Monthly Archives: November 2011

“You’d Better Come on, in My Kitchen, Babe: It Going to Be Rainin’ Outdoors.”

The women would gather around at mid-afternoon.

All throughout the last weeks of every autumn, they took turns visiting each other’s kitchens.  The ones that arrived to my grandma’s house were the victims of a village-wide fame of being the best cooks, for kilometers around.  Grandma was somewhat of a matriarch herself who flaunted her expertise like the first Soviet Martha Stewart.

The women’s morning duties would have been long completed:  Their cows and sheep were milked and herded out to the fields and placed under the supervision of the blond and freckled Don Juan, Vanechka.  The children were washed, the men — fed and guided out of the front gates.  The adolescent rascals, visiting their grandparents for the summer, who turned increasing brown day by day, would find salvation from the heat by the river bank.  The old women, with poor appetites, were given a glass of fresh milk, still foaming with the temperature of a cow’s body, and a slice of warm bread.  They then flocked the benches — like birds on a telephone line — for hours; and with their nearly toothless gums, they chewed sunflower seeds and gossiped.  (You could always tell their most favored bench by the layers of black hulls surrounding its wooden legs, like seashells.)

When the front gate of the house began squeaking, I put down my book and listened up.  I’d never really been much use to the matriarch of the house:  My housework was obviously not up to her standards.  So, it was better to stay out of her way all together.

“Doesn’t your mother teach you anything?!” the old woman bickered and breathed down my neck while I clutched a soapy dishrag or the handle of a bucket with filthy, brown water with which I had just scrubbed the floors of the hallway and the storage room.  “Gimme that!  I’ll show you how.”

But I wasn’t really in the mood for lectures.  Holding back my tears with a single raised eyebrow, I would march off into the furthest removed room of the house:  The front veranda with giant windows and a single cot.

“Well, would you look at her?!” the old woman nagged behind my back.  “Can’t even say a word to her!”

As soon as the veranda door was sealed shut with a metal hook, I would anticipate visiting the never seen landscapes of snowy Saint Petersburg in the novels of Dostoyevsky; or the wild forestry occupied by the courageous cossacks of Sholokhov.  There was no room for the nature worshiping lyrics of Yesenin, or the gentle romance of Alexander Blok.  No way, man!  Fueled by the unjust opposition of my father’s people to my motha’s clan, I fancied myself belonging to the oppressed.  I was certainly en route to a rebellion:  An untimely outraged young female revolutionary worthy of being commemorated next to the poster of Lenin!

In the days of motha’s absence, after a number of such confrontations with the relentless matriarch, I would eventually would move myself out of the house entirely.  And by the time my motha ventured back to her in-laws, she’d find me living in the veranda, by myself, with a plastic white rabbit being my only confidant.

Most summers, she would return toward the end of our stay.  Smelling of expensive European perfumes and the thrill of the city life, she, like me, was not allowed to participate in the housework.  But then, if she arrived on time for these gatherings of the townswomen, her pride would force her to march out into the kitchen — in a scandalously low cut housedress — and to help out.

First, the heads of white and purple cabbage would be brought up from the cellar underneath the kitchen.  The wooden barrels would be washed and left to dry out in the sun.  After the final headcount, grandma would begin distributing the duties:  Some women would be assigned to shred the crispy leaves, while others chopped, crushed and ground additional ingredients.  The hefty redhead with mittens on her manly hands would sterilize the two- and three-liter glass jars over a steaming bath.  The only single girl was given the task of matching lids and making labels:  Nothing that could damage her perfect and yet youthful skin, untouched by any man.

If motha insisted on joining the kitchen mayhem, she would be given a sack of onion heads to peal; and she would weep in front of other women, openly, while improvising some melodramatic monologue that caused the group to laugh hysterically.

My grandma rarely joined in.  Instead, she took her only daughter down to the cellar and supervised the organization of the storage space.

Eventually, lead by my rambunctious motha, the women would begin to talk about sex.  While pushing, crushing, mauling the transformed cabbage into jars, and buckets, and basins, and barrels, the women’s bodies flushed with burgundy red.  Their arms and breasts vibrated.  And they, while sweaty and flushed, with locks of hair sticking to their foreheads, would succumb to fits of laughter, as each confessed the habits of their husbands and ridiculed the strange and hardly satisfactory practices in their marriage beds.

“The second you call your man ‘a baby’, you gotta breastfeed the fucker,” my motha carried on with her routine.  The women hollered.  My grandma, scandalized, hid out in the cellar.  And I would climb up onto my hiding spot, above the stove, and memorize the scent of garlic and women’s sex, of which no Soviet male poet had yet told me.

“A Man Gets Tied Up to The Ground — He Gives The World Its Saddest Sound.”

(Continued from November 26th, 2011.)

“Make a wish,” he said.  “If you wish for something good — it WILL come true.”

I held the ring he gave me in the middle of my palm, and I stared at the open space caught in the center of its beaded circle.  It was made out of a tightly wound spiral of a single metallic line, as thin as a single hair on a horse’s mane.  I thought of my grandmother’s cuckoo clock whose pendulum she had stopped winding-up, suddenly one night.

