Though Semyon Dolsky hadn't been planning on leaving Florida this early in the hurricane season, he decided that he needed some time away. His rage about being treated as a second-class citizen could get him in trouble. He could barely control himself when he'd walked into his bank the last time. Accosted by a barrage of Spanish advertising, he'd searched the walls and display stands for anything in English, seemingly in vain, until he spotted two foot-long signs in remote corners. To put up or shut up, that was the question. He must think it through. Someplace neutral, the farther away the better, but, preferably, where he could easily pass for a native. He came home, opened the map of the Soviet Union—may it rest in peace—and focused on the north-western republics, improving the odds of some place decent. Estonia maybe?
He took a moment to get used to the idea. Why not? He could work anywhere there was internet, and he'd love to walk the narrow cobblestone streets of Tallinn again, see ships crossing the Gulf of Finland to and from the port. It had been one of very few Soviet cites that had a western feel. It had lingered from its still recent capitalist days, which ended when the Soviets grabbed this republic in the endgame of WWII. Back when Semyon was a young Moscow engineer, about thirty years before, he'd taken Lizochka there with him on a business trip. Ever since then, a nostalgia-tinged postcard of the medieval Old Town flickered in his mind whenever anyone mentioned Tallinn.
This time, Lizochka would be staying behind. For the past two years they'd been separated: she was buried at Beth David cemetery between Jeffrey Goldberg and Samuel Zeltzer, and he was grieving for her in their Hallandale apartment. He'd thought his friends were pains in the neck when they bombarded him with matchmaking offers. Half-heartedly he acquiesced to meet one of their candidates, mostly to get them off his back. But they'd been spot on—it was hard not to like Tanya. The more he listened to the alto cadences of her seductive voice, watched her radiant eyes flash in delight at his jokes, the more he became frightened that were this loveliness to die before him, he'd have to mourn yet another woman. To his dismay, he caught himself seeing her coffin being lowered into the ground whenever she smiled.
On the transatlantic flight, Tanya sat next to him. She'd propped her head with a neck pillow and slept, breathing evenly. Now that she was unable to control her facial muscles, she looked closer to her age. Forty-five? Her skin, which on their first meeting six months before bewildered him with its creamy tautness, slacked a bit and looked sallow in the dusk of the cabin. She'd be upset if she knew that she didn't look her best, confounded that a man could admire imperfection. He'd seen her photographs before the nose job she'd gone through in the year between her divorce and their introduction, and, honestly, he couldn't see what the big deal was. Why pay thousands and suffer bruises for weeks to remove a slight curve, a tiny idiosyncrasy that he would've loved to look at.
What would Lizochka say about that? She had been the neck that turned his head. And without her prudent advice, he was often lost, staring at or solving the wrong problem. Would she like Tanya? Before dying, she'd told him to remarry, but how was he to figure out all the intricate details of this new game—dating in middle age—when for over three decades he'd been relying on Lizochka to interpret friends and foes, to remember telephones and birthdays, to plan all their travels.
On landing, he asked the neighbors—three European teenagers who'd chatted nonstop about their globetrotting hostel experiences—if he could get their backpacks from the overhead bin. Though his English had a distinct accent, their bodies didn't signal even a latent surprise. They didn't ask him where he was from. No one ever did. Not anymore. But in the late '70's, when he'd first arrived in America, people used to question him often.
As he walked beside Tanya toward the taxi, he shivered under the northern morning sun. The skin-prickling air invigorated him and made him think of strong coffee, warm shower, the feel of crispy white linens against his skin, Tanya's still shower-damp body under his. He eagerly anticipated the upcoming conversation with a driver—the harbinger of what's to expect in this new free Tallinn. They could all laugh now at the good old stupid Soviet days, any stranger a snitch, every day a walk on shells of dread.
Lost in thought, he almost stepped on Tanya who blocked his way. "Don't even think of talking Russian here," she whispered.
"I've heard Estonians detest Russians."
"We are not Russians."
"To them, we are."
