smiling the biggest smile Bogdana’s ever seen him use. “What do you say, Klarika?”

“Trick-or-treat,” she says in a voice as tiny as she is, holding out an orange cloth bag with yellow jack-o-lantern cut-outs sewn on.

Bogdana puts an Almond Joy bar in her bag, then adds a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  The poor girl has no mother, and deserves extra sweets from somewhere.

“What do you say now, Klarika?” Achilles asks.  When Klara doesn’t say anything, he kneels and whispers in her ear.

“Thank you.”

“Can you tell the nice lady that in another way?” He whispers to her again.

“Hvala.”

“Is that Slovenian?” Bogdana asks.

Achilles nods. “Klara’s eighteen months old now, and knows about seventy words in both English and Slovenian.  Being Klari’s Očka is the greatest joy of my life.  She’s the reason I wake up every morning and work so hard in med school.  It would’ve been easier to raise a son as a single father, but God wanted me to be the father of a little girl more than a little boy.  She’s Sabina’s eternity.  If you ever have a child, you’ll know the feeling of your heart walking around outside your body.” His jaw clenches. “Klari was in the apartment when my Sabina was attacked, but praise Christ, they never put their hands or anything else on her.  Sabina reassured me they never touched Klari.  When Sabina did what she did, Klari was with my sister Vivienne, so she didn’t have to watch her mother dying or go a week without milk.” His eyes grow soft. “I don’t want to imagine what would’ve happened had Klari been there.  The cops might’ve found her dead in her crib, and I’d have nothing left to remind me of the only woman I ever loved.”

Klara squeals as Peppermint darts into the room. “Mucka!”

“Yes, the nice lady has a kitty.” Achilles smiles another big smile at Klara. “This is a mačka, not a mucka.  Peppermint is an adult, not a baby.”

“Would you care to stay to supper?” Fyodora asks. “I’m taking my children out for trick-or-treating at six, and expect to be home by eight.  Ramona will be asleep in her stroller most of the time, but I can’t help showing her off in her cute little costume.  She’s a strawberry.”

“I can’t impose on your family.  I brought Klari to her grandparents and a few other friends’ and relatives’ homes back in Manhattan, and came here to check on Bogusya.  Klari was too young to trick-or-treat last year, and could only handle about twenty houses in a short range this year.  By the time she’s in first grade, she’ll be able to handle a normal Halloween night.”

“Please, I insist.  Did you have plans for a party?”

“Med students and single fathers don’t have time for social lives, I’m afraid.  I planned to go right home after coming here.  Klari’s bedtime is seven-thirty.”

“She can sleep on the sofa, and on the way home.  I’ve wanted you to come for a meal since I met you.  You’ll only be with my husband and Bogusya this time, but next time, my children and I will be there too.”

“Sure, if you absolutely insist.” Achilles picks Klara up. “Your little feet must be tired.  The nice lady and her aunt will give us a tour of this beautiful house, the guesthouse, and the garage, and then you’ll have a nice supper and go to bed.”

“Isn’t he a good father?” Fyodora whispers to Bogdana in Russian. “You always want to find a man who treats the women and girls in his life like diamonds.”

“I’m ruined,” Bogdana says. “Even if I weren’t, Achilles is far too old for me, and he’s a widower with a child.”

“That shouldn’t matter if he’s the right man.  That cute little girl needs a mother, and you need someone to love you just as much as he loves her, in the way only an adult man and woman can love one another.  I’d be shocked if Achilles doesn’t have feelings for you.  He’s probably having a hard time figuring out how to express these feelings given your complicated situations, but the way he acts towards you paints the picture of someone who really cares for you.  I also doubt a caring single father would introduce his child to just anyone.”

Bogdana hurries to catch up with Achilles and Klara.  She lets Fyodora do the talking during the tour, mostly thinking of the excuse she can use to get back in the clinic as soon as possible.  During the brief stop in the largest bathroom, a smile breaks over her face.  She can use a harsh soap that gives her a rash.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

5

Milena holds Meri’s hand tightly as they start on the walk through Marble Hill.  For the Lindmaas’ first Halloween, Milena made Meri a fairy costume with a gauzy pink dress and pink, mint, baby blue, and pale orange wings.  For Tarmo, she made a monkey costume, and a yellow trick-or-treating bag with appliquéd bananas.

