*Image: “Oil and Water,” Oil on Canvas, 2009, 48” x 68” by Ronna Lebo
with light steam
by Alex Simand
A few years ago I began frequenting a Russian bathhouse in San Francisco, a city far from my childhood home of Toronto, far from my pot-bellied uncles and drunken cousins, and Russian curse words. The bathhouse is called Archimedes Banya, and it does not market itself as a Russian bathhouse; it is an international bathhouse. In the lexicon of my Toronto upbringing international had always meant Russian. In Canadian schools, I was an international student. It was simply a way of hiding in plain sight: Mark’s International Deli, Caucus International Banquet Hall, International Meats and Liquors were all blatantly Russian; neither the owners nor the employees of any of these establishments spoke a lick of English.
The owner of the San Francisco bathhouse is Russian—one might find him and his friends sharing a bottle of vodka or scrutinizing a chess set in the café—but Archimedes, the bathhouse, is different. In the first place, I learned about it through a write-up in 7×7, an upscale SF lifestyle magazine that caters to the city’s nouveau riche and those who strive to be, the tech employees and entrepreneurs whose bank accounts swell with IPO money. The building is massive: four stories of amenities, consisting of the main bathhouse, a basement spa and massage parlor, a restaurant and bar, a TV room and lounge, private party rooms, and two rooftop patios on which weekly yoga sessions are held. The girls at the front desk are young and pretty, and they flirt with me. Roxy calls me Zeus on account of my sizable beard. Her sister, who lives upstairs with her, once slipped me her number. Xochitl, the house masseuse, is a local activist and a bottomless well of creative thought; we sit for hours discussing our favourite comic books, my short story ideas, her film projects. She taught me how to perform platza properly. Michelle, the bartender, lets me make announcements on the loudspeakers when bathhouse attendance is light because she fears public speaking. It is home; these people are my surrogate family.
When I was a child, the bathhouse was a frightening place. Adult-sized penises swung freely in the heat. Monstrous penises like dripping elephant trunks at eye level. Sweating, bulging potbellies bullied the space a child’s head normally occupies. I must have consumed a metric ton of sticky belly button lint. And the hair—hair everywhere: hair in impossible places, toes black with fur, backs like wolverines, stomachs swirling with maelstroms of hair, and that unspeakable forest that surrounds a man’s pubis. No one told me, “Soon, one day, you’ll find that your hair sprouts from strange places.” I learned this lesson in the fiery forge of the banya. Chuckling men with jiggling bodies ambled about, as in a land of naked giants, hollering and whooping at one another with Viking abandon, their skins flushed to unnatural reds and purples, uncles and fathers transformed into the caricatured beasts of night terrors.
All I could do was cower in the corner and cast my mind as far away as possible from this loathsome grown-up world. Think about board games, I would tell myself. White to checkmate in two moves. Connect Four. King me. Sorry. You sunk my battleship. But my father would invariably nudge me, slap my brittle back, carry me back to my discomfort, and laugh at the horror tattooed on my face. As a first-generation Russian immigrant, there was nothing I could do. It was a rite of passage; it was an outing. All the men, dozens of them in the extended family, met in the basement of my uncle’s home, which housed a dry Finnish sauna. They all lounged on leather La-Z-Boys and sipped tall cans of Czech beer and told Russian jokes. I am striped and mustached. What am I? A mattress! A barreling laughter filled the cramped basement. The uncles and the older cousins all looked in my direction to see if I understood; I did not. This only tickled them further and made them laugh harder. It took me years to realize that the words for mustached and peed-upon where the same. I still don’t think it’s funny.
Meanwhile, the women upstairs shouted preposterous gossip at each other about things that had happened twenty years before, but that was not for us. Those were women things, performed over stovetop and kitchen table, with clouds of flour dust rising above the shrieks. The men’s things were different. Theirs were burly and oafish, putrid with pickled bodies and overripe masculinity.
