America for Breakfast
By Olga Klinger
We left it all back there at the airport gate, behind the cage-like bars that separated those who said goodbye from those who left. Though those two things can be one and the same, it really depends on your perspective. I didn’t know what was what back then—I just thought we were going on a three-year-long adventure, and, strangely, three years seemed like a whisper, a sigh, a quick thing, even though I was just six. It was a lie meant to soften the largest change we would have to make in our entire lives, at least that is what we supposed, and my father elected to tell it. He told it to me, and I believed it, and no one dared to burst my bubble back then. It would be an adventure, and who could say no to that? I did not think much of all this as I glanced back, that icy January night, so Russian in its fierce cold that it bit you hard and would not let you go. I was being shuffled along by both my parents, their quiet fear pulling us forward. I glanced back and saw my grandparents, leaning against the black bars near the security gate. Were there really bars there back then, at that little airport in Russia, far north, where the wind howls and the snow-covered marshlands lie in wait? That is what I remember. It seems incongruous now; it brings to mind a penal colony, a punishment doled out, a separation more brutal than what we actually had to endure. The sadness was there, that is for sure. The sense of being torn from the dearest, most secure thing that I had ever known. And with that, there went my childish expectations that all would be peaceful and easy, all would be taken care of—it’s true. This happened. It happened to countless people back then, after the crash, and it happens every day to many more, in many countries in this haphazard world where people leave all the time, looking for that which is better, sometimes looking for their lives.
My brother was just a baby cradled in my mother’s arms, happily oblivious to all the proceedings. I still don’t know how my parents elected to travel this far with a baby in tow. My father grew nervous and irritable during all and any trips we ever took, and I cannot imagine how he managed to calm down enough to drag an infant on that flight with us. But there it was. Alyosha came with us. (I remember that there was talk, later, of how they could have left him with my grandparents, to be brought to us later—but these were just speculations.) Thankfully, he slept as if on command for most of the journey, which the rest of us found infinitely more difficult than he did. It was my first flight ever, and I could not hold back the nausea. Our layover was in New York City, and I remember looking at the people who got off the plane, who were merely visiting. They were put in another line from us, we who were immigrating, who had come to stay for good. They walked down another corridor in the knowledge that they would be going back. I felt infinite sadness then, but I told no one. Perhaps it was a premonition of finality, which my child’s brain nonetheless grasped, realizing that this big country would hold us far longer than any of us supposed.
And then we were in Oregon. We saw none of its famous green forests, for it was the heart of January and we were smack-dab in the middle of Portland, freezing a bit in our Russian-thick jackets. We were cold not because we were not used to the cold. We, who had come from the north of the world, with the tundra and taiga somewhere in our blood, we knew the cold. But the flight had been long, the future was a ponderous question mark, and we were rather skinny, all of us, except for Alyosha, who remained comfortable in his layers of baby fat and woollen blankets.
My father’s university friend Kirill picked us up, and we remained dazed passengers in his sleet-gray station wagon, which pummeled along the city roads like some sort of modern metal buggy, jumping with every hole or bump in the road. We were too tired to notice or care, and on we drove until Kirill dropped us off at a squat, ugly building (it was too dark to distinguish the color from the massive darkness that surrounded us, pressing down like a soggy weight) ringed by a myriad of parked cars. We had been issued an apartment by some sort of agency that catered to newly arrived refugees. I still do not know how my parents managed to pay for it, where the money came from, or why Kirill simply left us there, not bothering to take us home for a cup of hot tea.
My mother paced the tiny confines of the drab apartment, with its white walls that stared us down and poky used furniture that all seemed to be in various shades of brown. I took this all in, then collapsed on the queen-size bed that sat, strangely, in the living room. Of course, at that point I did not know the notion of a queen bed; we did not have queens, or kings, or other ranked royalty with which to distinguish between the pull-out couches, cots, and divans that we slept on back in the mother country, where we took for granted our makeshift sleeping arrangements: narrow mattresses pushed against walls on which hung those ever-present Central Asian carpets, beautiful and reassuring in their oranges, greens, and rusty browns. American walls were bare; they seemed naked to me, the white paint reminiscent of hospital walls. I longed for the familiar patterned wallpaper of our apartment in St. Petersburg. But before those feelings of incongruity could overwhelm me, I fell fast asleep, listening to my mother rocking Alyosha in the sanitized American night.
The next morning, we got to unpacking, and I was presented with a large cardboard box, printed with a Dole Bananas logo.
