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Entries in lucy morris (19)

Tuesday
Jul032012

In Which She Has Begun To Leave New York

This is the first in a two part series. You can read the second part here.

Dances With Something

by LUCY MORRIS

For a long time I had a theory that if the three central components of your daily life are your job, friends, and romantic preoccupations, you are allowed to fuck up at one of the three at a time. If you are happy with your community and how you spend your days, it’s okay to act impulsively in love. If your relationships of all kinds are fairly stable, you are permitted some imprudence with work.

I am not by nature a reckless person. But I found that recklessness can be learned, and it’s useful to experiment with it from time to time, to see what it’s like, to see what might happen.

If you’re interested in parting with some portion of your sense of responsibility, there is no better place to do so than this. The trains run forever; you can stay out all night. If you are low on money, you can eat Trader Joe’s samples for dinner. I went with a friend to an absinthe tasting-combo-singles event to get buzzed for free one summer evening, although neither of us was actually single and we were also underage. I plus-oned to open bar parties and wandered into Chelsea gallery openings to snack on hors d'oeuvres and to feel, however briefly, a thrilling proximity to prosperity. But if the opposite of consumption is what you’re after, that’s also possible: it’s amazingly easy to seamlessly disappear from someone’s life here, and this, too, was something I saw fit to try, vanishing off other people’s personal grids, vacating any common ground we might have once shared — coffee shops, subway stations, whole neighborhoods — leaving behind no evidence that I had ever been there at all.

I did this for the reason I did many things in New York: to see if I could. Has there ever been worse reasoning? But when you find yourself, for instance, at a hotel rooftop party you’ve snuck into, leaning over the railing, your face looming out over the city with the sense that all eight million inhabitants are in your field of vision, and there is a drink in your hand and a friend by your side, it is difficult to see any kind of consequences. You think that if a city can belong to you — and in moments like this, that’s how it appears — then anything, any wish or ambition or person, can also be yours.

+

Each time I moved to a new neighborhood here, the first thing I did was extricate my sneakers and shorts from their boxes and go running. I didn’t run particularly fast, nor for any duration — just enough to stake out the pieces of Brooklyn and then Manhattan that I could identify as mine, even though the unacknowledged end of that thought was always for now. Although I always left, the routes of those runs remain indelible, occupying space in my memory I’d rather reserve for the Russian vocabulary my job requires, some real knowledge of American history, or my myriad Internet passwords.

These paths — up and down 86th Street and later Eastern Parkway, around Alphabet City and along the East River — are emblematic of all the time I have spent in New York, busily accumulating an array of urban knowledge that will be entirely useless anywhere else: mental maps of cafes and library branches in the event of a Wi-Fi emergency, express versus local train stops, tiny triangular city parks ideal for spontaneous sit-downs to call your parents, recalibrate. The legend in my mind denotes the grocery stores with the cheapest canned beans and pasta, the streets most pleasant to walk down at different hours of the day, the bars with the very best happy hour deals. Somewhere up there, too, I keep a mental schedule of regular free museum hours, monthly dance parties and a variety of other events that, more often than not, I didn’t actually attend.

+

During my first several summers here, I went frequently to the Forever 21 in Union Square, both because it was heavily air-conditioned and to try to superficially recreate myself. This was a practice I continued for years, accruing a range of unwearable rompers and crop tops and earrings so long they got caught in my hair. I stopped doing this at around the same time that I started going to bars, which I soon found offer another venue for camping beneath an air vent and temporarily reinventing yourself. The problems with this latter practice are well established but they are also less tangible — at the very least, they take up no space in your closet.

As I pack now, dumping drawers onto my bed for sifting, culling a crate of shoes, I see a collection not of things I necessarily loved but rather of trends that were: skinny jeans, pointy-toed flats, off-the-shoulder jersey dresses, above-the-knee boots, lace tops, high-waisted skirts, neon blouses, boat shoes. In these garments — a dress I recall being impatiently unzipped by someone else’s hands, a torn t-shirt advertising some once beloved band, a necklace I nervously fastened in advance of a job interview — I see vague glimpses of the person I was when I wore them.

For the most part that person was very young. By that I mean the kind of young where it is possible to be so happy — say, on speedy late night train rides over the Manhattan Bridge with the city shining before or ahead — that you suddenly find yourself in the realm of the sad, the good feeling flushing over you unexpectedly beginning to curdle.

+

The currency of much of this period was whatever we could trade in: discounted meals at the Greenwich Village restaurant where someone worked, free drinks at the Brooklyn bar someone else presided over, a spare desk at a Soho office when a boss was out of town. We cut each other's bangs, passed around clothes we no longer wanted, shared prescription pills, proofread each other’s cover letters. I cooked many dinners in exchange for company, and appeared on just as many other doorsteps with bottles of cheap wine for friends taking their turn at the stove.

