The sun outside has been waning all through French, its light shifting from pale gold to deep orange, while Anna teaches ergative verbs. There’s a slash of red across the floor by the time the students shuffle out of the classroom in their groups of two and three, papers rustling and voices loud. Anna turns to the blackboard and begins to erase it--guérir and craquer disappearing in short order. Her calves feel tight, having been on her feet for most of the day, and she lets out a long sigh when she sits down at her desk.
And then a gasp. Anna’s hand comes to her heart of its own volition. “Oksana, excuse me,” she says, “I didn’t see you there.”
Oksana tilts her head, dark hair falling over her shoulder. She’s sat in the back corner of the room, where the overhead light has never really seemed to work, hidden in shadow. Her books are still open on the desk and she doesn’t seem concerned about closing them, packing up, leaving. Instead, she smiles. Her eyes look black. Something both hot and cold blooms inside Anna.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Anna asks, getting up. She rounds her desk and walks to the front of Oksana’s row. Her calves sing. She leans against the first desk there, pulling down the skirt of her dress as she does so.
Oksana purses her lips. “I’m not feeling challenged.” She waves her hand at the now-empty board, the traces of ce pain commence à se moisir clinging to the very top of it. “Like, this is so easy,” she says, rolling her neck, “but it’s taking everyone else forever to get.”
Anna is quiet for a moment. Behind Oksana, there is a stack of textbooks with neat type on their spines. They’re rust-coloured and their covers are worn. Her own looping handwriting is in most of them, having signed them out to her students term in and term out. In her peripheral vision, she can see Oksana staring at her. And it is a stare--she doesn’t look. Anna is careful not to brush against Oksana as she walks towards the textbooks. She picks one up, noticing the weight of it. It smells damp.
“Here.” She holds the textbook out to Oksana, who takes it in both of her hands. “Read and do the exercises in the first chapter for Thursday. We’ll go over it after class. Okay?”
Oksana hugs the textbook to her chest. Her hair, her eyes, and the shadows outside are even darker than before, but her enthusiasm is incandescent. She bites her lip, downplaying her smile, and nods. “Okay!” she says.
That something warm flares, briefly, and Anna finds herself smiling back.
“Good morning, Mrs. Leonova!” Oksana says. She has a toque pulled down low over her forehead and her nose is a deep pink, like she’s been outside for awhile. The textbook Anna gave her Tuesday is clasped in her hands and bits of paper stick out from between its pages. It takes Anna a second to notice that Oksana isn’t wearing gloves and, like her nose, her hands are red and raw.
“Good morning, Oksana.” She nods at the textbook. “I see you’ve prepared for our tutoring session after class.”
Oksana eyes’s sparkle. “Mais oui,” she says. “I read it right when I got home and did the all of the exercises and read the story, but only after I finished all of the exercises, and I translated it into Russian and then into English.”
“That’s great. Did you find it more challenging that what we do in class?” She keeps her voice even, a counterpoint to Oksana’s pitchiness. She sounds almost matronly, in a way, and Anna has to deliberately soften her face to keep it from pinching up.
“Yes, way more. The English translation took a couple hours--the past continuous is stupid, you know? But my translation is perfect.”
Anna gives her a tight smile. “I look forward to reading it.” She turns her shoulders towards the entrance. “Well, I should get going. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Okay. See you.” But she doesn’t step away from Anna or stop looking at her.
Anna holds her spine straight all the way into the building and up its corkscrew of a staircase.
She reaches for the pencil Oksana threw down on the table not even a minute earlier and carefully underlines the paragraph and then another and another. “For next week,” she says, trying to catch Oksana’s eye, “I want you to redo your translation, paying special attention to the passages that I’ve marked.”
Oksana still won’t look at her, eyes downcast and chin set firmly against her chest. Her cheeks are flushed red. “I can’t do next week,” she mumbles, words tangling. “I have a thing.”
Anna knows a deflection when she hears one. She closes the textbook and sets the pencil down. She sits at her full height, shoulders squared and back, even though Oksana is doing her absolute best to curl and shrink herself into nothing. “Okay. Then how about Friday?”
Oksana shakes her head. “That won’t work, either.”
“What day would work for you?”
