Translated by: Maya Klein
Dayton Ohio, 2006
The plane lands at the airport. It’s a connecting flight with a stopover in Zurich, and the final destination is The Dayton-Wright Brothers International Airport. A total flight time of 15 hours, not including the layover. I tried to relax during the flight and took two Ambiens, but they did not induce sleep, causing instead a heavy wall of fatigue to envelop me and I remained in an uncomfortable, uncertain state of drowsy sleeplessness. Time was doughy; it needed to pass somehow. The small screens were playing Rush Hour 2, featuring Chinese kung fu master Jackie Chan as a naive Asian police officer and Chris Tucker as a talkative black detective. A lousy action comedy of cultural difference which only took ninety minutes off the total air time. I have a hard time concentrating, despite a few satisfying scenes of well-orchestrated violence. The screen loses focus intermittently. Jackie Chan’s battle cries and the sharp sound of the blows he deals his opponent from the Chinese mafia- thump! boing! bam!- burst out of the headphones, and I painfully extract them from my ears. The plastic cup before me has been refilled at least three or four times with cheap vodka, tomato juice and ice, and now it’s empty and there is no need to fill it anymore because it is not doing its job properly; it’s only increasing my restlessness. Instead of reinforcing the effect of the two tranquilizers, it is resisting them in the pharmaceutical battle over my consciousness. I chew on the remaining ice in the cup and my teeth grind against the cubes, giving me the chills. I cover myself with the thin blanket one of the stewardesses has provided and twist in the shrunken seat. Outside of the window there is only blackness.
My parents are seated across the aisle. They seem to have passed out and are slumped up against each other. My mother is drooped over my father’s shoulder and they show no sign of life apart from an occasional eruption of sharp snores. I am envious of their ability to shut themselves down. Is it indicative of a low level of consciousness? Why are they so calm? I will leave them alone until we land. It’s good that they’re asleep. That way they can’t get on my nerves. The in-flight magazine stuffed in the seat pocket features an article about the good life in Tel Aviv. “Come visit the Mediterranean Manhattan,” says the caption floating over a panoramic shot of the city. This filthy city looks good on smooth chrome paper. Shot from a bird’s eye view at dusk, the coastline dotted with hotels, the beach full of people, Tel Aviv seems like any other Western city aspiring for normalcy and secularism. I close the in-flight magazine and shove it back into the seat pocket before me. How much longer is this damn flight? I can’t look at the clock because any indication of time will only increase my fear of flying, and since the two tranquilizers didn’t do their job properly, I have already resigned myself to the inevitable crash of this aircraft and I have no trouble picturing life without me and my parents, two immigrants and their immigrant son who were searching for firm ground and died in the air.
Against all reasonable expectations, the plane refuses to crash, continuing on its course for a few more hours before it lands on the runway, and as we are expelled onto the jet bridge leading to the airport terminal, I join the hundreds and thousands of people descending from planes onto the jet bridges into the fluorescent-stunned halls, lugging their belongings, hanging on to them so as not to lose them or get lost.
The door to the arrival hall opens revealing dozens of smiling faces. Those who return are folded into their loved one’s arms, all problems and rivalries are forgotten or overlooked for ten seconds of a warm embrace, which needs to overcome the nagging existence of unstable family units and alliances based on gossip and personal gain. I spot a pair of faces that are particularly excited in the midst of all of the excited faces, and brace myself for the assault. My parents plow ahead, leaving behind their luggage and I walk behind them, making sure I keep as much distance as possible between us, while knowing full well that the inevitable will indeed take place even if I slow down to a complete stop. What happened next, had it been on tv, could be described as a “tender, touching moment”. The two smiling faces plant their wet kisses on my parents’ faces and hold them tightly in their arms. The four stifle loud moans, tears are splashing in fluent Russian. “Oy, so many years” “Oy, it’s been so long.” “Oy, you look the same. You look wonderful.” Oy Oy Oy.
