Luda Yezhova often had the sensation of not knowing where she was. It wasn't just dreams. On waking, it sometimes took her minutes to figure out if she was still dreaming. And then, the other way around, she had daytime fantasies which were rather like dreams. In any case, she got disconnected from the people and things around her.
Whether awake or asleep, there was always in the background, taking various forms, the red-headed dwarf, her uncle. She wondered what his victims had been like, and how they had died. Even more, she wondered what his own execution had been like. She had been an infant at the time, and her family, lucky to be alive in relative exile in Smolensk, never talked of such things.
Nowadays, a whole bunch of new people were mixed into her scattered thoughts, images, and dreams. Rachel, Barbara, Elaine, Bert, Joan, Cynthia, Harry, and, most recently, Elsa.
She had lunched with Elsa the day before, and, today, she was going to Elsa's home for tea. Cynthia had predicted that Elsa would try to cultivate her, and had urged her to respond favorably. Cynthia hadn't told her anything about Elsa, apart from the Capitol Couples, but Luda assumed that she was being involved in espionage in some way. She wasn't thrilled about that, but, after all, Cynthia's organization was paying all her bills. It was necessary to co-operate, but Luda made a point of not knowing any more than necessary. Now alone in the large hotel room, she dressed most carefully.
Luda had wondered if Eric would also be there, but wasn't too surprised to find Elsa alone. To her surprise, Elsa was in jeans and an old sweatshirt. Initially embarrassed by being so much more dressed, she was hugged by the laughing Elsa who made much of the elegance of her costume, and sat her down to a coffee table covered with goodies. Elsa's idea of tea went way beyond cucumber sandwiches.
Elsa seemed to sense Luda's general confusion, and said, "It's just amazing how far you've come and how many changes you must have dealt with. How do you manage?"
"Sometimes I hardly manage at all."
"A young girl plopped down all alone in big rich scary America. How did Cynthia find you?"
"I thought we weren't supposed to mention ....."
"It's all right. I'm the organizer of Capitol Couples, and I know everyone anyway."
"That was certainly nice the other night. In fact, Eric and the others were better for me than any men have ever been."
"Well, of course, they've become experts, even if they weren't to start with. Women are naturally better with one another, but men can learn."
Remembering Elaine, Luda felt a little jolt. She said, "I did have a good woman friend, but things didn't quite work out. She still sends me presents."
"That's nice. You know, the women in the group sometimes do have affairs with one another, not in the group, but at other times. That's how I know Cynthia."
"Cynthia! I had no idea."
"Oh yes. But not with you apparently. Was this other friend before you knew Cynthia?"
"No. Cynthia arranges for host parents, and this lady, Elaine, was my first host mother. Bert's wife, Joan, is the present one."
"I haven't met her, but, from what Bert says, she sounds much too conventional for anything like that."
"Oh, she is. She also has much more limited ideas about food. Just cucumber sandwiches, not this wonderful stuff."
Elsa laughed, and remarked, "If you're ever feeling down in the dumps, you can have a little affair with me. But I'm not coming on strong or anything. As you can imagine, I get all the sex I need, and then some."
Luda didn't find herself shocked. She replied, easily enough, "That doesn't seem to be what I need just now. I do need something, though, I'm not sure what."
"I can massage your back without any funny business or suggestive
"But we have lots to eat first."
On a sudden impulse, Luda asked, "Am I boring?"
"Not usually, but at times. It's because you're wound up so tightly in yourself."
"I'm pretty sure that Cynthia finds me boring."
"You must know by this time that she's a British spy."
"I had figured that out."
"Well, she just wants to hear certain things which will be of use to her, but isn't very curious about people. She's too cold to be an ideal companion."
"You must tell me to stop when I bore you."
"I will. You certainly aren't boring today."
After some tea, Luda asked, "Are you really going to massage me?"
"Certainly. Right on the couch here."
"Shall I take off my dress?"
"Yes. Men go crazy when women undress in front of them, but it's no huge thing for us."
Removing her shoes, dress, and slip, Luda managed to fit herself, face down, on the couch. Elsa sat beside her, saying, "This is some nice-smelling oil that Eric and I use on each other."
When Elsa touched her bare back, Luda gave a little start. Elsa recoiled, but Luda said, "It's okay. I was just surprised. At least I no longer fling myself on the sidewalk when I hear a car backfire."
"You must have been in a war zone."
"I was a child in Smolensk when it kept getting captured and recaptured by the Germans and Russians."
"I was a young woman in Budapest when the Red Army rolled through. I'm sure we could trade stories, but I don't like to think about those things much."
"Some people think you have to obsess about bad things before you can get them out of your system. I'm not sure about that."
"I don't. My attitude is just to go forward to better things. I like planning, and, pretty often, my plans work out."
"You're strong and practical, Elsa."
"You can be, too."
Luda felt her bra being undone in back, and then Elsa's hands moving up to the back of her neck. It being the first time that she was being touched by someone who didn't have rape, seduction, or even sex, in mind, she was able to savor the warmth and move toward relaxation. As if reading her mind, Elsa laughed and said, "You're just about the tightest person I've ever massaged."
When it was finally done, Luda sat up, fastened herself, and put on her slip. They then sat down to more tea.
Luda was now in a state unusual for her, not dreaming or fantasizing, but still a little out of touch. They were talking of Harry, and Luda, remembering the message she was somehow to get across, said, "He's really got an important job. When the senator has to miss a meeting of the Foreign Affairs committee, he sends Harry. At first, because he was so much younger than the others, one of the senators mistook him for a clerk."
That got the subject on to the committee. Elsa didn't seem terribly interested, but didn't go so far as to tell Luda that she was being boring. Finally, when they were talking about the Soviet threat, Luda let go her message about American nuclear bombs in England. Elsa nodded, but pointed out, "The Americans have so many bases and nuclear weapons all over the world that a few more or less hardly matter."
The message didn't seem to be terribly important, but, anyhow, Luda felt that she had done what Cynthia wanted. They then settled down to talk of more interesting things.