Her husband, a retired fisherman, had gained himself a habit in his old age:  He’d climb up to the roof above their attic to watch the sunset every night.  There, he would witness the reunion of two unlikely lovers:  The sun would give up the ambition of its skies and melt into the waters of the Ocean beneath; and every such reunion would illuminate the old man’s eyes with colors of every precious stone in the world.

There, up on the rooftop, my grandmother would find him, when she returned home from work.

“My little darling boy!” she’d gosh.  “You’re too old for this game.”

She was eleven years his junior; but after a lifetime of waiting for the Ocean to return her lover, she hadn’t managed to forget her worries.  And even with his now aged body radiating heat in their mutual bed each night, she would dream up the nightmares of his untimely deaths.

“I’ve died so many times in your sleep, my baby lark,” he joked in the mornings, “I should be invincible by now.”

Still, the woman’s worrisome wrath turned her into a wild creature he preferred to never witness:  They were unlikely lovers, after all.  So, he’d smirk upon her scolding, obey and lithely descend.  Then, he would chase my grandmother into the corner bedroom of their modest hut.  And she would laugh.  Oh, how she would laugh!

One day, after she scolded him again, he slipped; and as she watched each grasp betray him, she suddenly expected that her lover could unfold his hidden wings and slowly swing downward, in a pattern of her cuckoo clock’s pendulum, or a child’s swing.  But he was an injured bird:  That’s why he could no longer go out to sea.

Upon the permanently wet ground, he crashed.  And on that night, she stopped winding-up the spiral inner workings of her clock.

“Well?  Did you make a wish?” the old Indian merchant asked me after I slipped his gift onto the ring finger of my left hand.

The beads rolled on the axis of the spiral and slid onto my finger like a perfect fit.  On its front, four silver colored beads made up a pattern of a four-petalled flower, or possibly a cross.  I bent the fingers of my hand to feel its form against my skin.  Under the light, the beads immediately shimmered.

“Well?  Did you?” the old, tiny man persisted.

Instead of answering him, I pressed the now ringed hand against my heart and nodded.

“See.  It is already coming true,” he said.

He was by now sitting in a lotus position on top of a lavender cloud.  It had earlier slipped out from behind the room with bamboo curtains, in the doorway, and it snuggled against his leg like a canine creature.  Before I knew it, the old man got a hold of the scruff of the cloud’s neck, and he reached down below — to help me up.

His hand was missing a ring finger.  How had I not noticed that before?  I studied his face for remnants of that story.  But it was not its time yet, so I got lost in between the wrinkles of his brown skin and followed them up to his eyes:

His eyes were two small suns, with amber colored rays.  The center of each iris was just a tiny purple dot, too narrow to fit in my reflection.  I looked for it though until the suns began to spin — each ray being a spoke on a wheel — faster and faster.

The spirals of the old man’s watch began unwinding, and we floated up through the layered clouds of time, up to the sunroof.  With a single gesture of his arm, the man unlatched the windowed frames.  He sat back down, shifted until his sit bones found their former markings in the lavender cloud; and when he turned to face me, I realized he had become a young lover of my own:  with jet black hair and a pair of smirking lips of that old fisherman who had stopped the spiral of the clock inside my grandma’s hut.

“I had a feeling about you,” he said and buried his four-fingered hand inside my loosened hair.  “You are the type to always wish — for good.”

“And You Want to Travel WITH Him, And You Want to Travel Blind.”

It was the smell of burning patchouli incense that brought me in here.

Come to think of it, my nose had been acting up all day.

Earlier, down the street, along the netted fence that safeguarded a preservation ground, it picked-up on a strong smell of fish.

The encyclopedia of marine aromas was familiar to me since birth:  Somehow, my people were always drawn to large bodies of water, albeit only a few of them actually knew how to swim.

“Fresh fish doesn’t smell,” my grandfather used to say.  The man was a fisherman.

And it was not the smell of processed fish that my nose sensed either.  That one I had learned early on in life, as well:  at the cannery of anchovies and sardines that my grandmother supervised, in the Far East of Russia.  With her badass temper and a crass sense of humor, she would walk the premises; and I would march in her footsteps, armed with a jar of black caviar and an aluminum spoon.  Grandma would always smell like lily-of-the-valley bouquet; and when in certain portions of the factory, the reek disgusted me out of my appetite, I would bury my nose into the skirt at the back of her knees.

“See, comrade!” the woman would be ripping a new one to manager of that particular department.  “Even my grandchild knows this is not a smell of good produce.  Fuckin’ fix it!”

So, no:  The earlier smell down the road did not belong to the byproducts of humans.  This particular scent belonged to the wild.  When my nose picked up on it, I could envision piles of fish carcasses and flakes of scales circling in the air, close to the ground.

Along the fence, tourists with heavy lenses of cameras were taking photographs.  Parents were instructing their children to pose while the adults watched them through the screens of their iPhones.

I looked in the direction of the attraction:  Seals were lounging on a small patch of a gated beach with sprawled seaweed and patches of red succulents.  Lazily, they were lying in the same direction with their glossy or fuzzy bodies, then take turns crawling into the Bay, for more feasts.  Aha!  That’s the smell!

