The woman on the other side of the desk scribbled in her files. I studied her with interest: perfectly manicured nails, killer perm, and a beige pantsuit with the American embassy ID clipped to the left breast pocket. She warmed us now and then with one of those smiles that make you want to ask its owner to be your child’s godparent even if you’ve only just met. She didn’t look like someone who held the fate of my family in her hands.
Before the interview that morning, Mom had instructed Dad not to speak, for two reasons. First, he couldn’t complete a sentence without swearing. And second, but more important, he always said the wrong thing.
The woman looked up from her paperwork and turned to my father. In a version of Russian that made me feel like I was teetering on a balance beam along with her, she said, “Mr. Kopylenko, tell why you want exist in United States?”
I stared at Dad’s fedora, thankful that at least he had given up his earrings for a day. Mom tightened her grip on her purse, and my eight-year-old sister, Roxy, stopped swinging her legs.
Dad straightened, cleared his throat, and said in equally precarious English, “I want play with B.B. King. I great Gypsy musician and he like me. When he hear me play, we be rich. Here, I great musician, but nobody know. We live in 1980s, but feel like 1880s. Rus sian peoples only like factory and tractor. I no drive tractor. I play guitar. Her name Aphroditta. Also.” He lifted his index finger to stress the importance of what was coming next. “I super-good healer. I heal peoples. If you have hemorrhoid, I fix. I take tumor with bare hands. In Russia, I not free. I go to jail, you understand?”
I was mortified, my eyes jumping between Dad, the awfully quiet American, and my mom, who’d plastered on a smile like a fresh Band-Aid.
“We want our girls to have a better future,” Mom said in Russian, after recouping from the awkward pause. “You understand.”
Years of managing a Roma performing ensemble had taught my mother the schmooze side of business. She closed many impossible deals over black caviar and bottles of Armenian cognac, items she couldn’t bring to our interview, though not for lack of trying. That day, November 18, 1989, Mom had put on a periwinkle wool dress, a fox-fur coat—we had waited in line outside the embassy for three hours—a pair of Swedish-made boots, and not a flicker of jewelry except for her wedding band. She had made sure none of us looked too rich or too poor; it was important to appear like the average Soviet family. This was tricky, since, as far as Americans knew, the USSR did not have a middle class and was not supposed to have an upper class, which we happened to belong to.
This wasn’t Mom’s first trip to the embassy. Her brother Arsen, who had moved with his family—including two of my favorite cousins, Nelly and Aida—to Los Angeles three years before, sent us a visa that was short an important form: his agreement to sponsor us when we first arrived in the States. The visa might as well have been blank without it. But Mom didn’t give up, even though it took her years of networking, bribing, and entertaining in the classiest restaurants to finally get our file going. This last family interview was the key, quite literally, to freedom.
Thankfully Dad had kept quiet, and the American asked only Mom questions from that point on. Soon the two women were swapping locations of the best butcher shops in town. “On Wednesdays, go to Komsomolskaya Ploshad. Ask for Borya. Tell him I sent you,” Mom said, voice low as if the room were full of strangers waiting to snatch her secret.
It still felt then as if we were bargaining like prisoners caught between an unfair sentence and a pardon, but I could hear that freedom. In my ears, bells were ringing, that huge music they belted out from the towers of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
The woman flipped the pages of our file and addressed my mother in measured Russian: “I’d read here that you drink?” She lifted an arm to her lips and curled her fingers around an imaginary bottle. And a needle scratched across my sound track, exactly the way you hear it in movies.
The four of us halted like toys unwound.
Mom drank often. This was after Dad had nearly died of alcohol poisoning and renounced booze as the religion of choice, and before Mom started drinking every day. But what if Americans didn’t drink? Ever. I hadn’t considered that possibility.
With a look of complete mortification the woman said, “Oh goodness. Sometimes my pronunciation is bad. You sing, right? You singer.”
All the Kopylenkos in the room showed signs of life for the first time in at least fifteen seconds.
