In the fall of 1977 I was a math genius. My parents and I had emigrated from the Soviet Union in September of that year, and together with several hundred, or maybe several thousand Soviet emigres — Russian-speaking, shabbily dressed, anxious-looking people seemed to be everywhere that fall — waited in limbo in Rome for our appeal for political asylum in the United States to come through. Soviet Jews were squeezed, four families at a time, into four-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments; they overflowed residential hotels; they crammed by the dozens into decrepit villas in Ostia and Ladispoli, two nearby suburbs. They waited, anxiously, in the smoke-filled lobby of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Rome, for harried caseworkers to call them into a cramped office to appraise them of their progress (or lack thereof) toward gaining entry to the United States, or Australia, or other destinations in Europe. And in the midst of all the waiting, my father taught me clever math tricks.
I wish I could remember what exactly he taught me; all I know is that with a few mental manipulations, barely wrinkling my forehead, I could multiply two- or three-digit numbers by other two- or three-digit numbers in my head in just a couple of seconds and with devastating accuracy. This party trick helped pass the time waiting in the HIAS lobby or in the medical offices, where emigres had their blood drawn to make sure they were not importing venereal or other diseases into their new homeland, and it impressed the other emigres to no end. They would double-check the numbers on scraps of paper and shake their heads in awe, muttering, “T’fyu, chyort” (“Bloody hell!”). I was the embodiment of the bright future that awaited all of us beyond the Atlantic, in America, where you could be wildly successful — work as an engineer, even. And if you had a head for numbers, as I clearly did — well, there was no telling where you’d end up, but clearly, it would be somewhere good.
My father had not been able to work as an engineer, even though he held a master’s degree in engineering, because his Soviet passport read “Jew” in the space marked “nationality.” Instead, he had to work makeshift jobs as a technician and a mechanic; no one would hire a Jewish engineer. For the same reason, my mother had not been able to study philology in college: too many Jews. Chemistry, however, was under-enrolled, and so she became a high school chemistry teacher without really wanting to.
There were many other reasons my parents decided to emigrate, not least of them my father’s pronounced contrarian streak. The man couldn’t stand being told what to do and had even less patience for being restricted in what he could read, think, and say, which made life under a totalitarian regime difficult. In his pocket, he carried a miniature notebook that held a Voloshin poem in his equally miniscule script, the one that begins with the lines: “To see all, all to understand, to take in every shape and color/To walk the world with burning feet…” In emigrating, he hoped to find a place where the qualities he held in esteem — imagination, curiosity, iconoclasticism — were prized rather than punished. And everyone knew that to get ahead in a meritocracy, you had to be smart.
It wasn’t just about the math; for him, it was about literacy and competence — in everything. He taught me to read when I was three, giving me a split second to recognize a word (no sounding words out syllable by syllable — that was for slow-witted dummies) and moving on to the next word over my indignant howls if I failed to recognize it. He read me Aleksandr Pushkin’s poems and fairy tales, pointing out how the repetitive refrain in “Skazka o Tsare Saltane” both anchored the story and pushed it forward. When I was seven, he made me memorize the multiplication table; “I should be able to wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you, ‘What’s seven times six?’ and you should be able to answer without hesitation.” He taught me about centrifugal force by spinning a glass of water in a circle in a mesh bag; he made me commit Kipling’s poem “If” to memory, both in its excellent Russian translation by Samuil Marshak (that was easy) and in the original English, which was no small feat because I spoke absolutely no English at the time. Same with “I have six honest serving men,” an ode to insatiable curiosity that follows “The Elephant’s Child” in Just So Stories, and which also took forever to memorize.
When I started school, I was constantly getting in trouble because of things he had taught me, to the consternation of the teacher who insisted all good Soviet first-graders march together in lockstep, as a collective. “Getting ahead of ourselves, are we?” she would ask me when I wrote in cursive while everyone else was still printing, or when I used a shortcut she had not explained to solve an arithmetic problem, or when I drew a foreshortened street in accordance with the law of perspective my father had taught me. “Ne bud’ vyskochkoi” (Don’t be a show-off, or, literally, a jumper ahead), she would say. But my father wanted to jump ahead, and he wanted me to jump ahead, and secretly, I was pleased when my classmates clustered around me, tracing their fingers over my drawing in disbelief and trying to understand the trick whereby a street on a two-dimensional piece of paper could look as though it were truly receding into the background in 3-D.
