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CHAPTER 5: SHINING
Under a sky the color of unwashed laundry, strangers gathering on the steps in front of the faded school building look up in gloomy surprise, drop their conversations mid-sentence and whisper, “Who is she?”
Shy little first-graders in uniforms widen their eyes at me.
I turn around to double check: Is there someone unusual walking behind me?
The jaunty September wind crawls under my new low-cut pink polyester shirt, covering my skin with bumps. Clouds shift in the cool air, promising rain. I quicken my pace, swinging my legs from underneath my new denim mini-skirt, almost twisting my ankle in the new high-heeled sneaker.
A boy with dark, curly hair leans against a tree, his long nose buried in a thick book. He is probably the only one who doesn’t notice me today. A lanky upperclass hooligan whistles low.
My feet pick up speed. My long pigtails wrapped up in new fluorescent ribbons, skip with me. My breasts jump, too, practically out of my shirt. My “charms,” Mama called them at breakfast, frowning. Now I see her point. A tall teacher with a neat gray bun atop her head, her icy eyes scanning and scanning the crowd, gives me a once-over and scowls.
The pink-gray Regional Lubertsy-City School Number Eight looms before me in all of its bedraggled solemnity. The red Soviet flag waves in the wind. The school yard is a blur of new faces and voices are spotted jeans and brown uniforms, backpacks, shoulder bags and old-style briefcases like I used to carry.
“Privet!” Greetings are flying all over the schoolyard. Robust shouts, giggles, squeals. “Where were you hiding all summer?”
“Are you performing in the first-day-of-school-assembly?”
“You crazy? What am I, a botanik?”
Under my feet a matchbox sags with dew, on the lawn littered with dandelions and brownish pieces of beer bottle glass. Above my head, giggles and gossip twirl and the sun blinds me. It makes me want to find the shade to hide in.
“Interesting, who he’ll choose next, now that he has sampled practically every chiksa in Moscow Region. . . .”
“Sh-sh-sh! Shut your fountain. He’s standing right here”
“Ey, who is this bird?”
My shoulders want to hunch under the weight of their suddenly silent stares. My eyes fix to the ground, glued to the rusty Pepsi can under my feet. The can is lying around neglected like it’s some ordinary beer bottle, instead of a piece of magic, an imported novelty. I straighten. I did not come here to hide and hunch my shoulders.
With a tip of my high-heeled sneaker, I send the Pepsi can flying across a spiky patch of grass. Making a wide half-circle through the air, the can lands with a bryak, bryak at the foot of the staircase leading up to the school doorway. It lands among numerous feet and legs, making them scatter. Conversations halt. I feel it all more than I see it. Shivering a little, under the heat of stares burning holes through the back of my dress, I tell myself it’s a good omen, the arc that the Pepsi container made as it flew toward the stairs like a welcoming rainbow from across the seas.
I’m about to follow the Pepsi can toward the building when I turn around to toss one last look at the courtyardand I freeze.
A boy is walking up to me.
The boy is on the shorter side, and definitely on the cuter side: light hair cropped close to the scalp, a pale serious face, eyes at once intense and mocking. He takes a long puff of his cigarette without lifting his stare off me.
I have a chance only to notice a hint of a mustache above his thin upper lip before I am taken in by his strange oval-shaped eyes of an unidentifiable color.
“Careful there, beautiful,” he says.
“Eh. . .what?”
“I don’t think Electrification will approve of you playing soccer with Pepsi cans.” His voice has a raspy edge.
“What Pepsi cans?” I say. “Ah.” I look down under my feet, realizing. “I was just. . .” I try to think of something clever. Nothing comes.
“A piece of advice?” He steps closer, closer. “Keep out of her way today.” I stare deep inside those eyes, still confused.
“Stay out of whose way?”
He smirks at me. But his eyes are so serious. How does he do this?
I take a step back.
“Electrification tolerates it when people don’t wear the school uniform. Still, I don’t think she’ll much like your outfit.”
“Who’s Electrification?” I squeak.
What is Electrification? And what kind of eyes are these, anyway? How can a person’s eyes contain so many shades and no color, except a kind of gray-muddy-blue?
“Elektra Ivanovna.” He leans close, exhaling cheap Soviet tobacco. “We call her ‘Electrification,’” he says. “You know. As in ‘Communism is . . .”
He waits. His hypnotic eyes bind me, summoning me to finish the phrase, one of those meaningless quotes every Soviet child learns practically in nursery school. The Communist Party isintellect, honor and consciousness of our epoch. Communism is
“collectivization plus . . . ah . . . electrification of the whole country,” I recite, my voice breaking.
He pulls back, satisfied. “Good girl. Good little Soviet.”
I take a shaky, indignant breath. “Name one person here who doesn’t know this.”
The boy smiles, his gaze softening. “Sometimes we call her ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Curving his lip, he nods toward the school building. “You’ll see why.”
“Who . . . is she?” I whisper. “The . . . principal?”
“No. The principal, Anatoly, he’s classy. Electrification’s a history teacher. And the head teacher of Class 10B. Which makes her my class teacher, unfortunately.”
His words send my heart pounding fiercely. I hope he doesn’t notice a wave of red wash all over my ears. Class 10 Б. 10B. I am in that group.
His face reaches close to me again. “What’s the matter?” he asks. “Scared?”
“Me?” Shivering right now like it’s 20° Celsius, I meet his teasing gray-muddy-blue eyesor at least I try towithout getting lost in them. “I am a dissident’s daughter,” I tell him, trembling. “I’m not scared of some history teacher.”
“Really?” He cocks his head.
“I saw some tanks passing my taxi on the way here, a few days ago.”
“And I wasn’t afraid.”
And here I go again, blushing hard. Didn’t I just sound like a preschooler, bragging: I wasn’t sca-red?
Then I realize, he is looking at me differently now. His eyes travel slowly down my body like he’s fitting me for a dress.
That’s when I remember that I actually have a body. With legs, and knees, and feet. And so I flee, past the stares and the whispers, up the cracked concrete steps, through the school doorway unevenly painted peach.
“Don’t run into any more tanks on your way to the assembly!” the boy calls after me hoarsely, soliciting more whispers still.
I fly into the dim crowded hallway that smells of chalk and dampness, blushing, thinking, What assembly? But mostly, I am thinking, What was that all about, the way he looked at me?