Commingled pandemonium and sadness at Rudy’s wake

To mark Rudy Valentino’s 95th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m sharing the fourth section of Chapter 23, “Death of Valentino,” from The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks.

“Why again are we returning to the city during a heat wave to go to a wake for someone we never met?” Ivan pesters as they get off the subway on Tuesday. “I hate crowds, and I can already hear all those loony women screaming and weeping.”

“Because our grandkids will love to hear the story of how we went to the viewing of a famous moviestar who died in our adopted hometown,” Lyuba says. “And Kittey and Viktoriya were fans, though not crazy and obsessed like Anastasiya.”

“Do I see a riot in progress?” Eliisabet asks. “I’m sure he’d be so proud of his so-called fans for turning his wake and funeral into a three-ring circus.”

When they join up with Alla, Vera, Natalya, Fyodora, and Anya Godimova, they notice smashed windows in the approaching Frank Campbell Funeral Home and a number of police on horseback. Ivan wishes he hadn’t been talked into leaving their happy shore vacation to witness this madness.

“I don’t like seeing so many police in one place,” he says. “It brings back bad memories.”

“I’ve seen those uniforms in newsreels.” Vera points. “They’re Italian Blackshirts. What are they doing here?”

“There’s still time to turn around and go back to the shore. Who knows what all these police might do to us if they think we’re among the crazy people smashing windows and fainting. I wonder how many coffin-climbers they’ve had to restrain so far.”

“Police in this country only arrest you or use physical force if they have a good reason,” Eliisabet says. “They’ll see we’re normal people not causing trouble.”

“Clearly you haven’t seen many movies,” Viktoriya says. “A lot of cops arrest or follow people who haven’t done anything. They have God complexes like doctors.”

“That’s meant to be funny!” Kittey protests.

“I don’t think it’s very funny to see people, even in fictional situations, having their basic civil liberties violated.”

As they get closer to the funeral home, they see several policemen hauling a screaming, weeping, hysterical Anastasiya out the door and through the street. Anastasiya is fighting against the cops and trying to climb over them to get back into the funeral home, loudly protesting she’s a very important woman. Dagnija, who came as her companion, looks extremely embarrassed for her.

“Why does this not surprise me?” Katrin asks. “I just knew Nastya would be among the crazy, hysterical fans rioting and fainting.”

“How come dead people have to be displayed before they’re buried?” Tatyana asks. “It’s nicer to remember them alive, not lying in a coffin.”

“It gives people one last memory and chance to say goodbye,” Lyuba says.

“If that bad guy had killed Papa before you killed him with the fire poker, I wouldn’t have wanted to see him dead in a coffin.”

“Mama killed a guy with a fire poker?” Fedya asks. “When did it happen?”

“Our last day in Russia, a man from the secret police came into our house in Pskov and made his case for me being the escaped criminal everyone was looking for,” Ivan says. “Before he could fire his gun, your mother crept up behind him and hit him on the head with a fire poker. When he started to move, she stabbed him in the heart.”

“Wow, you’re really brave,” Fedya says proudly, smiling up at her. “If you hadn’t killed that bad guy to protect him, I never would’ve been born. Babushka and Dedushka think you don’t love Papa, but if you hated him, you wouldn’t have done that.”

“Yes, your mother’s the best life partner I ever could’ve asked for.”

A phalanx of police are assembled around the funeral home, and only allow Lyuba’s party to go in a few at a time. First Kittey, Vera, and Natalya go in, having been the biggest fans, followed by Viktoriya, Alla, and Fyodora, then Katrin and Sandro, then Eliisabet and Nikolay, then Kat, and finally the Konevs. Lyuba starts sobbing hysterically at the sight of the pale, emaciated body in the coffin.

“Can we go back to Long Island now?” Ivan asks, looking uncomfortably at the dead actor before shifting his gaze back to his children.

“Can you promise you’ll never take sick and will always look after your health, Vanyushka? He was only three years older than you, and might’ve lived if he’d gone to a doctor sooner.”

“Of course I’ll take care of myself for you and the kids. Hopefully I don’t have any longterm effects from breathing in all that iron residue and lifting all that iron. My cough is slowly going away too.”

“I never want to lose you so young. He must’ve gone through such agony before God finally put him out of his misery. Promise me you’ll die on the same day and hour as I do, when we’re old, not in the prime of life.”

“I’ll try my best.”

Someone calls to them that their time is up. Lyuba takes Katya from Ivan and walks out with Tatyana, while Ivan takes Fedya and Darya by the hands.

