Tables in Transit
1989. I am standing between my older cousin Lilia and my younger cousin Inga, gaping at fresh pastries at a café. We are in Ladispoli, a city just south of Rome. The city is full of Russian Jews bound for countries further west, awaiting their papers in sprawling refugee camps at the city’s center. We gather in alleyways at long tables, drink from bottles of Pepsi; the men play backgammon incessantly, as if the next roll—penge penge!—might be the lottery winning act that will grant them asylum in Australia, America, Canada, or Israel. My cousin Lilia nods at the display of pastries and asks what I want. I point, mute, at a chocolate éclair. Inga gets a biscotti. The baker wraps our selections in brown paper and hands them to us. I take a bite, and the treat explodes in my mouth, threatening to spill from my nostrils. The sweetness of the custard shocks me. I have never tasted such richness. I do not speak its language, even as the custard coats my gums.
The tiny kitchen of our tiny twenty-first story Toronto apartment. I am six, with a freshly developed sense of smell. The cabbage has been stewing for too long; the meat has been fried to the consistency of gum. Something tepid is being wrapped in something putrid. Spinach, once bright and green, lays steaming in a tiny bowl, shriveled, soapy, heaped with onion sautéed beyond caramel—brown and bitter from the bits of other unidentifiable food particles stuck to the bottom of a pilfered cast-iron-pan. Everything burned, stewed, cooked for so long that it loses the shape or taste of whatever it once was. Bland. Dry, as if it had been left in the desert heat and forgotten. A body scraped out of the carcass of a car after being doused in gasoline and set aflame. Why must we cook things for so long? Where was this compulsion born? In the tar-black snow of Russian cities, or the identical blocks of gray concrete? Do my parents stand at the stove to pass the time? Do they sneer at the other kids’ parents, their fruit salads and yogurts and plastic-wrapped chicken breasts?
The kitchen is too small to hold both my mother and father. Their hips bump and my mother lets out exasperated sighs as she shuffles from stove to counter. My father stands at the sink, unyielding as a boulder on a train track; his hands are slick with lamb fat or the film he peels off a cow’s liver like cellophane. I wince when the burgundy hunk of flesh slips from his hands and slaps against the bottom of the stainless steel sink. If my father were to have a sound as a slogan, it would be the sound of skin being pulled and stretched.
My mother is boiling potatoes, beets, and carrots in one glass pot and about a dozen eggs in another. She is wearing a thin black blouse; a thick woolen shawl is draped over her shoulders. Her sound would be that of water boiling gently. She will not remove the pot from the heat until the potatoes have nearly disintegrated and the eggs have all but burst. She chops them into a slurry then mixes them in a bowl with generous dollops of mayonnaise from the two-liter jar that takes up a quarter of the space in our tiny fridge.
Mealtime is a gauntlet. Course one: brown soupy stuff with balls of brown flesh sinking like corpses to the bottom of a bowl. Neither the aroma nor the coloring of the dish gives any indication regarding the flora/fauna that were picked/slaughtered to make it. Course two: slightly more solid and less brown stuff with a side of black stuff that tastes of peat and ash. I imagine rough, hungry men around a campfire, telling dirty jokes and swallowing this soggy concoction. Course three: hot brown liquid—strong Ceylon tea spiced with cracked cardamom—to push the other brown stuff down. This is my favorite part of the meal. I drink the tea, bitter and acerbic, and revel in its cleansing of my palate, in the scalding of my throat. My mother tells me to slow down but I can’t gulp it down fast enough.
Russian proverbs surround the kitchen table. My father says, the farther you sit from the table, the closer to an argument. This strikes me as absurd so we have an argument about sitting close to the table to avoid arguments. Circular irony is lost on him. He yells at me to move my chair closer, but my feet do not touch the ground. I shuffle closer, throwing my meager body side to side and shift the chair by degrees. The legs scrape against linoleum. Stand up and move the chair! I lean forward, sullen and resentful, until my feet touch the ground and walk forward a few more inches. When I sit down, the oblique angle of the chair swings me back. I am exactly where I was before. My father seems satisfied only in that he has asserted his will; my distance from the table remains unchanged.