Following a suitable measure of joviality, they undressed. As if in unison, on cue from some invisible force, all the men stood up and took off their pants, then socks, then underwear. Only after the bottom halves of their bodies were bare did they dare to remove their T-shirts, as if the great shame was in their chests, in their nipples, and not in their floppy members and their matted butt cracks. They all folded their clothes neatly and stacked them on the bench in the anteroom to the sauna. Acting crass was well and good, but god forbid someone should leave a stray sock on the tile—serious grounds for admonition. Once all of their clothing was folded and put away, they piled into the sauna. Twelve or more of them packed into the tiny space, their elbows touching, like a package of hot dogs left in the sun. They sweat. They oozed sweat until their fingers shriveled, until they drenched the floor with their drippings, until their skin puffed out and their eyeballs dried like raisins in their sockets. Then, one by one, they filtered out and jumped into the shower room abutting the sauna for a jarring, ice-cold rinse. This was meant to shock the system, cool the body quickly, and jolt the mind back into the present. For me, it only served to charge the nerves and leave me feeling fragile, as if the slightest breeze might snap the tenuous fibers that held me together.
To my Canadian counterparts, this ritualistic male steaming would no doubt have seemed unusual, but it was merely the tip of the iceberg of oddities. To Canadians, I believed then, Russians were inherently strange, frightening even, with their brusque manner of speaking, their hatred of articles, the faint smell of herring emanating off their skin, and their tendency to clear the phlegm from their throats after making a point. I guarded that world, with its communal steaming, from the smiling sensibilities of my classmates. The men of my family foraged for wild mushrooms, often on private property (a concept understandably foreign to those raised under Communism). The women of my family spent days sitting at flour-dusted kitchen tables assembling pelmeni—Russian dumplings stuffed with ground beef—only to squirrel them away in freezers, in preparation of a government rationing that never came. They slaughtered lambs in suburban yards and held massive bonfires for which the fire department was invariably called. They sang songs and fought each other with hot-blooded enthusiasm.
The annual consumption of hash (pronounced something like hush) was one rite that lingers in my memory and in my esophagus. To call hash a soup is an affront to the most basic culinary conventions. It is simply this: lamb fat, a large chunk of it, boiled at high temperature for several hours, in several pints of water with a single uncut onion bobbing at the top. It is a putrid substance, with almost no nourishing properties. Even a starving Gulag prisoner would only grudgingly ingest it. My father was responsible for hash production. The night before, he selected a cut of fat—a slab of flesh that slipped from his hands as he tried to handle it—dumped it into a Crock-Pot with the onion and water, and started the slow simmer. If he were feeling generous, he would tossed in an unpeeled and uncut carrot, but only for garnish; the carrot was never eaten anyway.
The men all arrived around noon, usually on a Sunday, with bottles of vodka and stern expressions. Their manners, the slouched shoulders, the hushed tones, suggested a wake. I prepared the table. A bowl, a spoon, and a shot glass for each setting—that was it. There was no tablecloth. There were no appetizers. There were not even water glasses. Just bowls, spoons, and shot glasses. By one o’clock, all the men were seated, still stern. My father then ladled out steaming bowlfuls of that vile liquid. The scent of it, like the scent of a sheep’s entrails dumped out onto the lawn as it is being slaughtered, still haunts my nostrils. One of my cousins poured shots of vodka. Wordlessly, but with synchronized sighs, they all lifted their arms, filled their spoons with hash, and gulped down the fetid stuff—immediately followed by a shot and an audible Aaaaahhhh! So it went, spoonful of hash, shot of vodka, gasping sigh, spoonful of hash, shot of vodka, gasping sigh, until all the bowls were empty and all the men thoroughly disgusted—scraping the gristle from the roofs of their mouths—and drunk. The braver souls opted for seconds.
