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The time I got my head stuck in a balcony
My whole life summed up in one story of love, loss, and laughter
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My therapist says that your first memory contains your entire life story.
She also says I need to stop quoting her to start my essays and focus on ‘my healing’ but honestly that’s neither here nor is it there so let’s continue.
My first memory
My first memory is when I, little five year old Sasha Shuralmashka1 in Odessa Ukraine, got my head stuck in a balcony.
My parents, somehow age 26 and 28 with a five year old child, were both working full time AND going to school, which meant I was often with my grandparents Nona and Vova or Emma and Alik. And yes I did call them by their first names because I was a precocious lil child who liked to BE DIFFERENT.
It starts with a fight
On this fine Soviet day that I can only imagine was cold and angry, I was at Nona and Vova's place.
I loved being there because there were other kids to play with - we'd usually all get together in the shared inner courtyard of the U shaped apartment building and, though I have no memory of what we actually did, I know it was very, very fun.
But on this day, no one could play. Vova was out and Nona was watching something on TV. Which left me - an only, lonely child - shit out of luck.
I tried to hang out with Nona but she was really into her show so I tried to change the channel to watch something I liked but she wouldn't let me.
So yea I guess you could say I was the maddest I had ever been.
I wanted to make sure Nona understood that my little five year old body could not contain the anger coursing through it, so I decided to storm out of the apartment and out to the balcony.
Now outside on the balcony, still fuming, I was…at a loss. I had assumed Nona would say "Sasha stop, come back and watch whatever you want on TV" but weirdly she didn't?
So I did what I always did when I got bored or pensive or angry: I stuck my lil head in between two of the iron wrought bars of Nona and Vova's balcony.
Now before you judge this insane decision let me just say - this was NOT a big deal. Basically every day I went to Nona and Vova's I would stick my head in the balcony and every day I would wriggle my head back out of the balcony. Easy peasy, the lemons, make em extra squeezy.
NOTE: We can already see many characteristics in young Sasha that will stay with him for life as an overly sensitive only child who acts out in low level dangerous ways to make sure everyone around him KNOWS that he is FEELING THINGS. Also present is the need to push boundaries as a way to feel something like a thrill or sense of control without, ideally, getting caught.
Except today the boundaries pushed back. Today the boundaries grabbed me with their cold, metal bars and said no, you're not going anywhere.
You see today was the day my head went in and did not come out.
Probably not a big deal
I wasn't worried at first. Sometimes, especially lately, getting my head back out of the balcony had become a whole to-do - there was squirming and twisting and brute force galore, all of which I did to no avail.
I was like, actually, stuck.
I started to panic and cry for help. Nona, ever the kind diplomat, immediately came out to my rescue (oh so you had to watch TV but now that I’m in danger you’re cool to stop?? guess the show wasn’t that important was it?).
Nona tries to help me wriggle out, but nothing works.
A few minutes later and I’m still stuck and full on freaking out - screaming and crying and whining and thrashing and flailing and squirming and, what's this?
I look down to the courtyard and, yes, that a crowd has formed.
There, looking up with their worried, undivided attention, were the parents and grandparents of the neighborhood along with, wtf, all my friends who I guess couldn't play but have plenty of time to watch me suffer?
All of their faces looking up at me, confused and concerned and....ENTERTAINED?
It had become a scene! I had created a scene!!
It was here, at this exact moment 1992 in Odessa Ukraine, that I got my first hit of the best drug in the world: people's rapt, undivided attention.
They like me, they really really like me
All eyes were quite literally on me and you bet your ass I hammed it up for them. I'm sure I wasn't conscious of it at the time but I think on some deep fundamental level I understood that this one act play (titled ‘Stuck’) needed me to lose my shit and so that's what I did.
As Freud once said “The child knows not what he do, but baby he do it oh so well. Especially when he’s performing for an audience with his head stuck in a balcony.”
I wept, I howled, I whimpered as Nona tried everything she could to free me including pouring very hot water on my neck which did not help and actually very much hurt. A three dimensional performance at its finest from Nona who, pretending to be the dutiful caring grandmother, showed her true colors in the joy she felt causing me a little pain for being such a fucking idiot. Oscar for Nona when??
As the crowd got much bigger (this was obviously the talk of the town and early reviews were STRONG), my parents arrived.
Always worrying about me but now actually having something to worry about, my parents took charge by rubbing butter on my neck because that's something I guess you do in this situation?
But it didn’t help and now, reeking of butter, I kept pulling and turning and squeezing but nothing worked!
I'm no longer aware of the audience, fully lost in the performance, genuinely terrified that I would be stuck here forever - a method performance Daniel Day Lewis would cite as “inspiring my entire career, full stop. The way Sasha was so fully present there on that balcony - that’s my north star, forever and always.”
Also it was cold, so I'm cold and smell like soviet butter and no one knows what the fuck to do.
