You Are Here
By Rimma Kranet
When I was sixteen my mother set me up on a date with a boy from a respectable family.
In his glove compartment he had a gun.
I sat in the front seat of his sports car in my polka dotted electric blue miniskirt, hair pulled back into a tight braid. We were in the alley behind my house.
I watched as he demonstrated how well the gun fit in the palm of his hand.
“Here, hold it — feels pretty great, huh? You have to be careful with it. It’s heavy,” he said, placing it in my hand. “Just make sure you don’t tell your mamma,” he said, licking his lips.
I held it with both hands on my lap, like a baby bird, like a loaf of bread you bring as an offering to a new neighbor.
I wanted to know if it was loaded.
“Put it in the glove compartment,” he ordered. “Push it toward the back.”
I did as I was told. The son of a prominent Soviet physician, he was five years my senior.
He pressed on the gas, leaping into Saturday evening traffic. I liked his cologne, the track suit he was wearing. I liked his hands on the wheel and the smell of the leather interior. I was hoping it would take a while to get to wherever we were going.
I knew nothing about intimacy. Dating was something popular girls did. They wore Dolphin shorts and mascara, played volleyball, and ditched last period. Even if I ditched, I had nowhere to go, and my lunch money was all I had to spend. I tried not eating and saving the one-dollar bills my mother gave me. I hid them in the back of my closet behind the heavy sliding doors covered in a life-size poster of Marilyn Monroe. One time I managed to save twenty dollars, and on the way home from school stopped by the mall where I spent everything I had on ethnic, hollow silver bangles. They were trendy, and my only means of looking hip. A girl I knew from school had dared me to steal one for her. Thievery was a rite of passage at my school, but on that day I went up to the cashier and paid.
Running into my classmates outside of school made me uncomfortable.
I would often see familiar faces while with my mother, pushing a shopping cart filled with groceries out of the Ralphs parking lot and onto the sidewalk toward home. It seemed like people went out of their way to say “hello” exactly at the moment when we were about to turn the corner and disappear.
“That nice girl is waving to you, mamochka. Be nice and smile back.” my mother would say, twisting her neck in an effort to make eye contact.
She didn’t understand that I had no friends. The next morning, in the school bathroom, girls would share what they had seen, and while putting on their lip gloss in the mirror, laugh and call me “homeless,” “greasy Communist,” and pull my hair. To defend myself, I learned how to curse.
My date had a reputation. He smoked cloves and weed and was rumored to be involved with the Russian mafia.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“We have to pick up Lena first,” he said as he glanced my way, pausing before he smiled, as though deciding if I was worth it.
Lena was a year older than me and had an American boyfriend. Of all the Russian girls I knew, she was the most emancipated. A violinist from a family of concert violinists, she had already performed with Rostropovich.
She was waiting for us in a light summer dress on the jagged cement stairs of a West Hollywood apartment building, absentmindedly stroking her long, tangled hair. The sun was beginning to set, and its rays mingled with the bobbing trees, casting a trembling shadow over her flushed face. Looking like Undine thrown to shore, I was sure she still had the remnants of dried sand around her ankles. As a reach for elegance, my black nylons coated my pale, winter legs.
We got out of the car and followed her inside. Her boyfriend was barefoot, leaning over the kitchen counter, reaching for something only he could see.
“There’s cockroaches,” he said, lifting his bloodshot, blue eyes.
Lena greeted him by running her hand along his back, palm open, fingers stretched out, as if making an effort to grasp as much of him as she could. They kissed, held hands, brushed against each other with ease. She leaned into him unabashed, the way only lovers could.
I knew nothing of such freedoms. I knew longing and daydreaming. I was still accustomed to going on outings with my parents, and searching for myself in my father’s rear view mirror from the back seat, to make sure I existed.
Lena was different. Living in the United States had made her reckless.
While the three of them made arrangements for Lena’s post-party drop off, I spied the king size mattress on display in the middle of the living room. There was no furniture, just a brick of a mattress, and cracks in the paint along the walls. I wondered if that was where the cockroaches came from. Maybe the walls were filled with them and their unhatched eggs.
