Alsu’s was cream-colored with an inch of fringe at the back while Dinara’s was a gauzy haze of blue, pink, and yellow. They reminded me of my mother, whose closet had been crammed full of gorgeous headscarves and kalfaks, traditional Tartar caps embroidered in gold and embellished with beads. My father used to beg her not to cover her dark curls; he wanted to show them off. But she refused. And after all her hair fell out, he stopped pestering her.
I’d returned to Kazan for winter break. Alsu and Dinara were over at my father’s house for tea and biscuits, chocolate-covered digestives and spongy jaffa cakes that I’d brought back from Scotland. As the maid ushered them into the kitchen, I couldn’t help but stare. I adjusted my off-the-shoulder sweater, trying to conceal a lacy bra strap.
“We used to wear more revealing stuff than this.” I crammed the clothes back into the bags, glad that I hadn’t shown them the gold bootie shorts.
Before I could open my mouth, Alsu said, “I did it to satisfy Axmat.”
“Funny,” said Dinara, “I did it to annoy my fiancé.”
I picked up the warm teapot and aimed the spout at their ceramic mugs. They asked me about Edinburgh. I told them that haggis tastes exactly like tutirma and, yes, the men really do wear kilts, though it’s more for formal occasions.
“Any good pubs?” asked Dinara. “That’s what I think of when I think of Scotland. Pubs.”
“I don’t go out to pubs much,” I said. “But there are great shops on Princes Street. They have this one called Top Shop. Let me show you.”
I jogged to my room—which took a while since the house is so huge—and came back with two bags full of clothing, the latest stuff, skinny jeans and tops with lacy inserts.
“Your father lets you dress like this?” Dinara said.
Too preoccupied, I hadn’t even noticed the long loose skirts both of them were wearing. If my father had seen them, he would probably have rolled his eyes and whispered something like “the frumpy frauleins” under his breath. He liked to think of himself as a cosmopolitan man, a thoroughly modern father, who unlike my friends’ fathers, would never try to control his daughter. “Remember,” he would tell me, “Kazan is west of the Urals.”
“Aren’t you self-conscious?” Alsu said. She brought the tea to her lips and the heat caused her glasses to fog.
“We used to wear more revealing stuff than this.” I crammed the clothes back into the bags, glad that I hadn’t shown them the gold bootie shorts.
Alsu wiped her glasses on her tunic. “When we were younger. Before I was married, and Dinara was engaged.”
I shoved a jaffa cake into my mouth and then another.
“Well, you’ve got the body,” Dinara said. “You’re so lucky.”
The marmalade filling oozed over my tongue.
Good, I thought as I plopped my suitcases onto the bed, none of my flatmates are back yet. I lived in student housing with three other girls: a Canadian exchange student and two English girls, one from Manchester and the other from London. I capitalized on my solitude by puking in the shared toilet without bothering to mute the sound with gushing water taps. I must have eaten three jumbo Mars bars on the plane, at least.
I logged onto my University page to check if all my grades had been added. I was still waiting on Organizational Behavior. There it was, 75%, an A3 level, much lower than I’d anticipated. My father would not be happy.
Before I had time to wallow, I heard the clang and scrape of the front door opening. From the quietness of the intruder, I deduced it must be Eliza, the Canadian. The Londoner, Victoria, would have said, “Hiya!” and the Mancunian, Casey, would have demanded help with her bags.
Eliza was studying English literature and spent her time reading in pubs and coffee houses where it was reputed J.K. Rowling had written Harry Potter. Problem was they pretty much all made this claim. “It’s so inauthentic,” she would say. “They’re all just trying to pander to tourists.”
I came into the hallway. “Hi, Eliza!”
“Oh, I didn’t think anyone was here.”
“How was your break?”
“Stupendous, I just love having to shovel the driveway for hours and spending time with my clinically insane mother.”
“Oh.” Sometimes Eliza talked so fast it took my mind a moment to catch up.
“Sorry. Just a bit grouchy, jetlag or whatever.” She lugged her bags toward her room, without looking at me. “You guys celebrate Christmas in Russia?”
“Yeah,” I said. I hadn’t told any of them that I was Muslim, who knows why, and so much time had passed that it seemed weird to mention it.
