“Make sure it doesn’t stick,” Grandma says, instructing me from a little stool next to the stove. She floats up slowly, takes the two wooden spatulas into her hands and flips each potato pancake flatly to the other side. “Like dees,” she says. She peeks into the bowl of grayish-pink batter. “If it gets gray, you make more flour,” and she shakes some in from the white bag.
It’s the middle of August, and my grandmother, Bella, and I are frying latkes in her apartment in Riga, where her and my grandfather now spend their summers. As I cook I keep glancing out the small window that faces Brivibus Street. I am daring it to get dark, but the sky is light purple and will stay light until four in the morning. I have jet lag, which my grandparents do not believe is a real thing.
Far above our heads in the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, a tiny Zenith TV lords over the kitchen, which is small and painted beige and white. A trim of apples in various states of dramatic repose—sliced and whole, with leafy stem and without—runs along the kitchen walls, matching up with the red apples splashed on the oven mitts that hang on the stove. When we aren’t talking Grandma’s face tilts up to the television screen.
“Paul Newman,” she says, smiling. “I love him. With his money he starts, nu, a charity, and he makes lemonade and popcorn and many other tings, and all the money goes to helping people. And he is Jewish!” She squints at the TV. “And so handsome. But now he is dead, like everybody. Like this they don’t have actors anymore!”
She strains to peer over the side of the pan from her low stool. “How are your pancakes?”
“Very good,” I say pushing at them with the spoon.
“Then leave them alone, Misha.”
Her hair is thin and dark gray, cropped close to her head in what I called a “stylish pageboy” when I first saw her at the airport the day before yesterday. She’d swatted the compliment away, her watery brown eyes and freckly forehead crinkling in bemusement.
Now, she stares through the space between my shirt and the pan, wearing a nightgown with little blue flowers so faint they look like stains. She has a peach napkin in her hands that she shreds into a little pile on her lap. Her new habit is chewing at the insides of her cheek and moving her jaw around like she is looking for something in her mouth.
“Latvia just had her big festival of song. A song festival, I don’t know how to say in English.” She squints. “And every village comes to show itself. And did you know every village in Latvia has its own costume? Every single one,” her eyes light up and her neck lengthens. “And so beautiful they are all the little girls, their hair so in bows and”—she makes a ball with her hands on the top of her head. “I used to make your mommy so, too, just like a doll. Every morning, she always looked the best, I wouldn’t let her leave the house without a bow and a—” and she makes another ball looking for the word.
“A bun,” I say. I picture the black-and-white photographs I have seen of my mother as a baby with dimpled thighs and a giant bow in her hair.
“So every village sends their little girls. And they dance their special dancing for that village and it is so beautiful. And then all the villages sing Latvian songs in one big choir. Jurmala has such a beautiful costume and song. We used to take your mommy there in the summertime and rent a dasha. We will go tomorrow to Jurmala, yes?”
“I don’t know why you bother asking me when we both know you’re in charge of the calendar,” I say, putting my hand on my hip in mock irritation.
But she isn’t paying attention. “We can’t go to the Jewish Museum to see Grandpa’s picture on Saturday because of the Sabbath it will be closed. So maybe on that day we will go to Rumbala forest to see the mass grave. And we need to go to the forest at Solchrosti, where my parents were killed.” She pauses to look at me accusingly. “Two weeks is not enough time, Misha. What do you have to rush back to in New York?”
Good question, I think. I lost all my fact-checking jobs after the vaunted economic downturn; all my money is coming from Unemployment and the subletter I’m overcharging for my room back in Brooklyn. My roommate is on high alert for any envelopes from the New York Department of Labor. My girlfriend Chloe and I broke up a couple of months ago and the girl I was sleeping with is no longer speaking to me.
“I have a life, Grandma! Come on, keep talking. You were saying about the choir—”
“Yes, the choir. On the news it said, it was the biggest choir they have in the world in 2008. 2000 people on the stage!” She pauses. “Can you believe it, the world’s biggest choir right here in Latvia?”
“No. I can’t actually.” I try not to laugh. “Are you sure that’s what they said?”
She ignores me and continues, petting the top of one freckled hand with the other. “But when I was watching this festival I understood something for the first time.”
“My pancakes are done,” I turn off the heat.
“This country is for them.” Her hands clasp together on her lap.
“What do you mean?”
“Latvia is for Latvians only. It is not for anybody else. Not for Jews, not nobody.” She nods tightly, agreeing with herself. “Not for us. I understand now.”
