TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE
by Diane Sigman
At first Brent-the-American did not like my hair, which was cut short, and its natural dark brown color. He wanted a wife with long curling blond hair, so I gave him one. I grew my hair long and dyed it yellow, then got a permanent for the curls. My short free hair is dry now, and looks like a Lithuanian cafeteria cook's. Brent-the-American, my husband, likes my hair now. He thinks he can set his big fingers into this American hair and grab! Boom! He thinks he can hold me here.
I have another friend here like me. Irina. We met in English class. The teacher frowned when he saw us together, then suggested we sit apart. Practice your English! he ordered, pretending to be friendly.
I turned to the Mexican man next to me. Our accents made comprehension mutually impossible. Hello, how are you today. It is nice to meet you. I am from Russia.
Because I studied in school, my English is better than Irina's, but she is prettier than I. Her husband fixes automobiles for a living, and though our husbands care nothing for our words, Brent wants my nothing in perfect English.
A few months ago we attended a client's dinner party. Brent tells me we must go to such events for business, but truly he loves the homes of the clients. The people try to make their houses look different, which has a strange way making them all alike, like brothers and sisters in a big family. These Hollywood people think having Minimalist or French Country or English Cottage style mansions will say different, better, in fashion. What is the American saying? Keeping up with the Joneses.
Brent took me to one of these houses and we were drinking alcohol next to the pool. The alcoholics and the women dieters, who remind me of cancer patients, drank fancy water. A man in a bright blue suit was asking me if I had become a citizen. Not yet, I answered. He was friendly, despite the terrible suit. I thought he was nice to talk to me. The conversation at those parties gets rapid with drink and whatever else they sneak off and take in the bathrooms. Usually I sit or stand with a drink in a thin fine glass and look about, writing letters to my family in my mind. This way I can recall all the details later, when I sit down at the antique desk in my dressing room and write the real letter.
So Bright Blue Man was asking me, and I said "Not yet," which came out almost "nyet". This was because of my accent, and Brent, hearing me, began to poke fun, mimicking me before the many guests. I felt such humiliation. Blue told him to stop. "Hey man, don't insult your own wife."
Brent stopped then. He walked up and put his arm around my shoulders. I smelled liquor and decided to drive home, even though the roadways here frighten me. "My little Russian import," he said, "she's taking classes to rid herself of that accent." As if I were one of Irina's husband's broken automobiles.
So I practice, filling the mornings with nouns and verbs, the way I once filled mornings with study, then work. I was a chemist in Russia, but Brent is "old-fashioned". This means he wants a wife who stays home and shops while a maid who knows less English than I sweeps up the hairs around our toilet.
Our own house is large and white and stands behind a high gate in the company of many other large white houses. These houses try to look the same. Our curtains must be white where they face the street, and we are permitted no trees in the front yard.
Irina and I meet in malls to practice our English on the shopkeepers. Irina loves America, the plastic credit cards and bottles of shiny nail polish. She adores the food courts, so each time we visit the mall we try a new quick dish. Most strike me as salty and somehow wrong, reminding me of the laboratory I used to work for, and when I get home I pour a little vodka to wash the taste from my mouth.
Brent does not approve of Irina. "She's cheap," he says of her painted orange mouth and brassy hair. I look at my manicured hands, with their red paint fingertips, and my yellow hair. If Irina is cheap, I must be as well.
"Nah," says Brent, mussing my brittle hair. "You're too smart to be cheap."
The agency that put me in contact with Brent had reservations about my application. You are not a bombshell, they told me. You do not look like a Bond girl. I did not understand about Bond girls or why American men wanted Russian bombs, but I listened when the matronly owner of the agency, which she called the Russian-American Friendship Exchange, told us why American men came to Russia looking for wives. American women want big careers and to have babies without men. They do not like to cook and think men should pick up their own dirty socks. Some even think husbands should wash the socks. This makes American men lonely. They want tradition and comfort, so they come to Russia for wives who will take care of them. For cooking dinner and doing the washing, we Russian women have all the luxuries of American life. Really lucky wives, like myself, do not have to do the wash. We have servants, but Americans call them domestic help.
