Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Vladimir splashes a shot of vodka into one glass and a shot of vodka into another. Both drinks are for him. His black hair, sweaty and flatly curly, halfway between John C. Reilly and a mullet, crowns a cherry tomato face with still beads for eyes. "I have genius idea," he warbles, "you will write it and I will correct it and we will receive Pulitzer." I expect him to smile but he doesn't. "Do you want to receive Pulitzer, Alex?"

I'm at my Uncle Jacob's 70th birthday bash and I'm surrounded by Russians. This is no Bolshevik Revolution; this is a family celebration, a kind of gathering to which I've grown accustomed over twenty-four years. When I was little, I sneered at the plates of toast slathered in butter and red caviar. Russian food was gross, I thought. Who'd want to touch a beet salad when you could eat bologna on Wonder Bread? But that was the point of view of my six-year-old self, a skinny kid who read Bernstein Bears and snapped legs off Ninja Turtle action figures. Now I'm a graduate student in my mid-twenties. I've lived overseas and fattened my belly with live squid and raw cow liver. No longer do I find Russian food gross. Now, I find Russian food weird-looking.

At least I don't play with Ninja Turtles anymore.

Vladimir's Pulitzer question hangs in the air, unanswered. Meanwhile, I watch the toastmaster as he rises from his chair to entertain fifty guests with fifty opinions. Who is this master of ceremonies? He's the guy with a gray tangle of chest hair bristling apologetically from an underbuttoned silk shirt. His smile a you-think-I'm-funny-like-a-clown warning, his silver-spiked hair a certificate of a thousand past toasts at a thousand past weddings, he's Andre the Giant-tall and he has brass rings on his knuckles. He's no DiMaggio, but I bet he's swung a baseball bat. Paging Marty Scorsese, here's your lead for Goodfellas 2. "My Russian is not so good, so I will give toast in English," he jokes, before launching into a hearty Russian-tongued introduction.

My understanding of the Russian language is either laughably bad or surprisingly good, depending on your expectations. When I assure people that my vocabulary can't outwit a Moscow toddler's, I shock them with a casual, "Knee mah goo jaw vul lutz uh" or "I can't complain." For that reason, my Aunt Inna has enlisted my help to translate tonight's toasts for the American couple sitting across me: Mr. Weiss, a friendly but finicky-eyed gentleman, and his wife Ms. Weiss, a heavyset brown-eyed women with a metaphorical leash tapering her husband's ankles. "You lived in Atlanta?" Mr. Weiss asks me, his left eye blinking quickly, a tic. "Have you ever eaten a hamburger at The Varsity?"

"Shh!" hushes Ms. Weiss. "Listen to the toasts!"

I smile at Mr. Weiss, who rolls his eyes as if his wife were his drill sergeant mama.

As for the toasts, I completely understand maybe one of every seven beats, just enough to use creative liberties: "Family is important," I say, underlining fragments of my uncle's sister's words to Ms. Weiss, "Happiness...Jacob's wife...very good...can't want anything more...very good," I say. Lina and Katya giggle at my stuttering performance. They're recent high school graduates, teenage twins who I remember still as little girls in t-shirts stretched to their toes, spinning around in circles at the Cherry Rd. apartments thirteen years ago. We've spent a good chuck of the night talking about college, and then my childhood best friend, whose parents hit it big with a chain of popular liquor stores and subsequently moved into a house with a widely ballyhooed golden toilet. Vladimir bothers the girls with pointed questions about their majors, questions they answer with respectful smiles and I-dunnos. He then turns to me: "You want to be like Coen Brothers?"

"The Coen Brothers are great," I say.

"Academy authority say they are good," he says with a wave of the hand, "but that movie No Man, No Place For No Man, boring. Slow."

"I liked No Country for Old Men," I say.

He waves his hand again. "Do you want to hear my genius idea, Alex?"

I'm distracted by my cousin's three-year-old son, unfazed by the scratch on his nose, marching with a staff through the den as if he's a baby Moses. I offer him a high-five, which he delivers crisply. I offer him another one, but this time, I pull my hand away at the last second. Spooked, he looks at me. "Okay," he says, turning away and walking off. Sorry, baby Moses!

I don't always have a good time at these Russian-heavy functions, but tonight is an exception. "Law school, Alex, go to law school, Alex," my Uncle Jacob says. He is not my biological uncle, but he fills the role with back-slapping advice-giving warmth. His son Eugene, a product manufacturer lawyer, intervenes with commaless precision: "Don't go to law school don't go to law school don't go to law school." He summarizes his father's words with a classic one-liner from The Graduate: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word....Plastics."

After a few more drinks, Vladimir finally offers me up his genius idea; unfortunately, I don't really understand it. It involves an old woman, cancer, an affair, and some lugubrious twist muddled by whiskey. I lose interest. He wags his finger at me and says, "If you don't like it, you can be small teacher at Florida school!" In no uncertain terms, Vladimir is telling me to forget about the Pulitzer. Oh well.

There's always plastics.

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment


Jes said...

If not a Pulitzer, you could at least write the Russian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, family reunion style... ;)

maya said...

We just read this!! OH RUSSIANS :)

-Lina and Katya