“I like a boy.”
Julia silently pushed a button on a remote control lying in front of her on the table, on a pile of celebration stuff. A larger than life fir cone in the lightest corner of the room hissed out nine tentacles of unequal length. With a loud spat of suction cups, the treerootlike offshoots firmly attached themselves to the floor. The cone erected and started to telescope. Collapsible fir-tree branches covered with silicone needles were shooting from under its scales.
Julia and her daughter Nastya were observing it from the opposite sides of the table—”The Botticelli Venus who sold her hair to buy a pair of jeans and a tee, and Leonardo’s goldilocks angel”, as they were called by Klara, an artist, their friend. In about five minutes a gorgeous New Year tree was standing in front of them.
“My best idea ever”, Julia said. “Much unlike that lame decision to send you to a mixed school. Well, do you want to tell me more about your crush?”
“Wanna ask. Who can marry a boy?”
“Only women with immaculate genes.”
“Do I have maculate ones?”
“You will get tested later in life to find out.”
“This boy, Misha, has a younger brother. Cute one. I held him.”
No idea what to say? Find some work for your hands. Julia picked up a tangled set of fairy lights and started to puzzle it out. Nastya took a sheet of paper and began to fold it to make a snowflake.
“To raise kids, it is not necessary to marry a man and move into Gene Pool Square. Sveta and I wanted a baby and adopted you.”
“But why could you not, like Misha’s mom? You know . . . .”
“Give birth to our own children? As for Sveta, ask her yourself. And I have poor eyesight. My kids would have got my nearsighted eyes.”
“I would like to have eyes like yours. Blue ones with orange halos around the pupils. Your eyes look like eclipses of suns.”
“Thanks. But my eyesight is poor. And yours is fine.”
“But don’t you feel . . . deprived?”
“What a wording! That’s my girl.”
“I am serious, you know!” was the indignant answer. “It does not seem just.”
The unraveled set of colored lamps was lying on Julia’s lap like a long wreath of flowers with tight small buds and dry wiry stalks. Julia rubbed her temples.
“I never thought you would grow up so fast,” she said. “Sunshine, this system is ages old already. And it was not invented by a single person. When people think together, it is harder for them to make mistakes. For instance, look at our New Year tree. The idea is mine, but I am a writer, not an engineer, and my tree was just letters on a screen. And engineers . . . .”
“American ones, Mom. Why not ours?”
“Now, is that good talk for a holiday? Let us discuss it later. I need to think of the right answers. For now, let us decorate this tree. Sveta will be glad to see it when she comes from work.”
Julia opened a yellow cubic box and produced from it an indigo bauble with lemon yellow dots and golden hanging loop. She gave it to her daughter. The girl examined it carefully, kissed it and hung it on the most prominent branch of the tree.
“We seed culture everywhere, but nobody seems to care,” Kira sang.
The second line was sung an octave lower.
“New song?” Sveta poured more wine into her friend’s glass. A beaded bracelet on Sveta’s slender wrist sparkled in the candlelight.
“Improvisation. Themed on yesterday’s events.”
“What kind of events?”
“Got myself a new student in the Pool. Rita. Five kids, can you imagine? I even agreed to go to her place, because there is no way she can get to mine.”
“What’s she like?” Sveta asked. From the tone of her voice and the look of her shiny hazel eyes it was clear she was genuinely interested.
“She is good. But the atmosphere . . . . We went there with Klara. She is drawing Rita and her baby for a picture. Madonna thing, you know. We went to a café after the lesson. We were eating and talking. Then a waitress came and told us: ‘Your conduct is obscene, stop it or I will have to make you go.’”
“But what were you doing?” Sveta asked, her warm, low voice sounding slightly amused.
“Nothing. I was telling about my first girlfriend. Under my breath. Some pregnant skirt was sitting next to us and left after a while with sour face. She must have ratted when she was walking past the kitchen.”
“Well, I can understand her,” Klara said. “She probably never heard anything like that.”
“So what?” Kira asked. “Is she afraid to give birth to something unnatural now? She should have asked me; I would have told her that sexual orientation is not transmitted to a fetus from its mother through her ears.”