“People in Sweden don’t do this,” Tarmo says as they approach the first house. “No one in Estonia does it either.”

“It’s a very American, British, and Canadian custom,” Milena says. “They don’t call it trick-or-treating in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but they have a very similar concept.  Who wouldn’t want the fun of dressing up and getting free candy?”

Tarmo rings the bell, and he and Meri repeat the greeting Milena taught them.  The woman who answers the door gives them each a 5th Avenue bar and smiles back at Milena.  People who don’t know her assume she’s these children’s mother, and she’s not eager to reveal the truth.  If it were possible for her to marry Vahur and adopt his children, she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“Won’t you miss going to your grownup party?” Meri asks as they walk to the next house.

“Helping you is more important than a party.  With you, I can pretend I have real children, whereas at a party, I’d be constantly reminded I failed to find a husband and have children.  Only pathetic women are spinsters at my age.”

“You’d have a husband if you married Isa,” Tarmo says. “You’d be a great new ema, though I’ll never forget my first ema.  I barely remember her, but I have a few fuzzy memories.  Isa’s being stupid when he says Taara didn’t want me and Meri to have an ema.  He’s too young to not have a new wife.  Old men who lose their wives are supposed to never remarry, not young men.  I’d find a new wife if I lost my old one in my twenties.”

“Your isa’s just too old for me, and I can’t marry or date anyone who’s already been married and had kids.  He’s also made it clear he doesn’t want to remarry.  You should respect his feelings, instead of forcing him to change his mind.  I don’t mind acting like a surrogate ema.”

Isa’s only thirty-one, and you’re twenty-five.  I didn’t think that was a huge age difference for adults.  Isa always says time passes much faster for adults, and that only kids think a year is a huge amount of time.  You and Isa are both grownups, and you’re not a new grownup.  I think Isa would like you as a wife.”

Milena holds her tongue as they ring the next bell.  Every night, she thinks impure thoughts about Vahur undressing and sleeping on the same floor of the house, imagining what he looks like, what it’d feel like to do intimate things with him.  The first time she’s fallen in love, it had to be with a widower who’s over six and a half years older and has two children.  If only the war hadn’t interfered, she might’ve been married and a mother by now.  Not everyone’s life is meant to unfold on the same timetable, but it’s never pleasant to be reminded one isn’t in the same place in life as most of one’s peers.

6

This year, instead of going to the NYU Halloween party up in University Heights, Igor and Ilya have decided to go to the private party Andrey’s hosting in his apartment.  While it’s not as large or action-packed, nothing beats the shorter commute on a weekday night.

Igor pulls his woolen, ankle-length Ionic chiton and heavy himation tighter around himself as he gets out of the Ford to pick up Luiza and Susanna, thankful for his long woolen undergarments.  Ancient Greek clothing wasn’t made for late October in New York.  Ilya and Milada are dressed much more warmly, as a pair of Harlequin clowns.  The makeup on their faces adds an additional layer of warmth.

“Can you warn us when you get back this time?” Ilya asks from the backseat.

“Would you really unglue yourselves from each other if you did know I was coming back?  You’re always too distracted to notice anything or anyone else.”

Ilya looks away. “If you ever have a girlfriend, you’ll feel the same way.  You’re so overdue to have a date with someone, anyone.”

“Violetta will be mine eventually.  I just have to be patient.”

“What if she never wants to date you?” Milada asks.

“I accept that tragic possibility, but I’ve got over two and a half years left to make my case.  If I graduate still single, I’ll take it as a sign from God I’m meant to marry someone else, not the first girl I ever loved.” Igor hops up the Eristovs’ stoop and rings the bell.

“You don’t have to ring or knock,” Matryona says when she answers the door. “Family never needs to announce themselves.  You’re allowed to come over anytime you want to.  In fact, you still haven’t taken up my offer to share a Sunday meal.  I don’t see you often enough.”

