by LUCY MORRIS
When I was still new to Brighton Beach, a local gave me a three-word appraisal of the neighborhood: cranky, filthy, and smelly. He was right, at least, about the wind whipping the trash down the street and the pervasive foul smell — like a garbage day in July but year-round. As for the cranky, I knew I couldn’t judge: I brought my own share of moodiness to this pocket of Brooklyn each day.
The neighborhood that had a century ago been a kind of resort town for Manhattan’s bourgeoisie was, by the time I arrived there, a post-Soviet colony. High rises, socialist-inspired in their sheer scale, loomed over the boardwalk where portly men in gold chains lounged shirtless, gossiping in emphatic Russian. The neighborhood’s bodegas and produce stores, which proffered an endless bounty of snacks, were run by Latino and Korean immigrants. But everything else was Russian. The news kiosks on the street sold outdated copies of Kommersant, Pravda and Russian Cosmo. Neon signs in store windows advertised Apteka instead of Pharmacy or Mobilniy instead of Cell Phones. The ATMs at the American bank where I deposited my paychecks were programmed in Russian. Babushkas hawked appetizing pirozhki on the street in some illicit permit- free arrangement, and the grocery stores sold entire kegs of Baltika beer. Even the sushi restaurants had Russian-speaking staff.
When people stopped to ask for directions on the street, they typically did so in Russian. On the days when I was exhausted from speaking and writing in Russian, in what I thought of as my distant second language, and ready to rush back to the English-speaking part of Brooklyn where I lived, I found myself pushing all ingrained political correctness aside. This is America! I would think, and go on to offer directions in Russian just the same.
Like so many other regrettable things procured this century, I found my first real job on Craigslist. I was three weeks out of college when I submitted my resume to a retail chain in Brooklyn seeking a translator. A few days later, a man named Nikolai called and invited me in for an interview. We made arrangements, and then in the moment between our goodbyes and the click of the receiver I heard him say, a little nervously, “You do speak Russian, right?” “In principle,” I said, which was one of the very first things I ever learned to say in the language, from a Muscovite teacher familiar with how Russian negotiations worked. My interview with the company was brief, and I could tell almost immediately that I would be hired. I was led to an office behind a toy store and installed in front of a computer with 10 sample translations to complete. When that was done, I was escorted back out to the store where a series of people speaking rapid-fire Russian stopped to examine me. Standing in the Russians’ collective gaze, I suddenly became aware of how I appeared to them: frizzy Sephardic hair untamable, shoes scuffed, and inexperience manifest in nervous gestures. I looked young and unsure of myself, and I cannot say that I was trying hard not to. Later on, when I got the job and started seeing them every day, I would find myself doing things that only fortified that impression.
I did so because I quickly saw that much of my success among the Russians was inextricably linked to a kind of pitying sympathy they had for me, a representative of the culture they were both obligated to assimilate to and deeply uncomfortable with. I could detect the ways in which bits of my personal life, parlayed in casual conversation, distressed them: that I lived far away from my parents, by choice and not by virtue of money or visa restrictions; that I often skipped lunch, because I was both forgetful and broke; and that I dressed in used clothes. Their reaction to my wardrobe, in particular, frustrated and amused me as much as the fact of it did them. In my part of Brooklyn, it was considered “vintage,” but in Brighton it was embarrassing.
Over the course of my daily commute, I watched the train empty of people who spoke English and fill up with those who did not: men in pointy shoes negotiating business deals in Russian, bundled-up babushkas clucking at their bilingual grandkids, women my age texting intently in Cyrillic. I always arrived early enough to go to the Starbucks tucked between a nail salon and a bodega on Brighton Beach Avenue, not because I particularly liked the coffee but because it was my last contact with American New York for eight hours. It was the messiest Starbucks I had ever been to, as though the rush of Russians ordering drinks in their native language — bolsohi, sredniy, malenkiy instead of tall, grande, venti—overwhelmed the non-Russian staff’s capacities (and as my job often overwhelmed mine, I empathized). Sugar granules trailed across the counters, cups spilled out of the trash, and the fetor of the street seemed to push in through the closed windows. A pre-work moroseness was palpable.
Early one morning, a crowd of us stood surveying a lone banana on the floor. It had been abandoned there and smooshed underfoot, oozing out of its peel unpleasantly. “Who would leave a banana there like that?” someone asked sadly in heavily accented English. “Who wouldn’t?” someone replied. “This is Brighton Beach.”
