The first Novyi God Kenzi can remember is the last one attended by her father. She doesn't remember the presents, nor the champagne nor the costume they'd dressed her in – pretty white dress with tinsel, sparkling in every photo. She remembers the enormity of the yolka, barely contained between the floor and ceiling of their apartment, dark green thickness reaching up and up, needles cold and sharp to the touch. It was like an otherworldly creature, come in all its magnificence and majesty into her home. She remembers the glass ornaments, how a few of them broke into colorful, reflective shards on the floor. How she kept trying to pick one up and unwrap it, carry it to the tree and hang it herself and instead someone picked her up as soon as she got to the toy chest. Ornament box. They were called igrushki, a word that meant toys and ornaments both. It wasn't fair that she didn't get to play with them, that they were so shiny while being so dangerous.
She doesn't remember the stroke of midnight, the toasting, the celebration, but she remembers her mother crying. In her parents' bedroom, where Kenzi wandered in while her father was setting the table in the living room. She remembers a slight feeling of dismay. As though something wasn't quite right with the world, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Her mother with her head in hands, sitting on the bed looking smaller and more contained than Kenzi was used to. Her mother was movement, arms flailing, voice stern and commanding, heels clicking on the hardwood floor. There was something very wrong about seeing her almost curled in on herself, motionless, hiding her eyes.
Kenzi went back to the living room, where her father picked her up, gave her a deep red sphere with a golden crown and a green thread looped through it. He carried her to the tree and helped her hang it from the nearest branch. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he put her down and went back to getting everything ready.
When Kenzi is thirteen and a half she spends Novyi God with her cousin Pavlik and his friends. She and her mother aren't speaking to each other and she knows where to find Pavlik, three streets across and five blocks down is the park he and his friends always hang out in after dark. He's seventeen, a senior in highschool though he rarely bothers to show up for school. His mom, aunt Katya, spends most of her time working or running errands. It's never been explained to Kenzi, either by her mom nor any other relative, what these errands actually entail, but she's old enough to know it's not all grocery shopping. Pavlik and his parents immigrated a few months after Kenzi and her mom did, and they ended up in the same neighborhood a few years after that. Ever since he was little the guy's spent more weekends at Kenzi's house than at his own. She knows he won't send her home.
Pavlik and his friends are spread out across several park benches, with a bottle of vodka someone probably filched from their parents' freezer packed in a brown paper bag. Everyone's drinking from white plastic cups. Kenzi rolls her eyes; why can't she be related to someone with even a modicum of class? As she walks over, bundled in her giant brown winter coat, she notices the pile of cookie boxes on the floor, next to two jars of pickles. They've really gone all out on the zakus'.
Pavlik nearly chokes on a chocolate chip when he notices her approaching. She gives him a dark look – he can guess why she's here, why she's not home with her mom and fucking Kolya pretending she's never had champagne before so that asshole can feel like he's doing her a favor by pouring her some. Pavlik's expression changes instantly from surprised to delighted. He doesn't say anything, just wraps his arm around her shoulders and walks her over to an empty seat, as his friends – who've all met her before – cheer enthusiastically and pour her a drink. They call her malaya, Pavlik's baby cousin who looks like she's still in grade school. Although they do all call her Kenzi, instead of her real name, which makes forgive them for a lot.
When they pass her a plastic cup she takes a deep breath and downs it in one go. It burns like all hell going down, but she manages not to choke and everyone laughs as Pavlik messed with her hat to try and ruffle her hair.
Kenzi spends Novyi God at home when she's sixteen, to everyone's surprise. The truth is she hasn't really lived in the apartment her mother calls home in the past year. She got tired of fighting with fucking Kolya, who owns real estate in a bunch of shitty neighborhoods in the city and has a house in the suburbs, and watching her mother try to "make peace". Making peace means Kenzi should shut up and be quiet, not raise a fuss, not complain. Not about the way that asshole treats her or her mom. Not about how entitled he feels, strutting into their home like he's gracing them with his presence. Like her entire family should be grateful to him for looking their way. Like her mom should get down on her knees and thank him existing.