When I began to run again, I could smell the musky scents of cheap perfume on older women and the sweat of other runners.  As I neared the Cannery Row, the flavors of caramel popcorn and spiced hot chocolate seduced me into slowing down.  Right around the corner, the street opened into an alley of shops and street vendors.  People carried cups of frozen yoghurt and oily paper bags of street food.  Children on sugar highs were biting into chocolate covered apples and nagging their parents for sips out of their hot paper cups.

When a familiar scent from my motha’s kitchen reached my activated nose, I wandered into a store that emanated it.

“What IS that?” I muttered as I sniffed the air and scanned the shop’s display for hints.

Armed with a giant cup of coffee I felt obliged to purchase there, I continued my walk, a few minutes later.  The smell of patchouli incense reached me from across the street, and before I was aware of my obedience, I was stepping over the threshold.

I first looked around for signs by the door:  “Am I allowed to bring drinks in here?”

But the rich colors of exotic textiles and seemingly ancient jewelry quickly distracted my eyes.  I began to cruise aimlessly around the store.  High above, rows of women’s capes clung to the walls.  Hemp threaded backpacks and sequined shoulder bags lined the shelves down below.  A rack of wraparound skirts attracted my attention.

“From Tibet,” a old brown man with striped gray and black beard said from behind the grass counter, in the corner.  I hadn’t noticed him till then.

Sheepishly lowering my cup that had been soothing my nose with a sharp scent of roasted coffee beans, I smiled at him.

“Good day,” the gentle man nodded.

“They’re very lovely,” I patted the adorned cotton.  I owed him at least that much.  I had followed a scent and was planning to make no purchases here.

The tiny man would return to his noninvasive silence of a meditating good heart.  His goods, however, would begin to tell me stories:  of dusty passages of India and and the small roads of Thailand, jam packed with traffic; of silky hair of Chinese seamstresses and the blistered dry hands of bead workers in the Kingdom of Bhutan.  The transcendent scent continued hanging above me like a cloud that, if I could straddle, would carry me to the magical land of the Far East, so close to the settlement of my people.

“Good choice,” the tiny man stood up to bag a pair of chandelier earrings the color of a frost bitten malbec grape.

“A man of two words,” I thought to myself and felt grateful for his manner.  “A good man!”

I lowered my gaze to the jewelry display with amber, rubies and turquoise.

“Have this,” he said, and in his wrinkled palm I saw a ring of a matching color.  I studied his face:  “Good luck,” he said.

I lowered my head.  “Thank you.  That’s very sweet.  Thank you.”  And I slipped on the ring.

“Make a wish,” he responded.  “If you wish for something good — it WILL come true.”

(To Be Continued.)

“We Were Born Before the Wind.”

It seemed like she was waiting for someone.  By the bench, at the top of a hilly lawn, the bottom of which met with the narrow gravelly passage occupied by the late morning joggers, she stood there, barely noticed by others.  An iron railing stretched on the other side of the path, and the bright blue waters of Monterey Bay seemed calm.  A forest of boat masts kept swaying in their metronome rhythm.  They clanked against each other with the hollow sound of empty water buckets or rusty church bells.  The shallow waters by the shore were navigated by a couple of paddle boarders and glossy baby seals.

Was it her beloved heading home?  Or was this just a mid-stop where she’d regroup for the next glorious flight of her freedom loving soul?  She stood like she belonged to no one — but the call of her nature, immune to the voices of fear or doubt.

The Northbound wind frolicked with her straight white hair.  I didn’t expect to see that texture on her body, but when I saw the handful of silky strands fly up on the side of her head, I stopped.  She remained motionless:  still and proud, slowly scanning the horizon with her focused eyes.

Just a few meters down, I myself had rested by a statue of a woman.  I couldn’t tell how long ago I had left my room without having a preplanned route through this small town by the Bay; for I myself had come here to rest in the unlikely lack of my own expectations — my fears, worries and doubts — and I had let the movements of the sun determine my activities that day.  So in its highest zenith, I departed from the four walls of my inn after the laughter of children — hyper way too early and fearlessly attacking the nearby pool — woke me up.

I began to run slowly at first, crossing through the traffic of drivers used to the unpredictable characters of pedestrians.  Not once did I resort to my city habits of negotiation by scowls or passive-aggressive gestures.  I bypassed the elders slowly walking, in groups, along the streets of boutique stores with hand-written signs for Christmas sales.  The smell of caffeine and caramel popcorn would trail behind young couples on their romantic getaways.  The joggers of the town were few and far between; so when I reached the narrow passage of the tree alley along the shoreline, I picked up my pace.

The wind kept playing with my fly-aways and untangling my tight hair bun.  A couple of times I turned my head in the direction of its flow and saw the mirage outlines of my most favorite Northern City.

“By the time I get there, I shall be free of fear,” I always think but then return to the predetermined pacing of my dreams.

I noticed the statue’s back at first:  A colonial dress peaked out from underneath a cape, and both were captured in the midst of their obedience to the same Northbound wind.

“A statue of a woman.  That’s a rarity.”

And I walked up to her.

It seemed like she was waiting for someone. Up from the pedestal, she focused her gaze on the horizon.  Her face was calm but gripped by prayer.  I knew that face:  It belonged to a lover who trusted that the wind would bring him back to her, unscathed.  And even if he were injured on his odyssey or tempted by another woman’s feasts, she trusted he would learn and be all the better for it, in the end.  Against her shoulder, she was leaning a wooden cross made of tree branches.