“Bye-bye, Mr. Moviestar.” Fedya waves. “I hope you have a good time with the angels.”

Katrin Discovers Anastasiya’s Secret (King)

(Quick note: This is one of the fonts I downloaded, so it might not show up as such for everyone. My one pre-existing K font using Roman letters, Kino, was too crowded and hard on the eyes to read for extended periods.)

Font: King

Chapter: "Katrin Discovers Anastasiya’s Secret"

Book: The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks

Written: 28-30 June 2011

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

This is the 10th chapter of my second Russian historical novel, one of the summer vacation chapters. Every summer since 1923, Lyuba and her friends have stayed for two weeks at Coney Island (to coincide with the paid union vacations of Ivan, Aleksey, and Nikolas), and then gone to a rented five-story house on Long Island until Labor Day. Katrin pays for the rental house.

During Summer 1925, Anastasiya has settled into the top floor, instead of as usual staying with her best friend’s family. Everyone is wondering about this, and why she so rarely comes out or interacts with anyone. Katrin and her little sister Viktoriya decide to finally investigate, and discover Anastasiya’s trip to Paris in February involved more than just her first fashion show.

Anastasiya has always been so fun to write, over the 20 years I’ve been with her. She’s the secondary antagonist of the first two books, but she’s not a mean-spirited person. She’s more of a delusional, meddling hypocrite. And her reactions are so predictable, they’re comical. Even when she’s caught in a potential scandal, she continues with her hypocrisy and unintentional comedy.

Some highlights:

"I’ll be up to her room later to make her come," Katrin says. "She’s deluding herself if she thinks she can take a vacation on my dime and barely do anything with us.  I’m sure there are some good spas around here where she can start feeling normal again."

"Do you think Nástya’s been having a love affair?" Katrin asks. "Perhaps after all that talk about how she’s better-off without kids or a man because it’d ruin her fashion empire, she felt embarrassed when she found a man anyway.  Sure we’ll laugh at her expense and say we told her so, but we’ll be happy for her if she has found a beau.  Though I can’t imagine how she’s been sneaking him in and out of the house if she has."

"Are you hiding a boyfriend?" Viktóriya demands. "Or are you dying of cancer?" She pulls the bag away from Anastásiya in the hopes of finding some kind of proof of an affair or a disease inside.

"I’m about twenty weeks too!" Katrin says. "You got pregnant around the same time I did, and you never even told your own best friend so we could enjoy being pregnant together?"

"It’s not supposed to hurt unless you have a thoughtless and brutal lover or a medical issue, like a very thick hymen," Katrin says. "Can you please stop using the silly word ‘maidenhood’?  That’s an abstract, male-defined concept, not a membrane."

Katrin goes over to look and sees Iván getting out of the car. "I guess Konev wanted to spend the vacation weekend and his birthday with his family.  I hope his mother is having a sobbing fit about it.  She should be embarrassed at herself, forty-six years old now and thinking her grown son is still a helpless little boy."

"Oh, well this is one piece of gossip that’s not going anywhere," Katrin smirks. "I’d say you’ll still have ample time to see the proof for about twenty more weeks, and any time thereafter, in another form."

"I’d never deny myself breakfast.  I never fast before Communion anyway.  I usually just make something up in Confession so I can be cleared for Communion.  Since when do I ever sin?"

Anastásiya takes the lift down and strolls along the street.  As much as she’s grown used to the Upper East Side, she’s at least thankful she’ll only be going back to the Upper West Side and not the Lower East Side, where she started her life in America.  There’s not much difference between the two sides of Uptown Manhattan.  As she’s passing by an alley, she stops in her tracks when she sees two people having relations under a fire escape.  Her eyes widen when she realizes the man is Borís.

"Are you sure you didn’t already lose your maidenhood earlier and just didn’t know it, or were in denial about it?" Borís asks. "God made the female body in such a way that women would feel devastating pain upon being deflowered.  It lets the man know she’s a pure, untouched virgin.  Only sluts and whores enjoy their first coitus, let alone actively seek it out."

"Don’t pay any attention to her, Ksyusha," Borís barks. "It really should hurt when a girl first has coitus.  Perhaps she was just too drunk to remember the pain."

"You’re a complete dog, Malenkov. I’m not even going to ask why you were doing that in public when you have your own house."