When you spend time in an environment that is totally foreign, you become accustomed to undergoing a series of disquieting personal transformations, of experiencing life as someone different than you are at home. For most people, this happens when they travel abroad. For a year and then some, it happened to me every day, without even leaving my own borough. It wasn’t especially far from where I lived, but when I arrived in Brighton Beach every morning, even the air seemed different – muskier, heavier, as if the concentration of Slavic intensity formed a cloud over the streets.
And I was different there, too. An outfit that had seemed perfectly acceptable an hour before looked different, even to me, when I got off the B train. But the feeling ran deeper than that. For a while I tried reading ambitious books during my commute, starting with War and Peace, but the metamorphosis that occurred when I shut the book and got off the train – turning from someone highly literate into someone who struggled to spit out a sentence – was so startling that I eventually stopped reading and just stared straight ahead, alone with my English thoughts as the train inched toward a place that called itself, aptly, Little Russia.
My entire self-perception changed as soon as I got there, and the person I thought I was – the person I intended to be – evaded me. Brighton Beach was like a funhouse mirror I was forced to stand in front of daily: the reflection of myself that I encountered there was somewhat obfuscated, but still recognizably me—just familiar enough for the effect to be disconcerting.
Even my name was different during working hours. When I checked for the previous day’s mail at home every morning, the name on the envelope was Lucy Morris, but when I arrived in Brighton Beach an hour later, my name was Lusya Morrris, with a slack-jawed “ya” and an “R” that made waves.
All the identifiers attached to me in the rest of my life — a writer, a runner, an avid reader —disappeared when I arrived there. Instead, what defined me was that I was a born-and-raised American. All day, that fact seemed to hover around me, as though a caption floated above my head everywhere I went in the neighborhood, reading, cartoon-like: Amerikanka.
Although I wasn’t much for Soviet mythology and was too young to share the suspicions of the Cold War generation, there were often days that first summer when I felt like a spy, discretely observing the rites and rituals of a culture that was not my own, trying to belong as best I could for the sake of professional appearances at the expense of my personal comfort.
Pavel, a security guard at the store where I worked, liked to say that I was planning to work for the CIA one day, as though my job translating instructions to Russian Monopoly (“Be the boss who dictates the rules!” read the tagline) was a natural precursor to becoming a secret agent. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he would look at me fondly and declare, “Special Agent Lusya Morrrrris!” as though using his official English voice would make it true.
In reality, my work was nothing that would prepare me for a political career. I translated copy for each of the products our stores sold, which was posted on aggressively neon websites and supposedly featured in advertisements on public busses servicing Russian areas of New York, but since my time in these places was limited, I never actually saw them.
Every morning, a new series of Russian descriptions appeared in text boxes on the screen in front of me, and I dutifully turned them into English: descriptions of nesting dolls painted to look like American presidents (“Even Obama!!”), Cheburashka dolls that chirped unintelligible rhymes in Russian, summaries of highly Slavic parenting guides (How to Treat Your Child’s Illnesses with Honey), Gzhel porcelain teacups, and felt slippers with supposed medicinal properties. Since it was a struggle for my employers to read English, they almost never checked my work. This meant that they sometimes seemed to forget why I was there or what I was doing. They would stand by my desk and appraise me sometimes, or peer over my shoulder to see what I was typing, but they rarely asked me direct questions, and so, in turn, I rarely asked them anything either. It was as though taking a vocal interest in each other would upset the balance of mutual apathy.
But over time, in incidental bits of conversation, I gleaned some information about the company. It had been founded 15 years earlier, at an opportune moment when the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a massive influx of immigrants to New York. The founder, an enterprising and sartorially daring woman named Sasha who had studied to be an actress back in Moscow, had expanded her single store into a six-location chain with four websites. In the process, she’d managed to drive out most of the charming independent Brighton Beach bookstores and gift shops of the nineties, the kinds of places where Manhattan academics went to buy Russian literature in the original from elderly émigrés.
Sasha’s business strategies were none other than American. She read Jack Welch management books in Russian translation and attended expensive business seminars, hung motivational posters in her office and cribbed nondisclosure contracts from the Internet (I knew they were stolen, because no one at the company besides me had the English skills necessary to write them). She had scrolling LED signage installed in the store windows, ran advertisements with telegenic children on Russian TV, and started selling tchotchkes and translations of the Shopaholic books in favor of Dostoevsky.