Friends now seems entirely too insufficient a word for the people with whom I’ve spent these years. Catherine and I met often for dinner, wandering around Manhattan hunting for the right restaurant, the search mainly a pretext for prolonging the pleasure of each other’s company. Sarah had a spare set of my keys and came to stay a few nights during a period when I was re-learning how to sleep alone. One long spring, I had Jeanne over for dinner every Monday, and after we ate we’d linger for hours in my living room, facing each other from opposite ends of the big purple couch, evading whatever it was we were then evading. I met Zara at Botanica many Tuesdays after work; at some point when my employer became erratic about paying, she offered to lend me money, and I didn’t take it but the gesture sat with me for a long time. On a January evening in the middle of a breakup I took a taxi I couldn’t afford to Williamsburg, because I couldn’t bear to cry on the L, but I also couldn’t afford, I felt, not to be sitting in Jen and Tag’s living room eating pizza, waiting for what was wrong to right itself.

We hand-delivered pints of soup for throats that hurt and handles of gin for hearts that did. These were the people I listed as emergency contacts, to whom I was connected by constant phone calls and emails, offering and receiving advice when it was merited, consolation when it was called for, and a host of other forms of help and encouragement along the way.

Some nights we danced for hours. “Do you like zees?” a Turkish marine asked me on the roof of Brass Monkey one memorable night as we all turned our twisting bodies to watch a couple having cinematic sex in a window of The Standard. I locked eyes with the friend I’d come with. There was already someone whose bed I could stumble into at the end of the night if I wanted, but half the reason we were out was to stall the fact of that, to instead be around people with whom all gestures were insignificant, to lose ourselves, together, in crowds of those entirely unlike us. “Not really,” I told the marine, and a few hours later the bed I stumbled into was my own, my friend safely asleep on the floor next to me.

Some afternoons following those sorts of nights we’d get sleepily stoned in Prospect Park and lay out on blankets, mindlessly chewing on chives and other plants I insisted I could identify from a foraging tour I’d once taken there. There was no shortage of things to do together: forays to the Met, afternoons at cafes, outdoor movies. But, in truth, the very best times I had in New York were at kitchen tables in apartments across the boroughs, scarfing down pasta and greens with my friends.

+

The most worthwhile things I did here were always the ones I was unaware of even participating in. I barely remember the concerts or parties I declared were going to be “incredible,” the art exhibits or author readings I proclaimed “life-changing,” or even the minor triumphs of early adulthood — locating a good doctor, deciphering tax documents, learning when and how to quit a job. In the end, these achievements all paled in comparison to establishing relationships of the kind that allow you to learn, for a second and more perfect time, what it means to be family.

It’s true that I likely could have done this anywhere, with other groups of people, but the fact was that I didn’t, I chose New York, and it is for this reason, not the presence of relatives here nor my familiarity with its grids and operations, that the city has ascended past other places I have lived and, almost without me noticing, rendered itself home.

You can read the second part of Dances With Something here.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording and a writer living in New York for the moment. This is the first in a two part series. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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Wednesday
May092012

In Which We Barely Bring A Change Of Clothes

Goodbye Station

by LUCY MORRIS

I was up at Grand Central the other day and walked by the line of airport shuttles on 42nd Street, where I more than once deposited different boyfriends and where they more than once deposited me. I remembered in an instant the individual goodbyes we exchanged and the looks in their eyes — green, green, brown, brown — in those moments, and seeing my own eyes — blue reflected back in them.

That was all very good and edifying in its own way: there are nuances of life you are unable to sense until you’ve intertwined yours with someone else’s for some period. But none of it was as good and edifying as what’s been happening the last few months: there are just as many nuances you are unable to sense until you’ve made your life solely yours, assembled a set of routines and rituals and plans for which you alone are responsible.

I want to say all of this comes as a surprise but I’m afraid it doesn’t. I think deep down I always suspected it could get better than those greetings, those goodbyes, whatever pleasures came in between.

This is not to say I assumed it actually would.

+

For a while late last decade, Micah and I lived out at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn in a house crowded with other people’s furniture. We were legally prohibited from painting the walls or getting rid of the excess of knick-knacks because of some issue with the original owner’s will. It was a material abundance we were too young to deserve, to know what to do with. Sometimes when we didn’t want to do the dishes we’d go to the basement to dig out the silver cutlery of the elderly woman who had lived — and died — there before us.

