BY NAIRA KUZMICH
One of his cousins already owns a house when we arrive in Los Angeles from Armenia in 1993. In three years, another cousin buys a place. Months later, a cousin, not to be outdone, buys one, too. When he describes his new house to my father, this cousin puts one foot in front of the other, and counts the steps it takes for him to go from one wall of our one-bedroom apartment to the other. Yes, he says. My living room is much bigger than your apartment. My mother’s brother, the one who introduces my father to coupons the first month we’re in America, buys a house in Las Vegas, where prices are lower and square footage greater. But there are things to consider. Location to my mother’s work. Location to me and my sister’s school. Location to cheap grocery stores, Chinese-run, Mexican-run, Armenian-run. High ceilings. Parquet flooring. Cost of bathroom renovation. All bathrooms must be renovated. This window looks out into somebody’s better house. You can hear the freeway. You can hear the planes. You can hear the neighbors fighting. This house has no backyard. This house is a condo. Ninety thousand dollars for a small ranch home in ’97. My sister, grandmother, and I would have to share a room, he says. Do it, I tell him. This way I can at least have a room, and not the living room convertible couch. And not my grandmother to share that couch with. Maybe my sister and I can have a bunk bed! Too expensive, he decides. We will wait. And we wait a long time. I’m in college and still dreaming on that couch of something better. My sister’s bed is made from my couch cushions, and she sleeps on the floor beside us, and I am forever jealous. I complain and whine, make my father feel guilty. I’m eighteen, I say. I’m nineteen. I’m twen—he pays almost four hundred thousand for a house in the Valley in 2008. What a deal, I tell him, clapping him on his back.
He was a shoemaker in Armenia, so there are rules. Number 1: Shoes must be made from leather. Number 2: Shoes must not be made from anything else. Most of our shoes come from ROSS—in ROSS, my father can find diamonds. Name-brand leather sneakers for fifteen dollars. Leather heels I will wear to prom and to job interviews. Leather sandals from Naturalizer and Aerosols to walk great distances in. Less than the cost of new passport photos. I’m twenty-five years old and I have never purchased shoes without my father by my side. When I bought six-inch-high red stripper heels for my 21st birthday, my father made sure they were the finest six-inch-high red stripper heels ever manufactured from leather. My calves are big, so finding boots is a challenge. He’ll pound the leather to stretch the fabric and make it fit. But his old Soviet tools are rusted. He asks old shoemaker friends and they do it for free. My father is a dignified man and gives them gold bottles of Patron Tequila in return. One time, under me and my sister’s beds, he kept twelve bottles of Patron Tequila. A freak sale somewhere. He’s not a big drinker, but all his house-owning cousins are. When they come to visit, my father takes out his many bottles from under our beds and lines the table, removes the toast from the freezer to line the cold shelves. His cousins never go thirsty, and my father never gets drunk.
He’ll give, but he won’t take. This is why we don’t go to the movies, he says. So he will never have to ask a house-owning cousin to open up his wallet. When the mortgage bill arrives, he pays it that same day, same hour, breathes a sigh of relief, shakes himself off, then goes and makes himself a sandwich.
Front yards aren’t like books, he says. Thieves judge us by our covers. A lush, green lawn means we have water to waste, money. A fence means we’ve got something to hide. Attractive shutters means we’re white Americans, and minority burglars, Chinese, Mexican, and Armenian, won’t feel guilty robbing us. Let the weeds grow unchecked. From time to time, he and my mother rip them from their roots when they grow in dangerous odd spurts, calling attention to themselves and suspicious eyes on us. A fine balance: we need to look like we live here, but we don’t live really well. The paint job on the exterior of the house a pleasant, bland, crème color. Happy?
After my uncle taught them about coupons, my father would buy the paper on the weekend, my mother snip and organize the slips in her coupon-pouch, and off shopping they would go. My mother was the one in the check-out line, handing over, in the beginning, the food stamps, and later, the coupons. My father, embarrassed, would wait at the end of the aisle, behind the bag-lady, pretending to be elsewhere, until he was needed. He never used the cart to carry the bags to the car.
Now, he lives for the circular. He has a pair of reading glasses, bought from the 99Cent store—he shares this with my mother—and he looks sophisticated in his wife-beater and tracksuit pants as he peers through them at the colorful sheets in the afternoons when his wife and children are at work, or away. He doesn’t make a list. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. From Superior, he will buy nine cucumbers for one dollar. From King Market, four pounds of oranges for two. Drive down to JONS, buy a new kind of mineral water—four liters for five. He’s never head of the brand, Polish, but how can you get mineral water wrong? Sometimes, even a VONS or Ralphs, an American grocery store, will have decent sales. He’ll stop by on his way from the immigrant-run stores just to check. He’ll peruse the “almost expired” sections. I’ll be horrified, but I’ll gulf down the creamy donuts he brings home, the Sara Lee bread that’s still fresh for a day or two. My dad will keep it fresh for two more weeks. Keep it in the freezer. Sometimes the freezer will be stuffed with enough toast to last months. We’ll buy a Panini maker during Black Friday one year. We will make so many Paninis, and we will love each bite of defrosted, reheated bread.
