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Oksana would turn in her grave to hear us Kievites debase the mauve bride to a Russianized argot: if there are any poets left on the Crashattic, they are in good disguise. Lost vocative, wrung declinations—we swear and cheat and count inflated millions to buy bread and lard—blame the new candy kiosk at the junction with Gogol Street for my coming late.
Neither in labeled jars nor in particular order under the tarpaulin awning, here was my life displayed, dismembered in plastic bags on the iron counter.
Goose Feet, fibrous caramel in red wrapping—the hairdresser scowled when shearing my black wool. Mom wouldn’t have minded gleaning egg after egg from the tainted locks under the chandelier above the bed but Grandmother administered kerosene. “This is what sleeping next to that dirty brat ends with,” she said, putting on rubber gloves. Jumping on my head like on hell’s frying pans, the beasts were catapulting themselves into the bathtub while the hot water ran. Trying not to be sick, Mom wrapped me in a towel, her apologetic fingers covertly pushing Goose Feet into my mouth. Mom was always trying hard not to vex Grandmother, for fear of drowning in a pool of her anger. Have I ever been persecuted for my ethnicity? No, Herr Consul, never in life.
Galina Mikhailovna ordered the children to sit down in a circle. She handed out one big and fourteen smaller dolls dressed in national costumes: Mama Russia with daughters; time to introduce the preschool group to the Friendly Family of the Soviet Nations. “In Kiev, we are mostly Russians and Ukrainians,” she said, “but other Soviet peoples can sometimes be found here, too. They may look different but they are just as good as we are. In our kindergarten, Manana is Georgian and Aidar is Kazakh.” Aidar blushed and blinked his slant eyelids. Galina Mikhailovna looked at me as if to say something but didn’t. Simón, a handsome Russian boy from my tower block, bent the Ukrainian doll and raised her skirt. Our cots often stood next to each other at after-lunch nap—too often for me not to fall in love, too close not to catch lice.
To be Russian or Ukrainian seemed to me so boring, so common. I asked Dad, secretly hoping I was something different: the Azerbaijan doll was dressed like a princess, and the Uzbek doll had a shock of lovely black plaits. Dad leaned to my ear and whispered a word I hadn’t heard before; neither was it mentioned in the kindergarten: “Don’t tell it around,” he added (Speckled Hen, dark chocolate with nuts).
Dad was senior engineer of the Secret Factory, which, as they said, had been serving the arms race since its reestablishment in Kiev. At home, Dad never talked about anything but science fiction: when communism comes, robots will do all for us and we’ll picnic on the moon. Once, he came home sad: “Main Lathe died,” he whispered to Mom, “a million items in fifty years.” For the first day of school, Dad crafted an ingenious sucker to fasten the white ribbons on my scorched scalp—I haven’t had my hair cut since grade one. By grade nine, Mom’s eyes and Dad’s nose had finally defeated my face. I tried to curtain them with my witchy coils, but they would bulge all the same, inspiring Simón to shorten Moora to Moo.
Simón had forgotten all about our kindergarten naps, his hair the color of summer solstice, his eyes a murderous blue—neither a chestnut tree nor a blonde on the Crashattic unclimbed. For my own sake, I wrote tests for Simón, trying to imitate his offhand scrawl, throwing in a generous fistful of mistakes for camouflage. If he had had to repeat a grade, I wouldn’t be able to sit next to him anymore, dying of pride and shame—my marrow curdled in awe when he happened to utter a word more than four letters long. Mom said one day I would be pretty (Ugly Duckling, a fudge-layered wafer, crumbled all over my school uniform—brown dress, black apron, white lace cuffs in need of a wash).
“Your account of the Battle of Stalingrad was accurate,” the head of the History department said, “a pity we can’t enroll you. Officially, you lack one point, but, truth be told, the ethnic quota is exhausted. Try again next year”: which left me at the ticket box of the history museum for another year (Thunderbird, milky fondant with vodka and a gentle vanilla touch).
“Say, Moora—I know you’re, umm…you know what I mean. The likes of you always go somewhere abroad—are you going soon? Israel? America? Germany? Then I’d marry you and we’d go together.” So many nice words at once and hearing my real name on Simón’s lips wrung my blood vessels in ropes. Mom and Dad were indeed starting to think about leaving, Israel being the quickest and easiest goal, but “please, let’s not,” Mom implored Dad under the bedroom chandelier, “Mother won’t survive the heat.”
“Sister Shoorochka and your further flock,” said the letter inside a foreign parcel, “I never stopped thinking of you—my first store even bears your name. I hope Mamo-Tato lived long and died in their bed, and that our brothers and sisters are thriving. I am much concerned about your life—the newspapers say it has been awful since the Soviets fell apart. I would love to invite you all to live with me in Brooklyn, but I can’t vouch for you as the law requires—my stocks, my five candy stores, and the insulin six times a day. So accept good gifts to sweeten your hard times: a Hershey’s bar, fifty dollars, and a pair of Levi’s, almost new.” Grandmother Shoora spat on the floor and threw the Hershey’s to Dad; of the family butts, only mine matched Great Uncle’s in girth.
Windhoek, Bratislava, now Kiev—slow steps up the envoy’s staircase. Your mother, her own midwife in a trench, spent your childhood through teenage years forever away on paramedic shifts (no use asking her questions: where’s Daddy? Did you take part in the war?) A wonder you went so far without a single book at home, with licorice the only sweet you knew until senior year: A-levels, French major, foreign ministry. To fight fear during nights without mother, you lay in bed with a map of Paris scavenged from the abandoned flat upstairs. From Monmartre to the Seine, each tiny street branded its name and flow in your mind’s folds, stitched your gray matter with fine rippled letters.
The pimpled scapegoat of grade ten became a sudden hero on the class trip to Paris. Frau Schwarz was so inept with the map she let you lead the lost herd of teens to the Eiffel Tower—by heart, your unerring step a ruler, left to right: the bullies, the haughty girls, all following you like sheep. At the top, the map came alive for you, a gift the size of a lifespan, the promise of future grandeur, and pretty Gerda let you bite into the éclair right where her teeth had printed a crescent moon in its rich cream.
Your summit is nearing, Herr Consul, as soon as you are finished with us. Your mother dropped the receiver when you told her of your task (no use calling her for another year). Move paper mountains, hit the keyboard—two hundred thousand of us to process. When you’re finished, you will be appointed German Ambassador to France (your dad’s ribcage endlessly combs the bottom of the Volga River, free from the choice between hatred and pride.)
Your Ministry of the Interior has invented a new humanitarian project: re-implanting the extinct species on the German soil, in homeopathic quantities. You will call us contingent refugees, whereas no one has seriously harmed us for the last fifty years. Green card, social benefits—even on welfare, they say we will live like kings as long as we prove that at least one spouse is genuine. The newest forgery detector is at your service, no chance for deceit. Isn’t it funny, Herr Consul, that suddenly it has become a boon to be ethnic: whatever my looks, I married the hottest guy—no, my marriage is not fictive. My husband loves me without hiding the fact that he loves beer at least as much (he says that in Germany, beer, not water, is in taps.) What, three years to wait for the residence permit? Don’t tell me such things: my husband can’t wait that long.
“Why are you giving up your nice Russian last name for a Stein?” the baffled registrar asked my bridegroom.