Accept All Changes

In Novel Excerpts by Caroline Cooper

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Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash
Synopsis

ACCEPT ALL CHANGES delves into questions of honesty and betrayal, the presented vs. authentic self, and questions of justice vs. revenge. Russian-born Natasha Boginya, herself the child of a violent home, has been left pregnant and abandoned by her high-flying American businessman boyfriend, Rob Wesson.

When Rob confronts and ultimately forces Natasha to have an abortion that goes terribly wrong, she is at loose ends. But when her friend Anna advises her as to a possible remedy–the deployment of a brain-eating parasitic worm called a Widow's Weapon–Natasha is forced to confront the question: is one ruined womb equal to one ruined mind?

The answer, she decides, is yes.

Part I
Chapter One

A few of Natasha Boginya’s friends started a regular tradition of dining on Monday nights at a fine restaurant in Greenwich Village. Here was a New York besotted with heavy linens, Italian marble, the generous pour. Truffled potatoes. Sautéed spinach. Roasted meats. A larder full of bottles. The light fixtures hung low, bemused.

The place was an old stalwart of Tzarist times that smiled from behind a display of unwavering conquest and success. There were etched prints, toile de jouy, elephant tusks. There were silver ashtrays on end tables. There were decorative musings on safari wealth as well as the seafarer’s ambition paved with oil but wanting only a westerly wind to fill clean, white sails. Tabletops of polished rhino horn bustled with the dark dots of intricately painted Russian boxes. Silver-framed photographs featured big booted, broad-smiling men poised at the hunt, the rifle shoulder-slung, the stag laid low.

Such photographs populated the dining room: the dead remembered, the deal brokered, the moment of the handshake, and here, stern-faced nuptials in heirloom brocade. A great grandfather parting his lips to show milk-thickened teeth. Young women raising glasses beneath the green warmth of trees. Orchids weeping from their potted perches. A restaurant of such caliber that, with the right look and a single nod (the reserved grimace of the wealthy), certain people simply walk in the door and take their rightful positions at the luncheons and teas, the cocktail parties and fine tables of the world.

Natasha knew all this because she joined these women once, exactly once, for a full meal. They opened ceremonies with plates for the table (“just something to nibble on”) and a bottle. A very, very good bottle.

And then, strapped in as they were now on this terrifying ride, the ladies made their way to the mains. Who could review this menu and not sample the Norwegian urchin served on a bed of its own foam, still sputtering a poem of the North Atlantic? Who could spy a fine cut of Kobe steak rendered in its own wetly honeyed juices and not order the loving sacrifice straight away? Another bottle. No! Two. You like this, don’t you. Well, I do. Yeah. No. Yeah. It’s delicious. Okay, fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. A third bottle. Fine, fine. Forget it. Three. Three, please! And this lobster—it’s seasonal, you know. They’re practically giving it away! Did you see the cheese sampler? And what about that dessert plate? The platter for twelve? Never mind we’re seven, what of it? What? I feel like you’re looking at me weird.

But Natasha wasn’t looking at anyone weird. She simply swooped and glided along with these angular trollops and their well-stocked wallets. She wanted to string out the night, to pull it out like taffy. She thought about doing a runner. She stood up “to stretch,” still considering a measured dash.

She had a glass of wine and then another to steady her nerves. Naturally, this provoked the order of an additional bottle, as everyone agreed. Then the words “for the road!” rang out. Natasha bristled. She buckled down. She ingratiated herself to the thick leather on which they sat, soaking up the luxurious grain and fine aroma of other people’s money.

There was nothing she could do, no heading the beast off at the pass. The bill arrived, a novella in numbers. Then the women grabbed. They surmised. They totaled, divided and (against all Natasha’s best wishes and quiet prayers) they rounded up. The same ringingly grand total would be forfeited by all. Natasha swallowed. She submitted her credit card along with the others. She had tried so hard not to eat a damn thing and therefore not to be responsible. And yet here she was, her card flat and pressed, squeezed dry, no recourse, no response, across an equal divide. Natasha prayed.

How easily her card mingled, snapping its way down to the tzar’s own wafer-thin silver tray and transported. Natasha watched it go. She hoped there might be a mistake, some slip of the card, a charge left unmade. But nothing of the sort. The waiter returned and did the unlovely work of doling out cards to the half-drunk and stupid, all. Natasha signed, shuffled papers, returned her card to its rightful patch deep in her wallet. Then she twirled the sip-and-a-half that remained in her wineglass like there are and would be no cares in either this world or the next.