"Estonians know better than that!" He shooed her concerns away but a cricket of doubt that Estonians weren't any better than Americans at understanding the difference between a Russian and a Jew or a multitude of other peoples who'd populated the Soviet Union burrowed into his mind. When he approached the driver—a flabby fellow with five-o'clock shadow and dark circles under his eyes—and opened his lips to greet him zdraste, he discovered that he was mute. The guy looked like one of ours—Semyon wouldn't be surprised to see him installing kitchen cabinets in Florida. Talking English to him would be as unnatural as wearing women's clothes. "Mmm," he attempted to loosen his tongue. "Mmm . . . "
"Hotel Savoy," Tanya told the driver, who raised his brows and measured them from head to toe, probably feeling a tinge of recognition of his former country mates. But as Tanya proceeded to halve the asking price, the driver had no choice but to pocket his suspicion and answer her in crude but serviceable English.
"Oh-kay," he said, "Sit inside. I talk to my boss. Don't vorry." He turned the ignition on and pressed a button on his dispatch radio. "Sash, tut seli mudaki," he began in perfect Russian, the vulgar tone washing over Semyon like the stench of a rubbish heap. The whole exchange contained strictly unprintable words, obscenities perfectly conjugated and declined—the forgotten dialect from Semyon's youth, when fresh out of college he'd first heard it spoken natively among the factory workers.
Tanya turned red and emitted an unmistakably Russian "oy."
"Oops." The driver flushed to the tips of his ears and apologized to them profusely in Russian. "That's the way it is now." He sighed deeply, and they all understood what he meant. Here they were, former countrymen, all Russian speakers from birth, but playing at being foreigners.
"The Seagull. Three Sisters," Semyon said. "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka." He didn't need to continue. They all knew. Absurdity—the stuff of Russian stage and literature. "So, how is it?" he asked the driver.
"They're squeezing us hard."
"Who?" Semyon asked.
"The Estonians. And they go out of their way to avenge what they suffered under the Soviets. As if we all didn't suffer. They turn against us Russians who live here as if we are the Soviets tanks. I'm not even a Russian."
"No?" Semyon asked.
"I'm a Belorussian. My folks were from Grodno. But all the same, I'm treated like dirt." He drove around a road dig and stopped at the crossing. The street was only slightly wider than his car. Two young women stood in the middle, holding their bicycles upright. Tall blondes. They didn't turn or think of moving, carried away by a conversation.
"Their language . . . Fourteen fucking cases for nouns and adjectives," the driver said. "And look at these heifers. They think they own the street." He leaned over his open window and, toning his voice down, said something politely in Estonian, probably, asking them to move. It took another thirty seconds for them to clear the crossing while he hissed and wriggled in his seat. "Meet the new ruling class. Meet the overlords."
How the driver determined the women were Estonians, Semyon couldn't tell, but decided not to get involved. This wasn't his fight, he reminded himself. On the contrary, he was here to get away from his own language troubles.
"Mmm . . . " He got stuck in neutral again, attempting to speak to the duo of smartly-uniformed front-desk clerks, so Tanya took over and handled their check-in. Ordinarily, she had a trace of an accent in English, but now she seemed more careful with her pronunciation, as if covering her tracks.
In the elevator, he asked Tanya if she decided where she wanted to go first. She tsk-tsked at him and touched her finger to her lips, then whispered in English, "You won't get any service if you persist in speaking Russian."
"For god's sake, we're alone here. Who's going to hear us?"
She pointed at the angled piece of mirror attached to where the ceiling joined the wall, probably hiding a security camera.
"So what! I came here to forget about things like that. Who cares if we know Russian? They won't service us? There is always another hotel. I'm not doing anything illegal. And really, how did it happen that all of a sudden, I'm the one considered Russian. The only way I became Russian was when I left Russia. "
"They can't tell the difference. If you speak Russian—you're Russian. Do you want them to look down on us?"
"What's wrong with being a Russ—" He didn't finish what would be an angry tirade because they arrived on their floor. Several people were waiting for them to exit the elevator. He prepared to continue the argument in English by repositioning his vocal chords, but once again felt ridiculous talking to Tanya, his Tanya, in the language that wasn't native to either of them. "Mmm . . . "
In the room, he threw the suitcase on the luggage rack and yelled in Russian, "This is ridiculous! I'm going to speak whatever language I feel like. Whatever pops into my mouth! What kind of freedom is this if I have to tie myself up in a straight jacket?"
Tanya pouted and turned her back on him, giving him the silent treatment while she was unpacking her lacy underwear. Its silky peach folds touched a chord in him, the one he'd discovered to his amusement on first introduction to Tanya still kicking, still hungry for tenderness. In the last years of Lizochka's illness, when she was wearing hospital gowns or loose clothing that didn't irritate her skin, he'd locked his sensuality away and thought he'd lost the key.