But in spite of the American business pomp, in other ways, the company remained rigidly Russian. I was the first non-immigrant that the company had ever hired. Foreign holidays like International Women’s Day were observed—my male boss delivered a red rose to each woman in the office, even, to my surprise, to American me—and most of all, the business maintained a strong sense of family. That familial feel, which was present in all of my interactions with the Russians, was somehow comforting and foreboding at once, the way that most large families you don’t belong to can be.
Once, shortly before I left, I asked Natasha for a raise. With the business savvy of a typical American boss, she stalled. But then she said, “I can lend you some money if you need it.”
By September, what had originally been a part-time job had expanded in almost imperceptible half-hour increments into full-time work. It seemed to go dark and windy especially early in our corner of Brooklyn, positioned as we were just a block from the water. Accordingly, the seasonal displays changed and a staff of what seemed like dozens went hard at work on the store windows, bringing me signs to proofread from time to time (“Stay cozy with our handmade knit shawls!”). An outrageously sized television was placed in the store windows, broadcasting video advertisements with a series of blonde, unsmiling, high-cheekboned Slavic women in festive boa-trimmed silver costumes. The sound on the ads was muted in deference to some Brighton Beach noise ordinance, and in the absence of sound the women seemed to move their facial muscles in double time, doing their best to entice you into the store without emitting a peep.
By then, the novel excitement had worn off, and I had identified the cost of working in another world all day: a sense of deep loneliness, worsened for the fact that I was fairly socially engaged outside of Brighton Beach. I have friends, I sometimes had the urge to tell the people who gathered for intimate conversation around me while I sat attempting to appear occupied rather than excluded. There are people who actually like having conversations with me.
And yet I was hesitant to start conversations myself. I could speak with my coworkers competently, but I was shy on account of my rapidly deteriorating grammar and the space between each word I required in order to locate the next one. I wasn’t sure who dreaded the time it took for me to utter a competent sentence more: my Russian conversation partners or me. My reading and written Russian were the best they had ever been, but my expectations that working among Russian speakers would keep my spoken language sharp proved unrealistic. The official office language was the pidgin Russian of Brighton Beach, a peculiar blend of accents owing to the neighborhood’s mix of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Kazakhs, for whom Russian was often a second language (and since it was mine too, these were the coworkers with whom I got along best).
I developed the immigrant habit of slipping into English for a word or two in the middle of a Russian sentence, but through placement and accent letting it take on a sound of its own, “sendvich,” instead of “sandwich.” And with the sense of embarrassment that often accompanied my workplace exchanges, I once tried to explain away a minor cold by saying I was “under the weather,” only I couldn’t think of a Russian idiomatic equivalent so I translated it literally: preposition, noun, pod pogodoi. I was met with a look of bewilderment and some trepidation, as though I had decided to recite absurdist poetry impromptu.
It was this language barrier, born of the discomfort all parties felt speaking their non-native language, that plagued me most. It not only distanced me from my coworkers, but alienated me from my own sense of self. My identity as a talkative, highly verbal person was miles away from the reserved person I was in Brighton Beach, speaking as little as possible, depending instead upon knowing smiles and submissive nods.
It made me constantly suspicious that I was somehow the butt of a joke I couldn’t understand, and I was also constantly afflicted with a low-grade sensation that I was somehow on display. For a long time, I assumed this was because my office doubled as the break room, and people passed in and out all day with their lunches, tea, and small talk. Later on, once I left, I could see that there was another less visible source for this sense of vulnerability. As the token American, I was something of a curiosity. I was responsible for another role that I had not anticipated or consciously signed on for, something I couldn’t list on my resume or really use anywhere else: the duty of explaining, when conversation did extend my way, what life was like for me, the only American, and as the implication seemed to be, by extension for all Americans.
“What do you eat if you don’t eat meat?” my coworkers crowded around to ask when they found out I was a vegetarian. “How come you don’t live with your parents?” I was asked to account for certain aspects of my culture that I wasn’t exactly clear on myself. “What is the deal with Lady Gaga?” they wanted to know, or, “What does Limp Bizkit mean?” They were puzzled that I snacked on dried fruit and nuts, which I had been taught was healthy. “What are you, Lusya?” they asked, “A squirrel?”
