Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tomorrow may never come (Larisa)

I am a big advocate of "live to the full extend today,as tomorrow may not come".
This philosophy is a direct result of many losses.
One of those (and probably the greatest one) is my now deceased friend Larisa.
I met Larisa when I was going through my Nail Technician school in Las Vegas. She was a friend of one of the Russian girls in Aesthetician class. Three of us became very close.
But I better tell Larisa's story.
She was born in Moscow and, like many Russian girls, got married very young. Back then and,as I am finding out, even now,the culture back home was to find a husband as soon as possible. Not necessarily a rich husband, just a husband. If you were single by the tender age of 25, you were considered "stale goods".
Larisa had a son straight away (another quite common trend back then).
She was always striving to achieve the best possible and financially comfortable future. All by herself-no thanks to her looser of a first husband.
So she developed some connections and got herself a job as a  manager for "intourist" (foreign tourists only) bar in one of the major hotels. It was a very plum job,as not only it paid quite well, there were ways to make all kinds of money "on the side".
Larisa has done well and managed to save up a substantial amount.
Things in Russia were taking a bad turn,though: government changes, Gorbachev,then Yeltsin... Larisa knew if she was to have any kind of decent life, she would need to move overseas.
Back then US was the most desirable spot for many Russians. It was not easy to get into,however.
Larisa gave her husband quite a bit  of money and managed to get him to US (using connections she developed at work) with the provision that he would settle in there and then she would come over with their son.
He called her regularly,telling her that things are going good and he can't wait to see them.
In the meantime, Larisa was working hard,trying to make as much money as possible.
When she was all packed,about 3 days before her departure, her apartment was broken into and most of her stuff was stolen (as it was so conveniently packed and ready to go). She always thought someone targeted her, someone who knew she was leaving the country.
So she arrived in Los Angeles... What she found there was not a pleasant surprise. Her husband, who always liked his drink,has now become a full blown alcoholic. He lived in a tiny shit hole apartment and owed rent and about $1300 in phone bills as well-he said he missed Russia, so he called home often. He spent all the money she given him. He was also unemployed.
It was up to Larisa to make things happen.
Her English was not good at all, but she was very beautiful,young,eager and full of energy. She was hired almost immediately as a sales clerk in one of Los Angeles' many clothes shops. She was paid cash (and not much of it).
She also picked up baby-sitting and cleaning jobs to make the ends meet.
Very soon she realised she would never make enough money to get ahead this way. Her husband deteriorated to a point where he just became a bum-she kicked him out and he was just drifting,picking up an odd job here and there,just to make enough money for the booze.
Larisa set her sights on Vegas. She moved there and got a job as a cocktail waitress in a shitty little casino downtown.
 Back then it didn't matter how pretty you were-in Las Vegas to get a job in a decent casino, you had to "pay your dues"-work in a shitty one for a while, so you can put some "Vegas" experience on your resume and then slowly move upwards.
The reason you wanted to work in a good casino,was that everyone was making the minimum wage everywhere-which back then was $4.25/hour in America. No one could possibly survive on that. It's the tips that made up the biggest portion of your income and the nicer the hotel, the bigger the tips.
At El Cortez, where Larisa started (a horrible dirty place) tips were almost non-existent, but she pressed on.
Good thing about those times in Vegas was that many new hotels were being build and each hotel employed between 3500-6000 people. There were opportunities out there,for sure. There were also a lot of eager hopefuls.
When Treasure Island started hiring, there were 4 applicants for each vacancy.
Larisa got a job there. It was definitely a great new start-awesome insurance package-very important in America, where cost of medical treatment can,quite literally,put you out of the house,great benefits and,yes,much better tips.
Inside each hotel there was it's own order of "who gets which section" to work. Sections were assigned to each waitress and some of those sections were much better than others as far as tips were concerned. For instance, being on the "general floor" where all the regular punters pulled the handles of slot machines was OK, but working the section with "table games"-Black Jack,roulette,etc was better. Better yet was to work in "High Roller" section (very high minimum bets and often no limit,thus big money) or poker room section.
Very soon Larisa got the poker room as a permanent section. She was quite happy: finally bought a decent car, got a nice apartment for her and her son.
 She met a Russian guy who turned out to be yet another looser: he lived in Russia (and we later found out had several "girlfriends" there), but would come and stay with Larisa for months at a time,completely at her expense, mooching off her and even asking her to buy stuff for him to take home. She caught him once actually stealing shoelaces from her boots (no, I'm NOT making this up-he was replacing her new ones with his old and worn ones!)...