I was too small for the size of our house, for the seriousness of Micah’s intentions, but maintained a steadfast ignorance of these facts, a quiet campaign of avoidance that I assumed was essential to all relationships. During the years we were together, I hardly went out at all, as if I was afraid that seeing what else and who else was out there might make it impossible to go home again.  In the end, it turned out I was right. Once I did start going out and seeing what else was there, I could not return to that house near the Verrazano, to Micah’s overwhelming affections, to our bed with the misshapen blue sheets we struggled to fit to the mattress each morning.

When I moved out, I found that everything I owned fit into the back of an SUV. This confirmation of my material compactness should have been a relief but instead I found it alarming, as if it indicated some other insignificance or inexperience. It seemed that in the absence of a love that had swelled up into all the corners of my being, into all the hours of my day, I was highly portable, my existence in one place — or with one person — more or less temporary.

Having a major space in your life suddenly vacated is no rarefied tragedy: it happens to most people, and likely more than once. But it takes a long time to fill that expanse inside you again, the minutes and habits and parts of yourself that used to be shared. This did not bother me then and it does not now: it’s a fact of a life in which you choose to love and I would not choose another kind.

+

The appeal of what came next was not that it was better — I knew from the start it wouldn’t be — but rather that it wasn’t as big, that it would in fact be so small, so insufficient, I could start restocking my life with other things again. I took long walks alone around the northern edges of Prospect Park the summer after I left. Everything felt simultaneously new and rusty: a rerouted commute on the same trains, the choreography of cooking old meals in a new kitchen, pacing unfamiliar streets until they became known. I was suddenly aware, too, that there was now a whole variety of experimental forms of pleasure available to me, minor and major, risky and not.

One of these, located somewhere on the axis of minor and risky, was Jonah. If there can be a single explanation for the trajectory of any love, it goes like this: it’s fun until it isn’t. Jonah was no exception.

The last time I recall feeling fondly towards him, early one evening in late summer, we were outside drinking Red Stripe and playing Scrabble. Jonah won the game by a huge margin and then confessed to cheating throughout, but with a grin I had noticed he employed specifically in instances where he wanted his behavior excused, not just with me but with everyone: his friends, family, employers, store clerks. It was an effective expression — humbly crooked but with eyebrows raised as if to say, “How could you not forgive me?” — but once you caught onto it, it was hard not to observe the frequency with which it appeared, and then not to wonder why he was constantly in need of forgiveness, or doing things that required it, however trivial.

I allowed him this for the reason I allowed him many things: it made me wonder. But after a while, to no one’s surprise — including my own — wonderment ceased to be enough, started, in actuality, to seem like an absurd premise for spending time with someone. We continued to become less tender to each other, until we were only capable of being pleasant after we had sex — although during the act we both managed to persist with our minor cruelties.

On another outdoor night, one of the last we spent lodged against each other in the hammock with string imprints forming on our cheeks, a few bats swooped down near our heads and we yelped simultaneously. I remember how embarrassed we both were in the moments afterward at our show of fright. In the whole history of bad things people have done to one other there is no accounting for what we choose to be ashamed of. There is also no accounting for what we choose to forgive.

On that same night, after the bats, I recall whispering, “I love you,” in the way I now can see many people do, when they have run out of other things to say to each other, or stopped looking for more precise ways of relating. But I knew as I said it that it was the only time I had ever lied about loving someone, and although I have done many other things wrong since — left a whole trail of different errors in my wake — I have never again done that.

+

Peter’s bed was so big I could lie across it horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, and still not reach the edges. I was very tired when I first arrived in it, but simultaneously having a lot of trouble sleeping. The exhaustion was a broad one, an encompassing uncertainty that made me lethargic and unproductive during the day but also unable to put my mind to rest when I turned off the lights. Peter’s main allure at this particular moment was that his sleep schedule was compatible with mine. We spent three weeks staying up all night talking and then more than a year trying to replicate the intimacy of those weeks, and for the most part, to everyone’s surprise — including our own — we actually succeeded.

In the months I spent camped out in his attic apartment, I rarely brought a change of clothes with me or used his shower, but I was closer to him than I’d ever been to someone else. As happens when you feel unchallenged in other aspects of your life, I rerouted my energies into conducting the relationship as a kind of experiment, testing out behaviors like jealousy and anger, from which I had so far mostly abstained. I had a hypothesis, which I announced to him often, that the ability to exercise these latent emotional muscles was proof of a deeper bond. This was met with minimal reception and was also never proven correct or incorrect, but it was certainly facilitated by the fact that we could sleep in the same bed after arguments without even noticing the other person was present.

