Vera

Trigger Warning: Violence VERA (Part 1 of 5). I looked at my parents — or what was left of them — lying in front of me. This couldn’t be real. We were in one of the Soviet Union’s most literate neighborhoods. But the events of that night would leave us as no more than savages. I scrambled around, trying to find a shred of reality to hold on to. We had done everything we were told to. We left the lights on. Pretended to be Azerbaijani instead of Armenian. We even locked up the doors, armed ourselves, and hired protection. But they still got to us and took everything. Including my parents’ lives. That made no sense though. I must be wrong. “Mama, Papa; you need to tell the doctors to pick up my call,” I tried. Silence. Then, I heard footsteps approaching. Odd. I had nobody left in my life except — “Vlad,” I whispered, as soon as he walked through the destroyed doorway. I clung to his shirt and pulled him to the floor. He would save me. “Vlad, look! Nobody’s answering me. Make them answer me,” I begged, clinging to his shirt. He would marry me and take me away from all this. He unwound his shirt from my fingers and pulled off my engagement ring. “There is nothing left for me here. That is all I came to say,” he said simply. As he stood up to leave, I pulled him back to the ground and demanded an explanation. “Well, you see, at first you came with direct access to your papa and more riches than half the city. Now that everything, including your father’s life, is all looted away; you are worthless to me. Hell, you’re so worthless that you’re not even pretty enough to pimp out on the streets for some amusement! I’m better off elsewhere,” he declared. He snatched his shirt from my fingers and walked out; taking my pride, hope, and will to live with him. And I had not a soul I could cry about it with #LumSalutes

Vera

Content Warning: Sexual references VERA (Part 4 of 5). The man looked at me skeptically as he handed me the package. “All you whores and your drug habits,” he mumbled. I rolled my eyes and hid the package of needles under my skirt. Better perceived as a druggie than as what I really was... Besides, if I gave him an explanation; then he’d always feel entitled to one. I gave him his money and started walking towards the mansion. It was dark and cold and I wanted to get home in time to give the Madame her afternoon meds. “Where do you think you’re going, missus?” I heard a man call. Great. Either a new business opportunity, or another attempt by the Russian government to find prostitutes to arrest. “Can I see your ID please?” he asked. I rolled my eyes, pulled the note of hundred rubles from my bra, and gave it to him. Deed done, time to continue home. “I never said you could leave, Miss,” he said, catching up with me. “And I never asked for your permission to,” I said simply. “You cannot bribe your way out of this, Madame. In our Union, it is illegal to, er — “ he began, clearly struggling for words. “Screw people for money? Be a whore? Go on, you can say it — I’m not ashamed of who I am,” I said calmly. “I need you to come with me, Madame,” he said, voice shaking. “I’m sure I do. But I have a little present for you and your boss first. Turn the note around,” I said. He looked at me, clearly confused. “Turn. It. Around,” I said, growing impatient. His eyes widened as he saw what was stuck on the other side of the note. It was a picture of one of the directors from the cabinet of Internal Affairs handcuffed to my service station, totally naked and being whipped by two of us. “That’s for your boss’s boss. And the money is for you, for when you’re jobless and homeless after you show this to him and explain why you had to let yet another of Madame du Lebedev’s girls go,” I said, starting to walk away. The officer stared at the picture and turned the note around, probably trying to understand how we had managed to get the director into such a painful position. “Like I said, officer, I don’t ask for permission,” I called over my shoulder #LumSalutes

Vera

VERA (Part 2 of 5). It was cold and dark. The night was young. Or old. And it was November. Or December. I didn’t really know what day or time it was. Since I had sold everything and started living on the street outside the departmental store, I just knew that it was cold and I was hungry. Like everyday, I thought about days where I could be warm and wanted. Where I could actually live the life I wanted, but without compromising the person I wanted to be. I tried to convince myself that day would come. It had to. But when I thought back to how I looked at my reflection in the store’s glass window every morning as I got dressed for more job scouting, I felt some of my hope slip away. I had worked as a shop girl and a street vendor and in a liquor store but nothing could put a roof above my head. Roof. I opened my eyes and looked at the sky, trying to decipher if it was going to snow again. It definitely was; and I didn’t think that my fragile coat or I could take another night in the wet cold. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man staring me down. I could see the gold coins in his shirt pocket, and a diamond ring that was worth more than the food needed to feed every homeless person in the city. I looked up at the cloud about to burst above me, and then at the creepy man again. It was cold and dark and I was hungry. But I would survive #LumSalutes

