Elena found a gloomy bench in the lobby and sat there. Her colleagues sashayed from the lift, bouncing off into the night. Lucky them, Elena thought.
Why am I sitting here? She wondered. Who am I doing this for? And who needs me to spend the evening with Dmitry? She felt as though everyone she knew demanded she follow the programming. Nobody was exempt. This was how it has to be, and it happens to everyone, she consoled herself. Guys were convinced they needed to chase girls. Girls were convinced they loved it. Elena, having no desire to participate, had to fit in or become a pariah.
Despite how badly she wanted to flee, she waited in the lobby for Dmitry. It was proper, Elena told herself. She had almost convinced herself, when a woman she knew, shot from the lift and bustled outside to freedom. What would she be doing tonight? What was her home like. Did she have a cat or a dog waiting for her and a gentle pat? Heavens, how Elena wanted to go home! Right now, immediately! She imagined standing up, marching right out the door and into the wondrous dark. She could just about feel the thrill it would give her.
Agitated, she examined the wide tropical leaves of a potted plant. If anyone noticed her on their way home, it was only because the plant caught their attention and there she was, sitting there, resigned, powerless, pathetic. She felt like an outcast. Like people were mocking her, could read her mind and know how she felt. Elena had to pull herself up by the bootstraps and bloody-well fit in. To win them over, she had to do whatever they wanted and Dmitry was it: he was a man, after all.
Elena could tell the lift was on its way from Dmitry's floor by the amount of time it took grinding along its shaft. The doors opened and disgorged him and his colleagues. All of them knew each other, and Elena so wanted someone to notice her, acknowledge her. Maybe they would even get a feeling by the way she was sitting that she was in trouble. None of them did. They vanished into the night, leaving only her and Dmitry.
Their eyes met. This was the point of no return. Elena could no longer escape. Dmitry's actions and words always made her deny her own feelings. Alone with him, she was incapable of anything but submission.
Dmitry rented a room in a rotting shanty on the outskirts of town. The deeper in to the unserviced sprawl they went, the darker it got. Dmitry nattered on about something. Elena couldn't listen, fearing what lay in store a few minutes ahead at his place.
Reaching the gate, Elena was sick to her stomach. The miserable shack looming in the darkness was her torture chamber. A mongrel barked and lunged at them. None of it mattered to her. None of it should have been happening.
Dmitry vaingloriously scolded the poor mutt, then to Elena, "Don't be afraid. Keep walking. I'll deal with the dog."
The dog didn't concern her. Being bitten would have been a distraction, an excuse to get away from Dmitry. Trudging the last steps toward the shack, Elena wanted to dissolve into the dark. To be gone. To stop being Elena, and become something else. Anything away from this place.
She could just make out a frozen flowerbed, a few gnarly trees and an outhouse. She didn't want anything to do with any of it. She loathed it all because it was part of Dmitry. She knew, however, that had he not been in her life, she might have even found beauty in the haphazard shacks and frozen gardens.
Dmitry unlocked the door and Elena stood on the same rotting floor she had a day or two before. Nothing has changed. She thought, right back where she was last so horribly hurt. The same oilcloth draped his table. A bucket of graywater stagnated under the basin and the stove lurked in its dank corner. She couldn't stand the sight of it. All of it was Dmitry, and all of it warned that in half an hour she would be in his bedroom.
"Are you hungry?" He dug a frying pan from a heap of cookware. "I have pierogies."
All she wanted was to flee into the night and run for home... Olga would be there, wondering what happened between the two of them. It would inevitably resolve into: What an ungrateful and foolhardy daughter she was. What a great catch Dmitry was, and what right did she have to lose him?
"I am." Pierogies looked good and would keep them busy eating and talking. If she could drag it out long enough there was a chance she would be spared doing what Dmitry expected of her.
Pierogies gone, they sat at the table discussing the many varieties of loose leaf tea Dmitry collected and kept in tins. Still, the conversation couldn't go on for ever. He cleared the table and declared they would be more comfortable in his bedroom. With nowhere to sit but a broken down chair, Elena reluctantly ended up on his bed.
"You sure were nasty today." Dmitry cozied up by Elena. "Something happen?"
"When was that?"
"In chat, at work. Were you mad with me? Have I done something wrong?"
Elena was taken aback by the question. Of course, she was nasty. She couldn't stand the guy. Her outburst was just that: her true feelings finally surfacing. "I don't remember."
"I asked you if you are glad I am writing you. You said something horrible, clearly sarcastic. You said: ‘Absolutely. I am overjoyed.' What did you mean by that?"
Go to hell with your interrogation. Elena thought, crawling away from Dmitry to lean her back against the wall.
"Why were you so mean to me? Did I distract you from something?" Dmitry sidled to Elena.
"I had work to do. I do that sometimes, you know."
"Don't worry, I won't distract you any more with my stupid chat."
Heavens, Dmitry's words sounded delightful. For a split second, Elena imagined how it would be; never hearing from him again, never seeing him again. It would make her the happiest person on Earth.