"I don't understand why you're so stubborn. Your English is practically perfect. Your Russian is so riddled with it someone in Moscow might not even understand what you're talking about."
"The quality of my English makes no difference. Don't you understand?"
She wasn't getting it. The slight irritation he'd felt getting into the taxi, began to rise in him again. He wanted to argue with her, to get his point across—the way he used to do it with Lizochka—but suddenly he realized that all the phrases that came to his mind were in English and to speak them now to Tanya would be akin to capitulation. "Mmm," he tried, then panted and paced the room, throwing his arms around in mute protest, then, surprising even himself, he grabbed Tanya by the waist, turned her to face him, and shoved his hand—as roughly and unceremoniously as he could muster—between her bare legs.
"Are you nuts!" Tanya yelled, taken by surprise. "Let me go."
He wanted her to get it, to feel the terror of being handled. "I don't understand why you're so stubborn," he parodied her, slacking his body and loosening his grip. "Haven't we made love before? Your skills in that department are practically perfect."
"I have to be in the mood," she said peevishly, straightening her skirt and hair.
"Oh . . . I see. You have to be in the mood."
"What's gotten into you? You can't just go at it like a field tractor."
He clicked his tongue. "I see."
"Stop saying that."
"Stop saying that!" She slammed her suitcase shut and stormed to the bathroom.
"I see!" he yelled so she'd hear him.
"Okay, okay, I get it."
He felt triumphant for a minute, but when she didn't reemerge from the bathroom and didn't say anything else it hit him: the worst that could happen to him wasn't Tanya dying first. The worst would be if she left him, and then died first on someone else.
So much for the time out. It seemed that instead of leaving his problem behind in South Florida, it arrived in Tallin with him, pinned like a monkey to his back.
When, on their second date, Semyon had picked Tanya up to take her to see The Barber of Seville, he inhaled the perfume of her healthy body tinged with barely traceable—and, therefore, even more desirable—aroma of citrus flowers, he realized with a ping of self-pity that for years he'd been swaddled in a cocoon of grief, buried alongside Lizochka in her suffocatingly narrow coffin. He'd focused on his business—not so much because he thought someone else wouldn't be able to design a more efficient car engine or because he needed more money, but to lose himself in work. He'd stopped reading newspapers and, if he automatically turned on the TV in the kitchen, he chewed his Russian dry sausage to the rhythm of the anchors' moving lips without penetrating the substance of their words. It was all salt, anyway. Bad for him—meaning, good, shortening his miserable life.
The theater was only a block away from the parking garage, but because Tanya was wearing precariously high open sandals with only two rhinestone strings for support, he'd driven directly to the entrance. The young man who snapped the keys from his hand exchanged rapid-fire Spanish with other valets but didn't seem to know a single word in English, communicating with Semyon with hand gestures flavored with "okay," "si," and "no."
Seymon was taken aback and stood rooted to the ground, watching his car being zipped away by this young, energetic man. With his jet-black shiny hair, a bowtie against a white shirt, and lacquered shoes he looked the part of Figaro, the glib servant hero of The Barber who outsmarted his employer, the Count Almaviva. Arguably, both Figaro and the valet were in the same business—customer service—yet this slick young man, in addition to not knowing a word of English, wasn't even embarrassed by the fact.
"Did you see that?" he asked Tanya who stood like a countess dressed for a ball, her dark-cherry dress open at the shoulders, glittering earrings dangling from her earlobes. A vision so charming Semyon forgot what he just said.
"I guess you haven't been to our mall lately," Tanya slid her hand in the crook of his arm and pulled him inside the building. "Half the parking lot, the closest to the store, is now reserved for valet parking. Six dollars a pop. None of the valets speak English, not really. For twenty years in America I was deemed capable of walking from my car to Macy's. And now this . . . If they keep grabbing more parking for my convenience, it would be easier to just leave my car at home."
"Really?" Even when Lizochka was alive, he thought of the mall as if it were a house of ill repute, containing shiny and attractive things he didn't have use for.
"It'a veritable racket."
The volunteer usher, a prune of indeterminate age between eighty and a hundred with threadbare hair covering his scalp, handed them playbills and pointed to their row. Semyon walked holding one arm protectively behind Tanya's back, waving to his numerous Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant acquaintances. The newer wave of immigrants, mostly Slavs who'd arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were represented by enterprising legged platinum blondes attached to oligarchs of various ages. They paraded their catches, excited for the opportunity to air their couture dresses and diamond necklaces.
