This story is by K. C. Tran and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The last time the jazz singer saw her Russian lover, she had thrown the ceramic samovar full of chai tea and broken his nose. It had been fair. He had broken her heart. Noses heal, but hearts rarely do.
The next day, she spent hours meticulously gathering the hand-painted samovar shards to piece them back together, but it was no use. He left her, and she has only the bitter chai shards of their love to hold.
When will you settle down, Pieter? I am ready to have a family with you! He didn’t respond. He merely picked up his suitcase and walked to the car waiting outside in the rain.
“TICKETS, TICKETS EVERYONE,” bellowed the train porter. She shakes away her memories, returns to the present. The porter walks over to her. His eyes hungrily devour her from the top of her simple black hat down to her low-cut traveling dress, with its delicious black silk bustier underneath.
“Can I get you anything, madame?” The porter asks, punching her ticket.
“No, thank you.” The porter gives her one last look full of longing and continues his patrol down the train how she understands the gaze of desire. There was a time when she would have drunk in his gaze as the gods drink ambrosia. But that was a long time ago, when her glossy black hair didn’t carry streaks of gray, and her eyes had no lines to announce themselves.
Pieter’s stormy eyes exuded the intense look of desire. He could fill her belly with fire, moving up to her breasts with just one glance alone. Memories fall like shadows across her mind, these vignettes of love, long ago. They glowed dimly as embers.
She remembers balconies in Paris, velvet settees in Milan, broken champagne flutes trailing the floor in Moscow with their crumbled clothes laying on top, and his hands on her body wandering eagerly until—
She coughs and frowns at the man opposite her.
“Excuse me, this is a non-smoking carriage, and your cigarette smoke is burning my throat,” she tells him.
“Ah yes, but the smoking car is full, and I hoped that since it’s just the two of us, you wouldn’t mind.” He flaunts his straight white teeth at her. He is wearing a well-tailored suit and trench coat with a hat jauntily to the side in what he must assume is an attempt at debonair.
“I have a performance at the end of the week. I am a jazz singer. Please put it out.”
“Jazz singer?” He looks at her with renewed interest. He flicks the cigarette butt outside the window. His eyes linger longer than is necessary on her form. She watches him, amused. “Anything I would’ve seen?”
“Have you seen any performances?”
“Can’t say that I have, but if I knew they had women like you singing, I would’ve attended sooner.” He smiles his hungry white smile at her. She decides he isn’t awful to look at after all. “That’s an interesting necklace you have there. A bumblebee?”
Her hand subconsciously touches her bumblebee.
“Yes, a little bumblebee. A joke from an old friend.”
It reminded her that Pieter never stayed long in one place. He would pack a suitcase in the morning and have a train ticket to Paris or Venice or Rome on a whim with her in tow.
You have the attention span of a bumblebee, she told him teasingly. The following week, he produced a box of red velvet wrapped in a white bow with the bumblebee necklace nestled inside—a gift for their anniversary.
“Must be some friend.” Says the man. He looks at her wryly, a black bushy eyebrow cocked.
“He was.” She agrees as the train groans to a halt. She stands and grabs her brown suitcase. “Have a pleasant trip.”
He chases after her, forgetting his suitcase in the process. He doubles back to retrieve it. “Wait! Would you like to get dinner tonight—”
“I am meeting my friend for dinner,” she adds with finality.
“Disappointing. If you reconsider my offer, I will dine at the inn. I hope to see you soon, Ms. Bumblebee.” He tips his hat to her, and she acknowledges his proposal with a smile.
She first stops at the inn to freshen up.
“Madame, are you alright?” asks the young woman managing the inn. The jazz singer notices her own hand is shaking as she signs the register.
“It’s been a long trip.” Wordlessly, the woman pours a glass of red wine and hands it to her. She drains the glass in one sip for courage.
Later, the jazz singer pulls a crumbled, tattered paper slip out with an address on it. Following the twisting streets, she approaches a block of homes with no numbers on them. Children play out front. There is a young girl with brilliant dark and wide stormy eyes looking at her. There is something in the nose of this girl that is familiar, a haughty arrogance that begs to be viewed.
“MY BUMBLEBEE! Where are you, my bumblebee? It is time for dinner.” A booming voice emerges from one of the darkened doorways. It comes from a man who is a little fat, with grey hair, tall, broad shoulders, and a nose that is forever slightly hooked after an incident with a samovar. The stormy-eyed girl launches herself into the man’s arms.
The jazz singer watches this from a distance, an audience member in the one performance she was not invited to participate in.
Pieter swings the girl around, kissing her on the cheek, and whisks her inside.
She smooths her hair and traveling dress, making her way to the home. Her hand rattles as she knocks on the door.
“Yes?” Inquires a dark-haired young woman with red lips, full breasts, and hips. She has no wrinkles around her eyes or laugh lines around her mouth, and her hair is the color of midnight.
She looks like me. Like I used to look.
“Can I help you?” The younger version of the jazz singer asks again, impatiently.
“Who is it, Cara?” Pieter appears, placing a hand on her waist. His eyes languidly move from his wife as if to the jazz singer. There is a moment when neither can speak, a silence so loaded and tangible that the very stillness itself speaks.
“Hello, Pieter. Hello,” she adds to the young woman. “I’m sorry to turn up unannounced. I did not mean to disturb you and your family.”
Pieter’s stormy eyes bore into hers with such great despair.
His wife takes in the scene. She has seen that despairing look before in herself. She once had a different lover before Pieter, who broke her heart. She, too, desires closure. She pours two glasses of wine for her husband and this unknown woman, leaving the room.
“I see you kept the mustache?”
“You always hated the mustache. You used to say it makes me look pompous.”
“Perhaps it suits you more now.”
“Perhaps I am less pompous now.” He adds with subtle delight.
“I doubt that.” She returns his slight smile. Their eyes say everything that their mouths cannot.
“So, in Italy? You said it was too hot for your cold Russian blood.”
“I said a great many things,” he says sadly.
“You did.” Another loaded silence passes with too many whys but not enough answers.
“Your wife must be an excellent cook.”
“Ah, you think I’ve gotten fat.” Pieter laughs, patting his paunch. “That is because I have. Yes, she is an excellent cook. But you look as beautiful as ever.”
“I am older now, not the same beauty who used to fill clubs.”
“You will still fill many halls.” They stare at each other with so much and yet nothing to say. The shards of her heart jangle quietly in her chest.
“I should go.” The jazz singer turns to leave. “Please tell your wife, thank you.”
“No, I can’t. It is time for me to say goodbye.” Pieter clasps her petite hands in his large, warm hands. “Dasvidaniya, Pieter.”
“Dasvidaniya,” he echoes. They look at each other one last time.
She makes her way back to the inn in a daze. There is a small fountain in the middle of a courtyard; the kind people throw coins into for wishes. She tosses the bumblebee necklace into it. Her anniversary wish is to be rid of it.
As she enters the inn, a familiar voice sounds behind her.
“Well, Ms. Bumblebee, you couldn’t stay away.” She turns to see the man from the train sitting by himself with an open bottle of wine at his table. “But where is your necklace?”
“I decided it didn’t suit me. Have you already eaten?”
“No. You’re welcome to join.” He gestures for her to take a seat at the table.
And so, on the eve of one anniversary, one song may have ended, but a new song begins.