the museum of americana

a literary review

Cream and Sugar—Fiction by Olga Zilberbourg

 
My mother’s recent visit to the United States ended a week after deadly violence broke out in Odessa. Nothing would persuade my mother to stay with us for good, neither my pleading, nor the escalating war in the old country. Would the fighting in Donbass spill over to my hometown, divided between pro-Russian provocateurs, Ukraine enthusiasts, and hardcore Odessity whose allegiance was to the city against nation-states? Would the fire in the Trade Unions house, in which more than forty people died, result in more fighting on the streets?

My husband and I were still asleep when a taxi picked up my mother. She’d said her goodbyes to us and the kids the night before, refusing our offers to drive her to the airport. She hated the idea of being a burden.

The airport was nearly empty when she arrived. With some predictable difficulties due to her poor English, she endured all the bureaucratic hurdles and navigated her way to the gate.

In the middle of the circular waiting area, a coffee shop had just opened for business. My mother bought a large cup of coffee and an oversized apple pastry. Using gestures, the barista directed her to the milk and sugar counter. My mother mixed some cream and sugar into her drink and sat down at a nearby table to while away the half-hour left until her flight to Vienna, where she would change planes to Odessa. She looked forward to having her morning coffee at home, on her balcony, boiling it in her mocha pot with just the right amount of water to just the right temperature, and drinking it out of her fine porcelain cup.

Too tired to read, she sipped from the waxy cardboard cup and observed the manners of the people approaching the milk and sugar counter: A man in a business suit grabs a thermal carafe and, for an unfathomable reason, pours some milk into the trash can. He then wipes all the surfaces with a napkin, pours from the same carafe into his coffee cup, wipes everything down again, tries to peer into the narrow opening of the carafe, picks up the jar of sugar, shakes a little into his coffee, stirs, tastes, shakes and pours again, stirs, tastes, repeats. His tall broad back stoops over the counter, his hands, arms, and the entire body perform hundreds of unnecessary gestures. Finally, he tears himself away from the carafe and glances around the room as though suddenly coming to his senses. Anxious, as though he’s getting away with murder, he picks up the coffee and his luggage and scurries away. A woman approaches. She pours half of her coffee into the trash can, then fills the rest with milk. After her follows a slim, stiff woman in her sixties, petite yellow purse tucked under her arm. The woman carries two paper cups. Her movements are economical and precise; in my mother’s mind, her gestures belong to a certain type of miser, stingy in all aspects of life. The woman occupies the far corner of the counter and from her purse pulls out a metal tea strainer. Next she produces a paper bag of loose leaf tea and throws a small amount into the strainer. Giving the tea a few moments to steep, she transfers the strainer to the second cup. My mother believes she’s onto her game: she has taken free hot water and now will load up on free milk and sugar. And indeed, as soon as another customer sets the milk carafe down, the woman makes ample use of it, adds plenty of sugar, hides a few paper packets of sweetener in her pocket, and then marches off to deliver one of the teas to her friend, awaiting nearby with the luggage.

My mother had been coming to America nearly every year for over two decades. Nothing surprised her anymore, but she couldn’t help disliking what she saw. Why, in this richest country in the world the people were so small, so self-indulgent? She documented these examples and, when I called on her cell phone to see that she had safely gone through all the bureaucratic hurdles, listed them as evidence against my adopted homeland. I tried to explain, but her voice remained metallic on the phone.

“I saw what I saw,” she said.

She visited for about a month or two at a time, cleaning, cooking, and reading Pushkin to the grandkids, who had long given up the fight against the classic. But each time, sooner or later, my mother packed her bags and headed to the airport, returning to the old country.

Twelve hours after she was supposed to land in Odessa, I still hadn’t heard a word. I kept calling and listening to the dial tone. Unable to fall asleep, I trawled the Internet for news of further violence.

Another twelve hours later—after a sleepless night, I was back at work—she picked up the phone and acted as though I’d worried for nothing. Cars burning on the street, bombs being thrown at banks—none of that figured into her story.

“Klara was going to the beach this morning and we made a party of it,” she reported. “The weather’s so nice, summer-like. Imagine, the tomatoes on my balcony are already up to my knee! I hope you come and bring the kids soon. I’m off to bed—I’m beat. Make sure the kids read at least two pages in Russian every day, that’s what they promised.”

She hangs up first, and I sit in my office, holding the phone to my ear, listening to the dial tone.

 

~~~

Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author who grew up in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. Her English-language fiction has been featured in Confrontation, World Literature Today, Narrative, Outpost 19’s Golden State 2017 anthology, and others. She co-hosts the weekly San Francisco Writers Workshop.