Two days after Lulu’s Bat Mitzvah, we left for Russia. It was a vacation I’d dreamed of for a long time. My parents had raved about St. Petersburg when I was a girl, and Jed and I wanted to take the girls somewhere we’d never visited ourselves.
We needed a vacation. Katrin had just passed through the worst danger zone of acute graft-versus-host disease. We’d basically gone ten months without a day’s break. Our first stop was Moscow. Jed had found us a convenient hotel right in the center of the city. After a short rest, we headed out for our first taste of Russia.
I tried to be goofy and easygoing, the mood my girls most like me in, refraining as best I could from making my usual critical remarks about what they were wearing or how many times they said “like.” But there was something ill-fated about that day. It took us more than an hour standing in two different lines to change money at a place that called itself a bank, and after that the museum we wanted to visit was closed.
We decided to go to Red Square, which was within walking distance of our hotel. The sheer size of the square was overwhelming. Three football fields could have fit between the gate we entered and the onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral at the other end. This is not a chic or charming square like the ones in Italy, I thought to myself. It’s a square designed to intimidate, and I envisioned firing squads and battalions of Stalinist guards.
Lulu and Sophia kept sniping at each other, which irritated me. Actually, what really irritated me was that they were all grown up—teenagers my size (in Sophia’s case, three inches taller), instead of cute little girls. “It goes so fast,” older friends had always said wistfully. “Before you know it, your children will be grown and gone, and you’ll be old even though you feel just like the same person you were when you were young.” I never believed my friends when they said that, because it seemed to me they were old. By squeezing out so much from every moment of every day, perhaps I imagined that I was buying myself more time. As a purely mathematical fact, people who sleep less live more.
“That’s Lenin’s Tomb behind the long white wall,” Jed told the girls, pointing. “His body is embalmed and on display. We can go see it tomorrow.” Jed then gave the girls a short tutorial on Russian history and cold war politics.
After roaming around for a bit—we encountered surprisingly few Americans, and far more Chinese, who seemed utterly indifferent to us—we sat down at an outdoor café. It was attached to the famous GUM shopping mall, which is housed in a palatial, arcade lined nineteenth-century building that takes up almost the entire east side of Red Square, directly across from the fortress like Kremlin.
We decided to get blinis and caviar, a fun way to start off our first evening in Moscow, Jed and I thought. But when the caviar arrived—thirty U.S. dollars for a tiny receptacle—Lulu said, “Eww, gross,” and wouldn’t try it.
“Sophia, don’t take so much; leave some for the rest of us,” I snapped, then turned to my other daughter. “Lulu, you sound like an uncultured savage. Try the caviar. You can put a lot of sour cream on it.”
“That’s even worse,” Lulu said, and she made a shuddering gesture. “And don’t call me a savage.”
“Don’t wreck the vacation for everyone, Lulu.”
“You’re the one wrecking it.”
I pushed the caviar toward Lulu. I ordered her to try one egg—one single egg.
“Why?” Lulu asked defiantly. “Why do you care so much? You can’t force me to eat something.”
I felt my temper rising. Could I not get Lulu to do even one tiny thing? “You’re behaving like a juvenile delinquent. Try one egg now.”
“I don’t want to,” said Lulu.
“Do it now, Lulu.”
“Amy,” Jed began diplomatically, “everyone’s tired. Why don’t we just—”
I broke in, “Do you know how sad and ashamed my parents would be if they saw this, Lulu—you publicly disobeying me? With that look on your face? You’re only hurting yourself. We’re in Russia, and you refuse to try caviar! You’re like a barbarian. And in case you think you’re a big rebel, you are completely ordinary . There is nothing more typical, more predictable, more common and low, than an American teenager who won’t try things.You’re boring, Lulu—boring.”
“Shut up,” said Lulu angrily.
“Don’t you dare say shut up to me. I’m your mother.” I hissed this, but still a few guests glanced over. “Stop trying to act tough to impress Sophia.”
“I hate you! I HATE YOU.” This, from Lulu, was not in a hiss. It was an all-out shout at the top of her lungs. Now the entire café was staring at us.
“You don’t love me,” Lulu spat out. “You think you do, but you don’t. You just make me feel bad about myself every second. You’ve wrecked my life. I can’t stand to be around you. Is that what you want?”
A lump rose in my throat. Lulu saw it, but she went on. “You’re a terrible mother. You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. What—you can’t believe how ungrateful I am? After all you’ve done for me? Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.”
She’s just like me, I thought, compulsively cruel. “You are a terrible daughter,” I said aloud.
“I know—I’m not what you want—I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin. I HATE my life. I HATE you, and I HATE this family! I’m going to take this glass and smash it!”
“Do it,” I dared.
Lulu grabbed a glass from the table and threw it on the ground. Water and shards went flying, and some guests gasped. I felt all eyes upon us, a grotesque spectacle.
I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids. Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.
Lulu was trembling with rage, and there were tears in her eyes. “I’ll smash more if you don’t leave me alone,” she cried.
I got up and ran. I ran as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going, a crazy forty-six-year-old woman sprinting in sandals and crying. I ran past Lenin’s mausoleum and past some guards with guns who I thought might shoot me.
Then I stopped. I had come to the end of Red Square. There was nowhere to go.