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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"Russian Doctors" by Elizabeth Litvitskiy - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist



"Russian Doctors"


 Elizabeth Litvitskiy



If I were more disciplined I would write a Yelp review for my mom’s primary care physician: “The Referral Queen of Crown Heights.” I had gone to see her for a rash, or more precisely an accumulation of red bumps on my upper back. Now I was due to see my third dermatologist. The first one had given me a cream, the second a biopsy. Each doctor was convinced it was acne, and was also interested in treating skin that I had not asked for help with. The Referral Queen included – she chatted in a gossipy way with my mom, right in front of, and about, my pimply face.

This time I had comealone, and for a different problem. The other people in the waiting room were all Hasidic or Orthodox women. They made me feel very aware of my knees and elbows, which I wasn’t guilty about except I thought they might judge me for not keeping them more presentable if they were to be exposed, like if you’re going to be immodest, at least be well shaven and moisturized. I liked to see them here without their men.

ThePCP spoke Russian with my mom but I thought it seemed accented; I don’t think she was Russian but I didn’t know where she was from and I always forgot which countries were actually in the Soviet Union and which ones were just behind the Iron Curtain. I told her in English about my aching left ear. When she looked inside with the corded pointy thing the cold of it felt good. She first said she couldn’t really see past the wax which was really embarrassing but she kept looking and said she could maybe see something, a pimple? Was everything wrong with me going to be acne? She couldn’t say for sure without clearing out all the earwax that she couldn’t see past, so she declared, as if convincing herself, that she was going to have to irrigate. That sounded great to me, actually, the pressure was really intense now that she’d taken the ear scope out and thrown the tip into a biohazard container, so I was looking forward to unblocking my ear and imagined a burst of water rushing out of it, maybe a fish, was it like irrigating your nose? It was taking her a minute to gear up and now I could see a referral coming as she paced around, trying to remember what went into irrigating an ear.

She found a coffee mug in a cabinet, looked at it and said, “Mug.” Like it was one of the things she would need for the minor procedure. That made sense to me, the rushing water that was blocking my ear would probably go in there, and the fish. She paced more, breathing hard, to the point that I felt more bad for her than for me, or maybe a little scared for myself, and I interrupted her on an inhale, offering: “Do you want to just write a referral?” She released the breath like she was in yoga class and looked so grateful, “I think that would be best.” Namaste.

“So true!” I thought, when I saw the Humans of New York caption. My own doctors were all identifiably Russian (or Soviet, or Iron Curtain) in that they were kind of judgy, mean, hypocritical. They all seemed rich but in the gaudy way New York Russians are, with houses on Staten Island and imported Italian fashions.

I went to an Ear Nose Throat doctor in Sheepshead Baya few days after getting my referral. I was sleeping on my left side to try to ease the pressure, which was hurting my left arm. The doctor looked a lot like the smoking doctor from Humans of New York and wasn’t that friendly, he sort of just got right to it with little announcement or fanfare. He was irrigating, which did not involve a coffee mug or rushing water and was more like an excavation,with a scrapy tool and a paper towel. At first I thought he was scraping was to be able to see better what was wrong with me, to confirm my infection, but he didn’t stop scraping for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually he broke the silence to state that I had a lot of earwax. I imagined my feet being up in stirrups and my gynecologist scraping my vagina and stating that there was a lot of wax in there. I needed to go see my gynecologist, my mom wanted me to go to as many doctors as possible this summer, with my dad’s good MTA insurance that wouldn’t work anymore when I moved. He scraped and scraped and scraped and when he was done he didn’t show me the paper towel that all the wax had gone onto like I’d hoped, like when you glance at the tissue you blow your nose in. He also didn’t write a prescription as I didn’t have an infection, I didn’t even have a pimple. Just a lot of earwax. Where my ear felt stuffed before it now seemed too empty, I could hear what sounded like the ocean but what I was sure was my brain sloshing around in its cranial liquid.I had a hard time balancing as I walked out of the office.

At home I washed my face with acne face wash and held a shell up to my right ear so it sounded like the ocean all around me. It smelled salty from my window, I could see the beach from my room, but I didn’t leave the house for the rest of the day.


My summer job was a 5 minute walk from the apartment which became a 10-15 minute walk in the peak season crowds. These subsided once I got to work; our plot of storage container food shacks and curated graffitied handball walls was tucked between Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the Thunderbolt roller coaster, and people usually thought it was closed. Our busiest day that summer was the Mermaid Parade, it was raining and windy and glittered sequined bodies were ordering fried fish by the dozens but it was taking so long that we were also issuing refunds for delays. One guy came back with a near empty container saying his fish was undercooked. My coworker Rex, the fry cook, rolled his eyes unsubtly but made a new one and then the guy came back with a near empty container again, saying it was too late and he was already feeling sick. I gave him a refund.

Even though the freak show was on the same block as my apartment I had never gone. Rex was a carnie with a lot of friends who performed in the show or worked at the freak bar, who would come by and get free food from him. I enforced the extra-tartar-sauce-costs-money rule if my boss was there or if I wanted to, like with people who complained both about the prices and that we didn’t take AmEx. Not so, for the Coney Island native in his late 70s whose girlfriend or wife looked like the prostitute from Futurama, she paced around behind him in a pink Juicy velour tracksuit while he ordered. He never gave his real name for the order, which he always mentioned as if to spark a Rumplestiltskin curiosity about his true identity. At the end of ordering he would lift his plain trucker hat to wipe sweat from his bald head and reveal the Ed Hardy-esque tiger tattoo on his forehead, which looked really fresh. When his food was ready I’d wave to him and give him an extra tartar sauce.

