I never knew he was balding—I just thought men’s hair grew round the sides of their head like a crown or a donut. He’s 5’2’’ with brown eyes deep-set in his round face: a cross between Mel Brooks and Pablo Picasso. When he wasn’t designing railroads in the Soviet Union, he dabbled in sketch comedy. He told me boys on the streets in Belarus would point at him and call him zhid, a slur for Jew. He married a Russian woman, and they escaped to America, and then she left him. Once, I asked him why, and he smiled: “He spoke better English than me.”
He didn’t meet my mother in the old country though she, too, is an immigrant. He met her at a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach where they don’t have menus; waiters in velvet vests cover the surface with familiar foods. I imagine Papa in the late ‘80s in a burgundy turtleneck holding a beige phone to his ear, doodling on a notepad when he called the host to ask: will there be an even number or an odd number of attendees at the party? My father didn’t like to be the only single. The host said, odd, but only because so-and-so’s husband isn’t coming so she’s bringing a friend. A single friend.
They moved to California. He drove his car cross country—the closer he got to Los Angeles, the less he drove during the day. Too hot. The car couldn’t take it. He napped and drove through the nights with a can of coke and a bag of M&M’s. He loves the heavy air in Death Valley. He thinks Boston in winter looks like Moscow. He says this is a beautiful country. He won’t talk to me about politics anymore unless I explicitly ask him to.
The night of that election my father called to both congratulate and warn his feminist daughter. I was hosting a party with my partner at the time, and we had decided to open a very expensive bottle of wine that we weren’t sure had turned or not. I asked my father if he voted. He just sniffed. Then said he didn’t bother. His vote wouldn’t count anyway because California goes blue.
I asked how could he—
He cut me off and assured me not to worry—my crook would win.
I realize now that all those mornings, we were listening to a conservative radio station. I can still recite it: KFI AM 640 More Stimulating Talk Radio. He didn’t label himself a Republican, but no human who fled “the bright Socialist future” was going to touch American leftism. Not to mention all the liberal radio stations were full of meandering voices and words my father would have to ask me to spell or define. So it was Bill Handel in the mornings and John & Ken in the afternoon. Every morning. Every afternoon. Every once in a while, I heard a female voice: Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
Her views anger me now though that’s not what I remember from the passenger seat of my father’s Volvo. I pressed my ear close to the speakers sometimes, anxious on behalf of the humans calling her from closets and hallways with their pronounced sniffles and heavy exhales. And then the silent air after Dr. Laura ended the call and then reminded me with her crisp consonants that that’s why I shouldn’t “bop and shack up” before marriage. And the strangest bit of all I discovered only recently: she identified as a feminist in the ‘70s but doesn’t anymore. What’s the word for a snake eating its own tail?
I FaceTime Papa to ask him about the impeachment. He holds the camera too close to his face. He thinks the whole thing was a waste of time. Did I see that Nancy Pelosi tore up the transcript?
“Baba yaga,” he calls her.
That’s a Russian folkloric witch who lives in a hut on chicken legs and leads kind young men and women astray. Naturally, she’s been repurposed by graphic novelists and nerds as a powerful female icon.
And then, he jumps in, “What about Harvey Weinstein? What do you think about Harvey Weinstein.”
I have almost no vocabulary to discuss Harvey Weinstein with Papa. When your first language is Russian, but you grow up in America, that means the only people you really speak to in Russian are your parents. And if they’re Soviet, they don’t teach you the words for “fuck” or “harassment” or even “vagina” besides the baby versions You never talk about those things. Not in this house. You learn those words in English.
“What about him, Papa?”
“Now you can’t pay compliments to women!”
“That’s not true—that’s not the same as harassment.”
“How do you know?”
“Do you know the difference between a lamp and the sun?”
“Don’t you think it’s their fault? Why didn’t they just say no? Maybe they’re just after his money now.”
He is not unkind—he is genuinely confused.
“Papa, a man with power like that—or a woman–” I add to anticipate interruptions, “is a criminal the moment he introduces sex into the room.”
“But you can say no.”
“You can’t say anything. If you say yes, you…” I struggle to find an equivalent for “fucked.”
I rephrase: “If you say yes, you… have submitted. Now you’re under his control. Whether you like it or not. And you don’t want to, but now you think you have to. You pay…”
“And if you say no, you’ve rejected a man who has power over you. He is angry with you now. Now what? You pay.”
I get a notification and ask Papa to hold on. What do I say?
I smile at a text from a man who called me beautiful within the first two minutes of our first online date. There. A compliment. I felt… what’s the word for the opposite of harassed?
“I’ve thought about it,” Papa interrupts. “The woman is in an impossible position. You’re right.”
I suppose I’m just afraid he’ll disappear, and I’ll never know why he believed what he did. And, worse, that I’ll never talk to anyone I disagree with. Or that they won’t talk to me. And, well, he’s 85 and very much alive (take that, Neil) though his left eye is going and whenever we drive by cemeteries, Papa says, “They offered me a discount.”
A few years ago when I said I was unlikely to change my last name, he sidled up to me quietly: if I had a son, would I consider making him a Vaynberg? I laugh… so you want to use my feminism to advance your name? He has three daughters: I’m his only hope.
Ouroboros. That’s the word. A circular symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail. The internet defines it as an emblem of infinity or wholeness. I thought it was self-destruction. I was wrong.