I knew that my fatherless happiness wouldn’t last, but I never understood why my mother chose Igor Borisovich over her other suitors. Anyone—anyone at all would have been better. Gena had his own car, Oleg wrote poetry and Misha brought me a doll in a blue satin dress from East Germany. But aside from providing little joys to brighten our 1980s Soviet existence, all those men seemed much kinder than my new stepfather.
I didn’t miss my biological father after the divorce. I never saw him much anyway. But I could never get enough of my mom, whose youth, beauty, and magical charm sometimes made her inaccessible. In the front courtyard of our building we’d cozy up on a bench and she’d make up a new fairytale just for me. Within five minutes, neighborhood kids gathered around, pushing me out of the way so they could sit closer. Briefly having her all to myself in our small Kiev apartment felt like a miracle. But then everything changed.
In Soviet Ukraine, where chess mattered, Igor Borisovich’s difficult personality was forgiven as a side effect of his chess master genius. “His mind is so complex! How does he think that many moves ahead?” people said with admiration when he won match after match. I had my own explanation: he was an evil wizard who had enchanted my mother. I waged battle after desperate battle to outmaneuver him, to checkmate the chess master and win her back.
“Do you cook for your mother?”
Igor Borisovich first appeared to me as a lanky stranger, blocking the light in the doorway to my room – a sneering eclipse. If I answered, maybe he would leave.
At six years old, cross-legged on my bed, I was the ruler of a pretend kingdom, eager to get back to my stuffed animal subjects.
“But you’re big and she’s small. Why don’t you cook for her?” His nasal whine reminded me of those petty demons in Russian folklore who seemed harmlessly annoying at the beginning of the story, but eventually destroyed the lives of the poor souls they encountered.
“I’m small and she’s big!” I should have let it be, but I couldn’t let this intruder warp the sacred laws of my universe.
“But you’re the adult and she’s the child,” his rat-like face remained deadpan.
My mother finally came over and put her hand on his shoulder. Her face had a tender expression, but it felt like the tenderness was meant for him.
“So you’ve met Igor Borisovich?” She said happily, like I just won a prize.
“Take better care of your mom.” He muttered. I hoped never to see him again.
Instead, she and Igor Borisovich grew closer. I learned jealousy and the pain of unrequited love on the nights my grandmother slept over and my mom didn’t come home.
“I’m going to marry your mother and we’ll move to the sunny island of Fiji.” Igor Borisovich announced like a comedian who didn’t laugh at his own jokes.
“I don’t believe you.” I wasn’t sure which part I disbelieved, but hoped that neither was true.
“Don’t you want a talking parrot as a pet?” He enjoyed making a fool of me. Everything he said had another meaning.
“I don’t know.” I tried to play it safe.
“You don’t know? But we’ve already started applying for visas. Should we just leave you behind?”
I heard no more of Fiji, but a few months later they went to the State marriage bureau and emerged wearing matching rings, binding the three of us together, in sickness and in health.
We moved into another small apartment with Igor Borisovich’s grandmother. Living spaces were government issued and very limited. Now I was on his territory. A painful new phase of my childhood began. Igor Borisovich nicknamed me “homunculus”- not a fully formed human being.
To shape me into a person he began a disciplinary regime, supposedly borrowed from a fellow chess coach who succeeded in “making men” of unruly adolescent boys with potential. Before dinner I was to report in detail my bad behavior for that day. Punishable deeds included, but were not limited to: interrupting adults, spilling/dropping food/drink, talking back, eating with my mouth open, inadequate completion of a chore, and lying. Each transgression would cost me two to ten spanks with a rubber house slipper, purchased especially for this purpose.
“I’ll keep the slipper clean.” Igor Borisovich declared charitably. I agreed almost eagerly. It seemed like a chance to prove that I wasn’t lazy or stupid as my stepfather insisted. Looking back, I wanted his approval.
On the first evening of my voluntary confession, I faced Igor Borisovich’s all-knowing smirk.
“So… report,” he said weighing the white-and-tan checkered slipper in his hand. I straightened my back into a righteous stance:
“This morning at breakfast I spilled my milk. That’s three hits with the slipper.” I was proud for reporting on myself and for remembering the correct number of hits.
“You’re lying.” He spoke quietly, but behind that calm I knew that there was no mercy.
“I’m not…” I choked out my words.
“Lying earns you five more, in addition to the ten I counted for interrupting your mother, doing a terrible job sweeping and leaving drops of piss on the toilet seat.”
“I swept…” I was too embarrassed to say anything about the toilet seat.
“No, you pushed the dirt around. Let me show you.”
I sheepishly followed him to a corner I had cleaned earlier. He grabbed the broom and swept in exasperated little bursts.
“This is how to do it. You earn five more for making me do your job.”
I expected the spankings to be mild, merely symbolic. But he hit with all his strength, and I cried as much from the pain as from the injustice.
