As exciting as corresponding with Meg was, it meant only trouble for Elena. In her world, their communication and mutual interest in each other was a transgression. A hideous act of treason by Elena against everyone: her family, her society and her country. Wanting to know Meg, was immoral and could only be resolved one way – all contact with her had to stop. Meg, happily firing emails off to Elena, knew none of this.
Every day Elena was torn by the conflict between what she needed for herself, and her society, seeing her as an abomination. Had she told people around her, how important Meg had become to her, she would be immediately attacked. She had to keep her enemies unaware for the time being. So, on she went, seeing Dmitry and letting Olga plot out her future marriage and motherhood.
There was no way Elena could hide Meg from her world. Realizing others determined her life, yet seeing by Meg's example that it didn't have to be that way, Elena was changing in ways she couldn't conceal. No matter how hard she tried not to, she gave herself away. Olga saw her writing to Meg and almost imperceptibly pulling away from Dmitry. Elena had started to cry whenever Dmitry held her. She eventually told her mother and boyfriend about the Canadian pen-friend she found interesting. At least, it let her mention Meg in conversation; share a little of what Meg was about and up to.
In no uncertain terms, Olga and Dmitry discouraged Elena's association with Meg, an alien, a stranger, a threat out to steal Elena's attention and deference from them. Yet, they didn't interfere at this stage. They were convinced that Meg, safely far away and obscure, wasn't competition or a cause for concern. From another world, virtually online, Meg couldn't possibly alter the course Olga and Dmitry plotted for Elena's life.
Meg didn't know that Elena took heroic measures to communicate with her online. She had no way of knowing that Olga berated Elena anytime she caught her reading Meg's letters or writing to her. Every word they exchanged elevated the risk, repercussions and derision. Elena and Meg's empathic bond, their desire to actually meet, was obvious. With no privacy in her small flat, and her mother watching her every move, Elena's only course of action was deception. She promised her mother, communication with the Canadian was simply English language practice, and Meg's antics, a mild amusement.
What Meg wrote to her, blew Elena away. How she described her life was unthinkable! Meg did what she wanted, nobody ruled her life, and she didn't seem to suffer fools gladly.
Elena was in awe. Meg was the very first example in her life of someone bowing down to nobody. She was a vestige of no one. Not only that, it was by Meg's own choice! Elena was amazed. She discovered that a woman could choose a life without a husband and children. It was a dangerous notion in Russia. A radical idea. Elena did not have to be with some one she didn't want to be with. It was up to her!
Elena worked tirelessly at making it look like nothing out of the ordinary was going on in her life. She continued seeing Dmitry. Went to work, and occasionally met with her girlfriends. What others didn't know, was that the storm was brewing. Elena had discovered that her life could be hers, and that she had been lying to herself and had been lied to, all along. All the while, knowing that the life others planned for her would kill her.
Time was running out. She had just a few months before she was trapped for good. She knew what she had to do, but wasn't sure she had the courage to shake off Dmitry, once and for all, deal with her mother's retaliation, and make Meg a part of her life.
November rolled around. Everyone in her life, especially Olga, were spelling out Elena's fate to her in no uncertain terms. She would work at the firm for a while longer, but the day was looming when she had to trample her aspirations, become pregnant and disappear. Elena was terrified. This was not what she wanted to happen to her!
Focusing on her work was almost impossible. Meg, and what she told her about how she lived, drilled at her, demanded action. At the time, the best she could do was keep up communication with Meg.
Email correspondence for Elena wasn't anything like what it was for somebody in Meg's world. She couldn't just fire off a letter mindlessly. She was conscious that it could be read. Not only that, corresponding with Meg took a hell of a lot of time, given it was in English. She had to choose a safe place to compose a letter and the right time to send it. At home she was watched by Olga. At work she was surrounded by busy bodies, and her computer wasn't connected to the Internet.