The kissers and the moaners and the weepers are my mother’s aunt, Zila, her father’s sister, and her husband Boris. They immigrated to the US during the big wave of immigration in the early 1990s with the fall of the Iron Curtain. On April 21, 1991, to be exact. They escaped the crumbling Soviet Union, looking for a promised land. Israel was not an option, not for a moment. They gathered from their Israeli relatives that it was best to stay away. “Don’t you dare come here,” they were told simply in a fateful telephone conversation, “it’s a terrible country.” They followed that advice without question and presented themselves at the American immigration offices. The destination: Dayton Ohio. A distant relative had arrived there from Moscow a few months beforehand. He was a fan of John Dillinger; he had read the biography “The Dillinger Days” that was smuggled into the country by an acquaintance who acquired it on vacation in Poland. He remembered that in the early 30’s Dillinger was arrested by the local authorities in Dayton when he arrived in pursuit of a young lady named Mary Longnker, and he figured that if they managed to capture the famous fugitive in this town, there must be a longstanding tradition of law and order and therefore decided upon Dayton as his place of residence.
My mother’s aunt and uncle hurriedly followed him there, and not because they had any specific preference for the state of Ohio. In fact, they didn’t know where Ohio was. But the choice was clear- either stay in Kiev or flee to Ohio. So Ohio it was. It was not the time to be choosy. They rented a four bedroom house on Willow Road in the old part of north Dayton, where they lived with their two sons and daughters-in-law and one granddaughter and another one who was born after they arrived. They lived there like model Russian immigrants. They spoke broken English, rejected the American empire and the shadow of the Cold War still hovered above them. They did not want to erase their memories, because that would mean erasing themselves. “Americans are stupid,” they would say to my mother in the telephone conversations conducted every few months. “Israelis are stupider,” replied my mother. Aunt Zila worked as a cashier at one of the Wal-Marts in town and her husband Boris worked there too, in the warehouse. Their sons and daughters-in-law were doctors, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists, urologists, engineers, construction engineers, locomotive engineers, electrical engineers etc, who were waiting for someone to acknowledge their academic greatness and rescue them from the American warehouses into which they had been stuffed. But the United States of America was not in need of doctors, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists, urologists, engineers, construction engineers, locomotive engineers, electrical engineers etc that had been educated by the despicable communists that they had been fighting for most of the twentieth century. Waiting was gradually replaced by indifference. They accepted their inevitable fate as blue collar workers. “It’s already over for us,” they said, “maybe our grandchildren will succeed in life. They will be like those Americans. We have no strength left.”
After the kissing and moaning ceremony ended at the airport, everyone grew silent. A long silence. Silently, they walked to the parking lot holding their luggage. The compliments they had paid one another were merely polite protocol that needed to be followed. That was evident to everyone. No one meant what they said. They did not look wonderful. They were old and tired. Time had not been kind to them. They had been uprooted from their natural environment. Their bodies had never managed to overcome the trauma. Their deterioration had been accelerated by immigration: a person is supposed to be born and die in the same place. The detached body longs to return to the place of its origin. The limbs, veins, stomach, diaphragm, epidermis, eyelids, toenails- all gradually rot as a result of the distance. Aging and wrinkling and bloating as if the years went by doubly fast. The homeland punishes those who desert it.
This is my first time meeting the two uncles face-to-face, but I recognize them from the black and white photographs in the family albums. They always look happy in the pictures. Wearing bulky fur coats, arm in arm, against the backdrop of snow covered trees and beautiful houses. It’s the traditional family pose. My parents used to pose the same way. Two people in the front of the frame, and behind them the proof of their existence as citizens of a former superpower. Their pride shone through in those photos.
