Essence of Housekeeping
By Yelena Tylkina
I arrived in New York from Russia as a political refugee on a steamy July afternoon with only fifty dollars in my pocket, but measureless hope for a seemingly bright future. I kneeled and kissed the million- footstep- trodden, gummy, sticky, cigarette ash covered ground of the famous John F. Kennedy Airport, and shed tears of overwhelming happiness in having safely reached the promised land.
I’m in AMERICA!
“Summer days are long, so there is still plenty of time before the end of this memorable day to look for a job”, I was wisely advised upon my arrival by my sister-cousin, Zemfira Bergoldt, who was kind enough to meet me at the airport after eleven long years of longing for the family’s reunion. I turned with open arms and prepared to smooch my “miss–you- for-ever” darling, five foot- one inch- tall, munchkin Zemfira, and her family.
But, as quick as a middleweight boxer, Zemfira ducked her plump body, grimaced with disgust, and pushed me away. Her chilly welcome jarred me out of my joyful bliss. I raised my arms and sniffed my badly shaven armpits.
“What is it?” I asked, “A little too delicate for the old country aroma?”
My gruesomely obese nephew and cross-eyed niece burst with laughter, showing metal braces over their yellowed teeth. And next, the breadwinner -my four hundred pound square, brother-in-law, Mickey, who, incidentally, was my second cousin, stopped licking his ice-cream cone, sighed and lit a cigarette. With a sad expression on his pumpkin face, he looked at milky steams of cigarette smoke and spoke prophetically about my future:
“With your face… you aren’t going to make it in New York; Skinny, dark, no English. You look Puerto Rican! People will think that you’re our housekeeper! You belong with those people: dancing and fucking all day long. Pueeeeer-to Ri-cooooooooo…”
Fat Mickey unzipped his mouth widely, baring his periodontic, bleeding gums and giggled like a hyena over a fresh corpse. Screwing his fat, black, auto-mechanic, finger into my shoulder, he wiggled his layered, inflated hips. A Tsunami wave of suffocating rage reached my peaceful mental shore. My first reaction was to bite his kielbasa-size, rotten finger and swallow it without chewing and shit it out, just slightly digested in front of a whole family. But at the same moment, I remembered that I needed to crash on someone’s sofa and so far, in New York, I knew only these cartoon characters.
The family members that I grew up with in the same household in Russia had become weirdly shaped aliens. In the middle of summer, they had pale-green, transparent, jelly faces, with greasy lips, eagle noses and a heavy net of blue varicose veins that seemed to be hanging, dripping from their denim khaki shorts over their psoriasis infected skin.
Jet lagged from the flight, dizzy, disoriented and having lost the hearing in my right ear from a rapidly developing infection, all of the above made me reasonably mellow and agreeable. San Juan, Havana, Rio de Janeiro, samba, meringue, cha-cha-cha – Yes! With pleasure, I will carnivalize with rhythm oriented, sensual, suntanned people - but only after a bowl of hot borsht, a good shit and a shower.
The beige minivan subsided from the heavy cargo but, nevertheless, gave us all the treat of a comfortable ride home - to Brooklyn. I was amazed by the rich vegetation on the way from the airport to Bay Ridge. The brick, steel, glass, plastic, concrete jungle wasn’t so inhuman and scary. This was the beginning of my American life! In the comfort of the air-conditioned car, through spotless car windows, I visually absorbed new, all the exotic imagery that we passed on the way: architecture, flowers, birds, traffic - and I saw a raccoon digging through trash in broad daylight.
“A preview of my prospects” I thought.
I turned away from the window to face my ten-year-old niece, Kath. The “th” part of her name was impossible for me to pronounce properly and Kath would sound always like Kiss. She was an authentic American, a New York Yankee, born and bred in New York City. She was an odd looking child. Her face was a surrealistic painting in motion: Salvador Dali’s disturbed, internal, world manifested in one little girl. Kath’s ability to communicate in Russian was much better than my English. Both of us could use some practice and we engaged in Russglish chatting.
“So, tell me, how old are you?” she asked. Kath was rubbing against my leg and spoke in a very deep, sensual voice. She imagined that my miss-pronunciation of her name was an invitation to flirtation.
“In my early twenties, senorita Kiss” I answered.
Kath give me a stare, if one could call it a stare. The little girl’s eyes had a unique, incurable condition different from other cross-eyed people. Her blue pupils and dark centers of her eyes were in different corners of the white base of her eyeball. The amazing part was that she could see well, but focusing on an object was a challenge that sent her facial muscles to obscure, distorted expressions. The inbreeding had reached its acme. A panic attack of a powerful, realistic hallucination of being trapped in an aquarium with a deep-sea creature clogged my trachea. Gasping for oxygen, I barely controlled my desire to jump out of the moving vehicle.
