Nonfiction by Zhanna Slor from our Spring 2016 issue. MQR 55:2 can be ordered for $7 or as part of an annual subscription.
SOME INVISIBLE ENTITY
My very first memory is about being alone. I’m one or two years old, and I’ve just woken up from a nap. It’s pitch black, and I’m standing in a creaky wooden crib, holding the bars, looking out into the small, windowless room of our apartment on Kobylanskaya Street. I’m supposed to call my babushka when I wake up, I know this, but for some reason I can’t say the words: Baba. Baba. They keep running through my head but not coming out into the world, into the darkness of the room, through the cluttered hallway and into the kitchen, where my grandma is boiling milk to pour into cheesecloth, her thin hair drenched with sweat, my sister circling the floor near her feet, carrying her favorite doll. My father is at work, trying to finish construction on the troublesome new KGB headquarters in Chernovtsy, and my mother left hours ago to wait in line for bread rations. Grandpa Lonya is at work too, but it smells so much like smoke in his room you wouldn’t even know it. No one is sure where my uncle is these days; he’s twenty now and his room is often empty. But it’s probably better he’s away; seven people staying in one apartment doesn’t leave much room to breathe. Everyone is always complaining about room, about space; there’s never enough of it. There’s never enough of anything, if what the adults say is true. But for a child, what a treat! Nearly the entire family in arm’s reach; you never have to look very far for affection, for attention. You are surrounded by love.
And yet, when I wake from my nap, I’m unable to call out for my grandma. The feeling that stops me is impossible to decipher; it’s part shyness and guilt—I don’t want to bother my grandma—part fear of using my voice, which is something still quite new to me—and part something else altogether. Maybe I want to be alone for a few more seconds, feel some sort of independence I’m only then starting to grasp, that I’m my own person, that we are all alone, not an extension of our parents or our grandparents or siblings. Or maybe I am debilitated by this discovery, and this is the first time I feel one of the many, endless types of loneliness. But how can one so young feel alone? Especially in such a crowd? The walls are paper thin; even in the darkness, I can hear my sister’s giggles, the scraping of her doll against the wooden floor. I can hear the clinking of the metal pan being moved on the stove to cool down on another, unused burner. I can even hear the rumble of a bus on the street below, a stream of fast Russian words being exchanged between two strangers. By all accounts, I am surrounded by life. I am home. And yet, because of that closed door, I am scared.
Later in life, as we acquire more and more space and relinquish our relatives to their own homes one by one, I will begin to understand how lucky I truly was to be living in such a populated abode. This feeling I have in the crib, though relatively minimal now, will come back to haunt me often; it will intensify with every parting, every small diffusion. I will never truly feel comfortable sleeping alone in any house. There’s an intimacy to sharing living quarters with others that you can’t quite get in any other way. As if by constant proximity, parts of you began to fuse. As if by seeing someone with pillow creases in his cheek, you truly knew each other. It’s why children have sleepovers and lovers argue about whether or not to spend the night. It crosses an invisible line between knowing and not knowing. On one side, there’s a stranger saying goodbye; on the other side, there’s a best friend, a girlfriend, a husband. A baby.
There are no invisible lines here in our third-floor downtown apartment. Just a physical one: a thick, wooden door, the thing between me and my beloved babushka. Out in the living room, I can hear her start to clean the various ceramic mugs, plates, and clothes scattered around the house. I can hear her open the window in the room she shares with my grandfather, trying unsuccessfully to cleanse it of its deep ashtray stink. My sister calls my name, checking to see if I’m awake. Someone enters the apartment noisily through the front entrance; either my mother or perhaps even my father, home early from work. I want to go out there, but still I don’t say a word. I stand in the dark, holding the creaky wooden rungs, waiting for the door to open.
It all started on April 26, 1986, when a block of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station blew up, filling the sky with a river of fire, a cloud of death. We lived about four hundred miles southwest of Chernobyl, not in direct harm, but considering the very high percentage of women from Chernovtsy who would end up dying from cancer twenty to thirty years later, still quite likely affected. The day it happened, my mother was eight months pregnant with me. My sister was two and a half. Until then, our escape from Ukraine had only been a vague desire, a silent wishing for the right circumstances to develop. The eighties had brought Gorbachev and reform and a whirlwind of instability to the Soviet Union, but there was still very little opportunity to advance. There was a constant shortage of housing; entire families were crowded into tiny old dwellings. It was nearly impossible to move not only out of Ukraine but also within it; you couldn’t get a new job without first being established in a new city, but you couldn’t get the government’s approval to move to a new city without already having a job there. If you were Jewish, your chances were even worse. The communist party allowed very few Jews into its ranks, and without being in the party, you couldn’t advance in any field. Sometimes, just staying put in your field could be hard; for example, as an engineer, my dad’s job involved not just design work but a great deal of construction management. He was in charge of about one hundred people. In a communist regime, quality control and project management could be quite challenging; much of the workforce was uneducated, and there was no such thing as firing someone. You just had to deal with what was at hand; everything else, you got through the black market.
Though there was little to do about it, my dad had never liked his dealings in the black market. It was not only a daily part of his work life, it was also how he obtained most of our furniture and even the permission to stay at hotels every time we left town, because in the Soviet Union you couldn’t just show up at a place and expect a room. You needed connections, even for that. My dad is an honest man, and dealing so much within back channels never suited him; it was a large portion of what made him want to leave Ukraine. Plus, by 1986, even with all of its travel restrictions and TV propaganda criticizing the West, it was getting impossible to ignore what was happening in the Soviet Union. The corruption, the cover-ups, the lies. Days after the Chernobyl disaster, no one in Chernovtsy even knew about it. But once they did, it could hardly be ignored. My dad’s desire to leave was no longer just about opportunity and advancement—it was about the safety of his family.
