She didn’t know how he figured out what she was. Her clothing was quite conservative; her perfume was a subtle and expensive brand. Everything about her said eloquence, care, money, and nobility. He knew it was all a lie. Women so finely dressed didn’t allow an elephant to kiss their face with a wet trunk. The thought of ruined makeup was too great a disaster to fathom.
Except she could buy all the makeup she needed. The trick wasn’t pretending. She had become an artist at that. It was not pretending she found most difficult. It failed to serve any purpose. Men wanted goddesses, not real women. She had begun to provide them exactly what they wanted and made lots of money doing it so well. The only sacrifice was to her humanity.
She started to see him every week at the same time. Just out of grade school judging by his appearance, but with a hint of maturity one associated with life’s traumatic events. Ilena had her fair share. So did this boy.
This silent song and dance continued for three weeks. Ilena was always first to arrive. She’d feed the elephant then lean against the railing and watch them with quiet ease. He would arrive ten minutes later and glance once at her before focusing on the animals. The curve of a smile always crossed his face when she began speaking to the nearest elephant. After a half hour he would leave and Ilena was left alone once again. She missed him.
Today was different. As she spoke to the elephant the young man spoke back. “I don’t think his name is Boris.”
She looked up in surprise. His voice was deeper and richer than she would have imagined. He was tall. That accounted for the voice. Dark brown hair, matching eyes, and charming looks completed a most desirable package. Perhaps he wasn’t that young after all.
Ilena rubbed the elephant’s trunk. “I think he prefers it,” she said softly. She had worked hard to eliminate her Russian accent, but there was no hiding her true origins. She looked Russian. The exotic look had served her needs before. Now they made her feel ashamed. He knew she was different.
“I’d prefer something more robust,” he commented. “Like…Ivan or Peter or – “
“Krall, the warrior king?” she offered playfully.
He looked surprised at the reference, but laughed nonetheless. He had such a pleasing laughter. “Exactly, now you’re getting it. Boris sounds like some fat uncle with a bad drinking habit.”
The narrow-eyed look she now gave him was quick to inform that she did in fact have said uncle. The boy just grinned. “But Boris works too.”
She couldn’t help smiling at his recovery. “And what is your name?”
“Gregory,” he offered. “Call me Greg.” He offered his hand.
Ilena took it in hers. “Ilena,” she responded.
With a gentle twist he brought her knuckles to his lips and kissed gently. “A beautiful name for a beautiful woman.”
She laughed again and pulled her hand back as soon as he released it. “You’re a bit young to start this game, don’t you think?”
“Age has nothing to do with it,” he assured her with a wink. “It’s all about the experience.”
“And you are so experienced?” She regretted admitting to herself that he did look experienced. His eyes deepened with a look she only saw in men who knew what they wanted. Tried and tested and confident in what worked. Yes, he was experienced. Perhaps too well.
Ilena’s expression made it clear she knew the answer to her own question, so Greg didn’t bother commenting. Instead he nodded to the elephants. “Why do you come here?”
She shrugged briefly. “I want to see elephants.”
“And not me?” He grinned sheepishly. “Well, I see I’ve got some competition. Let’s see, what can they do that I can’t?”
“Pick me up with their nose,” she offered. “Ride on their backs?”
“Well, I can do all that,” he offered, “if you’re flexible with the definition of a nose, of course. And if you require it, I can pay you.” His face softened. “I would prefer not to.”
He startled her and he knew it. Her face hardened some, but it was not directed at him. There was no way for him to know that except that he did. She looked back towards Boris again, forcing herself to regain that practiced calm. To be face to face with her existence was nothing new, but it always hurt when she didn’t see it coming.
She felt him take her hand and kiss it again. Such a simple gesture, but with more affection than any act ever performed on her before. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, imagining the sensation elsewhere. Could men really treat a woman with such gentility?
“What are you doing tonight?” he asked softly.
Ilena opened her eyes and looked down at him. She wanted him. She wanted to hold him and teach him and be taught. She had never slept with a man because she wanted to without pay. This would be a first.
With a soft smile, she reached across and kissed him. He was as tall as she was. It was good to kiss a man her height. Hs kissed her back without hesitation. His mouth was perfect; warm, soft, well formed. He kissed well. There was no hint of boyish insecurity. He knew how to do this well.
Ilena didn’t linger. She pulled back and pulled her bottom lip into her mouth to savor the moment. This would not be forgotten any time soon. “I am going home,” she said softly. “I will see you later I think.” She didn’t wait for a response. She walked away and kept walking. She didn’t look back. She didn’t come back. Three hours later her home was empty and she was on a plane to Moscow.