Mama just told me that Gohar is coming to America next week, and she says I should write a letter, while we have someone to bring it to you. I wish I could come to America with you. Mama says someday. I wonder when that someday is going to come. Things have really changed here since you left. I don’t like my school. I don’t like it here at all anymore. Mama says that my best years are ahead and that they’re surely going to be in New York, which reminds me to ask you: Why is New York called the Big Apple? I found it on a map because I thought it might look like an apple, but it didn’t look like an apple, or like any other fruit. And it wasn’t even that big. Mama doesn’t know. My English teacher said not to ask questions that have nothing to do with what we’re learning. Will you please write me the answer in your next letter? I am sure Gohar will bring it back if you ask her, although mama says she is not going to come back, if she has any sense at all.
Grandma always says not to trouble you in my letters, but I really need your help. She also always tells me to start with good news, so here is a little bit of good news. The other day, we were playing outside and I said I couldn’t stay out too long because I had to do homework and write you a letter. I don’t know what devil got hold of Diana, Vahag’s daughter, but she gave me this strange smile and said, “Leyla, why do you call him papa? Everyone knows Uncle Davit is Hayk’s father.” I felt sick because if Diana knows that you’re my uncle, then everyone else must know, too. What am I supposed to do now, call you Uncle Davit every time I talk about you? I could get used to calling you by your name, but what’s the point, when you’re going to be my father all my life? You are, aren’t you?
Anyway, that’s not the good news. The good news is that Hayk jumped right in before I had a chance to say anything. He told Diana to mind her own business. He told her you are my father and he is my brother, and to never make fun of me again if she wants in on any of our games. It felt really good to have him there next to me. I felt like nothing bad could happen to me. That’s the good news.
Now comes the bad news. Could you please tell Hayk to leave me alone? Since you left, he’s been acting like he’s my father! He’s only fourteen, but he acts like he is the man of the house. He’s always telling me what to do, and he watches me like a spy. The other day, I was getting ready for the library, and he blocked the door and told me to go back inside to change my clothes. I was wearing the shorts you had sent me. They come down all the way down to my knees! But he wouldn’t let me wear them. To the library! No one even goes there. I pushed him and left anyway, but I feel bad because he keeps saying that I don’t care about him and what he has to say. That’s not true. You know how much I love Hayk. But could you please tell him to leave me alone? Because I can’t stand being told what to do. Even mama doesn’t tell me what to wear. And this isn’t the worst part.
Yesterday, I came home from school and Hayk was sitting in the armchair in my room reading my journal. I was so embarrassed! How dare he! He had found it under the cushion of the armchair. I didn’t even have a chance to ask what he was doing looking there because he started screaming at me. Then, he read aloud the part about how much I wished I could kiss Misha. I almost died! He made fun of me and told me to get that garbage out of my head because I’m too young, and I can never kiss one of his friends anyway, even when I’m old enough to be kissing. Then, in the evening, Tatevik told me that he beat up Misha really badly. Misha didn’t even know I liked him. That’s how he found out. How am I supposed to ever look at him again? No one knew about Misha except you, grandpa, and Sopha. But now everyone will be talking about this.
You can’t let him do this to me, papa. Please talk to him. Mama just keeps telling me to figure it all out myself, but how am I supposed to do that when he doesn’t even listen to anything I say? He doesn’t listen to anyone except you, and since you left, he gets angry a lot.
Mama just came in to tell me to go to bed. I’ll write more tomorrow. I am not even tired, but I have school tomorrow and I have a hard time waking up as it is. Besides, I’m too upset now to write about anything but Hayk. I never thought I would say this, but I can’t wait for him to come to America to live with you. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not because all I am trying to do is wear and write what I want. Goodnight, papa. More news tomorrow.
All right, I’m back. I am sorry for saying I wanted Hayk to leave. I didn’t mean that part. I meant everything else, but not that part. I don’t know what I’ll do when he leaves. It’s hard enough without you here. I came home from school a little while ago, and Hayk was sitting on grandpa’s bed, reading the newspaper. Every time grandpa said, “da-da, ta-ta,” Hayk answered like he was actually asking questions about the news. He always helps grandma feed him and shave him, and lately, he even helps bathe him and take him to the bathroom. He’s very kind, most of the time. He carries grocery bags for every woman who turns the corner onto our street. The other day he helped Uncle Serop wash his car. Sometimes, he helps so many neighbors that he doesn’t any time to play! He is a lot like you. I didn’t mean when I said that I wanted him to leave.
