Sigrit wakes up with her hair braided. Lemtov breathes softly besides her, too tired from yesterday. His perfect pair is a mess. God, even his pyjamas glitter. Sigrit stands up silently, touches her cheeks, touches the sleeves of a flowery silky nightdress he put on her yesterday. Her underwear is still on. Her makeup is removed. Her hair is braided. She doesn’t remember doing any of these things. It seems that Lemtov is probably hopelessly gay, as this shtick is too chaste even for a bisexual.
All around her are marble and gold and stained glass, palms and orchids, bronze brick-a-bracks and a national gallery’s worth collection of paintings. Edinburgh lies at her feet.
“I wake up in a strange land,
In a strange bed…”
She doesn’t know how how her new song would go. Yesterday comes back in patches, like a blur.
Lemtov interrupting all her declarations after that disastrous question, kissing her hands, getting her to sing her heart out. Her changing the song in the last moment, knowing that it will get her disqualified. Her “Husavik” still winning the popular vote because EBU didn’t manage to shut down Iceland as a voting option on time. Her still getting disqualified, of course. Lemtov still winning (his vote was a very close second), him flashing smiles and sending kisses and being very graceful about all that. Him getting down for victory speech and being cornered by journalists. One of the first questions being political.
Sigrit hears how someone from BBC asks something about Eurovision being a safe haven, and what Lemtov’s victory would mean for LGBT rights in Russia.
Alexander visibly flinches.
And Sigrit runs to him through the crowd, because a naive small-town girl too overwhelmed with her emotions just wouldn’t notice all the cameras and microphones, and hugs him and thanks him for his support and gushes oooh how great he was, how impossibly great. Lemtov clutches her tight, and turns her back to cameras, smiling, and makes all questions all about her.
Lemtov is all suave and macho, basically shining in his golden Versace suit, waving kisses to everyone in sight, congratulating Mita for singing and Johnny John John for dancing, even manoeuvring Belorussians to the corner where music execs are standing. Lemtov doesn’t let her out of his sight and slightly panics when she needs to go to the loo.
And then she wakes up in his bed. With her hair braided.
- You are an artist, - Lemtov tells her in a goodbye. - You need to do what you want, to live where you want. But promise me to come back after your victory tour in Iceland. There are a couple of music label execs who are interested. Just… talk to them, okay?
Sigrit nods, slightly embarrassed. Lemtov radiates such an unhinged sex appeal which would be a turn-on in a softporn movie, but may be a bit inappropriate for the departure hall in the Edinburg international airport.
Lars waits for her at the Reykjavik airport. He waits behind while the fans and television team and half of the government and the president himself rush to would greet her.
- I fucked up a big time, Sigrit, - he says, looking away. - I left you there.
- I wouldn’t even be there without you, - tells Sigrit, blinking, and lets her to be pulled in his embrace.
His hands are large and warm, his body feeling so familiar, so dear. They kiss, and their first kiss tastes like a salty wind in Husavik, like whale-watching and coffee on the parking lot, like music-making in his father’s basement and jamming in the pub, like love that kept her warm all these years. They kiss, and it tastes like farewell.
Sigrit gets an economy ticket to London. She tells herself that it would be short trip, a couple of days, weeks, a month or two most. A studio recording of “Husavik” wouldn’t take too much time even if anyone is interested, and she can’t offer much besides that. Still, she arranges for her replacement at school, just in case.
She goes to the airport with the bus, because it is the sensible option, though it is a bit challenging with three different bus stops, four bus lines, luggage and guitar. Lemtov waits for her in his private jet in Reykjavik, because he is ridiculous like that.
Sigrit can’t breathe when they go up the stairs of the office of Sony Music UK in Kensington. It is a palace, and her shoes click nervously on the marble floors. At the glass front, London falls to her feet, with Kensington gardens draped in fog. Lemtov stands too near. He even donned a shirt for the meeting. It has golden buttons.
- Why are they interested? - asks Sigrit in a nervous whisper. - I have just one song, which got me disqualified. That’s all!
