When Viktor wins his first gold in Juniors, the interviews start rolling in. Whispers of his prodigal talents made way into thunderous applause as he stepped out onto the ice and dominated the competition.
They ask for his autographs, they ask for his future plans, they ask how many medals does he intend to win this season. Everyone wants to know. He is the hottest thing on the ice right now and everyone is scrambling to discover what makes this uprising star twinkle and shine.
“Where did you learn how to skate?”
Young Viktor Nikiforov’s cheeks are flushed with victory and his smile is bright but also carefully, carefully orchestrated as he answers “Skating has always been a part of my life ever since I was little. I learned how to fall on the ice before I even learned how to crawl!”
Charmed and smitten, the reporters laugh and uses it as the article’s attention grabbing quote. It is lighthearted banter, it’s easy to latch onto. It says everything but nothing at all about Viktor. They move on to the next round of questions.
Viktor doesn’t tell them about his earliest memory: a frozen pond near an off-beaten track in the woods, the tiniest pair of ice skates, his parents quarreling over the proper way to fall safely on ice.
Papa’s large hands covering his own feels like an anchor and a steady support as his feet, still not used to the friction-less surface, tremble unsurely with hesitant steps. Patient and encouraging of every conquered step, he picks up Viktor every time he wobbles like a gawky newborn penguin chick. Viktor is making fast friends with the ice and mortal enemies with gravity. Mama is demonstrating how to clumsily ‘fall’ against someone and steal from their pockets while apologizing and brushing off the snow.
“Whyyyy would he need to learn that?”
“I don’t question why Viktor would need to steal something. I only prepare him for the day that he does.” She takes Viktor’s misshapen mittens into her petite but nimble hands. “Now remember the fight that led to the second powerplay in last night hockey game, Vitya?”
“How ta guy didn’t protect his sides? And dere was blood on da ice?”
“Yup, that’s the one. Here, I’m going to show you how to force someone to lose their balance while you throw a punch.”
“He doesn’t need to know that either!” Papa moans in protest.
"I wanna learn! I wanna try it out!” Viktor’s voice rings in the cold air, happy and childlike.
“That’s what I like to hear! See?”
“Ok sure. But he is like 3-”
“3 and a couple of months old, my mistake.” Papa sighs, a remnant from a long-fought battle with a toddler that’s insistent on the correct terminology. As if those extra months really did anything to change how young his fledgling son was. “Maybe we should ease up on the slightly-less-than-legal things that Viktor learns while he’s little. You know? Like give him a regular life?”
“You say this like we shouldn’t impart our son with the survival skills he needs to live in this fickle and uncaring life. He’s bound to get himself in some sort of trouble.” She bends down to steady her tottering son, who tried to do a spin but his feet couldn't catch up to the ideas in his head. “Or trouble will find him. Either way. Better to prepare him the best we can.”
For a long moment in the winter air over an icy pond, Viktor’s dad was contemplative, then accepting.
“Ok. Baby steps, then. Quite literally in Viktor’s case. He should master how to tie his shoelaces before he does anything more…dexterous. We should focus on developing his communication abilities and people talking skills first.”
“Well sure, but I doubt that he can just talk someone to handling over their wallet.”
Viktor knows this part well. He throws his hands in the air the same way that his Papa does, all exasperated and baffled like.
“It’s like you want him to grow up to live a life of crime!”
Like always, Papa and Mama dissolve into a dispute about the merits of using natural charisma vs practiced thievery to steal from a mark.
Meanwhile, Viktor had successfully made it past ten steps on his own, but had forgotten all his lessons on how to stop and continued forward until the snowbank promptly put an end to his progress. He doesn’t like the coldness of the snow sinking into his bones but compared to the ice’s unyielding surface, he can learn to accept the snow’s cushy embrace.
Papa is the best. He makes the tastiest blini and laughs at Viktor’s clumsily folded pelmeni but then he teaches him how to pinch the sides and close the dough to seal the filling. He dusts the hot chocolate with cinnamon and shows Viktor how to appreciate the drizzle of syrup topping his ptichye moloko cake.
He likes playing Pretend which Viktor adores, it’s his favorite. And Papa is very, very good at this game.
“The trick to getting what you want,” he says, his son’s eyes watching diligently as deft fingers shape the ribbon into a picture perfect bowtie. “is presentation.”
