Rufina sighed at her reflection in the mirror and tried again.
She said, “I’m going back to America tomorrow. I’m sorry.”
No, this wouldn’t do, she decided. This wouldn’t do at all. She took a deep breath.
Then she said, “It’s not you. It’s Russia.”
This was not much better.
She supposed that this was what she deserved for putting off this conversation for so long. But really, how did she let it get this bad? She couldn’t believe she had to tell her stepson that she was leaving him the day before her flight. But every time she had tried to think of what to say—she had sincerely tried before, she had—her mind went blank. Once she knew what to say, she would have to figure out when to say it. Would it be better to tell him in the morning, to let the idea sink in while he was at school, or should she tell him in the evening, right before bed, so he would have no time to protest?
She was hoping to find inspiration in his mother’s dress closet. She had sold all but two of Alla Kushenko’s dresses; the only other things that remained in the closet were the photographs that chronicled the woman’s unparalleled acting career. Rufina studied her favorite: in this one, Alla Kushenko was pictured in the middle of her breakthrough film, Daughters of Destiny. In the scene, the world is coming to an end, and Alla has to tell her daughters that she needs to sacrifice them so she could build a ladder to the heavens with their golden hair. Alla looks heartbroken, but determined, her lips set in a straight line. Rufina tried to mimic her expression. After all, she had been an actress too, and surely it couldn’t be so hard? Oh, but it was.
She locked the closet with a key and stepped into the living room. Her stepson, Kolya, was making no effort to get ready for school. He was sprawled on the couch, shirtless and watching soccer. He greeted her with a loud burp.
“Good morning,” she said.
“What makes it good?” he said, and turned up the volume.
Before she could come up with an answer, a thick clot of blood dripped down his nose and onto his bare chest. He gave her a look like this was her fault, like her physical presence had caused a revulsion so great that he had no choice but to bleed.
“Lie down,” she said, as she rushed into the kitchen. “Don’t move!”
“Which one is it?”
“Don’t be clever.”
“You know that’s hard for me.”
When she returned with a washcloth, he was lying down. She put the cloth under his nose and inspected the couch to see if his blood had dripped onto the cushions. None had.
“What’s the matter, my darling?” she said. “Picking your nose too much?”
“It must be all the drugs I’ve been snorting.”
As far as she knew, he was involved in sex and some moderate drinking—whatever that may mean for a fourteen-year-old boy in St. Petersburg—but she was sure he did not do drugs. Pretty sure, anyway. After the boy’s father, her husband Zoltan, had died, Rufina had relinquished her role as his stepmother. She had attempted to keep up a mature front while his father was alive, but once she buried him, she had to admit that she was exactly twice the boy’s age, and what was the use pretending she knew anything about raising a teenager?
Then the boy said, “Can I stay home today?”
“Can I stay home from school? Please?”
She sighed and stepped into the kitchen. She waited for her coffee to boil, and poured herself a cup. Lapka was curled up under the kitchen table, looking defeated. That hideous, vulgar dog! He was ten years old and had belonged to her husband’s first wife. The dog had never learned to trust her, either. It was a small comfort, knowing that she wouldn’t miss him at all. She stood in front of the window that faced the Gulf of Finland. It was May, and they were finally getting some decent weather, but she knew it could turn any minute, that the sun could easily slide behind the clouds. When she finished her coffee, she saw that Kolya had not followed her orders.
“Naughty boy,” she said. “I told you to lie down.”
“It stopped,” he said triumphantly, holding up his nose. “See?”
“Then you’ll go to school.”
“Please, Rufa? I really don’t want to go.”
She frowned. He had started using her pet name lately, and she didn’t like it.
“Because of a nosebleed? You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Because of a nosebleed and a headache?”
“Not a chance.”
He looked so pathetic that she might have given in, if it were any other day. She had preferred it when he left her alone, when he didn’t ask her for things. A few weeks ago, he was dumped by that big-breasted hussy, Yulia Kamanenko. Since Yulia broke his heart, the boy sulked around the house, munching on cereal from a chipped mug, his eyes slick from watching too much television. Rufina could do nothing for him, within reason: it was better that she left.
“Kolya,” she said.
“What do you want?”
She cleared her throat and thought, this time tomorrow, I’ll be gone.
She said, “I want you to cut your hair. I want you to start wearing shirts around the house. You’re not an underwear model.”