- It got you a popular vote win even though you were disqualified, - murmurs Lemtov, his breath feeling warm on her ear. - And it still stays in a top-five weeks after that. Besides, you have a good story. You are a great talent from nowhere, an underdog. Everyone wants to root for an underdog! I couldn’t pull that off if I tried.
Sigrit looks at Lemtov in his “business” Versace suit and can’t help snickering.
- No, you can’t pull off playing an underdog. That’s the burden of being a King.
They both laugh. Another click-click-clicking of the heels echoes in the hallway. Lemtov got her a lawyer. The lady in question is swift and controlling, all clad in black and white, her handshake very firm, her dark eyes quickly assessing the situation. Somehow, she reminds Sigrit of Mita. Turns out that Angeliki is Mita’s lady friend, which isn’t surprising as they both radiate the same power.
- My focus is immigration and asylum law, - states Angeliki after the meeting, staring at Sigrit with these piercing dark eyes of her. - But I do know how to write or read a contract. And you are not signing it. Digital breakage? 20% of your royalty rate? Really?
At first, Sigrit is rather intimidated by Angeliki. As it goes, Angeliki had a PhD in clinical psychology and had her own practice and her own tenure before she decided that the current system will produce further generations of trauma without the structural reform, and that’s why she went to a law school while still keeping her practice, then nailed her bar exam and then got to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg before she was 35. In this, she is very similar to Mita, who possesses the same levels of being intimidating.
But no one tries to indimidate her. Her first half a year with Lemtov feels like a honeymoon, though of course it isn’t one as Lemtov very deliberately murmurs something of him being a gentleman and gets her her own bedroom. Sigrit very deliberately tries not to wonder what goes on in his own bedroom.
But there are sights and museums and whirl-whirl of parties, and feeling of warm waves in Greece (Sigrit has grown up by the sea, but it is her first time at the sea where she can swim), and fancy restaurants and some very out-of-touch pleasures like having a cook in the house. And music, music everywhere. Opera in Salzburg and Vienna, and musical and rock bands in London, and jamming with aspiring young musicians in Moscow where Lemtov is some kind of a mentor to the pop music community. This man is even on the kid’s talent show in Russia, where he is also a mentor, and a favourite one. It turns out that Lemtov is good with kids, even though he of course has no kids of his own.
(Sigrit thinks about her last visit to the elves. She won Eurovision, in a sense. She could have been together with Lars who tried to get back to her, who tried to put it right, but didn’t manage to get to the contest on time as it is impossible to get from Edinburgh airport to Glasgo’s Hydro stadium in ten minutes. But Lars really tried, thinks Sigrit and blinks away tears, the opulence of the empty bedroom in Lemtov’s house now feeling both cold and suffocating. She could have tried to be back together with Lars. Maybe, she could have gotten pregnant. Sigrit gets up, to the piano that Lemtov got her.
“I wake up in a strange land,
In a strange bed,
Not with my childhood love,
Not a mother…”
Her song still isn’t ready. She tells herself that she gets back after her first album inevitably flops).
Her first album, recorded in Lemtov’s studio, is a moderate success. That’s OK, - tells her Lemtov, his accented murmur twirling around her. It seems that the man cannot not to flirt even in a serious conversation. - You poured your whole life in “Husavik”, and then the music machine expects your next hit to come out in six weeks. You need to feel new things! Then you can write new songs instead of that “Ding Dong”.
Sigrit included “Double Trouble” and “Ja Ja Ding Dong” after much consideration. All royalties go to Lars. They are his songs after all. “Double Trouble” gets to be an unexpected summer hit, and Lars gets a house in Husavik. Lars writes her a long and rather funny email, describing how the property prices are not exactly soaring in Husavik, and how the house does need some repairs, but he will need some kind of pastime anyway, so, yeah, would she like to visit his upcoming music studio when her tour is over?
She will get back when the tour is over, Sigrit tells to herself.
