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Lessons Learned in Love

By Milla Holt

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Vanya Klassen was used to being overshadowed, but her flamboyant dinner guest would have made even a peacock look drab. Although she had spent time with Maria Sifu before, Vanya struggled to rein in her inner fangirl. Maria was a legend in the international aid sector, and Vanya was in awe of all the woman had done.

Maria was dressed in her trademark flowing robes, her hair wrapped in a colorful turban. Although she was Caucasian, she had favored ethnic-influenced clothes ever since her marriage to a now-deceased Kenyan freedom fighter.

She took a dainty bite of her starter, poached lobster tail served with cauliflower and butter sauce, and smiled at Vanya. “It’s wonderful to see what you’ve made of yourself since we last met. Public relations officer in your brother’s company! I’ve always thought you were one of the more outstanding interns we’ve ever had at Development Action.”

Vanya’s face glowed under Maria’s compliment. A decade ago, when Vanya was fresh out of high school, she’d spent three months interning at the international human rights organization Maria founded and still led. During those three months, Vanya had felt like she was making a difference for the first time in her life, even though she had mostly made photocopies and stuffed envelopes. Maria had let Vanya shadow her to meetings and strategy sessions, and Vanya loved every minute of it.

“That’s really kind of you,” Vanya said. “I’ve always—”

She was cut short as Maria waved down a passing waiter, who stopped and leaned forward. Maria jabbed a finger at her plate. “This cauliflower is overcooked. It’s ruined the dish for me and I simply cannot eat it. Take the plate back and bring me one that’s done properly.”

The waiter apologized profusely and whisked the food away. Maria turned back to Vanya. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

Vanya was taken aback. The guest of honor hated the food? The riot of butterflies in her own stomach had made it impossible for her to eat. She had picked this hotel because its conference and dining facilities were among the best in London. “I… I was just thanking you for your kind words. I really felt like I was helping make the world a better place when I interned with you.”

Maria’s smile was radiant. “Thank you. We do try our best. But you’re doing wonderful work now with Nordic Wind and Acricaine. It will be an honor for my organization to partner with you.”

Vanya smiled back, her mind flitting to the introductory speech she would be giving soon to the guests of tonight’s black-tie charity banquet, announcing Maria’s new collaboration with Nordic Wind. She’d rehearsed so many times that she knew every word by heart.

First, she would thank all the charity reps and members of the press for coming. She would say a few words about how her brother’s pharmaceutical company would soon make its ground-breaking HIV treatment available at a huge discount to developing countries in deals brokered by Maria’s organization. She would then invite Maria, the guest of honor, to give the keynote speech and take a few questions from the press.

The waiter came back and laid a fresh plate in front of Maria. She leaned forward and scrutinized the dish, then nodded at the waiter, who bowed and backed away.

Maria lifted a morsel of lobster to her mouth and chewed delicately. “This is actually edible.” She looked up at Vanya. “I’m looking forward to working with you again. It will be so much fun, just like the old days.”

She chuckled, and Vanya smiled. Before she could respond, a young woman stepped up to the table, clutching a hardcover copy of Maria’s newly-published autobiography. The woman held the book forward. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mrs. Sifu, but would you mind signing this for me?”

Maria turned and stared at the young woman, her gray eyes stony despite the smile on her face. “It’s Dame Maria, actually, since I received my OBE. It’s important to pay attention to details like that. To whom shall I make out the autograph?”

Maria stretched out her hand and the young woman, now scarlet-faced, handed over the book and a pen and stammered out her name. Maria scrawled on the title page and gave the book back, barely glancing at the woman.

Vanya bit her lip as she watched the young woman scurry away. Maria was so famous now that she probably attracted a lot of autograph hunters, and it was doubtless irritating to be approached during a meal, but surely she could have been a bit more gracious.

Another woman came to the table. Vanya recognized her as one of Maria’s aides. She had a phone in her hand. Maria turned to Vanya with a sigh. “Seems I’m doomed not to eat my meal. Excuse me, dear. I need to take this call.”

