Forgotten Curls
by Keren Ziv

(day one)

The mother known as Laura Bristow brushed the long tangles of her daughter's hair and kissed the baby-curls that still clung to form, long after they disappeared the heads of Laura's nieces. She liked to think that her daughter, Sydney, was going to have hair that stayed waved, stayed slightly tangled-looking, and on afternoons they walked the street on their way to the store people would comment on a mother giving her hair to her daughter. Her husband, Jack Bristow, had argued several times over that it really was time to cut their daughter's hair. It was frightfully long and the mass of curls was uneven. Even after bath nights, her hair wet and weighted down, when Laura brushed Sydney's hair the strands would end up in irregular rows across the girl's back. It was a memento of her toddler days, when Sydney had grown hair in odd tufts and in varying places.

Laura Bristow would smile at her husband after each vacillating protest, her tacit nature conveying so few words with the simple upturn of her mouth. It wasn't her lips that one had to watch to catch the essence of the woman, though her husband thought it was so. Sometimes, Jack would unconsciously reach a hand up and trace the outline of her dimples tenderly, love clear in his movements. He would stare at the slightly parted rose petals, transfixed, while first one side, and then the other, slowly made its way into a graceful curve that was the smile of Laura Bristow.

The smile of Irina Derevko was secret and seen only in her eyes. When her daughter Sydney was sleeping she allowed herself to smile carefully, only if she was certain that Jack was out, working, and only when she was sure that Sydney wouldn't look up and mirror Irina's own eyes with her own. It was during these times, when Sydney's small body was pressed close to her own and Irina could feel the soft movements of the child's breathing, that she had to remind herself that it was an assignment that had gone wonderfully wrong. Terribly, horribly, wonderfully so.

Finished unknotting Sydney's hair and figuring it good for at least an hour, if not twice that, Irina stood and adjusted the trouser outfit she'd put on her daughter only twenty minutes before, smartly pressed, which now had what appeared to be a stain of jelly on it. When Sydney had gotten into the jelly Irina wasn't sure, but Irina was in too much of a hurry to question her daughter. She was tired after a long day of working and the baby-sitter was late. Irina would have to take Sydney to the store with her and leave a note for the sitter, who would probably let her self in with the key she'd been given.

Strapping Sydney into the car seat in the back took another ten minutes. The girl had recently come to the conclusion that she was the only girl she knew who still rode what she termed a baby seat. Irina easily listened to the arguments with half her attention while using the other half to maneuver her daughter under the buckles. When she was done, she kissed the dark head and told the child, who she knew was too young to really understand, that she didn't weigh enough to be safe in a normal seat, even with a booster seat. Sydney just gawked at her mother with a petulant expression that was ignored.

It was much easier getting Sydney into the shopping cart. The girl loved to pull things off the shelves and into the cart and then gleefully declare that she was shoplifting. Irina good-naturedly put everything back and scolded the child, who didn't seem to mind at all that she was getting a dressing down in public. People stopped them twice in the store to comment on Sydney's curls and Irina felt a blush of pride rise to her cheeks.

Irina almost passed the aisle up; Sydney was talking excitedly about the latest Schoolhouse Rock video that she had seen on Saturday morning television (the Bill of Capital Hill song trebled Sydney's scratchy young voice; she needed to grow into it, that much was certain). When Irina realized that she'd gone to far, she backed up and took a sharp turn that nearly caused a display case of L'eggs to tumble sideways into a romance novel rack.

By far the shortest time spent on any one task was spent in this aisle, where Irina scanned the products stocked haphazardly until she saw, towards the top of the shelves, the pregnancy tests. Grabbing the brand she was familiar with, Irina tossed it in the cart and turned, slowly this time, to make the trip to the checkout lanes. Sydney continued to chatter away, and Irina continued to listen, but with half an ear on the conversations around her. Her feet ached her and when she reached the lane she took off her shoes and stood in her stocking feet, glad she was still dressed from class.

