Yes, English, Birthday
For months, in kindergarten, all I do is cry. My grandpa drops me off at the closest Hebrew school in Milwaukee and from the second he leaves until the moment he returns, it’s about the only thing I do. We’ve just moved from the Soviet Union, and I don’t speak any English. I don’t even want to learn English. Every day I ask my family when we’re going home, back to Chernovtsy. They don’t even try to humor me; This is our home now, they say. You are home.
I certainly don’t feel home. Except for two plump ladies who own the Russian deli down the street, I don’t understand what anyone is saying outside the walls of our apartment, which is painted a pasty beige and is drafty in winter and hotter than a sauna in summer. My sister and I have to share a thin twin mattress on the floor of my parents’ room, which is filled only with a bed and cracked dresser someone gave to us from the Jewish immigration agency. My grandparents sleep on the foldout couch in the living room; also a gift. Everything in America, though new, appears less sturdy than our used things in Ukraine. Temporary. One look around the place and you’re certain all of it could fall apart at any moment. Only the dishes we brought with us from Chernovtsy are made to last. Sometimes I go into the closet just to touch our old silver spoons, our flower-petaled china. Or my grandparents’ rugs, rolled up in the back, behind the suitcases and several pairs of Goodwill shoes. But it doesn’t help; when I open my eyes, I’m still in America. I’m still in Milwaukee, surrounded by English and brightly lit gas stations and police sirens.
For my birthday, our fifth month in the States, my mother decides to bake a cake for my class. It’s the first time we’ve even seen an American cake; it’s white with rainbow sprinkles and a creamy frosting and comes out of a box, nothing like the cakes she bakes at home, the tasty kind made from farmer’s cheese, raisins, and sugar. It looks like something that belongs in a cartoon, not on our counter. Still, she heard from a Russian neighbor it was the thing to do when your child has a birthday, so my mother, who is still afraid to answer the phone because of her poor English, decides she must make me one so I’m not ridiculed or assumed destitute. The next morning my dedushka carries it for me on our long walk to the Jewish day school. It’s an unnaturally warm spring day and his shirt is soaked under the armpits by the time we arrive. This is usually the part where I start my crying for the day, but since it’s my birthday, I for once don’t feel sad, or even scared that they will forget me there.
“C’den razhdenya,” Dedushka tells me, again. He’s kneeling down so we’re on the same level. “Five years old! I still remember the day you were born!”
“I don’t,” I say.
“Of course not. It was so long ago! I only remember because I’m such an old geezer.”
I giggle and pet his shiny bald head like he’s a puppy, which I often do, because it’s smooth. He smells so strongly of sweat and industrial soap he brought with him from Chernovtsy that I feel for a moment like we’re back there, and he’s taking me to preschool. I hold onto his hand to keep him from leaving, but my teacher is telling him Goodbye and turning me toward the classroom, so this doesn’t work for very long. Soon, Dedushka is gone, his small, round frame walking steadily down Oakland Ave. past a large brown-bricked apartment complex. I almost start crying again. I wish with all my being I could go with him. I have no interest in other children, in getting anyone to like or understand me. The gap between us feels uncrossable. Even when kids keep coming up to me all day and telling me Happy Birthday—a phrase I’d learned only because my sister’s first day at school was her birthday and she’d come home practically inconsolable—I just nod at them shyly. I make it all the way to lunch without crying, possibly a record, then go to find a place to sit alone. Around me are dozens of paper maps with drawings on them, numerous half-empty boxes of markers, and three long tables with multi-colored chairs. An Israeli flag hangs on the wall. I’m about to sit down underneath it when my teacher comes over. A parade of English words comes out of her mouth, followed by some questions that I don’t understand. Eventually, I think I recognize one word: box.
“Is this cake from a box?” she is asking.
I nod my head.
My teacher looks at me knowingly, then leaves to put it away somewhere, probably a fridge. All day long, I wait for her to bring it out and show the rest of the kids. But when my dedushka walks the sixteen blocks from our apartment to the school to get me, like he does every day, not only am I crying again, I also still have the cake.
“They said it isn’t kosher,” I say, between sobs. Part of why I am crying every day is that I can never understand what anyone is saying, but kosher is a word I know, because it’s almost the same in Russian. I don’t really understand what kosher is, just that some people can’t eat it unless it has that label. No is another word I already know, one of maybe ten or twenty. I also understand yes, English, birthday.