"Well, should I keep writing you then?" Dmitry pushed.
"Of course, you should."
"You're just saying it to make me feel better. Do you actually want me to?"
"Yes, go ahead and write to me. I like it when you do." Elena seethed.
Dmitry was pleased. The quarrel was over. He could get down to business. With their backs to the wall, Dmitry's access to Elena was somewhat awkward. He leaned in to her. Watching, waiting for her submission.
Dmitry slid his hand under her sweater, probing, groping. A moment later the room was gone. Elena saw nothing but his face blocking her view and from then on, he was all she was aware of.
* * *
Elena experienced the kind of torture that seemed to go on forever. She could swear that time had stopped. That she lived in a world of darkness, Dmitry and eternity. He just didn't let her go. Being a chivalrous man, he insisted on escorting her home. She was stuck with him for at least another half hour.
On and on they shuffled. Elena couldn't wait to find herself in a familiar part of town, closer to home. Dmitry couldn't keep quiet. He prodded incessantly for reassurance: what was she thinking? What would she do now? Next? When will they see each other again? Elena thought he was pathetic, but she answered his questions, lying that she liked him, wanted to be with him, couldn't wait for his doting escort to work in the morning.
Dmitry needed more. "Do you love me?" he asked. This time Elena didn't lie, it was too obvious. Of course, she didn't! Dmitry wasn't concerned. Elena's devotion was only a matter of time, a mere technicality, he thought. She would surely be his in the end.
Elena could hardly walk. She stumbled along, crushed by what just happened to her in Dmitry's bedroom. She couldn't believe that he, the very cause of her anguish, could walk blithely beside her. Completely oblivious to what was happening inside of her. Elena was destroyed, wiped, dehumanized by Dmitry violating her. Her own free will was long gone. A casualty of societal indoctrination and her mother's demands wiping it out. That a woman should have intercourse with a man, is not her choice, but her obligation. Her duty.
They left the shanties behind, crossed a street and found themselves in a different land. Elena knew it well, this was where she grew up. The USSR granted her parents a one bedroom flat in a nine floor panel building, and for ten years she attended the very school they now walked past.
Elena glanced at it, her heart aching. Her school meant so much to her, so many memories, so much of who she had become. Yet, she couldn't share any of it with Dmitry because he really didn't care. It meant nothing to him, and he didn't give a damn about her. She knew that had she mentioned the meaning of the building, he would feign interest simply to win her favor.
Dmitry gazed at Elena and simpered.
"Oh, nothing. It's the way you walk, I guess. I hold your hand like this and imagine you holding a child in your other."
It was like her heart crashed into her stomach. She stared.
"What about you?" Dmitry pushed. "Do you think of having children?"
"Sometimes." It wasn't a complete lie. She had thought about it, albeit in horror. How badly she didn't want to be pregnant or have children. Being forced into motherhood was her greatest fear.
"What do you think?"
"That I will possibly have children one day."
"Wouldn't it be wonderful for you, and me... If we will be together, that is."
Dmitry's grasp on her hand was all Elena was aware of. She wanted to tear away, dump the guy and run as far and as fast as she could.
Finally, Elena saw the building she lived in. They rode the lift to the fifth floor; her door was right before her. She couldn't wait to step in and close it behind her. But some force kept her on the landing against her will. Just standing there, looking at Dmitry. Lying to herself.
Elena's anguish was, in fact, Olga's design. It was what she lived her whole life wanting from her daughter. Dmitry wasn't Elena's tormentor. He was her fiance, a valued guest in their home, not to be chased away.
He held his stare at her. What did he expect? Why couldn't he bloody-well leave her alone now? The only thing he hadn't taken yet was her life. Was that what he begged for? How many more lies could she come up with to say she was his and nobody else's?
A door leading to the stairwell rattled: someone was coming out. It was Elena's chance.
"Shall we say, good night?"
"If you say so." Dmitry didn't move.
"Seriously, I'm tired. Good night."
Dmitry backed reluctantly toward the lift, pushed the call button. "I'll ring you, okay?"
"Fine, do." Elena would agree to anything that gave her the right to dive through the door.
Dmitry stuck his head from the lift, laying it on thick with a cutesy grin. "This is it, I'm going."
"Right! Good night."
Elena stood in the flat, motionless. Relieved. Finally home and without Dmitry clinging. The aroma of the dinner her parents ate without her hung in the air. Through a glass door into the common room she saw her father in an armchair, watching TV. She heard her mother cleaning up.
"Hi. We didn't eat it all, finish it, if you are hungry." Olga stepped out of the kitchen.
"Sure, I think I'll do that."
Now what? Elena sat on the sofa-bed in her room, listening to her mother in the bathroom. In a minute she would be in Elena's room for a run down on her date. What was the proper expression to greet her with? Joy and excitement? But she was crushed.
"How was your time with Dmitry?" Olga asked.
"Fine." Elena squirmed.
Olga glared. "Really? You don't seem fine to me."
"I am okay."
"What happened? You are no longer happy with Dmitry?"
