The Other Olenski Girl
Gomel – October, 1988
Joseph could really use a friend, even a fake one. His bastard daughter was dying of leukemia at the pediatric oncological center in Minsk. The classical regimen of chemo that had successfully sped up the deaths of so many Belarusian children and teenagers was liquefying Anastasia’s vital organs without doing much damage to the malignant blasts in her bone marrow. After about a week of trying to hammer the cancer into remission, the doctors pulled the IV needle out of her arm. All in all, they felt petty handing her the death sentence along with one free long-distance phone call.
After getting the news, Joseph spent the night pacing around the apartment with his hands locked behind his head.
“Give me your cousin’s number in Smolensk,” he asked Antonia, who was in the process of applying makeup for an upcoming concert.
“It’s no skin off my back, but I don’t see how this can be of any use. Sergei is not an oncologist.”
“But he’s well connected.”
“Connections are useless when you are dealing with cellular biology. It’s always the same treatment protocol, and the same outcome. So she’ll spend her final days in a fancier hospital with brand new tiles on the floor. Is it really worth the jostling?”
Joseph yanked the powder puff out of her hand. “Will you stop painting your muzzle for a second? A child is dying here.”
“Children are dying all over the country, in case you haven’t noticed. Still, there are worse things than being dead. Nicholas and Galina had a lobster. Did you know that?”
Joseph looked perplexed. “A lobster…you mean, for dinner?”
“No, you moron. Galina gave birth to a baby with deformed hands that look like lobster claws. There’s a fancy name for it—ectrodactyly. Which is a crying shame, because supposedly the kid has a great musical ear. He’d make a great pianist. I don’t know of any composers who write for lobster hands. What can you do? An entire generation is screwed.”
“Screwed, huh? That’s all you have to say?”
“What do you want me to say? Hey, at least I was able to save my child.” Antonia raised her manicured finger like a referee on a soccer field. “Let’s not forget the sacrifices I made. I put my career on hold to get Maryana to safety. Have you done anything for Anastasia? No. Then why does it surprise you that she’s dying?”
Joseph released the powder puff in disgust. “You’ll answer for your words before God!”
“Oh, please.” Antonia resumed grooming her eyebrows. “You were the one who fathered the girl and stuffed her in an orphanage. I tolerated her existence, always turning the blind eye, always taking the high road, without as much as a venomous comment. And now you’re threatening me with your God? That’s Polish logic, I suppose. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get ready for my concert.”
Maryana was sitting in the kitchen, just a few meters away. She could hear every single word. The sound of her parents arguing was music to her ears. They were so busy insulting each other, they would not yell at her for failing an algebra test. With any luck she would end up like the girl next door whose parents were divorced and never checked her homework.
As soon as Antonia was out the door, Joseph went into the kitchen to open the bottle of vodka he had gotten as a birthday present. He noticed that the table was covered with modeling paper, sequins, sparkling streamers left over from the New Year’s celebration and magazine cutouts. There was no paper glue in the house, so Maryana was using the pungent industrial kind.
“I’m making a get-well card for Anastasia,” she explained. “What should I write on it?”
That was when Joseph lost it. He grabbed the bottle with glue and squirted the content over his daughter’s head, rubbing it into her hair.
“She’s not going to get better, you troll! You’re saying this fucked up shit to mock me. You and your mother are two heartless kikes!”
Maryana grabbed a pair of crafts scissors and pointed them against her father’s navel.
“Stop it, Papa Josey, or I’ll spill your guts.”
Joseph dropped the empty glue bottle and crawled into a corner, covering his face and bawling. Maryana stood over him, with sparkles and shreds of color paper stuck to her hair.
“Take me to see Anastasia.”