PISTACHIO ICE CREAM
Zoe did not jump off a bridge or a tall building. Instead she got up from her couch, shoved Gabriel into his car seat and drove to the New World Russian Deli and Bakery.
“Mommy, I want to go to a toy store,” said Gabriel.
“No,” she said. “Let’s get some ice cream.”
Inside the store, the marinated cabbage and pickled watermelon smelled like home. Gabriel ran past the long line of people at cashier’s counter and down a narrow aisle between packed shelves, brushing up against them and dropping cans of anchovies. Zoe followed him, picking up the cans. In the deli, he stopped by a glass counter filled with meat and fish, staring at something on the top. Zoe glanced under the glass. Slippery kielbasa, grainy caviar and moist cheeses looked like wax props. Herring stared at her with dead eyes.
“Mom, look,” said Gabriel. “A giant tongue.”
A cow tongue—erect, stiff, big as her arm—towered on an aluminum dish. Zoe thought about a cow without a tongue, without a voice.
“Don’t touch,” she whispered.
“Mom, I want candy,” said Gabriel.
“It’s not here,” she said, pulling him by the hand to the bakery.
In the bakery Zoe didn’t stop by her favorite glass case to look at the seashell-shaped marshmallows, robin’s-egg blue candies, or chocolate éclairs. She fixed her eyes on the saleswoman in a stained apron, and licked her lips.
“Do you have pistachio ice cream?” she asked.
Zoe didn’t recognize her own voice.
“Ask the cashier,” said the saleswoman without looking at her.
They almost ran all the way back to the cashier’s counter, Gabriel sticking his tongue at the tongue on the dish along the way. The line was long. Zoe thought she saw lines that long only in Russian grocery stores, like back home.
“Muni bus fares are going up fifty cents, you know?” asked a woman’s voice behind her. “How to live?”
Zoe didn’t know how to live. Her little brother Max had died. He crashed his old red motorcycle into a long-haul truck loaded with milk crates last night. That is, it was night here. There, oceans away, it was midday. They were eleven hours apart. They rarely spoke lately, maybe because of the time difference, or maybe because she didn’t know what to say.
“Mom, you said we’ll get ice cream,” whined Gabriel, and pulled her hand.
Zoe squeezed his cold fingers and tried not to think of twisted steel, broken glass and blood mixed with milk—probably—everywhere.
“It’s a nightmare,” said the same woman’s voice.
A nightmare. When Mama called at three in the morning, sobbing, wailing, screaming into her ear: “He died, he died, he died—” she first thought it was a nightmare. Maybe it was a nightmare—the deli, the line, her little brother dead, her whole life.
“You must come to the funeral,” said Papa, his voice faint. “You must.”
She couldn’t. For the hundredth time, she ran scenarios in her head. It was like playing chess with a computer. You can’t win. If she went back to Russia, she’d never return to America. She had no green card. No passport.
“Your turn, woman!” said the voice that had been complaining about bus fare. “Are you awake?”
“Do you ever have pistachio ice cream?” she asked the cashier.
The cashier, her face red and shiny, shrugged and looked at her with dead herring eyes.
“Yes, when will you have the pistachio ice cream already?” echoed the voice behind her.
Zoe turned to look at the voice, the old lady behind her in line: open mouth, round sunglasses and wrinkled neck. A turtle tossed on the seashore. They all were tossed out on the seashore by a storm, she thought. The turtle lady waved a glass jar of pickled herring.
“Move on, women. Pistachio ice cream! Just to think of it! There was no such thing,” said a man in a brown pancake-like cap, standing behind the turtle lady. “Everyone’s in a hurry.”
“What do you mean, no such thing?” she asked, her knees shaking.
“Look, lady. I worked at Moscow Cold Factory. You know what we made? We made ice cream. Crème-brûlée, vanilla, strawberry. Period.”
“What about pistachio?”
“There was no pistachio ice cream in Soviet Union, what part of no do you not understand?”
