Everybody was acting crazy that day. By the time my mother and I got to the tavern at the foot of the hill, the place was packed with people, and they were all drinking and laughing and singing “God Bless America.” I was only 12, but as soon as we walked in, some drunk started hollering “Give the kid a beer.” The bartender went along with it, so now I’ve got everybody watching me and clapping. Even my mother thought it was funny. I almost puked, but I chugged the whole mug just to show them.
After that, my mother’s Russian immigrant friends made room for us at their long table, and this skinny old guy in a worn-out gray suit that was too big on him—my mother says he was a baron in the old country before the revolution—got up and gave a long speech in Russian. I was feeling pretty woozy from the beer, but I still remember him saying that the Second World War was so bloody and barbaric that God, in His infinite mercy, would never allow a third.
That didn’t make much sense to me back then. I was thinking if God was really so merciful, how come He let the first two wars happen? Anyway, that was four years ago. I’m 16 now, and I’m hoping maybe the old guy was right, ‘cause if there is another damn war, I’ll be in it for sure.
Actually, everything was looking pretty good for awhile after V-J Day. No more food rationing. No sitting in the dark at night, waiting for the all-clear siren and thinking maybe this time it’s not a drill. No more gung-ho newsreels that would never show any battles we were losing. Our boys—the ones that made it—were back home, the Depression was over, and everybody was making good money and buying new cars and refrigerators and all the other stuff you couldn’t get while the war was on. We had the first TV on the block, an Admiral console with a big 10-inch screen, and all my friends came over every day after school to watch. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all too good to last.
And I was right. Last summer started out lousy and only got worse. First the Soviets blocked all the roads to West Berlin—that was in June ‘48—and our pilots had to start airlifting food so the people there wouldn’t starve. Then that August Mrs. Kasenkina jumped out the third-floor window of the Soviet consulate in New York.
You remember the story—it was in all the papers. She’s that schoolteacher the Soviets brought to New York to teach their diplomats’ kids. They were sending her back to Russia, and she didn’t want to go. After she jumped, the Soviets ran out and tried to drag her back inside, but the cops came and took her to the hospital. She was hurt pretty bad, but she got to stay in the U.S.
Have you ever noticed how all the lousy things in life always seem to come in threes? Just a few days after Mrs. Kasenkina jumped, old lady Glazova completely screwed up my life. She went and told my mother that the Pitukhins were communists—and that lately I seemed to be spending a lot of time with their daughter Ksenia.
Now this was all my mother needed to hear, especially since she never liked the Pitukhins all that much to start with. Mostly that’s ‘cause my parents left Russia way back during the revolution, which is when my mother says all the “intelligentsia” left. She always looks down her nose at people like the Pitukhins who came to America 20 years later, when World War II was just starting—not ‘cause they hated communism, but just to save their skins.
Not only that. Before the revolution, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a high-ranking officer in the Czar’s palace guard—my mother is always reminding me about that—and my pop is educated and an editor at the Russian-language paper in New York. Ksenia’s father was just a bricklayer. I bet he made twice as much as my pop, but my mother called him a mujik, which means peasant in Russian. And she said Ksenia’s mom “puts on airs.”
Anyway, Ksenia and I were sitting on the beach that day with just our feet in the water, watching the little waves roll over our toes. I was feeling down ‘cause it was getting near the end of August, and we’d soon be going back to school, me in Manhattan and she in Brooklyn. I was thinking how in the winter, when I’m just falling asleep, I always try to think back to that sound the waves make, sort of like they’re whispering “hush-sh-sh, hush-sh-sh . . . .”
I forget now what we were talking about, but I remember it was a perfect beach day, not a cloud in the sky. At least it was perfect till I heard my mother calling me. She was back a ways, sitting under her beach umbrella like the Queen of Sheba, with a towel wrapped around her head like a turban so the sun wouldn’t bleach her dyed red hair. She has this snotty way of wiggling her finger when she wants me to come. Mrs. Glazova was just walking away to the next beach blanket on her daily gossip route, so I figured she probably had something to do with why I was being called.
My mother pointed for me to sit, and in this calm, everyday voice like she was telling me to eat my vegetables or take out the garbage, she said she didn’t want me talking to Ksenia or her communist parents any more. “From now on,” she said, “just walk past and pretend you don’t see them.”
I didn’t even think about trying to talk her out of it, ‘cause once she makes up her mind, getting her to change it is like trying to grab a banana away from King Kong. But the whole thing was so dumb! Ksenia’s parents never tried to talk me into becoming a commie. In fact, they hardly ever talked to me at all except maybe to say “hello” or “goodbye.” And Ksenia never talked to me about politics either, ‘cause we had all kinds of other things we could fight about. Like, I was a Yankee fan, and Ksenia always rooted for Da Brooklyn Bums. I liked Bing, and she loved Frankie. We were always going back and forth about something, but we never really got sore.