Grandma is always telling us stories about how grandpa used to be, especially how he made everyone laugh everywhere he went. Sometimes, when she’s telling a story, grandpa smiles, like he understands. And sometimes, when he holds me when I’m lying next to him, I can swear he is telling me that he loves me. I always think that Hayk is crazy to keep saying that maybe someday grandpa will wake up and say, “good morning.” But can you imagine how happy that would make everyone? Especially grandma. She’s always sad these days. She’s sad about grandpa not knowing who any of us are, and she’s sad that you’re gone, and she’s already crying about Hayk leaving someday. I’m not supposed to tell you that she’s sad all the time, but I think you would want to know.
I got in trouble at school today. This morning, I wore my banana earrings, the ones that I’d made out of the fringes on the socks you had sent me. I am sorry. I just didn’t like those socks because they were so girly. But I liked the plastic fruit-shaped fringes, so I ripped them off and made earrings and a bracelet out of them. So the math teacher was walking up and down the aisles to make sure we were all sitting straight with our hands on our knees. She saw my yellow banana earrings and hit my hand with the ruler. Then she grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me to the principal’s office.
I also forgot to put on my pioneer tie when I got to school in the morning, so it was crumpled in my pocket and sticking out. When the principal made me put it on, it was all wrinkled. On top of that, I had spilled ice cream on it yesterday, so it was wrinkled and stained. And I had banana earrings on. Lilit Aramovna said I couldn’t wear earrings or stuff my pioneer tie in my pocket if I wanted to be a pioneer. I told her it doesn’t matter what I hang on my ears because I always get good marks. And I told her I wouldn’t mind not being a pioneer anyway. Her face got all red, and I thought she was going to hit me, too. But she just said that I had to go back to see her tomorrow. With my parents. I don’t know why she said parents when she knows I only have one. I think she just wanted to hurt me, and that’s the only way she can.
So I told mama about this when I got home and she laughed, messed up my hair, tickled me, and didn’t say anything. She knows I don’t like it anymore when she tickles me, but she does it all the time anyway. I used to like it when I was little, but she says I am always going to be her little girl, even when I am forty-eight. Anyway, she called all her friends all day long. She kept laughing and telling them how I had told Lilit Aramovna I didn’t care if I couldn’t be a pioneer.
I just don’t understand why I can’t be a pioneer and wear earrings at the same time. I don’t even understand why I have to be a pioneer. Mama says when we go live in America, I can wear whatever I want—even jeans!—and I won’t have to be a pioneer anymore. She says I won’t have to wear a uniform to school. Is this true? And is it true that if a teacher hits me, they’ll send her to jail? I don’t believe this because if we were living in America now, almost every teacher I have would be in jail. I can’t wait to go to America. Mama says soon. She’s been saying soon since I was five years old. But now, I think she really means it because lately, every time she’s on the phone, she says, “I’ve got to get my kid out of here.”
I have to do my homework now because we’re going to Anna’s house tonight to watch the video tape you sent us. I’ll write more tomorrow, so I can tell you what happened in the principal’s office.
Papa jan, thank you for the tape! I loved it so much! We all did. Mama even cried! Ray Charles is my favorite singer now. I like him even more than Michael Jackson, even though Michael Jackson is easier to dance to. My favorite part of the whole concert was when Ray Charles sang the one song about America. America, the Beautiful, that one. That’s the one that made mama cry. She kept saying, “Oh, Ray,” and crying. I think she can’t wait to come to America. I can’t wait to come to America, too, so I can see how beautiful it is. The way Ray Charles sang that song I could just feel that he thinks it’s the most beautiful place in the whole world. And he can’t even see it, so I guess it must feel beautiful, too. I liked how he was smiling all the time, even though he is blind and that must make him sad. I didn’t understand all the words, but I heard “from sea to shining sea.” I wonder why he says sea and not ocean, because America goes from one ocean to another. It made me think how big America is. Do you know that I’ve never seen the sea or the ocean? I’ve only seen Lake Sevan. Will you take me swimming in the Atlantic Ocean? I would like that so much!
