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Faith and Fate
Every detail of this story is a piece of my soul. I got the inspiration from various aspects of my life: from movies to people I talk to but mostly it was the story of my mother. My mother had to immigrate from a young age and many emotions are involved with this concept. I also wanted to bring to the spotlight another valuable theme that is innocence. After reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, this topic became very important to me. This topic is hidden in everything from political conflicts to law to personal times. I hope that when someome reads this story, they can realize something new as well.
The exit of the restaurant creaks open as we step out into the chilly New York air. This isn’t just any air, this one moves around you containing the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties. The zeitgeist is what flappers breathe when their high heels kiss the boulevards, it can be heard in every engine sound of a fresh car, and it can enter your body and make you open the door of your home in a yearning to explore. It’s all around now.
I look up to the sky between the skyscrapers, dotted with stars. Mumbled jazz from inside our go-to restaurant La Vie Est Belle enters my ears. I see groups of young people like us fill the city so late. I smear salty sweat from my forehead- a product of dancing for an hour. I look towards the right and see a group of men, above them a cloud of smoke. I subtly cover my mouth with my coat and usher Dorothy and Lucy away. One of my irritations is when I am standing enjoying the weather and then somebody comes up, holding their cigarette out to the world.
“Sofia, we were thinking of taking a drive around in my new car before we split. Want to?” Dorothy’s vivid cherry red lipstick matches her spontaneous personality, the kind of personality that never lets out a yawn.
“I better get home. My mother is waiting. Don’t you have a curfew too, Dora?”
“Oh, right. I do. You’re always right, my watchwoman. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“Thanks but a little walk will do me good.”
I grew up in Belarus and I knew my town like my own face arrangement. A revolution happened, politically and emotionally, when my mama uttered the words: “We have to move.” And so, coming to America from around the world at age fourteen with no friends, no knowledge of the language, and questioning the customs, left me with no choice but to get into the habit of falling into my own arms. To keep my head held up high, I remind myself that I am independent.
“Are you kidding, Sofia? A little walk?” Dorothy echoes. “Your home is ten blocks and friends don’t let each other turn into ice pops. Plus, I just got a new car. Come on, let’s ankle.”
She leads us to her squeaky-clean, polished, cobalt Ford automobile. There’s no use in persuading her, once she’s got her mind set on something, she won’t take it off. I secretly feel relief. I thank her and nod and hide a strand of my dark copper, medium-length hair behind my ear. “Don’t even mention it.” She responds as we trot down 84th street like we usually do.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you Sofia, I really like your decision to cut your hair.” Lucy scans and compliments me, with a voice that is a pattern of catchy Irish and is enhanced with an upbeat, childlike tone that makes me feel like protecting her all the time.
“Thanks. I work with heat and machines and so, as you can see,” I gesture to my 19-year old thin figure that encouraged adults to tell me to eat some more, “I’m blending into the popular ‘flapper image’- short hair, short everything. Every time I enter a store, I shop for those miniskirts like I’ve never seen them before.”
“Same. I’m embarrassed just taking ‘em to the register.” She giggles and we keep following Dorothy.
“So have you decided what job you want to have when you finish college?” She asks me, changing the subject to something much more serious.
“No. I really have no idea and need to decide.” I scratch my forehead and sigh. “You see, I have so many things that I like but it’s hard to find what I love. You know what I mean?”
“When you fall in love with something or someone it’ll feel natural. I love Jack and I knew it from the first date.” Lucy tells me.
“Yes, but this is different,” I slouch down and then slouch back up.
“Not that different. You will find something, believe me.” she reassures as I murmur uncertainly.
“Right now I’m trying to find my car,” Dorothy calls. “I forgot where I parked it!” She cackles.
“That’s not good.” I say, thinking of the consequences that could come if one never finds their car- their new car.
“Oh, relax, Sofia.” Dorothy says carelessly. With a breath of relief, we find her Ford. We slide in and the doors click. As we drive through the city, neon lights reflect on us. I roll down my window, the breeze brushing against my nose. Strangers pass each other, all affecting another’s destiny in an unknown way. When the brakes are pressed at a red light, I stare at a gentleman crossing who seems so familiar. I jerk up in my seat but the car belt holds me down. Lucy asks me what’s wrong, noticing even my most hidden emotions.
“I thought I saw someone familiar. Nostalgia, right?”
I can’t wait to go home and tell my mama about this. Dorothy turns on the car radio as a good song comes on. She makes it loud and opens the windows as we playfully shout for her to turn it down. Through the drive, our faces stay crimson from laughing and being embarrassed. Dorothy puts her sole on the brakes in front of my townhouse which is adorned with pots of roses on the staircase. My family never stopped being amused at roses being my mama Rosa’s favorite. I part with the girls, slamming the car door.
I cringe as I turn the key, trying not to disturb anyone’s slumber. The only source of light is coming from the living room where I find Mama browsing through mail on the recliner.
“Hi, Mama.” I try to keep my voice like the bed I yearn to crawl into: soft.
“You’re home, dochenka. How was your time?” She asks me in tranquil Russian and looks up at me with a heart-shaped face outlined with black curls.
Mama is my favorite story-teller, my best friend, and my temple- I could always go to her. The house and family rests on her small shoulders. Disregarding what is acceptable for women, she works until her fingers are numb and my papa, while stripped of his role as head of the house, shows his appreciation and I really like that fact.
“Guess what happened?” I speak as she shushes me. “I saw a man crossing the street who looked just like Alex. Imagine if it was him?” Was it him? Could’ve it been him? Could that mysterious man on the crosswalk be Alex, the boy who was sewn into the fabric of my childhood? Every holiday, he would show up at my doorstep. Every day afterschool, he would offer to carry my books and I agreed, not realizing he was under my spell. We would spend hours in the yard between our buildings where we would play until the ends of our childlike fantasies were reached. Soon, we began locking eyes and got closer to each other with each apprehensive but naively romantic centimeter. After a while, we learned our distance would now be by thousands of miles when he had to immigrate to Boston and I to New York. On the brink of my leave, his hand shaking, he handed me a love poem depicting vague first feelings. Being an inch shorter, he then leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I never looked at a boy the same way again.
She puts a paper down so I won’t see it; probably a bill or check. She doesn’t want me to stress about money yet because to her, I will always be a child. I will always be a child who once took the bag off the cash register and darted off, forgetting I was owed change, a child who would always point to the donation basket with trust that the money will end up in the right hands, and a child who looked at money and saw it not as a prize but as an item passed around by so many people that it could’ve been touched by the love of her life.
“But my time was great as always,” I plop on the couch, take off my stilettos, and rub my feet. “We went to La vie Est Belle down on 84th street as usual. It was dancing, eating, and dancing again. I talked with this boy. He’s from the navy, wants to be a doctor, and comes from an Italian family with five siblings from Brooklyn. After he asked if I wanted to meet again.”
“Ooh, Sofia. Did you say yes?” She flashes a crooked grin.
“No, actually. He seemed fine, but I want to like somebody for who they are, not what they are, you know? We had fun though- exchanged some clever banter, did the Charleston,” dimples form on my face. “But I decided to spend time with Dorothy and Lucy instead. How are you?”
“I am fine. I just put Anna to bed, Papa gave me tulips just because, and I was waiting for you to come home.” Her mouth changes from an upside arc to a straight stern line when she opens an envelope.
“What have you got there?” I ask as she skims the message.
“Grandmother Rachel needs me to travel to Minsk-” she clicks her tongue.
“Why?” I furrow my brows, remembering my old city.
“Grandmother is not in the best condition right now, as you know and she says she needs to see us. I must go soon. Do you want to come with me? Your winter break just began. ”
When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother Rachel. She never spoke much about her early life, but I saw her every day of mine. She believed the most important thing she could do was give me advice and she did which made me ponder every time we parted. When we left, that part of me was chipped away and bit by bit I began to forget her smile, then her scent, then her voice. Yet, I never forgot that safe feeling I encountered when I was in her arms.
“To see Grandmother?! Of course!” I light up. “I can’t wait to tell Anna and Papa.”
“I don’t want Anna to see Grandmother ill and in a wheelchair- it’ll be too much for her. So Papa’s going to have to say with her at home. When Grandmother heals, I promise we will visit her altogether.” My sister Anna is a tall eleven and since we are almost the same height, it’s been easy to level with each other. I learned that no matter our age difference, I will always have something in common with her. She’s a gentle schoolgirl who gets attached to almost everything she sees. She’s the one that has pulled me back to youth all these years.
“I understand. I can’t believe we’re actually going back to Minsk!” I jump and Mama doesn’t seem to mind.