His favorite place is the 99Cent store. Most things there are, surprisingly, he tells me, overpriced: soaps, plates, batteries. But from time to time, usually at least once a week, there will be a fluke, some manufacturer who is unsure of his latest flavor of cookies, or his confidence in the new packaging of an old-favorite cheese is waning. Things he has purchased in hoards: mini-quiches, Quaker Oatmeal bars, Oreo brownies, Cracker Barrel cheese, Pumpkin-flavored pop-tarts, Oscar Mayer turkey bologna—half pound for a dollar! Half pound? He’ll buy five, six pounds worth. Make me a Panini, Naira. Don’t be stingy with the meat. My heart can take it.
We saw Titanic on our television screen. The first movie he went to in America was the Steve Martin, Queen Latifah vehicle Bringing Down the House. He loves The Jerk, but not enough to pay ten dollars to watch an old man make a fool of himself. The movie tickets are free, a gift from a relative. He watches it in the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and this is as close to your idea of living in Los Angeles as he will ever get. He likes Mary Hart, Nancy O’Dell, isn’t too keen on Billy Bush. His eyes trail over magazine covers at the check-out line. Sometimes he flips through them, amazed. How could anyone cheat on Halle Berry? Excuse me sir, are you going to buy that? Sorry, no, sorry. Just the bologna.
Talk about splurging! Weekly dates with my mother to Lowe’s and Home Depot. Check the prices of flower pots, flowers, trees, outdoor tile, pebbles, fountains. Hours on Sundays spent deciding will we plant oranges or lemons? Hours on Sundays spent fingering the leaves of orange and lemon trees in Lowe’s and Home Depot, bringing their noses to the blossoming fruit, and inhaling. Sometimes two, three Home Depots in one day. Maybe prices will be different in Burbank or Reseda. Where are the clearance trees, again? My father lifts square stones of various colors and sizes, some with designs—four of these squares make a circle, you see?—feeling their weight in his hands. He’ll know it when it’s right. He takes my hand and we go through the aisles, look at brick, at gravel, distressed tiles, flagstones, concrete stepping stones, look at prices. What do you like, Naira? You’re an artist. How would you design our backyard? This is your house, too. Just buy something and let’s go home, I think. The salespeople recognize us, I say. He puts those four squares on the ground and checks to make sure it forms a circle.
I leave California. I get text messages from my dutiful sister with patio furniture and possible roses. Every time I come home to visit, the backyard is prettier and prettier. When my boyfriend first comes home to visit, my father, in his earnest English, tells him in precise detail all the work that he’s put into it, and not how much it cost him. I tell my boyfriend at night that my father mixed the cement for the backyard himself. My mother helped, my sister helped, held the hose. They did it early in the morning, on weekends, before the Valley sun became unbearable. Before I left California, when I was still sleeping in my 400,000 dollar bed, I heard the sounds of their exertion reach me in my dreams. I didn’t want to wake up. My father never woke me.
He does not understand leasing. Why pay money for something and give it back years later? He does not understand the notion of a “first home.” His first two cars here are used, ancient, a Mazda, a Nissan. The Nissan is as old as me—the car I first learned to drive in—and it’s his car of choice when he goes grocery shopping. When his wife starts work, he buys a new car, Camry, pays cash. There are things he won’t risk. Old brakes, a musical engine, red lights flashing on the dashboard. He will ensure his wife’s life. When his oldest daughter wants to lease a fancy car to mark her promotion, her adulthood, he bites his tongue, goes with her to the dealer, signs on the dotted line. It’s a beautiful car, he tells me over the phone. You should see it. When I do, I’m surprised. It’s so small, I say. We can’t all fit. You okayed this? Your sister is not like you, he says. She loves cars. So do you, I remind him. I love your sister, he says.
