I hit the brakes at a stop sign and look in the rear view mirror to do my lashes. The 1980 Chevy Cavalier is panting, short of breath. I hold my mascara in one hand and grip the wheel with the other. For a moment I panic that the car might stall, but when I toss my makeup into the glove compartment and take my foot off the brakes, it moves again. Suburban St. Louis is speckled with low-lying lights, veined with fresh-paved roads, and lost in the yellowing canopies of trees. I turn up the volume on the cassette player: it’s my favorite song by Akvarium, the cult band from the USSR. It’s 1992 and the USSR is no more.
I’ve been sixteen for two days, and I’ve been in the States for a year. I’m a legal alien, which is exactly how I feel. There are things I’ve learned to help me survive in this country: I wash my hair every day and rotate the few clothes I wear. I smile when I don’t want to and chew gum with my mouth open. I ask what’s up a lot and say I’m doing well even when I’m not. I pledge allegiance and obey the rules of the honor code, though the idea of telling on a cheating classmate makes my stomach turn. At lunch, I act like I’m certain the food will be there tomorrow, even though I’m not.
I roll down the window and the crisp September wind tousles my shoulder-length hair. I smile. It’s going to be a special night, I think, the stiff fabric of jeans rubbing against my skin. My first American jeans, bought from a downtown store my classmates wouldn’t enter at gunpoint. How did my parents ever let me drive there? I wonder. Yesterday’s dinner-time conversation replays in my mind:
“I’ve seen a picture from last year’s pep rally pinned to Naideen’s wall,” I say, as I ladle pickle soup for my father. “All the girls will wear jeans, and I’ve grown out of mine. Tomorrow’s Saturday and you two are at work all day. I’ll drive downtown to StealADeal and get myself a pair.”
“No, that place is too far. Find something here,” Mama says, her eyebrow raised and body tense. She’s ready for a fight.
“Nonsense,” Papa says. “We can’t afford both, to live and shop in this neighborhood.”
“Then take the bus,” Mama says, and brings a lighter to her cigarette. “That car won’t make it down the highway and back anyway.”
Mama might be right about the car. The old Chevy is a gift from a wealthy family who wanted to make room in their cluttered three-car garage. We responded to an ad in the Jewish Light and were shocked when the family gave the car away for free.
“It’s a free country,” Papa says in English, because to him, Russian language isn’t worthy of such words as ‘freedom’. He looks at Mama over his reading glasses. “Emma’s got her license now,” he continues, “and we have to let her drive.”
Mama bites her lower lip and rolls her eyes. She chain-smokes for a while, talking about me in third person even though I’m right there buttering my bread and drinking my tea.
“She’ll be stuck for hours on a highway in a broken car!” she pleads. “There’s rain in the forecast, how is she going to walk home for miles soaking wet? And you.” She turns to my father who pretends to read the paper. “You are going to be the one worried, I know you.”
“This here,” Papa says, tapping at the table with his index finger. “This is America. Everything’s different. You and I must adjust. Here, they drive at sixteen. So, I’m going to let her go where she needs to.”
Closer to midnight Mama concedes, pulls a small stack of cash from under their mattress, and gives me a twenty.
“It’s a difficult drive into a bad area,” she says. “But I can’t argue about this anymore. Eighteen pedicures to do tomorrow with a smile across my face. Spokojnoj nochi,” she concludes, and slams the bedroom door shut. “Good night.”
“Try smiling from behind the pizza counter all day,” Papa whispers, the corners of his mouth pushing deep into his cheeks. He winks at me, saying, “Now you’re self-sufficient.” Then he adjusts his glasses and leans into his newspaper.
Papa’s right, I think, as I turn into Naideen’s subdivision. Independence, finally. Back in Ukraine I got myself to and from places on my own since the age of seven. Yet here things are spread out miles apart, my own two feet can’t get me far. All that’s about to change, I think. I spin the wheel with the palm of my hand and fan out my fingers. Tonight’s going to be awesome. I mouth this word, awesome, in English, the way Naideen and I heard Brooke describe the pep rally in the hallway on Friday afternoon. Brooke’s not exactly our friend, but when Naideen and I are around she doesn’t talk through us like the rest of the girls. She flips her flat blond hair and puts on a brief smile.
“You guys going to the party tonight, right?” she says. Or, “You guys are gonna watch the swim meet, right?” Or, “I’ll see you at the pep rally Saturday night, yeah? It’s gonna be awesome.”
We never actually go anywhere, since she doesn’t tell us what time or where. She doesn’t ask for our numbers and doesn’t wonder if we need a ride. But we consider it a privilege to simply know. And tonight, we’re finally taking full advantage.