“I can’t believe we’re going to Minsk!” I squeal to myself as I neatly fold my warm clothes into my copper duffel bag the day before. “It’s all going to come back to me, isn’t it? We’re going on a wild adventure.” I search through my shelf filled with books of every genre until I come across a hardcover journal that I received for my fifteenth birthday. Out of it slips a paper with the first love poem, crumpled with age. I drop down on my bed my, mattress bouncing, clutching it, and taking a breath in memory. I recall reading it, sensations overflowing inside of me as I, amongst immigrants, was heading towards the Statue of Liberty. I remember it smelled like dew from the early morning rain, I started feeling a bit seasick as the ship had to turn and turn to find the perfect spot, and everybody started to clap and cheer which made me forget about the queasiness. I put the paper the down and skim through my journal. I would spill my heart out every night onto those sheets that are now filled with new experiences, observances, and problems that make me laugh right now. How I changed since then.
We take a ship to Poland where we hop on a train to Belarus. From there, we take a tram to my Grandmother’s neighborhood. My sapphire eyes rest on the streets of my childhood; the streets where a little girl and her friends trudged to school in the wintry scenery and where she would stroll with her papa as he would tell her of his life experience. My mind floods with clear and vague images as my tear ducts flood with clear and vague emotion. I dab my face with my thumb.
The door opens to Grandmother in a wheel chair, grinning from ear to ear. “Rosa! Sofia! My girls are here!” We enter and greet each other with hugs and kisses to make the whole world kinder. I feel her wool sweater, smelling her sweet body spray that I now remember she would always wear at special events. We carry our luggage in, exhausted after taking multiple forms of transportation. I take a second to examine the apartment: no more toys lying around for the grandkids’ visit, carpets and pictures of family are on almost every wall, and the room has a frigid temperature that makes my skin crack. I imagine that little girl again as I turn towards the kitchen; she’s furtively trying to taste the forbidden batter while her Grandmother’s turned around, and here, in this living room her Grandpa reads her fairytales as she lays on his lap, hoping and dreaming that her life be like every golden-rimmed page in those books.
“Come on in. The couch can be unfolded for you to sleep on and every morning you’ll have a view of the pine tree we’ll be putting up for New Year’s soon.” She wheels around, guiding us. “I want to thank-you so much for coming.” She clasps her bony fingers together, veins like rivers emerging.
“Mama, you don’t need to thank me at all. I came immediately. How have you been dealing with this? Are you taking your medicine?”
“It’s been tricky, but I’ve learned to handle it. I’ve been through a lot. And yes, I take medicine once a day.” Mama checks the medicine bottles lying on the coffee table, rubs her hands together complaining about the cold, and turns on the heater.
I wonder what Grandmother has been through when she calls “Where’s my granddaughter? Come here, my darling!” I come closer, observing every feature of her face as she observes mine. Lavender crescents hang under her bright blue irises, which are exactly like mine, and skin like thin wrinkly dough masks her youthful looks. “You’ve changed, started to look more like your papa. You’re tall like Grandfather.” Grandfather was an expressive artist- story-teller- family man with silky gray hair and black-framed glasses who I cherished. Even if he is gone, the impression I have of him will always be with me. As we reunite and rekindle, Grandmother tells me I’m beautiful.
“Thank-you, I missed you.” She takes me in her arms again and I get fulfilled of that Grandmother’s affection I was sorely deprived of for five years.
The proud sun starts to go into hiding when I decide to knock on old friends’ doors, if I can find my way around. Each tongue speaks of different news. I save my best friend Masha for last because then I will have more time with her. She was the oldest of the Three Musketeers which we called me, Alex, and her. Back in the days of the classroom, Masha was the child who the teacher asked to raise her voice multiple times, she was the one who was picked last for the team, and she was the one who everybody whispered rumors about. On a spring afternoon, she was sitting under a birch tree at recess and I had the guts to come over to her. I smiled that old baby-toothed smile at her and after a few tries, I got her to do so back. I soon introduced her to Alex. Since that day, our imaginations grew together as did we. Masha treasured us like diamonds. If anyone hurt us- even in the slightest bit- she would step up. Sometimes, she would take it too far with her threats and end up sitting in the principal’s office chair. She became known as the tough girl and no one wanted her on their team for a different reason-fear. We didn’t care and would meet at the yard between our buildings everyday afterschool instead. One day, she didn’t show up. We came to her house and found her in tears in her room. She looked up at us and pretended noting was wrong. We sat around her, gulping nervously because we have never her cry before, and soon found out that her father had died. She told us: “I will not use my father’s death as an excuse for pity for myself.” I scoffed at her, handed her the tissue box, and told her it was okay to use it. We spent the rest of that afternoon together and from then on, she felt brave enough to cry when she was around us.
At last my knuckles beat against her door. I hear locks opening and to my surprise see a man- respectfully way too young to be her father, old enough to be her twin but he’s a jet black brunette, not a caramel like the siblings. “May I help you?” He asks. I look behind him but that doesn’t give me anything. I observe him: his head is almost touching the door frame and his muscles bulge out from his clothing. That doesn’t give me anything either. “My name is Sofia Brodsky, an old friend of Maria Fedorovna’s, and I was wondering if she still lives here.”
“She’s here. Please, come in. My name is Maksim.” He introduces deeply.
“Nice to meet you, young sir.”
I humbly enter as he shuts the door behind me and goes to get her. I look around cautiously. I see pictures of her in a frame from when she was younger, her family, and her and Maksim – and I am not suspicious anymore. The nostalgia powers up my brain, which rotates like a ride. We would play wooden dolls on this very hardwood floor, the smell of a bookstore takes up the room, and the wind pounding against the windows is when her mother knew it was time to make tea that we would try to catch the steam from. I hear quick footsteps.
“Sofia?” I hear someone say as spin around and nod rapidly. “It’s you!” I see a tall lady with short bouncy coils, peach skin, and a coffee dress bordering her hourglass figure. We squeal so loud that Maksim checks to make sure we’re alright. My chin rests on her shoulder as we are having a hard time believing this is real.
“So what have you been up to?” I ask, our forks clanging against the plates in the kitchen.
“I’m a community theater actress, Michael- remember my brother? - moved out as well as my parents so now I share the apartment with Maksim, and I got engaged.”
She kisses her fiancé tenderly like a grown up and he beams, staring at her dreamily. I guess Masha isn’t that teenage girl anymore who I whispered in the yard with, fancying about first love. She’s different now and it says so on her thin lips.
“Getting ready for the holidays soon?” I ask after looking at Masha’s work-filled calendar on her refrigerator.
“Yes. But ever since the revolution in 1917, Christmas has been banned. Our family and many others… started secretly going to a priest’s house. He’s a close family friend. We are not allowed to go to a Church.” She whispers as if someone might be spying.
“Your holiday is banned? How immoral. That priest is very generous, though. ”
“Very, he would never let us be confiscated of our faith, ever. Many important moments of our lives took place in his hands or on the Church steps. Well, the season is still magical. New Year’s will be fun. All night you will hear the kid’s joyful cheers as they are sledding down that hill at the neighborhood park across the street.” She points towards the window. “You’ll be tempted to eat the delicious edible ornaments on the tree and it’s so much fun when everybody counts down at once. It’s simply wonderful. You like it don’t you?”
“Yes I do. Perhaps you want to come over on New Year’s?” I offer as she enthusiastically agrees.
“Remember how everyone used to come over to your place, Sofia?” I take a forkful of food and ask her if she has been keeping in touch with Alex. I inform Maksim about our old friend.
“My cousin from New York sent me a letter telling me all about his new wonderful employee Alexander Gregoriovich. He’s from our city. It’s him, right?” Maksim asks. I nod and think of that boy who crossed the street.
“Small world, eh?”
“But we had such a great time growing up, right?” Masha cuts in as I nod. “Just think: through all the wars and conflicts, our days were filled with laughter, petty arguments that faded away after a minute,” she chuckles, “and wild imaginations.”
The playful shrieking of the town’s youth occupies the school’s territory and gets louder and louder as Masha and I approach the playground. Albeit keeping my notion that I’m never too young to step foot on a playground, especially under the influence of a younger sister, I’m not here to play. Masha and I scan for our teacher that was with us for many years who is supposed to be on guard now. “I adore children.” Masha lets me know.
“So do I.” She opens her mouth to respond but changes her mind. Finally, she points to a woman with salt-pepper hair, adjusting her round glasses. We come over to her, anxiety twisting our insides. The woman’s eyes almost pop out when she recognizes us. We hug. My best friend passes her the bouquet of yellow and white that’s out of season and we searched for everywhere.
“I can’t believe it; two of my best students are here! Thank-you for reminding me why I love to teach!”
