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From "The Last Chicken in America"
I think a supermarket is a poor place for a romance to begin.
We came to America in July, and now, in August, the supermarket is still
a bit of a miracle, although our eyes are starting to adjust to the earnest
pinks and yellows and blues in the packaging that spell out foreign to us. We don't have a car yet, and our trips
to the supermarket are long processions along Murray Avenue past the BP gas
station, the karate studio, and the funeral home. The Giant Eagle is at the
far edge of Squirrel Hill, bordering on Greenfield.
Of the three of us, my mother is the most impressionable. While my
father and I trail behind, she gets carried away with her shopping cart,
marveling at the display of frozen pizzas, calculating the best price for a
pound of apples. She follows the supermarket circulars as if they were a
map to a treasure island, and soon we lose her. "Masha, where's your
mother?" my father says.
We find her in the aisle of canned soups. She is talking to a wiry boy
who looks my age -- seventeen, maybe eighteen, twenty.
"Alick is from Moscow," she says. "He came to Pittsburgh all alone."
"An exchange student," explains Alick. He shakes my father's hand,
and I step back a little. He looks to be the kind my parents adore. The
best student in class, always in the first row. A geek, a botanist, as we used to call them at my Moscow
Alick smiles at me, and it's the unpleasantly wholesome American smile.
It emanates charm and fluoride, good fortune and good breeding, and you
either know it's fake and don't trust it, or you trust it too much.
"You're living all alone? It must be hard," my mother says. "You
must be missing your parents."
Yes, confirms Alick, he misses them a lot, worries about them stuck
in Russia with the Russian economy forever plunging, worries practically
every day, sometimes can't even sleep at night. My parents give me quick,
chiding looks -- that's what children are supposed to be like.
He lives by the university, but his job is in Squirrel Hill. Four nights
a week he works at Rosenthal's Pizza on Murray, a faded yellow building
with blue lettering, nestled between the travel agency and Judaica Books.
The following night he comes over, bearing a large cardboard box of
leftover pizza slices -- a move sure to win over my parents. At dinner, he
tells us about his job, about the Hasids who come to the restaurant for
their kosher pizza, sweating in their heavy jackets and hats, their beards
and payess slick and unclean. They leave
miserable tips or sometimes no tip at all. Goddamn Jews, Alick says, and
smiles. He is, like the rest of us, unmistakably Jewish, with his squiggly
looks and black curly hair. We don't like Hasids either.
To my mother Alick relates the hurdles of his solitary life; to my
father he explains the advantages of Visa over American Express. We learn
that he is twenty, studies business at the University of Pittsburgh, and
that both of his parents teach economics at Moscow State University.
"He's got a good head on his shoulders," my father says, when Alick
finally goes home. "Unlike you, Masha."
My father is wrong and he knows it: I've always been a good student. In
our class in Moscow, I was the fifth best in physics and in math; my
composition on Fathers and Sons was sent to the
regional Olympics; and if it weren't for chemistry, I might have graduated
with a silver medal. This is what I think as I sit in my daily English
class and practice dialogues from the Easy Steps
"No man will ever notice you if you look so sleepy," whispers Regina.
She is sixty and well-preserved. She wears her hair up, twirled into a
crown, and her makeup is tasteful. It is unclear what men she is referring
to; the only men in our High Intermediate ESL are worn-out middle-aged
engineers with bratty kids in Allderdice High School and loud wives in the
Advanced Beginner class next door.
"Brighten up, Masha," Regina orders me. "Look at Larisa, how her eyes
are always shiny." Regina likes to maintain contact with the younger
generation. In our class, the young generation is me, Lariska, and Mila and
Yana, the twin sisters from Donetsk.
At lunch, Lariska and I take our sandwiches and yogurt outside. Lariska
is two years older than me, with dusky fuzz on the sides of her face and
eyebrows grown together in a loose checkmark. She wears turtlenecks from
the $9.99 store, and I don't think she is all that pretty. She's been here
for four months and she tells me there are no appealing boys among the new
immigrants. She is in love with an "old-timer," a mysterious distant
cousin, Zhenechka. He has a girlfriend, but Lariska is working to fix
"Any progress?" I ask.
"He still doesn't know what's good for him," complains Lariska. She
shows up at Zhenechka's house unannounced and ready to seduce. His parents
adore her. "He's melting too," she says. "I think he's melting." When she
is upstairs in his room, his parents don't disturb them.
"Do you know if you're supposed to wait to have sex after a yeast
infection?" she asks me. "Because I think I'm going to sleep with him on
I say I don't know. She has it all planned anyway.
Alick keeps coming over for dinner. Not every night, but often, three or
four nights a week. He sits at our dining room table, all smiles and good
"Loans are good," he tells my parents. "That's how you build your credit
history." He explains to them how credit history is important and how loans
are "the American way."
"Now, what did you do in Moscow?" he asks my father, and listens to
him mumble about circuits and resistors.
"I think you'll be able to get a good job here," Alick says with the
confidence of a fortune-teller. "Do you know how to do a resume?"
I get up and go to my room, where I try to read F. Scott Fitzgerald
without a dictionary. Then I walk outside, check the mailbox -- a few
glossy flyers from a furniture store, a PennySaver, no letters.
Later, my parents scold me for ignoring Alick.
"What's your problem?" my father says. "He's a good guy, so what's your
"Can't you be a little nicer to him?" says my mother. "The boy is all
alone -- show some kindness. How did you manage to grow into such a hard
I tell them Alick bores me. I tell them I'm allergic to his cologne.
"You've never been allergic to anything in your life," says my