by Natasha Grinberg


I surf the Internet looking at Russian mail-order brides. On most sites, the women are divided by age, their thumbnail pictures displayed in a grid, like parrots in birdcages. All look stunning. I click on Elena. Oh-la-la. She wears a red eyelet-lace bra, touching a strap with her slim manicured fingers.

I'm relieved my wife is not at home, although I'm just researching for the telephone interview. Miami-Dade News might take the material--they've published me before. If not--The Hurricane. The tape recorder is wired up and so am I.

I emigrated from Kiev, which makes me a FROTSU--Former Resident of the Soviet Union. Logically, I should be Ukrainian-American, right? But can a Jew be Ukrainian? They had wanted a country all to themselves, so in 1979 my parents finally heeded the message and left, taking me, age thirteen, with them. It seems that Ukrainians haven't fared so well and now they, too, are eager to leave, clutching at anything to help them get to the US. Hitching an American being the best bet for women.

It's all obvious to me. Toshka, my best friend, agrees; we discussed it while fishing yesterday. Most brides we heard discussed in the immigrant community only want to marry Americans to get out from under the rubble of perestroika. They'd stick with the wife business for as long as it takes to obtain American citizenship and then--bye-bye, they would be off looking for their true love or, I suspect, they'd be retrieving their true loves--their husbands or boyfriends, who have been parked like submarines with engines shut off to fool the enemy.

In a recurring nightmare I hear victims calling S.O.S. I feel compelled to warn my new American compatriots of the danger. I was an underdog most of my life before immigrating. I always root for the losing team--just as my grandfather did; so after this interview, I plan to publish several articles on the subject, hoping to make at least some of the unwitting men think twice before going to the former USSR for a bride.

I'm about to call Joe Bruno. I don't know him, but our common acquaintances told me he just came back from Kiev. They think he is a regular guy, but why had he gone to the Ukraine then? Aren't there more than enough single women here? Isn't it our patriotic duty to make our own women happy? Shouldn't Americans come first?

From the laptop screen, Elena's moist gray eyes look seductively at me. It's a mirage--she'd never consider a Jew like me if she met me in the USSR. She is twenty-five, university graduate, divorced, one child. I click on Zinaida, Yulya, Natasha. All oh-la-la though in blouses. All professing traditional family values. I wonder what it means to them.

In my family, we have a tradition of marrying young and living with the same spouse until death. I also follow in my father's footsteps in trusting my wife's taste when buying my clothes and letting her decide how to allocate our money and where to go on weekends. I love her choices.

I dial the number, introduce myself as a freelance journalist, and remind Joe that he had told Amanda and Derek he'd be willing to chat with me on condition of anonymity. Joe's voice is pleasant. He says he is fifty-eight and sounds so self-assured that he has to be tall. I ask him to describe himself.

"Six-two," Joe says. "Some say I'm an Italian Paul Newman."

I don't want to offend him right away by shouting: Have you lost your marbles? Why the hell did you go looking for trouble in the Ukraine? Haven't you heard of Chernobyl? It's right there.

"Tell me about your childhood," I say.

He hesitates. I picture him raising his brows, probably wondering why I don't ask right away about his trip. But I've learned that getting a subject frustrated with mundane questions is the best way to get him to open up. Like in this psychology experiment Toshka told me about--Toshka is a Soviet industrial engineer turned American registered nurse. If one is asked questions prompting a yes answer, the trajectory of yeses will continue even if the nature of questions changes. This has always worked for me.

"Was your family religious?" He is Italian, so it's almost a guaranteed yes.

"Oh, yeah! All Catholic." And on he goes about his parents and grandparents. How his mom stayed at home and his father was a letter-carrier and had a second job that had something to do with meat-packing. Now, I feel almost related to him. Both my parents worked at a meat-packing plant in Kiev.

Joe's wife divorced him three years ago. I heard from Amanda and Derek that she left him for a younger man. He is the principal of an elementary school. "Just love working with children, can't imagine doing anything else."