My dad had a web of important associates; more importantly, he had an aunt named Raheel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Raheel could probably sponsor our entire family’s immigration. It would be difficult, surely, but not impossible to leave; Gorbachev had made that so. If all else failed, there was also Israel. We already knew plenty of people who had gone there with little trouble. This wasn’t the main issue. The biggest problem was my grandpa, Lonya.
My grandfather was a communist. Not in the way my dad weaseled his way into the communist party just a couple of years earlier, merely as a farce, a way of staying unnoticed. Even though he was an accountant and his job was basically to lie, my mom’s father believed in the Soviet Union, in Lenin, in Stalin. To him, moving was a betrayal. And he just wasn’t having it.
Though I remember him as a timid, kind, white-haired giant, my grandfather was an alcoholic, and a chain smoker, and no one liked him, even my mother. Still, she couldn’t leave without her parents. Unfortunately for us, nothing was enough to convince him it was the right decision; not the events in Chernobyl, not the alopecia epidemic and evacuation in 1988, nor the fact that he and my grandma still, after all these years, lived in the same tiny apartment as my parents, my sister and I, and my uncle Senya. There is a persistent stubborn gene that runs through just about everyone related to me; no amount of prodding him ever got my parents anywhere. It was starting to look like we might never get out of the Soviet Union.
Then one day, in the summer of 1988, everything changes. My mom spends the entire afternoon cooking and cleaning our place until it’s spotless. She dresses my sister and me in matching pastel dresses and has us put away our “walking” blond dolls my dad had recently gotten for us by standing in line for almost four hours. For the first time in quite a while, my grandfather doesn’t come home and immediately start drinking vodka. He empties the ashtrays in his room. He brushes his thick frizzball of hair. He kisses my grandma, Valentina, on the cheek.
Around dinnertime, he puts on a shirt with buttons, a shirt we’ve only ever seen him wearing to work. In the kitchen, my mom makes grechnivie kasha—a sort of cheap, grainy brown rice—and some soup made from bouillon cubes and old leftover vegetables. My grandma is patting down a thin piece of dough to be fried and used for blintzes. A thick bag of cheesecloth hangs from a knob on a cupboard, filled with farmer’s cheese made the day before. Even with all the windows open, it’s boiling hot. Sweat drips from their brows and pools under their flimsy cotton shirts. My mom pours herself a glass of water from the bucket my dad has just brought upstairs from the well. I reach out my chubby little fingers and ask for some milk.
“We’re all out, Zhannuchka,” she says. Instead, she gives me a glass of water too, and pats me on the forehead. “Where’s your sister?”
I shrug. I’m not her keeper.
Then, someone knocks on the door.
We both turn around, and see that my grandfather has gone to answer. I run up to him, hugging his skinny ankle, as he opens it. In the hallway is an older man, deeply tanned, his face lined with wrinkles. He sees me there on the floor and smiles.
“Privet, malenkeya!” he says, happily, pinching my cheek. “Kak tebya zavoot?”
I look down at the floor, suddenly shy. “Zhanna,” I answer him.
“How old are you?” he asks. I smile and hold up three fingers. He kneels down to the floor and pulls a piece of candy out of his pocket. He smells like perfume, an exotic mix of herbs that had to have come from a faraway place. His clothes are new and crisp and unmended. And he looks happy. Happier than I ever see anyone.
I take the piece of candy, say thank you, and run over to my mom. He steps inside and gives my grandfather a hug, patting him on the back. “Beautiful child,” I hear him saying.
I ask my mom if I can eat the candy.
“How about we save it for later?” she says. She takes it from my hands and looks at the wrapper curiously.
“Who’s that man?” I ask. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone touch my grandfather, besides the few people in this room.
“That’s Victor. He’s a very old friend of dedushka’s,” she says. “They went to techniya together.” Then she begins to take the food from on top of the oven to the living room table, which is actually two smaller tables combined into one, covered with a deep maroon cloth.
The dinner is rather unremarkable. I eat my kasha and soup and chew on a large piece of stale rye bread, kicking my legs lazily into the air. The adults are all enamored by this man, this Victor; his strange, foreign clothes, his dark skin. He’s telling them of his new home, a place called Israel, a place so warm it never snows. A place with beaches and palm trees and fruit I’ve never even heard of. A place with stores that have shelves that never go empty, and houses you don’t have to share with seven other people. Everyone is either in shock, or doesn’t believe him. Whatever the case, I’m bored, so I start climbing under the table and playing with everyone’s shoes.
“Zhanna, get out from there,” my dad says, once I get to his feet, his worn brown shoes. I just giggle and move onto the next pair of feet, my grandfather’s. I know they’re his because they smell so much like smoke. And they’re huge, much larger than my uncle’s or my dad’s. His shoes are black, the heels barely still attached to the worn-down soles; in places where the color has faded, there are traces of a black marker.
Above the table, Victor is laughing at something. “In the rest of the world, Lonya, people walk into a store and take a loaf of bread from the shelf. They never run out of anything,” Victor says.
“But at what price?” my grandpa asks. “What about culture, family?”
