When I entered the bedroom for the first time since childhood, I recoiled at the sight I encountered. Framed pictures of me graced the table, the chest of drawers, and the wall. For the most part they were yellowed advertisements cut from newspapers, showing me using my curves to peddle everything from stain removers to car parts. I’d sent the pictures to my mother as proof of my modeling work, assuming they would end up in a scrapbook, but Mom had turned them into a full-room shrine with eye-catching splashes of color and mark-down percentages competing for attention. There was nothing in these pictures to celebrate, let alone remember with pride. They made me ill.
After removing the clippings from the walls, I swept the pictures on the chest of drawers into my arms and shoved the whole lot into the closet. On top of the pile lay a yarn ad featuring skeins that glowed with all the colors of a crackling fire.
By suppertime, the pictures were back in their places—even the chestnut puree ad, which I despised. My mother’s swiftness astonished me. She had managed it while I was outside inspecting the garden with my aunt. When my aunt entered the bedroom, she put a hand on my back and whispered that I shouldn’t deny a mother the right to be proud of her children. I couldn’t tell her how wrong everything had gone. My aunt looked at me and gave me a squeeze.
“We’re expanding the plantings, and Ivan is helping, so we’re fine,” she said. “I’m so glad we have you home again, Olenka.”
My aunt had aged, as had my mother. The dog standing guard in the yard was new. Otherwise nothing had changed since I left. A stork’s nest still sat on top of the electric pole, though the birds had already flown south, and there were still dead men’s jackets hanging next to the front door. One was my father’s, and the other belonged to his sister’s deceased husband. According to my aunt, it was good for visitors to think we had men in the house. We’d moved in with her after my father’s funeral, and now I had returned to this house of lonely widows where we gave each other flowers on Women’s Day. That thought made me ask my aunt whether Boris was still making his horilka. As she fetched a bottle, I finally changed my shoes for galoshes. They were new and lightweight, maybe silicone. Bought for me, presumably.
The next morning, I walked to the bus stop and looked to see what was visible through the cracks in the garden fence and over it from farther down the road. There was nothing to attract attention, and no one would come to inspect this plot of land by chance. The situation might be different once the flowers were blazing red. But my aunt was right, we would need more poppies. I was an extra mouth to feed, and the previous evening I had already ordered us some thirty-liter canisters of drinking water. Abroad I’d become accustomed to drinking water constantly and had completely forgotten the state of the wells here. I didn’t know how I would pay for my order. I would have to abandon the way we models keep our weight in check. A thicker waist was the least of my worries.
I didn’t want my aunt to seize on Ivan’s suggestions—to borrow money from him and not to increase the size of the poppy fields—even though I trusted him and his desire to help. A tall field of corn could conceal even a large flower planting, and our hired hand, Boris, could handle the expansion. He was Ivan’s brother and like a son to my aunt. Still, I didn’t want us any more dependent on the gang Ivan worked for and to whom he delivered the compote derived from the poppies. I hadn’t planned a future like this for us. We wouldn’t even be talking about poppies if my face had paid off. We would have closed the compote kitchen, and I would have built my aunt a new house in place of the old one or bought an apartment in the city. They never would have needed to worry about every sign of instability that might affect their already insufficient pension payments.
I’d claimed that homesickness had brought me back. I don’t know who believed that, though. I hadn’t been able to send money for years. I had to fix this situation. I had to find work.
I began to visit the city to look for job postings. Often a bevy of girls brimming with hope and emitting clouds of perfume rode the same bus to the Palace, where bride shows were held for foreign bachelors in the conference rooms. As their destination approached, the girls with short hair would add more hairspray, and the girls with longer locks would grab their brushes, whose strokes fell in time with the rhythmic clinking of lipstick tubes, powder cases, and pocket mirrors. I’d spent years in back rooms full of similar dreams of bright futures; only the scent cloud on this bus also contained the stench of rancid rouge. The girl sitting behind me was powdering her cheeks with a puff that hadn’t been washed in years, and many of the girls’ dresses featured patterns familiar from the pelts of wild cats. I listened to their conversations and wondered whether I’d have to try my luck the same way, even though I knew none of us was any more likely to find Prince Charming abroad than here. These girls didn’t know that yet, though, and their excited voices reminded me of my own escape to Paris. I’d been nervous, too, and afraid that I might do something wrong. I’d also wanted more than my home could offer. I knew this road.
Once we arrived, the flock of girls fluttered out, leaving the smell of old cosmetics and young hair as they click-clacked arm in arm toward the hotel. Business was clearly booming, and that made me think of something that might help.
On the way to the Internet café, I stopped to inspect the weathered flyers attached to the electric poles, trying to pick out any companies that seemed like bride agencies. If I couldn’t find the solicitations I was looking for on the poles, power boxes, or phone booth walls—or online—I would have to waste money on newspapers and go through their help-wanted pages.
But I was in luck.
