My American Dream

When I arrived in New York City 24 years ago—barely speaking any English and never having touched a computer—my dreams of becoming a novelist seemed completely out of reach.

“This isn’t Communism,” my then husband told me, when I brought up going back to school. “Education here costs a fortune.”

It was a bright August day, but our living room was dark, the shades permanently pulled down. I could hear the traffic on Fifth Avenue, snippets of people’s conversations as they passed our ground-floor apartment, heading to Central Park.

I’d met Michael two years earlier on my way to class at the university in Sofia. He was an American of Bulgarian origin who’d come to visit his grandmother. I fell hard for the tall, green-eyed Marlon Brando look-alike, who listened to classical music, loved books and the outdoors.

It was 1993. Long before cell phones and social media. After he returned to New York, we wrote letters that took two weeks to travel in each direction. International calls were expensive but we splurged every couple of months. I relished hearing his deep voice, the way he pronounced my name, his accent giving it weight, making it sound exotic, like the name of a princess warrior.

He came to see me two more times. When he proposed, under a big star-studded sky in waist-deep snow that had grounded us in a remote village in the mountains outside Sofia, I didn’t hesitate.

“How about your education?” my mother asked, a deep wrinkle etched on her brow, when I told her our news a couple of days later.

I grew up during Communism without religion or deities, in a poor, working- class family that worshiped education. Ever since I was little, I remember being told, “Study hard if you don’t want to end up like us working on a conveyor line.”

My single mother and I lived with my grandparents and my uncle in a one-bedroom apartment. They all worked hard and saved every penny so that I could have any tutor I wanted to prepare me for the elite schools’ entrance exams. Both of my grandparents had been forced to leave school to help support their families before reaching fifth grade. My mother had quit high school in a sign of rebellion, refusing to join the Communist Youth Party. The first in my family to graduate from high school, I outdid everyone’s expectations by going on to the university.

And here I was, about to toss it all away. But I was in love and love trumped all, as far as I was concerned. Plus, I was going to America, the land of endless opportunities. I would finish college there.

I landed at JFK in the spring of 1995 wholly unprepared for life in New York. I’d never held a job. I hadn’t even heard of credit cards or checks. I didn’t know a soul except for my new husband. But I had big dreams.

I’d always wanted to be a writer, composing my first poems as a child, writing short stories as a teenager. Back in Bulgaria, I’d enrolled as an architecture student to appease my family who were terrified that without a profession I would end up like them—working in a factory. I’d enjoyed the creative aspect of designing buildings but missed books. It was another reason why I had so easily quit the university.

In America, I’d naively thought, I would be free to be a writer.

Michael, who was a doorman when I met him, had just gotten a new job as the live-in superintendent of a luxury building on Fifth Avenue. We painted the walls of our tiny ground-floor apartment in a warm cream color and furnished it bit by bit with items the tenants discarded—a beautiful if worn out Turkish carpet from the woman who owned a horse farm in Connecticut, an enormous desk chair from the investment banker in the penthouse—or pieces we found at garage sales. But once we were more or less settled, I was ready to go back to school. Which was how the conversation had started.

“I’ll work two jobs,” I told Michael. “I’ll save.” As it turned out, it was hard to get even a single job. Like countless other female immigrants before me, I tried working as a nanny and a cleaning lady. What else can you do without experience and with poor English? But everyone wanted references and understandably so. I would go through three newspapers, responding to all of the ‘help wanted’ ads.

Meanwhile, I checked out books from the local library that I’d already read back home in Bulgarian—War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov—so that I could improve my English. I signed up for ESL classes at the YMCA.

Finally, I found a family willing to entrust me with the care of their two children—a three-year-old girl and a four-year old boy—just a few blocks away. I was excited and anxious. I’d never even babysat for an hour. In Bulgaria, grandparents took care of their grandchildren. How would I manage with two kids for eight hours?

I showed up at 8:30 sharp in the morning and didn’t leave until after 9 p.m. “Are you still planning on doing two jobs?” Michael joked when I returned home and collapsed on the bed. I hadn’t realized that I would also be the cleaning lady and the cook. But I couldn’t complain. I was lucky to be given a chance without any references. I didn’t say anything when the mother scolded me for pouring myself a glass of juice. It was too expensive, she explained. Soda on the other hand, I could drink as much as I wanted. When the little boy threw a tantrum and smacked me across the face, his mother laughed it off: “Isn’t he cute?”

I didn’t last long at that job, or the next one, but I couldn’t be too picky. Our financial situation was a lot more dire than I’d realized. I knew Michael had dropped out of college in his second year. What I didn’t know was that he was still paying off his student loans. He also had a large credit card debt. To that we’d added our honeymoon to Puerto Rico and my three-day hospitalization for a severe infection, just two weeks after I’d arrived, before we’d gotten insurance through his new job.

My break came two-years later, when a man whose apartment I was cleaning asked me about my background. I broke down crying and told him that I was lying in my letters home that I was enrolled in college. I couldn’t bear breaking their hearts. He told me that he’d recently made a donation to the library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and promised to ask the librarian there if they could use a volunteer who spoke Bulgarian and Russian.

A couple of weeks later, I started at the Watson Library. Soon after, I was offered a part-time job. The library became my home and the staff my family.

I learned to type and use a computer. I took in-house training sessions on Microsoft Word and Excel. A year later, the head of the cataloguing department, who knew I’d dropped out of college in Bulgaria and was desperate to finish my education, sat me down at a computer with Internet access and pulled up Columbia University’s website. She explained that if I worked for the university full-time, I would be able to take two classes per semester for free. A few months later, I got a job at the Butler Library and was accepted in the General Studies program.

By then, I knew how impossible my dream of becoming a writer in a second language was, especially since I’d only started studying it as an adult. But I kept taking creative writing classes—first at Columbia and later, after graduation, at writing programs and festivals. In the meantime, I accepted and quit many jobs. I worked at the UN and the World Bank. I got a graduate degree in mental health counseling and tried my hand as a therapist. I even did a short gig for a private eye.

All along, I kept writing—short stories, poems, a novel. I revised the novel over and over until I finally shelved it and started working on another one. Finally, at the age of 46, I can call myself an author: My debut novel, Her Daughter’s Mother, will be released by Putnam this week.

Getting traction as an immigrant is difficult. It takes a lot of hard work, but it also requires a lot of good luck. Without the assistance and generosity of strangers, I would have never even come close to achieving my dreams. And while anti-immigrant sentiments seem to be on the rise in recent years, I’m hopeful that the persistent kindness of the American people—which makes the American Dream possible for so many immigrants—will not be diminished.


Daniela Petrova is the author of Her Daughter’s Mother.