Anastasia Savos: Say "Cheese" or How To Be a Russian
Fiction » March 2002

Never smile in your pictures. Never smile unless it’s funny. Unless your Uncle Yuri tells you the old joke- about the white cat with a gray spot above her left ear whom he made drink gasoline and who took six steps and dropped dead but he says that she ran out of gas- and you would think it’s really funny only you’ve heard it too many times. Don’t smile, just laugh.

Smoke cigarettes and hide. Hide in the pissed stained stairwells, stepping over glass bottles with the boy you know better than your brother that you’ve never had. Make pictures with your breath warm on the frozen glass of broken windows. Make promises and whisper and kiss. Break away fast and pretend you were talking when Polina Egorovna from the door # 52 on the seventh floor walks up the stairs because the elevator is stuck again.

Don't say a thing when he leaves to fight terrorists. Stand on the train platform for two hours and stare at a red light in the distance. Watch it turn to green. Wave. Wave and say: “I’ll write you.”

Write. Wait. Write again. Check the mailbox three times a day. Watch little kids steal your neighbor’s mail. Yell at them and hope that they stole yours. They didn’t.
Your father gets the right papers. Your mother sells your skates and gives away all of your clothes. A lot of people come and go from your apartment. They want things that are left behind. Hide in the staircase and drink vodka straight out of a bottle. Chase it with tap water straight out of a bottle labeled “Kerosene”. Don’t cry. Say, “I’ll write you”.

Go to Moscow. Your father goes to the American Embassy to get more of the right papers. Later, go to the first McDonalds you’ve seen with him and your little sister. Stand in line two hours and 15 minutes. In the rain. See the two-story red bus with white tourists driving by, mouths wide and fingers pointing. You’ve never seen a two-story red bus before. When your turn comes, order one hamburger, a small order of fries and one medium Sprite. Split all of that with your father and your little sister. Ask your father why the hamburger bun feels like cotton balls. He doesn’t know. Save Sprite for later. Ask your father to carry it. Go to the bathroom three times to use the liquid soap dispenser. You’ve never seen liquid soap before. Cry when, by the end of the day, the Sprite seeps through the carton cup.

Fly over the great Atlantic. In the airports your father wears a nametag that says “Refugee. Help, I may be lost” A businessman sitting next to you on the plane reads National Geographic.

Get numbers. Learn to remember your numbers. Your social security number, your phone number, your apartment number, your resident alien number, take a number in a Welfare line, the number of worn jeans and almost-new sweatshirts your mother can stuff into a black plastic garbage bag at a $10-a-bag sale at Goodwill, the number of jobs your father, the rocket scientist gets rejected at, the number of toilets your mother, professor of electrical engineering, cleans every day at a Sunny Days Inn., the number of acquaintances you run in to that ask you, smiling “What was your number, again?” Forget all of them.

Watch MacGuyver religiously on Channel 26 at 4 pm every weekday. Learn English.

Go to your first doctor’s appointment to be checked for stuff. The doctor tells you to undress from the waist up. When you pull of your shirt- exposed, he tells your mother that at fourteen you really should be wearing a bra.

Everyday after school ask your father for two quarters. Walk down to the manager’s building of your apartment complex with a small swimming pool and large cockroaches and drop each quarter into the first pop machine you’ve ever saw. Push the Pepsi button and forget the world exists while the can makes its way down. When on Friday, you find the pop machine turned off, you experience your first case of withdrawals.

Write letters to your friends back home telling them that yes they do, in fact, have bananas year round and that you’ve lost count on the different kinds of cheese in the supermarket. When they write back asking what a supermarket is tell them it’s hard to explain.

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