Naideen forces herself into the car before I bring it to a full stop.
“Les do this, Em,” she says, dropping half the letters of my name, as usual.
All of a sudden her big hair is everywhere, the oils she’s rubbed into it making the air thick. She waves to her mother who’s standing on the porch of their split-level home. The woman’s hands are folded across her chest and her body looks tense. She’s worried about my driving, I think, and about the fact that soon Naideen will get her license too.
I back up their driveway. Theirs is a corner house everyone passes, the house whose lawn drunk kids drive over when they miss the turn. There’s no landscaping and it’s barely set back. But it’s in Ladue, that’s what matters.
Naideen pulls her backpack, purse, and makeup bag onto her lap. She’s always cluttered. She wears her hair down and a beanie hat that hangs off the side of her head. She puts on several shirts and one is always visible under the hem or collar of the other. Her droopy silver chains and bracelets clank when she uses her hands to speak.
“Nah, girl, we can’t have that,” she says, and pulls my tape out of the player. She takes a small boombox from her backpack and turns it on. The disk rotates inside, bringing out the soulful beat of MC Solaar.
Naideen is black and also French. Marseille is not the sort of outer space I’ve come from, but in the upscale private school we attend on scholarship she’s a misfit, like me.
We’re flying down the rolling hills now. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in the country. Mailboxes and wide driveways disappear into rows of manicured boxwoods and evergreens. The houses on these roads are set too far back to see. When it starts to look like that, I know we’re not far from the school.
Naideen does her makeup and slathers cucumber-scented lotion on her hands; the smell permeates the old leather seats. Now she’s noticed my hair. A time always comes when she notices my hair. She produces a water bottle from her bag and squirts the bangs I’d worked hard to hair-spray at home.
“No need for all that,” she says, letting the strands loosen down to my forehead. “Who wants to touch that? Gotta keep your hair soft, girl, how many times I told you that?”
Nobody’s going to touch it, I remind her, but Naideen’s got other plans. She sparks the car with her smile and turns up the volume.
“This is the biggest night of the year. Homecoming,” she yells over the music.
Here I pay attention. It’s Naideen’s second year at this school, so when she talks, I listen.
“Remember that picture I showed you?” she asks, and I do remember it. There’s a group of girls from our class wearing cyan and white school sweatshirts over tight jeans. The guys are bunched in the middle—their shoulders wide under their football jerseys, black marks covering their cheeks, army fatigues loose over their narrow hips. Naideen stands on the left side at the very end, most of her body out of frame.
“Tomorrow’s the first football game of the season,” she continues, while I drive. As she says ‘football’ I try to picture the oddly-shaped ball and the way it curves through the air. A tangle of bodies falling over it as it hits the ground. When Papa catches it at home on TV, he’s always surprised.
"Posmotri. Look at the strange game they call football,” he says. Then he shakes his head. “America is a different world, Emma.”
Naideen’s window is down. She sticks out her hand, letting the air beat at her palm.
“Everyone’s gonna be there tonight,” she continues. “It’s so dark, and there’s music and chanting, and the varsity guys have these huge torches. They light the bonfire and it gets so big.”
Here I feel the tips of my fingers get cold and the breath in my chest get tight. “Fire?” I say and grip the wheel, my foot automatically off the accelerator. MC Solaar breaks into his best-known hit, Caroline, and Naideen starts to move her body with it, her bracelets shaking over her wrists.
“When the flames get up high everyone’s cheering and hugging. And everyone’s sharing drinks. Some people make out. It gets totally crazy,” she says.
Did she hear my question, I think, and repeat the word inside my head: fire.
“Teachers stay up hill. They don’t wanna see what everyone’s up to,” she says, but then she looks at me.
“Why you going so slow, Em? We don wanna miss it.”
“Fire. You said fire,” I finally say. The car is at a full stop at this point and I hear honking behind us.
“Bonfire, yeah. It’s like a ritual before the big game.”
“Is cool, no?” she asks.
Naideen turns the music off and looks at me, the whites of her eyes flickering in the darkness. Nothing changes about her face, except her eyes are now tense—an invisible string connects them to that thing inside me that hurts. She doesn’t know what it is, but I think she knows it’s there. For me, that’s enough.
“Hey, it’s all right,” she says, reaching for my elbow. “We don’t gotta go if you don’t want to.”
My foot’s firm on the brakes and I hear the aggression in the honking that’s coming from behind. It gets closer. I look in the mirror and see a dark jeep—open—baseball hats and long hair poking from behind the windshield. They’re so close that I think they might rear-end us. Naideen turns to see.
“Fuck…” she says.