Not that I had a crush on her or anything. I guess I never thought of her as my girlfriend. She was more like my big sister, even if she was only a year older. I’m usually too serious—at least that’s what some people tell me—but Ksenia would always make me laugh and act goofy. She was like a little tornado, running, jumping, dancing, doing cartwheels, her long braids always bouncing and flying.
We met at the beach in Glen Cove back in the summer of ‘39, when I was six and she was seven. She’d just come over from a little village someplace near Stalingrad, and she didn’t know any English. I felt bad for her ‘cause none of the American kids would even try to talk to her. I was born here in the States, but my parents speak Russian at home, so that’s what Ksenia and I spoke at first. I don‘t remember when we switched to English, it just sort of happened. She learned fast, and before you knew it, you’d think she grew up in the bleachers at Ebbets Field.
I had weak lungs when I was a little kid. My doctor said the ocean air would be good for me, so my pop bought this old shack in Glen Cove, on the north shore of Long Island. I stay there every summer with my mother, and my pop comes out on the weekends. A little group of Russian immigrants, maybe ten or twelve families, also come every summer. My mother’s English isn’t so hot, so she feels right at home around them. They all sit in the same part of the beach all day and talk about the good old days before the Bolsheviks.
My mother calls our shack her dacha, which is sort of a country estate in Russian. But that’s kind of stretching it. The roof leaks, and the floors sag so much we had to prop up the front of the kitchen cupboard with old books. The iceman carries in a big block of ice for our icebox every other day, and every couple of weeks I ride my bike to the grocery to refill the kerosene jug for our stove. I guess our shack isn’t exactly the Ritz, but I’m at the beach all day, so I don’t mind.
Except for the outhouse, which I hate. I always look for a little twig to scrape the cobwebs off the seat before I sit so a spider doesn’t crawl up someplace it doesn’t belong. What’s really weird is there are two seats inside, like you’d want to have a nice, polite conversation with somebody while you’re doing your business. What’s even weirder is somebody painted two hearts and an arrow on the door.
Anyway, the neat thing about Glen Cove is it never changes. Every summer when I come back, it’s like I was never away. At the beach, a rocky breakwater runs from the shore way out into the Sound. Ksenia and I used to jump from rock to rock and race to the end. She was pretty quick, and I think a few times she let me win.
Three rafts are anchored off on the right of the breakwater, and on the beach there’s a row of brick colonnades where all us kids hang out when it rains. I never minded bad weather, ‘cause the grownups stayed home and there was nobody watching us and telling us what not to do.
The lady who runs the snack stand there has this big purple pimple on her lip. I try not to stare at it, but sometimes I can’t help it. She’s always keeping an eye on the girls she hires so they don’t put too much liberty cabbage—that’s what we called sauerkraut during the war—on the hot dogs.
A blind guy with hair like cotton and skin like brown leather—I’m not sure if he’s the lady’s husband or father—sits in a beach chair outside the stand all day and just looks at the sky. He reminds me of something I read in Ripley’s about these holy men in India that just stare at the sun for years till it burns out their eyes. He always has this little smile, like he knows something nobody else does.
Downtown, there’s a little old stationery store where they sell kites and balsa gliders and comic books and stuff. I like the smell inside, like mold and old cigar smoke. And there’s Henry’s ice cream parlor, which makes the world’s best banana split. And the Cove movie theater, with a dome ceiling and murals on the walls that make it look like some fancy Italian opera house. Like I said, nothing ever changes in Glen Cove.
Anyway, I was hoping to catch Ksenia alone sometime when nobody was watching and tell her how bad I felt about not seeing her any more. But she wasn’t at the beach the next few days. I was thinking maybe her mom found out about Mrs. Glazova’s gossip, and they might not ever come back. But finally, when I was out on one of the rafts, I saw Ksenia swimming out. My mother is as blind as Mr. Magoo. But even so, I was scared she might see us talking from the beach. So as soon as Ksenia came up the ladder, I asked if I could stop by her house the next morning to tell her something important. She just nodded, and I beat it back to shore.
She was waiting in her yard the next day, looking like she was waiting for bad news. I got off my bike and just stood there with my mouth hanging open, not knowing how to start. It was getting embarrassing, so she jumped on her bike, yelled “Come on, let’s go!” and peeled out of her gravel driveway. She had one of those lightweight English three-speed racers with the skinny tires. I took off after her, trying to keep up on my heavy one-speed Monarch.
She raced all the way across town without even looking to see if I was behind her. She finally stopped at the side of the road, dropped her bike and sat on the grass. I flopped down next to her and tried to catch my breath. She was just sitting there, looking straight ahead like a zombie. I was beat, and I was hoping she’d stay put for a while, so I lay back on the grass and tried to relax. And that’s when she leans down and plants this long wet kiss on me. I just lay there, trying to figure out if I liked it.
By the time I sat up, she was staring off into space again like nothing happened. Then, real quiet, she says, “I’m going back to Russia soon.”
