Tag Archives: choice

The Other Half

(Continued from July 1st, 2012.)

At the end of the summer, Marinka aimed to take entrance exams to the two top medical institutes in the city.  Mother offered to pull some strings:  The woman was never at a lack of connects.  But I’ve gotta give it to sis!  She was determined to get in on the basis of her merit alone.  (In those days, the idealism of the Russian youth tended to have a longer expiration date.  Skepticism stepped in much later, flooding anywhere where the Soviet control of information gave room.)

So, after half of June spent on cramming for her high school finals, Marinka hibernated for about week; then, immediately resumed her studies.  Mother wasn’t thrilled about it:

“Now, instead just one bookworm, I have two Oblomovas in the house!”

Those days, I began to wonder about what constituted a woman’s happiness.  Mother, whose only expression of joy was overly stretched, forced —  a sort of a strained delirium — didn’t strike me as genuine, but something quite the opposite, nearing insanity.  She wasn’t happy in the way that Olya Morozova seemed, in her mother’s altered dress, on her own wedding day.  And any time I’d seen her since, blissfully pregnant or contemplatively picking tomatoes at a market on weekends, she looked like someone composing a complicated orchestral movement:  Lost in thoughts that she desired, never seeking approval (and why would she need it, with her moderate beauty, always basking in adoration?); content but not out of love or out of curiosity; fluid, available; kind.

For the first few weeks, mother struggled with the no longer vague signs of her oldest daughter’s ambition.  She sized up our bunk beds, branding us with the name of the biggest lazy ass in the whole of Russian literature:  Oblomov.  Other times, she tempted us with distractions:  a rerun of Santa Barbara or the news of other women’s misfortunes.  It would happen mostly in that late afternoon hour, when mother, having returned yet again from a day of hunting for discounts and gossip, was expected to be in the kitchen.  And we were expected to assist, simply because we were daughters.  And therefore born female.  And therefore, we had no choice.  (But one always had a choice, even in the country that didn’t advertise freedom.  We could choose the other way:  the way outside of the expected, of the presumed.)

In response to the call for confrontation, I listened to my sis remain motionless above my head.  It gave me the courage to stay sprawled out on my stomach as well, despite the signs of mother’s fuming in the doorway.  The smell of her perfume lurked more oppressively than her silence.  The anxiety of always, somehow, being perpetually wrong — inappropriate, incorrect — stirred in my chest.  What was to happen?

Mother exhaled audibly, turned on her heels and stormed out of our room, making a ruckus with the bamboo curtains in the doorway.  I held my breath, just in case of her abrupt return; until a few moments later, the kitchen appliances began tuning into an orchestra of percussions.  I suppose a light touch does not belong to every woman; and our mother exorcised her frustrations via the objects that reminded her of domesticity.

I slathered up the ladder to Marinka’s bed and rested my chin on the last plank:

Sis looked up:  “Hey, monkey.”  She stopped chewing on her pencil for long enough to smile faintly, as if to herself.  There was that mystery, again; the place of thoughts where women departed — to create, to process, to understand; or maybe rather to mourn, or to escape.

“Oooh,” I bulged out my eyes in the best dramatic delivery I’d inherited from mom, hissing:  “Mom’s pee-ssed!”

Marinka smirked — inhaled — and resumed making a meal out of her pencil again.  The two females had been in a bickering war this entire summer.  Still, sis would not speak unkindly of our mother, at least not to me.  To be the last to abandon her graces was my sister’s route to growing up.  Descending into silence, she never gossiped in return these days, only listened whenever mother couldn’t hold it in.

Sis was curled up in the corner or plastered against the wall.  She looked dewy and flushed.  Her eyes shined with the symptoms of the cooped-up syndrome.  She appeared sleepy and slightly dazed.  Colorful drawings of human insides, notebooks, flashcards, a pile of reference encyclopedias borrowed from the library, a tipi of stacked colored pencils were spread on top of the purple blanket we’d inherited from our grandmother in Siberia.  The old woman had died having accumulated nothing.

I watched Marinka’s plump lips mouth off unpronounceable terms.  Mean smart! Ignoring my adoration (which was always too nosy or too hyper anyway), she leaned forward to flip a page; and, as she sometimes did in obedience to the flood of her kindness, grazed the top of my head with her sharp nails.

In those moments, oh, how I missed her already!

 

Some afternoons, when the heat became so unbearable not even the open windows offered much relief, we agreed to leave the house for the river bank.  Half the town would have had the same idea by then.  Mother grumbled about how we had wasted half a day on our shenanigans; yet, from the way she readied herself — nosily, running in her bra between the closets and the bathroom I wondered if she relished arriving to a packed beach.  Giant straw hats with floppy edges were matched to colorful cotton sarafans with wide skirts that blew up at all the wrong times.  There was a weightiness to most of mother’s possessions.

