There were lots of people who wanted to meet us during our first few months in America, but they were fleeting friendships, and fell by the wayside fairly quickly. People would come over, usually brought along by our Case Worker from the Jewish Family Service. Sometimes, people would come by themselves, and this made for much trouble, since, even though our Case Worker spoke no Russian as such, she had managed to become a sort of an interpreter, distilling regular English into the few words and phrases she knew to be within our grasp. Without her, it was pretty hairy, trying to communicate with people. Still, everyone made the effort.
Most initial conversations followed the same pattern, and we soon learned to navigate them without outside help. After the initial pleasantries, and the deciphering of our names (Gen-na-dy, Lud-mil-la), it would, next, be established that neither of us spoke any Yiddish. This would be followed by various geographic references to our homeland, prompting, inevitably, the acknowledgement that one’s grandparents, or uncles, or father’s cousin, hailed from Riga, or Minsk, or Odessa.
After a pause, there would be a delicate, cautious inquiry: was it true that the Jews in Russia weren’t allowed to study the Torah, or to attend services? And, more boldly, how did we like America?
We decided these visits were strictly curiosity driven. Through some surreal time warp, our very presence was an opportunity for these people to behold the spirits of their ancestors, as they first set foot in America. Yet, there was something odd about us. Sure, we were from the “Old Country”, deprived of modern conveniences and freedom of speech and all that, but, somehow, there was something about us that wasn’t quite right, something, well, different.
Ben was unlike the rest for two reasons: his superior skills in the art of dentistry, and his ability to speak Russian, despite having been born in America.
Ben’s was a fascinating life, and worth retelling. His father was a Polish Jew, who migrated east in 1939, to escape the invading German army. When he got to Soviet Russia, he was promptly arrested, for being a Polish soldier and the son a Rabbi. He was sent away, to the steppes bordering Mongolia. There, he endured the extremes of both heat and cold, while also suffering perpetual hunger. He would have, doubtlessly, perished, as did thousands of his compatriots at that time, were it not for a local family, who took him in. They belonged to an ancient tribe, called the Karakalpaks, which made its home on the shores of a dying lake in the steppes.
After being nursed back to health, Ben’s father repaid his hosts by marrying their youngest daughter – to the combined horror of the entire clan. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Polish National Army, which had been organized by the Russians, and finished out the war on the Polish front.
With great difficulty, he obtained the papers necessary for his young wife to join him in Poland, from where they both emigrated to Israel, and, subsequently, to the United States, where Ben was born.
Since the only common language a Karakalpakian wife had with her Polish Jew husband was Russian, Ben was raised speaking a most interesting strain of the “mother tongue”.
We enjoyed Ben’s company tremendously. After all, he was the only person we knew who could enlighten us in the mysteries of American ways. We could tell, after having visited his office, and his Beverly Hills home, that Ben was very well-versed in these mysteries.
First, the office. We were brought there by our Case Worker, a few weeks after arriving in America. Ludmilla woke up one night with a ferocious toothache, which kept her up till dawn, and I didn’t know how to help her. Not whom to call, or what to say, or where to go, to find out whom to call, or what to say. And we had no money, besides, not counting the twelve dollars the Jewish Family Service had given us for bus fare. We’d heard plenty of rumors about the expenses of private medical care, and knew, for certain, that our twelve dollars would not buy us so much as an aspirin.
At nine a.m., when Mrs. Suskind, our Case Worker, showed up for work, we were hovering on her doorstep. She took one look at my wife, and sprung into action.
“You wait here, I’ll see what I can do.”
Through the glass partition of her office, we could see her having animated phone conversations, consulting with co-workers who passed in and out of the office, then talking on the phone again.
Finally, she came out, and told us to get in the car. Later, after I had time to think about it, I deciphered for myself the phrase she had uttered: “Thank God there is still some decency on this earth”, which is very similar to the Russian proverb, “the world is not without kindness”.
That’s how we first met Ben. After a fairly brief time in his "inner sanctum", Ludmila came out smiling. I began to thank him profusely, grateful to be able to do so in Russian. Ben peered at me closer, and suggested “Your smile could use a bit of work. It’ll help you in finding a job.”
Helplessly, I looked to Mrs. Suskind for advice. She was nodding enthusiastically.
“Good, then,” said Ben, “let’s set you up with an appointment. My, I don’t know the Russian word for it, my receptionist will schedule it. See you then!”