“Models don’t go to school.”
She wasn’t happy with his answer, and she marched toward the television and shut it off. “And stop watching this garbage,” she said. “It’ll kill what’s left of your brain.”
The boy narrowed his eyes and said, “I’m smarter than you think, Rufa.”
Then he stood up and put his hands on his hips and stared at her; she thought, does he know? He must know. How long had he been waiting for her to tell him?
She said, “If you were so smart, you’d learn to get to school on time. Now hurry up.”
But hurry he did not. He sauntered into his room, slammed the door, and put his awful music on full blast. After Rufina finished her second cup of coffee, he emerged from his bedroom, kicking a rubber bone.
“The bus already left,” he said.
“You can take the next one,” she told him. But she worried that he would stick around for too long, and she needed to get him out of the house so she could prepare for her last customer; then the dress would be gone, and she would soon follow after. She grabbed her keys and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
They drove up Vasilevsky Island until they reached the Troitsky Bridge; this was the same route her taxi would take to the airport the next morning. Telling the boy now seemed impossible: how could she even bring it up? She tried to summon the image of the determined Alla Kushenko, and studied her own pout in the rearview mirror. She could say, Do you remember Aunt Masha? Well, she really wants to take care of you. She might even add, Anyway, she’s real family, isn’t she? The boy loved to point out that Rufina was not his real mother, his real anything. Aunt Masha had been offering to move into the apartment to take care of the boy ever since Zoltan died. Though Zoltan had never trusted his sister-in-law and had warned Rufina that the woman was a liar and a gambler, she had sounded so sincere over the phone. Rufina prided herself in her good sense of people, and she trusted this woman she had never met, and loved the way she spoke, with a girly breathlessness. And through her lilting words, Rufina heard the truth: I’ll save you, she was saying, I’ll save you both.
When they pulled up in front of the school, that hussy Yulia Kamanenko was standing near the entrance, toying with the hem of her skirt in the center of a pack of boys.
“It’s like she knows I’m here,” Kolya muttered.
“Look away,” Rufina said.
But he continued: “She wants to rub it in my face. She wants me to see hear her dumb laugh, to see her stupid dress. Why won’t she leave me alone? She acts like we’re still best friends! After lunch, she even runs up to me with this big smile and says, Is there anything in my teeth?”
“The nerve!” Rufina cried, trying to match the boy’s outrage. But he retreated against the seat.
“How am I supposed to forget her, if she’s everywhere?” he mumbled, and licked his fingers.
She had never known what to say about the Yulia situation. Whenever she tried, the boy insisted on pointing out that his mother would have done it differently. When he first told her that he got dumped, Rufina had said, “Well, it’s not exactly the siege, is it? You’ll survive.” Then he spit on the floor and said, “Thank God you don’t have any children,” and walked away. This was simply unfair. She had tried! She just wanted to make him laugh, to show him that his world was not over. She had even said “You’ll survive,” instead of “You’ll get over it,” because she recognized the difference. Rufina was tempted to confess that she had been chewing on his father’s last fingernail clippings for months after his death, until the damn dog ate them up. But she knew that nothing she told him could compare to the words he imagined his mother would say, so she kept her mouth shut.
She parked her car, watching as Yulia threw her head back and laughed, revealing a white throat that she had to admit was rather lovely. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Rufina pulled him closer and spat on her finger, trying to remove a gob of toothpaste from his chin. As she stared at his puzzled face, she thought, for the second time that day, does he know? Could he really be so oblivious? This time, she swore she saw a look of calm settle over his face, a look that said, It’s okay, Rufa. I understand that you have to go.
“What is it,” the boy said. “More blood?”
“Toothpaste,” she said, and he flinched away from her.
“I’m fine. I don’t need your help,” he said.
“So get a move on, already,” she said. Then she studied the girl again and added, “But be careful.”
* * *
Rufina had noticed the boy first, then his father. This was three years ago, when she left Brooklyn to spend the summer in St. Petersburg. She was there to make a film called The Champ. As usual, she did not get the lead, though she deserved it. She had been acting since she was ten years old, and knew she was constantly overlooked because she was an original, because unlike all of the actors she knew, she had soul. Charisma. Because she was a visionary! Because people couldn’t handle her wild black hair or her distinct nose. She had nothing in common with the blonde lead, who was only famous because she was having an affair with an oil oligarch.