If you were smart enough to come here, the matron lectured, you are smart enough to understand what Russian women have to offer American men. She raised one plucked eyebrow and looked each girl in the face. We sat, hopeful, barely breathing. You are all virgins, are you not? A few bashful girls blushed and looked down at their knotted hands.
I don't care what you were before you walked through that door. After today, virgins.
Here is a thing I find odd about Brent. He wants every bit of Russian wrung from me, like a dripping bundle of wash. There are the English classes, the expensive clothing, the hair salon and painted fingernails. The only Russian culture Brent respects is caviar and vodka, and these only in restaurants. Once I made Brent a true Russian meal, borscht with sour cream, a carrot pie, and pirozhki. The preparation of this meal took the entire day, and our domestic helper, Juana, helped me. We had a nice time cooking together and talking about the foods of our homes. Around four-thirty I opened the vodka and we "took a load off", sitting down in the hot, good-smelling kitchen. When Brent arrived from work I led him to our dining table, where I lit pretty candles of beeswax. There I served each dish, using the cut glass bowls, crystal glasses, and special occasion plates we received for our wedding. The food tasted good, not so good as my mother's, but good considering I had to cook with American food in an American kitchen. I felt great pleasure and happiness, sharing this part of my life with my new husband.
But Brent only tasted each dish. He ate some of the carrot pie, and nibbled the pirozhki. He scraped the sour cream off everything because it would make him fat. "This stuff 's poison," he waved his fork over the white puddle he made on the plate. "You shouldn't be eating it either. You'll gain weight."
I took a big drink of vodka and continued eating. Brent pushed his plate away and poured himself more vodka. "I hope you're going to the gym in the morning."
When I did not reply he said, "Let Juana do the cooking. That's what I'm paying her for. If you really wanna cook, learn to cook low-fat." I have noticed Americans run words together. "Wanna" for "want to" and "gonna" for "going to". This seems to me a messy way to communicate.
The next day I gave Juana the leftover food for her family. Brent brought home cookbooks with slimming recipes. No sour cream, so we can look like the client wives, all bones, with behinds like little boys.
Then there is my name. Brent cannot pronounce my name, so he has renamed me. I am Ludmilla, after my mother's mother. Here I am Lisa, a name Brent tells me is pretty, popular, and very American.
"Ludmilla is a common Russian name," I tell Brent. "I never heard the name Brent before I met you."
"Ludmilla sounds like a fat lady with a mustache." Brent laughed as he said this, insulting my grandmother and myself. "Lisa is nice. You'll fit in better. Won't it be nice to fit in? Be a real American?"
At home fitting in is what we did to get jobs, to keep KGB from our doors. America was a dream of bread and blue jeans and rock and roll music. Now that I am here I have new ugly hair and a short easy name. I am fitting in.
Here is something Brent does not know. I had a boyfriend back home, a boy named Vyacheslav. He worked in a shoe factory. He made very little, but he kept my entire family, my parents and younger sister, Anna, in shoes. With Slava I was not a virgin, but I do not regret my love with him. He was a good, kind person. He understood about my wanting to come here. Little restless one, he teased me. Always wanting more.
Anna writes that Slava still visits, helping my father fix up the apartment. Perhaps Slava will marry Anna. I would like this, to know he would be with my family even though I did not stay home to marry him.
Sometimes I stare at Brent while we are in the car. I try to find a feeling for him. We will be on the freeway-so many freeways here-and Brent will be talking on the cell telephone, or singing with the compact disc. I look around inside for a feeling, and I always think of Slava, and I look out the window at the freeway signs: Burbank, Sepulveda, Getty Center, Sunset.
Brent watches a great deal of television. He likes me to sit beside him and watch also. He says television will improve my English. He buys DVD movies and watches sports. I do not require much English to understand how stupid American television is. The sex scenes on the DVDs make Brent want to have sex. He likes to try what we watch. Sex in the shower, in the bathtub, on the kitchen counter. Brent is the sort of man who congratulates himself on using his tongue.