Vanya nodded, then checked her watch. It was only a few minutes until she had to give her speech. Just enough time to pop into the bathroom and pay for all the water she’d been nervously sipping. She excused herself and stood up, leaving Maria talking into the phone.

Vanya rehearsed her speech in her mind one more time as she headed for the restroom. She flushed when she was done and was just about to leave the restroom stall when she heard the bathroom door opening. Maria Sifu’s voice floated in atop a cloud of lavender perfume. “Did you change my three o’clock appointment?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Vanya recognized the deferential tones of Maria’s assistant.

Vanya hesitated with her hand on the lock of the stall door.

Maria was speaking again. “Excellent. Now to just get through with the rest of this evening. The press attendance seems good. I saw some faces I recognize from the BBC, ITV, and the Guardian. Anyone from outside the UK?”

The assistant said, “I spotted a lady from the Associated Press. I also saw people from the Times, the Spectator and Sky News. It’s a great turnout.”
“And I’m speaking after Vanya,” Maria said. She sighed and uttered an expletive. “I can’t wait to get it over with. One of the dullest evenings I’ve had in a long time.”

Vanya’s cheeks burned as she listened.

Maria’s assistant spoke. “Not the most entertaining hostess, then?”

Maria chuckled. “Oh, please. She is the same tedious, insipid, average person she’s always been. Mediocre on her best day. She would follow me around like a star-struck puppy and offer these pathetic little suggestions, and I’d have to smile as though they made any sense. The girl never held a single original thought in her head. The only reason I put up with her in the first place was because of her family name. Having her as an intern back then opened a lot of doors. You should know this by now. Access is the name of the game in this business. And the Klassen name comes with a lot of access.”

“More access now since her brother owns Nordic Wind,” the assistant said.

“Absolutely. Let me tell you, every NGO in town would give half their budget to get a foot in the door with Nordic Wind. I’m willing to put up with quite a few boring dinners with Little Miss Humdrum to ally Development Action with Nordic Wind. At least the food today was halfway decent. Ah, well. I suppose we’d better go and get this over with.”

The door swished open and closed and the bathroom was silent again. Vanya’s hands were slick with a cold sweat as she fumbled with the sliding lock on the stall. She finally got it open and stepped out, staring at her own white-faced reflection in the mirror. Pain seared her heart even as her mind rebelled against believing what she had just heard. But that had been Maria’s voice, and the air was still thick with her lavender perfume. Tedious, insipid, average. Her thoughts reeling, she grasped onto one thread: her speech. She needed to get back to the banquet room and give her speech. She ran water in the sink and washed her hands with robotic movements.

The girl never held a single original thought in her head. Her eyes filled up with tears. “Don’t do this now,” she whispered. She grabbed a paper towel, dampened it, and pressed it to her hot face. “I’ll think about this later. Just get through the speech.”

Her carefully-applied makeup was ruined, but there wasn’t time to fix it now. Might as well just wash it off instead of appearing panda-eyed. Mediocre on her best day. Fresh tears threatened even as she splashed water on her face. This was the opinion Maria had held of her after all these years?

How was she supposed to go out and face a roomful of news media people and charity organization reps when she was in pieces inside? She dried her face and tried to fix her makeup, giving up when her hand wobbled too much.

Stepping out into the hall, she narrowly missed bumping into her sister-in-law, Nia, who was married to Vanya’s brother Magnus and helped coordinate Nordic Wind’s medicines access programs.

“There you are! I’ve been looking for you. It’s time for your speech. They’re all—” Nia stopped short, eyes widening as she looked at Vanya’s face. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

Nia stared at her, then turned and led the way back into the banqueting hall. Vanya walked in, going past the tables where the assembled creme de la creme of the aid sector and the press sat in their evening finery.

She stepped up to the podium and stood at the lectern, taking several deep breaths. You can do it. You can get through this. A young man she recognized as the audio technician who worked for the conference facility fidgeted with the microphone.

