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15 Years Later ...
The Extraordinary Powers of Raw Garlic
My grandmother thinks that with my looks and figure I should have been married four times by now. When I remind her that I'm only twenty-four, a mere infant by American standards, Grandmother assures me that Americans have very low standards, and American women are currently drowning in the putrid waters of spinsterhood. "When are you going to have children?" she moans, "in your thirties, God forbid?" These discussions have no actual point except to prove to me that while we may physically be living in America, mentally we are still stuck in Russia.
Grandmother chose a groom for me during my senior year in college while I was dating someone else. In theory he was my perfect mate: a Russian Jew like me, with a BA from the University of Chicago, my alma mater, and a future in internal medicine to cure me of all my real and imagined illnesses. In reality he was a mule, who redoubled his wooing efforts when he found out that my boyfriend was undecided about his major. I received mass deliveries of red gardenias, regular invitations to dinner at Château Le Tiff (or Miff) and such delicate assurances as "I just want to be friends," which could easily have meant "Let's have friendly sex." It took an emergency intervention by Grandmother to keep his family from ruining my family's good name after I told him in plain Russian to fuck off. When I raised these facts against him, Grandmother nodded her head in approval and said, "Now there's a real man." By which she meant that my boyfriend was not.
To define a real man is a very difficult business indeed, but my grandmother is an expert in this field. I shall attempt to capture the highlights here.
1. A real man can withstand a woman's emotional outburst without having one himself.
2. A real man has to rise above the debasing insults of a marital squabble and, regardless of whether he is right (no one but Grandmother was right all the time), apologize for everything.
3. A real man always wakes up early in the morning. Waking up at noon or in the taboo hours of a late afternoon can get him instantly demoted to a sloth, which, in real-man speak, is akin to a pussy.
4. A real man will not complain about his current job even if in the motherland he was once a prodigy violinist, pianist, or a philandering conductor; an engineer, chemical or otherwise, who also by the way wrote poetry in his spare time; a mathematician, physicist, chemist, or any other scientific subfield with unscientific hobbies; a dentist, surgeon, obstetrician, or a KGB-employed psychiatrist; a black market specialist; a director of an X factory or rising star in a fledgling computer industry. He has to endure his new humiliations with the courage and willpower of a war hero, and try not to focus too much on the fact that he's now a cab driver, a driving instructor, a fixer of broken typewriters, a hotel janitor, an uncertified masseuse, a mover of boxes, a liquor store cashier, or, saddest of all, an unemployed intellectual.
5. A real man is always a cauldron of ambition, striving to rise, to transcend his current mess, to look at his English not as a done deal, but as a trajectory leading to self-improvement, and finally never feel offended when his wife corrects his pronunciation, because a real man has boundless reserves of confidence.
6. Finally (or not so finally), a real man, under no circumstances, would major in the humanities, which oddly enough included philosophy, literature, and drama, but not history. History majors sat on the borderline of real manhood, in that they were still technically real but so boring that they failed to inspire the passions of a real woman.
I knew very early in life that I would never find myself a "real" man, nor did I want to. Unlike many women I knew, I did not suffer from the panic of no longer being a virgin and remaining unmarried. Although my sister was not one of these women (she felt that the whole point of emigrating to America was to free ourselves from Soviet idolatry of virgins), she was still deeply affected by Grandmother's lectures on the pitfalls of slutdom, and believed, possibly in tandem with Grandmother, that a prolonged single life led to social retardation and acne. Under such pressures, Bella married the most persistent of her suitors at twenty-five, a certain Igor Rabinsky, and a year later bore us a beautiful daughter named Sirofima. Having achieved the state of desired normalcy, Bella was now free to be tragically unhappy and blame everyone for having given up her dream of becoming a Broadway actress.
Against the backdrop of my sister's tragediya, I refused to date Russian men. Deeply obsessed with reaching the highest state of Americanization, I jumped into long-term relationships with upstanding American men: a whining intellectual on the verge of self-discovery and in the throes of a dissertation on Brezhnev's Five-Year Economic Plan, and a self-absorbed, intellectually vapid, pompously moralistic, romantically minded gynecologist. They were my most persistent suitors, with whom I stayed longer than my nerves could bear, in part because they were both Jewish and therefore Grandmother would be tepidly satisfied, and in part because of their creative marriage proposals. The intellectual, a dabbler in many arts, painted a rose with a diamond ring hanging on one of its thorns and presented it to me at the History Department annual spring picnic. Needless to say, there was celebratory boohooing, whistling, and smacking of lips, which made it impossible for me to say "no" once I realized that this was a proposal — the intellectual did not actually articulate the words, "Will you marry me?" but rather stared smugly at my face. The gynecologist was more conventional in style — he took me to a fancy restaurant where he spoke about the indeterminate color of my eyes, my soft skin and hot body, and how he was also good looking, which led to the unexpected topic of our future children and a scrumptious blueberry mousse cake, which I was forced to lick off the plate without swallowing and thus uncover an enormous diamond ring, shrouded in blue mousse, which therefore did not shine but did scrape my sensitive tongue.