I never spoke of these occasions with my friends. How could I? How could they understand, with their squirt guns and CCM mountain bikes and ice-skating expeditions? How could they translate into their lives the act of stripping down with their fathers and uncles and sitting in a steam room until their eyebrows felt singed and the tips of their fingers throbbed—these same classmates who snuck off to the back of class with an encyclopedia to gawk at medical drawings of uteruses and testicles? I never brought my friends over to my house, partly because we were poor. Our apartment on the twenty-fifth floor of a predominantly Russian immigrant building in a predominantly Russian Toronto neighborhood was cramped. The hallways always smelled like cabbage, or liver, or onions sautéed for too long. Someone had popped out the buttons in the elevator. Our Bulgarian landlord loitered in the foyer and eyed visitors suspiciously.
It was a far cry from the bungalows and maple-tree-lined streets to which my friends were accustomed. More than the poverty, I was afraid of their reaction to strangeness. I feared being rejected by my cohort like a body rejects a foreign substance, a transplant whose blood type is incompatible. I thought the harsh lights of a Community Watch would expose me, that children in brand-name windbreakers would point and jeer at my incongruity as if I had a horn protruding from my chin or an extra ear where my eyebrow should be. I was terrified of failing my duty to assimilate, to slip seamlessly into Western society.
I didn’t want to be poor. I didn’t want to be Russian. I wanted to be a kid, but there was no room for us Russians to ever be kids. The austerity of Communist life ran too deep, weaved itself into our DNA, wrapped itself around our necks and gave us a noose-like tug if we ever felt unfettered whimsy. There was no space carved out for frivolity; children were merely not-yet-adults, miniature mockups of the humans they would soon become. Until that happened, it was merely a matter of biding time. My mother loves to tell me of the incredibly adult things I used to say as a three year old, the pride she felt when I did. “Let’s go find daddy!“ my mother would say to me. “I don’t need to find him. He’s at his desk,” would be my reply. I would sit in the hall before my father’s study as he worked on his doctoral dissertation, barring anyone from entering, muttering coldly, “Father is busy please come back another time.” And my mother would squeal with delight. My father would tousle my hair and pick me up and spin me round. They were preparing me for the stark existence that each of them had lived; there was no opportunity for silly games and make-believe worlds. There is no child here, they suggested, we have done our solemn duty as Eastern European guardians and killed it. Don’t let his tiny hands deceive you. The child is dead.
It turns out I wasn’t. I was merely napping in the kindergarten playroom of a Toronto elementary school, surrounded by primary-colored building blocks, macaroni pictures, and neatly arranged stacks of Roald Dahl novels. When I awoke, I hungered for all the comforts of my peers. I craved ice cream cones instead of poppy rolls, McDonald’s apple pies—neatly packaged in cardboard sleeves—instead of tart slices of quince, regular all-beef hot dogs instead of long oily kielbasas from the European deli around the corner. I wanted to see a new toy, packaged in plastic, instead of chipped and faded wooden trucks handed down from distant cousins. I wanted baseball gloves and baseball bats and baseballs instead of the upturned caps and pilfered sticks and chewed-up tennis balls I used in their place. I wanted a Game Boy instead of dusty Jack London tomes scavenged from old people’s garage sales. But plead as I might, these gifts did not come. This perceived withholding left me calloused about all things Russian, as if it were the culture itself that withheld these comforts from me.
I felt resentment for the duration of my youth. I leered at children with their mouths stained purple from sucking on popsicles while I munched on homemade sesame snaps. I watched as they, in their brightly colored Columbia snowsuits, slid gracefully down snow-covered slopes on their Noma GT Snow Racers—the ones with the steering wheels and the brakes and the raised fake leather seats—while I skidded down in my threadbare jeans on a discarded refrigerator box. I did my schoolwork on dollar-store notebooks whose lines wavered as if drawn by hand while my classmates tossed around twelve dollar Five Star binders flush with beautiful grid paper, on which they drew flourished hearts and penises. All that I did lacked the lovely sheen of their world, the crisp feeling of newness. It was as if an ancient dust layered my reality, like silver tarnished with time and never polished.