Santa Rosalia:  The Italian saint of fishermen.  She froze, in stone, in a perpetual state of beholding for other women’s men.  Throughout centuries, so many freedom-loving souls must have departed under her watch, and I could only hope that most of them returned.  But when the sea would claim them, did other women come here to confront her or to collect the final tales of their men dying fear-free?

I walked while thinking of her face.  And then, I saw the other awaiting creature.

When she began to walk downhill, she’d test the ground with each step.  With a balletic grace she’d stop at times, and study the horizon.  The wind began to tease her silky hair.  It took figure eight routes in between her legs, and taunted her to fly.

And so she did:  On a single rougher swoosh of the wind, she stretched her giant stork-white wings, gained height and began to soar, Northbound and fear-free.

“From Tolstoy to Tinker Bell. Down from Berkeley to Carmel.”

STOP HERE ON RED —>

EXPECT 5 MINUTE DELAY

We obey.

I’ve never seen such a thing.  The normally two-lane highway — with one lane heading to Monterey, and the other back down to Central Coast — has narrowed down into a single one.  The red light conducts the traffic going in two different directions into a narrow passage marked by the striped, orange cones.

One lane.  Somehow, all the way up here, in Kerouac’s country, coming and going doesn’t seem to matter.  We are all one:  simply on the road.   

We wait.

Ahead, the plastic poles cut across our lane diagonally, and the orange netting stretched between them provides zero protection from the loose stones that seem to have come off the side of the mountain.  The high rock is exposed and dark gray, darker than the wet asphalt of the PCH.  Here, the highway had to have been built by heros, used to conquering any mountain.  Or, perhaps, it was carved by the machetes of the retired Valkyries, tired of fighting.

We rest.

The traffic behind us is starting to accumulate.  The Jeep of military green has a brand new rack on its rooftop.  It’s empty.  A line of Subies and Prii must belong to the locals.  They know how to navigate these roads, with patience and an even hand.  But I wonder if for them — the chase is over.

A row of similar cars going in the other direction finally passes us.  Our light changes.

We begin to continue.

As the view opens around the bend, we both gasp:  Unmanned machinery sits amidst the piles of construction material.  There are rolls of metal netting with which the heros must secure the side of the suddenly disobedient rock.  A giant crane of royal blue is left upright and I immediately want to go swinging off its rusty hook suspended seemingly at an arm length away.  It has begun to drizzle and the machines parked on the other side of the road, over a short bridge, are blurry behind the fog.  Sleeping monsters.  There are a couple of newly erected cement walls, on both sides of the road.  They’ve got their purpose written in stone, but with five meter spaces in between each one, they appear to be thought up by Richard Serra himself.  And underneath it all, there roars the Pacific.  It’s white with foam and gray with rage.  Mercilessly, it slams its hissing waves against the giant fangs of the rocky shores.

To look down feels like a bird’s flight, but it is best not to do so while driving:  The heights tempt the mind’s wings into the abyss.

The line of cars on the opposite side of the site simultaneously waves hello with their skinny hands of windshield wipers.  The faces behind the rain-splattered windows seem calm and exhausted, but not at all resigned.  They are aware, actually.  For fifty miles at least, I haven’t heard any thumping of car radios or the abrasive screech of honks.

We cruise.  Come up on yet another sign.

ROUGH ROAD

The forewarned patch is just a dip with gravel on the bottom.  The white railing to the sides winks at our headlights with yellow, round mirror eyes.

We drop, survive.

It’s not so bad.  And just like that:  It’s over.

The mountains get higher here.  The fog is denser and it wraps around the black peaks.  It blends the line between the seemingly undoable heights and the sky.  The Ocean beneath is blurry, and although the drop can no longer be measured by the eye, the exhilarated heartbeat knows it’s no joke.  I hear its whooshing.  Glorious.

The limit that marks the end of that terrain and starts Big Sur sneaks up on us:  And suddenly, things change.  The mountains are not so rocky and covered with all shades of green and rusty red.  The roots of vegetation replace the metal netting done by the heros; and they seem to do quite a sufficient job at taming the exposed rock.  The rain begins to come down evenly, but not yet pour.  There kicks in the smell of mushrooms, dying leaves and wet bark.

The fields with feeding livestock return.  A row of inns and hiking humans marks our return to calm civilization.

HENRY MILLER LIBRARY

SOMEONE ELSE’S GALLERY

USED BOOKSHOP

BREAKFAST LUNCH AND DINNER

We pick up the pace.  The Redwoods.  Magnificent umbrellas of evergreens.  Stalagmites of eroded yellow rock.  The fire-engine red of succulents.

CARMEL HIGHLANDS

We keep on moving.  Sometimes, we follow the lead of those who seem familiar with the passage.  Their pace is calm, belonging to those living in surrender.  The occasionally impatient ones pass us while we pull off to the other side of the white line.  Here, we’re all still one, and simply — on the road.

SHOULDER CLOSED

BUMP AHEAD

We pass it and again:  It’s not so bad.

We keep on following the road.

