2 - Natalia

Elena didn't want to believe she was locked in a dungeon; that she didn't actually determine her life, or was even allowed to. That much became clear only a few months earlier, when she met someone. Someone she very much wanted to be with. Someone taboo in her world. Someone who was a woman.

Elena had been naive and callow back then. In love for the first time in her life with someone real: not a movie star or daydream. She didn't consider the danger or feasibility of such a relationship. She just did what was right for her, madly waiting for rendezvous with Natalia. When they met, Elena couldn't take her eyes off her, getting as close as two women were allowed in Russia: a stretched arm's length. Their hands touched only when there was nobody around.

Elena didn't understand why it had to be that way. What she wanted was so simple: to be with Natalia, to see her, embrace her. Everyone else could, all the time, without even thinking. Why couldn't Elena? Why couldn't she and Natalia be in each other's company and share a life together?

Elena knew her questions, though perfectly reasonable, would never be answered. Instead, everything stayed the same. She was an abomination with no right to be with whom she wanted. It was a trap. No matter how hard Elena looked for ways out, all she saw was pain and loss. To be with Natalia, she would have to fight with everyone: society, parents, relatives, colleagues, even passers by had she and Natalia dared to express their affection. She needed to be safe, to think it through. She hid Natalia from everyone in her life, before she came up with a plan.

Each of their rendezvous was indelibly etched in memory, and Elena recalled them over and over. Everywhere they went together, took on a special meaning. These were the places where Elena was with Natalia. All of it: the few meetings they had; glances with special meanings; their feelings for each other, existed only within Elena. Like a deep-cover, secret agent, she carried her relationship with Natalia inside of her, sharing it with no one.

Their rare encounters, Elena marked on her calendar. They were days too special and relished to just forget. She circled the dates with so light a touch, even she hardly saw the pencil marks. If Olga noticed marked dates on Elena's calendar, she would pry into what was so important. If it wasn't Dmitry, it had no place in her daughter's life.

Desperate to feel again, what she felt then, Elena cast her mind back over every second she spent with Natalia. It was a wonderful feeling but risky: it was freedom. For the very first time, Elena allowed herself the freedom to be who she wanted, to feel and desire. She had taken the helm of her life, and having done so, she would never stop yearning to have it back.

Had she been allowed to be herself, she would have kept seeing Natalia. But Elena was convinced she didn't have that right. That it could only be bestowed upon her by someone else. Having touched freedom, she still believed her life wasn't her own: it belonged to others, and they could never be challenged.

That spring, following a few precious hours she and Natalia managed to steal together, Elena rode the bus home, barely aware of reality. They had just parted. Natalia's face still floated before her eyes, her touch still on Elena's hand. At the bus stop, all they could do was gaze into each other's eyes and silently scream the truth in their thoughts. How much they wanted to hold each other and never leave the other's side. Elena's bus was first. Natalia's followed a few minutes later. Two buses took them in opposite directions: away from each other, back to the lives that they hated.

Wounded as she was, Elena had another blow coming. While she'd been with Natalia, Dmitry dropped by and was waiting in Elena's room for her. Not only that, Elena's parents were in there with him, chatting up their daughter's fiance! It was like she had the wind knocked from her, seeing Dmitry on her sofa-bed. Not twenty minutes earlier, she held Natalia's hand, gazed into her eyes. Elena wanted to scream, kick, punch Dmitry. She had enough! She couldn't let them do this to her! She had to start living her life! She had to put an end to her pain!

Instead, she greeted Dmitry, stepped into her room and closed the door. Elena played the part they wrote for her to perfection. She chose Dmitry over Natalia, gave him the right to be in her room and in her life. When Dmitry held Elena in his arms, Natalia faded away like a ghost. Her eyes, her smile, her voice, vanishing into thin air.

She tried to convince herself, there could be a future for her and Natalia; knowing, full-well, there absolutely couldn't. It wasn't just because Natalia was forced into hiding by her parents and husband tracking her every step, threatening to take her job and children. It was because Elena wouldn't do what Natalia did. She wouldn't fight for herself. Wouldn't risk the peace with her parents, her place in their home, her position at the firm and her image in society. As horrible as being with Dmitry was, there was comfort in it too. Elena didn't have to make a choice or decision. She didn't have to take responsibility for what was happening to her. Everything was someone else's fault. She was a victim. Her hands were tied. All she could do was submit: let others do whatever they wanted with her and her life. There was serenity in giving up.

When their relationship ended, Elena was convinced it was Natalia who betrayed her. It was, after all, Natalia who decided they should stop seeing each other. Natalia who lied. Natalia whom Elena caught online when she claimed she had to be out of town at her family's garden allotment. It never occurred to Elena that hiding Natalia, seeing her on the side – as though she was a crime – was also betrayal.

"I'll manage it! I will!" Elena, barely seeing through her tears, madly typed into Natalia's chat window. "I'll work it out. I can! I am strong! I'll have him, and I'll be seeing you too. Don't leave me!"

Elena cried all night. For days she was silent, detached; unaware of anything or anyone around her. Even of being utterly destroyed by being with Dmitry. It was all a blurry muddle. She lost Natalia, and she would never see her again.

At work, from an open stairwell window, nine floors up, Elena stared at the ground. It was enticing. Her pain would end. But no one would know what she felt, or why she ended her life. No one would know what she and Natalia shared, or that they even knew each other. That terrified Elena more than anything. Her own life was a lie: a never-ending betrayal.

It took months, but Elena recovered. Life went on. Natalia was surviving out there. Even winning battles against her husband and parents for the right to be herself. She stood her ground. She refused to be crushed, to hide, to give in. There was no going back for Natalia. By forcing her to fight for herself and her right to be, they unwittingly let her taste freedom. She could no longer be bullied, threatened, shoved through the cracks. She was doing everything she could to live her life on her own terms.

Elena's life, on the contrary, was back to what it was before. She saw Dmitry almost every day. It was just a matter of time. Everyone knew, the perfect couple would soon be, husband and wife.