When I think back to our first year of living together I am tempted to remember myself as a meek victim to a tyrant-stepfather. But the truth is that I was a quick study of meanness and eager to find my own prey. This unfortunate role fell to Anna Abramovna – Igor Borisovich’s myopic grandmother, who was tasked to watch me. When Igor Borisovich left to coach the sons and daughters of Communist Party members and my mom went to the architectural institute, my work began. I flicked Anna Abramovna’s ears with my tiny thumb and forefinger while she tried to read. I hid her glasses. I called her “cow” and “dummy.” I moved chairs against the bathroom door to trap her inside.
Igor Borisovich would yell himself hoarse when he got home. His poor grandmother who survived WWII eating tree bark in evacuation! How could I have so little respect, so little compassion?! He’d add infinite slipper hits to my ever-growing list, threatening to graduate me to the belt. But I didn’t make a sound when he hit me. I clenched something precious between my teeth. I had found a way to hurt him back.
1987 was the year without chocolate. We could still buy bread, milk and butter, but luxury items had disappeared from shelves. My mom once attempted a soup of boiled chicken feet in purple cabbage. This was the one foul-smelling meal my growing body refused. I thought about food constantly, obsessively poring over a Stalin-era Soviet illustrated recipe book titled Healthy and Delicious Food. The rare times we could find sugar, we would heat a spoonful of it over a stove-top flame, devouring the burnt caramel before it cooled.
Talk of Fiji began again. Igor Borisovich pointed it out on our well-worn globe. I’d be able to leave my winter coat behind. It was so warm there.
“There’ll be chocolate bunnies as tall as you in Fiji!” he tempted me.
I began to believe him, looking forward to our new life. In the tropical climate of Fiji, Igor Borisovich could fall out of a tree, drown in the ocean, or be trampled by a wild animal. “Mashenka,” my mother said one morning in a confidential tone (oh, and how I craved to share a secret with her again,) “by now you’ve probably guessed that we’re going to America.”
I was stunned. I suspected that Fiji was a lie. But America? Was my mother in on Igor Borisovich’s twisted jokes?
“So is it America or Fiji?” I was so angry I could spit.
“America, my dear,” she said looking into my eyes. But this intimate gesture felt empty. I had been tricked again. Igor Borisovich was winning.
The punitive checkered slipper didn’t fit into the single suitcase-per-person allotment on our HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,) sponsored journey to America. We left all the grandmothers behind, fused into a nuclear family unit, but that didn’t bring us any closer. My mother spent much of her time wrangling Igor Borisovich’s temper tantrums. Her voice diminished into a gentle trickle. In Austria, our first immigration checkpoint, she hand-fed him Christmas cookies and roasted chestnuts. I watched with envy while she cooed over him as if he were the child.
At our second stop, Ladispoli—a little village outside of Rome- where Soviet immigrants waited for permission to enter the U.S., I bonded with other Soviet children in transit and spent less time with my parents. Families shared apartments, a bedroom per unit, with a common kitchen and bathroom. There was twelve-year-old Iosiff from Kharkiv, whom I really liked at first, but began avoiding after he wanted to wrestle with the door closed. Then Iosiff left for America, and we advanced in the apartment hierarchy, moving into the larger bedroom. Eight-year-old Vadim’s family from Minsk settled into our old room and I acquired a new companion. The teenagers spent their nights at the local discotheque, losing their Soviet chastity on communal couches. But younger kids, like me, Iosiff and Vadim, wandered around cold beaches in shared-apartment cohorts. We tried to steal gum and candy from the corner stores, where the owners shouted at our tiny Russian mafias in Italian we couldn’t understand.
Every evening immigrant families gathered at the fountain town square and a HIAS representative read out loud names of the lucky recipients with entry visas to the U.S. Some waited for months, some never got permission and scrambled to find new sponsors in Australia, Germany, or New Zealand. Some remained in Italy because they failed the intake interviews and had nowhere else to go. There were rumors of suicides. My mother tried to calm Igor Borisovich’s delicate nerves with a daily glass of sherry at dinner.
“He’s so stressed, it might affect his health!” she worried.
One day Vadim and I were using other people’s toiletries to mix magic potions in the bathroom. When we came out Igor Borisovich slapped me full-force across the face.
“Never go into the bathroom alone with a boy!”
I stopped speaking to my stepfather for a few weeks. I realized that my new autonomy was a victory in itself. The game had changed. Now at ten, I began to see the fragility of my parents’ relationship, how it fractured under pressure. I could just watch from afar as Igor Borisovich’s power diminished, the status of his Soviet identity evaporated into distant memory.
We called a temporary truce when we arrived in Chicago two months later. The weight of the days filled with incomprehensible newness rolled over us like the wheels of a train. My charismatic mom found work quickly, but only a year after starting at an architectural firm she was struck by a mysterious illness. It began with high fevers. Within a week all her joints swelled so painfully that she couldn’t move. At thirty-three she was confined to a bed and unable to work.
Chess coaches weren’t in high demand in America. Igor Borisovich briefly sold life insurance, mostly in the Russian-speaking community in Chicago. But his contempt for people, calling everyone who disagreed with him an “idiot” got him fired from two different agencies. Despite receiving monthly checks and food stamps from the American government, he was a true believer in boot-strap conservative values. The mere mention of Bill Clinton sent him into a broken-record rage.