My genius days ended when we came to the United States. It was the long division that got me. Jewish Family and Children’s Services, charged with helping new immigrants assimilate to their new life in the United States, placed me on full scholarship in Brandeis Hillel Day School, a private conservative Jewish school attached to Sherith Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in San Francisco. The temple presided magisterially over a sloping hill on the corner of Buchanan and Webster under a vaguely reptilian, vaguely ominous green dome and was full of the most uncongenial children I had ever met. I was prepared for ridicule over my English, and even, to some extent, over my clothes and mannerisms, but I was not prepared for the math. It was understood that it might take me a while to catch up as I learned the language, but math was math. If anything, I would be ahead of everyone in math. I could multiply large sums by other large sums in my head, with unerring accuracy. Math was universal. It was unambiguous and unequivocal. It didn’t care if you spoke English or Russian or had long feathered hair or a dorky Dorothy Hamill haircut.
It turned out that in America, this was not the case. At least it wasn’t the case with long division. In the Russian system of notation, the divisor is to the right, not the left, of the dividend, and the lines that separate them are configured in a mirror image of the American arrangement. And even though flipping the two should have been easy, it proved to be my undoing.
When my father tried to explain — “You just reverse the dividend and the divisor, see?” — I balked. I could not, would not get my head around the fact that the numbers had to be reversed. The babble of English, with its odd idioms — that was to be expected. But that math, the thing I was good at, the thing that elicited admiring whistles from adults, would betray me like this — that was not to be borne. Everything was backwards in this stupid country. Even the math.
My father tried multiple times, and multiple different ways, to explain to me that the problem was simply orthographic. But I wouldn’t budge, and then it was 10:00 p.m., and then 11:30, and then he slapped the table in disgust and said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and left the room. I put my head down and started to cry. My eyes hurt, my head hurt, and I hated this country and long division more than anything. Then my mother, who had been quietly commiserating from the hallway, took over. She patted my head, she called me Irishen’ka, and she tried to explain that the operation was exactly the same as the one I had done in Moscow hundreds of times. But I was having none of it. At the end, both of us ended up crying at the kitchen table at 2:00 a.m. My mother said that tomorrow morning, as the Russian saying goes, would be wiser than the evening, and we went to bed.
From that point on, my math decline was precipitous and comprehensive. Some years were worse than others; I managed to make it through fifth grade, but by seventh grade my dad started discovering holes in my foundational math skills. It was hard to tell whether I had lost my head for numbers or just refused to absorb any math knowledge after the long division fiasco, but one thing was clear: as my English developed, my math skills atrophied. My Russian accent became an assured California drawl, my vocabulary swelled, my command of idiom and slang became more supple, and my ability to grasp even elementary mathematical concepts disintegrated. Some years were better than others; I managed to acquit myself in algebra and trigonometry, but geometry and functions killed me. And in any given year, my father showed an uncanny ability to zero in on areas of weakness like a dentist poking at exactly the decaying, sensitive spot on a compromised tooth. In seventh grade, it was square roots. In geometry, it was my total inability to understand how to figure out the slope of a line (plus, I hated the teacher, a feeling I suspect was mutual). And in calculus, which my parents forced me to take against my better judgment — well, suffice it to say that I mostly didn’t go to calculus, because by then I had a driver’s license and a car and enough free will to know that I would rather be shoe shopping at Vallco Fashion Center with fellow renegade Vivian Pham than listening to Mr. Axelrod drone on about how to calculate the volume of a revolving solid. My father made sporadic attempts to fill in the yawning gaps in my knowledge, and I resisted valiantly. He yelled; I cried. Late at night, after one particularly acrimonious session, my mother heard him muttering in his sleep, “The dog is buried under the root . . . the dog is buried under the root.” “What root?” she asked, and he mumbled, “the square root.”
