My favorite way to eat eggs is sunny side up. I take pride in frying them into two impeccable gold domes, the whites congealed perfectly beyond the mucous texture. When I dunk dry toast into warm yolk, a satisfaction spills over me; this is my comfort food. I have been making myself eggs this way for thirty years, and every single time I crack a shell on the side of my pan, and hear that sizzle, images of the conversation I had with my father three decades ago flash before my eyes.
In 1988 I was 14 years old, making eggs after school when my father came home unexpectedly. I knew what was coming but pretended I didn’t. I carried on, adding salt to my eggs, closing the toaster-oven door, cutting my rye toast into two unequal triangles. I sat down at the kitchen table, opposite my father, and used the sharp toast to rupture the yolks, forcing yellow to ooze on my white plate, a discolored lava. My face remained locked on my food, one leg getting numb under my weight. I knew what he was here to say and I refused to make eye contact. If I looked into his eyes and saw tears, I’d break down and crying was a sign of weakness and my father didn’t respect the weak. I wanted to appear mature, understanding, and sympathetic.
I don’t remember the look on his face or the exact words he came to deliver, but I’ll never forget the taste of those eggs. Rather than focus on his explanation for why he was fucking another woman (while still married to my mother), I focused on these eggs – how the yolks stared back at me, judging my every move from their perfect perch. I shoved giant pieces of egg-soaked toast into my mouth hoping the faster I chewed, the quicker the conversation would be over. I nodded along to his broken English. What did he say? The whole exchange was less than five minutes. I looked up at him; my plate was sparkling clean.
“I just want you to be happy,” I said. These are the all-American words I forced past the lump in my throat. I said my first word at nine months; “garyachiya,” Russian for “hot.” By one, my parents swear I was speaking in full Russian sentences, skipping any semblance of baby talk. I was born to orate – yet instead of unleashing my true inner monologue, my brain pulled a line from a Molly Ringwald movie or General Hospital.
What did I know? It wasn’t my responsibility to fix my parents’ marriage, but as the teenager of immigrant parents, I had spent the last decade as their translator, administrative assistant, and cultural navigator – so relationship therapist seemed a logical fit.
I didn’t think my parents had a happy marriage; at least not by American sitcom standars. Communication to my parents meant crisscrossing Russian verbal daggers through the air, thick with cigarette smoke; their only camaraderie found over the nightly shots of vodka. My father projected a personality full of confidence, charm, and charisma; traits I’ve construed as a red herring for his insecurities as a short, bald man. My mother, disinterested in analyzing my father or reading his mind, only saw a man who put her down to elevate himself. She had the type of husband who would stop mid-sentence because he caught his reflection in the glass door. “Look at how good I look for my age,” he’d point out and flex his biceps.
Before the summer of 1988, I thought my mother was a strong, modern, woman. She was a computer programmer, who earned a solid living in the eighties, and she did all the cooking, cleaning, and food shopping for both our house – and my father’s business, the donut shop. But the one thing she didn’t do was what my father wanted most: fluff his feathers by telling him he was the smartest, most handsome, funniest man in the world. No, my mother wouldn’t do that. She wasn’t one to dole out positive proclamations – of emotion, or otherwise.
So my father found someone who did.
Her name was Donna and my father hired her to be a donut finisher. She had stringy, frosted hair in a mullet, her face was covered in adult cystic acne, and her eyes were far apart in a vacant shade of blue. Her job was to glaze the donuts, fill them with cream, roll them around in toasted coconut. Instead, she rolled around with my dad.
My father skillfully hid the affair. We first met her as the ex-waitress who had fallen on hard times, kicked out of the house she shared with her ex-boyfriend. We thought my father was playing the good guy, taking on a charity case. When she had nowhere to sleep, my mother offered up our basement for two weeks while my father drove her around looking for a new apartment. My mother, the perpetual do-gooder, made Donna feel right at home. She made up a comfortable bed for her on our old, beige, corduroy sectional, using the extra-soft sheets we brought from the Soviet Union. My mother handed me a bowl of freshly washed green grapes to deliver to Donna in the basement, and I, the dutiful daughter did it with a smile.