“What, you think they don’t have culture or family in Israel? Or Europe? Or America, for that matter?”
“Well, everyone has always said—”
“Forget what everyone says. None of it is true,” Victor says. “It’s 1988 and for the life of you, none of you could ever go into a store and find a map. Why do you think that is? Why do you think they don’t allow almost anyone out of this country? If it was so great, no one would force you to stay.”
I tie my grandfather’s shoelaces together, then apart. I tug on his wornout wool socks, looking for holes to stick my finger through. Even when I do, my grandfather doesn’t notice me—or pretends not to.
“We live in a place called Ashdod,” Victor continues. “Every year, there are brand new apartment buildings, parks. Down the street there is a beach—”
“A beach?” my grandma coos. “Ooh! How luxurious.”
“People are walking there all day and night. No one is afraid.”
“But what about the Arabs?” my father asks. “They hate Jews even more than the Soviets.”
“It’s nothing the Israeli army can’t handle. They’re merely angry children throwing tantrums.”
“Igor has an aunt and uncle who walked to Israel after the war,” my mother’s voice says. I follow it to her feet, then start poking her in the ankles. “Can you imagine?”
“Where did they end up?” Victor asks.
“A kibbutz in the south. I can’t remember the name,” my dad says. I keep poking at my mother’s feet.
“Zhanna, get out from there right now,” she snaps, pulling on my arm. I come back up, flushed, and sit back in my chair. My mom looks apologetically at Victor. “She just loves to crawl under the table for some reason. I don’t know what is so interesting to her down there.”
“Well, you can tell a lot about a person from someone’s feet!” Victor replies with another smile, which makes my mother relax. “What kind of work they do, their social status…”
“If they smell!” I laugh, which makes everyone else laugh too. By now, my grandmother is bringing out the tea. She gives me the candy Victor took out of his pocket earlier, a tiny chocolate ball wrapped in gold tinfoil, the middle of which is full of peanut butter. Then she tells my sister and me to go in the other room and find something to do.
I don’t know it then, but this whole evening is going to change the course of my life. While Dina and I sit parked in front of the giant, boxy television watching our favorite cartoon about a chain-smoking wolf and his lifelong passion and failure to catch a rabbit, sweating into our nice dresses, the rug on the floor itching our legs, my grandfather is listening to his friend as if he were an explorer just returned from a worldwide voyage. They smoke cigarette after cigarette, take shot after shot.
“Listen to me,” Victor says to him. “You need to understand: everything they’ve ever told you here is a lie.”
“But how is that possible? How can an entire country of people be fooled? It’s not logical.”
“Lonya, my friend, everything is possible.”
For some reason, my grandfather eventually believes what his friend is saying. Perhaps it’s because Victor had also been a communist; all their lives, he and my grandfather had been on the same page about that. But Victor had gotten out, and he had seen, with his own eyes, that the rest of the world wasn’t as debauched and horrible as the Soviet Union had for years been telling them. In fact, it was better. Coming from him, a true objective outsider, this information was hard to ignore, to argue.
“No one disappears in the middle of the night,” Victor adds. “People criticize their government in the newspapers under their real names.”
My grandpa considers this. Like me, he’s looking for holes. “What about the army?”
Victor laughs. “They don’t take old men and children to the IDF.”
“I don’t want my girls to go into the army when they’re older,” my father says. He’s joined them now, with a cigarette of his own. The three of them stand in a deep, gray haze.
“They don’t let the women fight, Igor! They put them in offices, answering the telephone. They’re secretaries in uniform.”
My grandmother comes to open more windows, frowning at them. “Can you men please smoke by the window at least?” she asks, angrily. “The children are ten feet away.”
The three of them stand up from the table, pushing back chairs. They go to stand by the window.
“I still don’t like it,” my dad continues. “I believe everything you’re saying, Victor. But if we’re going to move, it’ll be to America.”
“Phoo,” Victor frowns. “America! They hate the Jews just as much as the Russians. Israel is the only place where we belong. Did history teach you nothing?”
My dad smiles uncomfortably, shaking his head and looking at the ground. He’s no Zionist.
“What makes you so certain America will take you? Do you know how many thousands of people try to move there every day?” Victor asks. He pours the three of them more shots. “With Israel, you have certainty. You’ll be safe.”
They pause and lift their shots into the air. “Boot zdarov,” they say.
“To freedom,” Victor adds. Then they swallow the shots.
“Don’t get me wrong, Victor,” my dad says, wiping his mouth with a hand. “Israel is a great place. I’m glad it’s there. But I don’t want to take my family from one unsafe place to another.” He looks at my grandfather, then back at Victor. He puts out his cigarette in the ashtray. “If we ever get out of this stupid country, that is.”
Then my father excuses himself and goes to find my mother. And though my grandfather isn’t exactly convinced yet that his entire life has been a lie, as the two of them stand there in the hot, humid air, clinking shotglasses together and smoking for hours, his certainty ceased to be so certain. Instead of telling my mother No, he began to say, I don’t know.
For my parents, that was enough. They began to fill out all the necessary applications.
