After clinking our glasses, Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots, then immediately sniffed their sleeves.
“What’s that all about?” I asked, confused.
“Just a tradition,” Katya replied, “to help soften the harshness. Sometimes, people choose to eat a pickle instead.” Sure … why not?!
I took a baby sip from my shot glass. Uncle Vladimir noticed this and laughed, saying something in Russian to Sergei.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Katya replied. “Don’t worry about it. He’s an alcoholic.”
“You not finish?” Uncle Vladimir asked, pointing to my glass.
“Da! Of course!” I replied, forcing myself to finish it off in two more sips, in a feeble attempt to impress. Involuntary gagging, however, ruined any chance for redemption. Uncle Vladimir immediately attempted to pour me another shot.
“Nyet! Spasibo!” I begged. But judging from the look on his face—not to mention Sergei’s—something told me this was going to be a long night.
“A man who drinks too much, he has nothing to say,” Uncle Vladimir proclaimed. “But a man who drinks too little, he also has nothing to say. So … I say chut-chut!
I played along, flicking my neck.
“Bobby … please don’t,” Katya warned as Uncle Vladimir eagerly filled up my glass. She tried to stop him at half, but it was no use.
Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for another toast.
“To Bobby! Control toast!”
We clinked glasses.
“What’s a control toast?” I asked.
“It means to the bottom in one go,” Katya replied.
“No … I can’t,” I said, nervously.
“Time to prove that you are a man,” Sergei said.
With all eyes on me, I realized that it was now or never. It was time to take off the training wheels and knock back my first full shot of vodka. I looked over at Sergei, who saluted me in encouragement with his own glass, and slowly raised the glass to my lips.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Katya said.
I took a deep breath, tilted my head back and let the vodka slide down my throat, before sniffing my sleeve. It went down surprisingly smooth. I was becoming accustomed to vodka consumption, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing—but not necessarily a bad thing, either—especially if I were to marry into this family.
Everyone applauded. I pumped my fist in triumph. Sergei and Uncle Vladimir issued congratulatory handshakes. Even Katya applauded, despite her growing concern for my well-being.
I was surprised at how quickly I became buzzed. Uncle Vladimir poured another round of shots, finishing off the bottle.
Aunt Nina tried to stop him, but Uncle Vladimir barked at her in Russian. How dare a woman interfere with this manly ritual!
“I think I’ve had enough vodka for now,” I said, holding my ground. But it was already too late. I stared down at the full shot glass in front of me on the table. “How about some wine instead?” I suggested, eyeing an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table.
“Normally, wine is saved for women,” Uncle Vladimir said, handing me the wine bottle and corkscrew. “But let’s see how well you can handle a cork.”
Never having used a traditional corkscrew before, I might as well have been handed the controls of a Soviet space shuttle.
I struggled mightily, causing several fragments of cork to fall into the bottle. When he could bare it no longer, Uncle Vladimir grabbed the bottle out of my hand and effortlessly removed the cork, before pouring a glass of wine for Elena, Katya, Aunt Nina … and lastly, me.
“Bobby, you should eat,” Elena wisely suggested.
“Here. Have some chicken,” Katya said, putting a roasted leg down on my plate. As I filled my plate with chicken and took a large helping of borscht, I could feel the effects of the vodka going to work on my system; my vision became a little blurry and my motor functions became slightly impaired. I started to feel detached.
I took a few bites of food, noticing how the rest of the family ravenously devoured their chicken legs until there was nothing left but bone, which they then gnawed on down to the nub. First lemons; now chicken bones.
Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for yet another toast.
“Here we go again,” Katya said.
This time, both Uncle Vladimir and Sergei stood up.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“The third toast always goes to the women,” Katya explained.
Sergei tipped his glass toward me.
“For women,” Uncle Vladimir said in his thick Russian accent, tipping his glass toward me , winking, and chuckling. Was he calling me a woman? I quickly stood up with my glass of wine to join my fellow comrades.
“To women. And all their beauty. Like vodka, may it never run out,” proclaimed Uncle Vladimir with great gusto.
Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots. Uncle Vladimir then reached over and took my shot glass, poured my vodka into his empty glass, and downed it in the blink of an eye.
