New Jersey and Millie

Millie presses me to her cotton t-shirt with the acronym ERA stitched in big red letters across the front.  She seems to have grown shorter and wider since August when I first met her, her graying hair boyish, her eyes smiling out of the net of wrinkles behind her glasses.

In the evening, we sit in the kitchen and drink sweet cocktails called toasted almond.  Millie likes sweets as much as I do, as much as any Russian does, and she beams with pride when I say that she’s Russian at heart.  “My grandparents were Russian, you know,” she says and toasts me with her glass.  The drink is thick and delicious; it is made with heavy cream and two liqueurs I’d only seen once in a foreign-currency store in Leningrad when I worked as a tour guide, Amaretto and Kalua.

We don’t talk about Robert.  Just as with my mother, I don’t discuss Robert with my mother-in-law.  I tell her about life in Russia, so different from life here that there is never a dry spell in our conversation.  Kalua and Amaretto?  They are not available.  Heavy cream?  I saw it once in a café in Moscow.  Drinking?  Not the way we’re sipping a cocktail here.  Half a liter of vodka for every two guests; if you open a bottle, you must finish it; pickle marinade in the morning for the hangover – those unwritten rules we all learned from childhood.  Marriage?  At twenty four a woman is considered old, a spinster.  Men?  On March 8, International Women’s Day, men bring flowers, then watch television all night as women whip up holiday dinner in the kitchen between serving them drinks.  Children?  Most couples don’t have more than one; food lines, full-time jobs and misogynist husbands vaccinate women against motherhood.  The only available contraceptive is abortion performed without an anesthetic; you have to bribe the doctor to get one.  Millie shakes her head, and I know she thinks I’m making this up to entertain her.  Women’s rights?  She asks and now I’m the one shaking my head because I’m not sure if I don’t know the answer or simply don’t understand the question.