Before me sits a bowl of broth with bits of onion skin and charred garlic floating on its surface. At the bottom, one fist-sized ball of ground beef, tough and tasteless but for the dried prune (pit and all) at its center, which spreads a dusty sour taste. A prune’s pit has sharp, unhewn edges that leave tiny cuts on the tongue and the roof of the mouth. I leave it floating in the broth and push the bowl away. My father glowers at me from behind his mustache, which twitches slightly. Another saying: if you do not finish your food, a large, angry dog will chase you down. A nameless, mortal fear grows in my bones. A fear inherited like a drawer full of trinkets or the old ebony pipe in my father’s desk. My grandmother had given it to my father and he in turn, gives it me. Danger lurks at every corner. I love dogs, I want to explain, but instead choke on the sharp prune pit as I swallow it whole.
My father stops at a Persian market in Toronto, where he leans one arm on the glass refrigeration unit that houses slabs of lamb flesh heaped one on top of the other. He converses in Farsi with the proprietor of the shop who sits on a stool behind the butcher display, speaking of irrecoverable memories and waxing poetic about places I’d never even seen in photos. Thirty-five percent of their conversation seems to be the description of streets and intersections and whether this street intersects with that avenue. The man—generally disheveled but adorned with a carefully trimmed, bushy mustache and eyebrows so unruly they threaten to pack up and leave—eyes me with bemusement. A chuckle seems to live in his larynx. A cough, maybe. He asks if I am my father’s son; though our features are similar—gentle cheekbones, long eyelashes and deep set, moss-green eyes—my skin is pale and starchy where his is dark and ruddy. I smile as if a smile constitutes an answer and the butcher laughs from the bottom of his belly as if to say to my father, who is also laughing, he will never live our misery. Before we leave, my father allows me to pick one dessert. I choose gaz, that oversweet nougat-covered roasted pistachio brick that sticks to the back of your mouth and forces you to either yank it from your molars with a grubby finger or unhinge your jaw to pull it away from your throat. The ride home is silent while I try to extricate myself from the gaz, smacking my gums like a talking horse.
My mother is making a face. It is a foreign face—not feature but expression. Emotion wrought from experience I cannot taste. Her parent’s summer dacha. Smoke stacks outside her apartment. At the stove, wild mushrooms—mixed with a potpourri of pine needles, moss, and dark, fragrant peat—sit atop a layer of pages torn from a phone book. The paper and mushroom assembly sits on top of the electric heating element; all of the burners are turned to low but the corners of the pages curl up anyway. I eye the paper from the living room, hoping the whole thing will burst into flame. Instead, the air fills with the scent of mushrooms—King Bolets and Slippery Jacks and Scabberstalks and whatever else my father had gathered that day. The smells of evergreen forests transported to our kitchen. Tiny white worms squirm out of the mushroom’s flesh. They do not realize the source of the heat. They only know that it is becoming hot and that they must wriggle away, away, far away. Instead, they land with near-silent plops on the hot newsprint, where they writhe and struggle and curl and die. My father gathers all the mushrooms, washes them in the sink, and chops them coarsely. He fries them in the big cast iron pan with three large onions, also coarsely chopped, for over an hour. What emerges is a heaping bowl, a mush of mushroom and onion, brown and squishy. Eat, he tells me. I spoon the slush into my mouth, swallowing before it has a chance to contaminate my taste buds. The slick mushrooms slide down the back of my tongue. All I can think of is the mass of tiny white worms expiring on phone book pages. I wonder how many last names the worms squirm upon. If any of them sound like my last name, which sits in the mouth like a stranger’s tongue.