After my mother caught my father with his dick in another woman’s mouth, it wasn’t the act of infidelity which infuriated her as much as who he did it with.
“She was hideous,” my mother repeated for years. “Nyeah peekee, nyeah seeskee, ee zjawpa koolakom,” she said, each time as if she’d thought it up anew. It was a salacious rhyme in Russian, translating to “no pussy, no tits, and her ass is a fist.”
“I’m not biased,” my mother would say, but she is without doubt, empirically ugly.” I didn’t disagree. My mother, in direct contrast, was an attractive woman, with an hourglass figure, thick black curly hair and huge dark eyes.
After her two week residence in our basement, my father successfully procured Donna an apartment three blocks from our house, on my route home from school. My father’s cherry-red pickup truck in Donna’s driveway was hard to miss. The first time I saw it, I didn’t tell my mother, but my sleuthing instincts were engaged. Without a thought to the personal ramifications of my actions, I sadistically wanted to catch my father doing the wrong thing. It was my unyielding commitment to justice; always the obedient girl, obsessed with doing the right thing. A surge of adrenaline coursed through my bones the day I came home and told my mother his truck was there AGAIN. My mother grabbed her keys, slipped on her flip-flops, and walked the three blocks to find them mid-crime. The trajectory of my family’s future was altered that fateful day – but I didn’t yet possess the maturity to consider this; I was too preoccupied with catching my father with his hand in the cookie jar.
Analysts will argue cheaters get caught because they want out of a situation. I thought this would be my father’s chance to flee; only he didn’t. Instead, his instincts kicked into apologetic defensiveness. He begged my mother to let him stay and she feigned forgiveness. In reality, she donned the cloak of an eternal victim, declaring this, the great tragedy of her life. “I will forgive him,” she told me, “but I will never ever forget.” She uttered this final statement as the postscript to every conversation she had about the affair. “I’m was too afraid to start over or live without him,” she says over and over again as if it’s a big revelation every time. Instead of confronting him with anger, she turned it inwards, igniting a slow-burning depression. Her sole strategy for finding light was vodka.
A month after the affair, my parents celebrated 15 years of marriage. For a decade afterwards, my father walked on eggshells as my mother got increasingly drunker. Instead of moving forward, my mother obsessed about the adultery. She lived in a purgatory between the sanctified memories of the life she once had and the present she couldn’t tolerate, but had inadvertently created.
By their 25th anniversary, my father had an “official” midlife crisis and abruptly closed his donut shop. He was unemployed for two years, learning how to use a computer in our basement, slowly slipping into his own depression, when a business opportunity presented itself. Two Russian investors hired him to open up and run a donut shop in Kiev (where he was born). This is where my father met Wife Number Two, thirty years his junior. Instead of Donna from the donut shop in Staten Island, it was Natasha from the donut shop in Kiev. This affair ultimately led to my parents’ divorce. My father married Natasha and now I have a half-brother 30 years my junior.
My father’s cheating had a permanent effect on me. I never trusted a man not to cheat. If my father, my first love, could betray my mother and undervalue our family unit, what man wouldn’t?
“All men cheat,” my mother regularly declares as if it Newton’s Law, not the opinion of a slighted woman. According to her, it is mandatory to over-satisfy a man with sex – in quantity and quality – so he will be faithful.
Witnessing my mother’s struggle after the affair triggered me to make a promise to myself: I would never live my life as a victim.
My father also couldn’t foresee the trajectory the affair would provoke. He didn’t contemplate the consequences of his questionable choices. His entitlement for immediate gratification; to have his itch scratched, validated to him, any potential repercussions. He didn’t know my mother would spiral into alcoholism like, a little girl drowning in quicksand.
After the day which immortalized the eggs into my memory, I was thrust into the unwelcome role of my mother’s confidante, her therapist, her best friend, her secret keeper, and ultimately, into the role which I never excelled, as her lifesaver.