In the outskirts of Soviet Moscow, near my apartment building, a shriveled babushka peddles ice cream from a cart. There are two options today: Eskimo or Plambir. The first is milk ice cream covered in chocolate, the other is milk ice cream pressed between two waffles. With only two options to choose from (always, it seems, only two options). I am indecisive, so the babushka thrusts a Plambir into my hands.
Often, the gratification of consuming the treat is delayed. My grandmother wants the ice cream to melt a little before it comes in contact with my tonsils. I obey, watch it begin to lose its shape and drip down my wrist, snaking toward the elbow. Longingly, I think of the Eskimo: had I made a fatal mistake?
Two years later, in Rego Park, Queens, I wait with my cousin on a much shorter line in front of a Mr. Softee truck. At Mr. Softee there are, yet again, two flavors, this time soft-serve vanilla or soft-serve chocolate. To make the selection easier I decide to define my personality according to one of these ice cream flavors: would I be retiring vanilla, meek, unfussy, spontaneous, an empty canvas, or would I be chocolate, confident in the brashness of my flavor, fearless and ambitious for my life?
Mint chocolate chip feels as impossible to me as passing the Prophets exam at Solomon Schechter Day School. The very idea of a maple walnut or a Swiss almond chocolate is absurd; it is not for the girl that tiptoes to the back of the school bus, the girl that avoids the teacher’s gaze. There is no precedent for these flavors, for the work of committing to one of them.
My pony-tailed cousin (now a senior vice-president at Sotheby’s) declares herself a chocolate person.
My cousin is the first in a long series of one-on-one friendships. There is a safety to two, I decide, a protective netting. A private language evolves, the workload is shared.
By contrast, a configuration of three collapses the symmetry of two. Intimacies, once swapped, can now be betrayed. There’s a danger to being the one thrust out of the group, the one left on her own.
Two friends can play with dolls long after the respectable age for Barbie-wielding has passed. Two friends can put on a Vegas-style show, and share the role of Debbie Harry. Two friends can babysit one another when parents are taking TOEFL exams, or volunteering to stay late at new jobs or when they are simply, mysteriously absent. If one friend looks out for stragglers in the school hallway, the other can skim lunch boxes of onion rings and cupcakes, the kind of foods immigrant mothers do not yet comprehend.
When I enroll at Solomon Schechter, my cousin has a boyfriend and a group of friends. They despise me, these friends, they are repelled by my taupe corduroy pants, my crooked teeth, carefully combed hair. They glare at me in the cafeteria, they see me hold my prayer book upside down. My cousin gives them all up for me.
They find ways to retaliate.
We scurry, ashamed.
Are there concepts more threatening in junior high school than a self-sufficient group of two?
“Where one sorrow should bury another, two sorrows coexist instead, face-to-face,” André Aciman writes.
My parents and I arrive in the United States with one set of grandparents, the paternal grandparents, but by 1987, a second set takes the place of the first. The paternal grandparents are from Moscow, the maternal from a small village in Ukraine. The Muscovites, pale and overweight, buckle before old age, the Ukrainian farmer and his rural schoolteacher wife, who survived two and a half years in a ghetto during World War II, are onto its tricks. By the time the Ukrainians arrive, the Muscovites are gone.
It is as though one pair is handed to me as the other is taken away. These new grandparents love in beets and potatoes, the root vegetables of winter, of deprivation.