Composing a letter in their office was out. Although Sergey was consumed by his blueprints, he was less than a metre away. Elena couldn't just whip out a sheet of paper and write away in English. She had to be somewhere completely alone and undisturbed.
She stole out. Sergey wouldn't notice. The gossipy hens in the outer office were another matter. For them, she was safer putting on an act. Excitement or intent would betray that she was up to something other than work. They would follow, watch and lurk for some juicy rumour they could ignite.
The women's room was deserted. She hid in a stall, pressed a sheet of paper to the partition, leaned on the seatless toilet, and did her best to write without falling in.
She and Meg came from completely different worlds. Elena was embarrassed of hers, and the lengths she went to just to exist in it. She didn't tell Meg that she betrayed herself every day just to have a job, a roof to sleep under, family amity and societal indifference. She feared that Meg wouldn't understand, would see her as weak, even hysterical. She wrote nothing about the games she played to survive among her parents, friends, colleagues, but she did tell her, she was seeing a man she couldn't stand being near.
Meg's response dumbfounded her. "If you don't like him, can't stand him, don't see him. Not only are you hurting yourself, you are also deceiving the bloke by leading him on."
Elena thought through Meg's logic for days. It made perfect sense: she wasn't actually required to have Dmitry in her life, but did honesty and common sense grant her the right to tell Dmitry to leave her alone, especially, taking into account Olga's reaction? It was clear, Meg hadn't a clue what kind of people Elena lived among, and how seriously her honesty could backfire. Still, she clung to the dream of ridding herself of Dmitry and putting an end to her self-destruction. She was simply paralysed by fear.
Elena assumed, Meg wanted to hear that she had freed herself of Dmitry. Meg, overseas in her safely developed world, wasn't aware of the way things were in Russia. She wasn't forced into marriage. She wasn't attacked for not having a husband and children. She had all the emotional strength and financial freedom to choose a life for herself, Elena didn't. As far as she was concerned, it was up to everybody but her to determine her life's direction. Bets on her were made and indentures were purchased. She felt, her bond with Dmitry, as artificial and agonizing as it was, was unbreakable.
She was afraid Meg wouldn’t want to keep communicating with her, had she told her, she hadn't a clue how to get rid of Dmitry without bringing harm onto herself. What she wrote, instead, was a lie: that she was through with him.
Elena heard high heels clomping in the corridor then hammering right into the bathroom.
She froze, listening. Her mind raced. How much danger was she in? Who was the woman? Would she see Elena's shoes if she walked into the stall next to her? If it was one of the hens, she would be in serious trouble. Jealous of her age and connections, they would make sure she had a right bollocking.
The woman opened a tap – there was the distinct sloshing and clanking of cup rinsing.
The water stopped. For some reason, the intruder wasn't making a sound.
Elena was afraid to breathe. She looked at her feet, thought about raising them. No point. Without a toilet seat, she would go arse-first into the bowl. Madness! Elena thought. She couldn't think of any of her co-workers doing what she was doing. Hiding in the toilet, just so that she could write a letter to somebody she liked!
Finally, the cup scraped on the basin, and the woman clomped out.
Elena stuffed her letter to Meg into her underwear. A minute later she was back at her desk.
* * *
At twenty-past-five Elena heard the office hens grabbing their bags and scrambling for the door. She wondered, what they bought at the market today. A sausage, or dead-stiff chicken usually stuck out of their bags.
Ten minutes later, the whole floor was dark. Nobody around but Elena and Sergey.
She watched him, hunched before his computer. That's how she always saw him. In the morning, Sergey came to work, turned on his computer and disappeared into his layouts. He got up only to go to the bathroom or grab a coffee. He likely didn't know that everyone was gone. That it was 6 PM, and he could go home.
Elena looked at Sergey's hair, his humble sweater. She couldn't help but feel sorry for him. There was something about Sergey she couldn't point a finger at. He seemed deeply troubled by something. He rarely talked about his personal life and only when staff celebrated a holiday with vodka. Only then, he might relax and reveal a bit about his life.