Outside, all the girls piled into fat cabs. Natasha stuffed her hands into her empty pockets. She waved them off, only to gently agree to slip into the very last one just to take it, “Well, just as far as you’re going.” She added, “I feel like walking the rest of the way,” as well as, “It really is such a nice night.” The temperature, at that point, hovered around ten degrees.

Natasha slipped out. She blew kisses. She promised to keep in touch and to do it all again soon. Very, very soon. Of course! The girls knew nothing of her being fired, of her breaking account, of these lowest of all possible numbers. And Natasha spoke not a word about the fear. In this way the earth carried forward, the whole planet spinning on its eternal need-to-know basis.

She walked all the way back to her place. She climbed the stairs. She focused on the lingering buzz-rush of the wine as opposed to the deadening pound of money gone. Forever gone. When she got inside, she put her head down on her kitchen counter. Then she regrouped and got down on the floor in full mourning position for what she had spent. For, yes, she had spent it. And now it was gone.

Never again. Thirty-two and a half Chinese chicken box meals for that price. Gone. Nearly one month unlimited on the subway, anywhere she could have wanted to go across any of the five boroughs. Gone. Fully ninety-seven books purchased at Solidarity Books at a sale price of one dollar per. Gone. The money, all of it, was done and dusted, done and gone. Natasha had nothing to show for it but the rocking motion of her stomach as it unwittingly went about the business of digesting ninety-seven dumb dollars’ worth of urchin and wine and gently braised ramps when it would have just as easily, just as happily, digested reconstituted instant noodles or a half moldy potato or both or neither.

Either way.

No.

Natasha could not do it again.

Over subsequent Monday nights, Natasha continued to hear of the get-togethers, those opulent Russian dinners at one of the best restaurants in New York. And she begged off. Or she accepted but then issued a last minute and desperate cancellation. For she was the jerk diner.

And yet, wanting to see and be seen again among these particular young women and to be in the company of all the fine and rare things, Natasha devised a plan. And when she received the latest invitation, word of a return to the fabled spot of 97, Natasha decided to enact her plan.

“Looking forward, but afraid will be a bit late,” she replied. Then she waited. She allowed the evening to pass into night. She opened a can of split pea soup, crushed some crackers into it. She poured a tall, tall glass of water, the wolf at the door. She dressed in casual winter separates. She enjoyed the taunt pull of her belt tight around her waist. With another hour to go, her meal finished, Natasha revised her eye makeup and switched shoes for the long walk across town.

By the time she reached the restaurant, the women were on their fourth bottle, the table strewn with the leavings of mains, rare meats. The bill would be impossible. They were on the downward spiral. Natasha’s timing had been perfect. She rushed through the door.

“I’m so sorry I’m late!” she nearly shouted, as if anyone, anyone at all, had been waiting for her. She took her seat, one part harried and two parts regretful—but a gentle, manageable regret. “Work was insane today,” she announced. “Insane! I only just got out.”

That was what she said. Because that was what everyone said. There are scripts in life. We pass them back and forth and back again from hot lips to cold ears to hot lips. Everyone knows the words, the lines, the delivery.

“Are you okay?” her friend Anna asked. “You must be exhausted. Is everything okay?”

“It’s just this whole new project is going on and I, you know, I’m really just about the only one who can manage the damn thing,” Natasha admitted, laughing, pulling her coat off and smoothing her dress down her disappearing stomach. “Wouldn’t you know it? It’s huge and it’s going to take up my whole life in the coming weeks. I’m just glad to have gotten out of there tonight. It really looked like it was going to be a lot later. I mean, a lot.”

Natasha wiped her brow. She glanced around, confirming that not a soul present was aware that she had been fired several weeks ago. Then she looked down at the table.

“Oh,” she said. “I see I’ve missed dinner.”

“Natasha—just order something!” someone called.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no it’s fine!” Natasha nearly shouted back. “We ate pizza at work so, you know, I had that. Pizza. Can you imagine? It’s just business. We didn’t have time for anything else. Cheap pizza? It’s terrible! I’m so sorry to have missed out though—work being what it is and all.”

