Klara Drösselmeier put her phone in her pocket and stuffed herself into the hot smelly sardine train.
“Just come,” Elise had said. So here she was, rattling toward the city, hoping she wasn't about to make a huge mistake, hoping against hope that he wouldn't be there, and hoping that she could leave herself behind for a few hours and actually enjoy the gay whirl of a Christmas party.
“You look great,” Elise said at the doorway, kissing her on both cheeks. Klara felt that she looked like shit. Her wispy Nordic blonde hair hadn't been properly brushed in weeks, her ice-blue eyes were bloodshot from insomnia, and her typically luminescent silent-movie skin had erupted into red protests against too much emotional stress. Had she even remembered to put on underwear?
Klara kissed her friend and put her hot mess behind her, just for the evening. She stepped into Elise's endless rambling Victorian pile and into a crush of fellow bohemians, all in a better mood than she, all holding paper cups of hibiscus wassail, and all draped improbably around the furniture in ways only lifetimes of yoga can engender. She felt better already.
“He's not here,” Elise said, always the gracious hostess. She always knew how to extend a word or a hand at just the right elegant angle to set someone at their ease. Klara felt her skin relax. She smiled. She became aware of the scent of pine wreaths and cinnamon-stuck orange pomanders, aware of the glitter of fairy lights and the soft glow of red velvet swags. “Thanks,” she said. “And...you decorated!”
She cocked an ear. Around the vegetarian din of well-modulated voices, she heard something awfully familiar. “Is that....”
Elise grabbed her arm. “Come on! We're just in time for March of the Toy Soldiers!”
Sure enough, the front room was stuffed with actors, dancers, yogis, artists, and shamans who all believed that the best way anyone could celebrate Christmas Eve was with a Dancealong Nutcracker at the last remaining bastion of artistry left anywhere in San Francisco: her friend Elise's epic sprawling town house in what had once been the unfashionable end of the Mission. She had inherited the house from a mysterious grandfather whom, she insisted, had not been a pirate....
Klara and Elise marched around the room in locked-step with everyone else, pretending to be little boys pretending to be soldiers. Klara bumped into someone who was out of step.
“Franz! I thought you were in LA!” She kissed her cousin.
“Book launch,” he said, and nothing else. A typical writer, Franz was very bad at spoken conversation and awkward in the extreme when it came to social occasions. She hugged him. He bumped her hard with his elbow. “My bad,” he blushed. Klara smiled. She liked that there was at least one member of the extended family who was even more clueless about living in society than she was. She paired him in a quadrille and perked up with every out-of-step moment.
The front door banged open.
Every head craned to see. Klara found herself by Elise, who smiled in excitement. “Klara!” she said. “I invited your uncle!”
“¿...Bwa?” Klara said. She had inherited Franz's gift for elocution. Not...Onkel Heinrich? Wasn't he still on tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret? Or wait...that was last year...wasn't he still out on his ashram in Goa? Why couldn't she keep track of where anyone was these days? One little heartbreak and her social calendar vanished from her memory.
But it was definitely he. Nobody else could enter a room with such David Bowie prowess. Nobody else could rock a cape that hard. And when she looked into Elise's eyes...she saw something new.
Her own eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why did you invite him?”
“Isn't it enough that he's the life of any party?” Elise blushed. Klara waited.
“Ok we started seeing each other. It's new. I really like him. I think we could turn into something real.”
Everybody in this entire town is getting laid except for me, Klara thought. I should lower my standards. “You know he's like fifteen years older than you,” she said, trying not to think about her blood relation getting it on with her friend. “Plus he's almost certainly bisexual.”
“Fine,” Elise said, her face shining as Heinrich moved through the room smiling like the Pope accepting accolades. Everyone had a word for him, a hug, a joke. “You don't meet someone like that every day.”
You certainly don't, thought Klara, wending her way toward her uncle.
They hugged it out. Onkel Heinrich smelled, as always, of fir trees, snow, and midnight mass. He kissed her on both cheeks and said, “I brought you a special present, Klara!”
