Authors: Chris Bohjalian
She hoped the party was going well and Richard was having fun. She and Richard had decided, in the end, that there was probably going to be a stripperâthey knew Philip would want one and they knew his friends would want to obligeâbut she figured any woman who took off her clothes in a Bronxville living room was pretty harmless. Good Lord, when she thought back on the way that she and Richard had partied when they'd been in their twentiesâwhen they'd been datingâa bunch of guys nearing middle age drinking beer and watching a stripper in a living room seemed downright innocuous. It might not be politically correct, but it was benign. And Richard worked so hard and had so few friends. There were the guys he played golf with every so often. There were the women and men at the bank. But the reality was that her husband was one of those men who spent hours at the office or traveling, and played almost exclusively with her and with their daughter. She worried sometimes that he was, beneath that clumsy, lovable facade, a little lonely. A little wistful. A little sad. She wondered if he might make a new friend at the party. She rather hoped so.
She decided to text him to see how the party was going, unsure whether he would text back in five minutes, or ten, or not until morning. She had no idea if the stripper was there yetâfor all she knew, the woman had already come and goneâand for the first time her mind wandered to what sorts of things a stripper did in a living room in Westchester for a bunch of guys, some married, some not, in their thirties and forties. She guessed lap dances, though she wasn't honestly sure what a lap dance really was. She'd never been to a strip club. She had asked Richardâan intellectual question, not one tinged in the slightest with judgmentâwhether he thought the woman would be fully naked in their house or still clad in some sort of stripper thong.
“Is there such a thing as a stripper thong?” he had asked in return, kidding, but also curious himself in a puerile sort of way. “I kind of think a thong is a thong.”
“Is a thong,” she added, recalling the Gertrude Stein remark about a rose. But then she had thought more about it, the idea of exotic dancewear, and reflexively raised an eyebrow. “You know what I mean,” she added.
“Thong,” he answered, but she could tell he didn't believe that. Or maybe he was just hoping he was mistaken. She couldn't decide from his tone. Heaven knows he liked the look of a woman in a thong; he'd certainly bought her plenty of them over the years. But, of course, she viewed them largely as sex toys. Foreplay. Date-wear. Sure, the girls in the high school insisted on wearing them all day long, but they didn't know any better. They were still willing to sacrifice comfort for fashion. Because, of course, there was no more disagreeable panty in the world than a thong. As Richard himself had once joked, “Victoria's real secret is that she's into some seriously uncomfortable underwear.”
In the bed behind her in her mother's apartment, a queen with a mahogany headboard with Georgian corners, Melissa was watching an old episode of
on her grandmother's laptop. Kristin climbed back into bed beside her and started a crossword puzzle from the booklet on the nightstand. Not quite fifteen minutes later her phone vibrated, and she saw that Richard had texted back.
“Bacchanalian,” he had written. “Not proud. But I am hoping everyone leaves by midnight or twelve-thirty. I expect to call cabs for at least two of Philip's pals.”
She smiled. It sounded like he was having fun. She was impressed that every word was spelled right, though she guessed the phone might have corrected
for him. She shut it off for the night.
A few minutes later, while her daughter was still awake and contentedly watching a sitcom that had been off the air for nearly two decades, Kristin fell asleep first. She would be awakened by the old-fashioned telephone landline in the apartment just before three in the morning.
Kristin knew firsthand that even nowâperhaps especially nowâwell into a digital world of tweets and texts and tones that are personalized, the staccato, reverberating ring of an old-fashioned telephone is jarring. It is particularly jarring in the small, shadowy hours of the night. As three a.m. nears, the odds that good news awaits at the other end grow slim. Not incalculably slim: babies are born after midnight and parents learn that the child they have been praying to adopt has landed. Soldiers call home because this is the one moment when, nine or ten time zones to the east (or west), they have a moment to speak. But Kristin knew the odds are far higher that a call to a landlineâto any lineâat three in the morning is the ring tone of calamity. Life-changing calamity. That call is the raven. It was how she had learned that her father had died.