For the Christmas, she knits sweaters for the fabulous three. Mita and Angeliki get matched black-and-white ones with their favourite quotes, Mita’s with “come and play” and Angeliki’s with Article One of Declaration of Human Rights. Angeliki’s idea of a Christmas present is a thick tome of “Music industry for the beginners” and a crash course in contract law. Mita takes her shopping (“What about updating your bohemian chic to a more contemporary bohemian chic? You can still be yourself without turning into a second Bohem-Carter, you know.”)
Lemtov gets a jumper with a lion, lion’s golden mane adorned with as much Swarovski crystals as she could fit on. He loves it and actually wears it, even if his chest is completely covered. (Sigrit hopes that Swarovski would compensate for that). Lemtov’s idea of a Christmas surprise is another lavish party in his Edinburgh house where he got ABBA in there, and Sigrit Eriksdotter from a small town gets to sing “Waterloo” with Agnetha Fältskog.
Lemtov really wants to do duets. They try to do duets.
No, Sigrit tells him, in no way would any backstage dancer appear from between her legs. And she would really prefer that the dancers don’t touch her at all. Lemtov sulks and agrees, and then shows her the crown number that he envisions.
First, half-naked guys in headdresses dance something that could have been a tribal dance at birth, with badly photoshopped Grand Canyon at the background. Then, half-naked guys in shalwar dance something Bollywood-style with Tadj Mahal to see. Then, half-naked guys in Scottish kilts dance in front of the Loch Ness. Then, half-naked guys dance something Russian in front of Kremlin. That's it. That's the backdrop to their upcoming duet about eternal love.
Sigrit just gasps for air.
- Did Kevin stage all of this?
- I staged it. - Lemtov is shining. - How do you like it? A great metaphor of how our connection moves the world, you know?
Sigrit tries to talk him out of it. As it turns, the concept of cultural appropriation doesn’t sit well with him at all. What’s wrong with that, argues Lemtov. The dances are all cool, and it’s not Russian at all, it’s his own Chechen lezghinka, so she is the ignorant one here, because him dancing lezghinka in such a fun way could lead to a much worse consequences than some European bad press!
They fight. He loses it and shouts, really shouts, his first time of ever raising his voice on her. Does she does really think that he is being morally wrong by trying a headdress on stage? Does she imply that he is hurting people by trying out a Bollywood dance? Or would she prefer he would have sticked to his own oh-so-dear Chechen culture, and how would she have liked that?
- If that is what you think of me, - gasps Lemtov, short of breath, his eyes blazing, - then I will fly you to Iceland tomorrow. (He never tells her, “Go away”. Even in anger, he tells her that he would fly her home tomorrow and leave, if she so wants it).
They get a couples’ therapy after that. Really. Because Alexander blabbered it all to Mita, and he was apparently so upset that Mita called Angeliki that very night, and Angeliki, who was in the middle of another high-profile asylum case, called some of her therapist friends the very same night, and one volunteered, and Alexander flew her all the way from New York, because he’s ridiculous like that.
That is ridiculous, Sigrit tells the counsellor on the individual follow-up session. They are doing a couples therapy because they disagreed on the staging of a duet, and they are not a couple AT ALL, and he is a repressed Russian billionaire who drags her around the world because it is apparently easier than stop lying to himself, and, and, and.
- But you want it to work, - calmly states the counsellor. - Otherwise you wouldn’t sitting here.
One day on Mita’s yacht, somewhere between Ios and Naxos, they try to sort out Alexander’s men. There is Kevin Swain, of course. Kevin is out and proud as a New Yorker can be, but Kevin seems to have a completely separate set of issues on his own. There are Alexander’s dancers. Then there is this art director in Hamburg. Then there are two other Russian singers, Baskov and Lazarev, who are Alexander’s good friends and who may or may not have something together. (He can be pretty open about his European affairs, but is always mum about anyone Russian). Many men, no-one of marriage material - that is the sad conclusion they come to after the third round of prosecco.