An artist's journal, the gift from my father, became my refuge in those early years. Without language, I sketched, drew, painted to express myself, expressions that filled more journals and sketchbooks and soon needed canvases to capture them all. Although my parents complained about the messes I made and the money they were spending on art supplies, they never denied me: they purchased the best oil pastels and oil paints and acrylics and a panoply of watercolors and top-of-the-line sable brushes and fancy stretched canvases intended only for real artists. "We are in America," my father would say, carrying an enormous sketchpad under his arm. "We sacrifice ourselves for our children!" My mother acknowledged that I had "talent," but no one in the family was certain if it was "real," as they required, like most people from Eastern Europe, confirmation from above — from those invisible authority figures who decreed what is and what isn't, what is talent and what is mere facade. The idea that art might be my career was unfathomable. But in college, I began to hear people throw around a wildly shocking, original, thoroughly innovative concept that I had never encountered before: "do what you want!" Here people spoke of "talent," broadly defined, as a matter of hard work and determination and subjectivity, not simply a black-and-white preordained God-given gift. It was here that I first tasted a tentative longing to paint full time. Friends encouraged me to enter my work into contests and, to my great surprise, I won the first prize in a citywide College Surrealism Competition. The Chicago Herald published tiny images of my paintings and award next to an article, entitled "Young Chicago Artists at Work," and I brought home this incontrovertible evidence to prove to my mother and grandmother and father that I was in possession of "raw God-given" talent. But they scoffed at the idea: "You're just a university student," my mother pointed out, "you haven't competed in the 'real' world, with 'real' artists." For Grandmother, the world was simpler: "Over my dead body," she said, "we didn't bring you to America so that you could waste your life, your brains, your University of Chicago education, making doodles and googly eyes all day long." My father was manly and resourceful: "Why don't you try your hand at mathematics like me or Computer Sciences like your third cousin Yulya. She's now programming at CitiBank and to think that not so long ago she wanted to be an actress!"
It was inevitable, I suppose, the obligatory fate of our young immigrant generation: children with suppressed dreams and Herculean stamina for enduring careers that made us want to slit our wrists. And among them, indeed, sat I. I juggled three nightmares in my head — physics, computers, and mathematics. My competence in all three fields was in the sub-zero region. Grade-wise, I was mustering B-minuses because the university had a propensity for grade inflation and because my father was working overtime, doing my homework for me, calling me "stupid" out of desperation. One day, my father's boss recommended that I should look into becoming an actuary. "A wonderful field with numerous job prospects," the man assured my father. Although I had failed my first statistics exam and loathed every graph and probability equation with the passion of an axe-murderer, my father gave me positive reinforcements: "You're Russian," Father said, "and Russians do not give up!" I chose statistics as my major, with a minor in feminist theory and gender studies, which became known in my family as my little immigrant rebellion, my American mishugas. During my senior year, I applied and was accepted to a program called Statistics Probability and Survey Modeling, nicknamed SPASM, at NYU's prestigious school of Arts and Sciences. In the Russian community of Chicago's wealthy suburbs, my new program was viewed as my parents' grand achievement and unanimously hailed as an ideal career for a woman: I could become an actuary, a professor, a wife, a mother, and a money-making entity by analyzing, constructing, and concocting surveys that explained Americans' way of life. What glorious conversations Grandmother was now having with grandmothers and mothers of daughters who went to mediocre colleges and ended up hygienists, accountants, optometrists, and careerless wives: "Well, our Lenochka is studying Matimatiku at New York University, the Center for Matimatika, studying to be a professor, our Lenochka, or she can be a CEO if that's where her heart leads!"
After I moved to New York City to pursue SPASM, I became the perfect immigrant child. I avowed to my mom and grandma that my "silly" dream of becoming a painter had now been fully submerged under my "serious" dream of becoming an actuary.
To bring matters to a state of almost hysterical bliss, I was at long last dating the man of Grandmother's dreams, a real man: a certain Alexei Bagdanovich, a Princeton graduate with the manners and looks of a White Russian aristocrat, and the blood of a pure Jew.
But as all perfect immigrant children know, I wasn't without my scintillating little secrets. My apartment in the West Village, which I affectionately dubbed "the dungeon," was one of the most hideous dwelling places I had ever chanced upon in my short life. The kitchen boasted a healthy population of cockroaches; the toilet required manual pumping with a plunger to properly flush; a four-foot-long blue pet iguana resided in the living room; and a roommate named Natasha, originally Nancy — a self-proclaimed Russophile — hung tiny snapshots of her asshole and vagina examined from a variety of perspectives on the hallway walls. This exposé, Natasha was quick to elucidate, marked her short stint as a "model" during her "early years" in New York.