The crowd moved on to dance the next part of the first act of the Nutcracker. “Oh, you shouldn't have. What did you bring me,” said Klara. Why rest on false modesty. The guy always had the best presents.
Heinrich swirled his cape with a flourish, and then flourished it with a swirl for good measure. He brought out from under it something about a foot tall, hidden under a handkerchief. “Thanks but I don't need another of those,” Klara said. His eye caught hers and twinkled and she blushed. “....Or I could see what it is,” she said, blushing even more.
She lifted theveil. He handed her a gaudily painted antique nutcracker, with cotton hair, a jaunty jacket, and a jaw ready to crack antique walnuts.
“….Thank you,” she said, a little confused.
“I know you've been having a tough time getting over...him...and I wanted to give you a man who would never hurt your feelings!” he smiled. “Then when I was back in Frankfurt cleaning out Oma's estate, I ran into this guy in the attic and he smiled at me and I knew he was the one for you.”
A wooden man, Klara thought, taking him in her arms and cradling him experimentally. That sounds like about the right amount of emotional risk for now.
She looked down at him and started. Had he just smiled at her?
Just then two dancers sprang from behind her Onkel, like TweedleDee and TweedleDum, and shook her hand with suitably Carrollian vigour. “Hi! Are you Klara? We've been hoping to meet you!” they chimed in disharmonic unison.
“Hello,” she said. “We're from your Onkel's Troupe Mécanique,” they said. “—And it's just time for our bit!” They disappeared into the crowd. Klara was not sure how they did it.
They suddenly reappeared sitting on presents in front of the Christmas tree. Klara was not sure how they did that, either. They did interpretive dances pretending to be toys.
“Ah,” Klara sighed, sipping her hibiscus wassail. Christmas in San Francisco. It used to always be like this, everywhere. Now that was all dead.
Elise's house was the only pocket of art left in the whole city. In the whole Bay Area, even...all these people had travelled for hours to get here, because nobody could live in San Francisco any more. Nobody could even live in Oakland any more. People were literally dying for the sin of not having been born computer programmers and thus not able to make the mandatory five hundred grand a year it took to live in the Bay Area. Innocent artists were burning to death, trapped in fires in dangerous buildings knowingly rented out by evil slumlords who cared everything about money and nothing about human beings. Twenty percent of all female college students in San Francisco reported that, since they couldn't make enough money to survive in the Bay Area any other way, they were part of an online glorified prostitution company that hooked women up with men who paid for their sexual services—and if twenty percent reported this, how many more were actually doing it? ….The rainbows and the flower children had all been massacred and evicted and displaced and in their nuclear aftermath stretched an endless grey monoculture of self-obsessed cruel child billionaires who had never suffered, and scavenging violent deranged crack addicts who took to shooting sprees in the filthy streets whenever they felt like it, secure in the truth that the police in these parts were deficient and worthless. There was nothing else left. Just the billionaires and the beggars and miles and miles of anger and social bitterness, and no art, culture, or economic diversity of any kind. Might had made right and turned Paradise into a nightmare parking lot. It was heartbreaking. And cruel. And wrong.
And the way things were.
Klara gritted her jaw. At least tonight she would have the company of like-minded souls to fortify her through this season of darkness. She knew everyone would be sleeping over rather than heading all the way back to Sacramento and Bakersfield and Yreka that night. Slumber party!
She looked down at the Nutcracker resting in the crook of her arm. He was kinda cute, after all. And completely straightforward. She knew exactly where she stood with him. She was a human being and he was a kitchen implement. The boundaries had never been clearer. Perfect.
Was he...looking back at her?
Just then someone jostled against her, crashing her against a wall. The Nutcracker went flying out of her arm and her cup tossed blood-red hibiscus wassail down her shirt.
An ominous crack.
“Oh my God, Franz,” Klara snapped. Man Down. She rushed to her little Nutcracker's body, now over by the stairs, then picked up his head, now over by the door jamb.
“I'm sorry,” Franz blushed. “It was an accident.”