Papa is entirely remarkable because he looks so completely and unreservedly ordinary. He is neither tall nor short, handsome nor ugly, fat nor skinny. His appearance is entirely unmemorable and just radiates inoffensive averageness. Kinda average height, darkish blond hair like a light brunette, or maybe it was a head of disheveled dark brown that looked golden in the sun. Nobody ever really remembers and he can get away with so much.
And that is the secret to winning Pretend: seeing what you can get away with.
Nobody remembers much about the guy that strolled in and out of the building of importantly kept secrets. Of course we let him in, he was here for an inspection, had a badge on him and all the paperwork. They recall the safety vest he has on, the clipboard and the official documents with the seal, the ID photo with the bad haircut. They don’t know who struck up that conversation in the canteen, that got them arguing about who’s stuck with the nightshift and what they do to avoid the boredom. He must have worked here, only workers are allowed in the building.
“How did you get her to just give you that?” Viktor asks, his wide eyes are the same brilliant blue as his father’s, his only one noteworthy feature of attention. “That crazy old granny is always so mean.”
“I smile and ask about her day all the time.” Papa says, “It’s amazing what people will just hand over, if you just smile.”
“Mmmhm.” wonders his son and he takes another bite of the pastry that the lady had baked for the nice father and his adorably sweet child (he had Papa test it out for him, it’s free food but still- Mama had taught him better).
“And your Mama may be lacking in certain social standards but that doesn’t mean you should act as uncultured as the way she talks.”
“She said you’ll say that one day. She said to tell you that ‘it’s pretty un-so-fis-ti-ca-ted to talk about somebody behind their back.’”
“. . .She says to fight her if 'you are going to continue that sort of behavior.'”
“. . .Of course she did. Ok, here, Vitya I’m going to teach you how to lie with an honest face.”
Mama is striking with her whitish blonde hair, the same shimmery silver that halos her Vitya’s face. She’s really pretty too but she doesn’t go out of her way to show it, much to the dismay of her husband who tries get her to dress with class but she always decked out in clothes with practical use, like pockets, look at how many pockets I have, I could fit a candystore in here.
Mama knows so many things and she teaches Viktor all of her tricks and secrets. Papa is the better cook, but she is the one that says “Vitya, here, you wanna hold the knife like this. That way you can cleanly slice the meat off the bone. See how quickly that cuts? Watch your fingers now. Keep a firm grip on that handle.”
Viktor listens as much as he can, but his fingers are still clumsy and sometimes he doesn’t have the fine motor skills and sometimes he can’t pick the lock as fast as she’ll like. Mama, a true believer of honest feedback and constructive criticism, will lay out what he did wrong straightforwardly and openly. There is no disapproval in her voice and it’s given with direct sincerity but it has Viktor in tears and sulking over his failure.
“If I’m not honest with you, you can’t improve.” She says, and he knows she’s right but he mumbles how much he hates her and how it’s the worst day of his life. “You are a little under 4. Every day could very well be 'the worst day of your life so far'. But maybe it doesn't have to be, maybe tomorrow will be better.”
She leaves him with the lock picks. An hour later the door to the basement swings open and she looks up from adding notes to her blueprints. Viktor delightfully points at the six locks that usually keeps the door shut, her answering smile is warm and she carefully pulls out the tool chest.
“I love you, Mama.”
“Vitya, it's hard to believe your honesty when I have a cookie that’s the size of your head in my hand. But yes, the same to you too. …Also, don’t let your Papa know where I’ve stashed the treats.”
Nothing fazes her. She’ll take him out on runs through the park and climb trees with him. Papa will sigh at the matching set of bruises (‘warrior scars’) they wear and reach for the bandages. Her movements aren’t graceful in the way dancers move with fluidity, it’s too predatory and insistent, but she’s so silent that Viktor knows that Papa’s “let’s not tell your mother about this” will always be followed by Mama’s accompanying “what did I miss now?”.
Viktor thinks she might be a ninja.
Winter is Viktor’s favorite season because he can pretend to be a dragon with his frosty breath and the ice is always cold enough for him to skate. His parents take him to the Red Square in Moscow, the train ride long and uncomfortable but the stories Papa tells about the lights and the decorations keeping Viktor pinned to his seat.