In college I lived in a house with three boys near campus. Even though my parents lived in the city, I had decided to live away from home for my final year. We lived in a house that college students had occupied for many years, and it showed. The foyer smelled of armpits. The stairs were stained with spilled beer like sweat on a baseball cap. The walls were covered in peeling tape from movie posters long lost behind a sagging futon. The front door, made of flimsy plywood, was riddled with holes from the drunken hijinks of boys who had graduated to manhood. And the mice! The house was infested with brazen mice. They sauntered slowly through the hallway to the kitchen, pausing to lick their tiny paws, because they knew that whoever was on the couch watching them was too lazy or stoned to shoo them away. Every morning we would inspect the garbage bag under the sink to find a dozen new holes the mice had chewed in it.
As for the roommates, they were nice. I liked them. We got along, we drank cheap beer, we played video games, and we talked a lot about having sex, though none of us had much sex that I can recall.
One day my father stopped by the house. I had asked him to bring my old soldering iron, which I needed for a school project. I didn’t have time to take the two-hour round trip to get it myself. When he arrived, the door was open so he stepped inside and called my name. He called me by my Russian name—“Shura!”—with the same tone, volume, and inflection that he used at home. I panicked; I did not want my roommates to witness this glimpse of home. I could not bear to bare myself this way, could not bear to have them see this version of me—the undernourished child in Russian tweed pantaloons pulled up to his belly button and a wool sweater with worn leather elbow patches. I scampered down the stairs as fast as I could to ensure that he tore no holes in the barriers between my worlds. I was aghast to find that he was already shaking hands with Isaac, one of my roommates, and that another, Jesse, was close behind.
Just as I reached the bottom of the stairs, he sniffed the air, made a phooey sound, and asked if we were okay living like this. It’s okay Pop, I wanted to say, this is how Canadian college students live. We all shrugged and inspected the holes in our socks. My roommates slunk off to their rooms and my father handed me a grocery bag containing the soldering iron. I looked inside and asked him if he’d also brought the metal stand, the coiled wire holder with a sponge slot in which the iron rests when not in use. “What you need that for?” he asked. “What is problem? Just put it on table.” This was a common pattern in our conversations. Me: Dad, I need this thing. Him: Why you need this thing? Just do other thing.
Making do—that’s what it was. It was always a matter of making do with what little resources were available. Like when we went mushroom hunting (he never called it foraging), my father would drive off paved roads in Northern Ontario, through dense foliage and over muddy single tracks in search of new hunting grounds. Deep gouges from where other cars had become stuck littered the path like warning signs. Our family sedan bounced wildly and scraped against thick pine branches. I tried to tell him our 1996 Toyota Camry was not built for this type of driving and that maybe we should turn around, but he simply said bah! and punched the accelerator.
He clearly felt the same way about the stand for my soldering iron. I explained that the table would char because it was made of wood, and that the stand already existed; it was not something he needed to buy. But he refused to admit his mistake. The discussion was fruitless, and I needed to get some work done, so I thanked him and let him leave. As soon as the screen door slammed shut, I heard chuckling from behind me. It grew louder as Isaac’s door opened. “What is problem? Just put it on table,” he said, shrugging and cocking his head to the side. Then he resumed his laughter. Jesse joined us in the hallway and added to the laughter. “Dude,” he said, “your dad is hilarious.”
My father is funny? The possibility had never occurred to me. But of course, I thought. To someone who has never encountered an immigrant family in the wild, their behavior is the funniest thing in the world! I affected my best Russian accent—it turns out it is quite a good one—and said, “In Soviet Russia, car drives you!” Isaac and Jesse dropped to the carpet and roared with glee. “Oh my god,” they said, “I didn’t realize how Russian you were.” Jesse slapped my back, and Isaac wrestled me to the ground, accusing me of being a Russian spy and asking me if I’d ever met Vladimir Putin. We all laughed and jostled and shoved and spewed Eastern European phrases until our faces were red and we gasped for breath. Then we stood up, dusted ourselves off, smoked a bunch of weed, and played Xbox until three in the morning.
