from Double Exposure
Victoria was wet and cold. Light rain seeped through her skin and chilled her to the core. She was standing in the shallow water of the river that just killed her husband.
She had been standing there for the last forty minutes that felt like an eternity. She just stood there, water to her knees, looking at the river. She was not frightened or sad. There were no thoughts in her head; she felt only wet and numb. She just wanted to survive.
She could not leave the river. Like a killer returning to the scene of the crime, she needed to be there, in the water, where it all happened.
She felt a kick in the stomach and brushed the feeling aside. Who, the hell, cares? Dima was dead. The river just took him and now she was all alone.
If not for a Good Samaritan on a small boat, who had jammed an oar into her hands thrashing violently in the water, she would not be here either. Maybe it would be better. She felt a kick again. The baby made it out of the river with her. However, it was not a comforting thought right now.
Only this morning, they were so happy. Victoria felt the first kick of the baby and Dmitry thought this kick was his personal achievement. Well, in a sense, it was. Their four-month wedding anniversary became very special with this tiny tap from the inside world.
The hybrid of a radio and a record player, their wedding gift called “Radiola” was spewing a loud western song, and they danced and jumped with the music.
Her Mom knocked on their door. “Vika, you will lose the baby, if you behave like that,” she warned her crazy kids.
Only this morning they had agreed on the names, one for a boy and one for a girl, just in case. When was it? Not this morning, it was hundred years ago, in a different life, the past life. The life, which the river took, forever.
It all started last year, on a sunny, chilly November day, the holiday of the Great October Revolution.
“Only idiots could celebrate ‘October Revolution’ in November,” thought Victoria. The streets were ablaze with red flags and portraits of the Communist Party leaders. Amateur orchestras headed home after playing all day at the parade, and the faint music was descending from downtown. Crowds were happy with a free day and good weather. Holiday dinners were waiting at homes.
Victoria spent the day on a blind date arranged by her girlfriend, Dora. They were friends since fifth grade and now married Dora wanted Victoria to date every single friend of her husband, even a distant cousin. Earlier, when she had met the young man, Victoria planned to walk downtown; however, many streets were closed by “militia” for the parade, and they were tired, walking
all day. She decided that she had enough, enough of walking, Dmitry’s stupid jokes, and even his good looks.
Victoria was a senior in Medical School, the graduation looming in a few months. Instead of being excited, she worried, she was afraid that after graduation she would have to leave Kiev and go to practice medicine in some remote area of Soviet Union. It was the school’s right to decide where the graduate would have to go. However, she did not want to leave the city of her youth, her beloved Kiev.
She grew up on these green streets with elegant old buildings and beautiful parks, she went to the kindergarten and school here, and her family and friends were here. The only thing that could save her from exile to a remote village somewhere at the end of the world was a marriage. She urgently needed a husband who lived in this city and had a stamp in his passport confirming that. Then, the
School would let her stay and find a job by herself. She was about to graduate from the same Medical School as both of her parents did, and they had plenty of friends in the medical world who would be able to help.
However, they could not help her to find a husband. She had plenty of blind and other dates but no good prospects to marry and she felt old at twenty-two. Dmitry annoyed her, he was boring and provincial, and his good looks did not appeal to Victoria. She returned home, to her small room in a grand, imposing building, where she shared kitchen, bath, and toilet with two other
Before The Revolution, it was probably a lovely five-room apartment, but now these five rooms accommodated three different families. Each had a small table in the kitchen, a small shelf in the bath and a small handmade pocket with neatly cut newspapers or old textbooks in the toilet room.
Victoria was about twelve years old when she moved to this apartment with her parents. Her dad, the doctor, got a job at the River Navigation Administration. The position came with a perk, two rooms for his five-person family; it was a significant improvement in their previous living arrangements.
Back then, their neighbors, the Snisarenkos, was a family of three, parents and their daughter Elizabeth. The family occupied two beautiful rooms with two large very entertaining bay windows into the courtyard. They could see all the activity in the yard, who was coming to visit or going and to catch the mailman with a large blue linen cross body bag full of newspapers and letters.
There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, but, for all the years Victoria had lived here, the fountain had never worked, and its cement border had become a favorite place for the seniors. They would sit on cold cement, watching people, gossiping and making nasty remarks, yelling at the children and complaining to the parents.
Every summer, papa Snisarenko meticulously cut Elizabeth’s textbooks from the prior year and stashed them in their toilet pocket embroidered by mama Snisarenko. Toilet paper did not exist yet in the Soviet Union.
Strangely, that was one of the reasons Victoria had all A’s in school. That and her photographic memory.