Irina didn't realize it was her turn to go forward and so barely contained a yelp of surprise that had wanted to escape when the man behind her rammed his cart into the back of her feet. Having well restrained the slight flinch she'd given, Irina turned and stared before placing her items on conveyor belt. She was in the express lane, with her five items, and she would be damned if some rude American had decided to speed her up as if she had buttons with settings on her.

That was the problem with the way that people raised their children these days, especially American children. They were taught no respect for anyone, not towards women, nor towards the elderly. With the feminist movements underway, even the smallest courtesies paid toward someone of the opposite sex could be construed as unfavorable and even the most conservative of the people understood the frigid rules that were placed upon them by the new standards. Heaven help them if they learned any patience to compensate.

It suddenly occurred to Irina that just anybody could walk by and view her groceries and then know a very personal fact about her life. Worse so, the middle-aged woman taking money had handled everything, as would the person bagging. If the boy bagging the groceries noticed the slight tinge come to her cheeks when he slung everything into a paper sack, he didn't comment on it.

With Sydney her in night jumper and herself at the desk working on her agenda, Irina made progress into the mess of work she had. The brown paper sack folded at her elbow, saved for some school project of Sydney's, and the contents placed carefully into the cupboard. In the back of her mind, Irina could see on the highest shelf in the master bath the test, waiting to be taken. She forced herself to ignore it.

Irina heard the key turn in the lock and gazed upward as her husband came through the door. Jack looked tired in the harsh twilight rays, his mouth drawn tightly across his face and his eyes heavy with troubles. Irina walked forward, the papers at her desk disregarded, and put a hand to his cheek.

She led him to the bedroom, her hand in his, facing him, walking in reverse, confident that if there were any obstacles her husband would inform her of them before she fell. Inside the shelter of their bedroom, Irina drew Jack close to her in a deep, affectionate, embrace. This was a time for forgetting.

Irina inhaled deeply of the heavy air while Jack kissed the very bottom of her neck, where he said her skin was soft and almost virginal. Her shirt was still on, but that didn't matter at the moment because neither of the two was very sure that this light foreplay would lead to sex. Sometimes it was nice to let him know she was there, and he to her likewise, and not have to go past to any more physical acts.

She felt a slight tremor in the house as an airplane flew to low overhead and Irina lost it then. Dipping her own head down to Jack's, she murmured his name softly into his mouth before they began kissing in earnest. All her hopes and desires, fears and apprehensions, love, and hatred, all of them were poured into the kiss. Trying to exorcise some demons of sorts, Irina thought guiltily as she kissed of the box in her cabinet, next to the box of birth control pills, while she slipped off her shirt.

Her bra came next, one of those odd ones that clasped in the front. Jack explored on the back for a few moments and Irina lingered in the elegance of the tips of his fingers tracing her backbones while he held her closer to him. Irina knew if she leaned back just a little and allowed herself to fall, Jack Bristow would be there to catch her. She shivered at the thought, afraid, and undid her bra herself. Perhaps fear lent itself to her as an aphrodisiac, but his touch had begun to leave fires in its wake that sparked on her skin in a soft dance. She stepped back and impatiently began unbuttoning the dress pants she was wearing, desperate for contact. With the fires came the ability to forget what she was doing, not just there but in her entire world.

While she had been undressing, Jack had also removed his clothing. They stood there, naked, comfortable with each other's bareness to a point that Irina was uncomfortable with their very closeness and so drew nearer to him as to break a bridge that had connected her soul to his. Irina felt less exposed this way, her breasts pressed to his body. Her arms around his neck, Irina fell back into the bed, pulling him on top of her.

The way they moved together, whispering and hinting toward the other's next action with their body language made her bite lightly on his shoulder. She felt her very skin was dusted with madness; it was laced in her blood as surely as if it had been injected in there beforehand.

He always said her name when he came, the name that she had given him when they'd first met years ago. Jack breathed it out almost in an anxious whisper. His hands clutched almost of their own accord tighter around her waist and she urged him on with soft and meaningless words. And then, his voice more tight, he said it again. Her own grip tightened and she had to calm herself before she broke.