But even more tiring was the struggle to translate my workday experiences and exchanges into ones that my friends, the ones working nonprofit and restaurant jobs back in English-speaking New York, would understand. Eventually, it was this second shift that weighed on me, that I couldn’t, for instance, solicit someone’s take on a remark my boss had made without translating it first. I knew this was good for my language skills, would maybe lead to better paying work someday, but I was also a little bit miserable.
I began surveying my colleagues, searching for faces I might turn into friends. Everyone was older and didn’t directly address me much, especially the women, so I looked to the men. We were a motley crew, crammed into a low-ceilinged office with yellowing walls. As I slowly learned about my colleagues’ disparate backgrounds— technical degrees, factory work, teaching college — it became clear that often the only thing they had in common was their shared Soviet roots and subsequent immigrant experience, which was still more than I had in common with them.
There was Igor, who occasionally asked my opinion, made good use of his limited English to cobble together Dick Cheney jokes, and seemed more educated and worldly than the others. He had a kind-faced friend named Alyosha, a Gogolian figure with an oversized overcoat and gut, a sparkle of gold teeth, and the air of a civil servant about him. And there was Anastasia, the kind of Russian woman that inspired the folktale, “The Princess Who Never Smiled” — emblematic of the grimness of Russian literature that had initially drawn me to the culture years earlier. The three of them were – for the time – the best of friends. But I was confident that if only I could work up the courage to offer some sentences, I would be able to ingratiate myself. In the kind of weirdly mundane fantasy life that often accompanies periods of loneliness, I imagined going on cigarette breaks with them – even though I was not a smoker – or joining them for lunchtime pierogies at the Café Arbat.
But most often, I worked with Lyonya. He had hooded eyes, sharp Slavic features and skin so pale it all conspired to make him look exotic, a hint of the Mongol about him. By virtue of him being the person I sat nearest to, I supposed he was my closest friend, but it was clear that he did not share this belief.
Lyonya had been the underdog of the office before I arrived, and once I came, instead of conspiring with me, he turned on me. He specialized in a kind of undermining that never reflected all that well on him. He got picked on for not eating meat, something he was fiercely proud of in the face of office jesters who urged, “Just a little bit of hotdog, it’s barely meat!” But when he found out I'd been a vegetarian for fifteen years, he immediately distanced himself from his principles. “Well, at least I eat fish,” he said.
Winter in Brighton Beach was heralded by the installation of a shelf by the door, where the Russians traded in their boots for heels and polished loafers when they arrived each morning. Meanwhile, my poorly-made leather boots were falling apart, revealing the sole to be little more than a layer of cardboard and peeling rubber. “Nice shoes,” Lyonya snickered. “Are those new?” Since Orthodox Christmas comes on the heels of New Year’s in early January, our holiday rush arrived late. When I asked for vacation, my boss asked when exactly “American Christmas” was. Again I was reminded of the gulf between the worlds I lived and worked in: even the calendar was different.
Nonetheless, I remained. In the tiny, fluorescent-lit office where I spent my days, the thermostat did not ascend past 60 degrees. Lyonya rubbed his hands together for warmth over his keyboard. I sat with my feet pressed against the cozy computer hard drives. We all wore hats and nursed hot beverages. The click of the electric kettle, or chainik, signifying that the water had reached a boil was the sound of the season, our own kind of carol.
The midwinter months dragged on: I seemed to always have my hands on the keys and eyes on the screen while the Russians passed around me. They bustled and lurked, yelled maddeningly and conspired in whispers, they laughed and they ate. An employee somehow cut her foot on glass one day. “Where’s the vodka?” asked the coworker tasked with bandaging her up and calming her down.
Another day, a different girl cut her hand. “Why isn't life easier?'” she wondered through tears, holding her hand under running water. “Come on,” said another Russian impatiently. “Who would want to live an easy life?” When they turned to me for my confirmation, I conceded that this was a fair point but I was not — and still am not — sure that it is.
The office was small and windowless and closed to the natural elements, but it hummed and swelled with philosophical questions and spiritual contemplations, with mixed-language idioms and jokes. On break one afternoon, I sipped my coffee and evaluated the state of my nails. “Lusya,” said a woman I was certain I had never been formally introduced to. “What are you thinking about so seriously?” Moved by the Russian spirit of things, I answered with seriousness, “Life.” The woman, who was somewhat brusque, flashed her gold teeth at me in approval.
