It’s a feature of my persistent narcissism that I have often assumed I’m the first to discover something inexplicable. I’m the first to stumble into the vortex of writing, that out-of-control spiral of need and greed and forward motion. I’m the first to dice up my skin in the name of despair (though I never felt any pressure relief from cutting; I was an intensely practical self-mutilator, rehearsing for the inevitable main event).
I didn’t come to adolescence loving myself. I got breasts at nine and shit went downhill from there. The sense of body that I’d had before—the body that could climb trees and scale the sides of the creek by my house—vanished. Now I had this brand new vehicle I didn’t know how to drive.
It had never really occurred to me that I was a “girl” and thus not a “boy.” Until puberty any differences between those two states were negligible. When I was the leader of the girls’ tag team in grammar school, I enlisted my best friend Tommy to play on our side. I vividly remember standing on the playground while the other kids tried to explain to me that Tommy couldn’t play on the girls’ side.
Since I wasn’t convinced, I said, “Then I’m not gonna play.” So they gave in. And Tommy played on the girls’ team.
Then I’m not gonna play could accurately asses most of my responses to things that are assumed. If anyone had told me masturbation existed, I probably would have avoided doing it out of sheer antagonism.
I had no idea. I thought I was a fucking genius. This body, that was all sorts of screwed up, which I could only vaguely relate to the bodies of others (while maintaining a level of mental foreignness that served to alienate me from myself), could, when played just right, feel fantastic. Better, in fact, than running the bases at softball, and almost as good as that burst of energy I used to get jetting clear across the soccer field to stop the opposing team’s offense from scoring.
There was a problem, though. A relatively large problem.
I was fucking terrible at masturbating. Oh man. Really, really awful.
I stumbled into physical pleasure through ignorance and experimentation, like I’ve stumbled into most things worth doing. And when I say “ignorance” I’m not kidding. I’d somehow made it to eleven years old without really understanding my own anatomy.
How much I can blame the world for this is debatable. I don’t remember anyone ever using words like “labia” and “clitoris” and “vulva,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. In my early memories, I didn’t inhabit my body. I inhabited other people’s bodies, on a somewhat random basis, usually having to do with how cool their bike was, or how interesting I found the way they talked.
Had I been a more social child, I would have probably decided to be an actor. The line blurs between acting and fiction writing; I put on other people’s clothes all the time, I walk in their shoes, I think their thoughts. I have made rather a lifestyle of playing with imaginary friends, and the roots of all that was how I saw the world as a child: as an observer, an outsider, constantly trying to assemble from scraps a complete picture of how things worked. I thought if only I could figure that out, I might be able to find my place.
Not everything I’ve ever experienced is down to being genderqueer; then again, absolutely everything is down to gender. Masturbation was a way to test and observe myself as if from the outside. Finding the key to that particular lock seemed like the holy grail: if I could work it out, maybe everything else would become clear.
But hell, I didn’t even know where the lock was, let alone what kind of key it required. My early efforts at pleasuring the body I happen to have were arduous, exhausting, and frequently acrobatic.
I’ve never had a good sense of maps, of visual representations of physical space. Perhaps if I’d had a mirror I might have made sense of what I was doing. As it was, each time I hunkered down—in the dead of night, when the rest of the house was assumed to be unconscious—it was like wandering into the desert anew, disorienting and somewhat hopeless. I was by no means always successful at finding the delicious, indulgent, inveterately sinful feeling of flying, for which I had absolutely no name. (The word “orgasm,” like the word “masturbation,” did not exist in my world. They were ephemeral concepts without anything so concrete as language attached to them.)
How much of my ignorance was because I was so afraid and ashamed of this body? How much was an intentional shying away from everything that reminded me that I was stuck in it like a prison? A prison with, of course, no directions, and constantly changing corridors.
Listen, I know it’s something of a hush-hush thing, but I’m just going to put this out there: I spent a lot of time trying to get off when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen years old. Insomnia has frequently led me to profound increases in productivity, and that was no exception. I had, at the time, a television with cable in my bedroom, so when my eyes were tired of reading I’d shut off the lights and watch late-night movies.
