Looking for Russia in America

By

We’re on the corner of Neptune Ave and Ocean, heading around the train towards the boardwalk. It’s the end of April, and the trees are just growing back leaves, but the sky is still gray and threatening, the parched grass is covered in dirt, fast-food wrappers, paw prints. It’s my first time ever in Brighton Beach. My parents and I are in town for a wedding and have stopped there to meet my dad’s high school friends from Ukraine. I didn’t have to tag along, I could have stayed in New Jersey with my cousins, but I’ve always wanted to see Brighton Beach.

Since we left the Soviet Union in 1991, I’ve never returned. As a result, Brighton Beach feels like the closest I’m ever going to get to a visit home considering that home, for me, no longer exists. The Soviet Union is gone; in its place is an entirely different thing. At twenty-one, I can’t imagine it any other way: staying in one city since birth, let alone a city that still exists within the same country, seems like the height of luxury and wholeness. I was five when we left, and the only version of roots I have is like a fuzzy outline where something should be but isn’t.

Which is exactly what attracts me to Brighton Beach. It’s the epitome of homeland confusion. It makes you wonder for a split second if you are in America or in the Soviet Union. The street is plastered in Russian businesses as far as the eye can see. There are bookstands filled with Cyrillic spines, tables with mounds and mounds of matryoshkas—those wooden dolls within dolls, probably the most famous of Russia’s exports beside alcohol, quite fitting for a country filled with so many secrets. My parents have at least three of them in their basement in Wisconsin, in a cupboard with many of the exact types of things being sold here on the street—shiny, plastic children’s books, delicately painted china. Orange, polka-dotted metal pans. Tables filled with kitschy Soviet relics; cigarette cases and lighters with the hammer and sickle on them. Bright yellow signs advertising caviar and fish.

In Brighton Beach there are stores with giant pink sausages hanging in the windows over various chunks of white cheese, pickled radishes, pickled onions, pickled everything. I want to go inside all of them. Everyone around us is speaking Russian, and I feel like we are in Russia, the old one, before the wall came down. For a moment, I even feel like I belong. There were so many people in Brighton Beach who had come from the same place and now stood in the same place again. I feel a connection with them, one even stronger connection than if we’d only been in one place. Because like mine, their transition entailed a trail of sorrows and losses. I could feel their struggle without even talking to them. Our pain follows us around like ghosts.

“God, this is depressing,” my dad says in English.

“It’s horrible,” my mom adds.

“I wish we didn’t come here.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. We’ve stopped next to a plate of piroshkies, a croissant-like pastry with baked farmer’s cheese inside. The sign is advertising three for a dollar. “This is so cool.”

My dad shakes his head. He and my mom look like they’ve stepped into someone’s funeral.

“It’s like nothing has changed in twenty years,” he says. “Like they all just came here and continued along as if this is the Soviet Union.”

“They want to hold on to their culture,” I say. “What’s so wrong with that?”

“Because, they’re not in the Soviet Union,” my dad says. “Why even come to New York at all?”

“I think it’s cool,” I say.

“Did you see all those old ladies selling fruit that’s almost rotten? They’re basically like beggars. They could’ve just stayed in the Soviet Union and been beggars there.”

“I don’t think they’re like beggars, Dad. Come on. They’re selling something. It’s like any other store here.”

“And who do you think buys rotten fruit?”

I sigh. “I like it here. I think it’s cool.”

“That’s because you have no idea what it was like there,” my mom says. “You’re always romanticizing it.”

We continue along, eat some pastries. The sidewalks are glistening, the trees dripping. It’s cold, even under my sweater and cheap Forever 21 leather coat. My dad stops to buy cigarettes, and I wish I could too; I’ve gone all day without smoking and I’m dying. But the thought of telling my parents I smoke has never occurred to me as an option. Until I’m caught, I will continue to sneak around like a teenager. In fact, when I’m around my parents, I basically am that rebellious teenager. We still fight about the same things, have the same conversations. My parents always claim that they came here so we could be free, but then told me exactly what to do with my freedom: go to school, get a steady job, buy a house in the suburbs, marry a Jew—none of which I have any intention of doing.

I don’t want their version of what America means; I want my own version of freedom, which includes, mainly, the time to make art. To me, all they did was exchange one oppressive regime―the USSR―for another: their expectations. But I don’t have a government that will send me to Siberia for spending entire days at a coffee shop writing in my journal, or getting drunk in someone’s basement while metal bands scream into microphones. I won’t get beheaded for working at a dive bar full of crust punks and not behind the desk of a glass-doored office. I don’t have to listen to them, or anybody. And wasn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that what freedom is?