I’m three and half years old, and we’re at a party near the Carpathian Mountains, celebrating the seventy-second anniversary of the October Revolution. Our city, Chernovtsy, has just been evacuated of all its forty thousand children, because of a chemical spill near the border, the fumes from which extend only a few feet off the ground so that it is only kids who are suffering illness and hair loss. No one will ever know the true source of this disaster, but it’s rumored to have been caused by Soviet troops, who have for years, because of Perestroika, been traipsing through the streets of our southwest Ukrainian city on their way out of Eastern Europe. Probably they’re talking about this very thing at the party. Probably my dad, after spending all month back in Chernovtsy, managing the construction of the new KGB building, is so relieved to be sitting around a table of friends and drinking vodka, his arm around my mom, that he can’t even begin to acquire the energy necessary to give me the attention I constantly crave from him. It is likely, too, that my mom is also relieved; finally, a moment away from us kids, a reprieve from responsibility; even if it is an occasion infused with communistic undertones, it’s an evening like the ones she used to have before we came along. She’s only twenty-eight; certainly not as old as she feels lately. For months, they’ve been navigating the complex, maddening bureaucracy of the Soviet government, trying to find a way out of Ukraine, so that we don’t have to suffer the way they’ve suffered. So that we can be free.
But I don’t want to be free. I don’t want to leave. I want my parents with me, not standing in endless government lines signing forms. I want to keep sleeping on the floor of the crowded house in Khmelnytsky, where we’ve been staying with my mom’s third cousin, his entire extended family, and an elderly golden retriever. I want to keep walking down the hill to go to the nearby farm for goat milk. I want to keep dipping my feet in the Pivdenniya River, surrounded by mountains. I want to go to the park on Kotovskoho Street, sit on the rusty swing set, watch my tiny legs dangle in the air while my mom pushes me, and pet my uncle’s golden retriever, feel his soft, wet, sandpapery tongue. I don’t care if we ever go back to Chernovtsy. I could stay in Khmelnytsky forever.
But this party, on the other hand, I cannot abide. This house has no dog, no white-haired babushkas, no goats. There’s nothing but big glass bottles and food that isn’t bread. There are no other kids to play with, no one at all is paying us any attention, and my sister alone is not enough to entertain me. Plus, now I’m thirsty. I don’t see any water, so I start to wander around the kitchen and drink from people’s sparkly half-empty glasses. Soon, I’m feeling quite strange. The room is spinning: its dim yellow lights, its dirty, gray walls, its windows already covered in snow. I sit on the floor and start sweeping it with my shorts, refusing to stand up. I open all the drawers in the kitchen and begin pulling stuff out; ceramic bowls, flower-covered china, large, powdery bags of flour. I take a silver pan and hit it against the counter. You can hardly hear it over the music, a man crooning softly about a red-haired woman in Saint Petersburg. Someone is telling a joke and everyone laughs. I hit the counter even harder. But my parents disregard it; they are used to my strange behavior. Just a few months ago, at a restaurant in Lvov, for no reason at all I began to throw tomatoes at other diners. The third one I threw hit someone at a nearby table, and he’d come over to us furious, threatening to call the police if my parents couldn’t control me. My dad got the impression he was KGB or some important government worker, so we’d left without even finishing our dinner.
“So last week I’m driving up through the mountains, about three, four miles from here, to visit Edit and the kids. It’s snowing so hard I can barely see out the window,” my dad is saying. “And then suddenly my car hits something in the road.”
My mom shakes her head, putting a hand over her eyes, as if trying not to imagine this.
“A wolf?” a woman across the table asks. She has light blond hair tied in a tight bun.
“No,” my dad says. “An auger. Someone left it in the road.”
“No shit!” a man says.
“It goes right through my windshield. It was a miracle it didn’t pierce me through the chest,” my dad says.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I kept driving with the thing sticking out of my car,” my dad shrugs. “I had to wait three days for a guy to fix it. Now I have to get him a new kitchen floor.”
Everyone at the table starts clamoring again, taking out shot glasses and making a toast.
“Nazdarovya!” the woman with blond hair yells.
“To the October Revolution!” someone else yells, to which everyone laughs. “To the USSR!”
“The world’s greatest failure,” someone adds, and the laughter gets louder.
I keep going with my symphony of pots and pans. My sister comes over and tells me to stop it. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks, but I don’t answer her. Eventually my parents can’t ignore it anymore: their three-year old daughter is drunk. Even though everyone finds it a bit funny, my parents stand up from the table, still finishing their slices of watermelon. They tell their friends they’re going to come back after they take me to Uncle Misha’s house; but just in case, they hug everyone goodbye. As we walk across the street to the car, my left leg feels weak, like it can barely move; then it gives out, and I almost fall into the street. If not for the fact that I had one hand in my dad’s and one in my mom’s, I probably would have. But I don’t care; I’ve finally gotten what I wanted all night long. To get my parents’ attention. To go home—whatever temporary place that home was at the moment. Or maybe it wasn’t for either of those things. Maybe I’ve only ever been good at knowing what I don’t want.
In either case, by the time we return to the crowded apartment in Khmelnytsky, I’m already asleep, and my parents are too tired to go back to the party.
It’s 1990, and we’re in Moscow, inside the US Embassy, where my parents are waiting to fill out the last of the paperwork we need to leave the Soviet Union. They must give up their citizenships, pay an inordinate amount of money, sell all of our belongings. I’m almost four, and I can’t stop crying. Everyone in the waiting area is giving my mother dirty looks, and the secretary has already asked her to quiet me on numerous occasions. The room is filled with children, but they’re all mostly quiet, even the babies. Why am I crying? Am I just tired from the eight-hundred-mile journey from our apartment in Chernovtsy, or do I know I’ll never feel at home again? Or is it just that, in the chaos, I’m not receiving the attention I want: i.e., all the attention, all of the time? When we’re children, ninety percent of our lives consists of adults touching us and staring at us, most of the time telling us how cute we are. It’s a miracle that, as adults, we’re able to overcome all the constant devotion and learn to function without it.