“I know,” Klara said. “I just wish men wouldn't be so careless!” Unfair, she knew. Stereotyping, she knew. Satisfying to say, she definitely knew. She tried to mash the Nutcracker's head back onto his body. A lost cause. She took a deep breath and carefully exhaled for twice as long as her inhale.
It did not make the Nutcracker grow back into one piece.
She brought him the decapitated soldier. He assessed the situation with the keen eye of a surgeon, then whipped his star-spangled handkerchief out from his cape. He knotted it around the Nutcracker's neck and magically, head and body held together.
Klara sniffed and thanked him. Here at least was one artist San Francisco couldn't kill.
Elise swept by and sailed away with Heinrich. Their turn to lead the party in the Grownup's Dance (or whatever it was called) from Act 1. Klara watched them bow and curtsy with stately grandeur. Speak with authority, even when you have none, she thought. They may be hanging on by a thread in this crazy awful world that was driving their kind to extinction, but you'd never know it to watch them. That night they were the Empress and Emperor of the Mission.
Elise's ormolu clock chimed midnight. The witching hour.
The guests all started. Who even had a clock these days? They looked at this mysterious analog object with its round face and its hands pointing at numbers. A fascinating artifact from a bygone era.
“Time for bed everyone,” Elise said, clapping her hands like a ballet mistress. “Otherwise how will Santa Claus come?”
Artists are all children at heart. They didn't have to be told twice. A few got their wraps and dispensed many kisses and made their way out into the not-particularly-cold night. The rest piled into Elise's eight bedrooms.
Klara lingered by the Christmas tree, thinking. She was glad they'd gotten a rental with the roots still attached.
“Klara? Are you coming?” Elise and Heinrich paused on their way down the hall, arm-in-arm. Klara dutifully did not think about them spending the night together.
“Thanks, I...think I'm going to just stay here a bit. ….I need time to decompress. I'll sleep on the couch.”
“Ok well no ruminating,” Elise said. “If you need to you can come wake us up.” Kiss. Kiss.
Onkel Heinrich looked Klara over with a hairy eyeball. “I've been where you are,” he said. “....This will help.”
He swirled his cape again. “You love doing that, don't you,” Klara said. He smiled and drew a little piece of branch out from the cape. Klara thought she had seen one of those at the local witch store but she couldn't be sure. Palo Santo? No...it was something different.
Heinrich lit the end of the branch. It smouldered and purple smoke started to curl out of it. He walked widdershins around the front room, waving the smoking branch around him in circles, pausing in front of the Christmas tree and drawing arcane shapes in the air with the smoke. Klara coughed. The smoke hung in the air, but it was nice. It smelled like roasting pineapple.
Heinrich stepped into the hall, checked his work, and was satisfied. “Sweet dreams,” he said to Klara. Kiss. Kiss. Then Elise and he disappeared into the smoke and were gone.
Klara smiled to herself. She never tired of Onkel Heinrich's parlour tricks. She cuddled her Nutcracker. She didn't care if he was made of wood and only a foot tall and didn't have opposable thumbs, let alone an opinion on Joan Didion. He felt real to her. She felt like he was hugging her back. And, even more incredibly, he was still right here with her, even when the party was over and it was time for bed. She yawned.
The tree looked nice in the lingering wafts of purple smoke. The lights twinkled brighter. The aluminum ornaments glittered more enticingly. Maybe she would just lie down a minute next to it. It smelled nice. Nothing smelled as nice as a Christmas tree....
In the space between waking and sleeping, Klara's dreaming mind thought the hands of the ormolu clock spun around and around backwards, but she could not be sure.
In the space between waking and sleeping, Klara's dreaming mind thought Onkel Heinrich turned into the owl on top of the clock and peered down at her, but she could not be sure.
In the space between waking and sleeping, Klara's dreaming mind thought the Christmas tree above her grew to a hundred times its daytime size and every ornament was now the size of a studio apartment. Or maybe it was she who was shrinking down to the size of the tiniest mouse.
But she could not be sure.
