Breaking your own family’s heart is the price you pay for rescuing your own. Florence had committed herself to this credo, letting it carry her through the cruelty of the past six weeks—so that she was surprised, on the upper deck of the Bremen, to feel her faith recede. From under her narrow palm she gazed down at the people crowding the dock. A May sun accosted the harbor and coated everything with a blinding shine. The air smelled of coal and rotted fish. Small green waves raced from the hull back to the pier, where her parents and her little brother stood squeezed in among strangers. She would have shouted out to them but knew her voice could not carry over the screeches of gulls and the intermittent bassoon of the ship’s tremendous whistle.
Only after she’d bought her ticket had Florence told her parents she was leaving. Then she braced herself for the family volcano.
“Cleveland was not enough!” Her father’s shouts had rattled their Flat- bush living room. “Russia! You want to go where they’re shooting people dead for eating their own grain?”
She’d fought back. “No one who’s traveled there ever reported seeing any such thing.”
He turned to her mother. “Never reported! They’re being duped, Florie. And you’re being duped.”
“Sure, and the factories are only burning straw to make smoke come out the chimneys?”
“You think I’m such a dummy that I don’t know what kind of hood- winked world my own father left. A young person such as yourself, ripe for recruitment . . .”
“No one has recruited me!”
But his eyes were wild with lunatic distrust. “Let me see your Party card!”
“I don’t have one!” she shouted, her voice caving from tears. “For Pete’s sake, I am not a communist!”
“Then why, Florie? Just tell me why. What kind of madness is this, for a girl to want to leave her family, her home, all the people who love her? To the other end of the world!”
She could not tell him the truth. Could not show him the photograph of the dark-eyed man with the Apache cheeks, tucked in the back of her dresser drawer. Better they think her a communist than a nafka. “I am not leaving forever, Papa!” she said in a voice hoarse from shouting.
“Then tell us how long?”
“I can’t tell you. A year, maybe more.”
“And throw away another year of your life?” “I want to live my life.”
“Go, then! I’ve had enough of you,” her father said. “May the day never come when you feel the pain we feel now.”
Despite their threats, her parents had come to see her off. Her mother gave Florence her own fur coat to brave the snowy Russian winter. Her father bought her a traveler’s trunk. They stood watching as it was tossed by a ship’s attendant into the hold, where it took on the size of a matchbox beside all the other cargo—enormous boxes and barrels, chrome automobiles, upright pianos. Her brother Sidney had given her his beloved BSA Taylor compass, whose cold beveled edges Florence now dug with torturous pleasure into the soft flesh of her thumb. She’d discovered it in her purse only after she boarded the ship. She wanted to walk off the boat and give it back to Sidney, whose muskrat’s hard hat of hair was still visible in flashes among the bodies on the dock. But it was too late; the third-class passengers were boarding, blocking the gangway with awkward bundles. Danes, Poles, Germans, stocky in their winter overcoats and rubber boots. With their American children in tow, they were returning to their homelands in search of work. Observing them trudge aboard, Florence suddenly felt she was watching an old Ellis Island film reel flipped by the Depression into reverse: masses of immigrants returning to the ship, being herded backward through that great human warehouse as Lady Liberty waved them goodbye.
Her reverie was interrupted by an argument on deck. Somebody was demanding to carry a poultry incubator aboard ship rather than abandon it to the hold. Into the fray came the noises of a hen cock crowing in defiance of the third steamer signal. Taking advantage of the clamor and tumult, one of the Poles was making the rounds with a collection box. When he saw a tall, handsome girl in a tailored green suit, he mistook Florence for a wealthy young lady and approached her with a heavily accented speech about penniless deportees. It was impossible to hear the story in the flapping of ropes and echoes from port. She thought she heard her name being called—her father’s voice a hallucination conjured by the wind’s eddies. Florence opened her purse and gave the man a coin.
