A note from the author: Yasha Glaz is a Boston-based attorney and clarinet player. I’ve known Yasha for almost 30 years. In common Yasha and I have many vestiges of our Soviet past. Our families emigrated from Moscow around the same time. I first met Yasha in Baltimore, and in the 1990s our paths converged in Boston. We’re good friends and have even shared family vacations. Yasha has previously consented to my writing about his life and adventures, and one of the Yasha Glaz stories lent its title to my collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam. This new story deals with a recent family vacation in the Dominican Republic. I’ve personally witnessed some of the events described below, and in telling about them I’ve used just a touch of the storyteller’s license. Please enjoy this Yasha Glaz story and have a great time on your tropical getaways.
After rescuing his family from the claws of a Nor’easter, after getting to Punta Cana on the last flight before Logan was closed, Jake Glaz desired only one thing: peaceful laziness. This beak-nosed, forty-seven-year old Bostonian had not been very good at doing sweet nothing back in Moscow, when he was still called Yasha Glazman, and he hadn’t mastered the art of relaxation even after thirty years in America.
Jake always needed some sort of a parallel occupation—observation, data collection, memory exercise. During the first two days of their family vacation at the all-inclusive Dominican resort, in between swimming, abundant eating, chatting about all sorts of things they didn’t usually have time for (with his wife), building castles on the sand (with his daughters), and tossing an oval ball by the water’s edge (with his son), Jake came up with a game. He played against himself, like Gena the lonely Crocodile in a Soviet cartoon from his childhood. The point of the game consisted in making out visitors from Russia among hundreds of vacationers—beaching, promenading under the crowns of palms trees, gorging themselves at the restaurants or pumping themselves with liquor at the seaside bars. Without fail, Jake was able to identify the Russian visitors in the unsmiling people with puffed up or frowned faces. Am I such a good physiognomist? Jake mused. Such an expert in their ways and habits, even after years of living without Russia?
He recalled the words of Raya B., the ex-Kievan owner of a dry-cleaning business in the near suburb of Boston, where for many years Jake and his wife Lea had been taking clothes. Back in the fall, when Jake had mentioned an upcoming vacation, Raya warned him that Punta Cana was “teeming with Russians.” By “Russians” she meant not Russian immigrants like themselves but tourists visiting from Russia. Jake could always recognize those who, like his own family, had ridden out the former Soviet Union on the wave of the Jewish emigration. Yet for some reason there weren’t many Russian Americans or Russian Canadians at their resort. Not that he was keen on the prospect of rubbing elbows, here in Punta Cana, with fellow Jews from the former Soviet Empire who after twenty or thirty years had almost become Americans and Canadians. But Jake was very curious to chat with Russians from Russia.
Jake had made several attempts to approach Russian visitors at the resort, and it didn’t go so well. On the first day, during lunch at the main buffet restaurant, he asked a stocky fellow sporting narrow red trunks of the sort that swimmers and sometimes gays wear in the United States:
“Have you been here a while?”
“Over a week already,” the Russian man replied, ladling out thick yellow soup.
“So when do you go back?” Jake asked.
“A week. Why?”
“You guys are lucky,” Jake said without a shade of mockery in his voice.
“Yeah, not like you Americans,” said the fellow in the sack-of-marbles trunks.
There was also a computer programmer from St. Petersburg, a 60-year-old man with double brushes of raised white eyebrows, who immediately asked Jake, speaking with prosecutorial sternness, “Do you teach your children Russian?” And even the banal exceptions proved the general rule.
A compassionate-looking lady in her fifties, an OB/GYN doctor from Moscow’s Botkin Hospital, said to Jake, nodding her head in the direction of his wife who was frolicking in the pool with their daughters: “Your wife looks tired. She probably works a lot, and at home she still has to wait on you and the kids.”
“We have a full-time nanny and a house cleaner,” Jake answered, tasting under his tongue a morsel of Moscow childhood with an aftertaste of guilt.
