German Embassy in Kiev, 1992
To hell with precautions, Herr Consul. Don’t you see I am clean? I’m purest vintage from head to foot, maternal and paternal side. I am bursting with evidence—you don’t even need this much. Look at my profile. This lump of a nose, Dad’s pride, my curse. Full face—Mom’s eyelids, a sad pound each. Combs break their teeth in my curls, here a stein, there a berg. Great Uncle’s Levi’s on my legs, almost new. I am five minutes past office time but I have a valid excuse.
A brown smudge in the corner of your mouth—you must have a secret drawer in your desk, full of sweets, one after you’ve dealt with each of us. There is at least one love we share. Do you remember your first sweet? Mine was Swan Milk, chocolate with cream liqueur inside. I snatched it from the birthday table on my first anniversary and bit into it with all four of my teeth.
Swan Milk tasted a bit like Mom’s—I had still been cajoling Mom to raise her blouse when well out of Grandmother’s sight. But this kinky flavor on my palate was new. It was as delicious as Dad’s stubble against my neck, even more thrilling.
The cream liqueur whelmed my infancy in an instant. I felt as strong as Dad, as buxom as Mom, much prettier in fact, and I knew I would never ever want Mom’s bland organics again.
Skipping the walking phase, I flew all the way to the parents’ bedroom. I hid the dripping half of Swan Milk under the carpet, for it to cast roots and grow into a bush, as big as the chandelier above the bed, each twig studded with that chocolate to fuel my wings. How my bum hurt when Grandmother caught me.
Ever since, I have been spending Mom and Dad’s salaries on any sweets available in our local grocery, but Swan Milk is never in stock. “You’ll die of sugar!” Grandmother says.
I have eaten more sweets than there is hair on your head and arms, Herr Consul, and I am still alive. So is Grandmother, who always bullies me into giving her a sweet after each of her six insulin shots a day. “You’ll remain a spinster for life,” she hisses, and bites my hand—my marriage certificate, fresh, Herr Consul.
So, your chauffeur is strictly forbidden to stop your Mercedes on Crashattic Avenue, isn’t he? He drives you hermetically through the chestnut disarray, where baroque mansions shack with tower blocks. In between, hawkers and hookers, pickpockets and cheats, beggars and gypsies crisscross the pavement—step right, step left, your fortune needs no telling, just choose what to get rid of first, your hymen or your purse—my husband be blessed, I have neither.
Do you know, Herr Consul, that this office is reflected wide angle in your shiny fingernails? Your face is rosy, not a wrinkle, but your eyes are sad and your lips are pursed. A chauffeur, a guard, an oak desk—do smile, you are better off than your daddy, a tired Gefreiter, unshielded from Kiev save for the gun. A tiny comma in your daddy’s scrotum, you squeaked with fear when the biggest department store in Ukraine was blown into the air. Fortunately, only a light piece of a nightgown fell on your dad’s helmet, and a yellow chestnut leaf. It was the NKVD that had mined the whole street, but the Gestapo knew better whom to blame—these folks had it coming. They were destined to get into the soup, should it even incur night shifts.
Working in Bye-Bye Yard till dawn was a fatigue for the platoon—three layers of pulp, a layer of herbs, next batch. For you, then a mere promise in Gefreiter’s breeches, the rhythmic thrusts of the pistons were the best lullaby, and the last one, too, before, at sunrise, Daddy evacuated you into a warm shelter: a compassionate platoon nurse exposed among pink birches. The gorge behind was still simmering, and the next October day was ahead with more work to do—forthwith, my birth certificate, Herr Consul.
“Your passport show please me” is almost a poem—my hat’s off to your fluency in Ukrainian. A torture despite the best textbooks and titled tutors, it wouldn’t yield to you in its wayward beauty, the Ukrainian mova, the mauve bride, its heels an ever receding tip-tap: mama, mamy, mami, mamu, mamouyu, na mami—six cases and a vocative, Herr Consul—Oh mamo, how your gray matter boiled. Vertiginous declination of its neck in prefix beads and the suffix lace of its petticoat kept you starving awake for many nights until it straddled you for a fleeting moment only to leave you with an aching imperative and broken syntax.
You know, when tower blocks were science fiction, my big bottom in Great Uncle’s Levi’s would have caused any male Kievite to drool. But skinny Oksana in her Crashattic garret was doomed to be spinster and poet. She treated her native mova like a favorite doll, decorating it with ever more beads, ever more lace, patiently waiting for fame. She was listening to children in New York and Paris reciting a stunning stanza she had just put to paper when shrieks from the floor below tore her out of the middle of her daydream— these Knoblochs again, sure enough.
Khaim the cobbler and his fecund Rosa—Doovid the firstborn and further matryoshka flock: garlic and cinnamon, comb-breaking curls. Oksana never got used to the tangy Yiddish in which they hurled gut-wrenching curses at each other one moment and heartbreaking endearments the next. Stopping her ears with her fingers, Oksana peeked down. Shoora, the youngest, dangling topsy-turvy from the balcony, a lollipop in her hand: Doovid had caught her by the calf just in time—ow how Shoorochka’s butt hurt from subsequent spanking; aargh, how her cheeks itched from the post-spank kisses.
Doovid the pretty lad, slim, not a pimple on his milk-coffee face—Oksana tore the soles off her spare shoes and brought them down to Khaim for repair, tipping him a generous ten copecks for home delivery—Doovid was suspiciously long in taking the mended shoes a floor higher. In a circumcised hour, he slid downstairs for a fresh cuff on the nape from his father’s palm.
Doovid blew out the candle under his blanket and closed the finished Count of Monte Cristo. He tied up a bun, a garlic clove, and Khaim’s piggy bank into his spare shirt. He carefully stepped over his snoring parents and wound through his siblings piled on the floor.
Half of the ripped piggy’s innards bought a railway ticket to Odessa. The other half sank in the pocket of a freighter captain who agreed to smuggle the boy in the hold. Doovid did not care where he fled and took the ship’s destination to New York as a matter of course. The ghosts of bread and garlic haunted his mouth; real lice occupied his oily curls. As long as he was allowed to walk the deck on clear nights, tuning his breath to the sea’s quiet timbrel, these were minor irritations.
Children in Delhi and Casablanca wept while reciting a sad stanza Oksana had put to paper after the proud Rosa had shown her a photo of the new Doovid from a foreign envelope. Glued to the picture was a crushed lollipop. Well fed, white pants, good boots—Mamo-Tato, I work in a candy shop in Brooklyn. Be not cross—your son David Shylock loves you. Come live with me if you want. Khaim spat on the floor and little Shoora bit the lollipop off Doovid’s left boot—my passport photo, Herr Consul.
“I wouldn’t take his last name,” the registrar whispered to the bride. “Were it Ukrainian or Russian, I would understand, but changing Knobloch to Goldberg makes no sense—what if he is killed tomorrow—or you?”