Fiction

At the Russian restaurant

AT MY REQUEST, Slavik is taking me to a Russian restaurant in the heart of Melbourne.

This is him: narrow water-­blue eyes; lips long and slippery like snakes; chopped hair with a balding patch at the back of his head; a trunk of long, slim body and a piece of hippie jewellery around his neck (something representing peace or eternity).

He is generous with his money, but not his words. He toils at speaking English in an Aussie manner (howarya, mate?), but he sounds very foreign. When he is nervous, he smokes and forgets to keep eye contact. He consumes a lot of chewing gum and smells of fresh lemons, mint and expensive cigarettes. He drinks tequila, preferably Cuervo Gold, but in Australia not many bars keep it. He doesn’t hold this against Australia. He listens to music that makes me long for something vague, perhaps for love. He plays me Dead Can Dance, Portishead, Yello. He plays Russian rockers, all aged over forty, whose croaky songs are poetry.

He is a code.

It has taken me hours to get ready; usually I am quick, in an unfeminine way. I am playing at being Russian – something I have never done before, because I left Russia too young, because it wasn’t the thing to do when I lived in Israel, because I didn’t know how or didn’t have the urge.

Now I do.

My favourite Jewish holiday is Purim, when it is a mitzvah, or commandment, to wear camouflage.

I want to be a princess, a gypsy, a madwoman (this is the easiest), Little Red Riding Hood, but I want to be Russian most of all. I want to wear high heels, say spasibo, sing along to the Russian criminal songs that were popular during the 1970s and 1980s, smile at Russian men, and eat red and black caviar.

I want to live alternative lives – I am too greedy for just this one. I want to know what it would have been like if my parents hadn’t scratched us out of Russia. Would I have become a trafficked woman? A scientist, like my father? A beggar? Would I have married a noviy Russian millionaire, had Russian kids? Would I have been happier or more miserable, or simply a brittle marigold with big eyes and long eyelashes like the actresses in Russian movies?

I’m wearing my shortest dress – red, cut low to expose a bare back. Glossy boots to just above my knees, jewellery, painted night-­black eyes and scarlet lips. I feel safe, because when I speak Russian my Israeli accent signals I am not really Russian – I’m just playing.

I feel glamorous in a foreign way, and while we drive to the restaurant I dream of a sultry place in one of those Caucasus health resorts, even though it’s winter in Melbourne and the rain smashes against our windscreen like a battalion of flies.

My mother wrote in her diary that when she was young, on university holidays she and her girlfriends flocked to restaurants in Sokhumi to dance through the summer nights to the sounds of a moustachioed band. The wine was yellow like Caucasian cherries. Harcho, the fatty, spicy soup of lamb, rice and garlic, was served in clay pots with pastries layered in cheeses.

I think: what if I meet my mother tonight, in the Russian restaurant – her reincarnation, younger than me and still smoking. Would we like each other?

I am haunted by this idea. I want to catch her just at that moment in her youth when she still wore short dresses, just before she met the God she fell hopelessly in love with.

The restaurant is in an insulting location, pressed tight against a snooker parlour. As we step inside I understand how again I’ve got it all wrong: I’m a misfit and can’t hide it.

Most of the women are middle aged or older, wear their hair in chignons and have drawn their green, feline eyes at such high angles that they resemble multiple human versions of Lilith. The younger ones are in dresses that make me look like Cinderella before she’s met her fairy godmother. They are natural-­born ball dames, with elaborate garments that have openings and slits in utterly unexpected places. Their heels are long, their legs are longer and even the youngest seem older than their years – so sophisticated, with spray-­designed hair and miniature artworks on their sharp nails. I am intimidated – the only one with no evening bag and with loose, knotted hair – and so I turn to the food.

At Sokhumi’s restaurant, my mother danced with a tall Georgian student of fine art, and he invited her to go and eat watermelons.

That summer in Sokhumi the daytime skies were sparkling mirrors, and grapes were as big and hard as small apples. They sat on a park bench, one paunchy watermelon in a string bag at their feet, another between their bodies. He crushed it with the bone of his palm. The striped green-­and-­black husk cracked open and my mother, wide-­eyed, watched the uneven lumps of juicy red flesh glitter beneath the torrid sun. He sat there, separated from her by that assassinated fruit, his square killer’s jaw disturbed by a timid smile. They both stared at the exposed flesh of the watermelon.