Perhaps we never really do.
Finally, a security guard comes over and tells my mother we have to leave the building. My mom sighs, exasperated, although she knew it was coming. She tells my dad to go on without her, then picks me up, my sister holding onto her wide pant leg, a pair of jeans once accused by a neighbor of being “capitalistic” and American, despite being made and purchased in Ukraine. She walks past the windows of government workers and the families speaking to them from the other side, shuffling piles of paperwork, everyone stopping to look at us as she goes. On the way out of the room, I grasp the doorframe, and in the commotion, someone closes the door on my fingers.
“Owww!” I scream, my fingers hot and red. Now, as my mom takes us through the crowded lines of desperate Russians and Ukrainians and Jews trying to escape the ashes of a brutal, crumbling experiment, I really start to sob. You can hear my sadness throughout the entire hot, winding, white-and-gold Embassy building; perhaps even all of Moscow can hear it. But a child crying is the perfect soundtrack for this place; I am only making loud what in fact everyone must be feeling—sadness for what they’ve lost, for what they will lose: country, culture, family, home. For the end of what is known: of permanent, never-ending fear; of never having enough to eat, enough to drink; of shared housing, walls made of sheets. For the end of lies, the end of whispering, the end of being watched. Or perhaps, worst of all, not the end of anything—because no one will know for sure, until they’re on the plane, that they will really be allowed to leave at all.
Outside, wrapped in my mother’s arms, surrounded by the smell of her sweet perfume and the wool of her worn navy coat, I immediately stop crying. “What’s wrong with her?” my sister asks, but her question disappears into the wind, the sound of a city bus roaring by.
What is wrong with me is a good question. Do I know, deep down, that whatever is supposed to happen in this building will be the first step in a series of steps that lead me to a completely different life, a different home? Probably not. When you’re young, home is just where your parents are. You don’t think twice about it. It’s where you know which wall leads to which wall, which hallway takes you to the bathroom, the bedroom. That’s all home is. It’s easy. But children are smart. I may not have understood why were at the US Embassy, but it’s likely that I at least picked up on some major changes coming our way.
Or, who knows, maybe I was just hungry.
Ten minutes later, my dad comes down, and when he sees I’ve calmed down he apologizes for whoever closed the door on my fingers. Then he sighs.
“I’m sure that’s going to cost us,” he says.
“Everything costs something,” my mom says. “Hopefully it’ll be something we can afford.”
Then she puts me back down on the ground and the four of us walk back to the train station.
THE POSSIBILITY OF ACCIDENTS
For his thirty-third birthday, my dad invites all his friends and most of our extended family to the Bukovina Recreation Center, a woodsy mountain retreat fifteen kilometers out of Chernovtsy. This was July 1990, the last summer before most of my family left the USSR. My parents had gotten married at the resort seven years earlier, and now my dad, instead of celebrating the beginning of a life, wanted to do the opposite: say goodbye to everyone he knew and loved, many of whom he would never see again.
Of course, I didn’t know this, or care. My sister and I had already been staying at the resort hotel with my mother, as well as my aunt Rimma and her two kids who all lived in Siberia, for three weeks. Every day we’d all walk into the nearest village and drink sheep’s milk and pick watermelons from the villager’s yards. Because all the farms in the Soviet Union were collective farms, the fruits of which were dispersed among the entire country, most people in these small villages also had their own animals and gardens behind their houses. Not only were we able to find fresh food there, we also got to pet whatever animals we encountered. Some days I wished we could just stay there forever. I was often making this wish.
It is early afternoon and my sister and I, with our mother and Rimma, have just come from one of these farmhouses. My hands are still sticky with sheep’s hair and my mouth is covered in watermelon juice when my sister and I start chasing each other around the trees surrounding the hotel. Eventually, we get bored with nature and move on to the ancient jungle gym a few yards away from the picnic table, still covered in abandoned watermelon crusts and tiny silver chocolate-bar wrappers, where my mom and aunt are sitting. Dina and I climb to the top of the jungle gym and stand on the platform, where we can see that my mom and Rimma are deep in conversation, and our cousins, Irina and Sasha, are still inside their room. I feel warm and remove the sweatshirt I’ve been wearing. For some reason that will always remain a mystery, Dina takes my sweatshirt from my hands and throws it onto the grass.
This act enrages me. I start to yell at her and ask her why she would do such a thing. When yelling doesn’t make me feel better, my next response is to push her. I’m probably not taking into account that we are a few feet off the ground; I’m probably not taking anything into account except my own rage. Usually, I have three or four separate thoughts and feelings taking up space in my mind, one of them a deep concern for the possibility of accidents. But this is not the case yet. I just do the first thing that occurs to me: I push my sister off the platform.
My sister doesn’t fall to the ground. She catches the platform with her hands and hangs there, in midair, asking me to help her up. But I weigh forty pounds; how can I lift a six-year-old? I tell Dina her feet are only inches above the ground; I tell her to jump. But Dina’s too scared to look down. Instead, she just lets go.
Dina hits the ground, lands on her arm, and starts crying. My mom and my aunt look up just as the sobbing starts and rush over to her from the table. My mom picks Dina up and cradles her, kissing her on the head.
“My poor baby,” she says.
