Posted in 1920s, Historical fiction, Lyuba, Russian novel sequel, Secondary characters, Writing

The News Trickles Down

This was originally one of twenty posts put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer pedantically use accent marks, the Herzens are now the Kharzins, there’s less passive voice, and Mrs. Kharzina refers to her husband as Tatyana’s Dyadya (Uncle) Mishenka, not her Dvoyurodniy Dédushka (Great-Uncle). The former is much simpler, even if it’s not their official relationship.

***

During Chapter 31 of The Twelfth Time, “Ivan Loses His Accent,” Lyuba’s cousin Ginny gets Georgiya’s latest letter, which breaks the news about Karla. Now the only thing that remains to be done is to tell Sonya what’s happened to her daughter.

***

Sunday after church, the Konevs are invited to the Herzen house for lunch. While Tatyana and Dárya hold hands and skip ahead of their parents and other siblings, Fédya drags his feet the entire way there and constantly snaps and complains about everything. Lyuba feels wounded every time he raises his voice to her or utters unkind words, and Iván now knows why some parents hit their kids in the heat of the moment. He struggles to honor the promise he made to himself long ago to never raise his voice or his hands against any of his children.

“Ginny got a letter from that girl he thinks you should forward to Sónya,” Mrs. Herzena says as they’re waiting for lunch to be done. “He says his eyes almost fell out of his head when he realized what exactly that girl was saying.”

“She has a name, Mátushka. Her name is Geórgiya.” Ginny opens the nearest candy jar and pops some gumdrops down his throat.

“That’s snack food for between meals. You’ll spoil your appetite if you fill up on them before lunch. Surely you’re a big enough boy to know that by now.”

“I’m twenty years old. That’s a man, not a boy.”

“As long as you live in our house, you’re a boy, not a real grownup.”

Ginny rolls his eyes. “Thank God I’m finally graduating in June. I can’t get out on my own soon enough.”

“And who will you marry once you’re an independent adult? Every man needs a woman of the house. I don’t know how your cousin’s friend Pável does it, living all alone for so long now. At least he could hire a housekeeper and a cook, if he’s going to insist on waiting for his girlfriend to be released from Siberia and make her way here. From what I hear, he’s making more than enough money to afford a few servants.”

“What exactly is in this letter?” Lyuba asks. “How does this concern our friend Sónya?”

Ginny gets up to fetch the latest letter he’s received from Geórgiya and points to one section in the middle. “Right there. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about what really happened to Sónya’s surviving daughter.”

Lyuba scans the five paragraphs Geórgiya has written about Kárla, not sure whether she should feel relieved or horrorstruck. On the one hand, Naína, Kátya, and Sónya will have their minds set at rest as to whether Kárla is alive and in good hands. But on the other hand, this means she’s still in the Soviet Union, being raised by people whose belief system is the antithesis of her shrunken family’s. And Leoníd made no efforts to try to find her guardians or even to tell the police he’d found a missing child. Silently she gives thanks Tatyana was never taken away to an orphanage either of the short times they were separated back home.

“Is there anything that poor woman can do to get her child back?” Iván asks as he takes a turn reading it. “She’s now a Canadian citizen, and her only surviving child is being kept in a hostile country, raised with odious beliefs, with a potential dictator as the new leader. They must be filling that poor kid’s head with lies about how her real family is so horrible for being anti-Bolshevik. She might not even want anything to do with them if anyone succeeds in taking her out of there.”

“With what authority?” Mrs. Herzena asks in resignation. “Leoníd, even if he is as stuck-up and annoying as you all say, has legally adopted her, and she’s been living in that house for almost two years now. She must be attached to her new family. Any child who was raised in orphanages must feel it’s a dream come true to be adopted by a man who lives in a mansion, has servants, and makes enough money to take her on vacations, buy her fancy presents, and enroll her in a private state-run school.”

“I don’t think he’d want to turn her over, even if Sónya had enough money, connections, and determination to get a Supreme Court or Kremlin petition to have Kárla given back to her,” Ginny agrees. “Leaving the only real home she’s known and being forced to move to Canada would probably be very traumatic for her. I don’t even think Leoníd would respond to the letter if Sónya sent one begging for the return of her child.”

