My name is Ekaterina.
Kat-ya, Katulia, Katusha. Katulnik, Kaddeya, Kat. Katya. Katя.
But he didn’t call me by my name. Instead, he called me honey, sweetheart, babyface.
He couldn’t call me Katя – he didn’t say it right. No one said my name right. No one in this country. At five years old, he named me “his daughter.” The only name I wanted. He culled the Russian words from my mouth, planting English ones in their place.
“I’m your daddy,” he said, bending to my level, his square glasses slipping down his nose. “Dad-dee.” He looked like Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Clause. His brown eyes were the same color as my favorite chocolate candy, Krasna Shapka, which I hadn’t tasted in two years. He wasn’t like Russia’s Father Frost, though. He was warm, American.
“Dad-dee,” I repeated, as he picked me up, his soft stomach a pillow against my legs. I put my arms around his neck and held on tight.
I learned my good words from him. Words like ‘sunshine,’ ‘morning,’ ‘breakfast.’ I brushed my teeth with the good words, the words that woke me up with kisses on my forehead.
I learned the bad words before bed. He told me not to listen when he called mom a Russian whore as he slapped her, because whore was a word I shouldn’t repeat.
“You’re gonna be a dad!” His brother exclaimed when mom found out she was pregnant. I didn’t understand because his name was already Dad. My Dad.
When I was six, he held my hand as we went to meet my sister for the first time, letting go to pick her up. Her whole body fit in his arms. I’d never seen him so happy. “My Little Girl,” he whispered.
I didn’t know that name.
Before Little Girl, the fights were bad. After her, they got worse.
I was listening, hiding behind the stairs, when he saw me and yelled “Kat-ya!” No honey, sweetheart, babyface. He dug his fingers into my arm as he dragged me to the center of the living room.
“Did you know I’m not your dad?” His eyes, like burnt out coals, taunted me. “Your mother lied to you! Your real dad’s in Russia, and he’s been looking for you!” Dad-dee pointed at mom, his finger like a knife.
I searched mom’s face. She turned away.
“If you ever threaten me again, I’m going to find him and tell him where his daughter is!” He yelled at her, pointing at me.
I hung on to him, screaming, “Mommy, don’t take me away! He’s my Dad-dee! Please!”
After the divorce, mom told me I couldn’t see him anymore. Little Girl could still see him, because she was his, and he was hers. He picked her up every Thursday and every other weekend.
His last words to me were: “I’ll miss you so much. You’re like my daughter.”
A few months after losing Dad-dee, mom said, “Your real father is coming.” The tip of her cigarette burned red as smoke smothered her words. “He found us.”
She coughed, clearing her throat, unveiling her accent. “He didn’t want you. Remember that.”
At a McDonalds, a man whose face I didn’t recognize said, “Moya Dochichka,” when he saw me.
I’m not your daughter, I thought.
We sat in greasy plastic chairs while kids my age played on the slide behind us.
Mom started speaking rapid Russian.
“I’m…only speaking in English,” he responded, the words struggling from his mouth. “So she can understand that you kidnapped her. The last time I saw her was when she was three!”
“Russia is dangerous,” mom spat. “She has a better life.”
“She doesn’t have a family. She has nothing here,” he said, his voice desperately clinging to the rungs of this language.
“Take her with you, then, if you think her future would be so much better. ”
He scanned my face. I held mom’s hand, afraid he would take me away. Instead, his forehead softened.
“At least…she’s safe,” he said, falling for the false advertisements of a better life. “Even if she hates me.”
When I was 12, I got a new Dad. He called me Kaddeeya and demanded I call him Pop. He said I was the daughter he always wanted.
When I was 14, he told me I looked like whores he used to fuck in high school. This time, it was him hitting me, me packed in a corner.
“Kaddeeya,” he said with red lips, cleaning the gap between his teeth with his gold toothpick.
At 18 I called the police and ripped daughter from his throat.
I stripped myself down and called myself Kat until at 27, I walked the aisles of the European grocery store, missing rye bread, barankas, and my mother’s accent.
Until a babushka stopped and asked me, “Ty pokhozh na russkogo. Kak tebya zovut?”
Until I answered “Kaddeeya” automatically. I traced my cheekbones. I forgot I looked Russian.
Her smile fell. “Russkaya devushka, kotoraya dazhe ne mozhet nazvat’ svoye imya.”
A Russian girl who doesn’t even know how to say her own name.
She walked away, taking my name with her. My mouth watered, a beg on the tip of my tongue: say it, please say it, so I can hear it again.
I searched for my first language in the crevices of my mouth and found my gums rubbed raw. I was no longer a child of my motherland. America wouldn’t claim me. I didn’t have a mom and I never had a dad. I gave ‘daughter’ back to this country. The name was never mine.
