It was 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster, and the city streets were still being hosed down every morning with what looked like water. It was spring, yet people were gray like the April sky. The cab driver who drove my mother and me from the airport to our hotel expressed his dismay and sadness at the situation at hand.
“People are depressed,” he said.
Before getting out of the car, my mother offered him a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a yellow Bic lighter as a sign of solidarity.
We had been living in the United States since 1975 and had not been back in Kiev for thirteen years. Smiling and confident, my mother had come back most regally from the West. She wore her best leather trench, cinched at the waist, and a silk foulard wrapped loosely around her thin, long neck. She was bringing two large suitcases of her “out-of-date” clothing as gifts to relatives and friends, but most importantly she was bringing dollars.
In our hotel room at Hotel Rassia, I ate Beluga caviar in spoonfuls straight out of the jar while sitting in my burgundy velour bathrobe on a bed that resembled a cot, reclining against a wall, whose sky-blue paint was cracked, and yet it all felt strangely normal. Caviar is as much a luxury in America as it is a traditional culinary staple in Russia. No celebratory table is ever complete without a white tablecloth, a bottle of Vodka, and red and black caviar. When I was a child, we would get slices of warm rye bread with butter spread thick with black caviar outside the circus tent at intermission, or before going inside to see the show. Nobody questioned it. It was simply the way things were. Caviar made its appearance at the dinner table even during the most difficult times as a sign of continuity, as a sign of cultural equality. Everybody knew that it had to be bargained for and traded on the black market. University professors stood in line next to the local factory workers in order to go through the same ritual to get it.
In the United States, we got our caviar from “the Russian connection.” Unable to abandon the familiarity of getting things through the backdoor, my mother would make a phone call to a certain Arkasha, and an hour later, we would find ourselves in a secluded parking lot in West Hollywood, meeting a middle-aged guy who drove an inconspicuous white van. When he slid open the side door, he revealed three large plastic barrels. He handed my mother a disposable spoon, and she would lightly dip and try a bit of something from each container, and when she was fully satisfied, she would point to one of them, and the man would bring out his scale and measure out the weight, and away we drove with our pound of fresh caviar on ice. Nobody knew where Arkasha got his caviar or how, but everyone in the Russian community knew his number.
“Did you know that our Mother Russia is the largest producer of caviar in the world?” he would say with pride, as though one needed statistics to purchase his merchandise.
“It’s a curious thing about sturgeon, they can live to be one hundred years old and they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are twenty….”
His arms folded in front of him, the sleeves of his shirt sloppily rolled up past his elbows, he paused and looked at me.
“Aren’t you about that same age?” he asked and gave me a wink.
I knew that sturgeons were bottom-feeding large fish and that due to their precious cargo it would be highly improbable for them to live out their lifespan. The females were hunted, split open, harvested for their roe which is processed into caviar and ended up spread across our blinis, covered with sour cream, and greedily ingested.
The dated furniture in the hotel room and the hardwood floors, laid out in the once fashionable herringbone design, triggered my memory of what our apartment on The Boulevard of Labor Number One looked like. Two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. A narrow hallway neatly lined with a row of outdoor shoes and slippers. A tight corner where I stood counting to one hundred in punishment while slowly picking at the wall paint, exposing the white plaster underneath. The barracks of the common Soviet man. The balcony housed a large, blue iron cage with my pet hamsters, which regularly ate their own young, and sacks of potatoes collected for the rough winter months.
Trying to go back to envision my past life was like trying to walk on a slippery surface. You had the illusion of movement, but couldn’t make any real headway. The hotel elevator was almost always filled with Georgian men who stared at my cowboy boots and asked me for my room number. I knew that everything that went on in that hotel, everything that was said and done was being observed by some invisible eye hiding behind a mirror or a double wall. The paranoia never left us, no matter how far away we moved, our conditioning went with us.
In the 1970s, Valodia was my father’s closest friend. They shared a passion for art and a mutual frustration over the limited availability of any fine art books from the West. Everything had to be obtained through the ever-changing tide of the underground which was like an angry sea during a storm– you never knew what it would bring to the shore in its fury.
Valodia had a studio in the center of town where he kept all of his cherished artifacts. Most of these consisted of rare antique icons, whose ethereal glances surrounded him as they looked out from under their gold-encrusted crowns. It was a tiny space with no windows and a disheveled metal folding bed pushed up against the far end of the room like in a monastery, except here the walls were not bare. Every inch of the room was covered with some kind of image to form a mosaic of biblical scenes. A collection of holy tiles.
“Are you going to sell all of these?” I asked.
“First, I have to find the right buyer,” he said looking around.
“It’s not easy. I must be very careful or one fine day I will find myself in an unlucky place,” he laughed. These icons could beget him a small fortune. His neatly groomed beard was streaked with grey and his eyes lit up as he glanced around at all of his treasures.
“Do you like what you see?”
“I love it,” I said as I took in the stale odor of wood. He was not the painter my father had once described to me; he had become a dealer in the art of salvation.