In the meantime,poker room at Treasure Island was constantly filled with Russian professional poker players. One of them,named Lenny, took a liking to Larisa and asked her out several times. She always declined,as she never had any interest in him and told him she had a boyfriend.
Lenny was not an attractive man: in his early forties,with jowls and red hair,often unshaven. He was arrogant as well. In fact I cannot think of any redeeming qualities that Lenny possessed: either physical or personality-wise.
Months went by. Larisa always worked "graveyard" shift: 11pm-7am. One morning, when she was just about ready to finish,Lenny asked her how her boyfriend was doing. Larisa was tired and said without thinking: "I don't have one anymore. Haven't had for about 3 months now".
Lenny jumped at the opportunity. He asked her if she would have breakfast with him that morning. She had nothing to do and was,indeed,hungry.. So, without giving it a second though, she agreed.
It was a decision that would change her life forever.
Sometimes I do wish I had a time machine or a magic wand- I could gone back and drag her away from the person, who, for all intents and purposes would ultimately kill her.
Lenny asked Larisa out quite often after that breakfast. In fact, he was trying to seduce her as hard as he could and he put a lot of money into it: he invited her over his place and cooked her dinner (she said it was terrible,but she was a polite girl and acted like it was lovely).
He took her on all expense paid trip to Hawaii, with her son and (get this) her best friend Elena (the girl I would later meet at beauty school). I have to give it to him: Lenny was very shrewd. He knew Larisa and Elena are very tight and value each other's opinions. If Elena would voice serious objections, Larisa would, most likely,listen (especially since she was not at all "in love" or "in lust" with Lenny-she just didn't have anyone else and he was...there..).
So Lenny was trying to win both of them over.
He brought up marriage several times, but Larisa was adamant about not wanting to get married again. "What's wrong with the way things are now" she would ask. "I'm with you and it's all good". She would not even move in with him.
Then she became pregnant. It was a good thing, actually,as Larisa always wanted another child and was very much looking forward to raising him/her by herself with Elena's help. She wasn't planning to break-up with Lenny, but neither did she had big plans for a future together with him.
But Lenny was very persistent. In retrospect he needed to "own" her, as his property. To him, marriage was the way to do it.
He said all the right things about "child needing a father" and "having a complete family". He even bought a house-off the blue prints (it was just getting build) in a prominent subdivision and told Larisa he's done it for her and their future son.
She finally gave in. She was 7 months pregnant when they got married, wearing white pants suit as her wedding outfit.
Few months later her second son was born and the house was build. Lenny even hired a live-in Russian nanny (lovely older woman named Dina-she became indispensable later).
Lenny kept insisting that Larisa quit her job as a cocktail waitress at Treasure Island, but she was always independent and wanted to make sure she had an income of her own,just in case.
She was a free spirit and wouldn't take Lenny's shit-she always stood her ground and would not give in. They had a decent enough relationship, although neither Elena, nor myself (when I met them later) liked Lenny.
Larisa was so beautiful: delicate features, high cheekbones, blond hair,slender but statuesque. She was not tall, but had a "presence".
She was amazing person: kind and caring, forgiving. She was also a bit mischievous-in a good way :) She had a way of "engaging" people and was very well liked.
Lenny, on the other hand, had no friends,as I'm not going to count "poker buddies" as friends. He wanted to drag Larisa to all those parties with his so-called "friends"-people she hardly knew, with whom Lenny had business dealings (he was a Realtor,as well) and wanted to "schmooze". He wanted to show Larisa off as his prized possession and use her to charm other people. She hated that. Whenever she could, she would find an excuse not to go.
Then something terrible happened. I only found out about it much later.
Elena finally told me.
 I have a bad temper and always had zero tolerance for male predators and they were both (Larisa and Elena) afraid that things would get out of hand and situation would become even worth..
Anyway,here's what happened: Lenny had one of his famous "schmoozing" BBQ at his house. Everyone had a lot to drink.
At some point Lenny went to bed. Quite a few guests were still at the house. When Larisa went upstairs one of Lenny's "friends" followed her. He grabbed her,shoved her into the guest bedroom and proceeded to rape her.
She tried to fight him, but he was big and she wasn't... Million things went through her head all at once: if she made a noise, Lenny would definitely hear it and wake up. He would react, no doubt-he had a gun. Their son was asleep in one of the bedrooms. She was afraid of what might happen. She also (like so many female victims) thought that maybe she brought it on herself: maybe she dressed too provocatively, maybe she flirted...
Ultimately, she decided to just "ride it out" and try to forget all about it.
She thought that it was the end of it-she avoided being in the same company with that person from then on. But that's not how it played out.
