Bureau Drawers, 1943

Anna and Peggy were sitting on the floor of Peggy’s room in Apartment 2C with their underpants off and their legs spread apart, each holding a pocket mirror a few inches away from her vagina in order to see what was there. The mirrors were Peggy’s idea; she had inspected herself that way before. At first Anna had hesitated. But after she finally did look, she was disappointed. Somehow she had thought her secret place would be more alluring. Instead, all she saw was a yucky mess of creases with a little goo in the folds. She wondered if Peggy’s secret place was better looking.

“Do you think your folks still do it?” asked Peggy, setting down her mirror.

“Do you think yours do?” parried Anna, gladly setting down her mirror, too.

“Probably,” said Peggy. “But I searched their bureau drawers once when they were both out, and I couldn’t find any rubbers or anything. There was nothing in the bathroom either.”

“What are rubbers?” asked Anna.

“They look like long skinny white balloons before you blow them up,” Peggy said. “Men put one on their thing so as not to make babies. Then their stuff comes out in the rubber instead of in the woman, and they can just take off the rubber and throw it away when it’s over.”

“How do you know?” asked Anna.

Peggy shrugged modestly. “I just do, that’s all.”

Anna raised her left eyebrow. She had recently practiced this in the bathroom mirror for several days after seeing Ann Sheridan do it in a movie, and could do it herself now.

“You hang around, you learn,” Peggy added.

Anna wondered who Peggy was hanging around with. Her mother had recently declared that Peggy’s mother and father were not cultured. (Nyi kulturnyi was the expression she used, but Anna knew what she meant.) Maybe her mother was right that she — Anna — shouldn’t be coming down here so much. She moved the conversation back to where it had begun. “Don’t you think our parents are too old?” she asked.

“My mother says you’re never too old,” declared Peggy.

What kind of mother was so open?

Nevertheless, Anna went through the bureau drawers in her own parents’ bedroom at the first opportunity. Her mother had gone to the butcher for a chicken and would be gone for half hour at least, so she had plenty of time to search thoroughly. But she could find nothing that resembled a skinny white balloon. On the other hand, tucked between two of her mother’s monogrammed Irish linen hankies was an interesting discovery of another sort: a full-length sepia snapshot of her father standing in front of a building somewhere, looking young and slim and handsome. He was wearing a light-colored double-breasted suit and smiling warmly into the camera. The words in ink on this photograph were Russian, in her father’s neat handwriting.

Anna took the snapshot over to a window, where the light was better. The date written on it — 1923 — was no trouble to read. It meant the picture was taken two years before her parents had married. But all the rest of the four lines squeezed into the bottom of the snapshot were impossible for her. Although she knew how to pronounce the Cyrillic letters, she had no idea what they spelled out. Only one word at the end of the first line — “Musinka” — was comprehensible. “Musinka” meant “little Musia.” “Musia” was what her mother had been called in Russia, although her official name was Mira. But “Musinka” was an expression of great affection. The four lines to little Musia were from “M.,” who was of course the person in the picture — her father.

Anna’s father sometimes did call her “Annushka” when he was in a very good mood. She couldn’t remember a single time when she had heard him call her mother “Musinka.” Howeever, the snapshot and whatever else was in the long-ago message on the photo must still mean a lot to her mother if she kept it in such a very private place, and not in one of her photograph albums. Best if it stayed private. Carefully, Anna slid the sepia snapshot back between the pink hankie and the pale green one, where her mother had hidden it, and closed the bureau drawer.