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–105– Russian Afternoons -­ “Carpets cleaned, any size,” read one of the glossy slips. “Best airport car service in the city, excellent rates to JFK and LaGuardia,” promised another. The packets from the neighborhood merchants association came regularly in the mail. “Hot stone back rub, chocolate body treatment, traditional massage,” said the one that caught my eye. “Low prices.” Hedonism at bargain-­ basement rates. The combination was irresistible. ————— The receptionist who booked my appointment over the phone had that familiar accent. A few days later, I descended the stairs to the basement spa to find that women in white smocks were speaking Russian all around me. It was the old dilemma. I do not have the flaxen-­ haired, sloe-­ eyed Slavic look; I speak English like the American that I am; should I take these industrious women off guard by addressing them in their language? On the one hand, it seemed the courteous thing to do; I should let them know I understood, so they wouldn’t talk among themselves as if I wasn’t there. And if I spoke Russian with these hardworking women in their windowless world beneath the fashionable shops and cafés of Columbus Avenue, they might, for a moment anyway, feel a bit more at home amid the alienation of their workaday immigrant lives. –106– On the other hand, with a strong cultural us/them, Russian-­ versus-­ foreigner distinction practically built into the very structure of their language, they might grow more uneasy with me than with the other Americans they brushed up against every day, because with each Russian phrase I uttered, I would become harder and harder to classify. And I would have to answer the wearisome questions: How did you learn Russian? (In college and in Russia/Georgia/ Uzbekistan/Siberia/Brooklyn and through books, movies, television , socializing, and the husband method—but all of this is from a different story.) What made you decide to learn Russian ? (Anna Karenina was assigned reading in tenth grade, plus I had an adolescent craving for exotic experiences.) Come on, your parents must be Russian, right? (Wrong: Mom and Dad are monolingual Americans who grew up in Chicago and Newark, respectively.) Sometimes I say that my mother is Russian and that I spoke Russian as a child. It’s so much simpler. But not true. Sometimes I don’t let on that I speak Russian and conduct the whole transaction, whatever it is, in English. Lying about my mother or dissembling about myself—I can never decide which is worse. ————— Once, a stocky cab driver picked me up at my parents’ in Queens to drive me home to Manhattan. (I used to make the trip by subway, but now I get too short of breath on the stairs.) Over the radio, he chatted with his dispatcher in Ukrainian-­ accented Russian. So I spoke to him. I do not do this to “practice” my Russian. I’ve spent too much time speaking Russian, in situations where there was too much at stake, politically or personally, or where speaking Russian was the only option, or where I was being paid for my ability to speak Russian, paid handsomely, ever to consider any conversation in Russian mere practice. Switching into Russian is about entering –107– my interlocutor’s world, a world that has been partly mine too. It’s about empathy, about visiting an important but disused part of myself, and yes, about nostalgia. By the end of the ride, I knew that he was a retired Soviet Army officer (he received his tiny military pension in depreciating Ukrainian grivnias, which a friend back home signed for each month and kept for him in a growing stack of shoeboxes at a dacha outside Kharkov); that he had come to America the previous year; that he was recently divorced and being supported by his sister, who, married to a real estate developer in Jersey City, had a ten-­ year head start on him in America. As he pulled up in front of my building, he handed back my American Express card with his car service business card tucked underneath. He asked if he could pick me up the next time I went to Queens. “I’ll remember the address by heart,” he said. He seized my hand, which was still holding both cards, and pressed it to his lips. ————— The door to the little massage room closed behind me, and the masseuse, a large-­ boned woman with black eyebrows and long...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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