Irina closed her eyes. Sex with Jack was too raw, filled with too much emotion, to be trusted, and so she never did. The energy that he put into his work and life was matched by that he put into his love and lovemaking. Irina knew that if she allowed herself even one glimpse into his eyes while one or both were racing nirvana that it would reveal her to the core, stripping from her the last garment she'd kept to cover herself. Modesty and virtue be damned, she kept a tight reign over her eyes, and so they were closed.

Finally, Jack would call it out for the last time, his body moving in such a well-known way that it was almost a dance to her. Allow his body to tense for a moment, she thought, then let the music ripple under your fingers as they touch his skin almost imperceptively. Lastly, he let his body untense and almost go limp not from physical exhaustion, but from emotional.

"I love you," he murmured softly, and Irina knew he was watching her. She thought maybe her world was collapsing but didn't want to tell him that in case he laughed.

He loved her, and God help Irina if she didn't feel the same way. It had never been part of the plan, nor had it even been considered possible, not even when she had been warned as a young agent sent in to get close to Jack Bristow. How could she have foreseen the way that the enemy spy would look at her when they were alone? Irina had had no way to augur that he would be passionate about his job or so naive about his country. He was eating her alive with his love and she wasn't certain but that she was flying towards him as fast as possible, heedless of the peril. Perhaps, even, it was the danger that kept her inexplicably drawn to him.

Irina hated him then, for loving her, and couldn't help but wish she didn't love him back. She let Jack's hand drift lazily over her body before resting on her stomach and wondered if he knew. She shook herself of that thought; if her husband even suspected that she, as Laura, thought there was a chance she could be pregnant he would have come directly to her with gifts and sweetly worded inquiries. Subtly was not one of his strong points. And then it would be like with Sydney, where she had felt trapped and obligated and far too young for her job.

One of her socks was still on.


(day two)

The afternoon she died, Laura Bristow was at home with her daughter.

Irina was in the kitchen ten minutes before it all, staring at the rectangular paper in the palm of her hand. Within it, she recognized, there was her future, laid out carefully in lines on plastic. What to do with it all she had no idea. If she was pregnant, should she tell Jack? Should she allow him to speak to her stomach, to buy her the fruits and chocolates that she craved, to kiss her navel each morning and evening? Should Irina deceive herself into thinking everything was real?

Irina could terminate the pregnancy. She could forgo all the heartache and bittersweet times of it all and try to forget that she had lapsed again. The first time, with her darling Sydney, she had thought to herself, maybe she hadn't made the mistake on pure accident, maybe it was a subconscious desire for family and truth, truth that could only be found in a precious bundle with eyes that crinkled when smiling. This time Irina couldn't allow herself to think that, wouldn't allow herself. It had to have been an accident, not her wanting another child to put through this mess.

From the living room the voice of Sydney carried to her mother. It rang clear, slowly spelling out the week's vocabulary words. Lace (L - A - C - E). Life (L - I - F - E). Love (L - O - V - E). Lie (L - I - E). Irina turned her head, mentally pressing her fingers to her ears.

Irina tore open the box and tossed it on the counter. The phone rang, jarring her out of her thoughts. She strode purposefully to the telephone, wrenching it off the cradle with impatience and placing it between her ear and shoulder.

There was a young female's voice on the other end of the line.

"Look, I gotta speak quickly, Maria, so, shh. Before your parents get home come to Eddy's place, okay? They already know you snuck out on Friday and I've gotta go! My mom's here. Bye!"

Irina listened to the disconnected sound for a full minute before Sydney's strong spelling of lost (L - O - S - T) jolted her into the kitchen, where she still had the prospects of her future spilled out chaotically on the counter before her.

It was the end that she had been expecting for years. For some reason, Irina had not expected it to tear (T - E - A - R) so deeply into her soul. On another level, she was almost surprised at how collected she actually was. She reviewed the information in her heard (Jack knew; Valenko was waiting for her), clearing the countertops and tossing all in a bowl the ingredients for the salad she was planning on making later. The bowl she placed in the refrigerator, herself she took into the living room.