I was ordered to carry our picnic basket.  Marinka was loaded up with blankets, towels and old linen sheets.  We treaded ahead, while mother joined and laughed with various families, also en route to the river.

As predicted, everyone and their mother was out catching a break from the afternoon sun.  The tilted bank was dressed with a smog of accumulated heat.  For days, it hadn’t let up.  Sheets and towels were splattered on top of yellowing grass, and families in various states of undress moved around sluggishly.  Seemingly every kid in town, with the exception of the Slow Vanya who was home-schooled all of his life, was now squealing and splashing in the water.

As soon as we reached the top of the hill, an abrasive smell of fresh cow dung greeted us when the barely palpable breeze blew in our direction:

“Oh.  We’ve missed the collective bath!” Marinka said under her breath.  She was becoming funnier, too.

En route to and from their feeding ground, the farm cows were led into the river daily, to cool down and to get a break from the murders of flies.   They must’ve just left.

Without getting up, the mothers were already hollering their instructions to the frenetic children again:

“Be careful, Irotchka!”

“Sasha!  Don’t manhandle your sister!”

“What did I tell you about swimming that far?!  MASHA!”

There were some fathers who got into the water on occasion, but they immediately got flocked by their own and other people’s children with runny noses and, for whatever reason, fatherless, for that day.

Our stuff hadn’t hit the ground, yet I was already squirming out of my clothes and hauling ass toward the water.  Marinka dropped her load and scurried off after me, still in her jeans skirt with rhinestones on her pockets.

“Marina!  Please watch where she goes!” mother, already slathering herself with sunflower oil in a company of her girlfriends, barely took notice of the fact that my beautiful, olive-skinned sister shed a few shades and turned nearly pale with terror.

She stopped.  “Mama?  She’s fine!”

I too looked back.  Seemingly every hairy male appeared to have propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at my sister’s behind.  Mother was already gone, having departed quickly from any parental awareness.  Marinka was expected to step in.

I slowed down and waited for my sister to catch up.

“If you’re lonely, I don’t have to go in.”  Devotedly, I looked up at my sis.  She seemed so out of place here, somehow kinder than the rest!

“It’s fine, my monkey,” she reached for my hand and looked ahead, at the glistening water at the other edge of the river, and the field of sunflowers there; or possibly further beyond all that, maybe somewhere where her life was going to begin.

“Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy Are Drifting Through My Opened Mind…”

Sorting it out.  Bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.  An echo of facts — here.  A token of shared memories — there.

Sorting it out, for a sliver of some truth…

But that’s where it gets tricky:  My truth — does not equal their truth.

With my family, I’ve taken the easier way out, according to them.  For whom exactly have I made it easy, though?  I’ve made it easier on them, NOT on myself.  My truth — were it revealed — would break their little hearts:

“We didn’t know.  We’re sorry.  What a waste!”

Ideally, my truth would actually deserve their compassion.  For, in my truth, survival has been difficult, yes (and it is such, most of the time); but in the choices that it took to do it — my survival has been tragic.

When one starts from the bottom and walks the tight rope of having no such option as to fail, the choices suddenly become quite brutal.  They are self-serving most of the time.  They are uncivil and mostly driven by fear.  Because to fall down, in such a case, means having no place to land; no home to crawl back to, where by the means of heritage or hopefully some unconditional love one could be healed, recovered, reinvigorated.  One could begin again, and try again, if only one could have a home.  But having walked away from family — means having no choice and no space in which I could afford mistakes.

The mistakes that I have made, since orphaning myself — by choice — have taken years to actually forgive.  In most cases, that forgiveness demanded more walking away:  from the living witnesses; from those who have promised to step in, in place of missing family, and then gave up.  And from my own wrongdoing self.  And it is my truth that I hold no grudge; but in those case (of mistakes), forgiveness has demanded silence.  Because, as I have learned by walking away from my own family:  Their truth — will never equal mine.  So, I prefer to walk away, in silence — yes.

The way one justifies survival is not up to me to judge.  In their truths — in anyone’s truth — survival is difficult, yes.  (And it is such, most of the time.)  When it turns out to be tragic — it asks for myths:  Justifications for one’s actions.  And so we choose to make up our own truths, not necessarily lies, but truths — the way we see them:  Truths by which we choose to stand, in order to avoid self-judgement.  Are they delusions?  Maybe.  But when survival’s tragic — they may be the only way to go, without losing one’s mind to sorrow.

A decade of delusions in my family is ending with a crunch time.  We have been separated for long enough to acquire myths about each other.  And after all these years, I am the one to make a choice — to go back, so that we could finally compare our truths.

Their truths — will never equal mine.  I know that.  But neither do I any longer want that.  I simply want to hear their side of it, and give them mine; so that we can put it all to rest.