"How long were you married?"

"Fifteen years. I was completely captivated by her. I was forty at the time. . . . She was much younger. Much much younger . . ."

He wants to be asked. Okay. "So how old was she?"

"She was still in high school when we met. I wasn't her teacher or even at her school. We met at her cousin's party. She was reading the same book I was reading--Catch-22. We both loved it."

"How long did you date before marrying?"

"Just until she graduated. She was eighteen when we married. I was head over heels in love and didn't stray once while we were married."

"Did you want your wife to continue her education?"

Long pause. "Yeah. . . . But I loved her the way she was. Besides she got pregnant right away."

Okay, the guy sounds normal. Almost, besides his marrying at forty a woman half his age. But maybe he is normal and I am not, because my wife and I are the same age. Well, Joe is Joe and I'm Alex. If he loved his wife and lost her, I feel sorry for his loss. "Had you dated before going to the Ukraine?"

"Oh, yeah! I dated a gal about a year. But she lived three hours away. We'd meet every other weekend. She had two boys. I have two kids, as you know. So after a year, her brother had a man-to-man talk with me. What was I supposed to do? There were too many complications. She lived too far, and the idea of living with four boys in the same house didn't entice me. Anyway, we kind of parted ways."

"What does kind of parted mean?"

He takes a moment to answer as though I should know better. "I guess," he says, "you've been out of circulation for a while. How long have you been married?"

"Twenty years." I don't want to shock him by telling I married at twenty--it's not the American custom to marry so young.

"Any . . . Hmm . . ." He clears his throat.

"Any what?" I take a moment to understand that he might be talking about straying. "Oh no. I'm not into that kind of stuff."

"Anyway. We see each other from time to time. But . . ."

I want to go back. Something's missing. "And you married so late because . . ."

"Oh, you know. There were so many girls, why settle? Girls just love me. And when you can get it many places, why settle for one?"

"So how many girlfriends would you say you had before marrying?"

"Girlfriends? . . . Maybe three."

That doesn't seem like a lot. I had three girlfriends before marrying.

But he hesitated. Okay. "How many women have you gone out with?"

"You mean slept with?"--he helps me out. God, I am a mastodon--"Oh, I don't know." He pauses. "It's private in any event."

I keep silent. I keep silent a little more. It's the first fork in the interview road: the safe way on the left, the truth on the right. If I'm patient, regular people mistake me for the priest listening to their confession.

"Ah, I'm just a dog." He chuckles as if speaking of a baby's accidental pooh-pooh. "I'm a very active dog. Eighty, maybe a hundred. Who knows? Actually, that's not very many. If I was active since thirteen, that's twenty-seven years before I met my wife. That's fewer than four women a year. I take my words back--I was a puppy, not a real dog. But I'm very active. I love to go out, dance, have lots of sex. I'm just an active man."

"So what happened after you kind of parted ways with your girlfriend? By the way, where did you meet her?"

"In an Internet chat room. So when things didn't work out with her, I had . . . even before then . . . I kept my account--it was all paid for anyway. I was just chatting online with several nice women. Had three or four I regularly corresponded with. All very intelligent."

"So did you start dating one of them?"

"Sorry." He yells away from the telephone, "How was school, Johnny? Hungry?"

"I'm going biking." I barely hear a boy's voice in the background. "Do we have something to eat?"

"Yeah. I made fresh minestrone." Back into the telephone, "My son just came home from school. Let me close the office door."

He seems a thoughtful father--why would he want a foreign stepmom for his boys? "So who else did you date?"

"Before I went to the Ukraine?"

He places an emphasis on before, so I ask, "Were you dating someone at the time you went to the Ukraine?"

He chuckles, so I understand he did. Why did he need to go to the Ukraine then? He seemed to have had plenty of action right here. "Why seek a bride somewhere else?"