Late in winter we both got sick for a month, shared a Neti Pot, let cough drop wrappers and Advil bottles and Kleenex pile up around us. We watched movies to rest our voices but could never make it through one without pausing to talk. Then we got better; it got warm. On weekday afternoons we went to a public water park to float down the lazy river while listening to the oldies station, toes hooked around each other’s tubes to keep from drifting. By then I had begun to worry that the lazy river days were symptomatic of something bigger, that Peter was in some abstract sense slow moving and was reducing my rate of acceleration by proxy — I would have generally preferred to swim laps — but our conversations were actually so rapid I could never figure out where to stop them.

I knew well the sheets on the cot that served as his couch; he slept there, not in his bed, when I wasn’t around. When I talk to him these days, I know he is lying on that cot, and I feel guilty — and then I don’t — for the excess of my own bed, the room I now have to spread out, how I wouldn’t exchange it for anything — or anyone — anymore.

+

The month or two that Ryan spent pursuing me, I spent much of my time hiding out in a large store in the Flatiron District where my cell phone got no reception. There I could thumb through racks of dresses I’d never wear and delay confronting his attempts to win me over. I put it off not because I didn’t enjoy them, but because I did, a great deal, and this was so unfamiliar a sensation to me, so unlike my customary ambivalence that I found it almost physically uncomfortable. To convince myself it was a good use of my time, I usually needed a drink in hand when I called him, leftover party gin in leftover plastic party cups I stacked on my windowsill after we hung up.

On New Year’s, after the countdown and the kiss, we locked ourselves in the bathroom at a party to take a nap. The tiles on the floor were the same as the ones in my mother’s house; my eyes blurred as I studied them. I slept with my head on Ryan’s hip. The rivets of his jeans left an imprint on my forehead.

Some time later we crash danced around my tiny bedroom, unsettling my precarious piles of books, knocking the cheap garment rack that served as my closet at an angle. We had a lot of fun together and not much else, which was the kind of less consuming experience I had believed I wanted but turned out was probably constitutionally incapable of. We fell asleep on top of the covers, this time with his chin on my shoulder, and in the morning we had sex.

“What do you want to do today?” Ryan asked afterwards, pulling on a t-shirt, and in response, without thinking even for a second, I said, “I think we should break up and also we should go to the Met.” Which is exactly what we did. Standing side by side in the American Wing, it was like nothing had ever happened, which seemed like a good sign. But generally this — the suggestion that nothing has changed, when things substantially have—is actually the deadliest sign of all.

Afterward he called me from California to say he wished I was there, which was what we both seemed to think I wanted to hear, but in that moment I realized it was not, that I did not in fact want to be in California at all, I wanted to be where I was: slightly but forgivably late for dinner with a friend across town, sprawled on my bed staring into the apartment across the street. This was a sight I now confronted more than any one person’s face and in truth I found it, in its total impenetrability, more compelling than the eyes and features I used to examine so often. Ryan said he had to go at the exact same moment I did. “I’ll call you later,” he said, and he didn’t, and I was surprised to discover how relieved I was by this, how much more I immediately liked him knowing that we were no longer in any way obligated to each other.

By now I hardly had any real obligations to anyone beyond whomever I promised to meet for a drink, go on a walk with, have over for a meal. I had expected to feel unmoored in the absence of a major commitment, but instead I felt flush with time, the very best kind of currency. I dispensed it freely to the people whose company I most appreciated, and in a very limited way to everyone else. I found this significantly more fulfilling—in reality it made me far less lonely — than I had when all the free hours of my day were accounted for, pre-allocated, in large part, to someone else.

+

On the days when the past sneaks up on me in a song or smell or unanticipated flash of nostalgia, on those occasions when I cannot help looking back, it is difficult not to be upset with myself for how I spent the first couple years of this decade and the last few of the previous one. I was frivolous with my time and money and body and energy during what could feasibly be the only period in my life when my time and money and body and energy are wholly mine and unshared.

By some combination of fortune and miracle, I managed to remain employed the whole time, avoid major financial trouble, and not get pregnant, in spite of expending the absolute minimum effort to prevent any of these undesirable outcomes. Perhaps it is as simple as this: there are periods in life when this is the most you can hope for, the absence of select failures, rather than solid accomplishments.

It is good to have this knowledge but what’s better still is exiting that kind of period and entering, by a similar combination of luck and chance, a new one.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

Images by Louise Bourgeois.

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Tuesday
Apr242012

In Which We Knot Our Laces And Polish Our Shoes

Amerikanka

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.

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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.

photo by Paul Lowry

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.

photo by vige

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.