I thought she was fooling around, so I said “Good riddance.”
But she kept talking in that same little zombie voice, like she was reading from notes: “Our ship sails late next month for France, and then the Soviet Union. We’ll land in Odessa and take the train to Moscow, where we’ll live. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone . . . .”
I said, “Oh shit!” I don’t usually use that kind of language, especially around girls. It just slipped out, but Ksenia didn’t seem to notice. She said her parents had been thinking of going back for the past two years, ever since Stalin invited all the Russian émigrés to return and promised them a good life.
I said, “If life is so great there, how come that lady jumped from the Soviet consulate last week? She said she’d rather die than go back.”
“My father says anybody who’d jump out of a third-floor window has to be nuts,” Ksenia said. “And anyway, I don’t think he really cares how good or bad it is there. My mom would just as soon stay here, but he misses his homeland, his rodina. He can’t get used to America—the language, the food, the music. He says life in Russia has a softer texture, a sweeter taste . . . .”
“How do you feel about going back?” I asked.
She just shrugged, which pretty much answered my question. I said if it was me, I’d run away from home. Ksenia said she had nowhere to run.
After that, we just sat there a long time without talking, until suddenly I got this idea: Our shack would be closed up for the winter after Labor Day, and I figured I could give Ksenia a spare key so she could hide there. She’d have to sneak out of her apartment in Brooklyn the day before the ship sailed and take the train back to Glen Cove.
I told her she’d have to go with just what she was wearing so her parents wouldn’t catch her packing. And she’d have to spend the night in the dark ‘cause the electricity would be shut off—and besides, the nosy neighbors would probably call the cops if they saw a candle or flashlight in the window.
After the ship left port, she could take the train back to New York and go to one of the newspapers. I figured if Mrs. Kasenkina got to stay after she jumped, Truman would let Ksenia stay too after the paper printed her story.
At the same time, I was wondering what her parents would do. They’d have their tickets already, and all their stuff would be on the ship. Would they go without her? I didn’t want to think about that.
All this time she just sat without talking. I wasn’t even sure she was listening, at least until she started mumbling “My father would kill me, my father would kill me.” She kept saying it over and over, like a broken record. And then she started to shake and cry. Maybe I should have put my arm around her or something, but I didn’t know what to do. After she was all cried out, we rode our bikes home.
The Cold War really heated up after they took Mrs. Kasenkina to the hospital. The Soviets said we broke some kind of diplomatic rules when our cops went on their consulate grounds, and they closed down both their consulates in the U.S. and made us close ours in Russia. Those last few days last summer, I made believe I didn’t see Ksenia, just like my mother wanted.
The Soviets ended their Berlin blockade this May, and we stopped our airlift. But now they’re saying on the news that Soviet spies stole our plans for the A-bomb. The C.I.A. says they won’t be ready to test a bomb for another few years, probably not before ‘53 or ’54 at the earliest. That’s sort of good news, I guess, so I’ll try not to worry about it for now. Glen Cove still looks the same this summer, except somebody painted the white rafts this ugly dark gray color, like the halls in my school.
My first day back at the beach this year, I was sitting with my mother under her umbrella, just hoping Ksenia’s parents might have changed their minds and stayed. I made up my mind that if I saw her, I’d go and talk to her, no matter who was watching. But I never saw Ksenia again.
Instead, Mrs. Glazova showed up and sat on our blanket. “Have you heard about the Pitukhins?” she asked my mother in Russian. “They went back to the Soviet Union last fall. I just happened to be chatting on the phone with their landlady in Brooklyn, who said the F.B.I. searched their apartment for hours after they left. You see? I just knew those people were spies!”
My mother shook her head and clucked her tongue.
“Then a couple of months after that, Pitukhin’s sister-in-law, that cow Chernousova, told me she got a letter from them. They were supposed to go to Moscow, but the letter was postmarked Vorkuta, which is 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, above the Arctic Circle . . . .”
“I know where Vorkuta is, thank you,” my mother said. “And I’m not surprised. My husband was saying just the other day that any émigrés stupid enough to go back shouldn’t expect a kiss on both cheeks from Stalin . . . .”
Mrs. Glazova kept talking. “Of course the letter had to be worded very carefully to get past the censors, but Chernousova managed to read between the lines. As soon as they arrived in Vorkuta, Pitukhin was put to work in the mines. So the idiot lost his head and started cursing Stalin—he was probably drunk, as usual—and they threw him in jail for six months. And all those appliances they bought before they left—the refrigerator, washer, vacuum cleaner—all confiscated.”
“Of course,” my mother said. “The Soviets don’t want their people to see what they’re missing . . . .”
“Oh, and you’ll never guess what happened to the girl. A couple of months after they got to Vorkuta, she ran off with a married man more than twice her age . . . .”
That’s when I got up and walked away. When I came back later, my mother scolded me for not excusing myself before I left.