The girl had even arrived on the set with her own bodyguard, as if she needed one! Rufina played the role of her jealous older sister; the girl portrayed a swimming champion who won a gold medal in the Olympics despite the loss of three fingers from an unfortunate bowling accident. Rufina had to admit that it was not a very good film. But she wasn’t having much luck auditioning in New York. It was nice to take a break from America, even if most of the film was made on the seedy Gulf of Finland, and the actors had to stay in the crumbling hotel that faced the sea.
On the first day, she saw a boy playing near the waves with an old, beat-up mutt. His hair was dark and shaggy, like the dog’s. The boy’s eyes were too big for his face; his greasy, sandy hair fell to his shoulders, and his ears stuck out. Thick gray headphones hung around his neck, blasting angry noise. When the boy noticed her, he said, “Be careful. My dog loves to bite strangers. And so do I,” and then he hissed at her and bared his teeth. She hurried away from him, unsure if there was something deeply wrong with him, or if he was just playing around. From a distance, she watched as he engaged in animated conversation with the dog, even pausing to give the creature time to form an appropriate response. When she asked the lead actress who the boy was, she said, “Oh, Kolya? That’s the bodyguard’s son.”
After that, Rufina watched Zoltan carefully. He hulked around with his arms folded across his chest, looking burly and serious. But on closer inspection, she saw that he was always doing word searches, and this endeared him to her. He first spoke to her after the director decided to cut the best scene of the film. She happened to be in it. It was the monologue on the beach where she pumped her fist in the air and told her sister, “You have the power to do anything you want! You don’t even need ten fingers to be a true champion!” Then the sisters embraced, apologizing for their differences, as the waves crashed around them. But the scene was redone without Rufina, with only the dumb lead staring out onto the waves. It was an outrage! Rufina protested by kicking a fake trophy across the room. Later, she caught the director talking about her to a member of the crew. They were standing on the other side of the set, but this was what she heard: That girl has so much raw talent, but she’ll never amount to much. You know why? Because—she strained her ears, but could not hear the rest.
Afterwards, she was so angry that she stood on the dirty beach, contemplating her place in the world, just as her fictional counterpart had done. She allowed herself to wonder: was the rest of the world crazy, or was she crazy? Was she really no good as an actress, fooling herself all these years, or was everybody else simply too ordinary to notice her talent? She hated the rare occasions when her mind followed this line of questioning, and was relieved to see Zoltan’s bulky form approaching her. The first thing he ever said to her was, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Though she hated talking to strangers, she told him what she heard the directors saying about her.
She said, “Then they said, You know why? Because she’s too good, in a world filled with mediocrity.”
He had the nerve to laugh; and then he asked her, “Are you sure that’s what they said?”
“Of course it is,” she said indignantly. “The world doesn’t get me. I’m a rogue!”
He studied her for a minute before he said, “You’re too pretty to be a rogue.”
It began to rain, and he escorted her to the hotel. Later, when she thought of their first meeting, she could not remember if he even had an umbrella with him. He was his own umbrella. They began dating shortly after that. They had spent almost every evening together during the three-month production of The Champ. He told her that he had been a bodyguard for twenty years, that he happened to live across the street from the hotel. He was a widower. His wife had died in a car accident four years before, when his son was only seven. The wife had been an actress too; he was her bodyguard. Rufina told him that she moved away from Peter to Brooklyn when she was eight, that she never had many friends because everyone was jealous of her poise and striking looks, that ever since she was a little girl, she had been announcing that she would kill herself if she were not famous by her twenty-fifth birthday. “There are lots of ways to be famous. You could blow up a bus full of children,” he suggested.
Zoltan introduced her to his son after a few weeks. He told him she was his friend, but the boy was no fool. He said, “What, you want to adopt a sister for me? Really, Papa, I’m fine on my own.” He avoided her when they were filming, and began to stay home more often. One night, Zoltan finally brought the boy to dinner with them. The boy kept his headphones on the whole time; manic drumbeats roared through the restaurant. He refused to eat, but he occasionally dipped his cloth napkin in olive oil and sucked on it. If he spoke, it was only to say he hated this, he hated that. His father claimed that she couldn’t sleep over at his place because the boy was prone to fits of sleepwalking, and he didn’t want to scare her. Later she found out that this was true. She tried to feel sorry for the boy, she did. All those strange things he said, and motherless besides! But it was not easy.