And masturbate. Because I have always been very good at multitasking.
Remember that I thought this was a sin I’d invented, that I was the only one with the mechanics to do this thing, whatever the hell it was, and that since I had this bit of magic, I’d damn well better learn how to wield it.
I didn’t learn to love my body through masturbation. This body—with its inconvenient shapes, its fat stores, its annoying lack of length—continued to confound and irritate and enrage me for years. On some days it still does. What I did learn, stumbling around in the dark of my brain while vainly attempting to pleasure my body, was that despite how alternately horrifying and transcendent my physical experience was, my emotional journey was oddly ascending.
I understood myself as kinky through fantasy long before I discovered that other people were also freaks. (I never thought I’d invented tying people up and fucking with their heads, though—got enough of that in different forms on primetime.) An extended period of solo experimentation also allowed me to explore gender in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to if my sexual initiation had occurred with other people. In my brain I could play any role, and I did. I was not saddled with the expectations that partners later had, in the dark days before words like “genderqueer” and “gender fluid” and “gender nonbinary” were in common use.
After years of vigorous, dedicated practice, I got good at masturbation. Damn good. Getting myself off isn’t better than sex with other people, it’s a totally different sport. And it’s the only one that leads to genuine moments of self-acceptance, the kind of wholeness that you actually need a social vacuum to cultivate. Finding yourself through the medium of your body, your skin and nerve endings, the endless fascination of your own responses to stimuli, is a journey with no beginning and no ending.
If you also manage to find love in that place, where you are the only one who matters, where your needs meet your desires and are answered, that’s a lucky fucking break.
Obviously, I assume I’m the only person who’s ever managed the trick.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the writers of Roseanne, whose episode about DJ whacking off induced zir to look up “masturbation” in a dictionary—literally, a big heavy hardcover volume of Webster’s—and marvel that, in fact, other perverts had already worked out how to do it. It was quite shocking. The dictionary has been a suspect form of literature ever since.
We live in a dating world where the playing field has definitely changed. Gone are the days when someone would actually walk up to you, strike up a conversation, ask for your number, call you, engage in light banter, ask you out, plan a date, show up for the date, and things would progress after you and your date had actually spent time in each other’s presence.
In fact, dear reader, if you are currently dating, when was the last time you got to know someone in that manner?
The last time for me was over two years ago. The guy was Southern and new to Los Angeles. We met online, but he asked for my number after a few messages. He called me, we spoke a few times, and he asked me out. He initiated all of the calls and all of our contact. Our first date was not the requisite coffee meet and greet. Instead, we met at a restaurant and shared a lovely meal. He followed up with more dates, all of which he planned based on my responses to questions about the things I liked to do.
I enjoyed every one of those dates. I enjoyed being courted and treated well. In the end, we both determined we weren’t compatible for the long run, but I walked away from that experience believing that behind the screen, there were honest and genuine people really searching for the real thing. He restored my faith.
The more I speak to people on the subject, however, the more I hear that people are not really dating these days. Even scarier is the idea that most people don’t know how to date. We think that going out with someone, taking walks, showing up with flowers, calling just to “check in,” and being available to another person is too much like a commitment before the commitment.
Correct me if I am wrong, but dating is a commitment. You are committing to getting to know someone before making a decision about being in partnership or trying again with someone entirely new. My question is simply, how does one do that when so many people are scared to even show up as their true, authentic selves?
In today’s digital age, dating has a new script: You see a picture of someone, you swipe to the right / send a wink / send a “Hi there, you look fun. We should talk” or some version thereof, exchange some short-verse messages, maybe you exchange phone numbers (but even if you do, you’re still texting), agree to meet, meet and act shy and awkward because it’s a blind date, sort of, and then you decide pretty quickly if you want to see them again—mostly because you know how easy it would be to start all over with somebody new.
The upside is that yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. The downside is that you’ll never find your fish if you’re always throwing them back.
