[Igor/Gary's progress to becoming fully Amerikanskiy is the major subject of the book, Little Failure, revealing that this on-going transmutation is still not quite complete. However, the change was well along by the time Gary reached fourteen, as reported in this excerpt.]
"When I turn fourteen, I lose my Russian accent. I can, in theory, walk up to a girl and the words "Oh, hi there" would not sound like Okht Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician. There are three things I want to do in my new incarnation: go to Florida, where I understand that our nation's best and brightest had built themselves a sandy, vice-filled paradise; have a girl tell me that she likes me in some way; and eat all my meals at McDonalds. I do not have the pleasure of eating at McDonald's often. Mama and Papa think that going to restaurants and buying clothes not sold by weight on Orchard Street [note: meaning from a street vendor's pushcart] are things done only by the very wealthy or the very profligate. Even my parents, however, as uncritically in love with America as only immigrants can be, cannot resist the iconic pull of Florida, the call of the beach and the Mouse.
And so, in the midst of my Hebrew-school vacation, two Russian families cram into a large used sedan and take I-95 down to the Sunshine state. The other family - - - three members in all - - - mirrors our own, except that their single offspring is a girl, and they are, on the whole, more ample; by contrast, my entire family weighs three hundred pounds. There's a picture of us beneath the monorail at EPCOT Center, each of us trying out a different smile to express the deja-vu feeling of standing squarely in our new country's greatest attraction. . . . The Disney tickets are a freebie, for which we had to sit through a sales pitch for an Orlando time-share. "You're from Moscow?" the time-share salesman asks, appraising the polyester cut of my father's jib.
"Let me guess. Mechanical engineer?"
"Yes, mechanical engineer. Eh, please, Disney tickets now."
The ride over the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach is my real naturalization ceremony. I want all of it - - - the palm trees, the yachts bobbing beside the hard-currency mansions, the concrete-and-glass condominiums preening at their own reflections in the azure pool water below, the implicit availability of relations with amoral women. I can see myself on a balcony eating a Big Mac, casually throwing fries over my shoulder into the sea-salted air. But I will have to wait. The hotel reserved by my parents' friends features army cots instead of beds and a half-foot-long cockroach evolved enough to wave what looks like a fist at us. Scared out of Miami Beach, we decamp for Fort Lauderdale, where a Yugoslav woman shelters us in a faded motel, beach adjacent and featuring free UHF reception. We always seem to be at the margins of places...
To my parents and their friends, the Yugoslav motel is an unquestioned paradise, a lucky coda to a set of different lives. My father lies magnificently beneath the sun in his red-and-black-striped imitation Speedo while I stalk down the beach, past baking midwestern girls. ... Oh, hi there. The words, perfectly American, not a birthright but an acquisition, perch between my lips, but to walk up to one of these girls and say something so casual requires a deep rootedness in the hot sand beneath me, a historical presence thicker than the green card embossed with my thumbprint and freckled face. Back at the motel, the Star Trek reruns loop endlessly on channel 73 or 31 or some other prime number, the washed-out technicolor planets more familiar to me than our own."