And without warning I can't breathe.
The world is choking me, the country is choking me, my furcollared overcoat is pressing down on me with intent to kill. Instead of Tony Soprano's "ginger ale in my skull" I am subject to an explosion of seltzer and rum across my horizon. On my seltzer-and-rum legs I wobble over to a new McDonald's on the nearby square still crowned with Lenin's statue, the square where my father and I used to play hide-and-seek beneath Lenin's legs. Inside the McDonald's I try to find refuge in the meaty midwestern familiarity of this place. If I am an American hence invincible please let me be invincible now! Make the panic stop, Ronald McDonald. Return to me my senses. But reality continues to slip away as I put my head down on the cold slab of a fast-food table, weak third-world children all around me dressed in party hats celebrating some turning point in little Sasha's or Masha's life.
Writing about the incident in The New Yorker in 2003, I surmised: "My panic [attack] was an off-shoot of my parents' fear twenty years ago: the fear of being refused permission to emigrate, of becoming what was then called a refusenik (a designation that brought with it a kind of jobless state-sanctioned purgatory). Part of me believed that I would not be allowed to leave Russia. That this - an endless cement square teeming with unhappy, aggressive people in awful leather jackets - would be the rest of my life."
But now I know that was not the truth. It wasn't about the visa stamp, the bribe, the refusenik status, any of it.
Because as the world spins around me at the McDonald's there's one thing I'm trying not to think about, and it's the Chesme Church nearby. Its "sugarcoated spires and crenellations." I'm trying not to be five years old again. But why not? Just look at me and my papa! We've launched something between those church spires. Yes, I'm remembering it now. It's a toy helicopter on a string, buzzing between them.
Only now it's stuck! The helicopter is stuck between the spires, but we are still happy because we are better than this, better than the country around us! This must be the happiest day of my life.
But why am I panicking? Why is the oval of Ativan disappearing beneath my fake white built-in American teeth?
What happened at the Chesme Church twenty-two years ago? I don't want to go back there. Oh, no, I do not. Whatever happened, I must not think of it. How I want to be home in New York right now. How I want to sit over my flimsy garage-sale kitchen table, press my American teeth into Mother's $1.40 Kiev-style chicken cutlet, and feel the disgusting buttery warmth all over my stupid little mouth.
The nesting doll of memory collapses into its component pieces, each leading someplace smaller and smaller, even as I get bigger and bigger.
Pyotr Petrovich Roosterovich.
Turks on the beach.
The Pyramids of Prague.
I am standing there once again in the Fulton Street Strand, holding St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, the baroque blue hues of the Smolny Convent Cathedral practically jumping off the cover. I am opening the book, for the first time, to page 90. I am turning to that page. I am turning to that page again. The thick page is turning in my hand.
What happened at the Chesme Church twenty-two years ago? No. Let us forget about that. Let us leave me in Manhattan, for now, as I turn the page at the Strand, innocent and naïve in my nine-to-five shirt, with my dickish liberal arts ponytail behind me, my novelist dreams in front of me, and my love and anger burning as crimson as ever. As my father wrote in his adventure story:
Excerpted from Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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