Luiza adjusts her brown fedora. “You should come visit, Gorik.  Viktor’s always whining for an older guy to do things with.”

“I hate being so outnumbered,” Viktor grumbles. “I never asked to be born into a family with almost no men.”

“It’s teaching you compassion and understanding for the other half of the species,” Matryona says. “Men who grow up with almost no women and girls often aren’t very sensitive towards us.  If your sisters are smart, they’ll marry men with more sisters than brothers.” She looks disapprovingly at Luiza. “Those clothes are too mannish, even for a costume.  I want you to send the right impression.”

“What else is a lady gangster supposed to wear?” Luiza asks. “I’m not cross-dressing.  Everyone knows I’m not a man.”

“I wish you’d chosen something more feminine, like Susya’s butterfly, but there’s no use arguing now.  The costume already exists.” Matryona gives the side-eye to the machine gun in Luiza’s holster. “Please tell me that’s a toy.”

“It’s a real gun, but not loaded.  I’m not stupid.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Legal channels.” Luiza twists a lock of hair around her finger. “Susya and I will be late if you keep interrogating us.  We’ll be home by eleven.”

Luiza darts outside and claps her hands after Igor opens the car.  When Ilya and Milada continue kissing, Luiza leans into the car and claps again.  The lovebirds guiltily separate and look straight ahead as Susanna gets into the backseat, gathering in the voluminous Monarch butterfly fabric sewn onto the back and over the shoulders of her orange, yellow, and black strapless evening gown. Luiza takes the passenger seat.

The moment Igor begins driving, Luiza unbuttons her long brown skirt and maneuvers it off over the course of several blocks.  Underneath, wide-leg tweed trousers emerge.

“My folks have no idea I bought pants,” Luiza says as she lets the skirt fall off the remaining inches of her legs. “Why should I pair suspenders, a tie, and a man’s fedora and dress shirt with a stupid skirt?  A few women gangsters were very brave and shunned dresses.”

“Are Zosha and Danka already there?” Susanna asks. “I wish I could rip my wings off my shoulders and properly position them to only cover my back, but I’d never get away with that.  My folks wouldn’t let me leave the house again if they discovered I wore a strapless dress in public, and at a private mixed party.”

“They got their own ride.” Igor refrains from honking at a crowd of trick-or-treaters walking in the road.

“That ikon Letta got you must really be magical,” Luiza says. “Your mood has improved dramatically over the last few days.”

“My mood will improve most when Letta becomes my girlfriend.”

“That might never happen.  She still shows no signs of wanting to date anyone.  I hope you find a date at this party.  Before long, no self-respecting woman will want to date you if you’re so completely inexperienced.  You shouldn’t just be learning how to kiss at twenty.  I’ve heard people who don’t date at a normal age become overly attached to their first partners, and have a hard time accepting the end of that relationship.  Your college relationships should be all about fun and getting your feet wet, not lining up a wife.”

“You can have fun while seriously dating,” Ilya objects. “Why should Mila and I break up when we like each other so much?  Even if you start out only wanting fun, you can’t predict if you’ll get real feelings for someone.  I hope Andryusha and Zosha rethink their plans to break up after an arbitrary date, just to try out more people.”

“That’s entirely their business,” Susanna says. “Modern people aren’t contractually bound to marry their first and only partner.  I can’t believe just kissing someone before marriage was considered scandalous in our parents’ generation.  I’d never rush into engagement or marriage all because someone caught me kissing a guy.  Even intimacy shouldn’t be limited to one’s future spouse, though I don’t intend to become the Great Whore of Babylon.  If I’m very attracted to a man, and trust his intentions, why not cross the point of no return?”

Igor almost drives onto the sidewalk. “Respectable people never do that with people they don’t intend to marry.  What if you had a child?”

“I’d go to the same doctor Bogusya saw.  Problem solved.”

Igor drives in silence the rest of the way to the Lower East Side.  He finds a parking spot as close to the restaurant as possible, and is walking towards the fire escape when he sees Zoya, Zhdana, Violetta, and Maja approaching.  Zoya wears an ordinary red blouse with a white scoop-neck collar, knee-length black skirt, and brown boots, while Zhdana is dressed as a cowgirl with a gun on each hip and an above-knee skirt Igor supposes she changed into after leaving the house.