“Cool, well I’m pretty beat and I need to catch up on my reading, so…”
“Right, talk to you later then.” I returned to my computer and turned off the monitor. This grade required a little retail therapy, so I headed out, my father’s credit card in hand, to Princes Street.
When I got back, I could hear Casey’s loud voice declaiming something about the demise of punk music. Glasses were clinking together.
Not wanting them to notice how many bags I was carrying, I rushed to my room.
“Posh Spice is that you?” she yelled.
“No, it’s just me, Renata.”
“The Russian spy is back, so watch what you say!” The friends chuckled.
I stayed in my room until the crowd left and then I went to a nearby Indian takeaway to order butter chicken, naan bread, pakoras, saag paneer.
“Smells scrumptious,” Victoria said. She’d met me at the door and double-kissed me as I stood there with my bag of food. “Did you see the mess those chavs left in the kitchen? Unbelievable! Anyway, I’m on my way out, darling. Can’t wait to hear about your Christmas.”
In the kitchen, there were empty bottles of Strongbow and black currant syrup. Plates were smeared in ketchup and several burnt fish sticks and chips were stuck on a cookie sheet.
I cleaned a fork and retired to my room for the night, only coming out once to go to the bathroom.
A run was what I needed to kick start the day. Decked out in a matching baby blue Nike running jacket and capri stretch pants, I did a lap around the Meadows and then headed for Arthur’s Seat, the hill that dominated the city. I ran to the peak, my legs really pumping, my butt burning. When my father took me on vacation to the Black Sea last year, he loved to comment on women’s butts. “Take a look at hers, flat as a qabartma.” “Look at that one over there, trying to smuggle some cottage cheese to the beach.”
For a moment at the top, I stopped. Kids and parents, mostly North American or German, were standing around taking pictures. I could see all of Edinburgh: the castle, the weird parliament buildings, the fake Grecian ruins atop Carleton hill and beyond all that the Atlantic, cold and endless. Sure-footed, I leapt back down and ran some more. How many calories had I burned? Some quick mental calculation and I figured eight hundred so far. Another half hour then. A final lap around the base of Arthur’s Seat and then back to the Meadows. I was almost done when a fat man jogged up beside me.
“What race are you?” he said in a heavy Scottish drawl, rolling the r and puffing through the rest.
“No race. Just running for fun.”
“No,” he said, “are you Chinese? Mongolian?”
“European.” I sped away from him. This was not the first time someone had asked me that. Nobody here knew how to read my brown skin, high cheekbones, and upturned eyes.
Late one night, about a month and a half after break, I was in the shared bathroom gargling with water and baking soda. Stomach acid will destroy tooth enamel if it isn’t neutralized.
The first official day of classes, I wore a purple blouse, tight dark-washed jeans, and knee-high leather boots. I straightened my hair. It felt nice to be given a purpose again: reading syllabi, buying books, and heading to my special corner in the library, the one where all the other international business students went. Sven, the Finnish economics major, was there, looking cute as ever in his ripped jeans and buttercup yellow polo, but he was talking to Maria, the Italian. Were they seeing each other? Maria had thick mahogany hair and a dainty nose, but she was a little on the chubby side. Size 10 would be my guess. I greeted everyone, took out my textbooks, and began to read. My pulse settled. Finally I could concentrate. After all this was why I’d come to Edinburgh, to study business so that one day I could work for my father’s company. My father, my exacting and benevolent father, who grew up with less than nothing and now spent his days zooming through Kazan in the leather-rich backseat of a limo, cellphones held up to both ears.
Late one night, about a month and a half after break, I was in the shared bathroom gargling with water and baking soda. Stomach acid will destroy tooth enamel if it isn’t neutralized. In the second round of swishing, I heard moaning coming from the next room. Casey’s room. It was low at first but it got louder along with an accompaniment of bedspring creaks. If they’d been in there the whole time, they must have heard me too. As quietly as possible I spat out the frothy mixture. A male voice grunted, “Does that feel good?” I opened my mouth and leaned closer to the mirror. A slap of palm on flesh and a satisfied yelp. Despite my diligence, my molars had begun to yellow, and when I touched them the nerves squealed. I imagined Casey’s nipples hardening, her body adored by rough, tattooed hands. I pressed harder.