Irina called her daughter of her flesh, her blood, her tears, and together they went into the parlor, where the light from the bright Los Angeles sun shone through her red curtains and cast a blood-like pallor to the place, though, on reviewing the words, she decided her thoughts were more oxymoronic than anything else. She withdrew from the desk a pair of scissors and motioned for her daughter to sit down in front of her.

Her long legs stretched out across the floor, they were soon covered in long strands. Scissors snipping merrily away, Sydney didn't stop spelling slowly from the page in front of her. Leave (L - E - A - V - E). It was the last of her list. The girl paused, then, spying her hair, spelled: Locks (L - O - C - K - S). Sydney declared confidently that she would win the bee, adding in a proud voice that she learned to spell so well from the jukebox and the dictionary.

Five inches came off of Sydney's mane, so much hair that the curl was lost in the short strands. The child reached up and touched her head, so light, with bewilderment. Her bottom lip quivered as she watched her mother hold the last long bit of her tresses. Very tremulously, Sydney voiced her thanks.

Irina didn't know what she was doing as she gathered the strands into a small pile. Grabbing the brown paper bags off of the stationary desk, she opened it with a snap of her wrist and shepherded the mass inside.

Inside, her mind was a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. What should she do here? Irina looked toward her small daughter and knew, without a moment's more of contemplation, that she could never separate the child from her father. Irina could not break that last tentative bond that she herself had with Jack Bristow: the young person that they together had made.

Irina put Sydney to bed, her hand curving around her middle; she could not take a second child away. Kissing the forehead with tiny, damp curls forming only along the brow, the mother told her daughter that she would be going away to the store, and for Sydney to listen for her father in case he came home first. Irina promised to be home soon.



(day three)

After sitting dripping and wet in the safe house in Reno for over a twenty minutes, Irina went into the bathroom and locked the door. She smoked a cigarette, which she was sure was wrong considering what she was about to do, and then took a home pregnancy test. It was all very simple, and when the test confirmed her suspicions (although she hadn't needed much confirmation, she remembered feeling this way with Sydney; it was like riding a bike, a very easy thing to remember) she had very carefully washed and set fire to the entire thing.

The plastic melting had made the most disgusting smell, though she had expected as much. Irina watched the flames for the longest moment until the smoke detector went off. Except for the shaking of her hands, still puckered from her prolonged swim, she was almost casual as she withdrew from her now damp purse her credit, identification, and various other cards. Irina tossed them onto the plastic pyre and watched with no little interest while her Los Angeles library cards warped and twisted from the heat.

Irina tried to remember the exact degrees Fahrenheit that plastic melted, but found her mind unnaturally blank for information. All she could recall about anything suddenly was that the degree at which paper burns is four hundred fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Quietly, inanely, she cursed herself for reading Bradbury's book to Sydney, who was too young to really understand it. It was such a pretty story, though, and it echoed Irina's sentiments about the world's future.

The United States was the enemy. It was what she had to keep explaining to herself very carefully. When she kissed her daughter, the problem, the irrevocable mistake, after teaching her to repeat correctly the Pledge of Allegiance, she had to remind herself that the United States would do everything in its power to keep the liberties of their people at a comfortably thwarted level while exercising their large influence to bully other countries and cut severely back on the freedoms of those people, those citizens. Kept in ignorance, that's what the people of the United States were.

Irina reminded herself of that every time she made love to Jack Bristow. Sometimes, though, she ignored herself and when she came, she called out his name softly so that her accent, though gone when she remembered to control it, wouldn't show up at an inopportune time. Later on, when he would hold her as he slept, the very private show of love almost too tender, she would quietly cry and remind herself that the United States was hurting itself, she was merely helping it along.

Irina recalled the day she first found out about Sydney. The bitter taste that the kiss from Jack had left in her mouth as he twirled her around the doctor's office, his eyes screaming out his joy while his voice said the name over and over again.