- It is a negative feedback loop, - philosophises Mita, lounging near the pool. - You don’t think that you can ever live open with someone who loves you, so you are looking for guys who are there for a quick fling, you are disappointed, it reinforces your idea of never finding someone real, then…
Can you just stop? - snaps Alexander. - I can't! What's the point of finding someone real, if this someone is not available?
Before that, Sigrit and Mita drunkenly conducted a daring rescue plan, consisting of Alexander getting a Greek passport and leaving Russia for good, and Kevin sorting out all his issues and coming to him, and them both living happily ever after.
- You can, just not in Russia! - Sigrit tries to cajole him, but Alexander gets even more maudlin.
- I can’t! Or, well, I can. But then I won’t have my career. See, I am okay in Europe, but even so it is mostly emigrants. But I am huge in Russia. Huuuge. All the federal channels, all the shows - I am everywhere. I am a lifeline for my fans. And you know what happens if I am repeatedly seen with some guy, any guy?
- What is your plan? - Mita asks calmly.
Alexander brushes it off and keeps being maudlin.
- Sing till I am old and ugly, retire and then shack up with someone who didn’t manage to catch someone younger? If Sigrit is going back to Iceland anyway.
Sigrit catches her breath. She didn’t quite think of it this way. But, well, her mother repeatedly told her that her understanding of men had always been limited.
At the end of the day, they land in the same bed, mostly because Alexander is so drunk and miserable that he isn’t able to find his bedroom on his own. He almost collapses on her (which is not unpleasant, as the man manages to be considerate even when he is piss drunk). Something wet touches her breast. Alexander laughs and cries and bumbles something about the weddings in Chechnya. That’s what he misses - his little sister, the mountains and the weddings. Five hundred, thousand, two thousand guests, and dances, oh, the dances, men get the best parts in lezghinka, and all the relatives from all the republic getting together, and fireworks and shooting in the air, and flower arcs, and three days of feasting, and no invitations as everyone can attend…
He mumbles all that, lying facedown between her breasts, his right hand grasping at her bared nipple. It really is not an unpleasant sensation.
Sigrit thinks that now she understands him better. Alexander is such a man that he will not conceal his love, not ever. He will not be discreet as Mita and Angeliki are (“the sales are better if anyone can jack off to your video without prejudice or moral considerations”, as Mita once put it bluntly). Alexander would want to shout about his love from the rooftops. Alexander would make the tackiest, flashiest, loudest music video about it. Sigrit thought that these duets were a business proposal, but maybe she was mistaken, may be it was more than that all the time. A new song comes to her, words whirling around and still fleeting away.
You inspired me,
You admired me,
And I thought it wasn’t love,
You threw me parties,
You got me started,
And I thought it wasn’t love…
Sigrit runs the fingers through Alexander’s hair. His blonde highlights are outgrown, and he usually doesn’t forget to get to a hairdresser. The truth is, he was unhappy for weeks. She never thought it was about her. Or, more accurately, she considered it and never quite believed it, but he took her with him to see the world, and he radiated so much love that her heart finally melted.
Nothing happens that night, because he is drunk.
But it does turn out that he is bisexual, and an enthusiastic one. Their first time feels a bit mechanic, as if Alexander had a standard program for ladies to uphold his macho reputation. When they move past that, he is unfailingly, unbelievably tender, as if he is afraid to hurt her by breathing. Some time that, she discovers that he can be wild and goofy playful, as if trying to live up to his self-description as a “lion of love” (with his trademark golden kaftan and roaring included). Other time, she gets to wear the thing and play the lion, while his expressions are of a such a flighty gazelle that she collapses on his chest, laughing - and stays in his embrace for long time, exhausted and happy and feeling how their breaths are of the same rhythm.
(It is only natural, - Alexander tells her in his favourite tone of a sophisticated dandy who knows all the best things in town. - As an artist, you mostly sing about love. Shouldn't one know different facets to have more inspiration? (Still, Sigrit is never able to listen to that song without giggles after that).