My uncles told me that I had grown and become a man. They had no prior visual acquaintance with me, apart from one photograph that my mother had mailed to Kiev a month after I was born. They would exchange photographs and letters every five or six years and made sure to talk on the phone a few times a year conveying birthday or new years wishes, and hanging up after two minutes so as not to spend too much money on an overseas call. Six months after my mother sent the first photograph of me, she got a letter with their response: “The baby is very cute. He needs to be tested for Down syndrome.” That was the last sign of life from me. One photograph that caused suspicion of a genetic abnormality. I faced them now. Without Down syndrome. “You’re tall. You’re tan,” they said, surprised. “Thank you,” I replied. “You’re Israeli, right,” he said, half in question, half as a statement of fact, “Nu, your son is a real Israeli.” “He’s brown. He looks like a real Israeli,” they turned to my parents. “Yes, he’s Israeli,” my parents agreed disappointedly.
During the drive to the uncle’s house- in a beat-up 1980’s Oldsmobile Omega- Zila and Boris were still silent, and when we got to the house, all of the cousins opened the door and showered me with kisses, although we had never met. Sasha, Natasha, Grisha, Misha, Natalia, Tamara. “Did you come from Israel?” asked one of them. Sasha or Grisha. “Yes,” I answered. “How is Israel?” “Fine.” “Is it sunny in Israel?” “Yes.” “You have brown eyes.” “Yes, I do.” “You’re Israeli,” he said and went into the kitchen to help his mother.
I sat down on a couch which had torn cushions and was covered in a saggy green blanket to mask its disgrace and Aunt Zila served me tea with lemon in a white porcelain china mug decorated with birds and flowers. The tea had been poured from a silver samovar that stood almost a meter tall and was set in the center of the living room on a carved wooden dresser with coiled metal handles. The floor was covered by an Armenian carpet that had geometric shapes woven into each other, and above it hung an extravagant crystal chandelier, a white light bulb set in each of its eight tentacles (only three of the eight shone, the rest had burned out). A wide glass armoire was set against the wall, identical to the wooden dresser in its design, and inside of it, in perfect order, were rows and rows of tableware, cups, plates and bowls white or decorated. It all looked too familiar. It was my parent’s living room. The same couch and the same blanket, the same dresser and the same glass armoire and the Armenian carpet and the crystal chandelier. For background music, the popular Ukrainian singer Sofia Rotaru, who was bestowed with the high honor of “The Hero of the Ukraine” by the president of the Republic a few years back, was singing “Wild Swans”: “Well, to be sad now, perhaps too late/Over the bygone days/Unfulfilled dreams/ The leaves, that looked so much like stars/Swirl and fall at my feet.”
An aunt serves me a slice of dry pound cake which sticks in my throat. “Psho harasho?”she asks me concerned, and I answer in English, “Yes, everything’s all right. Thank you.” I am seated flanked by my parents and one of the uncles slams a bottle of Luksusowa vodka and some glasses on the table. “Let’s drink,” he insists on speaking English with a heavy Russian accent, “Dis is very good vodka.” The uncle pours vodka in all of the glasses, and glances slyly at me before saying, “You too little. Israeli don’t know how to drink. You are soft. You are weak.” He pauses, and then laughs loudly and pats my cheek with his large hand. “Just kidding,” and pours the vodka in the glass placed before me. He raises his glass to the sky, as do my parents and the cousins. Their arms are lifted high. “Nazdrovya, le’chaim,” he says in a Russian-American accent, and they all knock back their drinks and let out a sigh from the bottom of their burning throats. “Nu, how’s life?” asks the aunt, and my mother replies laconically, “Fine, life is fine.” “And work? “Fine too.” “And the children?” “Fine.” Aunt Zila is silent. And my mother asks- “And you?” “Fine.” “And work?” “Fine too” “And the children?” “Fine.” “And America?” “Nu, what can I tell you,” says Aunt Zila and gets up to go the kitchen, returning with a plate of Doktorskaya sausage, a loaf of dark rye bread, a yellowish lump of butter, and a few empty plates that she has perched on her large bosom, using it like a shelf. She sets the refreshments down on the