Pause.

“Well, at least have a glass of wine. My God, after the day you’ve had, you should have a whole bottle!”

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” Natasha shut down this idea immediately and emphatically, only to acquiesce, just a bit. “Alright, you know, maybe just a little,” she confirmed, searching for that empty glass somewhere on the table. “If possible,” she added.

Someone waved a waiter down. It was possible.

Natasha settled into the plush leather booth. The conversation washed up and over her. When the waiter came by in his pressed linen apron to ask if Natasha might want anything, anything at all, from the kitchen, she graciously waved him off. In this way a good hour passed, Natasha sipping her wine, savoring its roached heft and the fact of the cheap soup and crackers already at concave peace in her belly. And when the conversation hit full tilt and steam again, when everyone was mad with laughter at that crazy joke, Natasha saw her chance. She shot a handout to rip a corner, just a small piece, off a slice of bread that remained nestled in its silver bowl.

Here was a chunk of fine, luscious bread, crisp exterior with a supple, chewy build. Finest bread she’d ever tasted. Natasha looked around for something to dip the remaining scrap in. The queen and her scrap!

Still the joke rolled on, the table in an uproar. There was little else for Natasha to do than make her move toward a puddle of long forgotten sauce. No one noticed. No one cared. And it seemed a shame to wash all that perfectly good sauce down New York City drains, unnoticed and disintegrating into a life of bleach and pipes, of treated water inevitably hustling to the Hudson.

The bread handily absorbed the sauce. Natasha brought it to her mouth, tipping back in the booth once more to laugh and nod and smile. She was hungry and nervous about the bread, but she was also in a wonderful restaurant surrounded by good wine and all these very lovely friends. She’d take what she could.

One last piece of bread sat in its cozy carbo-basket. None of the girls appeared to be making a move, sated as they were on the truffled gnocchi and deviled octopus of the evening. And so, Natasha thought—just one last slice.

“Can I take these plates away for you ladies?” The death knell. The grim reaper himself.

“Oh yes, we’re done,” a distant and resplendently wealthy friend announced with a casual wave of her hand, a wave that extended over the landscape of the entire table, inclusive of the bread, the sauces, the remnants, and all promise of grand and good sustenance. Of whatever remained.

“Of course.”

And with that, everything disappeared.

When the desserts arrived on softly balmed hands, Natasha took an entirely different tack, careful not to glance even a sidelong tine off a wedge of flourless cake, careful to keep her wineglass at that easy ebb so as not to garner the attendant, billable, refill. Anything more than a single glass, the leavings of the bread, and Natasha would be drawn to within striking distance of the check. And that, when it finally came, would be astronomical: a mighty multidigit figure divided equally and then topped with even more numbers (add-ons, additional fees, considerations, gratuities). The women did as they always did, heads tipping this way and that. They calculated. And then they rounded up. They liked to round up.

Natasha, careful now, reached for her wallet as if gently touching an open wound to watch the blood, as wine, rise to the surface.

“Oh no, no way, you really don’t need to put anything in,” the woman across from Natasha blurted.

“Are you sure?” Natasha faux-inquired.

“Oh yeah, what did you eat? You had nothing. Nothing! What—a glass of wine? No, no way.”

Natasha sat with her dumb wallet in her dumb hand. Then, not wanting to make a scene, she beat a suitably docile and conciliatory retreat, complying with the powerful and the monied, as everyone always does and will do.

“Oh, well, if you’re sure,” Natasha reiterated, ensuring that her meager protestations could be heard all the way down the table and to the very last.

“Oh no,” the woman assured. “Totally.”

It was a victory, an unprecedented score. The casual evening with successful confidants that she admired in business and fashion, a judicious glass of red and the leavings of the breadbasket, all topped with a studied saturation of sauce that, Natasha believed, no one had noticed, no one missed. All for nothing. For free. A gift, even. She had done it again. Hands came down onto laps. Yawns were issued. Some light stretching ensued. It was roundly agreed that the night, while a good one, had come to its natural, solicitous end. No one even looked at Natasha. No one even cared.

Natasha bowed to her friends, all of whom went on to pile into fat, burning cabs bound for destinations across the city, many metered and expensive miles away. Again, Natasha tightened her belt. Again, she began the long journey home.