I’ll just say it: the digital age has messed up how we find and keep love flowing. We replace actual feelings with heart emojis. We break up via text. We get back together with each other via text. We stalk each other’s social media pages; we know the names of “friends” before we even meet them. Our dating lives are constructed online, and we dress the part by taking selfies and pictures of our food to show anyone following us on Instagram that we are, indeed, having a good time. We create personas, and I’m starting to believe that we care more about those personas than actually showing up, with all of our flaws and beauty, to present ourselves as worthy of love.
Maybe that’s the real issue. We don’t think we are worthy of love.
Or maybe some of us are ready—I like to think I am—but when we put ourselves out there, who is actually ready to meet us?
My last relationship lasted two years and ended when a woman sent me pictures of herself and the man I was dating frolicking in the city. He’d found her on eHarmony a few months earlier. According to the woman, he invited her to come see him over a weekend that he and I were “fighting.” She spent time in his apartment and felt like there was a female presence, so she went looking on his Facebook page, which led to his Pinterest page, which led to me. When she confronted him, he told her that I was his ex-girlfriend and she shouldn’t contact me, but she did.
When I confronted him, he made up an elaborate lie about why she only thought they were together. He told me I should trust him. But the pictures she sent me were taken inside his apartment, and I found his profile on eHarmony and Match, so he couldn’t deny what happened.
No matter how hard we try to create perfect online personas, who we are always shows up. The last relationship and the many others I have explored in this digital age have taught me that we all want the same thing: to be accepted. I believed at the end of my last relationship, and I still believe now, that love is a choice. We come into relationships as individuals. We partner with people based on shared goals, morals, and the vision to build something together that can be really special.
It takes a lot of patience to explore this dating field when you are faced with so many apparently empty people, but it’s worth it when you find yourself involved in something special and come to the heavy and deep love that happens when the masks are torn off and the flaws are exposed and beautiful. We all crave this type of love, yet it seems impossible to achieve when we forget that love is ALL faith, trust, hope, compassion, forgiveness and showing up for each other.
So many of us are afraid to explore the deep emotions—we show up in shallow forms just to attract something. But deep love can’t be nurtured in shallow pools. In order for us to truly find and savor such heavy love, we have to come into our relationships loving ourselves enough to risk being authentic.
My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.
Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.
I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.
“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”
In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.
Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.
My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.
I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.
I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.
These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.
My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.
Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.
Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.
An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.
In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.
They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.
This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.
Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.
Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.
My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.
Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.
One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.
“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.
At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.
Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.
Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.
Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?
My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.
If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.
In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.
Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.
She digs anyway.
My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.
In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.
For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.
When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.
The narrative of immigration is peripatetic—and not just in a physical sense. The experience of leaving and coming, of going and arriving, of coming to terms with and never fully accepting the elusive nature of the very experience is like a ribbon that you attempt to straighten out that curls up the moment you let go.
For a while, during the years where I felt neither here nor there, I hated having to admit where I was from. I think it may have been partly in high school, but in that circular way that our brains have of unraveling the threads of loss and fear and dread, I remember feeling this in college, too. It would come in like the tide, here now, gone later, then back again. In my mid-twenties, I spent years avoiding most interactions with Russians who were strangers to me because I didn’t want them to know I was one of them.
Even as I did it, I asked myself, why?
Saying the word “Russia” carried with it a Pandora’s Box of truth and myth that exhausted me to even think about.
It’s not the same in my head, because in my head, it’s Rossiya.
Once, I think I was thirteen, someone asked me why Russians said “Russia” in a certain way. I think she emphasized the “shia” part as sounding wrong coming from our mouths. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I began to. The answer is the simplest there could be—we have accents. We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.
Another time, a boy in school asked me if all Russians carried bombs with them. I was twelve, only a year into America, and I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to pull off the pithy ‘yes, I’ve got one in my pocket right now’ response I really wanted to give. In the meantime, my sister was being asked if bears really walked around the streets of Moscow. She was in college.
The word “Russian”—these letters in this combination—evokes a picture of a country like a reflection in a shattered mirror. Sure, there are truths to that name, but they’re skewed, seen through a lens that doesn’t care for introspection or even closer inspection. It’s tiny pieces, certain slivers of truth that have lost some crucial point of a whole picture.