table and everyone present pounces on them ravenously, their mouths filling with bread, Doktorskaya sausage and vodka. “Ochen fkusno” my father compliments her and helps himself to more sausage, “very tasty,” he adds in English and smiles. And Aunt Zila goes to the kitchen again and returns with a large heaping bowl of pickled vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers and pickled cabbage. Uncle Boris roars with pleasure and asks me why I am not eating. “I’m not hungry,” I reply, but the uncle persists, questioning me, ”Why not hungry?” I don’t answer him. And again Aunt Zila heads to the kitchen and this time she returns with a platter of roast beef fresh out of the oven and Aunt Zila tries to convince me to taste it but I stand my ground, “I’m not hungry,” and she looks offended and turns to my mother in Russian and says, “What’s wrong with him? I’m worried. Don’t you eat properly in Israel?” But my mother brushes her off with a wave of her hand, “He’s not a big eater,” and when the uncle hears this he rudely interferes: “He eats like a girl. Like a girl he eats.” And they all laugh together. I don’t laugh. “So, how’s America?” my father leans back and asks the uncle. “Listen, it’s not Kiev, but it’s a good neighborhood,” answers the uncle, “there are a lot of Russians here and we have friends from Odessa and Moscow who arrived when we did. We meet up and there’s work too, so why should I complain? And the area is really very good. Quiet and nice. The problem is that there are a few chorneyi z`ope in the neighborhood. And that’s not so great. They make a lot of mess and noise with their cars and their stupid music. But what can you do? Drive them out of here? It’s their problem, the stupid Americans, not mine. They’ll be sorry they let those niggers do whatever they want.” My father nods in understanding. We have lots of blacks too. It really is a big problem.” And the uncle responded in real sorrow- “You can’t avoid them.”- “We didn’t have them in Russia, eh?” “Oh well. What’s happening in Israel?” “Everything is the same. You know how it is. You watch the news. The Arabs are making big trouble again.” “Ach, pederast, Arabsqui svolochi.” What can I say, good thing we came to America.” The father and the uncle sigh. Their sighs say it all. They could’ve conducted the whole conversation in sighs.
“So, how’s the family?” my father asks Uncle Boris. “They’re alright. Doing what it takes. The boys have work, they do alright. And soon they’ll be homeowners, so it’s very good. The grandaughter goes to school. Speaks English like an American. Physics is her best subject. In two years she’ll be in college. I want her to go to MIT, to be an engineer or a professor.” Oh-ho, very nice. Good her for. Not like my son,” he says, pointing at me. “He’s a screenwriter,” he says and laughs. Uncle Boris joins him in laughter, “a screenwriter?” he asks incredulously, “but what does he do for a living?” “Nu, he writes,” my father tells him, and the two of them act as though I’m not sitting right there, “he writes in Hebrew.” “In Hebrew? Why in Hebrew?” He’s going to ruin his life.” “What can I do?” my father answers, “that’s what he decided to do, and he’s a jackass, he doesn’t understand what we tell him, we tried to turn him into a real man but he decided to write.” “I didn’t decide,” I tried interfering. “So why do you write?” my father asked me. “I don’t know. That’s just the way things turned out.” “That’s not an answer,” Uncle Boris interrupted, “Are you a man or a doormat?” “He’s a doormat,” says my father. “He takes the easy way out. He learned Hebrew, and that’s it. Doesn’t need to study anymore. He’s a weakling. He doesn’t make an effort. “ “I make an effort when I write.” “Hebrew is nothing. That’s not an effort,” my father silences me, and Uncle Boris sides with him- “You don’t know what effort is. Writing? You should be ashamed. For that your parents left Russia? For you to write? What do you want to be? A great writer? You won’t be a great writer. All the great writers are already dead. How many great writers do you know in Israel?” The two laugh and slap each other’s backs. “He wants to be a great writer,” my father repeats after Uncle Boris, “He won’t amount to anything. Do you hear? You won’t amount to anything.” And I remain silent. What can I say to them? “And is there any money in that?” Uncle Boris asks my father. “Hardly. We support him.” “He should be ashamed of himself,” says Uncle Boris, “that’s worthless.”
