Mama pulled me out of school a month before finishing fourth grade, in fear that I would be beaten up by someone who found out that we were defecting. It was hard to tell if there was real danger. Mama was scared of life in general, but there were enough stories of Jews being beaten up in Vinnytsia for lesser things than defection, like having a big nose or simply for being Jewish. I didn’t think that anyone cared enough about me leaving the Soviet Union to beat me up for it, but I didn’t protest not having to go to school.
All my grandparents had passed and my parents had to go to work, so I was left alone in our apartment. At home, I waited for school to end, so that my sister, Lena, or my best friend, Marinka, would return and we could play. Mama wanted to pull Lena out of school, too, but it was her last year of high school and Papa insisted that she finish and get her diploma. My parents rushed around our last months in Ukraine, but I had nothing to do.
Lenin Street, where we lived, was busy and wide with a trolley running in the middle. The school was across the street from our house. Sometimes, I sat on the windowsill watching the people on the street. I liked looking at their faces and guessing what they were like. Some looked serious and focused, some angry, some sad, and most looked like they were thinking about something that was not there. They couldn’t see me in the window.
I turned on the television and watched the colored lines flickering on the screen. In 1988, Soviet TVs only had two channels and there was nothing on except a buzzing sound with thick red, orange, green, and blue lines until people came home from work, but I still turned it on to feel like I wasn’t alone.
By three o’clock Lena would get home from high school, sometimes with one of her friends, and sometimes Marinka would pop her blonde head in. The house became full of sound and movement and I would forget that I had ever been so lonely, but by morning, I was faced with another empty day to fill.
At least once a day, I climbed up on a chair and put on a vinyl record from Papa’s collection. Vladimir Vissotsky was the Bob Dylan of Russia and my favorite musician. His breaking voice blasted through our apartment as I listened until the song ended and moved the needle back to the beginning. Some songs made me cry, but the tears were not bitter; they were tears of feeling truth. I didn’t know why Vissotsky songs did that to me, even when I didn’t fully understand the lyrics. Mama told me that his records were banned, but Papa had a lot of them. She said he got too popular for the KGB to put him in jail, or they wanted to leave him alone to make our people think that we had freedom of speech that we didn’t have. He was brave and I wished I could say what I wanted and express myself in a beautiful way like him.
The last few weeks before leaving, I spent most of my free time with Marinka. I had no more homework to keep me busy. In the foyer of her apartment sat a little rubber doll on a keychain. “GOGA,” it read in white letters on the bottom. It was so cute and modern-looking, as if it were imported. There was nothing so colorful made in our country. It was happier-looking than the other Russian toys.
“I love Goga,” I said, squeezing him, when I entered her house. And when I didn’t say it out loud, I said it in my head. Goga was a little fat man with orange hair and a bright green suit. It was Goga who brought me my first feelings of envy. I wanted him so much that I was jealous of Marinka for having him. They didn’t sell things like Goga in stores. Marinka’s mother was an eye doctor and doctors were given lots of “gifts.” Patients tried to win their favor, because there was often a long wait to see a doctor. When Mama had her first cancer scare, she went to the doctor with a bottle of cognac. I imagined Marinka’s mom saving someone’s eye to get Goga.
“I will come with you to the train station,” Marinka announced when I told her about our immigration plans.
She looked sad. By her expression, she was taking this move more seriously than I was. I didn’t think of this as our final separation. That thought was too big. But Marinka looked like she was grasping it, and I didn’t like seeing that.
I didn’t consider the things that would be gone from my life, maybe forever: my best friend, my beloved aunt and uncle and cousins, my favorite beading class and my table-tennis school, where Marinka and I spent our weekends. I only thought about the future. I wanted to see America.
I’d only seen America once in a movie. Somehow, Crocodile Dundee made it into our movie theatre. Maybe because in it, America was portrayed as a place where there were criminals who rob you with big knives, and where most people are too busy to be concerned with anything except their money. This was in line with Soviet teachings about America. But I dreamt about one scene. The main actress was taking a bath in a beautiful, white marble bathroom, when Crocodile Dundee accidentally opens the door. I’d never seen so many bubbles, and the lead actress’s super long legs sticking out. America—a place where life was beautiful.