But they sway to the left and pass us, risking oncoming traffic. I see them fly by, their car so quick and tall on its powerful wheels that they have to bend down when they flip me off and curse. They are packed—three guys in the front, four girls in the back. Long limbed with tanned faces. Thick skinned. Eyes buried under flat, overgrown bangs. They’re my age—what’s considered kids in this world. I know I’ve lived a hundred years longer, but I also know I won’t catch up with them in my lifetime.
The moment’s gone; they’ve passed us. Something hits the ground and I see the driver’s hand stretched over the front door. A beer can lies on the road over the yellow dividing line. It collects the glare from my headlights onto its crumpled surface.
“Woo-hoo!” I hear the girls scream from the backseat and their laughter stays in the air long after the jeep is out of view.
“Idiots,” Naideen says. “They’ll get busted.”
I take my foot off the brakes and let the car glide forward. Naideen doesn’t say anything, except I feel her look at me, hopeful. Don’t ruin this night, I tell myself, get over it. At least for Naideen’s sake. It’s a different world and a new life, like Papa always says, and so I have to be new. Or at least I have to try.
I force my foot back on the pedal. Soon the sprawling complex—red brick with white columns—is visible under the street lights. The school.
“I don’t like fires,” I say to Naideen, making all the consonants razor-sharp with my accent.
“No shit, girl,” Naideen says with a small laugh and turns the music back on. She knows one day I’ll explain.
We pull into the winding driveway and make it through the parking lot, already full of cars. I find a spot and don’t do a good job fitting in.
“Cool ride,” someone says, jokingly, as we step out onto the pavement.
I walk next to Naideen, cold, at first, in my white tee-shirt that’s too light for the weather. Then, the energy from bodies gathering all around me starts to cultivate warmth. In the distance, the beat of the drum gathers in intensity. I hope to see Brooke, or another girl from one of my classes. Then I figure out that they could be right next to me and it wouldn’t matter. I feel a certain harmony of sound and movement swirling downhill from the parking lot and past the football field into the valley. I don’t know how many of us are there. Perhaps not that many in sheer numbers, but darkness blurs the line where the crowd ends and makes the scene look infinite.
“This is crazy,” I say, caught up in the excitement of being part of something huge, unaccountable.
“Told ya,” Naideen yells, and I want to respond but she speeds up her pace and she’s no longer next to me. Several people fill into the distance between us, so that all I can see are parts of her back, glints of her earrings, the top of her beanie hat bobbing up and down.
“Naideen,” I say. Then louder, “Hey. Naideen!”
She can’t hear me because she’s too far ahead. I see her face for a brief moment, she turns back but it’s too dark and she can’t find me.
“Where you at, Em?” I imagine her say, as the crowd tucks her into its gut. She’s digested into a mesh of cyan and white.
I feel pushed at from all directions. I don’t know if it’s my legs that move my body downhill or if the shoulders of my schoolmates have picked me up and are carrying me there. Somebody throws their arm around me and it’s Brooke. Her boyfriend holds her by her waist, his other arm is flanked over somebody else. They’re all laughing and maybe I’m trying to as well.
“Hey, you came,” Brooke says.
“I can’t find Naideen,” I say, but Brooke’s too excited to listen.
“Whoa,” she says, because she’s pulled to the side.
I feel her hand slip off my shoulder as the massive gathering consumes her. The drum is powerful and the anxious sound of the bagpipe begins to whine. The crowd stops and I stop with it. The valley lies in front of us while we’re on the slope of the hill, as if in an amphitheater. I’m mixed into row upon row of heads and bodies, so that it feels like I’m part of a breathing organism. Before us, a makeshift stage made up of planks and haystacks supports an elaborate wooden frame. I don’t believe it at first, but then I’m certain that I see a figure of a person hanging from the top of the structure. I hold my breath a moment and put my hand over my mouth. It can’t be real, I tell myself. Its shape is too awkward and it seems weightless as it sways back and forth in the slight wind.
“What is that?” I scream, prompting the immediate circle of heads around me to turn. I recognize some faces. The eyes that usually skim past or through me in the hallway are now direct, alert.
“You alright?” a guy asks, moving back toward me. He smiles out of the side of his mouth and his cheekbones make his eyes disappear. I’ve seen him before. Brian? Tobey? A list of American names runs through my mind.
“What is that?” I repeat, gesturing at the figure.
“What’s what?” He hands me his can of beer. “Drink up. Chill, Emma,” he says, moving back a few steps. “There’s more if you want,” he adds.
He knows my name, I think, and take a swig. I can feel his breath still on the can—my first contact with American lips, however indirect. I decide his name is Tobey.