“Thank-you for teaching us, Katerina Smirnoff,” I say.
“Now, Masha, I know you stayed but, Sofia, you went moved to New York. How is it?”
“It’s great. The men who had come back from the war have this yearning to explore, like Masha’s brother here. The woman who filled in for their jobs now realize how much they are capable of.” I smack my lips in delight.
“We women don’t have much experience in that world. Let the men handle it, we are better off in the kitchen.” I now look at one of the most beloved adults of my childhood a different angle now. My fingers begin to tremble and I want to let out what’s boiling inside of me but turn down the heat. “Well, I think that women can get some experience in this world. If men can have it all, why can’t we? Aren’t we all human?” I ask rhetorically.
“Hmm…” she makes a poker face and smiles at me, as if she knew what my response was going to be. “You have a point. You are quite the activist, Sofia.” An activist: that’s the word that can be used to explain to the questioning world what I want to be. She will be my teacher for life. We converse until recess is over. Strolling home, I tell Masha about this new muscle I feel after sticking up for myself, like a true activist (I love the sound of that word!). We come to a screeching halt when we see a tiny body in brown ragged garment, shivering on a bench. Masha’s expression would make me question everything I thought of her defensive nature if we were nine years old again and sitting on her bed with tissues. Yet, it seems as if she’s seen this before. “Let’s help. Come on.” She leads me to him. I stumble, coming up with fearful excuses like “how?”
“I don’t know, but I know we will regret not trying. Don’t be afraid, Muscles.” My heart sinks down to my stomach in worry as we come closer and the little, skinny, dirt-covered face looks up at us. The boy sits up from lying down but Masha kneels down before him. “Little boy, why are you here alone?” He observes us before answering. He gets up and jogs away.
“Wait, we want to help you.” I call as he stops and turns around.
“I ran away from the orphanage. Nobody wants me, none of the parents. Do you have food?” He raises his blonde eyebrows in hope.
“Not with us, but at the orphanage does. You should go back, it’s better than being out here in the cold. Come on, we will walk you.” She pulls out her hand and he hesitantly grabs it.
He walks with us. I introduce ourselves and ask him his name. “Artur.” He answers in a hoarse voice.
“What a beautiful name. Tell me, is there a reason you chose this bench?” She asks with honey sweetness.
“This used to be my school. I wanted to see my friends. They still have parents.” He wipes his nose with is dirty coat sleeve as Masha offers him a napkin. He is doused with gratuity and amazement at her maternal, not just polite care. “I saw them.” He trumpets.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Almost six.” The, she asks him what orphanage he is from and he points to somewhere in the distance and says number twelve.
“Alright, we will go there.” She searches her purse. “Go feed the birds, okay?” She pours some bird crumbs into his palm. While he is summoning birds, she tells me: “When you left, Sofia, Russia was in chaos. The Great War ended and the revolution was on its second year. Millions of homeless children roamed the streets, desperate for food and shelter. We call them the besprizorniki- the name for the neglected ones. The government looked at this and started to build child welfare institutions-emergency shelters, orphanages, and special boarding schools.” She exhales disappointedly. “Don’t worry, we are improving. No more war-communism.”
“Why don’t the little ones go to these places? Why do they stay outside?”
“Who knows? I heard they go to back when night falls but during the day, they beg for money. I’m not sure.”
“What do we do?”
“Pray and donate. Maksim and I were thinking about adoption, but I’m afraid.”
“So now you’re afraid? Of what exactly?”
“That the child won’t feel mine.”
“Family doesn’t have to be by blood, Masha. If you fall in love with someone and they love you back, that’s family.” The cold chill makes me put my hood on. I see Artur scattering food to the innocent, underappreciated pigeons. “Can you believe it, Masha, it feels like just yesterday we were kids and now you are talking about having kids?” I can’t help but feel taller.
“It’s something.” She holds out her hand for him to grab as he does so, skipping to her. She puts his hand in her pocket to warm it and stares at the boy.
“Are you going to be my mother?” He looks up at her as we exchange glances. She takes a while to answer.
“No, I’m so sorry.” The words struggle to crawl out of her throat as sad silence descends upon us. Still, he doesn’t let go of her.
Finally, we arrive at the orphanage. The kids begin to chit-chat about us and straighten out their spines in case one of us is a potential mother. A round mistress with a bob haircut comes to greet us as all the other kids scurry away. She starts scolding the boy, as if to show that they have discipline here. He stares at the wooden floor. “He was just upset that parents rejected him.” Masha stands behind him.
“If he keeps running away, no parents will ever want him and no parents ever do.” She yells angrily, yanks him by the collar and takes him away as his head is down. As I see his profile, I can see he is confused whether to look at Masha or not. Masha runs towards the exit as I try to catch up. She presses her head against the glass door.
“What’s wrong? We did a good thing, Masha.” She doesn’t respond and I try a few more times, just like to that little girl sitting under the birch tree. The security barks at us to go outside and we do so. I continue to try to get to her outside. “He’s in a good home,” I tell her.
“Pfft, a good home. Every time an adult comes in, those kids think that they’ll be greeted with open arms. I know how it feels to grow up without knowing you can always have a shoulder to cry on…” I embrace her tightly as she does so back. I try to tell her something but she bursts out all of a sudden like a singer with no need for a microphone. “Did you see how she was yelling at him? At that boy? At my…” She steps back and looks at the orphanage. She darts off back to it as I shout “what’s the matter?” Before we know it, we stand before the bob-cut mistress and she looks at us questioningly.
“I want him,” Masha says breathlessly. The teacher rushes to get him as I turn to my best friend.
“Masha, are you sure you are making the right choice? Maksim-”
“Maksim wanted this and we both have jobs so we will be able to support ourselves.” She says quickly.
“But didn’t he want to have the whole experience of picking out a child? And-”
“I feel like the child picked me. Maksim will understand.”
“It’s just so unexpected. I think you should’ve planned it before.”
“Maybe I should’ve consulted him but I couldn’t pass up on an opportunity of fate. I just couldn’t take it. ” She presses on her heart.
“You just made a decision that will change your life forever. I say ‘forever’ because I know you don’t have the wickedness to give that child back. ”
“I know. I would never give a child back in general.”
“But are you sure you are prepared to raise that boy?”
“Yes, I am. I fell in love with that child the moment I looked at him. It’s like he was my own.”
“I…I guess…I’m happy this happened. I’ll help you as much as I can.”
“Thank-you.” She turns around at hearing quick little feet dash around the corner.
“My mamochka is here! She’s here! She came for me!” He cheers, embracing her.
“Want to be my mine? I’ll give you a home and food to fill your belly up.”
“A home?” He gasps.
“Yes, a warm home with a mama and papa that will kiss you every day.” They both begin to weep tears of joy as he makes up for and repeats every baby’s first word.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!”
I hum New Year’s tunes as glistering ornaments like bracelets dangle on the pine tree’s inviting, open arms. With an unsophisticated amusement, I sprinkle “rain” on the tree, frolicking around as Mama shakes her head, letting out chords of joy. I encircle the tree, inhaling its sap which invades me inside, and have a link with every beautification. Wait, that smell isn’t sap anymore, its food! Mama’s putting food on the table, and I must go help her! Grandmother wheels in to the living room where we moved the dining table in.
"I bought delicious food for us.” Mama hurriedly sets up.
“Did you see those prices?” Grandmother asks.
“Yes I know it’s crazy...” They go into a discussion.
“How about not tonight?” I interrupt.
“You’re right, Sofia. Let’s celebrate.” Mama continues plating.
There’s that familiar doorbell again, I used to run over to it every time it sounded, like a puppy. I gesture Masha, Maksim, Artur, and Michael in with eagerness. Earlier today, I was helping her prepare for the arrival of the little one. She told me Maksim was delightfully shocked. He really loves her. Then, it sounds again and I need a moment to recognize who stands before me. “Olesa Buoyanova?” I ask an elderly woman with a brightly colored head scarf and an embroidered blouse.
“Sofia? You’re here! My God! I can’t believe it! How I missed you and your family so much.” Olesa Buoyanova was the neighbor who always was there for me when I tripped and fell on the staircase from going too fast, she was always there to put a little sugar in our lives with the treats that made our childhood, and she was there when I needed advice and felt as if the world was falling down. Sometimes, she was the only one who leveled herself with me. I would go to her and she would explain the adult problems to me in my language. I would always have solutions to them that adults would scoff at. I fully believed my solutions would work and a part of me still does.
I settle at the table and feel a warm sensation especially with Grandmother beside me on her wheelchair. “Grandmother, right there were more people last time?”
“Most immigrated, but what matters most are how much you love the people around you not how many are around you. Understand?”
