Copyright 2020, all rights reserved.
Chapter Eight: A Moonlit Date
Roza hurried home after work. She was exhausted after drinking too much the night before and getting up early, but she didn’t want to miss her planned outing with Sergei to the edge of Norilsk. She fixed food, took a shower, and put on a pink sweater under all her outer gear. The next step was less certain; she had impulsively told Sergei that she was bringing Savina, but had not actually checked this with Nikolai. However, as luck would have it, she got a call from Nikolai. “Olena and I need to go to a parents’ meeting at Savina’s school. Can you watch her until 8:00 or 9:00?” Roza was delighted. She had always had a policy of not exposing her daughter to the men she dated, but her relationship with Sergei felt different, and she wanted him to meet Savina and to see how he responded to her. When Nikolai asked her to watch Savina, Roza felt like her gamble of telling Sergei she was bringing her daughter had been validated. “Sure, I’ll come get her now.”
Nikolai and Olena’s apartment was across the courtyard from Roza’s. She entered to the smell of sizzling onion and garlic, and the sound of a Disney princess in peril. Savina was sitting on the couch, watching a cartoon on Nikolai’s tablet, and Olena was pacing between the kitchen and living area, trying to soothe Kirill, who was eight months old. “Hi Roza,” said Olena, with a tired smile. “Sorry for the racket. This little guy has a cold and it’s making him cranky. Thanks for taking Savina tonight.” Roza felt awkward at being thanked for watching her own daughter, which reminded her that she needed to tell Nikolai and Olena about her schedule change.
“No problem. In fact, I just found out yesterday that my schedule is changed. From now on I’m working day shift, from 7:00 to 3:00. I was thinking that I can spend more time with Savina, if – I mean, I know you have custody, but if it would help, or if it’s okay, I could – ” Roza realized she was babbling and stopped. The briefest glance passed between Nikolai and Olena, and Roza thought “What? Does that look mean ‘it’s about time you took more responsibility,’ or ‘do you think we can trust her?’ or maybe just ‘we’ll talk about this later when she’s not here’?” Taking a deep breath, Roza reminded herself “We’re divorced. I no longer have to fret over Nikolai’s mysterious glances or try to interpret them.” “Actually,” began Nikolai, “That would be – ” Olena broke in “Thanks Roza, that might work out. We’ll need to sit down and look at everyone’s schedules sometime.” “Sometime?” thought Roza. Does that mean “never”? Not the time to start a conflict, Roza told herself. “Great,” she said with a less-than-sincere smile, “Well, let me get Savina ready to go out.”
It took almost a half hour to dress Savina for the outdoors and trundle across the open space back to Roza’s apartment. Babka!” called Savina when she saw her great grandmother. Savina and Nadya were a mutual admiration society, and Roza braced for a battle over her plan to bring Savina along on her walk with Sergei. Nadya protested variously that the cold would kill Savina, that Sergei wouldn’t like it if she seemed to be pushing him into a father role and, in contradiction, that Sergei might become attached to Savina and they might later break up. Roza was as stubborn as her grandmother, however, and did not relent.
Roza and Savina walked to Sergei’s apartment about three blocks away Sergei came outside holding the hand of a shy blonde girl who appeared to be about Savina’s age, and introduced her as his niece, Katia. They waited in the doorway of the apartment building until the lights of a bus appeared in the darkness, and then dashed onto the bus. At six years old, Savina had already incorporated the guiding principle of Norilsk life in winter, which was to minimize one’s time outside. The bus was well-heated and the passengers, most of whom had just finished work, were in a good mood. Men argued about soccer, Roza saw a flask passed discreetly across the aisle, and two women engaged in a conversation of such conspicuous hilarity and high spirits that it was obvious that they hoped to draw the attention of the men passing the flask.
Roza and Sergei rode to the end of the line, where the bus stopped at a ten foot snow pile and turned around. “When do you come back?” asked Sergei. “Twenty minutes. Too long to be outside.” Sergei assured the driver that they would find shelter and that they would be back at the stop in precisely 20 minutes. He gestured to a lone building about 100 feet beyond the road’s end. “We’ll wait in there until we see your lights.”
They got off the bus and walked single file down a narrow path through the snow. They passed the café that Sergei had pointed to and continued on into the darkness. Roza wanted to get past the lights to where they could see out onto the tundra, but she didn’t want to risk having Savina outside too long. Every winter a certain number of people froze in Norilsk. Roza reassured herself by recalling that most of these were drunk and fell into a snowdrift and passed out. They hurried past the café and over a steep hill.
Beyond the hill, the world behind fell away. The lights of Norilsk were not visible. As far as they could see there was only darkness punctuated by thousands of stars. The wind was blowing the pollution away from them and the air was clear. Suddenly vivid electric green and pink lights appeared in the sky. “Look, Savina, it’s the northern lights!” said Roza. It was beautiful and Savina was captivated. “Ohh, I want to dress up like that!” she exclaimed. Katia and Savina played a game called Frozen, which involved jumping around, waving their arms, and discussing who would be Elsa. Sergei reached for Roza and pulled her close for a kiss. A real kiss, that let Roza know there was something real between them. In a few minutes Savina began to complain, so they went back to the small café for chocolate while they waited to see the lights of the return bus.
When Roza brought Savina home, Nikolai opened the door and immediately bent to whisper to Savina that she should be quiet. “Your little brother finally fell asleep,” he told her. Straightening, he said “Thanks Roza. It was really helpful that you entertained Savina tonight. Did you guys have fun?” “Yes!” piped up Savina in a stage whisper. “We went with Sergei and Katia to see the rorabor alice!” Nikolai looked puzzled, and Roza explained “We went with friends to the end of the bus line and saw the northern lights – aurora borealis?” “Oh sure.” Nikolai looked as though he had more questions. To avoid answering, Roza quickly excused herself and went back to her apartment.
“Well? Will he be a good father?” asked Nadya as soon as Roza walked in. “Nadya, please. I’m so tired I can’t think. I drank too much last night, met my new partner today, worked all day, dealt with Olena and Nikolai glancing at each other when I said something, hiked in the snow, and now I just need to sleep.” “All right, all right, don’t be touchy,”said Nadya, as she trundled back to her room. “And yes, I’m sure he’d be a great father, but who knows if I’d be a good mother,” called Roza after her.