Russia is funny accents; mafia thugs; mail order brides; vodka; endless winters; fucked up laws. It’s Putin shirtless on a bear being pasted onto a unicorn via Photoshop; illegal music downloads and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It’s laughable pop music and mangled phrases that lose their meanings because no one really cares what they actually stand for, just that they sound funny. It’s the ironic hipster T-shirt with CCCP on it, a beanie with a hammer and sickle worn to set off a carefully cultivated neckbeard; it’s comrade, it’s Stalin, it’s the butt of a joke.
Rossiya—my Rossiya—isn’t that.
It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended. At least, what I had expected. We none of us had planned on exile, but here we are. It sounds overwrought, overly self-important. For years, I’ve denied the truth of it. Whenever anybody asked, What was it like, to leave? I’d simply shrug it off.
It sucked. What else can you say? It sucked, but thank God we made it.
It sucked, but it sucks much less now.
We’re free here, and we’re doing well.
But the loss persists—insidious, incomprehensible, impossible to put into words. As I try to lay them down, they jump around and refuse to land in a way that would pinpoint the why of it. Why it happened, why it matters. I was only a kid, after all. But a kid is a sponge. I absorbed what it meant to be Russian before I could fully form a consciousness. And once you’ve taken it all in, there’s no wringing it out—at least not completely.
II. Missing Space
Ours isn’t even the most tragic story. As far as these things go, it’s actually a good one. When we flew across an ocean, my dad had a job offer from a prestigious university in his metaphorical pocket. We were poor as dirt, but there was a promise of a better life. He’d be paid so little we’d need food stamps, but he’d be paid. The life we were leaving behind couldn’t even offer that much, as I found out later, when my mom decided we were far enough away from it all to take me into her confidence. “If I hadn’t typed up all those dissertations on the side, we would have starved,” she told me when I was sixteen, over breakfast. Matter-of-fact.
Again, I’m trying to straighten out a ribbon that refuses to unravel. What am I really trying to get at, what am I really saying? Am I talking about leaving? Am I talking about being sad about leaving? Am I talking about leaving having been the best decision my parents ever made?
Yes. And I’m talking about how, even at eleven years of age, I was keenly, sharply aware that this was a loss that was permanent. There would be no going back.
For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.
When I think back, I see a gilded, liminal time when I spoke a language I had been born into and felt different in a way that was commonplace. The fears of my childhood were ordinary and, when they weren’t, were at least shared by others.
Sure, it said “Jew” in my parents’ passports—but wasn’t that normal? I learned fairly early on not to discuss my ethnicity. For the longest time, I believed that all Jews were good, because they weren’t a danger to us. They were fellow Jews. Boy, did that one annoying family friend fuck me up. “But he’s Jewish! How can he be soannoying?” I’d ask myself after yet another encounter.
My grandpa, prominent journalist of his town, was suddenly severed from a friendship with a local poet. They’d shared a plot of land for years, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries—all the staples of a Russian garden—when suddenly, his friend ended it all. Why? He’d discovered his inner Russian.
We weren’t Russian, of course. We were Jews.
It’s a tangled, spiraled thread that feels impossible to unpick even at thirty-three.
After we immigrated—how I hate that word; it feels diagnostic in its stigmatization—I would ask my dad if he ever missed Russia.
“No,” he’d shrug. “What would I miss about it?” In his overly sentimental moods, he would add that all he’s ever needed has been us, his family. The rest was pointless nostalgia. “I don’t miss places,” he’d say.
I did. I missed it viciously, in a way that felt like I’d been eviscerated at the airport.
With my guts hanging out, I was forced to go to school deaf and mute. When my mom and sister took me to the middle school to get my English tested, I’d forgotten how to even say “door.” All I knew was “mother, father, sister, brother.” They put me in Level 1 ESL.
I showed up to my first day of school with a note written by my sister: “My name is Elizabeth. I don’t speak English. Can you show me where to find the ESL classroom? Thank you!”
My name wasn’t Elizabeth. But that was what I was supposed to call myself from then on.
In ninth grade, a history teacher said “Russia” in the middle of a sentence and my head snapped up.
“She wasn’t talking about you,” said a girl I’d been friendly with for years. “Calm down.”