Violetta wears a long black gown festooned with silver bats; bicep-high black gloves; a black eye mask; black shoes with small silver bats; black hair flowers; French hook bat earrings; silver bat bangle bracelets; an onyx bat necklace displayed against her uncharacteristically exposed collarbone; and a large, rectangular piece of sheer fabric hanging off the back of her dress.

Maja wears a white blouse; a red vest with black beading and embroidery on both sides; a green calf-length skirt with a red poppy motif, covered by a white apron with intricate lace patterns; a coral necklace; lace-up black boots; and a crown of red poppies.

“No costume this year, Zosha?” Igor calls.

“This is very much a costume.  It matches Andryusha’s.  When you go upstairs, you’ll see.”

“My costume is traditional Polish ludowy outfit for girls in Kraków,” Maja says.

“She means ‘folk.‘” Violetta lifts the fabric sewn to her back, extending her arms as far up as they’ll go. “I liked last year’s spider costume more, but I can’t reuse a costume that soon.  Bats symbolize rebirth, the ability to see through illusions to the heart of the matter, intuition, visions, dreams, journeying, and long life.  Inga told me about some of that symbolism when she showed me the bat necklace Yuriy got her for her birthday, and I researched the rest.  It’s a shame so many Westerners fear or hate creatures traditionally considered good luck in other cultures, like spiders, bats, goblins, and dragons.”

“I don’t want to go up the fire escape,” Susanna says. “We should show off our costumes to as many people as possible.  I doubt any of our relatives besides Dyadya Seva are there, and he’d never tattle about Lucha wearing pants and Danka’s short skirt.”

Igor follows the others into the restaurant, dragging at the back of the line, behind Maja and Violetta.  Everyone in the restaurant stops to stare at the nine costumed people, particularly Susanna, who walks and flaps her butterfly wings very seductively.  Luiza and Zhdana point their guns around the room, laughing, while many patrons scream and duck under their tables.

“They’re not loaded,” Igor hastens to explain.

Pozhaluysta, go upstairs without bothering my customers further,” Vsevolod begs. “I won’t tell anyone about Zhdana and Luiza’s unladylike costumes and shocking attempt at dark humor, or Susanna’s grotesque display.  That’s not how any of them will land respectable husbands.”

“We’re not in the market for husbands,” Susanna retorts. “We only want fun.”

“You’re working on a holiday, Captain?” Igor asks Nestor. “I hope you didn’t feel kicked out of your own home because of Andryusha’s party.”

Nestor continues wiping off a table. “I can’t crash a college party.  As soon as my shift ends, I’m heading to Ustya’s party.  What does a guy my age want with a bunch of students?  Andrey and I have our own lives, and never impose on the other.”

Igor hurries up the stairs, cringing in shame for his cousins still putting on a show for the patrons.  The last person to enter the apartment is Susanna, her body and wings undulating like a burlesque dancer.

Andrey is dressed in blue pants, a navy blue shirt with a wide red collar and golden buttons, and a white sailor’s cap, a pipe clenched between his teeth.  When Igor sees an anchor painted on each arm, it dawns on him that Andrey is Popeye and Zoya is Olive Oyl.

Andrey has decorated the apartment with die-cut skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches, cauldrons, bats, spiders, ravens, and owls; Halloween postcards; orange and black streamers; strings of skull and jack-o-lantern lights; black and orange balloons; overflowing candy containers shaped like skulls and jack-o-lanterns; and black cat, jack-o-lantern, skull, and devil lanterns.  The table is set with pumpkin pie; butternut squash soup; cookies shaped and frosted like ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, witches, black cats, cauldrons, skeletons, and Vampyre faces; apple cider with cinnamon sticks; corn on the cob; stuffed squash; a bowl of green punch with red gummi worms floating in it; and a fortune cake.  Almost all the food looks storebought.

