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Where the Streets Are Paved with EZ Cheese

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On her first day in America, Galina Reznikov tucked a crisp twenty dollar bill into her bra and took the bus to D’Agostino’s on Eighty-Third and Lexington.

Dmitri had grumbled about everything: their suitcases were barely unpacked, they had no toilet paper, what would he eat for lunch if she left, and of course, the money stuck in her left bra cup.

“What you put money in there for?” he asked. “You got a purse.” He kicked her old brown handbag with his toe.

“This is America. There are thieves.” Her cousin Valentina had warned her about the teenagers who roamed the subway, slipping their fingers into pockets and purses. Galina was no fool; she knew she didn’t belong, but she didn’t have to be an easy mark.

“Well, how will you get to this-- this-- “

“D’Agostino’s,” Galina said. The word tripped off her tongue; she’d been practicing it almost since they’d bought the tickets six months ago. “And I’ll take the bus.”

She waved away Dmitri’s complaints about her halting English. She had a dictionary in her bag.

“You know there is a supermarket on the corner,” Dmitri said as she wound her scarf around her neck. Galina didn’t actually spit on the floor, but it was close.

“That is no supermarket. That is a bodega.” She knew the difference, and what she wanted was an American grocery store. Fuck Disneyland. Fuck the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. She wanted rows of polished apples, gleaming tomatoes, and bread you didn’t have to stand in line for.

She kissed Dmitri on the forehead and buttoned her coat. “Are you scared of your wife going out into big, bad America?” she asked. She patted his hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.”

***

Soon meant five and a half hours. She sat in a blue plastic seat at the front of the bus. For the first six stops, she was too afraid to do anything but peer at her dictionary and mouth the words is this Eighty-third and Lexington? At the seventh stop, she clenched her fingers around the strap of her purse, took a deep breath and asked the driver for the name of the street. She didn’t understand the answer, but she supposed that meant it wasn’t her stop.

At every stop, she leaned over and asked again: “Is this Eighty-third and Lexington?”

At first, the driver, who was fat and bald and had a mustache, contented himself with a simple no. After her fifth question, he turned and frowned.

“This is Brooklyn, lady. You wanna go all the way to Manhattan, it’s gonna be awhile, okay?”

Galina nodded even though she hadn’t understood any of the words except lady, and the driver had made it sound like an insult. A part of her wanted to get off, catch the bus back to the dingy apartment, and tell Dmitri he’d been right, but Galina didn’t give up so easily. And sure enough, in a few more minutes, the streets turned into a neat grid, each with its own number. Now she could tell for herself where to get off.

***

She stood in the doorway of D’Agostino’s until someone shoved her backside with a cart. Rude, she thought, but the offender was already cruising away, oblivious to her presence. She wanted to call out to him and demand an apology, but she didn’t know the words. Instead she picked up a red plastic basket and walked toward the gleaming tower of tomatoes at the front of the store, rubbing the sore spot on her bottom as she went.

Even in December, the shelves were filled with cantaloupe and pineapples and bananas. No ration tickets, no lines, no limits on what one person could buy. She inspected the tomatoes one by one, holding them up to the light, seeking out the best for her first meal in America.

Finally a clerk said, “Can I help you with something, ma’am?”

“No, no,” Galina muttered, tossing three tomatoes into her basket. She recognized the words, but the way the clerk spoke them made her feel like she’d done something wrong. She left the produce aisle hastily and bumped into a table where a woman in a white apron was passing out crackers covered with a thick squiggle of yellow topping.

“Would you like to try some EZ Cheese?” the woman asked, smiling brightly.

Galina smiled back hesitantly. Was she expected to answer? Did she need to haggle over the price? But the woman pushed the cracker into Galina’s hand, and Galina took a bite. It seemed like the polite thing to do. The cracker tasted like dust, and the yellow squiggle on top tasted like, well, it was difficult to say. It didn’t taste like food.

Galina picked up one of the tall, thin cans from the table.

“E-Z-Cheese,” she muttered to herself. She knew both words, but they didn’t make sense together. Was cheese in America normally difficult?

The woman popped the blue plastic lid off the can and squirted another stream of yellow goo onto a cracker.

“See, you can put it on crackers, broccoli, pretzels, hot dogs…” she said, handing the can back to Galina.

“Hot dogs?” Galina asked, seizing the familiar phrase.

“Yes, hot dogs!” The woman’s smile was unnatural.

Galina shoved the can of cheese into her basket just to get away. If this was what Americans ate, well… she was an American now, right?. She loaded the basket with weiners and ketchup and buns. For good measure, she picked up a bottle of Coke and a tube of biscuits, which seemed to be a kind bread in a can.

***

The hot dog buns were strangely sweet and clung to the roofs of their mouths.

Dmitri chewed his hot dog warily. “This tastes like it’s made from a horse's asshole,” he said.

Galina bristled. “You are the horse’s asshole,” she snapped, even though she privately agreed with him. She studied the squiggle of EZ-Cheese she’d piped along the top of the hot dog and decided to give up the pretense of liking the food. “This cheese is going to give us cancer," she said.

Dmitri lifted his hot dog into the air in a mock toast. "To America!" he intoned solemnly.

"Indeed," Galina murmurred. She ought to have felt defeated: after all, she'd traveled five hours to buy soggy bread, weenies that tasted like a horse's hindparts, and carcinogenic cheese. Instead, she was dreaming of opening a restaurant. Americans would pay good money for decent food. In the morning, she'd tell Dmitri about her plan. He would laugh at her, and she'd pretend to be cowed -- but they'd both know that she was already planning how to get her way. Galina Reznikov might have been new to America, but she knew an opportunity when she saw one.