The thing is, Kenzi knows it's all partially true. Her mom only speak the language in fits and starts, with a heavy accent. Her diploma, in a field no one in this country's ever heard of, is useless. She's been working shitty job after shitty since they immigrated, praying not be laid off so she can keep them afloat. Some part of Kenzi understands that. There is a grim reality to life, and that reality is that all the English speaking cartoons Kanzi watched as a kid lied to her. Maybe the rich white kids on TV get what they want if they only work hard enough. Everyone Kenzi knows is just struggling to get by and all of them deserve better.
She's watched her mother make compromise after compromise, give up one dream after another for as long as she can remember and deep down she knows if things don't pick up soon the next thing her mother's going sacrifice is Kenzi. Survival means doing everything you can and only having it be enough if you're lucky. Kenzi knows she's old enough to take care of herself. She knows how to extort, rob, charm or guilt a stranger into giving her money – her petite frame and childish looks finally coming in useful and making her an unlikely suspect. She's old enough that the school system will let her go easily, writing her off as another poor, immigrant kid they couldn't save, and aside from freedom and the ability to fend for oneself, what other qualifications for adulthood are there?
Her mother's not getting any younger. She had Kenzi in her early twenties and right now is possibly her last chance to find a steady partner, have another kid. She's skinny and frail, with the same light blue eyes Kenzi knows work miracles on people. Kolya's an asshole, but he's an asshole with means and she's not at all sure he'll stick around and take care of her mom once she starts pushing fifty, but he's the most viable candidate and her mother can not, can not afford to let that go.
Kenzi sits in the living room and sips cheap champagne, and hugs her cousin Alina, newly arrived from the motherland. Little baby Alinochka, the only one in the family younger than Kenzi. Aunt Vera wasn't able to bring her along when they came over five years ago. Alya was too young and the future was too uncertain. She stayed with her grandparents, to be shipped over once Vera and her husband found steady employment and a place to stay. It's Alya's first Novyi God with her extended family, and Kenzi's mom's living room is packed full of relatives.
For Kenzi this is a turning point. A litmus test. Most of her relatives are here, most of her options in life. She can stay and try to live with her mom for a few more years, maybe try to salvage her school career and apply to some kind of community college. Get a certificate and work as a secretary or a nurse's aid or whatever the fuck they'll let her do. But no, that's ridiculous. That's never, ever going to be her.
Kenzi's going to leave, and fend for herself and make the best of her life, shitty parts and all. If there's one thing her mother's taught her it's that you don't get do-overs or second chances. You live once, for better or worse, and every second is yours to squander. Kenzi's not planning on wasting a single moment.
By the time Kenzi's twenty she's basically working for her cousin Dima. He's uncle Borya's son, Pavlik's age but his family lived way across town when Kenzi was growing up. He's a year younger than Pavlik and the two hate each other with a passion. Every family gathering Pavlik acts like Dima's a geek and a loser and Dima acts like Pavlik's the biggest poser he's ever met. Kenzi just sits back and enjoys the interaction.
Dima's good with electronics – hardware as well as software – but terrible with people. He and his older brother Yura are sort of similar that way, except Yura actually decided to go to college and become an engineer. All her aunts and uncles adore him.
Kenzi lends her skills to Dima's operations: being a sales girl, a negotiator and an all around adorable smart mouth that no one can say no to. She uses the full extent of her flirting skills to get clients to go her way, but knows to avoid danger and unwelcome advances. People see her and think she can't stand up for herself. She's too smart to let them get away with it. She and Dima make excellent money and he never tries to con her out of her share.
She goes out on Novyi God that year, to some New Year's party at a club downtown. Gets a bunch of guys to buy her drinks – she's not paying for her own tonight, thank you – dances around under the strobe lights. Somehow she finds herself back at her ratty one bedroom apartment close to midnight. (She's making enough to have a place of her own but not enough to have that place be nice. It's OK, she's just started out. She'll have something in a swankier part of town in a year or two, if Dima's business keeps up.)
