SmokeLong Quarterly

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The Photo

Story by Svetlana Beggs (Read author interview) July 23, 2018

Art by Septumia Jacobson

It must have been 9th grade for our history class was cancelled again, an indeterminate kind of “cancel” because it was Perestroika in 1989 in the USSR and our history textbooks were suddenly out of date. So we would roam the school during those free periods, in groups, like wolves, on the ready for love and war, in Soviet fake fur coats since it was -15C outside and the heating system had been broken for weeks.

One time, during one such roaming period, Lida picked five lucky girls, myself included, and with her eyes only motioned the pack to follow her into the women’s bathroom. Lida’s face was mostly cheek bones, thick blond bangs and, below, star-shaped lips, often chapped, causing me to stop using a lip balm. She wore tie-dyed Levi’s to school. No one else I knew, in my whole life, had a pair of jeans, a coveted clothing item from American films. Our teachers expressly prohibited us from wearing pants to school, so Lida in her jeans was like an obscene graffiti everyone read every time. But the main thing was that she was not like the rest of us. For months she had been seen holding hands with Misha, who was two years older. And even female teachers looked at her breasts because she wore them as if they had their own, independent lives.

When Lida talked only with her eyes it meant either a rejection beyond recovery or a secret so big she might change her mind and not tell. The way I remember it: we followed her into the bathroom in a straight line, on tippy-toes. She paused in front of the mirror, unearthed a tube of mascara from the sleeve of her sweater and began to apply it over her top and bottom lashes. We stood behind her, all five heads reflected in the mirror, giddy from the pleasure of waiting because the mascara show was a sign that we were on the brink of learning something Big. She then motioned us to follow her into the farthest toilet stall—the only one with a door. We huddled into the stall; the right side of my coat was touching Lida’s American-jeans leg and the left side the toilet bowl. For a second we stood in motionless submission looking at Lida, expecting our treat and feeling vaguely competitive.

She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and produced a black and white photograph, the size of a passport photo. It showed a close-up of a naked man’s thighs with a penis sturdy like a tree branch, but as if flying, or about to, and a naked woman, out of focus, sitting on a sauna bench. We passed the photo around. Lida looked only at our faces. It was honestly the happiest moment of my life. I was standing next to Lida, and when our eyes met, for a brief second, it was almost like her promise to me or my promise to her. And we were a solid group now, like a skyscraper with a gigantic foundation. I was already imagining inviting our skyscraper over to my flat because there was so much to discuss. Not sex, but really fun practical stuff with so many unresolved questions: Was the photo American? Who found it? Who else knows about it? Who else can know about it? Where do we hide it? How can we use it?

When it came to finding the right use for something Lida was a born genius. Earlier that year our biology teacher, Natalia Sergeevna, came to class, sat at her desk and found her grade notebook propped up like a toy house, an upside-down V. When she picked it up—every eye in the class wide open in delicious anticipation—she saw a small dead mouse, wet and recently killed. Rumor had it that Lida was the main organizer of this successful revenge on the hated red-nails-and-fake-eyelashes Natalia Sergeevna, who gave every student an “F” on a test just because Kolya passed to Vadim a note with the right answers. We were probably still at war with Natalia Sergeevna, so I thought Lida might be plotting to surprise her with this photo, a different kind of strategy. This is where I could easily come in, I thought, for I had good ideas. What if we glued the photo to her chair? Or mailed it to her with a love note? In short, suddenly my future looked very different.

I was about to start moving my lips to say, I have an idea! and even grabbed Lida’s wrist, accidentally, from pure excitement, but she looked at me with irritation. It felt as though she had pulled out scissors and cut off my fingers.

“You are all pathetic, naive idiots,” she said.

Her authority over me was so strong that I believed her completely. We looked at her pleadingly, in case she changed her mind.

“Don’t you see it, idiots?” she said. “It’s all biology. There is no love. Wake up! It’s all just stupid instinct.”

She tore the photo into little pieces, threw it into the toilet and I could feel, all of us felt this, that what she really wanted to do was to scream into our faces with all she had, scream into us her despair. At this moment we knew with absolute certainty that Lida had sex with that older boy Misha and that he must have left her.


Notes from Guest Reader Hedgie Choi

I chose this story because the voice is full of character, and it doesn’t pause to judge or explain itself. The narrator’s exaggerated perception is honest and funny — you’d forgive her if she never grew up. But in the end, she does, suddenly, explosively, in the span of a sentence.

About the Author

Svetlana Beggs’ poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, Dunes Review, CALYX Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Cleaver Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review and elsewhere. She was recently the recipient of a “waiter” scholarship in poetry to Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, she lives in Seattle.

About the Artist

Find Septumia Jacobson‘s photography at Unsplash.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-One

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