On the way home, Mrs. Suskind told us: “That’s his way of contributing to the cause. Maybe in memory of his father…”
“We’ll repay him, of course,” piped up Ludmilla, “as soon as we start working.”
Mrs. Suskind’s smile was more than a little sarcastic. “Only if Gennady lands a million-dollar movie deal. Ben is one of the most popular dentists in town. He has movie stars for clients! Do you know what a mitzvah is?”
I knew. But how could a Polish Karakalpakian American also be a devout Jew? That was beyond me.
Anyway, that’s how we met Ben, and became friends with him.
The work on my smile turned out to be quite extensive, and I was making weekly visits to Ben’s office. There were other doctors working in the office, but Ben insisted that I only see him. I suspected this was because one is supposed to perform one’s own mitzvahs, but, maybe, Ben just enjoyed the opportunity to practice his Russian. He turned out to be a pretty social guy. We were invited to dinner at his house, and met his mother, the erstwhile Mrs. Zalutski, who welcomed us heartily. Mrs. Zalutski had no interest whatsoever in the fate of her native land, however, and our stories left her unimpressed, at best. It was hard to tell whether she had any opinions on the matter at all.
I tried to reach her by striking closer to home, so to speak. I owned a rare and precious set of encyclopedias, which, by hook or crook, I had managed to smuggle out of Russia, and in it, I read up on the Karakalpakian peoples, who, I learned, were direct descendents of the Pechenga tribe. This little tidbit I cleverly brought up the next time we had dinner at Ben’s house. Mrs. Zalutski remained unimpressed, as did Ben. After my tirade of newly gleaned knowledge, she remarked, somewhat bitterly, “It’s so hard for people to understand. Americans are so used to their creature comforts. They can’t fathom not having hot water, let alone no water at all. It's unimaginable! We used to clean our dishes with sand. One out of every two babies would die. That was reality.”
Sitting there, staring off into space, she reminded me of a Buddha, stately and statuesque, her gray hair neatly piled on top of her head. I recalled a stray sentence from my encyclopedia studies: “…though neighboring tribes mock the Karakalpakians' slow wits and clumsiness, the women are prized for their great beauty.”
And, finally, at last, after that rather lengthy preamble, I have arrived at the story I set out to tell. It begins with one of my final visits to Ben’s office.
Ben was super busy that day, and I found myself loitering in the waiting room, idly examining the pictures on the walls. Mostly, they were photographs of famous people, largely unknown to me. One, in particular, was a huge color portrait, signed with a blue marker. I concentrated on the words, and could just make out “...to my dear friend Ben...”.
Though my knowledge of American cinema was, at that time, rather limited, the subject of this print was a star of such magnitude, that some of her films had even penetrated the Iron Curtain. Of course, insisted those who considered themselves experts, not her best work. Mainly, just period dramas, in which she alternately played queens and courtesans, both with equally breathtaking sensuality.
The waiting room was nearly deserted. I say “nearly”, because there was, in fact, one other occupant, lounging near the front door. He was a massive fellow with an extraordinarily thick neck, somewhat shark-like in appearance. He appeared to be dozing. Besides the circumference of his neck, I was impressed by the fact that he was dressed in a suit, since Southern California summer days tended to clock in at ninety-five degrees average. There was a moment when I thought I could feel him watching me, but when I looked over, he had gone back to sleep.
As I contemplated the soulful eyes above the blue signature, I heard Ben enter the waiting room, accompanied by a female voice. I turned towards them, perhaps a shade too quickly, because I found the massive form of the shark-like fellow blocking my way. His fingers rested on my arm, lightly, but with emphasis.
“And this is Gennady,” announced Ben, quite loudly, “my new patient, and friend.” He also murmured, “It’s okay, Dick”, and the shark-like fellow retreated. Ben gestured to a petite woman of indeterminate age, in a light summer dress, whose face bore traces of recent tears. “Let me introduce you,” his face was about to crack from smiling. “Gennady just arrived from Russia only three months ago. Can you imagine?” And, in my direction, with the same theatrical intonations, “I don’t need to tell you who THIS is,” followed, in Russian, by a whispered “You DO know, I hope?”
I peered closer, and, by God, beneath the smeared mascara and the swollen eyelids, it was her! Live, in the flesh! Straight from the portrait I’d been studying, just moments ago!