“I like it here,” I say out loud again, looking at a pile of DVDs with Russian titles on them. “It feels familiar.”

“It’s not like you remember,” my dad says. “I promise. You were just a kid.”

“I know that,” I say. But of course, I don’t know, not really; that’s the other issue people don’t realize: once you’ve gone into the melting pot, you can never come out of it whole again. If I was to ever actually return to Ukraine, I’d be more like a tourist than a visitor.

“I don’t think you do,” my mom says.

“I’m twenty-one years old. I’m not stupid.”

“No one is saying you’re stupid,” my dad says. “I’ve always said you’re the smartest person in our family.”

“And I’ve always thought that wasn’t very nice to say.”

I understand that the USSR was no picnic. But it was not all prison either. Surely there were upsides too, like camaraderie, tight-knit family units, off-the-grid survival skills. The fact that you knew where you were, where you belonged. Or that when you said the word “home” you were not saying it like it was an abstract idea you could not wrap your head around. I haven’t had that since I was five years old. But of course, this is something my parents will never understand. They did have a home, once. Now they have a new home. To them, it is simple: they were there, and now they are here. People they knew then are dead or in jail. The worst thing that could happen now to the people they know is that they become lazy, or Democrats. Or, in the case of their daughters: an artist.

“Let’s go,” my mom says. “I hate it here.”

“Me too,” my dad agrees, and we start walking to the restaurant ahead of schedule. No more Russian dolls, no more signs for pilmeni, no more babushkas in headscarves.

Story of my life.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. We’d never gone back to Ukraine, not even to visit. They didn’t ever want to. But I did. I can’t remember a time I didn’t long for Ukraine. For an entire year after we arrived in Milwaukee in 1991, penniless and barely speaking a word of English, I would ask my parents when we were going home, to our apartment on Komarov Street, to the sweet smells of farmer’s cheese and goat milk, the soothing sound of the tram passing. When we would go back to Ukraine where we belonged.

“We are home,” they would always answer, looking up from their Russian-English dictionaries or running hurriedly by between one factory job and the next. “This is our home now.”

For a long time, I found such a ludicrous answer unacceptable; incomprehensible even. How could you move from one place that you knew as well as your own hand, to another, brand new place, and call it the same thing? But you can only go so long hoping someone will listen to you, answer your prayers. Eventually I had to get with the program. I learned English; I got a bowl cut. I read every single R.L. Stine book and learned how to carve a pumpkin and stopped watching Ny Pogodi!, a Soviet cartoon about a chain-smoking wolf’s lifelong desire to catch a rabbit. My mother, a hard worker, kept getting promoted into managerial positions; my father went to night school and finished an English-language engineering certificate, then got hired as a draftsman. Soon, he got promoted, too. By the time I was nine, we left Milwaukee. They bought a house in a suburb, then another house in another suburb. What they bought, though, was the American dream. They made it clear that full-time jobs and a house in a subdivision with “decent” school districts were the things I, too, should strive for.

“Why are you walking so slow?” my mom asks then.

I point down at my shoes, a pair of high-heeled boots I’d borrowed from my friend Shannon. It might have been the fourth time I’d ever worn heels, and already I could barely feel my toes.

“Oh,” my mom says. “Well you should’ve learned to walk in heels by now. I can barely walk in flats.”

“Yes, I should totally ruin my feet so people are forced to think I’m a capable adult. That makes perfect sense.”

My mom lets out a frustrated sigh. I can’t understand the Russian—or American—obsession with heels, to the point of wearing them in the snow, but I should know better by now than to question it. Luckily we’re already at the Russian restaurant where we’re meeting my dad’s high school friends.

We sit down at the table, a sea of meat plates and shot glasses and vodka.

“Zhanna’s about to graduate college,” he tells them. He does not mention that it’s with an art degree, in 2008, the height of the recession. That I’ll likely just be waitressing for two years until I decide to go to grad school (which is, of course, exactly what happens). Telling this sort of thing to a Russian is probably the equivalent of saying your child is going to jail. Russians got law degrees, medical degrees, business degrees. Painting was a hobby you did at night while working at a bank.

“Oh, how exciting,” someone says. “To be young again…”

“What will you do after college?” asks his wife. She has a perfect manicure and a sparkling jeweled necklace and I can smell her from all the way to the back of the table.