“To women,” I said, with not quite as much gusto as Uncle Vladimir, before taking a sip of wine.
After we had continued eating dinner for a while longer, Uncle Vladimir pulled a brand new bottle of vodka out from underneath the table, and passed it over for me to examine.
“Ukrains’ka Horilka z pertsem,” Vladimir said in Russian, referring to the popular Nemiroff honey and pepper-flavored vodka—which is made by steeping hot red peppers in vodka.
No way, I thought to myself. I smiled, and passed the bottle back to Uncle Vladimir, trying to look enthusiastic..
“Bobby … I love honey!” Sergei added, as Uncle Vladimir quickly opened the bottle and began pouring a new round.
“No Bobby … don’t,” Katya said with dread in her eyes.
Aunt Nina and Elena both shook their heads in disapproval, but said nothing. Uncle Vladimir and Sergei were firmly in control of the proceedings at this point.
“I’ll just try a sip,” I said, realizing that I had no choice if I wanted to prove myself to be a real man. “I ate a lot of chicken. It’s fine.”
Katya glanced down at the three discarded chicken bones on my plate.
“You only ate half the meat off of them,” she observed. “And you didn’t touch the bone.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Bobby! You are now ready to give a toast of your own, yes?” Sergei said, raising the stakes.
“Compared to your toasts, I’ll only embarrass myself,” I replied, echoing my response from my first evening in Ukraine.
“Not if you drink this,” Uncle Vladimir said, raising his glass.
“To vodka!” I proclaimed. “Control toast.”
I raised the glass to my lips, determined to down my shot in one gulp, thanks to the liquid courage I had already consumed.
“Always remember,” Uncle Vladimir added. “A good, warmed vodka makes a carnation bloom inside your stomach.”
Uncle Vladimir and Sergei downed their shots. I tried … but my body said no. And without warning, I immediately, involuntarily spat my pepper vodka out, all over the spread of food. No carnation for me.
“Ach! It tastes like varnish!” I exclaimed, quickly grabbing my wine and taking a big gulp in an effort to wash the burning sensation off my tongue.
Uncle Vladimir shook his head and once again poured the remainder of my shot into his glass.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let good vodka go to waste,” he said, slamming the empty glass back down in front of me.
Katya pushed it away. “No more, Uncle” she warned.
I grabbed it back. I hadn’t quite given up on being a real man just yet.
I could sense Uncle Vladimir staring at me, but didn’t look at him. And then, form out of nowhere, he asked me: “So, Bobby… how do you like Ukraine?”
“I’ve never been here before,” I replied. I was kind of aware that my answer didn’t make much sense. However, at this point, I was beginning to feel beyond buzzed … and beyond caring.
Everyone waited for Katya’s translation. Katya simply shrugged.
Uncle Vladimir looked puzzled.
“And … I am very happy that I don’t live here,” I continued, slurring my words.
I felt Katya kick my shin under the table.
All eyes were on Katya, awaiting her translation.
“Bobby said that he loves Ukraine and that he loves the food,” Katya said in Russian. “Especially the chicken.”
“Spasibo!” Aunt Nina said, smiling.
“Bobby … let me tell you what I think of America,” Uncle Vladimir began. “America’s imperialist days are numbered. It’s time for a new superpower to emerge in its place.”
“Vladimir! Enough!” Aunt Nina demanded.
Uncle Vladimir actually seemed to take notice of Aunt Nina this time. We continued eating, in silence.
And that’s when I noticed the plate of pickled herring, swimming in their own juice.
It is important at this juncture to point out that the course of events that transpired over the remainder of the evening are foggy and fragmented in my mind. I am simply piecing everything together based on descriptions given by eyewitness accounts and from my own brief flashbacks.
As I continued to stare transfixed at the herring, I began to grin from ear-to-ear like a fool, before mumbling to Katya:
“Look, the fish are swimming.”
“No, Bobby. They’re not.”
“Yes! Look! They’re swimming in their own fish juice,” I insisted, poking at the fish.
Katya—realizing that she had no other choice, given that everyone wanted to know what I was saying—translated.
Sergei and Uncle Vladimir burst out in uncontrolled laughter.