Wednesday, August 3, 2016

life in suburbia

I don't know if the writing skills I've acquired in these twenty years are quite enough to describe the confusion I felt when in 1996, age seventeen, I was overnight transported from post-Perestroika Petersburg to suburban America.
Directly from the airport, my host family took me to Wegmans. The international news reports had so recently been filled with the lines for bread and milk in Russia, and they wanted to show me the best of what America had to offer. (Wegmans is a Rochester-based supermarket chain that was just coming into its prime.) I saw my host parents' desire to please, to impress, and I was duly impressed, no doubt, and I wanted to be grateful. I was also disturbed. Did they think I came to America for the food?
What I came to America for I couldn't have expressed succinctly if asked, but it had something to do with Mark Twain, Jack London, Mayne Reid, even Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas -- all the adventure literature I'd read as a child.
Food wasn't it, but food certainly overwhelmed. "What do you like to eat for breakfast?" my host parents asked. I didn't know how to answer this question. Whatever was available? "Buckwheat" was not yet in my vocabulary, and I didn't particularly want buckwheat. On Sundays, my father used to make eggs sunny-side-up with "hunters sausage"--but that was my father's specialty, and nobody, not I, not my mother, not either of my grandmothers, could quite replicate it. Anyway, I didn't come to America to eat what I was used to. What I was used to was boring; I wanted to try new things.
The host family set out a couple of boxes of cereal in front of me. Probably something like chex and apple jacks and cinnamon toast crunch. The cinnamon taste I decidedly didn't like; everything else was sweet and delicious. Once they left me alone in the house--eventually, in the two weeks that I stayed with them, they had to go to work--I went through every open box in the pantry and every open container in the fridge, trying and re-trying everything. I knew what I was doing was wrong: I was binging and I couldn't stop myself; I was sneaking in foods I hadn't been specifically offered--and I couldn't stop myself. I had few distractions from the fridge. There was nowhere to go from the house without a car. My host family had given me access to a computer and explained how to use a modem, but I didn't fully get it and, anyway, I had only one email address with me--my father's--and I had already written to him. Once I got some paper, I wrote letters to my friends, trying to turn my recent experiences into funny anecdotes. I browsed through the TV channels and watched a couple of shows without understanding what was going on. There were few books in the house, and, anyway, I didn't think my English was good enough to attempt a serious book. The couple of Russian-language books I'd brought with me seemed too outlandish to read in my present circumstances.
One other detail stands out from those two weeks. There were cats in the house--to me, entirely alien beings. I'd never been around cats before, and these two, I now understand, must've missed the previous inhabitant of my room, my host parents' daughter who'd gone off to college. They came into the room looking for her and climbed onto her bed. Of grief, one of them peed onto the blanket. When I discovered the puddle, I was terrified. Was something wrong with the cats? What did I do wrong? What would my host parents think of me? I couldn't face the idea of greeting them when they came home with, "I'm sorry, dear host parents, I'm loving my time in your house, and thank you for being such lovely hosts, but pardon me for saying so, one of your cats peed on my bed today." I didn't want to embarrass them, I didn't want to create a situation, I didn't want to attract even more attention to myself than they were already giving me, I didn't want to admit to not understanding all the things I didn't understand. They already had a lot to explain to me, a lot that I wasn't getting.
I don't know why I couldn't tell them the truth. I just couldn't. So I did the simplest thing I could do: I lugged the blanket to the bathroom and washed the peed-on part in the sink with hand soap. The blanket was a thick down comforter I'd never before encountered and had no idea of how such a thing could possibly be washed. I don't think my host parents had showed me the dryer yet, and even if they did, I would've been to scared to try using it on my own. Having washed the part of the comforter that got wet, I wrung it by hand as well as I could and then put it back on my bed. It was thick and it didn't dry well. I felt lucky that they didn't notice anything was off when they got home, and the cats seemed fine.
That night, I woke up wet and freezing in the middle of the night. My nightgown had soaked through. The airconditioner (another completely new piece of machinery to me) was on high. I got dressed, sneaked to the fridge for some milk and a piece of cheese, and then slept the rest of the night on the rug next to the bed. It was a comfortable cushy rug, perfectly clean except for some cat hair, and it seemed just the right thing for me. With rugs like that, who needed beds? Come the next day, when the comforter started to dry, the cat came back and peed on it again.
Don't get me wrong. I knew that, with time, I would learn and get used to all that seemed alien and strange at the moment. I knew these were misunderstandings I would eventually laugh about. Nevertheless, I was hugely relieved when the time came to move to the dorms.

No comments:

Post a Comment