What made me do it?  It had to be my mother’s face that I began to see in the reflection of my own.  A lifetime of walking away — from truths — has compressed that woman’s forehead into an accordion of guilt.  And silences — from all the abandoned witnesses and failed stand-ins for her loves — are floating above her head, like storm clouds waiting to release their electrical wraths.

One day, that storm may break out.  Who could possibly survive its horror?  The flood of all the choked tears and the thunder of the silenced truths would then create a havoc.  Her truths — would break the oblivious hearts of those from whom she’s walked away.  And that’s the heritage I do not wish to carry, any longer.

I’m going back then.  I am reversing the pattern of the family — and going back.  I know better than the delusions of my mother:  That their truths — will equal mine.  They won’t.

But their truths may give me answers to the eventual questions of my firstborn, who has been murmuring into my dreams since I have managed to find a love that stays.  This time, I haven’t walked away.  This time, I have allowed for the flexibility of truths.  This time — I HAVE FORGIVEN.

So, I’m going back then:  to sort it out, bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.   A sliver of some truth, so that we could all move on.

“When I Was Just a Little Girl, I Asked My Motha, ‘What Will I Be?'”

She’s wearing a pair of purple tights and a shirt with stripes of lemon and lime.  Her tiny ankle socks match the overall yellowish-green of the shirt, and her feet are trying to wrap around the baby-size chair that used to belong to her younger self (not much younger though, considering she is not even in her teens yet.)

I notice the purple outline around the collar of the shirt:

“Those are some courageous color combos, my tiny one!” I nearly say out loud, but then I stop myself:  Getting off on embarrassing a child would make me a major shithead!

And it’s not even mytype of purple either — but it is hers — as we’d figured out over the years.  But, actually, her favorite color is green, so she often secretly dedicates her purple choices — to me.  Her green is democratic:  She likes most shades of it.  Although, come to think of it, I’ve never really asked.  When ever had I become one of those silly grown-ups — to dare taking these details for granted!

Her most heartbreaking features are her mother’s freckles and her father’s strawberry chin.  From the way the sunlight hits her face, I notice the freckles — they now take up her whole cheeks, from the bridge of the nose and up to the temples; and I suppress a desire to hug her:  She’s all grown up now — and way too mature for my mushy nonsense.  So, I sort of let her dictate the boundaries, on her terms; and keep my grown-up business to myself.

For the last hour, she’s been playing with her father’s iPhone, pulling up songs we both might like.  Some tunes are original.  Others — are a remake by Glee:  all the rave among the kids these days.  (And if it weren’t for her, I would have never known it:  I AM a grown-up, after all!)

Here comes the widely popular tune of this year:  “There’s a fire starting in my heart…”

“Do you like Adele?” she has once asked me before, while hanging out in my bedroom.  It made for a long discussion, that night, and we each took turns browsing YouTube for our favorite tunes and dancing.  Yes, actually dancing:  She, non-vainly, and I — unleashed by her innocence.

“Do you like Adele?” she echos now, looking up at me past her long bangs.

I like the way she wears her hair:  It’s always shiny and sleek, never the tumbleweed seen in the photographs of me when I was her age.

We have both grown up as tomboys:  I, perpetually clad in sweats as soon as I could get out of my itchy uniform, was always trying to outrun the boys and to lead the armies of first-graders in search of treasures on our town’s rooftops.  She — kicks ass at soccer, climbs trees, plays handball; rides bicycles and rollerblades, masterfully and much better than me; and she always looks out for those who are tinier and more helpless.  She is kind.  She is always kind.  For me, kindness, by now, takes discipline.  To her — it’s still second nature.  Or the first.

We’ve grown up under much different restrictions:  I was bound to endless rules by my motha, the pedagogue, and the regulations of bureaucrats that dictated our lives.  She, however, is ruled by common sense.  Like her American-born parents, she is in tune with the concept of freedom and is already more aware of her rights and liberties at the age of ten.  Unlike me, she also knows that choices come with a consequence.

Like this one — of her procrastinating on her homework for the sake keeping me company.

“Set me free, why don’t cha, baby?!” — the girl cast of Glee is now hollering my favorite song.

“Love that song!” I mumble.  But she is already sneaking a peak over her shoulder and suppressing a gleeful smile.  She knows.

Alright!  Enough of the nonsense:  It’s time for the homework!  Or, so the adults tell her.

“Last one!  Last one, I promise!” she says, but doesn’t plead.  She is SO much cooler than me!  Cooler than I’ve ever been!

It’s Glee, again:  “I’m walking on sunshine, wooah!”

In a matter of seconds, she bounces, puts the iPhone away, whips out her backpack and plops down in a chair across the table from me.  When she thinks, she looks away (sometimes chewing on a pencil):  My own childhood habit.  Which dreams is she sizing up, right now?  What brave escapes is she plotting?