Isaac and Jesse wanted to hear more about my father, my mother (even forgoing the usual Yo Mama jokes customary to college-age males), my uncles and cousins. I discovered a curiosity in them, in all these children of whom I’d been so jealous all these years. They wanted to know more, they wanted to hear funny stories about Being Russian. One part of them, I sensed, feared the bizarre world of the other, and their default was to ridicule. The thing is, underneath the derision, just below the surface, I could sense a real interest. And so I told them, I told everyone who asked and some who did not.
Some stories were true, like the one in which my extended family slaughtered a lamb in our backyard and then cooked it over an open flame, which prompted reactions like Oh, man I want to hang out with your family. I acted as a curator to the Russian culture. Sometimes I invented stories, like the one in which my father could not pronounce the word Coke. Son, go downstairs and get me some Cock, he said in my fabrication. He did pronounce Coke that way, but he did not ever ask me to fetch him any. The punch line was there, I simply needed a setup. I used humor and experience, truth and fiction, in equal measure, to slowly, palatably, initiate my friends into the world of Being Russian. I felt as though I were smashing the Berlin Wall with my mighty sledge.
Eventually, I invited Isaac and Jesse to my home for my twentieth birthday party. They gawked at the table my mother had set: sixteen salads, three meat dishes, two rice plates, eight types of fish, and a plethora of pickled mushrooms. “Dude,” said Isaac, “that’s some decadent shit.” I smiled and nodded. We sat down and ate. My mother ladled heaps of food on Isaac and Jessie’s plates, and my cousin Sergei made sure our shot glasses were never empty. Isaac gave a toast: “To Alex and his parents,” he said, “for allowing us to partake in this Russian feast.”
I want to bring everyone to Archimedes Banya. I cajole and prod my friends, my roommates, even the Palestinian man who owns the corner store, to come check it out, to sit and steep in the heat, in my culture, in the kiln that created me. I want to show them This is me, to wear my strangeness before them like a badge, to impress upon them the essence of my difference. I want them to understand that when I say I am Russian, I mean it.
Jesse and Isaac taught me to bask in the uniqueness of my culture. I want to say I really am Russian, and this is what sets us apart. See here: this is the Finnish sauna. The temperature here hovers around two-hundred-and-thirty degrees Fahrenheit. It is the hottest sauna, but it is a dry heat. You can stay in it for much longer than in a humid sauna. The air is great for your skin; it exfoliates it. Flick the sweat off with your hands, like so. Sit with the sweet discomfort.
And look here: this is the moderately steamy room. This is the classic Russian bath. Here, the temperature is closer to two-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Here, put on this wool hat. I know if sounds stupid, but it keeps your head cool, keeps your ears from burning, your vision from blurring. Don’t stand too close to the tiles in the corner. Not a wall, that. The entire structure is a floor-to-ceiling stove. The stones piled inside hold the heat. The room is two stories. Let’s climb to the top and feel the steam rise and settle in our lungs. But wait, before we ascend, see the sink? See the wooden ladle? Fill the ladle with hot, scalding hot, water. Swing open that iron door—yes, the one to the stove—use the wooden stick there, the door is hot. Now fling the water in. Hiss. Two more times. Hiss. Hiss! Is that not the most satisfying sound? Okay, up we go, up to the very top, to the upper bench of the upper story. Lie down, I’ll show you platza. No, not plaza, platza. No, the platza doesn’t hurt, and I promise to be gentle. And if it hurts, just tell me.
These are veniki. We use them for platza. They are birch branches, fresh and fragrant, tied with twine to hold the bundles together. Sometimes we use oak branches or eucalyptus leaves, but these are birch. They remind me of foraging for mushrooms with my father. I trimmed them with kitchen sheers before we got here so the bare ends won’t lash you. Some people like it when the bare ends bite into their skins, but I won’t do that to you. The veniki have been soaking in very hot water for almost an hour; they will be soft and pleasant to the touch, like an autumn forest after a gentle rain. Lie down on the bench, now, on your chest. Put the towel down first, so you don’t burn your belly or the tops of your feet. Hiss! Hiss! Now we have some steam to play with. See it rise and cling to the ceiling like a cloud? Let me just put on these thick gloves. They keep my hands cool when I wave them around. Watch as I twirl the veniki like helicopter rotors and agitate the steam. Feel the drizzle of fragrant droplets on your back. Do you like the steam rushing over your back, sticking to your skin? I am pushing it down with the veniki. Now I will press the bundles against your skin, and lean on it with all my weight. Now I will begin to hit you. Breathe out and steel yourself. See? The leaves are soft with just enough coarseness to satisfy all those itches you didn’t even you realize you had, like a good back scratch. Don’t forget to breathe. Always breathe. Now, turn over onto your back. You may want to cover your nipples.
