I visited her in the hospital that week. She was sharing a cramped, hot room with eight other girls, all in their early teens, who'd either just had babies or had abortions. The girls were all rationing cigarettes and taking turns smoking on a balcony at the end of the wing. She was begging the doctors to keep her in longer, but they wouldn't budge from their release date. As the day approached, she was feverishly working the phone in the hall, trying to arrange a place to live. Her plan was to leave before Lyosha came to pick her up. She ended up sacking out on a couch at one of my friends' houses for a night, then on the next day got herself another room in Marino with more borrowed money.
She went back to her old job waiting tables, got involved with some guy named Maxim, who beat her, got pregnant, and then was turned out of a hospital for an abortion when it was discovered that she was already later than three months.
That was two months ago. She wasn't in touch with Kira or me or anyone from 666 back then.
Then, two weeks ago, she called me up in a panic and insisted on meeting. She came to visit me and was frankly pregnant, her belly the size of a basketball. She also had a black eye: Maxim had beaten her up when she came to ask for help. Out of money, she'd been turned out of her waitressing job, no longer being presentable on the floor, and was about to be kicked out of her room for failure to keep up with her rent. Despite all this, she was smiling and positive when she visited, nearly manic but not quite. She had a plan: get a new place, then get a partial-birth abortion at a private clinic she'd heard about from a friend, then go back to waitressing, start all over. But she needed money for the abortion.
What could I do? I told her I'd help her out.
I asked about her old friends from 666, and suggested we try to get together. She called up Kira and we arranged to go to Varshavka to see her the next day. We met at the Metro station the next night, and the three of us went back to Kira's place to have tea. Kira's parents, who'd put Ella up at various stages of her sojourn the last year or so, looked with concern at her belly and tried to seem supportive about the grand plan. They expressed this by not paying her too much attention, not bringing the matter up, making small talk and not looking her way too much as she sat at the end of the table, devouring a plate full of apples and oranges -- she was already hungry all the time.
Ella's personality had changed. In high school she spoke so little it was striking. It wasn't even an introverted silence, but more like a stunned silence; in her pictures from that time she has the wobbly, wide-eyed look of a newborn animal. When she did speak, she was completely artless, even silly: Sasha's jokes made her blush.
Since she left home she'd adopted the habit of talking constantly, telling story after story, each one more detailed than the last. After one week working at the all-night store she shocked me by calling and breathlessly recounting literally every single detail, skillfully playing up the theme of this amazing neighborhood that was drunk round the clock; she described it all with fascination, like a person looking at the ocean floor from a glass-bottomed boat.
Six months later the note of fascination was gone, or maybe better to say it was still there, only it was delivered self-consciously now, as though she knew it was expected of her and she was including it to preserve the effect. Finally she dropped the pretence and became a glib commentator, deftly ripping off lewd jokes in the middle of the narrative. I heard a lot of stories about the various put-downs she'd delivered to customers at the restaurant who'd hit on her.
In this last phase the humor was mostly gone and the narrative never strayed far from her problems or the favor she was going to ask you. In bad neighborhoods in the States they talk about "playas", people who play you, with the ultimate playa being the playa playa, the guy who plays the playa. If you've ever listened to junkies or drug dealers talk, you know what I'm talking about -- endless streams of stories, unending torrents of bullshit, never straying from the same self-pitying theme... the amazing unlucky breaks, the unforeseeable ways they were cheated, etc., etc. When she showed up again two weeks ago, Ella was almost 100% playa. She talked and talked, but she only had one point, one story to tell, and if you couldn't quite believe what she was saying, you still wanted to help her.