When Kevin flies from New York to stage Alexander’s next show, both men flirt and laugh and kiss on both cheeks in their usual fashion, but they are both unsure, as if Sigrit is a walking bomb that just waits to go off at the wrongest moment. Sigrit rolls her eyes and tells them to get it on finally. She fears that she might resort to shut them in a one bedroom for a while, but they manage on their own.
The next morning, Kevin looks at her with tears in his eyes, hugs her and kisses her hands, and then it gets too dramatic even for him and they laugh it off, finally. Alexander and Kevin are thick as thieves for the next two weeks, Kevin showering Sigrit with praise for breathing and being around, them having the most fascinating discussions about high-end fashion and staging and virtual worlds and artistic expressions. And then, Kevin hops on his plane and leaves, to be seen in a year or something. Kevin does have issues with commitment.
One day, Mita FaceTimes her. The connection is bad, and Mita’s face on the screen looks distorted and angry, but her voice isn’t.
- He likes men more, in principle. And he has something for Kevin, and Kevin just can’t commit. But when he is with you… He is happy with you, you know that?
- Why are you telling me this?
Mita rolls her eyes.
- Because he wouldn’t. He’ll just drop on you another overpriced thing that you’ll have no use of. What was that last time - that faux “Viking” gold tiara? And you’ll be left thinking that you are just a facade for his other side. Which are you definitely not.
Sigrit thinks about that for a long time. She thought that she would be bothered, but she isn’t. She really isn’t. Besides, she likes Kevin too much. Alexander is quintessentially Russian, with too little of personal borders and too much generosity, and he’s generous with his love, and it is so, so easy to be generous with him. The old unfinished song comes to her again, words turning real here and now.
“And then I stood aside,
Let you roam far and wide,
And I thought it wasn’t love…”
Her second album is a smash hit.
“I wake up in a strange land,
In a strange bed,
Not with my childhood love,
Not a mother…”
Her song “After I walked away” goes like this. It will soon climb to top-ten and top-five and then to the top, to be shared and covered by numerous other artists and fans. Because it seems that there are many like her, women and men who lived their lives until their lives were changed forever. There are many folks who are not teenage young, folks who share the feeling that something you wanted long ago is not what you want now, folks who grew out of their loves and dreams and found larger ones. There are many that wouldn’t come back, only go further and further, and Sigrit sings for herself - and for them.
Their album of duets runs really good. In Russia, it is wild. In Europe, it is much better than expected. Mita credits Sigrit’s single “I thought it wasn’t love”, which is basically a love letter to Alexander and which introduced her growing fanbase to his music. Sigrit credits Alexander himself, as he came around and finally listened to Kevin and her, and they together created a wild and joyous romp around the world for that video, and one can still watch it without one's eyes bleeding glitter.
Alexander proposes a tour to Russia, to which she agrees (she always wanted to see Baikal and shamans!).
And then he asks something of her. Alexander never asks her anything. Now, the words can hardly come out from his mouth.
He is snappish and tense for the last week despite the success of duets. He even shouted at Angeliki during their last FaceTime. Angeliki provides legal defences at some NGO with whisks queer people from countries that are dangerous for them. Alexander donates regularly, but on the strictest condition that his donations are anonymous. He was paranoid that the last one could be tracked back to him, and that’s why he snapped, and going to a huge tour in Russia probably wouldn’t help to alleviate his worries.
- I was invited to sing two concerts in Grozny, the capital of my republic… Would you come with me?
She says yes.
At first she thinks that a procession of sleek black BMWs is waiting for a governor or president who just happened to fly to Grozny in the same time. But it is for them. Silent, dark-eyed men in black suits and black kufi hats greet Alexander and bow to her (now one touches her, no one shakes her hand). The procession moves towards the city.
The sky is clear blue, the snowy backdrop of Caucasian mountains glistening in the morning sun. They drive through tidy streets and wide avenues, past neoclassical blocks and squat red-brick houses with peach gardens in bloom, past a sprawling mosque with minarets towering above the city, elaborate golden ornaments adorning white walls.
- The largest in Europe, - murmurs Alexander. There is an edge in his voice. - How to you like the city?