The doorbell rings. Aunt Zila gets it. A blond teenager walks into the living room, looking like she stepped out of the Britney Spears video for “Baby One More Time”. She’s wearing her school uniform, a short black skirt revealing palish legs and a white button down shirt pulled tightly across her youthful body, a denim Jansport backpack is slung over her shoulder. She tosses the backpack on the couch. “Hi Mama, hi Papa,” she kisses her parents and turns to the grandmother, “Hi Babushka,” and gives her a hug, “Hi Grandpa,” and hugs the grandfather, who grips her waist excessively. “Oh my god, you made zharkoye. Yeah!” the girl shouts and attacks the few slices of lukewarm roast left in the platter. She picks up a piece of meat with her fingers and shoves it into her mouth. “I love zharkoye.” Uncle Boris introduces me to the grandaughter Yulia, future engineer and MIT graduate. I shake her hand, which has just poked through the roast. “So nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you,” she says and disappears into one of the rooms without waiting for my answer. “Such an agreeable child,” my father directs the compliment to her parents, “very pretty. She looks intelligent.” “First generation in America,” says the grandfather, yawning. Everyone else takes turns yawning after he does. It’s time to end the gathering. They are all sprawled out on the couch, stuffed and drunk. There is nothing left to say anyhow. They had already delivered their hate-filled speeches about the niggers and Mizrachis and the Arabs and the stupid Israelis and the stupid Americans, memories had been revisited, criticism had been given, food had been eaten. What was the point in continuing it all? “Come on, I’ve prepared your room, says Aunt Zila and leads us down the hall to a tiny room at the end which is furnished with a twin bed and a mattress on the floor. “You’ll sleep on the mattress, yes?” My parents undress. They’re in their underwear. I turn around. They climb into bed and turn their backs to each other, staying as far away from one another as they possibly can. I lay down on the mattress. Gaze up at the ceiling. My back itches in one particular spot. I turn over onto my stomach. I send my hand out and identify the spot. Scratch it as hard as I can. The itch intensifies. I scratch again. Digging in flesh. It’s a stubborn little lump. I grab it with two fingers, hold it, prod it with my fingernails. It hurts. I scratch it, squish it, pop it, insert my nails into it. The palm of my hand wanders over the surface of my back trying to find a strategic position from which it would be easier to grasp the lump of skin that is turning into an open wound. I twist and turn on my stomach while attempting to remove the lump with my fingernails. They dig deeper into the skin. Scratching the surface and drilling in it. The lump bursts. My fingernails are covered with blood. I relax and fall asleep. I wake up after two or three hours or whatever amount of time has passed. There’s a sound coming from the hallway. A door opening. A door closing. I peek outside of the room. At the end of the hallway I see Yulia sneaking out, tiptoeing out of her room. She’s wearing an orange mini-dress and yellow heels. She looks like a popsicle. She opens the front door and shuts it softly so as not to wake the inhabitants of the house. I wonder where she could be going at such a late hour. A car starts outside. I go into the living room. Aunt Zila is sleeping on the large couch. Her large body spills out of the confines of the sofa, her hand touches the Armenian carpet. Uncle Boris is lying on the medium-sized couch in his underwear, with one eye wide open. I draw back the curtains and look out of the window onto the street. A red Hummer convertible is parked in front of the house, it has the top down and is blasting hip hop music. I recognize Dr. Dre’s “Let’s Get High” and the bass rattles the windows of the house. Yulia runs towards the jeep. A black, African American young man is in the convertible. He’s wearing a red tank top that reads Original Gangsta and on his head is a bandana in the colors of the Jamaican flag. “Yo, yo Julia, who’s my Russian ho?” he calls to her and she answers, “I’m your Russian ho,” quickening her pace, the black man steps out of the car and the two embrace and kiss at length. He grabs her bottom and gives it a good squeeze, she runs her hands on his chest, caressing it in circular motions, and her hands travel down from his chest to his stomach and then to his crotch. “I love you baby,” she says, gripping the outline of his genitals, which are encased in a pair of black jeans. “Shut da fuck up and get in the car,” answers the black man, and the two climb in the Jeep. Inside the car, the black man grabs the Russian blonde by the neck and plants another kiss on her. He revs the motor and they disappear, leaving a muffled trail of loud music behind them. The street is quiet again. I return to the room and the mattress.