She felt ready for the ship to cast off, but a fresh commotion had seized the crowd. On the gangway ramp, a girl of about eighteen had dropped her glasses and was now palming around for them, interrupting her search only to toss angry defenses at those she was holding up behind. In her myopic squint Florence recognized the feral defiance of someone who’d learned to carry her awkwardness brazenly. A girl accustomed to being out of place. But it was her physical appearance that most struck Florence. The girl might have been Florence herself—younger, shorter, and plumper, but otherwise bearing an almost familial likeness. Her skin was equally pale; her curls, only slightly darker than Florence’s, had the strong kink that Florence had learned to tame out of her own hair with relaxers and combs. Someone from the boat was sent to help the girl, and soon her spectacles were retrieved from between the gangplanks. The commotion was drowned out again by a final signal from the ship’s heights. The chimneys belched coal smoke, and the engines of the tugboats began to turn. At last the Bremen made its imperceptible slide backward into the Hudson.
A flock of gulls with black-edged wings circled the ship as it churned and split the water. Slowly by slowly the crowd on the pier receded, her family along with them. Only the gulls stayed close. Trailing the Bremen, they rose and fell on a tunnel of air which seemed to propel the ship and everyone on it down a course that stretched irreversibly into a bright, portentous sea.
The following morning the sun’s rays were unobstructed by any buildings or trees. An ocean chill drew bumps on Florence’s arms as she sat on a lounge chair in the scalloped shade of an awning. She drew on her round sunglasses and attempted to read a book she’d brought for the journey: Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia by Ella Winter. Winter’s prose was making it hard to get past page 2. And another human relationship was presently competing for her attention: on the top deck, in first class, a tall madam with sunken cheeks and a greyhound’s ropy body was promenading on the arm of a much younger, darker-skinned gentleman. The man’s hair was gelled back like Valentino’s. His spine stayed rigid with military aplomb even as his companion petted his shoulder and brushed his ear with her thin lips.
“So—what do you make of her?”
Florence turned to find the girl she’d seen the day before. Her tortoise-shell glasses were now affixed firmly on the short bridge of her nose. Atop her curly head a woven beret was tipped at a precarious angle.
“Ella Winter. Your book. Another phony Margaret Mead, if you ask me.”
Florence frowned and took a glance at the cover.
“It must have been real disappointing for her to discover her Russians weren’t illiterate savages like the Samoans,” the girl resumed with no preliminaries.
“Have you read it?” Florence said mistrustfully.
“I read all I needed to in the essay they printed in The American. They’ll print any so-called scholarship as long as it’s penned by Mrs. Lincoln Steffens. You like it?”
It wasn’t a question so much as a preemptive dismissal of her tastes, and therefore, Florence decided, undeserving of a response. In fact, the book was astonishingly dull. Yet this odd girl’s exuberant abrasiveness now
compelled Florence to defend it. “And what about Dorothy Thompson— you won’t read her, either, ’cause she’s Mrs. Sinclair Lewis?”
“What kind of false comparison is that?” The girl plopped down on the neighboring lounge chair. “Thompson’s queen of the press corps. Winter is just another suffragette born twenty years too late.”
The girl’s eyes—as blue as Florence’s own—glowed with a lust for de- bate that Florence found all the more irritating having once had it in good measure. She sensed that entering into a conversation with this creature would return her to a version of herself that she had struggled to shed. In high school and college Florence had earned good marks but a part of her knew that the educators she admired did not admire her back. Her history teacher once applauded her to other students as being the kind of girl “who could chop down an oak with a baseball bat.” She cringed to think how tone deaf she’d been to this double-edged praise.
“Why a suffragette?” she now inquired with careful nonchalance. “The place of the working-class woman is beside the men of her class, not beside women of other classes. It’s basic Marx, if she’d ever bothered to crack him.”
“If you’d bothered to crack her, you’d see she acknowledges that Marx claims it’s only true for societies that haven’t eliminated class. Anyway, I’m not reading it for the theory.”
“I knew it! You’re heading to Russia, like me.” The girl jutted out her hand. “Essie Frank.”
In less than a minute, Florence was assailed by an artillery of questions. Which class was she traveling? Where was she from? Where had she gone to school? Where did she plan to stay once she arrived in Moscow?
