Sara Marzana grew up in Italy, lived in the US and the UK, where she received her M.A. in Literature from the University of Essex. Not long ago, she took the courage to delve into her conscience like a salmon in the Pacific Ocean and started writing. She also reads a lot, teaches English, and breaks free on the trapeze. She takes pleasure in all things absurd like life itself. Her first short story, ‘Dinner with Godot,’ has appeared in Storgy Magazine. Her literary articles have appeared in the Durham University Postgraduate English Journal, and Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal.
When she walked to the subway at 9 a.m., Moscow looked as dark as the black forest in children stories, where the heroine is about to be in real danger and someone has to come and save her. It was December, the gloomiest month of the year. The streets were ruthless, brimming with hard- working Russians hoping to withstand another day without sunlight.
Her details were all gathered in a black folder — along with alias docs, forged university degrees, counterfeited conference passes and financials. They had set up a quite impressive CV for her — it even mentioned an award for best choreographer, won in the third year of her major in Ballet.
She had completed her training a few months back, working on each trait that could evince vulnerability, wiping out every mannerism that could have exposed her for who she was. While learning to speak fluent Russian and Chinese, she had mastered defensive tactics, investigative techniques, and taken dozens of polygraphs pretending to be anyone but herself.
That morning, listening to Tchaikovsky, she carefully revised every detail of her past, shaved, and began her first day on the job. As she pushed the heavy wooden door of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy open, a gust of sharp wind entered the hall and with that, the new face of the Russian American Foundation. Two seemingly gracious choreographers over forty showed her around for the next half an hour, moving through the school’s corridors like soldiers through a dancing field.
“And this is your office,” said Karine eventually.
She omitted that she understood her language perfectly. “Great. Thank you. I’ll start working now, if it’s ok with you.” “No need. There’s a training to attend first.”
“I’m the new Coordinating Director.”
“Overseas,” said Manya.
“We do things differently here.”
“Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“No one can work here without a proper training.” “I hope it won’t be a problem,” said Karine.
For the next five days, she had tea with them, attended their classes, and went to meetings with their Coordinating Director. They weren’t a fun bunch, but the way they stepped on each other’s toes — a sort of hierarchical tip-tap they all knew how to dance — was key to understand who had the most to lose in that institution.
Once in her dim one-bedroom apartment, she turned on her laptop and typed everything she had noticed throughout the day in the draft folder of the email account they had given her, a form of communication that didn’t leave any trace, for no email was actually sent. When she got hungry she microwaved a Campbell’s soup, or, if she was feeling crazy, heated up some instant ramen noodles.
Before going to bed, she read at least twenty pages of a book that told the story of the Bolshoi Theatre. It wasn’t particularly useful to her job, gathering information about a possible internal theft at the expense of the Foundation, but learning that the theatre had been first built as a foundling home by Catherine II — with the purpose of teaching the orphans how to dance — led her to appreciate the spirit of the country she was now living in in a radical, more instinctive way.
On the day she was supposed to finally start working, she arrived only a few minutes beforehand, avoiding breakfast with Manya and Karine — the school’s eyes and hears. Walking past the reception, she opened her office door with the fierce determination of someone who, flustered by the irretrievable and fleeting nature of time, didn’t want to waste anymore of it.
“Good mor… excuse me, who are you?” she said, looking at the man standing in front of her desk.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Shor. Приятно познакомиться. I am Ivan Novikov, your collaborator.”
She held his gaze. “Nice to meet you.” “Pleasure is all mine.”
She didn’t know how, but they had managed to put an extra desk, an extra chair and another wooden coat stand in that nook. Once they both sat down, they started frantically typing on their keyboards, pretending not to be shaped by the power dynamics they had just sealed with their handshake. He answered every call right away — on the first ring — with a gently rigorous tone that bothered her like a bull is bothered by the movement of a cape, be it red, white, or green.
“Don’t take it personally,” he said, when they both left the office. “It’s standard procedure.” “You must be used to a very low standard.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, looking at her skeptical yet pleased.
That same evening, walking home, she entered a liquor store and bought a bottle of vodka. It was New Year’s Eve. She wasn’t on the job, but she still felt guilty about it. The idea was to drink it ice cold while eating her dinner, like Russians do. She opened a bag of fresh salad and washed it in the sink, dried it, cut some tomatoes and put everything into a glass bowl.