“I’m Sittin’ in the Railway Station, Got a Ticket for My Destination. Mmm…”

“And where are you driving from?”

“Um…  Los Angeles?” I said and somehow felt an immediate need to apologize.

“Ow.  I’m so sorry,” he responded.

I looked at his squinting eyes:  This one was meaning well, I think.  His skin was brown and eroded by the exposure to the sun and to the demands of manual labor.  And at the same time, I knew that there was peace in the simplicity of his survival needs.

A cowboy hat with tattered straw edges covered his hairline, but judging by the streaks of gray in his eyebrows, his head was most likely silver haired.  Against the darkness of the skin, his baby-blue eyes stood out and promised me that I was talking to a good one.  I quickly permitted for a flash of memory of my own old man — (What would he look like, now?) — and I decided that this one had to be meaning well.

“She ain’t so bad,” I said.  I shook my head and smiled from underneath my own embarrassment on behalf of the City that everyone was so willing to leave.  The moderately pleasant woman handing me my smoothie from behind the counter looked sideways at the cowboy, then at me.

So, I reiterated to them both:  “No, really.  She ain’t so bad.”

The night before I fled Her city limits, I took a risk and climbed up onto the 10 East.  I was initially going to zoom through side streets, out of habit, while circumventing the intersecting onramps and the already buzzing malls.  But when nearing a freeway underpass, I noticed the dashing by of traffic headlights.  The cars were moving for a change, and so I took a risk.

At first, my path had to be negotiated with an impatient female driver of some Japanese-made SUV on her way to the Valley:  She demanded her right of way toward the 405 merger by scowling and widening of her heavily made-up eyes at me, through her tinted, rolled-up windows.

“I’m not the one driving with an iPhone glued to her ear,” I thought, and motioned for her to pass.

She zoomed in front of me, honked in a departing act of her aggression, then stepped on it.

“Yeah. You, too!” I muttered in response.  “You fuckin’…”

My navigation of the remaining six miles, however, lacked in adventures.  In silence, I calmed down.

The cars were moving, and for the first time, I noticed the clearness of the night.  It had been raining for a day and a half, and the asphalt in my lane was black and glistening.  On the North side of the freeway, in the crisp, clear air I noticed the square skyscrapers, all lit up in silver.  Is that Downtown?  Nope, too soon for that.

I rolled down my windows.  The air was crisp.  The City was quiet.  She smelled like sweating piles of leaves, pine sap and chimneys.  The hellish pace of the looming holidays was coming upon us; and with the exception of the City’s newcomers, flooding her with their yet un-jaded dreams, Her every resident would begin to plot escape routes.

“She ain’t so bad,” I thought, that night.

I was, however, already that someone who’d preplanned her routes out of the City.  To stick around would either turn out painfully lonely or exhaustingly disappointing.

And so, a day before the year’s first giant migration would begin, I drove out.  At first, my way had to be negotiated along the loop of the 405 merger.  But on the next Northbound freeway and for at least two hundred miles, the traffic would begin to move.

I studied the faces of the other drivers.  The further North I drove, the more relaxed the others would appear.  The permanent tension between my eyebrows softened, and I would talk myself out of my repertory of glares and profanity.

A gray-haired couple, cooped up inside their vintage Volvo hatchback along my ride through Santa Barbara, wasn’t talking.  But in their intimate silence, they seemed to be conspiring against the world.  A college-age girl in a white Honda with writing on its side window kept fiddling with her radio.  Had she forgotten the tensions at the Thanksgiving table of last year, or was she born to parents who loved her unconditionally?

Couples with strapped-in children in the backseats seemed talkative as they discussed the lengths of their future stays at each other’s in-laws.  The brown faces of Mexican workers seemed fancy free no matter the content of their weathered trucks:  Some could be working in the vineyards, others — driving to the wealthy ‘hoods of Cambria and Morro Bay.  The eyes of truck drivers appeared tired but content:  Migrating through the country always promised an escape from obligations and other people’s stress.

I realized that other travelers kept their eyes on their destinations.  They drove to:  To places and addresses of their beloveds.  To me, however, my from — was what propelled me:

From Her — I’ve learned to get away.  From Her — I’ve learned to leave and somehow learn while leaving.  But the more froms I would accumulate, the more often I found myself thinking, “She ain’t so bad” — when heading back.

“… And Our Way Is: On The Road Again.”

Which way?

Northward.  Onward.

I leap up.  I must’ve drifted off.

I’m pretty sure I was just dreaming, redefining my stories in my resting state.  Redefining memories of my family, understanding the departures of those who were supposed to stand in — for my loves.  Remembering, memorizing, redefining my journeys.  Maybe it was a bump in the road or my road partner’s drumming on the steering wheel, but I wake up.

“Ventura?” I recognize it immediately.

He looks at me out of the corner of his eye:  “Yep.”

Seaward.

The Ocean over his shoulder is blending with the sky.  The glorious giant is calm today.  In shallow spots, it shimmers with emeralds.  A single pier jots out.  At the end of it, there sits a seafood joint that emits the smell of overcooked frying oil.  I wonder if it can be smelled under the pier, where flocks of homeless teenagers and aging hippies reconvene before the rain.