“The Intourist Hotel?” Essie sounded horrified. “They’ll fleece you. They overcharge all foreigners.” Essie, evidently, would be lodging at a workers’ dormitory at the Foreign Language Institute, where she already had a job lined up.
“I’m only staying in Moscow till I can get a ticket for Magnitogorsk,” Florence said, in a way she hoped both sounded mysterious and discouraging of further inquiry. The Bremen was making stops in Copenhagen, Danzig, and Libau, and Florence had yet to meet anyone who, like her, was disembarking in Latvia and taking the train to Moscow. Judging by her talk, Essie had undertaken the journey with more preparation, carrying extra passport photographs as well as items to trade or gift. Her prepared- ness felt like a challenge to Florence’s faith in the future. “Magnitogorsk, all the way out in the Urals!” Essie said, either impressed by Florence’s bravery or stunned by her foolhardiness. “Have you got a job there or something?”
Florence was uncertain how to answer. She was hardly sure herself what dream she was pursuing: one of Soviet Mankind, or of one particular dark-eyed Soviet man.
At that moment, a coterie of passengers from steerage emerged on deck. One of the men waved to Essie.
“Is that your group over there?” Florence said.
Essie seemed embarrassed. “No, no, I’m not really with them. . . .” Having intruded on Florence’s privacy, Essie now seemed to be jealously patrolling her own. “See, there was a vacancy, and, last minute, I got the ticket on the cheap. . . . They’re all getting off at Danzig.”
“Oh.” Florence turned her gaze back to the couple in first class. The greyhound in her silk pajamas was arching her long torso in a swooning laugh, while her tanned and ascotted paramour clutched her waist as if to keep her from throwing out her back. “It’s like they’re posing for pictures,” Florence remarked.
“And wouldn’t you know it’s the press she’s trying to escape,” Essie said unexpectedly.
“You know who she is?”
“Everyone on this steamer knows it. It’s Mary Woolford, the utilities heiress, and that’s her new Alfonse, an Argentine polo player of legendary prowess. Oh, don’t look so shocked; he’s far too dark to be American. He’s husband número tres for her.”
Florence was shocked, not at the shade of the new husband’s skin but at Essie’s superior command of ship gossip. “Look, she just fixed his shirt again.”
“I hope she doesn’t get it greasy after touching his hair,” Essie quipped. “Ick!” they sang in unison, and nearly choked laughing.
“You know what they say,” Essie said. “ ‘From the back a damsel fair, from the front a wrinkled mare.’ ”
“Well, he does like ponies,” Florence said, before a second convulsion of laughter made the two of them collapse, red-faced, in their chairs. Essie removed her glasses and wiped her eyes, and Florence now found herself battling the powerful sensation of feeling won over by this girl, whose dimples looked like they’d been poked out with a gimlet.
“Don’t look now,” Essie said, grabbing Florence’s wrist, “but there’s a couple of Joe Colleges about to waltz over.”
Florence glanced back and recognized two young men in cable sweaters who’d been circling the deck since breakfast time. “More like Joe Grammar School,” she said, then stretched her legs for an extra precious inch of sun, letting the boys get a good look. The two young men consulted each other quietly before making their approach.
“We don’t mean to lean into your conversation, girls,” said the shorter of the two. He had a large-eared, cheerful face. “But my friend was convinced you were Norma Shearer.”
It wasn’t the first time a boy had made the comparison. On her good days, Florence could notice the similarity in the mirror: her deep-set blue- gray eyes, the aquiline profile people called “regal,” features that hovered somewhere between innocence and arrogance. “I’ll be Al Jolson if you want, darling,” she said, “as long as you have a Lucky. We’re all out of smokes, as you see.” On the courage of the sea air, she sounded like a hardened flirt.
The young man turned out his pockets. “Sorry, Miss Shearer, no gaspers before tournaments, coach’s orders. But we could bring you some desert horses from the restaurant. . . .”
And so they did. They said their names were Jack and Brian and they were traveling to Germany with the New Haven Tennis Club, as guests of the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club. With her nail, Florence opened the pack of Camels they’d brought and shared one with Essie.