I shrank back, lowered my head immediately. I knew the teacher hadn’t been talking about me. But it’s the cocktail party effect. You know—you’re at a party, there’s chatter every which way, and then somebody says your name and you immediately twist around, trying to see where it came from before you’ve even fully registered the movement.
The tangle goes further, even more confusing and insidious.
For years, I shrank away from anything or anyone Russian. After devouring War & Peace and all of Chekhov at thirteen, I refused to pick up Anna Karenina in high school. “I know how it ends,” I’d tell my mother irritably. “That’s not the point!” she’d fire back, giving me a look like what she was really saying was, Whose daughter are you?
While she couldn’t get me to read any of the English books she’d picked out for me at eleven, at eighteen I was ignoring her pleas for me to read in Russian. “You’ll forget the language,” she’d fret.
Good, I’d think savagely but bite my tongue before it could come out and start a real fight. And anyway, my parents were the ones who’d made the decision, the ones who’d picked up our lives and dumped us in the middle of the unknown—why were they fighting so hard to stay un-American? It was like the Borg—we’d be assimilated sooner or later.
“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go. In the grand tradition of teenagers everywhere, all I wanted was to blend in and disappear but I couldn’t, because I still had traces of an accent, my parents’ English was worse than mine now, I had gaps in my cultural knowledge, and I hated all of it.
I was a mass of quiet, vicious rebellion.
Why wasn’t I getting all A’s, wasn’t I their daughter? But I was “doing my best,” I’d argue, parroting back the values that newly swirled around us like smog and were roundly rejected by my parents. Why weren’t B’s enough for my parents?
Because even with their gold medals for stellar grades they couldn’t have gone to the best universities. They’d both been marked as “Jews” and made to crawl to earn the same rights as those whose passports proclaimed them to be Russian.
I missed my town with an ache I couldn’t seem to fill. Stateside, we had everything—a good place to live, eventually two incomes, friends, food aplenty, relative security. Even my grandparents made it out, two and a half years after us.
It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.
Russia had taken more than it had given. From my grandmother, it had taken her father when she’d been a girl, imprisoned and later executed in secret for the crime of being a “Polish spy” (a Polish Jew, of course). It had taken her mother and thrown her in a labor camp for ten years, aging her to the point of no recognition upon release. It had stripped my grandmother of rights and forced my grandfather to later make a choice: divorce his “enemy of the state” wife with whom he had three children or get fired. It wasn’t any kind of choice, and he found a good job in a different city, but it had followed him all his life. He was a Jew, and he looked like a Jew, but at least his last name didn’t end in “shtein.” Of course, when he was born, the clerk at city hall refused to believe that the name his parents wished to give him was Jewish enough. “No,” he said. “He’ll be Meier in his papers.” How much easier to point him out then, you see.
From my sister, it took away the chance to not be terrified when, on a staircase of our apartment building, someone yelled, “Kill all yids!”
From me, it took away the chance not to live with constantly simmering fear and confusion. It took it away from all of us. When I was ten, before we left, life was pretty good, it was normal. I had friends, I had art school, I had music school, and I was happy. I had regular school, too, and I was doing well in all my subjects, except I couldn’t seem to get ahead in Russian and Russian Lit. My teacher was young, just out of university, and from her, unlike from everyone else, I never got a single A. One day, I came home, slumped against the door, and told my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
My sister talked to a good teacher of hers. Something happened behind the scenes. I started getting A’s from a tight-lipped, pissy teacher. It was never spoken out loud, but it was known, anyway. She didn’t want to reward the Jewish girl.
I can’t stop loving the memories, I can’t stop being myself, shaped as I am by the values ingrained so deeply that they’re etched permanently under my skin. Values that fuck me up as I endeavor to evolve into something manageable, values that are like a yoke pulling me back—and sometimes, a prod that’s shoving me forward.
I have to battle myself every time I take a risk, because who do I think I am to believe that risks pay off? Risks are too dangerous, aren’t they? Better not to stand out. Better to immerse yourself in philosophical thinking, surround yourself with art and culture, so as to fill the space that’s telling you this is all you can do, because all other doors are shut to your ilk. We don’t investigate our own emotions, we glance off of them like a flinching touch because if we delve any deeper, we’ll never crawl out.