A scratching noise in the walls drew Klara up with a start. Anyone who has lived in old buildings learns to recognize that noise regardless of their state of consciousness.
“Oh shit,” she said. “Mice.”
Sure enough a parade of mice presently emerged from a crack in the wainscoting. Only now Klara was the same size as they! Even smaller, because these were fully-grown man-mice, and Klara was a slight little thing. Klara hid behind an enormous foil-wrapped present and watched in morbid fascination as this platoon of mice poured out of the wall. They swarmed the living room. They were on the prowl.
They sniffed their way toward the present Klara was hiding behind and she instinctively took a step back.
And trod on...something! She squeaked. It felt kind of like wood and kind of like a human foot.
She spun around and looked squarely into....
….The broad and soldierly chest of her Nutcracker! Only now he was man-sized and had movable limbs.
“Um,” said Klara. He pressed a finger (now that he had fingers) to his lips and drew her behind him in a stiff but manly way. He peered out from behind the present and slowly reached for his sword. He was looking for someone. He pointed and Klara looked where he was pointing.
In the middle of the prowling mice was one mouse who was bigger and scarier than all the rest. He had ridiculously orange fur but Klara could tell none of the other mice dared mention the fact. A heavy crown sat low on his brow. Every whisker twitched with evil intent. He was disseminating orders to his troops, who were scuffling around, absconding with everything they could lay their paws on.
Klara felt her lip curl into a sneer of anger. Must it be the same everywhere regardless of scale? The 1% took all the resources and left the remaining 99% with nothing? She was pissed on principle. She rolled up her nightgown sleeves and balled up her fists and started to head into the fray, when the Nutcracker grabbed her and put her rather woodenly but decisively on top of the present where she would be safe. He made an invisible signal to someone across the room, and a split second later, burst forth, sword drawn!
At the same time, a battalion of toy soldiers erupted from behind the couch and poured into battle, roaring battle cries, with their swords drawn!
All was bloodshed and mayhem!
Soldiers against mice, bayonets against fangs, muskets against claws....
Snarls and flying fur and screams of sudden pain....
And in the middle of it all, there was her Nutcracker locked in hand-to-paw combat with the Mouse King himself!
They wrestled like savage animals.
Was this political? Was this personal?
Klara had no idea. All she knew was that death was the only way this fight would end.
The Nutcracker fought with valour seldom seen in kitchenware. A swift uppercut, a left hook to the Mouse King's jaw, and suddenly they were down, the Nutcracker pinning the Mouse King to the ground by his whiskers. The Nutcracker drew his sword and held its glittering point directly at the Mouse King's throat. The Mouse King squealed in a most unkingly way.
The Nutcracker glanced up at Klara. She stared back at him with huge round eyes.
She had never seen anyone die before. Not even a mouse. She was just about to cover her eyes, when....
….The Nutcracker let go of the Mouse King with a rough shove. He sheathed his sword, got up, and started to turn away.
When the Mouse King sprang up and with a bloodcurdling war cry jumped onto the Nutcracker's retreating back! His claws raked the Nutcracker's uniform to bloody shreds. His sharp teeth were going for the Nutcracker's jugular.
It was up to Klara to save the day.
She dove into the melée of cannon smoke and mouse teeth dripping with blood. She ran behind the couch where she knew Elise kept a mouse trap. She screamed at the toy soldiers to join her in dragging the trap out onto the floor.
The Mouse King now had the Nutcracker down on the floor. Klara knew if she watched she would be lost and so would he. Action was her only hope.
She led the soldiers, dragging the mouse trap, to the Mouse King. “He almost certainly has rabies,” she thought, remembering that her mother had always told her to steer clear of animals behaving erratically. But when one's Nutcracker's life is at stake, one has to set aside everyday rules. Klara made six soldiers pull up the trap's metal jaw, and then in the very nick of time she jammed his tail into the trap as hard as it would go.
Klara had never heard anyone die before.
She looked down and saw herself shaking all over. She realized her heart was pounding. She was covered in sweat and wanted to throw up. Her head swam. Her knees gave way beneath her. As she sank to the ground, she thought she saw the Mouse King and all his army disappearing in swirls of Onkel Heinrich's mysterious purple smoke.
