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No More Pretend

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The pink coat jacket feels all too heavy.  He can still feel the smallness of Anya’s hand in the crook of his arm, the lightness of her touch when she fastened the rose to his lapel.  She had flashed him a smile all at once innocent and enchanted and he hopes the smile he had given her in return had not been too broken.

When the rest of them went back to Sophie’s to prepare for the Russian ballet, he claimed that he needed a walk along the Seine to clear his mind and prepare his introduction for Anya.  Anya made some miffed remarks, but was all at once distracted by Sophie who began babbling about all the requisite accessories Anya must borrow to complete her outfit.  And so they left and he stayed.

He remembers Anastasia as she was years before:  silly and wild and spoiled.  She would steal apples from the kitchen and blame him.  And still he found her irresistible—all wide eyes and self-involved smiles and despite all that, an enormous heart.  He started stealing apples himself and sneaking them into her room using the servants’ entrance.  She once asked him once how he got into her room unnoticed.  “Magic,” he had said.

She had wrinkled her nose.  “I don’t believe in magic.  But I believe in it more than in you having any sort of smarts.”

All those years she seemed amused by him, but he was well-aware of their standings.  He could wish to be with her, catalog her every move, but she could do little more than offer him a pitying smile when he handed her an apple.

When he met Anya, she was more than simply a meal ticket.  It was his chance to recreate the grand duchess, one who valued him as much as he valued her.  Of course, Anya proved herself to be just as defiant as the Anastasia he had loved, which made him adore her even more.  Yet he still refused to love her, so devoted he was to his childhood princess.  But he could pretend.  It was better to pretend than to think that he would never see Anastasia again.

The jewelry box is cold in his hands.  He breathes on it, a white fog clouding aged and smudged gold.  He had even withheld how she escaped from the palace—the one fact that put her ahead of any other imposter—in a pathetic attempt to screw himself over and keep Anya for himself.

Paris is bustling with an assortment of people running around as if not knowing where to go after a musical number.  There is so much color and so much spirit that he feels dull and ordinary.  The pink coat makes an imposter of him; while Anya can wear the color of Paris, he is the drabness of St. Petersburg.

As he walks further, the men have fewer pieces to their suits and the women have louder dresses and he feels all at once in communion with their destitution, but not drunk enough to appreciate it.  Self-pity feels unproductive without alcohol.

He enters a quiet salon with a few dark and lonely men in it, like the last souls waiting in line to be judged in purgatory.  Dimitri saddles up to the bar.  Rows of variously-sized bottles adorn the shelves.  Even alcohol here is decorative.  Finally his eyes rest on a clear bottle.  “Vodka,” he says, glad that in this colorful world of gay excess that at least one thing stays the same.

“Rough day?” The man next to him offers a hoarse chuckle.  He wears an askew tie that matches his dark hair and bloodshot eyes.  “But by the way you carry yourself, I would say a rough life.  Russian?”

Dimitri stiffens.  “American?” he responds in distaste.

“Now, now, Comrade.  Alcohol makes all men equals.”  The man knocks twice on the bar.  “Another gin rickey.”

“I prefer to drink alone.”

“And I prefer witnesses to my misbehavior,” the man answers.  “When the Times offers you ten francs to divulge the intimate details of our night together, I’m sure you will change your tune.”

“I can’t be bought,” Dimitri snaps, too well aware that even a week ago, he could be bought for as little as a kopek, let alone ten francs.

The man tuts gently.  “Any man can be bought.  You simply need to discover the right price.”  The bartender presents both of them their drinks side-by-side.  The man throws enough coins on the table to pay for both.  “Tell me your troubles, Comrade.  I promise I have ones equally horrible and horrifying to share.”

Dimitri takes a sip of his vodka.  Something else that has gotten lost in translation.  “I doubt an American who can afford to drink himself through Paris can hope to match my misfortune.”

The man drinks from his glass thirstily and shrugs.  “So prove me insolent and ignorant.  The truth is in the telling.”

Against his better judgment, Dimitri feels words burgeoning on his tongue.  They plague at him, the feelings of heartsickness. If he doesn’t let them out they will rattle in his chest even more violently and then, inevitably, break his heart even more soundly.

He can’t talk to Vlad about any of this romantic silliness; it would only validate everything Vlad has teased him about for the past month. He certainly can’t talk to Anya.  So he is left with either Pooka or this ugly American.  And Pooka would sooner bite his face off than listen to his emotional angst.

“I fell in love with a princess.  Let me correct myself: a grand duchess of the highest and most beautiful degree. Tonight I will reunite her with her grandmother and I will once again slump into the shadows and become nothing but a hazy daydream.”

The man looks at Dimitri intently for a moment.  “The Princess Anastasia?” he finally says, his voice much too loud.  He rolls his exclamation into a pointed laugh.  “I fear you’ve fallen for an imposter, Comrade.  I personally have encountered over a dozen Anastasias, some more Russian than others, but all devastatingly imaginary.”

Dimitri’s eyes narrow.  “She is the princess.  I have proof.”

“I am sure you do,” the man concurs.  “And this ‘princess’ you’ve fallen in love with—does she love you?”

Dimitri’s hand slips into his pocket, around the pink rose he had stuffed there.  A rose from a princess: gladly taken, sadly hidden.  The petals are still soft against his touch.  “She needs her family’s love—her people’s love—not mine.  And if she does decide to marry, she needs a consort, not a con-man.  There’s nothing I can offer her.”

The man exhales, the distinct smell of gin on his breath.  “Oh, my lovelorn, high-bouncing lover.  A Hippomenes looking for the perfect golden apples to win the hand of his Atalanta.  You must think yourself original.”