There is that white metal bridge of the railroad that runs through the town and always hums throughout the night instead of the roaring Ocean.  I should take a train up here, sometimes, for an adventure.  The traffic of LA has been long surpassed, but the cluster fuck of that two-lane Santa Barbara stretch is coming up, right around the bend.

Yep, here we go:  The perfectly manicured golf courses to the right of me and the Spanish villas flocking the greenery of the mountains gives away the higher expectations of the locals on their standards of living.  Time moves slower here, more obediently.  That’s one of the biggest expectations that money can buy.

Where to?

Northward.  Forward.

Past Seaward.

After a few more miles north, we hit the land of ranches.  Brown wooden signs with names of farms and modest advertisements for their produce begin to mark our mileage.  The mountains seem more arid here, yet somehow the land seems more prosperous.  After the yet another dry summer, the greenery is starting to come back.  It will never look like the East Coast out here.  But neither will my adventures be the same.

I keep on moving, dreaming, redefining.  I draw up maps of future trajectories, but even I know better:  That when it comes to dreams, I’ve gotta roll with it.  

A few more miles up and the wondering cattle starts to punctuate the more even greenery.  They are like commas in black ink.  The ellipses.  The horses here are more red, and they match the clay colored rocks protruding in between the green.

Were we to take the 1 Northward, the terrain would have been much prettier.  But the 101 is slightly more efficient.  Besides, if offers up a thrill of weaving in between the mountains, where the eye can easily miss all signs of rising elevation, but the ears can’t help it and plug up.  I get that same sensation when taking off in steel birds from the giant airports of Moscow, San Francisco and New York.  In those moments, whereI’ve come from seems to give room to where I’m heading.  And I continue to redefine the journey.

Lompoc comes and stays behind.  I’ve once leapt out of a steel bird here; and the fear of falling did not get to live in me, for long.  After enough falls, it would become a way of being.  Free falling was just another form of flying.

Which way?

Not downward, but onward.

Onward and free.

In fifty more miles, we reach the vineyards.  They cling to the sides of these heels like patches of cotton upon a corduroy or velvet jacket with thinning material on its elbow.  Some patches are golden.  They look harvested and ready to retire.  Others are garnet red and brown.  Above the ones that are bright green I notice thin hairs of silver tinsel in the air.

“Is that to ward off the birds?” I ask my road partner.

He answers indirectly:  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

And it is.

It is quite beautiful up here, and I am tempted to pull off the road and temporarily forget about my general direction.  Perhaps, it matters little:  As to where I’m heading and how fast.  But the way (as in the manner, and my manner is always grateful) must make the only difference in the end.

“Let Me Sleep All Night in Your Soul Kitchen.”

In grandma’s house, there were no days of waking late.  They could’ve been such days, but it would take some stubborn courage to not succumb to my innate Russian guilt and to stay in bed while the rest of the household filled with busy noises.

The women would always rise first.  My grandma was the first to make it to the kitchen, and after the dry footsteps of her bare, callused feet against the wooden floor, intermixed with the thumping of her wooden cane, I’d soon smell the smoke of an oil lamp that she’d start inside a cove of a stone stove, in the corner.

That thing took up half the room:  Built of wood and red brick, the stove was the oldest characteristic of a traditional rural Russian home.  Its purpose was not only for cooking, upon a single metal plate located right above the fire pit; but for the heating of the entire house.  So, the bedroom was often located on the other side of it.  The stove was always painted with white chalk; and after a few of my un-welcomed visits of my grandma’s cot, where I would try to warm up my feet but leave markings on the wall, the men of the house took turns repainting that damn thing, upon the grouchy old woman’s instructions.

“Little gypsy children have dirty little feet,” my grandfather would joke through the side of his mouth in which he perpetually held a slowly fuming pipe.

Per old woman’s instructions, he was not allowed to smoke in the house.  So, I’d shrug my skinny shoulders knowing that I too had some info on him that could get him also in trouble, really fast.

The fire pit was covered with a rusty door on squeaky hinges.  The pots were stored onto the shelves along its wall.  But right on top of the structure, one could pile up blankets and pillows stuffed with duck feathers — and sleep.  But in my grandma’s house, no living soul was welcome to lounge around up there.  (No soul was welcome to lounge around anywhere, really; because the family’s collective labor was its own religion. Except on Sundays:  And then, there would be church.)

Two curtains, each about three meters long, were hung to hide the gap between the top of the stove and the ceiling.  So narrow was the opening, a grown man would have to climb up there from the side and remain reclining.  But I could sit up and lean against the pillar that lead up to the chimney; which I would still do whenever I would not be caught.  I’d drag up my toys, but mostly books; and spend hours at a time, frying my soles against the hot stones.  Some days, the heat would be expiring until the adults returned and started another fire.  But late at night, after the dinner had been cooked, the pots — soaked in a tub of warm, soapy water, then rinsed under the spout sticking out from the wall of the house, outside — the stove was hot.  The wooden floor of the kitchen had to be scrubbed every night; and under the strict overlooking eyes of the old woman, the young wives of her sons would find themselves on hands and knees.  These chores would make the women be the last to bathe.  They’d be the first to rise — and last to rest.