Bright and self-sufficient, she completes the work effortlessly, in a matter of minutes.  No problem.  She never gives the grown-ups a problem.  Neither did I.  It’s easier that way:  keeps you clear of their nonsense.

But she does say though:

“I wish eight went into 60 evenly.”

I suppress a chuckle — and another hug.  I still wish for such things all the time, my tiny one!  And that — still! — must be just a matter of my innocence; or what’s left of it.

Juliette Binoche

“And She’s Never Seen with Pin Curls in Her Hair.”

It would take her years to process the truth.  Not the truth of the last moment:  Her, weeping at the airport into the shoulder seam of a man’s sweatshirt.  She was upping the ante, that day.  Making the ultimate bet, the win of which — would be her staying.  (At least, she thought that was the win she’d wanted, at that last moment.)

And it was not the truth that he had been feeding her for years.  No, not his truth:  The truth that he begged her to accept, just so that he could buy himself more time.  So that he could continue to have it both ways.  Both women.

But how much more time could a man need?  He had already taken six years out of her life.  Six years out of her youth — and out of her better self.

When they first met, she still had a cherubic face:  The same face he would’ve seen had he expressed an interest in seeing photos of her younger self.  Her better self:  The self before the sans six years had happened.  It would’ve foretold the face of their firstborn, if he were to have any courage to follow through with the affair.

But then, perhaps, it was not a question of courage.  It was quite possible that the matter narrowed down to the initial intention.  Down, down went the spiral, to the root of the matter.  On every loop, their faces changed.  Their characters changed slightly, altered by each other:  And that was the only way she could expect to matter, in the end.  In the truth of that last moment, and beyond.  After six years, she would have changed a man.  She had happened to him.  And after her happening, he had to have changed.

She failed to change him for the better.  She couldn’t as much as change his mind to make her life — his first choice.  For the duration of the affair, she would remain the back-up; the retreat in which he hid when things weren’t well at home.  She would remain a fantasy.  The Other Woman:  The one that fabricated her own calendar, rescheduled her holidays and channeled each day toward the brief line-up of hours when she would see him; then, dismiss the rest.  The one that pressured herself into better housekeeping, into whipping up gourmet meals and shaping her body into the best he could have had.  His life’s first choice.

In literature, women like her were despised.  They were often written mean, or needy; with serious daddy issues.  Complete head cases, in films these women went berserk; and they would do the unthinkable things that later justified their suffering.  They were insecure, although often very beautiful.  Their puffy faces waited by the door on Christmas, and by the phone on birthdays.  They were the back-ups, forever waiting for arrivals.  They fed themselves on leftovers of loves.  The paupers.  The self-imposed outcasts.  And their faces — sans the years that their lovers took out of their better selves — were the faces she never hoped to see in the reflection of closed store fronts, by which she, too, had waited all these years.

“A bright girl!” she had been called before.  A bit naive, perhaps, but not an idiot.  But it would take her years:  because she wanted to believe that she was good enough to change his mind.  Good enough to deserve love.

Up, up went the spiral, up to the clarity of truth.  Not the truth that she had wanted to believe so desperately.  Not the truth that may have been actual, when the lovers were intertwined:  In those moments, he may have loved her; but no more than he loved himself.  He too had to be thinking that he deserved love, that he deserved to have it both ways.  That he deserved — both women.

The truth was to be found in the initial intention:  The root of the matter.  He never wanted her for keeps.  An adventure, an escape from the dissatisfactions of his chosen life.  In his chosen wife.  That was the matter:  He felt he deserved the comforts of the chosen wife and the fantasy — of the Other Woman.  He deserved both.

The problem was:  She was a good woman.  A good girl.  “A bright one”.  And to protect himself from the guilt, he had to tarnish her.  So, he would leave it up to her — to make the choice to stay.  To be the back-up.  He left it in her hands to keep on waiting, while he continued — to come back.

And he would have kept going until she lost the memory of her better self and would become that woman:  that Other Woman, with puffy-faced reflections and reconstructed calendars.  The pauper.  The disregarded.

She would have lost her self-respect, and how could anyone respect a girl like that?  So, he wouldn’t.  He left it in her hands — to destroy her better self.  And that would always justify his choice of the chosen wife.

But in the truth of that last moment, she upped the ante:  He could either have her better self — or whatever was left of her, after the sans six years — or no self of hers at all.  She left him to his chosen life.

And in that last truth, the only person who deserved compassion (because she still would not receive his better love) — was the man’s Chosen Wife.

But hers — was a whole another story:

Of yet Another Woman.

Lost in Translation

It was like Kafka.

“World According to Russia,” she said to me over the phone. “Hello!”

“Um.  Hello?”