An ocean of faces turned to face her. It was time. Vanya’s vision centered on one face. Maria Sifu looked up, a slight smile on her face.

Suddenly, Vanya’s mind flashed back ten years to a chat she’d once had with Maria.

Vanya, an overweight and pimply eighteen-year-old, in her only act of teen defiance, had rejected her mother’s advice to attend an exclusive weight loss camp and instead took up the internship with Development Action.

Painfully shy and self-conscious, Vanya had been thrilled when Maria took notice of her, telling Vanya how much potential she had. “I expect great things from you,” Maria had beamed.

Vanya had lived on that compliment for years, reminding herself that this woman, whom the whole world admired, had seen something special in her.

But now, that smile, those words, meant nothing. Less than nothing. Vanya knew what Maria Sifu really thought of her. Tedious, insipid and average. Mediocre on her best day.

Vanya opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Her lips trembled uncontrollably. The words she’d spent hours preparing and rehearsing fled from her mind, leaving a screaming void. Every eye was on her.

She looked at Maria again. The woman’s smile resembled a smirk.

Vanya put a hand up to her mouth and a loud, ugly sob ripped out of her, amplified by the sound system until it echoed through the banqueting hall. The guests murmured, a nervous ripple spreading throughout the crowd.
Gasping for breath, tears streaming down her face, Vanya stumbled away from the microphone. She ignored the hands reaching out to her as she ran out of the room.


“Vanya, wait!”

It was Nia. In the antechamber outside the banqueting hall, Vanya turned around as her sister-in-law reached her and slipped an arm around her shoulder. “What’s going on? Are you unwell?”


“Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Vanya allowed Nia to lead her to a small break room, where Nia closed the door behind them. “I’m sure Magnus and Maria can handle the rest of the evening. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”

Tears rolled down Vanya’s face. Nia put her arms around her, but that only made Vanya cry even more. Finally, she clawed back enough control to speak. “I’m sorry. I’m such a mess.”

“What happened? Did you get some bad news?”

Vanya blew her nose. “I was in the bathroom and overheard Maria telling one of her aides what she really thinks about me. All this time I’ve thought of her as a mentor. Turns out she only wanted me around because of my family’s connections.”

Nia gasped. “That’s disgusting.”

Vanya’s voice shook. “I can’t work with her after this.”

“None of us can. We should tell Magnus and maybe we can bow out of the collaboration.”

Vanya shook her head. “It’s too late. She’s probably announcing it right now. You saw how the press were falling over her. If we pull out, thousands of people might lose out. I can’t let that happen.”

Nia looked at Vanya, her brown eyes searching her sister-in-law’s face. “Are you sure? I’m pretty certain that Magnus would be happy to drop Maria and work with somebody else. That room is full of aid organization reps who would kill to partner up with us.”

“No, let’s not rock the boat. I’ll just have to get used to it.” Vanya’s laugh was bitter. “She wouldn’t be the first person who thinks I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and had everything handed to me. Didn’t you think the same thing when you first met me?”

Nia flinched and held her hands up. “Maybe, but I was a bit of an idiot when I met you and your brother, okay? Anyone who spends more than a few minutes with you knows what your heart is like and how hard you work and the incredible things you’ve achieved.” Nia reached into her purse, found a tissue, and handed it to Vanya. “The problem is definitely with her and not with you. So, what are we going to do?”

Vanya sat with her shoulders slumped, wiping at her eyes. “Right now? If anyone asks, please tell them I’m not feeling well and I’m going home.”

Nia hugged Vanya. “I’ll call and check on you later.”

When her sister-in-law had left the room, Vanya jumped up and grabbed her purse. Nia and Magnus would manage the rest of the evening and make excuses for her. She couldn’t stay here any longer. More importantly, she couldn’t carry on working for Nordic Wind. Not when she’d be expected to collaborate with Maria.

Her job was over.

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