Nevertheless, there was no telephone in Kristin's mother's guest room. And so although she heard the ring through her and her daughter's half-open bedroom door, it was her mother who shook herself awake and reached awkwardly across the mattressâacross the side on which her husband had slept until the moment when (quite literally) he diedâand fumbled for the phone. Lifting it from its cradle and resting it against her ear. Not yet sitting up. Not yet. Kristin's mother was sixty-eight, vibrant and lovely, a widow of three years who was never at a loss for a lunch date or a companion to join her for a movie or the Met or whatever drama was playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. She had a personal trainer named Stingâno connection to the musicianâa third her age with whom she worked out twice a week at the gym in her building. She was known to walk to the Nederlander or the Eugene O'Neill before a show and then, afterward, take two subways home to her apartment on the Upper East Side. She allowed her white hair to fall unapologetically to her shoulders. She wore blouses unbuttoned to reveal a hint of collarbone.
And so even though it was her mother who was struggling up through the roiling currents of sleep and trying to make sense of what her son-in-law was saying, Kristin grew alert. She opened her eyes, listened to Melissa's gentle breathing, even inhaled the vaguely fruityâstrawberry, she thoughtâaroma of the child's shampoo. And she waited. She watched the moonlight through the blinds. Somehow she knew that any moment she would hear the creak of her mother's bedroom door and the way her mother shuffled like a little girl in her slippers along the corridor. She would hear her mother's voice whispering through her own partially open door. She would hear the verbal balancing act: urgency mixed like gin amid the tonic of consideration. She would not want to awaken her granddaughter.
Outside, fourteen floors below her, Kristin heard what she guessed was a garbage truck, the engine growling as the vehicle started to accelerate after the traffic light had turned green. Farther away she heard a siren, unsure whether it was an ambulance or a police car.
Then, just as she expected, she heard the sound of the bedroom door down the hall. Her mother was coming for her, each step a harbinger. A tremor. A seismic shift wrought by the smallest of steps.
I was so happy to see New York City. I was so excited. In the crowds, the skyscrapers, and even in the men I saw my freedom. This was my future.
They brought three of us from Moscow: Sonja, Crystal, and me. The rules were clear and the money was clear. I knew they might change the rules because they had done that before, but you always hope. I mean, I do. This time, you hope, the deal won't change. This time, you tell yourself, there won't be any surprises.
Maybe that was naive. They always changed the rules. They always kept you on your back.
That's just an expression I learned. Often I was not on my back. But you don't need to hear gymnastics. No one does.
Anyway, this time I believed them. I really did. It might be two years, they were telling me, and it might be three. But either way, by the time I was twenty-two I would be on my own. And I would be in America. New York City. The center of the universe, yes?
I knew New York City from movies. Sonja and Crystal did, too. Watching movies was one of the ways we'd kill time during the day when we were back in Moscow. Muscovites (a word that makes people who live there sound like cave people, which they are not) loved films that made fun of communism. Or showed the West winning the Cold War (which was before my time). Or celebrated getting rich really quick (which was my time completely). Many of those movies were set in Manhattan. I remember how Sonja and I watched these DVDs of old movies like
North by Northwest,
Three Days of the Condor,
We learned about the Staten Island Ferry from this movie called
which had nothing to do with what we did, but the title, if we had known that expression back then, would have made us think it did. We figured out a little bit about the differences between New York City and L.A. from
Sometimes the movies were in English with Russian subtitles, and those helped Sonja and the other girls learn English as much as my teaching. And we always watched
in English. We got the U.S. version on one station and the U.K. version on another. We watched hours and hours of both. The Bachelor always had clean fingernails. He seemed gentle. He didn't have scars. His women always had straight, white teeth, and they applied their makeup perfectly. Their gowns were gorgeous. So were their earrings and their necklaces and their bathing suits. We all loved the moment with the rose. Our men never gave us flowers. Why would they?
For a while we'd lived in a cottage as glamorous as some of the places where the girls who were hoping to seduce the Bachelor were staying, but unlike them we were never allowed to leave. We had one hour of sunlight.