In the following days they did what other young, unmarried couples did in Sokhumi: they walked the streets at night and kissed under the streetlights, under the cypresses, under the ancient buildings that had been ravaged during the Second World War and never repaired, but were decorated with gigantic red portraits of Lenin: We shall go forward. Step higher with energy and unity of will. VI Lenin.

What’s that noise? asked my mother. The shouts, wordless and wild like exotic dancing, penetrated her ears. The voices drove her mad; she wanted to escape them or dissolve within their music. She thought they were yowling: We shall go forward…with energy…

Monkeys, said the student. Imported from Africa. They breed them here.

They kissed again. She sucked on his wide, puffy lips as though they were milky African coconuts. The copulating monkeys kept sighing amid the nocturnal air humid with watermelon and animal juices. Someone turned on the radio too loud and the Red Army Choir slashed across the monkeys’ voices, croaking: Kalinka, kalinka, kalinka maya…

Slavik knows the restaurant band and we share a table laden with typical Russian generosity and sense of drama. The table is stowed with elliptical, rounded and square plates that look like details from Dali’s paintings. The plates’ contents are also Dali-­like, with double and triple meanings (remember, Dali was the one to invent the Lobster Telephone, deadly pomegranates, lewd pears and the last supper with an empty table): fine herring fillets covered with onion rings and vinegar, steaming garlic potatoes, puff pastries filled with minced beef and served with the Georgian tomato sauce satsebela, marinated cucumbers, mushrooms and garlic, fried mushrooms with onions and sour cream, mushrooms stuffed with feta cheese, and mushroom blini.

Russians are the kings of mushrooms, laughs Slavik. He doesn’t eat. I thrust my fork into orange salmon flesh.

 

SOME THINGS STAY with you forever, even though in Israel I rarely admitted my Slavic origins (it was too painful to bear the pitying looks of sabras: they thought I was not what I seemed, not as adequate). But some things are immutable: my tastebuds, for example. My palate has always stood out. I love the salty-­bitter-­fishy flavours despised in the West.

Is this the secret of my chronic non-­belonging?

But here they are, the treasures of my childhood, all crammed on the surreal canvas of this table. I take a slice of freshly baked black bread, smear it with butter, pile on crispy beads of caviar. The red and yellow and black sit blissfully on my tongue. If I close my eyes, I am a child again: an only child, sickly, and my parents sold anything they could find to afford pineapples and bananas and lavish spoons of caviar to increase my haemoglobin levels. I am a child again and I can crawl under the table and admire the ten-­centimetre heels of the amber-­blonde singer sharing the feast with us.

Slavik doesn’t eat.

The singer’s fingers spill around like ashes. She goes out to smoke, comes back and goes out again. She is beautiful and of unidentifiable age. Her voice is husky and her eyes are painfully blue. I like the way she looks – like a Chekhovian heroine, as though she is about to slash her wrists at any moment. I can always smell self-­destructiveness on people. It smells of everything I have never managed – of lost self-­control, unplanned life, pure present. I want to talk to the singer.

I want to be Russian.

The feast continues. The tables are crammed with bottles labelled in many languages, and glasses here clink more often than forks and knives. Slavik slides his hand along my exposed back. The allure of the unknown.

The room sparkles with fake jewellery and candle flames reflected in the wall-­to-­wall mirrors. It possesses the cheap charm of reception halls with chairs wrapped in polyester covers. Three Asian boys in circus costumes perform somersaults on the stage.

I ask Slavik, is this how you usually spend your time?

I prefer the Australian places, but some Russians come here every weekend.

This isn’t a restaurant, I say, it’s a Broadway show we’re all allowed to participate in. You tricked me.

He pours me some more wine. He doesn’t talk much. What do I know about him?

The allure of the unknown.

I want to be the Ariadne of his secrets – to pull their thread in the hope that when the clew unravels, it will lead us both out of this antipodean labyrinth.

Can a land of two exist? A language of two?

The student wasn’t an artist, but wanted to be a curator. He said art galleries were a sharp contrast to his home, which was always full of old relatives and cooking food and flies.

My mother said her dream was to translate Shakespeare into a more charming, fresh Russian than in the versions currently available.

They talked of Botticelli, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, staying in the safe waters of the classics. My mother by then had heard of others – Kandinsky, Goncharova, Malevich – who could have been good artists in the social realism tradition, but had instead chosen to spoil the hearts of the working masses with Western avant-­garde depictions of decay and decadence, and so had been exiled from the best country in the world.