The first sip of vodka threw her off — it was like swallowing pure truth. The alcohol came so rapidly to her throat, that she startled herself as she instantly filled her glass again. She definitely wanted more. That’s the thing about those who indulge in nothing — they can only take it so far before they’ll end up wanting everything.
For the following weeks, she worked alongside Ivan. Not one touch, they never brushed against each other. Not even when they occasionally got up at the same time and headed for their lunch break. It was as if their selfhood had been encircled by an insurmountable line that none of them could cross. She hardly ever smiled at him, until she realised she wouldn’t have been able to get all the information she sought without him coming closer, even a little.
One evening, she saw him walking to his car, and stood by the entrance a little longer than she needed to.
He greeted her and called her name. She waved, casually.
“Do you want to get dinner?” he said, approaching her. “Yes,” she said, pulling back.
“Can I go home first?”
“Sure, I should do the same.”
“Where do we meet?”
“Cafe Pushkin, 8.30.”
“I know the chef. Should I pick you up?”
“I’d rather take the subway, thanks.”
“I’ll meet you there then. Don’t forget to bring a tough umbrella. It will rain soon, and weak
umbrellas end up like meteorites.”
Since she was young, the more she cared about how she looked, the less effort she put into it. Just the thought that whoever she wanted to impress could have guessed her intention, or noticed she was making an effort in that direction, was intolerable. So she did the exact opposite, she wore clothes that would have been suitable for — say — a conference on the chemical compounds of uranium. With time, it had become her modus operandi in the unlikely event of a date. Eventually she perfumed her neck, her décolletage and her wrists.
He didn’t ask her anything about her life, her career, or the city she was living in before moving to his country, while they were eating their pike caviar with baked potato. He might have guessed it was NY, that’s where the Foundation’s headquarters are, but he showed no desire to find out. Accidentally, that added to the list of things that drew her towards him.
As far as her assignment was concerned, she was progressing more than she was admitting to herself. She could have been ready to leave by the end of the month. Her time to bring up a family emergency and flee the country was getting closer. Maybe a decent level of satisfaction was unreachable on her first job (everybody knows how “firsts” are), but she wasn’t just afraid of failing. Sometimes she even forgot about having to go back, which wasn’t that common. Even if she wasn’t able to grasp what was going on, acting on it would have been the only thing to do. She had grown wary of the effect that speculative thought had on her, like a labyrinthine impasse that numbed her senses before she could even realise it.
It was action, always action, that got her through.
On a misty Friday morning, she asked Ivan: “What are your plans for the weekend?” “That’s such an American question.”
“Is it, now?”
“What is it with your people and planning?”
“You still haven’t answered me.” “I don’t plan.”
“Do you cook?”
“That, I do.”
“I could cook for you.”
“For this American?”
“If you text me your address.”
Giving her a post-it after scribbling something on it, he touched the palm of her hand. She googled it right away.
Before getting out of her apartment that evening, she hid everything remotely important in her safe. She wouldn’t let him take her home, but if he did insist, she wouldn’t let him pass the front door. To motivate herself, she had placed her gun under her pillow, like women who don’t shave when they don’t want to have sex on their first date.
The street felt icy, slick, and unsettling beneath her black leather boots. Amongst the thousands of reasons why she shouldn’t have gone to his house, there was one overshadowing them all — she was longing for it.
His apartment was immaculate. Not one thing looked out of the ordinary. Everything seemed to be in its right place. There was a struggle for realness in every detail of the frame, but even more so in the whole. It didn’t look aseptic or impersonal, just unreal.
He took her coat as she walked in, cautiously — while she listened to the sound that each one of her steps made on the parquet. The dining table was covered by a canary yellow tablecloth, where porcelain dishes and bottles of vodka had been laid out at both ends. She had read that Russians didn’t like old things — like old buildings, for instance. If they could, they destroyed them and built new ones on the spot, with ready made doors and windows. New means wealth, old means decline. But he didn’t look like most Russians, he didn’t look like most people — like nothing she had read, heard or seen before.
“I don’t usually drink,” he said, noticing her staring at the bottles. “But I don’t usually have company either.”
Is that his bedroom? she wondered, taking a look at the door at the end of the hallway.
“I hope you like Pelmeni.”