“Russia! That’s really jumping the blinds,” said Brian when they told him where they were heading. “Off to build the Red Paradise?”
“As a matter of fact,” Essie remarked unplayfully.
The boys gave her a confused smile and turned again to Florence. Whenever Essie opened her mouth, Florence noted, it was plain to see how inadequate she was at saying anything that might hold a man’s attention. Soon the boys had to go to practice (somewhere in the ship’s labyrinth was a full-sized tennis court), but they asked if the girls would join the team for a drink after dinner. “If it isn’t past our bedtimes,” Florence said, waving them goodbye with a cigarette between her fingers.
That evening, after the second dinner bell, Florence met Essie in the carpeted hallway outside the Kronprinz Lounge. She took a look at Essie’s skirt, and at her shoes, and said, “Come with me.”
From the lower berth in Florence’s cabin, Essie looked around with un- disguised envy. “You’ve got this all to yourself ?”
“They don’t normally sell out of second-class tickets. What’s your shoe size?”
“Six-and-a-half. They pack us eight to a room, but it’s really nine because there’s a four-year-old, too, and the others are all Social Democrats who debate in Polish all night, so you can’t catch a wink of sleep.”
“I only have size eight. We’ll have to stuff the toes. Here, try this for size.” Florence threw her a loose dress with wide kimono sleeves.
“What’s the matter with the shoes I got on?”
“Nothing’s the matter if you don’t care to tell which one’s left and which one’s right, they’re so boxy.” She squinted at the dress and said, “We’ll have to cinch the waist,” though Essie hardly had any waist to speak of.
“The trouble’s my hair,” Essie said despondently. “All the salt in the air makes it a bird’s nest. If I had your curls . . .”
“You can. Just roll ’em around a hot pair of scissors. I’ll show you after,” she said. “Right now we’re late.”
The New Haven players, about half a dozen of them, were assembled at one of the high tables near the bar. Collectively, they gave off an almost menacing air of good health. Essie and Florence’s arrival aroused from them no interest apart from Brian’s cheerful dragging of more chairs. “Two Joe Rickeys over here.” He tapped his glass. “They claim to be out of gin, so we’re nursing bourbons.”
“Three Rickeys,” corrected a pink-cheeked six-footer beside Florence. “You’ve had enough to wash the decks, Kip,” someone said. Unpersuaded, Kip lifted a finger to the waiter.
“I’ll tell you one thing, the Davis Cup’s become too big,” said a young man by the name of Leslie. “No one hears his own name called anymore.
You hear ‘advantage, States,’ or ‘France four, England two.’ The fate of the whole damn country’s on your neck.”
Florence didn’t have the remotest idea what they were talking about, and was glad when Brian asked if the two of them were really headed to Russia. “Don’t we look it?” she said.
Kip cast a bored look over them and said, “The Frenchies don’t seem to be feeling the heat.”
“The Germans do, I can promise you,” said Leslie. “And they’ve got Hitler breathing down their throats about their physical superiority.”
“So long’s they’ve got von Cramm, they can still take the Cup. One champion horse is all you need.”
“Which one’s von Cramm?” Essie said, entering the conversation late, but the men went on talking.
“If von Cramm plays.” “Why won’t he?”
“He and Old Hitts aren’t exactly chums. Last year he called Herr Führer a house painter.”
“I heard Ribbentrop was trying to get him to sign up with the Nazis but von Cramm told him to go eat hay.”
“Too much an aristocrat for them, eh?”
“No, he’s sore about them kicking his buddy Daniel Prenn off the team.”
Florence saw Essie’s eyes grow bright with angry comprehension. “It’s revolting,” she said, “the way they’ve been expelling the Jewish athletes.”
“They’re crippling themselves without Prenn,” said Brian.
“Prenn’s an all-right player,” admitted Kip, “but no one’s irreplaceable.”
Florence was considering a proper rejoinder to this when Essie jumped in ahead of her. “It’s imponderable to me,” she pursued, “how Germany can even be permitted to host the Olympics when they’re driving out the Jewish players. . . .”