I was slightly taken back that someone in a Russian office would pick up after the first ring.

“Yes, hello,” she repeated.  “World According to Russia.  How can I help you?”

“Yes, um.  Hello… I mean:  Allo!” and that’s when I switched back to my native tongue, and I don’t know why.  “Zdravstvui’te!”

I was respectful but immediately nervous.  Whenever speaking to any Russian bureaucrat, I tend to lose a grasp on my otherwise unwavering — to some, obnoxious — self-esteem.

It makes no sense to English speakers, but there are several types of Russian.

“Well, it is like dialects?” an American would ask me.

No.  I’d rather think of it as this:  That the entire history of my dear tortured Motha’land had made a mark onto my native tongue of poetic beauty — by splitting it into as many personalities as there were regimes.

First, there is the pretty Russian, used mostly in literature:  I’m pretty good at that one, and I dig the way it translates.  Then, there is the Soviet street talk:  A blend of Yiddish and something crass and always funny, it is the most expressive of them all.

Motha speaks in that one well, and normally our chats result in my dashing for the bathroom, at the end.

“Who needz fuckingg Pilates, eh — vhen ve laugh and laugh like zis?!”  She would sometimes say that from behind my bathroom door, while I would clutch my bladder and beg her to “PLEASE!  STOP!”

She is right though:  My motha’s stand-up routine is the best form of ab workout I have ever known.  But I do not speak her language:  I only marvel at the way it turns its words from inside out, and it makes for such comedy, as a result.

The street talk of the contemporary Russians is something I’ve only briefly overheard on the lips of those hotheaded Muscovites, all clad in black leather jackets and American labels, whenever I catch them being interviewed by BBC.  Most of the time though, they tend to switch to English anyway, which then comes out eloquently and with a very little accent.  The tall female beauties speak in that tongue as well.  They are, however, most often accompanied by older men of stoic nature who speak on their behalf.  And when they speak to women, the men tend to address them slightly condescendingly, or like little girls.

The third personality of Russian — is the one I fear the most.  It is the one adopted by the Russian Consulates, bilingual politicians or lawyers in West Hollywood.  It’s not just legal lingo though.  Again:  It’s NOT a dialect!

This type of Russian is choppy, filled with acronyms and abbreviations that I have no skills for breaking down.  Instead, I panic, ask them to slow down; then, reiterate their statements again and again.  Considering that most bureaucrats are at a lack for time, such interactions don’t end well for me.  The people who should have the answers leave me to my own devices, while they, nearly irate, roll their eyes at my degree of helplessness and walk out on me — or hang up.

The woman on the phone had switched to Russian, too.  I have to give it to her:  She sounded quite pleasant, so far.  Not really perky, no; but pleasant nonetheless.  I guess she never knew who could be calling her.  It could be an American, and an American always expects a certain standard of customer service (the concept of which doesn’t even exist in my native tongue, no matter its personality).

“How can I help you, young woman?” she said to me, sounding almost aristocratic.

I relaxed a bit:  “Um.  Well.  I wanted to know about traveling to Russia with an American passport.”

There was a pause.  She didn’t budge.

“Would one need a visa?” I gave her a little more.

“But of course!”

Aha!  The way she said it almost sounded irate.  Was that a dumb question?  Or did I expect her to be rude?  I tried to sooth the situation.

“Um.  Okay.  Well.  How would one… go about…  THAT?  Da?”

“You would have to bring documentation that proves you’re no longer a Russian citizen.”

“Um.  Okay.  But isn’t having an American passport enough of a proof?”

“Young woman,” her voice got slightly terser.  “Do you know how many Russians live here with both passports?”

I didn’t know.

“Is that like dual citizenship?”  I jumped:  Look at me, being smart ‘n’ all!  But I did have to switch to English to deliver that.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the woman answered, also in English.

At any moment now, she would hang up on me, I thought.  She owed me nothing.  She was doing this for free.

“Um.  Okay.  What do I do to prove that I am an American and NOT a Russian citizen.”

“You would have to show us papers renouncing your Russian citizenship.”

“Renouncing?!”  That sounded harsh.  Nyet?!

But the answer was simply:  “Da.”

“Um.  Okay.  How do I do that?”

“You have to bring your Russian passport…”

“Well.  Yes, you see:  I do not have one.”

“Then, you must apply!”

The woman proceeded to breakdown timelines and fees.  I panicked and asked her to slow down.  The gist was this:  It would take half a grand to get the passport that I would then have to renounce.  In terms of time, I was looking at pretty much a year.

“Um.  What if I don’t renounce it?” I said.  (If I can help it, I’d rather never renounce anything in life.)

“Then, you still pay and wait to get the passport.”