But she could not be sure.
She saw her wooden Nutcracker leaning over her with concern on his painted face, but she didn't have the strength to tell him she was all right. Right now she just needed to close her eyes for a moment....
Klara felt better. “She's coming to.” She thought she recognized this soft, warm voice. Even though she had never, technically, heard it before. She decided to risk opening her eyes. She looked up into a familiar face.
That was at the same time not so familiar.
She knew those wise eyes. She knew that kind mouth. She knew that shredded bloody uniform, that, even as she watched, dissolved in purple smoke and revealed a silk jacket that showed off the admirable physique of its wearer.
“....My Nutcracker,” she said?
He smiled at her and it was a real, human smile. He was cradling her head and shoulders off the ground and now swept her up into a real, human embrace. Because now he was real. And human.
“Yes and no,” he said. Her ear listened extremely carefully to all the tenderness in his voice. “My name is Nikolai. Are you ok?” He examined her pupils and felt her pulse. “Just a little shock?”
Klara felt remarkably comfortable in his real human embrace and decided to stay right there. She snuggled in. “Just a little shock. But, you know, it would be overhasty to move me too soon.” She listened to his beating heart. She felt his breathing. “I think I'll call you Saint Nick.”
He chuckled. He bent and kissed her forehead and his kiss felt like a cinnamon cooky. Klara had thought she was done with kisses forever, but now she considered changing her mind.
“What happened, anyway?” she said. “Why were you a Nutcracker in the first place?” She surreptitiously snuck her nose up toward his neck. Since it was there. Might as well have a sniff.
He smelled amazing.
So amazing she missed the first half of what he was saying. Finally she forced herself to pay attention to the content of his words and not just the mellifluous cadences of his voice.
“—So she turned me into a Nutcracker,” he was saying. “And I thought I was doomed to remain one forever. But then you saved my life, and broke the spell!” He stepped back to look at her, a big goofy happy grin on his face. He caught up her hand in his and clasped it to his heart. “Oh Klara, how can I ever thank you? You've given me my life back! It feels great!” He embraced her and just as she was mentally starting to count the ways she wouldn't mind him thanking her, he flitted off into a grand jeté or so. He sprang around, leaping and twirling. “Oh, it feels wonderful to have my human body back!” he cried. “It feels wonderful to be Nikolai again!”
Klara had to smile. He was like a toddler jumping in rain puddles.
Just then in swept the Sugar Plum Fairy. Klara would have recognized her anywhere. There could be only one. She knew her from the way she commanded the scene, her sparkly bouncy tutu, and her adoring swain tootling along beside her captivated by her leonine Alpha presence.
“I just heard the good news on the jungle drums, мой племянник!” the Sugar Plum Fairy said, waving her sugar plum wand majestically and making sparkly snowy trees pop up with every wave. Her adoring swain hugged Nikolai and Klara and distributed kisses affectionately and indiscriminately. “This is wonderful!” She pulled a tiny crystal vial of eau de vie out of the air and poured everyone celebratory shots.
“To the blessed and safe return to humanity and the freedom of my beautiful nephew!” proclaimed the Sugar Plum Fairy. They all downed their shots, that tasted like amber fire and left the mind crisply clear.
“To lovely Miss Klara, for saving the day with her brave heart and bold action!” proclaimed the Sugar Plum Fairy's adoring swain. More shots.
“To my beautiful Klara, for her grace under fire, her commanding military intelligence, her keen capacity for facing mortal danger, her sharp wit, her noble heroism, her kind heart, her....” and here Prince Nikolai's admiring thoughts tripped over themselves so much that he could say no more. More shots.
Everyone looked at Klara, who knew it was now her turn to toast. But there was only one thing she could say.
Everyone laughed and drained their last shots. The Sugar Plum Fairy waved her wand and sugar sparkles drifted off it and the heavens opened up and sprinkles of snow fairies drifted down to Klara and her Prince and they found themselves outside on the street, only it was snowing (yes in California). And the snow fairies were making patterns in the falling snow.