It all comes down to this
If we were in America, the fire department would have arrived by now and gotten me out. Or the cops would come and use a battering ram to bend one of the bars like what happened in Boulder CO last year.
But this was Soviet Russia and I’m pretty sure they don’t have fire departments adopting more of a “if you can beat the fire, you can stay alive” mindset.
Lucky for us, a random guy (!) with a hand saw (!!) had gotten up to the balcony and said "I know what to do" and for some reason my parents decided to trust him??
So there we are, the climax of this play, and the man who I can only assume was God (which in Russian is just someone’s name or more specifically means the word ‘year’) is cutting the bar and I am quiet and stoic because I KNOW deep in my bones that sometimes the most emotional thing you can do is NOT cry but keep it all inside, like a man from the 50s.
So God is cutting this metal bar, back and forth, back and forth, and I hear the scraping electricity of metal against metal which is VERY LOUD because its next to my ear and there my parents are watching on terrified about their little boy, their only child, the boy they want to liberate from this hellscape country and take to America so he can eat Rainbow Nerds, play pop warner football, and if all goes well even try his hand at improvisational comedy when SNAP.
Was that my neck? Am I dead?
It was the metal bar.
I am alive.
God has saved me without beheading me, I have been saved and I am free!!
The crowd goes absolutely nuts - applause, cheers, agents calling their bosses the phone up to the pandemonium saying “Charlie, listen to THIS.”
But wait there’s more
In that story there’s already more than enough to encapsulate my entire life - entertaining audiences by being a little idiot while generally having poor control of my own emotional landscape. But what if I told you there was more?
Allow me, if you will, some leeway to stretch the metaphor to perhaps absurd lengths but who cares this, as I say ten times every morning when I wake up, is a free country.
What if I told you that at the exact second I was freed from the actual metal bars of the balcony, my parents swooped in and metaphorically become the balcony, one parent on each side of me, holding on as tight as they possibly could so I would never, ever be able to get out.
What if even though my physical body and mind were whisked away on a magical carpet ride to America, land of milk and honey toast crunch, the emotional core of my being - that lil Sasha Shuralmashka - stayed forever stuck in the grip of the balcony that is my overprotective parents and our complicated paradoxical soviet-jewish ukranian heritage from the motherland.
What if for the next 27 years I would try as hard as I could to escape the balcony and become a full fledged American by watching sitcoms, doing drugs, even - gasp -going to a therapist (the worst sin you can commit as a Russian) - but nothing seemed to work.
Now you’re thinking hey Al, hey Sash, isn’t that good? Isn’t trying to escape the balcony what made the audience so entertained?
YES BUT NO.
Dear reader please listen, see not only did I try to escape the grip of my parents aka roots, I also hid that escape from the world. I was ashamed - we were DIFFERENT and that meant no one would LIKE US so I tried to hide everything I could about our family and who we really were from the world. I’m ashamed to say I used to hate my parents’ accents because they ‘gave us away.’
I wanted us to just fit in and eat McDonald’s Big Macs like everyone else. (my parents adamantly REFUSED to ever let me eat McDonald’s a fact that, to this day, I cannot forgive nor can I forget).
See, in trying to escape the grip of the balcony, the grip of my parents, I’ve tried to escape who I am. I have tried to run from story, my heritage, my people.
Which means that whenever I was performing, I was also lying. The audience would see a kid with his head stuck in a balcony pretending that his head wasn’t stuck in a balcony trying to entertain you about, I dunno, how weird video games are or some bullshit.
But you as the audience can obviously see that my head is stuck, you can FEEL that my head is stuck, so you can feel that I’m lying.
What I’m realizing and what I’m trying to do with my work from here on is acknowledge that my head is stuck, to accept it and embrace it and talk about it. Because that’s what you the audience are here to see, I think.
And even if not, that’s really all I can talk about truthfully because its my actual life.
From how my parents wouldn’t let me have sleepovers to how they always made everyone who came over wear slippers in our house or how my dad didn’t trust rearview mirrors (instead he would open the car door, sticks his head out the door - very safe - and drive the car in reverse. I mean, who do the mirrors work for?).
The balcony represents my parents way of loving me - they cannot let go and I would be terrified if they did.
God isn’t gonna come and cut the bars because that would be insane - the bars are beautiful, they’ve shaped my neck and my whole body into who I am today.
So I’m done trying to escape because there is no escape (also true in parenting).
Or more specifically I am done trying to hide my failed attempts at escape from the world.
Instead I’ll put my arms around the bars and say, hey I love you guys, but also you are driving me crazy - you’re weird as hell and I gotta start telling our stories to the world, but also also: I’m not going anywhere. I like being stuck here with y’all.
And to Nona I just want to say that after having 29 years to reflect on it all, I really do think you should have just let me change the channel on that TV but also I’m glad you didn’t because otherwise I wouldn’t have this indie Marvel dramedy superhero origin story.
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