My parents are still asleep with their backs turned to each other and I could drown in the distance between them. I feel the space between them spilling off the bed and opening up right before my eyes. A terrible headache distorts my perception of space and everything looks crooked. Vertigo. I get up off of the mattress and tiptoe to the kitchen, gripping the wall so as not to fall. I rummage through the refrigerator and the cupboards looking for some sort of painkiller. I open drawer after drawer but find nothing. “Hey,” she startles me, “Shto ti jelaish?” It’s Yulia. She pours herself a glass of Dr. Pepper from a two litre bottle, and motions for me to keep quiet. When the hell did she manage to get home? Yulia stretches, reaching for the highest drawer, and her back and bottom are stretching too, arching cheetah-like. It doesn’t fool me. It does. She hands me the pill with a smile. Percocet. “Believe me, this will do the trick,” she says. I believe her. I swallow the pill with some Dr. Pepper, and the bitterness mixes with the horrid sweetness of cherry flavored coca-cola. “Good night honey,” she says and returns to her room, and I follow her down the hall, suppressing the male instinct that is instructing me to follow her to her bedroom- I turn the other way. I know full well that I cannot compete with the nigger that she just said goodbye to a few minutes ago. I lie down on the mattress. The pill does its job. My head is clear of pain and contemplation. I can already make out the first signs of dawn. Suburban silence takes over the room. Soon all of the Americans and the Russians will wake up and go to work and then return at 5 p.m., exhausted. The yellow bus will take their children to school. The mailman will deliver their mail. One of the neighbors will mow his front lawn. A woman will prepare apple pie and place it on a windowsill to cool. Someone will sexually assault his neighbor’s young daughter. Good morning.
I wake up shattered, roused by cries of delight. My parents are not in bed. I get up off the mattress and go to the living room. An official delegation has assembled to greet me: my mother, my father, Uncle Boris and Aunt Zila, their two sons and their wives, they are all standing in a row in military formation. Their chests are puffed out ceremoniously. They are in their finest clothes, holding flowers in their hands. My father is wearing the only dress suit he owns. He got married in it in Russia and he wore it when he made aliya and on every festive occasion ever since he takes it out of the closet to air it out from the mothball smell. The odor is impossible to get rid of and therefore my father dabs the suit with his aftershave “Tabac Original”, a smoky, masculine scent which mingles with the smell of mothballs and his body odor. The suit had faded over the years, turning from black to greyish-brown, and the seams had been sewn and split several times over until my father finally gave in and left it in a semi-unraveled state, with loose threads hanging out sloppily. Nevertheless, he remains faithful to this shabby beggar’s suit. Just as my mother clings to the sunflower-print dress she is wearing now, which, had it corresponded with the natural cycle of life for flora, should’ve withered up a long time ago and surely did not match her biological age. The dress was purchased for a graduation ceremony at the University of Kiev, when she got Master’s degree in chemistry, and was still single and optimistic. She insisted on wearing it and when it no longer fit she expanded it by sewing an additional swatch of brown fabric on each side, and she continued to widen it until the amount of fabric she added was larger than the original dress. Beside them stood Uncle Boris in an “I Love NY” t-shirt shoved into his khakis, and aunt Zila in a red neglige that could’ve given off a certain degree of sluttiness had it been worn by a different woman, say Kelly Lebrock in “Lady in Red” in 1984.