“Why do you even care?” Klara stroked her wife’s shoulder. A strand of Klara’s blonde hair she’d thrown behind her back slipped forward, into her wine glass, and became pink at the tip. “I think you should drop this new student Rita. I do not want you to get so upset every time. You will find a new one in the Gyn.”
“Well, it isn’t Rita’s fault. Insensitive people can be found everywhere. We probably are a breath of fresh air for her.” Kira shut her lips tight, as she always did after saying something too far from her usual sarcasm. She met Julia’s eyes and said, “And why are you so silent?”
“Just watching. You know, if anyone made a ‘the strangest couple’ competition, Sveta and I would vie for the first place with Klara and you.”
“It reminds me of what Pushkin wrote in “Eugeny Onegin”, Kira said with a smile.
“So, verse and prose, they came together,
No ice and flame, no stormy weather
and granite, were so far apart,” she declaimed and stood up, her wine glass lifted.
“Let us drink to that,” she added. “To dialectics!”
“Happy New Year, girls!” Sveta said merrily and also stood up with her wine glass in hand.
Klara, Julia and Nastya also stood up. Nastya rose on tiptoes to make her glass of orange juice meet with the adults’ glasses over the middle of the table.
“Sorry, can you say that again?” Julia turned the water off.
Nastya finished drying a plate, put it onto a kitchen shelf and repeated her question. “What are Pool and Gyn?”
“Gene Pool Square and Women’s Square. Sveta and Kira invented those nicknames ages ago.”
“Have they known each other for a long time?”
“Yeah, since they were kids. Kira made the bracelet your mom is wearing. It is much older than you.”
“Do you like her?”
“Who, Kira? Yes, she is clever and nice. But not as simple as she might look.”
“She is so loud. But only on the outside. And deep inside she is quiet. Like you.”
“Yes, right you are.”
“Well, I believe she protects herself this way. It is not easy to be a quiet person, especially when you are an actress and a singing tutor.”
“Oh, she’s an actress? I thought she might be. She is pretty, you know. And bright, like a picture. Her hair is so red. Her eyes are so green. Her skin is so white . . . But she probably does not think she is pretty enough.”
“Hence the loudness?”
“And what do you think of Klara?”
“Klara is nice. Like a kitten. But I would not cuddle a kitten like that, because it knows what to do with its teeth.”
“You are so grown up . . . And the things you say about people are very bright.” Julia took a stack of washed dishes out of the kitchen sink and put them on the table. Nastya picked up her kitchen towel again, but Julia shook her head. “But still, you are too young to stay up so late. I can see you are tired. Kiss Sveta, if she is not asleep (she had a long day at work), and go to bed. I’ll finish here and hit the pillow as well.”
“I’ll kiss her, anyway. If she is asleep, I’ll take care not to wake her.”
In conclusion, the weightless fingers traced a young moon under Julia’s belly, as if finishing a declaration of love with a one-bracket smiley. Julia caught Sveta’s hand and stroked it. Then, by a well-honed synchronous move, each of them took her usual place for heartfelt night talks and sleep. Julia moved to the edge of the bed (a good place for an insomniac who often gets up at night), Sveta snuggled up to her from the side near the wall and pulled the blanket over them.
“I like it when you do that to me.”
“I like to do that to you.”
“Why do you do it so rarely, then?”
“I was afraid you would take it wrong.”
“As an attempt to remind you . . . .”
“Of what cannot be forgotten?”
“I thought you might think I want to underline my importance.”
“I see this gesture as an expression of affection to me and the past we shared. The thing you did for me then does not need any underlining.”
“This is the best thing I have done in my life. When I look at your scar, I feel so strong. I am so proud of myself. But this is your body, and I . . . .”
“And you make it absolutely happy. And once you saved it from grave trouble, putting your carrier and even freedom at risk.”
“If it had not been for that, would you be with me?”
“Don’t you remember my first check-up?”
“Oh, I remember your first check-up. But will you tell me about it? Please.”
“You wicked girl. Telling it will make me want to have at least one more round.”
“And you will have it. We can sleep as long as we want tomorrow, and I rested after my shift while you were doing the dishes. So, if you do not mind . . .” Sveta slid her index finger down Julia’s high cheekbone to her lips.