I look around. Mama is always the last one to sit down after she knows everyone and everything is set. Masha is bouncing Artur on her knees and Maksim is feeding him. Olesa is catching up with my Grandmother on current events yet she lives only one flight up. Masha’s twin brother Michael, who I’ve had a crush on when I was ten, kisses Masha in the forehead. He and I were never as close, but I saw him in all the familiar places. Cupid entered our grade and it became epidemic: fantasizing, “You asked him…you asked her…you two should get married…”, and staring in the mirror a different way. Eventually, I moved on. Mama sits down and brings some Cabernet Sauvignon as Michael pours it into his glass.
“Want some?” He asks me calmly. I hesitate and look at Mama who gives an irresponsible gesture. I haven’t had a sip since I tried a full glass of some homemade one at a classmate’s get-together in their house and became unconscious for an hour. When I woke up, I was in my own room and the first vision I saw was Mama with hands on her hips. I regretted it instantly. She told me Dorothy and Lucy called her and she had to drive across town to pick me up. When she came to the address, she saw me asleep and drooling on someone else’s dining table surrounded by a crowd of people with mixed reactions. I’m glad that was before a school break so the hot topic would die out but it lived on at home, as well the guilt my parents implanted in me. Even though I am tempted since America isn’t allowed to drink, I solemnly refuse. Besides, I’m in no rush to be an adult.
A few hours had past; we dined, laughed, and did a mixture of both. Everyone is in the living room. Artur is standing near the tree. Grandmother is watching the bleach-blonde boy with pleasure. He pulls on the tree with all his might and it tilts. Grandmother shouts and rises from her wheelchair as the tree swings back, not falling on him. Everyone gasps including herself. Mama gets up quickly and holds Grandmother’s waist while she is still standing. “Rosa, you don’t have to. I’m back.” She declares and everyone claps. It’s a miracle and it happened because of that little boy. Soon, we go to greet midnight from the town park. I fix my ski hat as I glance at the sky full of stars- same ones as in New York.
“Starry nights mean destiny is lighting a new way for you.” Masha elbows me. “I wonder what it is going to give me,” I put my hands in my pockets and observe again. There are the kids cheering on the sleds- Masha was right-, neighbors dancing and dressed up in whatever fits their imagination, and snowflakes are coming together to make a white blanket.
Amidst the snowflakes stands a young man in a trench coat, looking around casually. His face, which is one-thirds covered by the ushanka he’s wearing on his head, seems so familiar that I get a pinch from the inside of my stomach. It’s a baby-tiger like appearance. I try to examine him some more without getting closer. He turns to me like an owl and his intensely unique stare protrudes my soul before I panic and turn to Masha. For a while, we talk, we watch Arthur play in the snow, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s still looking at me. Before I make up my mind to turn around, Masha tells me something like a ventriloquist. “Sofia, someone’s been watching you.”
“What? Where?” I turn as she tells me not to.
“A stranger standing by that decorated pine tree,” she says as I subtly glance that direction and there he is again.
“Should I come up to him? He seems our age and…”
She gets cautious and hesitant like Mama does, not saying anything until she’s sure. Her protective side shines through her once more. “Just because he’s our age or seems our age? Are you serious?”
“It’s not just that…I have this sudden urge to do so.”
She purses her lips. “Alright but be very careful. You know, he was walking around, not taking his eyes off you. Call me if anything, you hear?” She asks like a sergeant.
I take a deep breath and the snow crunches as I boldly walk over to the tall figure. As soon as I begin walking, he darts a glance at me with that distant look again like he knew I was coming, like he was looking from the corner of his eye. I am thisclose to turning back but remember Masha’s words yesterday and know I would regret not taking a chance. I get closer and hold on to my head as I realize who it might be. “Alexander?” I hold my breath, hoping that it’s him.
“Sofia?!” He sounds questioningly, excitement arising.
“Yes! It’s me. Wait, Alex Kaplan? It’s you?! I can’t believe it’s you!” I call out and come over to him. I feel his hands hitting off the snowflakes off the back of my jacket, and wrap my hands around him. We stand like that for a couple of seconds. “You look so different, Alex.”
“You did too, no wonder I didn’t recognize you.” I think of the other musketeer who hasn’t seen him.
“Masha!” I run over to her, pulling him behind me.
“What happened?” She glances defensively at the “stranger”. I tell her who it is.
“Alex?! Our Alex?!” She speaks with him before introducing him to her son and fiancée. “Wow and on New Year’s?! Who can believe it? What brings you here?”
“I…it’s a long and heavy story. I’ll explain later. ” He waves his hand in the cold air and squats down to Artur. He gets up as I stare at him, still stunned he’s here. He’s here. I face him and tell him to sum his story up as Masha joins the rest of the crowd. “Okay. I came to New York for a job and in wants of finding you, went to your address, and your father told me you were in our old town, so I came.”
“You were looking for me? You came all the way to Minsk for me?”
“I missed you. I’m glad that I’m here with you, now.”
“Alex…how did you find my address?”
“Through the letters we sent each other.” I notice a baby golden blonde cowlick underneath his hat.
“You kept the letters?” I say with amazement. I was about to burn them but came to my senses that I was insane and shelved them without another word. He nods. We converse and as I am talking with him, I don’t think about anything else but the present moment. Finally, ten seconds till the long anticipated midnight. I feel like jumping up and down or dropping down to make a snow angel.
“Alex, did you ever kiss anyone on New Year’s?” I say biting my lip and cross one ankle over the other.
“Not romantically, only family, you know what I mean.”
“Are you stating a fact or giving a suggestion?” I ask as he gives me a look that I read as do you know what you are talking about? “Never mind,” I mumble and feel like making a hole in the snow to bury myself in.
“Both.” He says steadily, but fearfully looking away and hiding his hands in his pockets.
“What? Do you have a lady?”
“The only lady I have is in front of me.” I learn he forms dimples just like I do, he leans closer to me as my heart starts beating so fast I’m afraid it’ll get tired, and the tips of our sloshy boots touch. A spring of excitement bounces up in me and I feel warm. I instinctively lean my head which he is holding, and he does the same. My eyelids go down and he kisses me as 1926 slowly arrives upon us. I feel the blue and red rivers of my body flow through me. I look at him again when we let go. I realize that I just kissed someone I haven’t seen in five years. But he’s Alex: the one who was modest and different from all the other boys but loyal once you got to know him. Alex: the one who would give you his shoulder anytime if you needed; I longed for that shoulder the most when I came to the states. Alex: the one who taught me everything I know so far about first feelings. I’m in a daze until the fireworks take up the sky with a boom and I dare to look at him.
There we are: Masha, me and Alex on the playground once again. I look up to the third floor of Grandmother’s building to see them waving, I swing my hand high and bring it down to slap my thigh. I wonder how long they were watching for. I bring the group closer together as people begin to smooch, sing, strum whatever instruments they brought with them, and dance.
At 1:00 in the morning, I just can’t take it anymore. I can’t unglue my eyelids. I am entering a trance when hear voices around me but all I do is curl up at the spot, somewhere unknown but with a silky texture. Through my trance, I am in another place and I envision my New Year’s Eve on repeat but I don’t mind because I have blissful memories. I hear a firecracker outside and jerk awake. I am in what is our living room. I am not in my pajamas but my formal clothes. All the lights are off in this room. Mama is nowhere near but the sheets on the other side of the wide unfolded couch are ruffled. I hear talking in the kitchen. I don’t usually get up in the middle of the night, so I unknowingly drop back down on the pillow. I floor tiles groan and creak and look around, cautiously. In the blackness, a figure comes near me. It’s not Mama or Grandmother because the body shape looks different. “Ssh …sleep” a male voice tells me.
“Who is this?” I say drowsily.
“What in the world?” In a dreamlike fantasy, I sit up. “Alex? What’s going on?”
“It’s a snowstorm outside so your mother let me stay. I was on the other side of the couch and got up just now to get some tea. Want some?” He asks as I shake my head. “Anyways, I’ll leave. I apologize for waking you up.” He turns towards the exit.
“No, no. I’m fine. I slept well. What time is it?” I turn on the table lamp and pull up my sleeve but my watch isn’t on. He settles beside me in the dim light. “I took off your watch and put it on the coffee table.” He checks the time,
“When did I fall asleep? I don’t remember.”
“Remember we were all sitting in the living room after you invited me to your place? You came closer to me, I put my arm around you, your head seemed heavy, and before I knew it you were asleep.” He slaps his knee.
“You don’t say! I was so comfortable. Can you believe tonight? Full of surprises.” Grandmother stood up! She was on a wheel chair since we left.” I stop for a moment wonder if our leaving had anything to do with her health.