He laughs and lowers his voice as if only now he is speaking confidentially, "I think we made a huge mistake when we gave American women shoes. They're too independent. I need someone traditional."


"Yeah. I don't need this crap about who's going to wash dishes. I want someone like my parents and grandparents. Someone with traditional family values."

Okay. We're getting somewhere. While Joe babbles on about his parents again, I decide to research what the women mean by this traditional family value thing. I know it's not discussed in the Russian or Russian-American press--somehow it's not on the agenda. In the USSR--at least before I'd left--the feminists had won at the time of Lenin's revolution. One could just as easily see women doctors as women brick layers. I scan Russian Internet forums on how to compose bridal ads. Katia D. writes, "Don't neglect to mention what you want in a man even if you'd take anyone. Also, Americans prefer women with traditional family values."

Sveta M. responds, "Can someone tell me what is traditional family value?"

Katia D., "It's when a man holds the door for a woman and brings her flowers. Just put it in. They all say they're looking for it."

Okay, so that explains the messages in the women's ads.

"Yeah," Joe says, "Russian women understand and respect men."

He is telling me? "How do you know?"

"Well, most say they are looking for a man who upholds traditional family values. That's very important to me. When I first found the site, my heart began pumping like crazy.

"I saw her immediately. Drop-dead gorgeous. Blonde, blue-eyed. Full lips and . . . anyway . . . I couldn't take my eyes off her and that night--I usually don't dream--but the next morning I overslept and remembered my dream vividly: I was making love to Olga--that's her name. We were walking in Rome. I sat on a stone seat in the Coliseum and she straddled me and . . . from that moment on, I lost it. I wanted to e-mail her, but the agency has it set up so you have to write through them and pay for the e-mail address and the translation of the letter. I paid for everything.

"She answered the next day. We wrote back and forth several weeks, then I began calling her on the phone. I was completely captivated. Bought tickets to Kiev. She was going to arrive there too."

"From where? Is she Ukrainian?"

"As opposed to what?"

"Russian, Belarusian, Georgian . . ."

"Hmm . . . I don't know. I guess she was Ukrainian. She took a train from Gomel."

"That's in Belarus." Seventy miles north of Chernobyl. Directly in the path of the nuclear fallout.


I don't want to embarrass him. "You can live in Belarus and be an ethnic Ukrainian, so it's okay. What happened next?"

"I walk into the terminal and immediately see her. She is even more beautiful in person and so warm. We touch hands and it's like--we click. In the taxi, we hold hands and even . . .

"I didn't want to make her uncomfortable and rented an apartment with two bedrooms, but within minutes we were, you know . . . kissing and rolling on the bed and . . ." He pauses: another fork in the road. "Well . . . rolling on the bed and making love. It was just impossible to stay away."

"Did you understand each other?"

"More or less. She is divorced, one daughter, ten-years-old. She is a clothes designer. You can imagine how elegantly she was dressed. High heels, unending legs. We spent four days together. It was just unbelievable. I felt so young and almost like . . . high . . . like I was on something."

"So did you decide to marry her?"

He pauses and grumbles like a broken engine that can't start. "We were just getting to know each other. We had so much in common and this physical closeness was just unbelievable, you know. She had to go back to Gomel and I told her I was going back to the US." He pauses.

Is he waiting for me to question him? Okay. "Weren't you going back? Did you decide to see more of the Ukraine while you were there?"

"Actually, when the agency sold Olga's address, you can buy three addresses for almost the same price as one, so what the hell--I chose two more girls. I was paying for it already, so I just scanned the pictures. Picked ones that caught my eye and had the qualifications I was looking for. You know, family values and all that."

Of course. I tense up. "So who did you see in Odessa?"