There is movement coming from the back of the crowd. Everyone steps to the side, bumping into each other, touching. Someone starts to tap out the rhythm of the drums against my back and I see other people do the same. The music no longer comes at us from the outside; it pushes out from our chests and beats in sync with our hearts. Tobey turns to make sure I’m still there.
“Look, they’re coming,” he says, and points to where the sea of bodies has come apart to let a procession through. I grab at his forearm to keep steady. He doesn’t mind.
The march is made up of guys—almost men—organized in a line of pairs shoulder to shoulder. They each look fierce in their cyan jerseys, holding a torch in their hands and wearing charcoal on their cheeks. Their walk is constrained as they make their way downhill but when they approach the stage it turns into a practiced, synchronized jog. They duck behind the structure and reappear back several times as they circle around it.
I hear a chant that begins somewhere in the belly of the crowd. It’s picked up by the rest of us and absorbed into the ground, into the air, into the trees. The men turn their broad shoulders and surround the stage. Their blond heads are illuminated by the flames that rage at the tips of their oversized candlesticks. On a cue, they lean into the structure and throw in their torches.
Within moments it’s ablaze. I can see the wooden limbs shake; I can hear the haystacks underneath crackle. The hanged figure is still dark but it can now be clearly visible: there is a head, neck, large body, what looks like arms and legs. The flames barely touch the tips of its feet and I hold my breath, wondering if this will actually happen. Will this person, or the semblance of a person, be burnt right in front of me while I stand and watch? Will I become one of the people in this crowd, excited by the sight of someone burning in the air?
I close my eyes and I’m back in the Soviet Ukraine. I’m nine years old, returning with my parents from a visit to family friends. As we approach our block-long apartment building, I take hold of Mama’s hand. Not because I can’t walk on my own, but because I see something I don’t understand. Papa, who’s a few steps ahead of us, stops abruptly and I notice his back strain. He raises his finger, as if asking us to pause, and then lets his arm fall back in resignation. Our building is smudged with bright colors of orange and red. Parts of it are missing in glaring sparks of pure, aggressive white. I dig my nails into Mama’s palm.
“Spokojno. Stay calm,” she says, asking the impossible.
All of a sudden the city around me doesn’t look familiar. Buildings begin to spin and trees grow into monstrous, stretching limbs. My insides feel hollow, as if I were falling in mid-air and all I want to do is dive into my own body, into something I know—a place I can still call home. I see our house engulfed in flames so big they light up the night sky above.
“Well. This is life, my girls,” Papa says, without turning back to face us.
“This is life,” I whisper back, trying to make sense of these words. But all I can think is no, this is fear.
We stay the night in the neighborhood park, in front of our burning building. We watch the fire eat through each window, each gutter. We watch it crawl under the cornices and poke through the roof. We watch the space, the smell, and the sound that made up our life until that moment—disappear. But that doesn’t shock me. What I can’t get over is the observing crowd. No one’s crying. No one’s mad that it takes the firemen hours to come and when they finally do there’s no water in the hydrant. My neighbors tower over me with their adultness, discussing what stuff they’ll now need to replace. They’re talking about how there’s nothing more to do here but get drunk. They’re laughing—laughing!—about how there will be nothing but ash on the ground by the morning.
“There’s a thing burning!” I want to scream, but my tongue is in a knot and the words fall back down my throat. “There’s a thing. A real thing. Burning. Burnt.”
I watch my building crumble and then I watch my family live in a temporary tent city for months until we find friends that finally take us in. For years we wait for the government to provide us new housing and when they do it doesn’t matter anymore because we’re on our way to America, in search of a new home.
When I open my eyes, the fire is dancing around the figure’s legs, creeping up its thighs, crawling up its body. As it burns I see its colors—orange and red—all bright and beautiful in the moving flames.
“What is that?” I ask again, pulling on Tobey’s forearm. He turns back to me and his eyes are as familiar as if I’ve held on to him like this forever.
“It’s just a dummy,” he says. “The Westview High mascot.”
The figure is now fully lit and I see its maze of yellow hair and its oversized beak. It’s the big bird, Tobey explains, that stands on the sidelines cheering for the opposing team.
The chant has turned into a cheer and everyone’s hands are up. People are laughing and clapping. Someone hugs me and I hug them back and then I’m in Tobey’s arms. He lets go of me to high-five another classmate. There is a final spark and the bird, having passed the line of fire through its entire body, gives up and falls into the hay. The spectators erupt with glee. I take a step closer and crane my neck to have a better look. Peering at the fallen debris and the elated crowd around it, I realize that this is the rest of my life. This night. This fire. Everything in this country is pretend. It’s all Hollywood.