My grandfather comes into the kitchen from the other room and puts a plate in the sink. He’s looking almost preppy in his yellow and plaid shirt and white shorts, black socks pulled tightly up to his knees. I can smell his Old Spice and see the pomade glistening on the few white hairs he has combed over the top of his head. He’s going out for a drink with his friend Jonas tonight.
“Well now they are busy hating the Russians,” he says, his bony back hunched over the dishes. “If the Latvians hate the Russians it means they don’t hate the Jews so this is good. But, still, you cannot trust not one of them.” He turns around to me and raises a soapy finger in the air. “Not after how they were acting.”
“Boris!” Grandma says loudly from her stool. “They’re all in Australia, Argentina, America—those Latvians aren’t here, the Nazi ones; they are all escaped.”
“Maybe so. But I can feel it in my heart when I am walking on the street that they hate us.”
“Come on Bosca—what are you talking?” She scoffs winking at me.
“Nu, you don’t know nothing,” he says. “And what are you laughing, vechnyi student?” He jerks his head towards me.
“Do you know what it means?” Grandma asks me.
“It means forever student!” Grandpa says. “That is what you are!”
“I guess I’m okay with that.” I shrug.
“Of course she is okay with that. Because one day she is going to be very rich from all her degrees. Right?” Grandma encourages.
“Right!” I had just been about to ask her for a couple lats to get a peroshki from the restaurant downstairs. But I decide to hold off.
I fall asleep early on the cot in the living room, kicking the many thick wool blankets Grandma has draped over me onto the floor while I sleep. Around midnight, she turns on the light wildly.
“Nu, where is he?” She screeches.
I squint and see her there pushing her walker towards the couch. I reach for my glasses and sit up onto the swirl of white sheets. “Grandma, he goes out every Friday night, and he always come back.”
“Well, where is he now? He couldn’t call not once? He was supposed to be home two hours ago. I’ve been waiting two hours like a dummy.”
“Grandma, you have to stop. You have to go to sleep and let it go. He’s an adult.”
“Where is he?” She starts to cry a little now. “It is making me sick.” I get up and sit next to her on the couch, which is brown and ribbed like a pair of corduroy pants.
“Grandma, calm down; come here.” I put my head on her hunched shoulder and pet her soft thin hair. “Come on, we’ll watch some TV till they get back.” I fumble with the remote and flip through the channels. I stop on a woman whose eyes are abnormally deep set. They look like they’ve been smashed into her head with a hammer. She gets up, slowly pours tea from an electric teakettle and then takes her tea to the fireplace. She’s blind and talking about having to learn how to do things on her own. The next shot of her is in a wedding gown kissing a man in a military uniform.
“See even she can get a husband!” She jeers at me.
“Oy Grandma,” she repeats back mockingly.
“You want me to just marry anyone off the street?”
“No,” she says. “And he shouldn’t be Asian. Or Black. Or German. No Germans.”
“Oh you’ve added German to your list?”
“You remember Justina, Tiotia Galya’s daughter? She is marrying a German. I am angry of her.” She squints at the TV. The blind woman is still talking. “Change the channel, Mamonya.”
“Okay.” I flip through the channels. I find a special on VH1 about celebrity couples; this segment is on Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet.
Her eyes focus on a picture of Lenny Kravitz as a young man with a guitar and an Afro. “He is Kravitz?” she asks.
“Yeah, he’s black and Jewish I think.” She furrows her brow.
The next photo is of Lisa Bonet, her long dreadlocks disappearing into the folds of her colorful scarves.
“She is Jewish,” Grandma says.
“I don’t think she is.” In the next couple minutes the voiceover reveals she is half-black and half-Jewish as well.
“How did you know?”
“You can always tell by the eyes. She has Jewish eyes.” She clasps her hands. “Nu, this is a nice story. They are both the same and they fall in love. See everyone sticks to their own and you should too!”
“Grandma they’re both mixed. That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Why mix? You don’t see mixing with other animals. You will never see a cat and dog together!”
“That’s because cats and dogs are different species. Humans are all part of the same species.”
She turns to me and beams. “You are so smart, Mamonya,” she says grabbing my chin. “Krasavitsa.”
The phone rings and Grandma picks it up.
“Now we can rest,” Grandma says after she puts down the phone, her whole body relaxing. “Grandpa is on his way home.”
At the sound of his keys in the door, she is up and yelling at him in Russian.
“But you love Jonas,” he reacts in English, clearly for my benefit. “I’m the one who don’t trust him. Misha,” he slurs turning to me, “Jonas is good until he talks about Jewish. Then he is a bastard like all the rest of them.” He raises his fist.
“You think it is easy to live with this man? This drunk!” She says to me, as if taking her turn before the judge. “I have nerves too! You aren’t the only one who was in the war!”