“Mama, I don’t need the stroller.” He wrinkles his nose, he’s been telling her that since they’ve left the house but she just doesn’t listen sometimes.
“Oh yes we do.” She smiles and winks at her son. “Trust me on this.”
“No worries, Vitya. You’ll be walking with me.” At his son’s cheerful cry, he lifts the kid onto his shoulders. Turning to look at his wife, Papa’s voice drops down low and stern at seeing the magical twinkle in her dark eyes. “All that I ask is that you exercise some restraint.”
“Funny, I was just about to ask the same of you.” Mama smiles with too much teeth. “Here, I’ll empty out my pockets. You see- no tricks up my sleeve.”
“Let’s go already! The ice skating rink is going to fill up quick!”
They lose each other in the crowd instantly, everybody is heading to the square and Viktor, who has lived in a small town, has never seen much so many people before. Papa points out some of the people that they pass by, the ones wearing really ugly sweaters or has really funny beards. Viktor tries to help him out but in the mish-mash of colors, he can’t seem to pay attention to all of the details.
He can hardly believe his eyes when they finally make it to the rink. It looks like something out of a fairy tale with the huge expanse of ice stretch out before him and the backdrop of the building strung out in light completing the majestic scene. They’re standing on the very edge of the rink, the crowd not noticing this inconspicuous father discreetly weaving his way to the front. Mama slides up next to them, her hug is warm and inviting and she has cups of hot cocoa to enjoy.
“How did you get your hands on these? The line was outrageous.” asks Papa, gratefully accepting the beverage and cherishing the smooth chocolate in slow, steady sips.
“I bought them.”
“With what money? You left your wallet and everything else with me.”
“With the money I have on me now.” She replied and she pointedly indicates the previously empty bag sitting in the baby stroller. Viktor can't see from his angle but it's currently stuffed to the brim, bulging from the weigh from a lot of somethings inside. Whatever Papa sees, he doesn’t approve and his resigned groan makes notes of that.
“Right then. I can’t take you anywhere.”
“You can take me wherever you want, darling. I just can’t promise to behave.” She tuts and downs the piping hot drink. “I spared the ones that were down on their luck. I only took from people I knew could afford to do without their wealth. And the rude ones that were cutting the line.”
“How considerate of you.”
“I'm in a festive mood. Y'know, getting into the spirit of the holidays.”
“Whoops.” Viktor says as the drink misses his mouth and gets on his nose. Mama procures a handkerchief out of nowhere and wipes it away.
“Oh look, the skating show is starting.”
Something certainly is happening because the stars have descended upon the icy surface, whizzing about in a spectrum of colors and dazzling lights. It takes a moment for Viktor to distinguish the vibrant costumes that adorn the skaters, and realize that the stars that have fallen to perform on this cold wintry night are actually people skating on the ice. He’s never seen anything like this in his life.
The skaters circle around the rink, he hears the scrap of ice against steel blades, their strides far more confident than his cautious steps back on the pond. There is a moment of quiet as they fall into position. Piano and violin fill the air and they dance.
In his limited vocabulary, that is the only word he has to describe what occurs in front of him. The skater’s movements elegant and captivating with their dizzyingly flowing spins. Their jumps so unexpected and astounding as they inevitably descend and glide into the next sequence of their act. Viktor doesn’t know what how to explain it except that even standing off the ice, he’s part of something bigger that cannot stay confined in his heart.
“Papa! Papa! How are they skating like that?” he whispers in awe, as though the spell the skater's have woven will be broken by his excitement.
“They practice." Papa whispers back, softly as though he's sharing a wondrous secret. "Those figure skaters train and hone their talents every single day, for a very long time to move so gracefully in their performance.”
Soaring through the air and pirouetting with the lights, Viktor loses track of time, caught up in a whirlwind of experiencing. Then it’s over. The presentation ends to the crowd’s loud applause, but still their colorful routine continues to dance within Viktor’s head, behind his eyelids, inside the rapid-fire pounding of his heart. There’s a rush of exhilaration, unlike anything he’s felt before that has his whole body aglow.
“Think I can do that?”
“You? You who can hardly stay still to focus on one activity before you’re distracted by something else?” Papa ruffles his hair, and Mama points out to the ice. “You want to give it a try?”
“Yeah.” Viktor breathe out in awe, eyes bright and pulse racing. “Yes, there’s nothing else I want more.”