There was always talk about leaving. There were remarks in the kitchen and at the dinner table that were accompanied by glancing over one’s shoulder, peeking out the window, or lowering one’s voice. There were whispers in the middle of the night, and early in the morning, before the sun came up.
Then one day we found ourselves seated around a large dinner table feeling strange new words mix with black tea on our tongues. We joked about English words tasting bad with Russian tea. We were told to translate everything we said into English, because we would only learn to speak it if we used it in our daily lives. Each of us even had a fake English name and new English-speaking identity, a multiple personality of sorts. But our rich flowing conversation was immediately reduced to crippled half-phrases, accompanied by our best efforts at sign language, when we tried to become a Jack Black the doctor, or a Linda Holmes the school teacher, instead of what we were, or rather what we were becoming – an immigrant family with an uncertain future.
We were encouraged to speak English as much as we could in our daily lives, and most importantly, we were told to think in English. We all had different reactions to this strange new way of thinking. Mother became even quieter than usual. Olga seemed even smarter and more organized than usual. My father had no problem whatsoever, and continued cheerfully carrying on in funny half-sentences complete with made-up words which nobody had trouble understanding, and everyone liked much better than proper English. Another guy, whose name I can’t remember dropped out. As for myself, my thoughts became first confused, and then bipolar – depressed when my brain was working to process a Russian thought to mean an English thing, and elated when suddenly I saw silent pictures of myself doing American things in New York.
Our daily lives became a parallel universe of Russian consciousness trying to capture English concepts and make them fit. My identity as a student in a school – no fun, no rights, no choice, no future in Russian – became uncertain at first, then downright fuzzy, until it finally became that of a student – someone who is there to learn, someone who is getting something out of hours of studying, someone who has if not a plan, then at least a chance.
I saw a similar change come over my parents. They could do something different. The iron curtain has lifted, and suddenly my mother did not throw her life away to be married to a Jew; and my father suddenly had a chance to provide for his family.
Our native world slowly became unfamiliar. We almost had a new way of thinking. It was like a thought that flashes in your mind and disappears before you have a chance to register it. The English words would just escape us, leaving frustration and the daily reality of interacting with people who had no idea what was happening to us. The woman in the kiosk was annoyed that we stood in front of her window reading all the English labels on the candy bars and perfume bottles. She hated us for not buying more than just a candy bar, and hated us for being able to afford even that. The people on the trolley smiled when they heard us speak English, then gave us dirty looks when we pretended to turn our heads.
The woman who took it upon herself to organize the English conversation course, because she could and because she made money off us that may come in handy some time in the future if an opportunity came up to send her daughters abroad, or send them to school to get degrees that may lead to them going abroad, or attract and possibly marry a man who could possibly take them abroad, became a sort of an idol in our eyes. She could speak this mysterious language, have whole conversations in it, with real English speakers who lived in real English-speaking countries. She told us, in Russian, about her first time tasting a strange concoction – a shrimp cocktail – and how much she hated it. She told us how her daughters’ teacher would not give her older daughter, Olga, a straight A student, a grade she deserved on an essay because she, Svetlana, could not pay her, or provide any additional rations of sugar, or grain, or butter. She could now afford it, she said, but it was too late for Olga, though her younger, Anastasia, could still benefit from the new income.
The group met every Sunday morning in Svetlana’s apartment. Her apartment was neither large, nor small. It was in no way different from any random person’s apartment, except that it was always clean and tidy before we arrived. In fact, she would often answer the door still with a broom in her hand, and apologize for not being done cleaning yet. Eventually, we started making way into her kitchen to help make the tea, to try some exotic candy she’d procured through a student who just came from abroad, to see her cat eat his favorite food in the world – potato peels.
Svetlana’s husband was a constant presence, though not an active participant in our little transforming world. He was more like a friendly ghost who would run the water in the shower while you tried to figure out English gerunds, or whose footsteps would suddenly creep through the hallway outside, followed by a closing door. Once in a while we even saw this friendly ghost – a wide smile, a shower cap in his hand, a few minutes of polite conversation before he had to go to work and we had to go conjugate more verbs.
Their lives seemed so settled to us, in a good way. They had a plan. They had stable ground under their feet. They had figured out how to live in the world we had figured out how to escape. They did not have the misfortune of being Jewish, or the misfortune of making their money publicly. They worked on the weekends and marketed themselves by word of mouth. They were not in danger of having everything they owned taken from them, because they did not own anything that would be of any interest to anyone – no dacha, no luxurious apartment, no car. They were ordinary people to anyone, but us. They would come up with stories of moneyed relatives somewhere in another city when it was time to pay their daughter’s teachers so they would give her the grades she needed. They would quietly pay someone to put their other daughter’s name on the list for a tour of America, or England, or any European country, where she would quietly stay behind one day, quietly find work, quietly marry, and become a citizen, have a better life than her parents, and maybe, possibly even bring them, or her sister to live with her eventually.
But to us, they were extraordinary. They did not fight. They did not go without speaking to each other for days. They did not sigh, or made snide remarks about each other. They did not face the prospect of being separated from all their relatives, or reunited with relatives they did not wish to be reunited with. They did not have lengthy discussions about the benefits of moving to America vs. the benefits of moving to Israel. They were not burdened by the need to sell their apartment and give the money to someone who had relatives in another country, so that they could give them the same amount when they got to America, and whether they would ever see that money. They were not tortured by the thought that the people who bought their apartment may be crooks who would come in the middle of the night and possibly kill them and pay someone half the money to get rid of their bodies, and keep the apartment. They were extraordinary.
Last time I heard about Svetlana, was a few years after English became my language of choice. Russian words slowly faded away into a memory. English with all of it’s New York variations became a welcome daily reality, though I had still not tasted a shrimp cocktail. My father said that my brother spoke to Svetlana. She was doing well. She had organized another English conversation group. My father’s friend of many years, and his family, were a part of it. Her older daughter, Olga, was getting ready to graduate from the university with a teaching degree. There was a very sure prospect of her becoming a tour guide and going on tours to Europe.