Lizzy and Vika, as the parents lovingly called the girls, attended the same school. While using the toilet, Vika who was two years junior, preferred to put four small pieces of paper from Snisarenkos’ pocket together, trying to restore the page and to read Lizzy’s school textbook rather than The Soviet newspaper stored in her family’s pocket. When two years later she caught up to Lizzy’s grade, she knew the textbook by heart and got “A’s” as a result.
By the time Victoria was in medical school, her family had moved out of the apartment, and her Dad managed to bend his employer’s rules and to leave one small room to Victoria.
The Snisarenko family grew to four when Lizzy got married, and her husband moved in. The third neighbor, a riverboat captain with his wife, added Victoria parents’ larger room.
All seven inhabitants of the apartment cooked on the same gas stove, bathed in the same bath, and sat on the same toilet. Everybody knew exactly what was cooking in every pot, what was hanging in every closet, who was visiting and who was staying for the night. There were no secrets in this communal living, and even though Victoria hated to share her life, her habits, and her secrets with the well-known strangers, she loved her own home.
She closed the door and looked at her small room.
A small elegant vanity desk with a flip top that hid a large mirror and her makeup stood under the window. To the left was a two-door wardrobe, which stored all her belongings, and next to it was the piano, a gift from her late Grandmother. The old bookcase left by her parents was in the right corner next to the window and something orange called “Recame,” a sofa bed, which Victoria and
her sister shared for many years, stood along the right wall. A piano stool and one chair completed the furnishing; it was all that room could accommodate.
Victoria was about to pull out a book when suddenly she noticed a piece of paper with an address on the table. She remembered running into her school teacher Mrs. Levin last week and her surprising invitation to a holiday dinner.
Mrs. Levin taught history for years. In the middle school, it was ancient, and world history and Victoria loved it. However, by high school, History of the Communist Party of Soviet Union was not among her favorite subjects. She finished school almost six years ago, and she saw her
teachers only at the annual reunion.
When she met Mrs. Levin on the street, she did not expect the invitation for dinner. “Maybe she invited me because she is Jewish and I was the only Jewish girl in her class,” contemplated Victoria. Not that it mattered to her; she did not feel she was any different. In the school, she had one single advantage; her Dad returned home alive from the war. Only two other kids in her class had
fathers who survived the war. The rest lived with his or her mothers and resented anyone who had alive male in the family, even an uncle or a grandfather.
“Hmmm,” she suddenly felt a hungry roar in her stomach and remembered the smiling face of Mrs. Levin. “Dinner is not such a bad idea.” She looked at the address and saw that the teacher lived only two blocks away. “The book could wait,” decided Victoria. “The holiday dinner and the company would be good for me, especially after this stupid blind date.”
Then, she remembered the boots. Last summer she had begged her Dad for two hours to give her money for the new boots, and she stood in line for another four hours to get these, still-in-the-box boots. She was dying to wear them, and now she had a reason.
“What a great opportunity to ventilate my boots,” she smiled.
She coated her lips with lipstick, took an enamored look at her feet now encased in the tall, stylish boots that cost more than a physician’s salary and walked out into the early dusk of the familiar city.
Cold November wind tossed her hair and Victoria wrapped her scarf and coat tightly around her; she was late.
She rang one of the six buttons on the door and heard the bell somewhere in the distance. A drunken man in a torn sweater opened the door and silently pointed to one of the doors in a dark hallway. There were piles of coats, bikes, and shoes under every door. The smell of food floated in the air.
The large holiday table was too big for the small room. Plump Mrs. Levin hovered around the table while her husband opened a bottle of vodka and her two daughters helped to serve. There was one space on the sofa, and everybody had to get up to allow Victoria to her seat. Mrs. Levin made the introductions, and suddenly Victoria realized why she was invited. Next to her on the sofa was
a young man, Mrs. Levin’s nephew.
She could almost imagine the matchmaker’s pitch, “Victoria is young and single, she is about to graduate from the medical school, and she has her own place.” Maybe she even shared the info about the family, “Her both parents are well-known doctors.”
The conversation at the table, interrupted by Victoria’s arrival, was about her neighbor on the sofa who had moved to the city recently and stayed with the relatives. Just then, Victoria realized that his name was Dmitry.
“Please, call me Dima,” he said.
“Another one,” thought Victoria bitterly. “They are all the same; they even have the same name“! She swallowed a shot of vodka and ate silently.