“But that’s not fair,” Tatyana protests. “Sónya’s thirty-seven now and getting old. She should get her little girl back while she’s still young enough to be a normal-aged mother. It’s not nice to keep a mother away from her own child.”

“I’m forty-four!” Mrs. Herzena says. “I’m seven years older than Sónya, and I don’t think I’m decrepit just yet. I could even have another baby if I wanted to.”

“Do you want to give Ginny a baby brother or sister? I love my little brother and sisters, even if my little brother has been really rude and mean to us lately.”

“Oh, no, I’m quite happy with only having one child. Your Dvoyurodniy Dédushka Míshenka and I deliberately chose to have just one. There are no problems we know of, but we just prefer having a small, quiet house.”

“I’m glad you’re only having me,” Ginny says. “That would be too awkward if you did have another baby when I was this old.”

“Wouldn’t a judge or government man step in and make Geórgiya’s brother return Kárla to her mother?” Tatyana asks. “You shouldn’t raise a child away from her mother if you know she’s alive and wants her child back. Bad guys took both her kids away from her, and one of them went to be with God early. Now she only has one left, and she’d be very happy if she got her back.”

“She’s not getting her back, unless Kárla takes it into her head to run away and finds a way to come to North America without being deported,” Mrs. Herzena says. “But perhaps someday they’ll be reunited in this lifetime.”

Posted in 1920s, Russian novel sequel, Secondary characters, Writing

Emotional reunion

This was originally put together on 10 January 2012 for a future installment of the now-shelved Sweet Saturday Samples hop, as part of Naina, Katya, and Karla’s story. It differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer use accent marks, Katrin’s husband is now called Sandro, and some passive voice is eliminated.

***

This week’s excerpt is the conclusion of Chapter 29 of The Twelfth Time. Lyuba’s friend Sonya, who lives in Toronto, comes down to Long Island on the last day of summer vacation to pick up her niece Naina and her best friend’s daughter Katya. Naina and Katya were friends with Lyuba’s youngest stepsisters in the Soviet orphanage system, and were delighted to be reunited several months earlier. Sonya, who’s been away on vacation with her three surrogate daughters all summer, has only recently found out Naina and Katya are not only still alive but safe in North America. (The reader knows what happened to Sonya’s surviving daughter Karla, but Sonya won’t know for several more chapters.)

***

While they’re eating breakfast, the doorbell rings. Mrs. Samson gets up from a game of Mahjong with Mrs. Whitmore and pulls open the door to find Sónya.

Naína looks up from her waffles and dimly recognizes her aunt from the old family pictures she hid under her clothes at the orphanages. Kátya, four years Naína’s senior, only recognizes her a little bit better. Sónya, who hasn’t seen them since they were young girls, can only pick them out because they’re the only people at the table she doesn’t recognize.

Naína runs into her sobbing aunt’s arms, Kátya following and joining the embrace from the side. All three of them are invoking God and proclaiming their love, while the people at the table look away politely. Katrin kicks Anastásiya under the table when she catches her gaping at them.

“We’re going to go right to the depot and get on the next train heading for Toronto. I came here last night and stayed in a hotel, so don’t think I’m going right from one train to another. My dear sister Zinoviya, my brother-in-law Antón, my best friend Yuliana, and her husband Karl have been watching over you the entire time!”

“And I had a gun,” Naína smiles through her tears. “Papa handed me one of his handguns before we were taken away, and I hid it under my dress all through our years in the orphanages. It’s waiting to be packed up in my suitcase now.”

“I brought some thank-you presents for Sándros and Katrin for sponsoring you and putting you up in their home, and for the Konevs, Eliisabet, Kat, and Álla for taking care of you for an entire summer. I won’t hear of your refusing them. I also brought down our anniversary gift for Iván and Lyuba.”

“Do I get anything?” Anastásiya whines.

Everyone around the table laughs.

“Have you taken any active part in taking care of my niece and my best friend’s daughter, or have you just sat around thinking only of yourself as usual?”

“She doesn’t even take care of her own little boy, Tyotya Sónya,” Naína says. “He thinks Katrin is more his mother than she is, and he’s only twenty-one months old.”

“We got you and Iván an anniversary gift, Lyubochka,” Kátya says. “We’ll give it to you before we leave. And we got a little something for Tatyana and Fédya’s baptismal anniversary.”