Like Elena, Sergey hadn't been in a hurry to get married. At thirty nine, he was being hounded by everyone, especially his mother, to tie the knot. Which he did, a few months earlier.
The way he talked about his new wife was something Elena had never expected to hear from him. He had always come across as thoughtful, considerate. But describing his wife in a mumbled, "She cooks well," knocked Elena for six. He considered the person dedicating her life to him, nothing but a servant. Perhaps, Elena thought, that was how he denigrated the marriage he was forced into.
Elena unfolded her handwritten letter to Meg and typed it onto a diskette. Done in fifteen minutes, she hid the diskette in her purse and threw on her hat and coat. "I am off."
Sergey turned. "Okay. See you tomorrow."
He glanced at her for only a second. She knew he felt safe with her. His eyes were smiling, his face and body were completely relaxed. It pleased her beyond words that she was actually a comfort to him. That with her, he could be himself.
Outside in the cold, Elena looked back at the office building. Only her and Sergey's window was lit. She knew he would be hunched over his work in complete silence, with not a soul around. Elena had a feeling, that had it been up to him, Sergey would choose to remain a bachelor.
* * *
Elena knew that electronic communication could never express what she and Meg really felt. The Internet was, in fact, a wall, not a way to know a person better. It could bring the two the them only so close, but still, impossibly far away. If only they could look into each other's eyes; cry when they felt like it. Even video was infuriatingly inadequate. Their faces being only pixels on a screen.
Elena was squeezed daily. She balanced keeping Meg in her life, and her world throwing her into Dmitry's arms. The torture Elena was going through, Meg knew nothing about. To go on, to have any kind of peace with her world, Elena obeyed, played by the rules to keep her tormentors at bay, but it was killing her. She had to share with Meg what she was going through. What she was forced to do every moment of every day, just to survive.
Meg responded as only a haughty Westerner, used to superficial relationships, could. She told Elena to have a good life. Essentially, get lost, I'll survive without you. But it wasn't what Meg truly felt. She was crushed but couldn't see that Elena wasn't dismissing her, but was screaming for help. For a lifebuoy, a stretched out arm that might pull her from the water she was drowning in.
Elena cried all night, convinced she lost Meg forever. She replied, begging Meg not to disappear from her life, to keep writing to her.
Despite living in a world that would perceive Elena and her letter as pathetic and desperate, Meg knew what it actually meant: Elena loved Meg. She loved herself, and she loved life. She wasn't ashamed to feel, to be herself.
Meg wrote back immediately. She too cried. Tears falling onto her knees and her Blackberry as she thumb-typed.
* * *
Elena waited for her parents to settle in the common room for the night. Then, after hearing nothing, she carefully booted her computer. With luck, Olga wouldn't hear the BIOS post with its innocent beep. If so, Elena would catch hell in the morning. Uploading her latest letter to Meg, she noticed one Meg sent earlier. Just a few lines saying, she would ring that night.
To Elena, Meg was a westerner with a house of her own, carefree sailing outings with friends, the freedom to be who she was and do what she wanted. It's why she couldn't really fault Meg for casually conceiving of phone conversations without the kind of strategic planning that went into the invasion of Normandy. Elena was risking a lot to make it happen. She had to hide, make sure she couldn't be heard, consider every word before she spoke it. Talking to Meg, expressing interest in her, was nearly the greatest offence Elena could commit in the eyes of her mother and society. It meant that Dmitry, in fact, wasn't on her mind and that it was Meg she was paying attention to.
The first time she spoke to Meg, Olga had been so enraged she wouldn't even look at Elena over breakfast. Leaving for work, she finally blew up. "Are you aware that you spoke with her for more than an hour? What can you possibly talk with her about? She is a woman!"