“They wouldn’t eat it,” I tell my grandpa, and cry some more.
My grandpa smiles, wipes my cheeks of their mess of tears. “That just means more cake for us!” he says, then starts laughing. He takes it from me and we go get my sister from the grade school, then walk home together.
“But why can’t people eat something if it’s not kosher?” I ask him on the way, still crying. I do more crying that year than possibly my entire life put together.
“It’s against their religion,” he says. “A special man, called a rabbi, has to watch and deem it kosher or certain people aren’t allowed to eat it. There’s also something about not mixing dairy and meat.”
“But why?” I ask. “Will they get in trouble?”
“Because that’s just the way it is,” my grandpa sighs.
“I hate religion,” I pout.
“I don’t much care for it either,” my grandpa replies.
When we get home, I refuse to eat any of the cake that gave me so much grief.
The next day, I don’t have to go to school, because I have chicken pox. I lie in my parents’ bed all day and try not to itch, covered in a stinky white cream, my hands stuffed into cooking gloves, as relatives come in and out of our bedroom with gifts. A plastic throw-away camera from my uncle Peter, a Kit Kat bar from my grandma, a stuffed dog from my dad. For the rest of the week my dedushka takes me to the park instead of school, which is exactly what I’ve been wanting for months. I’m almost glad I have chicken pox. On our third day together, my grandpa throws away the Russian newspaper he reads daily and we walk across the street to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. He has wanted to try McDonald’s for a while, and my birthday seems like a good occasion, he tells me.
“But I don’t want to go to McDonald’s,” I whine. “I hate McDonald’s!”
“How do you know?” he says. “You’ve never been there.”
“Because I know!”
“What do you intend to eat for lunch then? The grass?” he jokes. But the concept of a restaurant is scary to me, let alone this metallic-yellow box kind. Food was supposed to be made in a kitchen, served to you by a cute gray-haired babushka. It was something you did in your own home. In my entire life in Chernovtsy, I couldn’t remember eating out even once. Sure, we’d had snacks on the train, or a plate of mashed potatoes around noon in preschool. But meals were always at the table. Especially dinner. Dinner meant everyone was home for the night, it meant showers and hugs and sleeping in my own bed.
Now dinner didn’t mean anything.
We enter the brightly lit building, all echoes of children screaming, beeping, drawers closing. I feel tiny and useless. I can’t even see above the counter. Instead, I hold tightly to Dedushka’s rosacea-spotted elbow and look at the floor, which is sticky and covered with the occasional dirtied napkin or empty salt packet. My grandpa orders by pointing at a picture on the menu and then, moments later, we sit down with a tray of food. I can’t wrap my head around this. One minute you’re standing in line, the next you have a perfectly made meal. I marvel at the magic of this while biting into the burger and don’t even notice till I’m halfway done chewing how disgusting it is.
I spit it back out.
“It tastes like tinfoil,” I say. “Like something that’s not really food.”
“I don’t know what’s not to like,” he tells me with a shrug. “It’s fine.”
“You say that about everything,” I say. After a few more bites, I give up. I can’t even finish half of the thing and give the rest to my grandpa. Then I eat all my fries, and dump the toy out from the bottom of the bag, a green Frankenstein with giant red feet who walked when you wound him up. I tell my grandpa it reminds me of the walking doll I had back in Chernovtsy.
“Where do you think she is now?” I ask him, about the doll.
“Probably with her friends, don’t you think?” he asks. This makes me smile, thinking of that clunky blonde-haired doll, walking slowly in an army of other blonde-haired dolls. For a while, we sit in the booth and listen to the noise of customers coming in and out of the restaurant, the children playing on the slides in the kid’s area. My grandpa asks me if I want to go over there, but I shake my head no. Even with this small concession, I’m not ready to join the Americans. What if they tell me something in English that I don’t understand? What if I say something wrong? This is part of why I love being with my grandpa so much. He has no interest in learning English either. In fact, most days after school, he teaches me all the Cyrillic letters, so now I can already read in Russian. That way, I’ll be prepared for kindergarten when we go back to Chernovtsy, my desire for which grows every day. I want to walk down Kobylanskaya Street again, past the construction workers sitting in front of the building next door, past the cobblestone streets and bushy green trees and pastel-colored houses. I want to get on the tram with my mom and head downtown, tour the gardens outside the theater, watch the students flood in and out of the university. Of course, I can’t quite grasp what exactly I want from any of these images on repeat in my mind; I just know that I want them in front of me again. If anything, I should have been excited for this new adventure. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that it was all temporary, like the hand-me-down furniture. That this wasn’t my life. That here, no one was safe.