A week before she was scheduled to fly back to Brooklyn, Zoltan asked her to marry him. Only afterwards, did she learn that his dead wife was not just any actress, but the national sensation, Alla Kushenko. Rufina was thrilled by this news, and also devastated. Really: what could she do that Alla Kushenko had not done, other than stay alive? She would marry him, she decided, but she would stop acting for a while. So she got a job at the reception desk of the hotel where she had been staying. She was almost twenty-five, after all. The summer was over, and it was time to grow up.
* * *
After Rufina dropped off the boy at school, she drove straight home. When she got out of the car, she kicked aside a bouquet of wilted flowers. There was a bridal registry next to the hotel. All day long, the limousines filled with wedding parties would pull up in front of it, popping open bottles of champagne, shrieking as the foam splattered onto the pavement. The bride and groom would sign the papers, and then they would kiss as the members of the crowd chanted, “Bitter, bitter, bitter, bitter…” until the kiss went on for long enough that they would happily explode into: “Sweeeeet!” Now that the weather was decent, the procession of couples continued until the evening. Rufina and Zoltan did not get registered there. They were married on the other side of Vasilevsky Island, far away from their apartment. The boy was the only guest, and kept his headphones on the entire time, furious that he was not allowed to bring the dog. Zoltan had given her a long, grubby kiss, and said, “Never bitter! Am I right, my little rogue?”
She opened the door to the apartment and flung herself on the couch. As she waited for her final customer, she could hear the dog snoring in the next room. She told herself that she could do nothing until the woman came, that it would be impossible for her to begin to pack. Besides, her possessions were few. She had cleaned out her things from the reception desk the day before. The only items she cared about were a picture of her and Zoltan in front of Peterhof, where he licked the side of her face, and the photo of Alla Kushenko that hung on the wall, facing the guests. It was Rufina’s only method of advertisement. In the photograph, Alla Kushenko was dressed as a peacock, during her opening number in Feathers!, one of her two musical performances. She could only be recognized by her most ardent fans. If Rufina caught one of them staring, or even heard a breathy, “Oh, that Alla,” she would lower her voice and tell them about her side-business.
In her closet, she had over one hundred dresses that Ms. Kushenko had worn during her performances, both on screen and stage. Rufina was willing to sell them, for a reasonable price, but only when she saw a real admirer. She took the customers to her apartment during her lunch break. When they saw how ordinary was the old home of Alla Kushenko, Rufina was tempted to explain that the woman had been a picky, demanding actress, and had insisted on keeping all of her exquisite costumes, that she never considered selling a single one, not even when her lavish spending plunged her and Zoltan into debt, had forced them to move out of a beautiful home outside the city and into the apartment. But she did not want to ruin their image of Alla. It was bad for business.
She also did not tell them that when Zoltan got sick barely a year into their marriage, and the hospital bills arrived, they were afraid they’d have to move out of the apartment. That was when she thought of selling the dresses. Zoltan was too weak to notice, and everybody would win: there would be enough money to cover their rent and to give the boy a good life. She sometimes allowed herself to wonder: did the boy know? He seemed too sharp to ignore the operation that had been going on right under his nose for a year, but there was little evidence. There was a time when she came home and found him rushing out of her bedroom, claiming that he had been looking for his slippers, though why on earth would they be there? But the closet door was still locked. Still, she checked it twice a day after that.
She had to admit that she stopped caring so much after she bought her ticket, that she was getting sloppy, selling to people who did not seem all that committed, or who didn’t even recognize Alla until she gave them a hint. For that reason, she started telling the staff at the hotel about the last few dresses. That day, she was selling a dress to the hotel’s cook, a woman who she did not know well, but who she abstractly trusted, though she was a little strange. She paced around the apartment, anticipating the knock on the door, but when it finally came, it still made her jump; a part of her was irrationally afraid that Aunt Masha had come, deciding to arrive a day early. She opened the door and tried to smile at her customer.
“I’ve come for Alla’s remains,” the woman said, and Rufina managed a smile.
