Irina walked past the bar of the smoky nightclub. Anatoly made eye contact with her and nodded. She knew what this meant, and walked through the beaded curtain to the booth where he sat with his well-connected friends. Clad in a tan suit with slicked-back brown hair and dark eyes, Anatoly preferred for the girls to call him Tolya. He sat in a semi-circular leather booth with several acquaintances, just the sort who brought with them large quantities of money and deviance.
“Irina, be a dear and wait in room number two,” said Tolya, smacking her on her bare buttocks with his rough right hand. She tried not to shudder at the touch of his greasy palm.
“You look bewitching tonight,” he said, smiling. “Vasiliev will be very pleased. I’ll bring him to you.”
Wearing nothing but black lace lingerie and white stilettos, she felt the chill of the late autumn winds that leaked through the single-pane windows. It had been this way for more than a year. How much longer could she go on as Tolya’s toy, his human sacrifice to friends and cronies? She didn’t want to test that limit.
Irina transferred a thin silver dagger from her palm to her garter belt, then walked down the nearly dark hallway and entered the second room. It was painted red and lit with two yellow wall lamps and a faux-antique chandelier. Under different circumstances Irina wouldn’t have minded the room. But under Tolya’s heavy hand, the space portended a threatening and uncertain future. Some of the men who entered were harmless and pathetic, but others were keenly focused on inflicting injury for pleasure, and they did so with no apparent remorse.
How had things arrived at this point? All she desired was a singing career. The idea of doing what she loved while making people happy seemed simple and pure. And Tolya had the money and connections to make it happen. That’s what he told her when he wooed her and her father with promises of future fame. He spoke well, dressed well, and quoted Tolstoy and Gogol. Surely a man like this had to be trustworthy.
Then he got her on stage. It was a big club in downtown Moscow. She wasn’t the headliner, but the crowd had to be over 2,000 people. Some may prefer alcohol or heroin, but Irina’s drug of choice was attention. Nothing felt better than applause, the roar of a crowd, and an audience begging for more. He had delivered, and she was hooked.
She was unaware at the time that there would be a price, that Tolya only gave in order to take, and that he would take over and over again, as long as it suited him to do so.
Singing on stage was followed by dancing on stage, ever more provocatively with progressively fewer clothes. Not long after that the men were introduced, and by that time Irina felt all of her freedoms had been stripped and tossed away with her dignity. It wasn’t comfortable but at first Irina was willing to pay this price in exchange for her lofty end goal. After all, as Tolya said, “You can be bathed in pig’s blood with your father, or in a bright future with me.” Considered in that light, the cigarette-stained breath of drunken rich men felt necessary.
Left naked and desolate physically and otherwise, the joys of singing for a crowd seemed far away as she massaged lotion on the scars her “special” customers inflicted on her thighs. The memories of the painful episodes made her want to cry and scream, but there wasn’t time to do so. Now was time for action, time for an escape.
Tolya knocked on the door. She knew it must be him because he always used the same rhythm: “tap-tata-tap-tap”.
She opened the door.
“Are you ready for Vasiliev?” Tolya asked. “He is very eager tonight.”
Irina grasped Tolya’s hand and led him into the room. She fluttered her eyelashes and caressed Tolya’s cheek.
“I think he can wait, don’t you?” she suggested. “Come.”
She tapped the end of the bed and Tolya obediently sat down.
“Close your eyes,” said Irina. “And put this on.”
Tolya put the black blindfold on. Irina knew he loved games. She undressed him a button at a time, stopping to assess his anatomy as he sat breathlessly awaiting her.
She brought the dagger out and slid her index finger along its side. She knew she would only have one chance. She had to make it count. Otherwise disloyalty would be repaid with death.
One thing she’d learned from being compelled to sleep with different men each night was that each man has a weak spot. And for all, the inner thigh was vulnerable. She once watched as Tolya stabbed a man in the groin and left him lying by the curb, blood spurting everywhere. If all went according to plan, Tolya was in for an identical fate.
She walked toward him.
“You’re going to love this surprise,” she cooed.
Swiftly, she drove down the dagger into Tolya’s left groin. He screamed in pain, blood streaming from him as he tried to pursue her but instead fell to the ground.
She kicked off her heels and ran to the back door. She slipped out into the night, but she could hear the commotion behind her.
A blue sedan screeched to a halt beside her.
“Get in!” said the driver.
Irina peered inside.
“Father!” Irina leaned over to kiss her father on the cheek.
“There is no time for kisses. This is time for father and daughter to run. Love is for later.”
As they drove away, Irina saw two beefy bouncers brandishing weapons in the doorway behind them. But as the car sped away, she saw that nobody was following.
