I was sixteen going on seventeen when I first met him, the Russian stocking sacks of winter wheat in the aisles of Oak Street Market where people could do the pioneer thing and grind it into flour themselves with a hand-cranked mill. The market, with its retro Dylan and Janis Joplin mix, a rangy, bearded manager, and would-be hippie workers replenishing the produce, was my place of choice that year from which to thieve. It felt good there, like southern California’s fabled comfortable and steady 72 degrees and sunny. The workers were friendly, and I could always count on getting a smile under that roof, where sunlight and sometimes rain or snow poured in through the solar-paneled skylights. The afternoon I met the Russian, I had gone around a corner too fast while swiping a handful of yogurt-covered pretzels from the bulk bins and went sliding in a flour spill when he grabbed my elbow, leaving white fingerprints on my black wool pea coat, ignoring the fact that obviously purloined items had fallen from my pocket.
I wore that coat all the time then. I bought it in a Goodwill store after I had seen a picture of my father wearing the same coat on the streets of New York City when he was a sailor on the G.I. Bill. He wore the whole get-up: white canvas hat and wide-bottomed pants and pea coat and a Gene Kelly smile. I liked Gene Kelly enormously at the time, knew him from watching those old films with my mother. I secretly wanted to dance like him. I wanted dancing to be the way he danced; I wanted a smiling, singing world surrounding me. My father looked little like Gene Kelly anymore, though certain vestiges remained, like the slight comical look he wore even when frowning. And the truth is I hadn’t seen my father in seven months; he left one evening while going to the filling station for cigarettes, and we hadn’t heard from him since. It had happened before, though, so we figured he’d come back.
The Russian’s nametag read “Van,” Ivan made pronounceable for the customers. Van Morrison, I recall thinking before I had heard him speak, a voice poured like sweetness from the transistor radio stationed near my pillow.
“Ee-VAHN,” he would later say to me after I’d got it wrong and he traced circles around my breasts with hands that had once chopped wood as a youth scout, saved a man from dying in the street only to die of neglect later in the hospital, hands that had briefly served time. For what, I never asked, but I imagined something only slightly sordid, the petty theft of a terribly necessary but insignificant item, like Jean Valjean stealing bread from a market stall. The Russian laughed at the suggestion but liked thinking that the Soviet state was so corrupt in the minds of Americans as to be nearly always to blame for the peoples’ crimes.
I rarely called him anything but the Russian when I knew him but called him that only in my mind, since I didn’t mention his existence to anyone, and when I addressed him directly I didn’t use his name at all. He would call me at off hours when he knew my mother wasn’t likely to be home. He’d breathe into the phone, “Hello, Natalya,” and I’d say, “Hey,” and that was how we spoke to one another. Natalya, the Russian version of my name, not Natalie with a nasal Midwestern “a” and the “t” pronounced like a weak “d”. I couldn’t stand the way it sounded wheezing and strained in other peoples’ mouths once he said it the Russian way.
The Russian lived with his parents and grandparents on the other side of town in a tiny crumbling apartment near the library, where the streets were lined with two- and three-flats and the trees were sparse and kids ran down the block after the ice cream truck in summer yelling for ice cream money in twelve languages. Old men in grey slacks and checked short-sleeved shirts with wife-beater tanks beneath them sat in the front yards on sagging lawn chairs reading papers and playing checkers and watching American girls who had strayed down the wrong streets, and arguing in Russian with their wives and mothers who shouted down to them in the late afternoons to come in, nu, come in now for dinner.
After school I walked the three blocks to the market where the Russian worked, and together we’d walk another three blocks to his family’s apartment. Neither his parents nor his grandparents questioned the fact of his high school girlfriend. Indeed, they rarely spoke to me directly but smiled a great deal and heaped plates of food before me: cabbage piroshki and clear borscht and little meat pies that I wouldn’t have been caught dead eating had my own mother served them for dinner since I had sworn off meat in favor of a vegetarian diet that in reality consisted largely of little more than chips, salsa, chocolate milk, and all the candy I wanted. Still, I felt self-righteously pure proclaiming myself a vegetarian because I couldn’t stand hamburgers and ignored the fact that I cheated and ate meat at the Russian’s dinner table.
But when I entered the Russian’s home with its stale odor of mothballs and old paint and steaming chipped glasses of tea, when I witnessed his family’s water-stained walls and heard the storm and clang of their pipes and the nervous patter of his babushka’s heavy black shoes (“Orthopedic, dey cust hunnud dollas,” she would mutter) as they moved from stove to refrigerator to chopping board while she made soup, I felt as if I had always belonged to those smells and sounds, the heavy floral sofa and ancient television with its flickering picture tube. Around the Formica table in the yellow-lit kitchen, I sat with them and ate kasha varnishkes and salted cucumber slices with black bread and drank glasses of sweet tea and sometimes, sometimes, late in the afternoon on the sofa when the Russian left on an errand to help his shady cousin Andrei, I fell asleep on the shoulder of his grandfather, an ancient stone-deaf man in a denim jumpsuit who had been silenced years before from a stroke. Then I would wake up an hour later with a coarse blanket thrown over me and my trigonometry textbook sitting open on my lap and continue my homework where I had left off until the Russian returned.