“Yes, yes, I do!” Mom laughed and we joined in, somewhat maniacally, as I recall. In Russian, “drink” and “sing” are a letter apart.
At the end of the hour, the American finally stamped our papers. She blushed while my parents took turns hugging her, all three talking as if they were going to be neighbors once we moved. Even when we walked out of the office I couldn’t breathe, too afraid she would change her mind and rush out to take back the good news.
Once we had our permission my parents didn’t waste time packing. In their desperation to leave they didn’t pause to consider the difficulties they might encounter across the ocean. They just knew that everything would be better in America.
The days leading up to our departure seesawed between too much activity and too little sleep. “We’re finally getting out of this hellhole,” Dad told anyone willing to listen. He practiced his guitar with frenzied dedication, for that fantasy meeting with his hero, B.B. King. It never crossed his mind that maybe he couldn’t walk up to any old music legend and dazzle him with killer technique.
Mom sold or gave away most of our valuables because Soviet customs employees weren’t shy about confiscating anything that turned a profit on the black market. Even our house had to go. According to Soviet law, we had to surrender all real estate before emigrating. Mom’s relatives talked her into giving it to one of her distant cousins. It was better than seeing it go to a stranger. My parents had friends who put their names on waiting lists for years for an opportunity to buy Moscow real estate. As connected as Mom was, it had taken her two cases of cognac and fifteen thousand rubles to bribe a housing authority official to bump up her name for a fifty-year-old house with cracked shutters.
Our house was located near the city limits, where oak and maple trees commanded the streets, making human structures look insignificant and fragile.
Muscovites preferred the city high-rises, and I didn’t know that only the old folks and the Gypsies still lived in those old houses on the outskirts until one of my fourth-grade classmates educated me.
“It’s like I read in my dad’s newspaper,” Nastya said, pushing a mop around our classroom. We had floor duty every Tuesday after school. “Our leaders built these new apartments for everyone to live in. Th e old people got smart eventually. But the Gypsies set up tents in the courtyards and said they liked to sleep and pee outside. Can you imagine? If you ask me, I think they just didn’t know what to do with all those walls and doors. Like, if you bring a mouse inside, it’s always looking for a hole to jump into.”
“What does that have to do with houses?” I asked Nastya, taking care with my words. When I started first grade, my parents, without much explanation, told me not to mention that I was part Roma. To Nastya, I was Oksana Kopylenko the Ukrainian, because all Soviet last names ending with nko traced their roots to Ukraine.
She leaned on the mop’s tip and whispered, “They’re closer to the dirt that way.”
After school I marched home and demanded to know if Nastya’s story was true. Dad was in the garage mixing paints—neon yellow and torch red—to use on our car. Mom stood inside the doorway, eyes fixed on Dad, arms crossed like a pretzel high and tight over her chest.
“It took those cretins five years to get all of the Roma off the grounds,” Dad said. “They were so used to people obeying that Gypsy insubordination was big news, headlines in all the papers.”
“It’s not true.” I was appalled. I had hoped Nastya had lied. “Why wouldn’t they want to live in a house? It doesn’t make sense.”
My reaction sent Dad into a fit of laughter.
“You think everyone lives like us? Nice place with modern amenities? In some cities those charity apartments don’t even have heating or water. You squat behind a tree and wipe your ass with newspaper.”
My parents loved that house. They had put in parquet floors throughout, except for the kitchen, where Mom preferred marble. Both bedrooms had sleek Swedish furniture, while the living room, the center of all gatherings, boasted curvy Queen Anne–style couches and Persian rugs.
“We’ll buy a mansion in Los Angeles,” Mom assured everyone who called to ask after her mental health. “And for dirt cheap.”
Dad left a number of albums with his sister, Laura, for safekeeping. Featuring my grandparents’ beautiful voices, they were produced during the height of Roma popularity with the Russian public and signified an irreplaceable legacy. He wrapped them with painstaking care in soft towels, laying them inside a small wooden chest. “It’s only for now,” he had told his sister. “I made copies on these tapes in case you want to listen to them. The needle scratches on that damn record player.”
