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Desert Companion

American cheese: An excerpt from Oksana Marafioti's "American Gypsy: A memoir"

American CheeseAn excerpt from Oksana Marafioti’s upcoming book, “American Gypsy: A memoir”

Las Vegas is a city of transplants, but Oksana Marafioti’s transplant story is unique. She is a Roma who emigrated from the Soviet Union to America when she was 15. And the part of America she arrived in wasn’t your typical slice of apple pie and baseball: In tow with her family of performers, she landed in Las Vegas. Today, she finds a welcoming home here — particularly valuable to Roma people, who still face entrenched stereotypes that paint them as untrustworthy wanderers, thieves and mystics — summed up in the racial slur, “gypsy.”

“I’ve found complete acceptance in Las Vegas,” Marafioti says. Oddly, that acceptance is because of the relative rootlessness of Southern Nevadans, she explains. “The people who move here, I’ve discovered, are gutsy people who want to start a new life. People here have this huge reserve of nerve that few people have. Home really is in the people you meet, not necessarily in the places you go.”

Her book, “American Gypsy: A Memoir,” is being published this month by FSG Originals. She reads from and discusses her book 2 p.m. July 14 at the Clark County Library. The event also features dancing and live music.

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                                                — Andrew Kiraly


The woman on the other side of the desk scribbled in her files. I studied her with interest: perfectly manicured nails, killer perm, and a beige pantsuit with the American embassy ID clipped to the left breast pocket. She warmed us now and then with one of those smiles that make you want to ask its owner to be your child’s godparent even if you’ve only just met. She didn’t look like someone who held the fate of my family in her hands.

Before the interview that morning, Mom had instructed Dad not to speak, for two reasons. First, he couldn’t complete a sentence without swearing. And second, but more important, he always said the wrong thing.

The woman looked up from her paperwork. In a version of Russian that made me feel like I was teetering on a balance beam along with her, she said, “Mr. Kopylenko, tell why you want exist in United States?”

I stared at Dad’s fedora, thankful that at least he’d given up his earrings for a day. Mom tightened her grip on her purse, and my eight-year-old sister, Roxy, stopped swinging her legs.

Dad straightened, cleared his throat, and said in equally precarious English, “I want play with B.B. King. I great Gypsy musician and he like me. When he hear me play, we be rich. Here, I great musician, but nobody know. We live in 1980s, but feel like 1880s. Russian peoples only like factory and tractor. I no drive tractor. I play guitar. Her name Aphroditta. Also.” He lifted his index finger to stress the importance of what was coming next. “I super-good healer. I heal peoples. If you have hemorrhoid, I fix. I take tumor with bare hands. In Russia, I not free. I go to jail, you understand?”

I was mortified, my eyes jumping between Dad, the awfully quiet American, and my mom, who’d plastered on a smile like a fresh Band-Aid.

“We want our girls to have a better future,” Mom said in Russian, after recouping from the awkward pause.

Years of managing a Roma performing ensemble had taught my mother the schmooze side of business. She closed many impossible deals over black caviar and bottles of Armenian cognac, items she couldn’t bring to our interview, though not for lack of trying. That day, November 18, 1989, Mom had put on a periwinkle wool dress, a fox-fur coat — we had waited in line outside the embassy for three hours — a pair of Swedish-made boots, and not a flicker of jewelry except for her wedding band. She’d made sure none of us looked too rich or too poor; it was important to appear like the average Soviet family. This was tricky, since, as far as Americans knew, the USSR did not have a middle class and was not supposed to have an upper class, which we happened to belong to.

Thankfully Dad had kept quiet, and the American asked only Mom questions from that point on. Soon the two women were swapping locations of the best butcher shops in town. “On Wednesdays, go to Komsomolskaya Ploshad. Ask for Borya. Tell him I sent you,” Mom said, voice low as if the room were full of strangers waiting to snatch her secret.

[HEAR MORE:   Oksana Marafioti talks about her memoir on "KNPR's State of Nevada".]

HandIt still felt then as if we were bargaining like prisoners caught between an unfair sentence and a pardon, but I could hear that freedom. In my ears, bells were ringing, that huge music they belted out from the towers of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.