“It’s not about the day,” Oksana spits, “it’s about the time. I can’t do right after school anymore ever.”
Anna taps her fingertip against her chin. She clenches the hand in her lap into a fist for a count of one, two, three, four, five before releasing. Anna still feels angry, but she can look Oksana in the face and keep her voice level.
“We can work something out.”
The smell that is uniquely and familiarly Max has always comforted Anna. She takes a deep breath and exhales harshly out her nose before getting up to help. “That’s one way of putting it.”
She sets the cups in the filling sink. Max puts his hand on Anna’s waist as he leans in to kiss her, the warmth of it melting the tension in her neck and shoulders. “I thought you liked them, these ‘spirited’ ones.” He turns back to the sink and reaches for the dish soap.
“There’s spirited and then there’s pathologically stubborn, Maxi. Oksana is the latter.” She grabs the dish towel Max has left on the counter and picks up a freshly-washed plate. “She doesn’t like failure and will completely shut down when faced with it. Even the little things, like using the wrong declension… it’s like trying to draw blood from a stone.”
Max makes a thoughtful noise. “Is there any way to hamper her expectations a bit?”
Anna sighs and reaches for another plate, one with upturned edges and a motif of gold and pink--a beautiful piece of wedding china. Water drips down her arm. “I’ve been trying. Sometimes we’ll break early for the day and I’ll send her home to work out her mistakes by herself. Or I’ll sit there, just as stubborn, until the silence becomes too overwhelming for her and she picks her work back up. But nothing I seem to do makes any real difference consistently.” She stacks the dried plate carefully on top of the others in the cupboard. “And she is a good student, Maxi. This is just extra.”
“It sounds like you’re doing all you can, even with the frustration that it brings. Would it help to move your tutoring sessions back to school? Maybe keeping them out of our home will give you the right amount of distance.”
Anna places both hands on the counter, wet towel crumpled in her fist. She looks down at the chipped formica, the textured laminate beneath her feet. She’s wearing the red silk slippers Max gave her for her birthday, the embroidery so fine that the stitches are almost imperceptible. She sees other pieces of their wedding china still in the sink--the two cups she and Oksana drank their tea out of, the little dish for the pirozhki they ate. Her head feels heavy.
“That’s a good idea, love.” Anna leans over to kiss Max’s cheek. “Thank you.”
Max is talking to someone.
She pulls on a robe and smoothes down her hair with long strokes of her palm. Max’s voice is very even, albeit polite. She steels herself, rolling her shoulders back, and steps out into the living room.
Max is sitting stiffly in his chair with a cup of tea in hand, Oksana on the couch directly across from him. Her brow is furrowed. She has her arms crossed tightly over her chest, but brightens when she notices Anna.
Max’s head whips his head around at her emphatic, “Anna!”
Anna’s body flushes hot. She feels completely disoriented, if not a little bit angry, to find Oksana in her home first thing on a Saturday morning. “Oksana, good morning. Maxi,” she says. She moves to stand next to him, Oksana tracking her every move, and takes the cup he’s holding. It’s pipping hot. She drinks all of it, burning her mouth and throat the entire way down, and sets the empty cup on the desk. “We didn’t have a session on the schedule for today, did we?” Her voice is raspy, flattening the question.
It’s not a question.
Oksana shakes her head. “No, but I wanted to see you.” Max tenses beside Anna and it must be fairly obvious, even to her, because she adds: “I was in the neighbourhood, anyways.”
“Right,” Anna says. “Next time, please call ahead if you are in the neighbourhood. Which reminds me, I think we should go back to having our tutoring sessions in my classroom.”
Oksana’s eyes flash. She looks at Max. “Why?”
“Oksana,” she says, in a bid to refocus her attention. “I’m finding it difficult to uncouple from teaching when I’m also expected to teach at home.” She smiles, somewhat ruefully. “To paraphrase you, I can’t do at home anymore ever. Can you respect that?”
It’s tense couple of minutes. Anna can see Oksana cycling through and discarding a number of protestations, her mouth forming and unforming words rapidly. “Yes,” she says, jaw tight, “I can.”
