In case anyone is reading blogs today, here’s a holiday-themed excerpt. This is the third section of Chapter 43, “Tempting Fate,” of Journey Through a Dark Forest. Nineteen-year-old Tatyana has been living with her blood father Boris for the past year in Harlem, and hasn’t abated in the surly attitude she’s been copping towards her family since discovering the truth of her paternity. This is extremely hurtful to her little brother Fedya, but her attitude is staying put.
On the Fourth of July, just as promised, Fedya and Novomira tag along to Rockaway Beach and Rockaways’ Playland. Even if they had the sense not to stay at Boris’s house, they’re still doing a damn good job of being a thorn in Tatyana’s side during this weekend she was looking forward to so much. The only moment of peace she’s gotten so far was yesterday at Gavrik’s baptism, and then Fedya and Novomira began tagging along with her friends all over again. They’re even younger than Vasya and don’t belong in a group consisting of mostly university students. Worse yet, her friends seem to like both of them, and Valentina, Rodya, and Vladlena in particular are fascinated by Fedya’s left-handedness. Tatyana has been shown up by her own brother.
“I’d like to watch the local parade before we head to the beach or amusement park,” Novomira says as they board the subway.
“What for?” Tatyana snaps. “If you’ve seen one parade, you’ve seen them all. Parades stopped being interesting after I passed the age of twelve. They’re boring, hot, and require too much standing in a crowd. And there are all the whining, screaming children.”
“Don’t you work with children?” Fedya asks. “And I presume you’d like your own kids someday.”
“Our children at camp are well-behaved, and know not to throw tantrums or do whatever they want. I don’t like dealing with other people’s brats.”
“We can always find a stoop to sit on, or I can rent some folding chairs,” Nikolay suggests. “It’s been awhile since Mira and Fedya have seen a really big parade. Minnesota can’t compare with the big city. Valya and Vladka have never seen a Fourth of July parade. I’d hate to have them miss out during their first July Fourth.”
Tatyana has a seat and crosses her arms tightly, keeping a firm hold on her ocelots’ leashes.
“I’m most looking forward to the fireworks tonight,” Valentina says. “We didn’t have them very often in Minsk.”
“What’s a Fourth of July parade like?” Vladlena asks. “We had lots of parades back home, but they were more like political inspiration than entertainment. They were held in honor of important national holidays and heroes. I don’t know if many civilians could take part other than for something like music or a special exhibit a school made.”
“They’re kind of boring once you’ve seen a few,” Tatyana repeats. “A bunch of floats, loud brass music, people in costumes, flags, balloons, that sort of thing. Some of the people marching or on the floats toss candy and other trinkets. It’s a little like Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, only now the weather is nice enough to watch it in person instead of hearing the radio broadcast. I think July Fourth is best if you’re a little kid and don’t have the sense to be annoyed by mosquitoes, heat, crowds, and noise.”
“Not everyone feels the same way as you,” Nikolay warns. “You were behaving so well until our families came here. I thought being away from them for so long would get you to see things differently and go back to your old sweet self.”
“I’d prefer if they’d continued leaving me alone. I just know my stepfather planned his birthday party for New York just to irritate me and try to guilt me through these two.”
Fedya struggles to contain his hurt in front of these sophisticated older people. “You were always such a great big sister to me, and you liked Mira as well. I had nothing to do with this coverup of your true paternity. I didn’t even know about it until you did. How can some one-sided letter from a known scoundrel magically erase all your love for your family and the man who raised you?”
“You’d feel the same way if you were the one who were lied to your entire life. Thank God my real father is a modern, sensible person who approves of young ladies shaving their legs, wearing makeup, staying out late within reason, being alone with their steady beaux, and using perfume. He’s not some overly moral plaster saint like your father. That man needs to grow up and enter the twentieth century. His rigid ideas of right and wrong are so Medieval.”
Nikolay is by now strongly convinced Tatyana’s rejection of Ivan and rather haughty, uncharacteristic behavior were caused by some petty teenage grievance against an old-world father with an admittedly very black and white view of the world. She’s more dissatisfied with some of Boris’s behavior than she let onto their families. He just needs to figure out a way to push her towards investigating their dubious benefactor’s past, coupled with some serious reflection on how she just gave up the loving father-daughter relationship she and Ivan enjoyed for eighteen years. Tatyana surely realizes how rare it is for any man to raise another man’s baby as his own and marry a fallen woman with an illegitimate child. Boris couldn’t even marry Lyuba after he got her in trouble.