“The rest of the guests should be here soon,” Andrey says. “You can start eating and playing games anytime.” He motions around the living room, where he’s set up a Ouija board; a large metal tub with apples; walnut boats; several board games; Pin the Tail on the Donkey; and several fortunetelling games.

Violetta eases into a cushioned chair at the far end of the room, by a smaller table with non-Halloween snacks like potato chips and pretzels.  She looks around at the decorations, games, and festival food, a sad look in her eyes, before taking a few pretzels.

“Not going to participate in this party either?” Igor asks.

Violetta shakes her head. “Having fun is for other people, normal people.  I came because so many of my friends did, and since it’s not on-campus and full of strangers.  Less people will bother me about being a wallflower.”

“You’re not tempted by anything?”

“Of course, but I have to think of nobler things than hedonism.  Nothing’s stopping you from participating.  Go have fun, and enjoy the evening.”

Igor shakes his head and goes to bob for apples.  He briefly considers sitting by Violetta the entire evening, but doesn’t want to unsettle her with too much proximity.  It’s awkward enough being around her after revealing his unrequited feelings.  But hope springs eternal, and there’s always next Halloween.

7

As soon as Nestor’s shift ends, he darts into the restroom to change into his costume.  He doesn’t want to disturb Andrey’s party, even if it’s his apartment too.  No one wants to be the awkward third wheel at a party one wasn’t invited to, particularly when there’s a significant age difference between oneself and all the guests.

Nestor has never properly celebrated Halloween, owing to how traditional and old-world his parents are, and so has gone all out on a pirate costume.  He pairs a white dress shirt with a brown leather vest, red-and-black-striped pants, brown boots, a red peaked cap, and the Marine sword his chaplain bought him a few Christmases ago.

As always, his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor pendant hangs proudly around his neck, though he tucks his baptismal cross inside his shirt.  Pirates aren’t supposed to be religious, and Nestor only wears that cross out of a mixture of force of habit and superstition.  He’ll never have the kind of pure, sincere, unquestioning faith someone like Father Timofey has.

Nestor puts his work clothes into his duffelbag and gives it to Vsevolod for safekeeping, then heads out to catch a bus to Hamilton Heights.  The party is at Dragomir and Vasilisa’s apartment, since they have the most space by far.  On the ride uptown, Nestor daydreams about what he’d like to do with Yustina if she were his bride, and not repelled at the thought of marrying an amputee.  She might enjoy kissing him now, but she could never tolerate the sight of him in all his mutilated glory.  Briefly seeing his uncovered stump on Vancouver Island was bad enough, but Yustina didn’t have to see all of it.  Even if they only ever have relations in complete darkness, there aren’t any positions to avoid skin-to-skin contact with that.  Yustina would feel what she couldn’t see.

Nestor is grateful for the lift which presents itself.  The party’s only on the third of ten floors, but he never takes stairs if he can avoid it.  He’s newly-glad he vetoed Artur’s suggestion to wear an old-fashioned pegleg for this one night.  Nestor has only ever had experience walking on his own, modern prosthesis, and doesn’t want to risk falling flat on his face.  It was bad enough when his leg came loose and fell off in St. Nicholas Park.

Yustina, dressed in a teal silk dress with peacock-patterned fabric sewn to her back, swings the door open when he rings the bell.  She gives him a big smile and wraps her arms around him.

“Come have a seat, golubchik.  No one expects you to stand and walk the entire evening.  I’ll bring all the food and drinks to you.” She looks him up and down, still smiling. “Had I known you were a pirate, I would’ve been a lady pirate, but couples shouldn’t have to match their costumes all the time.  Independence is always good.” Yustina squeezes his hand. “Taavi and Sulev’s English has become rather good, but they don’t understand everything yet.  Mira and Ilme will have to translate some things for them, but it shouldn’t slow anyone down.”

Nestor hobbles into the living room and sinks onto the brown leather davenport.  In addition to the pumpkin welcome mat outside the front door, his hosts have decorated their home with cobwebs; rubber spiders and rats; black and orange streamers and balloons; strings of orange lights; three-dimensional jack-o-lanterns, black cats, owls, and bats made of tissue; ghost garlands; red, orange, and yellow roses in ceramic jack-o-lanterns and cauldrons; cut-out spiders, bats, skeletons, witches, and ravens; and an entire wall of Halloween postcards.  The floor and tables are littered with classic Halloween games, while Kuzma’s old bedroom has been turned into a miniature haunted house with eerie sound effects records playing.