“Happy May Day!” announces Aunt Zila, and the group repeats after her, “Happy May Day!” I look at my watch. The date is correct. “Happy May Day,” I answer with a stony look and ask to be excused to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. When I return with the coffee, they are still standing there in a row holding the flowers. It’s threatening. They approach me one by one, in perfect formation. Aunt Zila hugs me and kisses my cheeks. “Happy May Day.” Uncle Boris shakes my hand “Happy May Day.” Their eldest son, Yevgeny, who is now called Joe, shakes my hand. “Happy May Day.” His wife, Xenia, who is now called Melanie, hugs and kisses me. “Happy May Day.” The younger son, Igor, who is now called Jeffrey, shakes my hand. “Happy May Day.” His wife Olga, who is now called Betty, hugs and kisses me. “Happy May Day.” My mother hugs me and kisses my cheek. “Happy May Day.” My father hugs me, shakes my hand and kisses me. “Happy May Day.” I greet them all politely, one by one, returning their hugs and kisses and shaking their hands. “Happy May Day.” The ceremony is over. The group settles on the couch, placing the bouquets on the table. Yulia enters the living room. She’s wearing an oversized yellow t-shirt as a nightgown. She drags herself slowly across the room- a result of last night’s events. Her eyes open wide. She has stepped into a well-orchestrated ambush. The group rises in her honor and they arrange themselves in a row with the flowers. They go through the same drill again. One by one they kiss her and hug her and shake her hand and bless her in honor of International Worker’s Day. “Happy May Day, guys,” she reciprocates with hugs and kisses and limp handshakes and her impatience is discernable, she just wants to get out of there. “And mazal tov!” cries her grandmother, “we have two reasons to celebrate today.” It turns out that it’s also Yulia’s birthday. She’s sixteen. Who would’ve believed it. She stands up and surrenders to another round of hugs, kisses and handshakes. She winks at me. And then the group begins to sing “happy birthday.” The blonde Yulia covers her face in shame. They keep singing.
“Hey,” I nod in her direction. “Hey,” she replies. “Happy birthday.” “Thanks,” and she hurries back to her room before the birthday song can end. “Where are you going now?” her father asks her, but she ignores him. “N`yet unio ubazenya.” The grandfather is angered by the disrespect that the blonde young woman is showing towards her family and towards May Day. They want to toast her birthday and raise a glass of vodka in solidarity with the workers, but I just woke up. I turn down the offer and return to the room and lie down on the mattress. I have a headache. The sore on my back itches and it’s painful. I can hear them reminiscing through the wall. Their sighs pierce through the wooden wall separating the rooms. My parents must be remembering the large May Day parades in their hometown, the children waving red flags and holding lollipops shaped like a hammer and a sickle. Every May Day my father would knock on the front door and surprise my mother with a bouquet of flowers. It was one of the few times I saw them hug and kiss. As I child, I mistakenly thought that the date had romantic signification. Apparently it’s easier to love Mother Russia than one another.
They keep talking to me through the wall, and their voices transform into a beeping noise. The noise becomes permanent and the headache that has been following me around for a few hours now joins in, resulting in a horrible combination. I press my ears hard. And harder. I press them until I can hear my brain being squashed between my temples, intent on busting out through my forehead like a champagne cork. “Is everything alright?” asks my mother as she enters the room. “Yes,” I remove my hands from my head and put them down. “Get dressed,” she orders, “we’re going out to celebrate.” I do as I am told, I get dressed and step out into the living room. Blonde Yulia joins from the other end of the hallway, having been dragged there against her will like me. “She’s a child of the working class” Uncle Boris proudly proclaims and gives her a hug, from which she tries unsuccessfully to extract herself. If only he knew what she was up to the night before.
