Emily Rubin


A Novel

For Anne

“Just as the future ripens in the past, so the past smolders in the future.” Anna Akhmatova

Prologue: Birthday

I was eighteen years old on the third of March, 1953. My mother allowed me to invite three friends to celebrate in our tiny Leningrad apartment.

“Why only three?” I complained.

“There are no parties permitted while Stalin is so ill. If three come, it’s not officially a party, but you still must be very quiet.”

My mother often turned the truth on its side to explain things she did not want to talk about. Stalin lay on his deathbed for days, and all of Soviet Russia listened to radio reports of his failing health around the clock. My mother feared any backlash if jocularity was heard from our apartment during so solemn a time.

“How many people make a party?” I asked and showed her the design I wanted to make for the top of my cake. I had drawn a big, broad apple tree filled with fruit.

“Four,” she said, “not including the host, because then you have two couples who can play cards while the host serves tea. No more about that. What will you use to decorate your birthday cake?”

My mother’s answer about four making a party was made up, just like the story about my father fighting the fascists. By that time he was already dead, starved to death in a prison I never knew to visit. “Sour cherry drops for the apples, spearmint gums for the leaves, and chocolate sticks for the branches and body,” I explained.

My mother told me I was clever.

The “not-a-party” birthday was on a Monday after school. I carefully chose my guests—Amalia, who always wore a worn-out red velvet ribbon in her hair; Alma, who had one crossed eye; and Olga, whose mother let her cut her own hair. I served layer cake with icing made from plums and fruit compote. To keep the party a secret from our neighbors, we agreed to be like the silent film stars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino—responding to anything, happy or sad, with our faces and bodies, no sound allowed. It was great fun, and my mother could keep her uninterrupted vigil at the crackling radio without worrying about a visit from the black uniforms and leather boots of the police. Two days later Stalin died without waking. My mother, who named me after him, was never the same. That was a long time ago. Everything is very different now.

Chapter One: Reds

To begin my story, I offer this blunt self-portrait, the real Stalina Folskaya. My nose is long and pointy and slightly skewed to the right. My arms are thick and well muscled with just a bit of softness on the underside. Gravity of the flesh comes with age, as I have recently reached my sixty-seventh year. I still have a strong back and shapely, wide hips. Most pleasing to me are the long, slender fingers of my hands. I keep my nails carefully manicured and painted a deep red called “Heart Stopper” from Revlon. My grandmother Lana used to pick at the skin around her thumbnails, and I do the same. I have her hands exactly, even down to the ridges on my right thumbnail. Yet, it is hard to believe I am now, in 2002, almost the same age she was when she died. How can that be? In Russia, years before I came to the USA and the Liberty Motel, a palm reader once told me the indentations on the nail represent a deeply buried pain that has not yet surfaced, but will someday. I paid her only two rubles for the five-ruble reading because she could not tell me more about this “pain.” I left the last three rubles clutched in my unread palm.

I said to her, “I have experienced much heartache because of stupid, selfish people. That is pain enough.”

She yelled after me, “Don’t be stingy with your future, Stalina. Pay the three rubles, and I’ll tell you about the pain! You will be much better off.”

“I like not knowing,” I responded.

That was a very difficult time. It was 1991, and the Soviet Union was finished. My world was bankrupt. I had much to think about. It was then I started to color my hair. Brunette was my true color, but I find black more dramatic for my pale skin. In Russia I used a dye made in Cuba called “Zarzamora,” which means blackberry bush. My friend Olga, who grew up to run her own hair salon, would get the hair dye along with boxes of Cohiba cigars from a comrade in Havana. She used the cigars for bribes on the black market when her salon was running low on hair spray and nail polish. Here I use L’Oreal’s “Blackest Black,” a less deep but longer-lasting color. From the back, my head looks like a bush filled with shiny black crows. The abundance of hair makes me appear larger than my five-foot frame. With my rugged Russian looks, I choose never to go into public without makeup. My dark brown eyes are always lined with black kohl and my eyelids a little covered with a creamy blue eye shadow called “Sky Blue” from Coty. I like to call the eye shadow “Leningrad Blue” because it reminds me of the sky above the Neva River back home, when the long days of summer sunlight make the blue sky pale, soft, and forgiving. My lipstick is a dark blood red called “Can-Can” from Revlon. I read in Russian Woman magazine that red lipstick gives lips a full, attractive, sexy appearance and communicates a well-developed ego.

I dress comfortably in black stretch leggings and blouses of washable silk. I wear a lab coat at work over my clothes. As an employee of the Liberty Motel, my old lab coat is very useful. There will be more about my workplace later, but now I will tell you about leaving my mother and my country.

Chapter Two: Good-bye

It was late September in 1991 when I said good-bye to my mother, Sophia, at her rooming house for the elderly on Lermontovsky Prospekt. At seventy-nine, she was too old and too stubborn to leave Leningrad.

“Fine, stay,” I always replied.

My mother’s room in the defunct school had high ceilings, a cement floor, and six metal-framed cots set against faded pink plaster walls. Smells of rusting metal and boiled cabbage filled the air and made it heavy, but nourishing to our complexions. The last time I was there, we were alone, but even so we spoke in whispers simply out of habit.

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