Still, he was drawn to the vacationers from Russia. He struck up conversations with those lying under the neighboring palapas or in line at the towel hut, and each time he hit a wall of disaffection, until he finally tired of these attempts at human commerce. Out of his daughters’ purple backpack he pulled out a little kid’s notebook and markers. Trying to avoid excessive generalizations, he created a list of distinctive features of visitors from Russia vacationing in Punta Cana. At night, when their son Solik, almost a teenager, had fallen asleep in the adjacent room, and their daughters Rachel and Sara had both conked out on the sofa in their suite, Jake loudly whispered the list to his wife:
“Unshaven men with fat bellies wearing T-shirts with ridiculous signs like ‘Nice Shoes Let’s Fuck’ or ‘Mount Holyoke Soccer.’ ”
“Okay, I’ve imagined it,” Lea said.
“Mothers in skimpy bikinis, with tons of makeup, who allow their children to consume tons of carbonated drinks or greasy French fries, and speak to their kids in the voice of a concentration camp guard.”
“Yes, I can visualize it. It sounds a lot like my Aunt Branka from Winnipeg. She used to say that children ‘needed all the nutrition they could get.’ ”
Lea was born in the United States, her parents having escaped in the ’60s from an Eastern European country that no longer existed.
“A total contempt for the labor of the local service personnel. And the lower the position,” Jake continued, “the greater the measure of contempt. With beach attendants they communicate with the snap of the fingers.”
“Uh-huh,” said Lea, who was a little bored with Jake’s cultural observations about Russian tourists.
“And they are all convinced that everything they know about the outside world is true.”
“Fine, let them feel how they feel,” Lea said. “They don’t come to you, do they?”
“I guess not,” Jake mumbled.
“So don’t let them bother you. And don’t talk to them.”
“You’re right. It’s just a funny thing: for years we’d gone to Aruba, where every third person was Dutch, and we come here and it’s Russia galore.”
“You exaggerate,” Jake’s wife said.
“Well, just a trifle. You know, it’s some new brand of Russian people I don’t even know. As if they are hand-picked in their new exurbs, put on the Moscow-Punta Cana flight, and dropped down here at this resort.”
“What about the American men who spend the whole day at the bar slurping the local beer?” Lea asked. “The dyed blondes in pink shorts? How they manage to choose only hamburgers and spaghetti. Don’t these fellow Americans bug you?”
“Well, yes, but this is different. With these Russian visitors, it’s like a bad dream … ”
“ … in which beautiful palm trees grow, a warm sea laps at the shore, all sorts of delicious things are served. And the kids love it here. So don’t be grumpy.”
“I’ll try,” Jake said.
“They aren’t doing anything to you, these Russian folks … ”
“No. But they get on my nerves.”
“Don’t let them get under your skin,” Lea said, switching off the bedside light.
Jake woke up determined to stop guessing the Russian tourists. And should it happen anyway, not to engage with them. For three days he stuck to the plan. He didn’t strike up conversations. He switched beach chairs. And in public he spoke only English with his kids. The girls didn’t mind, but his son confronted him:
“Papa, what’s that about?”
“Camouflage,” Jake answered in English, winking to his son like a co-conspirator.
Two days passed. The Glaz family had one more day left before the return to dank and chilly Boston. In the late afternoon Jake stood by the edge of a children’s pool, watching his daughters at play. The children’s pool was designed in such a way that on one side, where Jake was standing, the water reached just above the ankles and gradually became deeper as one moved to the other side. A short distance away, Lea was lying in the shade and reading a recent issue of The New Yorker. Their older daughter, the nine-year-old Sara, would dive under Rachel, her seven-year-old sister, then lift her up on her shoulders; screaming with pleasure, Rachel pirouetted into the water.
“We’re monsters,” Sara shouted when she emerged to the surface. “Papa, come play scary monsters with us.”
“Girls, let’s go for a swim in the ocean. The water is super warm this time of day.”
The girls pretended they didn’t hear Jake and swam off to the farther end of the pool.
Jake turned his head in the direction of the sea and saw a blond fellow of about forty-five dressed in knee-length black shorts and a black V-neck shirt. Through the triangular opening, Jake gleaned a chain with a golden Orthodox cross pressed onto the fellow’s hairless chest. Hands with bulging muscles folded in front of him, the fellow stood just steps away from Jake and studied him—against the sun—through the whitish lashes of his icy, squinting eyes.
“Hey, pal,” the stranger said to Jake in Russian after forming a smile on his flat-bottomed face, more Varangian than Tatar. “How’s the vacation going?”