- It is… very new. - mumbles Sigrit. - You know, I read a bit, and… It seems that there was never a war.
- They would like to Grozny to be known as the “The Dubai from the North”, - nods Alexander, his eyes miles away. - But there was a war.
He gestures to another mosque, walls of magnificent blue, families strolling on the sunbaked marble walkways.
- See, over there? Our old apartment was somewhere there. It was bombed out during the last war. We lived in a basement for two months. Then we managed to get to my mother’s side, to my uncle twice removed. He had a large house in the mountains. Large garden, lots of work to do, and so my uncle once drove to Gudermes - see, there was this kind of market on a central square, Yamadayev’s men sold captured federal soldiers there… Mostly conscripts, nineteen, twenty, not more. So my uncle drove there and bought two of them for dirty labour. They tried to escape; my uncle’s men beat them to death… He has taken me to watch, you see, and I watched. Because I was the son of the great Republic of Ichkeria, and they were the feds, you know?
The car caravan circles around the wide square, a glittering fountain in the middle of it, skyscraper towers of the business district reflecting the sun like glass shards. Alexander points to the highest tower, shaped like a diamond.
- That is headquarters of my father’s. You see, when feds bombed Grosny to pieces and it was clear that the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria is going to fail, my father was one of the first who switched sides. To Kadyrov-father, then, and he is loyal to Kadyrov-son now… And he got quite a nice oil share for that.
Alexander falls silent, then gestures to a beautiful park with manicured lawns and lush greens, to young men in crispy white sports suits watching the girls in long-sleeved dresses, skirts so tight that every curve can be seen.
- I think that my uncle’s flat was there, but the whole area was so destroyed that Kadyrov just threw a park in there instead of rebuilding. See, in Gudermes, my uncle shot a photograph because he wanted to brag about his deal, and that photo got to the Russian newspapers… And when the war was over, the feds came, and his whole family disappeared after that. The Alpha guys told that he shipped weapons to terrorists, which he absolutely was, mind you - I am sure some of it got to the thugs that killed hostages in the hospital in Budenovsk… But I think that the Alpha guys came for revenge. Everyone has someone to revenge here.
Sigrit looks at this shiny city, all rebuilt brand-new, all screaming with wealth, at the glittery towers and shopping malls and girls eating ice-cream at expensive cafes, and thinks of the war that lies unburied below the streets they are driving through.
- And you know what? That’s me who unites them now, spetsnaz guys and my own family. Me. See, Russians forgive me for being a Chechen because I brought victory to Russia. Chechens forgive me for mingling with Russians because I bring glory to Chechnya, and both sides forgive me even though I am singing like a fag... - Alexander is laughing quietly, a small and mirthless laugh. - We are a rather a queer couple, are we?
He looks ill. Sigrit suddenly catches the driver’s dark eyes, reflected in the rear mirror. The driver is focused on the road, the driver can’t hear them behind the partition glass. Still, she knows that an open kiss would be out of place. She doesn’t even know whether she should take Alexander’s hand. She grabs it anyway. Alexander has become so many things for her - her partner in music, her friend, her bedfellow, her lover, her shoulder to cry on. If she is to be his shield, so be it.
- We are going to have a dinner with your parents, - she rests her head on his shoulder, because she wants to and because she hopes that that would be a right sign for everyone watching. - So, yes, we are a couple.
There is a party after the concert.
A choir of schoolgirls in a white-and-black formal attire, all with headscarves, are singing something in Chechen to honour Alexander, and he joins with his majestic baritone. He takes his time and chats with them, and invites everyone to Moscow, and shakes small hands, as if not noticing the disapproving glances from the elders. He is always good with kids, so very gentle. A circle forms, and everyone is clapping: elders in suits and kufi hats, burly young men in suits and sneakers, dashingly beautiful girls in willowy dresses, older women with silk headscarves and jewelled veils.