The sink itself was very nice in a non-aesthetic sort of way. It looked like the sink that Irina'd had in her kitchen, all stainless steel and dangerously shining. The area surrounding the basin was white marble, probably very expensive, and taking quite a beating to from the flames that were dancing merrily along its top. The lights were along the top of the mirror like in a country music star's dressing room, and so if she turned them on they would reflect over and give the whole room a much brighter look than one single bulb would do. Irina considered running herself a bath, but her hands were still wrinkled and prune-like.

She vaguely wondered what time it was, and whether Jack had told Sydney or if she'd been sent to bed not knowing. She rather hoped it was the latter, because she wanted her daughter to get a good night's sleep for school the next day. There were to be auditions in her school play in a week, and Sydney needed to perform well on the class level in order to be sent to audition for the actual play itself. Red eyes, she thought as the batteries on the smoke detector gave feeble protest, would not be the winning combination for Sydney. Adding pieces of toilet paper to the whole thing for her own amusement, Irina barely paid heed to the people knocking on the door, demanding her to open up.

Irina spilled out the remainder of her pack of cigarettes and stubbed them very carefully onto the hard marble of the countertop, watching as the tobacco spilt out of the split wrappings and spread across the smooth surface. She reached down a finger and touched the innards, felt their coarseness on her skin, and sighed, sending the dried bits flying everywhere. Irina swept them imperially out of her way and into the sink, turned on the water, and stood.

While she opened the door, Irina tried to remember if she had thrown the box to the kit away in the kitchen trashcan or the bathroom one.


(day five)

"My name is Irina Derevko," she said, fatigue allowing her to lapse into the English of her student days, when she had studied the impossibly flexible language diligently under the tutelage of her strict professor who, with the slightest provocation, would strike out with the back of his hand, his nails contacting with tender flesh unmercifully so that there would be blood drawn by the almost silent slap that beget tears not from the same reasons as blood but because of shame, a deep embarrassment that the entire class felt acutely but refused to comment on because of society's acceptance.

Her voice quaked only a few times during her debriefing, though her hands quavered throughout the process. Her thin fingers folded over one another, Irina stared at the cuticles as she spoke, idly wondering when the last time she had had a manicure.

There were far more hours to Laura Bristow's life than Irina had imagined. She found herself lingering over the smallest days, giving the officers any semblance meaning when Irina felt that only she could see the sincerity of life in them. Her head she kept bowed more often towards the end, as it became more and more difficult to describe the minute details she thought necessary.

The room had a quality to it that she had never experienced before, as if it were calling for her to lay out all her troubles and wrongs and rights and ignore them. Irina found herself explaining out loud the circumstances of Sydney's birth, her own doubts as to the veracity of the statement of accident, almost as if Irina was searching for reprimand.

Maybe Irina was looking for castigation. She felt inside what she had done could not go unpunished and sought out the most authoritative figures that would listen to her. It was ludicrous, really, the way in which she had done it. It was neither subtle nor shrewd, merely disappointing and gloomy. Was this what she had come to?

Did she want to leave the KGB? She gawped into the mirror, startled at her own thoughts. Leave the life that she had lived in for so long? Why not she had just done so, hadn't she, by leaving her daughter and husband? Before she could stop herself, she found herself speaking in a far more even tone than had been used for hours, requesting a year's leave.

There was knocking. Irina glanced away as the head agent crossed the room. He turned and faced them, explaining in curt tones that they were done. Apart, to someone on the other side of the door, unknown and faceless, the head agent murmured, "This assignment has hit Agent Derevko hard. I don't want her coming back broken. Give her time to forget the Bristows."

Irina almost laughed. She would never forget the Bristows. She had the largest reminder inside of her at that very moment.


(day three thousand two hundred eighty-eight)

Laura Bristow Derevko loved to listen to people speak about her tightly packed curls. Dark and shiny, her hair was easily styled into the natural ringlets that so many other people permed in. Not so easily done was keeping her hair untangled; though Laura brushed the mess every morning and night and never shampooed without conditioner, her hair was always trying to become one giant knot of brown and gold.