Once she saw their lecherous paintings in the apartment of a friend. The girl had placed pictures cut from foreign magazines between old editions of Pravda – ‘truth’ in Russian – hidden under a sofa bed. My mother stared at the plummy purples, ripe tomato reds, spring-­grass greens and sunshine oranges of those pictures. The colours indeed seemed unrealistic in that windowless, communal apartment room with its faded furniture and cracked cups.

On a summer night saturated with fireflies and singing crickets, the student told my mother that she was his Rubenesque beauty. In that one sentence she – like a fairytale princess – was rescued by the Georgian prince from her anxieties about her full hips. She stopped worrying any more about her soft cheeks and rounded arms. She even started unintentionally losing weight, fitting into the pants of her shapely girlfriends who swapped their clothes like candies.

She called her mother, my grandmother: I’m getting married, mama. I’m in love.

Their words stretched between the sultriness of Sokhumi and the Siberian frost of white bears and storms.

Apparently the Dali painting was a mere entrée, and now we are served the main course: rice topped with creamy seafood sauce, the thick iron skewers of charcoaled beef and chicken shashlik, and duck baked with apples. I am somehow disappointed when all the little plates are cleared and the table becomes Western minimalist.

I eat the duck, but taste my childhood, when I was six-­years-­old and my mother got acquainted with the Jewish God and her black hair became permanently hidden underneath a headscarf. Once I told her this headscarf made her look like babushka, and was sent to my room.

Why don’t you eat? I ask Slavik, my mouth full of apples, forgetting the etiquette of early courtship.

I’ve had enough of Russian food, he says. They serve too much of it and it’s all so unhealthy. Next time I’d rather take you to the Japanese place on Fitzroy Street.

I’m happy it is not the next time.

The singer doesn’t look at me, addressing only Slavik and the male musicians. Her words are heavy with seduction (she passes them expertly through her nose), even when she is telling her musicians: nu-­ka, malchiki, poidem. Which means it’s time for them to go up on stage.

They play a slow song.

We dance, dance, dance. He is silky; I must cling to him. I have a weakness for him. We are both foreigners in Melbourne, but also foreign to each other. Yet we sucked the same language in with our mothers’ milk – a fact I cannot fully comprehend.

His Russian has very long vowels, snaky like his lips: spaaasiiiiiiiboooo. This is how they speak in Moscow. My Russian words are quick and raw like the soldiers from my former desert home. I distort Russian with my accent the way I distort English.

I have three languages, all spiced with accents. Perhaps another way to look at it – I mould languages, blurring the boundaries between Cyrillic, Germanic and Semitic. Is this what multiculturalism is?

For some people it can be unhealthy.

I have no language that is impeccably mine. It makes me afraid at night. Sometimes I stare at the stranger in the mirror: inflamed lips, protruding nose, long, thin hair. What language do I think in? Or dream? Or love? Love is tricky, isn’t it? Can one have multicultural orgasms?

I cannot encircle myself; I’m too fluid.

Will you rescue me, Slavik?

Slavik tells me not to be upset about the singer. Russian women grow up like this, he says, in constant competition. So they become hostile to other women. For them it is a survival act. It was suppressed knowledge in the Soviet Union, but after glasnost they calculated: there are about ten million more women in Russia.

Ten million?!

Yes, he’s eager to explain. The wars and political purges took many men, but also, peculiarly enough, the female birth rate is higher there. So you see, it’s not easy to be a Russian woman…men are always in demand there. Village women fistfight for their men – I saw it once myself.

And men?

They are spoiled. They have mistresses or marry much younger women. They don’t do any housework even when their wives earn more than them. But let’s not generalise.

And you?

I’m in Australia, he says.

My mother comes to mind again; so do the Sokhumi nights smelling of roses and young sweat. She was twenty-­two; most of her girlfriends were married, some already divorced. She watched them at parties – the wine and love coloured their skin rosé and they smoked in a refined manner my mother never mastered. She was good mainly for high marks at university, but she wanted love too…

My mother could finally fit into that white spotted dress with the tiny red flower just above the left breast. To her delight, it was hard to tell whether her Georgian was happy or not about her new body.

My mother will be happy when I tell her about you, he whispers at my ear.

Why?

Because she always hoped I’d bring home a Jewish girl.

Are you Jewish?

I used to be, but when communism broke down, I got baptised.

Really?

I rather like Jesus. He lacks the omnipotence of the Jewish God; he’s vulnerable. And I like his passion for forgiveness.