Almost a year later that guy (who was still Lenny's "friend") got drunk and decided to tell Lenny all about it. He portrayed Larisa as a slut,of course.
Instead of even trying to ask his wife what happened, believing her and trusting her,Lenny  went berserk. No matter how hard Larisa was trying to defend herself, he was having none of it.
They fought for weeks. Finally, Larisa had enough: she told him she wanted a divorce, she could not bear to be with someone who had zero trust in her. She told him she wanted absolutely nothing-none of his money,no portion of the house.
Her mind was made up: she was going to move out with her kids and just start all over again. She wasn't at all afraid-she'd done it before.
But Lenny couldn't possibly let his "property" (wife and son) slip away like that. He had money, he could hire the best lawyers and in America that is pretty much a guarantee of success.
He told Larisa that if she attempted to leave him, he would portray her in court as a terrible, irresponsible mother, immoral person and a slut. He said he would parade dozens of witnesses in front of the judge claiming she had affairs with them and had sex with them while their young son was in the next room.
He told her she would never see her kids again-he'd make sure of that.
Larisa fought for a while,still.. But then she just gave in. She loved her kids. She couldn't imagine her life without them.
Lenny "broke" her. She became a different person after that. All the fire has gone out of her. Sure, she still had fun with us, girls, and still was hoping to open a business together with Elena, but she just didn't have that feistyness, that spark she had before.
She got her Aesthetician's license, quit her job at Treasure Island and her and Elena started a business. Larisa had Lenny to pay household expenses,etc, so she could afford to be at the shop full time, while Elena had to keep her job at Paris Hotel and worked their business on her days off (3 days a week).
They rented a space and my father (who lived with me at the time) helped them build it out and business was starting to take off.
Few months went by and Larisa started having bouts of "food poisoning" every few weeks: she would be very ill,throwing up for 2-3 days in a row, unable to eat and having terrible stomach pains.
During one of those bouts, she was lying on the floor,in pain, when Lenny walked in. "Bunny" he said (that was his nickname for her) what are you doing laying there? You have to be ready in half an hour-we're going to a party,remember?... Elena was there at the time-she told me later she wanted to strangle him with her bare hands.
Another few months passed and Larisa had visibly lost weight. She also looked quite gaunt and pale. We were worried. So was she, but she was putting off going to the doctor: partly because she was afraid of what she'd find out and partly because she had no medical insurance since quitting her job at Treasure Island and that was,in fact,scary.
Finally, she went. Results took almost 10 days to be processed (quite normal in America) and during that time she told us she "buried herself" a dozen times and had a great hope that nothing was wrong another dozen times.
When the results finally came back, it was bleak news: she had cancer of the stomach. It had to be operated on ASAP.
Lenny took her to San Francisco where the surgery was performed. It lasted 5 hours,as, when they opened her up, they had to remove entire stomach and a part of her liver-cancer spread out so badly. Her esophagus was to act as a stomach from then on.
Larisa recovered from the surgery in good spirits: although she lost a lot of weight and was really weak, she soon went back to work and was optimistic.
She was doing quite well for about 6 months. Then the pains started again. She went to get tested and discovered that the cancer was back and it was now in her intestines: that was not operable and doctors gave her 2 months to live.
Every time she had some food, she would have terrible pain for about 30 min. She was loosing weight and getting weaker and weaker. But she still fought.
She learned about this "homeopathic healer" in Los Angeles and had Lenny take her there every week. The guy was nothing but a charlatan, but the power of suggestion was great and she would feel better after visiting him.
A week before Valentine's Day, Lenny announced that he's going to Bahamas for 10 days to fish for marlin,as "all this"(Larisa's illness) was "too hard on him" and "he needed a break". He damn well knew it was the very last Valentine's Day he'd spend with his wife and he just buggered off (mind, they had a full-time leave-in housekeeper/nanny and Lenny never lifted a finger to do anything and had his meals brought up into his room, so  the burden of housekeeping/child rearing  was on him).
We were not going to miss him at all- I was just disgusted at his selfishness and complete lack of caring.
So Larisa,Elena and I decided to make a fun trip out of it, piled up in a car and went to California for 3 days.
Larisa attended her "healer" treatment and then we went shopping and had a great meal in a Russian restaurant in Santa Monica.
 Owners of the restaurant were so nice and understanding; we explained to them that Larisa is ill and would need a hot water bottle (we carried it with us) filled and applied to her stomach after the meal because of the pain and they were more than accommodating, even bringing over all kinds of special treats that were not on the menu!
That night we stayed at one of our friend's condos (they were gone on a holiday). We had some wine and cheese-Larisa decided "to risk it" and it went down OK and we just talked and talked. We drove home the next day.