“Bananas!” I exclaimed. I had only ever had one before, and I remembered that day clearly, my father handing me the foreign yellow fruit, patterned with little brown dots like a clown hat.
“Not quite,” he smiled, “but we’ll get you one of those.” My father was tall and thin, and his thinness had become somehow more apparent after our two-day journey to Oregon. His elbows stuck out at odd angles, and his gray checked shirt hung on him like a toga on an emaciated Roman.
I tore open the cardboard folds and discovered an entire box of—lo and behold!—toys upon toys upon toys. My delight could hardly be masked, and my parents left me to rummage in the Dole box, my own cornucopia of happiness, long into the afternoon. I would learn, much later, that the box came from Goodwill and consisted of donations from the local JCC, which was helping my parents emigrate, or “flee,” to the United States. My father’s Jewish heritage had allowed us to take on the status of refugees, and the JCC provided certain services upon our arrival.I have faint memories of singing “Hava Nagila” and going to a summer camp where I could not speak the language (my first American summer, one that imbued me with an everlasting hatred of Capri Sun, which I thought tasted like sour rubber). But that all came later. For now, there were simply my banana box and me, and I eagerly ploughed through the stack of teddy bears and flowered skirts (there were clothes, too) and jigsaw puzzles, some of which were missing a few pieces, but what did I care? I was learning about the magic of jigsaw puzzles for the first time. Later, I would come to miss the wooden chess and checkers set that had sat in our living room in St Petersburg, though I had only known how to play checkers. Chess remained daunting. But that was later. Later, I would miss many things.
The next day was the Day of the Grocery Store. We were still jet lagged, but my mother pulled me out of bed, her light brown hair cresting the top of her head in a halo of wispy ends that reflected a woodsy, Oregonian glimmer even in the height of winter. Somehow, I thought, she already looked American, whatever that meant. I stirred on the cot that was laid out in the only bedroom, momentarily unaware of my location. The brown carpet on the floor stared back at me in a silence that seemed to judge. I felt sick.
Breakfast was something called cereal; my parents had picked it up on their visit to the store the day before. Alyosha gurgled happily, sucking on his bottle, which remained the same, regardless of clime or time zone. As for me, I stared ruefully into my bowl of what I would later learn was called Cap’n Crunch. The little man on the cereal box was wearing a visor that harkened back to my country’s communist days, and seemed grimly out of place in the sterile apartment. I glared at the carton in mild rage. America was not proving to be as exciting as I had hoped, now that the banana box had been rummaged through, over and done with, a pastime of yesterday. Across the wooden table, my parents looked gray and shrunken, suddenly burdened with whatever it was they would have to force themselves to do that day. A few moments later, my father downed his mug of tea (there were these used mugs with coffee stains on them in the cupboards of the mini-kitchen, and my parents had looked, to no avail, for tea cups, and given up) and was out the door. My mother cleared the dishes and sat back down on her chair, eyeing Alyosha with faint disbelief. What was she thinking? Same children, same faces, different place? I peered outside at the parking lot in front of the apartment complex. Parking lots were a completely new phenomenon, the gray expanse of cement an endless sea, and the orderly rows of cars an even stranger sight. I realized, suddenly, that I had not been outside, really, since before the flight.
And so, minutes or moments later, off we went, my palm clutched in my mother’s hand, Alyosha in a stroller that we had lugged successfully across an ocean. My mother carried cloth bags for groceries, for that is what we had done in Russia. We would soon be stunned, repeatedly, by the hurried demand, “Paper or plastic?” that would greet us at every checkout line from here on in. A fifteen-minute walk took us to the dirty steps of a run-down Safeway, a squat gray box that seemed to blend in with the sky. We were slightly stunned by the automatic sliding doors, which opened at the last minute, when we thought we would walk straight into glass. We had kept walking though, because walking into glass seemed like not such a bad thing at the moment, for some reason. Alyosha laughed with delight as we sailed through the doors, untouched.
My mother stopped, looking wildly around the aisles and aisles and aisles of boxes, cartons, slick packaging, everything bright and sterilized in the glare of overhead light. Around us, people walked about with carts of giant proportions, laden with enough food to feed a whole Khruschev-era high-rise back in our neighborhood in St. Petersburg. I looked around, too, eager to dive into one of the aisles, and realized, for a brief, dizzy moment, the absence of fear that had set in all of a sudden, like a prick to the finger, a steroid shot of confidence. I looked back at my mother, who still stood, rooted to one spot, pushing a few wisps of her hair over one ear in an attempt to calm herself. We walked slowly into the first aisle.
