by Nina Rodenko
I never knew I was poor until I visited Diane’s apartment. She had everything I ever wanted: her own room, her own closet, her own candy drawer with chocolate from abroad, and a piggy bank with not just coins, but paper money. Her cat was purebred, her fridge was packed, her telephone receiver was portable, while I still had my red rotary phone with some of the digits erased. When Diane came to my house, her eyes curiously followed the patterns of the ceiling cracks and rusty soviet radiators with my grandpa’s socks on it. I could read the bewilderment on her face and a silent question of why my carpets were hung on the wall above the couch. When my mom served us chicken broth, Diane looked at the polkadot bowl and refused to touch the spoon.
“It’s not dirty, it just looks like that,” I assured her.
I was a child of the USSR, even though it collapsed before I was born, Diane was never truly a Ukrainian: too rich to feel the destitution the whole nation accepted as normalcy, too satisfied with her own life to share our unique cultural destiny.
Unlike me, Diane was pretty from every angle. Everything about her conveyed a sense of elusive perfection: whether it was her blonde hair, always in a crown braid, or her porcelain paleness as if she was locked in a high castle, protected from sun and wind, or her suede skirts with ruffles, or her features, so proportional one could use her face to make measurements.
Perhaps she looked like a queen, but I was the real mastermind behind this tandem. Meek and docile, Diane triggered my manipulative nature, and I took over the throne of her wealthy kingdom. I was in charge of her piggy bank, I was in power of her snacks, I was in possession of her toys, slowly transferring all the sparkly, glittery things to my humble abode. She was submissive and needed guidance, while I was conniving and needed love. Diane became my world, my partner in crime, my best friend—a concept I never knew before. I taught her how to swim, how to disobey adults, and how to throw wads of wet toilet paper out the window and get down quick enough to keep angry passersby disorientated. One thing I couldn’t do though was beat the shyness out of her. Yet, thankfully, I had enough bravery for both of us.
The prince and the pauper, we were inseparable, indifferent to other kids, other people. I begged her to change elementary schools and described my alma mater as the source of the wildest adventures, but her parents kept her in the school closest to their house. Besides, they weren’t exactly fond of me.
“Let’s break into your neighbor’s apartment!” I suggested once, examining the door that was located at arm’s reach from Diane’s bathroom window. Some of the old soviet condominiums’ apartments were connected, but it was strictly forbidden to touch the door that was perceived as a wall.
“Masha!” Diane was aghast. “No!”
“Don’t you want to know where this door leads to?”
“I do, but we can’t break into their place! What would my parents say?”
“They won’t find out! Come on!”
The architect was drunk when he designed this house. Diane’s apartment was on the second floor and even though the distance between her bathroom window and the neighbor’s door was small, the height made my heart pummel.
“Give me a boost!“ I ordered, placing a butter knife in my mouth.
While my upper body was hanging out the window, Diane held my legs tight. Trying not to look down I only pushed the knife straight through the keyhole as the door got opened and a frightened old woman in her nightdress peered at us through her half-moon spectacles. She was clutching the doorknob of her own bathroom and fear quickly turned into anger on her wrinkled face.
“What are you doing?” Diane’s father was standing behind us, looking like Norman Bates. “Get down, now!” he yelled and grabbed Diane gently, letting me crawl back from the danger by myself. “So sorry, Mrs. Kavalski,” said Diane’s mother while I wondered why they got home so early.
From that day on, I was banished from my own kingdom, but a friendship like ours was unbreakable. Or so I thought.
Diane snuck out of her house under the pretense of feeding homeless kittens—a litter I found at the junkyard near my church. We swam in the river until the current carried us to another town. We played badminton under the roasting sun until she would admit my victory. Although I never treated my peers as my equals, Diane never scolded me for my arrogance. She attributed it to the divine assortment of astrology.
“Gemini like to rule people, especially Virgos,” she kept saying. “My brother is Gemini and he treats me like crap.”
“Your brother is an asshole. I’m so glad I don’t have siblings.”
“He can’t even teach me to ride a bike,” she complained. “No one can.”
“Challenge accepted!” I said, beaming at her with my uneven smile.
The day I taught Diane how to ride a bike was the day I felt my first deep feeling. It was self-worth combined with self-pity. I didn’t know what contradiction meant, but the feeling was bitter. I made Diane independent. I gave her a solo activity and I was afraid, afraid to become an outcast and a loner, again.
“Promise me, we’ll always be friends, no matter what,” I said solemnly when we buried a jar with our most precious belongings behind the Christmas tree in front of the white house.
“I promise,” she said, taking off her favorite ring that changes colors depending on her mood. “Take this. Now you know that I mean it.”
We spent our days sitting on the roofs of cheap hotels with tilted chimneys, eating Milky Ways, dreaming about overseas countries, and throwing bottle caps at pedestrians. We rode our bikes from dusk till dawn, cascading down the hillside to the riverbank covered in pebbles, broken glass, and gypsy’s swag. Speed, summer wind, and the smell of earthy moss were pure happiness and the feeling of eternity, deeply rooted in childhood years, bound us together. I saw Diane as an extension of me: we laughed in unison, sang in chorus, rode in two straight lines, and sat on a swing at night, swaying at the same slow pace.
It was the beginning of the end when Diane transferred to my school, but I had no idea. I was over the moon; my best friend would finally see the place I worshiped more than my bicycle. She was a year younger than me so we couldn’t be classmates, but the mere fact of having her in my universe made my ears wiggle. I thought we would skip lessons, hide in a bathroom, join the basketball team, become school legends, but instead she crossed over to the dark side.
Diane’s new classmate, Victoria, was a ten-year-old hyena dressed in chihuahua clothing: insidious, revolting, evil. She stole Diane from me, but could a best friend be stolen? I didn’t know who to hate more.
“Masha, we are right by your house. Let’s ride our bikes all together,” Diane called me on my house phone after weeks of not speaking. “Come on, Viktoria’s cool. It’s going to be fun!”
“No, thanks,” I said, repulsed by the very idea of having an intruder in what seemed like a perfect duo.
“Please, Masha, I really miss you!”
Ankles scratched from carrying my bicycle down the stairs, I went out into the street full of indifferent people and impatient cars. The sun was setting, the smell of dead fish was drifting from the farmers’ market, and Diane was nowhere to be found. It took me a while to realize that I was stood up by the one person I loved the most.
Summer camp on the other side of Ukraine, dance school, first crushes—I kept on having a perfect childhood. I created a rebel squad with my classmates, won a sprinter race, fell in love with the Black Sea, and decided to become a singer. I regarded Diane with silence, passing her on the streets and no number of apologies could make me even look in her direction.
The news of her death came with myriad black ribbons. Yet everybody in my school was running down the corridors, playing and laughing as if those ribbons were devoid of meaning. Diane’s framed picture was brought to our class and my teacher, looking intentionally mournful, said only three short sentences:
“A girl in our school has died this summer. She was hit by a car during a bike race. Let’s take a moment of silence.”
The word “bike” stuck in my throat, but no tears were shed, no screams were stifled. Even in death I couldn’t forgive her.
Nina Rodenko is a student in Creative Writing and Public Speaking at College of Marin, California. She also has a BA in linguistics and is currently working on her first novel. Nina lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.