“Thank you,” Anna says, injecting it with as much sincerity as she can muster. She looks over at Max, who is slumped over into the corner of the couch. He must be starving. “How about we have breakfast? I think a little food will make all of us feel better, no?”
She must have drifted off at some point, because when Anna opens her eyes next, the room is colder. Her book is no longer over her knee--it’s closed on the couch and there’s a blanket tucked around her. She runs her fingers over its hem.
“Maxi?” she calls.
Anna waits, but the silence stretches on. She looks up at the clock: three-thirty. Anna sits bolt upright. She swallows against the growing panic in her throat, skin going hot and itchy. “Maxi?” she calls again, voice rising. “Maxi?”
She walks slowly towards the kitchen, but it turns out to be empty. Her dishes from lunch are in the sink and the kettle is on the front burner of the stove. She turns back to the living room. The door to the bathroom is open like it always is, but it too is empty when she sticks her head in. The bedroom door, though, is cracked. Anna swallows again, her hand shaking as she reaches for the doorknob. It’s quiet on the other side.
There are clothes strewn across the bed, her clothes--the blouses and skirts she often wears to work, but also her few nice dresses. They’re made of real satin and chiffon, intricate stitching and beadwork, all spread out in waves across the duvet. She reaches out to touch, take the navy satin in her hands, savouring the feel of it and the way Max had looked her up and down and said you are beautiful, Annushka the first time she wore it. The smell of her perfume had filled the scant space between them.
“That’s a pretty dress.”
Anna’s heart seizes and her shoulders sag. Her head falls forward and the perfume smell gets stronger, like the fabric’s been soaked in it. “Oksana,” she says weakly. “You scared me.”
Oksana’s laugh is bubbly. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I meant to surprise you.”
“Surprise me how?” Anna asks. She feels exactly as hysterical as she sounds. She spins around. “What are you doing here?”
Oksana twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “Because I wanted to see you.” She cocks her hip, smirk firmly in place. “I would love to see you in that,” she says, nodding at the dress Anna is holding.
Anna crumples the fabric in her hands. She is at a complete loss. Everywhere she turns, there’s Oksana. She’s always right behind her. Smirking, scheming, stalking--a dark spectre in Anna’s life. The anger rises inside her and the sheer electricity of it touches every one of her nerves. “Fine,” she says, voice a growl. She steps right into Oksana’s space. “You will.”
Oksana’s eyes widen as Anna throws the dress to the floor and her fingers fly to the buttons on her blouse. She pulls it off with jerky movements and then unzips her skirt. Oksana catalogues each of these movements, arms hanging loosely at her sides. Anna brushes the hair off her shoulders and reaches for the dress. She doesn’t even relish the soft slide of it over her legs and arms. “Zip me up,” she orders, chest heaving.
Oksana moves like a shot, but her fingers are gentle on Anna’s back. She can feel her breath on her neck, soft as it is. “You smell so good,” Oksana says, dragging the zipper up and along Anna’s spine. She smoothes her palms over Anna’s shoulders. “There,” she says, her lips ghosting over its curve.
Anna tries to hide her shiver. “There,” she echos. She feels exhausted all of a sudden and stupid, too. Letting her emotions get the best of her like this. She got undressed in front of a student. She got undressed in front of someone who isn’t Max, for god’s sake, and that hurts worse. She sniffs.
“So, are we going to kiss now or what?”
It startles a laugh out of Anna and, once she starts, she can’t stop. She laughs long and loud, completely unself-conscious in the face of Oksana’s blank look. When she gets her breath back, she shakes her head. “No, Oksana. We’re not going to kiss. This,” she says, gesturing between them, “can’t happen again.”
Oksana’s smirk returns in full force. She really is a very pretty girl, Anna thinks. “Okay, Mrs. Leonova. It won’t happen again.”
“I know you’re there, Oksana. You can quit hiding in the bedroom,” she says. She takes one of the pryaniki between her teeth and savours its taste on her tongue. “There’s tea.”
Oksana walks slowly out from the bedroom, a book open in her hands and her head craned over its pages. It’s Max’s copy of Rebecca and Anna coughs in an attempt to hide her snort. Oksana looks up briefly, but doesn’t put the book down. She sits down in Max’s chair.