“Come with me, Klara,” Nikolai said. “There is a wonderful party where all my friends are celebrating. I want you to meet them all and I want them all to meet you. We will laugh, and dance, and make merry. We will rejoice and be happy.” He reached for her hand and entwined his fingers in hers.
And she knew she would go anywhere in Heaven or on Earth that he led her.
“You can open your eyes now,” he said. Nikolai pushed open the black door and welcomed Klara to the gaiety beyond with a grand gesture.
Inside all was gaiety and warmth and laughter and light! Klara found herself onstage at the Opera House, in the middle of an enormous revel. Someone in a silly hat blew a party horn at her. Rainbow confetti and butterflies fluttered freely from the rafters. Colour exploded from every angle. The party even spilled out into the darkened audience, with dancers and clowns climbing on the seats, a fortune-teller nursing her baby in the orchestra section, and actors making out in shadowy corners of the boxes.
“How did you...what is...er...?” Klara was delighted and had no idea what was the right question to ask.
“When you saved my life, you broke the wicked spell that was holding me in its thrall!” Nikolai said, holding her tight and beaming.
“Yes, I know that,” Klara said. This explained nothing.
“....It turns out that I was a symptom of a much greater wicked spell! I was one tiny element of a huge wicked spell She had cast over the whole Bay Area! When you saved my life, you broke the spell and created a wonderful new future for all of us! Now all of the artists and the bohemians and the crafters and the pre-Raphaelites and the Luddites and the beer-makers and the weavers and the dancers and the yogis and the painters and the stained-glass-makers can all come back home and live and prosper and have plenty of money to support themselves and nice homes and support systems and time to do their work! Klara, you have done this. You have turned San Francisco into a new artists' utopia. You are our heroine for all time and we love you.”
“This is all so sudden,” said Klara, happily blushing. The nightmare was finally over. The King with the ridiculously orange fur was dead. The horrible dystopia of billionaires and beggars was replaced with a new world order in which artists could thrive and be happy. And she, Klara Drösselmeier, who just that very morning (and a lifetime ago) had not even had the mojo necessary to put her shirt on right-side-out, was now standing hand-in-hand with a man who was real, and human, and kind, and sweet, and wise, and a beautiful dancer, and....
….And who was leaning over to kiss her!
Part of Klara felt as nervous as a 13-year-old. But most of her was too busy wrapping her arms around Nikolai's neck and wrapping her body around his body. Their lips met. The rest will be left as an exercise to the Reader.
First kisses with someone you really like are always magical and they always feel like the first one you've ever had, no matter whether you're 13 or 113.
“Three cheers for Klara!” rose the general cry above the hubbub.
“¡Hip hip hooray!”
“¡Hip hip hooray!”
“¡Hip hip hooray!”
The crowd lifted Klara and Nikolai up and surfed them to the thrones of honour, clearly borrowed from a production of Un Ballo in Maschera. Klara alit. She settled herself in. A luscious damsel appeared and plied them with croissants and hot chocolate. She kissed Klara on both cheeks.
“Merci mille fois Klara ma chérie!” she said. “Nikolai mon cher Prince, mais comme vous m'avez manqué! Je vous embrasse avec tout mon coeur!” She kissed him on both cheeks too. “Merci a vous, Mademoiselle Klara, je peux faire encore une fois ma patisserie artisanale! Bon appetit!” She danced away, distributing buttery flaky treats to all and sundry like the Fairy Pastrymother.
The croissant was even better than it looked.
“That's because it's made with love,” Nikolai said, watching her.
“How is all this happening?” Klara said.
“I imagine it's thanks in part to my friend Rob, the stage manager here at the Opera House. He has the keys, you know. The turn of a key...a little underground party...you see how it is.”
“Oh my God...Rowan?”