The kitchen table boasts orange and black macarons with red filling; pumpkin poundcake, bread, cheesecake and soup; candied apples; caramel-drizzled popcorn mixed with roasted peanuts and M&Ms; cookies shaped and decorated like autumn leaves, ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, ghouls, bats, spiders, and tombstones; cupcakes with thick, high green and orange frosting; chocolate sandwich cookies with orange and yellow filling; roasted pumpkin seeds; red Jell-O with green gummi worms inside; a spider cake; hard-boiled eggs dyed green, orange, yellow, black, and red; large bowls of blood orange mocktail and hot apple cider; apple cider doughnuts; a cheeseball shaped into a pumpkin, with homemade bone-shaped crackers; stuffed orange and yellow peppers with jack-o-lantern faces; a chocolate cake with spiderweb icing; green macaroni and cheese; orange potatoes with olives for eyes; beet salad; and a fortune cake.

Most of the couples have matching costumes.  Dragomir and Vasilisa are a Medieval prince and princess; Yulian and Marina are Frankenstein’s monster and his bride; Ilme and Taavi are a witch and warlock; and Mireena and Sulev are an Egyptian princess and pharaoh.  Only Zhenya and Kuzma don’t match, as a mummy and Robin Hood.  True to form, Zhenya wears a white lace dress that barely meets the fingertip rule, with barely anything covered by solid fabric; a see-through lace shawl; thigh-high white fishnets held up by white satin garters; white shoes that are barely more than a few thin leather straps; waist-length pearls; and a pearl and diamond headband tapering into the shape of a rose on each side of her head, with egret feathers attached.  Nestor wonders where she got the glittery silver eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow pencil, and lipstick.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets him. “Most of the decorating, cooking, and baking are the work of my princess, but I did a few things.  I got just the type of old-fashioned little wifey I wanted.” He smiles beatifically at Vasilisa. “She made these Medieval costumes by hand too.  I’ll never have to worry she’s unhappy as a housewife after she has the baby and can’t work anymore.”

“Better her than me,” Zhenya says. “I’d be bored stiff if I had nothing better to do with my time than boil diapers, mend socks, cook, wash floors, and knit.  Marusya and I will be the most sophisticated housewives and young mothers in the entire five boroughs.”

“Aren’t you glad we switched dames, Drashka?” Kuzma asks.

“Hey, Vasilisa’s a lady, not a dame,” Dragomir protests. “I never would’ve married a dame.  How could a princess be anything but a lady?”

“My point exactly.” Kuzma gooses Zhenya, who laughs and grabs his crotch in response.

Nestor looks away in horror.  Even if Zhenya and Kuzma are newlyweds, there’s no reason to behave so wantonly with company.  He doubts Zhenya will settle down once she’s a mother.  Still, he’d love for Yustina to touch him like that, and be able to touch her so personally.  If Yustina makes it to three months without losing interest or becoming repelled, he’ll take her up on her tempting offer of petting.

“Why don’t we invite Mila?” Mireena asks. “She must be home from trick-or-treating by now, and shouldn’t have to sit alone or only keep company with kids on such a fun holiday.  Vahur can’t object to her joining us.”

“Someone has to watch Vahur’s children,” Taavi objects. “I’m sure he’s home by now, but he can’t do everything by himself.  He might claim he’s both parents in one, but there’s a reason he hired Mila as a nanny.”

Zhenya smirks. “Oh, there’s a reason alright.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes his intentions known by next year at this time, if not much sooner.  No handsome man invites an attractive single woman to live in his home without any ulterior motive.  Nanny, my eye.”

Taavi and Sulev shake their heads after Mireena translates.

“How could Vahur think of Mila in that way?” Sulev asks in horror. “They’re almost seven years apart, and Vahur’s a lesk with two children!  He never wants to remarry, but if he did, he’d only choose another lesk.”