And do you know that I’ve never seen a person with brown skin? Only in magazines and on the tapes that you send. And sometimes in movies. Like Eddie Murphy, the funny actor who pretends to be American, but he is really a prince from Africa. That movie makes me laugh so hard! Mama says when we go to America, there will be black people where we live, and in my school, too. I have never seen anyone who has black skin, so I was wondering why we say black people instead of brown people. Do you know?
Anna made a lot of food, and we couldn’t stop eating. She is the best cook in the world. Well, after grandma, of course. No one can cook like grandma. When we finally finished eating, we danced. Mama wasn’t crying anymore. She was dancing with me and laughing. She said, “If it’s the last thing I ever do in my life, Leyla jan, I am going to take you to see Ray Charles when we go to America.” Do you know where he lives? Does he live in the Big Apple, like you?
It’s really late now. I need to go to bed. Mama says I still have a few days to finish my letter. She came in three times already. She had a cigarette in her hand every time. I wish she would stop smoking. Can you please stop sending her Salems? I flushed a whole pack down the toilet last week and threw another pack in a trashcan outside yesterday, but she’s still smoking. Anyway, goodnight! Well, I guess it’s morning in New York now, so, good morning! I’ll write again tomorrow.
Hello papa. I’m in geography class. Let me tell you about what happened yesterday, when mama and I went to the Lilit Aramovna’s office. When we walked in, she and the math and geography teachers were all in the room. Mama said hello to them and we sat down. I hate that room. Every time I’m there, people are angry with me. And it’s always the same. I wear earrings or I don’t wear my pioneer tie or someone hears me say I don’t understand why we only study the USSR in geography when there is a whole world we can learn about. On the way there, I always feel angry and want to break something, but when I walk in, I just get scared and quiet because I think it’ll be best if I don’t say anything at all.
Everything in that room is big—the ceiling is high, the furniture is big and the windows go from the floor almost all the way to the ceiling. There is a picture of Lenin standing with one hand in his pocket and the other pointing to something. I think this is the biggest picture of Lenin I’ve ever seen anywhere, except maybe the one at the post office. The room always smells strange. Mama says there is no smell. But I always think it smells bad because I feel sick and I can’t wait to get out. Just like every time I go to the hospital and I get sick from the smell of medicine. I was at the hospital again two weeks ago. Everybody knows me there now, so I get extra pillows and food. Grandma stayed with me this time because mama had to work. We were there for a whole week! I thought I would go mad, but then I took some tools from the examination room when no one was there, so at least I had something to play with. I know it’s wrong, but how many pages a day can a person read? Grandma had asked me not to tell you about the hospital, but if I didn’t, you’d know I am hiding it from you because you know I’m always in and out of hospitals. Don’t worry. I am all right. It was just the usual fever. They tortured me a little and sent me home. I don’t think there is anyone in that hospital who hasn’t poked my ears yet, or any instrument they haven’t used to poke me with.
The bell just rang! I have to go to English now, and you know I only write letters in geography. I will write more when I get home.
I came home twenty minutes late today, and mama was lying down on the sofa having a heart attack. Grandma was fanning her and the whole apartment smelled like those awful valerian drops. She jumped up when she saw me and she grabbed me and squeezed me and cried like someone had told her I had died. The whole building could probably hear her. I was so embarrassed. I had just stopped in front of Sopha’s building for a few minutes. We ran into her older sister. It was only a few minutes, I swear! Mama is still crying. I wish she would punish me instead. But she never gets angry; she just cries like I’m breaking her heart.
Back to what happened in the principal’s office. I wished mama would ask why the geography teacher was there when she had nothing to do with my banana earrings and my wrinkled pioneer tie. I know it’s because Yelena Sergeyevna really doesn’t like me. I think she doesn’t like any of the children, or anyone in Armenia because she is Russian and she wishes she could live in Moscow. Sopha says her husband is Armenian and he hates Russia. That’s why they live in Yerevan. Every time Yelena Sergeyevna asks which republic produces what, I don’t say anything, even though I always know the answers. I am always bored in her class and I draw pictures and write letters to you. I really don’t care that dolls are made in Estonia and tea comes from Kazakhstan. I want to learn about Africa and America and Antarctica. And I want to know what Armenia looked like before the Turks took away Mount Ararat and Lake Van and all the other beautiful places. I told her this once in class and she got very angry. She said I don’t get to decide what I learn and told me to go wait for her in the principal’s office.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the principal’s office lately. I feel bad that mama has to go back there all the time. But I can’t help saying things they don’t like and taking off my pioneer tie. Mama always says it’s all right and that I didn’t do anything wrong, so I shouldn’t feel bad, but I do. I feel guilty every time.