“Just imponderable!” Kip mimed cruelly. “Prenn can go play for someone else if he doesn’t like it.”
“The Brits will snap him up.”
“Or the Russkies. He’s one of theirs, right?”
“They ought to toss Germany out of the games,” Essie declaimed.
“So you don’t like their politics. Well, I don’t like the Bolshies and theirs,” said a sharp-nosed boy with a crew cut. “Let’s toss them out. And the goat-sniffing Greeks while we’re at it, why not?”
Taking the bait, Essie launched into an attack on this reasoning. But no one was listening to her. Even to Florence, she looked like a schnauzer among Dobermans. “I’d say your friend’s a wet fish on dry land, but there ain’t any for miles,” Brian said in a whisper to Florence. Florence felt a sense of shame for her silence—letting Essie take a beating from these shkotzim.
“Come on, chaps, no politics tonight,” someone pleaded. “Let the Olympic Committee sort it out.”
“They have sorted it out,” said Kip. “Brundage said all this talk about the Jewish athletes was pure booshwash.”
“And these committees always do such a fine job,” Florence replied, seizing her opening. She washed down the dregs of her Rickey. Her gaze fell coldly on Kip. “It ain’t booshwash when half the world’s calling for a boycott.”
“Not half the world, just a few Jews and commies who want to get us into a fresh war. Good night, everyone,” he said, rising to his full Aryan height.
“Auf Wiedersehen!” Florence called after him, and took hold of Essie’s hand before her friend could drop any more cinders from the hot cavity of her mouth.
“And that’s what counts for loyal patriots these days, Florence! First- class American flag-waving bigots. That’s who’s in charge, and that’s why I’m through with the fine U.S. of A.”
Florence could hear heavy tears gathering behind Essie’s nasal passages. Essie hadn’t stopped talking since they’d entered Florence’s cabin.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Florence happily assured her. She wondered why Essie’s dismay made her so buoyant. Then it occurred to her that, for the first time since separating from her family and boarding the ship, she was absolutely convinced of the rightness of her decision. America had nothing to offer her.
“High-minded swine with their muzzles in their fancy drinks and their heads in the sand. Hypocrites making nicey-nice with the fascists while they arm against all of Europe,” Essie went on. “And it’s people like that who’d be the first to call my parents traitors.”
“Don’t cry, Essie, or can you at least take off my dress?”
“Sorry,” Essie said, wiping her dripping nose on her bare arm. She removed Florence’s dress, revealing the girders of her yellowed brassiere and drawers. “Oh, look at me,” she cried. “I didn’t even have new bloomers or a proper girdle to bring along with me. If my mother was still alive, she’d have taken me to get one, but I didn’t want to ask my father for the money. Oh, Florence, he didn’t even come to see me off. And the worst part is, I’m to blame. It’s true, because I told him not to come. I didn’t think he’d listen. . . . Don’t make that face!”
“I thought he’d come anyway. But I said so many nasty things to him. Such awful things . . . See, we were all supposed to be on this ship together. My papa, my little sister Lilly, and my mother too . . . Oh, you’ll think I’m horrible if I tell you.”
“Sweetie, I wouldn’t.” Florence picked up Essie’s old clothes off the floor and sat down beside her. “Whatever it is, it’s all behind us now.”
For most of my life people have called me Yulik, though I go by Julian now. In spite of my coming into the world on the black banks of the Volga, my birth certificate unambiguously states my nationality as “American.” This honor I owe to my mother, Florence Fein, who at the time must have thought it wiser to have me catalogued as a Yankee than a Yid. (She herself could claim both heritages.) In 1943, on the cusp of a not at all certain victory against the Nazis, her decision might have been driven by the same logic that ensured that all the Jewish boys of my generation would proceed through life with their foreskins intact. Then again, maybe it wasn’t the invading fascists that Florence was nervous about, but her own Soviet comrades.
Who the hell can say?