A pair of blonde twins runs by me, screaming after one another in English. It seemed to be getting louder by the second.
“Dedushka, don’t you want to go home?” I ask, though at the time, I’m not really considering his feelings at all. I just want a co-conspirator.
“Yes,” he says. As an adult, I will realize just how true this must have been. All of the silly complaints of a five-year-old—strange food, new language, different apartment—these were all things that in the span of a few years would no longer be an issue. I would forget it all, except for a small, vague feeling of constant unsettledness. But for my grandpa, all of these concerns were valid. He was sixty-two years old. He would never learn English, never get used to the food, never make new friends. He would spend the next twenty-five years, besides going swimming at the JCC, sitting inside his apartment with my grandmother, watching the Russian news. He would never really have a life in America at all.
“Let’s go then! We can go just the two of us.” A spark of hope flares in my mind; an outrageous plan formulates. Me and my dedushka, sneaking out in the middle of the night and catching the next plane back to Ukraine, and going to live in our old apartment on Kobylanskaya St. The only problem I can come up with is the key. I would have to dig through our stuff and find our old keys.
My dedushka, though he seems momentarily amused, shakes his head. “Not possible, Zhannuchka. We’re here now. Let’s try to make the best of it.”
I kick my legs back and forth and eat the last two fries, not understanding the meaning of this. How does one make the best of something? Why does being here now mean we won’t be there in the future? I want to ask him more, but instead what comes out of my mouth is this: “Why don’t they have McDonald’s back at home?”
My grandpa picks up the burger that was supposed to be mine and starts in on it. I’ve never seen my grandfather waste one tiny bit of food in my life. “Maybe they will, now that it’s Ukraine again.”
“What do you mean Ukraine again? Wasn’t it Ukraine before?”
My grandpa looks at me, a little tired. An entire day of my pestering him with questions could not have been easy. Or maybe he isn’t tired; maybe he is trying to think of an explanation. Soon the look is gone, and he’s happy again. My grandpa is always happy around me. When I’m older, I’ll learn he was a very different sort of parent than grandparent, one who was hard rather than soft, one who spoke rarely but harshly. I’ll learn how he used to smoke cigarettes and drive a truck. That he escaped a concentration camp at the age of sixteen, after his father had burned in a gas chamber and his sister died from starvation in his arms. That after hiding in Poland for two years and returning to Ukraine, he lied about his birthday to avoid the draft, and now no one knew for sure his real age.
Needless to say, his attitude toward birthdays was much different than mine. We didn’t even know when it was.
“It was Ukraine before, just a different Ukraine,” Dedushka says, patiently.
“Is it different because we left?”
“No, but it’s part of why we could leave.”
“What does that mean?” I ask him.
“The old Ukraine had a big, giant wall that no one could cross. Now the wall is gone.”
“What happened to the wall?” I ask. “Did it fall down?” But by the time he answers, I’ve lost interest, because my plastic Frankenstein has walked off the table and I have to jump to the floor to get him.
Hours later, we’re at the apartment. My grandma’s still on the couch with a stack of books and a giant red dictionary. All day long she reads things in English out loud, slowly. She reads cereal boxes and soup cans and posters on nearby poles.
“Calories,” she says, slowly, with a humorously thick accent. “One thousand, five hundred and thirty-three.”
“Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” she says. Then she looks at us. “What is ‘crunch?’” she asks in Russian.
We shrug. She opens the dictionary again. My parents come back from pulling staples in Wausau twelve hours to check on me. My dad is picking up more and more English from the old ladies that also live in the factory-supplied apartment where they both stay during the week, and he tries to share some words with me, but I refuse to listen. I don’t want to learn English. It will be an entire year before I do.
“Learning languages is fun,” my dad says. “Babushka knows quite a few languages.”
“No she doesn’t.”
My grandma turns to us. “I do. When I was a child in Moldova, I learned Romanian. Then we moved to Ukraine, and I learned Russian and Ukrainian. Later I learned Yiddish from my parents, and Hebrew in school,” she says. Then she smiles. “I got the best grades in all of my Hebrew class.”