“We did it, Father!” Irina exclaimed. “It’s really true. So why is it I feel so awful for what I did?”
“You did what you must,” said Alex. “We all must first survive. He gave you no other choice. And now it is finished.”
“Truly?” asked Irina, hesitant to believe that she had broken loose from the net that had ensnared her for the past year.
She began to cry tears of relief. Since the death of her mother, the only reliable force in Irina’s life had been her father Alex.
“You are done with those people,” said Alex. “I swear upon my life, upon your mother’s grave.”
“Yes,” said Alex. “And that also means we are done with other things?”
“Do you mean what I think you mean?” Irina asked. They had spoken of emigrating to New York before, but nothing ever came of it.
“Yes, we must leave,” said Alex. “And we must never return.”
“I’m sorry father,” said Irina. She frowned and placed a hand on her father’s shoulder. “You sacrifice so much for me. Now my choices make you turn your back on Russia.”
“This is no time for apologies, “ said Alex. “We must only look forward. Forward to America.”
Irina forced her lips to smile. She stared at her hands, still flecked with Tolya’s blood.
“To America,” she said.
* * * *
The stuffy New York summer air felt heavier with each successive breath as Irina walked up the stairs to the abandoned second floor apartment in the burnt out building that she and Alex currently called home. It was anybody’s guess who might be occupying the dwelling from one day to the next, but today they had the good fortune of being alone.
The security of their former apartment, a cramped and tiny two-bedroom shared with ten others, was long gone. Security had vanished with the demise of the butcher shop where Alex had been employed. The promise of a bright future no longer seemed as possible as it had when they arrived in New York City.
Still, she was fortunate to be here, Irina reminded herself. Looking back at the lashes and beatings, the ominous words spoken in darkness of night, it was true. But today she ached with every breath and good fortune seemed distant. She coughed and wheezed, then doubled over and grabbed her knees.
Alex came up the stairs behind her just in time to catch Irina as she buckled to the floor.
“You are not well,” he said. “We must go to hospital.”
“We cannot afford hospital,” said Irina. “Not until you get another job. I can wait until then.”
“Do you hear yourself?” asked Alex. “You can barely speak. We go. No arguing.”
Alex started to lift Irina, but she demurred.
“I can walk,” she insisted. “I am not dead, yet.”
As they waited for the city bus, fits of coughing and wheezing shook Irina’s thin body. She could feel her ribs vibrating. The painful inhalations felt like punishment. For what, she wondered? Was it greed, selfishness, or the justified but shameful violence of retribution that she regretted? Whatever it was, it seemed to constrict her like a corset.
She leaned on her father’s shoulder as he helped her up the steps of the bus.
The other passengers made way, clearing a seat for her to sit down. She wasn’t sure if this was due to sympathy or fear of contagion, but in any event she was grateful to be allowed to rest her body against the firm seats. She had suffered from asthma since childhood, but this, like much else in her life, had gotten worse in the smoke-filled clubs of Moscow. The reminders of the shame and pain seemed to make breathing more onerous.
“We are here,” said Alex as they arrived at the hospital. “No protests. We get you seen.”
Irina was soon triaged into the emergency room. From the concerned looks he saw on the nurses, it appeared that they easily recognized the severity of her distressed breathing. As much as she had resisted coming, Irina was now relieved to be in a safe, nurturing place. Neither Moscow nor her recent homeless existence could be described in such terms.
The doctor, a handsome dark-skinned man who she guessed to be of about 30 years of age, furrowed his brow. The embroidered inscription on his white coat read “Dr. Rajesh Patel.”
“This is bad,” he said, looking at a sheet with some numbers on it. “Your pulse ox, which shows how well your lungs are working, says you’re at 88% oxygen. A young, healthy person should be at 98 or better. You’re at risk of going into what we call respiratory acidosis, which is a fancy way of saying your lungs are on the verge of giving out. We need to get you to ICU, where they can give you the level of monitoring required.”
He smiled and squeezed her hand. She recoiled slightly, but was reassured when she saw that his eyes were warm and kind, the eyes of a man who she imagined to have a good soul.
“I am scared,” she said. “This place, it is like I can feel the sadness of death here.”
“People are often frightened by the hospital,” said Dr. Patel. “But they’ll take good care of you up there. They’re some of the best doctors in the city, so don’t be nervous, OK?”
“OK,” she said. “I trust you.”
“I’ll be waiting,” said Alex. “If you need anything, I’m here.”
“You have a good dad,” said the doctor. “Take care. They’ll be here to take you up to the third floor shortly.”