In this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Boris Fishman describes the liminal state of his family’s home in the weeks leading up to their departure from the Soviet Union for America. The year is 1988, and the author is nine years old:
It was like one of my father’s strange fairy tales: little by little—for free, for favors, for pay—the apartment began disappearing. The vanishing of the television, taken by one of my mother’s co-workers, caused me special grief. . . . My bookshelves were attached to the wall, so I believed they were safe, but one day they were gone, too. Then the Persian rug on which, on all fours, I read the sports pages. Then my bed.
The kitchen went last. A friend of my mother’s hauled away everything in it. They agreed on a price, but the woman gave us no money; she had a relative in America, and since each emigrant could take the equivalent of only $90 in currency (and $250 in possessions), the woman’s relative would pay 50 percent of the agreed-upon price when we got to America—for us, a way of getting out more currency than was allowed. Our position was weak: who knew if the phone number the woman scrawled on a piece of graph paper corresponded to an actual human? . . .
You can sleep on the floor, but you can’t eat the air; how to survive without a stove or a fridge? For the first time in my life, I experienced the dread of not knowing from where the next meal would come. No one had explained that those relatives and friends who did not fear associating with us—“men would not come to our plague-stricken house, but sent their wives instead,” as Nadezhda Mandelstam, the condemned Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife, wrote in more severe circumstances—would come with everything from utensils to foldout tables. My aunt brought braised beef with cubed potatoes and marinated peppers; blintzes stuffed with ground beef and caramelized onion; and a chicken stuffed with crepes and more browned onion, then roasted. All of this disappeared quickly. Departures like ours meant more helping hands, but also more mouths.
Though my grandparents’ home never lacked for guests, this was a different kind of assembly. The smartest people congregated in the kitchen, where the constant replenishment of the foldout table turned the day into a single, unbroken meal. But there were people standing—with glasses, or arms folded, or consoling hands atop grieving wrists—in every room, even mine. (Evidently, its emptiness had re-registered it as common property.) . . . The apartment hummed with festiveness, nerves, and anticipation. . . .