I have too much stuff. There’s an Armenian store just two blocks away from the house, and last time he was there, he saw a large suitcase for twenty dollars. Let’s go, he says. He walks purposefully towards the back of the small room, the saleswomen— highlighted, wearing designer tops as they hawk imported clothes from China or Turkey, cheap fabric, gaudy patterns, fair prices—watch him go. He unzips and zips the blue suitcase. I’m impressed. Looks great, I say. Let’s take it. The head saleswoman comes up to him and says it costs twenty-five. My father shoots me a look. You said you wanted a red one, right? To match your other bags? I have a red one in the back, she tells him. It’s fine, I say to her, understanding. I actually prefer a duffel. We drive seven miles to a Mexican swap-meet on principle. For five dollars, I say during the drive, incredulous. You don’t understand, he says. When you live by yourself, you’ll learn that every dollar counts. And when you live with others, you’ll learn the value of good people. Nothing embarrassing about counting pennies, he says. But nothing worse than cheating others out of their own coins.
When an uncle with a lemon tree visits and brings a bag in offering, my father will open up a bottle of tequila. To the fruits of our labor, he will say. Our children. He’ll squeeze a bit of lemon into his shot and declare that there’s nothing sweeter than home, than family, than the trees that grow in one’s own backyard. When an uncle forgets to bring the lemons, my father will remind us that a cousin is a cousin, but a father is his children. He will go outside and bring home something sweeter than lemons.
It will always be worth something. Not white gold. Not diamonds. Not pearls. Gold gold. Are you sure you want pearl earrings for graduation, he asks. Gold stands the test of time. Put your money in gold. Look at me, he says. I married your mother. My mother’s maiden name is derived from the Armenian word for gold, voski. But that’s a clerical mistake made by a Russian almost seventy years ago, when her father repatriated to Soviet Armenia from Bulgaria. That letter that looks like a B is pronounced like a V. Your mother’s the one with the money, my father says when he stops working and she starts. The most valuable woman in the world, he says. The words land bitter like metal, laced with something cheap. I hold it in my hands to measure its weight. All that glitters is not gold. I place it on the ground and see what it reveals. My father, who spent his first ten years in America working the furnaces in a jewelry manufacturing plant. My father, who made gold with his hands. Who put gold on the table. Who put gold on my mother’s finger twenty-seven years ago. My father, with his bad back, his bad heart, his strong stomach. My father home all day, peering at circulars, gardening. My father, once the breadwinner, now bargain-shopping.
For the Armenian male, it’s a tangible thing, a product. Shaped by the hands of the father and the father’s father. Shaped by callused hands, heavy hands, tired hands. Shaped by hands that plowed, that butchered, that carved, that built, that needed to be washed before dinner, that needed to be washed with alcohol. For soot does not come off easily. Or blood. Before coming to America, my father was proud of his work, proud to make enough for his wife to stay at home, take care of his parents, his children. In America, in the beginning, he was proud of his work, too, making three, four dollars an hour, working long and hard enough for my mother to go to community college. Other Armenian wives went to labor alongside their husbands. My father wouldn’t allow it. Your mother’s hands are beautiful, he said. Did you know she played the violin, the piano? When the time came for my father to put his health first and stop working, my mother stepped up because she was given the tools to. Her hands would never grow callused or heavy. She’ll take written tests, pass interviews, work with the public, and assist the poor in applying for government aid. My wife, he says, helping everyone put food on the table.
MANHOOD PT II
Still, it affects a man. Just what does he do with his hands? What does a man like my father do when he can’t do what he has always done, what he has been told to do? He finds a way to keep doing it. He stretches the dollar his wife makes. He makes use of the coins found in the bottom of his pockets. He goes to the grocery store and brings home food to put on the table, and his food always tastes fresh. He learns to prefer the taste of turkey sandwiches, Paninis, over traditional stews and grilled meat, his daughters’ cooking over his mother’s. He rejects no offer of lemons. He eats the raspberries that grow in his backyard because they taste better than the ones in stores. This is what is organic: my father’s definition of manhood changing. To provide for the family means to provide wisdom, space for one to grow, to provide means knowing where things best take root and when it’s time to cut the stem and plant it elsewhere. To provide means knowing where to find the suitcase for the fairest price. A price that will make it easier to swallow the fact your youngest daughter wants to leave you. He doesn’t believe there is any wisdom in that, but he’ll keep his mouth shut, sign on the dotted line, write you a check personalized with his and his wife’s names in the corner, and he’ll leave the amount blank. Your handwriting is better than mine, he’ll say. If you ask my father now what makes a man, he will say his wife and his children. How in love with him they are.
Show me, he used to demand from me and my sister when we were children, and we would open our arms wide to show just how much. But now we don’t embrace emptiness, a figure missing in our lives for eleven, twelve hours a day, every day. We touch something better than air. Something tangible, too. Golden.
My father, the gardener, the grafter. The provider and caretaker, the car ride to the airport when his youngest daughter wants to go or to come back—all this in one package. What a deal, I say. What a bargain.