I finish chewing some salat Olivier. All the men are already on shot number three. “I don’t know,” I tell her—another no-no. The only way to show success to a Russian was in financial terms. The only way to show the promise of financial success was to have a degree in something that promised financial success. This was not possible with art. A painting was perhaps worth a thousand words, but it was not worth a thousand dollars every two weeks. And you couldn’t put intent on a wall. You couldn’t frame passion, and point it out to strangers. You simply had to wait and see.

But relationships could die in the time it took to wait and see.

I see the woman exchange glances with her husband and take that as my cue to leave. I say I’m going to go back to shopping, but I’m going to buy a pack of Camel Lights. First, though, I want to go to the car and get flip-flops to change into. My feet are killing me. I walk back to the parking lot near the boardwalk, awash in a feeling more familiar to me than love, or kinship, or even sorrow: an angry, guilty hopelessness. A feeling passed down from the Soviet generation, and given to its kids in a different-sized pill. Instead of feeling hopeless towards an oppressive country, we get to feel hopeless that our parents will never be satisfied with what we do to repay their sacrifices.

By the time I get to the parking lot, my feet are on fire. I can barely walk another step. Luckily, I’ve found the car and press the button to unlock it.

But when I open the door to the trunk, everything is gone.

It’s three p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and there’s no glass anywhere in sight. How can all our stuff be gone? For a moment, I wonder if we left it at the hotel. But then I remember how, when we left the car, I put my journal into my backpack, instead of carrying it in my purse with my wallet and phone. So no, it was all there before.

I call my dad.

“All of our stuff is gone,” I tell him.

“What?” he says. In the background, I can hear clinking, and I know they’re taking more shots.

“Our stuff is gone! It got stolen!” I tell him.

“Are you serious?” he asks.

“Why would I make a joke like that?”

An hour later, when the police finally arrive, the only hint of any violence on the rental car we find is a tiny black hole right next to the door handle of the driver’s side. They take our report disinterestedly, as if too tired to even pretend like they care. When they start to drive away, one of them shrugs, says, “Welcome to New York.”

Back in the car, my dad is assessing the damage. At least three thousand dollars worth of stuff was stolen, most of it my dad’s work computer and GPS device. Not to mention I’m out of a journal, which is irreplaceable, and shoes that aren’t painful just to look at. Really, I’m just sad about the journal. It was like a chunk of my life had been stolen—things that had happened and thoughts that I might never remember now. I didn’t care about the electronics and clothes; what always had the most worth to me was my time. It was why I would rather live in Riverwest, a downtrodden, crime-ridden neighborhood of artists and musicians in Milwaukee, where rent could be as low as two hundred dollars a month. Sure, people got mugged on a regular basis, but we were poor so we didn’t have much that could be stolen. And everyone was friends, so that was nice. It was the community that attracted me to the place. That and how little you had to work to afford living there. It was why I took jobs like part-time barista or seasonal yearbook photographer, and never cared about keeping them or not. That way I would have plenty of time to still make art and sit around with my four roommates discussing our most current romantic dramas.

Surprisingly, I did make some money from painting: commissions of people’s dogs and children, mostly. It wasn’t nearly enough to sustain myself though. Eventually, I would give up painting all together. Part of it was that I stopped enjoying the process, and writing became something I liked much better, but another part was that having a financial incentive ruined it for me. Financial incentives tend to taint things. Even immigration, in the end, had been a financial incentive. My parents came here so we could all be free from oppression, sure, but they also came to make money. More importantly, so that I could make money. Every day that I don’t work in a cubicle is like telling them they failed.

But I didn’t think they’d failed at all. In Ukraine, I would have never painted as much as I had, or read as much as I do, or write nearly every day. I wouldn’t have had the time or possibility to. Even though I did feel nostalgic for it at times, I also knew I was much better off here.

We stop at a store to get me new flip flops. I take off Shannon’s leather stiletto boots and look out the window, at the green railing of the train station, all the bright Russian signs. I wish I’d had the chance to explore it further, but, as usual, I’m always just getting farther and farther away from all the little Russias of the world, from that elusive feeling of home. Instead, I’m just another girl on vacation with her parents.

“So, you want to know so badly what it’s like to live in Ukraine?” my mom asks, turning her head to look at me. Then she starts to smile coolly. “Now you know.”

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and raised in various Milwaukee suburbs. Currently, she lives with her husband in Chicago, where she is finishing up a young adult novel about Ukrainian-born twins with unusual superpowers. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Tusculum Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, and three times in Michigan Quarterly Review, one of which was listed as a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014. More from this author →