There was more silence.  I wanted to reiterate, but the absurdity was pretty clear already.  There would be paperwork and fees, then a long wait.  And then, another stage of paperwork, and fees, and more long wait.  But at least, it sounded Russian!

The silence lasted.  The woman almost gave in:

“Unless you were born here…”  She was giving me an inch… a centimeter.

“No,” I said.  I wasn’t sure which language I was using at that point.

I think the woman sensed the shock, because she took some mercy on me:

“When did you come here, miss?”

“Um.  Sixteen years ago.”

“WHAT YEAR?” and just like that, she was about to get irate, again.

“Nineteen… Oh, I dunno.  1997, I think?”

“Ah, yes.  You’re one of those,” the woman said.  “You have no choice.”

“I Was in the House — When the House Burned Down.”

Trembling.  Waiting for clearer thoughts to come in.

Here comes one:

“How is it that I’m shivering in a 110-degree heat?”

That’ll do, for now.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently.

Standing on a street that to a bystander’s eye would appear idillic and “homey”, she wonders about the horrors that could be happening behind the closed doors of these same “homey” homes, with pretty white doors:  the quiet, muffled horrors of domestic violence.

“Beware — of pretty,” another thought comes in.

There is a reason why she has always loathed the sight of the white picket fence:  They reek of false advertisement and broken promises — of broken hearts.  And the heart that break due to the broken promise — takes longer to heal. She is now cradling her heart, in her heaving chest; but it would take her years to learn just how long the healing would take.

Her thinking is fragmented.  If only she could get a grip on this shivering:  If only she could catch her breath.  But the body takes its time.

There is a violence that lives in every body:  A violence that strikes at another — or at itself.  It always comes from the darkest corners of one’s soul and it prefers no audience.  But those whom we love the most often fall victim to it.

So, she is catching herself wonder about the suffering that others endure when love betrays its goodness.  It is much better to be thinking of others, in moments of extreme pain.  Because the end to her own pain — she cannot possibly see from here:  In the “homey” neighborhood that has broken its promise to her and found her homeless, in 110-degree heat.

Besides, the suffering of others should remind her that someone is always having it worse.

“How can it possibly be worse?!” another thought flings itself inside her throbbing head.

The chest is heaving.  The heart is beating fast:  It is not broken yet.

“Do people die — of broken hearts?” she thinks and sits down on the curb to catch her breath.  Is that what happens — in heart attacks?

A Heart:  Attacked.  That would be the name of her cause, if she were to stop breathing right now.

She stares at her feet.  The pedicure on her toes is of her own manufacturing.  She’s had a hand in that.  The chosen color is pink:  They have just passed Easter, on the calendar.  The pair of shoes, that she’s had very little time to peel on before leaping out of the house, are multicolored:  Each strap bears a neon shade.  When she first laid her eyes on them, on a shelf at Payless, she thought.

“When in the world would I wear those?!”

Now.  She is wearing them now.  And in a juxtaposition with her black tank top and blue bicycle shorts, they fail to make any sense at all.  She chuckles to herself:  Yes, she actually chuckles — while shivering — because she is thinking that she must look like a burnt house victim, right now.

And isn’t that what happened, anyway:  Her “homey” home has burnt down on its promise?  It has collapsed on itself, and no matter its false appearance from the outside, behind those pretty white doors and the white picket fence — one can only find ruins.

She shivers and looks over her shoulder at the sight of the house:

The perfectly groomed, neon green lawn — FAKE!

The deceivingly white and pink exterior — FALSE!

The beautiful rotunda window of its office space — LIARS!

A distorted face of a man has been watching her through that window.  She has just realized that.  He is puffy and unshaven, bewildered behind his thick-rimmed glasses.  His mouth begins opening once he notices her looking back.  He is that bug-eyed bottom-feeding fish that outlives the smaller bastards in a shared tank.  The existence of his type is necessary, in nature.  She knows that.  Symbi-fuckin’-osis!  But again, it would years before she sees his purpose in her life.

“GET THE FUCK OUT!” she can lipread on his gaping, bottom-feeding mouth.

“I hope I took my glasses with me,” another thought happens.

That’s when she realizes she’s actually not seeing the man:  She is remembering him, at this very moment.  The brain is taking in the memories:  The bits that it will then try so very hard to forget.

The shivering hasn’t subsided, but it has transformed into an all-over warmth that happens to the survivors of car wrecks.  This is:

The Body:  Coping.

That is the name of her current disease.

No, she wouldn’t die of A Heart:  Attacked.  Not on this day.  Her body has chosen to persevere, to survive the violence.

The shivering is violent.  The body is confronting brutality with its reserve of sudden energy.

This is what it takes — to survive:  To outlive the broken heart.

She wants to go to sleep but then realizes that it’ll be a while; for she has just leapt out of a burning home:  a “homey” home. The thought of anything too far ahead refuses to happen; and strangely calm, she is grateful for that. She thinks no more than five minutes ahead.

