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"A Winter In Odessa"

by Paul Rogov

 

 

   

      Early Christmas morning, more or less at four, in Anastasiya’s dream, she had somehow swallowed a butter knife. She jutted up out of bed. How it got lodged down there in her belly, who did it, why it happened, was difficult for her to discern, and yet she felt the ghostly contour of a flat metal shank situated between the bottom of her esophagus and her stomach when she awoke. Had it snowed? She rubbed her face. She sat up in bed, scratched her eyelids, read the clock then glanced through a window:  No more snow. Did she really fall asleep after lunch, through dinner?  She gawked at the fullness of the moon, the bursting glimmer of it. With an assuaged fear in her gut, she flung a blanket off her legs, swiveled, pushed her feet into velvet slippers then sneezed.

 

     It was five-thirty in the morning when Anastasiya realized that she felt neither happy in her apartment in Odessa, nor inspired enough to allow it to make her happy: that’s the way a photography degree worked, she reasoned.  She wanted goose-liver for breakfast.  As she walked over to the kitchenette to find a can of goose-liver, she thought about her exhibition.  It was coming up; she’d graduate. She opened a cupboard. She sneezed again, caught her nose mist in her palms, as she glimpsed the light coming through the window.

 

     In early adolescence, she had taken pictures of the moon, each and all the phases of it, because it told a story of a progression, yet that project and those memories somehow seemed to have waxed to the blackest darkness. Fracking-like, drilled orgasms of boys she no longer knew, bouts of verbal abuse by her elitist father, the fade of turned-down music—that was what she remembered most from her teenage years in Byelorussia.

 

      As Anastasiya took a goose liver can, placed it into pot of soon-to-be boiling water, she thought about the United States, better off, she thought, just called America, which she preferred to call Hollywood, a street. She thought about the pen-pal of her youth, Lev, her father’s best friend’s son, who, over supper one evening, made a distinction between a nation and an idea. She leaned down and opened her knee-tall refrigerator, which housed four plain yogurts, a jar of strawberry jam, water crackers, three Evians, and a quarter bottle of chilled white wine that she purchased from Vina Bessarabii.  No bother.  I was a child. I spoke as a child. Now I have put childish things aside. She used to fall for pretty boys. Now she wanted tautness of flesh: she wanted to be handled, hard. 

 

    Should she call Marik, get it over and done with? She wasn’t easy, neither was she difficult. She daydreamed as she pulled out a greasy fork from the sink and rinsed it under the faucet. As she waited for her can of goose liver to heat up, she glanced at her X-legged director’s chair by some photographs she tacked up on the wall several weeks ago, illuminated by pale light.  She thought about bursting.  It was a funny gerund, she thought---the way the word “bursting” struck a woman’s ear. Bursting, she repeated it.  She used the gerund often when she used to compose her poetry.  Bubbles “bursting” in showers.  Bodies “bursting” on battlefields.  Jackfruit “bursting,” falling from exotic trees. She would think about the gerund as it applied to “bursting” during sex.  She would think about the “bursting” laughter of her friend’s voices, talking into her ear over the DJ spinning records at a bar. She would think about “bursting” when she got the first job she liked, which was the best “gerund” to sum up the giddiness evoked in her as she watched the photographers, dripping in red light, developing rolls film in dark rooms.

 

     She walked to her night-stand, in her yellow cotton robe, leaned down, hit “play” on her I-Pod statin, a gadget she bought in Berlin. In droll-filled afternoons on her days off, she listened to Grazhdanzskya Oborona or switched to Yegor Letov’s solo work, and tried to strum along with his records on a cheap guitar. Life had become less lyrical, somehow less sordid, since she got her linguistics degree. She decided to do what she loved: pursue a photography degree at Odessa College--- though it wasn’t getting any cheaper. Her younger brother, Kiril, a Ukrainian supremacist, moved to Canada on account of being transferred within a transnational corporation; her mother moved to Petersburg to reconcile and re-marry a long-time lost lover. It was uncanny for she rarely talked to Tanja, her best friend, anymore, who now lived in Estonia and worked as a real-estate referral person.  Everyone was up to something.  Or----perhaps, maybe not.