Julia kissed it and said, “Of course I don’t!”
“Well, where is my story then?”
“I was lying on my back, in the most tattletale pose. I am sure that chair was invented by a sadist. I was looking at the dimly lit ceiling and waiting for your footsteps. To distract myself—as if it could help—I was recalling how it all started. That day my body also produced much biological liquid, although it always responded rather scantily to emotions. Tears were running down my cheeks—for the first time since my childhood.” Julia paused, closed her eyes.
“Yeah, I remember,” Sveta told her.
“You were looking at me without disapproval, as if it was quite a usual thing to burst into tears instead of answering a simple question. You asked me, ‘What’s your gestational age?’, and I just felt my face was wet.”
“And I told you, ‘Calm yourself, please,’ and gave you a tissue. Actually, I keep them on my desk for a reason.”
“When I took the tissue from my face, it was dripping wet. Then you looked straight into my eyes. That moment changed my life. Because of that moment you called me to the Shelter, and because of that moment I was wishing the earth would swallow me when I was lying on my back at your Shelter office and waiting for your footsteps.”
“I did not know whether you liked me. And I had no chance to hide I liked you.”
“Poor thing,” Sveta kissed Julia’s temple.
“Then I heard your footsteps. You sounded surprised and amused when you asked . . .”
“I asked, ‘Is this your usual reaction to a check-up?’ Actually, I have heard about such things.”
“But it was my reaction to you. I told you I was having it for the first time in my life.”
“Too bad you were not looking at me at that moment. It would have been hot.”
“I was so ashamed! I could look only at the ceiling!”
“You were looking up there as if you were trying to drill a hole into it with your stare.”
“Yeah, right. That would have distracted you, would it not?”
Sveta laughed and hugged her wife. They lay silently for a while.
“Then you asked me, ‘But what about your man?’ And I told you we broke up. And also—that I never wanted or loved him, just got trapped. Could not find it in myself to turn him down.”
“Then you sat down and pulled your sweat-shirt almost to your knees.”
“Yeah, at last I remembered I could cover myself.”
Sveta smiled and stroke Julia’s naked body, hot under the blanket, from neck to delta, where she left her hand. Julia took that hand in hers and replaced it on her left shoulder.
“Sorry,” she said, “the story is more upsetting than arousing so far. I should not have mentioned Nastya’s father. I never told you, but he never used condoms: they made his stuff soft. He promised me he would always pull out—but did not do it that day. Intentionally, I am sure. I still remember the look on his face. I feel so angry and abused when I think of that.”
“So sorry to hear it, honey. But I was suspecting something like this. You never seemed badass enough to have conceived an illegal child deliberately. But I do not want to talk about assholes anymore. I want to make love to you.”
Julia closed her eyes and concentrated on her private parts. She was trying to imagine blood flowing there, making her hot between her legs. But she could not help thinking of the moment of her daughter’s conception.
When menstruation did not come, on the third day of the delay she put her pass to Men’s Square into the top drawer of her office desk. On the fourth she took it out at lunchtime, when her colleagues were at the dining hall, and underlined in pencil the abortion clinic address. Too far to walk, and no bus goes there. And they say that taxi drivers report where they take their passengers. On day five she was standing in front of a curvy woman in white coat (she was cute, despite weary sternness). Tears were running down Julia’s cheeks.
“What are you thinking about?” Sveta asked.
“How lucky I was to meet you. And how brave you were to write I was not pregnant in my file and to invite me to the Shelter. And how you rock your white coat.”
Julia turned to Sveta and stroked her short, chestnut hair. “Then you asked me how I managed to meet a guy. And I answered you, ‘I have a pass to Men’s Square, I am a journalist.’ And you said . . .”
“And I said: ‘Lie down, journalist. I need to take a look at you.”’
“Then you palpated my belly ever so gently, and it was the sexiest touch my body had ever felt—I mean, before we actually made love for the first time. And you told me, ‘Your uterine tonus is fine, so you can jump into this chance.’ And I stroked your hand.”
“You were still looking at the ceiling. It was hard not to giggle.”
