Auntie got married when I was four. Everybody was extremely enthusiastic. I was the bridesmaid, but my dress was longer and whiter than Auntie’s. One would think I was the bride. Mommy had attached two identical white bits of goose fluff to my hairclips. Partly because pulling back my blond cropped fringe that usually framed my face like a television set suited my outfit better, but mainly because she didn’t have time to trim it and it was poking into my bright blue eyes.
The pandemonium that reigned around the big event also prevented any of the grown-ups from going out to buy me a pair of white shoes to match my bridesmaid wedding dress, so I ended up having to wear my scarlet red glossy ones. Fortunately, nobody noticed the mismatched detail, because of the ground-length ruffles of my dress. The ruffles were lace, the dress a thick, crumpled white silk with tiny pale-pink rosebuds adorning the sleeves and neck.
There was a party at home after the wedding, and I was fortunate enough to escape prying adult eyes and sleep in my wedding dress. Nobody came to wake me up in the morning, so I went into Auntie’s room. She was asleep in her bed with her new husband. Starting today, he would be my Uncle. His arm was sprawled over Auntie, like Daddy’s was over Mommy usually, and Grandpa’s over Grandma. I stood there in the hallway, barefoot in my white dress. Smells of morning coffee, cigarette smoke, toast and newspaper ink were coming from the kitchen. I could hear Grandma, Grandpa, Mommy and Daddy talking over the monotonous voice of the radio broadcast of the Sunday morning news.
I fingered my hairclips, they were still approximately intact, the goose fluff soft as snow. I opened the front door and started down the stairs. They felt cold, but I was glad I had forgotten to put my shoes on. They were red and didn’t match my wedding dress, and besides, I was going out to the Yard, and I wasn’t allowed to wear my formal shoes there. Playing in the Yard would spoil them.
The Yard was the common name for the square-shaped enchanted garden with a dark green pagoda and plum trees between four apartment buildings similar to ours. The boys and girls from those buildings, regardless of their age, spent endless days of every season there, climbing the trees, playing soccer, riding bicycles, roller-skating.
Now school was out for summer, and the girls were making flower soups in imaginary outdoor kitchens, while the boys had joined in a team against the boys from the Other Yard, the one between four buildings across the street. War was declared, and the weapons were slender newspaper cones licked into a point sharper than a wasp’s sting. The cones were blown through pipes aimed towards the enemy – metal pipes with pieces of wood taped to them for handles, so they could look like machine guns. And they did look like machine guns – crude and deadly. Toyshops didn’t sell things like that. The most wicked of the boys poked needles through the tops of the cones to make them pierce flesh.
As I walked out into the early sunshine, holding up the lace hem of my wedding dress and feeling the warm stone under my feet, I knew I hadn’t come out to play with everybody else. I had come to get married.
Ivan was nine, tall, with long, messy hair, scabbed knees, the lot. He was the leader of our Yard’s team against the evil neighbor gang from the Other Yard. Ivan could jump down from the top of the pagoda after having crawled up there along a branch of the plum tree that was really difficult to climb. And he once gave me a ride on his bicycle as he raced the rest of his buddies around the Yard for speed. He won, of course. Even with me on the back of his bike, he was the fastest.
I skipped over to him, white silk and lace. He blinked, expressionless, in my direction.
“Ivan, we're going to get married,” I announced. The boys gradually assembled, wood-and-pipe guns in hand, twisting newspaper cone ammunition without taking their eyes off me. Ivan wiped a sooty smudge across his face with the back of his hand.
“And then what?” he asked me.
“Well, you carry me up the stairs to our apartment in my wedding dress like Auntie’s husband did yesterday,” I explained.
Ivan put his weapon down on the dark green seat of the pagoda, threatening to murder anyone who touched it while he was gone. He then whisked me up into a horizontal blaze of white.
My heart sprang out of my chest into the blissful summer air among flowers, leaves and butterflies. His messy hair poked my cheek as my arms slid around his neck . The boys didn’t move or speak. The girls looked up from their sun-boiling flower petal concoctions. Ivan flew across the grass patch towards our building’s back door with wings of fluttering lace; I held on tight.
“And then what?” he panted as he carried me up the stairs to the third floor.
“We’ll sleep in my bed and you’ll have your arm sprawled across me,” I said, unlocking my embrace for the first time to ring the doorbell.
Daddy opened the front door. The expression on his face somehow didn’t match the joyous occasion.
“Daddy, Ivan and I just got married,” I said.
Nothing could stifle my happiness. A moment of silence passed between the three of us, then suddenly Ivan bent over to put me on the ground and bolted down the stairs, skipping every other step. The echo of his flight became more and more distant, and then three floors down, the back door that led to the Yard screeched open and slammed shut.
He was a singer. When he walked down the street, everybody whispered his name. His songs were on the radio, his music videos – on television. He toured the entire country, giving countless concerts in towns big and small. The audience sang along with him. Backstage, the dressing rooms were always filled with beautiful girls, their adoring eyes shining into his. Each girl more beautiful than the next. The older he got, the younger the girls became, with their long hair, perfect make-up, manicures, pedicures, flat bellies and zero body hair. They could go through alcohol and sleepless nights without batting a black eyelash. Their heavenly bodies were his, in the hotels of every city. He made an effort not to disappoint them, but he never remembered their names.