Elena was furious. She hated living such a lie just to survive, to convince her mother she was blissfully on her way to being a man's wife. That she had no dreams and desires, but that it was her entrapment she looked forward to.
It's madness, Elena thought. Yet, widespread, and what could she do about it? Her whole country was hell bent on making a good servant out of her. If she didn't submit, she was driven underground to live in hiding and fear, like a common criminal.
Her heart jumped. It was four minutes to Meg's call.
Elena was too excited to sit. She leaned on her desk, examining the room around her. It was a crime scene, indeed. A night light on the table by her sofa-bed, framed portraits of the actors she loved. She was behaving like a true culprit. Anxious, fiddling with the mobile phone in her hand.
Twenty two hundred: time was up. Petrified, Elena gripped her mobile. Meg was dialling that very instant. Elena had no idea if any of the English words she knew would surface when she heard Meg's voice.
The mobile vibrated. Elena hit answer to keep it from ringing. She couldn't speak, but she heard Meg's voice. "Hello. Elena, is it you?"
She was ready to faint. "It is. Me."
"Elena, I am so glad we are speaking with each other. I so much wanted to hear your voice."
Elena recognized a few of Meg's English words.
"Yes. Me too. I wanted it too."
"How are you, Elena? Is everything okay with you?"
"Me? I am okay."
Elena realized all of it was pointless. She was unable to express herself in English and wasn't even sure if she should. Meg, an accomplished foreigner, surely would find all her troubles to be bizarre, and Elena an unsophisticated bumpkin.
Elena decided she wouldn't pretend. She would just let herself be. She would say only what she could verbalize and what was in her heart and on her mind.
"Meg, I... I miss you."
"My sweet Elena, I miss you too. I think of you constantly. You are my inspiration, you are my strength. Your letters... If only you knew what they do to me. Thank you for them. Thank you for being who you are."
Elena didn't understand anything but she knew what Meg was saying. She felt her eyes getting moist. A tear threatening to fall. To reveal to the world what she felt for Meg.
Meg didn't interrupt. She listened.
"I need you."
Elena knew how she must look. Standing by her desk, speaking to a foreigner in English, tears rolling down her cheeks. That was unthinkable. Anybody around her, had they known, would crush her for that. Elena didn't care. Her relationship with Meg was becoming real! Her feelings for Meg were materializing, taking on a physical expression. They had become her words, her breath, her tears. With Meg on the line, the dam was broken. Elena couldn't help but release herself. She no longer cared what her enemies could do to her, how silly she thought she looked, what Meg might think of her.
"I love you, Meg!" Elena heard her words slip out of her. "I love you!"
The deed was done. Elena said to Meg what she thought she never would in her life. Her words were intended for a woman.
Their call ended. Elena stood by her desk, unable to move. What did it all mean? What was going to happen to her? Doing what was right for her, surely would become known to the world around and cause her more pain, more obstacles to overcome on her way to Meg. Elena was no longer sure if she even had Meg. Did she say the right things? Did Meg understand her? Would she keep communicating with her after seeing her so weak? After Elena, for the first time ever, let her true, wounded self be seen; turned the key and released herself from the dungeon she had been locked within all those years.
All she could do was go on. Days and days lay ahead. She had no idea how she would get through them. When she spoke with Meg, it felt like she was safe; inspired and soothed. But then, Meg's presence was over. She was gone with her powers and audacity.
Elena was hollowed out, it dawned on her - nothing had changed. Meg, no matter where on the planet she was, couldn't save her. Could do nothing about Elena's world. Couldn't wish it away. It was Elena who had to deal with it. She had to find a way to live her life, and not hate herself in the process.
Things had to change. If they didn't, Elena wouldn't survive. She didn't see the point. What she felt while speaking with Meg, Elena knew, was right for her! She would stick to it! She would follow it! If her world crushed her for that, she still prevailed. She would have truly lived for, in the very least, a few days of her life.