My eight-year-old sister bragged to all her friends about the move. She had recently developed a crush on George Michael and had been making plans of her own, which included locating, ensnaring, and eventually marrying the pop star.
I spent most of those last days in an emotional limbo, uncertain of how I felt about the impending metamorphosis. Petrified to part with the comfort of familiarity, I still couldn’t deny my excitement at living in a place most of the world believed to be paradise. A few years back, a drummer from our ensemble had taken a trip to Las Vegas. When he came back, his eyes were as lit up as the fabled Sin City billboards.
“You get free soap in all the hotel rooms,” Vova had exclaimed in our kitchen. My parents, along with a few musician friends who came to hear about the States, wrapped their ears around Vova’s stories. Sometimes, like in the case of the free-soap claim, they would burst into a debate. “I don’t believe it,” somebody said. “Why should anyone need free soap in Vegas?” Another added, “To wash their ass with, after they shit all the money away.”
Roxy and I had lurked in the corners of the kitchen that night, trying to stay undetected. But when Vova produced a piece of something yellow covered in filmy plastic, we forgot about the threat of bedtime.
“What is that?” Roxy asked.
“This”—Vova held the delicate sheet between his forefinger and thumb—“is American cheese.”
Our cheese came in thick blocks, so heavy they could kill a man. Even when sliced, it never turned out so thin.
My father, always the smart-ass, interrupted the momentary glorification of the cheese. “Are the Americans rationing food? I thought the war was over.”
“No, man,” Vova said. “It’s like this on purpose. You put it between two slices of bread and cook it on a skillet until the cheese melts.”
“What about the plastic?” I asked.
“Here.” Vova placed the cheese into my palm. “You pull this edge up and remove the wrapper.”
A collective “Oh” went around the kitchen.
My father shook his head, still unimpressed. He turned to Mom and said, “See? I told you. Anybody with half a brain can become rich in America.”
But all I thought was, My God—singly wrapped cheese; so exotic, so needlessly luxurious. As Vova continued to list the marvels of everyday American life, I couldn’t help but daydream of what living there would be like.
I even got a special haircut for the big move. It was called the Lioness.
In the USSR, all haircuts had names. The Lioness looked identical to Jon Bon Jovi’s hair except fluffier. Tamara, Mom’s hairdresser, had suggested the cut to off set my eyes, which, she claimed, appeared unnaturally large compared to the rest of my face. If it’s good enough for Jon, I thought, it’s good enough for me.
For my arrival, I wore an outfit that you could appreciate only if you grew up during the eighties. In that case, you would be sick with envy over my aquamarine sweater and neon-pink corduroy pants, purchased on the black market for three hundred rubles. I had even put on makeup: a touch of green eye shadow and pink lipstick. I felt like a movie star. My Wednesday Addams personality nearly vanished behind the trendy Oksana who was about to move to the land of opportunity. I had no doubt I would fit right in, wearing clothes in the tradition of the MTV music videos I had studied. Perhaps this Oksana could pass for a girl with an average family, instead of a Gypsy one.
Funny: I really thought it would be that simple.
For the first fifteen years of my life, my parents performed in a traveling Roma ensemble the size of a circus. They had little choice in the matter—my grandparents ran it, and it was a family affair. Although my mother was Armenian by blood, once she married my father, she may as well have been Roma.
We led a spur-of-the-moment kind of life, always on the road touring and adjusting to schedules and local customs. Officially we lived in Moscow, but by the age of ten, I had traveled from the Mongolian deserts to the Siberian tundra; I had become adept at sleeping on the worn-out seats of old train stations and during show rehearsals.
Even after I started school, I tried to spend every possible moment on the road, in part to hide my inclination to forget homework assignments or to ditch school for a matinee of a foreign flick. But a bigger reason was fear. For the first five grades I’d done well as the Ukrainian Oksana. Then, one day, a classmate stuck a piece of paper to my back. I didn’t notice it for some hours, and by then it was too late.