Elena didn't answer: Olga didn't need her truth.
Olga clued in. "Why don't you like Dmitry? What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing. He is fine."
"Nobody else wants you. You just don't get it, he is quite a catch. Do you know of anybody better than him?" Olga paced into the hallway, came back in. "I forgot to tell you, Pavlovs' Larissa was in labor yesterday. They are celebrating. It's a girl."
Millions of thoughts raced through Elena's mind. All inappropriate, subversive, wrong. She said nothing.
"Well? Aren't you going to say something?"
"What can I say? Good for Larissa."
"Is that it? Are you aware, you are the last one among our friends without a child? What are you going to do about it?"
"You want me to tell you, I'll reproduce? I will, don't you worry. You will get your grandchild!"
Elena stared into the bathroom mirror. She was drained, like someone in crippling pain for years they couldn't talk about. She undressed and stepped into a nice, warm tub.
The common room, repurposed at night as her parents' bedroom, flickered with light from the TV. Elena crept into her own room, aware of every sound she made. She knew, Olga, though tucked into the sofa-bed beside her husband, was wide awake.
Booting her computer was an invitation for abuse on any occasion. Doing it at night was outright reckless. In the quiet, Olga heard the slightest rustle. The beep Elena's computer made when the system loaded might as well have been a siren. Elena didn't care. Not now. She was destined for a future she couldn't survive. True: going online with her mother knowing, put Elena at grave risk. But what was she risking, after all?
The system loaded unbearably slowly. Elena was afraid to breathe. She went straight to her social network. A couple of men left invitations to get acquainted. She ignored them, thought about checking her email. Two of her friends had email accounts but they rarely wrote. Still, Elena opened her inbox. She sneered at one new message, surely a trite missive from one of them.
The subject line wasn't in Russian, but in English. Elena glanced at the name of the sender. She couldn't believe her eyes. The letter wasn't going to be trite after all! It was from Meg, Elena's pen pal from Canada!
She could barely think straight. The Canadian opened her eyes to an entirely new world, in her previous correspondence. Now, with two months having gone by, it had to be something yet more thrilling. Elena was afraid to open the letter. She knew it would shake her up. Make her question her world. Make her want freedom she didn't think she had any right to.
Breathless, she saw it was three paragraphs long. She wondered if she should translate it now or leave it until later, when she was home alone. No use! She was already scanning the letter, snatching the meaning of Meg's precious words.
Elena recognized Meg's writing immediately. She was diplomatic, even delicate in how she addressed Elena. She was excited and candid in everything she spoke about. As it turned out, Meg was as flummoxed with the silence between them as Elena was. She sent Elena an email long before, but for some reason it ended up being stuck in her outgoing box. That didn't matter to Elena. What was important, was that Meg had returned, that she reached out to her again. That there was a connection between them that filled Elena with curiosity, challenged and toppled her fears, her doubts and conditioning of her world.
Meg wrote that she hoped, Elena would forgive her for disappearing and would keep writing to her as before. She went on describing her days. She had been sailing. Elena could hardly imagine what that meant. She mentioned photographs Elena had sent her and was wondering why none of them had Elena. At the very end of her letter, Meg signed her usual dear Elena and waiting for your email. Nobody had ever addressed Elena this way, with genuine kindness and concern for her. Nobody was interested in what Elena thought or had to say. Meg was the very first.
Elena finished reading Meg's letter. She stared at the screen. She remembered the photographs she sent. Sharing her life with Meg, an alien from another world, was a big occasion for her. Last August, she and Dmitry had gone on an all-inclusive to Turkey. It was the very first time Elena had been outside of Russia. She sent Meg photos of Turkish sights and ruins, because she couldn't conceive of anyone being interested in her. She had been indoctrinated to think herself worthless by default. That her value was only as a vestige of a man, as a trophy. Meg's words, that she wanted to see photos of Elena and know her better, knocked down the house of cards, Elena had lived in all her life.
Trying to sleep was pointless. How could she plow a straight course to a hopeless future now, as if she was blind to what was happening to her? Meg's letter made her see so much, to question her life, her world and its doctrines.
Elena looked out the window. None of what she saw spoke to her. Her mind was too far away, already seeing possibilities, opportunities and experiences.
Under the covers, Elena realized happiness did exist! Happiness was just that, what she was experiencing now! It was the freedom to think, to want, to love yourself and the world around you. Elena was full of joy. Her mind was racing. She started to see a completely new image of the world and her future. It didn't have to be awful. It didn't have to destroy her. Her future could be what she wanted it to be. She had the means to determine it! She was an individual, and she was capable. All of it was in Meg's letter!
Elena lay in bed with her eyes wide open. Her life hadn't changed yet. The very next day she would have to keep acting her part, faking someone she wasn't. Elena didn't know where she would find courage to change her life, alter its course. She didn't even know where to start. What was clear to her, was that she was already changing. That a snowball was rolling downhill, becoming bigger, becoming an avalanche. No one could stop it. Not even Elena.