School I attended daily because it was required. That year I had gotten the bright but utterly misguided idea that I would grow up and become a doctor, and for that I’d need good grades. At least that was how I had come to think of school, a place to shine up my tarnished self. I had no friends to speak of and once I met the Russian, wasn’t interested in anyone else I came across. Their faces all looked blank to me. I envisioned myself ten years in the future, working in a doctor’s office that featured home-hearth patterned wallpaper, brightly embroidered quotations in frames on the walls. I could see the wiped-clean jars of cotton balls and wooden tongue depressors with their gleaming silver lids lining the counters, the anatomical drawings of the developing fetus hanging from the wall. I would measure and weigh children and look into their ears and make them laugh when I listened to their pitter-patter hearts beneath their pale little chests. I would vaccinate them and write prescriptions for antibiotics and sign their school documents and soothe them when they had strep throat. In the meantime, I was barely passing biology and performing only marginally in all my other subjects except for choir, which hardly counted since it was an elective. During choir I would close my eyes and sing, dreaming myself somewhere else while in the middle of cheesy two-part harmonies of songs that had been immensely popular five years before. I was told that I had talent, perfect pitch.
“You’ve got what we call “an ear,” the new choir director said one fall afternoon, taking me aside. He tried to hand me solos, to converse with me and gain my trust. For a period of several months he pulled me from the tedium of study hall only to present me with tendentious discussions about my future that he tried to sweeten with cups of instant hot chocolate and cookies on a green plastic plate. He told me that he was willing to arrange an audition for me with the Chicago Children’s Choir and that I owed it to myself to go for it.
“You’re dirty,” I finally muttered one afternoon, doodling in my notebook as he lectured. I didn’t know why I had said it, then or years later. His only real crime was his overzealousness in wanting to guide me. But I couldn’t accept help from anyone; it might have meant I’d have to act and then risk failure. He sucked in his breath and swept the remaining strands of sand-colored hair across his oily forehead, gathered up the cookies, and left me alone afterwards. It was now my job to help myself, he announced with a sad smile.
“How is it there, in your school?” the Russian would ask as we lay in his narrow bed before his parents came home from work and his grandmother returned from shopping. The room was a box-like addition at the far end of the apartment that butted up against the alley and was covered with wood paneling that the wind ran through. When I closed my eyes I could feel it swaying on stormy days, as if we were in a tree house. For an hour and a quarter in the afternoon we had the apartment to ourselves except for the grandfather who dozed before the television and took to going for a walk in the park shortly after we came in.
I mumbled my replies to the Russian and took hold of his meaty hands. He liked to think me shy, and in actuality, we talked little. Instead, he undressed me and we had sex and sang in bed. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, anything that emerged from the radio that he kept perpetually on in his cracker-box room. We would lie there in the falling dark, and he would wrap his arms around me like in a movie and tell me not to worry when I wasn’t anyway. Sometimes he would stare sadly at me in the early autumn dark and cluck his tongue and ask, “Where are your parents, my little dove? Why don’t they watch after you?” Then we would have sex again and listen to the radio some more and then get up to make tea.
He didn’t understand the freedom my mother afforded me, the way she took my word for it when I lied and told her I was studying at the library after school. Once, he told me matter-of-factly that my parents didn’t love me. I hadn’t told the Russian that my father was missing in action until he asked one day why I never mentioned him. And when I told him, it only made him hungrier for me.
“Natalinka,” he would whisper, teaching me the rudimentaries of sex, the vagaries of love. On sullen days he would complain about the tedium of work, his desire to use his intellect more. On less moody days he relayed clever stories about the customers and brought me pilfered market treats and rolled cigarettes for us both. He was only working there until Andrei found him a position, he would tell me, but shrugged when I asked him what kind of work he was looking for. I already knew that whatever Andrei did, I didn’t want to know about; it was something I knew I couldn’t judge within the context of America.
“You don’t know,” the Russian would murmur, rolling a cigarette and sensuously sealing it with his tongue, “what a beautiful and awful country Russia is. What people do there to survive.” He made a cutting gesture across his throat. “It takes your soul if it doesn’t kill you.”
But I didn’t believe him. I was just his sounding board, his audience, his muse. I liked to hear his stories of Russia. The legend of how his great-grandfather had been beaten by Cossacks and kicked down the stairs into the dank cellar with the root vegetables where he died three days later. Or his translation in the kitchen as his babushka spoke in a low voice, her eyes downcast while she stuffed cabbage leaves with meat and lined them up in a battered cake pan flooded with tomato sauce, of when she was a child of six and had laughed hysterically on hearing that the neighbor’s cow had died, until someone slapped her in the face to show her that the death of a family’s cow was nothing but tragedy.