Dimitri’s French may be a little rusty, but he could have sworn that the man was speaking Greek.  Dimitri has no patience for pretension.  He does his best to ignore the man and concentrate on his lackluster drink.

Nonplussed, the man continues.  “Let me tell you some things about women.  They are wild and reckless and love you only as much as they love themselves.  They think themselves princesses or dancers and you are hopelessly finding yourself seeking to become worthy of whatever title they have bestowed upon themselves.  And if you exceed them—now, there’s the rub. Beautiful things only grow to a certain height before they fail.”  He takes a long swallow from his glass, the lime slipping from the rim into the gin below.  “But you love them all the same.  Because you have to.”

The man is obnoxious and is adding a headache to Dimitri’s heartache.  “Anya is—she’s nothing like that.  She’s beautiful and funny and earnest and I will never love anyone as I love her.”

A smile bubbles at the man’s lips.  “Earnest, yes. The importance of being, worshipping, dare we say loving.  Another thing a wife has no taste for.”  Another drink, followed by an inelegant burp.

Dimitri reaches for the man’s glass, but he brings it to his lips again before Dimitri can grasp it.  “You drink too little, you’re a prude, you drink too much, you’re a disgrace.”  The ideas are sharp but the words are slurred.  He can’t hold his alcohol—but really, what American can?  “Society values or villianizes the lush, depending on how recent and successful your latest endeavor is.”

“Perhaps you’ve had enough,” Dimitri murmurs.

“Perhaps I’ll decide when I’ve had enough,” the man replies.  “You waste all this time thinking of the past and the future, Comrade.  Nothing is more like the future than the past.”

Dimitri thinks of a young grand duchess who made him fall into a brook and a young woman who made him fall in love with her.  His heart hums.  “That might be the first intelligent thing you’ve said all night.”

“I have my way with words, if you look beneath the iceberg, to borrow a phrase.” the man remarks.  He swirls the last of his gin in his glass before finishing it and tapping the bar for another.  He looks down for a moment and then straight into Dimitri’s eyes. “Will you fight for her?”

Dimitri moves to nod, but his head doesn’t follow through.  “Why does it matter to you?”

“I know what you’re thinking, Comrade.  I’m just a random drunk you’ve met in a bar who knows nothing about you.  It’s true.  I know nothing about you.  But I regretfully know something about the world and human nature.  Money and, even worse, notoriety will change you, Comrade.  You may love her, but do you love her enough to lose yourself?”

Dimitri isn’t sure what’s come over him—disdain, dismissal, or self-deception—but he slides off his stool and adjusts his cuffs as a way of goodbye.  “Thank you for the drink,” he says curtly.

The bartender slides a fresh gin rickey onto the bar.  The man holds his new drink and pauses before he takes a swallow.  “By the way, Comrade,” he calls, “I like your pink suit jacket.  Not many men could pull it off.  It’s…luminous.”

***

Anya is livid when he finally returns.  “Vodka,” she notes with a disdainful nose.  She refuses to look at him as she fixes her make-up in the mirror.  “So that’s where you’ve been all night.  Might I remind you that in two hours we’re about to possibly meet my grandmother and I’d really rather not do so when you smell like cheap vodka.”

He collapses into the sofa behind her.  “Anya, I don’t have the energy for one of your lectures.”

“If you don’t want a lecture, you shouldn’t do anything worth lecturing about,” Anya retorts. When she sees his body cringe, her mouth softens. “I was worried about you. You left so quickly and then I thought—” She looks down so he can’t see her eyes in the reflection of the mirror. "Are you mad at me?"

He looks at her flabbergasted.  “Why would I be mad at you?”

“Too many reasons to count,” she answers too flippantly, back to rouging her cheeks.  “I’m stubborn and I’m mean and worst of all, I can’t even tell if that’s me since I don’t know who I am.”  She gives him a wry glance in the mirror and his soul catches fire.

In that instant, Dimitri knows that the man was wrong.  Anastasia—no, Anya—may be royalty, but most of all, she is real.  Something so real and so lovely that she is worth everything: his life, his love, his inexplicable devotion since childhood.  She gives without taking—she gives and makes him greater.  She is worth risking his heart.

“Anya, who you are now is who you always have and always will be.  A tiara won’t change that.  And anyway,” he adds with a smile, “I could never be mad at you.  Not really.”

She nods as if satisfied by his answer.  They stay there in silence for a while: she paints her mouth, he admires her.  Anya blots her lips and, after a moment of hesitation, speaks.  “You won’t leave me, will you?  If I turn out to be Anastasia?  Will you still love me as Anya?”

For the first time since they got to Paris, her voice hums with earnestness.  She is beautiful, with round eyes and hopeful hands.  He drops his bravado in kind, throwing his truth high in the air, hoping to be caught.  “I think the question is will you still be able to love a simple servant?”  He braces himself for impact.

A thought crosses her mind, something all at once silly and sad.  “Princesses don’t marry kitchen boys,” she murmurs, almost too practiced.

He crashes to the ground, this high-bouncing lover.  His face drops, but he doesn’t let her see it.  He stands.  “I should get dressed.  I’ll see you tonight at the ballet.”

Anya spins around, flustered.  “Dimitri—”

“Your Highness.”  He gives a little bow.  He hasn’t done it since he was a child, but the memory still lives in his bones. When he stands upright, he rummages in his pocket, pulling out an apple he had bought—not stolen—for her.  It is green turning yellow turning red.  He places it on the dresser.  “In case you get hungry.”

She looks at the apple and in that moment of hesitation, he makes his escape.  He doesn’t see her gingerly pick up the apple or watch how she holds it to her chest like she’s clinging to something she doesn’t know she’s lost.

But more than that, he doesn’t realize the most important thing:  he never told her that he had worked in the kitchen.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.