Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
Mother Russia Wears Read
by Lisa Bozman
My life is hell. I know a lot of people say that, but in my case it's true. Some complain because their parents won't let them stay up past ten or they have to do their homework before dinner. That's not suffering; suffering is my life. Imagine being a fourteen-years-old, the son of Russian immigrants, living in a Dallas, Texas suburb. Still not convinced? Okay, imagine that you are also an extremely intelligent boy who though blessed with genius lacks a certain athletic aptitude. In Dallas that's considered to be the eighth mortal sin. To top it all off imagine living with a mother like mine. A mother who believes she's not a good parent unless she does everything in her power to embarrass you. A mother whose real purpose in life is not to raise a conscientious and responsible child, but to drive that child slowly but surely insane. She has yet to admit it, but there can be no other explanation for the never ending nagging. Day or night, it doesn't really matter. She never stops. That, ladies and gentlemen, is real hell.
"Max, why aren't you eating your soup?" One minute into dinner and already it had started. This must be a new record for her.
"If you never eat, you'll never become strong. You'll stay weakling all your life."
It always amazes me how she slips in a jab.
"I'm not that hungry, Ma."
"Who cares if you're not hungry? You're lucky there's food. If we were in Russia you wouldn't have such nice food. Boris, tell him what Russia's like." That's another thing about my Mother, she constantly brings up "the old country". At times I swear she thinks she's still living there. I don't see how she could though; our house looks nothing like anything you'd see there. It's a giant salmon pink Stucco Spanish ranch house, the same breed as the others in my neighborhood. Inside, the place is overflowing with pseudo-cowboy-western stuff - cacti and Mexican bark paintings everywhere. In the dining room there is a big lasso and cattle quirt on the wall. Every night I stare at it while I pretend to eat. It's so weird. On the opposite wall on top of the credenza is a giant brass Samovar that my mother took from Russia. It looks awful in there. The contrast is ridiculous. Here is this house that looks like it was decorated with the spoils from a pillaged Mexican village and in one room there is this shrine to the motherland. All brass and curved with embellished handles. It gets me every time.
"Natasha, we don't need to tell him. If he's not hungry, he's not hungry. He won't starve." My father was the sensible one. Somehow he has managed to stay sane in the twenty-two years they've been together.
"If you say so, what do I know? I'm just his mother." She went back to slurping her soup. Every once in awhile she'd peer at me as she sucked up a spoonful. I'd play with my spoon when she did that, just so she'd think I was eating. I hate soup. Every time she makes it I tell her "Ma, I hate soup" then she says, "No you don't." As if she knows better than I do. Dinner most every night goes like this: My mother comments on what I was, or wasn't eating. She goes off about starving kids in Russia and bread lines. My father tells her to stop, and then we finish dinner in silence only to do it all again the next night.
My parents' names are Boris and Natasha, like the villains in "Rocky and Bullwinkle". I learned this in third grade when kids sang "Moose and squirrel! Moose and squirrel!" every time they saw me. They thought it was the funniest thing ever. What's the big deal? I know lots of people named Boris and Natasha. Not to mention Dimitri and Yvgenia and Ilya. But that's a different story.
"So, honey, what did you do at school today?" asked my mother.
"Nothing really." I usually try to downplay events of my day.
"What you mean, 'nothing really'? You mean you do nothing? Why do we pay so much for school if you do nothing?" For reasons mostly unknown by me, and hopefully known to them, my parents sent me to parochial school. This happened after my mother heard from our very Catholic neighbor that the public schools were going to hell. She failed to mention whether that was for lack of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, or for inadequate education. My parents took it to mean the later and decided to treat their only child to a $15,000 a year education. We're not even Catholic.
"Well if nothing happened, maybe I shouldn't ask." She gave me a weird look. I just shrugged. My parents then started talking about my grandmother so I decided it was time to make my exit.
"May I be excused?"
I stood up from the table and pushed my chair in and walked towards the door. I was about to go out when my mother yelled to me,
"Don't forget to wash your face. It's getting splotchy."
"Right Ma. Goodnight."
The only peace I get is in my room or at school. Usually when I'm in my room I do homework, which is related to school. I like school a lot. My favorite class is Math. I was doing my math homework at the moment. It's easy for me; the other kids are less advanced, so they're not much competition. I always made sure my Math homework was done. I put my Math homework into my binder and took out the book we were reading in English and opened it to chapter 14. It was Orwell's 1984. I read this in fourth grade. On my own I've been reading L'Etranger by Camus. A real book. The main character Meursault says that life is ridiculous. At first I didn't know what that meant. But I got it at dinner when I looked at the Samovar in the dining room surrounded by all the Mexican kitsch.
