A. Molotkov moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. His memoir A Broken Russia Inside Me, based on his first twenty-two years in the USSR and his immigration, is currently in search of a publisher. His poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows, and Synonyms for Silence. Molotkov has received various fiction and poetry awards and an Oregon Literary Fellowship; his prose is represented by Laura Strachan at Strachan Lit. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review.
It’s 1991; I’m twenty-three. My night shift at the deli in Albany, New York is socially engaging and instrumental in my immersion in the new culture. I arrived here from the USSR just over a year ago.
One of my regular customers is a Hungarian. We’ve exchanged brief life stories in our previous interactions.
“What do you do here?”
“I’m a professor here at SUNY.”
He is tall, dignified, a little stooped, soft spoken. His eyes brim with wit and intelligence.
“Do you know, Nabokov used to teach not far from here, at Cornell.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard. It’s so strange to think this. All of this used to be so far from me.”
We discuss favorite titles. I’ve been an avid reader all my life and a writer for the last eight years.
“No, I don't think so,” I say. “Too fanciful.”
“What about Lolita?”
“So-so,” I confess. “But I loved Invitation to a Beheading and Despair.”
Despair leads to Fassbinder’s film with the same title, and so on.
“Nabokov wrote in Russian before he wrote in English, didn't he?”
“Yes.” I lay four slices of cheese along the length of the submarine sandwich. “He wrote a couple of books in Russian after emigrating. The Gift was quite good. Eventually he felt out of his element in that language. He mentioned this in some interview.”
In my own literary struggle, I find writing in Russian more and more ridiculous: I won't be able to publish this work here, nor can I show it to anyone. Back in Russia, things are in turmoil. No one cares to hear from an unknown immigrant writer wannabe.
Increasingly, my thoughts emerge in English. I welcome this. English is pure, open to all, whereas Russian, in my head, is tainted by ideology, by the official pronouncements forced into our mouths. I imagine this may be akin the struggles Germans may have felt with their language post WW2; some of them wrote about it.
For me, there is no way back. I begin writing in the language of my new country. I’ve studied it little by little since the age of seven, first at my parents’ insistence, then on my own. Now, it’s time to do something insane: to take it over, to take it on, to try to become excellent in it.
Nabokov had a more structured access to learning English early in life. It’s the aristocracy thing. As to me, my friend Vadim kindly proofreads some of my drafts. He’s been in the States for three years: three times as long as I; his own English is improved from attending college.
Albany is a quiet town despite being the state capital. I settled here assuming life would be cheaper and easier for a new immigrant. Founded in 1686, Albany is a couple of decades older than my city of birth, Leningrad, soon to be restored to its original name of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is a late landmark on the scale of European history.
I’m not aware of the Albany literary scene, or how to look for it, or the way texts make their way into publications. It’s too soon for any of this. I just keep writing short stories and poetry, assuming that one day, I might be able to publish some of this work.
A deli regular is into prog rock. Hearing my Yes CD, he gets excited about the vocals,
“Dude, I’ve heard you play King Crimson before. You should listen to Adrian Belew’s solo albums.”
“I didn't know he had solo albums. I love his voice.”
To me, the vocals matter more than most everything else. I appreciate the biological immediacy of the human voice, its capacity to produce myriad unpredictable sounds.
Another customer listens to me explain the condiment options and other parameters essential to a perfect submarine sandwich. Even lettuce and onions can produce a positive interaction.
“Where’re you from?”
“Russia.” I smile, as I seem programmed to do. I’ve never learned to present a stone face to the world, despite the fact that many of my former compatriots seem to walk through life with exactly that unflinching seriousness. It’s difficult to blame them.
“Ruski!” A broad grin appears on the man’s face. “Zdrastvyite. We were scared shitless of you during the Cold War.”
“Not of me personally,” I smile to emphasize that I’m not the least bit offended by his remark. “Back at home, they were trying to make us feel scared of you guys. I never believed that stuff.”
“No. We loved America. Everything about America, and then the fact that you were against communism.”