My palms are on the back of his neck; his face is in my hair. I breathe in lemons and foreign chic. I say, everyone finds God these days. I wish I had one.

He doesn’t say anything, but smiles.

It was time for my mother to go back to Akademgorodok, the Siberian university town, where in winter the frost painted the windows with the forbidden avant-­garde patterns of decay and decadence, where even at the end of summer the rains and winds swept the local students off their feet on their way to lectures. On her last night my mother watched the warm Sokhumi sky turn purple; her skin was glowing with heat and with something else.

He brought her a brass ring, awkwardly made (she imagined his hands crushing the metal like he had done with the watermelon, and something ached down to her belly).

He said, I promise to get you a better one for the wedding.

They kissed and the air went quiet. No monkeys, no radio, no distractions. She could clearly hear his every word, even though he grew teary with emotion and in his fiery southern accent confessed the extent of his passion for her: I love you so much, my Rubenesque beauty, so I’ll marry you even though you’re Jewish

 

AT THE RUSSIAN restaurant they serve chocolate cakes, fruit and coffee for dessert, but I cannot eat anymore. My swollen belly protrudes beneath my dress. I hope Slavik doesn’t notice. I hate vodka, but drink it. My head is spinning. My mother knew better how to handle vodka when she was still young, and believed in social realism and in the Georgian student.

Everyone in the world seems to be infatuated with this drink, even those who don’t drink at all. Even the matryoshka, the Russian doll, cannot compete with this fame. Say vodka and people forgive the Cold War, gulags, famines and the Iron Curtain. Say vodka in Australia and you earn immediate sympathy even if you are a foreigner. But what about the exquisite Georgian wines that taste of raspberry and currants? Or golden Baltika beer?

Voooodka.

I drink vodka because I want to go to the root of the obsession. And of my mother.

And of Slavik. After many glasses he leans very close and for the first time since we met, whispers in my ear a few fragments of his past. His words smoke of contraband guns. I kiss him – he tastes of something illegal. My head is heavy, and so I don’t ask him for clarifications. Not tonight.

The singer demands our attention, the microphone a sceptre in her nervous hands. In her Marlene Dietrich voice she announces the many cheerful occasions celebrated here tonight, and happy relatives mount the stage one after another to congratulate their beloveds. As they climb the steps flashing their silvery and golden teeth, swaying their heavy bottoms and straining arthritic limbs, elaborate flowers are laid at the foot of the stage like sacrificial flesh: gladioli, chrysanthemums, lilies, and black and blue roses.

Suddenly I realise: it is not a restaurant they come to here, but a time machine, which transports them on weekends to a youth they choose to remember as a succession of days of glory, when the streets spoke their tongue and belonged to them. When they understood the fashion, the manners and the body language, and spent weekends reading Pravda or samizdat instead of coming to this place that is squeezed between the snooker parlour and a Japanese car dealership.

Some time ago I congratulated a Russian acquaintance for getting her citizenship. What’s this to me, the older lady replied, when I am still a citizen of the Greatest Country?

Slavik, when he became a citizen, held a party deep into the night. After a tab of ecstasy the kangaroo and emu on his new passport winked at him for hours. He could not tear his gaze away.

I recognise a cleaner from the Russian bakery on Carlisle Street, now on stage. He’s usually dressed in a greasy tracksuit, always brushing something off: dust, crumbs, perhaps the present? But today he wears a uniform laden with many medals (what if he is a former general?) and reads his poetry dedicated to his newly born granddaughter: Tanechka, you are my joy and light…

I won’t say hello – don’t want to interrupt his leap into the past.

I’ve had enough, says Slavik. Let’s go.

Back in Akademgorodok, my mother tore up the Georgian’s letters. From the window of her student dorm she could see a big poster broadcasting: In the Soviet Union all people are brothers. Beside it, another hoarding pointed out: You must sweep the floor thoroughly every day.

She called her mother: How come you never warned me, never taught me these things? I’ve made up my mind, Mama, I’ll only marry a Jew or live as a spinster.

Her mother was beside herself: But that is just like the capitalist racism. You cannot discriminate. This is not how we raised our daughters…

No, my mother replied, we have racism here. As to the capitalist countries – if one day I’m ever allowed to visit there, I’ll let you know what’s going on.

Meanwhile, she asked for second helpings at the student cafeteria while dreaming of a Jew. She wrote the best essays in her department, spilling spice cake crumbs on her inky pages. Her sweet cheeks plumped up again.

This was still before she met her God. Or my father.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review