Right before the month-long holiday that preceded final exams, Sven and some of the other international students decided to organize a night out at a club on George Street to celebrate the end of coursework. I invited my flatmates and to my surprise, Victoria said, “It would be my pleasure”; Eliza said “Sure”; and Casey said, “Why not, could be a laugh.” I spent nearly two hours in front of the mirror with now this silken shirt, now that leather skirt. My hair up, then down. Turning my head just so, sucking in my stomach as far as I could, examining every angle and then examining them all again. When we left the flat, I immediately regretted my choice: a tight low-backed black dress with a pink belt cinching my waist.
The day after the club, I was on a plane headed to Kazan. I adjusted my sleeping eyeshade and leaned back into my plush seat, but after less than an hour, the eyeshade became a headband. There was no point pretending I could sleep. Instead, I flipped through the many movies available on the tiny screen in front of me, creating a montage of passionate embraces and car explosions.
There was a driver to pick me up at the airport, and when I got home, Dinara and Alsu were already there, ready to welcome me. This time Dinara’s was turquoise and embroidered with swirls of navy beads while Alsu’s was plain black cotton. Tea was poured. I fanned some digestives on a plate and placed it between us.
“How is Axmat?” I said.
Alsu and Dinara giggled and Alsu patted her stomach. “Happy.”
“She is!” Dinara said.
Twenty years old and pregnant! I reached for a chocolate mint digestive, imagining what my father would say when I told him. Probably something along the lines of “Well, at least she doesn’t have a figure to ruin.”
“I finally went to a pub, Dinara,” I said, not sure if I was supposed to continue talking about Alsu’s pregnancy but positive I didn’t want to. “Actually it was a club.”
“Did they play the new Lady Gaga song?” Dinara said.
“Of course. But that wasn’t the best part.”
Alsu leaned forward. “What was?”
“My roommates both made out with the same guy. Sven or Steve or something.” I was aiming for a cavalier tone, both prurient and knowing. An insider. But saying it out loud brought the memory back. The fuchsia lights had stroked Sven’s cheekbones as he’d jabbed his tongue first into Casey’s mouth and then Eliza’s. All three of them had been drunk. When we got to the club, Sven had handed me a shot that smelled like nail polish remover, leaning in so close that I was surrounded by his cologne. He said, “Russian water for you.”
“Did you kiss anyone?” Alsu said.
“I might have.” My father would have wanted me to take the shot, to be wild and sexy like the other girls.
“No,” Dinara said. “That isn’t you.”
I’d nodded my head No to Sven. He’d shrugged his shoulders and passed the shot to Eliza, who was wobbling beside me, blathering on about how Edinburgh Castle was so much less impressive than Hogwarts. Seeing this, Casey had said, “Hey Finnish bloke, you gonna share the wealth or what?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said.
Sven’s friend had kept grabbing me around the waist and pulling me backward into his crotch. Victoria had disappeared almost as soon as we got inside the club, and I only saw her later, whispering over in a booth with some guy wearing suspenders and a fedora.
To participate in the modern world in a meaningful way you needed to show off your body, if you were woman that is. Your waist size was practically part of your CV, what greater proof of discipline, of work ethic and dedication?
“Fine, but you…” Alsu pulled on her long sleeve and glanced at Dinara “You know you would never do that.”
They were right, of course. I’d left the club and headed straight for a chip shop where I ordered a two-piece fish dinner and a deep-fried Mars bar, grease leaking through the bag as I made my way back to the flat, stumbling on the cobblestones in my high-heeled boots. Why hadn’t I accepted the shot? There was nothing wrong with drinking; it was just superstition, some random rule in an old book. My father drank martinis cloudy with olive brine, frothing glasses of beer. If I’d taken the shot, then surely it would have been me that Sven chose, me and me alone. I was ten times prettier than Casey and way skinnier than Eliza. I was his first choice and the shot had been a test and I’d blown it.
“But I did,” I said. “I went over to this cute guy and I didn’t even ask his name before I kissed him. In fact, I still don’t know his name.”
Alsu and Dinara just sat there, dressed in their ridiculous baggy outfits, shaking their heads, their veils smothering their hair. The sight enraged me. It was a kind of opting out. To participate in the modern world in a meaningful way you needed to show off your body, if you were woman that is. Your waist size was practically part of your CV, what greater proof of discipline, of work ethic and dedication?
“Renata,” Dinara pulled me toward her chest, and using a napkin, she wiped beneath my eyes, but I pushed her away and got up, almost causing my chair to fall over.
