When Natalie came home to Omaha, the summer after her junior year abroad, she brought back a Russian nesting doll. And a new name. Call me Natasha, my sister said. Natasha, she explained, was a Russian nickname for Natalia. I didn’t understand how a word with the same number of letters could be a nickname for something else. But I didn’t tell her that. Just like I didn’t complain that her hand-me-down sundresses and t-shirts were too big for me. Though I was as flat as Nebraska and looked like the kind of girl the wind could knock over if it blew too hard, I’d grow into them, eventually. I was almost in junior high.
She called me Birdie. Because I was little and saw everything. Like how that summer Natalie/Natasha started wearing red lipstick and smoking cigarettes behind the shed with Nick, her boyfriend. (Another time, I saw them making out on her bed. Nirvana was playing on the radio. Before I looked away, I saw his hand reach up her thigh.)
You and me are the same, Birdie, she said, as she carefully brushed a tangle of my knotted hair, on that summer night when she gave me the doll. One day, we’ll both leave this place for good, she told me. This one’s me, she said, putting the brush down and reaching for the doll. She took it apart in the middle, and the middle, and the middle. And this one’s you. She held the one that was left — the tiny white one — in the palm of her hand, like a baby bird, and smiled at me in the mirror.
Natalie went missing, they say, driving her Lincoln on the way to Lincoln. But she’d be back surely. Maybe she was lost. Maybe she ran away. Maybe someone took her. Maybe they killed her. Maybe they buried her. Maybes always lead to other maybes. Her presence subtracted, hours add up to days to weeks to months to seasons to years.
You look just like her is what some people who knew her (know her?) often say. Maybe, I reply. But there are more than echoes of her in my skin and bones. She is (was?) my blood.
Sometimes I imagine I see her staring back at me when I look into the mirror behind the nesting doll on the vanity in my dorm at the college from which she never graduated.
It’s the year after the Twin Towers fell, the summer after my freshman year. One night I go to a party across campus. I see a guy with dark hair and blue jeans smoking on the balcony and ask him for a cigarette. We smoke and he tells me about Moscow and the gray fog that hangs over the city. We make out to “In Bloom.” My red lipstick bleeds onto his lips. I feel his hand searching under my white dress. What’s your name? he asks. I smell the smoke on his breath and see her face mirrored in his eyes. Call me Natasha, I almost say, disappearing into his mouth, into her name.
Stephanie Bento is a writer, cellist, and photographer based in Washington, DC. In her creative work, she is interested in exploring the ephemeral. Stephanie’s work has appeared in The Vignette Review, Firefly Magazine, and The Rumpus, among others. Find her on Twitter @saudadebelle or visit her website at www.saudadebelle.com.