Thirteen years ago, I wrote a short story about a Russian woman who signs up with an international matchmaking agency. I’ve thought about turning the story into the first chapter of a novel, but never got past the second chapter. Maybe I can spend the next decade of my life writing the next two chapters?!
Nadya applied a thick coat of vermilion to her lips. She turned her head slowly from side to side to check that each bleached strand was in place. The contrast with her dark roots, she felt, was appealing in a dramatic sort of way. She puckered her lips and gave herself a smoldering look in the mirror before snorting at her own foolishness and leaving the bathroom.
In the kitchen her mother was sitting with Olya, who picked listlessly at her potatoes.
“Mama, take me with you,” she cried when she spotted her mother in the doorway.
“Eat your dinner, Olenka,” Nadya said. She leaned down to give her a loud kiss, aimed an inch away from her daughter’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Her mother gazed at her wearily and looked as if she was about to say something. Before she could begin Nadya said, “I’ll be back late. Don’t wait up for me,” and she set off for the bus stop.
The event was being held in one of the large hotels in the center of Moscow and to get there Nadya had to take a bus and then the subway. As usual, she had to fight her way onto the bus. It was one thing to be pinned on all sides by aggressively large and sweaty bodies when she took the bus to and from her job at the hotel, where she worked as a chambermaid. But now, in her carefully ironed white blouse and short black skirt, she seethed as shapeless old women with their string sacks full of onions and potatoes and malodorous men with their boozy breath swayed into her, kneading her flesh with every lurch.
When she finally arrived at the subway station a few blocks away from the hotel, Nadya was relieved to make her way out and onto the sidewalk. She began walking toward the hotel and paused at a store window to check her reflection once again. After a critical glance, she continued on, her ankles wobbling in her rarely-worn high heels.
In the lobby Nadya looked around uncertainly. A doorman gave her a bored look and nodded in the direction of the reception room. She wondered how he knew what she was there for and then she saw that the lobby was filled with hundreds of thickly made-up women dressed in their very best clothing. Nadya was offended that the doorman automatically took her for one of these overly eager, overly-made-up, probably desperate women. She assumed her haughtiest expression and walked slowly past him, and in the direction of the gift shop. When she realized he was not paying the slightest attention to her, she rejoined the herd moving toward the reception room.
A line began to form as the women entered the cavernous, dimly-lit room and were asked to fill out a name tag. The music was playing so loudly that the tinny reverberations buzzed in Nadya’s ears. A large middle-aged woman with bad teeth and hennaed hair had to shout to be heard as she instructed the women to write out their names in English. An assistant helped those whose command of English was insufficient even for this task. Nadya had taken English in high school and could at least spell out her own name. She strained in the low light to search for a place to affix the tag. She decided to place it to the right, where she remembered there was a barely perceptible borscht stain. With this business taken care of, she began to survey the room and realized with dismay that there was about one man to every ten women.
And was this the best America had to offer? In all of the American movies she had seen, the men were impossibly attractive, with full manes of hair and perfect, blindingly white smiles. The men milling around this room were homely, middle-aged, pudgy specimens. They seemed, however, strangely undaunted by their thick spectacles, their thinning pates, their unprepossessing physiques. They strutted around the room like movie stars with half-suppressed grins, expressing a combination of lechery and disbelief at their own good fortune. Clutched in their moist palms, popping out of polyblend breast pockets, or stuffed into dank back pockets were booklets containing the photos and biographies of the scores of women who now swarmed hungrily around each of these bachelors.
Nadya’s picture and biography were there too. Nadya Tarakanova, 29 (well, she was 29 only a few months before she sent in her information), hospitality worker (this was true-ish), loves to read, watch movies, is looking for her own American prince to love and take care of. There was no mention of her daughter Olya. No need to scare off her prince with a fact that he would learn in due course, after falling passionately, hopelessly in love with her.
While she was laboring over her biography, soft-edged visions of this man had flitted across her field of vision. He was tall and slim. His gentle eyes lingered on hers longingly, adoringly. Sometimes his hair was blonde, sometimes it was jet black. She would take either, as long as it was full, neatly cut, and washed. His rose petal lips would brush against her so tenderly, so lovingly…He would treat her right. Everyone knew that American men were real gentlemen. In short: he would be the very antithesis of Olya’s father.
Nadya had met Borya in the basement office of the hotel in which she worked. She had been heading for the cleaning closet to get her supplies. He was replacing an overhead light that had burnt out. As she walked by, he had called to her from atop a ladder. She swished past him with her eyes fixed straight ahead. A minute later he caught up with her. He was short and had unusually long, muscular arms covered with thick black fur. The simian effect was heightened by his full lips, which now spewed a torrent of extravagant compliments.
