My thoughts as I fell asleep remained unchanged from year to year. I rehearsed the same vague fear of life and anticipation of happiness. I thought: just close your eyes and tomorrow there will be more of this, then more again, and it will keep on going at the same steady rate until you are old and can stop waiting for something to happen.
I slept alone in a bare new room and my parents were in the other room with my little brother in a crib. We were all safe and together in America—you can relax now, I told myself.
I lay rigid on my back with my arms pressed against my sides. If I moved, some of the stuffed animals would fall off the bed into the dark. They were lined up in rows under the blanket, leaving me a narrow lane from which to protect them until I fell asleep. They had arrived together in a large black trash bag, donated by Immigration Services. It took me days of concentration to give all of them names and personalities.
I closed me eyes and told myself to sleep, which triggered various images of my body lifting slowly off the ground. In one version I was chosen to ascend from a crowd of people left baffled and pointing on a hill; in another I was simply scooped up in an isolated landscape and dissolved into the sky with no one having known of my existence.
The next thing I saw was the sun through my closed eyelids, so I had fallen asleep and it was finally Sunday. I lay in the middle of the mattress and the stuffed animals were scattered on the floor. If we were still in Russia, I would have called to my mother and she would have brought me a warm cup of tea and milk.
I walked over the curly brown carpet to the bathroom, which had two doors: one from the hall and one from my parents’ bedroom, which was ajar. My brother’s crib was empty and my mother was gone. My father was still sleeping, so it would be hours before he’d drive me to Russian Village.
I closed the door and turned to the mirror. “Do you want to be my partner?” I asked, to practice for when I was in school. I washed my face with cold water because my father said it trained your body to withstand weather changes. I got undressed, turned on the faucet in the tub, and sat down in the rising water. I lay back, listened to the lapping in my ears, and tried to reconstruct the dream I’d had.
I had been sitting on a wooden chair in a long white hall with sunlight streaking through the dust. A person entered through the distant doors and walked toward me until we were face to face. He asked me a question and I answered, then he turned and walked away. As soon as he was gone another person came in, and it went on that way forever.
I dried myself and went into the kitchen, where my father was drinking instant coffee and watching the news. Every few minutes he repeated what the anchorman said to practice English. “Operation Desert Storm, Desert Storm, Storm.”
I ate the oatmeal my mother had left us for breakfast and tried to watch TV as long as I could, until my father said, “Stop being a fool and wash the dishes.”
I stood on a chair in front of the sink and organized the dishes into slippery stacks. To make myself go faster but still do a good job, I pretended that my grandmother was on her way to the house and I had to get the dishes spotless before she arrived because she hated dirt.
When I was done, the counters were flooded with standing pools of watery suds. I slid my arm over the puddles and let them cascade to the floor, and then wiped the floor clean.
My dad was still undressed when I was done, and it was nearly noon. I went to the phone and dialed Zoya’s number. Her mother answered in Russian, in a bored and nasal voice. In the background, a Russian pop singer sang about a million, million, million bright red roses.
“Good morning, this is Anya Meksina, may I please speak to Zoya?” I recited without inflection.
“Anya Meksina,” Zoya’s mother said slowly. “Zoyachka is sleeping. But come over, your daddy can have some tea with me.”
“Okay,” I said, “we’re coming soon.”
I sat down with him on the couch and waited.
“Are we going?” I finally asked, scared of interrupting the TV.
One of my father’s eyes was gray and narrow and the other blue and wide. He didn’t shift his eyes from the screen and slightly inclined his head to show that he was conscious but too busy to respond.
“You said you would drive me to Russian Village today.”
I expected him to ask why I should get to do nothing while he worked all day, but he just said, “Okay, soon,” so I went to my room to make an outfit.
I knew that things matched when they both had the same color in the pattern, and that black matched everything and so did denim. I was already wearing black stretch pants, and if I rolled them up to my knees I didn’t look as fat. I added a black and white striped shirt and a large white cap, and then turned in front of the mirror. There was a big hole in the pants right on my ass. I put on a bright pink skirt to cover the hole and then went outside to wait and perhaps be seen by somebody.
I ran down three flights of damp wooden stairs and jumped onto a swing that stood between the building and the parking lot. On our second day in America, I’d had a fight over it with a girl who tore my shirt before I kicked her in the shin and ran away.
My father finally came downstairs. He put his large hand on my head as we walked over to the new station wagon, which he totaled a few months later, breaking two ribs.