“Yes, I saw this feeling written on her face that I saw growing up with you, you know? Her spirit is back.”
“I know. Then, I saw you and we-” I point to my lips. He smiles and nods.
“…How did you feel? I mean, we are childhood friends that haven’t seen each other in years and now what are we?”
“I don’t know what are we now but that was a nice kiss.” He says bashfully and puts down his mug that he was holding. “What about you? Did you like it?” I nod and respond in the most hushed voice possible.
“You don’t have a boyfriend, right?” He asks.
“What? No.” I giggle.
“I want to be yours.” Even though his tone has not changed, it seems so sudden and his pupils dart towards me.
“Wait, what?” I feel the blood rush through the top of my torso.
“You not only my best friend, but first romance and will be my last.”
“You love me, Alex?” I ask breathlessly.
“Yes and you are actually the one who taught me how.”
“Really? Did it help you in life?” I try to keep the conversation levelheaded as I face the most expressive guy I’ve ever talked to and utter words I didn’t think I’d utter for years.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if it didn’t. I came here for you.” He brings his chest in, in fear and excitement all together. “What about you?”
“I am very flattered but we are from different states, it simply can’t happen.”
“It’s happening now, isn’t it?” He asks as I nod and smile. I give him my warm hand.
I see a gleam in his almond-shaped eyes which are on me. He’s gazing at me like no one has ever gazed before. “I want to be with you right now, if you let me.” I hesitate before speaking. Car lights shine on the walls, dogs begin to bark, and gradually the world begins to wake up or go to sleep- either one, its New Year’s! I clutch his hand tight. How I missed him. I was thinking about him until I started overthinking, I spent nights going flipping through memories in my head until my pillow was stained with saline, and I went over so many times how I was going to act if I were to ever see him again- and this is nothing like it. Even after five years a trace of him was still left with me. Finally, he’s here! Physically! In front of me!
“Alex, I am so glad you’re here. I love you.” I throw my arms around him, passion giving me valiance. I realize what a peaceful dawn this is. I feel our cheeks touch as he hugs me back. His skin is clothed in soft cotton and smells the way his home used to smell. Each home has a different aroma.
“ Da, moya dorogaya.”
I stare at his profile with admiration as the sky begins to gradually tint. The lilac hue from behind the window reflects on his creamy beige face, sparsely dotted with facial hair like ants. His steep jawline goes down to his Adam’s apple that seems almost hard to carry. He’s not just my best friend anymore, but a handsome young male. I come closer to him.
“This is what it feels like.” I see every pore and millimeter of his face. We each open our mouths slightly. It seems like to make sure the crevices of our sweet lips fit, we press them together hard. All the clocks in the world seem to stop.
During the next few days, the doctor decides that Grandmother be watched over until her home attendant returns. Beautiful conversations are happening that could say anything about a person if attention is given. I spend time with the people I adore. The bonds that are being formed are something indescribable, like the zeitgeist back home.
Alex falls on his bum ice-skating and I fall down with him to make him feel better. We have snowball fights in the town park and he accidently fires a shot at a stranger, which sends him remorse. After a snowstorm, when all is mute, and the hissing wind is all that’s there, we accompany it. We run through it and tenants watching from their windows think we are mad. After running through that weather with him, I get a cold and tell him I can’t see him. Rebelliously, he comes over to my place and shows off his cooking skills when he makes me chicken soup. He sits down next to me, with not a care for his own health, and reads to me as I use up tissues. When he isn’t reading, he brings his guitar and plays to me. Relaxation occupies me at the sound of every strum. As he is playing, I get a recollection of Grandfather. Grandfather took pride in the fact that he devoted most of his young life to that six-string. Soon, the tissue boxes are full and unused and I am feeling better. We continue to stare more intently at each other, stand closer, and kiss longer.
The sun is giving its shift to the pale moon outside. Inside Alex’s place, the crackling utterings of the unsteady fire fill the cozy room of five. We sit there, watching it even though it stays the same. Michael lounges on Alex’s uncle’s arm chair which he doesn’t seem to mind, Masha’s family of three join Alex and I on the carpet covered with a linen blanket. I notice a record player on the dresser and get up to observe it. My partner looks up at me in awe as I stand up and go. I skim through the different records: some Louis Armstrong, Valentin Parnakh, The Andrews Sisters, Duke Ellington… Bessie Smith. I insert her record and turn around to everyone. A light melody sounds as black fingers hit the piano keys, then she begins to talk to tune of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home:
I've got the blues, I feel so lonely
I'll give you the world if I could only
Make you understand
Alex stands up, his suspenders unfolding. He asks me for a dance. I straighten out my long skirt and agree without thinking. He spins me around and brings me into his arms. I have never moved well to a slow song before. Between improvisational steps, he asks me if I had ever listened to this. “They play it sometimes at our hangout place- La Vie Est Belle on 84th street.” Dorothy and Lucy enter my mind. “What about you?”
“I remember they played this one at a school party where everyone just had to slow dance. I didn’t ask anyone which was when I realized how much I missed you.” I wrap my arms around his neck, rest on his shoulder, and relax as he delicately puts his hands on my hips. I silently mouth the words to the song. We turn to look at each other, smiling. We dance in the still of the evening.
“Look around, Sofia. Are you happy?” He asks kindly and the moon has arrived, watching us like a proud mother.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here. What about you?”
“Couldn’t be any happier.” I look around and see Masha’s family together, I see Michael where he was before.
“Alex, Michael seems so lonely. Doesn’t he?”
“Go to him, it’s okay with me.” He gently lets me go as I am startled. Michael seems perplexed when I come over to him, but gets up anyway. Alex puts on a different song, with a little faster tune. I grin at him slyly as he does so back and gestures for me to continue.
“If I was 10, this would be a dream come true.” I tease Michael, expanding our elbows out.
“That is interesting because if I was 12, this would be a dream come true too.”
“What?” I squint.
“I liked you when I was 12,” He rolls his eyes.
“Too little too late, right? Ha. But I’m still your friend.”
“Always will be.” We discuss for two songs until I turn to see Alex who is alarmed when I look at him. His facial features are evenly spread out and he’s looking at us as if he did so for the last two songs. Catching my glance, he bobs his head as if asking me what the matter is. I gesture “nothing” and excuse myself from Maksim’s arms by faking a need to go to the restroom. I fling open the washroom door to find myself in the middle of a short but lonely hallway. Alex’s uncle is arguing on the phone in his bedroom and Masha’s being a pop hit telling a joke in the parlor. A couple feet away is an open door to a lit-up room. I look around before tip-toeing to it. I enter it to find it smelling of Alex. Only hearing the buzzing of electricity through the walls, I saunter around. I stroke the guitar case beside his poorly made bed. His suitcase is in the corner and I get a spasm at the thought of him leaving. The parquet creaking beneath my stockings, I come over to examine his shelves. Vanilla-paged books, foreign figurines, and a photo of Alex his arms around an attractive flapper, posing suggestively, take up shelf space. I clutch the frame and question her identity more than my own.
“That’s Darlene,” informs a voice behind me.
“Oh my…! Alex, you scared me!” I pant. “I was just looking around. Who is this girl right here?” I try to keep my head up.
“That’s a friend from Boston.”
“Friend? Hmm…I have friends too but I don’t usually put their pictures in frames.”
“She just reminds me of home. Don’t be jealous.” I deny his claim and fake a chuckle. “You’re still holding the frame. There’s no need to be, you’re my lady now.” He takes my hand as I put the frame down.
“But why would you have a picture of her only?” I wail.
“It must’ve accidently flew into my suitcase and I found it when I unpacked my things. And so I put it in a frame. Why don’t you trust me?” His tone pinches me.
“I don’t know anything about your life in Boston!”
“What would you like to know?” He shrugs as I sigh in anger. I think for a second.
“Tell me, what would you like to do for fun?” I settle on the rotating office chair as he starts to spin it around like tension didn’t just fill the room.
“Play guitar, be with friends, and ride my bike. I ride my bike as far away from that place as possible,” he inhales and settles on his bed as the mattress bounces. “As far away from home as possible.” I ask why, wheeling closer to him as rests his elbows on open knees.
“Lately…I don’t know. I just want to.” I sit beside him and our thighs touch. I ask him what the matter is and put my arm around his upper back. He wants to look at me but changes his mind and exhales. He looks down and I ask him to tell me what the matter is again. “I’ve made some dumb mistakes, so dumb and my parents argue with me. Then they argue and I just want to get away.”
“What mistakes?” I list possible crazy scenarios in my mind.
“That’s not important. Let’s just say things got so horrible that it was another reason for me to go to New York.” We hear neighbors converse in their apartments behind walls.