The woman flipped the pages of our file and addressed my mother in measured Russian: “I’d read here that you drink?” She lifted an arm to her lips and curled her fingers around an imaginary bottle. And a needle scratched across my soundtrack, exactly the way you hear it in movies.

The four of us halted like toys unwound.

Mom drank often. This was after Dad had nearly died of alcohol poisoning and renounced booze as the religion of choice, and before Mom started drinking every day. But what if Americans didn’t drink? Ever. I hadn’t considered that possibility.

With a look of complete mortification the woman said, “Oh goodness. Sometimes my pronunciation is bad. You sing, right? You singer.”

All the Kopylenkos in the room showed signs of life for the first time in at least fifteen seconds.

“Yes, yes, I do!” Mom laughed and we joined in, somewhat maniacally as I recall. In Russian, “drink” and “sing” are a letter apart.

Once we had our permission my parents didn’t waste time packing. In their desperation to leave they didn’t pause to consider the difficulties they might encounter across the ocean. They just knew that everything would be better in America.

The days leading up to our departure seesawed between too much activity and too little sleep. “We’re finally getting out of this hellhole,” Dad told anyone willing to listen. He practiced his guitar with frenzied dedication, for that fantasy meeting with his hero, B.B. King. It never crossed his mind that maybe he couldn’t walk up to any old music legend and dazzle him with killer technique.

Mom sold or gave away most of our valuables because Soviet customs employees weren’t shy about confiscating anything that turned a profit on the black market. Even our house had to go. According to Soviet law, we had to surrender all real estate before emigrating.

“We’ll buy a mansion in Los Angeles,” Mom assured everyone who called to ask after her mental health. “And for dirt cheap.”


Dad left a number of albums with his sister, Laura, for safekeeping. Featuring my grandparents’ beautiful voices, they were produced during the height of Roma popularity with the Russian public and signified an irreplaceable legacy. He wrapped them with painstaking care in soft towels, laying them inside a small wooden chest. “It’s only for now,” he had told his sister. “I made copies on these tapes in case you want to listen to them. The needle scratches on that damn record player.”

My eight-year-old sister bragged to all her friends about the move. She had recently developed a crush on George Michael and had been making plans of her own, which included locating, ensnaring, and eventually marrying the pop star.

I spent most of those last days in an emotional limbo, uncertain of how I felt about the impending metamorphosis. Petrified to part with the comfort of familiarity, I still couldn’t deny my excitement at living in a place most of the world believed to be paradise. A few years back, a drummer from our ensemble had taken a trip to Las Vegas. When he came back, his eyes were as lit up as the fabled Sin City billboards.

“You get free soap in all the hotel rooms,” Vova had exclaimed in our kitchen. My parents, along with a few musician friends who came to hear about the States, wrapped their ears around Vova’s stories. Sometimes, like in the case of the free-soap claim, they would burst into a debate. “I don’t believe it,” somebody said. “Why should anyone need free soap in Vegas?” Another added, “To wash their ass with, after they shit all the money away.”

Roxy and I had lurked in the corners of the kitchen that night, trying to stay undetected. But when Vova produced a piece of something yellow covered in filmy plastic, we forgot about the threat of bedtime.

“What is that?” Roxy asked.

“This” — Vova held the delicate sheet between his forefinger and thumb — “is American cheese.”

Our cheese came in thick blocks, so heavy they could kill a man. Even when sliced, it never turned out so thin.

My father, always the smart-ass, interrupted the momentary glorification of the cheese. “Are the Americans rationing food? I thought the war was over.”

“No, man,” Vova said. “It’s like this on purpose. You put it between two slices of bread and cook it on a skillet until the cheese melts.”

“What about the plastic?” I asked.

“Here.” Vova placed the cheese into my palm. “You pull this edge up and remove the wrapper.”

A collective “Oh” went around the kitchen.

My father shook his head, still unimpressed. He turned to Mom and said, “See? I told you. Anybody can become rich in America.”

But all I thought was, my God — singly wrapped cheese; so exotic, so needlessly luxurious. As Vova continued to list the marvels of everyday American life, I couldn’t help but daydream of what living there would be like. 

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