The man listens intensely, reading my face. He knows I’m being serious, not just pleasant.
“Wow. What brings you here?”
“I just didn't feel I could stay there anymore.”
My standard reply. I don't know how to expand on it without writing a book. It seems to satisfy. It’s somewhere between the lack of access to books and the lack of certainty about my future in the unraveling communist country, which, since my departure, has undergone further changes. It’s about wanting to strike out amidst people who were born free, not my former compatriots trained to comply with authority. It’s about expanding my own scope beyond the predictable—beyond safe—beyond everything my life was supposed to be. Writing it from scratch, on my own terms. New draft.
“Welcome to America!”
A $2 tip for a $4.89 sandwich proves that he really means it.
“Is it true that in Russia everything is covered with snow all year?” a middle-aged man in a company uniform asks as I work on his sandwich.
He really could be that naïve; many Americans are—but I don't think this is the case. A certain gleam in his eyes reveals: this must be his sense of humor. I admire that art, that quality—one of the most marvelous aspects of every individual, perhaps among the few redeeming qualities of our species.
“Right!” I wink at him. “And bears fall from the sky.”
Other talkative customers inquire about my plans, a topic I also ponder with much interest and indecision.
“Did you go to college back home?”
“Yes, three years. Leningrad State. Math and physics.”
“Will you go back to school here?”
I shrug, placing the top of the submarine bread over a pile of pale turkey slices.
“I don't think so. I believe I’m done with that. I’m a writer.”
I hear a degree of indecision in this pronouncement, but it’s not important. Passion for books is not for everyone—I’m not offended.
“In the meantime, I have to figure out a better way to make a living.” I point my thumb to the kitchen area behind me, where the deep fryers do their greasy work and bins of lettuce wait in the walk-in cooler, ready to provide fiber for sandwich lovers.
“Don't we all? Good luck with that!”
I ask customers about their lives and projects. Some share, most run off with their sandwiches or chicken wings. I’m trying to see how personality types, in this culture, intersect with professions and attitudes. I’m compelled by what others consider meaningful in their lives.
My friend Boris lives near Sea Gate in Brooklyn, just a couple of blocks from the ocean. I visit the city every month or so. I haven't had a chance to learn to drive—few people in the USSR drove, or owned cars. No worries—the comfortable Greyhound bus takes me to the city in just three hours as I read, catch up on my sleep, or even jot down a first draft of a short story.
I hop on the subway. I love it, somehow. The gritty, ugly functionality.
Vadim and I join Boris for a campfire on the shore. The three of us have shared many hours at kitchen tables, over tea or beer, deep in conversation.
It’s a rocky beach. Muscled waves splash against the rocks some feet from us. A long bridge hovers gloriously in the distance.
“What bridge is this?” I ask.
“It’s called the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.” Boris points. “That’s Staten Island over there.”
The wind picks up. We are chilled in late August. We speak Russian—our group is too deeply immersed in conversations in this language. It’s that kind intimacy that wouldn't translate.
“Come on, come on, let’s make a fire.” Boris shivers in his sweater.
We’ve already collected a pile of wood, the waves’ gift.
“I’ll start it.” Vadim is always expert at everything.
He gets to work piling up dense bundles of wood on top of a crumpled newspaper. I can see the fire will lack breathing space, but it’s very difficult to convince Vadim that his approach is incorrect. It’s easier to wait and see.
Indeed, the fire starts and chokes, starts and chokes. After a polite delay, Boris and I introduce our practiced approaches, and the fire is with us just as night settles.
“Who the hell is Verrazzano-Narrows?” I’m aware of the fact that I’m probably asking a nonsensical question, but uncertain as to why that’s the case. That’s just as well: silly questions keep the world spinning. Boris bends in laughter; the rest look on in surprise.
“Verazzano was an explorer who found this area. The Narrows is just a geographical reference.”
“Verazzano,” I love all the z’s. Like in pizza. “How strange—to gather here, at the edge of America. Who would have thought?”
As a kid in the USSR, I had no notion of spending most of my life elsewhere. The thought of choosing to move to another country would have seemed absurd. It wasn't allowed.
