(“Love” in Russian)

The first time I met you, you looked like a lost boy. Your hair was haphazardly buzz cut. You were missing a couple teeth. You had tiny dark circles surrounding your eyes. You were seven years old. Half my size. Adorable. Distant. After ten long minutes, you looked straight at me, and, with a sudden jerk, puked all over my shirt. I was in love.

I do not mean love in the sense you probably think I do. I do not mean love in the way fairytales dress it up or how Hollywood movies capture it on the silver screen. In this story, I mean love in the only way orphans, like us, can love. For us family-less few, love is as illusory as a vivid dream forgotten in the waking moments of dawn—clearly there for one long second, hopelessly out of reach the next—but it is also real, unblinking. Like the sun itself. A final verdict.

After all, you were just like me. You were a genuine sirota, a little Russian orphan girl. Your hair was kept short to keep the lice and bed bugs out. Your daily diet included kasha and bread, and your clothes were a hodgepodge of colors, styles and sizes because in an orphanage you wear what you get and you may only “get” once a year. I knew exactly how hungry you were, how tired you felt, how scared.

For I, too, was taken away. At four. My mother had spent almost every day of those four years abandoning me in order to look for her drink. One day, the police finally had it with the neighbor’s complaints that there was a child crying next door, so they took me. What do I remember from that time? The waiting. I waited for her. At home, at the police station, at the orphanage, even some days now. But she never came for me.

I moved–from slum, to orphanage, to the home of the total strangers who adopted me. I moved from Russia to the United States. Everywhere I moved, I waited. I could not speak the language my new parents spoke, I did not like the new food we ate, and nothing around me seemed recognizable those first few years. (You have to understand: the process of adoption is never explained to the chosen child being handed off. I mean, how could it be? “Hi there. We are your brand new family. Now follow us to a home as unknown as your future and trust us with your life. Oh, and forget everything you already think you know, starting with your name.” It doesn’t really roll off the tongue well in any language.)

So what could I do? Wait. Wait for my mother. Wait for my father. Wait for someone to come and tell me who I was and where I belonged. I would wait forever until finally, one day, my adoptive family moved to the United States, and they decided to adopt you.

I waited for you at the airport. I waited, not sure what to expect. I was scared of you before we even met. I thought you were my replacement. But then I saw you for the first time. Actually, I could say, “I saw me.” In that instance, I understood who I was, and it didn’t even matter because you were there. Finally. After ten long minutes, you looked straight at me, and, with a sudden jerk, puked all over my shirt. I was in love.

You are a sirota. Your mother was in jail, your father not around. You spent some time at your grandmother’s but she was very old and very poor, so it wasn’t meant to last. They sent you to an orphanage. Your hair was cut, your clothes replaced. You lived with a bunch of wild kids. A wild life. No parents, family, tradition, protection. You had to put yourself first. Eat quickly. Hoard your things under the pillow. Watch out for the big kids and the even bigger adults. They hit hard and ran fast, but you’d learn to hide. You’d learn to get good at waiting.

Then, like me, you were adopted. But being adopted was not all you hoped it will be. For you, it meant being pulled from a place you knew and were accustomed to. When you lived in Russia in the orphanage, you still spent occasional weekends at your grandmother’s house with your five other sisters. Your grandfather was a drunk but good ol’ Babushka always tried to take care of you. Although the orphanage was barely tolerable, you at least had those weekends. But being adopted took that from you. Being adopted meant entering an unknown life, with an unknown language, an unknown world. Your hair was cut, and you were thrown onto a plane. No one told you anything except that “you’d better behave.” The first time you met me, you were scared. We both had to wait awhile. Finally, after ten long minutes, you looked straight at me, and, with a sudden jerk, puked all over my shirt. (I was in love.)

Now you are grown. You have such long and sweeping dark hair that I wonder how anyone could have ever cut it in the first place. All your teeth are in and your clothes fit because they are your clothes. You are nineteen years old and still half my size. Gorgeous but distant. Only I can tell that you are still as wild as you once were. There is not enough makeup in this world to hide the blackness around your eyes and the fear creeping in along your face. A woman just barely, you look as if though you are about to throw up again…

But this time you won’t look at me. Your wildness has taken over, and you are back to being the sirota you once were, long ago. Being in jail means just that. No parents, no family, no tradition, no protection. Eat quickly and hoard your things. Watch out for big people and even bigger bed bugs.

What drove you to make the choices you have recently made? It haunts me. Drinking and driving, resisting arrest, underage intoxication and providing minors with alcohol. You’re going to do some time. Time that I should be serving. After all, who was the one who gave you your first drink, introduced you to your first smoke? What I was thinking back then? Who was I?

When my own mother chose to chase the bottle over being with me, it left me with an understanding that I was not enough. I wasn’t meant to be loved, and the longer I waited for it, the more incapable of it I became. So, to try to forget that pain, I got high and drank the waiting moments away. I was supposed to protect you, but all I really thought of was myself. I thought if I tried to love you, you would begin to see what was wrong with me. So instead of loving you, I turned into the person I was before the day you and I met. I followed mother’s steps and followed the bottle until I had nothing left. In and out of shelters, rehabs, and hospitals, I tried to hate the world around me, but mostly I just couldn’t forget. I couldn’t forget the first time I met you. I was scared. Finally, after ten long minutes, you looked straight at me, and, with a sudden jerk, puked all over my shirt. Love.

Trust me when I say there is nothing wrong with you. Yes, you were a sirota and things happened. Many things. But you are not alone in this world. You are part of something (love) that will never be taken away. Stop waiting around, or you will spend the rest of life deeming yourself not good enough. Love is here for you always–you don’t have to choose correctly when it comes to that–but you do have to choose whether to live like a waiting orphan or to love life in an orphan’s family. It exists, love. Trust me. I knew it from the first time I met you.

Yana Pollard plays basketball, writes, and is a student at Fullerton College.