None of this changes my mind. English, McDonalds, cakes from boxes—I would trade it all in a second for our old apartment in Chernovty, even though it was more full of people than our current one. I liked it that way.
My grandma starts singing a Hebrew Passover song then—which, I will later learn, is the majority of what she remembers of the language—and soon, my mother calls us all over to the dinner table. We sit down and eat large bowls of borscht with sour cream, and boiled chicken legs. Then my parents kiss me goodbye and say they’re leaving to go back to Wausau. They have to go to sleep soon. But the next day is Friday, so they’ll be back right after work, and we’ll have the whole weekend together.
“How does it feel being five years old?” my mom asks me, as she tucks me back into bed. I can hear my grandparents unfolding the pullout couch in the living room, wrapping the mattress with a large, white sheet, speaking in Yiddish, like they always do when they don’t want anyone to understand them. Normally, when my parents are gone, Dina and I share the pullout couch and my grandparents take the bed, but I get special treatment due to my highly contagious illness.
I shrug, and run a nail over my chin. “Itchy.”
“Try not to itch,” she tells me, taking my hand and putting the kitchen glove over it again. “It’ll leave scars.”
“I don’t care about scars,” I say.
“You might, in the future,” my mom says, but she might as well say I might on the moon. I can’t picture the future at all, especially when my mind is crowded with thoughts of the past.
“Mama, can we please go home?” I say. “I don’t like it here. It’s ugly and mean.”
“There’s nowhere to go back to, Zhannuchka,” she says. “You understand? This is our home now.”
“What about our old apartment?”
My mom sighs. “It’s not our apartment anymore. Someone else lives there now.”
The thought of this had never once occurred to me. Picturing someone living in our place makes me start crying. All this time, I’d thought it was still there, empty, waiting. “Stop crying,” my mother tells me, but she still pats me on the head. “Just give it time. You’ll like it here someday.”
“I won’t!” I say, still sobbing. “You’ll see!”
My mother stands up to grab tissues, and wipes my face of its tears and snot. “Now I’ll have to put cream on your face again,” she says. My dad comes in to see what all the ruckus is about.
“I’ve been waiting in the car for ten minutes,” he says. “What’s going on?”
“Zhanna wants to go home,” she sighs. She gets out the cream for my chicken pox and reapplies it on my face. “To our old apartment.”
“I thought she’d get over this by now,” my dad says. Then he looks at me. “Zhannuchka, what’s wrong? Is it because of the cake?”
I shake my head, which makes my mom miss my nose and get cream in my hair. “You didn’t even cry this much when you were a baby,” my dad says. “Aren’t you five years old now? It’s time to be a big girl.”
“I don’t want to be a big girl,” I say.
“Well, life is tough,” my dad says.
I turn away from them and start crying again. I wonder now if I would have been less resistant to change if my parents weren’t gone so much in those first few years in America. Perhaps all those differences at once were just too much: new country, new house, new language. We’d spent a lot of time outside of our apartment in Chernovtsy back in Ukraine—visiting relatives in the mountains, going to the Bukovina resort every summer to meet my aunt Rimma, random trips to Moscow or Sochi—and none of these relocations had bothered me one bit. But nothing about this felt right or good. It was like my whole world was dropped out from beneath me. There was nothing at all left that I could recognize.
From the hallway, I hear my parents whispering.
“Maybe I should stay here tonight,” my mom says. “I just can’t leave her like this.”
“But what should I tell Mike? We’re on thin ice as it is.”
“Just tell him—tell him I’m sick or something,” she says, then she lumbers back into the room, where I’m now pretending to be asleep, and joins me in the bed. I’m so mad I don’t even want her there, even though most of my anger comes from her absence.
This is a feeling I will often have in the years to come, and not just toward my parents.
“You know, our apartment in Chernovtsy was not even very nice,” my mom whispers, pulling the covers over us, petting my hair. “It’s better here. We wouldn’t have gone through what we did to come here if it wasn’t. Why do you want to go back there so bad?”
I don’t respond to her, but I don’t start crying either. I don’t exactly have an answer.
I still don’t.
Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to Wisconsin in the early 1990s. Currently, she lives with her husband in Chicago, where she is finishing up a young adult novel about Ukrainian-born twins with unusual superpowers. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Tusculum Review, Hobart, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a group of essays that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.