Early autumn and the ground is already covered with the year’s first dusting of snow. My mother holds my hand tightly as we cross from our building to the small plaza that houses two Chinese restaurants, a video store, a convenience store, a chiropractor’s office, and Mark’s International Deli. Mark himself is counting money at the register as we walk in. He raises his eyes and smirks at me as I struggle to free myself of the giant down hood my mother has secured to my neck. The sharp smell of garlic fills my nostrils, the pungent smell of hundreds of different smoked meats, which crowd a display case behind tiny unreadable price tags stuck to toothpicks. Opposite the display case is a metal shelf populated with glass jars that are filled with all sorts of things: eggplant paste, homemade cherry jam, hot Russian mustard. And there, my mother points, right below the cans of sardines, the clear jar of marinated mushrooms with my father’s name on it—Uncle Simon Limited—and the smiling face of a porcupine my cousin had sketched one night. I had seen these jars scattered around our apartment or the labels stacked on my father’s desk but somehow seeing them on the shelf feels more official. I ask my mom if we should buy one, but she laughs and tells me to pick a dessert. Next to the meat case is a dessert case, full of tiny cakes and sweet pastries. I point at the pink zefir, two halves of a big, marshmallowy puff stuck together with sweet and sticky jam. I twist the halves apart and place one in my mouth, unhinging my jaw to fit it in, before we ever leave the store. Mark speaks to my mother for some time about vegetable prices while the confection melts softly into the roof of my mouth. After we leave, the smell of garlic and smoked meat lingers on my clothes.
My twelfth birthday party. Our scuffed wooden dining table extended with a borrowed plastic picnic table and covered with a white tablecloth. Chairs of various heights and construction surround the table, an assortment of discordant old men. My mother in the kitchen fussing over various salads—one of thirteen or fourteen salads—quietly trying to remember how many salads Aunt Riva presented at my cousin’s birthday three months earlier. My father on the balcony with a plastic bucket of marinating chicken (onions, garlic, Kosher salt), stoking a fire; a plume of smoke billows out and makes it seem as though our apartment is on fire. I wonder if the fire department will be informed, again, of our activities. My mother begins setting the table: three painted wooden bowls filled with pickled mushrooms; two porcelain dishes of Salat Olivier; a metal serving dish piled high with raw radishes (not chopped), coriander, tomatoes (on the vine), and cucumbers (unpeeled); two wooden bowls wrapped with kitchen towels, full of churek, a popular Azerbaijani flatbread; butter, cubed; two small bowls of ikra (salmon roe); three medium-sized plates with various fish, mostly herring; silyotka pod shyubay—literally translated, herring in a fur coat, a lone fish covered with layers of beets and mayonnaise and shredded carrot; twenty shot glasses, two bottles of vodka, two bottles of whisky, and some wine that is kept on the ground. She is out of room. When the guests arrive, there is a big show of jealous appreciation for how much food my mother has prepared (it is tinged with jealousy and the planning of future salads). I hear one aunt whisper to another that my mother has gone crazy with the salads. I understand this to mean that they are disappointed that the stakes of the game have been raised so dramatically. The men gather on the balcony and nod solemnly at the bucket of meat.
We have moved from the tiny apartment to a slightly less tiny semi-detached home about a kilometer away. Me, sitting on the couch after school, peeling a pomegranate (my third one of the evening), shucking the gentle pips into a bowl. They rattle against the china. A spoon sits on my lap; when I have finished removing the tiny pips, I will eat the entire bowl, spoonful by spoonful. The television broadcasts a rerun of The Simpsons, which I watch, feeling for the pips with my hand, careful not to let them burst. Pomegranate juice stains deeper than blood. The storm door opens and then slams closed, before finally being propped open by a cinderblock. This is an indication that there are things to carry in from the trunk—fish, most likely, as my father had left in the morning to go fishing with his Armenian friend. I stand up, rinse my hands in the sink, and walk out the side door. My father stands behind his Toyota Camry, his hands on his hips, regarding whatever it is he’s got in the trunk (presumably, a cooler full of fish). Catch anything? I ask. He turns, smiles, shakes his head, and beckons me, with a slight nod, to peer into the trunk. A creature, moving. Something alive. The dusty odor of animal and manure marinated for several hours. At first I see a matted ball of fur, with twigs and burrs sticking off of it, but then it moves and I jump back two meters. I hear labored breathing, a wheezing pushed through the throat. My father reaches in and does some twisting, to show me the face of a terrified lamb, its eyes rolling so quickly they might fall out of its skull. Come, he says and I think it is the lamb speaking to me telepathically, let’s carry it to the shed. He hands me a knife I have never seen before. It has a bone handle and weighs as much as a cleaver. The neighbors watch as we carry the mute lamb to the backyard—me holding the rear legs and my father the front. The knife sticks out of my back pocket.