**

It was only on that subway platform that Natasha became flush with humiliation while struggling to retrieve a free meal coupon she had dropped.

This is who I am, Natasha thought. I am the woman who steals wine and carries fast-food coupons for free meals even as I socialize with some of the wealthiest (“Just comfortable— we’re comfortable,” they would insist) where once, Natasha reflected, my own family had soared sky-bound in the world’s first-ever hot air balloon, trumpeting the marvels of hydrogen, of space, of travel.

A young man stood near Natasha on the subway platform, texting on an illuminated screen. Natasha noticed a hammer and sickle patch on his shoulder. It had become interesting or funny or ironic or cool or smart to signal a Soviet past: this thing that Russia had been, completely, but no longer was, at all. The country of Natasha’s birth was gone, wiped entirely from the earth and smashed like cheap glass to the ground. It was a matter of those who knew, and those who did not.

“My parents sometimes say things were better under the Soviet Union,” Anna, also Russian, had mentioned at dinner. “We had less, but people seemed to care more about each other.”

The former country and all its governing principles had disappeared, replaced by something new, something without history that sprang whole from an imaginative destruction borne not of the tearing down from outside but from a loss within. The nation, as it had been, was gone. Yet all the people, things, and systems remained standing. This disoriented people and caused them to search for an explanation—a story they could tell themselves when something as huge and all-encompassing as a country and its organizing principles becomes entirely eradicated, reduced to no more than a stupid hammer and sickle patch glued to some guy’s jacket.

**

Natasha was attracted to those dining women—slipping easily (or as easily as she could) into their company—the thrill of being mistaken for one of them, for wearing a jacket that could be Chanel, lipstick that could be YSL. She had found membership, however liminal, in a club of women that knew, had practically established, a flippant wealth of a particular New York set—of New York itself through the early 2000s. Of belonging. And part of belonging meant staying relevant, keeping the unwanted at bay, the talk nice and easy.

Anna was the only friend in the group that Natasha had ever felt close to and that was only because Anna knew the truth. Anna, too, remembered the Soviet Union—their disappeared home, the officers firing at random, hitting the family dog, a tree, an uncle. Anna knew about— she, too, remembered—the pulverized boxes of rotten oranges on the street to which market employees would direct the citrus-curious. And now here—a life in New York City and an inability to blink twice at a bottle of $180 wine.

A hundred and eighty dollars for a bottle of wine. A single bottle. Of wine.

Anna had made it. But Natasha, desperate and waning, had not.

**

Natasha joined the women of the table this way—arriving late, taking part in the conversation just a bit or not at all, evading the bill. She was the shadow friend in large group settings, unemployed and broke yet none of them knew, not even Anna (probably her best friend, even though Natasha didn’t see her often).

Anna was extremely “cool” and, as such, she was often “busy.” She was someone who accepted invitations but then, inevitably, obliged when “something else just came up.” How many times had Natasha experienced this? Yes, so many times. Enough times to allow her to have long since seized upon the value—the importance—of keeping most people on the distant landmass of acquaintance.

Yet when Natasha found herself back at that full table and was once again seated beside Anna, who was generously dumping big heaving waves of red into all the glasses (“I’m taking care of the wine tonight, girl, you know what I’m saying? I mean all the wine...”), Natasha still hadn’t told anyone. She still hadn’t breathed a word. But by the bottom of her second glass, she decided to speak.

When she got to the part about being pregnant and watching Rob leave, his backpack, his shoulder, followed by his threat to “rape and molest” their unborn child just as he had experienced in his own childhood and that he, therefore, could not guarantee the same abuse of his own child, well, Natasha stopped. Once again, she heard his promise to “come back soon.”

**

To “come back soon.”

But what does it mean to “come back”?

How does anybody come “back”?

What is “soon”?

When will “soon” happen?

**

Natasha’s hours ran to days, days to weeks that were bookended by mindless weekends—the two interminably empty days dominated by distant suspicions. When you give your entire mind over to cleaning, you are distracted. You cannot know. You have no insight beyond that which is in front of you. The lint. The dust. Stray hairs. The work of it. Weeks became months. On December 5, nearly two months pregnant, Natasha walked into the clinic alone.

