Pretending he is not a prince, Eddie Murphy is on the bootleg VHS tape in the no brand VCR on the Soviet era barely color sick faded TV. He is coming to America. And I sit and stare cartoon eyed in wonder at him, standing on a winter morning New York balcony saying, ‘behold Simi, Life! Real life, a thing that we have been denied for far too long!’ I'm at that time 10 years old and just one day away from before I cry myself silly flying over the ocean for 12 hours, on my way to the land of the free under the wing of my mail ordered bride mother.
I mostly cry myself silly like that then because I'm leaving my friends and grandparents and I’m scared, but I feel better after a stewardess with gleaming white refrigerator door teeth smiles at me and hands me for the first time in my life the Sky Mall catalog and shows me the toys and trinkets that I never could have imagined existed in any un-American world
After that plane lands and until today, I never receive any of the things I circle in the catalog. But I keep it until it becomes a faded and fragile thin rag of pages. After all, there are other mountains to cross before mama and I can reach the catalogs, before we can reach status to take out a credit card, before I can have the Velcro shoes that light up, before we can leave the large pale man who is supposed to be my new father, even before I figure out he is lying about the school bus costing money.
In school, everyone asks, why Ohio? Why did you move to Ohio? I imagine because people here have nice grass and cars, and I don’t know how to answer, even though I read in English better than all of the third graders, and am moved up a grade in the first two weeks. Even then, I still have never heard of such things as ‘walkers’ or ‘riders.’ I still think taking the school bus or getting a ride from parents is for rich people. So I walk home from school and wonder when we get to become ‘walkers’ or ‘riders.’ On my last time ever walking home, a police officer picks me up and we find my house after I point out to him the objects leading home that have already been burned into my eyes and heart- the spinning tri color wheel garden stakes, a mailbox shaped like mail truck, the house with their own trampoline, and the house that once had two unattended bicycles laying in front of it. We arrive and I learn from my stepfather that I have a very big imagination, imagining things like the school bus costing money. This isn’t Ukraine after all.
In the kitchen my mother struggles to figure out how to cook anything but soup for this man, but it takes the longest time to figure out what the paper towel holder does, that it is a paper towel holder, and why this new man is so upset and pointing and using his hands making gestures like washing his face and then wiping the counters and yelling in American.
On the streets when U-Haul trucks pass, my ignorance privileges me to imagine that the various pictures on the side represent the actual cargo which they carry. Until I begin to see space men and dinosaur bones, I have no doubt that the trucks carry cactus flowers, fresh fish, and even Native Americans
Everywhere, I'm learning English very fast. I have to learn the word 'accent,' and figure out why everyone says I have one. I watch the Price Is Right and Baywatch to find an American accent of my own. I find out that the word 'island' has a silent 'S,' that 'pop' is not only coca-cola, that the windshield factor on the weather channel is not how cold the wind is when it hits your windshield at a certain speed, that the cities of Lakewood, Youngstown, and Erie are not known for their wood, young people, or strangeness.
On one occasion, I walk up to and am impressed by a tall red soda machine. Close enough to touch one for the first time, I find out that it doesn't dispense free cans like in the movies, and that the pennies stuck on the oil stain bubble-gum pavement are not even close to enough. I save them anyways, and they come in useful just a few months later when mom, bruised and bleeding on her cheeks and lip, drags me out of bed one night and we leave to stay with a friend that she had made in our short time there. To my surprise, she has been saving change as well. She has been saving only silver change though- We find a payphone and call Ukraine. We try to hear my grandparents. The phone does not connect that far so we hang up and spend the change on pink waffles and a variety pack of potato chips. Sitting by the payphone in the dark, with styrofoam cup ice on her face, Mom goes on to remind me that she finished 10 years of University in Ukraine and that she was the head doctor at an Olympic swim team training facility. And that I need to know that right now in Ukraine currency can’t be trusted. Its values become low and unpredictable enough so fast and often that people resort to scrapping steel ripped from power lines, park fences, manholes, cars, motorcycles, TV antennas, factory equipment. That instability of tomorrow and need for food today outweighs the logic of saving plumbing, electricity, and transportation for the long run. Veterans and senior citizens starve in the streets, begging for money on the piss caked metro stops wearing their military dress uniforms, displaying war medals. None of this is televised in any country, and she got us out the way she could. She is thin, tall, dark featured, and smart, she put a profile into some brides magazine. It works, and now we can eat pink waffles and any flavor of potato chips and not worry about the dollar becoming obsolete. We have come to America, and now we’ll be able to eat McDonalds and watch real copies of Eddie Murphy comedies on real American TV’s.
She reminds me that she is a daughter of a doctor and an electrical engineer. Children of the front lines of World War II, who grew up eating burned sugar out of bombed out factories and stuffing their bellies with chewed up weeds and pine needles. Children of malnourished dead baby siblings, and a one horned sick cow that couldn't produce more than half a glass of milk a day. Survivors who left the village and finished universities- Children of peasants who worked on the railroad and in potato fields, whose father played the accordion and loved to smoke tobacco and dream of the many children and grandchildren who he could also help raise to play the accordion and smoke tobacco. Who himself was a child of a carriage maker who during the Russian revolution starved to death in prison for being considered part of the upper class with money, no one ever considering they were killing honest tradesmen not business people or nobility, leaving his wife a widow- a small dark woman with Greek ancestry who had thick black hair down to her ankles which she brushed and put in a dark tight braid ready for her voyage over. Like the Ukrainians to America, her too fleeing Greece for Ukraine- for some reason, for some place to survive, and maybe prosper.
You know, I wake up in Manhattan this morning, and know right there in bed that at the Buzzard’s Banquet later that night, I will talk about a dream or a memory. But the truth is, no one ever really wants to hear about other people’s dreams. And in the case of dreams and memories, with time, the difference between the two tends to become unclear and indiscernible. So I get out of bed, and go crawl freezing out the window to the balcony. Turn my head and look around to destroy the hazy dreams. It is now quiet, and the city glows far to downtown. The U-Haul trucks, and paper towels, and soda machines, and pink waffles are now 18 years behind me. My accent is gone and somewhere in me, my mother’s bruises and fat lip are gone and faded. It’s a goddamn winter morning in New York. With no one about but the wind chill factor, I look around and say, 'good morning my neighbors!' And when the world stays immovably cold and absolutely still, I reply, 'Yes! Yes! Fuck, you, too!'