The polyphony of voices in the audience was led by English, played in a multitude of accents from Polish to Spanish, then Russian, and finally was punctuated by a smattering of French and German, so he was startled when subtitles began to appear atop the stage. The banner screen was divided, English translation running on the left, Spanish on the right. He glanced at Tanya to get an explanation. Was this a regular thing now? But he couldn't interpret the meaning of her shrug and didn't want to whisper during the performance, so at intermission, as soon as the light had come on and the audience stopped applauding, he turned to ask her, absentmindedly flipping the playbill pages; it, too, was printed half in Spanish and half in English, just like the subtitles. This was funny. Why Spanish? It made no sense—the only people in the audience he could even suspect of not being fluent in English were the Russian oligarch couples. Spanish would be of no use to them.
He chuckled, pointing to the brochure. "Have you seen this?"
"How could I miss?"
"Strange," Semyon said and tried to distract himself from worrying thoughts. What could he do?
Yet having awoken from his sorrowful hibernation, Semyon felt like a cave dweller who'd just arrived in South Florida and was surprised to discover that the natives spoke some mumbo-jumbo and didn't dance around the fire. Bits and pieces of this new reality had penetrated his slumber before, playing in blurry, incomprehensible scenes on the periphery of his mind. But now, fully cognizant, he began to connect the dots and make out the pattern from little disturbances and aberrations occurring many times each day.
On his visit to Homemart, he was struck by the greeter addressing him in Spanish. At his pharmacy, the posters in the photo department screamed felicidad and amor. When he was picking up his friends from a hotel near Miami Airport, a fifty-something security guard at the parking lot gate couldn't tell him on which side of the building the front entrance was located. She spoke no English at all. Security guard? He quickly grew weary of these things, upset, even, but not distraught, not panic-stricken. He reassured himself that although his life had been a bit inconvenienced by this influx of new immigrants, eventually they would learn English, and things would return to the way they had always been. Everything would become normal again.
But the equilibrium he'd talked himself into didn't last long, just until he took his four-year-old grandson, Richard, to the zoo.
At the start of the children's program in the open auditorium, an actress in a green parrot costume jumped on the stage and spoke in a perky theatrical voice, "Hello dear friends. Hola queridos amigos. Great to see so many happy faces! Fabuloso de ver muchas caras felices!" A blue-gold macaw and a shrill cockatoo with a huge beak joined the first actress and, likewise, repeated each sentence in English and Spanish.
The characters speaking in tongues held little Richard's attention for exactly three minutes. Then he began to whine, burring his "r"s, "Gghrandpa-aa-aa, you said it's going to be fu-uu-uu-n. You pghro-oo-oo-mised!" He started with a jerk toward the exit, but Semyon managed to grab this bony container of determination and hold him close.
"Look at this long feather, look, look there, Rich, what color is it? Is it green?"
"Aaa-aa . . . "
"If you sit nicely, we'll go see the lions next?"
"Aaa-aa . . . " Richard turned red and screamed, "You lied to me. Mom says it's bad to lie. You arhge a bad boy. You lied. It's not fun. Let me go. I want to go."
Semyon, who could even cajole his grandson to try something as brown and unappealing as Russian grechnevaya kasha, couldn't come up with a reason why Richard had to stay and see the performance that was so obviously concocted with someone else's interests in mind. The show reminded him of something staged and Soviet, done for a checkmark on a report, for a pat on the head. But if in the Soviet Union he understood which dragons the humbugs were placating, here he hadn't the foggiest idea who was being appeased by this charade.
His daughter was five when they had arrived in Philadelphia, yet, somehow, even without going to a bilingual zoo—or, maybe, because of it—she was talking English in two months. It was magical. Children are like sponges—her kindergarten teacher told them. Though Lizochka and he had studied English from morning till night—even covering their apartment's doors and mirrors with word lists—by the time their daughter spoke as if she were born in America, they were experts primarily at the phrase "Please forgive, I do not well talk yet."
