O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?

“Yana, I wanted to let you know this is my last night.”

“What? What do you mean ‘last night’? What are you talking about?”

“I’ve saved up enough money to get out of here and I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”

Yana pulled Larissa aside where they could talk more privately. They’d been best friends since childhood and both had grown up in Brighton Beach as second-generation Russian immigrants. It was Yana who’d introduced Larissa to the world of exotic dancing after they graduated from high school four months ago in June.

Yana came from a very close-knit family that loved her and put her first. She’d started dancing at ????? for the thrill and the attention more so than for the money. Her parents would die if they knew where she really went most evenings working from 9 or 10pm until late into the morning hours. She told them she had a job working as a telemarketer for a firm that dealt mostly with Russian-speaking clientele. That explained the odd hours and her older brother Boris covered for her because Yana knew about his new-found love of cocaine. In exchange for his support, he got her silence.

Yana told Larissa what she was doing after her first week at Dyevki which is a Russian slang word for ‘girls.’ Larissa thought it was disgusting until Yana showed her the tip money she’d made that first week. It was just short of a four-hundred dollars. Even so, Larissa was hesitant about dancing with her clothes off for the kind of men who frequented such places. Unlike Yana, she’d grown up in home where her father was a hopeless alcoholic who’d mentally abused her and beat her for as long as she could remember. She couldn’t prove it, but she was convinced her father was somehow connected with, if not outright responsible for, the death of her mother some ten years ago. Because of her home life, she had tremendous trouble when it came to relationships with men. In fact, the only man she really trusted was her older brother, Sergei.

He was now 20 and like Larissa, he’d been the victim of their father’s wrath on many occasions. He was a good, decent boy with an unbreakable spirit, but even he couldn’t take life at home with their dad. The day he turned 18, he joined the Army and had been gone the last two years.

Larissa cried when he told her because he’d been her protector and confidant since he was strong enough to stand up to their father. More than once he’d saved her from another night of terror in their tiny apartment after their father had gotten hopelessly shit-faced on vodka, the Russian’s drink of choice. Vodka was cheap and plentiful and their dad put away a fifth of the clear liquid every day. He hadn’t been able to hold a job in five years and they lived off of whatever meager benefits he could get from the system.

Larissa Golovko was used to going without. She was an exceptionally pretty girl who not only didn’t have nice clothes, she didn’t even have little things like shampoo or nail polish. To her dad, those were luxuries which really meant they took up money he could otherwise spend on necessities which meant vodka. So she went to school all her life with greasy, stringy hair, and whatever second-hand clothes she could find at near-by apartment-yard sales or the Good Will store. Once, Yana had given her a pretty blouse and skirt she no longer wanted, and the day she wore it her father had called her ‘?????’ or ‘slut.’ From then on, she was content to wear what she had until it was tattered and threadbare in spite of the regular ridicule she got at school.

When she herself started dancing at the club, Yana let Larissa shower at her place so she could shampoo her long, dark hair and style it so that it framed her pretty face in a way that would maximize her tips. Larissa was also supposed to be working for the telemarketing firm and both of them left the apartment dressed modestly then changed at the club. That first week, Larissa brought home three hundred dollars more than Yana and the manager began touting her as a ‘featured’ dancer. As such, Larissa would often have the entire floor to herself for the better part of an hour in which she could make several hundred dollars.

Other than expenses for the skimpy outfits she wore to work, every dollar was squirreled away in a jar under the floor under her bed in her tiny room. Each evening, she only need wait until her father passed out drunk before going to Yana’s to change and leaving for the club.

Now, after just four months, she had more than enough money to leave town, get an apartment of her own somewhere, and hopefully, find a job doing what she loved. The one and only joy of Larissa’s life had been ballet and she had been dancing all her life. Her mother had been her biggest supporter and had arranged a scholarship from a wealthy Russian Larissa later learned was connected with the local mafia in Brighton Beach. The money had kept flowing in even after the death of her mother. However, Larissa understood that its continuation required monthly visits türbanlı escort to the private office of Ivan Ivanovich Smerlov. Nothing sexual had taken place—yet—but they were visits she knew where somehow inappropriate and that more would one day be expected of her.