Aunt Linds always complained good-naturedly about the amount of hair that Laura had. The preteen was informed often that she could sell it, if she wished, and make a good profit. Didn't Laura want some poor individual with cancer to have a nice, thick, curly wig of real human hair? Indignantly, Laura would snatch the brush away and wrestle with the snarls herself until satisfied that there were only a fraction of the knots left.

Uncle Harmon never spoke of Laura's hair so flippantly. He would finger it sometimes in the late evening, while she sat next to him after dinner and did her lessons from school. He would be reading the paper, trying to calm down after the hard day's work enough to fall asleep. Absently braiding and re-braiding the tufts of loose hair, Uncle Harmon left little Laura with a wild and imaginative style of hair when he finally retired for the evening.

Uncle Harmon taught grade eight at the local school and Laura was of the opinion that it was driving him crazy. He was just not made for young people, he confided once over the pot roast, and very few got past that default setting. The children would send him home rattled and tattered and hyped up so that Aunt Linds would ask her husband why he didn't quit the infernal school? Of course, Uncle Harmon couldn't quit because he loved what he taught, even if he didn't love whom he taught.

Aunt Linds enjoyed a visit the attic and had a sole cigarette before Uncle Harmon and Laura came home from school each afternoon around five. Still dressed in her uniform, hair sticking noisily out of braids, Laura would trudge up the ladder into the dusky room, fluttering her hand to dispel the wafting smoke. Aunt Linds would descend, to cook dinner, and Laura would sit and play quietly in the boxes until dinner.

The boxes, all opened only by Laura with a special combination that she changed frequently, were trunks her mother had left here in Australia long ago. Frequently away on business, Laura's mother wasn't often home to see her daughter. She did, however, send extravagant gifts, showering the young woman with the most ornate things. The boxes and boxes of things were relocated to the attic, where, Aunt Linds and Uncle Harmon informed Laura, they would stay until she was old enough to use them without flaunting around like a little princess.

Laura had blithely inquired if she were, in fact, of royal blood. Her cheeks had blushed red while Aunt Linds and Uncle Harmon reveled in an affable laugh at her expense. After a moment of solemn review, Laura had joined in the laughter, albeit somewhat confused.

The reason that Laura asked if she was a princess was very simple: she assumed her mother had to be a sort of Queen. For one thing, she had the most different accent that Laura had ever heard in her entire life, cultured and American, almost, yet with the sweetest tinge of European on it. Another reason being was the very way her mother looked, tall and regal and brown and sweeping. Laura fingered her auburn hair sadly. There was far too much red in the brown for it to be too much like her mother's own tresses.

The room was rectangular in shape, with a heavily sloped roof. The size and proportions of it made it look almost like a box itself, and Laura liked to pretend that it was a trunk that her mother had sent her, containing not a few costly trinkets but a history of her life, to be viewed by the meaning of the goods in each compartment.

For example, when Laura was younger, Mummy would send packages with huge dolls in them, bare, and enough cloth and material to make a stunning outfit to dress the doll. Of course, in the beginning, Laura and Linds labored over the outfits, with Linds oftentimes redoing Laura's share. Later on in her life, her mother sent pretty little knives, hidden in a variety of things, to play with. Best were the small, glass cats that Mummy brought sometimes when she visited.

When Mummy did come home she came only with hugs and kisses as often as with packages. Standing next to her, Laura did admit they had a striking resemblance. Laura thought, though, that it was perhaps as far as they went in likeness. While she could never imagine her mother forgetting things, Laura was absent-minded. Of course, there were slip-ups to every perfection (which, by definition, Laura argued with herself, made it an imperfection).

Her mother's imperfection was leaving a past for herself. Laura had never seen more than her own past. Yet ...

Somewhere, hidden in the attic where Laura was certain her mother had overlooked it, was a paper bag filled with shadowy curls, artifacts from a childhood that was never spoken of. Sometimes she would get them out and think of her mother as a little girl, and the curls would help her visualize it all. Mostly, though, she kept the secret of their existence to herself. Laura liked it best that way.


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