Sweet Saturday Samples—Lyuba Contemplates a Haircut

Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples! This week’s installment is from Chapter 38, “An Independent Woman,” of The Twelfth Time. In order to save her crumbling marriage and her sanity, Lyuba and Ivan have temporarily separated. While Ivan is living with their best friends who have relocated to a Russian immigrant farming community in Minnesota, Lyuba is enjoying her life back in Manhattan as a working, independent woman. Right now she’s talking with her stepsisters, her radical uptown friend Katrin, and Katrin’s equally-radical little sister Viktoriya about the possibility of cutting her hair. It’s Spring 1929.


“Even if you miss Iván, I think it’s wonderful how you’re giving yourself this once in a lifetime opportunity to live life as an independent woman,” Katrin says as she unfurls a napkin over Sunday lunch. “Just think of all the things you’ve gotten a chance to do with Iván out of your hair.  That man would never have let you work a real job were he in the city, for starts.”

“I love going to the movies,” Lyuba says. “Though I’m not keen on how so many movies nowadays are talking pictures.  I liked the old style just fine.  I hope talking pictures don’t completely replace the tried and true films.”

“I hope not either,” Viktóriya says. “I hope it’s just a fad people are trying to cash in on.  Once the novelty wears off, they’ll want a return to the familiar style.  A lot of these talking pictures look and sound horrible anyway.  They’re like filmed stage plays, and the camera doesn’t move as much as in the other movies.”

“Speaking of movies, I saw a rather cute boy when I was coming out of the movies with Véra last week,” Natálya says. “He looked Russian, but I couldn’t tell for sure.  He seemed to be looking at me.”

“Didn’t you go over to him?” Álla teases. “What if you never see him again, and he was meant to be your husband?”

“She might have a chance to have boys over, at least with me chaperoning,” Véra says. “Papa let us move into our own apartment.  Natásha’s a college junior now, and I’ve been graduated since last year.  He realized it was finally time to let us go out on our own.  We’re sad we can’t move Fyodora in with us, but we know she’d miss Papa and Ósyenka too much.  And Máchekha Kátya, of course.  Lyubochka’s mother is the only real mother our baby sister has ever known.  She can barely even remember our blood mother.”

“I can’t believe she’s fifteen,” Lyuba says. “She was just a little girl when I first met you.”

“She’s old enough to have her own admirer,” Natálya says. “Did you know Lyonya Godimov has been carrying her schoolbooks for quite some time?  Of course they’re not doing anything physical, since he’s three years older, but I’ve seen the little looks they sneak at each other.”

“The first thing Natásha and I are doing once we’re all moved into our new apartment will be to bob our hair.  Would you like to join us, Lyuba?  It would really mark you as a true independent woman.  If I were a typist, I’d be scared my tresses would be sucked into the typewriter and hurt me or break the machine.”

“You said you used to have very short hair when you were in hiding,” Álla says.

“It was a lot shorter than this when I saw her again at the first victory ball,” Katrin says. “Iván had cut it some months earlier, and it hadn’t grown back very long yet.  He cut it to a bit below her shoulders.”

“I don’t know,” Lyuba says uncertainly. “Do barbers give bobbed hair to married women?  He’d obviously know I’m married from my pregnant form.  I’m still successfully hiding it at work, but I’m not so secretive when I’m in the neighborhood.  I thought bobbed hair was mostly for teenagers and college girls.”

“All the young working women in the movies have bobbed hair,” Véra points out. “I’m sure just about all of your co-workers wear it bobbed, or even have Eton crops.”

“They do, but they’re young and unmarried.  And what would Ványa think if he saw me with such short hair?”

“You can lie to him you were sick and needed to get your hair cut off, if you don’t want to confess the truth.”

“Then he’d be worried sick that I didn’t tell him I was sick enough to merit getting a severe haircut!  Particularly since I’m pregnant!”

“He can’t control what you do from a thousand miles away,” Katrin says. “You already work a real job, something he always forbade you to do.  You can get your hair cut to match your status as a new independent woman too.”

“What if my boss thinks it’s unbecoming to a married woman?  He might think I’m a harlot instead of a respectable married woman who only took a job because her husband is a thousand miles away.  Not even my co-workers know I’m the one calling all the shots in this separation, or the real reason Ványa moved away.  I must preserve my reputation among outsiders.”

“Normal people don’t think it’s a big deal anymore,” Viktóriya says. “Someone enlightened enough to hire women should be modern enough to accept that normal modern women no longer wear their hair long.  Having long hair holds you back.  Kati knew that from the time she was a teenager.  She cut off her long blonde braids without asking our parents’ permission, or even telling them she was going to cut her hair as short as a man’s.  She just did it.”

“Yeah, you’re only twenty-nine,” Véra says. “It’s not like you’re some old grandmother who needs to wear her long hair in a bun.  Even Mary Pickford finally cut her long curls.  Not only flappers have bobbed hair these days.”