“It’s going okay,” Jake answered, grimly.
“Ivan,” said the blond stranger and extended a beringed hand in a greeting.
“Yasha Glaz,” Jake introduced himself, American style.
“Ahlabustin’s my name,” said the blond fellow and moved one step closer to Jake. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He was skinny; foppish. A seminarian’s round wire-rimmed glasses looked odd on his egg-shaped head with a hoggish wisp of yellow bristle. A soft cap without a visor, grey and discolored by the sun, crowned the head of the talkative stranger. I’ve seen him somewhere, Jake thought. The face looks familiar … Or just typical?
“Where do you hail from?” the blond fellow intercepted the parabola of Jake’s thought.
“And before that?”
“Moscow,” Jake answered curtly.
“And you left when?” the stranger by the name of Ahlabustin continued to pry.
“I see. I finished high school in ’85,” Ahlabustin said, dreamily.
“And I didn’t,” Jake said, feeling a thickening irritation someplace in his solar plexus.
“Where did you live in Moscow, pal?”
“Oktyabrskoe Pole Metro.”
“Your father, was he in the military or something?” Ahlabustin asked with a crooked smile.
“Yep, a general. But they didn’t promote him to marshal, and so we up and left,” Jake answered.
Befuddlement surfaced in Ahlabustin’s eyes. But then he gathered his thoughts, tuned his facial expression to that of a jester and erupted with churning laughter: “Pal, you’re something else. Should be writing comedy. Do you want a job?”
“No thanks,” Jake replied, this time without irritation in his voice.
“So what do you do for a living?” Ahlabustin asked.
“An attorney. Real estate. And you?”
“And I, well, I’m in the movie business, as you Americans like to say,” Ahlabustin chuckled.
Suspended, their conversation hung in the air. A tropical breeze wafted in scraps of Latin music from the beach; fluttering against palm fronds and particolored flags, the breeze lifted up cangas of the passing women. Jake waved to his daughters, smiling and motioning with his unclutched right hand that they had only five minutes left in the pool.
“A nice family you have, Yasha,” said Ahlabustin. “Girls, wife. I noticed you people last night, at the restaurant. And your son, how old is he?”
“My Dimka’s already turned thirteen. And my girls are six and ten. They are on the other side of the pool. With my wife. There they are, you see, probably going back to the room.”
With a coquettish gesture of his left hand, Ahlabustin waved to a stately woman clad in a long free-flowing sundress and two girls in modest-looking bathing suits.
“That’s Nastya, my wife, in the blue headscarf.”
“I see,” Jake said.
“And your heir, where’s he now?” Ahlabustin asked.
“Playing volleyball at the beach.”
“And mine’s snorkeling,” Ahlabustin said. “Crazy about it.”
Jake felt, for the first time in this Dominican vacation, that the walls of alienation between him and the visiting Russians had parted.
“What’s your wife’s name?” Ahlabustin asked.
“Nice name. From the Old Testament. Would you believe it, she’s a spittin’ image of my former classmate, Olya Frenkel. She moved to Israel. Too bad.”
Jake tensed up. “Too bad?” he repeated with a question.
“Does your wife work?” Ahlabustin asked, disregarding the question.
“Teaches math in high school.”
“Mine stays home with the kids,” Ahlabustin said, leering.
At this point Jake’s wife came up to the edge of the kid’s pool, holding two navy blue towels with the resort’s emblem, a starfish, embroidered in the corner. Jake summoned the girls, wrapped the younger one in a towel. Ahlabustin stood beside them, watching. Jake was about to introduce Lea to his new acquaintance, but something held him back.
“What’s your name, beauty?” Ahlabustin asked Jake’s older girl, who had dried herself off and was tying her long hair into a turban.
“Sara. Privyet,” the girl replied in a thickly-accented Russian, and pressed herself to Jake who kissed her on the nose and saffron cheeks.
“We’re going back to the room,” Lea said in English. “Can you get Solomon? And don’t dawdle, please. We still need to shower and change before dinner. I left you two towels on the chair.”
Jake’s wife gathered her thick, fiery-red hair into a bun, politely nodded in the direction of Ahlabustin and led the girls in the direction of their building.