Larissa’s life was full of conflicts with her father as well as contradictions. She was a pretty girl who looked plain and homely. She was a quiet, sweet girl, but the most seductive, salacious dancer at Dyevki. She didn’t trust men, but she loved her brother. She loved her brother but she shouldn’t. She couldn’t. It was forbidden. And yet she did.

She thought back to the day she turned eighteen when Sergei had come home unexpectedly to surprise her. She hadn’t started dancing at Deyvki yet and she was hoping just to be able to be left alone for one day. If she was really lucky, she might be able to sneak out and spend some time with Yana.

Her father was already three sheets to the wind before dinner and he downed several more shots with the kielbasa and pirogi she’d made him. As usual, he reeked of liquor, sweat, and cigarette smoke and the thought of him touching her made her sick. She went to her room as soon as she was finished eating and closed the door. Several minutes later she heard him stumbling toward her room. ?????? T? ??????? ?? ???? ?????? ????, ?? ??????? ????????. ?? ????? ?????????????! “Whore? Are you ready? Are you waiting for me? After all, you’re a grown-up today. We’re going to celebrate a little.”

Larissa cringed as her door opened. She didn’t even look up. She was so numb, she could no longer even cry. She could smell him from across the room and as he approached her bed, she got that sick feeling in her stomach. He stood next to her and started mumbling about what a prick tease she was and how ugly she was and how no man would ever want her.

That’s when she thought she heard the front door open and shut. A part of her hoped it was a break in. Maybe a man with a gun. If she were lucky, they’d kill her father and her nightmare would be over. She’d remembered thinking it would also be okay if they killed her, too.

As her father reached out and grabbed her arm, she saw him. Tall, handsome, and strong. The moment he saw what was happening he said in a very loud voice, “?? ?????? ??? ??????. ? ???? ????!” “Don’t touch my sister or I’ll kill you.”

The old man turned around too quickly and lost his balance. He fell into the nightstand knocking over the small lamp standing on it as it fell along with him. He drug himself to his feet and looked at his son and said in Russian, “Well, well. Look what the cat drug in. It’s the soldier boy himself.”

Like Larissa, Sergei Golovko spoke only English outside of their local community, but their father’s English was so awful they spoke only Russian at home. He told his dad, “You don’t scare me anymore. I’m not afraid of you. The last time I was home I thought I taught you a lesson you’d never forget.” He took a step closer and put his finger in his dad’s face and said, “If you lay a hand on her I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”

Their father turned around and looked at Larissa who was still cowering on the bed. He turned and faced his son who was a good four inches taller and in perfect physical condition. “Your sister is a fucking slut. That’s why you love her so much. Yeah, I know all about you two,” he slurred. “You two are going to make some kind of monster baby together. Don’t kid yourself, Sergei. Larissa is nothing but a whore. A sick, fucking…”

The old man didn’t even see the right cross that broke his jaw and sent him flying back into the nightstand. The next morning, he had no idea he’d hit the corner of it with his head or how the huge gash got there. He only knew he was in more pain than he’d ever been. He lay there in her bedroom calling her name and begging for help. But she was gone.

Sergei told her to get cleaned up and to change into the pretty dress and other things he’d bought her for her birthday and carried inside in the kinds of bags she’d only seen other women carry from the nicer stores. He’d even remembered the little things they didn’t have at home as he handed her scented soap, shampoo, and perfume. Larissa hadn’t worn perfume since her mother was alive when she would dab a tiny bit behind her ears on special occasions. Just having her beloved brother home for her birthday was more than enough. These gifts were more than she’d received on all of her previous birthdays combined and just looking at them made her cry tears of joy.

When she was ready, she looked at herself in the mirror. “I’m beautiful,” she told herself for the first time in her life. “I really am a pretty girl.” And she was. Her hair was soft and shiny. The dress was blue and so pretty. She’d never worn pantyhose and although she’d worn high heels at Dyevki, she’d never worn them for any other reason in her life. She felt like she was in a beauty pageant and ümraniye escort had just been declared the winner.

“Seryozha?” she said using the diminutive form of his name. “It’s all so beautiful. Thank you!”

