“Translate,” my father said, poking me with a large, stubby finger. He said this in Russian – perevodi, his own attempts at getting directions having been met with bewilderment. We were parked at a gas station in rural Maine and we were terribly, helplessly, lost.
A teenage attendant, lanky hair, spotty skin, glassy eyes, stood uncertainly in front of the driver side window, where my father, pasty and grim, was shoving a AAA booklet at him with the “Thunderbird Motel” circled neatly in black ink.
“Perevodi!” he barked at me again, and I forced myself to look at the boy. Being viciously prone to carsickness, I usually sat in front, which meant, first and foremost, the boy could also look at me. I was eleven, a lumpy, self-conscious eleven, keenly aware of my faded yellow t-shirt, too tight under the arms, too short over the stomach.
“Umm…” I started, “Where is Thunderbird Motel?”
We had been in America for two years, long enough to have bought a new, shiny American car – a sky-blue Ford Mercury that was, for my father, a symbol of everything great about this country. Equality – it didn’t matter if you were a refugee, spoke rudimentary English, had terrible eyesight and were a Jew to boot. If you worked hard and saved, you could have the car. Freedom – you could go anywhere in your gleaming new car, anywhere at all, and you didn’t have to tell anyone where you were going or ask permission. Abundance – while you were going anywhere you wanted to go in your new car, you could stop at any time, even at night, and eat as much as you wanted, and not just fried potatoes either, but wonderful, heretofore unknown things such as lobster, pizza, spaghetti, even steak for breakfast if the mood struck you. You could sleep in a hotel of your choice with the air conditioning turned on full blast the entire time, and no one to criticize you for being bourgeois or ask to see your papers.
Sitting in the car, I watched with growing mortification as the gas station attendant leaned closer, his blue eyes blank, uncomprehending, the pupils large and black.
“Huh?” he said.
“Where is Thunderbird Motel?” I repeated, then, glancing at the AAA booklet, “‘R’ ‘T’ ‘E’ 395?” I spelled out the letters as I saw them, not knowing what they meant.
This must have cleared up the confusion because he straightened, pointed to the left and said, “Oh right. Take this down to the third light hang a left go a cupla miles then you’ll see an ice cream stand but don’t turn yet make the NEXT right and you’ll be on route 395.”
He looked back at my dad. My dad looked at me. I looked at my mom, but she was staring intently at the atlas in her hands, the page inches away from her face in the dimming twilight.
“Well,” my father snapped, “Translate!”
“Uh,” I pointed in the direction the boy pointed. “He said it’s that way.”
We were on a road trip, one of dozens my father undertook over the years, road trips being both economical and educational. In retrospect I wonder at this because driving was never an easy thing for him, the vast highways intimidating in their loopiness, the small roads with their infrequent signage, unfriendly.
We drove for a while, apprehension needling me. I stared straight ahead, trying to remember the words the boy said, but it was no use. It was a jumble and all I remembered was the injunction not to turn at the ice cream stand. Or was it to turn? The dark was closing in, the roads unmarked, the few houses we passed buttoned up for the night. I could feel the anxiety spooling off my father, as he grappled with the steering wheel as if he was trying to push his way through it, through the windshield, through the dark road ahead, and into someplace he recognized.
When we left Russia, it was he who decoded forms, signs, films, posters for us. It took us almost six months to make the journey from Moscow to New York – that’s how it was back then – nearly all that time spent in Italy. My father was the one who bartered with the shopkeepers, ordered the food.
“Where is market?” he’d ask in some hacked up version of the local language.
“Ah!” The native would say with a big smile, “Here, here and here!” Pantomiming the turns we needed to take and, magically, we always found the market. Or the zoo. Or the gardens.
“Where is beef?” My father would ask, and, if met with a blank stare, place his index fingers pointing up by his ears and say “Moo!”, adding a bit of a foot shuffle for full effect, as if he was hoofing at the ground.
“Ah!” The butcher would say and hand us a packet of chops.
I was nine when I got to New York, and by the time I was ten I was proofreading my parents’ resumes, circling typos with a red pen and, God help me, grading them. I absorbed English practically through my skin, and with it, the strange, and, to my parents, vulgar, American values. All around us the Reagan ‘80’s were blooming and everyone wanted MORE.
“Look at those women’s eyes,” my father used to say when watching TV, “they look so hungry. They need to eat more. Worry less about money.”
We had almost nothing when we first arrived in Queens. My parents had clothes, but I very quickly outgrew everything I had. Our apartment consisted of three giant rooms, painted a pale yellow with a white trim. The previous tenants left a dice shaped lamp in the bedroom, black with colored plastic dots, setting the tone for what eventually made its way into our house.
All of our furniture, and, alas, my clothes, came from the donations of the local Temple, my parents’ friends who were re-decorating, and, of course, the curb. If anyone decided that their brown plush living room set was too… well, ‘70’s, out it went to the street and into our house. Bell bottoms too passé? Polyester pant-suits too plaid? No worries. My mother happily went through the donated boxes of clothes and wondered why people got rid of such perfectly good things. She was particularly enamored of a pair of bright red matador pants with black embroidered piping that were, unfortunately, just my size.
I thought of the gas station attendant and wished with all my heart I wasn’t wearing the blue and yellow polka dot circle skirt my mom rescued from a bin. It could have been worse. It could have been the matador pants. At least he didn’t smirk or laugh that snorting laugh some of the boys at school treated me to on a daily basis.
