Elena could have burst with excitement. 2006 was here! There were just weeks left before she and Meg were scanning the crowd for each other in Kiev's Borispol airport!
It was inconceivable! Too good to be true! Elena couldn't believe it was happening to her. All she had seen and known, until then, was that life was dismal, hard. Yet now, it was the opposite! Out of the ordinary. Phenomenal! She was elated and alive. She wanted to experience everything there was. To top it all off, she didn't doubt herself, and she loved herself. In Elena's world, how she was starting to feel was unthinkable. She was breaking every time honored, Russian rule of self-hatred and self-denial. Loving herself and making steps toward her own happiness, turned her into a radical.
The first week of January was Elena's time to heal. Dmitry was finally out of town! Elena had a brief reprieve. Olga eased up on the incessant nagging and baked delicious treats. Elena dug out their artificial fir tree and festooned it with her favorite ornaments. She received a badly needed, computer monitor from her father. Little did he know, writing to Meg and reading her emails became far more pleasant.
Letting down her guard, however, was not an option. It was time to make her trip to Kiev a reality by booking a flight from Moscow to Kiev and arranging time off from work. Most importantly, she had to remain strong in spirit. She had no margin for error, and any accident, miscalculation or underestimation of her enemies, would lead to her downfall.
She kept her intentions to buy a plane ticket, to herself. Being a Westerner, Russians saw Meg as an ugly foreign agent Soviet propaganda depicted in posters. She was detested and had to be resisted; she was the enemy. Elena, having any association with her, was a traitorous criminal and a fool.
Elena rang up a couple of acquaintances and set up a skating date. Seeing her with skates, Olga wouldn't suspect a thing. Of course, it meant actually skating with her friends, which she had almost nothing in common with and knew were dangerous. One, in particular, was a mean-spirited harpy, that had she known, would have taken exquisite delight in trumpeting Elena's dirty secret, just for being honest and trying to be happy. In Tanka's world, no one is allowed to do that, and anyone who tries, deserves to be crushed.
Tanka didn't really know Elena. She didn't care who she was or what she wanted. As far as she was concerned, Elena's only goal in life was to land herself a man and marry him. On skates, though, Tanka was jolly good fun. Laughing, she grabbed Elena in mid fall. "How are things with you and Dmitry?"
"We are okay." Elena had no desire to come up with a more elaborate lie.
"Come on, something must be happening. How much longer are you going to go on wasting time just dating? When will I be partying at your wedding?"
How couldn't she see that Elena didn't want to do anything with Dmitry? Why ask about him at all? Why this obsession with men? Getting the attention of guys and having sex with them, appeared to be the only thing Elena's girlfriends ever talked about. Were they genuine? Did Tanka really want anything to do with men? Did she actually like any of them? Or was she vying for their attention because that was what a woman had to do? Tanka was a mystery with her fixation on marriage, and such jealousy in her voice. Elena couldn't believe that Tanka actually wanted it to happen to her. That any woman would.
Finally, it was just Tanka and Elena walking from the skating rink. Ironically, Elena thought, she dreamed of being rid of Dmitry, while Tanka, having no male attention, was desperate to give herself to anyone at all. If possible, Elena would have gladly transferred Dmitry to Tanka.
Tanka realized Elena wasn't heading home. "Hey, where are you going?"
"I need to buy a plane ticket."
"What? Why on earth?" Tanka couldn't believe Elena would travel on her own, let alone, by plane!
"I'm going to see some relatives of mine in Kiev."
"Nonsense!" She hooted. "You never mentioned any relatives in Kiev." Tanka always had the upper hand with Elena, as though it was her mission to constantly put her down with insults and derision.
"So what if I didn't? There is nothing to tell." Elena did her best to sound bold.
"Well, that's it. I must go." Elena nodded across the street at the booking office.
"Hurry up then. Make sure you get your precious ticket."
Elena hated the way Tanka made her feel: betrayed, berated, crushed, but what could she do? Tanka was far from unique in a world that encouraged her mean-spirited, contemptuous, spiteful behavior. She was nothing but a threat.
Elena crossed the street, scanned the other side. Tanka was gone. Elena trembled. The booking office was right before her, and there was nobody in her way!
* * *
Meg wasn't the first radical to shake up Elena's world, just the biggest threat to her keepers. A year and a half earlier, Elena went on a river cruise with one of her work colleagues. Friendly enough, Alexi was just someone Elena knew from work and a necessary chaperon, but for Olga, he was a prospective husband and father of her grandchildren. Something she made incredibly clear, picking her daughter up after the cruise and berating her for not going home with Alexi as his lover, if not his bride.
