The new boy, Ilya, sat at the very back of the eighth-grade classroom, and as I stood near the blackboard telling my old Russian classmates about my strange new life in America, I could feel his presence—a black hole sucking me in from the back of the fluorescently white room.

It was the fall of 1996 and my first time returning to Moscow after immigrating to San Francisco a year earlier. My mother and stepfather had won a green card in a lottery, and when they had packed everything from books to bath towels into sarcophagal crates, the whole thing seemed so final that I was certain I would never see my beloved Russia again. Now that I was miraculously back here, staying with my father for two weeks, I spent almost every afternoon at school with my classmates. The twenty of us had been together since we were six-year-old tadpoles, and they—Natasha, Liza, Dima, and the rest of the gang—were my closest friends in all the world. Not a day had gone by as I sat bored and numb in my middle-school ESL class in foggy San Francisco that I hadn’t dreamt about returning to resume my real life back in Moscow once I was eighteen and free to choose.

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