by Stuart Blakesberg
Anya pulls her coat tighter with her free hand. She is shivering so badly, it feels as if she is about to shake herself to pieces. A steady, icy assault is blowing in from the sea. Facing out toward the water, she closes her eyes and breathes in the salty air. She can hear gulls circling lazily above her, calling out to each other, and the sounds of children running and playing on the beach.
She remembers the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg, how they would freeze over in winter, long icy talons holding the city tight. The water never froze calm and placid. They were chaotic waves held in time, caught in the act of attempted escape.
With her eyes closed, Anya can almost believe it is another place, another time.
When she opens them, the illusion is broken.
The similarities are what bother her the most. If everything were totally different, unaccountably alien, she would have an easier time adapting. But the little things, the constant reminders of home, those that are almost familiar, yet somehow twisted and wrong, leave her disoriented. They are little fingers picking at ragged wounds that never heal.
She looks out at the silver and black clouds in the distance. This is not the bitter, soul-numbing winter she grew up with, but still...cold is cold. A bell rings, a teenager on a bike, tires beating out a thumping rhythm on the boardwalk.
“Holy guacamole,” he says as he passes her, grinning.
Anya starts back the way she came, careful not to catch a heel between the wooden boards. She looks across at the shops, at what had been her ray of hope. This has turned out to be so much less than what she dreamed of, this block of exiles, this sad little enclave of Trotskys.
She reaches into her purse for the pack of cigarettes, but doesn’t take them out.
Anya had heard about Brighton Beach from a television show. She watches a lot of television. Game shows and soap operas and detective shows, even all of the commercials. It helped her to learn English. Real English, the words that people speak on the street, not in books.
Holy guacamole. What does that even mean?
It was a police show about Russian mobsters in New York that had brought her out here. Anya had laughed for the first time in ages, listening to the American actors trying to do Russian accents. She crept closer and closer, until she was sitting on the floor, only inches from the television, laughing uncontrollably. They reminded her of that stupid Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. She waited for one of the criminals to say “Da, ve kill moose un squirrel”.
There she was, lying on her side, tears running down her cheeks, gasping for air, when one of the detectives mentioned Brighton Beach. They called it Little Odessa, where all the Russian immigrants lived.
She stopped laughing.
It has taken her a month to work up the courage to come here, three weeks after painstakingly figuring out the train lines and connections she would need to make the journey.
If Walter had known, he would have laughed, told her to just take a taxi. He wouldn’t have understood any more than he would have understood her need to come here.
Anya isn’t so sure she understands the compulsion herself. She so rarely leaves the apartment in Manhattan except for shopping, the occasional dinner, or one of Walter’s work-related social gatherings, where he shows her off like an expensive suit, an accessory.
All those dinners, all those parties, she hates them. Hours of lawyers going on and on about international copyright law. Everyone sneaking glances at her, the women comparing themselves against her, the men…she knows those looks.
Virtually no one attempts to talk to her, any more than they would try to start a conversation with a painting. They even talk about her without caring if she could overhear.
“Did you get a load of what Walter brought?”
“I know. Where can I get one of those?”
“Russia. Apparently, the place is crawling with them.”
Anya doesn’t understand everything she hears, but she hears everything.
Walter came by, bringing her a glass of wine, which she refused.
“What? You don’t drink any more?”
He never even noticed how upset she was.
Inevitably, by the end of the night someone has had too much to drink. Mostly, it’s passes made by a junior partner in Walter’s law firm, one time an uncomfortable encounter in the restroom with one of the wives.
Is it any wonder Anya had jumped at the chance to see her own people, an opportunity to fit in again? Just one day not having to dwell on being different.
She had been so proud of herself, feeling like an explorer, navigating the filthy, scary trains. They were nothing like the subways of Moscow.
When she was seven, her father had brought her along on one of his many trips to the city, trying to find a job, any job. The ‘new Russia’ everyone talked about was the same as the old one. You had to know someone to get anywhere; you had to be a politician. Her father was a hard worker, a good man. But not a politician.