My mother used to give Valodia a hard time because he had divorced his wife, and since then had made it a habit to have affairs with her married friends. One of these women was our next-door neighbor from across the hall, Stella. She was a tall, unnatural blond, who shared the apartment with her husband and mother-in-law. She often complimented my mother by telling her she had the cleanest, whitest kitchen in the city and the only toilet she was not afraid of using outside of her own. I liked her because she did not reek of food. The sole odor emanating from her was that of Kraccnaya Mocckva (Red Moscow), a very popular perfume worn at the time by every female in the Soviet Union. Her perfectly groomed soft hands had long fingers, which had not been damaged yet by the countless hours spent over the sink cleaning frozen chickens and peeling potatoes. Valodia and Stella had a thing going for quite some time. Unfortunately, her husband would not grant her a divorce, and shortly thereafter, they had a son whom I was called upon to babysit. Every time I rocked little Mitya to sleep, I would get bored, wake him up, and start all over again.
On this trip, I met Valodia’s new family. He had remarried only recently and was the proud father of a young son. The role suited him, and you could tell by observing him that he was satisfied with the way things had turned out. The first thing he inquired about when he saw my mother was the shoes. A few months prior to our visit, Valodia had sent us a cardboard cutout of his right foot inside of a letter instructing my mother to “purchase a pair of fashionable dress shoes” for him. On the back of the paper foot, he had written his European size and a description of each toe. One had a callous, the other a protruding bone, the middle toe of his right foot had a permanently missing nail because he had dropped one of his heavy picture frames on it and it simply never grew back. Had we been successful in tracking down his size? For surely in America, the men were not as large as him. Truly Valodia considered himself a minor miracle on Earth. A giant among a nation of moderately tall gentlemen.
I had faithfully accompanied my mother in a relentless search for just the right shoes through the vast shopping malls of Los Angeles. It was embarrassing. She would ask the sales assistant for the approximate size and then take out the cardboard foot. She measured it up against the sole of the shoe and then tried gently to ease it inside the leather. If the cardboard was bent in the process, she would dismiss the pair and move on to the next store.
My grandmother, who had chosen to stay behind in her beloved city of Kiev thinking that she would be more useful to my aunt who had two children, whereas my mother only had me, described Valodia’s new wife as having small button blue eyes and sharp mother of pearl nails. When I first saw her, she was using those nails to dig out the remains of her lipstick in front of the mirror in my grandmother’s hallway with her back to me. Quietly I had stepped into her reflection, distracting her. She turned to me and smiled politely. Three fleshy rolls appeared on her white neck. I knew she must love fresh goat’s milk. Just squeezed, raw and warm.
Displaced by the same daughter whom she had dutifully assisted, grandmother now lived in a two-room modern flat of recent construction, purchased for her on the outskirts of town, and paid in full by my father’s “drops of blood.” Far away from everything familiar, her small rooms were filled with relics of our past lives. My elementary school uniform, with its white apron, hung perfectly ironed in her bedroom, next to a photograph of me as a child. I had white ribbons braided into my long dark hair and tied in a bow on the top of my head, forming a pretzel-like figure eight in the back. The imported furniture, “made in Poland,” we had left behind, now crowded the tiny spaces of her living area. She was inhabiting our past and infusing it with something other than life… Her state of solitude was palpable. Otherwise, what use would she have for the pails filled to the rim with water and propped up against the inside of the front door? At the age of eighty, how much strength and effort on her part did it take to move them each time she had to answer the door…or had they been stagnating, patiently waiting for a reason to be pushed aside?
I was twenty-one and in my junior year of college. I had taken off two weeks from school to be my mother’s chaperone, to see her friends and the distant relatives I hardly remembered. Valodia was the exception. He was imprinted in my memory as the man who used to carry me on his shoulders, and whom I called slonik, meaning small elephant, because of his stature.
As soon as my mother handed Valodia the shoe box, a smile emerged on his rich lips exposing his widely spaced, comic teeth. He reached for the tightly wrapped package. It made a squeaking sound under the pressure of his fingers. It amazed me how my mother wrapped everything in plastic bags. She was also obsessed with boxes. At home, we had a kitchen pantry filled with empty gift boxes of every shape and color. It was her intention to reuse them. When I had gone to Europe the previous summer, I found myself bringing back a suitcase half-filled with empty shopping bags. I knew with what care my mother would examine the different types of brightly colored paper, as she asked detailed questions about their boutiques of origin and what was sold in each store. It was her way of confirming the extravagance of the Western world.
The rubber bands popped off the plastic. Valodia bit down on his lower lip with impatience. The blood rushed to his face. Sitting on the edge of what was once our blue living room couch, he looked like a large pebble, heavy, and oval. The room was oppressive, the light coming from a single window. Valodia, with his abrupt gestures, forced the shoes on to his feet with much excitement but was stunned to find that he could not get his foot even halfway into the shoe. My mother blushed when she realized that she had stuffed old socks into the toes to keep them from “wrinkling” inside the suitcase.
Strolling through the streets of Darnitsa, the neighborhood I called home for the first eight years of my life, we walked past the kiosks, distilling carbonated water into a reusable glass, past the now empty open market with its dome-like roof resembling a greenhouse, the elderly woman standing on the corner, selling fresh flowers out of a round, white plastic pail, which would otherwise be used for washing floors and be filled with dirty water.
“No matter what, there were always flowers,” I thought.
As we made our way to the metro to go back to the center of town, the day’s rain turned into a fine drizzle and Valodia’s polished new shoes left deep imprints in the damp soil.