Under the blanket Julia took her wife’s hand and stroked herself with it just like Sveta had done minutes ago.
“I never loved or wanted anyone but you in the last twelve years,” Julia said, when they had finished their second round. “So, if you are worried about my feelings, please don’t be. But we have to worry about Nastya.”
“What happened to her?”
“She likes a boy. She wonders whether I feel deprived because I cannot give birth to children. She asked why my fir tree was made in the States. Actually, I feel confused. We can tell her the things she will hear at school next year. But she is a bright girl, and sooner or later she will understand . . . .”
“That the stuff is bullshit.”
“And she will lose faith in us. We can tell her the truth ourselves, but what if it will make her unhappy?”
“It won’t if we find the right words.”
“Today I told her my kids would have poor eyesight. How can I look into her eyes and disprove my own words?”
“Don’t look into her eyes. Write her a letter. Sorry, I am falling asleep. Good night.”
Sveta and I discussed the questions you asked and decided to give you the answers you deserve. That is, honest and serious ones. It is very risky, since it is not easy to know all that and be happy. But you are a smart girl and sooner or later will learn the truth. And if it happens without our involvement, you will lose your faith in us, and we all will be unhappy.
I told you enough lies already, but still I hope you will forgive me.
My kids really could have inherited my poor eyesight, but not necessarily. You will not read it even in the fattest books for adults, but it is true. I know it for certain, because you are my daughter by birth and your eyesight is fine.
At the swimming pool you probably noticed a scar under my belly. You never asked me about it, because you are so delicate, but now I have to explain how I got it. It happened the day you were born—and for you to be born.
Women with as poor sight as I have are not recommended to have natural childbirth, because it can damage their retina and even make them blind. Since the “Gene Pool” program was introduced, they do not have the chance: nearsighted women are not accepted to the Gene Pool. But earlier, when any woman was allowed to have kids, nearsighted women and those who were unable to give birth naturally because of other conditions could have a special surgery called caesarian birth.
It was invented in ancient times and has been practiced ever since. But in our country it was outlawed a century ago, when the “Gene Pool” program was introduced. The official explanation was that a healthy nation does not need caesarian birth. But the truth is our state just cannot teach enough doctors to do this surgery (and many others). We have no money for education, we have no money for medicine.
Sveta performed that surgery on me. We met in the very beginning of my pregnancy and were expecting you together. She learned all about caesarian birth from old books, and it was insanely risky for her to put that knowledge to practice. But she did, and the fact that you and me are alive and well shows how brilliant she is. It is very right that she is your second mother. She did for your birth even more than I. She had to take care of me and perform the surgery secretly, in an underground hospital. If it is discovered, Sveta and me will go to jail for undermining the Gene Pool.
You asked me today why my New Year Tree was made in the USA. The reason is, our country is too poor to teach enough engineers for some of them to have time to turn a piece of a sci-fi novel into a set of telescopic tubes and hi-tech materials.
I am full of grief now, to have to write all this stuff to you, because I’d rather tell you only good news till my dying day. But I hope that my letter will not make your life less interesting and happy.
I love you very much.
Julia went to Nastya’s bedroom and put the letter on the girl’s desk. A reddish beam infiltrated the room through a slit between heavy curtains in the window and highlighted Nastya’s half-face on the pillow, a tabby cat curled up next to the girl, and the yellow silk holiday gown she had cast on the bed. Julia sighed and turned on the desk lamp. She took the gown and hung it into the wardrobe. Then she bent over the desk, took a pen from it and wrote at the end of the letter,
I was upset to see how you treat the beautiful gown Klara made for you. I put it away because I did not want Murka to tear it with her claws. But your clothes are your responsibility.
Then Julia went to the bathroom to take her contacts off.
When she went to bed, she felt a sheet of paper on her pillow. It was her letter. She went to the window, slid under another pair of heavy curtains and read a write-up in the reddish light, with her nose almost touching the paper.
Mommies, I love you so-so-so much. Please tell me who is my father. It is better to burn the letter. Sorry for the gown.
Julia looked at the sky. Over the sleeping city, straight above the Central Square, a congratulatory hologram was shining the year in all colors of the Flag of Russia. Four identical digits—2222.