The closer we got to our departure date, the less my parents talked to us. They were packing things or people were visiting to say their goodbyes, taking their last vodka shots together, to happiness, to health, to luck. L’chaim. The only big event on my schedule before leaving was getting my ears pierced. The Soviet government had rules about everything, and there were especially strict ones for defectors. They did not want any “traitor of mother Russia” to leave with anything worth anything. You were allowed to take out of the country only a $100 per each family member. That equaled $400 for our whole new life in America. The rule about jewels was that each person was allowed five pieces of jewelry. This created a need for holes for my new contraband earrings. All of a sudden, I was sporting a thin gold chain and Mama’s gold earrings that had silver designs on them that made them look like they were diamond. I felt like I was impersonating a grown-up.
“I’m glad we are not rich and that I have no fancy jewelry,” Mama said, “…they are criminals, they want to strip us until we are naked. Thank God we are leaving this forsaken country. Tfu,” she finished with a spitting sound. She repeated that a lot the last few weeks, as the difficulties with our departure built.
Our neighbors packed all of us into their car. We had to take a train from Vinnytsia to Moscow and then stay there to wait in more lines for more paperwork. I had only been in a car a handful of times, so for me, the adventure began. There was not enough room for everyone, so Marinka sat on my lap in the back.
“Look at them together,” Mama said, smiling at us. “They have been together since birth, when they were in their carriages, side by side.” She loved to tell that story of how it was freezing that late November when I was born, and how Marinka’s mother and her were the only ones out there with us, so that we could get some fresh air. Fresh air was Mama’s religion.
She was right, though—Marinka and I were a unit. Our hair was cut in the same bowl style. We were the same short height. Like yin and yang, Marinka was blonde, with me, her brown-haired counterpart.
In the car, Marinka was sad and serious. I was so excited that it was finally happening that it was hard to feign sadness. Of course I didn’t want to part with her. We had always lived in the same connected buildings that shared the same concrete backyard. We spent almost every day there. We were in the same class in school for all our four years, and we walked home together from school. We met outside after we did our homework, and played until it was time for dinner. The first thing I did on the weekends was go to Marinka’s and knock on her padded-vinyl door, pressing my ear to it, hoping for any human activity, praying that she was home.
Marinka brought flowers with her in the car. They smelled of spring, which had come unnoticed with all the events occurring that year. I assumed she was going to present them to me as a going-away gift. She was holding them while sitting on my lap, as if I didn’t know that they were for me. She was so focused on holding them that I started to worry that they might be for someone else. It was the first time that anyone had ever given me flowers… I hoped.
She was brave, coming to the station that day. It was still a time when people seen associating with the “traitors” could have had trouble from the KGB.
“Her parents are good people that they are letting Marinka go to the train station,” Mama said. And by her tone, I thought that if it was Marinka’s family leaving, and not us, Mama would be too scared to let me go.
The big group of my parents’ friends and all of our family gathered on the platform of the train station. They had opened the train doors—it was time. Everything would be harder if Marinka weren’t there. Having her there gave me a feeling of ease. There was always two of us, two small Jewish girls, growing up together, even before I knew we were Jewish.
I looked up and saw my sister’s face, red with tears. Instantly, I felt my own eyes burn from the inside. Everyone was hugging and Tetia Nusia, my loving aunt, looked nervous with her big eyebrows and kind eyes. She was worried for us, she was worried for everyone. Papa was making jokes and laughing, but even he looked like he might start to cry. Mama was always too nervous to cry. She rushed anxiously from person to person, hugging and kissing. It was hard for her to leave her family, her only brother.
“These are for you.” Marinka handed me the bouquet. “And this is for you, too.” She reached into her bag and handed me Goga. We hugged for a long time. I grasped Goga, feeling his soft rubbery texture in disbelief. I never imagined that he could be mine. I felt bad taking him away from Marinka. But if this was the beginning of our journey, I knew I must be going to a good place.
On the train, we stood in the window of our compartment looking at everyone there on the platform one last time, waving, our final moments. Diadia Musik was smiling with sadness and tears in his eyes, waving both of his arms passionately up and down, as if to wave louder. I looked at Marinka. She was alone now. She looked so small in the big group of adults. And then they were gone from view.
I was in shock that Goga was with me for the trip, he was permanently mine, and smiling at me from my hand. He had no idea that he was going to a world of many colorful American objects, and that soon he would sit proudly on the dashboard of an old maroon Ford station wagon, with a trunk big enough for a full-size bed, as a reminder of what we left behind and as a beacon of our new life.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Photographs and drawing provided courtesy of author.