Instead of heading right to the beach when the subway reaches Queens, their group sets off towards the main thoroughfare in search of a parade. After a resident provides directions, Tatyana lags behind everyone and kicks at pebbles, refusing to talk to anyone. Fedya and Novomira have a seat on the sidewalk, and Valentina and Vladlena find room on the cement stairs outside a bright green apartment. Tatyana is the last one in their group to find a place to sit.
For the entire parade, Tatyana stares off into space and barely notices the loud music and cacophony of voices. She barely even cares when some of the candy being thrown from floats lands near her. Nikolay has to collect it for her. After probably a good three hours, when the parade ends and the crowd breaks up, they finally start for the amusement park.
“Don’t be disappointed,” Rodya tells Valentina. “This place isn’t as big as Coney Island, but it’s still got some nice rides. We’ll probably have fewer crowds, even if today’s a big holiday. Everyone always heads for Coney Island. Mostly only locals come here.”
“I like amusement parks no matter how small they are,” Valentina proclaims. “We’ll be back to work tomorrow, so we should enjoy the long vacation.”
“I wish I could enjoy the long weekend too,” Tatyana mumbles.
“Why are you acting like this?” Nikolay asks. “What have Mira and Fedya ever done to you to make you hate or resent them? They’re just trying to have some fun in the big city, away from adults and children they don’t have much in common with. We’re not that much older than they are.”
A sour feeling is in the pit of Tatyana’s stomach the entire time at the amusement park. She doesn’t even snuggle up next to Nikolay in the rides, as the other three couples do. The presence of her brother and his girlfriend has so perturbed her, she can’t relax and think of anything but how much she deeply resents their unwanted company. Their time on the beach isn’t much better, though at least she has more privacy there and is able to sit and swim as far away from them as possible.
“She’s really not like this normally,” Nikolay says in embarrassment on the subway home. “I don’t know why she’s acting like some spoilt child again all of a sudden. She was doing so well this entire past year.”
“Does she really think we’re too young and stupid to buddy around with?” Novomira asks. “We used to be buddies. I’m only two and a half years her junior, and Fedya’s not quite three and a half years her junior. That’s not a really big age difference, since we grew up together. It’s not like I’m some babyish ten-year-old tagging along with the sophisticated older kids.”
“It’s not that. She’s just sorting out some confusion and annoyance with Dyadya Vanya. I really think she’ll return to normal with a little more time, but I can’t force her to feel differently. She probably does still love you deep down. I’ve studied situations like this in some of my psychology and sociology classes.”
“Are you coming back to Minnesota when you graduate?” Fedya asks. “I don’t want to be joined at the hip with my family, but I always thought we’d have our own little farms on the same property. It won’t feel right if you and Tanya stay in New York. It still feels strange that my big sister isn’t around anymore. Now she doesn’t even like me anymore, after how good she always was with me.”
“I’m going to start my own farm, even if I like big city life. I doubt I could live here long-term. It’s just not the type of life I could see for myself forever. Tanya’s a farm girl at heart, even if she likes to give the impression of this important, modern, fashionable big city girl. This is probably just a form of rebellion and trying on a new persona. All perfectly normal. So long as she figures out the right path before Malenkov reverts back to scoundrelhood, no one is really hurt that deeply.”
Once they’ve reached Central Park, Tatyana flings her blanket down and rubs lemongrass on her arms and legs to repel any mosquitoes. She takes Nikolay’s hand and smiles at him, grateful Fedya and Novomira have the good sense to sit far away from them.
Fedya throws his arm around Novomira and stares up at the fireworks as they start. “What crawled down her throat and died? She’s never had this kind of rude attitude as long as I can remember. How can someone just go from nice to mean overnight? Is she using drugs?”
“Kolya was saying something about her just rebelling to get some kind of taste of a different personality. It’s some kind of concept from psychology. Maybe she really did resent Dyadya Vanya for a long time, and then just went off on everyone after she found out another man’s her blood father. I’ve never had much interest in copying moviestar fashions and modern American fads, but I’m sure my father would be understanding and accommodating of things like reasonable makeup and shorter skirts. She does have a point about your father being pretty old-fashioned and having these really outdated ideas of how women should look and act. Who knows why he picked Tyotya Lyuba, with her very modern views and tomboyish past.”