I wanted to tear Dinara’s veil off with both hands. I imagined stray beads skittering across the marble floor. I imagined how her eyes would widen, her lower lip tremble as she covered her fine black hair with her hands. How I would announce, “News flash: Kazan is west of the Urals.”
Instead, I took three deep breaths. “You don’t have to wear those in here. It’s just us.”
“Your father might come home,” Alsu said softly.
“And what?” I said. “You think he’d be interested in you two?”
It was such a ludicrous thought that I laughed. They were so clueless.
Dinara stood up. “Renata isn’t feeling well,” she said. “We should go.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Fine.”
I closed my eyes and remembered being a child in a mall in Kazan, trying on pair after pair of new running shoes and looking up from zigzagging laces to see my father cupping my mother’s face, kissing her tiny mouth as she turned away abashed, all of it just a decoy to slip her red headscarf off.
“Are you sure my father ordered this?” I asked as the esthetician applied the hot wax. I had to keep talking to stop myself from thinking about what was going on. There was no real reason to be nervous, I told myself as I counted the ceiling tiles. My father, seeing how upset I was after my fight with Dinara and Alsu, had arranged for me to have a day at the spa, a standard treat, but this time after my facial, manicure and pedicure, complete with Swarovski crystals glued onto my big toes, the esthetician had taken me into another room and asked me to take off all my clothes and put on a pair of paper panties, which was a confusing step because she promptly removed them once I was lying back on the chair.
“Da da.” She used a wooden spatula to spread the hot wax “He saw a movie or a magazine or something. Every girl in Europe and America is having it done. Now, you are quiet.”
As she yanked out my hair and blotted away the blood with rose-scented napkins, I closed my eyes and remembered being a child in a mall in Kazan, trying on pair after pair of new running shoes and looking up from zigzagging laces to see my father cupping my mother’s face, kissing her tiny mouth as she turned away abashed, all of it just a decoy to slip her red headscarf off.
A loud rip, like amplified Velcro, filled the room every time the esthetician tore off a strip of wax. My nails dug into the leather of the chair and I tried not to yelp out in pain. My skin felt so tender. Through half-open lids I could make out the top of the woman’s head, the half-inch of black roots before a swath of bleached white. She was the first person who wasn’t a doctor or a parent ever to touch me down there. I pressed my eyes shut again, trying to ignore the queasy feeling of cold air on my newly bare skin.
For the second when my mother’s exposed hair shone in the bright lights of the shoe store, my father stared not at her but at the shoe salesman’s reddening cheeks. I knew this blushing pleased my father because it proved that my mother was beautiful, so I said, “Mama, your hair makes you so much prettier.” My mother looked at me so sadly, but her sadness didn’t bother me for long because I left the store with my father’s blessings, four new pairs of shoes wrapped in clean new tissue paper in four shiny new pink shoeboxes.
Home from the spa, I lowered myself to the bathroom floor, my baldness chafing against tight jeans. My finger hovered above my tongue as I leaned over the bowl. My throat tensed, expectant. But something was off. The ritual, normally so comforting, felt awkward and unfamiliar. The smell of disinfectant stung my nostrils.
I imagined trying to explain the beauty of an empty stomach to my mother. How clarified it made me feel, how concise and physically powerful, almost as though I had just given birth to myself. She wouldn’t have understood. How could she have? My mother, my pious and selfless mother, who bowed five times a day, her heart so full of prayer she became unchained from her body.
Unable to continue, I stood, and, dizzy, I gripped the sink, my breath condensing on the mirror. The porcelain was freezing. The air conditioners were humming at full blast, and the cold pimpled my arms. I’d rinse with baking soda later. I headed to my room, where I extracted a sweatshirt from one of my suitcases. It was cotton candy pink with a white University of Edinburgh logo emblazoned on the front. The material was warm and fleecy. I snapped off a price tag and removed a size extra-small sticker, rubbing at the residual tackiness. I pulled it on. Warmth spread through me as I raised the hood, tucked in stray wisps of hair, and tugged the white drawstrings tight. Pushing aside my luggage to make a space for myself, I lay down on the bed and waited for my father to get home.
Catriona Wright has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, and she is an associate poetry editor for The Puritan. Her work has appeared in various publications, such as Riddle Fence, PRISM International, subTerrain, and The New Quarterly.