I’m slowly learning you can embody it all—because, of course, philosophical thinking and cultural pursuits do not in and of themselves preclude you from taking bigger risks. Maybe avoiding taking risks was not something I learned in childhood, after all. Maybe it isn’t cultural. Maybe it’s mine.
Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.
This love is heavy; it’s a burden. Even now, there are bills being presented to the Duma that would further stigmatize and flat-out prohibit homosexuality. I’m queer. What would have happened to me had we stayed?
I have little doubt that I’d already be married to a man, with children, living a life of more fear and bleak unhappiness—existing, but not the way I do now. The picture is blurry and gray. I think I would probably be surviving, at best. I’m sure I would love my children, maybe even my husband. I would also have invisible chains binding me, invisible maybe even to me. The ghost of that self haunts me almost daily, the potential loss like an abyss I stare into, flinging mental pebbles just to see how far down they’ll fall. A pebble for the loss of the identity I am free to own today, another for the loss of the future that now unspools before me, open and hopeful. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming about the might-have-beens.
America has given us all a chance. I’m married to a woman—married on my own terms. I’m in love, and I’m free to be in love, for all that homophobia is alive and well here too. I’m free to write this, free to think in any way I do. I was free to get upset and pissed as hell when my parents expressed a dislike for the idea of this marriage because I had finally been told, by an entire society acting as an institution, that me being queer was not a moral issue, nor was it an evil thing. I was free to be mad at my parents because I knew that I was right and they were wrong.
They’ve since changed their views, and that’s another thing America has given us.
In America, I may be suddenly Russian, but I’m also white. I can say the words “I’m Jewish” and not be terrified of the consequences.
But in America, I also hear the underhanded comments. Jews run Hollywood. Your people are good with money. She’s such a JAP.This hasn’t changed—it’s just become less overtly dangerous.
Even still, I love the place where I am from. I love it for all the ways in which it’s doomed, the ways in which it tried its best to crawl out from under a dictatorial shadow only to be thrown right back into that endless, horrid void of xenophobia, terror, and propaganda.
“Vile country,” my sister said once over the phone when I called her about some particularly awful new homophobic law. “Just horrible.”
She lets herself feel the anger I wish I could feel, but I can’t. When I think of Russia, I think of our small town, just outside of Moscow. I think of the books that shaped me, for better or for worse, the artists whose works shone despite all the efforts to tarnish them with claims of treason and perversion. So many quotes and phrases float to mind every day that I simply can’t translate, can only mull over and cherish. I think in English, but there are these words, these Russian words that have no translation, and I think in those, too.
I love that they are a part of me. I love their meanings, I love the history behind each and every single one. When I think about Russia’s history, I see it all—I see the ugly truths, and I see the pursuit of greatness, of betterment, of enlightenment. The anger that I allow myself to feel is not at the country itself, but at the system that has shaped it. At the men at its helm who’ve done everything in their power to not care for the people they’re meant to be leading.
By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover? A country that poisons and assassinates as a matter of political strategy? What could you possibly love about a place that gives you scraps and tells you to be happy with what you have because it could be so much worse?
I feel like I have floated all my life in different spaces, and I’ve rarely settled. But the idea of my childhood grounds me at the same time as it cuts another nick in my guts.
I know where I come from. I know that it isn’t here. I know that all the contradictions within me were not placed there by any single society, but were born out of who I am and who I’ve always been outside of external influence.
What would I have been had I been born on American soil? Another duality: the idea of existing in a place that gave me life feels singularly simple, uncomplicated like air, yet I would never give up where I came from, nor where and who I am now. It’s an impossible task to make sense of this. So I continue to exist on two separate planes.
Several months ago, someone asked me after a typically circular conversation about the whole experience: “Did you even want to leave?”
And with no preamble, I burst into tears—the sort of uncontrollable sobs that humiliate and empty you out. It hadn’t been my choice to make. My parents did the only thing they could have done, and it turned out to have been the best decision of their lives.
But I was eleven, and I have never fully forgotten.