“I never really thought about that. I just thought my father was really old-fashioned in some ways but modern and sensible in others. He thinks girls should have a higher education, even if he’s horrified by things like women wearing pants and my mother working outside the house. My mother, for all her modern ideas, still doesn’t wear makeup, high heels, or some of these modern fashions, and she only shaved her legs when she was working our last year in New York. I wonder if my younger sisters will act like Tanya too, wanting to be these modern American girls.”
“My mother says I’m a nice blend of two worlds. I like being a modern American, but I also like the Russian and Estonian parts of myself. Maybe Tanya’s embarrassed because we’re not as modern or American as she’d like to be.”
During the fireworks, Novomira leans against Fedya and occasionally runs her fingers along his left hand. Though the bruises and rope burn left by Miss Cavendish disappeared years ago, she still remembers them, and wonders if his hand might have some invisible trauma still left in it. Surely invisible wounds need tender loving care as much as physical wounds. He needs all the love and affection possible, particularly now when he’s been rebuffed by the sister he always worshipped.
During the finale of green, silver, white, orange, and blue fireworks, Fedya leans over and kisses her. Novomira smiles up at him and giggles.
“What was that for?”
“Just because I like you so much. Now was as good a time as any.” He does it again, this time putting his hands around her shoulders.
One blanket away, Valentina looks away jealously and ever so slightly edges away from Rodya. As the fireworks die down, Rodya becomes aware of her muffled noises and quivering shoulders.
“Did something happen to you?” Rodya puts his hand on her shoulder. “You can tell me what’s wrong. Are you worried about getting accepted to Barnard with less than perfect English? That’s not the measure of your worth.”
“Do you really consider me your girlfriend, or am I more like a friend who just happens to be a woman? Or are you just extremely old-fashioned?”
“Of course you’re my sweetheart. Just because we’ve never had a private date doesn’t mean we’re not official. It’s just easier to triple-date and go out as an octet.”
“Well, right now I don’t exactly feel like your real girlfriend. Those two have only been going steady for about a month and a half, and they’re already doing more than just holding hands. They’re younger than we are. I thought everyone did that at our age and after five and a half months.”
Rodya looks quickly at Fedya and Novomira, then looks away in embarrassment. “Is that all you’re upset about? I thought you liked that I respect you enough to not make unsolicited advances so soon. You’re the sweetest girl I ever dated, not like some fast, loose woman who expects certain things by the third or even first date.”
“I’m not that old-fashioned. I’m not some Victorian woman who expects a chaste courtship. Why can’t we have a few private dates every now and then? Just because Tanya doesn’t trust herself alone with her boyfriend doesn’t mean I’m that old-fashioned or incapable of self-control.”
Rodya slips his arm around her. “Didn’t you tell me you’d never had a boyfriend or even gone on a date before me?”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t make up for lost time now. If you’ve already done that with previous dates and girlfriends, you shouldn’t be afraid to do it with me.”
“I like you more than any of the other girls I’ve ever dated. I think I might even love you.” Rodya pulls her towards him and kisses her.
Valentina gazes up at him afterwards. “Was that so difficult? You’re pretty good.”
“You taste sweet, like strawberries. I’m glad you don’t wear makeup. I don’t want lipstick rubbing off on me.”
“Can we practice doing that again?”
“You don’t have to ask me twice.”
Valentina is only just starting to get the hang of it when she hears footsteps. She abruptly pulls away from Rodya and hides her face in embarrassment at the sight of Patya and Vladlena.
“All good things must come to an end,” Patya chides affectionately. “You can have your own private date on your own time. We need to get home now. Work starts at eight-thirty tomorrow.”
Rodya pulls Valentina up and walks her out to the Rochet-Schneider. After the all-too-short drive home, he walks her up to the apartment via the fire escape and kisses her goodnight. Valentina’s heart beats a little faster when she feels his hands wandering, though at least he’s keeping them above her clothes and not going below her waist. Just as she’s tentatively starting to pet him back, the fire escape door swings open.
“I wondered what was taking you so long,” Inessa says. “You do know what that causes, don’t you?”
“He’s fine.” Valentina smoothes her blouse down, her heart still racing. “We were just making up for lost time.”
Rodya smiles at her as Inessa shuts the door in his face.
“Remember, self-control is very important for a woman,” Inessa says. “If you want to do more than neck and pet, you have to get married. It’s too dangerous to risk going further without marriage. These things happen, but you don’t want to get caught in a scandal unawares. Make sure you set limits with him the next time that happens. I don’t like the double standard and delayed gratification, but it is what it is.” She smiles devilishly. “But in the meantime, you’ve got two perfectly good hands. No woman ever got pregnant by her own hand before.”