The classmate was Aleksey Moruskin, Nastya’s boyfriend. Later, when he and I sat in the principal’s office, his hair and face stained magenta-red as he sulked at the floor between the principal’s desk and his feet, I knew his pout had little to do with guilt and a lot with the fact that I’d dumped a bowl of beets on his head during lunch. It was the only time I was grateful to the school cooks for making home-style vegetables every day.
Timofey Timofeevich, who sometimes punished students by making them kneel on a pile of dried beans in the corner of his office, sat across from us like God come down for Judgment one day early.
“Raskazivay (Tell me),” he said to Aleksey.
The boy mumbled, “Nastya heard her”—a nod at me—“grandmother singing on the radio,” then stopped and swung his legs like a kindergartner.
“I don’t have all day, boy.” Timofey Timofeevich sang bass with an a cappella quartet called Bright Sunrises. His voice reached places.
“The announcer guy said she was a . . . you know . . .”
“Where’s that bag of kidney beans I’ve been saving for a special occasion?”
“Hesaidshewasagypsy,” Aleksey pinballed in a single breath. The bag was opened, the beans scattered. Aleksey cut me a look that hissed of revenge. He kneeled down, cheeks puffed to hold in the sobs. You’d have to kneel for a while before it went from uncomfortable to painful, but he still cried.
“My dad is a Ukrainian Rom,” I said to Timofey Timofeevich, as if he were about to confiscate my last name now that the Gypsy part had been revealed.
“In that case,” the principal said, back at his desk now, “you ought to act like a lady, no matter the unfortunate choices your Ukrainian ancestors made with all this mindless mixing.” The principal’s admonition of my family’s unsavory behavior was quite common in the Soviet Union at the time. As the Stalinist cleansings made horribly clear, certain nationalities were considered second-rate—proof optional. Gypsies came third. We were quite new in our role as model citizens, a bit clumsy at it, and it seemed that even a few centuries of domestication couldn’t fully smother our nonconformist ways. We questioned too much, followed too little. Therefore, “trouble” and “useless” remained synonymous with “Gypsy” in a country that tooted solidarity from every slogan.
I lost most of my friends, my Gypsiness proving too much of a deterrent to their popularity, and whenever I could, I joined my parents on the road. The hectic stage life never allowed much time to dwell on school politics.
When we relocated to Los Angeles in the summer of 1990, we thought of it as another tour stop. “Here goes nothing,” Dad had said when we landed at LAX, winking like he was about to set off on some grand adventure. Never mind the fact that we barely spoke English. Since I spoke more of it than the rest, I knew that in case of an emergency, the task of communicating would fall on me. The prospect hurried my steps ahead of my parents across the crowded airport. Mom’s brother, my uncle Arsen, had assured us that he would wait outside to pick us up when she called him before we left Moscow. Nevertheless, we would have to make it from the gate to the passenger pickup without having to utter one English syllable.
In fifth grade, my foreign-language teacher, Ludmila Ivanovna, taught our class a traditional Scottish folk song called “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.” She wrote the lyrics on the chalkboard, expecting us to memorize them. Ever since then I had been obsessed with the English language, which sounded like spoken silk to me. For my eleventh birthday, I had asked my parents for a Russian-English dictionary, and I read it like a novel, though I didn’t understand most of it.
But now that I had a chance to practice what I’d learned, I couldn’t remember a single word. It didn’t help that once outside we discovered that Uncle was not there. An hour later, at one forty-five in the morning, we were still waiting. Roxy slept slumped over the mountain of our belongings: canvas bags and leather suitcases.
Thanks to an entire can of hair spray, Mom’s hair, also styled in the Lioness, didn’t move at all as she paced the sidewalk and peered into every passing car.
“Should I call them? Maybe they got the dates mixed up.”
“We’ll hail a taxi.” My father sat on the bench, smoking. He shook his head side to side, slowly. I couldn’t see his expression from under the brim of his fedora, but I heard him whisper “Hahs amareh khula (May he eat shit)” in Rromanes. Like most Russian Roma, Dad’s primary language was Russian. But when it came to swearing, he’d often make an inadvertent switch to the language of his ancestors, as if that somehow authenticated his complaint.