“Where are we going?” I ask Yulia. “TGI Fridays,” she snorts in contempt. The family piles into the Oldsmobile that backs out of the garage- I sit in the backseat squeezed in between my parents- and behind us the rest of the group ride in a Chevy Cavalier that is just as beat up. They park in front of the famous eatery and I can barely extract myself from of the car. The large sign above the place blinks in red and every letter of TGI Fridays stings, branding me with a halogen burn. A waitress leads us to a table and places the menus before us. “My name is Sonia and I will be your server tonight.” Their ears prick up at the sound of her name. “Where are you originally from, Sonia?” asks Uncle Boris.”I’m from Novoseltsy.” “No! Really? We’re from Kiev.” “Oh my God! I can’t believe it. What an amazing coincidence. I have a cousin from Kiev. Maybe you know him, his name is Vassily Ovresko, he was the general manager of the main post office.” “Really?” Maybe we know him. Does anybody know the name?” They all shake their heads no. Sonia smiles. “I’ll bring you something on the house,” she walks off. “A goy,” says Uncle Boris. “A goy,” my father agrees. Sonia returns with a few baskets of french fries -on the house – and places them on the table. “Are you ready to order?” “I will order for everybody,” announces Uncle Boris, “Five Jack Daniels burgers, five grilled chicken salads for the ladies and ten cokes please.” “Coming right up,” she answers as if she was born a 1950’s waitress. After five minutes- the maximum amount of time that can elapse between ordering and being served fast food according American service values- she returns, showing a remarkable ability to balance two trays without spilling or dropping anything on the matronly apron that she has tied to her slender waist. She serves me a huge hamburger and a gigantic glass containing at least ten litres of coca cola diluted with dozens of ice cubes. I touch the hamburger the same way a doctor touches a body a moment before he determines its time of death. My finger is covered in ketchup and I lick it and spit the rest into a napkin. Uncle Boris taps his glass of coke with a fork and quiets everyone down. “Ya hachu pozdravlatz s`voyu doroguyo v`nuchku,” he pulls his blonde granddaughter close and she reluctantly obliges. “And Happy May Day.” Everyone raises their glasses of cokes and clinks them. “Happy May Day! Mazel Tof!” They say in a Russian-American-Yiddishe accent. From underneath the table Yulia’s mother pulls out a box wrapped in red cellophane and hands it to her as everyone applauds, their greasy hands joining together, spraying ketchup and little bits of lettuce and tomato in the air. “What is it?” asks Yulia grudgingly. “It’s a surprise.” She tears off the wrapping paper quickly, opens the box and her pursed lips widen in a smile. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Thanks Mama, thanks Daddy.” She extracts a pair of pink Nike Air Max sneakers with pumps and raises them up in the air.
“It’s the best. I love my birthday. I love May 1st!” she tries on the sneakers and models them for everyone, moonwalking back and forth in the restaurant, trying to emulate Michael Jackson with her awkward, jumbled movements, and the new sneakers give out a mouse-like squeak every time their rubber soles hit the linoleum floor. My head is exploding. “Stop it,” I yell at her, and she stops in her haughty moonwalk tracks. Then she gives me a defiant look and continues. She touches one side of the wall and drags her feet to the other side, from one wall to the other, then back again. The rest of our party has lost interest and they aren’t watching her anymore. They are busy with the remainder of their meal. The sneakers continue to screech. The veins in my head are popping. “Why are you so red?” my mother asks. I don’t answer. I feel red. My temperature’s rising. The open wound on my back is burning as if someone had stubbed a cigarette on it. My head throbs in unbearable pain. I take the cold glass of coke and press it to my forehead. I take a few cubes of ice and rub them on my burning cheeks. I pass them over my forehead. Yulia keeps up the moonwalk and all I can hear is the screech of her sneakers. “Stop it. Please,” I ask. She ignores me and continues to moonwalk from side to side. One side, the other side. One side, the other side. My mouth is steaming hot like an oven and my crooked glasses fog up. I can’t see a thing. Only fog and the sound of rubber screeching as it makes contact with the linoleum. The fog turns brown and then black. I am overcome by weakness. My limbs go limp. I feel myself dropping out of my chair onto the floor. My head lands on the linoleum first and my heavy body follows. I can’t see anything. Can’t hear anything. “I can’t believe it, it’s happening again,” I think to myself. The screech of the sneakers and the rubber has stopped. At least there’s that. I don’t know how long I lie on the floor unconscious. I feel someone shaking me. Someone is holding my shoulder. Someone is pouring a cold liquid on me. Someone is lifting my legs. A strong rush of blood reaches my brain. I open my eyes. Anxious faces surround me. “Where am I?” “In America,” answers Uncle Boris, who is holding an empty glass of coke, “You’re in America now.”
*This story is taken from: The Eternal Osraeli, Keter Publishing, 2017.
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.