Third place, the 13th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest
"Zhenya. Tell them about how you won the beauty contest," Evan demands.
She frowns around her forkful of eggs. Charlie has cooked us a scramble, and we're brunching late. We stayed up last night drinking vodka and tap water, while the crickets chirped, got tired of chirping and then chirped once more. Charlie and me, we're letting the two of them bunk with us on their way through town - Evan, my little brother, fresh out of the Peace Corps, and Zhenya, who he met there, now here in the U.S. riding out the ragged end of her summer visa.
"Not 'beauty contest,'" Zhenya corrects Evan. "It was a young ladies' pageant."
"You had to wear an evening gown," he counters with that smirk of his. "If you have to wear an evening gown, it's a beauty contest."
She squints at him, a small line like the stem of an exclamation point appearing between her eyebrows. Though her English is near perfect, sometimes she stumbles over a word she doesn't know.
"Gown' means 'dress,'" I explain. "A fancy one."
The line disappears. "Well, yes," she says matter-of-factly. "I wore a fancy dress. A gown. Ugly word, gown," she decides. "It sounds like you swallow your own throat. Gown."
Zhenya takes another bite of scramble. If I squint at her through the pulp-clung top of my orange juice glass, she looks like that movie star, the one in all those hand lotion ads. Perhaps Zhenya should have helped Charlie with brunch you could balance whole eggs on those lofty cheekbones and whip pancake batter to a froth with the tips of those imperious, high-slung breasts.
It's hard to imagine the pageant judges not hungering after her beauty, even if it was against the rules. Just as I hunger after her stories about Siberia; so far away, so exotic, so covered in snow, for Zhenya it is merely home.
And, me. Everything about me is as it's expected to be. I am the dress to Zhenya's gown. In my bedroom is a drawer full of stories, their settings clogged with high school football games, suburban barbeques and tufted cornfields. They're obvious stories written by an obvious girl; everyone has read something like them before.
They have first sentences like: They kiss in the old graveyard, their feet crackling the dried leaves.
Or, The theater will close on Monday. Megan strips the marquee with a long pole, the letters falling around her feet like alphabet soup.
Or, She meant to catch minnows, back when she thought minnows were catchable.
They all end the same way, with the main character (usually a young woman) experiencing revelation (usually among the corn):
The tombstone is cold against her cheek.
Or, As the lights come up she sees the screen. It is blank, white and ready.
Or, She can almost feel them, darting around her toes.
"You'll love this!" Evan barks at me, bringing his fork straight down on his empty plate as if my attention sits there ready for the stabbing. "Tell her what you were judged on," he urges Zhenya.
"We wore the dresses. There was that." She casts a sidelong glance at Evan. "And then, we performed a talent."
"What did you do?" Charlie asks. I lean against him. His shirt smells pleasantly of the fabric softener we both like best.
"My talent was to sing and play the piano." Zhenya mimes hitting keys, her long fingers brushing the tabletop. "Two others sang, also. A girl read a piece of a play. It was not so good. And one danced ballet."
"But then after the talent part, tell them that." She sways gently, and I guess that under the table Evan has nudged her knee with his own.
"Then we had to clean a room - vacuum, dust, like that."
"What decade was this pageant?" I ask loudly.
"Last year." She casts her eyes down. "It's normal there. They want to see the whole part of you."
"The whole part of you, sure," I mutter.
I can imagine Zhenya's stories. Her characters sheathed in dark wool jackets, the collars turned up to hide their mouths, which are red from desperate bouts of kissing to ward off the cold. Every word they speak would make the snow fall harder, as if the flakes wish to clamor about and her what they have to say. Eventually it's piled up to their knees, and they have no choice but to fall back in it and flap their arms, making snow angels.
"And that's not all." Evan grins and throws his arm on the back of her chair. "They narrow it down to Zhenya and one other girl, and they make them compliment each other."
"You compete over compliments?" Charlie asks.
"Yes, sure," Zhenya tells him. "They brought us on stage. It's a fight: I say a good thing about her and then she says a good thing about me. The judges decide who has said the best compliment."
"What'd you say?" Charlie asks.
Zhenya snatches another bite of eggs, swallows and then smiles toothily. "She is first, the other girl. She said, 'You have beautiful hair. It's like a river of gold.'" As she talks, Zhenya pulls the expanse of her own hair self-consciously and loops it into a knot at the back of her neck. "I thought this was so-so, this compliment. I believe I can do better."
"What did you say?" Charlie asks again. We both leaned forward.
"I think she knew she will lose. She is twisting, twisting her hands." Zhenya twists a napkin between her own hands in demonstration. "I feel bad, yes? But I need the prize. So I smile at her and say, "It is an honor that these judges allow me to stand on this stage with you, and if they choose me instead of you, I can think only that it is a large mistake."
"Pretty clever," I tell Zhenya. "After all, what could she say back to that?"
Zhenya looks at us in turn. The irises of her eyes are so pale, some kind of green or gray, that they almost blend in with the whites around them.
"She says, 'The honor is my honor.' The judges ring the bell, and they tell me, I won. The other girl, she stands and smiles, though the tears are almost here." Zhenya lays fingertips beneath her own eyes. "I think she's very brave to smile like that. I couldn't have."
She looks nervously at Evan. "Sure you could," he tells her softly.
Zhenya turns back to Charlie and me, the smile Evan has just predicted now on her face. "I won an exercise machine."
"That was the prize?" I ask. "All that for an exercise machine?"
"I sold it and bought a plane ticket to come here for the summer. With Evan."
Zhenya drops the tattered remains of her napkin, and it lies on the table like a weary moth. She watches the napkin silently; we all watch her.
I heard Zhenya and Evan fighting last night, their words sliding through the plaster cracks in our bedroom wall. They fought mostly in Russian. The language sounded to me like a mess of s's a slush, a susurrus, a shushing. And though I couldn't understand a syllable, I knew the substance of their fight. Zhenya's visa would run out at the end of August, Evan had confided in me that afternoon. She would try to get him to marry her before then. I asked him how he knew that she would try. After all, maybe she didn't want to marry a goblin like him. He smirked knowingly and said that over there they all want it. Well, not it really but out. I shouldn't worry, he said firmly, punching my shoulder. He wouldn't ask her.
And, he wouldn't. Sometime during their fight, I realized I was no longer listening to foreign words but to sobs, and I wasn't quite sure when they had changed from one to the other. Zhenya cried softly, the noise muffled by the wall or perhaps a pillow. In bed next to me, Charlie wheezed in his sleep. I scratched his chest lightly, and, without waking, he threw a sweaty hand over mine.
We discussed this months ago, I heard Evan say in English, louder than her tears. Don't act like you can talk me into it now.
"The other girl, she was very pretty," Zhenya tells us. "Like a doll - blue eyes, a little red mouth. But in the back, behind the curtain of the stage, I saw when she removed her dance shoes. Her toes were black from ..." She whispers something quickly to Evan.
"Bruised," he says. "The word is bruises."