Mother shit zhopa fucking blei sosat stinking kibbutz, thought Ulya as her green stilettos kept lodging in the soil of the cabbage field. But what was she supposed to do? Go to her nightly tryst in work boots? A gust of wind swept down from the darkness of Mount Carmel, blowing a strand of red hair into her gluey lip-gloss. As she tried to pick the hair off her lip, her shoe jammed again, and a bare foot with freshly painted fuchsia toenails slipped out and plunged into the mud.
Ulya came to a halt. She scanned the rows and rows of cabbages and the modest white houses of the kibbutz on the plateau and the smattering of village lights along the black mountaintops and was overwhelmed by her hatred for this place. How long was she going to have to live in this dusty part of the world surrounded by Jews and Arabs? It was said that until fifty years ago half the people in her hometown of Mazyr had been Jews, but she found this difficult to imagine when the only evidence was the 18th century cemetery overlooking the Pripyat River where cows and goats grazed among sunken stones. It was off one of these stones that she stole the name for her fake Jewish grandmother.
At last Ulya reached the fragrant grove where the trees were swollen with ripe mandarins and the leaves appeared gray in the moonlight. The hard orchard dirt allowed for easier walking and a more optimistic train of thought. When the USSR announced they were letting Jews leave for Israel, she had jumped at the rare chance to get an exit visa, and there was no use blubbering about it now. So what if one year later the Iron Curtain came crashing to the ground? Life in Belarus still wasn’t a bowl of raspberry jam. In her last letter, her mother wrote that she had taken to wrapping her feet in plastic bags before putting on her shoes because the spring puddles seeped through her worn-out soles. Ulya was lucky to have found a way out, and soon she was going to be in New York City. Of this Ulya had no doubt. She doubted almost everything—politicians, religions, isms in general, science, declarations of love, even family—but one thing she knew she could depend on no matter what: Ulya. She likened herself with her dyed scarlet hair to molten lava, a smoldering force that coursed through the world dissolving anything and anyone in her way. Ulya shook her head, amused by her own melodrama, and walked on.
A match flared in the trees up ahead, making her stomach turn in disgust. Why did she keep coming to see him? She watched the orange cigarette tip rise and fall in the darkness. This was very un-molten lava of her. Stupid. He wouldn’t help her get to New York.
Ulya’s heart had been set on living in that city of cities for eight years now, ever since that day she was working beside her mother selling dried fish on the platform of the Mazyr train station, and a stunning woman stepped off the Minsk-Kiev Express wrapped in a sable fur coat with the most lavish cape collar. It was November 1986, only a few months after the radioactive rains, and twelve-year-old Ulya couldn’t take her eyes off the woman as she sashayed toward their small stand with her high sleek ponytail and ballerina posture.
The woman smiled at Ulya, her white teeth glistening between painted red lips, and turned to her mother and ordered fifty kopeks worth of vobla in a Moskva accent. As Ulya’s mother selected the best fish from her offerings, the woman explained that she would never eat food from so close to Chernobyl, but it was good enough for her cat. The woman’s luminous skin and rosy cheeks made Ulya embarrassed by her mother’s gaunt face, faint mustache, and large chin mole, which echoed the black eyes of their dried perch.
A man in sunglasses and a shiny mink ushanka strode toward their stall with open arms, bellowing, “Hey, privyet! Look who’s here!” The woman put down her red leather bag to hug him, and they stood, clasping each other’s arms, gushing over what a delight this chance encounter was and how splendid the other looked. Ulya glanced at her mother, saw that she was too transfixed by the beautiful people to notice anything else in the station, and dropped to her knees. She crawled around the fish cart until her extended hand could snatch something, anything, out of the woman’s bag. Before she had thought about doing it, she had done it and was back on the other side of the fish cart fumbling to hide a manila envelope in her coat. Ulya had never stolen before, not even a fruit dumpling from her mother’s kitchen.
Fortunately the train started at once and the woman grabbed her red handbag and paper-wrapped fish and ran laughing with her male companion toward her car. Ulya’s luck continued when as soon as the dark green caboose chuffed out of the station, her mother mumbled that she was going to the toilet. Impatient to see what was in her secret envelope, Ulya watched her mother in her charcoal coat and brown headscarf slowly walk across the railroad tracks and climb onto the opposite platform. The second her mother disappeared into the cement station building, whose red digital clock seemed to be the only color for miles, Ulya whisked the envelope out of her coat.