**

At the table, Natasha grit her teeth in a half-smile. She spoke a paper prayer that Anna could see the fake guile these many months had cost her. Natasha hoped to be held. To be told “no.” To hear that everything was—would be—“okay.” That, above all, none of it was her fault. That the abortion had been the right thing to do. That more and better and newer and surer and far more steadfast, to the last, would come along. Yes!

But Anna said none of that. Instead, she fell back into her seat in that fine restaurant’s booth. She just stared.

“Wow,” Anna finally said to her fellow displaced, beleaguered and well-beaten Russophile.

“That is some fucked up shit.”

Natasha took another piece of bread from the table, another dip into forgotten sauce. She bit back the roiling desire to share more, to share it all, scooping down deep within the rich, dark bucket of life itself to come up, finally, with the last chunks and nuggets for Anna’s perusal, all of which she said out loud in the Russian that she only, ever, spoke within her own head:

На прошлой неделе должен был быть мой срок родов, мой друг. Но как я могла привести своего ребенка в этот мир, когда отец угрожал изнасиловать и совратить наше будущее дитя, как это было с ним раньше? Какие-то крики с лысым лицом в повторяющуюся ночь изнасилований, прикосновений и поцелуев, от которых Роб, кажется, чувствует, что не может ни сбежать, ни умилостивить. Так оно и было. Правда о жестоком обращении Роба в детстве, которую так долго скрывали только для того, чтобы вырваться наружу, взорвавшись его ясной и звучной угрозой: я могу сделать то же самое с нашим ребенком. Потому что это случилось со мной. Я просто не знаю. И я не могу гарантировать. Я не могу гарантировать. Это круг, карусель. Он идет по кругу. И это продолжается вечно. Так что не могу гарантировать. Поэтому я не могу иметь ребенка. И, действительно, поэтому: ребенка не существует.

(This past week would have been my due date, my friend. But how could I bring my baby into this world under a father threatening to rape and molest our unborn child, just as he had been? Some bald-faced screaming into the repeated night of rape and touching and kissing that Rob seems to feel he can neither escape nor appease. And so it was. The truth of Rob’s childhood abuse, bottled down so long only to come roaring up, exploding with his clear and spoken threat: I might do the same to our child. Because it happened to me. I just don’t know. And I can’t guarantee. I cannot guarantee. It’s a circle, a carousel. It goes round and round. And it goes on forever. So, I cannot guarantee. So, I cannot have the child. And, indeed, therefore, the child does not exist.)

But no, you see. Natasha couldn’t possibly say any of that, in any language. All those loose and lurid details get stuck in the ears and mouths of women, women she hardly felt she knew, women exploding with indifference, chewing juicy gossip like steak. Women among whom Anna both counted herself and held herself apart: Joining dinner parties, surrounded by laughter and insistence and no ways and all that.

Natasha could barely breathe.

**

Shoot a gun casually and you will have no control over what that bullet will hit. Shoot a gun with clarity, precision, and the patience of excellent aim, and you will crush your mark. Casual talk of rape and abortion, Natasha knew, was nothing more than wild gunshots strewn around a loose-lipped party. What Natasha needed, knew that she needed, was precision, aim, and the dead clarity of the mark.

Natasha would keep the details private, patient. She still fantasized about the right moment with Rob: the one person who knew—who had known all along. And she would approach him, finally, truthfully, kindly, for she did consider Rob and his pain and the interminable memory of unspeakable abuse. But so, too, she had pushed him out of the kind side of her mind and into the dark mental water of the ocean in which the crest of every wave crashes with the words: There is no excuse. We are all children. We are all vulnerable forever and ever. The challenge facing people whose childhoods were insufferable (even though childhood never ends) is to take the best possible care of actual children. Take the measure of ourselves and care of those coming up. What else is there?

But Natasha also said none of that. No way. It would have required ripping the tablecloth off the table, throwing the plates to the floor, and raging with the raw animal fury of her mourning—a sorrow she had birthed whole and nursed relentlessly at the teat of fury, from the day of her abortion and every day after. Whole seasons passed. Natasha’s child would never exist.

Never once did it make sense to her.

About the Author

Caroline Cooper

I am a New York City public school teacher of English, with a passion for narrative storytelling and instilling in students a love of reading and writing. I have published short stories, poems, and essays in outlets including Guernica, Kestrel, The Jakarta Post, and NPR, among others. You can read more at carolinemcooper.com.