She doesn't have a real tree, but she does have one of those tiny plastic ones, pre-decorated with tiny ornaments. She pours herself a glass of champagne and watches the lights twinkle across the street.
She thinks back on the first Novyi God she remembers. Remembers the faint picture of her dad she still has in her head. Barely a silhouette of a face. He must have known, while he helped her to hang ornaments. He and her mom must have been having conversations about leaving for months beforehand. She doesn't know the details, but she knows he didn't want to go. His whole life was there. He had no idea what he'd do with himself in a country he'd never been to, where he didn't know anyone. His wife was going to leave him and take his daughter with her but he still refused to go.
Kenzi doesn't know what to think of him. She wishes she'd known him at some point in her life and simultaneously wishes he'd never existed. Can't keep herself from wondering, for a few moments while the champagne bubbles burst in the mug she's using for a glass, how different her life would have been if he'd come with them. But it's a lie, and she knows it. He wasn't some perfect parent she was deprived of, he was a guy who gave up on his family because he was afraid. Her mom had been the courageous one, much good though it did her.
Kenzi drinks the champagne and listens to the clock tick past midnight. "S novym godom," she says, raising her glass at the window, drinking to the city outside.
"So, wait, you put up a tree for New Year's?" Bo says, while unpacking a shopping bag full of colorful, plastic ornaments.
"Yeeaaaah," Kenzi says, "it's kind of a thing. We don't have to do the whole Ded Moroz-Snegurochka-costume-party-red-star-on-the-yolochka thing, I just thought a little something might be fun."
Bo takes the last giant snowflake out of the bag and smiles. "Are there presents?" Before Kenzi can answer she goes on. "Because let me tell you, I am probably never doing Christmas again, because there's nothing like seventeen years of a staunch religious upbringing to turn you off a dude's birthday, but I really do miss the presents."
Kenzi gives her a look.
"And, OK, also the lights and the tree," Bo concedes. "But mostly the presents. I like giving people presents this time of year!"
"Well, that's great! Because I love getting presents, pretty much any time of year," Kenzi smirks and Bo rolls her eyes at her.
"Fine, you get a tree and I'll invite Dyson and Hale," Bo says.
"First of all, how is little old me supposed to carry a whole tree in here?" Kenzi says, scandalized. "And second, what, no doctor Lauren?"
Bo sighs. "Fine, I'll get the tree, and you invite everyone."
"Ooh, can I invite that dude from the coffee shop you met last week--"
"No one I've slept with, Kenzi!" Bo says, pick up her stuff to head back out the door. Kenzi won't even stoop to such an obvious joke. It's beneath her skills. It takes a second for Bo's words to make it to Bo's brain and she grimaces and adds, "no one I've slept with recently, please."
Kenzi nods. "You got it, roomie."
Bo goes out to get them a tree and Kenzi picks up her phone and starts dialing. After she's done with all the usual suspects she calls Dima. She asks him how he's doing and he says he's fine. He almost got busted recently but he managed to get out of it at the last minute. She asks about Pavlik, who she hasn't talked to for ages and Dima snorts and says the guy is still an idiot so it's same old, same old. She doesn't ask about her mom, though Dima's dad has certainly spoken to her more recently than Kenzi has.
After that she calls Bo and goes, "we need a big star."
"A big, shiny, red star! We need to put that thing at the top of the tree, don't you know anything? Get one you can plug in, something that'll really brighten up the place."
"Are you making this up?" Bo sounds short of breath, like she's been carrying something heavy uphill in the snow for the last hour. Which isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"No, I swear, Bo! We have to have that fucking star! I'll check online and text you stores that sell them. I'm sure there's one or two in the city." She hangs up before Bo can protest.
After that she orders pizza with Bo's favorite toppings and googles the relevant information, sending it to Bo's phone. She's never paid anyone with pizza for getting her an awesome yolochka before, never hosted her own Novyi God party, never had a counter top in her own place with a pile of plastic tree ornaments on them.
It's time to start some new holiday traditions.