Then Kath began her monologue:
“Ya’ know, you look like a goofy kid; you don’t have any boobs, your skin is dark and bumpy like a sand paper and I see a couple of black hairs on your chin. How gross! When I’m your age, I’ll have a size-E, like Mama, but Grandma is bigger- a dream size -F. She’s got to order her bras by special order. Ya’ know, American society is boob oriented. You’re not one of the chosen, you’re flat and no one in his right mind will marry you, poor thing. I already got a bank account for my wedding and a subscription to “Modern Bride” Magazine…”.
Kath went on and on about chosen and special people. I envied her enthusiasm for tomorrow. I thought to myself that sunglasses and enormous breasts, combined with a substantial bank account could be a winning formula. The little, goggle-eyed, Cyclops has a chance, so I better seriously shift my focus on Latin America. My Spanish vocabulary had up to thirty words more than my English and the Latin world appreciates tall, wiry, small-breasted women.
The radio blared, “Besa me! Besa me mucho! La- la- la!”
“No Spanish-mix! Change the channel! Put on some Russian Rock! We have a guest with us who knows bull about anything Spanish”.
My nephew Max made the request in a feeble attempt to welcome and comfort me, in memory of a decade old sentiment when I was his babysitter. A badly made copy of a vernacular noise crucifies me on the spot. Nailed by my scull to the back seat of the car, I silently wept.
“Jesus came from Jewish family and died suffering, but not like this.” I thought.
A two bedroom, tiny house with one and half bathrooms, still brought the proud owners, the family Bergoldt, to tender tears. The purchase was made a few months prior to my arrival. A few blocks away from the water, practically oceanfront: a gem, a wonder, an architectural masterpiece, a dream! The house was actually a cheaply built, aluminum sided structure, connected to other dreams on both sides: Polish, Italian, Greek, Bangladeshi, Equatorian, Afro- American. We all stood still for a few minutes in the front of their Winter Palace, their Hermitage, to pay homage to human achievement. After much struggle and sacrifice, the Bergoldts could mingle with the imperial crowd. In this corner lives so and so, an owner of mini-meat market (always fresh products) and in that corner someone who has connections to the Mafia (very quiet people), and there lives a lawyer (disbarred for a sexual harassment and embezzlement), but a decent, agreeable chap. The Bergoldts moved mountains to achieve respectability and a secure future and all I had to do was to walk the red carpet straight into the American dream.
What could I say? After Soviet Social Realism, when dust balls counted as an exotic food group and were distributed by rations, I had to admit, that anything was better than my yesterday.
“Incredible, sublime, fantastic!” I exclaimed, increasing the volume in my voice as I approached the last word and the exclamation mark.
The interior of the house was done in a “Le Freak C’est Chic” interpretation of Russian country style - Lubbock. The salmon colored ceiling with gold stencil print gently echoed the wallpaper’s repetitive scenery of a pink sunset over a palm outlined landscape. The wall-to-wall, wild berry linoleum intensified the magical impact on the visitor. Mirror-glass shelves reflected every delicate detail of the fabulous chatschky collection: Russian wooden dolls, matroschkas, ceramic figurines of unicorns, dolphins, ferries, kittens and puppies in woven baskets and a gilded edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, volume from I to P. Black veneer furniture, chrome finished electrical fixtures and plastic-glass coffee tables united in a silent partnership with the jewel of the crown of super refined taste: each and every immigrant’s dream - a 48 inch-screen television!
But, it wasn’t the décor and the two hundred-channel box that took my breath away. In the middle of the living room, a lengthy table with elaborate and lavish banquet sent spasms through my empty colon. Airborne molecules of paradise liquefied my body into a puddle of sticky drool. Very slowly, sliding my feet on the floor, I approached the lavish display of different types of cold cuts, cheeses, smoked fish, something with viciously large claws, salads and blintzes. Individually wrapped in plastic, the extravagant food presentation was a glistening spectrum of the color chart. To see a rainbow after a horrifying storm could be a spiritual, holy experience. God, All Mighty! Tenderly, I caressed the tablecloth and inhaled the complex bouquet of chopped, baked, broiled and cured aromas.
“Stop floundering with the tablecloth and start unwrapping the food!
My angel, Zemfira, was always on time with her wise guidance and worldly points of view. Treasures from Ali Baba’s Sesame Mountain were now at my disposal. Abracadabra! I was presented with kosher barbequed baby-pork ribs and other wonders of Jewish- Russian gourmet cuisine. Only the best and freshest ingredients were used to create the delicate masterpieces of the East.