“Happy birthday, Larissa. You are beautiful. Did I get the size right on the dress and shoes?”

“Yes. Size 2 for the dress is perfect. I love it! The shoes are wonderful, too!” She wasn’t large for a ballet dancer, but she did have boobs and most of the girls who were the best dancers did not. Hers were only a B-cup but still, that was larger than normal for most girls who shared her passion for dance.

She hugged her brother and that feeling of contradiction swept over her again. How could she feel like this about—him? He was family. He was her flesh and blood. And yet, he was the only boy—or man—about whom she’d ever felt this way. He made her feel safe, secure, and…loved. She hated herself for the way he made her feel, but she couldn’t make herself stop feeling it. She loved Sergei. Even more wrong and even frightening was the realization she might be in love with him.

As these conflicting thoughts swirled around inside her head, she pushed them aside and asked her handsome brother, “So what are we doing tonight?”

“We’re celebrating!” he told her. “It’s your birthday, I have money and we’re going out. We’re going out and we’re going to have nothing but fun all night long.” He reached into a bag and said, “Oh, I almost forgot. The lady at the store said this would look nice with the dress.”

He handed her a beautiful cardigan sweater that matched the color of the dress. Larissa didn’t care he hadn’t even removed the price tag. She unwound it from the button around which it was wrapped and set the tag on the kitchen table. She handed the sweater back to Sergei and turned around so he could help her put it on.

“I feel like a princess, Sergei!”

He looked at his little sister and smiled. He put his hands on her shoulders and told her, “That’s because you are a princess. You are my princess, Larissa, and you always have been.”

Larissa felt weak in the knees as he stared into her eyes. That…that feeling. It always came whenever he looked at her that way. It made the conflict that much worse, but she loved how she felt more than anything else and he had told her she was beautiful and that’s exactly how she felt.

“Shall we?” he said as he extended his arm.

She put her hand inside his elbow and said, “??, ?????!” “Okay, let’s go!”

With rare exceptions, Larissa’s life consisted of a world that was mostly confined to a five-block radius of the apartment she grew up in in Brighton Beach. A time or two, she’s wandered a little further from home but always with the fear her father might somehow find out. She was supposed to go to school and come straight home. The only exception was ballet class, her one reprieve from the harsh reality of the hell she called her life.

This night was different. It was unlike any other. Sergei paid for a taxi, an unheard of luxury in her world. They left Brighton Beach and entered a new world when they arrived in Manhattan, a place so far away from Larissa’s life it may as well have been on the moon. Here, things were clean. They were bright. They were—alive.

Everywhere she looked she saw people. Laughing, smiling, holding hands. It was as if they had no idea what real life was like. The beatings, the verbal abuse, the threats, the intimidation. The endless bottles of vodka. The fear. The longing to be free. Here, people were free. And they seemed…happy.

As the cab stopped in front of a posh nightclub, Sergei paid—and tipped—the driver and went around to open the door for his baby sister. He extended his hand and helped her stand on the beautiful, clean sidewalk. “Seryozha, this is…unbelievable! I’ve heard about places like this but never dreamed I’d ever see them.” She hugged her brother and thanked him again. “Even if this night ended right now, it would be happiest day of my life.”

He wiped a tear of joy from the corner of his sister’s eye and said, “It’s not going to end now.” He offered her his arm and said, “Shall we?” as he tilted his head toward the entrance.

Larissa had never been to a piano bar. For that matter, she’d never to been to a bar or a club of any kind with the exception of Dyevki. Each of her senses was on overload as she tried to take everything in at once. People were talking and laughing, music was playing, lights were glittering, beautiful people were dancing, and the then there was the room itself. She’d never seen anything like it before. From the bar with its hundreds of clean, shiny glasses, the long mohagony bar itself, and the leather-topped stools in front of it to the tables with the linen tablecloths, to the chandeliers to…everything!

“So what do you think?” he asked her.

“Oh, Seryozha. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen!” She couldn’t stop acıbadem escort looking or smiling.

“I love to see you smile, Larissa. It makes you look even more beautiful,” he told her.