Some things are just so bizarre it's funny. Like today in English we were discussing fascism and other political systems as they relate to 1984, when all of sudden the teacher asked me if I could tell the class about communism. I couldn't believe it. I felt like Meursault after his mother dies and his boss asked him how old she was and he says he doesn't know. I told her I didn't know anything about communism, but she could ask my parents. She said she might. That made me regret saying anything.
My mother drives me to school everyday. Last month she begged my dad for a new car. She settled on a Mercedes E430 in bright red. For awhile she waffled on the car but when her friend Julia got a champagne C280, my mother decided she had to out do her. So she got the bigger Benz.
From the old grandmother act she plays all day long you'd expect her to be tubby and dressed in dirty peasant clothing with a scarf on her head. But my mother looks more like some Upper East Side lady who fell from the sky and landed in Texas. Her real hair color is brown but for some years now she's been dying it blonde. Just like every other housewife in Dallas. She wears red all the time. She claims it's her color. Her nails, lips, clothes, everything. She even has a genuine Chanel bag in red which she totes everywhere and boasts to all her friends. She likes to show them her identification card for the bag to prove that it's authentic, not some knockoff.
"Maryann next door told me that Johnny is on the football team. How come you didn't try out?" She looked at me briefly then turned back to the road.
"Ma, I don't like football."
"You've never tried. How can you be sure."
"Well, I can be sure that I'd get killed playing." I watched her drive. She gripped the steering wheel loosely with her long, red-nailed fingers.
"That Johnny is not much bigger than you. You could play."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't say hell."
"Okay, what the heck are you talking about. Little Johnny is three times my size; he's a monster. He's like the smallest on the team. The rest of those guys are 5 times my size. Why do you care about football anyway?" I hated it when she meddled like that.
"I just think that young boy like you should be active. Not always reading in his room." I hated it when she acted like she wasn't trying to make me do something. As if I wouldn't notice.
"I like to read. I like my room. So it strikes me that reading in my room is perfectly logical. You don't care about me exercising anyway. You just want to tell those ridiculous housefraus that your boy plays ball too. Who cares if he reads? Football and God, that's what it's all about, right?"
"What? Who are these housefraus?"
"Your friends, ma, your freakin' friends. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses."
"We don't know any Joneses." I had to laugh. She didn't even get it. I looked out the window and studied the sky. It looked like it might rain. We drove for about two more minutes before finally reaching school. She pulled in and waved to another mother who was leaving.
"What time should I pick you up?" she said shifting in her seat to look at me through oversized sunglasses.
"I don't care." I didn't like how she was just going on like she hadn't done anything.
"No, tell me what time."
"Whenever the hell you feel like it."
"Nice boys don't say hell." She said it so cheerfully I didn't know what to say.
"Bye." I slammed the door. She knew just how to get in the last jab.
Later in English we were still discussing 1984. The teacher brought up communism again. Then the kid in front of me said that fascist societies breed disobedience and that's why the main character acts out and has the affair with Julia.
"Max, have your parents ever told you about feeling rebellious under fascist communism" How dumb. She didn't even know what she was talking about.
"Actually, communism isn't fascism, it's really socialism."
"Come on, Max, certainly you can't believe that communism wasn't fascist after all your parents must have told you." She smiled like she thought she was being really smart.
"Maybe in practice communism is oppressive, but it's defined as socialism. You want to talk about fascism talk about Mussolini or Hitler. If you want to talk about fascism in Russia the closest thing was czarist rule. The Bolshevik Revolution was a product of that oppression. As far as I know my parents aren't old enough to have been alive then, so no, they haven't told me anything about being rebellious." I just stared at her, and she decided to move on. The bell rang ten minutes later, and I left to go wait for my mother.
By this time it had started to rain, so I decided to wait under the overhang. Usually my mother was already there after school, but I didn't see her. I paced back and forth for awhile and watched the parking lot clear out. I looked at my watch again; it was four o'clock. Where could she be? Just then I saw a flash of fire engine red in the distance; it got closer and eventually pulled into the school. My mother stopped the car in front of me. I opened the door and deposited my backpack on the floor.
"What do you mean? You said I could come whenever the hell I felt like it." I had to laugh at that. Sometimes my mother was just too funny for words.
One more week to vote!
Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.