All done. Stand up. Don’t worry about the leaves clinging to your back. They will wash off momentarily. Ready? Towel secure? Okay, follow me. That small pool over there with the ribbon of water cascading down is the cold plunge. The water is kept cool, a fresh forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, by the pump that sucks the water in and shoots it out from above. Now, climb the steps—be careful, they are slippery—and jump in. It will jolt you; hold on to it. Do not shrink away from the frigid feeling, from the numbness of your skin. Keep it. Good, now do it again. They always say the second dunk is the one that truly cools you to your core. It’s important to keep your body from overheating. And this way, we can steam again in a few minutes! Feel your skin right now; doesn’t it tingle delightfully? The blood is rushing back to the surface. Feel your capillaries swell with blood; feel your skin, scrubbed smooth, gratefully drink it up. My hands ache from the platza. Let’s sit and catch our breaths for a moment.
There is no need to be afraid, I tell my friends when I bring them to Archimedes. This is a safe space, free of scorn, free of judgment. Love your body; listen to its pleas. See: I have a paunch! It is a badge of honor I wear that proclaims my love of decadence. Okay, beer—mostly beer. That’s okay. This is who I am. I am beautiful. You are beautiful. Revel in the exquisite splendor of the naked human form in all its molds. Look at the ruddy Norseman over there! See how he grins and chuckles. See the wrinkled folds of his chest quiver. He doesn’t care, because none of us do. Look at that old lady! Couldn’t she be your grandmother? Can’t you see her on a park bench, feeding pigeons or knitting colorful scarves for her grandchildren? She is here too. Observe the asexual array of breasts around you! Those are small and flat like a boy’s. These are large and drooping, watch them sway as they plunge into the cold water. And the penises. I used to think them the most frightful of organs: angry, aggressive members sticking obtrusively out from old men’s crotches, with hairy prune-like scrota as addendums. Now I see, like the breasts, they are simply what they are: protuberances on bodies whose only desire is to touch the world with all their senses.
Once I saw two American girls in sparkling gold bikinis sitting in the Finnish sauna as I walked in for my inaugural shvitz of the evening. They sat fidgeting uncomfortably, cross-legged, on the lowest and coolest bench, looking devastatingly beautiful with their perky breasts and golden brown skin. They looked nothing like the beer-bloated bath-goers of my memory. I tried to imagine them picking mushrooms with my father and me, but it was impossible. Insipid words floated up out of their mouths. I mean, it’s supes awkward because she works at my office now. I swear to God I think I saw her wearing the same boots as me yesterday. How dare they, I thought. How dare they bring their magazine bodies and their frivolous speech to my cultural shrine, sullying it with their first-world sensibilities?
I have become protective of my ego. I have grown attached to it, even, and I recognize the role that the oddity of my upbringing has played in forming me. I sneered at the sacrilege of these well-meaning American girls because I recognized in myself that same sacrilege. I saw in myself a once willful discarding of the culture of my ancestors; and so I flinched and deflected my disgust onto the interlopers. In truth, I come to love every soul that enters the banya because we share in corporeal group therapy.