Once, Brent told me he wanted to try something. "Back-door." I did not understand until he began poking me where humans are dirtiest. I have been taking cardio-kickboxing at the gym. When Brent would not stop, I cardio-kickboxed him, then slept all night beneath the ping-pong table. The next day he brought me flowers. "Got myself a girl with spunk," He smiled with all his teeth.
I looked up "spunk" in my slang dictionary. To have courage and spirit is what it means to have spunk.
Here I agree with Brent that I have spunk. To leave my home and marry a stranger required much courage and spirit, though I wanted to do so. A person can be desperate for change but still be afraid. I was.
Today a letter from Anna arrived. I opened the letter happily, hoping for family news. But the letter was not about the family. It was about coming here the way I did. Anna plans to join a friendship agency when she turns eighteen, four months from now.
I read this letter and felt like there was no air in my lungs. I worried for my mother and father. But the biggest feeling was wondering how I would stop her, and then I became very upset. I put the letter on the kitchen table and, even though it was only two in the afternoon, poured some vodka.
I took my glass and sat with the letter. Outside the sky was a clear blue, like the opal ring Brent gave me for my birthday. The patio looked hot and white. A neighbor's cat leaned over the edge of the pool, tonguing up the water. I wanted to put a bowl of fresh water out for her, but Brent said no, then she would always be in our yard, urinating on our lawn and making it yellow.
I wished suddenly for someone to talk to who would understand. There is nobody. Irina would not understand. In fact, she would disapprove. She would think me selfish and without gratitude.
Brent? I am only happy he knows no Russian, and cannot read Cyrillic. He met my family once, when he came to Russia to meet me. I was terribly nervous. My mother cleaned and cooked an elaborate meal. My family was anxious for me; even Anna braided her hair neatly and sat at the table quietly. The friendship agency sent a translator.
Now two young men are cleaning our pool with long-handled tools that taper into oval nets. How shabby our apartment must have looked to Brent.
I have written to my family describing the malls, the food kiosks, Irina, my opal ring, the client houses. I make my letters bright with little pictures of America. In doing so, I have planted a seed in Anna's heart, the same seed that grew in mine.
Brent was married before me. This marriage made him decide Russian was better. Brent and his wife, Barbara, were married five years.
Barbara was a working woman, a lawyer. Brent said she was not a feminine person, and worse, wanted no babies. The true thing is she said Brent is not "good father material." Brent told me this, what is the word, indignant. He was indignant about being told he was not suitable to become a father. And so a judge and lawyers argued much, and Barbara being a lawyer herself, knew how to "clean his clock". When I saw the money Brent gave Barbara each month, I did not need my slang dictionary for "cleaning a person's clock."
In one of the empty bedrooms, meaning there is furniture but no person living in the room, Brent keeps a closet filled with objects from his boyhood. Mixed in with the old toys and sport equipment are photographs of this first wife Barbara. She is yellow-haired from a bottle, as I am, and terribly thin like so many California women. She uses many cosmetics, like Irina, but must work to be pretty, like me.
Barbara was right. I do not think Brent is good father material, either.
For many days I think over how I will answer Anna. Brent asks why the long face and I learn both the idiom and the necessity of hiding long faces beneath bright ones. Or blank ones.
At night Brent puts his hand across the top of my body, stroking the silk nightgown, and asks do I miss home. He has dark crinkly hairs on the backs of his hands, but they are beginning to come out of his head.
"I miss my family," I say slowly, "but not Russia."
"Perhaps we could go visit in the spring," he replies, sounding relieved. Friendship clubs are filled with stories of homesick wives running home.
His body begins relaxing into sleep. "'Night, Lisa,'" he mumbles, and his arm on me is like a log, pressing me into the mattress.
Carefully I wiggle free and walk to my dressing room. The clothes fall from hangers of cedar wood, waiting to be worn. The carpet is thick and soft. I sit at the desk with a sheet of thick creamy paper and a blue pen trimmed with gold.
My dearest sister, I begin.
Diane Sigman is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Seal Press Anthology Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture, Postmodern Lives, and the Chicago Review. She lives in Oakland, California.
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