“Let’s drink to that.” Vadim opens a bottle of wine.
“We’re not supposed to make beach fires,” Boris is already laughing. “But what’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Here, in the United States, after our two decades in the USSR, the worst thing seems humorous, whatever it is. We drink as the fire grows, until, soon, it’s ready to warm us.
When I write this down in 2018, I will not remember exactly what was discussed. Views, hopes, existential questions as we recalibrated our lives in the new reality. Laughter. Boris is hilarious, contributing to Vadim’s supersonic sense of humor. It’s a good mix; he and I don't seem to hurt each other’s feelings tonight.
Back at the deli, women flirt with me quite a bit. I must be a special interest item—a Russian who looks like a real person and even responds semi-coherently when addressed in English. Many of these young women are rather inebriated.
I don't know what to do about any of this because I’m at work. Typically, a small line of hungry customers awaits at the counter. More importantly, I’m likely to think something said as a joke is a serious statement and vice versa.
“We should go see a film together.” This young woman is well versed in cinema history. We’ve been chatting for a while. She is smart and passionate about her studies, the books we discuss.
“Sure, I’d love that,” I say.
She writes down her phone number and hands it to me. But I’m already worried about this. Is she being kind to me as a person from another place, or does she find me interesting? Does she want to talk about film, or is she interested in me? Her blond hair is curly; she brushes it away from her forehead.
I think of calling, but I’m too insecure.
Conversations like these make me wonder if intimacy lies outside a language. I could have much more in common with someone from a country different than my place of birth—a notion that seems intuitive after falling in love with so many books and films from so many other places. Perhaps genuine connections flourish outside the official, political delineations. This is something I had hoped for when I emigrated even if I hadn't yet developed the language to discuss it.
One night, three regulars moon me from outside the deli windows, their tanned legs long under the streetlights. Another time, three of them enter the employee area, where I’m busy making two sandwiches at the same time, a basket of chicken wings set on a timer with 90 seconds to go. I take this invasion with humor even if it’s hard to foresee what these mischievous creatures will do. I’m not too worried. They are interesting and funny, each one an opportunity I’m too chicken to pursue.
I’m still intermittently seeing my ex, Luba, even though she married someone else. The two of us go back seven years; we emigrated together. We meet from time to time at the apartment we used to share, where I still live on my own. Today, we’re having tea as we compare our experiences in fast food jobs—she, a former journalist, and I, a former math prodigy. For the last few months, she’s run a hotdog kiosk downtown.
“It helps to wear tank tops,” she says. “Good for the tips.”
“Wish I had that option.”
“Dude, a tank top would look great on you.”
“Not in winter.”
We speak in Russian. Why wouldn't we? Again, it’s impossible to translate intimacy into a second language both parties are still mastering.
For a few weeks, Luba even takes a job at my deli. It’s not a good idea—difficult for her schedule, and difficult for our long-unravelling demi-relationship. The occasional sex in the back of the store after closing time is the bitter silver lining.
The ass-drunk dude who orders a tuna sandwich spreads his arms over the counter, pushing off two stacks of flyers. They land all over, and he laughs.
“I’m sorry, but could you be a little more careful?” I try to keep my voice even.
I don't like this interaction.
“I’m a customer. I don't have to be careful. The customer’s always right. Don’t they teach you that where you come from?”
He’s no longer laughing. With a broad, imperfectly coordinated gesture, he sends the rest of the flyers doing what their name implies. One settles on a tuna sandwich I’m making, a scoop in my hand.
My reaction is swift and surprising, even to me. It’s not as much anger as an urgent need to signal: you can't do this to me. The scoop, a ball of tuna in it, is flying at my offender. He makes an awkward move to cover his face; tuna sticks to his coat sleeve; some lands on his head.
Now I’m in trouble.
“You motherfucker! I’ll kick your fucking ass.”
“Go ahead and try.” I show a baseball bat I’ve bought at Goodwill, following earlier tense interactions. “If you try to enter the employee area, I’ll smash your head.”