“What happened?” Rimma asks. She’s a doctor and she doesn’t waste any time with emotions, just starts looking closely at Dina’s arm. “This is a bad break, Edit. She’s going to need a surgeon.”
“Zhanna pushed me,” Dina cries. The rage I feel from my aunt then is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. She doesn’t actually say anything, but this is somehow worse; now I’m crying too.
“Call Igor,” Rimma tells my mom. She picks Dina up and carries her inside, leaving me alone in the yard.
My dad gets there within the hour in a van that used to be an ambulance, which he’d borrowed from work. His company had never painted it or removed the lights from the roof, so the whole way there he turned on the sirens and drove through every red light in Chernovtsy like an actual ambulance. He had little choice; the van didn’t have working breaks. It probably goes without saying that he cancelled the party.
To get a surgeon in the Soviet Union, especially on a weekend, is not an easy task. My dad has to call in a lot of favors, and only when he agrees to install a new floor in the Bukovina hospital was he able, many hours later, to get Dina’s arm fixed. It doesn’t matter that it’s a government hospital and should take care of its own floors, or that my dad would have to steal the supplies from another job; if he doesn’t do it, then it might be days before Dina could see a surgeon and then her arm might never heal properly. My dad doesn’t want to take this risk.
Once the arm has been set and Dina is resting on a flimsy mattress in the children’s ward, someone finally takes me to see her. It should be noted here that my sister has also almost killed me on numerous occasions leading up to this day; my mother once caught her about to push me out of a stroller because it used to be hers. Still, I feel bad.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. This in itself is hard for me to say; I still very rarely apologize. But the sight of her lying there, pale and puffy-eyed with her arm in a cast, makes me want to cry. The room smells terrible, like it’s never been clean for even one minute. There are five other kids, kicking off their sheets and squirming in their bandages. There’s a leak from the left side of the ceiling, and it’s stained the wall below it a deep gray. And she’s there because of me.
To this day we don’t agree on what happened next.
As I remember it, she forgives me. Dina claims she said nothing.
Whatever the case, my sister and I do not grow up to be friends.
ALL THE CHANGE
It’s November, 1990, and I’ve just woken up from a nap in my uncle’s room. My mom is in the kitchen making kasha, and my grandma Valya, wearing a stiff buttoned-up shirt and wool skirt, is setting the table for dinner: Jerusalem salad, mashed potatoes, cow tongue. Chopped liver, water from the well, shot glasses, Cha Cha—a thin brown moonshine smuggled in from Georgia. My grandpa, and his gray shrub of curls, is sleeping open-mouthed on the couch, smelling of pipe smoke, his hand still holding a glass of vodka. It’s two months before we move to the United States. Our apartment is cluttered with piles—what comes with: a rather small pile of necessities, since we aren’t allowed much—what gets sold: furniture, cribs, strollers—and, of course, the largest pile of all: what to give away. Clothes overly mended, a large portion of the dishes that have been passed down for generations. A doll with a broken leg. At least a hundred books.
The front door opens. My sister, who’s about to turn seven, comes inside, carrying a loaf of bread and crying. My sister cries a lot, so no one is particularly concerned, but still, my mom turns off the stove, stirring the kasha for the last time. She leaves the kitchen and its one, lonely decoration: a cloth calendar with a photo of Chernovtsy on top, hanging on a silver chain. She takes the bread from Dina and her soaked hazel eyes, and before she can even say a word, my grandmother is beside them, asking Dina what’s wrong.
“The man at the store…” Dina starts, but she can’t stop crying long enough to finish. They wait for a moment, until she’s ready to speak, her cheeks soaked with tears and snot running into her mouth. Meanwhile, my dad, who was in his bedroom changing out of his work clothes, has come out to see what all the commotion is about. Though, he too, isn’t particularly worried.
Dina finally talks again, still hyperventilating. “He—he took my money but he wouldn’t…he wouldn’t give me change.”
“Why not?” my dad asks, gently. Behind him, it starts to snow, and a chill moves in quickly through the badly painted white window frames, the paper-thin walls, which are covered in a fading, yellowed geometric wallpaper. My grandpa, oblivious to it all, lets out a loud snore.
Dina continues to cry. “He said—” she starts closing her eyes, as if she wishes she could unsee the entire trip to the store: the pale-skinned owner, surrounded by red boxes of cigarettes; his large, hairy friend standing beside him and laughing into his beard. The white, empty shelves.
“He said that he doesn’t have any because the Jews took all the change!” Dina says, and then, losing all control, starts crying all over again.
My parents exchange glances, but they are not surprised. They’d seen worse things. This was nothing in comparison. They were used to being persecuted. My grandpa had survived a concentration camp, and nearly everyone had survived the Nazis, only to then have to survive the KGB. My parents couldn’t get certain jobs because of being Jewish. Many aunts and uncles were forced to go to college in faraway towns because only a few Jews were allowed into the university in Chernovtsy every year. My dad was also forced to go to school out of the country; in Novocherkassk, Russia, a small agricultural town thousands of miles away.