Every time she thinks of her father’s face back then, it had the same look of grim resignation on it, as if he already knew what the outcome would be, but would never stop trying.
Moscow had been so much different than St. Petersburg, dirtier and noisier. But she loved the subway. Every station was a wonder. The sculptures, the artwork, they were like little museums. All clean and safe, full of the most interesting people. There were musicians playing for change, dancers, vendors. An artist painted a little portrait of her. Her father bought it as a gift for her, though he didn’t get the job.
Even the journey from the ticket machine down to the tracks was an adventure. She remembers clinging to her father’s hand as they descended the steep, seemingly endless escalators that took the commuters deep underground.
Her father looked down and told her, in his most serious voice, that this is where Russians would go if the Americans ever dropped bombs on their country.
She tries to remember the feeling of his hand holding hers.
Anya’s excitement had continued to build as she transferred to the final train that would take her to Brighton Beach. She looked out the window as the train went underground, bare trees and apartment buildings replaced by her own image reflected in the glass. She stared until her eyes defocused and all she could see was a blonde halo of hair surrounding her featureless face.
If you are poor and pretty, you aren’t poor.
That had been Olga’s way of thinking. Her cynical voice constantly whispering in Anya’s ear, even now.
The last few stops, when she tore herself away from the window, she saw unmistakably Russian faces among her fellow passengers. There was a child reading a book, Харрый Поттер. Harry Potter. She felt an irrational relief at still being able to recognize her native language.
Old women spoke and gossiped, chided each other in Russian. She eavesdropped on every conversation, each word making her feel better.
The train emerged from underground and surged along elevated tracks, seeming to share her desire to see what lay ahead. Finally, the Brighton Beach stop. She pushed her way through the rusty turnstile and climbed down the stairs, gawking at the rows of stores with Russian sharing equal time with English on all of the signs.
She wandered aimlessly, soaking in everything. Banks, crowded little produce markets, storefronts crammed to the rafters with electronics, all within the shade of the railway tracks, trains roaring by overhead.
She wandered without purpose or direction, not noticing the people that she bumped into or their furious looks, eventually going down one of the side streets leading toward the beach. The street was dominated by a series of large, drab, brown apartment buildings, a line of elderly people out in front, all bundled up in wool coats and scarves, shapeless and featureless except for their faces. Invalids, set out in their wheelchairs, like hides put out in the sun to dry.
Anya could smell the ocean even before she could see it, going up the ramp leading to the boardwalk. She went up and down the beach until she had exhausted herself, collapsing onto one of the benches. She pulled off her shoes, rubbing her aching feet.
Wearing heels to a beach. Very clever girl, that voice told her.
Anya smiled, realizing just how much she missed Olga.
They had grown up together, gone through school together, until Olga’s father had been killed in a street robbery. She dropped out of school the final year. After a while, Anya’s calls and emails went unanswered.
Two years later, Anya was working at a food stall in a shopping mall. A Russian attempt at American cuisine, ‘Mister FoodBurger’. It was awful, but it was the only job she could get, as long as she put up with Pasha, the manager, constantly squeezing past her behind the counter, and the love struck attentions of Yuri, the high school boy that was the only other night time employee.
Anya needed the job. Her father had not worked in a year and no longer even tried, drinking more and more, starting earlier every day. Years of being beaten down had resulted in him finally giving up.
Anya spent her days encased in brown polyester, selling atrocious food to foreign tourists and Russians stupid enough to think they were being trendy. The tourists were either immensely fat couples from the West, or older men with young Russian girlfriends.
“Why do they eat so much?” Anya had asked Yuri, nibbling on a pickle slice and staring at the last customer hauling away a tray full of food.
“Because they can,” he said, looking up from the huge containers of mayonnaise he was stacking. “I hope to be just as fat someday. I’m going to have a big fat wife, and several fat children.”