 

     Anastasiya didn’t know whether or not she could even go back to sleep. Should she even go back to sleep?  When her cell-phone rang, the green light would come on; she would stare at the digits and note the area codes. Where was Marik? Was he going to bring her yet another girl for her to photograph?  She didn’t like the idea of shooting yet another solo subject. That’s why her exhibition, which depicted the flight of Central African Republic refugees to southern France, upped the ante, she thought, to her craft.

 

      She thought about the rags; she thought about people crowded up in flop-houses, perched in rooms; men drowning or getting sick, paddling on rubber rafts in the Straits of Gibraltar. As she brushed her teeth, she wanted to scream. Even the space in between her gums were massaged. She looked into the mirror. As she pampered her mouth with spearmint mouthwash, then spit the light green fluid into the sink, she envisioned herself as righteous avenger plowing through snow, foraging through it, nurturing a blizzard.

 

     She put her toothbrush back in the cup by some phials that stood in a nearly perfect semi-circle formation around the bathroom faucet: Auromere, Bee Flower, Vadik Herbs, Amla Hair Oil, Ginger Baking Soda, Ayurbasics Lip and Skin Soother. The phone was ringing. Where is it? Was it Marik?  Had to be Marik.  The I-Pod alarm went off on her cellphone. She wandered around her studio space, plopped herself down on a difficult futon, then grabbed her cell phone, unthinkingly. Missed call.  Of course, it was Marik.

 

     In the span of several months, after Marik started haranguing her for not freelancing aggressively (hitting up advertising firms and magazines), yet she began to suspect that she was selling herself when she sold her photographs (a hideous revelation to her).  She could not completely wrap her mind around the fact that, even as an artist, part of her was taken when she had sold something. Though she dabbled in modeling when she lived in Berlin, whenever she stared at the glossy covers of magazines or even at the ads inside them, she pitied the airbrushed pieces, the spreads, the exposés. They were given away, locked up, like a genie in a lamp, of which no amount of rubbing could set free.

 

      She dialed Marik. Marik was a photographer of high-end erotica set in exotic locales: he chose his women subjects by asking them the following question: “where in the entire world do you want to be?” Then he asked another question: “if you could be anywhere you want and wear whatever you’d like, and I would pay for it all, just so I can put it in my portfolio---what do you think? Would you say yes or pretend I didn’t exist?” Even though Anatasiaya found his portfolio dazzling, surreal, sprung from his contemporary fantasies, she never directly questioned his subject matter. She figured Marik had paid his dues, by growing up in Bosnia, that he was a professional on account of this, and slightly more professional doing his work than she was doing hers. She wondered what it would be like to be that exploited, kneeling woman who was getting it on top of having a HD video or picture of her doing it. Maudlin thoughts enlivened her, though sickened her, and each time, she dismissed the perverse image and idea, because she knew precisely what was going on, she imagined ripping the head off of the disorder of Beauty itself—the perpetrator, the giver, lover, taker, photographer---that is, that which Marik saw.

 

       The disorder of being beautiful was not the same disorder of taking shots.

 

       She grabbed the cellphone, dialed one box with a thumb. She connected.

 

      “Privetik, nu shto?”   (Hey, so what’s up?)

 

      “Sitting here.”

      “Yeah?”

 

      “I had another bad dream.  ”

 

      “I suppose so.  Good.  So when—when is it?”

 

      “Next week.”

 

      “I’m in Prague.  I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”

 

      “Tanja’s coming.”

 

      “Tanja’s coming?”

 

      “She just is.” Anatasiya switched phone hands, then walked over to her large dresser. “Marik.  Stop it. The photos speak for themselves.  There’s no need to go any further.”

 

     “Come to Paris with me.”

 

     “I can’t,” said Anastasiya.

 

     “I want to introduce you to some people.  It would be fun.”

 

     “I know it would be fun, but I don’t have the money.”

 

     “I told you just need to get some business cards made then you’ll have the money.”

 

     “I know. I am aware.”