"You're going to laugh. Her name was Olga, too. At the airport, there were so many people and I couldn't find her. But one stunning brunette kept waving at me. I thought she was a movie actress or something and she was waving to someone behind me. Finally, I pointed at myself. Yeah, she was waving at me. She dyed her hair back to her natural color. For the ad, she'd gone blonde. Everyone in the airport was staring at her. To tell the truth, I became a little scared--I've never been with someone so beautiful in my life. I tried to touch her hand in the taxi, but she pulled away. Also, she wouldn't stay with me in the apartment I rented and went home every night. I thought it was suspicious. Don't you? Like she was hiding something.

"But when she let me touch her, I thought I was touching a goddess. And I was just a mere mortal. Funny. When she comes, she makes this long high sound, like a siren in the Odyssey."

I cringe and make an effort to keep my voice even. "How many times did you make love?"

"She was a little aloof, so not as many times as with the one in Kiev. Once every day."


"Hmm . . ."

Okay. I've been out of circulation for too long. "So, did you, by chance, think this Olga was the better candidate?"

"I don't know. In any case, there was still the third one, so I told Olga I was leaving the country after four days and took a train back to Kiev to meet the third woman."

"Was the third one Russian Orthodox or Catholic?"

"Hmm . . . Are there Catholics in Russia?"

"You were in the Ukraine. Of course there are." I gather he didn't ask. "So was she nice?"

"She was, of course, beautiful, but . . ." I hear notes of satiation in his voice as if he's eaten too much cake. "She was kind of silly. She had this giggle that came at most inappropriate moments."


"Like when I entered her or when I touched her clitoris. Like she was a little girl."

I feel sorry for his priest. "What was her name and how old was she?"

"Sofia. She was thirty-two. Don't misunderstand me, she is a very nice woman and we had a grand time."

"But you didn't like her as much as the Olgas."

"I don't know. That giggle makes me wonder. So that's all my adventures. And now I'm back to my duties at school and at home. I've e-mailed all the women, but I'm worried about Sofia. She hasn't answered yet."

"Why do you worry that one of them is not answering?"

"I gave my word that I'd e-mail and I just want to make sure they know I'm a gentleman."

The doorbell rings. That must be Toshka. We are going fishing after the interview. I apologize and put Joe on hold.

Toshka's curly hair seems to bounce on his head. His eyes are sparkling with anticipation. He loves four things--fishing, writing poetry, soccer, and his wife. I might be wrong about the order. I point to the tape recorder. "I'm almost done." Press the talk button. "Joe, you were telling me . . ."

Toshka opens a shopping bag from Outdoor World and takes out several small plastic packets--the lightsticks for fishing in the dark. The packets have the shape and size of condoms, so I say almost without thinking, half-jokingly--Joe is a teacher after all, "Did you use condoms?"


In kindergarten. "In the Ukraine."

"Why? I had myself checked before I went."

I don't get his logic. His AIDS-free status would only cover the first Olga. And judging from the women's actions, they're so desperate, they'd sleep with any American who offers the hope of getting out. I suspect hopes visit them often. Toshka stares at me, his head tilting sideways. "What about the women?" I ask.

"Oh, they were fine."

"How do you know?" Do I worry more about him or the women?

"Ah, you should've been there. It's the matter of sensing it. They haven't had sex in ages. It was as though they were starved for years. Olga said--"

"The first or the second one?"

"The Olgas didn't have anyone for ten years and Sofia--"

"A hundred-year drought?"

Toshka is searching for something in my eyes. "Is everything okay?"

I am speechless. Which side am I on?

Joe waits. "I'm really a very decent guy. You've been out of circulation for too long. You don't know what's going on out there. It's a Wild Wild West. But I'm very decent, I assure you. It's just difficult to make up my mind."

Decent--decent--decent. "Will you select from this threesome or try your luck in the Ukraine again?" I ask.

S.O.S, S.O.S., I hear in my ears as I hang up. I always root for the underdogs and at this moment I wish I could get inside the web page and shield the poor Olgas and Sofias. I stare at the screen without blinking until specks begin to float in my eyes.


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