And then one breezy afternoon the week before school let out, my father’s face appeared on Oakton Street where I stood with the Russian in the narrow space between the market and the European furniture showroom that stocked overstuffed leather sofas for the immigrant families who had made it in America. He had me up against the blue metal storeroom door with one hand in my blouse when I saw the number 97 bus pull up and stop and then my father standing motionless on the street when it pulled away from the curb. We locked eyes for a brief dazzling moment before I turned and skirted into the alley, watching as he methodically folded the newspaper he had been carrying and turned to walk in the opposite direction.
When I returned home that evening, my father was seated in the kitchen wearing familiar dress pants and a faded short-sleeved shirt and waiting for dinner to be served, as if he had not been away at all. My mother set down the silverware, took her place at the table, and picked at her iceberg lettuce while the two of them ignored me and read different sections of the newspaper. After we finished dessert, my father stood up and stretched, politely thanked my mother for a nice dinner, and before he left the room to watch television in their bedroom, put a hand to my cheek, instructing me to carry my dishes to the sink and then do my homework. He would drive me to and from school every day from now on, he also informed me, picking me up at dismissal. I was not involved in a single extracurricular activity, so I had no immediate excuse to provide him. I sat at the table unable to move and watched my mother’s face. I couldn’t believe she was going to accept his return without so much as a comment or facial expression. Maybe they would discuss it in private, I tried to will myself to believe as I watched the non-drama unfold. But she did not crack for a moment, only turned the pages of the newspaper she wasn’t really reading and mentioned quietly that she had obtained a copy of the missing report card that I had obviously attempted to hide from them.
I paced my cluttered bedroom that evening in an attempt to prepare myself for battle. I had gone up against my father one time, as far as I could remember, when he had overheard me swear while talking with a cousin and had abruptly slapped me in the face. Humiliated but emboldened by the presence of my cousin, I replied “fuck you” and then ran, returning an hour later when everyone had scattered to the living room with dessert plates. I had avoided him for days. Most people viewed him as compassionate and calm, but they never saw his anger, which was enormous. First it raged and then smoldered; small fires felt lethal, and his words burned for weeks.
For a week I called the Russian at his job from the phone outside the 7-Eleven I ran to during lunch, trying to strategize and plan our next visit. He suggested I leave school the back way and take side streets to his place; he would leave a key for me beneath the mat. But each day when my father’s car pulled up across the street from school, I dutifully climbed into its cavernous backseat and watched the world I had lost spin past outside the windows. When I stopped phoning, the Russian called every day for a week, hanging up when I didn’t answer, trying to talk me into open rebellion when I managed to get to the phone first. I didn’t know what to say to him. And then he stopped calling.
My father made good on his promise and continued to show up in front of school every afternoon. We rode silently through the streets all that spring. When the school year ended, with passing grades and no more hang-up phone calls, my father loosened his grip on me and I was allowed free travel. Once, through the window of a laundromat I passed on the way to the pool that summer, I watched the Russian’s grandmother pull wet laundry from a dryer and felt nostalgic. I half hoped and half feared meeting him on the street some afternoon, unsure of what I would say. I missed the time we had spent together, and I felt simultaneously relieved.
The summer days lengthened and then were swallowed up again in the hot and gold-filled light of early fall. My father remained bodily in the house and directed my moves in the guise of interest in my life, holding one-sided conversations at breakfast about the pleasure he’d experienced in high school while in Chess Club and in marching band. My mother pretended to live on nothing but air. But I sensed he was elsewhere for good and would return to wherever it was he had fled to once I graduated and was safely out of the house. And still the silence of those walls grew to be something I could count on, that year a balm of sorts for the stress of the noisy crowds at school. I somehow made a few friends, even dated a kind boy who played basketball and the French horn, helped write my college application essays, and took me to prom. But I always remembered the feel of the Russian’s big hands on my torso, his tongue lapping against my skin, declaring me a perfectly salty American.
“Sing, Natalya!” the Russian yelled to me the one and only time I caught a glimpse of him nearly a year later before I left for college at an anonymous Big Ten school. He had quit working at Oak Street Market and was poised to leave with Andrei one summer evening for Los Angeles. He had shouted it all to me in a rush as I crossed in front of his car on my way back from the beach. The girls I had frolicked in the chilled waves with had looked at me quizzically when the Russian called out my name.
“Sing!” he yelled from the cracked red leather of his cousin’s battered Cadillac. Out into these United States, I would wander.
Susan Dickman is a Chicago-area writer and visual artist. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Best of the Best American Poetry; RHINO; Zocalo Public Square; Left Hooks; Brain, Child; Intellectual Refuge; Lilith; and other publications. She has received fellowships and awards from the Illinois Arts Council, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has exhibited her artwork at Woman Made Gallery, Morpho Gallery, Reynolds Whitney Gallery, Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, the Janice Charach Gallery (West Bloomfield, Michigan), the Amstelkerk Gallery (Amsterdam), and the Evanston, Highland Park, and Bridgeport art centers. In her other life, she teaches blind and visually impaired students and keeps honeybees.