Friday, July 23, 1937
Anya pedaled her new red bicycle across the thirsty lawn to save her tires from melting on the hot cement. Mama’s gardeners, Yat-sen and Pearl, stopped watering the row of drooping peonies and yelled at her. By her sixth month living in Shanghai, Anya could unscramble most Chinese phrases. Those words were bad enough she didn’t want to repeat them in her mind. She almost asked, “Didn’t your mothers teach you it’s rude to point a hose at Stella Rosen’s daughter?” But she stopped the question from tumbling out. According to Li Mei, mosquitoes flew in and laid eggs on the tongues of foreign girls who stared at the Chinese with their lips apart.
At first, Li Mei’s warnings had annoyed Anya. When Anya mumbled a derogatory comment about Babushka under her breath, Li Mei said, “A bad word whispered will echo one hundred miles.” When Anya moped around the kitchen, missing Odessa, she said, “You cannot stop the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.”
So she imagined the day of her return to Odessa. She would drink a bottle of Coca-Cola in the shade of the linden tree where Papa took the first day of school photo every year with her oldest friends, Luba, Angelica, and Lily. Luba was oldest so she stood on the far left, then Angelica, then Lily. Anya was last because she was the youngest. When she felt lonely, she arranged the photos in a line on the dining room table, starting with Kindergarten, 1929, and compared where on the linden trunk the four friends’ heads reached from year to year. In the last photo, Grade 8, 1936, Anya was four feet, ten inches tall, the shortest girl—the Jewish girl—the one unlucky enough to have a head of frizz.
* * *
Over an hour ago, Li Mei gave Anya the grocery list and demanded that she chop-chop to Katznelson’s, the kosher butcher. Tonight was meat night and Li Mei was making beef piroshki. Would Papa drag home a surprise guest to share the meal? Last week the Sephardic man he invited removed his sandals at the front door. Hairy-toed feet padding across her gleaming floors revolted Mama. Feet were a morbid curiosity to Anya. The only bare feet she’d seen inside Mama’s house were her own flat pair. Madame Tarakanova counseled her to give up ballet; she would never get her pointe shoes and attain grace without proper arches.
Predicting she would have a table full to feed, Li Mei had doubled her recipe for the fried meat pies. Anya read aloud Li Mei’s description of the main ingredients:
• 3 lb. beef: Ask the butcher to show you the meat before he wraps it. Check for bright red color with specks of fat. Don’t let him trick you with brown meat.
• 2 medium yellow onions: Check the skin for mold.
The last items—two pomelos—were included each Friday on the list Li Mei scribbled on Mama’s monogrammed stationery: no holes in the skin. Shake them good and listen for juice.
Anya knew how to choose a stupid onion, and by then, the pomelos, but she never stayed annoyed for more than a couple of seconds because, beneath the word “juice,” Li Mei had drawn a cartoon picture of Anya’s smiling face surrounded by a crown of curlicues.
Before Shanghai, Anya didn’t know the word for the odd-looking grapefruit the size of a bowling ball. Li Mei claimed pomelo could cure her mother’s bad habit of hollering and added segments to Mama’s salad daily. Mama liked the flavor, a sweet and tart cross between strawberries and an unripe orange. Li Mei peeled a bowl full for Anya’s birthday yesterday, without once squirting juice in her eyes.
But Mama hadn’t smiled at the party—not even the tiniest lift of her mouth corners—when Anya puffed her cheeks like a chipmunk and blew out fifteen candles—fourteen plus one to grow on—with one big typhoon of a breath. Good girls didn’t anger so she hung her head, instead of pushing her chin up and looking Mama in the eyes and admitting what was on her mind.
Will I be miserable in Shanghai on my next birthday? Will Mama ever be the mama I had B.C.?
Before China, Anya didn’t try to stay out of her way. They drank darjeeling tea together in the afternoons, sitting on chairs by the window overlooking yellow, broom-covered cliffs. Georgi played in the anteroom he called Mount Olympus. He wore armor made by Vulcan, fought murderous giants and monsters with one hundred eyes, and evil dragons with his sword, Excalibur. Mama tittered when he held the wooden replica across his chest diagonally and said, “Follow me, men.”
Now Mama’s sad eyes stared out; eyes that were dull as a muddy pond, dark as Erebus, the place souls passed through on their way to Hell. As if she were asking, why must we mingle with Hades, when Odessa was our Heaven?
Babushka blamed Papa. He should have followed Stalin’s orders that day the ugly policeman banged on the door, forced the family into the parlor, and read aloud a document, droning like a bagpipe: “You, Joshua Rosengartner, are a capitalist and therefore the enemy of Stalin and the people of Odessa. You will sign this document and join the Communist Party.”
Anya hadn’t understood the gravity of what he said—in the name of Stalin—until he threatened to kneel Papa down in the snow and shoot him once through his skull. When Papa shook his head nyet, the policeman turned on his heels, crushed the paper in his fist, and clomped out the door. Mama and Babushka staggered from the room and refused Valentina’s tray of blini and chai; Papa and Dedushka cleared their throats and spit when they whispered. Instead of amen, Babushka said oy vey to the ceiling. Georgi drew his sword and patrolled the doors and windows while the women packed. Angry words filled the house, mostly Mama’s side of the arguments. “… Don’t do this … my German debut … Joshua, no one is listening … I am a world-class trained soprano … a lifetime of voice lessons … No. I will not hush … convert … I don’t know that God … Odessa is my home … stealing my life … Please join the Communists, Joshua … No? You won’t? Ever?… I hate you. You are a svolach.”
Papa-the-bastard vanished with his family like scarabs skittering under a rock, on a moonless night in three black cars, headlights off, wrapped in plaid winter coats and cashmere scarves. Mama whispered, Lebn vi Got in Odes dos goldene land—Do svidanya. We lived like God in Odessa, the golden land. Good-bye. The train chugged from the depot, gnashing at the rails. Mama cried like a widow. Her gloved fingers held Anya’s hand, squeezing harder and harder as the train picked up speed. Mama stuffed her hands into her pockets when Odessa was gone. Anya prayed, Send the train backward to my room and my friends. She was afraid to reach into the darkness for Mama, and feel nothing.
If it were possible to collect her fallen tears since the last night she slept in her trundle bed, she’d have dozens of buckets to pour on the parched lawn.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrea Alban