Anya laughed. There was nothing fat about Yuri, right down to his silly little mustache.
“You would look good fat,” he told her.
“Pasha’s fat,” she said. “Why don’t you marry him? Have some fat kids with him?”
“I think you are even more beautiful than fat Pasha,” he said, disappearing into the back storage room.
Later that night, Anya looked up from where she was cleaning out a bin of half-eaten garbage and saw her friend Olga walking arm in arm with a much older man, a foreigner in an expensive suit.
Olga looked over at her and winked.
In school, they had words for girls like that. The ones that would show up for class, if they bothered to go to school at all, with new dresses, expensive shoes, Luis Vuitton handbags.
Olga came by the next afternoon to talk to her. She had signed up with a marriage agency, one that matched her up with rich Western men that wanted a pretty Russian wife.
“It’s wonderful!” she said, smelling of expensive perfume. “I go to the agency’s parties. I meet men. They take me out to restaurants, clubs.”
The men wrote emails to her, sent her gifts. Some of them wanted to marry her, they all wanted to have sex with her. They paid her, of course.
Anya should have been shocked, should have been disgusted with her friend. But there Anya was, up to her elbows in garbage and left over bits of that revolting food, while Olga made her life sound so wonderful.
“I’ll sign you up at the agency,” Olga said.
“Come on. All you have to do is get your picture taken and tell them what kind of guy you like.”
“I’m not a…” Anya stopped herself.
Olga raised an eyebrow.
“I could choose to be insulted, but I do not.” She laughed. “Silly girl. I am not a prostitute. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do. I meet them, I have some drinks, dinner, dancing. If I find them attractive and I want to go with them, then I do. And there’s nothing wrong with a…gift…in the morning. Everything is up to you. And if you do meet someone you like, you’ll make more in one night than you do in a month here in this awful place.”
Olga smiled at Pasha, who scowled at them as he came out from the back office.
Anya paused then, and will never know what she would have said, because Pasha chose that moment to squeeze behind her, rubbing against her ass.
She picked up a half-eaten FoodBurger Deluxe and flung it at the bastard.
“I quit!” she said, stalking out past a devastated Yuri.
She went with Olga the next day and signed up at the agency, Russian Angels, a small little office outside of town. It was just an old woman behind a computer.
“Oh, they’ll like you,” she said, sucking out the last bit of a cigarette. She had a monstrous mole growing out of her ear, which Anya couldn’t stop staring at.
She asked dozens of strange questions, then took photos with a digital camera, in a variety of poses.
“Our next party is in two weeks,” the old woman said, in between puffs of smoke. “Come here the day before, on Thursday, and I’ll give you information about the guys that want to meet you.”
Olga led her outside. “See? Nothing to it.”
Despite herself, Anya spent the next two weeks daydreaming about meeting a man that would take her away to someplace wonderful. She wondered where she would live. America, Australia, England? She only knew those places from television and movies.
Anya continued to leave the house every day at the same time, pretending to go to work. She didn’t know what to say, how to explain why she walked away from a paying job when her family relied on her help. Sasha, her brother, constantly needed supplies for schools and new clothes.
She went to an internet café, spending the last of her rubles on a pack of cigarettes and looking up Russian Angels on the computer. She found her picture as well as hundreds of others. She looked at the rows and rows of profiles. Some were young and pretty, many more were older and not so pretty. A lot of them were like Olga, not quite so pretty, but they knew how to make themselves look sexy.
How would anyone ever pick her out of so many girls?
It turned out not to be a problem. She was stunned when Sveta, the old woman at Russian Angels, handed her a thick stack of papers, printouts of emails and photos of the men who asked to meet her. Olga tried not to show it, but she seemed a little put out that Anya’s was so much larger than her own.
The party was a madhouse, over fifty girls and just as many men. There were girls as young as fifteen, pretending to be older, all the way to the sad cases in their late twenties. All fighting for the attention of a group of old men, silly dadooshkas running their hands over girls who could have been their own granddaughters.