It was indeed Rowan. Klara and Rowan had had a falling-out a few years ago, over what Klara was never sure, and then both had had to leave the area anyway as part of the Artists' Exile. And yet there she was, Rowan, with her shimmering rippling blonde hair all down her back, and her fairy tale princess clothes, and her harp, and it was as if nothing had ever happened and no rift had ever formed. The old friends embraced. “Thanks to you, I've started work on a new Celtic-Arabic fusion work that references the folk traditions of both with particular attention to the early fourteenth century!” Rowan said. (She would.) “Let me play it for you!”
She did. It was wonderful.
“It's going to take a year to finish composing the song cycle,” Rowan said. “Thanks to you, I'll have the resources necessary to do it!”
Klara smiled and hugged her old friend. This was what was real. Everything else had just been a bad dream.
“I see we have some friends in common!” she said to Nikolai. “It's still a small world,” he said. “Do you know Carola?”
Clicking heels and mandala'ing hands heralded the arrival of a dark powerhouse of a woman, trailed by a fleet of other flamenco dancers and a couple of guitarists. “Not Carola Zertuche,” Klara breathed. A living treasure who had dedicated all the fire and force of her soul to dancing and teaching flamenco. Carola hadn't gotten the memo that computer programming was the only thing that paid a living wage in her city. Her beautiful dance company had been shoved out just like everyone else.
Klara and Nikolai watched the triumphant stamping and Arabic arm-waving of an alegría. Klara squeezed Nikolai's arm. “It's just like the old days, only better,” she sighed. Carola and her troupe finished with a burning look and a clicking stomp. They hugged and kissed Klara and Nikolai. Klara couldn't believe she was touching one of her greatest heroines.
Klara looked up. An enormous mirrored disco ball lowered from the ceiling like a burlesque swing. A woman and a little boy sat on it. The woman sang a snatch of Debussy. Because, why not. “What a way to make an entrance,” Klara said.
“This is Tara,” Nikolai said. “Opera singer, yoga teacher, single mother...one more member of the Forced Out of the Bay Area Brigade. Thanks to you her son and she can start over back home; this time, with ample state-funded child care.” Tara landed in the middle of the stage and sinuously garlanded her way through a series of yoga postures, ending up in front of the happy couple. “Klara, we meet at last,” she twinkled. “I've been hearing about you from the prophets for a while now. Let's be friends.”
“Let's,” Klara said. She felt less alone by the minute. “We'll take your little boy to the park.” They namaste'd.
Klara and Nikolai wandered through the party, stopping to congratulate everyone. Someone tucked mistletoe in Klara's hair. Someone hung a tinsel bow around Nikolai's neck. “But where is the money coming from?” she persisted.
“The military budget, of course,” a thick Russian accent said at her elbow. “Even redirecting a small fraction of those trillions of dollars meant suddenly there was plenty of money for normal people to live.” She turned around and there were her old friends Natasha and Alexei, who had left for the artist-friendly financial havens of Warren Buffet's midwest long ago. Natasha was, as usual, sculpting a woman turning into a fish queen and getting ready to enamel it in watercolour and gold. Alexei was, as usual, playing his bandoneón. Klara had never wondered why he played tango instead of something more Russian. To her the answer was obvious. As was this new answer, as soon as she heard it.
“Of course,” she said. There was more hugging and kissing and congratulating. “And a revised tax system,” Natasha said. “Ben and Jerry became chief federal economic advisers. Now the very rich pay very high taxes, and all of it goes to art, education, health care, child care, and equal-opportunity housing.”
“The ice cream guys?”
“At your service,” chorused a pair of affable middle-aged men. One pulled an ice cream cone out of his pocket. “Have some Cherry Garcia, Klara, with our best compliments.” The other said, “the idea of having a company whose CEO was allowed to make no more than ten times what our lowest-paid employee earned was just the start of our wider dream of national fiscal revamping. Finally we have a platform where we can affect the change we always sought.”
“I guess selling ice cream can tell you a lot about people,” Klara said.
“And a lot about economics,” they agreed. “Nikolai, now that you're a Prince again, how about being Prime Minister as well?”
“Prime Minister?” Klara was confused.