My deprived life’s insecurities crept in and a paranoid idea seized my head: I was here not to enjoy the pleasure of these wonderful treasures, but merely to assist in the lavish party.
Fearful tears clouded my eyes and through a haze I saw the broiled, whole, spiked fish wink, smile, and say: “Hands off”, or “Fuck off”, or something along those lines, and then show me its tongue. I giggled, tried to step back from the table but got lost in a plate of wonderfully soft and creamy goose pate.
I regained consciousness in the back yard, huddled in a plastic lounge chair under a tree with my hand full of goose pate clinging to my chest and surrounded by a brave group of sparrows using me like a shield, flying back and forth, to steal crumbs.
“Hiya, boys!” I greeted the silly birds. “We may all be working together soon.”
I opened my eyes to the party, which had blossomed to twenty-five people or so. The barbeque smoked and sizzled, and the countless shots of Absolut had softened the borders between reality and absurd.
The buzzing human larvae with zippers unzipped, buttons unbuttoned, and lipstick smudged were packed to the brim with food and beverage, but couldn’t stop chewing and swallowing. I heard distant voices from across the backyard:
“She always was like this, dark and hungry like a roach. She’s illegitimate, you know. Who knows about her father? Probably not even a Jew. When she was three, we had to tie her like a dog, so she wouldn’t chew up the whole house.”
The sensational gossip collector, the hostess, let her tongue loose and became the center of attention. With hysterical dependence on the easy comfort of food and barking excessively like an abandoned puppy, Zemfira talked, with her mouth full of a hodge-podge of food as dressing dripped down her chin, to a bunch of bleached beyond recognition sirens. Blah, blah, blah, blah…
Through my ear yet undamaged by infection, I caught yet another folk tale. Around the barbeque stood Mickey, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, defiantly tailored from the leftovers of the living room’s wallpaper, holding forth with a free lecture on sexual harassment while waving a spatula dripping with oil.
“Some people would scoff at this, but studies show that 93% of men have felt coerced into sex at home. Marriage is like a double shift at the chemical factory, dangerous to the health and exhausting to the spirit. Half the time, I feel like a zombie during my performance, or like an astronaut, praying for a safe landing. Women are the Devil’s Inferno with hungry flames that reduce one to ashes. If not the kids…”
The group of listeners, five stout men with bull-size necks, guts hanging over their belt lines, greasy fingers and mouths full of burned cow flesh, howled in agreement and raised their glasses to the undeniable truth.
Kath appeared in my view like an ominous cloud, all sweaty and pink from excitement:
“I know that you’re fatherless. But, do you know who he is, at least?” She lisped in to my ear.
I looked at my hand full of goose pate, sighed and answered: “I am the daughter of the leader of the People’s Movement Against Oppression!”
The Cyclops’ reaction was very hard to read, she blinked her google-eyes for a long time, then popped: “What? I don’t understand. I can’t follow.”
“Precisely my point, my dear. So go and bring me a couple of crackers to finish this pate, go on.”
“I’m not your servant!”
Kath wanted to add many more adjectives and nouns, but was rudely interrupted with a big slap of watery bird shit on her face. Screaming and cursing in three languages: “Fucking shit! Blayd! Padla! Koorva! (fucking shit, a cheap and lazy whore, an easy slut, lame prostitute) in English, Russian and Polish - the last one, courtesy of a former nanny from Warsaw - the Cyclops turned and disappeared into the house.
Kath’s private school education is paying off handsomely. I couldn’t even finish my thought when I was swooped down upon by the famous, double-G size, Aunt Nina, Kath’s grandmother from Mickey’s side.
“What did you tell Precious, to upset her so much?”
Nina’s “nuclear submarines” vibrated rapidly to reflect her agitation. Staring at the two lethal weapons, human breasts with nipples size of my fists, I stutter:
“No es mi culpa, mira, paharitos locos shit on our p-pobresita Precious. I can’t interfere or stop the r-rascals. I was unconscious. No es mi culpa!”
“What is this shit with Spanish? This is a country of English speaking people!”
“Do you speak English, dear Aunt Nina?”
“I know my way around without it, you dummy! Now, I’ve got to ask you a very imported question. Be an accommodating girl and confess.”
Nina blushed, scratched her head under her cheap wig, put her sweaty palm above my knee, licked her lips hungrily and added: “If I take you to a doctor will I be pleasantly surprised?”
