Texas and Robert

Robert says I should go to an agency.

“An agency?” I ask.

“They’ll help you find a job,” he says and sighs.  I’m pretty sure I hear him sigh – a soft release that usually marks the moment when frustration begins to bump against hopelessness.

I try to imagine what Robert could be thinking right now, a painstaking and ungrateful task.  A little less than a year ago, he nobly offered to marry a Russian to save her from the clutches of the Soviet state.  He was going to bring her to the land of capitalism and freedom where she would immediately feel at ease since she was already fluent in English.  She would live with him for the first few months before she’d find a teaching job, helping him with his Russian grammar and pronunciation, listening to him practice the oboe, cooking minute steak.  Maybe she would even stay living with him, providing Karen the Slavic professor didn’t mind this arrangement, providing the new foreign wife didn’t become a stone around his neck, dragging him down the slope of routine existence from the heights of classical music and cosmic research.

She seemed mature and independent, cynical of the Soviet circus around her, eager and ready to make a new life.  She seemed learned and well read.  He thought she would look around, get used to the eight-hour time difference, and plunge into the culture, just like he did on his six-week stay in Leningrad.  All by himself, for instance, last summer he ventured into a gastronom near the university dorm in search of yogurt, puzzling the pot-bellied woman behind the counter who didn’t seem to know the word.  He was pronouncing it correctly, he was sure of that, rolling the tongue against his front upper teeth, just as his Swarthmore professor had taught him.  Nevertheless, the woman stared at him with annoyance, her arms folded across her stained, white-coated stomach.  Why did all Russian saleswomen wear white coats, as if they were doctors or lab technicians?  Yogurt, he repeated again, only to watch her shrug and turn away.  He found another store and asked again because he was persistent and unafraid in Leningrad.  He even befriended a black marketeer who had approached him at a metro station entrance, asking to exchange dollars into rubles at a rate of one to three.  The black marketeer, Valery, invited him to his apartment at the end of the metro line, where his wife was doing the laundry in a Finnish washing machine – Valery’s pride – parked in the living room, which, as it turned out, wasn’t a living room but a bedroom with a folding table and a sleeper couch against the wall.  There are no living rooms in Russia, said Valery, a little culture lesson he immediately tucked away.  Entering stores, asking questions, making friends.  All despite the fact that his Russian was not nearly as fluent as her English.  He couldn’t imagine she knew so little about this country – less, it seems, than he knew about Russia.  He couldn’t fathom her being so passive and incurious, so unwilling to blend in.  He felt disappointed.  He felt trapped.  He couldn’t understand how a smart, English-speaking woman with a green card and a roof over her head wouldn’t be able to figure out how to find a job or what to buy in a supermarket to make dinner.  A supermarket much better stocked than any yogurt-deficient gastronom in Leningrad.

Texas, continued

Robert says I must look for a job.  He is a graduate student and what he gets from the university barely pays our rent.

“How do I look for a job?” I ask him.

“Classifieds,” he says.

I don’t know what classifieds are or where to find them.  I don’t know whether they are people or things, but I don’t want to ask and mispronounce the word, making an even bigger fool out of myself.

“Look in a local newspaper,” Robert says, reading my puzzled face.  “That’s where they advertise job openings.”

The idea of looking for a job in a newspaper makes me let out an idiotic giggle.  The newspapers I’m familiar with, Pravda and Izvestiya, fill every line of their four pages with articles about the biggest ever harvests of grain in the Ukraine or the worst ever unemployment rates anywhere west of Bulgaria.  They offer imperious descriptions of NATO bullying tactics and fiery accusations of fraudulent voting in Latin American countries that don’t want to celebrate Cuban liberation.  On the bottom of their last page, they pour salt on the Zionist ulcers of Israel, where at least ten of my friends now reside.  Everyone knows that newspapers report news, real or concocted, to enlighten and educate the citizens about current politics.  Why would they lower themselves to such an inglorious and puny function as listing job openings?

The next day Robert brings home a paper called The Austin Times to show me the classifieds.  We lean over the tiny print announcing available positions: a certified teacher for grades K-5 (what kind of grade is K?); a manager for a restaurant (experience required); a receptionist for Texas Instruments (apply in person).

I don’t know what a receptionist is, but I imagine a big factory called Texas Instruments, not unlike the secret boat factory in Leningrad where I worked for two months after high school, carrying rolls of drafts to production rooms with bawdy men and no hint of any boats.

“Go there and apply in person,” Robert says.  “It isn’t far from the University,” he adds, looking at the address.  “A few blocks north of the Student Union.”

“What’s a receptionist?” I ask, although I don’t know what a Student Union is, either.

“A receptionist?” He repeats incredulously, as if I’d asked him about the meaning of a shoe or a slice of bread.  “It’s a secretary, basically.  Someone who says, “May I help you” when you call on the phone with a question or a complaint.”