I rolled Katя around my mouth like a candy, desperate to make it fit. I couldn’t wrap the last letter around my tongue, a relic from when Russian inhabited my mouth. A ghost of a country I no longer remembered.
In the only country I know, I am Katya. Like, Ka-tee-ya.
I will never be Kat-ya.
Katulia, Katusha, Katulnik will always belong to my mother.
I am not Kaddeya.
Kat is my camouflage. Kat is when it hurts too much to explain why my name is different.
Sometimes, I whisper ‘Ekaterina’ at night, like I’ve stolen it. It’s my favorite out of all of them, but I refuse to sully it by saying it out loud.
When I told my therapist I didn’t have a name, she responded with, “What about your last name? Your Dad’s? Why don’t you try to find him?”
I chewed the last bits of my first language in my mouth until there were only crumbs left.
In the middle of the pandemic I typed, “Hi,” to a man who I didn’t have a name for. I never accepted his last name because my first name raced to catch up to the last names of my stepfathers. I never won.
“Why didn’t you stop mom from taking me?” My first question.
“I would have fought for you. She didn’t give me a choice,” he answered.
We talked every day for 410 days. Then, we met in Greece. Neutral ground.
When we saw each other for the first time in 15 years, he took my cheeks in his hands and kissed my forehead, holding me tight. Finally.
“Papa,” I said, without prompt.
But he’s not mine.
“What does Lulik and Lusya mean?” I asked, trying to better my Russian.
He smiled to himself as he answered. “My made-up names for your brother and sister.”
He calls me Katя; no made-up sounds to describe it. No names that aren’t words in English or Russian. He constructed his own language, just for them.
He shows me pictures from before mom took me away. Pictures of me pointing, sitting, smiling.
He has kept my hospital bracelet, but he doesn’t remember when I was born.
“When was Masha born?” I ask, hoping he doesn’t know.
“11 in the morning,” he answers.
Mom made up names for me: Katulnik, for example. I wasn’t deprived. If mom hadn’t taken me, what would his name for me have been? I could have had special pet names from them both. Two parents.
He calls me Katя, as he picks my sister up, as he holds her hand, as she falls asleep on him, as he pushes her on the swing. All the things I’ll never get to do. I watch his brow furrow with concern as the car rental shop in Greece doesn’t have a booster seat for her. As he makes her sit in the back of the crappy car, where it’s safest. My heart falls into the cavern of my stomach as he’s okay with me sitting in the middle with a seatbelt that doesn’t work.
He calls my siblings by their pet names: Vova and Lulik for my brother. Mashenka and Lusya for my sister. He will never call me by the affectionate, diminutive Katulia, Katush, or Katusha. It will always be Katя. He will always love them more than me. How could he not? I was taken from him. He’s watched them stretch their baby babble into fully formed sentences, he’s seen the spark in their eyes as they recognize the lines on the page turn into the language they share with him.
“I never stopped learning English for you,” he said, after I comment on how fluent he is. “When I visited, you didn’t talk to me. ”
He learned English for me.
“Mom said she named me,” I said. “After her friend. Who died.” I asked him all the questions I didn’t believe mom gave me the right answers too.
“No,” he said. “I named you. After the queen. Ekaterina the Great.”
“Ekaterina the Great,” I repeated, chewing and swallowing the name on my birth certificate. My real name. The syllables walked confidently from my mouth. “Ekaterina,” I said again.
He may not call me Katyusha, but he named me. He cared enough about me to name me.
At his house he found a red card that said ‘Papa’ in Russian, a stick figure of him drawn on the front.
“How old was Masha when she did that?” I ask, when he sent me a picture of it. Another punch in my gut, another reminder that he’s not mine.
“You did it,” he answered. He kept it.
There was a time, before Dad-dee, before Pop, that I called him Papa.
He bought me an iPhone 12 for my birthday. “You’re on your phone all day, you need a good one,” he said, matter-of-factly. I didn’t need it, my Android was fine, but he added, “So you can better talk to me.” On the card that came with the phone he wrote, “Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.”
Words still bridged us, but I felt the seeds of my lost language sprout in the back of my throat.
I am Ekaterina Suvorova, I decide.
Suvorova, a name I chose.
Katya in America. Kat for when I don’t want to explain myself.
Katyusha, Katulnik, Katulia, for my mom.
He’s not Dad-Dee. Not father. Not Pop.
He’s always been Papa.
I am his dochichka.
He calls me Katя.
He says my name right.
Katya Suvorova has a degree in creative writing from the University of Houston and is currently working on a memoir about her childhood experiences as an undocumented Russian immigrant. Her essay, “How 90 Day Fiancé Helped Me Tell My Story as the Child of a Mail Order Bride,” was featured in Memoir Magazine. In her spare time, she is an amateur photographer and flower lady. She is represented by Natalie Lakosil at Irene Goodman Literary Agency and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @suvorovawrites
Absolutely incredible piece that brought tears to my eyes.