Bloody Valentine's day! And just thirty-six hours from her escape. The irony wasn't lost on Elena. Another agonizing evening with Dmitry. Russians happily adopted the lovers' day, leveraging the license it gave men to impose themselves on women with tokens that left them beholden. Dmitry wouldn't be himself, if he did otherwise.
He showed up at Elena's with a red rose. Olga, paced about, making sure her daughter didn't mistreat her suitor, signaling them into Elena's bedroom for their special evening. That Valentine's day, in particular, was important to Olga. It was a milestone, proof to the world of unbreakable bonds tightening. Of the marriage alter mere footsteps ahead.
Elena took as long as possible finding a vase for the rose. Dmitry was impatient. He didn't know, or care that Elena counted the seconds to be gone from him forever. What mattered was that he had Elena that night. He could do with her whatever he wanted, and she wasn't in a position to protest.
He reveled in Elena's submission, playful, untroubled, brazenly groping and kissing. He was fed, inebriated, aroused and handed a girl he could have his way with. Things couldn't be better. Meg or no Meg, his claim on Elena was secure. Even when he wasn't in her home, her own mother safeguarded Dmitry's position.
Elena resented it, but kept the rose after Dmitry left. Olga would never forgive her for its absence. Of course, the flower was beautiful, but it terrified her. It represented Dmitry: everything he was, and everything her society let him do to her. If she didn't make it out, if they caught her, dragged her back when she ran, Dmitry would have her, and be hailed as a hero.
Lying in bed, she couldn't rid her thoughts of that rose. A battle between two worlds was taking place in her room. She was one world, yearning to determine her own destiny. The other was the real world, of which Dmitry's rose was its symbol. It fought to trap and keep Elena down. It was still fighting, and harder than ever now.
But Elena had nothing left to lose, not even her life, which wouldn't be worth living if she didn't make it out. She saw nothing ahead but Kiev and Meg. There could be no other future. She was clawing her way towards it, shredding herself in the process. Her pain didn't matter anymore. She was so close! Merely hours to go before her great leap!
* * *
Nobody at work knew it was Elena's last day, that she would never enter the building again. The hens were whispering around the corner. Elena wondered if they would even know that she was gone and wasn't coming back. What would they think? All the attention would be on Olga: the poor mother abandoned by her ungrateful, upstart daughter. What would she tell them? Obviously, not a peep about Meg. Nobody would ever know the real reason Elena fled her home. A few might wonder, but they would never question whatever twisted fiction Olga came up with.
Walking out of the office, Elena glanced at her two colleagues, the hens. Snooping and snitching was all they were about, yet Elena cared about them. They were alive, observant, curious. She loved their laughter and hated it when their boss humiliated them. They never knew that she was secretly their ally, that she rooted for them. If she could have been herself and wasn't so damaged by Olga, they might have actually acknowledged each other, instead of looking away whenever she walked by.
Elena stepped into the hall. She was all alone. Knowing it was for the last time, she looked at the architectural models on display, the drawings on the walls. She had known them since she was five, and almost all of them had been done by her parents and their friends. Years back, they came to the firm as young specialists sent to Ivanovo by the Soviet government. They were the very first architects there: Ivanovo's architectural backbone. Every one of them knew Elena.
The models were dusty and the drawings faded. Nobody gave them a second glance. But Elena always noticed them: the thought, the skill and passion they represented. Looking at them hollowed her out. They were pieces of her home that she was cast away from. It felt as though they were ripped out of her. That she was denied a right to home because of how she felt, who she was. The hallway works proved there were good, talented, creative people in her country. Elena wanted to wail. She couldn't tell anyone, she would never see any of this again. That she would never again walk these halls. That she was going to be gone! Vanished. That things like this did happen. That it wasn't a joke or fiction. For her, it was reality! She had to flee, just so she could survive!
A door opened. Elena couldn't stand in the hall, destroyed, scared, jumpy, as if she was doing something wrong. She nodded to the woman and headed for the stairs.
Elena trusted Tatiana, an older coworker a couple of floors down. She knew that no matter what she told her, Tatiana wouldn't blab. Yet, Elena couldn't casually tell her what was happening. She was too damaged, too scared. All she had known, was keeping the truth about herself hidden: how she felt, what she wanted, how hurt she was.
Tatiana also made it clear, she didn't want to risk knowing anything about Elena that might be inappropriate. She loved to hear Elena's stories about Meg, but this was as far as she let Elena go. The truth, when it threatened her position and safety, was something Tatiana wanted nothing to do with.
Elena stood by her desk, feeling awkward around Tatiana's colleagues, angry that the two of them had never spoken about what really mattered: freedom, living as they wanted. Tatiana spoke only of the subjects that were safe, but so many times they were on the edge of being completely truthful with each other. Inevitably, Tatiana pulled away, changed the subject, pushed Elena away.
Elena was full of treasures: what she and Meg felt for each other; what their meeting in Kiev meant for them; that it was the very beginning of her true life! Yet, she found herself mute. Her world saw all of it as a crime. Tatiana didn't want anything to do with it because it could put her at risk. And Elena was so mixed up with all of it that she couldn't say a word of what she wanted.
Elena was surprised, walking from Tatiana's office didn't feel like she was losing a friend, leaving someone behind. Tatiana was trapped by her own fear of society's expectations and retribution for being herself. Even her coworkers did their part. Dutifully preventing any such people from ever lifting their heads. With Elena gone from Tatiana's office, all was as what it always had been. Six people bent over their desks, with nothing but contempt and fear between them.
Returning to her own office, Elena peeled her photo of Christopher Walken off her computer case and put it in her bag. The blueprints she finished were stacked in a neat pile. The one on top was stamped with Sergey's signature one line above hers. She liked seeing their names together. She was part of his life, and he was part of hers.
Putting her winter boots on, Elena looked at the potted plant on the windowsill. It was her plant. It was the only sign of life, other than Elena and Sergey, in the whole room. She wondered what the chances were of him taking care of it once she was gone.
"I am ready."
Startled, Sergey turned around. "Are you?"
He actually stood up. Elena leaving for two weeks was significant. He would have the whole office to himself and was probably looking forward to it. Elena thought.
She valued these last seconds they stood, contemplating each other. Sergey was actually looking at her, and she was looking at him. She studied his face. She loved it. Out of all the men she knew, she liked who he was, despite his shortcomings.
"Have fun then, Elena! Say hi to Ukrainians for me!" And with that, Sergey grabbed his cigarettes and dashed out. He never walked slowly. A preoccupied rush was his way of dealing with life, with what it did to him. Had he stopped and pondered, like Elena, he would have been crushed by what he saw.