I have trouble seeing myself behind a company desk answering questions or mediating complaints over the phone just like I couldn’t imagine working in a secret Leningrad boat factory that granted me clearance on the day I quit the job.  I’m terrified of making phone calls, always expecting to be yelled at or admonished for my audacity of thinking that dialing a set of numbers from your living room could resolve an issue or answer a question.  If you aren’t inconvenienced by standing on line and filling out papers in triplicate, if you can call without leaving your house and elbowing your way into a streetcar, what right do you have to be treated like a human being?

And what kind of perverse justice would possibly place me on the other side of this exchange, without instantly making me mute and paralyzed with fear?

But Robert doesn’t know any of this.  He has an American brain that is not wired to harbor phone paranoia, so I pretend that I want to be a receptionist and am not at all petrified by the possibility of answering questions or mediating phone complaints from the Texas Instruments customers who speak an English I could barely understand, even if they talked to me in person.

BookPage’s Top 10 Books of 2010

I’m thrilled that BookPage has included A Mountain of Crumbs among the 10 best books of 2010!  I’m honored to be in such formidable company, with the writers whom I’ve always admired and envied.  A year ago, BookPage published the first review of my memoir (a beautiful article by Alden Mudge) – and now I get this spectacular gift!  Spasibo, Bookpage!


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.

A Courtyard of Childhood

I am on a bench in my Leningrad courtyard, a St. Petersburg courtyard now.  My old nursery school, with its smells of mothballs and yesterday’s soup, is no longer here, but hopscotch squares are still chalked on the asphalt, just as when I used to live here.  It is the end of June, and most children are in their dachas, tending reluctantly to their mothers’ patches of tomato seedlings, shivering on the windy beaches of the Gulf of Finland between the watering and weeding.  In the center of the yard five poplars, tall and creaky, rise around the playground, and tufts of fuzzy seeds float through the air in a blizzard of summer snow.

I come here every year, like a felon drawn to the site of the crime.  I zip my American passport into the inner pocket of my handbag and pull out my Russian one as the plane taxies past the edge of the northern forest and stops at one of the eight gates of Pulkovo Airport.

It is a week of visiting with my sister and my friends who didn’t emigrate; a week of eating and drinking and talking in kitchens until the sun comes up after an hour-long June night and melts away translucent dusk, thin enough to let us read without light.  It is a week of walking along the canals and breathing in the briny wind that knifes right through your heart, a reminder that this is one of only four cities in the world built above the 60th latitude.

I left 30 years ago, when my classmate Nina and I were teaching Russian to visiting American students at Leningrad University; when the stores were empty, the streets were free of cars, and the city was draped in red.  My refusenik friends (those refused permission to leave the country) were losing their jobs and their minds.  I married one of Nina’s students and six months later had an exit visa stamped into my newly minted passport, opening the heavily guarded gate out of the Soviet Union and into the United States.

Nina drives my sister Galya and me to the cemetery where my father’s grave still stands behind several patches of trees and brush in a lot overgrown with nettles.  Galya and I plunge into the waist-tall grass and walk along a barely-discernable footpath, to a tilting stone with his picture washed away by forty years of Baltic weather. We pull out thick graveyard weeds and scrape the moss off the stone.  Then we sit on a little bench and fight off mosquitoes.  I ask Galya about our father, and she tells me little stories I never heard.  She remembers him better than I do; he died when I was only ten.  I ask her about my country, which is her country now.

I sit on benches a lot when I am in St. Petersburg.  People ask me questions about streetcar stops and empty bottle return stations, thinking I am a local; I apologize and say I’m not from around here.  But I am from around here.  I know this city and these people down to the inside of their bones. I can see through the upholstery of protective tissue to their soft and unguarded core, to the marrow that had once sustained my own life.

I am now on a bench in my courtyard, with its eyes of windows still watching over me – no longer Russian and not really American – someone with two passports and two countries, way too many of both for one stranded soul.  When years ago a taxi took me to the airport, I didn’t know if I could ever come back.  I was a traitor, having chosen a capitalist over a perfectly good Russian fellow, familiar and dependable.  Tiny cells in the body of the mighty collective, those Russian men I knew marched in citizens’ parades, toiled on Five-Year Plans when they were sober, and, like everyone else, abstained from asking questions.  They were svoi, our own – as opposed to all those foreign chuzhoi, unknown and unwanted.

After my flight headed for the Western hemisphere, Nina learned that she lost her university teaching job because she hadn’t informed the dean of my impending American marriage.  My mother and sister grew old in our kitchen, sipping scalding tea and wondering in injured whisper if I was going straight into the mouth of a shark, as Pravda insisted on calling America.  My father remained under the snow and rain, with Baltic dampness slowly erasing his picture from the stone.  They all stayed, and I left.

A gust of wind from the street tosses the poplar dust against the playground fence, where a permanent puddle used to sit in an asphalt crack when this was my courtyard.  I am unmoored and disconnected, like all emigrants, like these poplar seeds blown into the crevices of the buildings, into the corners of the world.  Those who left will forever remain slaves of doubt, with souls twisted into a miserable knot, no matter how much happiness our new country grants us.  We stoop under the relentless burden of giving up home and stubbornly go back to the courtyard bench of childhood, as if this brush against the shell of our lost innocence could possibly bring it back.