It’s another ten minutes before Oksana stops reading and sets the book aside. She reaches for the tea Anna left on the desk and takes a handful of pryaniki from the plate. Her cheek bulges.
“Any good?” Anna asks.
Oksana shrugs. “I like Mrs. Danvers.”
Anna takes another sip of her tea. “She’s an interesting character, that’s for sure, although not a person you’d like interfering in your own life. I’d hide the broken statue from her, too.”
Oksana considers this. She tilts her head up and back, squinting at something across the room. Anna taps her fingernails against her teacup, tinney little sounds filling up the silence. Oksana absently wipes a crumb from her mouth. “I think she’d make a great mother.”
Anna presses her tongue to the back of her teeth for a fleeting second. It’s warm there. “You might be the only person who’s ever thought that,” she says.
Oksana grins and vaults herself off the chair. “Maybe,” she says, pushing Anna’s feet off the couch and sitting down very close beside her. “She was very good at running Manderlay, taking care of Rebecca, terrorizing Mrs. de Winter.” Oksana reaches out towards Anna--her nails are painted a brilliant shade of red. She brushes the ends of Anna’s hair off her shoulder. “I’d brush your hair a hundred times in the morning and a hundred times at night.”
Anna knows that it’s not okay for Oksana to say such things and has told her so, day in and day out, since Anna started tutoring her. But the warmth of the tea and Oksana’s body, the gentleness of her touch, melts something at Anna’s very core. “Mmm,” she says, “that would be nice.”
Oksana’s fingers trail along her collarbone and up the column of Anna’s neck. She leans into it, letting her eyes drift closed. They comb through Anna’s hair and feel scorching hot against the thinness of her scalp. A waft of fragrance, spicy and sweet, accompanies each bend of Oksana’s wrist. The perfume smells familiar, although Anna can’t say she’s ever smelled it on Oksana before. She feels the hum and crackle of anticipation when Oksana’s cheek brushes hers, her body coming ever closer. Her shirt feels soft against Anna’s arm, as do her lips against Anna’s jaw.
Her breath catches and the cup in her hand shakes noisily. Oksana takes it from her, leaning away momentarily to set the cup on the floor. She moves fluidly, with a confidence that Anna rarely sees in people Oksana’s age, to say nothing of those her age. It has Anna reaching out to touch her, her first deliberate touch in all the time they’ve spent together, and Oksana’s jaw fits perfectly in the palm of Anna’s hand. Her lips are warm and dry against Anna’s own.
Their kiss turns enthusiastic almost immediately and Oksana moves to straddle Anna’s lap. She takes the lead, hands coming up to cradle Anna’s face, and Anna moans into her mouth. She runs her fingers up the long expanse of Oksana’s back and winds them into her hair. It’s so soft and warm between her fingers. To think of any part of Oksana as soft or warm is ludicrous to Anna, and yet. This is the first time she’s ever felt entirely safe in her presence.
Oksana breaks their kiss to mouth down Anna’s jaw and neck and she tilts her head back to give Oksana better access, these little fires sparking within her. They flare when Oksana’s fingers find the top button of Anna’s blouse, flicking it open easily, and she presses her face to the warm skin there. She’s soon left in only her bra, blouse having slipped down to her elbows. Oksana gives her a truly wicked smirk, thumbing lightly at one of the straps, before undoing it all together. She pulls the straps roughly down Anna’s arms, catching on her blouse. Her hands feel cold against Anna’s breasts when she cups them, thumb stroking her right nipple while her tongue laves over the left.
Anna lets out a shaky breath, as Oksana’s teeth lightly catch Anna’s nipple. It sends a bolt of pleasure right to her core. Oksana does it again, harder this time, and pinches her right nipple between her thumb and forefinger. Anna keens against her. “More,” she says, desperate.
Oksana obliges her, leaving Anna out-of-breath and sweating when she finally pulls away to take off her own shirt. She’s so tall and broad, but thin, and her skin looks as if it’s been stretched tightly over her bones. She takes her bra off and moves to get down between Anna’s legs before she can really get a good look at her. Anna shakes her head and grabs Oksana by the arm. “Come here,” she says, gesturing to her lap. “I want to see.”