Normally, she offered her guests tea and cookies, but she led her straight to the closet. Only two dresses remained. The dress the woman wanted was from Dinner at Sevastopol, where Alla Kushenko played the part of Catherine the Great. It was from Alla’s Dark Era, her last series of films, when the actress grew hefty and tired-looking, which was perfect for the part; it was not a triumphant study of the queen’s renovation of the city, but a psychological piece about Catherine’s mixed feelings about dominating the world. It was the only Alla Kushenko picture that Rufina hated. She felt that greatness should be left alone, that it was arrogant to presume what went on in the mind of champions.
“Well, here it is,” she said, taking the dress off the hanger. She handed it to the woman, who held it up in the light, squinting through the purple, ruffled material.
“It’s a dream,” the woman said. “Dinner at Sevastopol is my absolute favorite.”
“Mine too,” Rufina said.
The old lady stroked one of the sleeves and said, “It probably won’t fit.” She laughed, and Rufina gave her a puzzled look.
“Come on,” the woman said. “Don’t tell me you’ve never tried on one of the dresses? Of course, you must have. What a silly question! After all this time—”
“Never,” Rufina told her quickly. “I’ve never even thought about it.”
“A shame,” the woman said. “And now they’re all gone. You were never curious, dear? I mean, to see—”
“I just want to get rid of them. And now I have,” she said.
“Of course,” said the woman. When they walked to the door, she reached inside her purse and handed Rufina an envelope filled with money. She eyed the dress again and added, “Maybe they can bury me in it, what do you think?”
“You can do whatever you want with it,” she said. “It’s yours now.”
Rufina stood at the kitchen window, watching the woman trudging across the parking lot, holding Catherine the Great’s dress above her head, using it as a shield against the light rain. She did not seem so small in her apartment, but she looked tiny then, as she kicked aside two bottles of champagne, one after the other. The dress dragged across the pavement, picking up wet gravel. Rufina smacked her palm against the window and almost shouted to tell her to lift it higher, imagining her horror when she saw that she had soiled Alla Kushenko’s dress.
But she did nothing. She turned away from the window.
Of course, Rufina had lied to her customer: she had tried on one of the dresses. It happened just after she got married. She woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the closet door was slightly ajar. She was livid: this meant that her husband had snuck inside there earlier, right under her nose. And what business did he have, looking at his wife’s old clothes when he was no longer married to her? He had always kept it locked, but she knew this was where the dresses were, could feel them throbbing inside; she swore the closet door gave off heat. Her husband slept like the dead, but she was still careful when she stepped inside. At first, she was astounded by the sheer number of them. She ran her hands over as many as she could and tried to take in their smell.
She picked up a blue dress with white sleeves. She didn’t even know where it came from, but later, when she began to sell them and did her research, she knew it was from A Heart Without a Compass, where Alla played the part of an explorer’s bored and seductive wife. But when Rufina tried on the dress, she was about as seductive as a traffic cop. There was enough room in the dress for an extra ass and pair of breasts, and the sleeves scrunched around her arms. It didn’t help that Lapka had followed her into the closet. He growled at her, and when she pulled the dress over her head, he began to speak.
Take it off, you dumb whore, the dog had said. That’s right. Take it off your bony shoulders. You don’t deserve Alka’s dresses, or her husband! He will never love you the way he loved her! And besides, you should have seen the things she did for him when they were in bed! She shoved the dog out of the closet, and before she could return to her bedroom, he added, Compared to her, you are nothing at all. You barely exist.
The next day, Rufina campaigned to put the dog to sleep. He was too old, she argued. It would be the compassionate thing to do. As she made her case to Zoltan, the boy studied her carefully, chewing on his chapped lip. She wondered: had he heard her in the middle of the night, going through his mother’s things? Or worse: had he somehow snuck into their bedroom and managed to go through the closet himself? Did he have a secret key? She was sure that at least one of the scenarios was true. She had no proof, only her intuition, but it had never failed her. Then she argued that the boy should play a sport, that he was spending too much time around the house. Her complaints were not taken seriously. “He does what he wants,” Zoltan had said simply. She wasn’t sure who he was talking about, the boy or the dog.
* * *
The boy grew handsome once his father had begun to die. He had sprouted up half a foot, and his face had finally grown big enough for his eyes and ears. His body became lean, sinewy; Rufina could see the muscles in his forearms twitching when he ate. Of course, the natural thing, the thing that would make her feel strange about the growing boy, would be if he had transformed into a miniature version of his handsome, bulky father, but it was not so. The boy’s eyes rounded out, his lips had grown fleshier, and even his hair had lightened a few shades, until he resembled a smaller, short-haired version of Alla Kushenko. Some days, Rufina swore he was the spitting image of his mother in Notes on a Funeral, the only film where she played a man.