And still, both my parents assumed that I would get over my dislike of math (and most science, for that matter) and become an engineer. It was the safe, the logical, the clear thing to do. When we arrived in the United States, my mother had almost immediately enrolled in community college and received an engineering degree; within two years of our arrival, both my parents were gainfully employed and making good money. Everyone in our family — my uncles, my aunts, several of my cousins — was an engineer. The assumption that I, too, would follow the trodden path held in spite of the fact that I got a C in physics in my junior year, or that the only interest in engineering I ever evinced was in the tchotchkes my father brought back from the IEEE convention — key chains, snow globes emblazoned with company logos, adorable little pencils. My consistent and effortless As in English went mostly unnoticed, because what was the use of that? Ditto the As in French. Ditto the fact that I began translating Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in eleventh grade because I was dissatisfied with the two English language translations I had read.
In spite of my mediocre grades (strong in the humanities, so-so in the sciences, let us not speak of the math), I managed to get into UCLA. My declared major at the time of application, in a half-hearted compromise that pleased no one, was International Relations. I had adamantly refused to even consider engineering or the sciences, and my parents adamantly refused to allow me to consider English. International Relations made sense because, as my mother said, “You speak Russian, and maybe you can become a diplomat or work in the foreign service.” My father, meanwhile, held fast to the idea that in time, I would see the truth; that I would, in spite of everything, become an engineer; that I would recapture my glory days as a math prodigy.
And then, in spring of my freshman year, my seven-year-old cousin drowned in a freak accident on a family vacation in Mexico. It fell to my parents to drive to San Francisco and tell his grandmother and great-aunt and uncle, a fifty-mile drive that took over four hours because, as my mother later told me, they couldn’t imagine how they would break the news that the smart, lively, laughing boy who was the first in the family to be born in the United States, who held such promise, who could be president one day, was dead, and so they kept pulling over and strolling aimlessly around, then driving the next couple of exits before stalling some more. It fell to my dad to pack up a plastic bin full of Benji’s toys and carry it down to the garage, because his mother, Irina, asked to put them away when they returned. It fell to my parents to pick up Boris and Irina at the airport, to call me at UCLA, and to ask me to come home for the funeral.
When the call came, I had been reading Toni Morrison’s Sula and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales simultaneously — Sula because my roommate asked for my help with a paper and I wanted to understand what the book was about, Chaucer because I had, on the sly, signed up for the introductory sequence for English majors. Chaucer and Morrison enthralled me for different reasons — Morrison for the raw, muscular, textured prose, for her unsparing descriptions of emotions and people totally alien to me, and Chaucer for the mind-boggling marriage of narrative sleight-of-hand and ribald humor (I had been reading “The Miller’s Tale,” little suspecting that it turned on one of the great dirty jokes of Western literature, and burst out laughing in the middle of the sunken quad across from Murphy Hall) — not to mention that guttural, juicy, German-inflected Middle English. It was like two voices were whispering in my head — one in Middle English, one in 1930s African-American vernacular, but both saying the same thing: This is why you came to college. This is what you were meant to do.
After the funeral, I spent two more days at home and tried to fill the silence with stories. I recounted the clever twist piled upon clever twist at the brilliant end of the “Miller’s Tale” and told them about the part in Sula where Sula dies and at the moment of her death thinks of her best friend, Nell: “It didn’t even hurt. Wait til I tell Nell.” Maybe that’s what happened to Benji,” I said. “Maybe it didn’t even hurt.” I don’t know to what extent my storytelling made my parents feel better, but at least it filled the dead air.
Two weeks later, because we were all even more miserable apart than we were together, and because they must have intuited that I wasn’t eating, kept waking up at 4:00 a.m. unable to go back to sleep, and started chain smoking, my parents came to visit me at UCLA. They took me grocery shopping, they sat in on some of my classes, and on their last day in LA — a smoggy, warm, blurred day — we walked on the beach in Santa Monica, and my father skipped stones on the water, and then he said, “Listen, I just want to tell you something. You don’t have to be an engineer. The hell with engineering. You should study whatever you want.”
It should have felt like a victory, but it did not. It felt like a somber, bitter, complicated blessing. My father was giving me permission to go do this thing he did not fully understand, where instead of making things with circuits and motherboards and numbers, you made things with words. He was saying, go ahead and do this, even though I have no idea what the implications are (Would I teach? Spend the next twenty years trying to write a novel? Wait tables?). Do this thing that is illogical, impractical, economically unsound, the thing that makes no sense — except that it made perfect sense, it added up, and both of us knew it.