So, it was like I knew New York City before I got there. All three of us did. We knew some of the buildings so well from our movies and hotel room TVs that when we saw the real things, they looked shabby. You know, disappointing. I'm not kidding you or trying to put on airs. The Empire State Building is as big as you would expect when you stand below it for the first time, but on the sidewalk there is all this garbage, and the men look nothing like the Bachelor. There are fast-food restaurants that stink of French fries and grease. Across the street and a block away is a strip club. (Sonja would remember it, and it would be one of the clubs where we would work for a few days.) The first time I saw the Plaza Hotel from the Central Parkâa building I knew better by then from movies than I did the opera house in Yerevan, which I had seen with my own eyes as little girlâI stepped in horseshit. And the Times Square? There is nothing like it in Yerevan or Moscow, but the movies had prepared me for the amazing light show made of ads for flat-screen TVs, Xbox games, and fancy bras. What the movies had not prepared me for was that a five-foot-tall thing called a Sesame Street Elmo would try and hit on me there and be flattened by Pavel. This poor little man in his furry red costume never saw Pavel's fist coming.
After they showed us the city, I thought a lot about two important structures on two smaller islands. To the south, there was the Statue of Liberty. I think I had expected more when we stood at the Battery Park and looked at her out there in the harbor with her torch. I joked to Sonja that Mother Armenia, who stands on a hill in Yerevan and looks out across the city, would have kicked her ass. And then to the north was the jail. The Rikers Island. They showed us that, too. They made it really clear that just as they could kill usâa reminder you would think we never needed, but I guess poor Crystal didâthey could simply drop us into that jail. They called it “cesspool.” That was how they described it. They told us how different an American jailhouse was from the townhouse where we were going to live and how different it was from a Moscow hotel or the cottage. They made big deal about how pampered our life was compared to the life of a prisoner in a cinderblock cellâand how safe, in their opinion, our world really was.
The truth is, I usually felt safer with the men who paid for me than I did with any of our daddies or the White Russian or the guys who “protected” us like Pavel. Even my housemothers could scare me.
It was on my twenty-first night in America that everything went to hell. I mean that: to hell. First, Sonja and I learned that Crystal was dead. They'd killed herâour Russian daddies, that is. And then Sonja finally lost her mind. I saw it coming that nightâher going totally crazyâbut I thought she was going to make it through the party for the bachelor. Nope. I don't know, maybe we had both lost our minds years ago. Probably. But this was the night when Sonja went wild. She went wild and stabbed Pavel, because he and Kirill were the muscle who had shot baby Crystal and disposed of her tiny body God alone knew where.
Here's a memory that surprises me: I saw a bunch of Barbie dolls in this little girl's bedroom that night at the house where they had taken us. They were in a big plastic trunk. The dolls had reminded me of my own collection of Barbies when I'd been a kid, and I still think of that other girl's Barbies sometimes. There was a rubber on the trunk's lid. It was a few minutes after the best man had decided not to fuck me (there was a first), and then we went downstairs. The Barbies were maybe the last thing I would notice before I would see Sonja, naked but for a thong, on the back of that bastard named Pavel. Her legs were wrapped around his belly, and her left arm was hugging his chest. Her right arm was like a piston with a carving knife in it, and she was plunging the knife over and over into his neck.
That's also an image you never forget. Later I would see that his blood was on her arms and in her hair. I would see his blood everywhere.
Somehow, until that moment I had kept it together that night at the party. I was scared not to. I did my job. They had told us what they had done to Crystal, and then put us in the car and driven us out to Westchester to work a private party. (The party was for a bachelor, but the man getting married was nothing like the bachelors we had seen on TV. Oh, he was handsome. He had nice eyes and he was always laughingâat least until he saw Pavel getting killed. But he was not the type who was ever going to get down on one knee and give a girl a rose. I have been around enough men that I can tell pretty quick. Maybe his brother the best man was. But he was twice my age. And the other men at the party? Most were the kinds of dudes who only had girls like us when they paid.) I did whatever they wantedâI even smiled and played along as if it was just another night and another partyâbecause I knew Pavel and Kirill were watching.
But Sonja? She was just biding her time a lot of the evening. She was pretty sure they were going to kill her, tooâafter the party.
She told me that later. But by then we were gone. By then we were running for our lives.