A pineapple-shaped lamp with triangular glass arms was barnacled to the ceiling, casting a sallow hue, making the room look jaundiced.
“This used to be a motel, but I guess nobody wanted to stay here anymore, so they’re renting out the rooms. Kind of neat, yeah?” Lena’s effort to elevate her boyfriend’s living quarters irritated me.
We all nodded in agreement, like toy circus bears whose mechanical furry heads rolled unwillingly on their shoulders, attached by an invisible spring. I was sure that, as children, we’d each owned one; it was a staple in every Soviet home. Mine juggled colorful round plastic balls glued to its paws, and moved its entire body when wound with a key.
Walking back to the car, I told Lena she could sit in front. I caught her eyeing my gold necklace, a delicate Star of David which lay flat against my skin, damp as a fallen leaf in autumn. Gently, with the tips of my fingers, I reached for it blindly, finding its shape just below the hollow dip of my neck.
We were both Jewish with no genuine understanding of what that meant. We’d endured many labels: Jews, immigrants, refugees. In Russian we were simply Bejentsy, ”those who ran.”
I imagined that in Lena’s house her mother did not softly sob over the kitchen sink while preparing dinner, nor did she will her husband out of the house to sit in his car after one of their frequent arguments. My father obediently sat with his arm hanging out of the driver’s seat window, shirt sleeve rolled up to his elbow, cigarette between his fingers. Waiting. I could see his head of thick grey hair from afar, like a white pin on a map.
You are here.
“Here” was a landscape of wide bulevards and towering billboards depicting the many faces of paradise, with the palm trees’ long stalks appearing to bend from something other than the dry Santa Ana winds. It was a land of homogeneous residential architecture with sprawling green lawns and two-car garages.
My father used to take me for long walks in the Holmby Hills area. He moved slowly, taking leisurely drags of his cigarette, stopping every now and then to admire the beautifully groomed designer homes lining the dimly lit streets. I secretly thought that I would never live in a home like that and saw no point in examining them at such close range. Yet every evening after dinner we walked. We strolled until I had memorized the sequence of the houses on every block on our route, able to tell which one was coming up next.
There was the feeling that somewhere, someone’s luck had just changed for the better, while you sat patiently waiting for a green light at a busy intersection.
To alleviate our discomfort, invitations poured in from immigrants old and new. “Old” was in reference to when they’d left the Soviet Union, before or after The Revolution. “New” was in reference to us, except nothing felt lustrous about our lives. I wore second-hand clothing, my father drove a used car, and we lived in a house owned by somebody else. The only thing that was “new” was my father’s sense of deliverance superimposed on my mother’s acute feeling of loss. I was sure that within the community of exiles and refugees, nobody lived quite like us. Our family’s dynamic seemed to hinge on my father’s ability to be forgiven, to make amends for seeking out a better life. He had to earn his daily ration of my mother’s affection, and any time something went astray, she withdrew it.
I stared into the back of my date’s head as he drove, the collar of his zip-up sitting neatly just below his hairline. I wondered if everything about him was as straight as that perfectly drawn line between his neck and torso.
Lena laughed softly as he spoke, his words slipping out of the open window before I could seize their meaning.
It was dark by the time we reached Encino.
Lena eased herself out of the car and into a well-lit English Tudor house. My date hung back, his posture turning inward on itself as he worked the zipper on his jacket.
“We’ll leave soon. I promise. Then we can go somewhere else.” He stood facing me, his warm hand unexpectedly clasping mine. He let go, lowered his eyes, and slowly moved past me.
I followed with abandon, like someone on the heels of a fleeting memory.
Lena was already surrounded, with no room for anyone else in that crowd.
All I had to do was wait. Wait like my father in his Buick Skylark, or my mother in her bathrobe at the kitchen table. Or like Lena, who waited to drink vodka out of sight, in the bathroom, hidden by a stranger’s embrace.
Our Soviet upbringing had taught us patience.