Anya never left Olga’s side, as the organizers brought over the men who had specifically asked to meet them. The men bought them drinks and dragged them out to the dance floor. Some of them could speak Russian, most of them expected the girls to speak English. Olga surprised her with how much English she knew.
Olga let two British men stay at the table with them, both businessmen in their forties. They went out to a restaurant and had dinner together. The man who sat with Anya kept asking his friend questions in English, which he passed on to Olga. The last time Olga looked over at her and shook her head ‘no’. Then she said something else and the three of them laughed.
At the end of the night, they all poured into a cab and drove Anya home, although she insisted on being dropped off a block away from her family’s apartment. When she got out, her ‘date’ came over to her and pressed something into her hand. “Spaciba,” he said and got back into the cab, Olga between the two of them. Anya didn’t look until the taxi was out of sight.
One thousand rubles. Almost a month’s pay at Mister FoodBurger. And a note in English. Anya recognized an email address. She stood there in the street alone for a long time.
She continued to go to the introduction parties, but never left with any of the men. In between the the parties, Olga started to bring her along on double dates, when her companion had a friend who was alone. These men thought nothing about spending a fortune just for dinner and drinks with her at places she could never have gotten into before. She felt like a movie star, walking to the head of the lines out front, past the beggars and pickpockets that crowded around the entrance.
Olga showed her how to spot the working girls at the bars, their pimps never far away. Anya was shocked to hear that some of them were getting five hundred American dollars a night to go home with a man.
It was surprisingly easy to make the men send her money once they went home. Olga told her to tell them sad stories about her poor, sick parents. The men sent her emails, flowers, gifts. One bought her a cell phone just so he could call her.
One night after dinner, Olga disappeared with her date, leaving her alone with a handsome young American man. He was funny and charming, and he knew as much Russian as Anya knew English. They drank too much, danced too much. When he asked her to come back with her to his hotel, she agreed.
When she woke up the next morning, he was running around the room, packing his suitcases. He had overslept, he said, and had only an hour to get to the airport. He stuffed something into her purse and kissed her hard before rushing out.
She was stunned to find four hundred dollar notes in her purse. And even more surprised to realize that he had not left any way to contact him.
Coming home that afternoon, she knew her family could no longer ignore what she was doing. Her mother stopped speaking to her; her father was drinking himself stupid in front of the television every night. With the pretense gone, Anya started paying all the bills, bringing home bags of groceries, new shoes and toys for little Sasha.
Anya shakes herself out of her reverie, looking around at the remnants of her hopes. What a crushing disappointment all this was to her. Sad little shops covered in graffiti, old men playing chess on the sidewalk, children that looked exactly like American children. She was just as much of an outsider here as anywhere else.
She reaches into her purse, drawing out the pack of cigarettes. She takes one out and puts it to her lips. She flicks the lighter into life but a gust of wind extinguishes the flame.
She takes a deep, shuddery breath.
And that’s when Anya notices above all else, the familiar sugary smell of freshly baked bread.
She easily spots the store, with its sign in Cyrillic-styled English letters, tucked between two large restaurants.
Ivan Ivanovich and Daughters Bakery.
She tosses the cigarette away.
The door closes behind her, banging shut with a clatter of bells. Anya looks down at the floor avoiding the glances of customers looking her way. It is pleasantly warm inside, the windows almost opaque with steam and condensation. She walks in, shaking off her coat, leaving the winter behind, leaving America behind, if just for the moment.
She places her fur coat, her fake fur coat, on the back of a chair at an empty table. Walter told her that she couldn’t wear her mink here in America. People would get mad at her, throw things at her. She had nightmares for a week, dreaming of angry mobs chasing her down the city streets, throwing rocks and garbage at her.
Walter had immediately gone out and bought her a present. This hideous coat with its stiff, fake fur that had never warmed a living creature.