Vera

VERA (Part 5 of 5). I looked at Madame du Leb sleeping peacefully and smiled. I put the injection away, and noted down the dosage we had given her and her heart rate. “Make sure to get this to Doctor Sergei before the Madame’s night dose,” I said, handing one of our ladies the piece of paper. I had been working on a cure for certain sexually transmitted diseases for a few months now, and sending him my findings so he could publish them and get us access to the drugs we needed. Given our first hand experience with the diseases and decades old ways of dealing with them, we were very close to some major breakthroughs. Sure, Sergie would get to take the credit for our discoveries. But we would get to save the Madame’s life. “Mademoiselle, there is a man out front asking for you,” one of my ladies said. “I am not taking customers right now,” I reminded her gently. I was too focused on running the mansion and take care of the Madame. “I don’t think he’s a a — customer, Mem,” she stammered. I nodded at her and made my way to the visitor’s hall. As soon as I had sat on the stage in the Madame’s seat, I ordered the guards to let him in. “Vera,” he said, as soon as the veiled door was lifted. I froze. Vlad. “What do you want?” I asked him, somehow managing to keep my calm. “Some privacy, for starters,” he said, looking at all our ladies in the room. “Whatever you wish to say to me, you can say in front of my ladies,” I said. He looked at me quizzically. I didn’t budge. “All right then. I’ve come here to marry you. Pack your things. Let’s go,” he said simply. “No,” I said. “No?” he asked, clearly confused. “No,” I repeated, “I am not going to marry you.” “But you love me!” he tried. “Loved. Past tense. In a different life,” I said coolly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Vera. You’re just a prostitute for God’s sake!” he said, as his anger rose, “Besides, I’m the Mayor! I could have this silly little establishment of yours shut down if I wanted!” I paused. “Why don’t you come up here, Vlad?” I asked, inviting him to the stage. “I knew you’d come around,” he said with a smirk as he walked up to me. “You see, at first you came with honor and integrity and love. The second you left me on the streets, all of that was destroyed,” I said, echoing his words from the painful night that had changed my life forever. I watched his face twitch as he decided how to react. “Also, why don’t you take a look around?” I said, slightly coy. I directed his gaze to the chambers upstairs, all of which were visible from our seat. Even through the veils, we could see the military uniforms of different countries as well as Russian intelligence hanging by the entrance; and sounds of ecstasy as our ladies cracked their whips. I watched Vlad’s face turn white and smiled. “You might be Mayor of the town, but don’t forget that we hold the keys to the entire kingdom. If I were you, I would choose my next moves very carefully,” I whispered in his ear. He looked up at me, with the arrogance in his eyes being rightfully replaced by fear. “Ladies, please escort this man out of our mansion. There is nothing left for him here,” I announced. I stood up and walked away to the Madame’s chambers. I could feel him staring after me as he knelt dumbfounded near Madame’s seat #LumSalutes

Vera

VERA (Part 3 of 5). I walked into the mansion, which was more unconcealed than I had imagined. In more ways than one. Madame du Lebedev lay with her eyes closed on a couch covered in red fur. That fur seemed to be the only cloth in sight for miles. She furrowed her brow as she heard my footsteps. “Female steps, so not the police. Light steps, so unsure. Without the sound of jewels, so poor. Here, so alone. Looking for a job, I see,” she said, opening her eyes. As soon as she unleashed her gaze on me, I froze. Her brown eyes bore through me. The other women in the room also turned to look at me. “Why are you here?” she asked, still staring. I felt like her eyes were piercing through me, and her words hitting me like bricks. “Well, my parents passed a few days ago and my fiancé — well, former fiancé — left —“ I stammered. “Get out,” she said simply. I looked at her, confused. “But I’m good at this,” I tried, “I’ve had several men ask —“ “I don’t care. Get out,” she hissed. “No,” I said, standing firm. I had managed to survive thanks to a few men so far, but knew that I needed a more permanent establishment so I could have a steady flow of clients. And Madame du Leb was the best. She stared at me once more and looked away. I held my place. Clients came and went, the ladies of the house changed into their evening outfits, and Madame du Leb controlled the whole show — all while ignoring my existence. I could not go back to living on the streets. I would not go back to living on the streets. I deserved more. I deserved better. And if standing here was what it took to start getting the respect I deserved, then I could stand for days. A few hours later, all the women and rooms in the house were occupied. It was only me and the Madame in the main room. She stared at me for another hour. I stared back, straight into her eyes. “Why are you here?” she asked me again. “Because I know what I’m worth. And I want to make sure other people see it too,” I tried. She smiled. “Welcome to Madame du Lebedev’s. One of the girls will show you to your quarters,” she said. #LumSalutes