There’s a new man behind the checkout counter at the “Royal Bazar.” He has a large tattoo covering his shaved head and tapering off down the back of his neck. I am not sure what it depicts. He’s half turned away from me, so I cannot make out the features of his face.
I place the jar of twenty-four percent fat sour cream on the counter. The only kind mother uses in her Borscht.
“Three fifty,” he says.
His tone is stern, non-negotiable.
I can see his muscular forearms up to where the black fabric of his t-shirt stretches unnaturally across their circumference. That’s as far as I dare lift my eyes while fishing for the correct change.
“Thank you,” I mumble.
“Pojalusta,” he says, handing me the receipt. His fingers are also tattooed. He must be a “new Russian,” those who disdain any form of restraint.
I turn to look for my mother.
There is no better place to feel the duplicity of my life than on these trips to West Hollywood, where the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Fairfax abruptly delineates a three-block neighborhood of Soviet era grocers and English as a second language.
A month ago, this place was run by a woman who sat behind the register on a cracked, brown leatherette swivel chair, facing the front door. She followed you with her gaze, sizing you up, assuming you were there to inspect or pillage rather than buy a loaf of rye bread and a package of buckwheat.
The guy with the tattoos is a new attraction. His body is stiff, like the steel pots and pans, towers of colorful mugs and starched linen tablecloths.
It still smells of fresh deli meats and smoked fish sweating into the aquarium-like display. Along with a variety of cheeses–borjomi, tvorog, kefir–there are small glass jars of red and black caviar, the only allure for a bargain seeking American. Grey, sagging cardboard boxes limp from bearing the weight of their contents are stacked against the far wall, while others are haphazardly tucked into corners. Inside are items that come and go without lingering long enough to merit a designated space of their own. There is a sense of having dropped in on someone who is in the process of vacating the premises.
My mother walks up and down the aisles, letting her fingers flutter gently above the merchandise. Her mind is trigger happy, hungry for anything that brings on a memory.
Fine dust covers the once glistening lacquer Palekh boxes with intricate scenes of national folklore: fairytale lives, heroic acts of bravery and idyllic scenes of love. We once had a suitcase filled with similar souvenirs. We redeemed them for money and food.
“Look at these plates, this tea set, they’re from the factory in Leningrad. They used to be so expensive…. I wonder how they were able to get these… they must be leftovers….”
She turns a small cobalt blue and gold dessert plate over in her hands, searching for the familiar Lomonosov Imperial Porcelain Factory seal which would confirm that she is right. Being right is her form of self-validation. Instead, “Made in China” takes up the space of the St.Petersburg, 1744 trademark.
“I have this entire service, the real thing, it’s packed away under the stairs. Remind me and I will show it to you when we get home.”
“Why don’t you ever use it?” I ask, undermining the importance of possession.
Abundance breeds security. This is the immigrant mentality. You need to have a lot of something to prove that you have enough.
“Oh, I have plenty of dishes. I’m saving it for you.”
“Saving…you” is what I hear.
My mother has been trying to save me ever since I was six, when Professor Amosov discovered that I had a heart murmur.
I want to tell her it’s not her fault, that I forgive her for keeping a noose around my neck like a wool scarf in winter. Her overprotectiveness pushing me away, her helplessness drawing me in.
“Ask that man in the front if they carry that ice cream that I love so much, you know ‘stakanchik,’ the one, the one with vanilla…” mother asks.
I know what she wants, and they don’t have it. They don’t produce it anymore, not even in Russia. But she doesn’t understand and you can’t make her. She has the stubbornness of eighty-seven years working against me.
She wants to find her way back to her “before life,” where the sweet taste of vanilla stifles any recollection of me being called a “Dirty Jew” on the playground.
They throw rocks at me and I run.
My smooth dark hair cut razor sharp at the chin, lips chapped, eyes foggy and moist.
After I hit the asphalt, mother holds a rag to my head as the blood tickles down the outside of her arm, into a trembling puddle beside me. Empty clotheslines cut across the sky.
I want to go home, but if I don’t ask about the ice cream, there will be a scene. I return to the man.
“Sorry to bother you, my mother…she wants to know if you carry that ice cream in the wafer cone with vanilla filling?”
It is a crown. A thorny crown inked into his perfectly shaped skull.
“Stakanchik. Yeah, I don’t have that. They stopped making it because it cost too much to use real whipping cream. That’s what made it taste so good, the whipping cream, but the factories don’t do that nowadays. It’s too expensive.”
I am surprised at this bit of trivia and his Moscow accent. Although my Russian is perfect, anyone who hears me speak can tell by the way I shape my “ch” sound, how it casually slides into a “sh,” that I am from the Ukraine. My annunciation is not etched with the sophistication of the Muscovites, who are known for their literary Russian.
“Okay. Thank you anyway.” I smile, waiting for him to say something back. He stares.
“You here with your mother, that’s nice. You gotta have respect for the elderly, for everything they’ve been through. It’s not easy for them.”
I wonder where his mother is.
“It looks painful.” I squint and gesture timidly at his tattoo.
“Jesus died for our pain. Now we owe him.”
He starts to laugh, showcasing his gold canines. The knuckles on his left hand are engraved in Cyrillic with the word Sudba. Destiny.
“They don’t have your ice cream. Can we go home now?” I call out impatiently.
She is coming, her gait leisurely as she moves through the familiar disarray, hips swaying unevenly from a late onset of arthritis. She has found something else to buy, something she is gripping tightly with both hands, afraid that it will fall, slip clumsily on to the floor and break. It is a cluster of glass eyes with large blue pupils strung together on to a twisted chord. They are reminiscent of fisheyes that stare into nothingness. Glossy, smooth, compliant.
Triumphant she approaches the counter, her thin white hair pulled loosely off her face, her mischievous smile soaked through with red lipstick.
“To ward off the evil eye, chto bi tebia ne zglazili,” she says. “To bring you luck.”
Her giddiness has survived the transformation into old age. It seeps through the discomfort of her body, the deceptive nature of her mind. She is a schoolgirl with long skinny braids and hand sewn dresses, square shoulders and raspberry lips standing in a field of wheat on Ukrainian soil.