Alexander, posture proud, goes in the circle - in lezhghinka, men get the best parts. His movements are swift and agressive, his face serene and unsmiling, the dance looking like a declaration of war. A young girl, no more than fourteen, joins him, her eyes downcast. Her dark hair is in a elaborate up-do, her long blue dress with a puffed skirt is adorned with lace and pearls. She is a teenager, but she dances like an adult woman - a woman who is used that her every step will be watched and judged and condemned. Alexander and girl are circling, circling around, never touching, barely even looking at each other.
They get invited to a family dinner, of course. Newly paved road climbs higher and higher to the mountains, coming to the end at the marble gates. Silent guards open the gate, security cameras blinking in the dusk. Sigrit and Alexander go through the manicured lawns, past a horseracing track and an artificial pond and rose garden, towards two gold-colored lion statues that guard the entrance to the sprawling, faux-classical compound. In the living room, everything is curved and golden, crammed with luxury to the brink: crystal chandeliers and golden ornaments on the ceiling, curtains of different shades of silk, flower towers at the table, vitrines and vitrines of expensive china placed for display. Even a flat TV is adorned in a golden frame.
Alexander’s father, an oil tycoon, wears an Armani suit and a kufi hat, his stark Chechen features grown heavy with age. (He’s not Lemtov, of course - he’s Alemsultanov, with Alexander taking a shorter stage name). Alexander’s mother is Russian, a withered beauty, her blonde ringlets barely seen behind her lace headscarf. Alexander’s sister (the girl who danced with him after the concert) is all fire and embers, serving tea with her dark eyes downcast and lighting only when she catches the eyes of her older brother. Alexander’s younger brother is no more than ten, fairer in complexion than his sister, but sitting solemn and unsmiling as a little sheikh who knows his future role and behaves according to it.
Somehow, Sigrit expected it for father to talk and for mother to be silent. But it is the opposite, as his father utters some welcoming phrases in badly accented English and stays silent, and his mother waits for her husband to finish and then greets Sigrit in melodic voice that could have came from BBC.
(Mum was a professor in English philology, murmured Lemtov in the car. - She taught English for years. She left her uni when my brother was born, and donned a headscarf shortly after that. My brother is named after my late uncle, you know).
How does she like Chechnya?
Stumbling, Sigrit praises the hospitality of their hosts and welcome of the people, and the mountains and the gardens, and how modern and beautiful Grozny is. She heard that it is called “The Dubai of the North”.
Father nods in approval; mother's blue eyes stay on her, expecting more. Sigrit continues, hoping that none of the compliments will backfire. She praises the dances and the culture, and how the daughter of the house was dancing.
- Alya danced as according to her station, - Mother brushes off the compliment, seeing how her daughter’s eyes light up. - Now young girls are so seldom modest as they should be… You also danced well. May you be a blessing to my son’s ways.
She smiles, as modest and dignified and queenly as a woman can be, and Sigrit smiles back knowing that even if Alexander’s father may have warmed up to her (being foreign and not knowing our ways), Alexander’s mother will judge her every move, like she herself was judged her whole life.
They get a shared bedroom, which, seeing Alexander’s expression, was not a given. Now it is Sigrit’s turn to panic as he goes to the loo. She paces around the king-sized bed, stumbles on silky curtains and can barely breathe while he showers and makes his usual skin-and-hair-care routine, which was always maddeningly long and feels even longer now. Sigrit really doesn’t like to leave him alone here. She only hopes he doesn’t notice.
They go to bed. Nothing happens, because getting it on here feels as obscene and suffocating as getting it on your grandmother’s grave. Sigrit lies awake till dawn, till mountain peaks slowly emerge from darkness, and thinks about Alexander. His proudness and generosity probably come from here, as his very questionable taste in interior design. His wealth, too. Him flirting through life could possibly have an origin here, as Chechen man is a conquerer - but Alexander has chosen a different weapon for conquest. But his kindness, and gentleness, and openness… How did he manage to be like that, to grow himself up like that?
She senses how Alexander softly touches her hair. During the whole trip, she has woken up with the most elaborate braids, fish braids, braided crowns, once two hundred small braids in one night. He can’t sleep.