“It’s not like he’s forty or she’s fifteen,” Zhenya says. “Why should a young widower with kids feel obligated to only date widows who also have kids?  It’s hardly unheard-of for a second wife to be a never-married younger woman.  Vahur’s kids love Mila, so they’ll easily accept her as their stepmother.”

“Fancy you objecting to Vahur being almost seven years older than Mila when Mira’s four years your elder,” Marina chimes in. “Are age differences suddenly too taboo after a certain threshold?”

“No, but that’s a big age difference at their ages,” Sulev says. “They’re not in the same place in life.”

“Just about everyone would say a twenty-four-year-old woman has nothing in common with a twenty-year-old man, yet you eagerly asked Mira out and married her at those ages.  A lot of famous couples have much greater age differences, like Charlie Chaplin and his latest wife.”

Sulev and Taavi continued shaking their heads as Ilme places the call.

***

Milena leaves Tarmo and Meri to continue counting their candy when the phone rings.  She avoids looking at Vahur on the living room davenport, boiling with desire for him.

“Hello?”

“Mila, it’s me, Ilme.  We wanted to invite you to our Halloween party.  Your babysitting duties should be over for the night, and Vahur can’t object to you joining us.”

“With what costume!  Meri also expects me to put her to bed, and to be there in case she has a nightmare and needs to crawl into my bed.”

“It’s one night, not an entire day.  How could Vahur object to this?  We all expect to see you within the hour.”

Milena steels herself after she hangs up. “Vahur, I hate to disturb you, but I’ve been invited to our siblings’ Halloween party.  I told Ilme my priority is taking care of your children.”

“Sure you can go.” Vahur stands up. “I’ll go with you.  Tarmo, do you mind watching Merike for a few hours?  I trust you won’t open the door to strangers or tell people on the phone you’re home alone.”

Tarmo’s face lights up. “I can stay home alone?  No grownups?”

“You’re a big boy, almost nine.  Of course I trust you.  Mila and I are going to a Halloween party for adults.  I hope you’re not too jealous.”

“We already had Halloween fun.  I’d be bored at a party with grownups.”

“Make your costumes match,” Meri says. “I want strangers who see you to think you’re a real couple.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I can’t have another wife?” Vahur asks gently. “Men and women are allowed to be just friends.  Women fought long and hard for equal participation in public life, even for something as seemingly little as this.”

Milena runs into her room and changes into a floor-length, multi-tiered calico skirt and a patchwork calico blouse.  She ties her hair up under a red silk scarf and adds a ruby costume ring, a multicolored glass bead necklace, French hook emerald earrings, and an onyx headband.  When she returns to the living room, she sees Vahur in a traditional Estonian costume, a billowy line shirt, dark blue trousers ending a bit below the knees, a scarlet vest with black beading; an intricately woven belt; long white stockings; black, low boots; and a black top hat.

“Behave yourselves while I’m gone,” Vahur calls. “I expect both of you to be in bed by nine, and to not eat too much candy.”

Meri pets Lumi as she waves goodbye.

“I hope you’re not too annoyed,” Milena says as they walk towards the subway station. “You didn’t expect to give up your night to go to a couples’ party.  We’ll be the only single people there.”

“I don’t mind getting out every so often.  I’m not that old yet.  The last thing I want is to become a preternaturally old man with no social life.”

Milena avoids eye contact during the journey to Hamilton Heights, constantly cursing herself for thinking impure thoughts about Vahur.  She’s relieved women have no dead giveaway of their arousal as men do.  If that were the case, her lust would’ve been obvious months ago, and Vahur would want nothing further to do with her.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets them. “Come right in and make yourselves at home.  My princess made a lot of good food and put together so many great decorations and games.”

Vahur gazes at the feast upon the table, then the spooky décor. “I wish I had a princess for a wife, in spite of my Socialist beliefs.  Once Mila and her sisters move out, I’ll be back to living like a tragic widower.  I can’t cook, clean, or decorate that well.”