I never asked my mother what was behind her decision, and I doubt she would have given me a straight answer if I had. Suppressions and omissions were an unshakable habit of hers, as they are of so many who carry on unreciprocated romances with doomed causes. As camouflage, “American” turned out to be about as good a cover for “Jew” as a sweater on a Chihuahua. It did, however, alter my life in one important respect: it gave a clear shape (a sovereign border, you might say) to my feelings of apartness. Maybe there is nothing remarkable about this today, when no worse fate can befall a child than to be ordinary. But in my time, when a modest, inconspicuous presence was a useful commodity, my American-ness was the port-wine stain that made me a freak and aristocrat. Even at the state children’s home, where I was terrified of the other boys learning of my difference, I nursed a bitter pride at my secret connection to the avocado-colored portion of the map about which our teachers spoke with such reverent loathing.
It was not until I actually set foot on American soil in 1979 that I was suddenly turned back into another Soviet pumpkin. The polite confusion on my patrons’ faces told me that the English I’d been speaking (largely in my head) since I was a child was about as comprehensible to them as Mandarin. I’d like to think that in my three decades as an American citizen I’ve come far in reclaiming my patrimony. I drink my beer chilled. I floss. I tip at least 15 percent. My accent is now of indeterminate origin. On the occasions when I’m obliged to travel back to Russia, I’m pleased to discover that my former countrymen identify me first and foremost by the blue color of my passport.
So why have I been traveling back? The simplest answer is that I am now employed in a business that has done more to advance the cause of Cooperation and Friendship between our two glorious nations than have decades of international peace talks and nonproliferation treaties. I am speaking of Big Oil. For the past four years I’ve been employed by one of the half-dozen oil-and-gas firms whose Washington offices form a tight little semicircle (or noose, some might say) around our nation’s capital. My own expertise is in icebreakers—those thousand-ton megalosauruses that chew through glaciers so that you and I can get our tanks pumped with the dregs of Paleozoic graveyards. Now that several of these grave- yards have been discovered in the Russian Arctic, I have no shortage of work. Every few months, I pack my polycarbonate Rimowa and board the red-eye for Moscow. By morning, I’m clearing customs at Sheremetyevo under the wordless gaze of a matron whose exquisite contempt in comparing my face with the mug shot in my passport reminds me that in Russia I am, like any other national, a nobody. For this refreshing humiliation I am handsomely compensated.
Lest it seem that money is the only reason I fly back, it isn’t so. What I most count on is the chance to see my son, Lenny, who for the past nine years has been chasing his own fortune in Moscow. Chasing, indeed. There are a few things Lenny hasn’t told me that I happen to know any- way. But persuading my son to cut his losses in Russia and come home has proven even harder than extricating my mother was thirty years ago. Wanderlust and stubbornness are homologous traits in our family. Were Florence still alive, she would be impressed with how her grandson has managed to dig in his heels. Her own refusal to budge was a masterpiece of dignified mutiny as monumental as one of Gandhi’s hunger strikes. In 1978, as we were getting ready to exit, she not only declined to emigrate with the rest of the family; she even refused to utter the word “America.” Only after a brush with incapacity did she start timidly, testingly, bringing up the topic. “Are you still planning to go to . . . that place?” was how she put it. That place. A couple of years ago, I read about a neurological condition that can afflict victims of stroke. A person suffering from this condition can look at a lightbulb and tell you its components—the filament, the wire, the glass. He can describe the shape and its properties. But for all the gold in Araby he’ll never be able to screw it in and turn it on. “Agnosia” is the formal name of the condition. Ancient Greek for “not-knowing.” There is no injury to the senses, no loss of memory. Simply, a person has lost the ability to recognize something for what it is. I’ve often wondered if a similar kind of menace had gotten its fingers around Mama.
Maybe I would have been less hard on my mother had she been another ordinary Russian afflicted with that national form of Stockholm syndrome they call patriotism. But she wasn’t. She was, like I am now, an American. More so. She had grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flat- bush, Brooklyn, debated the Federalist Papers at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College, tuned in to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, and watched Cagney kiss Harlow on the projection screen at the Paramount. No matter how much she pretended to have forgotten it all, I was never convinced that all that New York upbringing could be stripped from memory like so much scabbed paint. Surely, I insist even now, she must have once known what freedom smelled like.