In July she becomes an anomaly, a glitch in a plan, a malfunction in an otherwise perfect mechanism. There is no pain, no warning signs, and no heredity issues, contrary to what the doctors imply. Her mother says Kat’s diagnosis is a slap in the face and a curse and the blackest day of their lives. “You should’ve seen us,” she says. “We were black when we came from the doctors.” Her mother’s face is white, her hair short and dark. She resembles the champion figure skater Irina Rodnina, and everyone knows she is prone to verbal extravagance.
The day Kat will remember is hot and bright. The queues at the children’s policlinic, the smell of iodine, the hard cardboard cover of the novel she’s reading: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Her mother, too, is reading. They’ve come for Kat’s physical, which she needs for school.
She is starting first grade in September. All the school forms have been assembled and nearly all the shopping is done. For the Knopman–Roshdal household, this in itself is atypical. Kat’s parents are bohemians, fantastically disorganized. But in this instance they surpass themselves. The school is their milieu, their pride. They teach Russian and literature, and run a drama club, and whatever might be said of their slipshod ways at home, at school they are unrivaled, they are loved. As T. N. Zolotareva, who teaches grades one through three, puts it, they are the school’s last hope.
Naturally Kat has to ask what is wrong with the rest of the school, and T. N. gets flustered for a moment. The school, after all, is like any Soviet school—politically savvy, ideologically grounded, its teachers 60 percent Party members, two exemplary educators, one educator-methodologist. As for Kat’s parents, they are still too young to have any distinctions, and also they happen to be Jews.
Kat already has a bit of reputation at the school. She is known as a local wunderkind: she reads on the par with fifth-graders, spews quotes from memory, soaks up everything—epigrams, quips, staircase conversations, the merciless assessments her parents bestow on their associates and friends. She plays a page in her parents’ school productions; at holiday parties she and her father enact short comic sketches.
At home, her parents call her “our little bureaucrat,” which doesn’t upset her, not in the least. She’s organized, responsible. Somebody has to be, with parents like these. Though of course, she adores them. They are brilliant, daring, the kind of parents who’d risk anything for truth. The least she can do is remind them when they are out of milk, or when their apartment payment is due.
This summer they need few reminders. They spend money with abandon on pencils, pens, counting sticks, stacks of thin notebooks, extra sets of penmanship exercises. They travel by subway to Children’s World to buy Kat her first uniform, an itchy brown dress with two pinafores, one white and one black.
At home, each item is stashed in the three-door wardrobe in Kat’s room, and every afternoon she inspects her new riches: the dress with its snowy accents of lace, a satchel and a silky bag for shoes, new ribbons. She is growing out her hair. By the end of the summer it will be down to her shoulders. She’ll have braids on her first day of school. For now, she fixes it up in two sickly pretzels, and when no one is looking she puts on her new dress, too. She loves how it slims her into a whole new person, all grown up and tidy. The skirt flares slightly, and whenever she has the dress on, she wants to twirl, twirl, until the world spins around and gravity loosens its hold on her.
Later she takes the dress off, puts it back on its hanger, makes sure there’s not a speck of lint on it, not a wrinkle on the seat of the skirt. She is ready. She’s been ready since the start of summer—except for the physical, which her parents have been calling a stupid formality. This flippancy alone should have tipped her off. Formalities, she is to learn, have a way of wreaking havoc on your life.
ELLEN LITMAN‘s first book, The Last Chicken in America, a collection of stories, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her first novel, Mannequin Girl, will be released March 10th by W. W. Norton & Company. A native of Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut.
Excerpted from Mannequin Girl: A Novel by Ellen Litman. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Litman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.