Not feeling her own body, she picks herself up off the curb and reaches for the giant black bag packed in the middle of the night.

And:  She.  Starts.  Walking.

It should be hard, in theory, to not know where she’s going.  She’s got no home.  She knows no shelter.

But she is only thinking of one step at a time — and only five minutes ahead.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently! — when you survive.

She’s chosen to survive.  It would begin when she starts walking.

Away.

“Freedom’s Just Another Word — for Nothing Left to Lose.”

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” 

Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”

I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly.  I could see myself:  A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.

I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown.  I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place.  My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions.  Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.

Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much.  A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.

As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.

She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed.  I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message.  It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news.  The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces.  It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness.  I was about to find out which.

My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.

“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.

“I know.  They are still on hold,” she answered.

The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine.  I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy.  My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.

The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes.  There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.

“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.

Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:

She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?

Make a list of all the things, they told me:  things to be placed inside her coffin.  Did I know which she had treasured the most?

Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted:  Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?

And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead?  (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath:  After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)

The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place.  No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes.  Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.

“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.

On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering.  They had wanted us to start early:  The first burial of the day.  And the morning would be so cold, and dewy.  The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you.  It means so much.

The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet.  The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad.  I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.

I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.

“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”

What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:

Where would I end up?  And would I end up free?

And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“But It’s Hard to Come Down — When You’re Up in the Air.”

“Where are you going?” P asked me on the phone during my monthly calls to Motha Russia, after I announced that I was busy packing.

“Eh.  A little bit here and there,” I answered while measuring the contents of my closet against the mouth of my giant suitcase, gaping open on the floor.  “Here and there.  You know.”

I haven’t really finalized my travel plans yet.  I mean:  I knew I was heading back to Motha Russia — eventually.  That explained the uproar currently happening in the family:  They haven’t seen me in sixteen years, so the homecoming trip promised to be loaded.

But I wasn’t making that daunting trip for another couple of months.  In the mean time, I was giving up my apartment and packing up my giant suitcase.

Apparently there was nothing out of the norm about the vagueness of my plans, because P was agreeing with me, quite enthusiastically:

“Da, da, da!” he said.  “I’m listening.”

Dad had always been on my side.  He had to be; because I never left him much of a choice but to get used to the nomadic habits of mine.  I mean:  All I ask for — is my freedom.  Is that so hard?

Penelope Cruz

But apparently, in order to accept my antsy temperament and the life-long addiction to wanderlust, I also ask for a lot of trust.  Trust was exactly what I relied on when I announced my initial decision — sixteen years ago — to leave Motha Russia in pursuit of my education abroad.  Trust was demanded when I later moved to New York, for the same reason; or when I committed the daunting trip back to Cali after my share of victories and defeats on the East Coast.

All along, my relocations were telegraphed to my folk back in Motha Russia on a monthly basis.  Considering the homeland chaos, I took it upon myself to keep the connection alive; and I would call, from wherever I landed.

“I’m here, for a little bit.  Here and there.  You know,” I’d say, while unpacking another giant suitcase.

As far as I was concerned, I was fulfilling my daughterly obligations beautifully.  So, whenever P would voice as much as a hesitation or a worry, I’d go bonkers:

“I mean…  All I’m asking for — is my freedom!  Is that so hard?”

P wouldn’t have much of a choice.  So, he would agree with me, quite enthusiastically:

“Nyet, nyet, nyet,” he’d say.  “I’m listening.”  (Dad had always been on my side.) 

No one knows the responsibility of freedom better — than those of us who vow our lives to its pursuit. 

I mean:  All I am asking for — is my freedom.  And all I am asking of my loves — is trust.

My addiction to wanderlust began in the first years of my life.  Mere months after my birth, P — who devoted his life to building the Soviet Empire as an Army man — was being relocated from the East Coast of Motha Russia into the less populated inlands.  The first couple of our moves would be done by train; and in the beginning of his career, P could track his ascent through the ranks by the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“You’d always sleep easily, on trains,” he’d say any time I told him about the utter calmness I feel these days, when on a railroad.

His bigger promotion would take us into the middle of the country — into much more brutal winters and lands.  For first time in my life, we would have to take a plane ride.

I wouldn’t be older than a year when motha packed me into a tiny suitcase that she kept unzipped on her lap during the 4-hour flight.  She would have to get inventive and make a transient crib out of it, stuffing it with a pillow.  I would be bundled up into a blanket and wrapped with a ribbon:  A tradition taught to Russian mothers by the brutal winters of my Motha’land.

For the duration of the flight, I wouldn’t fuss at all.

“All I could see from my seat — was your button nose peaking out of the tiny suitcase:  You were sleeping,” P would tell me whenever I confessed about the utter peace I always feel these days, when up in the air.