Zoya lived a short drive away in Russian Village, an apartment complex that covered many blocks and was inhabited mostly by Russians, though for some reason we didn’t live there. On the way my father listened to the news and I looked out the window at the lawns blurring together into a green ribbon alongside the car. I clutched the plastic hand grip on the door whenever we braked or made a turn. I was scared of crashing and tried to think about the breakfast I had had the day before. It was a grapefruit sliced in half and sprinkled heavily with sugar, and the wedges formed a circle of cups into which to dig a spoon.
Then we were among the duplex rows of Russian Village, winding in mirroring cul-de-sacs, each identical to the next. Grannies sat on their porches, wearing handkerchiefs around their heads to block the breeze.
“Have Zoya’s parents drive you home,” my father said when I got out. "I'm going to work.”
Zoya’s apartment had an upstairs and a basement, and her mother did not need to work. Zoya had come to school a few months after the Russian boys and I. We had been sitting outside during recess when a car pulled up and let her out, wearing a white fur coat and cap, with suede boots on her feet. She walked up to us and said “I’m Zoya,” and that’s how we began our gang: Zoya, me, and the boys.
I followed Zoya into the bathroom and sat down on the edge of the tub.
“I’ve already cleaned that,” Zoya said. “But I have the rest of the bathroom to do before the boys come over.”
Zoya had a system for cleaning every room of her house. I sat still and watched her bend over the toilet bowl and scrub its curved interior until the soap and water combined into pale blue foam. Then she flushed the toilet and began anew.
“You should let it soak,” I said.
“Only Americans let it soak,” said Zoya. “They hate getting their hands dirty.”
Zoya turned to her mother’s large medicine cabinet and started transferring bottles and jars to the sink. She looked past the shelves into the mirror at the cabinet’s back and practiced smiling in a way that hid her crooked teeth.
“I’m entering the Miss Central Region Preteen Beauty Pageant,” she said, wiping the shelves in smooth long strokes. “My mother thinks I’ll win because I’ve suffered persecution and have graceful legs.”
“But don’t you need to have a talent?” I asked.
Zoya turned around sharply. “I have lots of talents,” she said. “I’m the best dancer of anyone our age.”
I remembered the humiliating day when Zoya forced me and the boys to perform a dance routine in front of the American kids in our class, most of whom tried not to laugh until we left the room to change back into school clothes.
“So are you going to do a dance routine?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Zoya said. “But actually, I’d rather do Karate for my talent. I’ve started taking lessons and my teacher said I could become a black-belt in six months.”
“Wow,” I said.
All the surfaces in Zoya’s bathroom were sparkling. I had only seen one American bathroom, but the comparison made me think Zoya was right about everything. There had been toothpaste smeared over the sink and the floor was strewn with dirty underwear.
The doorbell rang, and we ran downstairs to the back, which opened into an inner courtyard of the Village. It was the boys, and Zoya ordered them to take their shoes off on the linoleum. Zoya had vacuumed all the carpets twice—first in rows one way, then cross-hatched in the other, the way grass is mowed on baseball fields.
Alex and Dmitri pressed their shoes off their heals without bending down, but Yan had to lean against the wall for support because he was soft all over and could never stand up straight.
“I got a new Nintendo and a bike,” Yan began.
“Don’t brag,” Zoya said and directed the boys into the living room while I stayed in the kitchen to make tea. The house was filled with mirrors and I could see a reflection of Zoya sitting on Dmitri’s lap and whispering to him and Yan. I hung back for a while but finally came in and stood at the entrance of the room.
“I think Alex wants you to sit on his lap,” Zoya said when she noticed me.
“No I don’t!” Alex said.
“Tisk, Alex, you’re like a child,” Zoya said.
Alex turned bright red and didn’t move his eyes from the floor.
“Anya, why aren’t you being nice to the boys?” Zoya asked.
Yan patted his lap and stretched his slippery mouth into a smile. Sweat gleamed in the creases of his neck. I sat down on his soft legs and couldn’t feel the bones beneath the fat. He reached around to my stomach and put a clammy hand inside my shirt, but then the kettle whistled and I stumbled to the kitchen to make tea.
Zoya stayed where she was and whispered to the boys again. I took five delicate cups and matching saucers from the cabinet. We used to have a similar set in Russia, I recalled.
I heard Alex say, “That’s stupid and dumb, I’m leaving.”
“Fool,” Zoya said, and Yan and Dmitri imitated Alex in high voices.
Alex walked past me without speaking and put his shoes on as I laid out saucers in a row. After he slammed the door, I returned a cup back to the cabinet.
Zoya came in shaking her head. I put a tea bag into each cup and poured the water.
“At least now the numbers are right,” Zoya said. “So it’s better really.”
She leaned close to me and whispered, “We’re going to play servants and masters.”