“And lots of people were shocked when she cut her beautiful hair,” Lyuba says. “Even if you’re not the most famous woman in the world, when people are used to you having long hair, they’re going to be shocked if they suddenly see you running around looking like a flapper.”

“They’ll get used to it after enough time.  Just like my father will get used to me and Natásha having bobbed hair.  We nagged him about it for years.  Surely he can’t claim to be that surprised.  He’d be a fool if he thought we’d keep our long hair even after we’re finally living independently.”

Sweet Saturday Samples—Nikolay’s Birthday

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is from the opening of Chapter 4 of The Twelfth Time, “Seven Years After the October Revolution.” The women gather at Katrin’s Upper West Side penthouse in November 1924 for the seventh birthday party of Nikolay, who was born at only 28 weeks and 2.5 pounds. The female doctor Eliisabet saw the day after his premature birth went to the St. Petersburg State Medical University, Russia’s first women’s medical school, which was founded in 1897.


“Can you believe today already makes it seven years since the October Revolution and dear little Kólya’s birth?” Eliisabet asks as she and Lyuba enter Katrin’s penthouse suite with their children. “It seems like such a lifetime ago, and yet seven years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things.”

“It’s hard to believe your miracle baby, my darling godson, was born the same day those heartless Bolsheviks took over.  One blessed event and one cursed event share the same anniversary.”

Nikoláy’s eyes light up at the sight of all the brightly colored balloons, streamers, banners, and decorations set up by Katrin’s maid Mrs. Samson.  He rushes to the birthday chair of honor and boosts himself into it.  Eliisabet winces a little at how he’s still a little small for his age, even though he’s not grossly undersized.

“That’s so amazing how he was born out of a hospital, didn’t even have an attending doctor or midwife, and yet turned out perfectly normal.” Viktóriya sits doing a crossword puzzle in lieu of studying the geometry and French homework she brought home for the weekend. “This proves that doctors are not gods and don’t always know everything.  I wonder if any doctor would even treat a baby born at twenty-eight weeks.  I’ve studied the eugenics movement, so I know these things.”

“Lyuba was my midwife,” Eliisabet says. “And the next day, Pyotr brought over a doctor.  She said we’d done the right thing by not cutting off his cord till it stopped pulsating and not rubbing off his vernix, and said we had to make sure to keep him extra-warm, not to let him get wet, and keep him close to the stove for warmth.  And our Grand Duke Dmítriy Pávlovich was born at only seven months too, and he’s perfectly normal.  Little Dárya here was also born seven weeks early.”

Anastásiya falls into a swoon at the mention of her belovèd Prince Dmítriy’s name.  Everyone rolls her eyes.

“Who do you like more lately, Dmítriy or Rudy?” Viktóriya taunts her. “I’d pick the prince over the actor, after that godawful costume drama I had to suffer through.  Who finds a guy handsome when he’s dressed in some powdered wig and seventeenth century outfit?”

“You little brat, you’re going to pay for that!”

Viktóriya laughs as Anastásiya gets up to chase after her and trips over her high heels and long skirts. “You’re probably the only woman in America under thirty who still walks around in clothes our grandmothers wore.”

“First we’re going to have a birthday supper, then games, and finally birthday cake and ice-cream,” Katrin announces. “Nástya, leave Víka alone.  At this point, you’re the guest in my house, not my little sister.”

“Leave her alone?  She was the one who was taunting me!”

Katrin’s cook Mrs. Oswald brings out several platters and bowls.  Eliisabet and Katrin selected the menu, but Nikoláy got to approve it within reason.  He wishes they could only eat cake, candy, pie, and ice-cream, but had to agree with his mother and unofficial aunt that too many sweets aren’t good for anyone.  They ended up selecting corn, tomato, cabbage, and pickle salad, roasted chicken, shashlyk, kisél, hard boiled eggs, spinach quiche, vegetable soup, and blinchiki.  Several pitchers of grape juice are also brought out.

“You trust these kids to drink purple grape juice on a white tablecloth?” Anastásiya pesters.

“Mrs. Samson is a miracle-worker about getting out stains.  She’s gotten out all my postpartum bleeding from my sheets and clothes so far.”

“You’re lucky Ványa isn’t here,” Lyuba laughs. “He said he couldn’t look you in the eyes again after reading your paean to hospital birth.”

“That’s so typical of him.  I never understood how your husband could be so modern and enlightened about some things and so horribly old-fashioned and prudish about others.”