When I cannot find friends to come with me to Archimedes, I go alone. It is surprisingly easy to strike up conversations with strangers when you are all naked. There are no secrets. One Sunday afternoon I was soaking in the hot tub at Archimedes after a yoga session when I noticed a red-bearded man staring at me. He pointed at his beard and gestured towards mine with a nod and said, “Jew?” The shamelessness of the question threw me off, and I burst out in laughter, while he sat quietly amid the wafting vapor and awaited my answer. “Yes,” I said eventually, “Jew. And you?” He scoffed. “What, with a beard like this, with a face like this? Of course I’m a Jew.” He introduced himself as Mordecai, which I thought was too perfect. Then he asked if I spoke Russian and, when given the affirmative, immediately switched to speaking it. He asked me about my parents; I told him they lived in Toronto. He asked me if I was from there; I said that I was. He asked when I had immigrated; I told him 1989. He nodded and closed his eyes. “Do you know Rabbi Girsh?” he asked. I nearly choked on the steam rising from the surface of the spa. Rabbi Girsh was our family rabbi, a distant relative who knew every aunt, uncle, cousin, and grandparent in my family. He was well liked and had just performed my cousin’s wedding a month earlier. He oversaw my grandmother’s burial and sat with the family for her shiva. “Yes,” I told Mordecai, “I do know Rabbi Girsh.” He said, “Oh, then you were probably in the Ladispoli refugee camp at the same time as me.” My family had indeed spent time in Ladispoli, a small town less than an hour from Rome through which Russian Jews traveled in the 1980s, before we immigrated to Canada.
How was it possible that this stranger, I thought, this man who had struck up a conversation with me based only on our shared facial hair fashion, how was it possible that he should know my familial history in minutes? How was it possible that he himself belonged to it, admitted it unabashedly? I was taken aback with how quickly Mordecai was able to identify a cultural strand that I had thought deeply buried. What remained of the barriers between my cultural worlds crumbled like delicate stacks of ash. Being Russian had once been an unwanted gift, thrust upon me by my parents, forced on them by their ancestors, stapled to me tenuously, that could blow away with the wind. In this exchange I came to understand that the strand was deeply woven. Although it might be thin and frail, anyone who knew where to look might tease it out. Mordecai showed me this: my Russian heritage is like the living, breathing fungus of a forest floor. When you tread upon the forest floor, you tread upon a giant, silent, unseen organism. Though the fungi may lie dormant for years, given the right stimulus mushrooms will sprout and proclaim their existence.
I tell stories differently now.
When I was little, my father often took me foraging for mushrooms, in what I perceive to be an effort to infuse me with Russian culture. We drove up north almost every weekend. We drove to Christmas tree nurseries, provincial parks, and recreational land, all secret mushroom hunting grounds, sacred to him, whose locations he shared with nobody but me. Foraging for mushrooms was not something other kids did; they all believed mushrooms to be poisonous, or worse, disgusting, but I loved them. I loved the slippery feel of them on my tongue, I loved the peaty taste of them, and I even loved cleaning them with my father late into the night after a particularly good haul. Mostly, I loved picking them. I was good. I was a natural, my dad told me. I don’t think that’s true; I believe he was humoring me, but it is a sweet memory.
My father taught me everything he knew about mushrooms. For a few months, my bedtime reading was a book on mushroom identification. I mostly looked at the pictures and memorized whether or not the mushrooms were edible. He told me to avoid the ones with white bumps on them, the muha moriy, the fly-killers. He showed me how to slice a mushroom at the stalk, leaving a piece in the ground, so that more mushrooms would grow from it later. He pointed at the underside of caps, showed me that ridges were less desirable than sponges. He taught me how to find ryzhikiy, milk mushrooms, hiding under layers of pine needles. He shared with me his love for the autumn belayi—the boletus mushrooms with the bright red and orange caps that hide among leaves. I still dream of them some nights. And he showed me that, if one mushroom grew at a spot, there were many more nearby.
In fact our system consisted of my father finding one mushroom and my dropping to my belly like a slug and slithering across the forest floor, to the bases of tree trunks, to gather all the strays, the babies, the untouched-by-worms specimens. My father was proud of me as he sorted them all and dropped them in his basket, and I felt like the most important son in the world. In that moment I didn’t mind that what we did was unapologetically different, that it was Russian.