I have a permanent sensory file labeled “that staircase on Devon Avenue.” Even Chicago’s cockroaches knew to keep their distance. But I didn’t have that liberty. The steps were lined with a thinning carpet, the green of a once-cheerful Christmas tree, its paisley pattern a cluster of deformed teardrops. Aesthetics aside, the carpet had absorbed every odor that’s graced the stairway since the day it was laid down in the 70s, back when my parents were still living in the Soviet Republic of Shortages and Propaganda. The narrow and unventilated space smelled like human must, faintly masked by the chemical tinge of failed attempts at cleaning it. 12 years later, the stench is still firmly and accurately lodged in my mind. I dreaded the thought of laboring up that narrow staircase, too small for a child in a puffy winter coat—it’s an unsolved mystery that the very rotund Mira Petrovna made her way up without getting stuck. Each Saturday between the 4th and 7th grade, I took one breath at the bottom of the stairs and did not—for the love of God—exhale until I was all the way up and safe. Safe was a relative term.
Mira was an archetypal Soviet woman. She was also my math tutor. Her disciplinary style was forged in the classrooms of a hard-nosed Soviet system, and her roundness was inherited from the motherland’s exclusively carb- and starch-bound diet, all bread and potatoes. She was as compassionate as winter in a post-War gulag, governing our meetings with the iron fists of a mustachioed dictator: “That’s not how it works!” she’d shout in Russian as she ripped the pencil from my hand and stabbed out the equations. Every Saturday morning was a two-hour sentence that, for a prepubescent, was not much different than the barbed wire-enclosed wooden prison in Siberia that I heard too many horror stories about. Her preferred form of torture was an intense experimental mental drubbing— algebra.
I was not seeing Mira because I was falling behind; quite the contrary. As most kids with immigrant parents can attest, I was there to excel at math in order to show up my American classmates. My mom worked overtime to cover the twenty-dollar weekly fee. It was a lot of money for a family that shopped at Aldi. The tutoring—or preparation for mathematic genius, as my mom saw it—paid off. I could work out inverse functions and do some complicated stuff with circles. My public school curriculum was at least four years behind. But the motivation to out-math my Midwest-born classmates did not make Mira Petrovna and her breath of cured meats any more bearable. I hated going there.
There were only three ways out. The easiest and most frequently used option was to fake a serious illness. Many Saturday mornings were spent with stomachaches, debilitating migraines, and puppy lips, always followed by a swift midday recovery. A second and more long-term option was to move on to calculus, which was taught by Yuri, Mira’s benevolent yet equally stern husband. The third option would involve a phone call to my mother from the local morgue.
Quitting was not an option. I dreaded seeing Mira, but agonized even more over letting down my mamochka. I loved my mom—how could I possibly not go, or even entertain the thought? She always invested in my schooling and even took the blame for my affinity to tardiness; school administrators thought she could not work the American alarm clock. Polishing my elbows on the sandpaper-like plywood that Mira called a desk—that was a testament to my love for my mom…or perhaps fear of letting her down. Breathing the poisonous air trapped in that carpet was a small price to pay to show my mom that I appreciated what she did for me. But every time a piece of bologna sandwich flew out of Mira’s mouth and onto my notebook, I questioned that commitment. I hated spending my Saturday mornings challenged to think. I was envious of my classmates who were watching cartoons or playing basketball on the uneven pavement of our back alley, even if they were mathematically behind.
I remember the day we captured that son of a bitch Saddam well! I was hyped up on acquired patriotism that I did not understand. But that glorious swing by the American hammer of justice was only the second best thing to happen that day. After months of deliberation, I finally braved up to ask my mom to quit. In the kitchen, she was stuffing chunks of beef through a meat-grinder.
“Mama…” I began.
“What?” She asked, turning at me, but skillfully continuing to push the meat through the filling tray.
After a painfully long pause, I asked the most important question I would ask as a teen: “Can I please stop going to Mira’s?”
“Sure,” she said unflinchingly and went back to turning the hand crank.
I was caught off-guard with her response. Was her decision genuine or forced? Was her reply one of disappointment or indifference? Did my mom regret paying for my tutoring all those years? What was she thinking? I agonized again over my decision to quit Mira.
It’s strange that what we put ourselves through for love and because of love are seldom the same. Only years later, when I was deciding which fraction of my granola bar to save for dinner, or whether it was worth paying the extra forty dollars to fly home versus taking a train, did I finally understand my mom’s reaction as she was churning out ground beef. She was relieved to save the weekly tutoring fee: our rent was on the rise, the Laundromat started to charge two dollars per load, and the quarters in the vacation jar slowly disappeared.
My sister kept growing through sneakers and sweaters. Aldi’s bills kept growing into a melting pot of Wonder Bread and borscht. My parent’s paychecks never grew. They always stayed the same.
Filipp Velgach accidentally stumbled into writing, just like he stumbled into film-making and teaching. He could never hold a hobby or an interest and went where the wise winds took him. Trusting his intuition and seldom following logic his life has been challenge-filled but rewarding. Filipp now teaches social studies in Chicago, his hometown, and makes wood furniture from things found in trash bins and at thrift stores (a hobby he’s sure to give up on in the coming months).