“I have to admit, I was a bit scandalized too,” Eliisabet says. “You really didn’t blush as you wrote some of that?  Now everyone will know what your unmentionables look like!”

“They’re not so unmentionable if I wrote about them in public.  Besides, it’s a very left-wing publication, not some cleaned-up affair like The New York Times or some snooty society publication.”

“You only gave these kids one fork and spoon, Kátya?” Anastásiya demands. “And you’re letting the younger ones eat with their hands!”

“I might have money, but that doesn’t make me a snob.  What’s the point of having twenty different forks and spoons for one meal?  Kids learn to use utensils when they’re ready.  Thank God you’re never reproducing, though I’d love to see what a kid of yours would look like.”

Viktoriya Wakes Up

This is the beginning of a possible flash series about Viktoriya Nikonova, the little sister of Katrin of my Russian novels. They were separated between April 1917 and March 1923, and it could be interesting to write some stories showing what happened to Viktoriya during those years. Viktoriya is one of my favorite characters to write besides double-protagonists Lyuba and Ivan.

Viktóriya wakes with a pounding headache and stinging eyes.  The first thing she’s aware of is that she’s in a strange bed in a strange house.  Then she looks down and sees her blouse has been singed by the fire.

“Kati?” she calls. “Where are we?”

A strange woman comes into the room. “May I speak with you, child?  I’m not sure how much you remember from before you lost consciousness.  You speak Russian, yes?  You were shouting in a foreign language in your sleep.”

Viktóriya nods. “They forced the Russian language on my people for a long time.  My real native language is Estonian, but my parents gave me a Russian name.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m almost ten, but I’m very intelligent and politically aware for my age.  My sister Kati and I are the only people in our family with any modern values, Estonian pride, or common sense.  Is Kati here?”

The woman shakes her head. “We found you among a bunch of murdered children’s bodies in a burning house.  You were the only survivor, and didn’t have a scratch on you.  Do you know how you escaped that massacre?”

Viktóriya rubs her head. “My parents were taken away to prison, and Kati was standing off to the side with her luggage.  The rest of us were lined up and shot one by one.  I didn’t see what happened after my turn.  My assassin was a lousy shot and misfired, and I knew I had to slump to the floor and play dead till they were gone.  I only know what I heard, more shooting, screaming, crying, and these horrific breaking, snapping, creaking noises.  I don’t want to know what those noises were.  Then I must’ve passed out from the shock.”

“You must have a guardian angel.  It’s a miracle you got away from that horrific crime with only temporary unconsciousness and some smoke inhalation.  What is your name?”

“Viktóriya Kaarelovna Nikonova.  Estonians don’t have patronymics, but they forced Russification on my people.”

“It’s probably too dangerous to keep you here much longer, after that attack on your street.  We’re not on your old street, but we’re close by.  All the families on that street must’ve been targeted because they’re all Tsarists.  I take it you don’t support that deposed fool?”

Viktóriya manages a laugh. “Kati and I both were thrilled when he was overthrown.  And that street wasn’t really my old street.  We only moved to Russia a week before that attack.”

“Someone your age should be in school, and in a safe place.  It’s not safe here, with all this political turmoil.  My husband and I are going to make some inquiries to find out where it might be possible to send you for sanctuary.  In the meantime, you should probably stay in the house.  They might still be looking for surviving residents of that street.”

“But I’m not even an adult.”

“Who knows how these people think.  All you need to know is that my family will see to getting you to a safer place as soon as we can.  It’s probably safest to leave the Russian Empire completely, but for now, the best you can do is one of the quieter regions.  Maybe a place like Tashkent.” The woman gets up and begins walking towards the door. “I’ll be back later with food.”

“One more thing,” Viktóriya calls. “Was my sister Katrin among the bodies?  She didn’t seem to be in any trouble.  She was the only one the Bolsheviks were sparing.”

“We counted five male bodies, and three small female bodies.  You were the only survivor.  I assume your sister wasn’t one of the small girls.”

Viktóriya breathes a sigh of relief. “Kati’s seventeen.  She stands out in crowds because her hair is cut as short as a man’s.”

“No, we definitely didn’t see any young women with a man’s haircut.  What kind of name is that, anyway?  It almost sounds like Kátya, but I know you’re saying something different.”

“Her real name is Katariina, but her preferred nickname is Katrin.  She also goes by Kati and Kadri, and will tolerate being called Kátya.  She’s the only one in the family who got a real Estonian name.”

Viktóriya drifts back to sleep after the door closes, comforted by the thought that her dearest sister is out there somewhere.  They might be separated now, but separations don’t have to last forever.

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