Over lunch, conversations of similar import commenced. Was the lychee fruit related to the leech? Was couscous the American kasha? Was being married on a computer game like The Sims or Second Life really so different from being married in real life? (Pavel assured me it was not.) Were we all just controlled by aliens? Where could you find a decent banya in this town, one where you were allowed to sip beer while you steamed? These questions were not of real consequence to me in my American life, but I found I increasingly wanted to know the answers just the same. I was still quiet, but I listened and understood more.
My Amerikanka status meant I was exempted from the Friday morning staff meetings even the janitors were required to participate in, and no one offered me the USSR t-shirt that served as the informal company uniform. I was glad to be free of these obligations, but it added to my sense of being an outsider, which I felt was obscurely good for my character but which also made me constantly uncomfortable.
There was also a strict militancy to the environment that frightened me, as the product of a highly forgiving value system. My boss, with his stern, unsmiling tones and crisp army green suits terrified me; I sometimes actually shook when he approached. On bad days, Russian sounded Germanic to me in its harshness, all hacked up “kh” sounds and endlessly crescendoing intonation as speakers inched toward their point—a climax I dreaded, as it meant I’d have to respond. A couple coworkers confided that they had learned English by playing World of Warcraft and watching movies like The Godfather. This was evident in both their vocabulary and odd sense of chivalry. One day, the women were locked out of the office so that the men could catch a mouse that had been spotted near my desk. “Lusya,” my boss commanded. “Stand back. There will be blood.”
In such moments of high drama, I forgot that the loud talk of my Russian world concealed the fact that there were actually few solid rules, far fewer, really, than in the progressive part of Brooklyn where I lived. The law of Brighton Beach was that there wasn’t one: you could do whatever you wanted, more or less; a hangover or a desire to go to the beach was, after an unconvincing sigh or mild berating, a perfectly legitimate reason not to come to work. Another advantage of life among Russians, as any reader of their literature knows, is that Russians are very good at understanding chaos, the dramatics of love and family, and personal crises. Those abound in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in particular, and that spring, when what should have been an amicable breakup ballooned into precisely one of these kinds of crises for me, I found that that Russian sensitivity to chaos was just as evident in modern life.
Returning to New York to confront the ruins of my relationship after a weeklong vacation I’d taken to distract myself from it, I decided I had to leave again immediately. I was prepared to work off-site. “Telecommuting,” I told them as if I myself had attended one of Natasha’s American business seminars, “It’s the cutting edge in American management.” But I was also prepared for the likelihood that I could be fired, and in the chaos of the moment, this foolishly did not scare me. But to my surprise, instead of chastising me, the Russians swung into action, wading into my mysterious American world with advice to restore order. When I announced that I was moving in with three male roommates in a yet-to-be gentrified neighborhood, I could actually hear people suck in their breath. Several people suggested I move to Brighton Beach instead. “Don’t be ridiculous,” my boss said after demanding to know how much rent at my new place was. “We’ll find you a nice studio here for $500. You walk to work. You won’t even need a Metrocard.”
I didn’t move to Brighton Beach, but for a while after that, moved by a newfound interest in me, my boss decided to try convincing me to work longer hours, ideally ten hours a day, six days a week. This was, to be fair, the schedule the Russian immigrants worked. But for various reasons, chief among them my meager pay and a desire to have some semblance of a social life, I resisted. I spent a week refusing to submit a new schedule. “Ten hours—it’s impossible,” I said, raising my voice on the last word, nevozmozhno, for emphasis. “I have classes, I have another job, I have things to do,” trying a new excuse every day in the hope that one would strike my boss as sufficiently convincing, but he wouldn’t relent. “Well, what’s wrong with nine and a half hours?” he asked with a sigh, as though I was depriving him of much more than a few hundred words about Dr. Spock books.
I was annoyed by our negotiations and so I fumed to a few sympathetic friends after work. During the day I found I was easily carried away by Russian moral meditation, but when I went home at night, I could be just as easily swayed by American indignation.
In quieter, introspective moments, I knew that something about hovering between these two worlds was an effective strategy for me, since I was not exactly required to fully participate in either one. Friends chalked up the trouble I had been having articulating myself lately to working in Russian all day, rather than my exhaustion from trying to find footing in a new home and routine. The Russians attributed my ineloquence and oddities, the way I showed up for work unkempt with circles beneath my eyes, to the inexplicable intricacies of being American. “Oh, Lusya,” they sometimes said as they looked at me, shaking their heads as if my very presence confounded them, but it always felt more respectful than mean.