- Mmhhh… I was thinking about you. How you are… you. How you became you, with your father who looks like he would kill you if he knew.
She feels how his body against her stills. When he speaks, it is with voice she doesn’t hear much, a voice cold and distant.
- I was his oldest and only son; he gave me everything. My first house, capital, connections… But yes, he would kill me. Especially with my brother there.
He trails off, his eyes miles away. She misses a heartbeat: he is not joking. And something in her face gives her away, as he stills for a moment, and puts his ever-confident gait on, and tries to comfort her:
- No, no, I am rich and famous, I am an ambassador of my country, see, I am one of the well-known Chechens, that is, well-known Chechens who are not suicide bombers. That, my father values. But someone who is not rich and famous? Oh, they most definitely kill us.
Sigrit thinks about his and Angeliki’s pet project, this NGO rescuing queer folks from dangerous places. She thinks of Ramil, this dark-haired dancer who followed Alexander everywhere, and then settled down in somewhere in Germany with his husband. How Alexander choked up during the wedding vows. They went there for a couple of hours, him in his most inconspicuous self, his only condition being that there would be no press, no one…
She can only hug him, which she does, and in her hug he starts talking, his eyes still a million miles away.
- I want at least Alya away from here. I keep inviting her, and they keep declining, because it would be unseemly for an innocent girl to witness my depraved ways… That’s just pitiful. How I always wanted kids of my own, and how I can never have them, and I can’t even get my little sis away.
Oh. Sigrit makes a mental note of inviting Alya with her, at first to Iceland, to her mother’s culture centre in Husavik, to celebrate a great Chechen dancing culture or something, but it isn’t that what fills her heart and mind right now.
- But you surely can have one…
- I can’t! - He almost shouts, and then turns to defeated whisper. - I tried to think it out - I can’t! Every Russian girl - they marry us off, and she will stay here with the kid. If she doesn’t want it, they leave her in peace, but they whisk the kid away to raise it proper. As I, apparently, cannot do that. Do you think it is a good place to raise a kid?
A thought, an idea, a dream stirs inside of her, fills her veins, her heart, her everything. She wanted to have a kid with Lars, oh, how she wanted it. And then she went to travel with Alexander and assumed that she could have either one or another thing. And now…
- There is one more option. - states Sigrit in the most lighthearted way possible. - If I… if we get a kid, you and me, together - they will have Icelandic citizenship. And if anything happens, I can always whisk them to Husavik, and elves would protect us.
Alexander stares at her, dumbfounded.
- And you will always be in their life. If you stay with me, or sort out your issues with Kevin and stay with him, or find someone perfect and settle down, or… anything, anyway, you will be there as much as you want. As their father.
Alexander freezes, unable to find words. Then he starts blabbering.
- I assume that you will still want to sing, but, well, we could find a good babysitter to help, Angeliki sure knows the best, and we could remodel the jet, and I have too many bedrooms anyway… But I still can’t offer you anything - anything to put on with that.
He chokes mid-sentence, gesturing to the room, or to the mountains, or to himself.
Sigrit looks at him, really seeing him. Alexander is not a stranger to romantic gestures, but in important matters, he always sounds oddly transactional. It’s “talented and kind” traded against “rich and handsome”. It’s never love, or commitment, or feelings - it’s comfort, security, mansion, palace, wi-fi in every room. And it’s always everything, as if he fears that anything less than everything will not be enough.
In this moment, in this strange room, in a strange land, she loves him so much as if her heart is going to explode, and when she starts speaking, she can’t see clear from tears.
- Sasha, you are fool here. You gave me everything that I didn’t even know I wanted or needed. You gave me the world, and now I am asking you for one more gift! I want it, I want it from you, I want to raise them with you, and it will be your gift to me, not another way round!
He opens his mouth, stunned in his manicured perfection, because he’s as ridiculous and loveable and loving and hers as he is.
- Sasha, come to me, - declared she and pulls him into a kiss.
And he comes.