We are walking down Bloor Street in Toronto. My parents have come to visit me in the Annex, where I live with three other boys while I finish my final year at the University of Toronto. They are unimpressed by the discarded boxes of Kraft Dinner scattered around the kitchen and stacked against the wall of the living room, so I suggest we go for a walk. We leave the house, letting the broken screen door slam shut behind us. We walk past the Metro supermarket and a cluster of men waiting for a meal at the mission on the corner. My father scowls. Let’s eat out, mother says. We never eat out. Eating out is a frivolous act. Who knows what they put in the food behind the curtains, what rodents make their homes in the corner of those filthy kitchens? Why waste money for food that’s not even as good as what we have at home? Besides, who wants to be served by strangers? We walk on Bloor Street, west from Spadina, west of Bathurst. The street signs are printed with both English and Korean names, and a tiny placard indicates that we have entered Korea town. My mother and I walk side by side, chatting about school and money and girls, but my father walks ten steps behind us, his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders tucked back and his eyes glazed over with disinterest. It’s a posture my mother and I know well. Do what you want but I won’t be happy about it. We stop in front of a Korean restaurant and I ask if they’d like to try Korean food. My mother says, Yes! My father shrugs, and we walk in. I order a tofu stew. My mother orders Jab Chae noodles. My father says to the terrified waiter, Give me something where I can see all the ingredients. He gets a bi bim bap and a fork. He stares at it for a long time. Eat, I say, between bites of kimchi. His response is a stare that might put a spot on the moon but instead burrows into the back of my skull. I scoot my seat closer to the table.
I have come home to visit. Flown across the continent from the Pacific coast. It is my father’s birthday. Things move a little slower now. The TV on., The news ticker at the bottom of Channel 24 streams constant updates about a city to which I no longer belong. The coffee table spread with homemade pastries—mutaki (baked homemade rolls filled with honey and ground walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar) and hatchapurri (puff pastry stuffed with spoonfuls of feta cheese)—and a steaming, sweet cup of coffee. My mother claims she will no longer be making a thousand salads, even as she is in the midst of making a thousand salads, shredding carrots until her knuckles bleed or maybe it’s just the beet juice that makes the kitchen look like the site of a violent battle. My father sleeping on a chair, a rough woolen blanket covering his lap, making him seem older than he is. His head nods side to side; he ponders something old and unspeakable in his sleep. A large Le Creuset pan (a gift) sits on the stove, simmering a pot of pilaf, saffron-yellow with nuts and dried apricots, covered with a layer of dough. In the cast-iron pan next to it, a pan of cubed lamb cooks gently, on low heat. A blue jay outside makes screeching noises you wouldn’t expect from such a bright and vibrant creature. It flits through the smoke of the samovar, which my father had lit earlier so that it might warm the water for tea. I’d asked him why he uses a samovar when we have a perfectly functioning electric tea kettle but he just shrugged and continued splitting wood with his tiny hatchet, feeding the thin slivers into the mouth of a wide metal pipe. The neighbor’s dog, a Doberman, barks at passersby. I feel a familiar fear grip my insides.
There is a tension in the house, a quiet belief that perhaps this will all be made to disappear, this bounty. It is cooked, then cooked some more. Arranged as if in protest of fear. When the family arrives we will eat. My mother will hover near the table like a hummingbird, spooning salads and pilaf and meat onto plates pushed halfway off the table. A warm basket of bread (covered in tea cloth) will be passed, offhand. My father will sit at the head of the table, one arm draped over the chair back, listening and speaking in spurts. His face will crease and relax. He will tell stories about empty train stations, jokes about East German spies, poems by Pushkin recited from memory. Everyone will listen, their mouths full, their bellies full, their hearts full of past lives, past meals. Loved ones in other cities or dead. Songs sung in foreign suns. The wrinkles in their faces carried from across the Atlantic.