Nadya had been tired of sitting at home with her mother every night. Her closest friend Lena had just gotten married and always made excuses now when she would call to invite her to go out as they had in the past. And so when Borya with his easy shameless charm begged Nadya to meet him the next day, she recklessly agreed.
Their relationship limped along until one evening when Boris arrived at her apartment staggering and bellowing like a crazed bull. Nadya’s mother warned her not to open the door, but she disregarded her advice and had let Borya in. She was rewarded with a black eye and a bruised jaw. Nadya’s mother managed to bring down a heavy frying pan over Borya’s head and he lay groaning and subdued on the floor of the apartment until the police came and hauled him off to a sobering station. It had been two weeks since their first encounter in the cafeteria. She would never see Borya again, except in the dark eyes of their daughter Olya, who was born nine months after their first date.
Now Olya was four. During the day Nadya’s mother looked after the child. When Nadya arrived home, exhausted and irritable, they would eat dinner together and then turn on the television to watch Mexican soap operas. Olya would lean into her mother’s shoulder and would gravely watch the voluptuous brown-haired women in brightly colored dresses until it was her own bedtime.
Nadya despised this life. She despised the sinks full of dried flecks of phlegm, shaving cream and whiskers she had to scrape clean every day. She despised every soiled toiled she scrubbed angrily and half-heartedly. She detested every sheet heavy with perspiration and God only knew what else that she gingerly pulled at with only the tips of her fingers and a grimace on her face. She was young and not bad-looking and life owed her more than this.
It was Alla Arkadevna, her supervisor, who had first sniffed out the information about the predictably named: From Russia with Love. When Nadya heard the rumor that Alla Arkadevna was applying to an American matchmating service she had only a few moments to ponder scornfully the ridiculous prospect of this last-ditch attmept at love by an over-the-hill hag, when she was suddenly, violently seized with a sense of frantic urgency. She relentlessly pestered, wheedled, and cajoled Alla Arkadevna until she agreed to giver her the information about how to apply. In the end, Alla Arkadevna’s application was rejected. When Nadya asked her if she would be going to the first in a series of “romance tour” matchmaking parties, Alla Arkadevna informed her with great dignity that she had decided to withdraw her application. She had heard certain things about these types of organizations, she intimated darkly. Nadya had snickered inwardly at this transparent lie and had swirled away from Alla Arkadevna like a helium balloon borne up by a strong gust of wind.
Now as she joined the milling throng, all the fierce triumph that had buoyed her up for the past month drained out of her. She looked dully at the group closest to her. One woman was playing the ingénue, smiling shyly at the man, all the while keeping her elbows as rigid as irons to keep the rest of the women at bay. Over the general chatter Nadya could hear another woman loudly and incessantly asking him what he liked to eat. Other women impatiently jostled their way closer to the epicenter. With mild curiosity Nadya craned her neck to see the prized object of their attention. She watched in fascinated horror as the wide-eyed, pencil-necked, gap-toothed scrap of a man doled out a nod here, a world of acknowledgement there.
She felt unloved, unbeautiful, uninspired, unhopeful. And suddenly she realized that his eyes had met hers. He was looking speculatively at her and inching towards her, doing his best to disengage from the clutching hands that insistently pulled at his lapels.
Nadya’s mind teemed with a flood of images. She saw the exquisitely dressed and coiffed actresses from imported Dallas episodes languidly sitting by a pool sipping exotic drinks. She thought of the page she had ripped from an American magazine fished out of a wastebasket at the hotel and taped to her mirror at home. She was fairly sure it was an advertisement for perfume with the beautiful name “Summer’s Eve.” A woman with long flowing hair blown by a gentle breeze walked barefoot in the sand. And then the blurry image of this woman’s face cleared and became her mother’s. It was sallow and careworn. Olya’s eyes rimmed with dark blue half-moons replaced her mother’s. And now she saw her own eyes. But this time she saw them reflected back at her from the glint of the man’s glasses. He had broken through the crowd and had made his way to her. The other women still tried to distract him, to lure him from this folly. He was their prince. He was to whisk them away from the squalor and banality of their existence.
He was saying something, but Nadya could not hear him. She was not listening. She stared transfixed by the image of herself in his glasses. She was a gazelle. She was a dragonfly. She tripped out of the room and out of the hotel. She was still wobbling on her heels, but almost running, almost flying in the crisp moonlit night.