There are a million ways to be Russian: there are millions of Russians. Those still living within its borders and those scattered around the globe. There are so many of us. I see us everywhere. I recognize our faces, I know our clothes, the looks in our eyes. I see us where I least expect to and hear us everywhere.
We left. We left because there was so little to stay for. But we gather in groups, we stockpile our nostalgia in movies, books, music. Some of us deride America even as we use its resources. Some of us pretend that our microcosm of Russians is Russia, that we can carry on like we never left at all. I reject this way of being Russian in America. But it’s still a way to cope.
My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.
VI. Street View
In my darker, more masochistic moments, I open up Google Maps and search out my hometown. I look up our address. Every time I do, it sends a jolt of ‘Why is the building still there?’ through me. How is it still there? How has it not disappeared along with us? How can I look at it and not be able to touch it? How can it simply exist? It still looks the same, but some surroundings have changed. Instead of woods and pavement, there are restaurants, car dealerships, newsstands.
Incredibly, like a throwback, a reaffirmation of the other of it, the steam baths are still across the street—just sporting a new overhead label. An old tradition dressed up in new corporate clothing.
I scroll through the streets and think, This is where we walked and saw a family friend for the last time. My sister said, after we parted, “We’ll probably never see him again.” Now I look at that street and think, she was right. And that fence is new. I can’t get past the fence, just like I can’t get past the last of the forward arrows. I can’t fall into that world, I can only look in from outside, separated by thousands of miles and a screen.
I look up my school. The street with our old apartment isn’t on street view, and after I discover this, I dream about it that very night. In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me. I even dream about the playground that is now, at least according to Google Maps, a parking lot. This is where I fell, I tell her.
Every now and then, I’ll call my parents and say, “Hey. Thanks for taking us out of there.”
In the end, this love is one-sided. The country never really wanted us. For all that the small petty bureaucrat tortured my parents when they went for their refugee visa interview, for all that he told them they were making a huge mistake, that America was awful, that his daughter was there and she hated it, so really, You’re better off just staying here, they don’t want you—it wasn’t America that didn’t want us.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I learned it when Russia officially sanctioned a neo-Nazi party after we left, and I learned it when it slowly began to cut off the small freedoms it had gained post-USSR. Step by step, anti-Western sentiment sowed the now-blossoming seeds of fascism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and we, Jews, simply feel grateful to have escaped.
My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case. It’s given me so much, but when asking for my loyalty, it looms over me and casts a shadow so large it absorbs me whole. This love will never be equal, either. I will always be subservient, groveling at its feet, enduring endless debates about whether or not outsiders like me have any essential value.
But when I came out to my parents, it was a million miles away from where I could have been. When I married my wife, it felt even farther.
Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind. It exists where it can no longer hurt me, but it taunts me with its slow descent into abject horror.
That was my country once. It’s where I’m from, where I was born, where I was raised, where I have an entire mental map of my town as if I’d only seen it yesterday and not over twenty years ago. It exists in Technicolor stereotypes on my TV, in jabs from well-meaning people who want to show they care that I’m not American and stifle my ability to define myself for myself.
It’s no one’s fault, not really. Why should anyone care, much less know all the detail of, what it’s like to have been born into a country that would nearly devour you whole, then reluctantly spit you out? It’s unanswerable. I only know my own experience—I can’t speak for anyone else. But it never leaves. I try to have a sense of humor about it, I mock and I despair, and while I think in words, I remember in pictures.
I remember the present I got for my eleventh birthday: a shiny pair of white sneakers. I’d never owned sneakers before, and this was momentous. I’d be able to keep up with the other kids, the kids whose parents weren’t a barely paid nuclear physicist and an administrator. I vividly remember opening the box just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on TV (we had access to music videos by then; we even had a color television set) and I remember the feeling of being unable to imagine anything better than my new pair of sneakers. I took a walk later that day by myself, and I watched my new sneakers glow as they pounded the familiar pavement, and I thought, what language do they speak in America? I don’t even know. But I memorized each crack in the pavement, each street corner, each place where I had had memories.
We left two months and seven days later. I’ve never been back.
Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee. All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.
She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.
She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.