Rex came to work from Harlem and he was always late. One time he locked me out for hours because he alone had the key to the padlock. My boss drove over from Williamsburg in her tagged white van that matched her tattooed arms to bring the spare, she got there before Rex even woke up but didn’t fire him because she was too busy to find good help. Another time Rex messed up switching the propane tank and we almost died trying to light the fryer. He still wasn’t fired but I got promoted to manager and got a raise to $12 an hour, and fantasized about the storage container exploding all the time. I opened and closed and learned how to cook everything myself. The uniform was a crewneck so no one could see the rash on my upper back, which I thought might make people not want to eat food I made though I wore gloves. I wore a cap that covered my face well enough, though it was red and that probably didn’t help matters.


I went to see a new gynecologist. At my old one, a slideshow of Before and Afters for cosmetic procedures I didn’t even know were options played while I waited in a frontless paper hospital gown. The doctor had severe snakeskin heels and looked like the combined After of all the procedures on the slideshow. I think she was Armenian but she spoke an English and Russian combo to me. When I had asked her for birth control in college she’d asked about my boyfriend and I said I didn’t have one, to which she replied, “Then why do you need birth control?” She prescribed me Lo Lo Estrin.

The new doctor looked more like a Before picture. She spoke English and was nice about me being “sexually active.” She wanted to change my birth control prescription to a stronger one, with one “Lo” instead of two, saying it would help with the acne on my face, which I hadn’t mentioned.

I called the boyfriend I did have now when I walked home from work on weekend nights, after the fireworks. He was in Oakland and usually about to go out. I kept one hand pressed to my pocket with the tips from the day and weaved past crowds with giant plastic containers of daiquiri, past the man whose sports car’s doors opened like a beetle’s wings. It was covered in bright blue lights and blasted rap and I think was his way of making money, but I never looked long enough to feel like I had to pay him. When I got home I often wouldn’t shower even though I was drenched in sweat, fish, oil, beer batter, and soap. I’d brush my teeth and squish the microbeads of my acne wash hard onto my face.


On a day off I walked around Coney Island with my childhood best friend. We did the Nathan’s photobooth in black and white which made my acne look less prominent. We ordered hot dogs, I had never eaten there before even though I’d seen it from my window for 10 years. I got a beer too and after pouring it the cashier looked like she’d forgotten something, knelt down, and came back up with a lid and a straw for it.

A few years before, one of my first summers spent mostly at home instead of our upstate bungalow, I was watching TV after work before heading to my dad’s apartment on Brighton Beach. Dishes began to rattle in the kitchen and I saw the light fixture in the living room swing. When I didn’t feel shaking anymore I stepped outside of the apartment and tried to remember the Russian word for earthquake. Irealized it was“earth quake,” but in Russian but everyone had come into the hallway so I didn’t need to ask. I went back insideand changed in a sudden panic and ran down the 20 flights of stairs to get out of the building. I walked quickly along Surf Avenue as far as I could until I had to choose between the boardwalk and walking under the elevated train and then I froze.

Later that summer there was a hurricane that conveniently fell on a weekend so we could go upstate as usual and count that as evacuating. I was the last one home, so it was my job to make sure all the windows were closed. I did more than that. Certain the force of the wind and rain would be so strong that it would blast through the windows, I moved furniture away from them, took down pictures from the walls, and lay a standing lamp down. When we came home I had to explain that I was the reason the lamp was on the floor, not Irene. I was in college during the much worse, weekday storm and thus had a relatively wonderful Hurricane Sandy, getting to miss evacuating to my grandmother’s apartment in Bensonhurst and searching for my MIA father only to find him passed out drunk in his building’s stairwell.


I stuck my boss alone with Rex the last week of summer to move to California. I was driving with my friend, a secret from my anxious grandmother. I called her from Ohio to say I had landed in LA. The week before I left, my uncle invited me to come by his Brighton Beach office. He was a counselor for addicts though he’d been a doctor in Russia, I used to write his treatment plans for insurance for $10 a pop. He walked me past reception into his room wherehe had me sit in an armchair. We spoke, in Russian. In the hotseat I was flushed and suspicious but responded honestly that I was not nervous about: my relationship, ability to find a job, move across the country. I didn’t go so far as to say that I looked forward to not living in New York and being away from my family, since he was part of that family. Confused, heannounced that I seemed fine. After another beat he shot out of his chair and brought his bearded face close to my splotchy one and wondered aloud: “Then what is all of this about?”

In Los Angeles I lived with my boyfriend’s mom and looked for a job. I finished the third dermatologist’s prescription and took my Lo Estrin every day. I cried in a bathroom when I was alonewith nowhere to be while the housekeeper cleaned. I switched bathrooms when she needed to clean that one. I saw my boyfriend twice a month and talked to him more now that we were in the same time zone. I got a car and car insurance and a AAA card and a California driver’s license. I didn’t get health insurance and hoped I wouldn’t need it.

I looked up my old work on Yelp to make sure the guy from the Mermaid Parade still hadn’t ruined our reputation, and found a picture of myself in a red bandana dipping shrimp into egg wash.

My rash went away and my face cleared up.

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