When my parents and I came to America, our first apartment was a studio.
I don’t know if people outside of New York City know from a studio, but it is a one-room apartment. Not a one bedroom. A one room. We had a bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area that fit a table, snugly, and a room. I slept on one side of the room and my parents’ bed was on the other. No doors separated the dining area from the sleeping area, but we did put up some bookshelves.
If that wasn’t enough, on my 10th birthday, my parents got me a dog. A Basset Hound. His name was Barbos. Because, I’m guessing, they couldn’t get a goat.
During the day, I attended an Yeshiva, where I studied Hebrew and The Old Testament. I had friends who were fascinated with my flight from the Soviet Union, with my immigrant status, and who may have, with some mild encouragement from me, confused me with Anne Frank.
“The Communist Party was very bad to my family,” I told them over lunch. “It is now too painful to say more.”
I was invited into my friends’ homes after school to play in their sunny living rooms, to do my homework in their bedrooms that they did not share with their siblings, to say nothing of their parents, to eat in their dining rooms, with formal settings.
Their homes were giant in comparison to our studio but I didn’t even think to be jealous. Because I loved being home, in the tiny apartment, with my parents and Barbos. I was comfortable.
And then one day in January, Lisa, the bravest of the girls asked if she could come over to my house, to see where I lived.
“It’s not big,” I said, trying to think on my feet, forgetting that I wasn’t good at that kind of thing. It was unthinkable that she and I would do our homework on the dining room table while my mother cooked in the kitchen. Only to have dinner on that very same table.
Would we then move to the other room and do our homework on the floor–between my parents’ bed and my own?
I knew that we lived differently, and although I loved our apartment and my family, I didn’t want anyone else to see it.
“I don’t care,” Lisa said. “I want to see it.”
I invited Lisa over.
She came in and looked around.
“I told you it was small,” I apologized.
“It’s okay,” she said and smiled. I’m pretty sure that this was the tiniest place she had ever visited.
And then she froze.
Because between my parents’ bed and my own, stood the New Year’s Tree. Which in America is known as a Christmas tree.
It’s interesting to think about what Lisa, a devout student at the Yeshiva, with a gold Star of David dangling from her neck, must have thought on seeing what is widely considered a tribute to Jesus Christ in our livingroom. Bedroom. Livingbedroom.
I did some fast broken-English talking, explaining that in Russia the New Year’s tree is put up to celebrate the New Year and not to commemorate any religious occasion, but it was too late.
Because sometimes a cigar is so much more than a cigar.
And this one dwarfed whatever anxiety I may have had about our tiny studio.