A great variety of Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish dishes were on the table. The mandatory salad “Olivie”, just the fancy French name for a mayonnaise covered mixture of potato, peas, and mortadella, herring, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, boiled potatoes, and the crown
of any holiday table, “holodnoye”, which meant “cold” and was merely beef in gelatin, were on a proud display.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Levin was reciting Victoria’s achievements at the school. It is turned out, she was
Victoria Dad’s patient for many years, and she could not say enough about “the great doctor and, by the way, a very handsome man.”
Dima had dark curly hair and a warm smile. His shoulders were broad, and he looked stocky. He had a charming slightly high-pitched voice that made Victoria think about singing. He saw to her glass and plate being full, asked about medical school and her parents, told her a little about himself, and was smiley and soft-spoken. He seemed like a nice guy.
She did not know what made her hot, her warm new boots, a few shots of vodka, or his unceasing attention. Dmitry, Dima as his aunt called him, was clearly so taken by her that Victoria allowed herself to have a good time. She was pleased when he volunteered to walk her home. He was funny and old-fashioned; he did not ask to come to her apartment, but instead gallantly asked for her
phone number and permission to call her.
That night Victoria could not sleep, trying to figure out when he would call; she felt young and beautiful.
The next day was a busy day at school. Between lectures, sitting next to Ellen, her best girlfriend, Victoria was about to burst with the news. “He is not very tall but, definitely, taller than I. He has
the cutest dark curly hair! He graduated from Leningrad Politech, and the famous Director of the Kiev Computer Institute invited him to work here. He is so smart and funny! He plays the violin! And his name is Dmitry, but he prefers Dima.”
After spending a mere two hours with him at the holiday dinner, it seemed to her that she knew him all her life and she wanted to know so much more.
Ellen was puzzled, “Dima? I thought you did not like him. You said he was boring.”
“This is a completely different Dima, Ellen,” Victoria could not sit still. The lecture was just about to start, and she had so many things to tell her girlfriend.
“I know it is confusing. I said goodbye to the first Dima after walking with him on Vladimir Hill and then went to see my old school teacher, who introduced me to her nephew. By coincidence, his name was Dima as well. Although the name was the same, he was a very different man. He walked me home, took my phone number, and he promised to call.”
Ellen knew Victoria since high school, and they were the best friends through the medical school, but she could not recall the last time Victoria was so excited about the date. “What if he does not call, Vika?”
Only family and close friends could call her Vika. She was born during the Second World War and was named Victoria for the victory. She was also born right after her Grandfather Volf died and, by the Jewish tradition, she was named after him as well. She was not just Vika; she was Victoria, for sure.
“You only saw him once, Victoria, do not get so excited,” cautioned Ellen. She was a year older and much more practical in the dating game than her enthusiastic girlfriend. Victoria bit her lip and clenched her teeth; she was not ready to confess even to herself that she hoped he would call tonight.
After canceling a planned dinner with her parents, Victoria went straight home after school. She was not hungry; she was afraid to miss his call. Thirsty, she stopped in the kitchen to get a glass of water. Pregnant Lizzy Snisarenko was cooking dinner and wanted to know what Victoria did for the Holidays.
Any other day, Victoria would be happy to chat with Lizzy, but not today; the telephone could ring any minute, and the hallway to her room was long. She got a glass of water and hurried back. She put the glass inside her vanity desk and examined her face in the mirror.
“Maybe twenty-two is not that old yet,” she hoped. “I probably do not look that bad if he asked for my phone number right away”.
The telephone rang and startled Victoria; she jumped to pick up the handset and the flip top of the desk closed with a sharp crack. The large mirror fell on the glass of water and both shuttered.
“Hi, Dima,” said Victoria cheerfully. She looked with the sheer horror at the drawer where shards of glass and mirror sparkled, mixed with water and her makeup. It was an ominous sign; she felt it deep inside.
“But I am not superstitious,” she tried to be optimistic and not give in to old women‘s tales. “I will be ready in ten minutes,” she heard her own voice. Her mirror was broken, and her hands were shaking, but he called, and that was all that mattered.
November wind blew without mercy making street lamps bow to it gracefully and submissively as they were walking the cold streets of Kiev. Light rain, mixed with
the first snow of the season, cruelly attacked Dmitry’s glasses. Every few minutes he had to take them off trying to clean them clumsily with his fluffy wet scarf.
“This is terrible,” thought Victoria. “I did not wait all day for the cold shower.”
Dima’s black curly hair was glistening under the rain. “Tea,” finally broke down Victoria “I can make us a tea.”
To have her own room was a big convenience, especially on a night like this. His lips were warm and soft, and his hands were cold and gentle. They forgot about the tea; they did not need food. They were falling in love.
Read the rest of this amazing story told in the author’s true voice. Available now in trade paperback. eBook coming shortly.