The agencies weren’t looking only for brides, they also needed multilingual women to work as interpreters. I tore off all the phone number flaps fluttering at the bottom of one flyer. Then, after a moment’s consideration, I removed the entire leaflet from the pole, as well as a couple of others, to reduce my competition. I decided to begin my calls that day. I couldn’t fail. I was more than qualified. Hope bloomed like a flower, the brushes of its petals on my cheeks restoring the self-confidence I’d lost.
I landed an interview the next day, but I didn’t get the job. Instead of giving up, I simply swung my hair and arranged another. The mood of the girls racing to the city on the bus was infectious, and there was no shortage of bride agencies. There were three on Lenin Prospekt alone, as well as on Sovetskaya and Moskovskaya. I would get to know the industry, save what I could, and maybe someday manage to set up my own business—perhaps one that would offer tips for winning the hearts of Ukrainian women, helping to choose personal gifts for one’s ladylove. We would remind men that a gentleman should bring flowers, offer his arm, open doors, and help his date out of the car. Or maybe I could search for faces suitable for Western magazines and open a modeling school in one of the many million-plus cities of Siberia, where nationalities had blended in unique combinations because of the camps. I always used to lose out to those girls, with blood from every corner of the Soviet Union—Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Asia, many of the indigenous peoples. However, a plan like this required capital, and that I did not yet have. Soon I would, though.
I was on my way to the bus station when a vaguely familiar girl ran after me. Greeting me, she said she’d seen me in the queues at the bride agencies. She had also been trying her luck there. Today she’d applied as a bride at the same agency where she’d also applied for a secretarial position.
“At least it doesn’t cost anything,” she said. “You should do it, too.”
“I don’t know.”
I dug out of my bag the ads I’d been collecting, to ask her for tips about the different companies, but before I could ask my questions, she shook her head.
“What do you mean?”
Then I listed the languages that I spoke at least passably. I knew English, French, Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, German, and even a little Finnish. Foreign words had always stuck in my head easily. I was probably the most linguistically talented woman in the whole oblast, where there was even a shortage of English speakers.
“You’ll find a husband in no time.”
“I don’t want to get married. I want to be an interpreter. Or maybe a visa agent.”
The girl laughed and pulled her boots up toward her thighs. Her skirt was short. I realized I had dressed wrong for today. I should have been showing off my other assets.
“My cousin’s friend is an assistant at a company that was just looking for an interpreter. She told me who got the job,” the girl said. “Some girl who’s dating the boss’s son.”
Looking up at the tangled web of trolleybus wires, I wished for a drink. Nothing ever changed in this country.
“And yet you keep going to interviews.”
“You have to try everything. Maybe the owner’s son will drop by the office while I’m there and fall in love with me. That’s how my cousin’s friend got her job, too.”
The girl fluffed her hair and gave me a wink. Pulling a pack of slim cigarettes out of my bag, I offered one to her. I was anxious at the thought of returning to that room contaminated by all those ads with my picture in them. I suspected I’d have to live there longer than anticipated. My aunt had called all her acquaintances, as had my mother and Ivan. Everyone promised to tell us immediately if they heard about a suitable job. No one had gotten back to us yet, though.
“You can make a good living in travel documents. You could set up your own visa agency,” the girl said, “but for that you need connections and a fat wallet. I have a better idea.”
“Okay, spill it.”
“They need pretty faces at protests. You get paid right then, and they take everyone who wants to do it.”
I vaguely remembered my mother mentioning this. After the Orange Revolution, ads had begun appearing on the electric poles seeking participants for demonstrations. The nature of the events always remained unclear. But the pay was the most important piece of bait, and they always mentioned that.
“My brother makes a little in the screamers.”
“You haven’t heard of them? The work is almost the same as marching in protests but louder, and they have to rehearse. Actually, it’s more for men. You have a boyfriend, don’t you?”
I shook my head.
“Then come with me to carry banners. Sometimes the bus rides are long, and I could use the company. Call me if you’re interested.”
The girl rummaged in her pocket for a ripped ad, wrote her phone number on the back, and handed it to me. My throat tightened. I would have liked to invite her for coffee and cognac, but she was in a hurry to pick up her child from day care, and her marshrutka was around the corner and would leave as soon as the seats in the van were full.
At home a mood of panic greeted me. Boris sat rocking in the corner, his hands covering his head. My mother and aunt were still in their funeral clothes, which they’d put on that morning to travel to the burial of a distant relative. I thought something must have happened at the funeral, until I found out what was wrong. The compote kitchen was empty. Even the television was gone. We’d been robbed. The house had been left unguarded for just a moment before Boris came to work, and that had been a mistake.
I wasn’t worried about the thieves. Ivan would track them down and make sure they understood they had touched the wrong people, knocked out the wrong people’s dog. That wouldn’t bring the compote back, though. I remembered the love with which Boris had watched over the poppies’ darkening pods, how well he’d cared for them and his kitchen. The robbers had taken the best stuff in the oblast. Nothing remained.
Excerpted from Dog Park by Sofi Oksanen Copyright © 2021 by Sofi Oksanen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.