“I remember eating it,” she said, her voice low, hateful.
As she said that, she felt it. The velvety texture, the crunchiness of the gritty pistachios in her teeth, the smoothness and coldness filling her mouth, sliding down her throat, the nutty aftertaste on her tongue.
“You must have dreamed it,” said the man. “Will you hurry now?”
The turtle lady turned dark red.
“Young man, are you telling me what we had and what we had not in Soviet Union?”
“Whom are you calling ‘young man’?”
Zoe looked at the men and women in line, feeling blank, cold. They waved containers of Canadian cottage cheese and Original Kiev Borscht made in Brighton Beach, sprinkling odorous beet-broth around—red, like blood—screaming, spitting and stomping their feet as if their lives depended on pistachio ice cream. She looked at the angry faces, twisted mouths and clenched fists, thinking that if pistachio ice cream was a dream, her whole life was a dream. Her thoughts scattered. Should she go back? If she and Gabriel went to Max’s funeral, they’d never come back. No more America, no more cleaning strange, empty houses. They’ll be Russian again, she’ll work in her library, and they’ll have a carpet on the wall, lacy curtains, and flowerpots everywhere, and wallpaper, pretty sunflower-yellow wallpaper instead of hospital-white walls.
“Mom, let’s go!” said Gabriel. “I’m bored, I want candy.”
He was speaking English.
“Speak Russian like people do,” said Zoe.
They’d go back home.
“Don’t want to,” cried Gabriel, stomping his foot. “I’m American!”
People in line stopped screaming.
“We’re in America,” he said, not loud, but in a very clear voice. “You speak American.”
Everyone looked down and sideways.
“Mine is the same,” said the man in the pancake cap. “What can you do?”
He opened his arms in a gesture of letting go. Nobody else said anything.
“Listen, consumers,” spoke the saleswoman. “We have no pistachio ice cream, never had. You want pistachio, go to American store, young lady. I have work to do here. Are you buying the herrings, woman? Three dollars ninety-nine cents.”
Zoe walked out, and she had a hard time finding her car.
“There, Mom,” said Gabriel quietly.
Then they sat in the car, Gabriel in the back seat, too tall for his car seat, dangling his feet and looking at the pigeons pecking crumbs in the parking lot. She looked at the ocean—vast, gray, and indifferent. She closed her eyes and saw another beach.
Alive, bright, warm water. A white bench. A crumbling waffle cone. Green, gooey, sweet mass. Golden speckles of nuts. She took a bite, then Max did. They had stolen a coin from Mama’s pocket, and it only could buy one waffle cone. A big wasp buzzed around, trying to land on the shining drop of melting ice cream on Max’s tanned knee. Max waved his sailor hat at the wasp and hid under the bench.
“What kind of sailor are you?” she teased.
Zoe was nine—only one year older—but felt motherly.
“Sailors fear nothing,” she said.
He climbed back up, settled next to her on the bench. The wasp still cruised around. Zoe saw tears in his eyes—hazel-green with sunny speckles—and a smudge of golden-green on his right eyebrow. She reached and pulled his sailor hat back, pushed his golden bangs to the side, licked her sticky and sweet index finger and gently rubbed ice cream off his forehead. His skin turned pink and warm.
“When I grow up, I’ll be a captain,” he said, pulling his knees under his chin. “I’ll have my own ship. You can come, too.”
She licked her side of the ice cream, and he licked his. They laughed, and she started to lick faster, and so did he. And they laughed, and licked, until their noses, and foreheads, and then tongues pressed into each other, and suddenly they both were silent, and still like that, and then he said, “Ew, gross,” and pushed her, jumped up and ran towards the water, the wasp flying after him.
Even now—in the dark haze underneath her eyelids—she could see the back of his sailor hat, ribbons flying, and the soles of his worn sandals, and the sand flying around his ankles, as he ran away, getting smaller and smaller.