At the tail end of another hour a gargantuan vehicle dawdled to a stop in front of our bench.
Uncle Arsen lowered the passenger window and leaned out, grinning, his tall, wiry frame bent at an awkward angle, head nearly touching the ceiling.
Moments later we were speeding down the freeway, and I was amazed that even at this hour I could see into the depths of the city, thanks to its billboards and traffic. Moscow at night had the softness of a child’s bedroom illuminated by a night-light. Los Angeles didn’t seem like a city that would ever be caught sleeping.
“Will you help?” My sister’s question dragged me away from the car window.
“To find George Michael. Will you?”
“Go back to sleep, Roxy.”
Outside, like a beacon in the dark of an unfamiliar ocean, the Fox Studios’ sign shone over the freeway. It was beautiful.
“What do you think?” Uncle glanced around expectantly. “Bought it last week. It’s called Cadillac Eldorado.”
In Moscow, where traffic rolled down the streets like mince out of a meat grinder, cars weren’t a necessity; hop a bus or a trolley, get a taxi, or use the metro that stretched below the city in a subterranean spiderweb. Dad had bought a car mostly to transport his instruments, and it was a special occasion each time we mortals could ride in it.
“Very big,” Dad volunteered, with Mom adding “Oh yes,” as if they were speaking to a child.
“It sure is,” Uncle said, although his shoulders had fallen in response to the thin praise.
Uncle Arsen’s one-bedroom Hollywood apartment had no wallpaper—I was shocked, thinking they hadn’t the money to properly finish it. Later I’d learn that the spit-up color on its naked walls had a name—eggshell white—and that most dwellings in America came with bare walls and carpets stapled to the floor.
Uncle’s wife, Varvara, met us at the door with a lukewarm smile, briefly flashing discolored teeth as she attempted to hug my sister and me.
“Oh, look at you, Roxy.” She smooched her lips into my sister’s cheek. “So skinny, like a stick. And Oksana. Practically a woman, isn’t she, Arsen?”
I remembered my aunt with thin dirty-blond hair, peering hazel eyes, and an omnipresent smile at the corners of her mouth. But three years in the States had loosened her at the waist so much that she resembled a nesting doll, the kind Russians put atop their samovars. On the other hand, my two teenage cousins hadn’t changed at all. Nelly’s straight blond hair and fair complexion stood in stark contrast to her younger sister’s curly black mop and uninterrupted eyebrow.
We stayed up all night gossiping, reminiscing, planning—talking about everything and nothing at all. The adults gathered in the tightly furnished living room, drinking cups of Turkish coffee like it was water.
Aunt Varvara had set the kitchen table with a variety of cold dishes served in tiny crystal saucers. There was the delicious ruby-red Vinigret—a robust salad made with fresh beets, peas, and carrots tossed in grape-seed oil. A dish of homemade sauerkraut spiced the air next to a mound of shredded carrot salad sprinkled with ground walnuts and raisins. Estonian and Krakovskaya kielbasas took up the center stage like a big mama duck surrounded by her little ducklings. Though not an actual meal, the spread worked for a late- night snack when accompanied by many bottles of vodka.
Not wanting to be disrespectful, I ate, but the lack of American food sorely disappointed me. In Moscow, before McDonald’s had officially opened their first Russian restaurant in the late eighties, hamburger stands had begun popping up all over the city because some entrepreneur believed that hamburgers equaled wealth. Young people loved the idea of trying something American, even if older folks disapproved of any influence from the evil place across the ocean. Not much to look at, the hamburger still signified a threat. But my friends and I gladly paid two rubles to sample the Devil’s treat.
Thin buns concealed a sheet of overcooked meat smeared with some red stuff and a sliver of dehydrated pickle. It did not put fear in our hearts, and it failed to fill our stomachs. But despite its shortcomings, we devoured this poor relative of the fast-food superstar as if we’d never eaten meat and bread at the same time in our lives.