Sónya goes into her suitcase and hands out the gifts. Anastásiya whines again when Sónya also gives some money to Mrs. Samson, Mrs. Oswald, and Mr. Rhodes, as well as small trinkets to Viktóriya, Véra, Natálya, and Fyodora.

“We’ll see you again sometime next year,” Sónya says. “As soon as you girls finish breakfast, you can finish packing your things and we’ll go to the depot. I can’t believe my little niece Náyechka carries a gun.”

“It came in handy when I encountered wardens who wanted to steal my necklace. It was the last thing my mother ever gave me, and damned if I’d let some overgrown bully steal it.”

“It belonged to my mother, your grandmother, before you. She gave it to you because citrine is your birthstone too. And look how well it matches your dark blonde hair.”

“My birthstone used to be citrine too,” Lyuba says. “Naína’s corrected birthday is the same day my birthday used to be before we switched to the Gregorian calendar, November twenty-ninth. She’s a fellow Sagittarius.”

“I bought my Lyuba a beautiful citrine bracelet ten years ago,” Iván says as he pours more maple syrup on his plate. “For the life of me I can’t remember what became of it. Someone must’ve stolen it, and it was too late by the time I remembered it and was free to give it to her after she was no longer with Borís and I wasn’t in that phony relationship with Voroshilova.”

“It may still turn up somewhere when you least expect it,” Sónya says encouragingly. “I found my dear sister’s only child and my best friend’s only child after assuming they were lost forever. Don’t give up hope too soon.”

***

At 9:00 at night, Kátya and Naína stagger into their new house with Sónya. After the eight-hour ride from Long Island to Toronto, all they want to do is sleep.

“Are these my new aunts you told me about?” Yuriy asks.

“Yes they are, and they can’t wait to play with you,” Sónya smiles. “But right now, they most want to be shown to their new room so they can sleep.”

Natálya steps forward. “I can’t wait to get to know you and have two new sisters. I’m Natálya Yeltsina and I’m thirteen, and those are my sister Léna, who’ll be twenty-one at the end of the month, her husband of a year, Karl Tsvetkov, also twenty-one, and Léna’s best friend Antonína Petróva, who’s twenty.”

“We’ve met Antonína before, a long time ago,” Kátya says. “We didn’t know her for very long, but we remembered her since she was the one who wrote the paper epitaph for poor little Mikhaíla.”

“I remember you too,” Antonína nods. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you a lot better. I honestly never thought I’d see you again after you left Mrs. Voznesenskaya’s orphanage, and never dreamt I’d end up with Naína’s aunt for my surrogate mother.”

“Follow me,” Léna says. “I’ll take you to your new room. It’s the last available room in this house big enough to be converted into a bedroom. Now we’re up to five bedrooms. When Kárlik, Yura, and I move out within the next few years, we plan to build a house next door so we can always be together.”

Kátya and Naína drop their suitcases as soon as they’re shown into the room, putting Kárla’s little suitcase into the closet. After throwing their travel clothes on the floor and pulling on their new nightgowns Katrin bought to replace their ugly orphanage-regulation ones, they climb into bed and look up at the stars through their window.

“It’s been a long way from Russia to Toronto,” Kátya says. “Perhaps somewhere out there, our Kárlochka is looking up at the same stars and being looked after by decent people.”

“Perhaps. We found Sónya and our old friends the Lebedevas after so many years. I guess some miracles aren’t supposed to happen overnight, since we might not appreciate them as much.”

“We’ll see her again someday. We have to believe that. Even if we’ll never see our parents or other relatives ever again, we know Kárla could be out there somewhere.K It’s only a matter of time till we’re happily reunited with her the same way we were reunited with Sónya.”

*****************************************************

Posted in 1920s, Couples, Ivan, Left-Handedness, Lyuba, Russian novel sequel, Writing

Happy fourth anniversary

This post was originally put together on 6 October 2012 for a future installment of the now-shelved Sweet Saturday Samples hop. Though not part of the batch of twenty posts I created on 24 June 2012, it’s obviously from the same sequence. After I put those posts in my drafts folder, I went back and made a few more with important sequences I’d left out.

This differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer use pedantic accent marks, and I discovered there was no “traditional” fourth anniversary gift in 1927. Lyuba and Ivan’s anniversary gifts for non-milestone years remain the same, just without references to them being traditional materials.

***

This week’s excerpt is from Chapter 29 of The Twelfth Time, “Naina and Katya in North America.” It’s 6 September 1927, Lyuba and Ivan’s fourth wedding anniversary and the last day of their annual Long Island summer vacation. In spite of their worsening marital and personal problems, they put their issues aside for their anniversary.

***

Lyuba wakes up on the morning of her fourth anniversary to the smell of chocolate waffles and sausage coming from the first floor.  She’s not looking forward to heading home later today, but she intends to savor the last gasp of summer vacation as long as it lasts.

“Happy anniversary, Mrs. Koneva.” Iván reaches under the bed and hands her a wrapped box. “I put a lot of different things in there, but they’re all part of the same present. I went out yesterday and got you something else too. Before you woke up, I snuck downstairs to retrieve it from Katrin’s kitchen. You’ll find it on our kitchen table.”

Lyuba carefully pulls the blue tissue paper off, opens the box, and starts pulling out a series of small decorative bags. “What exactly is this?”

“The traditional fourth anniversary presents are fruit and flowers. Since those aren’t very permanent things, I wanted to get you something as lasting as possible while still being traditional. They’re indoor flowering plants that can live all year. When we have our farm, you can transplant them to the garden and then move them inside during the winter.”

She snuggles her face against the curve of his neck. “You’re a good husband. As many struggles as we’ve had, I’m still glad I chose you. Can you believe we’ve been husband and wife for four years now?”

“Did you get me a present too?”

“Of course I did. You’re getting more and more overeager every year, you bad boy. You used to be able to wait till later in the day to exchange presents. Now you’re giving and demanding them first thing in the morning.” Lyuba puts the seeds back into the box and gets two wrapped parcels out of the closet.

Iván unwraps a transparent glass picture frame with dried flowers pressed between the two layers, and a light green shirt with a subtle floral pattern. “So my sweet little wifey still loves me, after everything I’ve put you through.”

“I will love you till the last breath leaves my body, Ványushka. I want to be with you through all our future lifetimes, till the world comes to an end. But you’d better get a real job once we’re back in the city, or I may have to start nagging you and starting fights with you again. You know I hate having to do that, so you’d better do the right thing.”

Lyuba smiles at the sight of the wildflowers on the vase on the kitchen table after she’s thrown on some clothes and left the bedroom. Iván has always known she’s not the type who goes for flowers, perfume, and chocolates, so the few times he does get her such trinkets, she knows it’s for a very special reason and not just a meaningless gesture he does out of some obligation to be romantic in a certain way. She appreciates how the flowers are just regular wildflowers, the type anyone could buy for cheap at a florist’s, and not some big expensive bouquet of roses or orchids. At least he’s saving his money for more important things now, while still making an effort to buy nice things for her on special occasions.

“Can we go downstairs and eat breakfast now?” Fédya asks.

“You can go right on down, my sweet little pumpkin. Then we’ll have one last day on the beach before we pack up and leave for the train. Just think, on Thursday you’ll have your first day of school!”

“I don’t want to go to school. I’m scared of the teacher hitting my hand.”

“They stop eventually,” Iván says. “After a certain point, they realize they’re not converting you and leave you alone. I must’ve been twelve or thirteen years old by the time they finally stopped hitting my hand, thumping me on the head, and threatening to beat me. You just have to be brave and let everyone know you’re carrying on a family tradition. No one switched me or my Dyadya Ígor, and no one’s going to change you either. Now why don’t we think about nicer things, like breakfast.”

Lyuba holds her son’s left hand tightly as they’re going downstairs to Katrin’s quarters, praying her sweet, sensitive only son is treated nicely in public kindergarten and not subjected to the same fate her husband and late uncle-in-law went through in primary school. Naína and Kátya have told her the policy of the new Soviet Union is right-handed writing in schools, and anyone who doesn’t fit into that majority mold doesn’t have the option of protesting. Right-handed writing is mandatory. Lyuba always figured God made certain people that way for a reason, since an all-powerful being who can do whatever he wants would’ve made everyone right-handed if that were truly the only proper way to be.