“Hey, Russkie!” they’d call after me, “Where’d you get those pants? Siberia? Watch out! She’ll throw a potato at you!”
I didn’t really blame them. I too would have laughed at anyone dressed the way I was. But the clothes were brightly patterned and free, and better than that you couldn’t do, according to my mother.
That past spring had been a particularly fruitful one for acquiring free stuff. People were redecorating. Once the evenings grew long and balmy, we set out to scavenge the evening’s loot, my parents in their Soviet issue jackets, and me in a brown plaid sweater-coat. People were throwing things out all the time. It was incredible to my mother, who still wore a skirt she made from her grandfather’s white duck suit, to see what people were dumping. Armchairs with only one leg missing, metal folding tables with slightly dented edges, dusty radio sets tentacled with wires in back, knobless television sets.
My father was an engineer, and, as many men of his generation, an electronics buff. He’d heave a TV onto his head and we’d walk slowly back to our apartment, occasionally stopping to help him balance it or to wipe the sweat off his face.
At home, he promptly pinpointed the problem, soldered something to something else, screwed on a knob, and voila! We had a TV. In fact, we always had at least five of them sitting around, one on top of another. Whenever a new family emigrated, they were sure to get one of my father’s refurbished televisions to get them started. And if you had to use pliers to switch the channels, well what of it. It worked, didn’t it?
By summer we had enough furniture to live comfortably. We stopped going on special scavenge trips but people continued to throw things out. Slowly the apartment filled up with rugs, all different colors, piled on top of each other in a patchwork. They got dirty, so we looked around for a vacuum and one day there it was. Olive green, balding brush, mangy cord, it was standing on a corner three blocks away. My father soldered something to something else and voila! I was able to run that vacuum over the rugs repeatedly while it made pained noises and spewed fine dust out the back.
The great thing about road trips, I thought, was that I didn’t have to vacuum, or try on any polyester pantsuits. Our road trips were a step into an alternate universe where the food was always take-out, and I could try a new dish every day, play arcade games in the motels, drink ginger ale in the hotel bars with my mom, and stay up reading as late as I wanted. On the other hand, it also meant asking for directions.
My father made a sudden turn, then another. Black fields and blacker trees rolled like a filmstrip away from our car. I imagined us parked for the night in one of those fields, and it wasn’t the darkness or my own failure to understand what the boy told me that caused a heaviness to press me down into my seat. It was the thought of my father sitting up, awake, continuing to stare out the windshield as my mother and I slept.
We passed a red-and-white building with a huge ice cream cone on top and something clicked in my head.
“Turn here!” I screamed at my father.
My father grunted and turned, then I heard my mother shouting in the back, “395! 395!” pointing at the sign, though, of course, my father couldn’t see her hands.
Two hours later we were sprawled comfortably on the motel beds, our stomachs dazed with the contents of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. My father
was reading. I was drawing little figurines in fashion poses, dressing them in Calvin Klein jeans and white frilly blouses. On their feet I drew tiny white tennis shoes.
“I want new clothes for school,” I heard a voice saying that sounded peculiarly like my voice. Then I heard it make a list, “I want jeans, three blouses, pink, blue and purple. I want a pink sweater. I want white tennis shoes.” I had never asked for anything before. I loathed fully and entirely the donated corduroys, paisleys, and plaids, but I wore them, understanding and accepting the circumstances, the low salaries, the high cost of new things.
“You have plenty of clothes,” my mother said, then pulled out her trump card, “I wish I had so many clothes when I was your age.”
When my mother was my age, she was living in a stranger’s house in the Ural Mountains, her own mother newly dead and her father years gone in a labor camp. Her bringing this into the conversation meant the end of all further discussion. How could I, after all, with my belly full of fried chicken and my cardboard wardrobe at home bursting with perfectly acceptable clothes, ever desire anything else? What did it matter that I couldn’t possibly have any hope of fitting in at school or making friends looking the way I did. I too wanted MORE. I felt my throat tighten and my face burn. My hair rose medusa-like around my head as it always did when I was about to cry.
I stalked outside and plopped down into an orange plastic chair by the dimly lit pool. I considered falling into it, imagining myself sinking to the bottom, the blue and yellow polka dot skirt floating around my hips like a tutu. After a while, my father came out and sat in a chair next to me. When I was very little, my parents took me on road trips around Russia, a country at the time even vaster than the USA, but much dustier. We rented little bungalows in campgrounds, no more than wooden shacks, or slept in our car. In the evenings my father sat me on his lap, fed me little slices of tomato and showed me the constellations in the night sky. I never could see the configurations he described. It just looked like a big mess of stars to me, but I always nodded and agreed. Yes, there was Orion, and there was Ursa Minor. Yes, and Polaris, of course, right there. My father, the professor, the engineer, the inventor. He named the trees for me, and the flowers. He read me the bible, a forbidden and illegal thing in an atheist country.
Sitting next to me in the plastic chair, the smell of pines all around us, my father unfolded the newspaper he picked up earlier that day, the Times Record.
“Tell me if I understand this,” he said and pointed to an article on the front page, “‘Twenty Romanians defect to Austria in a crop duster’. What is ‘crop duster’? I understand ‘defect’, but what is ‘crop duster’?”
“An airplane,” I said, “for fields.”
“Oh,” he said and looked at the paper.
We sat quietly for a while, listening to the crickets.
“When we get back,” he said, “your mother will take you shopping.”
Then he got up and walked back to the room.