Suddenly, she was aware that her pretty new dress wasn’t all that pretty. It was good enough for her to fit in comfortably, but she was amazed at the kinds of things other women were wearing. Everywhere she looked she saw pretty women in beautiful cocktail dresses, their ears, necks, and wrists adorned with expensive jewelery. All of them wore makeup—something she could never afford. Her newfound joy was suddenly replaced by the old familiar sense of not being good enough. She saw herself as nothing more than an average-looking girl with average-looking clothes in a world of above-average people made beautiful by the money and things they had. A sense of shame settled over her; a dark cloud with which she’d lived all of her life.

“Are you hungry?” she heard him ask. It momentarily snapped her out of her self-imposed misery.

“Yes, I’m starving,” she told him.

They took a seat at a table not too far from the bar. Almost immediately a nice-looking young man in a white shirt approached them and said, “Hi there! Can I get you anything?”

“Two glasses of champagne for now,” Sergei told him. “We’ll take a look at the menu and let you know.” The young man looked at Larissa but didn’t ask for ID. When he looked a second time, Sergei handed him a twenty-dollar bill and he decided she looked close enough to go ahead and risk serving her.

“Seryozha, you know I don’t like alcohol,” she told him sternly.

“It’s just champagne and tonight we’re celebrating. One glass won’t hurt. I promise. What would you like to eat? They have what’s called a short-order menu but there are quite a few choices.”

“I want a hamburger!” she said excited. “I’ve only had a hamburger once in my entire life when mama was alive and I want one tonight. I want everything on it they can put on it. Is that okay?”

Sergei smiled and said, “Of course. Anything you want.”

They placed their order when their drinks arrived and Sergei proposed a toast. “Life hasn’t been easy for us, Larissa,” he began. “In fact, living with our father is a kind of hell on earth. I escaped by joining the Army. This toast is to you finding your freedom and a better life so…to a better life!”

“?? ????????!” they said as they took a first sip. Larissa had never so much as touched a drink in her life. Just moments after she swallowed a small amount she felt a pleasant tingle around her lips which made her smile.

“This is really nice, Syerozha. Thank you, again.”

When her hamburger arrived, it was piled high with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mushrooms, and slathered in mayonnaise. Larissa struggled to find a place to take a first bite but managed to do so as water, oil, and grease dripped on her plate. As she chewed, the flavor hit her tastebuds like nothing she’d ever had. “Oh, my God! It’s so delicious! I could eat one of these every night!” she exclaimed as she tried to talk with a mouth full of food.

“Then you’d have to give up ballet,” her brother teased. “You’d be so fat no one could pick you up!”

Both of them smiled and laughed as they ate and drank. Larissa’s foul mood was once again lifting.

As she polished off the enormous burger/meal, she looked around and saw other people dancing. “Can we?” she said excitedly. “Is it okay to dance?”

Sergei finished his champagne and said, “Of course we can. Finish your drink and we’ll dance.”

Larissa drained her glass and found herself feeling tipsy for the first time in her life. As she stood she didn’t lose her balance, but she did grab the edge of the table. “So that’s what alcohol does to you. Now I see why our father stays drunk all the time,” she half-heartedly joked.

“It won’t last long,” he told her as he took her hand and let her to the dance floor.

Larissa had never really listened to music growing up. Most of the music she’d heard was accompaniment for ballet. As she and Sergei floated around on the floor, Larissa looked around for her mother because she was sure this must be heaven.

“I can’t believe people do this kind of thing all the time. I can’t even believe places like this exist,” she said wistfully. She suddenly felt sad again as she realized this night would soon end and that she’d be back in her shitty little apartment with her shit-faced father living her shitty little life. She laid her head on her brother’s shoulder and said, “I don’t want this night to ever end.”

“I have another surprise for you,” he told her.

Her mood quickly swung again. Good news rarely came and pleasant surprises were few and far between for her. The thought of some other nice thing in the same night was hard to imagine. “What surprise?” she asked eagerly.

“We can stay in a nice hotel tonight. I want you to see what it’s like to stay someplace safe and warm and clean and quiet for once. I want you to have one night away from…him.”

“I can’t even imagine such a place,” she told him honestly. She was accustomed to hearing sirens, gunshots, arguments, and other noises every night of the week. She really couldn’t picture a place of solitude like that.

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