In order to feed my life-long addiction to wanderlust, I’ve had to grow up quite quickly.  Motha Russia wouldn’t leave my generation much of a choice after the collapse of the Soviet Empire that our parents devoted their lives to building.  So, instead of living in ruins, many of us chose to pursue a life — and an education — elsewhere.  So, we packed our tiny suitcases and we left.  We had to give up our childhood — and to grow up.

Because all we asked for — was our freedom.  And for my generation, it was indeed very, very hard.

Because all I’ve asked for — is my freedom.  And as someone who’s vowed her life to the pursuit of it, I’ve paid all the consequences of my choices in full — and they have indeed been very, very hard.

So:

“Da, da, da!  I’m listening!” P is always saying, quite enthusiastically, on the phone.

He — is always on my side.

And after sixteen years of my untimely adulthood, he agrees with my pursuit of that calmness and peace that I always feel when transient; when in pursuit of my self-education — when in pursuit of my freedom.

“When You Got Nothing — You Got Nothing To Lose.”

I was studying the face of a good man the other night…

“You jump to conclusions too fast,” my father would have said had I told him this story.  “Too trusting — that’s your problem.”

Dad is fearful, especially as a parent; and I can’t really judge the guy for that.  History has played a hideous prank on his country and his life, and it continues treating him and his people as dispensable.  Surely, there cannot be a bigger heartbreak than that.  There cannot be a bigger absurdity.  And I can’t really blame the poor guy caught in the midst of a Kafka play.  

So, I forgive him for his limitations, his shortcomings, his imposing fearfulness.  Instead, I stretch the boundaries of my unconditional love — of my compassion — and I choose to think of him as a good man.

My father — is a good, good man.

But I would never tell him this story:

I was studying the face of a good man the other night.  I barely knew him, but not once had I wondered whether he had made his share of mistakes in life, his share of missteps.  I suppose I was certain he had.  But they mattered little in that moment.

Because I chose to think of him as a good, good man.

(I AM too trusting — that’s my problem.)

And I listened.

He spoke to me of his travels, of leaving his doubts, vanity and fears behind; and biking across the country with nothing but a backpack and a camera.

He told me about the perseverance of the body if only one could control the mind.  In survival, he said, there was a chronic juxtaposition of reflexes versus fragility.  And when confronting the most basic needs, there was a balance and a great humility.

And there was beauty in the defeat of despair with one’s courage, in the elation of that success; and in the overall simplicity of living.

“What a good man!” I thought.  “What a good, good man!”

The road threw him for a loop a number of times, but he told me about the clarity of the mind if one was traveling light.

“It’s a good thing I hit the road without any expectations,” he told me.

It made sense.

He spoke about having no possessions to weight down his choices and no expectations.  Neither were there any grudges or resentments against humanity — others’ or his own.  His journey was not a conquest:  Not a thing dictated by the ego.  So, he traveled with a lesser emotional baggage, as someone who knew the power of forgiveness all too well.

His only responsibility on the road — was his family.  He would have been a lot more reckless, it seemed, had it not been for the nightly on-line messages that he promised to send their way.  And so he would.  No matter the difficulties of the day, no matter the survivals and the defeats, the despair and the courage, he would telegraph his experiences home.  And these letters — his road journals, the confessions of a transcendent mind — were the only threads leading back to the people he loved.

(I chuckled.  I would never tell my father this story:  He’d find me too trusting.  That’s my problem.)

“What made you do this thing in the first place?” I asked.

The humble badass smiled at me as if he could read the answer on my face — my good, good face — and he said:

“Because the one thing I know — is that I cannot stop knowing.”

And so, I was studying the face of a good man the other night; and it made me think of life as a sequence of choices.

My life — was not the life of my father:  I had bigger control over my circumstances; enough control to allow myself the occasional hubris of assuming that I was a person of consequence.  I could make choices, you see.  Unlike my father — my good, good father — I could choose my situations, or even change them.  And I had the luxury of freedom:  to pursue my life’s ambitions and to continue “knowing”; to continue learning.

Somehow, I had made the choice — to be good, in life.  There had been plenty of situations that tested my ethics before.  Yet even in defeat, in shame, in pain, I could always return to the track of goodness.  I could always see my way back to redemption.  Because even though my life was not my father’s, my ethics — were indeed his.

And my father — was always a good, good man.

And so, I was studying the face of a good, good man the other night; and it made me think of life as a sequence of choices.

“But I just can’t forgive myself,” my father had confessed a number of times.  “That’s my problem.”

Alas:  That was the main difference between my father’s character and my own.  I always chose to travel lightly, as someone who knew the power of forgiveness all too well.  I chose to have the power of self-forgiveness.   And I could always see my way back to redemption.