It would require a conspiracy between my motha and I for me to sneak up into the gap behind the curtains.  First, she’d push me up, then store the drying cast iron pots in a row and pile them up in such a way, they’d create a wall behind which I could hide, if only I could hold still and flat on my back.

“You must be quiet like a spy.  Shhh!” my motha’s hiss at me while winking and tucking me in.  Her smirking eyes would tickle my insides with anxiety:  at the adventure and the danger of being discovered by the old woman.

“‘Cause if she finds you,” motha’d warn me, “she’ll kick both gypsies out!”

I wasn’t sure where motha and I would have to go if my grandma followed through with that punishment.  And I was definitely confused at why my father would not follow us into our homeless adventure.  But the threat seemed real enough to keep me snickering into the pillow — from little fear but mostly the thrill.

I’d hear my motha’s hands moving the floor rag quickly and impatiently.  I’d hear the dry footsteps and the cane of the old woman spying on her, while muttering passive-aggressive instructions on how to do it better.  The men would come inside the house together and they would wash their faces and their sweaty necks above a metal sink in the corner, while the women helped by pouring water from aluminum cups.  The men would puff and spray liquids from their mouths and noses; and I would hear the women’s chuckles, as the cold splatters landed on their exposed arms and chests.

“I’ll get you after she goes to sleep,” my motha’d promise, and as the house settled down, I’d play a guessing game with others‘ noises and shadows upon the walls and ceiling.

And sometimes, I’d wake up to another day of never rising late.  Most likely, I would have drifted into slumber while waiting for my motha to come back.  Then, I would have to wait some more, upon a now cold stove, while listening to the noises of the waking household.

I couldn’t yet understand the griefs and grudges that the adults held against each other.  But from behind the closed curtains, I could watch their uncensored selves and make up stories.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

If it snowed on New Year’s, it would have to mean good luck.  That’s what the old folks said.  Or, so my motha told me.

To me, it would just mean magic:  That no matter how dry the winter promised to be, we could wake up to an already sleepy town, with mellow women and hungover men; and we would move ever so slowly — ever so gently, for a change — through a brand new sheet of snow.  It would mean a clean slate.  A promise of a new beginning.  A hidden prayer — for a better year.

The only citizens of the town still giddy from the night before would be the children.  For us, the first of every year meant gifts under the sparkling pine trees in the living-room.  And it meant truce, for all of us:  for the tired adults, tortured by survival; for unhappily married parents; for the intrusive force of poverty, uncertainly and chaos. Truce, on just that one day.  Truce.

The preparations for the celebration at midnight would be in full swing, in almost every household.  Motha would prepare for it, weeks before.  She’d start with a new haircut, and possibly new color on her nails.  Regardless the tight budget affected daily by inflation, she’d manage to whip out a new outfit for herself.

The hunt for foods would begin several weeks before the holiday.  Things would be preserved.  Money — borrowed, portioned out.  And just a couple days before the actual Eve, the cooking would begin.

School, of course, would be out for me; and I was expected to help out in the kitchen for that week.  Nothing crucially important though:  Peeling of potatoes or scaling of pickled fish.  I would boil eggs and root vegetables for the layered Russian salads.  I’d roast parts of chicken or grind the meat for the stuffing of cabbage parcels.  I would battle with pots of rice that took forever to get soft, and then would burn immediately.

Some days, I would be trapped inside while watching pots of stews or motha’s reinvented borscht.  And as I tended to the burners, I studied the darkening sky for any promises of snow.  Because, despite the obvious presence of poverty and chaos in our lives, snow on the Eve would still mean magic — if not some better luck.

On the last day of preparations, motha would be chaotic.  All day long, she would run out in her leather, high-heeled boots:  to get her hair done, to pick-up a missing spice from a girlfriend across town; to drop off a gift to a high rank bureaucrat at the City Hall.  But mostly, she’d keep picking-up “deficits”, all over town:  produce, not necessarily delicacies, that we normally would not indulge in, any other time during the year.

Victorious, she would return:

“Hey, little one!  Look at this here!” she’d holler me out of my bedroom.

Just by the sound of her voice, I knew she was in a good mood.  I would emerge, with Tolstoy under my armpit, and find her beautiful flushed face in the hallway.  She’d have her make-up done, and for New Year’s, it would always entail sparkles.  The smell of crispy frost would intertwine with her perfume.

“So beautiful!” I’d think, and with my father’s eyes I’d understand the power of that woman’s witchcraft.

And then, I’d see the fox fur collar of her coat glistening with tiny drops of moisture.

“Is it snowing yet?” I’d say while motha, still in boots, would begin passing to me the tiniest jars of caviar or cans of smoked anchovies.

“I think it’s about to,” motha would respond, flirting.  (So beautiful!)

And for the first time in weeks, she’d suddenly remember that I was still a child.  And children only need magic, for survival.  Not wads of cash, or cans of “deficit”.  Not banners of protesting citizens against the old demagogues or the faces of the newest heros.  We do not need untimely compassion toward the vices of our parents.  We wish to know no gossip and no strife.

Just truce, if only on one day for every year.  Just the simple magic — of truce.

Motha would retreat into the kitchen and immediately start banging metals.  I’d brace myself for more work.