“Just know, whatever you did, you have my shoulder like I had yours. You see, mistakes don’t define you, what you learn from them defines you, alright? I got drunk at a party recently.” I say hesitantly as he raises his eyebrows.
“You really got drunk?”
“I fell asleep on someone else’s table, it was horrifying,” I admit as he has a hard time believing my story.
“Who are we?” He asks as I think for a second.
“We are Sofia and Alex; best friends and first loves.” I caress his cheek, my fingers getting poked with his slight stubble. I kiss the side of his face before realizing I say his name differently now. We stare at each other and our dimples form once more.
An unseasonably warm glow like orange juice lays on us, a couple being as close as they can be. “Thank-you for walking me home, Alex, but you should go. It’s getting dark.”
“I’ve got to take care of my lady and keep her safe. That’s what a man is supposed to do, right?”
“‘My man’, are you forgetting that I’m the feminist type? I don’t need to be taken care of by a man just for his sake of wanting to be one,” I say confidently, but lightly.
“You are one hell of a good feminist. Alright then, still, I’m taking care of you and not just because I am a man but because I want to and I always did want to.” His words are like that of a best friend- relying, my grandfather- a storyteller, and a magician- could enter your mysterious soul, bring it up, and make it seem to appear for you. I press my face against one of his triceps as we stop at the building’s front steps.
“That’s very sweet of you. I guess you liked the play, Romeo?”
“Yes, too bad Masha didn’t play Juliet but she did amazing.” He gives me a loud peck on the hand. “See you soon, Juliet. I’ll call you tomorrow?” I agree, backing away, and blowing a kiss. A stranger may see two sweethearts parting, backs turned. This is time for our daily routine. One who would watch us every day knows that we turn around and anticipate the other one is staring. I see this look that says “Come here.” With full speed, I run and jump up onto him I give him real puckers all over his chilly face as he wants to do so back. “Have I told you I loved you, lately?” He holds me up with all his strength.
“Only a million times but it feels like the first no matter how many times you say it.” I climb down. “I love you too, more than anything in the world.”
“Want to stay together forever, Sofia?”
“Yes. I want to get married in France.” Going to France was one of the things I daydreamed about in those lazy afternoons when I was laying down on my bed and the light through my windows gave the illusion that it was mid-summer. My ideas stretched as far as my knowledge and my figure stretched as I yawned and decided to see where life will take me.
“I’ll do the cooking for you; you’ll do the cleaning for me. We’ll have one kid-”
“Make that two!”
“Like it’s that easy!” I laugh, tipping my head up as he squeezes my chin. “It’s too early to think about this, anyways.” We stare at each other for a couple of moments.
“You… are… so …beautiful.” He says slowly and I see my reflection in his blue-gray eyes. Only in my drowsy midnight fantasies, has a young male voice told me that. At the same time, we lean in and we kiss passionately again.
“I got to go. See you soon.” I run off and know he will stand in the same place until he sees me in the window.
"Hi Babushka.” I glance towards our tree as I put hang up my purse.
“Hi, Sofia. Where did Masha take you today?”
“To one of her plays. It was the Soviet version of Romeo and Juliet. It was so amazing. Then, we went around Minsk, and to Alex’s place. I never want to leave.” I sit down at the table and play with the salt and pepper bottles. “How do people find it in them to leave? I don’t know. What got me through the immigration? I still wonder.”
“‘What got you through?’ you say? How could you not get through? You were on a current that flowed and flowed away.”
“Why didn’t you come with us?” I clench my teeth, hoping I don’t put her in an uncomfortable situation.
“I couldn’t take another move. I simply couldn’t.”
“Another? Oh, I forgot you were born in Poland, in Białystok.”
“How could you forget that?” She asks I am filled with both shame and excitement that I learned something new about culture.
“Tell me about how you lived there.”
“Ehh…I don’t remember much.”
“You always told me that. Do you really not remember?” She squints her eyes and mutters incoherently.
“Some I don’t remember, but I never spoke much about my childhood because I miss it.”
“Tell me and you will relive it.” She sarcastically says that will work.
“You should be happy and proud that it happened. Look back at it and smile.”
“You just want to fix a soul, don’t you?”
“Yes, now, please tell me what I wanted to hear for 19 years.” I clasp my palms together.
“…Białystok was my childhood long ago. Yes, I was like you- no smarter. I lived in a village with my family and friends. I had a healing talent, many were suspicious I used witchcraft but still they lined up around my house.” She stops. “Are you writing this down in case I forget it completely?” I grab the nearest notepad and ask her to tell me more. “No college would take me so I earned money for textbooks to study from and eventually became well-known. I got married at 20 to your Grandfather, may he rest in peace. We met…” She giggles, remembering. “…He was an injured musician who had just moved here from another part of town and the neighbors recommended he come to see me, secretly trying to set us up. After that we made harmony in our lives. Soon, we had your mother. We were one happy family.”
“Why did you have to leave?”
“So much war came. You studied this in school. It was horrible. Our whole village left in such a rush. Luckily, we were near Belorussia. I carried your infant Mother across the border. Once we got here, it came to me that I left my homeland forever. I was a worried mess. Will my child remember her heritage? How will her life be different? Will another war break out here, God Forbid? But then I realized that I had a great life there and whether I have a great life here, that is up to me. I made the most of it. You see, Sofia, I had faith and that is important for you to have as well.”
“Do you want to go back someday?” She looks at me, stunned at my boldness.
“Eh. Back to what? There’s probably nothing left of that village.”
“You’re still here and you’re a part of it. I’m sure a part of it is still there too.”
“I’m not going back, no. It’ll always be in my memory and that’s enough for me. Did you know, when we came from Poland, we didn’t come straight to Minsk? We came to Minsk when your mother was a little older. That’s why I’m so sick and tired of moving. This is my home now. I don’t want to leave.”
We are settling down for sleep; closing the curtains, saying our nightly prayer, and shivering under the linen blanket when I ask Mama:
“Remember how before we left Belarus, you were putting me to sleep and we were talking about America?” I pocket myself under the linen blanket. She thinks for a moment, “We talked about America a lot before we left. Why? What happened?” She takes a book and lies down beside me.
“I’m just asking. I wonder if our predictions came true.” I nestle under her left arm which is freckled every square inch and feels like baby’s skin.
“Did they?” She flips through the pages with her right arm.
“Some except Anna stays in touch with her proud Russian culture,” I say in a deep voice.
“But we didn’t see golden doors or high ceilings like we imagined.”
“And we danced with the wind of change.” I add. “When are we going to leave here?” I ask, dreading the response.
“Let’s see…Grandmother is healed, school’s starting soon,”
“I fell in love.” I make it sound as if I’m adding to the list and then realize for the millionth time how lucky I am. I stare at the telephone besides the lamp.
“You don’t want to leave, do you?”
“No, even though we’ve only been here a couple of days, I don’t want to go. But I don’t have a choice.” I say, feeling like an angel child when she kisses the top of my head. “What will happen with me and Alex?”
“Everything that happens is meant to happen. Alright, don’t worry,” she sighs. “I can arrange for us to stay just a few more days. Sleep. Goodnight.” What will happen after “a little bit longer”? I think through memories and questions and then I feel a drop running down my face and onto my pillow. Apparently, this happens often- my thoughts are very powerful and control my emotions easily. I want to call my darling but realize he’s probably already asleep.
The same time, the same place as last night, I pull down the living room light switch and climb on the couch when the doorbell rings. Mama and I exchange questioning glances and she goes to answer it. I hear Alex’s voice and run over to him as fast as a race car, hopefully not waking up the neighbors with my elephant steps.
“Sofia, He wants to take you somewhere.” She informs excitedly as I see him standing at the doorstep. I ask her if I can go and she says yes like I shouldn’t even be asking this.
“I apologize if I awoke you again. I’m just used to going places late.”
“Quite the spontaneity,” I say before going to change. When I come downstairs to meet him, he grabs my hand and hastily pulls me to the yard between our old buildings.
“What are we doing here?” I ask as the sly wind passes through the empty benches and sleeping trees. “I wanted to take you to the place we first met, when we were kids.” He looks around, walking backwards as the lamppost light reflects on him.
“Oh, yes. We were so little then.” There’s nobody here but us; everyone is safely tucked in bed. I never thought I’d see Alex and me here again, let alone at this late hour.
“How much time do we have here together, Sofia? Before we both have to leave?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. As long as I’m with you, I’m great. Wow, for once in my life, I don’t care and this time it feels right.” I shake my head in disbelief.
“That’s great but I need to talk to you. The day you leave to go to New York, I have to leave to go to Boston. My mother is having a baby soon and I need to take care of them.”