Posted in 1920s, Historical fiction, Ivan, Katya Chernomyrdina, Naina, Names, Religion, Russian culture, Russian novel sequel, Secondary characters, Writing

Naina and Katya at Church

This was originally one of a batch of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now permanently shelved Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time.

***

On Sunday morning, Naína and Kátya put on their nicest clothes and try to copy Anastásiya when she ties a fancy scarf over her hair. They know not all girls and women cover their hair in church, but they don’t want to call attention to themselves when they’re going to be new and haven’t had the chance to go to church in eight years. Even though Katrin said the church has pews, unlike Orthodox churches back home, they feel they’ll call less attention to themselves if they walk around during the service instead of sitting or standing in one place. Since they don’t even remember what happens or how to behave during a typical Divine Liturgy, they think they’ll feel more at home lighting candles and taking in the ikons and artwork.

Just as Katrin said, Anastásiya makes Mrs. Whitmore and Dmítriy ride on the upper level of the bus, while she takes a seat with Naína and Kátya on the lower level. Mrs. Whitmore gets off several blocks before their stop and walks the rest of the way to the church, so no one will suspect she’s with Anastásiya. Naína and Kátya think she’s as ridiculous as Katrin and Viktóriya told them, and hope this woman isn’t around them very much during the vacation they were promised. They’re more looking forward to spending time playing with the children, which seems a natural activity after so many years in orphanages, and getting to know Viktóriya and the other three young girls they were told might be coming. They left all their friends behind and can’t wait to make some new ones.

Anastásiya doesn’t even introduce them and goes to sit on one of the pews nearest the altar. Naína and Kátya are shocked to see a healthy young person taking a seat when they remember only the old, infirm, pregnant women, and people with small children taking seats back home. They try to follow along in the prayerbook for awhile, then give up on following along with the Old Church Slavonic, both printed and spoken. While they’re waiting for an ample space to open up so they can light some candles, they notice a very handsome, tall man holding a young girl in the crook of one arm and holding a little boy with his other hand. The young girl is venerating an ikon in a baby’s way. Next to him is a very tall woman holding a somewhat older girl who’s lighting a candle.

“Welcome to our church,” the man smiles. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen you. We’re the Konevs.”

“We just came here a few days ago.  I’m Naína Yezhova, and that’s my best friend Kátya Chernomyrdina. I’m fifteen and she’s nineteen.”

“Oh, you’re the girls my wife’s crazy radical friend Katrin’s husband sponsored. I was told you’re going on vacation with us this summer. I’m Iván, and that’s my wife Lyuba. Our baby here is also named Kátya, after her maternal grandmother. The other little girl is Dárya, and the boy is our son Fyodor. Our firstborn Tatyana is somewhere over there with her godparents and their kids.”

“We promise we’ll be very good on vacation and prove we deserve to be sponsored. We’ll do chores, childcare, and whatever else you ask us to do. And we won’t bother you anymore after September. Sándros told us we could go to some hotel run by an older Russian woman, and possibly get information about my aunt there. We’ve never had a real vacation, and barely remember when life was normal.”

“We were all immigrants ourselves not too many years ago. We’d never exploit one of our own. I assume you came here with that light-headed Anastásiya. She usually minds her own business when we vacation together. Other than that, we’re pretty nice people. Even that crazy Katrin seems like a nice person beneath her radical politics.”

“Her little boy is so cute,” Kátya says. “I can understand not wanting to draw attention to their relationship in public, since she’s an unwed mother, but she doesn’t even act loving or motherly in private.”

“She was never the smartest person or possessed of very sympathetic feelings. God forgive me for saying this in church, but she’s been self-centered and oblivious since I’ve known her. She only kept her son instead of placing him for adoption so she could have an heir to her family name and successful business. And she once was against having kids for fear her figure would be destroyed and she’d have her precious personal time disrupted and a potential competitor for her beauty, if she’d had a girl. The woman’s got as much sense as God gave a brick.”

“Ványa, that’s quite enough gossip in church,” Lyuba warns.

“Of course. Well, I guess we’ll see you girls again tomorrow, when we all leave for Coney Island. I hate most of the rides and sideshows, but the beach is nice.”

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.
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