11 - Pieces of the Puzzle

Mornings were the worst. There was so much tension in the air between Olga and her daughter, you could hang an ax from it. Elena watched her mother from the corner of her eye. It was a habit. This was her way of reading Olga, predicting her moves.

Lately, it became obvious for Elena, she was nothing but a prized collectible to brag about. Any humanity, honesty and support was conditional on Elena doing what Olga wanted. Otherwise, she would turn on her like a pit bull, going for her throat. There was absolutely no doubt in Elena's mind, given a reason, her mother would destroy her. For the last several weeks, Elena had been walking on eggs around Olga. She tried not to even blink funny, and that wasn't easy, with correspondence with Meg as intensive as it was and her thoughts always on her escape.

If Dmitry wasn't chaperoning her, Elena and her mother walked the same path to work every day. And every day they did, Elena was petrified with her mother near. How she carried herself: scowling and scheming. Her face, a mask of contempt screaming at Elena you won't get away from me! Olga must have sensed something was up and not only that, but Elena could hardly keep the charade going a moment longer.

Trudging through snow, they came upon a former creek locals turned into a rubbish tip. It was almost not an eyesore in winter. In spring, which is when Dmitry confronted her there, the ravine is a sickening comment on Russians' disregard for nature, other people and the country itself. Although she tried to shoo them away, the place always brought up awful memories of that day.

She wondered if it would bother Olga, knowing that Dmitry sexually assaulted her daughter. It might, for a moment or two, but then, it would be back to life as usual: Elena had to have a man. If not Dmitry, any other man would take his place soon after.

Dmitry got drunk; he was the birthday boy. At his shack, Elena watched him across the table, downing one shot after another. She lost count. The guests ghosted off and they were alone. He lifted her skirt, trying to get into her underwear. He was almost too drunk to sit up, but that didn't keep him from going at Elena with alcohol granted rights, privilege and impunity. Eventually drunkenness took its toll and he could go no further. Sprawled on his bed, barely conscious, he begged Elena to stay, bleating out her name.

She stood there, looking down at him. Rage and obligation were playing a tug-of-war inside her. Obligation, duty and her assigned role won out, as always. Yet, she couldn't stand the sight of Dmitry lying there, muttering her name. If society hadn't stripped her of dignity, tied her hands and denied her the right to stand up for herself, she would have slapped him, and would have kept doing so until she was no longer capable of raising her hand. He would never come near her again. If she had the strength and license of a man, she would have thrown him into the wall. As it was, she just watched him. Disgusted and loathing herself for not running away. For not putting an end to the nightmare she brought upon herself.

The following day, all was as it was meant to be. Dmitry was Elena's boyfriend and she was his girlfriend. At the rubbish tip he caught up with her to plead for forgiveness. Not for molesting her, but for getting drunk. He stunk of alcohol, and sick oozing from his pours. Elena couldn't stand him near. She wanted to run, to forget he existed. She cried. He hugged her.

For days after Dmitry's birthday, she didn't know how to go on. What was happening was killing her. She had to find a way to live with the horror she faced every day. To accept that there was no way out. She had to deny her own feelings. To realize her fate and experience was right and proper. It was what Olga wanted of her. What everybody wanted of her. Her own countrymen didn't give a damn about what she was going through, or what she wanted. If she was to resist her destiny, they would, without question, destroy her.

* * *

Onward they trudged, leaving the tip behind. Getting closer to work, Elena's guts churned. She had to tell her mother about the plane ticket. To get the time off, Elena first needed her mother's permission just to see their boss and request it.

Olga was Uvinaly's favorite employee and even a special confidant. Being the boss's tireless champion, won Olga certain favors, such as a position for her daughter in the firm. There was no way Elena could meet with, or ask, Uvinaly for anything without her mother's knowledge and authorization. Uvinaly could end up chatting with Olga about Elena's vacation. Olga, thinking Elena was keeping something from her, would put the kibosh on everything.

Elena went for it. "I was thinking of visiting Kiev." She tried to sound as though it hardly mattered.

Olga took time to answer. "You were, were you?"

Elena plowed onward. "I am. I bought my plane ticket already."