He carried his exhausted, whimpering grandson to the car, ready to cry himself. What have I done? What have I done! It was all his fault. His wife, his in-laws, and even his little daughter had been more than willing to run away from the Soviet Union, that country of make believe achievements and justice, of make believe constitution and equality. But now he upbraided himself with all kinds of sins. It was he who'd done everything but somersaults to get them from under the Iron Curtain to America, mistaking her for a virtuous mother who treats all her children alike. Instead, the honorable matron turned out to be a lady of easy virtue who had a swinging door in her parlor. What's more, she played favorites. Like Richard, he felt himself a boy on the verge of a tantrum. He'd thought he was the same as everyone else—not better or worse, not praised or maligned—just one of the children trying to make his mother proud, trying to behave his best to impress her, and this transfer of maternal affection upended his view of life. Like a village idiot conned by a street hustler in three card Monty, he felt humiliated and stupid.
Of course, he and Richard could learn Spanish. But why?
Florida residents—he hesitated to even call them Floridians because he'd never met a single adult born locally—were all speaking with accents. In the beach buildings, French Canadian, New York, Russian, and Yiddish were popular. Everyone switched to English when venturing out of their ethnic shells. Except the cleaning lady, who seemed to perpetually shine their elevator's brass handles. She smiled politely but didn't know how to say good morning or hello in English. So it was all for the convenience of this cleaning lady, the valets, and the squat construction workers bussed to and from the luxury beach building sites that Americans were turning themselves inside out. The body assimilating into a cell?
After the tour of Tallin's Old Town, which ended on the market square in front of the 14-century Town Hall, Semyon pointed at the tricolor flag hanging at the entrance. Maybe the selection of its blue, black, and white bands could explain the subterranean events in the new Estonia and the enmity between ethnic Estonians and all other peoples they collectively called Russians.
The rest of the group had left, but Magda, the guide, continued to speak to Tanya and him in English, though she had to be deaf not to place their accent as Russian. She was young, twenty, twenty-two, maybe. Her face was perfectly proportioned; her straight flaxen hair fell slightly below her shoulders. There was something monkish in the austerity of her linen attire, flat shoes, and the deliberate lack of makeup. Her voice sounded like a bell with a little crack in it, lending fairy-tale long-ago air to her stories.
"Eh, you mean our Vana Toomas—Old Thomas," she pointed at the weathervane soldier at the highest steeple of the Gothic building, misinterpreting Semyon's silent gesture, "is there to guard us. As Americans say, 'Go-oo-od fences make go-oo-od neighbors', eh? We're hospitable people, but Toomas is there to remind us not to get too sleepy. Eh? There are only about 900,000 Estonians left in the whole Estonia, so we can't afford to be . . . how you say it, eh?"
"Complacent," Semyon said. "Good fences . . . What makes a good fence? The Iron Curtain was too tight and our American wicket-gate is too open. Too much or too little . . . "
"Eh . . . " The guide squirmed, probably deciding she shouldn't get into a deep political discussion and risk her tips. She folded her guide's umbrella, to change the topic, then narrowed her eyes at Tanya and Semyon like a teacher asking them a trick question, "You see our tri-banded flag, eh? What do-oo you think the colors mean?"
"It's easy," Tanya, an aficionado of crosswords and Sudoku, jumped at the chance to solve the riddle. "Tallinn is a port city, so the top blue is the sea. The bottom white is . . . hope? Happiness? Lightness? Air? And the black in the middle . . . " She kept blinking and playing with the pin in her hair. "The whole thing is a sandwich of some kind, but what's in the middle?"
"Black caviar?" Semyon attempted a joke, answering in Russian.
"Eh? Black caviar?" Magda answered in Russian, too, but with a thick accent. "Black caviar do not . . . is not in fish in Estonia. Eh? Black caviar south fish. What is the name of it? Eh?" She seemed amused by her stumbles and with shrugs and faces invited them to laugh at her mistakes. It was clear that she hadn't been proving any point earlier, speaking English to them. She simply wasn't fluent in Russian. Her parents had probably realized that teaching her English as a second language rather than Russian would pay off in the long run.
The tourists from all over the world had evidently made the same conclusion as the guide's parents—the Germans who had eaten breakfast at the table next to them, the Romanian couple who lived in Cambridge, the girl from Barcelona who had been part of their tour group—they had chosen English to be the lingua franca.
The world wasn't playing favorites. It did what seemed to make the most sense. No more and no less.