“Why, of course”, I smiled awkwardly, and she almost smiled back. Feeling the weight of the moment, I frantically struggled for whatever English words would come to me, and feverishly composed the following phrase:
“In Russia, everybody knows you, and thinks you the most beautiful in all the world.”
I could tell that Ben, for one, was very pleased by my eloquence.
The movie star wistfully glanced at her portrait on the wall.
“Oh, sure, the most beautiful in pictures. Real life, I’m afraid, is a bit of a nightmare.”
I was unfamiliar with the word “nightmare”, and the meaning of her comment escaped me. Overwhelmed by the sheer presence of her fame, I could only nod, and, with a stupid grin, reaffirm her own words, “yes, nightmare.”
In the course of the pause which followed, Ben’s tanned, broad, Mongolian face turned several shades whiter.
“What’re you saying???” he hissed at me, in Russian.
Suddenly, the movie star burst out laughing, having, probably, realized what happened. Her laughter was musical, and infectious, and Ben and I readily joined in. Dick remained impassive. He poked his head out the door, determined that it was safe, and motioned the lady out to the waiting car.
When I got home, I looked up the word “nightmare”, and Ludmilla and I had a good laugh about the whole thing.
Imagine my surprise when, a few days later, Ben called to tell me that SHE, the movie star, was trying to find me! Her assistant was going to call me directly, but decided to go through Ben, so that there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding.
Apparently, in her new film, “Skybound”, Miss Star was to portray a Russian Jewess, who, with a group of close friends, struggles to escape to Israel. After many trials and tribulations, they succeed, and, eventually, end up in America. In the interest of authenticity, she would like to hear me read some dialogue with her, and could I, please, be at their offices on Tuesday, at two? I would be compensated for my time, at a rate of one hundred dollars per hour.
Ludmilla and I could hardly believe our luck! Famous movie stars! Hollywood! One hundred dollars an hour! If anyone back in Russia got wind of this, the lines at the emigration offices would triple overnight!
On Tuesday, I left my house with plenty of time to spare. There was some discussion as to whether I should wear a suit. “Are you nuts?” said Ludmilla, “it’s ninety degrees outside!” I pointed out that Dick, the shark-like one, was wearing a suit when I saw him in Ben’s office.
“That’s because he’s got to hide his Uzi somewhere. What’s your excuse?” Ludmilla was becoming jealously suspicious. “Why are you so concerned about your looks, anyway? What’s going on?”
As I headed out the door, Ludmilla reminded me that she had some very definite plans for my windfall of an income.
I arrive at precisely the designated time, and wait in the office. Whose, exactly, office it is, I am not entirely sure. An assistant keeps offering me beverages. At first, I am too shy to accept, but, as time goes on, and nothing much happens, I ask for a Coke, then a coffee, then, most brazenly, for a glass of white wine.
She finally makes her entrance, wearing a radiant smile, and a short dress. There is no trace of the tear-stained “nightmare” from our first encounter. Her gleaming “pearly whites” are testament to Ben’s superb craftsmanship.
“Well, then, let’s get started, shall we?” An assistant with a script instantly materializes at her side.
“Thank you, Annie. Do you have one for mister… Is it alright if I call you Gennady?”
“Yes, okay, absolutely.” I am feeling a little light-headed.
“Oh, Annie, don’t worry about it, we can share!” She perches on the couch, and pats the cushion next to her. I, obediently, plop down. She smells heavenly, of fresh air, and clean sheets, and something floral and summery. The script lies open across her knees, and she points to the beginning of a scene.
“This is the big argument. Start right there, please.”
I move closer, my thigh almost touching hers, and attempt to overcome the sudden dryness in my throat.
“He… told me… that… he was… going… to…”
My, already tenuous, command of the English language seems to be deserting me completely. Miss Star stares into space, her mouth softly repeating words and phrases. I become peripherally aware of the smoothness of her neck, and a small pink ear, with a pearl stud in it.
“Get lost… you, son of… a *****.”
I turn the page. My forearm brushes against the side of her breast, the very breast that fuels a myriad male fantasies, all across the planet. I am having some trouble breathing. My insides feel like an over-tuned piano.
It must be the wine. She uncrosses her legs, and the whisper of stockings sends chills up my spine. I regret not having worn a jacket.
“Go… ****… yourself.”
