First Days in Texas

I sit on the floor in front of a fan in Austin, Texas.  It is the end of August, the hottest August people around here say they remember, and the house where we live is the only house in town without air conditioning.  Robert and I flew here last week from New Jersey, my first plane ride on an American carrier, where smiling flight attendants walked around the cabin, offering drinks and serving salad topped with raw mushrooms.  Raw mushrooms?  Don’t they know that mushrooms must always be cooked?  I stared at the tray in front of me, white mushroom slices glaring from the bowl, menacing in their rawness.  Shockingly, no one else seemed alarmed at the prospect of sudden death.  A passenger across the aisle leisurely poked at his salad with a plastic fork, and Robert was busy tearing a corner of a little plastic envelop, ready to pour dressing onto his mound of poison.

“Can you eat mushrooms uncooked?” I whispered, not to alarm other passengers.

Robert turned his head and gave me a quizzical stare.  “Why not?” he said, shrugging.

I thought of all those baskets full of wild mushrooms Marina, my mother and I used to bring from the woods to our dacha every August and September.  We laid them out on newspaper spread all over the kitchen floor: the best chocolate brown caps that would be sautéed with sour cream or hung over the stove to dry for the winter, long-legged gray caps with slimy tops to use in soups, and purplish second-rate mushrooms with wheel spokes under their caps, only good for salting.  Everyone – even the worst hooligan and failing dvoechnik in my school – knew you couldn’t eat any of them raw.

So is it possible that these mushrooms in my airplane plastic bowl were altogether different – artificially grown in a hothouse or, worse, produced in a factory out of capitalist synthetics?  That even such a basic commodity here was not what it seemed like; that reality itself has warped, twisting an old object into an odd new shape familiar to everyone but me?

Every day, Robert goes to the university where he researches black holes and teaches math to a few freshman classes.  I stay in the house and sit in front of a fan.  We share the house with two other students, Tushar from India and Steven who was born in San Antonio, a hundred kilometers from here.  In the afternoon I walk to the supermarket and stare at the endless shelves that climb all the way to the ceiling, parading an infinity of different brands of frozen pizza, pasta sauce, and dairy products I never knew existed.

I’ve never lived away from my family, so I never had to shop for food, or cook meals, or stretch the ten rubles left until payday for five more dinners.  I don’t know what to look for to make dinner.  Back in Leningrad, there was always a pot of something waiting under a pot warmer Marina had sewn from remnants of cotton she’d collected over the years of making clothes.  The warmer was made to look like a chicken, with a head and body stuffed with old rags, and underneath I always found some sour cabbage soup, or macaroni with ground beef, or grated carrots stewed in tomato sauce, waiting patiently for me to remove the lid and scoop whatever was there into a plate my mother had left on the kitchen table, with a spoon and fork next to it.  Dinners in my kitchen had always been there, like water gurgling out of the faucet, like heat hissing through the radiators under the windows.  They were simply a part of life, and it never occurred to me to think where any of them came from.

I creep past the shelves with chicken parts sheathed in plastic, on to the beef section where the color of meat underneath the wraps turns from yellow to red.  All that meat – cut in pieces for your convenience, big and small, displayed in Styrofoam trays, for any soup, stew, or other recipe I don’t know how to make.   With permanent shortages, it was easier to shop in Leningrad: lines pointed to food available at the moment, eradicating the necessity of making a choice.

Something among all the packages of hacked up animal parts attracts my attention: it must look like what we used to stand on lines for in Leningrad.  The meat is neatly arranged under plastic here, fat and bones removed – not tossed onto a bloody sheet of paper hanging off a butcher’s scale.  It looks luxuriously expensive, although it is not – something you would see at a special Party store if you were a high-ranking bureaucrat with a pass to get in.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with this hunk of meat, but it looks familiar, so I buy it.

Back in the house, Robert looks at the package I brought from above his glasses.  It’s all wrong, he says.

It is clear that Robert saw right to the core of the matter: I don’t know what I am going to do with this meat.  I am clueless and inept, and this pronouncement might as well be burnt into my forehead.  I bought something alien and awful, something only ignorant immigrants could try to turn into a meal in the twilight of their basements.

What was I supposed to buy? I ask.

Minute steak, he says.

Minute steak?  I’m not sure I heard him right.  I’m not sure if he said minute or mini.  I don’t know what steak of any kind looks like.  And I certainly don’t know if he wants a piece of tiny steak, whatever steak is, or steak that is somehow connected to the clock. The truth, as my mother warned me, is staring me in the face: I’ve always been an egoistka, always busy parsing English sentences or typing banned samizdat poetry through four sheets of carbon paper – so that my five friends could read what my country wouldn’t sanction – instead of learning how to keep the house and make borsch.  The truth is that I know nothing about life.