The hospital where Petra was born, her mother would later tell her, ran out of drugs the week of her birthday, so her mother screamed for hours, and her father, at work filing papers, swore he could hear the shrieks echoing across the entire city. Petra didn’t know whether to believe her mother about the shortage of drugs, or if she made up the negligence, another piece of evidence in her mother’s lifelong case against the USSR. It was January, the story went, already a dark month in Kiev, and without anything for the pain, her mother did not believe that she’d live to see tomorrow’s pale sun leak its poor light onto the city. They’d left when Petra turned six, two months before the reactor ignited sixty miles north. We saved you from more than one catastrophe, her mother would say, whenever she found Petra to be less than grateful.
They rationed the sunlight, her mother would also say, serving kasha to Petra’s sleepover friends in their third floor Chicago apartment with its southern exposure, light from the windows dappling the girls’ legs and arms and hair. Petra’s father might have stopped her from serving kasha, he knew more about the sweetness of American cereals, but he was often scheduled to work third shift at the UPS warehouse, so rarely home at breakfast. Petra would laugh along with her American friends, try to out-laugh them, even, isn’t she ridiculous? Mothers, what can you do? But as serious as her mother had been about the pain of her birth, she was just as serious about nourishing Petra with Ukrainian food. Petra’s American friends served Lucky Charms at their sleepovers. They talked about their favorite marshmallows, for Petra, the hot air balloon. What that had to do with luck, she never figured out, but she loved to imagine a balloon the size of a building, lifted by fire, carrying her away, up, away.
What Petra learned about American women was how cheerful they were. Smile, commanded the mothers of her American friends, pointing the Polaroid at the group of girls as they tanned on the city beaches or painted each other’s eyes before a dance. They’d cluster around the lucky girl shaking the picture, make the required comments about what they hated about themselves, cheekbones, thighs, lips, until someone would point a finger at Petra’s face, saying What’s so funny, Petra, you forget to laugh? Petra learned to steel herself in these moments, showing nothing. The girls did not know this, but in her early years, she craved the sunny beauty of their round faces and even smiles. She did not think of herself as an unhappy girl, but in those pictures she saw herself through their eyes, the harsh angles of her face casting a gloominess that pained her.
Petra went to beauty school in the city. Her girlfriends went downstate for college, smiled their way through night after night of rush parties. Petra loved her friends, but more and more, when she saw them on vacation, their softness seemed like something she could pop or damage with one finger. I don’t know how you do it, they said, when they visited her at the salon in Wicker Park, watched her stir her pot of wax, make neat piles of the strips she’d lay across her clients’ skin, and rip up the wax and their hair. You cause so much pain.
Petra didn’t say so, but she knew her friends, and her adoring clients, had it wrong. She would not deny that hurt was necessary. She would hurt them, inevitably, but she could own the tiny violence that her wax created, and therefore, eyes clear, unbothered by the possibility of damage, her hurts were quick, clean. Petra knew that beauty was pain. Who would you trust with your torture? A girl born on Soviet soil or some bleeding heart? She ate that apple, what can we do? said an old lady who came in like clockwork, once a month, gritting her teeth when Petra yanked up the wax. Petra’s father had never insisted she join him for Vespers, or when he had off work, mass, at St. Nicholas on Oakley Street, but even though she didn’t pause and cross herself when she walked past the gilded icons painted over the Cathedral door, she was pretty sure that the pain to which Eve had been condemned was not the pain of hair removal. But still. She was fast and clean and steady. They were so grateful for her skills that it might as well have been holy work.
When she was twenty-seven, she had a daughter, Minka, who like Petra knew how to guard one’s smile like a valuable resource. Minka’s father was not her husband. He did not want to marry anyone. He did not want to stay in any one country for long. Already, he had lived in Ukraine and in France and in Toronto. Still, Petra never turned down his company. His English was imperfect, literal, and, as a result, poetic. He liked to take pictures of her with his cell phone before she showered in the morning or brushed her hair. No, Petra would protest, yes, he would insist, this is when you are at your most beautiful, when it is only you, and not all that extra color.
When Minka’s father moved back to Ukraine, Petra did not cry or complain to the girls at the salon, or to her college friends. She plotted out a new budget with Minka’s expenses in mind. When the math came up short, she bought a light-up waterfall at Kmart and, one January night when she closed up alone, stole a padded table from the Salon’s storeroom. Her boots crunched into the typical Chicago layers of ice and frozen snow and by the time she made it home, the table shone with melted flakes. Through a series of innocuous questions during waxing sessions, Petra pre-approved the Salon’s clients for whether she could trust them to keep her secret. She then enticed them to her private waxing parlor – the table unfolded in her small living room — with lowered rates and increased flexibility. Occasionally she booked them back at the Salon, to keep up appearances. She revised her budget. Put Minka in the ballet classes she’d been begging to take. Ballet? moaned Petra’s mother, bald now from chemotherapy. Even blissed out on hospice morphine, her mother did not hold back her dismay. An illegal business? For what I bring you here?
Petra rolled all the possible words over in her mouth, the lies she might tell – Minka winning a beauty pageant, an American businessman who wants to buy Petra a diamond – but Petra refused to tarnish her mother’s final moments with anything less than un-softened truth. I had a good week, she said. Minka is going to play the Wicked Witch at school. After all, they were not American women.
After the funeral, not one speck of eyeliner out of place, after making sure that her father had a refrigerator filled with microwavable meals, Petra left her daughter with a friend, walked back to her apartment, and switched on the wax, but she did not bother with the light-up waterfall or the soothing wordless music that calmed the clients. She unfolded the padded table and scooted it near the pot of wax. She shed her stockings and her dress, slid onto the table, leaned forward and searched her own skin for some hair not pulled in her usual beauty routine. There, the soft trail down from her navel. The skin was still stretched from Minka, and the wax sank low into the marks when she painted it across her stomach. While it set, she touched her belly button as if in search of that chord that had connected them, forty years ago, in a country that no longer existed, a place where her mother had no choice but to feel every second. When she tore the paper from her skin, she did not flinch.
Abigail Greenbaum lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Highlands College. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Mississippi, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, Ecotone, Free State Review, and other places.