But, once in a while, there were occasional upsides to religious persecution, too. Every summer in the USSR, for at least a month, college students were required to help poor farmers harvest vegetables on all the various collective farms throughout the country. Most people, like my mom, who did go to the university in Chernovtsy, or their cousins in Kiev or Moscow, had to work in cold, rainy farms picking potatoes, and they hated it. But for my dad, those summers were the best time of his life. Novocherkassk, Russia, was surrounded by miles and miles of fields, growing everything you can imagine: watermelon, pepper, tomatoes, pickles. Hundreds of college students came there in the summer to harvest them. My dad’s class was a small one, twenty-five people who all knew each other and were friends, and every day, from six am till one pm, they would throw vegetables into boxes and load them onto trucks. There was so much of it that they couldn’t get rid of it all before it went bad, so my dad and his friends would take their own boxes of tomatoes and watermelon and peppers and either trade them for chickens or set up stands off the road to sell them for cheap. They then took this money and bought vodka. Every night, they would drink around a campfire until it was almost morning, then wake up a few hours later to do it all over again. If not for anti-Semitism, none of my dad’s favorite youthful memories would even exist.
Then there’s the other upside to oppression: it brings you closer to everyone else who is being oppressed. It gives you a tie so strong it’s almost like family—if it is within the family, it makes you even more resilient. Implicit in this connection is trust, a deep level of understanding. It’s something more than friendship. It’s nearly unbreakable. Decades later, spread across the coasts of America, in places were Jews are not only allowed to be Jews but accepted wholeheartedly, will any of us be as close as we are in this very moment? Not really.
But my sister doesn’t know any of this. It’s doubtful she even knows what a Jew is; the only time she’s ever been in a synagogue was when she was two months old, and my dad, after establishing a friend of his as guard outside, snuck into one to so that she could get a Hebrew name. We’ve never so much as lit a candle for Hanukkah. She just doesn’t like the feeling of someone making a joke at another’s expense, especially adults, who are usually offering hugs and compliments, not insults; it’s likely they didn’t even know she was Jewish. Beneath that, there’s surely more, but it doesn’t rise to the surface. Not yet, anyway.
Eventually, in my mom’s arms, Dina stops crying. “Forget what those terrible men said,” my mom tells her. “In a few months, you’ll never have to hear anything like that again.”
And she’s right. But, like everything, it has a cost.
On January 2, 1991, five days before our visas would expire and we would need to be out of the country, my family boarded a train to Moscow. Each one of us was allowed two cases each, so everything that hadn’t been sold or given away we crammed into twelve suitcases and carried onto the train. We had nothing but this luggage and twelve hundred rubles. We were officially homeless.
Besides my parents, me, and my sister, my grandparents on my dad’s side were with us too, as well as my grandmother’s brother, Marcus, and his wife, who came along just to say goodbye. The trip takes thirty-six hours, and we arrive in Moscow late at night the next day. The sky is a black, cloudless dome; the air choked with cold. The eight of us emerge onto the platform with our things, then drag them through the nearly empty station and out the other side, where a cab we’d ordered in advance was supposed to meet us near the exit. We’re all half-asleep, especially my sister and me. We’d slept for much of the train ride, but it was a fitful, broken slumber, punctuated incessantly by loud noises and sore limbs and the floor itself rumbling beneath us.
My stomach starts to rumble then too, and I realize I’m hungry. We’d already eaten all the food my mom had brought along.
“We’ll be at the airport soon,” my mom tells me. “Can you wait just a little longer?”
I frown. But I’m four and a half; I don’t exactly have a choice.
Ten minutes later, nearly everyone from our train is gone; we’re practically alone. It is face-slapping cold; below zero, with a merciless wind. And still, there’s no cab. We hear the train departing again, off to Saint Petersburg and beyond. Suddenly my sister Dina starts crying. Mid-sob, she explains she forgot her favorite doll somewhere on the train.
“We’ll get you a new doll in America,” my dad says, to try and stave off her crying. He doesn’t have the time to deal with Dina’s toys; he’s starting to get worried that instead of getting on a plane to the United States, we’re all going to freeze to death in Moscow. “We’ll get you lots of dolls.”
“I don’t want another doll,” my sister cries. “I want that one!”
My sister is inconsolable, even after my dad picks her up in his arms. It’s even starting to make me upset too. It doesn’t help that now hours have passed and we are still standing outside of the dimly lit, peach-colored train station, under the giant white letters screaming KIEVSKY VOKZAL. The airport is twenty miles away, and though our flight is the following morning, we’re slowly running out of time. Soon everyone is worried; all this work to get out of the Soviet Union, and we’re going to be held up by a delinquent cab driver?
“What do you think happened?” my grandfather, Nikolai, asks my dad. He’s concerned, but not overly so. He’s already survived a concentration camp, his entire family dying.
“What happened?” my dad says. “This is a stupid country, that’s what.”
For a while now, my dad has noticed three men in thick wool overcoats and fur hats loitering nearby. Every once in a while, they take passengers from the train into a car and disappear, then return a little while later. Finally, once he puts Dina back down on the ground, one of them approaches us.
“No one is going to show up,” the man says. “This is our territory.”
Another man joins him, with a coarse black mustache and square chin, his black hat hanging just above his dark eyes. “You have two choices. You either come with us or try to make it to the airport alone.”
My parents exchange panicked glances, though they’re not even close to surprised. It had only been a few months since the borders had opened and people were being allowed to leave the country; clearly the Russian mafia had already learned to capitalize on their vulnerable position. It was a typically Soviet sendoff. There was no choice but to go with them and pay the four hundred rubles they demanded. How could we not? It was winter in Russia, the earth was covered with frosted snow and we were standing in a cloud of our own breath. Most importantly: we had to get to that airport. We just had to.
Marcus, my grandma’s brother, worried he might never see us again. Before we left he took down the plate number of the car.