 

     “If you do that, then you’ll get more work. Why are you so glum, sitting in Odessa?”

 

     “Because I know what going to happen next.  I’m almost done with the program!”

 

     “Then what are you going to do?  Rely on your friend for referrals?” said Marik.  “And the students and the graduate school to come support you? Please. You need  me.”

 

     “…”

 

     “Loans aren’t enough.  Come to Paris,” said Marik. “We’ll walk the boulevards.”

 

    They talked for ten minutes. Marik offered to buy her a ticket. After deliberating, she then accepted.

 

     She put on her panties under the robe then walked over to the corner of her room, where she found her Thought Box and Picture Box, which had her portfolio with photographs in them. She opened the boxes, sifted through her work. The pictures smelled like radishes. The finish of them, the gloss, seemed to make everything worth it, as if something had been resolved, that her imagination had crowned her, as if the way to understand the world was by duplicating it.

 

      She rummaged around further, stacking the pictures, then found some that she took of Tanja several weeks after she left California. Over twenty 8X11 mylar sleeves adorned the prints. The light from a small Tiffany lamp with a pink lampshade hit Tanja in many poses, which made her appear as if she was radiating upon the substratum of various natural locales:  a forest; a tundra; an ocean; a desert; leaning sideways upon the rim of a small desert hill; sitting Indian-style at the foot of a trunk of a gnarled tree;  jumping, caught in mid-air in a calculated dust storm (wind machine blowing towards her body off camera); straddling a white marble water fountain, hugging the side of wooden bridge lying face down, parallel to the ground; another of her supine, on her back, with the raging sea tide rushing up upon her from all sides, as if she were an uncharted island that did not want to be discovered.

 

      Anastasiya sneezed.  She put the pictures back into the Picture Box; she then found her journal and started reading it in bed.

 

     An hour later, she called Marik back, told him that she was willing to rendezvous with him, that is, take the train to Paris, if and only if she didn’t have to spend more than three days there.  He agreed; she hung up. 

 

     Thus did Anastasiya live a semi-morose, semi-happy life, draped in a shadow she herself had constructed or invented for herself, peering at her open laptop, at times, for a slew of group e-mails that informed of her international social causes, or e-mails from zealous fans who said rude things to her, or reading the news about the fifteen billion dollar bail-out deal made between Putin and Yanukovych. Anastasiya, the daughter of Wassily Dimitriovch, knew there was a poison to endure: the glow of the screen wasn’t enough to soothe her. She desired better subject matter.  She logged onto web-sites that depicted war zones, mutilated bodies. She thought of drone strikes. She thought of her own body mutilated; she thought of the ways in which someone else’s body could be mutilated and still remain beautiful. A mothball -taut, though splendid whiteness of her eyes seemed to have streamed into the space between them and her eyelids; it was late. Her vision had not yet returned to perfect focus, but she remained faithful to her vision of herself and could breathe easier now, knowing she did not really need Marik to survive. She could sell herself all by herself. She did not have to live from check to check. She would only deal in cash. And so---after she returned from Paris for a week, Anastasiya took off all her clothes and curled up into her bed that night that she returned, and she pulled the covers over her breasts and closer to her chin; and she thought about her father, the one with the golden gaze who offered her the word “forever” as a gift in youth, long before corruption infected the Ukraine, long before the disorder, disorder, disorder, the disorder of how the singularity of her beauty glistening within a photograph crumbled, as she was whisked away by Death like Persephone, prior to her looking up at twenty-some snowflakes falling from the sky, then up at the harmless icicles hanging under the edge of a meager roof of her apartment building, which brought a smile to her face on Orthodox Christmas Day, twelve days after its Western counterpart.

 

 

 

Paul Rogov studied Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and Social Work at USC. His literary work has appeared in Danse Macabre, Exterminating Angel Press, Stepping Stones Magazine, Femicatio Magazine, Cultural Weekly and others. “The Fallen Years,” his critically-acclaimed debut novella, about a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, was released in October 2011. In 2013, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently shopping  his novel The Serpent and the Dove, a part of a family saga that spans centuries, to agents. He emigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979.