Anish Aradhey

United States

The Red Dress

September 22, 2020

    The scarlet fabric spills over Nina's knees as her needle dips in and out of the velvet furiously. I watch silently, hugging my legs closer to my chest.
    The curtains once cast rosy light through the kitchen window. Now, torn down, traced, and trimmed, they lie across her lap. Mama didn’t mind. After all, we’re leaving our small house tonight. 
    Nina breaks off the thread with her teeth, tucking the newly-formed crimson dress into her suitcase. Her shoes tap the wooden floor as she walks past me.
    “It’s time to leave, Sonja.” 
    I shiver. No one can blame her for being so serious. After Papa was arrested, she practically became an adult overnight. 

    Now, Nina spends long hours writing letters to lawyers and to faraway places like Boston. The flamboyant fifteen-year-old who dreamed of acting is just a summer memory. Those days seem so long ago as I watch the snow fall outside.
    “Hurry up,” Nina whispers. I pause to button my coat. Secretly, I scan our home one last time, desperate to capture every detail, knowing that they too will soon become memory. So, I fight back, tightly clutching fragments of prayers and Mama’s warm rosinen-zopf bread
    
    I turn then, following my sister and mother into the blanket of night. It’s safest for Jews to travel now. I blink snowflakes off my eyelashes, and the delicate powder melts into my tears. 
    I don’t look back.



    I despise the concrete apartment building we live in. I despise the lifeless room Mama and Nina and I share. And I despise Frau Strauss, the ancient mother of Mama’s childhood friend with whom we stay. Her eyes flit about like dragonflies, filled with loathing — jealousy.
    I don’t know why anyone would envy us. The last of our money was spent on our trip here to Vienna from our old home a month ago. All we can afford is bread and beans. Noodles, if we’re lucky. 
    Sometimes, delicious aromas waft out from houses below, and hunger claws the lining of my stomach for hours.

    At least the view is better than back home — less suffocated by swastika banners.
    I still remember when they first appeared: the morning we awoke to the thunder of salutes slicing the air, of boots marching and flowers showering asphalt.
    I wasn't allowed to go outside after Frau Ida from next door dumped a bucket of garbage on me.
    “Dirty Jew!” she spat, and I ran inside, bewildered, wiping grime off my forehead. Mama trembled with anger as fat tears rolled down my cheeks.

    That was the day it all began: Papa spending hours by the radio, Mama writing letters, fear seeping into the walls.
    Soon, Papa traveled to Vienna, returning with a paper, a visa. Nina says that’s why he left for America after his release.
    She says we’ll all be united one day. I don’t know if I believe her.

    Staring at the peeling wall paint, I try to remember Papa’s smile until familiar footsteps make me whirl around.

    Sweat pools on my sister’s upper lip and stains her bright red dress. I stare, wide-eyed.
    “Where have you been?” Mama asks, entering.
    Nina smirks. “The prater.” 

    The thought of the bustling amusement park makes me grin. As winter melts away, tents spring up like wildflowers in the nearby park, overflowing with music and the smell of fresh candy. The stagnant apartment air makes me itch to run, to feel the colorful breeze on my skin.
    But I can only watch from our window, my heart wrenching with could be. We could be dancing on the dewy grass. We could be touching the sky on the dazzling ferris wheel. We could be…
    I try to push it out of my mind.

    “You know Jews aren’t allowed there,” Mama whispers.
    “No one had any clue,” Nina chuckles. She sobers, noticing Mama growing a shade paler, and tells us everything.

    It began as an idea between Nina and her friends: dressing up and sneaking into the fair. After all, my sister hardly looks Jewish, her light eyes and sandy hair clashing with my dark features. 
    Pink blush dusts Nina’s cheeks, and she wears a smudge of lipstick (from where I cannot imagine). It’s the first time I’ve seen Nina in the dress she sewed before we left our old house. She looks just like an actress.
    Nina reached the park in the afternoon, nervous but unchallenged. 
    “You’ll never believe what happened next. A man started photographing me.” Her eyes light up as she speaks of the photographer spotting her and asking her to pose around the park.
    “He said I could be a model,” Nina says giddily. She uncurls her fist, revealing a crumpled paper. “He gave me a card for the editor of the most famous magazine in Vienna!”
    
    My mother grabs it and throws it to the floor.
    “What have you done?” she whispers through clenched teeth. “If the Gestapo sees your picture, they’ll find us!”
    Nina’s expression hardens. “Sorry, Mama…” 
    “We aren’t safe here anymore.” Mama’s voice falters. “You know we have to stay alive for… Papa.” 
    Nina swallows hard. Her eyes are as red as her dress now. Mama turns to me. 
    “Sonja, we’re leaving tomorrow.”



    I crush my face against the train window, tracing green valleys with my eyes. Nina and Mama sleep beside me. They say we’re leaving Austria. Maybe forever.

    I won’t miss red banners and the S.S. soldiers that dig through Mama’s pockets. I won’t miss the thunderous silence of fear or the concrete apartment.
    Still, tears sting my eyes. For snowflakes on eyelashes, for Mama’s kitchen. For velvet curtains and wooden floorboards and Nina’s young smile, erased by the Gestapo.

    Listening to the railroad tracks sing, my mind wanders from home to Vienna to America and back again. 
    Occasionally, I think I can see our old little house beyond the grassy slopes. Maybe one day, there’ll be a little girl there, staring back. 

    And maybe she’ll be smiling.

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