“The US finally figured out that capping a president's maximum term of office at eight years was arbitrary and counterproductive. So when you broke the spell, they switched to the Canadian system, where as long as the popular vote (because of course there is no electoral college any more) keeps re-electing a popular leader, s/he stays in office. This way poor leaders get released from duty, and good leaders stay as long as they need to affect positive change.” Was Nikolai blushing?
“Well if you're really going to switch to the Canadian system, you need a Prime Minister who is young, handsome, and athletic. And charismatic and smart.” She inspected Nikolai. Check, check, and check. Check and check. “и полилингвистический,» he said.
“Yes, polylingual,” she smiled. “And who supports the arts...which is what we're doing here right now. And...” she hugged him closer. “someone with an amazing, incredible, fabulous woman at their side, challenging them every step of the way.”
Two guitarists and another bandoneoniste came over and clapped Nikolai on the back. More hugs! More charla! “Klara, this is Guille, Marcelo, and Seth,” he said. “Thanks to you, they can live where they want and have time to work on their craft.” “Muchísimas gracias Klara!” they all said, and kissed her. They struck up a waltz. She knew it.
“Desde el Alma.” She felt herself growing quiet and awkward and full of hands and feet. She felt her Prince standing beside her. She had no idea what to say. The time for words was over.
She felt him looking at her. Did she dare meet his gaze? If she raised her eyes to his, he would see her, in all her vulnerability. Meeting his gaze would be a confession of everything that was fragile and tender within her. Everything that had been tromped on and carelessly tossed aside and broken in the past. Everything that she had previously decided she was going to keep safe on a high shelf out of reach of everyone, for the entire rest of her life. As long as she kept her eyes down, she was safe, and secure, and nothing could touch her.
She looked up.
Klara remembered a former man in her life, saying, “the first tanda with someone always sucks. If you ever have a great first tanda with anyone, take them somewhere and go have sex with them.”
She looked around for a shady corner...but decided not to interrupt something so delicious.
As they danced, more and more couples embraced and danced. This world of hyphens and polymaths and bohemians and polyglots and artisans...all would be right with the world from now on. Klara smiled. Finally, here was a situation with enough Christ imagery to suit her heavy-handed tastes. Everybody was reborn. And in this season of political, financial, social, emotional, and seasonal darkness, everybody was bringing back the light.
The women had little stars twinkling in their hair. The men had stars tucked into their lapels. The ambient lighting dimmed to crepuscular violet and the stars gathered force and lit up the night.
Klara felt light beaming out of her in every direction. She looked at Nikolai and saw blue stars dancing around his head. “I can see your halo,” she chuckled.
“I can see yours too,” he said. “It's full of roses.”
They kissed. And for that moment, there was nothing else.
For that moment, the universe stood still.
For that moment, time stood still.
Even that chiming clock stood still.
That chiming clock....
Klara's shoulder ached. She had a crick in her neck.
Klara rubbed her eyes and opened them and looked up into the undersides of an average-sized Christmas tree. The side of her face was mooshed against a present. Elise's ormolu clock was chiming eight.
She got up off the floor, creaking all the way. Weak sunshine filtered through the bay window.
Her head was weary. Sleeping on the floor never agreed with her, regardless of how charmingly impetuous an idea it invariably sounded at the time. She looked around the room at the withered stale detritus of the party.
She heard the familiar creak of Victorian floorboards as Elise pattered in from the hallway.
“Good morning dear,” Elise said. “Don't tell me you slept on the floor.”
Klara blinked good morning. She was processing. And she was wondering...she had gone to sleep clutching a silly wooden toy...clutching a forlorn hope for a better world...and now she was awake and felt foolish...and the toy was gone....
“What's that in your hand, dear?” Elise asked.
She looked down.
She was clutching something so hard her knuckles were white.
It was a silk jacket.
She picked it up and held it slowly to her cheek...it smelled like the most beautiful smell in the whole entire world...every cell of her body knew that beautiful smell...she felt something hard in the jacket pocket...she drew it out....
She held the key in her hand....
And attached to the key's handle was a paper tag with an address on it....