Oksana rolls her eyes, but she rises to her feet and settles her weight on top of Anna. She even arches her back a little. She’s smooth everywhere, skin pale and breasts full. Her nipples are a dark pink. Anna looks her fill, fingertips tracing nonsense designs on Oksana’s lower stomach.
“Okay, enough of that,” Oksana says, clapping. “Help me take your skirt off.”
Anna laughs and raises her hips, letting Oksana undo the zipper at the side. They get it and Anna’s nylons off with only some difficulty. Oksana shakes the nylons gathered up in her hand, saying, “These are for old ladies. You are not an old lady.” She drops them to the floor with little care and rises up on her knees. She slips her hands down the sides of Anna’s panties and eases them off completely. She runs her fingers through the pubic hair there and down to Anna’s folds. Oksana presses two fingers lightly against her and strokes her thumb over her clit. Anna grabs hold of the couch, fingers tensing, as Oksana works her thumb in tight circles. The pressure is just this side of not enough, but corrected quickly when Oksana starts to work one finger inside her.
Anna spreads her legs a little bit wider and pushes her hips up. “You can do two,” she says.
Oksana gives her a delighted look and nods. “Yes, ma’am.” She anchors her other hand on Anna’s thigh where the skin is at its softest. The slow press of Oksana’s fingers is maddening, but it feels good. In the back of her mind, she’d never thought Oksana would be one for patience at all, especially for something like this, where it’s so easy to take and take and take. It might be nerves, Anna thinks distantly, but she doesn’t really care to find out. “Better?”
Anna nods, saying, “Yes, but more. Faster.” She reaches down to wrap her hand around Oksana’s wrist, holding it still, and slides her hips forward. Pleasure rips through her as she works herself back and forth on Oksana’s fingers. Her grip on Anna’s thigh tightens and she licks her lips, the wetness of it visible even in the fading light. She leans down and presses soft, open-mouthed kisses to the inside of Anna’s knee, making her way closer to Anna’s mound. Anna slows down, grip going slack. She flexes hers toes.
Oksana smiles up at her and withdraws her fingers. Anna gasps at the loss, but they’re quickly replaced by Oksana’s tongue. Anna cups the back of her head to bring her closer and keep her there. Oksana’s fingers are good, but her mouth is better. She thrusts her tongue inside Anna at a steady pace and thumbs her clit in a parallel rhythm. She swallows, throat dry, and hooks her heel around Oksana’s shoulder. It does nothing to spur her on and Anna bites her lip in frustration. The pleasure radiating from her core and down into her legs is unbearable. Anna wants and wants now.
She stops what she’s doing, causing Anna to keen high and loud, and pulls back. “Please what?” Oksana asks. Her mouth is shiny.
“More. Faster,” she repeats, her chest heaving. Each time Oksana breathes only makes it worse, being so close but so far away. “Give me everything, god.”
Everything, to Oksana, seems to mean her tongue working Anna’s clit with impossibly fast circles. The pleasure in her body waxes high and Anna digs her heel deeper into Oksana’s shoulder, mouth a silent scream as she climaxes. It takes her a good couple minutes for Anna to calm down and open her eyes. Oksana is sat back on her heels, her chin resting on her chest and her hand between her legs. She watches Anna with half-lidded eyes, breaths coming in heavy pants. Anna watches her, too.
It doesn’t take long before Oksana is shuddering and gasping, falling forward. Anna pets her hair and then down her back. She runs her fingers over the nape of Oksana’s neck, her spine, and her shoulderblades. Goosebumps break out in their wake and Oksana shivers. “I gave you everything” she says, voice a whisper.
Anna nods. “You did.”
“What’s this for?” Anna asks. The box is relatively heavy in her hands. “You know you don’t have to give me things, Oksana.”
Oksana shrugs. “I want you to wear it. Go on, open it.”
Anna walks over to the bedroom and sets the box down on the vanity. She takes the lid off with careful fingers and sets it aside. The garment is wrapped in delicate tissue paper, a gold seal holding it closed. She uses her fingernail to slit it open and lifts out an impossibly soft sweater. It’s a beautiful navy blue with a close knit. The collar of it will settle just below the base of her throat and the sleeves will show off a little of her wrists.