While his father was in the hospital, the boy continued to make her suffer. He refused to speak to her, blasted frantic guitar solos from his radio in the middle of the night, and dumped the food she cooked into the sink. One time, when she came home late from the hospital without her keys, the boy had locked her out of the apartment, and laughed when he got up the next morning and found her slumped against the elevator. She woke up to him reaching down to wipe a gob of spit off of her chin. He said, “Aw, look! The little baby forgot her bib.” And his sleepwalking! Rufina would wake up in the morning and find him curled up in a ball next to Lapka in the kitchen, or sitting against the front door with shoes on his hands, and once, he had even wandered out into the courtyard with nothing on but his underwear in the middle of December.
So when Yulia Kamanenko came along as soon as Zoltan died, who was Rufina to protest, even if she knew the girl was all wrong for him? Sure, she never trusted her or the way she sauntered into the apartment and kept her tennis shoes on, as if to emphasize the fact that she could get up and leave the boy any minute. But what did Rufina’s opinion matter? Yulia kept the boy distracted and out of her hair, while she was busy with her own grief. She got him to act civil, to occasionally allow Rufina to cook pasta for him and to sit near to him and do word searches while he watched soccer. But there was one thing his girlfriend’s presence did not improve. The boy’s sleepwalking romps did not go away.
Two months ago, there had been an incident. It happened after Yulia and the boy had come home from a party. They barely greeted her when they walked in, and she went straight to bed.
She woke up later that night, and saw the boy standing in her doorway. Before she could understand what was happening, he was on top of her, kissing her neck, sliding his hands up under her nightgown. She was shocked by how easy it was for him to touch her. His hands had felt so big, so grown up; they were not at all like the trembling, chapped hands that she had known all her life before Zoltan had taken her into his bed with absolute certainty, without wasting a gesture. She remembered when the boy first spoke to her that day at the beach, warning her that he could bite. Then she pushed the boy away from her, realizing that he had meant to go back to his own bedroom, where his girlfriend slept.
He continued to reach out for her until she said, “Nikolai! You’re in the wrong room. You’ve wandered into the wrong place. It’s okay, but you have to go back to your own bed now.” He opened his eyes and rubbed them, but she wasn’t sure if he was actually wake. Then he reached his hand in between her legs and squeezed.
She repeated what she said: “You’re in the wrong place.”
“No,” he said, shoving her against the bed. “You are.”
And then he sprang out of her bed and marched toward the dress closet on the other side of the room, and furiously rattled the knob that would not budge, as if that had been his original goal and her body was a mere distraction. He was strong, but not that strong: she was relieved when he gave up and pivoted toward the bedroom where his girlfriend slept, and made loud, ferocious love to her, until Rufina had no choice but to lower her hand into her underwear.
No, she thought, afterwards. This was not right. She would have to leave.
The next morning, she booked her ticket—not back to Brooklyn, but to Los Angeles.
* * *
The last time she had tried on Alla Kushenko’s dress, she promised herself that she would never do it again. She also promised herself that she would never even venture into the closet, because it caused her too much pain. She loved the idea of Alla, the beauty and the actress, but she did not like seeing her blonde hairs clinging to the clothes, and she didn’t want to know that the woman who made love to Zoltan had smelled like lilac, that his limbs had once been coated with her flowery musk, that her hair had been everywhere. But after Zoltan began to die, she stepped back into the closet. And a few weeks before she buried him, she had promised him that she would take care of Kolya for the rest of his life, no matter what, and she wasn’t going to do that either, was she?
So really, what was another promise broken?
She took the dress off the hanger and unzipped it. She flung off her t-shirt and jeans, and hell, her bra and even her underwear, and stood naked in front of the mirror, excited and a little bit warm. The dress was made of velvet, with long sleeves and a plunging neckline, and was the smallest of any of Alla’s ensembles. It had a large gash on the sleeve, which was why she never sold it. It was from My Love is Your Blood, Alla’s first film. Her very first! It was about the world’s most ill-fated love affair: a young Alla Kushenko played the part of a Polish vampire who had fallen in love with a Russian mortal.