I hesitated to answer, but did so anyway. “The surprise is that my relatives’ core hasn’t changed. We all came from the same tree, then mutated in to a different species.” The goose pate melted inside my fist and dripped like a diarrhea between my fingers on Nina’s clothes.
“You klutz! Trollop! You got no manners or class!” Nina lost her polished cosmopolitan, high-handed demeanor and shouted out loud. “Are you a virgin or not? Answer me! I don’t have all day! People are entitled to know!”
She waved her fleshy hand at the party. Human larvae stopped chewing for a moment and some young men coughed or giggled in an anticipation of my confession.
All her life, Aunt Nina was a professional housewife, after her husband’s departure to a better world a few years back, she developed into a talented match- maker. With Nina’s zealous sense of duty, what had begun as a leisurely hobby became a profitable business. For their spoiled and insecure boys, Jewish Mamas wanted brides fresh from the boat, uncorrupted by temptation. Virgins were pricey but, with a proper certificate from a reliable doctor, negotiations could be completed rapidly to everyone’s satisfaction.
Mazeltov! Congratulations! Nahas, happiness for a hundred years!
“What century is it, the end of the twentieth? I don’t want to get marred! I have an education and, most importantly, I am a lesbian!” I announced proudly, trying to scare off potential marriage offers. The party cracked up in laughter and my body’s stock value shot up.
“These girls today are funny. They make each other’s hair and baboom! They’re automatically lesbians!” Nina maneuvered her monumental body between the guests, diplomatically explaining the delicate matter, if any doubt or confusion existed. “She is a virgin, a perverted one, but a virgin nevertheless. Tomorrow I will take her to a doctor. Mickey, throw more steaks on the grill. What a great party! Enjoy everyone!”
Nina was a living encyclopedia of traditional Russian, Jewish, and Polish folk songs and had a very pleasant singing voice. She belted out classic vocal pieces like “ Black Eyes”, a song about a Russian Army cadet- hussar’s passion for a dark eyed, Gypsy woman; “ Sen’ka Rasin”, a song about a Russian peasant who claimed to be Tsar Ivan the Third and demanded the Throne. He killed his beloved mistress front of his comrades to prove his loyalty to the cause; and, finally, “A Bisele Wein”, a Yiddish version of “A Little More Wine” – a song that always brought the guests closer.
So close, in fact, that my body was used as a musical instrument, my rib cage was an accordion, my buttocks -a drum, my fingers and neck, were used as a lute, a harp and a trombone. No new and exciting sounds were created, but the musicians had a hell of a time.
The morning cup of black coffee never tastes better than when suffering from a hangover. Every sip is an elixir.
“Give her something to eat, she look like an unripe prune! Her head is green and her ass is brown.” Exuberant and intensely perfumed, Nina slapped the refrigerator door.
“What happened to the leftovers from yesterday, Zemfira? We’re all hungry!” Nina then turns to me. “And you, Schlimazel, eat faster! We’re already late for the doctor’s appointment”. She pressed her index finger between my eyes.
“Strangely enough, missy, you got several offers of marriage during the party. The classic combination never fails: vodka and good shish-kebab, but strike while it’s hot! People here are very fickle.”
In her late sixties, Nina had more energy, than any young person I ever came across. She got fixated on the idea of my secure and easy life, which, for her, was marriage. “Marriage is the spinal cord of a society. A strong, healthy spinal cord can hold a promising future for the whole world.” My future husband would pay all my transportation and immigration debts to my family and I would be a respectable housewife with no worry of having to look for a job.
Sooner or latter, even a trapped animal would give up, and I wanted to avoid confrontations, especially during a crushing headache. I had an infection in my ear, so let’s go see the doctor and I would take it from there. When I asked for an iron to press my business clothes, I found out that wrinkled corduroy or denim, complete with white snickers and socks were considered favorites for the season. “This is not your village, this is New York, and people don’t dress for a doctor’s appointment. Casual is the way to go.”
I love having a little delicious sense of alienation. The obstinate and eccentric characteristics of my personality always hatch an adverse reaction of disobedience at any provocation. And my interpretation of casual was a starchy, little dress, in pink and yellow with tonal embroidery on a over-dyed dragon print and a pair of lime green sandals. My dowry consisted of just three pairs of shoes: sandals, dressy pumps and winter boots that were painted with industrial acrylics too many times to match the different outfits of my limited wardrobe. Piled layers of different shades of acrylic chipped off, showing the colorful decay of my sandals. At one glance at my creatively rebellious appearance, my relatives choked on that morning’s coffee, looked at each other with crooked smiles, but kept silent, remembering their Russian deprived past. Only Zemfira mentioned that she never saw a white person look so well in home-dyed, Caribbean colored shmatas.