I have no idea what I am reading. “Are you married?” she, suddenly, interrupts me. This is so unexpected, that I am not sure I understood correctly. But she asks again.
“Are you married? Do you have a wife?”
I am, completely and utterly, befuddled.
“Ludmilla,” I manage, finally. “The name of my wife is Ludmilla.”
Miss Star lays the script on the coffee table, and gets up off the couch.
“That’s good,” she says, “you see, men and women speak differently, in all languages. You know, inflections and stuff like that. I thought, maybe, if I could hear a woman’s voice, it might be more helpful. Do you think your wife would mind?”
I feel like I’ve been doused in ice water, and thrown from a moving train.
“Sure, okay. Why not?”
“That’s great! Check with Jane about my schedule, okay? I gotta run! Ciao!” She pecks me on the cheek, and flutters out the door. Jane appears in her stead.
As I suspected she would, Ludmilla agreed quite readily. “Of course,” she said, “why not?” But she was adamant that I not accompany her.
“Whatever for? I’m the one that’s going to be reading, in a female voice, remember?”
“But she said, we should come together,” I lied.
The day before her appointment, Ludmilla informed me that she’d telephoned Jane, who asked her boss, who said that Gennady did not need to come. Ludmilla was, clearly, triumphant about this.
However, no reading session happened that afternoon. After waiting over an hour, Ludmilla got frustrated, and left. Jane said the Miss Star was running late at rehearsal.
Luda was pissed. “What a crock of bull,” she raged, “what do I care if she’s late? I wasted an hour and a half of my time, and they owe me a hundred and fifty dollars. Don’t you think that’s only right?”
They did meet a week later, but Ludmilla, again, came home irritated. She still had to wait over an hour, she said, and, when Miss Star, finally, did show up, the reading only lasted a few minutes. Ludmilla said Miss Star was totally distracted while she, Ludmilla, read her two pages from the script. Then Miss Star interrupted her, said that she had heard enough, it was all making sense to her now, and dashed out. Jane showed Ludmilla out, telling her she’d call if her services were needed in the future. That was it.
Jane did not call, and Ludmilla was livid. “They owe us,” she insisted, “four hundred dollars, by my calculations. One hundred for your lesson, one-fifty for the time I waited for her, and she never showed, and one-fifty for my lesson, since I spent an hour waiting for her, again!”
I knew that Ludmilla had, already, fully allocated this money toward our winter wardrobe – a pair of boots for herself, plus another pair, in a larger size, for her sister back in Kiev, a matching purse, and, for me, a leather jacket she’d seen in an Ohrbach’s circular, the height of fashion for all the Russian immigrants just off the boat.
After waiting another few days, we screwed up our courage, and telephoned Jane. In our broken English, which did not allow for any subtleties or nuances, we, very directly, asked her “when we would be paid four hundred dollars?” Jane was very vague about the whole thing. She, certainly, did not deny that we should be paid, but was, really, not sure about the amount. In any case, she would, immediately, bring this to the producer’s attention, since he is the only one who handles all the money, and he will, of course, take the appropriate measures.
Another couple of weeks went by. We went to ESL classes at a local high school, and met with Jewish Family Service volunteers, to prepare for our job search. (So far, the only part of me that was ready for this was my gleaming smile, thanks to Ben’s expertise.) Every day, we checked our mail with bated breath, but, beyond the usual circulars and Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, it contained little of interest. By the way, the first time we got a Publishers Clearinghouse letter, we were very excited, and had trouble sleeping that night, until, in the morning, our Case Worker explained that they are merely an advertising ploy, and are not to be taken literally.
No check arrived from the Movie Star, or her producer. Ludmilla grew angrier by the day. I tried to soothe her, as best I could. Jane must have forgotten to tell the producer, and, when she did, it must have slipped his mind. As soon as he remembers, he’ll send the check.
This was no help at all, and only served to annoy Ludmilla all the more. “It’s our money, we earned it! It’s not our problem if Miss Star is getting Alzheimer's in her old age!” And, even more ominously, “Boy, would I like to give her a piece of my mind!”
I urged her to tread lightly, lest Ben find out, but she was on the warpath. “So? What gives her the right to treat us like dirt?” I guess I agreed with her. We had, after all, been mistreated, and why should we stand for it, famous Movie Star, or not?