There were days after Walter had left for work, she would lay her mink across the bed and sleep on it, well into the afternoon. Once, he had forgotten something and came back home, only to see her spread out upon it, crying. He had looked at her for minutes, then just left without saying a word.
She looks around at the people in the bakery. Maybe someone will do her a favor and steal it.
Anya walks up to the counter and tries to take a number from the rusty dispenser, but there are none.
Her eyes water. It’s even better than the display she had seen outside, peering in through the fogged windows.Twelve different kinds of bread, loaves of black bread and ryes. Rows and rows of bagels. Trays of pelmeni, cookies and cakes. Oh! Kulich and Paskha, even though it was nowhere near Easter.
She knows exactly what she wants. It will not, it could not, taste anything like her grandmother’s, but it will do.
Behind the counter, a heavyset older man is removing a tray of bread from an oven while two teenage girls scurry around filling orders. Anya waits her turn patiently, until one of the girls, a thin young thing with dirty blonde hair and gimlet eyes, hands a bag and change to an older lady, then comes over to her.
“May I help you?”
Anya feels her body stiffen and little pinpricks of heat radiate along her skin. The girl’s voice, not quite American, freezes her.
“Yes?” the girl prompts, with a familiar tinge of impatience that almost makes Anya smile.
All her good feelings, all her hopes, evaporate as she silently takes a cellophane wrapped cheese Danish out of a basket by the register and picks up a bottle of Snapple from an ice bucket.
The girl is staring at her as she rings the order up on the register.
Anya pays her quickly, silently, and retreats to the table where her coat remains, insolently unstolen. Tears threaten to spill out, right here in public, but she knows that if they start, they will never stop. She stares at the tabletop until it blurs. With an immense gathering of will, she holds her composure. But the sadness hammers at her in waves.
Anya wants to know what just happened, but she can’t concentrate, all the conversations around her intruding, disrupting her thoughts. It’s as if a hundred different voices are all yelling at her, clamoring for her attention. Something wild had gripped her. She didn’t want the girl to hear her voice.
She is startled by a plate clattering down in front of her, an assortment of Pelmeni on it. She looks up to see the man from behind the counter pulling out a chair and sitting down next to her, wiping his hands on his apron.
“You didn’t come in here to buy a cheese Danish,” he says to her sternly. In Russian.
He picks up the pastry in question and hurls it at one of the counter girls, who scurries away, giggling. Anya can’t help but smile.
“Nyet,” Anya says in a small voice. “How did you know?”
“Shto? Am I blind? Am I that old?” He smiles. “With those cheekbones? You have Tartar blood in you.”
“My father’s family.”
The man, who surely must be Ivan Ivanovich, nods knowingly. He is a great restless bear, leaning forward then falling back in his chair, hands endlessly moving. He reminds Anya of a younger version of her grandfather Vladimir, a big solid block of a man with a bushy Stalin mustache.
“You can trust any man who has a Stalin mustache,” her grandmother would say to her with a twinkle in her eyes. And then in a quiet whisper, “Except Stalin.” As if to invoke his name out loud would wake him from his eternal sleep and bring him clawing his way out of the tomb.
“Such sadness,” he says, as if it hurt him to look upon her. “I am Ivan.”
One of the counter girls brings over two steaming mugs of tea, setting them down on the table.
“Spaciba,” Anya says.
She smiles at Anya.
Ivan reaches out and grabs his daughter’s hand, kissing it before releasing her.
“We always stand out here,” Ivan says. “We can buy their clothes, wear their styles, but we always do something to give ourselves away. We can’t blend in any more than American tourists in Red Square.”
Anya remembers laughing at the tourists back home, with their strange clothes and accents, looking in their guidebooks and struggling to ask in Russian where the nearest McDonalds was.
“How long have you been here?”
“Almost a year.”
“Did you move here with family? Or did you marry an American?”
“Eh, don’t give me that look girl.”
He leans across the table and takes her hands in his large floury paws.
“You are very young and very beautiful and I don’t ever judge.”
Anya relaxed, under his reassuring gaze.