“A native, is she?” Ahlabustin asked.
“Born in Boston. Parents were immigrants,” Jake explained.
“One’s drawn to one’s own people,” Ahlabustin said in a mysterious voice. Then he scratched the bristle under his gray round cap and continued. “So listen, you’re a lawyer, an attorney, right?”
“So I’ll say it to you like it is. You are all fucked in America. Totally fucked. A moral demise.”
“What are you taking about?” Jake asked.
“About family values. America used to be a religious country. Walked under God. And now in half of the states you have gay marriage. Guys marrying guys, broads marrying broads. Sodom and Gomorrah, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Stay calm, these aren’t your problems, Jake said to himself. But some other Jake, by the name of Yasha Glazman, could no longer stay calm.
“Well, not half of the states,” said Jake. “But it’s getting there.”
“Don’t tell me you support gay marriage,” Ahlabustin said, an expression of revulsion on his face.
“I don’t support it or rebuke it. These people have a right. Constitutional. That’s all,” Jake said, slicing the sentences.
“Come on, pal. Constitution so what? I don’t believe for a minute that in your heart you support this crap.”
“That’s your prerogative. Listen, I’ve gotta go,” Jake said and turned toward the beach.
“Just wait a minute,” Ahlabustin hit the palm of his open left hand with the rim of his right hand. “Let me finish.”
Jake halted, feeling in the pocket of his shorts to make sure the slippery room key was still there.
“You, Jews, you’re a family nation, patriarchal. What do you need with these sodomites?” Ahlabustin said in some different, wombal voice. “I don’t get it why you always have to defend them. Don’t you have your own problems?”
“It’s because they are we, and we are they,” Jake answered, trying not to raise his rasping voice.
“And we, we’re not they. I have a son like you have a son, but I don’t want my Dimka to come home with a bride by the name of Vasily. Or my daughters to come home with a groom by the name of Vasilisa. And these days they practically teach them this muck at school … ”
“This, Ahlabustin, isn’t muck. It’s life. You’re simply unprepared for it, that’s all.”
“Sure thing, I’m unprepared,” Ahlabustin barked in Jake’s face. “And you? You’re prepared? Would you like your Solomon to be fucked by some pierced transistor?”
Jake said nothing, lowering his gaze to the edge of the pool, laid out in flat white stones polished by the sea. Then he lifted his head and stared Ahlabustin straight in the eyes, now fully prepared to take the challenge, but still holding back the anger.
“No, dear pal, you can do whatever the fuck you want in America, but in Russia we’re going to ban this thing. Again. And very soon,” said Akhlabustin. “You’ll see. The wave of the people’s wrath is rising again, so mark my words. It’s not a Russian thing to … ”
“ … not a Russian thing?” Jake interrupted him. “And Tchaikovsky? Kuzmin? Do you want me to name some others?”
“Ah, don’t paint the pot. Swan Lake, Trout Breaks the Ice. I know these things. These are, so to say, errors of one’s youth. But in general our Russian culture is pure. Without these boils.”
“Listen, Ahlabustin,” Jake said. “You should open your eyes. Otherwise life will wave you goodbye, and your own kids will stop talking to you. You get that? Well, good health to you.”
Jake walked to the pool chairs, where his wife and daughters had been based, threw two towels over his back and headed for the beach in order to fetch his son Solik. Then he remembered that he had left their beach bag with snorkels, an iPad, sun creams, and a novel by the edge of the kid’s pool. He returned to the spot where he had just been standing and arguing with Ahlabustin.
“I was about to take your bag to reception,” said Ahlabustin.
“Thanks, no need,” Jake said through his teeth. “Nobody will take it here.”
“That’s what you think. Last night a family from Petersburg left a bag and towels at the beach. For ten minutes, max. So all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a herd of blacks came running. No bag, no towels.”
“So black people also bother you?” Yasha asked, feeling the rage rising up in his windpipe.
“Bother me? These savages? Pal, stop playing a virgin. I know they bother you. The fags and the blacks. You’ve just learned, in America, to pretend you’re so tolerant.”
“You’re a real son of bitch, Ahlabustin,” Yasha exploded. “It’s not gays but Ahlabustins like yourself that should be banned from having a family and raising kids.”