In the next few weeks Larisa deteriorated quite rapidly: she lost even more weight and had very little strength. Still, she insisted on not staying in bed: she would come down,dressed, from her bedroom in the morning. She could only make that trip once a day, so she'd stay downstairs all day and then go back up at night.
She came over to celebrate Elena's birthday: nicely dressed and made up. She had to lay on the couch for the most part, as strength was leaving her, but she was still there! I am so glad I have the photos.
All and all, she hang in there for 6 months (after doctors gave her 2)- she was stubborn, I have to give her that.
I was on the phone with her one day and we agreed that I would come over her house the next day and give her a pedicure and a manicure: she loved the look of "french" nails and I promised I'd do that for her.
The next day I was at home,working on a nail client. My phone rang and caller ID showed Larisa's home number. I answered and started talking straight away,as I thought I knew who it was:"Hey, I'll be there in about an hour, I just need to finish this client, OK?".
The voice on the other end was not Larisa's. It was her next door neighbour, Angela,also a friend. She said "Larisa is dead. You need to come over. Please call and tell Elena, because I can't handle it".
I went numb. I knew this was coming, but I didn't think it would be that day.
I called Elena. Her reaction was about the same as mine.
Side note: you would think that my client, who heard the exchange and asked me what happened just got up and left? No,sirree. Not a chance. She squirmed a little and asked me if I wanted her to go! She actually asked! Such typical American attitude. She told me that she was "so busy" this week and really needed this pedicure (who the fuck "NEEDS" a pedicure??), but if I'd rather her go, it would be all right with her.
I just finished her as fast as I could- I knew I would be busy for the next 10 days with funeral,wake,etc
By the time I got to Larisa's, police were already there (they treat all in-home death as "suspicious circumstances" in America).
I also found out that Larisa died in her sleep-the housekeeper helped her go to the bathroom around 5 am and then suspected that she was dead when she checked on her at 10am and wanted her husband to find out (which would be appropriate) but Lenny refused to go upstairs and, finally, at 1 pm, he told Dina (the housekeeper) to "go check on Larisa".
When she came down and told him that his wife was gone, he made a big show of running up to the bedroom and falling to his knees by her bed,banging his head on the floor,screaming and carrying on-that's why Dina had to go get Angela, the neighbour.
All three of us (Larisa,Elena and I) were religious and Larisa always liked our Church (Russian Orthodox), so we wanted a proper ceremony for her. We had Lenny call and make the arrangements with the funeral home and the Church.
In the meantime, we had to follow through with some of the Russian traditions for the dead: all the mirrors in the house had to be covered,coins had to be put on her eyes (to keep them closed),candles lit and a bowl of water set out.
It didn't help that police was following our every step,asking what it was we were doing and why.
Finally,blessedly, Lenny was able to get hold of Larisa's doctor and he agreed to sign the death certificate straight away, which meant police left and we could have funeral home come and pick up the body.
We had to be quick about everything: it was April in Las Vegas, already very hot weather.
Next day was hard. Elena and I found out that Lenny made absolutely no provisions for Larisa's death. None. Although he knew she was dying.
So three of us (Elena,Lenny and I) went to the funeral home. God, I sure hope I would never have to something like that again.
First we had to look through the options for various services, discuss embalming (compulsory in US and Lenny was being stubborn about it and put us through hell, totally unnecessary), discuss "the vault" (concrete box into which coffin is placed before going into the ground to prevent caving  and fluids escape). Then we had to go to another room to choose coffin, hardware for the coffin and the lining. They don't actually have full size coffins in there: there are small partial versions, then a separate board with hardware (handles) and then drawers that you have to open one by one to choose the lining.
Elena and I were pressing on with it, while Lenny made a big show of falling to his knees again and sobbing loudly (to draw attention to poor him, of course).
Then all of us had to get into a gold cart with the funeral director and go pick out a plot (more falling down and sobbing from Lenny).
When we all got back, funeral director added up everything and came up with the total cost: something around $10K. It was awkward moment, as the amount had to be paid in full and right then and there for the funeral home to proceed.
Director put the papers in front of Lenny. Lenny didn't move. We all sat in silence for a while. Finally, I just pulled out my credit card and paid (Lenny DID pay me back later)- I just had enough theatrics for one day and my friend was dead,for crying out loud!
Larisa was embalmed the next day. I've made her a promise, so I went over to the funeral home and did her nails one last time-French manicure, just the way she liked it. I also put her cross on her along with some costume jewellery that looked quite real-Russian people,especially older ones,are terribly materialistic and I didn't want them to talk about her "buried without any jewellery".