At that time, the fight for Soviet Jewry was a very high-profile cause, and the crux of activity for every Jewish community in America. There were demonstrations and protests in front of Soviet embassies, delegations of Soviet dignitaries were routinely picketed, meetings and rallies were held on a regular basis, as well as concerts to benefit our “brothers behind the Iron Curtain”. This was all done on a very large scale, sparing no expense. We were, usually, guests of honor at all such events, being the first Russian family to settle in Los Angeles. We were paraded around, introduced, cheered, and had our pictures in all the local papers.
It was at one of these events that our little crisis came to a head. Some actors and musicians were scheduled to speak at a fund raising event for Soviet Jewry, including our Movie Star, who, in connection with her role in “Skybound”, became a virtual mascot of the cause. We were, of course, invited, and joined a large, well-dressed, crowd in milling about the lobby, awaiting the appearance of famous actors and musicians. These would arrive at precisely timed intervals, wave and smile, and disappear through the back stage door.
The scheduled starting time for the event came and went, but the crowd refused to take their seats, awaiting the arrival of Miss Star, who was, as usual, running late. Finally, a buzz went through the crowd, as she made her appearance. She was stunning, breathtaking, enchanting. The crowd exploded in applause. She glided along, basking in admiration and her own splendor, a Mona Lisa smile just touching her lips.
Suddenly, there was a yelp, and a scuttle, and I saw Ludmilla, MY Ludmilla, being grabbed by four security guards as she screamed and rushed the Star. I sprung to my wife’s rescue, and would’ve, doubtlessly, succeeded, if it weren’t for Dick, the shark-like one, whom I found blocking my way like a monolith. There was a short jab to my solar plexus, and my knees began to buckle, but Dick kept me from falling, and I felt myself being dragged.
I came to in a room that looked like someone’s office. Ludmilla stood over me, attempting to pour something into my mouth. I shoved the glass aside, and examined her critically. She looked okay, slightly flushed and disheveled, but, basically, okay. As opposed to Ben, whom I spied behind her. He was wearing a tuxedo and a bowtie, and his face was as white as his snowy starched shirtfront. Great big beads of sweat stood out on his wide, Mongolian face. His hands shook. “Why,” he hissed at me in Russian, “why didn’t you say something? I would have taken care of it.”
“But you weren’t involved. She is the one who owes us money.”
“Not involved? I was the one who introduced you!” Ben’s voice was bitter with regret.
“This is not just about money”, Ludmilla chimed in, “Just because she’s a movie star, we cannot let her…”
Ben didn’t even hear her. He just kept looking at me with his almond-shaped Asian eyes, filled with that infinite Jewish sadness, and repeating, “I would’ve taken care of it…”
I wanted to explain: “Even back in Russia, we insisted on being treated with respect. I know we’re nobodies here, just immigrants and foreigners, but that doesn’t mean my wife and I can be trampled on or mistreated.”
Ben leaned closer. “I know that”, he whispered, “but we could’ve talked about it, came to some arrangement. What am I going to do if she takes her business elsewhere? And all her friends follow? How am I going to survive?”
“What do you mean, come to some arrangement? Are we supposed to stand for this sort of abuse? Should we just say nothing?”
As he turned and left the room, I could feel a cloud of despair wafting in Ben’s wake.
The following morning, a young man in uniform rang our doorbell, and handed Ludmilla a crisp white envelope, containing four brand new hundred-dollar bills. There was no letter or receipt, which I found odd. I ran after the driver, but he was already pulling away. I caught a glimpse of the tasteful lettering on the door of the car – “Dr Ben Zalutski – smiles for miles”, and a phone number.
All day I kept trying to reach Ben at the office, but kept being told he was busy. Nor was he available at home that evening. I persisted, but he was not returning my calls. I continued trying.
After about a week of failed attempts, I got Mrs. Zalutski. “Ben can’t come to the phone right now.” Her voice was deep, husky, and without inflection.
“Please. It’s very important. I must speak with him.”
“What about?” There was a hint of irritation in her voice.
“About some very important things. Money, for one, but also decency, and human dignity, and…”
There was a sigh on the other end of the line. “He is not going to discuss these things with you. In America, people do not argue, they disagree quietly. Only the Russians argue, because they are proud. But they only become proud, when they come to America…”
She sighed again, and hung up.
I never saw Ben again, after that. And I never saw “Skybound”, either. In fact, to this very day, I absolutely refuse to see any of Miss Movie Star’s films.
Translated by Olga Matlin