“Happiness can be yours for the taking, if you go out there and grab it,” Yustina calls. “Nestik would still be sad and lonely if I hadn’t told him what’s what and made the first move.  Don’t let sadness in your past determine the entire course of your future.” She leans against Nestor. “Why not take a slice of fortune cake and play the fortunetelling games?”

“If you walk out the door backwards at night, pick grass, and put it under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future spouse,” Zhenya says. “Your religion believes in spirits and prophecy.”

Vahur accepts a plate of fortune cake from Vasilisa, and Milena takes a plate from Ilme.  Milena eats her cake carefully, guarding against biting the charm, while Vahur immediately pulls out the baked-in ribbon and finds a moon.

“Opportunity,” Vasilisa translates. “What’s yours, Mila?”

Milena holds up an anchor.

“A life of stability.”

“As what, a childless old maid?”

“Stability’s nothing to sneeze at,” Vasilisa says. “If you’re not stable on your own, a husband won’t magically change you.”

“But having a husband’s even better.” Marina rubs Yulian’s shoulders. “You’re not frightfully old yet.  He could be just around the corner.”

“The veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight,” Ilme says. “Whatever you wish for might come true, even if it’s not right away, and you’re more likely to dream of the future.”

Milena moves to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a haunted pumpkin patch after finishing her cake.  She represses the urge to smile when Vahur joins her.  Whatever wishes she makes and dreams she has, Vahur will always be a widower with children, and she’ll be an old maid, but hoping never hurts.  Amid all the unpleasantness of life, it’s nice to have a few oblectations thrown her way every so often.

Posted in 1920s, Couples, Historical fiction, Ivan, Lyuba, Russian novel sequel, Writing

WeWriWa—Problem parents-in-law

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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. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when Lyuba Koneva asked her husband Ivan why he doesn’t go to work for his father. In spite of Mr. Konev’s massive past sins against both of them, his underground liquor store brings in a lot of money, and bought many of their modern appliances, like a washing machine and refrigerator.

This has been slightly edited from the published version to fit ten lines.

“That’ll only happen if Prohibition’s constitutionally repealed. I was raised better than to make a dishonest living, though he was begging me to join him yet again when I visited before I came home. I said no, the factory may pay less money than I’d like, but at least it’s honest money and I don’t constantly risk legal trouble by going to work.”

Lyuba bristles. “You went over to see your mother again? Haven’t you visited her enough since you were reunited? It says right in the Bible, ‘And a man shall leave his parents and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be as one flesh,’ not ‘And a man shall pay inordinate visits to his parents’ house in his first year of marriage, while neglecting his pregnant wife in favor of his pregnant mother.’ Put the leftovers in the oven yourself. I won’t baby you the way your mother does. In this apartment, you’re treated like a grown man, not an overgrown little boy who can’t do anything without his mother.”

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Next week I’ll begin my yearly Halloween-themed snippets. They’ll be very new material, from my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, the fourth book in this saga.

Posted in 1920s, Couples, Historical fiction, Ivan, Lyuba, Russian novel sequel, Writing

WeWriWa—Misplaced loyalty

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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. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when Ivan Konev came home at 11:00 at night on his first anniversary with his wife Lyuba. It’s also the first anniversary of their children’s baptism, and Lyuba is heavily pregnant with a new baby they once thought they’d never have.

“Then why in the hell did you come home at eleven at night if it’s so special? Did you volunteer to stay late, or did you put on your usual act of being a mouse and not a man when that traitor Glazov asked or suggested you stay a lot later than usual? Maybe I should buy you a watch so you won’t have any excuse to lose track of time. I’ll pay extra to have the watch specially-made so the gears are on the other side.”

“He’d fire me if I walked out early. You know that. And I can’t easily find another job without the proper training, education, or experience.” He extends a bag. “I bought you some anniversary presents and presents for the kids for their first baptismal anniversary.”

Though Ivan was on track to go to university, he was expelled from his very left-wing gymnasium two months before graduation in 1917, on account of his monarchist views. Lyuba and many of their pro-Tsarist friends were also expelled. Ivan got a high school equivalency diploma shortly after arriving in America in 1921, but won’t attend university until 1948. He’s not qualified for much else but menial jobs.