I wonder about this behavior. Sure, the stereotypical Russians get drunk and fight—and the stereotype has its roots in reality. But this wasn't something I was exposed to in my family and their cycle of friends. Perhaps I’m unwittingly inspired by the Hollywood films I’ve seen, such as “Once Upon a Time in America,” where people stand up for their rights with passion and determination and many guns.
The unfortunate tuna lover is in the company of less inebriated friends. They grab hold of him and force him out the door.
“I’m sorry,” one of them says on his way out.
“No worries.” Now that the confrontation is in the past and I feel vindicated, I can offer the unclaimed tuna sandwich as a bonus gift to a better-behaved customer. I walk out into the dining area and pick up the mighty scoop.
Outside the work hours, I’m happy to be holed up in my small apartment, writing, reading, watching films, many of them unavailable back in the USSR. Only two brief relationships interrupt this seclusion, both with Russian women. I’m a romantic; both encounters mean something in my life. They also mean a visit with my former culture, both seductive and repulsive to me.
Marina has been in the States for just a few months. A theater actress, she’s giving up much more for emigration than I ever did. My tiny bedroom’s best feature is the modern-looking wallpaper I applied myself, the only such project I will ever undertake. The walls dance in busy lines. The trees outside prepare to color themselves for the winter.
“Life in Russia is hell, I know,” Marina says. “It’s getting worse and worse. But how can I feel like a real person without that life? Theater is so visceral—you’re right there, with the audience—you experience the most powerful emotions. I remember this time: we did this long, beautiful play—very moving. The play ended; the audience was electrified. We were exhausted. No one wanted to let us go. People held up their hands, and I just walked out into the audience. Everyone’s hands supported me.”
I try to picture this, imagine people with their hands up in the air. Is this what emigration means? Walking on air, no longer supported by friendly hands?
“It’s easier for me,” I say. “All I need is a room and some paper. And now, I’m really spoiled.” I point at my first PC, a pale box packed with unlimited editing joys and endowed with an 8 Mb memory.
The temperature outside is over 90℉. The AC broke earlier today, resulting in a 100℉ + environment indoors. It’s a busy night. A drunk dude lights a cigarette.
“There’s no smoking inside.” I speak calmly, pointing to the large No Smoking sign in the window.
He looks at me, looks at the sign, and continues smoking.
“You’re going to have to stop smoking in here, sir. It’s not fair to other customers.”
“Tough shit. I like a cigarette with my meal.”
I know I can't let this continue—my arms are shaking a little. I could call the police, but it’s not my thing. I’m in a place of no language—nothing I say will help.
I walk out from behind the counter, grab the cigarette out of the man’s mouth and put it out in his sandwich.
It feels good at first—the guy deserves it. The next moment, I’m worried: did I really have to get into this altercation? It’s as if I hadn't figured out a better way to handle the scene. Isn't there something else I could have done to communicate the fact that a reasonable boundary had been crossed.
I don't have long to think about that. Quick to his feet, the smoker throws a punch. I barely block it. Instantly, we are in the middle of a fist fight, surrounded by tables, chairs and a few seated customers. We work at hitting each other, but both fail to land even one effective punch. The smoker is taller, his jabs enthusiastic, his arms longer. I can't get close enough. The karate I took for a year or two back in Russia eludes me.
We are in slow motion. A few minutes must have passed, and we are still fighting. I’m out of breath in this heat. What the hell am I doing? How stupid for a new immigrant who doesn't even have a green card. I could see myself deported for something as dumb as this.
Abruptly, my opponent slouches forward. What?
Two people in uniform hold him.
With some delay I realize he was struck on his back with a baton.
“Hands behind your head!” the cop yells at me.
“I work here, sir,” I explain.
I realize that my opponent was struck down only because his back, and not mine, was nearest the door.
“Yes, he does,” one of my customers says. “The other guy attacked him first.”
I get away; the smoker is handcuffed. How nice, that someone from this new country supported me in this way. I remember Marina’s story about hands that support us as we walk through life. Maybe I can still find them, here.