Not only had the romantic, Volga River cruise not produced the results Olga schemed for, but it had planted the first dangerous seeds of freedom and confidence in Elena: something Olga was never made aware of, and wouldn't, unless she happens to read this book.
On board the venerable river boat, Elena had come upon a foreign woman anyone might consider quite unremarkable. Low-key, self assured and plain-looking, men likely wouldn't give her a second glance. But Elena spotted her immediately and was knocked for six. She had never seen anybody like her.
She wore slacks and a loose sweater, had short curly hair, and although she wasn't stunningly gorgeous, her face was beautiful and entirely free of makeup. What most astonished Elena was the woman's poise, her confidence. She was clearly comfortable with herself, to the extent it put others around her at ease. It seemed, to Elena, as though she didn't worry about what others might think of her!
Elena offered the woman her binoculars.
She responded! "Alexander, there is somebody else who speaks English here."
Elena couldn't believe her ears. The wondrous woman spoke about her!
Her companion was a soft spoken, Russian man acting as her interpreter. The two of them exchanged a few words with Elena. Then, everything happened as though Elena was living a dream she could never have in real life. She saw what was possible, even for a woman! What she could become.
While she and Alexi sipped liqueur in the woman's cabin, Elena wracked her brain, trying to figure out what thrilled her so much about the foreigner. She knew that wanting the freedom that woman had was taboo. Would never be hers, no matter how much she wanted to dress comfortably, have messy hair, relax in whatever posture or position she wanted, have friends and people in her life she liked, and not have those she didn't. And especially, not belong to someone as their property, wife, or indentured chattel.
She wanted to take the woman's hand. Tell her how much she needed to escape her life. Cry out to someone, anyone who might care or understand how badly she needed to be herself. To stop pretending. To quit acting a role that was destroying her. She wanted, more than anything, to never go back to Ivanovo.
The westerner never knew, nor could she likely conceive of what Elena felt and faced. The woman didn't speak Russian and Elena wasn't confident in English, besides, there was nothing the foreigner could do. Elena had crashed into a wall. Freedom existed. She saw it with her own eyes, the proof of it was sitting right before her, but Elena's destiny was to suffer.
It was the wee hours when Elena and Alexi returned to their cabin. The foreigner hadn't wanted them to go, making Elena's anguish yet more pronounced. Had she had more to drink, Elena probably would have dropped on her knees before the woman, begging her to listen, to save her, to liberate her.
Elena eventually recovered. The seedling of freedom, growing in her since encountering the European woman, withered and died. Elena's world would never let it live. It could only trample it.
* * *
Elena wasn't just entering the booking office, she was stepping into a wizard's chamber with supernatural powers. A plane ticket to Kiev would move her beyond geographic location, to a new reality where life wasn't only pain. Where she could make decisions about her life. Where someone needed her and wanted to be with her as much as she did.
Breathless, she pulled the door handle.
Elena was the only customer there. Nervously, she approached the counter.
She was ready to faint; it was happening! Electronic signals were running through wires that very instant. All the parts of her escape – the bus, Moscow, Domodedovo airport – weren't an imagined blur any more, they were becoming real. Escape was no longer a dream. She was actually doing it!
A minute later, Elena stared at a plane ticket in her hand. She couldn't believe her eyes. She saw Moscow and a few lines below that, Kiev. She saw her name and the time of departure and arrival. Everything was correct. The ticket wasn't an illusion! She had it. She had it in her hand!
She just stood there, trying to grasp the idea that she had an actual plane ticket. She glanced at the woman. She had already forgotten about Elena, returned to the things she was doing. She had no idea that the ticket she just sold was a woman's chance at escape. Was her trap door. Was her only chance to ever live her life!
Kiev on the ticket and her name. The two of them together were a magic incantation. Their combination not only made Elena's getting to Ukraine possible, it made her see that it could be real. These very seconds on the trolley ride home, watching her town passing outside, was the first time ever, Elena was hopeful. She shivered from the thought of it. All wasn't lost! She had a chance! She might actually free herself and they might not get her in the end!
Elena hid the ticket in her desk. Olga wouldn't know she had it and wouldn't be looking there. That night Elena slept unusually well. She had given herself a chance at something she was never meant to have and would certainly never have again: she had a plane ticket to Kiev in her desk. It had her name on it.