In fact, the only things I then felt confident of – and in some sense responsible for – were the words I translated, a source of comfort I could not locate in any other part of my life. At that time I was translating descriptions of textbooks, and the words I dealt with were ones like razvitiye (development) and voobrazheniye (imagination), words I rarely needed in conversation but to which I nonetheless felt intimately connected—obliged to show up and render them in English, turning the Russian sounds over silently in my mouth like they were the one thing of which I was certain.
By the time that transitory period was over, the Russians seemed more comfortable with me, as though the discovery of my romantic problems was something with which they could finally identify, something shared and universal. The men, a little more flirtatious since knowing I had become single, started inquiring about my beer of choice and the women, who occasionally asked me to analyze text messages from American love interests, also asked to borrow ten bucks here and there. I knew I was more or less part of this sprawling Slavic family—a distant cousin maybe, but one they were nonetheless happy to see.
They enjoyed sharing with me their vast repertoire of Jew jokes, not maliciously, just as though they believed that as a Jew I might especially understand and relate to them. When I could not always bring myself to laugh uproariously, they thought I might not understand. “You see,” Pavel explained with patience, “It’s funny because there is a belief that the Jewish people are very stupid and greedy.” After a pause during which I tried to let my silence convey my disapproval, he asked breezily if “Hava Nagila” was my favorite song.
Around that time, my officemate Lyonya was replaced by Vanya, who looked about fifteen but was actually, at twenty-two, exactly my age. There were a lot of strange things about Vanya, but perhaps the strangest one of all is that he quickly became my closest confidant. We were odd kinds of foils for each other during those months: almost never in the same mood or mental place, but somehow bonded together during the forty hours we spent each week in chairs side by side. He got into a new relationship the same week I ended one. “Girl,” I heard him tell his beloved Sasha over the phone, “you want me to bring a bottle of champagne tonight? Tell you what: I’ll bring two.” I ground my teeth and rolled my eyes at his naivety. But then, as the days grew long and warm, I found myself starting a new relationship just as Vanya called his off. “All these Brighton girls,” he complained, “They just wanna get married.” Again I rolled my eyes, but this time, it was at what I thought was his excessive cynicism.
The fact that Vanya had no years on me did not stop him from dispensing all kinds of advice. “Listen,” he began one day, apropos of nothing in particular. “All I’m saying is that a person’s education is never over — and I’m not talking about school.” And with all the wisdom garnered in his twenty-plus lengthy years: “Every problem in life can be solved with math except for women.” I could not really fathom what he meant by this, and math was not exactly my strong suit, but I nodded in agreement. He took particular joy in sharing, unsolicited, his courtship experience, with plenty of pointed pauses, almost as if he expected me to be taking notes. “When I turned nineteen,” he once began what I suspected would be a lengthy lecture, “I was just ready to settle down.”
In late April, Vanya embarked on a road trip to Coachella with a van full of other Brighton Beach Russians and returned with a new interest in jam bands and marijuana. He mulled over the idea of growing dreadlocks and made some mockups of the new look in Photoshop. I encouraged him to go for it, at least so the office attention to my hair, which the girls prodded me to straighten, might divert to him, but I was also fascinated by this turn of events. Vanya, who I had thought of as being entirely unlike me in his Russianness, would soon be indistinguishable from my own acoustic guitar playing stoner roommates. I was relieved to have a coworker with a shared set of cultural references, but I was also caught off guard. I was accustomed by now to being the only American, and my fixed status during working hours made it easier for me to experiment with new roles in the rest of my life. I could drink too much at night, go home with the wrong people, and spend too much on cab rides home in early morning hours, but when I showed up for work none of that mattered, I was simply the Amerikanka.
Early in the summer, Vanya and I started propping the office door open and the sunlight that flooded our space noticeably improved our spirits. I could now translate without thinking too hard, and instead my mind filled up with the details of new burgeoning relationships that seemed immensely significant, the kind I would be destined to remember for the rest of my life. In truth, I have already forgotten the details of those, can hardly even conjure up some of the faces. But Vanya — his tight curls, penchant for plum wine, and eclectic taste in music — remains as clear as ever.
In early June, one year into my stint in Brighton Beach, I decided I was going to quit my job and leave New York for a while. My latest entanglement was with someone far away and the thought of another city summer lost to office life filled me with dread. But every time I convinced myself that leaving was the best course of action, I was confronted by some feature of Russian life from which I was reluctant to walk away: the tradition of buying food for everyone else on one’s own birthday, occasional champagne afternoons, and heated discussions of everything from UFOs to Greek myths.