“Bread,” my mother muttered. “Bread and milk. That is all. Where to find it?” She was talking to herself, as she had begun to do in the last two days, as though she expected no answers from those around her. I certainly could not give her any. Alyosha had fallen asleep in his stroller, soft baby breaths escaping his lips with the regularity of a timeless, placeless clock.
I surged ahead, delighted with the endless array of shiny color that greeted me on each side of the aisle. I had never before seen this much food concentrated in one place; who knew it could be possible? I ran ahead, passing two women in jeans and sweatshirts (I could not read the lettering on the front; indeed, I did not know yet that there was such a thing as a sweatshirt) who were pushing a cart in which sat, unbelievably, an infant. I stopped, fascinated by such a convenient mode of transportation. The red-faced toddler of indeterminate sex, dressed in jean overalls and a yellow sweater, was surrounded by blocks of cheese and cereal boxes, and gurgled with joy. I stood, watching the procession. My mother and Alyosha caught up with me, and my mother hissed, desperation dripping from her words like thawing ice, “Olya! What are you doing? Look for bread.”
We found it two aisles over, but it looked nothing like what we had known to be bread, khleb, the blood-milk of our home country. Rows and rows of sliced cardboard-looking bread wrapped in identical plastic greeted us as we stood in the middle of Aisle C, transfixed. My mother coughed in hesitation.
“Which one do we take?” she wondered aloud. “There must be . . . twenty kinds here.”
“Mama, it looks the same,” I pointed out helpfully. My mother stared. Alyosha giggled.
“Let’s try . . . this one.” She reached for a square package at eye level on the middle shelf. It was light brown, and it looked like it was made of something spongy, not dough.
“That color?” I scrunched up my nose. “That’s not what we eat at home.” We were used to a deep dark rye, no packaging included, warm blocks handed over the counter of our local shop by one of the fat, perpetually rude and worn-out women who worked there.
“Nu, we are trying it,” my mother said grimly, thrusting it under her armpit and proceeding down the aisle.
The search for milk went no better. We finally stumbled upon it at the back of the store—an entire wall was reserved for refrigerated rows of white plastic jugs, which we assumed contained either milk or some mysterious chemical concoction. There was labeling underneath each jug, and my mother braved the icy air, leaning forward to read it. We had no notion of 2%, or skim, or non-fat versions of this product—why would anyone buy anything less than whole milk? No one we had ever known had ever dieted, or needed to.
“It’s some percentage,” my mother reported, raising an eyebrow. “Not sure why. Let’s take it.”
“Mom, it’s huge! It’s milk for a dinosaur! Or a giant!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “Maybe it’s something else. Americans don’t drink real milk.” Having come to this well-researched conclusion, I turned around on my heels and headed for an aisle that, I hoped, contained chocolate or candy. My child’s intuition proved right, for I was soon swallowed up by rows of circus-bright packaging. My fingertips itched for this foreign candy—I could not read the names, but the shapes and pictures were inviting, reeling me in with a sure, glossy hook. Finally, something good about this foreign place, I reasoned with myself, running my fingertips along the line-up of chocolate bars and packages of unknown sweet goods. I eyed two kids, one black, the other white, who appeared to be a few years older than myself, wearing blue jeans and gray puffy jackets, and who were staring at the sweets with equally ill-concealed desire. We stood there, silent and staring, our eyes giant hollows in our red-cheeked faces, joined in a silent camaraderie that crossed linguistic lines.
Moments later, my mother was at my side, having wheeled Alyosha into my aisle, lugging with her the mysterious white jug and the equally suspicious bread loaf. She glanced at me, noting my daze of sugary dreams, and motioned me toward the line of cashiers. There would be no sweets today. Or tomorrow.
The next morning, we ate cereal again. The milk was real milk, after all, but the bread we left in its sterile plastic packaging, having barely tasted it. Alyosha gurgled, happy in his world that nothing had yet broken. My parents were silent, the circles under their eyes growing into a determined shade of gray. I pushed my spoon around in my bowl. I did not like milk, I realized. No one had told me, then, that it made your bones strong. I longed for kasha and my grandmother’s berry pies.
The snow started to fall that day, a private, distant dream, and we watched it through the naked window panes. No one had hung up curtains for us in America. Not yet. Nothing had begun yet, but we felt that we had bartered for something that we could not get back now, neither paper, nor plastic.