“Okay, goodbye.” I take my computer and almost slip as I skid out of there and into the bathroom. I sit down on the toilet and hug the computer into my chest, staring up at the naked bulb, the wretched little fly that occasionally collides into it and the peeling grayish paint framing the scene. The bathroom, like the other rooms in their Riga apartment, holds faint glimmers of the gated community townhouse back in the East Los Angeles suburb where they live, which, by comparison, stands out as the seventies Versailles they always intended it to be. Here there is no gold standing toilet paper holder or similarly gilded towel racks from Home Depot but there are fluffy towels, a satiny shower curtain and a (gold) American-made handrail installed into the side of the bathtub.
I crowned the bathroom my office the first night I was here, when I discovered I could get on a Wifi network called Dargs500. I wouldn’t have thought that the signal could come through the thick floors of this Soviet building, its halls heavy with the smell of mildew and frying oil.
There Dargs500 is again when I get onto Wikipedia to look up Grandma’s Latvian Song and Dance Festival.
“Aw, she was right,” I mutter: The Latvian Song and Dance Festival (Latvian Vispārējie latviešu Dziesmu un Deju svētki) is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world and an important event in Latvian culture and social life.
My second order of business is to write a message to Marina, the young Latvian anarchist I found through my old MySpace account. I had searched under the category “lesbian” and Marina was the only person that came up who didn’t look like a porn star.
Hey Marina it’s me Misha again. I was wondering if you wanted to meet up and go to this club called PURVS I found in my travel guide. It’s gejiem, lesbietem, biseksualiem, transvestitiem. On Matisa iela. Maybe we could meet up for a coffee before somewhere that you know?
I open up my email and see my ex-girlfriend Chloe, who I call Cleo, at the top of my Gchat list. I hover over her name for a second, and see she’s got a new photo up of her and some queer in a blond wig who looks really happy to be around her. My heart sinks and I feel like I am going to throw up. Cleo is a person who makes a new friend every time she leaves the house. But she definitely picked this one up when she was out at a club. That some stranger gets to play at intimacy with her when I can’t even write her hello feels like a betrayal.
I think the worst part about breaking up with someone is not being able to tell them all the things you used to tell them. It’s as if a pressure valve has been sealed off inside me and now I’m left to steam in all the smoke and confusion. I can hear my therapist’s voice in my head: This breakup is a good opportunity to get to know yourself, to stop relying on others [namely Cleo] for validation. I open up my spiral notebook to a blank page and start writing:
The things I wanna tell you but I am going to tell myself instead:
Grandma eats this oily brown fish in the morning which makes me wretch and feel so lonely for some reason but you would probably like it—the fish
During the day here, it’s about eating and how much you ate and what we will eat and pretending that Grandpa doesn’t drink; at night they fight about his drinking
Riga fashion is a sight to behold; all the men wear these extremely long and pointy shoes with like smoky paint on them
Strangely the young women dress in a way that somehow suggests what they look like naked—a subtle art that I’m trying to get to the bottom of
Hopefully gaying it up here will help with the loneliness; you taught me that, about finding your built-in family everywhere you go even in these far reaches of Eastern Europe where the last time they had a gay pride parade people mobbed it with human feces
I know this list isn’t for you but just one more thing
I hated it when you said oh maybe you should get a job at democracy now when I lost my job like why do you tell me what to do all the time? The implication being I’m not doing enough or I don’t know what I’m doing. As if it’s so easy to get a job at democracy now anyhow
Also why don’t you get a job at fucking democracy now
And that time you said that all my honesty is demanding, and it kinda grates, well, you know what? You aren’t even honest—you’ll be like that person is a secret millionaire who steals peoples’ ideas but then you’re nice to them to their face because they just got into the Whitney Biennial or whatever
Okay, back to me…
I’m so glad I’m not in New York and I don’t have to say I’m going to events and struggle over going to events and then not go and hate myself for not going
Grandma’s new habit is chewing at the insides of her cheek and moving her jaw around, like she is looking for something in her mouth.
Svetlana Kitto is a writer and oral historian whose fiction, essays, and journalism have been featured or are forthcoming in Salon, VICE, the Believer, Art21, Plenitude Magazine, OutHistory, Surface, and the New York Observer, and the books Occupy (Verso, 2012) and the Who, the What and the Where (Chronicle, 2014). She has contributed oral histories to the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Museum of Arts and Design. She is currently at work on a novel called Purvs, which means "swamp" in Latvian, and is the name of that country's first gay club.
Artwork by Sarah Mazzetti at sarahmazzetti.com