“They’re all idiots. The government shouldn’t have to babysit idiots! Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
Although our green cards didn’t let us vote, he worshipped Ross Perot, the “self-made millionaire,” during the 1992 presidential election. Still imagining himself a brilliant strategist, my stepfather was convinced that he was on the brink of enormous wealth if only he could make the right investments (his heavy Russian accent punched up the sibilants). He fell for every ponzi scheme that came his way. While other Russian immigrant families were buying their first VCRs and moving to the suburbs, we were sinking deeper into debt. The more dire our financial situation, the grander Igor Borisovich’s plans to make it all back and then some. Hunched over the kitchen table, still littered with crumbs and napkins from breakfast, he scribbled in a tea-stained notebook. His eyes were bloodshot from another sleepless night spent in front of midnight infomercials, staring into a prosperous future that would never come. Sometimes he looked for work, but not seriously.
“Who would want to work for a boss? They’re all a bunch of idiots!”
I seldom saw my mother during this period in our lives. She went to doctors, but for a long time we didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it. She suffered behind the closed doors of her room, never one to cause trouble for others, and sent me away when I tried to go in. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t insist on staying. I was just as afraid to see what was happening to her, as she was to let me.
Eventually, credit card debt forced my parents to declare bankruptcy. My mom was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis and put on several steroids that swelled her face. She could walk again, with difficulty, but she still couldn’t work. We moved to government subsidized “L’Marquis” apartments in Hinsdale—a wealthy Chicago suburb with the best schools. No one at my new high school knew that I was an immigrant, but everyone knew that we were poor. Igor Borisovich still wasn’t gainfully employed. We fought less frequently, but our fights intensified into shouting matches and sometimes I even threw things back at him. Mostly he grew quieter. He stopped disciplining me, stopped leaving the house, even stopped playing chess.
When I was small, I fantasized about the moment when I could finally beat Igor Borisovich. My younger self would have loved to see him cornered like this, making all the wrong moves in a new reality where he didn’t know the rules. But now I felt sorry for him. It turned out that he had been contingent all along. My mom was growing stronger with injections of a new medicine, and the rift between them was growing. When he ranted about this or that “idiot” she would look out the window, smiling into the distance.
“You’re so selfish!” I once heard him snarl at her.
And although my mother never said anything unpleasant to anyone, she replied in her usual melodic voice “You won’t have to put up with me for much longer.”
On my sixteenth birthday, my mom announced that she was divorcing Igor Borisovich. She met a quiet American lawyer online. The internet was still a novelty, so this was an unexpected twist to our story. I was delighted and a little disoriented by the swift magic of my changing life. It was like walking again after a period of paralysis. My new stepfather seemed a little afraid of me and eager for my approval. I felt free.
Exiled back to the city, where he was again trying to sell insurance, Igor Borisovich suddenly wanted to see me, to have visits like a real dad, as if we had been a happy family for the past ten years.
“What have I done wrong?” he asked, looking martyred, as we opened our menus in the Applebee’s booth.
“You mean you don’t know?” A mix of pity and schadenfreude intoxicated me. I had so much to tell him.
I tried to explain it the best I could, leaving out the worst parts of my childhood. It seemed too cruel to go for the kill. After lunch we went for a walk and he hung on my every word, unwilling to let go of my hand, stroking my palm absent-mindedly. I let him. He didn’t have my mother anymore. He had no friends. He only had me.
Today I wonder whether this is a story of forgiveness. I did forgive him then. He drove an hour to take me out for a Saturday lunch once a week for the next year. I began to perceive him in a new light. I saw him wounded beyond measure, humbled by his pain. When I was sixteen it was easy to forgive. I was running at breakneck speed toward independence, certain that I’d won my freedom from the past. But forgiveness isn’t linear.
Once I had kids of my own, childhood memories came back to me with startling force. I grew more judgmental, less yielding. I put up steel-beam boundaries retroactively. I branded Igor Borisovich an irredeemable monster and cut off all contact with him. I began to un-forgive. I don’t say this with pride. It’s a cliché that painful experiences make us better people. But I’m not sure if that’s true. I haven’t transcended the anger of the unfairly punished little girl. My childhood sorrows have made me meaner, pettier, more vindictive, or perhaps I’m still self-reporting my bad behavior. I may even tell you how many slaps of the slipper I deserve.
Still, there are times when I long for this story to be something kinder. Could I really have spent ten years of my life locked in combat with the only father I knew? I want to lay down my weapons. I want to recall moments of peace and family warmth. I want to remember a time when I came home from a bad day at school. Maybe Igor Borisovich already had the chess set out, just to practice. Maybe I hurled my backpack on the floor, ready to retreat into my room and cry. And maybe he gently called me over.
“Do you want me to show you how to checkmate your opponent in four moves?”
He began filling the kettle to make me some tea. Maybe it really happened that way.
Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Photo Credit: Elmer Geissler from Pixabay