“I came here ten years ago,” he said. “My wife had just died, thank you Russian medicine, and there I was, a poor single baker with two young attractive daughters. I didn’t need any special powers to see their future. I had to get them out of there. So…”
He leans back, releasing her hands and stretching his hands wide.
“Here I am. And I tell you, it wasn’t so easy getting out back then. If I had worried about laws, or scruples, or morals, I would still be in Moscow, out of work, drunk, and with two daughters…Well, anyway. I don’t judge.”
He sits there, smoothing his stained apron, staring at her with such concern, that some wall of resistance gives way within her.
Anya takes a sip of tea. “I haven’t heard from my family in a long time.”
She sends them a package every month, and money by Western Union. They never write back or call. But they pick up the money. They always pick up the money.
“I met Walter at a party,” she says. “He was nice, polite. He didn’t get drunk. He is a good man, with a good heart. But…”
“It’s not enough, is it? It would be enough back in Russia. It would be more than enough in Russia. But you have been infected. Infected with this awful American need to be happy. Back home, we just tried to get by. We know about ‘good enough’.”
“He calls me Annie.”
Ivan smiles. “Is that so horrible?”
“I don’t know. He wants children…I wish I could talk to my friend Olga, but she is so far away.”
“There are no phones in your fancy home?”
Anya smiles and takes a bite of the pelmeni.
“These are wonderful. Ochen molodetz.”
“I’m not so sure I want to hear what she has to say. Or what I would say. I feel like I have sold myself.”
Ivan Ivanovich shrugs. “Everyone sells themselves. Russians know this better than most. And it’s usually for such petty reasons. They don’t know here, what it is to really struggle to survive. What people will do. Not that I hold it against them. No one should have to live like that. Here, they believe anything is possible. Anything good, that is. They still don’t really believe that anything bad is possible, too.”
He looks out the window.
“I thought…when the towers fell…it might show them. As horrible as it was, maybe some good could have come of it. But…most have started to forget already. It’s not ingrained in their soul. The Russian soul is old. We’ve learned it’s best not to dream. Where they see only the best possibilities, we see only the worst.”
Anya remembers the day she Walter took her shopping in the mall, past the Mister FoodBurger, the look on Yuri’s face.
“They are so young; happy, stupid children,” Ivan is saying. “They infect us with their cruel hope. We too, can own a business, make lots of money, marry for love, not just some person who is ‘good enough’. Someone who doesn’t come home at three in the morning, drunk, and beat you black and blue. And we try. We try to be like them, dress like them, sound like them. We pretend we are really American. And all the time we wait for KGB to knock down our door and take us away.”
Ivan looks down at the table and Anya’s heart goes out to him
“Papa!” one of his daughters calls out to him.
He looks up; his mischievous smile back in place.
“I have to go back to work. I meant to cheer you up, not help you convince yourself to throw yourself in the ocean.”
Anya reaches across and grabs one of his hands with both of hers.
“No, you have been wonderful. Spaciba.”
He stands up.
“I hope you’ll come back. We could use another hand behind the counter. My daughters are useless!”
He goes back behind the counter, taking time to grab both girls and kiss them on the cheek.
And for just a moment, Anya can feel her father’s hand in hers.
She walks along the boardwalk, watching the sun rush to meet the horizon, a small lump of warmth within her offsetting the cold outside. The children are gone, as are the invalids, wheeled back inside.
She reaches for the pack of cigarettes, throwing it into a trashcan.
Anya raises her hands to her face and she can still smell the flour on them and she feels more at peace than she has in a very long time.
Yet she feels guilty, because she never mentioned the dream. The dream where she wakes up and she is older and fully, completely American. Nothing is new or strange or frightening to her. She is in a place where she truly belongs. She remembers that long ago there was another language, another land. But try as hard as she might, she can’t remember where she came from. She can’t remember who she was. And she mourns for what she has lost and what she has become, an aching sensation that doesn’t subside, even when she wakes.