"There are many explanations about the colors of our flag. Eh . . . " the guide said, "But I like the one of our national poet Martin Lipp's: the blue is the sky above our land, the pure white is the sails of the ships, and the black is soil of our homeland and our constant worry about our fate."
"Constant worry . . . Little country," Semyon said, "little problems. Big country—big problems. Enjoy your innocence." As soon as he'd uttered it, he realized how patronizing he sounded, and to make amends, he gave the guide a double tip.
"Little you say? Eh . . . We are so little, there's no room for error. We're either going make it or the only thing left of us will be our Vano Toomas." She took his money and thanked him but kept her expression somber. He felt something inside him move, open up toward Estonians. He didn't know who was doing what to whom in this country. If there was or could be right or wrong here, but he knew that this young woman with her nun-like austerity would rather go hungry than give bilingual children tours in Estonian and Russian at the Town Hall. And if he told her about the Spanish signs crowding out signs in English in South Florida, Magda would probably think he was telling tall tales. In America? Why would someone do this in America? In the country that already spoke the very language the entire world wanted to know?
Back in Florida, Semyon seemed more distraught than before he'd gone to seek refuge in the nostalgia of a post-card Tallinn. A flotsam—that's what he'd become. A feeling took a hold of him—that of a passerby, a shard propelled by an earlier explosion or a dust ball being blown by wind, a stray, a wandering Jew, not at home anywhere, even at his home now that Lizochka wasn't there and Tanya was so scared by the magnitude of his despair that she didn't know how to cheer him up.
He delayed his trip to the bank as much as he could, but, finally, the stack of checks he needed to deposit grew too thick to ignore. The building was located two blocks from his condo. He took Tanya along with him, but, walked slowly, dragging his feet, trying to talk himself into accepting the situation.
"I don't mind signs in Spanish. Not really. As long as I can still find something in English, even something miniscule, I'm happy. Really, they can even keep it in the same corner as before. As long as I can find it. . . . And the tellers, as long as they can still muster some English, you know. It's fine. It's not the end of the world."
Tanya's surprised glance told him that she wasn't buying his surrender. She was getting to know him so well that he could no longer fool her even when he'd thought he succeeded in fooling himself.
"I'd spent half my life trying to fit in, to assimilate," he said. "To look like an American. To act like an American. To think like an American. Civilized—that's what I first thought of Americans, and I loved that. I readily and willingly worked to become that kind of an American. I loved being we. We were the Americans.
"But maybe, that life is over. That America is no more. It has changed. For thirty years, I was a free and powerful man. And now it's over."
Tanya took his hand in a reassuring and tender way. "At least you had the thirty years. Peace and prosperity. Thirty years of that. Maybe it has never happened before to anyone in history and will never happen again. And you and I and some of our friends . . . We've got to experience what it's like to breathe freely and enjoy life. It didn't last. Nothing does. Still, thirty years is nothing to sneeze at. Ah?"
As they approached the entrance door, the image of God—in the guise of tongue-sticking Einstein—took hold of Semyon's mind. Nya-nya-nya-nya, God taunted him. You thought you'd built a tower so tall it reached all the way to heaven. You thought the people were one and mighty and strong. You thought nothing would hold you back. Nya-nya-nya-nya.
Maybe it was just too hot and he was getting sun struck? As he was extending his arm to open the door, it swung in the other direction and hit him in the knuckles. He exclaimed in surprise, but the young couple who exited and whose forceful push of the handle had caused his pain, walked away as if he and Tanya were invisible. Si, si, mia amore, he caught the end of their conversation as they got into their flashy sports car.
"On the other hand," he said to Tanya, his voice acquiring steely quality. "When in Rome . . . " He nodded at the bright red Mustang, carrying the couple, jumping on its elevated springs. The deafening sound of rap coming from its radio could probably be heard from a mile away. "These . . . are the new Romans."
"And when in Rome, do as the Romans do." He whistled the tune of Katusha and marched into the bank.
The days of Semyon's quiet civility were over. Civility required more than self-control, it required someone ready for self-sacrifice. Come what may, he was ready. He stepped toward the teller and drew an imaginary line. Placing the checks on the counter, he spoke in loud and deliberate Russian, as if it were something unexceptional to do in a bank. He watched the teller's eyes widening in surprise at his chutzpah but stared her down, challenging her to tell him she didn't comprehend what he said.
"Mmm . . . " the teller uttered, which seemed to Semyon like a good omen—now, they shared the first word of their new common language.