I try to say something but it comes out gibberish. “We are going to be in different states. When will we ever see each other?” I realize that I had thrown the reason behind avoiding something out of my head and now it’s lurking back.
“I don’t know. I’ll visit you and you can visit me.”
“What do you mean? Visit you? Visit me?” I raise my voice. “That’s not going to be enough! Dammit, don’t you know I want to be with you?!” I moan and grab him and shake him.
“I want to be with you too, so much but we can’t.” He holds and stops me, his voice as if he is about to cry. “We both have different lives.”
“Classic.” I snicker sarcastically. “It’s just going to be over now right? I’ve always wondered how it really happens. I can’t…” I turn around to walk out of the yard and back under my blanket.
“Over? No, it doesn’t have to be over.” He grabs me by the arm, following me. “What I feel for you is never going to end.” Lines form on his forehead.
“Sometimes, love has no choice but to die, yet you wouldn’t trade that time for anything.’” I say quietly and want to go home to dwell on my sorrows. I pull my arm away.
“If it’s true love, it never dies.” He shakes his head.
“It might. I’ve heard the stories.” I say as he goes to settle on a bench.
I turn around again to go home, regretting every step away from him. I take one last look at him, sitting and looking into the distance. I come and settle on the same bench, seeing him slightly pleased that I’m coming back. He hunches, takes out a smoke and lights it as I gawk at him in disbelief.
“I don’t know about that ‘love dying’ thing. I guess it depends, doesn’t it?” He continues as steam disappears into the dark sky.
“How do I know that?” My jaw jitters on my palm. “The heart forgets.”
“Mine won’t. I loved you and wanted you since I was 13 years old, I know I will love you and want you my whole life. I don’t care if I was only thirteen- that was the only thing I was sure about at the time.” His pleasurable serenading words just keep coming out and out and I want it to stop.
“Look at that, we are in a place of the past arguing about the future.” I snivel and bury my head in his wide chest as he gets rid of the cigarette and wraps me in. “Let’s just enjoy every second here, and we will take a train to Poland together when we have to. We will see what happens then.” I say as he nods, holding me tight. We both feel as if the day we leave will never exist. His coat smells of sharp tobacco.
“I didn’t know you smoked.” I hug my knees as he hugs me.
“I do just not when you’re around because I know you don’t like that. I couldn’t help myself this time, I’m very stressed. ” He pleasantly caresses my course hair. “I’m sorry.”
“Guess I’m always going to have to be around.” We sit in silence for a long time.
The following day, I greet every sensation. I laugh at even the littlest things, I show love as if I’ve never shown love before, and can be found just gazing outside Grandmother’s cloudy windows. In my view from the third level, I see young Sofia spending her childhood walking on the streets of Minsk. I can tell what neighbor belonged to what window in the building across- Masha and Michael grew up on the second floor. I see new generations of cheerful kids playing in the yard. I turn up the corners of my mouth, take a deep breath, and look around me another time.
After breakfast the day after, I sit at the kitchen table and compile different fabrics together to make a gown that’s my style when Mama rushes in frantically. “Sofia, fast, fast. Pack up.” She brings her watch to her face, “its 9:00.”
“What’s the matter?” I match her expression.
“I matched up the times. If we catch a train today at 12:00 p.m., we can get on a ship right after that.” I can tell she wants me to listen and understand. I push my chair back, it scratching the floor. I get up, my body uneasy. “We have to say goodbye to everyone. I’ll be back soon, I’m going out.”
I arrive to Alex’s place, out of breath from running and have the same tone as Mama did. He is amused at my rushing and takes me inside. He persuades me that we still have time. I can tell he is worried inside. He wraps me up in his cocoon on the couch when my electric nerves vibrate inside of me and I start to cry. He dabs my face. “What am I going to do, Alex? I simply don’t know how I’m going to live without you.” There’s nothing else to do but hold him in an attempt to make the clocks stop again, please.
“We’ll be together soon, my love.” I feel his warm breath on my cheeks. “For now, don’t let go.” I grasp him tighter and lay my head on his shoulder.
“For ‘now’, the greatest word.” We kiss each other’s hands hurriedly until our lips meet and stay together for a long time. We don’t think about anything but each other. We soon agree to meet at the train station at 11:45.
I bid adieu to everyone and now I stand holding Masha’s calloused palms as the announcer’s voice enters my ears. Maksim holds his son on his shoulders.
“I’ll certainly come visit you soon.” I vow.
“Yes, I’ll greet you with open arms and food on the table. Sofia, you were my first friend. Without you, I wouldn’t be who I am and have what I have today. I’ll always appreciate the only one brave enough to come up to me...” We titter. “I’ll always appreciate how you let me in, and I’ll always appreciate and remember you and me laughing and crying together throughout our childhoods.” She sniffles.
“Thank you.” Apparently, tears are contagious. “And you…I’m not that good with composing speeches as you are, but what I really want to say is that you played an irreplaceable role in my life. I will never forget you.” She blushingly shrugs.
I see an adolescent couple parting on the station across from us. He is standing very close to her, stroking the curves of her wet face and blonde locks. Her fingers grip his upper him as if she will never get a chance to do that again. At last their train comes and leaves after a few seconds. He slowly walks away, looking back at her and knowing that this is one of the hardest things he will have to do in his life. She shouts as he gets on the train and she gets smaller and smaller, farther and farther away from him. The conductor doesn’t wait for anyone. I ask Masha what would happen if my special someone doesn’t arrive before the train comes. She answers by telling me everything will be alright and searches for him with her eyes. “Let’s enjoy and make the most of this moment.” Thinking of Alex, I suggest and we all interchange goodbyes.
The motor of a train begins to beat on the railroad which enters me and causes a sword-sharp lightning bolt to strike through my insides.
“HE ISN’T HERE!” I frantically glance towards the entrance of the station. “It’s 11:57. I lost track of time. Oh, no!” I forget where I am for a moment and feel like I’m stranded in the middle of the seemingly endless ocean. I pace around as if I’m trying to get away from my anxiety. The boys stare at me in concern as the rest of the passengers enter the train.
My stew of emotions does not let me think. I touch every part of my face as I lean against the pole behind me. “I’m staying.” My voice breaks as I intensely glance at Mama, trying to beat the volume of the train.
“Sofia, are you kidding me? You aren’t staying; you are coming home with me.” Mama starts to the train door.
“Why? No, I can’t leave him. I’ll meet you in New York.” My stilettos are glued to the ground.
“Sofia, immediately get on this train.” She says strictly. “You are crazy to do this.”
“Mama, please.” I beg, whining. “I know it’s crazy! It’s madness! Love, this sense, just permeates in you and your mind doesn’t have a say. I don’t care, as long as it gets me him.”
“Sofia, I’m not going home without my daughter. Come home, if he finds you, then it will be fate.” Her suitcase wheels roll.
My protesting fades away because I realize there is no use. “What I am I going to do?” I lock arms with Masha, taking small steps.
“There’s nothing you can do now. Your mother is right. If destiny allows, he will come back to you and that’s how you know he’s truly yours.”
“What am I supposed to do? Hope he comes back to me? What if I’ll be in a wedding dress by the time he comes back?”
Masha brings her eyebrows together into a triangle with compassion. “I’m not sure about any of that but I’m sure that everything will be alright. Just trust for once, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Now go on, she is waiting.” She gestures and we grip.
Before the doors slam shut, I see the family wave and hear her shout “See you soon!” I reach my hand out as if I am holding on to her. Her family gets farther and farther away. I take a window seat and once again, I am in a moving vehicle and everything is looking misty. Yet, this time I’m going backwards. Mama takes me under her wing and I forget that I am angry at her. I douse her coat.
“I know it’s hard, Sofia. I know, my dear. I’m so sorry.”
“No, I’m supposed to be.” I try to stay strong but end up sounding submissive.
“You visited a special place in time, but now it’s time to come home, start anew. I’m here for you and so are Masha and Alex, no matter how far. Ssh, relax.”
“Why was he late?! Why?! Tell me Mama, why?!”
“Honestly, I don’t know how he could be late. He had hours to get ready. I don’t know; don’t take my word for it.”
“You are right, he didn’t even want to say goodbye. How could he?”
“I’m sure he had his own reasons.”
“How could he? Bastard. I hate him so much!” My fist hits an imaginary nail into the wall of the train.
“Sofia, don’t cuss, at least not in the presence of your mother.” Here comes the part of crying when you can’t even talk because you are chocking back sobs.
“Oh …Mama. I…loved… him, truly. I …was ….sure …he …did so back.”