After spending a studious, will-defying, brain-numbing, hands-wringing, depression-inducing, face-contorting year studying a field I had no aptitude for or interest in, and receiving a C+ for Survey Analysis, a D– for Advanced Statistics Level 400, and an F for Probability and Stochastic Modeling, I threw myself into researching the key ingredients of successful suicide attempts. But again, I had to remind myself of this execrable fact — we are Russian, after all, and Russians don't give up ... they lie.
Fall was upon me, a new semester was in full swing, and I was now auditing a secret art class, which was run by the tyrannically and openly philandering Professor Grayhart. Though Grayhart — an attractive old letch, if you don't mind sagging skin and a smoker's rasp — became obsessed with trying to recruit me to model in the nude (after class, that is), I adored him for all the right reasons: his incisive critiques of my disproportionate figures and his insistence that painting can be a career, a concept so taboo in my family that you might as well major in cannibalism.
Finally, there was the microscopic fact that despite my heavy commitment to Alex, I was now eyeing other men. Let me broadly define "eyeing": flipping one's hair in a come-hither fashion; staring lustily while pretending not to stare; mouthing pleasantries like "Oh you didn't have to, but thank you for that blueberry muffin," or "I guess a cup of Starbucks coffee never hurt anyone," or that well-known death to all fidelity: "Hah, hah, hah, that's so funny!" When these small infractions started happening, I attributed them to general youthful malaise and restlessness — my joie de vivre, my last cough against society's deification of monogamy. Once Alex and I were married, I reassured myself, these strange virulent longings would subside, these flirtations would level off into a kind of humdrum marital nod to past transgressions, and I would be an exemplary wife. As I nestled in his arms, discussing our favorite English translation of Anna Karenina, I'd swear that I would never stray again, that upon smelling another man, I'd handcuff myself to the nearest pole and imagine that I was Odysseus on the open sea being seduced by the Sirens. But a few weeks later, while perusing my beloved feminist theorists at Barnes & Noble, I found myself etching my phone number into some guy's palm. While attending a lecture on Simone de Beauvoir's tortured affair with Sartre, I found myself discussing the quest for a perfect feminist orgasm with a continental philosopher in a dusty hallway corner (a kind of virtual simulation of sex, if you ask me). I consoled myself with only one recurring thought — thank God for my Silver and Bronze Rules, respectively: (1) Official Dates Are Not To Be Tolerated Under Any Pretenses; (2) No Slippery Foreign Tongue Inside Mouth, No Foreign Fingers Upon Breasts, No Foreign Penis Entity In Vagina; in a word, NO SEX, NO SEX, NO SEX Under Any Circumstances (not even in an overheated discotheque with writhing bodies swaying to that fatally sexual song, "Like A Virgin!"). Thus my guilt remained at tolerable levels, that is, my allergies were kept at bay, except for a few barely noteworthy incidents where my eyes began to itch uncontrollably, my throat stung, my esophagus convulsed, and my mucus flowed so generously from my nose that I had to tell people I had the flu. I called Mom and Grandma with the sincerest hope that they could cure me.
"Mamochka, Babulya, dorogiyemoyi," I murmured in my sweetest Russian voice, "I've been thinking — I mean Alex is great, really great, but what if I'm not ready — I mean would it make sense to date around a bit more, take a little tiny mini-break from Alex, and then, then go back to him later?"
"Are you speaking in Mongolian?" Grandmother cried.
"What do you mean 'go back to Alex'— go back from what? What's going on?" my mom, with her KGB-trained brain, asked.
"All these men ask me out — what I mean is that just the other day a nice Jewish boy wanted to take me to a movie —" (He was a graduate student in film studies and although he had no biological affiliation to Jews, he had a splendid knowledge of Holocaust movies.)
"You mean like that 'nice Jewish boy' you dated in college who told you he was adopted but whose parents turned out to be Efiscofallicaans and his last name turned out to be McNuel?"
"I've barely dated," I said, trying a different tack. "I've always been engaged."
"And whose fault was that?" Grandmother yelled. "The point of life is to marry, not date senselessly and idiotically! Listen to me, Alex is the best thing that ever happened to you. Look at your history, whenever you've chosen for yourself it's been a disaster! Like that mudila who believed in Communist fairy tales, or that imbecilic ginecolog who chewed with his mouth open and didn't say a word to me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Matrimonial Flirtations of Emma Kaulfield"
Copyright © 2017 Anna Fishbeyn.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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