When My Love is Your Blood was released, Rufina was a little girl, still living in Peter. She watched the film in the living room with her mother, who shook her cigarette at the screen and said, “She’ll be something, one day. I promise you that. Everybody has to start somewhere, Rufka. Everybody.” At the time, she had no idea what her mother was talking about. The film struck her as glamorous, not a low-budget affair that went straight to television. By then, Rufina had already envisioned herself on the stage, and said, “But I’m going to start on top, Mama. At the very top.” And though her mother only responded by patting her daughter’s head, Rufina was sure she knew what she was thinking: of course you will, my special girl! But now, she wondered: what would have happened if her mother had spoken, that day? If she had said, Come on, you’re no Alla, would things have turned out differently? Maybe if someone had told her sooner—well, she was going to L.A. no matter what, that was settled. If she couldn’t make it there, then she really would give up, this time for good.
Rufina was nervous about slipping into the dress, but she felt better once she rolled her arms through the sleeves. The velvet hugged her perfectly.
Lapka watched her as she walked to the door.
“I’m leaving you,” she told him. “I’m leaving you tomorrow, you lazy-eyed mutt.”
Do what you want, he said, licking his lips. Those fingernails, they were tasty.
Rufina stepped outside and walked through the parking lot. It had stopped raining. Another wedding party pulled up in front of the registry, and as she walked toward the beach, she heard the clapping and laughter that came after the newlyweds’ kiss was sealed with the word “sweet.” The celebration was muffled by the wind once she reached the shore. She watched the handful of desperate sunbathers with their milky white bellies, the beer bottles bobbing in the water, the cruise ships chugging through the sharp green waves in the distance.
The beach was hideous. It was also her favorite part of the city, and she would miss it more than anything. She was the only one who recognized its charm. She looked to her left, at the Soviet housing that went on for miles. Each building was equally tan, decrepit, and tall, like a fistful of old pencils. She could never get over this: how could a place like this ever contain an original like Alla Kushenko? Had the woman ever felt like she didn’t belong there, in between the flat, lifeless buildings that were all the same?
Rufina closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the buildings were replaced by dancing palm trees, and she was setting foot on Los Angeles soil for the first time, already sporting gigantic sunglasses, avoiding the paparazzi. She began cavorting around the beach, and the seas parted and a red carpet rolled up to her feet. After so many years of failed auditions, countless headshots, and unanswered prayers—she had finally made it! She was special! “I’m here. At last, I’m here!” she shouted to the waves. “Hello, world!” She had always known that the world was just, that it would only be a matter of time. She heard laughter, and then applause. So what if it came from another wedding party? It was meant for her, and her only.
Then she heard a noise behind her, and nearly tripped in the sand.
“What the hell are you doing?” a voice said. The red carpet retreated into the waves.
Kolya was standing in the sand, gaping at her ensemble. She crossed her arms over her chest, as if this would hide the dress. How would she explain?
She brightened when she realized that he was doing something wrong too.
“You’re supposed to be in school,” she said.
“I didn’t want to see Yulia anymore, so I left,” he said. “Is that Mama’s dress?”
“I remember that one,” he said.
His mouth opened a little, and he circled around her as he inspected her outfit. The wind blew up a plastic bag, and he smacked it away.
“You look nice, Rufa,” he said. “Really nice.”
Then he moved closer to her, so close that he scratched her foot with his scraggly big toe. He slid his hand down one of her velvet sleeves, the one that was not ripped. Her spine tingled.
“I remember when Mama wore that,” he told her. “The time she played a vampire. She wasn’t happy about it, you know. She thought it was beneath her.”
“Did she?” Rufina said.
She didn’t know if Alla Kushenko had been a better wife than she was, or a better mother, but she was sure of this much: there was no way the boy could remember those things. When the film was released, he wasn’t even casting a shadow in his mother’s womb. His mother hadn’t even met his father yet, let alone married him. There was no way he could conjure up a memory from over a decade before he had entered the world. He must have been thinking of something his mother had said about the film years later, probably an offhand comment she had made after she had become a star and was amused when My Love is Your Blood came on television. It was ridiculous, that the boy would entertain this notion, this memory of something that was not at all true.
She would tell him, right then. She would be doing him a favor by setting him straight.
“Step back,” she said, pushing him away. “Come here and listen.”