 It wasn't scary or weird or even particularly hard: when I saw her, or, rather, a shell that used to be her body, I knew her soul was gone. It didn't even look like her.
In our religion, we believe that the spirit of the deceased stays with us for 40 days: we celebrate first 10 days,as the first step of departure and then 40 days,as the last goodbye.
We gave Larisa proper service: 2 hour service inside the Church, then her body was locked in the Church overnight, then another, shorter service the next morning. I know she was pleased-that what she would've wanted.
The ordeal wasn't over,though. Later still (about a month), Elena told me what happened the day after the funeral. Again, she didn't want to tell me straight away, because I would have torn Lenny to pieces and Elena wanted to be on good terms with him so she could have access to Larisa's little boy and take care of him.
Here's what happened. Larisa never liked wearing any jewellery-not even a watch. She always said it "got on her nerves". Lenny bought her quite a few expensive pieces and insisted she wear them when they went out to his "schmoozing" parties. But most of the time all the jewellery was locked in the safe deposit box at the bank.
It so happened that the jewellery was brought home shortly before Larisa's death. The day after the funeral Lenny went to look for it and, apparently, couldn't find it. He questioned the housekeeper (and NOT in a nice way) and she was really offended. Dina was so loyal and selfless, she couldn't believe he would even think of suspecting her of theft. Then, coward that Lenny was, he had Dina call Elena and ask her about the jewellery: he certainly wouldn't call me,as he knew the reaction he would get, the asshole! He told Dina that he saw Elena and I go through the house (and here I thought he was too busy banging his head on the floor) and the implication was quite clear.
We did,in fact, go through the house: covering the mirrors, lighting candles and picking out the clothes for Larisa's last journey. Certainly NOT looking for jewellery-we didn't even know it was IN the house!
Elena was upset: she got Lenny on the phone and asked him straight up what he meant. He backed off, but then said he knew that I put some jewellery on Larisa and he wanted to know what it was.
Elena has had enough! She told him that I put my own costume jewellery on her (including fake diamond wedding ring) so that all his "friends" and "associates" wouldn't think that he was a cheap prick for keeping his dead wife's babbles! She also asked him what he would've wanted us to do if it was, in fact, her real jewellery,she got buried with-dig her up and take it off??? Lenny piped down.
Three days later he found the pouch with all the jewellery in it-guess where? In his own desk drawer! Do you think he apologised to Dina and Elena? You probably guessed correctly-not a chance!

I had another go with Lenny when he kept putting off ordering and installing Larisa's head stone. Larisa's grave only had a plaque on the ground and,as spaces are at a premium, and graves are all close together, people just kept walking over her grave. It is a very bad thing in our religion. It means that soul cannot rest.
I found this place on the Internet that could do a beautiful headstone for only $2000! And ship it for free!
Lenny said he'd look at it. Few months later, when nothing happened, I asked again. He said he was told that a year needs to pass and the ground  needs to "settle". I replied that it was in the old days and reminded him about the "vault".
Long story short, over a year later, I got him to order the stone from the Internet and then had to get him to go to the cemetery and pay them to actually  install it,as it was just sitting there in the shed and he wasn't returning their calls.
I would have gladly paid for all that myself, but Elena asked me not to do it, not to upset a delicate balance between Lenny and us, again, for the sake of Larisa's kid.

I've talked to many doctors during Larisa's illness and since. They all tell me the same thing: we all have cancer cells in our bodies. Different factors create environment in which they (cancer cells) begin to grow. One of those factors is extreme stress.
Larisa's stomach was always one of her weak spots: she even became a vegetarian because she felt that meat  "just sits in her stomach" and is too heavy. Larisa did not smoke, she never did any drugs. She bought her food in the "health","organic" grocery stores and she didn't like junk food.
Without any shadow of a doubt, I know that it was Lenny's behaviour, his threats to take away her children, his not letting her go that caused her "extreme stress". He might as well put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. He did kill her, but in a way that he could never be punished for.

I miss Larisa. I think about her often. I wish I told her that I loved her one last time and didn't wait until the next day, because by then she was gone.
But I also know that God, in his eternal wisdom,has spared her. He decided that she's had enough suffering and delivered her to a place where there is no pain and anguish, no broken hearts and broken promises.
He finally gave her  peace. For that I am grateful and I am happy for her. I know she is in a better place.

Tell the people you care about that you love them often. Don't wait to do things you want to do. Live you life to the fullest every day. Give happiness a try, even if you are scared of failure, of rejection, because you may not get another chance: tomorrow may never come.

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