One night, as he criss-crossed the stage in an uneventful provincial town, he saw a familiar face in the crowd. A schoolmate of his. He hadn't seen her since graduation, an eternity ago, it seemed. She was from another class. Long-haired girls were singing and dancing around her. She looked like she could be their mother, she'd aged so much. She came to see him in the dressing room after the show and they started talking. She had married a guy from that town, they had kids, a big house. Then they spoke about school friends – who had died, who was in politics, who had links with the mob, who hadn't seen whom in however many years. The beauties that had flocked over to meet their music idol slowly began to disperse.
He left with her. They continued talking about their school days. He was always singing, at every party, even during class breaks. He had formed a rock band with other friends from school and they were constantly dragging around equipment and instruments borrowed from the youth club. He tried to grow out his blond hair, but even when he got in trouble with the school authorities and had to cut it short again, his charm was unwavering – he was tall, blue-eyed and his thin limbs looked good in any kind of clothes. All the girls were crazy about him, they stared at him breathlessly and rarely summoned up the courage to talk to him. She wasn't pretty back then. Her dark hair was short and he had noticed her ugly floor-length uniform shirtdress, the longest in the whole school, it seemed. All the other girls shortened their uniform shirtdresses as much as they could get away with, to make them as revealing as possible. They hung out in groups, while she always looked like she was in a hurry, rushing somewhere in her absurd attire.
She ran into him in the school corridor once, looking as plain as usual, when suddenly a scent of vanilla filled the air, very delicate, like the little paper packets his mother would let him sniff when he was a kid, after she would pour the glittery dust into the homemade cake mix. The vanilla scent was coming from her. Their eyes met, then she told him she had two movie tickets and asked if he wanted to go. Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. He was dumbfounded – a real, straightforward proposal from a girl. He had seen the film already but was thinking of going again. American films were a new thing, brought in with the Perestroika, so everyone was lining up for tickets to see them over and over again and they were often sold out. And she had tickets... But he mumbled something about being busy, having rehearsal, just so as not to go with her. He didn't want to be seen with her at the movies. As far as his musician friends were concerned, she was definitely not the cool kind.
One time, he and all his bandmates had piled up in one of the stalls in the boys' bathroom to smoke during class break. The flush didn't work and the stench emanating from the filthy hole in the floor was unbearable. They blew cigarette smoke down it to drown out the smell. Suddenly, a gentle vanilla fragrance enveloped them. It was her. She was putting on make-up in front of the cracked mirror above the filthy sink. She then removed her black winter coat, unbuttoned her indigo-blue uniform shirtdress and stuffed it in her bag. She stood in front of the mirror in tight stonewashed jeans and a large green shirt with a low-cut neckline. She would never be allowed in school looking like that! She put on large silver hoop earrings, ruffled her short hair and slid some lipstick over her lips. She looked like she had come straight out of one of those glossy foreign magazines that older boys got from the black market and would leaf through slowly, using only one hand. She then pulled her black coat back on and took off, leaving a cloud of vanilla behind her in the reeking bathroom. Where could she possibly be going? The boys in the stall had cracked open the door, all of them bustling to take a look at her as silently as possible. They almost pushed him down the hole. He couldn't understand why they were gawking at her like this, everybody knew she was definitely not the cool kind... And what was she doing in the boys' bathroom, anyway?
He gradually started saying 'hello' whenever he ran into her in the school corridors. She sometimes replied, but she mostly just walked by with a half-smile. She had become a bit stuck-up lately. He, on the other hand, had started to see her ugly long uniform shirtdress as quite feminine, even stylish. It set off her short hair in an interesting way. And besides, he was the one who should be stuck-up. Famous bands were starting to notice him, inviting him to sing with them, even to record a song in a studio. And there were so many cool and pretty girls hanging around the older musicians...
But that was a long time ago. Now they were hanging out like old friends. In his hotel room, they flopped down on the huge bed in their clothes, looked out at the street through the big open window and smoked cigarettes. The funny stories from their years in school gave way to jokes, then to very stupid jokes. How does an elephant get down from a tree – he stands on a leaf and waits for autumn. He hadn't laughed so hard in a long time. She had put on weight and she had no make-up on. But she emanated that same vanilla smell he remembered from school, the same one from the paper packet he would continue to crumple between his fingers when his mother's cake was already baking in the oven. A smell so different from the provocative perfumes the hair and bodies of the beautiful young girls were drenched in. As they talked, the fine wrinkles started to disappear from her face. He invited her to come to his second show in town, the following evening. She smiled – she would surely be there.
He slept until late afternoon and went out for a walk. Every few minutes, local beauties would recognize him and he'd wink at them suggestively. His shows were the only thing happening in the small town, which now seemed quaint and cozy, somehow alluring. The girl with the bright green shirt and the silver hoop earrings lived there, after all. He couldn't remember her name last night, and it hadn't occurred to him to ask her, but he certainly would, very soon.
When he got up on stage that evening, his eyes scanned the audience, looking for her face in the crowd. He felt like dedicating her a song, and he hoped she hadn't come with her husband. The same guy she had been running to after school. She mentioned his name the night before, but he didn't remember it. It would be best if she was alone, so they could go back to his hotel together. They would flop down on the huge bed again, but without so much talking this time, and without their clothes on. Tonight, he would kiss her vanilla lips and sing her a song, especially for her. It was dark in the club, a sea of heads with long hair flashing under the strobe lights, but he couldn't make out her face. After the show, there were only young beautiful girls waiting for him backstage.