“He did, even I could tell. If you ever meet again, you’ll settle it out. Now, you know what your first love feels like.” She hasn’t cradled me like this for a long time.
Soon, my childhood passes me by out the window as I thank Minsk for everything. In a couple hours, we enter Poland and my grief has lessened a bit my eyelids are still scarlet and my brain is still full of questions. I replay the current events and look out to the urban scenery. I take out a paper from my drawing pad to write a letter to send to him when we get home but I have so many questions that I choose to put it away. I greet my newfound trust in fate that we shall meet again someday.
A long week and a half passes- a week of photographs dripping with longing, going as far away from home in an attempt to relieve stress, and concern from each person. I interrogate the mailwoman every time she comes so that she already knows what I am looking for when I ask: anything? She answers with a solid yet pitiful “no.” Everyone tells me it’s time to move on. Behind closed doors, I hear muffled voices of Mama debating with Papa on what to do with me. Papa is showing his sensitive side which is rare. Anna, the newborn romantic, is wholehearted to take part. She sits with me and doesn’t leave my side, even though she doesn’t even know Alex or Masha or Minsk that well. Every couple of days, my sobbing gets softer slowly and I contemplate less about what happened. I do my assignments for school, I am still a student. Masha calls me more often than before and I give her motherly advice and she gives me advice on whatever you call my dilemma. Dorothy and I share comfort food while listening to classics, everything except for that one song which I secretly avoid. Lucy is getting a surprise January engagement and I help Jack to plan it. Alex enters my mind from time to time and I almost make the choice to write to him but remember that he made his choice as well. I catch myself daydreaming about him, as if I wasn’t hurt. Soon, I learn not to regret anything anymore.
School starts and I am eager to begin. I see familiar faces but they all seem different now, including my own in the mirror. I enter my first class and settle at the desk. The boy who’s next to me the whole semester now looks like Alex and I can’t help but stare at him. Mr. Gilberts, my English teacher, comes up to the front of the room and asks everyone how their breaks were. He calls my name and I think fast. “It was wonderful, Mr. Gilberts.” I click my pen and play with it.
“Sofia, this is an English class, describe it” He gestures for more information.
“I traveled.” I continue to fidget with my pen.
“Where did you travel?”
“Did you now? It’s a mess there in Russia right?” He winces.
“No, actually.” I hold the pen.
“But with their communist ways, they are painting everything red.”
“Not lately. It’s improving. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. I would never trade that experience for anything.” I have a clear memory of him. I put my head on my arms on the desk. I hear the students murmur about my strange communist appreciation but ignore them. With a painted smile, Mr. Gilberts goes on quickly as I stare out the window to the cotton candy clouds moving slowly. I can’t help but wonder.
I bring my braid in front of me and admire it. I lean closer to the mirror and paint inside the lines of my lips. I step back and turn to see my long-sleeved red cotton dress. Alex would’ve liked it. Stop thinking about him! This makeover is an attempt to distract myself that today is Valentine’s Day.
My family scurries around the kitchen in the morning rush as I jog to the ringing doorbell. I greet Bertha, our mailwoman.
“Today’s your lucky day, Miss Sofia. Looks like you got a letter from that Alexander of yours.” My body gets numb as she gives me the pile of envelopes. She leaves, going to deliver more life-changing news. I put one behind the other until I see his name. I pinch between my eyebrows and walk like a zombie to my room. I press my fingers on it, contemplating whether my emotions can take it if I rip it open and read it when Papa calls for us to get ready. I put the letter on my drawer besides my Time Magazine, where I am most excited to read the politics section, a box of tissues, and a new journal containing activist ideas.
The school’s female population surrounds Lucy and is attracted to her diamond ring like hawks. Jack had gone down on one knee when they were at a ball game. He took her to the center of the field and thousands of people saw them. Off the hallway ceilings hang cut out hearts, courtesy of our crafty ones. As I walk past the school’s flower shop with my book bag on my back like a turtle, the feminine scent of roses enters my nose. Dorothy comes up from behind me. “Want to go to La Vie Est Belle tonight?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have a date.” My shoulders jump.
“So? I don’t have one either. Let’s go altogether.”
Why sit around and mope? “Fine. I’ll go.”
“Good girl. I’ll pick you up at 7.”
We settle in at a cozy booth at La Vie Est Belle. Dorothy gestures at me, asking me how I am doing. “I’m alright.” I cross my arms together, and my coat is behind me. The waitress comes up. Jack lets us know he will order and pay for everyone. “I actually-” I pause. “Thank-you,” and let go of my wallet I was about to get from my bag. After enjoying my shrimp c***tail, I lay back on the seat. The ceiling fans up top are spinning no matter what season and the dance floor has visitors. Jack goes up and picks a record. It begins to play; a light melody enters my mind and then Bessie Smith’s voice.
I've got the blues, I feel so lonely
I'll give the world if I could only
Make you understand
He asks Lucy for a dance and I see them. He twirls her into his arms romantically. The air going to my lungs stops and my body makes up for it by sending something to my eyes. “Oh my God, I’m just going to step outside for a minute.” I clutch onto the table my, nails turning white, getting up.
“Sofia, what’s wrong?” Dorothy asks as the piano sounds.
“It’s the song, brings back memories. I’m going to go.” My arms travel through my coat sleeves.
“Go?” She echoes, ignorantly. I rush, trying to get away from the memories I hear in every line of that song. My nostrils move as I sense that cigarette stench which accompanies me towards the glass door. Behind that glass door, Manhattan awaits for me. I put my ski hat and hood on and bump into a wide chest but don’t look up at its possessor who is also rushing. Taxis, busses, and neon awnings come into my view as I am finally outside. I look to the left and to the right, realize I don’t have a car, and decide to run as fast as my boots can take me. I pass restaurants where glasses clink and people laugh their Valentine’s Day Friday night away. I just want my mama.
After I tell her everything, I curl up underneath my blanket, my tights chafing but too lazy to change my clothes. I sloppily rip the envelope, white pieces making a mess. I clutch it, knowing he has touched it. I bring it to my nose and there is that smell. In the neatest handwriting, it writes:
I was so hesitant to write to you because I was afraid you’d fallen out of love with me after I don’t come to say goodbye. You should know that I missed the train that day because I crashed in my uncle’s car. I would never leave you. You are my best friend and first love. Remember when you told me that? I had to stay at the hospital for a little while. Now I am in Boston with my new baby brother Andrei and the family is finally happy.
I hope you are happy, too, with your family. I miss you so much. How I wish I could be with you right now and give you your favorite white roses as you would smile that beautiful smile. How I wish we could sit close together and discuss everything or just be silent. I wish we could turn on the record player and dance like we did that night. You taught me that life is beautiful, especially when you are in love. La Vie Est Belle. Someday the fates will bring us together and we will go to France like we planned. For now, I want you to trust me when I write that I have always, do, and always will love you-in every way possible. I’m glad we are together. Happy Valentine’s Day, mon amour.
The paper becomes drenched with my tears as I hold it to my bouncing bosom and snuffle my cries back up. I gulp. How could I have uttered such hateful things about him once? A pang of guilt hides behind my longing.
“Please, may he be alright,” I pray. I lay there like this imagining his presence next to me. I sit up after a little while: La Vie Est Belle. I fling the blanket off me and head out the doors, something inside me controlling my feet. I ask myself whether I woke up this morning as I run back to the restaurant. I encounter my friends back in the booth who greet me with questioning yet surprised faces. “Excuse me gals and guys. I just had to go home but changed my mind.”
“We already finished and paid the bill, but would you like to stay a little bit longer?” Jack offers as I look around, checking every person carefully.
“No.” I say, trying to keep my tone up. They all rise from the booth.
“By the way, there was a man here; he was looking for you, asking every customer. He asked us and we told him you had left.” Lucy informs me. “He had a bouquet of white roses.”
“Left?!” I shout. “Where did he go?” Everything stops. Ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum- it’s as if my heart wants to escape from its ribcage.
“We don’t know.” Dorothy adds as I feel my scalp. This is it, I lost him. Who knows where he is now. I can barely move. My insides drown in that stew of emotions again. We walk on the vertical crimson carpet, the glass doors at the end. We exit and the doors creak open for the last time this memorable evening.
I look up from the concrete and see a baby-tiger-like face, staring directly at me holding white roses in a limb wrapped in a white cast. Shouting each other’s names loud, we run up to each other faster than a person can comprehend with a desire that alerts every muscle in the body. Tears fall again and mix. We hold each other like we did in Minsk, letting our love pass through to the other. All the emotions that we’ve felt in the yard between our buildings have come together and are between us. Our lips begin to dance, not stopping to breath in the zeitgeist; we have our own. I have never had more faith in fate.