The aged, shriveled, doctor immediately realized that I was not marriage material. For a while, we talked about art and poetry, and my untypical Jewish looks. The doctor diagnosed that I could pass for Brazilian. Are you a dancer? You’re a svelte young lady. A great posture! Could you do a split? No, I am not a dancer, just a propaganda artist, but yeah, I can do a split. I demonstrate the flexibility of my limbs. The doctor gave me an address for a cleaning job and a prescription for my ear infection.
Nina was disappointed that I chose work, instead of the security of marriage, but the address on Fifth Avenue across the Metropolitan Museum was a very promising prospect that I would not be a burden any longer.
I traveled to an unknown constellation, not visible through an immature user’s telescope, far away from even my imagination, to a non-parallel universe. I entered a Fifth Avenue apartment. The internationally exaggerated living space was blazing with luxury: gilded moldings and furniture, blue chip art, priceless artifacts, Murano glass frescos, elaborated fresh flower arrangements and an elegant host, in his forties with streaks of gray in his wavy, black hair and with impeccable manners. I did not feel overwhelmed or out of place. I studied art from the time I was eight years old, hitchhiking through all the major cities of the Soviet Union: Kiev, Yalta, Odessa, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Stalingrad, Brest, Grodno, Vitebsk, and the cities along the Baltic and Black sea coasts; I ate sandwiches in every café of all the major museums; I had my first group exhibition at thirteen in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, and finished a few murals before my emigration. And now to dust “ Picasso”, “De Chirico”, “Dali”, “ Chagall”, “ De Koonig”, and caress with soft feathers Chinese Objects de ‘Art from the second, third and may be the seven dynasties, vacuum naturally dyed, hundred year old, Persian silk rugs and change four hundred dollar designer sheets was like working in the museum’s restoration section. In a place of such intense beauty and deep cultural roots, I felt privileged to be a cleaning lady.
My English- Russian dictionary came handy, when my master tried to explain my housekeeping duties, which included nothing sexual but an occasional healthy stream of clear urine on his face. He wanted to be pissed on. It was a moment of quiet uneasiness. I am the same person who just a few days ago wiped her ass with grass under a wild bush in the geographically uncomfortable part of this world? And now I ‘m transformed to the winning finalist in an international pissing contest with a prize of two hundred dollars per urine sample? What’s the problem? I thought. When half of my life I felt like doing it for free to so many people I know, just put them in place. It’s time to practice my secret desire on strangers then move onto my family members. Where’s the soda? The cracking sound of opening soda cans releases the bubbling Genie. On the malachite tiles of the bathroom floor, about the size of my cousins’ living room, a refined collector, my master, was rolling in ecstasy in a champagne colored voyage. I caught my reflection in the oversized, inlaid, Versailles mirrors. A peaceful picture of a young woman with her skirt up, carefully, crossing a brook, got stack in my mind.
On the roof sculpture garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I spent the rest of my working day merely to justify my insanely high salary. With a spectacular sight of the Central Park, sitting under a Rodin’s bronze, I make myself comfortable before reading my aesthetic employer’s letter of explanation for his unique addiction, fetish, or urge. He starts with an epic:
The neon sign of a desire flashes
Linen on my bed in flames.
Deep in my throat a scream is laid,
Controlling involuntary vital functions.
Emotions seep into the medulla.
A contagious conflict
In a stream of blood cells,
That no one can evade.
Lonely tears corrode the metal core
Of the metropolitan beast.
My heart stands still for a moment
To catch a glimpse of an innocent wish,
But death is not an option.
In drastic lines, the scholar continues, that the meaning of life has dissolved into materialism and an endless hunt for possessions. Urine is a means for a higher level of communication, far beyond pedestrian sexual encounters. Only then do momentary connections accrue between humans. The urine stream is an umbilical cord that is never cut between the mother, the Madonna, and the child, and represents the essence of togetherness, and the true definition of belonging. The triumph of a human existence lies in an unconditional surrender to universal love.
Did I just participate in something bigger than one individual judgment? I dared to let go of my ego and venture into a world that may lie behind all artistic marvels. My act of urination could be the enormously valuable, intensely stimulating force behind the creativity of a poet. The City of New York contains ten, eleven, million people and many, like my master-poet, are searching for a meaning in life. I will be a solution to the educated, sensitive and artistic. A perverse virgin’s healing, cleansing power, ready for the request of the next stranger in need. The umbilical cord would never dry out or get soiled.
Event Date: June 1, 1989 NYC, US