“Oh, Oksana… I can’t,” Anna starts.
“You can, Anna. It’s cashmere,” Oksana says, reaching over Anna and taking the label between her thumb and forefinger. “See?”
Anna nods. “I do.” She rubs the fabric against her cheek, reveling at its softness.
Oksana leans in close, hands coming up to rest on Anna’s shoulders. She tucks Anna’s hair behind her ear and leans in to kiss the side of her neck. A wave of heat crashes through her. “Put it on for me,” Oksana whispers. Her fingers skate down Anna’s ribs and underneath the hem of her shirt. “I’ll help.”
“Let me just…,” Anna says, gently putting the sweater on the bed. She lifts her arms up for Oksana and shivers when the cold air hits her skin. It’s only momentarily, though, because Oksana is putting the sweater back in her hands. It slips over her skin like water and fits perfectly. She smoothes the hem down just once and turns to face Oksana. “What do think?”
Oksana looks her up and down with a hunger that has become increasingly familiar. “Beautiful,” she says.
Anna rubs her hand over her face. She shouldn’t have let Oksana stay the night. Something dark keeps twisting inside of her gut everytime she thinks about it, about Max. She picks up a stack of uncorrected essays from the desk just to have something to do. She shuffles across the living room, almost completely black, and turns on the kitchen light. She sits down heavily on one of the chairs, the one that faces away from the window and towards the wall. She picks up the first essay. Her palms are slick with sweat.
It’s not easy to fall into the rhythm of correcting and Anna finds it difficult to concentrate on the text in front of her. She huffs in frustration, pushing away from the table, when Oksana comes into the kitchen. Her feet are loud on the linoleum.
“Morning,” Oksana says, coming up behind her. She looks over Anna’s shoulder at the essay. “Whose is that?”
“It’s not important.” She sets down her pen. “You hungry?”
“Always, but you sit there,” Oksana says. “I’ll make breakfast.”
Anna gives her a tight smile. Her fingers twitch. “Great. I’m going to keep working on these, if that’s all right?”
Oksana waves at hand at her. She opens the refrigerator and ducks out of view; Anna can hear her rustling around and picking things up. She tries again to concentrate on the essay in front of her, but its words swim on the page. She tucks her left hand under her thigh, just so it won’t shake. The weight of it hurts and it gives Anna something else to focus on. She re-reads the first sentence. She picks up her pen.
Eventually, the smell of oil and the whistling of water fill the kitchen. Anna doesn’t even look up when Oksana places a cup of tea at her elbow, but the first mouthful tastes black and sweet on her tongue. She drinks it too fast and gets another cup, significantly less sweet this time, and watches as Oksana plates up breakfast.
She clears the essays out of the way and takes them into the living room. The plates are on the table when she comes back and Oksana has taken the seat across from Anna. That something twists again, darker and uglier, but Anna sits down anyways. “Thank you, Oksana. This looks wonderful.”
They eat in silence and, while it feels stilted to Anna, it’s clear from Oksana’s face that she doesn’t feel the same way. Anna eats quickly and tastes nothing. She gets more tea. She even volunteers to wash dishes, but Oksana waves her off again. “Do some more correcting,” she says, taking Anna’s plate out of her hands. “I’ve got this.”
She doesn’t want to look at another essay, but there are grammar exercises from her French class that need to be dealt with for Monday. They’re mind-numbingly boring and Anna can usually correct them without thinking, but she wants to think. She desperately wants to think. She nods and walks over to her schoolbag to get them. By now, the sun has risen and its bright light has turned the sky a shade of pale white, the clouds disappearing into it.
Her mind wanders. She only ends up correcting one exercise by the time Oksana is done with the dishes. She hangs the towel she’s holding over the handle of the oven and wipes her hands off carelessly. “When’s Max getting home?”
Anna puts down her pen. “Soon, I think. Around lunch?”
Oksana nods and comes to stand behind her. The ends of her hair are still wet and Anna can feel the cold way they drag across her skin when Oksana leans down to kiss her temple. She brushes a droplet of water from Anna’s cheek. “I better get going, then. Goodbye, Anna.”
Anna should get up, help Oksana collect her things, and see her out the door. She doesn’t.