“I didn’t know which kind of meat you preferred, so the filling is a mix of beef, lamp and pork.” “Never tried them before.”
“Food is the last thing I’d lie about.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Where have you learned to speak such good English?”
“Here and there.”
As they were still standing, he opened the palm of his hand and pointed towards the table,
inviting her to sit.
“Should we play some music first?” she asked. “Maybe later?”
“Perfect,” she said.
A few hours after dinner, she was staring at the first edition of Dostoevsky’s Demons, standing in front of his library, when he put his arms around her.
Two years. It had been two years since a man had touched her, in any way — inwardly, outwardly, or both. She didn’t have a problem with being touched, though she trusted distance more than proximity and her relationship to intimacy could have been defined as a ‘balance’ in poker terms. She played very different hands in the same way, aiming at making it more difficult for her opponent to gather information about her cards.
Every time she sensed someone was drawing near her, approaching her in any way, she took it upon herself to dissuade, elude, divert. She was trained for it, but it wasn’t the reason why she excelled at it. It was a seed, that she had took the time to nourish and cultivate. Eventually, it had become part of her being, like answering a question with another question, memorising the path to the nearest emergency exit, and never, ever, giving the impression that she was taken aback.
“Where’s your bedroom?” she asked.
He led the way and she followed him right away.
The walls were painted in red, and the ceiling was black. The shutters were closed, but the big window was open. He promptly shut it, then pushed her on the bed.
She stared at him, then stood up, raised her eyebrows, and pushed him back.
“You’re strong,” he said. “You have no idea.”
She took a taxi home and showered. When she woke up, he aimlessly slipped into her thoughts, she had foreseen that. That’s why she had set herself to clean the entire apartment, before writing: “More juice coming up” in her draft folder.
It was snowing when she woke up on Monday. Ravishing young women were walking down the street with their black miniskirts and dark sheer tights. Since arriving to the country, Russian women had seemed to her the most undervalued form of resilience that Russia could have ever asked for. With their long legs, their bright polo necks, the strength with which they tackled the harshness of their surroundings, the fierce acceptance with which they abide by rules they had never agreed on — they were miraculous.
Ivan wasn’t there when she opened the door to their office.
Half an hour later, Karine and Manya came in and asked her to step out.
“Someone wants to talk to you.” “Who?”
“We’ll take on.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
Two men were waiting for her as she shut the door behind her. “Dina Shor?”
“Can you show us your passport, please?”
They squared her up for a minute.
“It’s in the changing room. My locker.”
“We’ll follow you.”
After taking a good look at it, they asked a few questions.
For the last one she hadn’t rehearsed any answer.
“Why would I carry a gun?” she asked.
“We’ll be in touch,” said one of the two, before they both turned their back on her.
That afternoon she went home early, scanned her apartment for traces of bugs, but couldn’t find any. Pondering on whether to report it to her boss right away or flee the country without leaving a trace, she sat at the kitchen table. She was almost certainly under surveillance. She just had to decide whether to risk her own life for her career, or vice versa.
Opening her toothpaste to brush her teeth, a tiny piece of paper fell out of the cap. She unfolded it and saw a minuscule note. Before reading it, she looked to the right, to the left, and behind her. As if someone could just jump out of the tub, or jump in from the window. ‘I shouldn’t act like I’m being watched’, she thought to herself.
There was no restriction on her visa at the airport. Maybe it’s not all over, she said to herself as she embarked on the plane. She had flushed the toilet after folding the note into pleats, setting the accordion on its end atop the toilet bowl water and lighting it on fire. Though she didn’t need to save it to remember.
It struck her as the realest thing she had ever heard him say, “I’m sorry”.
From the Editor:
We hope that readers receive In Parentheses as a medium through which the evolution of human thought can be appreciated, nurtured and precipitated. It will present a dynamo of artistic expression, journalism, informal analysis of our daily world, entertainment of ideas considered lofty and criticism of today’s popular culture. The featured content does not follow any specific ideology except for that of intellectual expansion of the masses.
Founded in late 2011, In Parentheses prides itself upon analysis of the current condition of intelligence in the minds of these young people, and building a hypothesis for one looming question: what comes after Post-Modernism?
The idea for this magazine stems from a simple conversation regarding the aforementioned question, which drew out the need to identify our generation’s place in literary history.
To view the types of work we typically publish, preview or purchase our past issues.