Her fingers, raw and stiff from having lost her gloves earlier that winter, struggled with the fastener, the red string seeming to be wrapped around the buttons a hundred times, but at last she got the envelope open and pulled out—a fashion magazine! In English! Between constant glances to see if her mother was returning, Ulya riffled through the vivid pages, glimpsing legs in bold purple stockings, unnaturally red or platinum blonde hair, shiny high heels, gold purses, and outrageously padded shoulders. A two-page spread featured a dizzying nighttime wonderland where yellow cars streaked down streets and glittering towers pierced the black sky with silver and gold pinnacles; it would be a year before Ulya dared to show the magazine to a classmate’s father, a playwright rumored to be lax about contraband, and learn that this place was real and called Manhattan.
While she and her mother were waiting for the next train, her mother turned to Ulya and said, “Yes, so why do you stare at me? I disgust you, selling vobla?”
Ulya had been busy daydreaming about later that night, when she would study the magazine behind the locked bathroom door, and had forgotten that her mother was even there. She shook her head. “No, mama.”
Her mother shrugged and absently rearranged the fish. “Well, you will grow up and you will see. Learn for yourself. That in life you don’t have a choice. It just is what it is.”
Ulya, peering sideways at her mother, who was wiping her stinky fish hands on a tattered cloth, considered for the first time whether one of her parents might be wrong. It felt like betrayal to think such a thing, but Ulya couldn’t make herself believe she had no choice, no say in who she could be or what she could have. Look! She had chosen to snatch the magazine, and now its magic was tucked inside her coat. Even when it seemed like there really was no choice, none at all, Ulya would come to believe that if a person looked hard enough and put no limits on what they were willing to do, they would always find one.
Ulya straightened her jean skirt, reaffirmed how well the cropped pink T-shirt exposed her flat stomach and navel ring, and faced the shadows of the mandarin grove where the man awaited her. This fling was just for the time being. While she was stuck on this boring collective farm hell, spending her days in a windowless milk house. She was young and flings were a part of being young. If he got all caught up in it and had his heart broken, that was his problem. It wasn’t her responsibility to look after other people’s hearts. She had never had her heart broken. Why? Because she was so beautiful nobody would leave her? No. Because she looked after hers and didn’t stupidly hand it over to someone else for safekeeping.
When Ulya reached the barbed wire that ran along the perimeter of the kibbutz, she hissed, “Farid!”
Her Arab lover emerged out of the tree cover. He approached the cattle fence, his wide close-lipped smile betraying how thrilled he was to spend another night lying with her among the hill’s wildflowers and silvery olive trees. Ulya’s stomach stirred again, but in excitement, and her heart thumped as if she were afraid, which was strange because Ulya knew she wasn’t afraid of anything. Though they had been meeting like this for half a year, it still surprised her how even in the shadows Farid’s eyes were a lucent coppery-gold. She had to grant him that much, he had extraordinary eyes.
Farid chucked his cigarette, leaned over the moonlit barbs, and kissed her, not only with his lips, but with the smell of tobacco and coffee and musk and a grassy whiff of the kibbutz’s avocado orchard where he had worked all day.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Ulya felt a tug on the back of her T-shirt and realized she had forgotten to rip off the price tag.
“Oh, it’s new,” she said, hurrying to brush away his hand before he could see the price and know that she couldn’t have possibly bought it. Farid wouldn’t like that most of the clothes he saw her wearing had been shoplifted.
He touched her exposed belly. “It’s a nice shirt.”
She gave him an Aren’t you lucky? look.
He pulled on the top barbed wire and stepped on the lower ones, creating a hole for her to climb through. Ulya shook her head at the way Farid was holding apart the cattle fence as if he were holding open a shiny car door for her, and yet, looking at him, she had to wonder if one day she might miss this man and these nights when she was young in the Zevulun Valley.
“Yalla,” Farid said. “Come on.”
Don’t be an idiot, Ulya thought, ducking under the barbed wire, taking care not to snag her new shirt. Amid those glowing store windows and candlelit cocktail bars and elevators to sixtieth floors and handsome businessmen with platinum tie clips, she was never going to think about this barbaric place and its lovelorn Arab. She probably won’t even remember his name.
(“The Stopover” originally appeared in our Fall 2011 issue).
- The Stopover: a novel excerpt - May 28, 2013