“If I don’t hear from them, I’ll know what to do,” he tells them. And then we load our twelve suitcases into the van and drive off into the night. In the car, my parents stare out the windows, though all you can see is black sky and black ground, not even a wisp of a cloud in sight. Nobody says a word. Every ten minutes, the men stop the car and go outside to talk in heated tones. They blame the engine, the tires, anything and everything.
“What are they up to?” my mom asks my dad, the third time this happens. She’s patting me on the head like a dog; she hasn’t stopped the entire way.
“Just let me deal with them,” he says. He’s spent his whole life dealing with secret police and KGB and corrupt cops; why should this be any different?
“Igor,” my mom says. “We have to get to that flight.”
One mile from the airport, the men stop the car again and demand their money.
“Fourteen hundred rubles, like we agreed.”
My dad almost laughs. “We agreed on four hundred,” he says. “We don’t even have that much money!”
The men start to get mad, and my dad pleads with them to move this discussion outside the car, away from us. We watch them argue in the cold. Not even one other car drives by. My grandparents are talking to each other in Yiddish, like they always do when they don’t want anyone to understand them, and my grandma sounds like she might be crying. My mom must know a word here and there, because she tells them to calm down.
“Everything will be fine,” she says to them, to the entire car. Maybe just to herself.
Finally, everyone comes back inside. My dad takes out the last twelve hundred rubles we have, minus a bill hidden in his shoe, and gives them all of it.
The driver takes it in his hand and turns around, smiling.
“See how generous we are? I knew we could come to an agreement.” Then he winks at me.
When they drop us off in front of the airport, my mother breathes a sigh of relief.
“What did you say to them when you were outside?” she asks.
“I said he could either take all the money I have left, or he could kill us.”
“What choice did I have?” he asks. “It’s a good thing Marcus wrote down that license plate.”
At the airport, they don’t let us on the plane. For once it’s not the USSR keeping us back; this time it’s the US. They are missing a very important document that my mom failed to sign the last time we were in Moscow, when we’d been kicked out due to my tantrum, and we are not allowed to leave without it. It’s now Thursday afternoon, and our visas expire Monday. The weekend is coming up, and getting through the embassy bureaucracy was going to take some time.
The first thing we do is use the rest of the money that my dad had hidden to take a cab to the apartment of his fourth cousin, Elina, who’s an American-born journalist and has been helping us with everything English-related, as well as the move itself. She’d even bought our tickets for us. Since she was an American citizen, my parents thought she would have better luck getting into the Embassy without waiting for weeks on end, because she could use a different, much less crowded entrance. Once we arrive, she leaves us in her apartment, where my grandparents continue to fret, my grandmother yelling at everyone and trying to blame it all on my other grandma, Valya, who wasn’t even with us. Elina comes back in a flurry about two hours later, just after five. She raises up her hands.
“You guys should be fine!” she says.
Perhaps she was right, but first we had to go to the American organization in charge of helping all the Jewish refugees so that they could process the same form. They’d only been around for six months, since the borders were opened, and it wasn’t exactly an organized place. Normally my dad would deal with something like this, but he was spent. Everyone was so on edge, so near panic, and my grandparents were only making things worse by taking it out on him. When she wasn’t screaming, my grandmother was lying prostrate on the couch like an invalid, her own version of a tantrum. My parents, when searching the suitcases to remove extra weight, found her suitcase full of nails and washers and hammers. When my dad had tried to explain that America would have its own tools, and that we didn’t need to bring our own, my grandma wouldn’t back down about removing any of it. Then she continued to scream that it was all Valya’s fault. If only just to get away from her, my mother decided to go to the Jewish organization alone.
Unfortunately, the people working at this organization had no interest in helping us in a speedy fashion.
“There’s no rush, why are you so worried?” asks one.
“We’ll get to it,” says another.
My mother had, in the last day, reached her boiling point. “I’m not leaving your sight until you process this form. Tomorrow is Saturday and our visas expire Monday. What exactly are we supposed to do without visas or citizenships?”
“Extend your visa?”
“You think that’s so easy?” my mother says. “We don’t have a single ruble left, and we’re staying in a tiny basement room with six people. My mother-in-law won’t stop screaming at everyone and my kids won’t stop crying because they’re hungry. If you think I’m going to leave this place without you processing that form, then you’re crazy.”
My mother spent the entire day there, waiting. Eventually they processed the form just because they were so sick of her. She came home to a dinner of pork that was mostly just fat, the only thing the hotel, paid for by the same Jewish organization she’d been sitting in all day, had been feeding us for days. Even though we were all starving, we could barely eat more than a few bites.
After the weekend is over, on January 7, 1991, we’re finally allowed to board the plane to New York. What a relief my parents must have felt, sitting down in the very last row with their children asleep in their laps, pink and sweaty from hours-long sprints around Sheremetyevo International Airport. What a relief, amidst the hundreds of Jewish refugees, their hearts ready to burst; my dad’s parents, plump and motionless, staring out the window before we’ve even moved an inch. What a relief they must have felt, knowing that it was all over.
But for me, that’s when all the trouble began.
Milwaukee, 1991: The week the family moved to the US.
All photographs courtesy of the author. Lead image: Author’s father on the collective farm in Novocherkassk, 1979.
ZHANNA SLOR was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to Wisconsin in the early 1990s. 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 Bellevue Literary Review, StorySouth, Sonora Review, Tusculum Review, Hobart, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a group of her essays that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.