Yasha heard the shuffle of somebody’s flip-flops behind his back, yet he couldn’t control himself.
“You don’t love your own kids,” Yasha yelled in Ahlabustin’s face. “You’re ready to hate them, in advance, for everything they might have been born with—or might still become—just not to be a fucking monster like their father.”
Ahlabustin turned pale; his cheekbones became sharper, his mouth narrowed, revealing the paper cuts of his small teeth.
“Hey, Yankee Doodle, I’ll break your face if you don’t quit yelling. What’s your problem? Can’t take the truth? I’m telling you like it is. But it looks like you don’t get it. One needs to be a Russian, an Orthodox Christian to understand it.”
Ahlabustin pushed his small round glasses up to the bridge of his sharp nose.
“Russian,” Yasha threw the towels to the ground and took one step back from the edge of the pool. “I’m one quarter Russian myself. My grandfather was Sergei Kuzmich Bondarin. From the Bryansk Province. He was born lame; he didn’t get drafted in ’41 and stayed when the Germans came. He saved my Jewish grandmother, Rachel Markovna, a high schooler, from execution. And then hid her for six months in a hayloft. And after that he brought her with him to a guerrilla unit. And when the war was over he married her and they had two kids, my mom and her brother. Do you get this, scumbag?”
Ahlabustin stared at Yasha with disbelief—the way one looks at a holy fool.
“In America my grandfather went to church every week; prayed for Russia. He lived till ninety. And never once did he say a bad word about gays or blacks or anyone else. He understood it with his heart. Now, he was Russian.”
Yasha blurted all of this out and stopped, keeping his eyes on Ahlabustin’s face.
“You’re lying about your grandfather, and about Bryansk, too,” Ahlabustin said in a repulsive tinny voice. “He was probably a collaborator, a Polizei, and then lied about it. Jewish grandmother, Rachel Markovna, my foot. Sara Abramovna would be even better.”
Ahlabustin turned to face a semicircle of other vacationers who had gathered around them, and twisted his middle finger near his right temple, indicating with his gesture that Yasha was out of his mind.
“No, Ahlabustin,” Yasha slowly pressed out. “It’s you who are a Polizei. A fascist. It’s the likes of you who turned in their own people and served mass in Hitler’s honor.”
Ahlabustin was suddenly transformed into an animal preparing to jump. His flushed face had gained a fierce expression.
“Shut the fuck up, Glaz, or I’ll poke your eye out,” Ahlabustin yelped. “This isn’t Ameri … ”
Yasha hit him on the nose from the right. Like a straw doll, Ahlabustin flew into the kid’s pool and fell in the shallow water. Yasha leapt in after him, jumped onto Ahlabustin’s chest and wacked him from the left, then hit him again on the right cheekbone. Scarlet blood was oozing from Ahlabustin’s nose, mixing in with the pale blue water. With his left hand Yasha gathered the V-neck collar on Ahlabustin’s neck and lifted his head above the water. Ahlabustin was wheezing and didn’t even attempt to free himself. Rhythmically pounding his right fist into Ahlabustin’s face, Yasha recited like an incantation: “Scum,/ you just can’t live without hatred,/ can you?/ you must always persecute someone,/ if it isn’t a Jew, it’s a gay,/ if it isn’t a gay, it’s a black,/ you aren’t a human being,/ you’re scum, dirt,/ you get it?/ my granddad, he was Russian,/ you get that?/ and you are dirt, filth … ”
In Ahlabustin’s eyes Yasha saw the black palm trees; the white tropical hats and uniforms of the hotel security men rushing to them from different sides. When they had already lifted him from the bloodied pastry of Ahlabustin’s face, Yasha heard how Ahlabustin muttered in the direction of the black-and-white security men as they picked him up from the water, “It’s okay, I foulled down, akseedent … ” When Yasha recalled a cold dressing room, phys-ed in 6th grade, Sashka Prokhanov’s ugly mouth splattering saliva and the words “Yashka-kike stole my bike” and his boy’s fist smashing Sashka’s nose into smithereens, smashing it until there was blood and all the offenders had been defeated, forever—when Jake Glaz stopped trying to free himself from the clutches of the security men—he turned his head in the direction of the Caribbean azure and, for the first time on this Dominican vacation, he felt bliss.