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

I would run out, in an unbuttoned coat.  On every flight of stairs, new smells would smack my nose from every household.  To call upon my friends would be useless on that last day of the year.  Like me, my girlfriends grew up way too quickly and would be cooking in the kitchen until the arrival of their guests.  But in magic, I rarely needed company.

I wouldn’t even go very far:  Just to the lawn in front of our apartment building.  I’d watch the waltz of snowflakes against the darkening sky.  They would catch the light of egg yolk foam colored street lights and descend onto my mittens of rabbit fur.  There would be not enough snow on the ground to make braided patterns with me feet yet.  But just the sight of a new beginning — would be magical enough.

Before heading back home, I’d look up to our window and often see my motha’s face.

“So beautiful!” I’d think and understand the magic of truce, if only once a year.

“I Change Shapes Just to Hide in This Place. But I’m Still, I’m Still — an Animal.”

I would have much rather gone out for a walk.  But stubbornly, yesterday, I began to run.

I ran mostly out of habit, and because I was running out of time.  But even as I changed my stride, from one block to the next, I still thought:

“I think I’d much rather be walking, right now.”

It had always been my thing:  to run.  In junior high, I’d run long distances.  I never thought of myself as being good at it.  It was just something that came easy.  And it happened way before I knew about meditation or understood transcendence of the mind.  To me, it simply granted the easiest excuse to be alone and not talking.  Just breathing and placing down my feet.  My breath would change throughout the course, and so would the stride.

Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground:  The soggy fields of Russia, and the uneven asphalt of Eastern Germany.  I’d study the way the surface would respond to the impact of my feet.  We had no knowledge of American footwear back then, so the cloth running shoes with thin rubber soles were the only type we knew.  And even as the surfaces would change — as I would change my continents — the thin-soled shoes remained my favorite choice:  In the gravelly passages of Central Park, and the dusty hills of Southern California.  

Other times, I would look ahead.  It was best to do so on an open track.  I wouldn’t strain my eyes for a strip of color marking the end of the course.  Instead, I would let my vision get blurry, and I would study the blending of objects in the endlessness of what’s ahead.  Things didn’t matter.  People would be accidental.  So, I would find the empty spaces of air ahead, and look at those.  That’s why running in the fall of Russia’s coastal cities had always been the easiest.  The fog already blurred my vision, and all I would feel was — the change in breath and stride.

I don’t remember being tired, as a kid; and not until the first menstrual cycles of my classmates, did I begin to overhear excuses for not running.  My thin, balletic body was one of the last to be introduced to its new function that made my female contemporaries embarrassed and secretive among each other.  But even when it happened to me, I kept up with my running.  On bleeding days, I would wear longer sweaters and tighter underwear; but the slow, moaning ache in my lower stomach would not matter.  It would change my stride a little:  I would prefer to run lighter then, as if doing a chasse step across a dance floor.  I’d land on my toes, as I would when leaping over strewn blankets on a lake’s bank in my grandma’s village in the Far East, while I myself dashed for the water:  to join other sunbathing kids and to avoid my motha’s strict instructions to put on sunblock.  (But secretly, I hoped that my silly chasse step would make her laugh and shake her head, with bangs getting into her glistening eyes.)

The days of tiredness that would seduce me out of running would happen much, much later.  They would happen in the late mornings of waking after a graveyard shift at a Westchester diner.  A pair of ugly nursing shoes with sole support and splatters of dried foods would be the only visual reminder of the night before.  And the heavy lead-like weight of my calves would talk me out of running.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I’d holler down the hallway with three other doors.

And if the bathroom at the end of it was free, I’d forget about the lead-filled feeling in my calves and make a run for it, while pounding my heels into the carpeted floor.

Much later in my running history, I would begin to study people.  It had to happen in California where exercise is fashion; and depending on one’s routine, we all belong to little clans.  When running with others, it would propel me, out of competition, anger or inspiration.  Sometimes, I’d follow their footsteps like a shadow of compassion:  The sweaty faces of lonesome hikers in the Hollywood Hills, or the bright eyes of those rad people of San Francisco who’d made a life out of NOT giving up.

When running stubbornly, yesterday, I thought of the history of my strides; and then, began trying them on.  At first, I ran tiredly, as if I was back to working my way through college, in Westchester, New York.  Then, I began to push, hitting the ground with my heel (so unhealthy!) — out of anger and never wanting to give up.  The chasse step would eventually take over, and the lightness of it spread up my body, up to my lungs and face.

That’s when I saw him:  A headless man walking slowly ahead.  At first, I thought he may have dropped something to the ground and was now retracing his steps.  But as he continued slowly placing his feet onto the smooth pavement of the quiet neighborhood, I realized he was a victim of arthritis, age, and most likely incredible loss.  He was hunched over so low, I could not see his head, as I ran up on him, from behind.  I slowed down and began following his footsteps.

A pair of khaki shorts revealed his thin, brown legs, covered with sores and age spots.  His shoes were worn out and the thick white socks were pulled halfway up his calves.  I studied his stride:  He dragged each foot ahead, then struggled to gain balance.  Then, repeat.  Stubbornly.

He would much rather have been walking, yesterday, alone and not talking.  I shook off the idea of offering help (this was the time when charity would have been offensive); passed him quietly, and began to run.

Stubbornly.