“Let’s serve the masters their tea,” she said loudly and took a big silver tray off the wall.
I started moving the cups onto the tray, but some tea splashed out of a cup.
“Let me do that,” Zoya said. “You get the sweets.”
I went to get a box of chocolates from the glass table in the living room. Dmitri and Yan were both leaning back on the couch with their legs stretched out. I noticed that the table was in a slightly different place so they could have more room. They watched my movements without speaking.
Back in the kitchen, Zoya had arranged some cookies on the tray. I gave her the box of chocolates and looked in the mirror over the stove. I could still see a bruise on the bridge of my nose, from when I had fallen on my face in class, after trying to dance around with my body through the back of a folding chair.
“Are you ready for your tea, gentlemen?” Zoya called into the living room.
“Yes, please bring it immediately,” Yan said peevishly.
I was still standing at the edge of the room when Zoya sat down again on Dmitri’s lap and started feeding him a chocolate.
“Anya, come here,” Yan said.
I didn’t move.
Zoya looked up at me and motioned sharply with her hand for me to go. I stepped over Dmitri’s legs and stood in front of Yan.
“One of the square cookies, please,” he said.
I took one from the tray and held it to his mouth.
“No, feed it to me with your mouth,” he said.
I put the cookie between my teeth and leaned over. Yan bit off half and pressed his flabby wet mouth against mine. I jerked up and some of the cookie dropped onto his lap.
“Eat that,” he ordered.
I looked at Zoya, and she glanced up giggling. Dmitri dropped some of his cookie too and Zoya got down on her knees and picked the crumbs up with her mouth. Yan’s crumbs had disappeared into the folds of his sweatpants and I stood staring at his crotch.
“Servant!” Yan said.
I shifted my weight, and then jammed down my heel between his legs. Yan screamed and curled over in pain. I tottered back. Zoya jumped up and yanked my wrist, scowling. I pulled away and lost my balance, crashing down on the glass table with my outstretched arm. There was a loud pop and the glass came apart into long heavy shards spreading from the center.
Zoya shrieked. I pushed myself up and ran to the kitchen. My hand was bleeding. I grabbed my shoes and ran out the back, slamming the door behind me. In my socks, I sprinted around to the front of the house and ran down the street. It was dusk.
I heard them come out the back and spread out after me, yelling. I ran faster and rounded an outer corner of a house. There were some bushes but nowhere to hide. I kept running straight and turned again into a sudden alley where there was a fire-escape and a dumpster in front of a linked fence. I ran behind the dumpster and paused to listen. I could hear thudding footsteps on the grass. I turned and began to climb, hooking my toes into the rings. The fence leaned back and forth and I had to cling tightly to the wire with my cut hand. I got over the top and jumped, but again there was nowhere else to go. I saw a large bush low to the ground and threw myself under it. I could hear someone run on the concrete by the dumpster.
“We’ll find you, Meksina,” Zoya yelled.
I watched her looking around, and then she came to the fence and peered past it into the early night. We both stayed still for a long time and then she turned and walked quickly away.
She called out to Yan and Dmitri, and I heard Yan answer from the direction of the house. He had not gone far. I didn’t hear Dmitri respond, so he was still a danger. I strained my neck staring ahead, afraid to turn. Then a long while passed, and I realized there was no one. I put my head down on the mulch and breathed.
An hour passed before I crawled out and inspected the cut, which was caked with dirt but had stopped bleeding and was dry. I looked around in the dark and didn’t recognize where I was. A street lamp glowed around a corner through some trees. I walked toward it and found myself in a cul-de-sac filled with parked cars. Some lights were lit on people’s porches, but there was no one out. I slinked along the cars and out the drive, and began walking down the street. I couldn’t see any signs, and in both directions the rows of Russian Village stretched in a repeating pattern.
I looked straight at the ground and counted my steps from one to eight and over again. I heard a car up ahead and looked up to see headlights passing on a distant cross street. I ran toward it and saw that it was Broad — a familiar name. One way led to a commercial area with large billboards and lights. I walked to a big intersection with a KFC, a gas station, and a supermarket. The sign said Livingston, which I also knew but very vaguely and in no relation to my house.
I turned right so I wouldn’t have to cross the street, and walked again into a darkened neighborhood with large driveways in which cars were parked. I could see into some of the lit houses, and I began to cry.
I stopped paying attention to where I was and just kept walking straight along the quiet street. My father would be still at work and no one else could get me in a car, so it was best just to keep walking until the streets made sense. Eventually, I would get home and get in bed, and then wake up and it would be tomorrow.
Anya Meksin is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she studied
Illustrations courtesy of e.v. Meksin
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