They walked on in icy silence.

Olga finally broke it. "My god, you sure are fast! What is it you plan to do there?"

"Mom, I told you already. I will speak English. And there is opera there. And it is Kiev. The capital. I've never been there."

Olga went silent again. But this time, Elena knew it was a different quiet. Olga was cogitating: playing out her next move, assessing outcomes. There could be advantage in there for her. Her daughter was winging off to Kiev. The big city. Opera. English. A westerner. It sounded expensive, exotic, posh. Maybe even something she could brag to her colleagues about.

Olga didn't yet loath Meg enough to stop Elena from going. She knew nothing about her and didn't think, she was important to Elena. At the moment, Meg was only a blurry concept for Olga. She knew, Elena had photos of Meg, but she didn't bother looking at them. Her disgust at even the thought of Meg, prevented her from ever learning of her greatest rival. Or from realizing, Elena was going to meet a flesh-and-blood woman who could change her so profoundly, she would never again give her life away.

Despite Elena's enthusiasm and the fact she purchased a plane ticket on the sly, Olga hadn't yet forbidden her trip to Kiev. But Elena's struggle with Olga was far from over. Every second of every day she had to conceal even the slightest hint of affection she had for Meg. For weeks, she was feeding Olga the same rubbish. That Kiev had little to do with Meg, and was all about practicing English and visiting the Kiev opera house in her new pant suit.

* * *

It was like someone wrapped her in a ridiculous costume, covered her with makeup, and pushed her onto a variety-show stage to make fun of. Elena was dying of embarrassment, tottering on stupid high heels toward her boss's office, thinking the whole way there, what a shame she had to be all tarted up the last time he would likely see her.

Surrounded by piles of paper, Uvinaly sat at his desk by the window. Elena wobbled over. She was pretty sure her appearance placed her on an uneven playing field. Had she not looked like she was soliciting men, the two of them would be way more comfortable with each other. He might even like her, want to learn something about her.

"So, Elena." Uvinaly stood. "You are going to Ukraine?"

"I am." She had a hard time looking him in the eye.

"I've been in Ukraine. I was doing an internship in Lvov. The fortresses there are amazing."

Elena was touched. Her boss, the man she hardly knew, was actually a human being. Learning that only then, when she was leaving him and her town for good, was cruelly ironic.

"I spoke to Sergey. He doesn't mind letting you go. He should be able to manage without you for two weeks."

Elena was at a loss for words. She had always been a colleague's child, a subordinate. Suddenly, she saw this little, older man in a different light. So much, she wanted to chat with him as an equal, as a friend. To sit down and listen to his stories. He was even ready to tell them to her!

Why had she allowed Olga to design everything in her life? Even her relationship with her boss! It was Olga who made her look the way she did. It was because of Olga, Uvinaly treated Elena as Olga's vestige. Olga left no room for Elena. She drove her out. Replaced her with the wax doll she turned her into.

"I wish you to have a good time." Uvinaly was wrapping up their brief meeting.

Elena stood there with round eyes, before managing: "Thank you. I will." She had never been in that room. She memorized everything, knowing it was the first and last time she would be in her boss's office.

She took in the humble book cases, a few chairs here and there. All of it unassuming, Soviet. She wanted to cry; it meant so much to her. She loved the people she worked with, their stories, their lives. Uvinaly moved her. He wasn't vicious or nasty. He didn't refuse to give her time off. He didn't even question her reasons for asking it at such an unusual time of year. Likely, he was a good man. Elena worked with him for years, but only appreciated him then, slipping out from under Olga, finally becoming herself.

She came to a stop in the corridor. She needed time to figure out what had just happened before going back to her desk. Uvinaly was letting her go. She was free of her obligations at the firm! She could leave without letting Sergey down! She had finished everything she was working on. There was nothing left holding her in Ivanovo!

Only Olga and Dmitry stood between her and Kiev. Elena was pretty sure she could handle those two. They were her private battle and whose tactics she knew painfully well. She had no right to be weak in the very last days before her escape. She would let them torture her, all they wanted. With Kiev within her grasp, she was ready to go through anything.