Which is why it took me two full months to quit. I began by ambitiously announcing I was moving to Asia, which was a vague plan I had for the following fall. “What are you going to do?” my boss asked me quizzically when I informed him of this. “Learn Chinese?” As if this was actually an insane thing to do, as if he never read the news and could not see that Chinese was now, far more than Russian, the language to be learning.
Soon he dismissed the idea entirely. “So you’re going to Israel,” he informed me with a bemused grin, as if this was the only country a Jew might think to go. “But when will you come back?” I told him with unnecessary defiance, out of some adolescent principle to prove that my ill-considered decision was the right one, that I was leaving for good. He smiled merrily and gave me a look of the kind I was then learning people give during the early stages of relationships, when they’re skirting genuine feeling. “We’ll see,” that look said.
By my final weeks in late July, New York had become unbearable, like it is every summer, and my usually peaceful commute turned rowdy as the B train filled up with teenagers en route to the beach. I counted the days until my departure anxiously, eager to escape. But as my last day approached, I found myself telling my new boyfriend, on a tipsy humid night, that I wished someone could say “Lusya” the way Russians do. He tried valiantly but I shook my head; it was in the softest of spaces between the “s” and “ya.”
I woke up some weekend mornings with Vanya’s favorite Pink Floyd song in my head, the one he used to play on repeat for hours at a time. I thought of the way we both confidently sang along to the line, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as though either of us — immersed in our respective American and Russian worlds — had any knowledge of English ways at all.
My boss announced suddenly one day during my last week that I was “the best,” and I considered that boyfriends saying it never sounded as good as when he did, his “the” sounding more like “they” and the intonation of the second word rising out of his mouth like smoke. I wondered if I would ever work somewhere like this again. Some days I hoped I never would. Some days I couldn’t imagine anything else.
Unlike the straight tracks that lead to most subway stations in New York, the trains in Brighton Beach swing toward you around a sharp bend. The B trains are the older kind adorned with faded graffiti and out-of-date ads, and their approach always reminded me of the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, just down the boardwalk from my office. There is the sound of rickety wood tracks and a whoosh of air and the moment when the angle allows you to see both the conductor in the front car and the tail end of the last one simultaneously.
It’s not often that you see the start and end of trains, or of anything else really, all at once. I remember my interview on that muggy late May day, but I do not remember my first day on the job or even, more recently, my last one, in that case because there never really was one. My boss called a few weeks after I left New York to ask if I would work remotely, the telecommuting idea having apparently made an impression. A year later, when I left to go freelance, I just faded away; the Russians stopped offering me work at the same exact time I stopped asking for it, as if by unspoken mutual agreement. Though I had spent two years insisting I was distinctly different from the Russians, in the end, we found ourselves in sync.
What remains most clear to me now are the many hours — days in all — that I spent waiting for that B train to appear around the bend: in lots of rain and some shine, among beach girls in rompers and aging Russian men in unbuttoned shirts, and not infrequently, completely alone. I tried in vain to listen for waves from the elevated platform and saw sunsets over the high rises that looked straight out of the suburbs of Moscow. I sent text messages in Cyrillic by accident. I quaked in my shoes, dreading asking for vacation in a language I didn’t feel I understood, and smiled when it was granted to me freely—when I had to concede that the Russians were so much more generous than I ever suspected, for reasons that were mostly of my own manufacturing.
These visions of what I saw around me obscure exactly what happened to me in between: the person I was when I arrived unkempt on that late May afternoon, and the person I was by the time I left. Just as it is impossible to know how certain scars will heal, the indelible impressions a place and a people can leave become apparent only later. Occasionally, I still find myself wondering in certain situations what the Russians would advise me to do. As I knot my laces, I contemplate if it is time to polish my shoes, or, reaching into a bag of almonds, if nuts really are as healthy as Americans claim. And while I almost never have occasion to ride the B train anymore, there are moments when I think of doing it anyway: of just getting on and taking it straight to the end of the line to find out what I might see and who might be waiting — that now-lost Amerikanka version of myself, perhaps — when I emerge on the other end.
Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about living alone.
"Sedulous" - Sebastien Tellier (mp3)
"Cochon Ville" - Sebastien Tellier (mp3)
The new album from Sebastien Tellier is entitled My God Is Blue.