Grandma just walked in with a plate of dolma, even though I told her I wasn’t hungry. I can’t eat and write at the same time because I’ll get the grease and yogurt all over the paper. You know me! I’ll be back soon.
So good! I bet you miss grandma’s dolma. I bet you can’t get that kind of dolma anywhere in America. Grandma is always wondering what you’re eating over there. She’s always worried about whether you have enough money to pay rent and buy food, and if you’re too tired after work to cook for yourself. She wants to know what kind of country America is that all a man can do with his money is pay for a roof over his head. She’s always wondering if you have someone to talk to, and someone to take care of you if something happens or if you get sick. Every time mama tries to tell her that you are all right, grandma asks her how she knows when we all know you would never say anything if you weren’t. Are you all right, papa? Really, you can at least tell me. You know I’d never tell.
You’re probably wondering what happened at school, so back to the principal’s office. The whole time we were there, Lilit Aramovna and the teachers were looking at mama like she’s a bad person. They all looked angry. I think they don’t like mama because she’s not married. And they’re always angry anyway. The teachers weren’t saying anything at all. I don’t know why they were there. It’s like that every time. They just sit there. They only speak when the principal asks them a question. And it’s always about what I do wrong.
Lilit Aramovna squinted her eyes and I could see that she was staring at the pineapples hanging from my ears. She pointed to my right ear, looked at mama, and asked, “Why is your daughter wearing earrings again, when she was told not to wear them just yesterday?” The teachers looked at me and shook their heads. I reached behind my ears and pulled my hair out to the sides of my face so they couldn’t see my earrings, but it was too late.
Mama said, “Respectfully, Lilit Aramovna, my daughter has a name. It is Leyla. And she is right here. So why don’t we ask her?” Mama looked at me like she was waiting for my answer. I looked down at the floor. I felt scared and I didn’t want to say anything wrong. “I’ve never seen a real banana or pineapple. I like the way they look,” I said. “And I like jewelry. Except gold. I don’t like gold. I made these earrings myself. From a pair of socks.”
Lilit Aramovna got up from her chair, stuck her hand in the air, and said something about how my rebellion is a sign of a disturbance. No, “a serious psychological disturbance.” That’s what she said. I looked at her, then at the picture of Lenin above her desk. She was standing the same way Lenin was in the picture.
Mama poured herself some sparkling water, took a long sip, and said, “Lilit Aramovna, Leyla is one of the best students in the entire fifth form. She has written and directed several school plays. She has many friends at the school. The only thing she doesn’t do is follow rules that don’t make sense to her. She asks questions about the things she is being taught. Is this what you call a serious psychological disturbance?” Mama was speaking slowly and she wasn’t moving at all. She wasn’t even blinking. She was just staring at Lilit Aramovna, who was still standing in the middle of the room.
“Leyla is certainly a good student. We are proud of that,” she said. “But, Comrade Simonian, that does not give her the right to disobey rules. And no, unless you are raising a rebel, the child should not be questioning adults.” She looked at me like she was giving me some kind of an important lesson. I got scared when she called me a rebel. I thought they were going to send me to Siberia, and I would never see mama again, let alone come to America.
Then mama started saying some things I can’t remember well. She was talking about the Party and how I like to think for myself, and what teachers should and shouldn’t teach. I was proud of mama. She is so smart and strong. When mama finished speaking, Lilit Aramovna said, “I am not surprised to hear you speaking like a demagogue.” The teachers nodded and shook their heads like they couldn’t believe it. I took out a pen and my yellow notepad from my backpack and leafed through it until I got to the first clean page. I wrote “demagogue,” closed the notebook, and put it back in the backpack. Of course, I never use this paper for schoolwork. I only draw and write. Lilit Aramovna pointed at the backpack like there was a dynamite inside, and said, “Why is the girl writing on yellow paper?” Mama just said, “May I ask, what is wrong with yellow paper?”
