Every Sunday, Java Plus Institute ran a full-page ad in the Upinsk Kommersant. The ad featured a mustachioed man standing next to a Cadillac under a tall palm tree. Words tumbled out of the palm tree like ripe fruit.
Ever since the Soros Foundation stopped funding my father's salary at the Museum-Apartment of Repressed Poets, my father had been preoccupied with computers as the way of the future. And he'd always admired America, for its liberté, égalité, fraternité, the rule of law, and other incantatory, remote-sounding reasons. Had I been born a boy, I would have been named Dzhordzh, after Bush Sr., who had just been elected. It would have been exciting to be the only Dzhordzh in Upinsk. But I turned out to be a girl, and so my father called me Marina, in memory of his favorite repressed poet, Marina Tsvetaeva.
My mother acquiesced to the name despite her dislike for Tsvetaeva, who, according to my mother, had been stupid to have so many children she'd been forced to send one to certain death in a Bolshevik orphanage. My mother was proud to have given birth to just one child, me. Even in hungry times, one was a manageable number.
When I first got my monthlies, my mother told me about her five abortions and recommended that I avoid men. I asked her how she'd picked me as the baby she would keep. She explained that by the time she got pregnant with me, she and my father had finally received their own apartment.
The apartment that rescued me from early extinction consisted of one room and a kitchen. We lived very much like the three bears. In the kitchen, there was a table and three chairs. In the room, we had my bed and two side-by-side beds for my parents. Our apartment shared the landing with my father's workplace, the Museum-Apartment of Repressed Poets. My mother liked to complain that the dead poets got more square meters than a family of three live people, which wasn't strictly fair, since we stored our bicycles, skis, and a large suitcase in the poets' unused kitchen.
After the Soros money dried up, my father continued to work unpaid for a while, leading school groups through the Museum-Apartment and then cleaning up gobs of bubble gum that the children invariably attached to the undersides of period furniture. We survived off my mother's gym-teacher salary and my edible erotica earnings.
My mother's ex-boyfriend and my parents' closest friend, Uncle Leva the Half-Jew, the only successful capitalist we knew, owned Brooklyn Hos, Upinsk's premier strip club. In an attempt to help our family, he hired us to sculpt palm-size naked ladies out of marzipan dough. Uncle Leva offered to pay us one dollar per marzipan ho, which he then planned to sell to Brooklyn Hos's clients for ten dollars.
At first, my mother didn't let me near the hos, as they were a responsible, grown-up job. But my parents' hos left Uncle Leva dissatisfied. They weren't arousing. They weren't appetizing. Stiff-backed, with strangely conical tits, they looked archaic, Uncle Leva said. He couldn't pay my parents if they continued to produce pre-Hellenic hos.
"I bet Hedgehog could make a better ho!" he exclaimed, calling me by the nickname I'd had as a toddler, when my hair was growing in all spiky after a shave.
Uncle Leva turned out to be right: I had a talent for mimicking the human body in marzipan. I watched my mother as she slumped on her bed darning a sock, with her feet folded under her, and pushed a lump of marzipan into the shape of a seductively bent-over ho. Uncle Leva applauded when he saw my work, and nearly wept when one day I took the initiative to paint the hos.
"Girl-child, you're the Rubens of the nipple!" he roared, admiring the delicate pink wash I'd applied to the dough. "But the paint—you're not using anything too poisonous?"
The box of watercolors claimed to be nontoxic. Uncle Leva licked the tub of green, just to be sure. He looked so handsome at that moment, with his thick, wavy half-Jew hair, and his powerful torso encased in a black leather vest. I wondered what made my mother choose my father, a nearly bald man who wore a layer of fat around his waist like an inflatable tutu. If I needed a good reason to have multiple abortions, Uncle Leva would be it.
"Mmm, this crap tastes like honey!" he declared. "You're a genius, Hedgehog! From now on, two dollars a ho!"
I imagined slowly kissing the green streak of watercolor off his upper lip.
"We aren't panhandlers, Levik," my father said.
Then the four of us went to the kitchen to drink tea and talk about what was to be done. Because my mother believed Uncle Leva to be smarter "in life," she wanted his opinion about going to America. Maybe because he was smarter "in life," Uncle Leva wasn't so sure about Java Plus Institute. But, familiar as he was with the world of scams, he couldn't quite justify his reservations. My father, on the other hand, sounded as if he'd made up his mind.
"At least JPI will get me there," he kept repeating.
I sipped my tea and wondered what it would feel like to have Uncle Leva paint my nipples with a sable brush. Even then I knew my father didn't really mean "there." What he meant was "out of here." Away from the poets, the gum gobs, the hos, and away from Uncle Leva, with whom he had a complicated relationship.
Once upon a time both of them had been workers of culture—my father was starting his museum, and Uncle Leva taught art history at Upinsk Textile College. Then Uncle Leva sensed the new winds and flew off to Turkey with a large suitcase, bringing back a batch of fake Levi's to resell in Upinsk. Before long, he'd moved on to more lucrative ventures, while father remained dedicated to his poets. "At least I don't have to sleep with a handgun under my pillow," he retorted every time my mother mentioned Uncle Leva's latest success. Some nights, lying in our moonlit room alongside the parallel lumps of my parents, I liked to fantasize about Uncle Leva's armed slumber (one muscular hand under the pillow; one finger resting uneasily on the trigger of a loaded gun), but in reality we knew nothing about his sleeping arrangements. The only indisputable facts were that Uncle Leva kept getting richer; that my father liked to call him "your novy Russky shit"; and that each time my father used that expression, my mother grimaced as if watching a crippled fly drowning in her sour cream.
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