The teachers were looking at Lilit Aramovna like she was the general and they were the soldiers and mama had just pointed a gun at them. I was so proud of mama because she kept talking calmly, even though she was alone and there were three of them. I kept telling myself mama always knows what to say, and we always leave okay. But this time the principal called me a rebel and mama didn’t say anything about not letting them take me away to Siberia.
Lilit Aramovna walked back to the table, sat down, and said, “Comrade Simonian, a child must have two parents. Your daughter needs a father who will be able to discipline her like you are unable to do.” You know how much mama hates that comrade business. She says she is allergic to that word, and I believe her because I can’t stand hearing it either. And you know I how much I hate when people say anything about how I don’t have a father. Sometimes it makes me sad and sometimes angry. Mama knows I don’t like it, so she leaned over and put her hand on mine. She looked very angry now. I felt awful because it’s my fault that mama has to deal with these people all the time. I hated them because they made mama feel bad for not being married. I wanted to throw something. I wanted to ask her if we could leave. Then mama said, “Lilit Aramovna, I’d like to repeat my request that you never speak of my family except when you have something to say about Leyla’s performance in school.” She stopped talking like she wanted to make sure that Lilit Aramovna understood what she was saying. The principal mumbled something, and the teachers looked down at their shoes. Then she said, “Ani Azatovna, you will be held responsible for the way you have spoken here today,” and she wrote something in her notebook. She looked angrier than ever before. Her face was red and there were tiny beads of sweat on her forehead.
Mama looked at her and the teachers, then nodded to me, and we both got up. She said that she was taking me to work with her. She said “good day” to them and we walked out. She didn’t say anything until we got out of the building. We walked holding hands. Mama was smiling like nothing had happened. She said, “How about some ice cream?” When we sat down at the café, mama wasn’t smiling anymore. She took my face in her hands and said, “Don’t be afraid, Leyla. Don’t you ever be afraid of anyone.” I didn’t tell her I was afraid all the time. I didn’t say anything about how I thought they were going to send me away to Siberia. Of course, I didn’t ask what I most want to know because mama still doesn’t like when I mention my father. Do you think I am like this because my father is always fighting rules?
While we were eating ice cream, I asked mama what a demagogue is. She said, “I’m not certain that Lilit Aramovna knows what that word means, Leyla jan. I think she was trying to say I speak my mind too much.” I pretended I understood, even though she didn’t tell me what the word actually means. It didn’t matter. Because all I could think was that I loved mama so much. Do you think mama is a demagogue? Because if she is, then I want to be a demagogue, too.
Mama just came in and saw all the pages on my desk and now she’s laughing. She says to remind you how lucky you are to have a writer for a daughter. My Russian teacher says Dostoyevsky, Poushkin and a few others are writers, and everyone else is a storyteller. But she does like my writing. She always asks me to read my compositions aloud in front of the class. She’s the only teacher who doesn’t bring me to the principal’s office, I think, because she went to university with mama. Do you think that maybe I’m a writer?
Papa jan, Gohar is here and I have to finish my letter, so I can give it to her. I can’t believe she is going to see you. She is so lucky! Please do something so we can come to America, the beautiful. I want to live in the Big Apple. I want to swim in the shining sea. I want to go to a school with brown children, no uniforms, and no pioneer ties. And I want to speak English all the time, everywhere I go. Mama also says that in America no one will care that she’s not married, and no one will talk about how I don’t have a father or care that I call my uncle papa. Is this true? I want this so much!
Here is the list you asked me to write. If it is too much, please send only what you can.
- Ray Charles tapes! But not video because our VCR player broke and mama says the next one she buys will be in America.
- The pink bubble gum that has syrup inside.
- More socks. But please not so girly!
- Another T-shirt that says “I LOVE NY.” The one you sent me before got too small for me, so I gave it to Sopha’s little sister.
- Yellow notepads—I am the ONLY one who has yellow paper!
- Pencils with erasers. What’s so hard about putting an eraser on top of a pencil that fifteen republics can’t come together to figure it out?
- And please, NO Salems.
Thank you, papa jan!
I miss you so much and can’t wait to see you. Please don’t forget to tell me in your next letter why New York is called the Big Apple. I want to tell my English teacher. Also, please tell Hayk to stop torturing me. At least, please tell him not to read my journal.
I am sending you a picture I drew of the Big Apple. I hope you will like it!
I love you, papa jan.
Your daughter, Leyla