Tag Archives: exotic

Better Safe Than Sorrier

But maybe, after all, justice was meant to sound like silence:  Not a marathon of mauled over words she had previously thought were required for forgiveness, which, in the end, left her exhausted; her throat — dehydrated.  Sarah despised feeling like that.  Shouldn’t forgiveness be a higher ground, an emotion that belonged to the Magnanimous and the Wise?  the, god bless them, Non-Mundane?  Instead, she watched herself become a woman with a sloppy face, like a washed-up actress on the screen of a decade-long soap opera; and she paced her apartment, with the cell phone sweating against her ear (surely causing her cancer later in life!); and she worked laboriously — on forgiveness:  Holding up each word in front of her torso, measuring it at the shoulder seams.  Are the sleeves too long?  Does it make her look fat?  Is there anything — left to be done?

And neither did this newly discovered sound of justice resemble the forced catharsis she chased in sessions with her shrink.  Where had she learned to expect these miraculous results?  Must’ve been on another TV show, somewhat better written for a channel on which the actors were allowed to swear; and they could cry unattractively, while spraying spit and snot.  (Later on, in interviews, these same actors would call the scenes “career defining”, while Sarah found them merely mocking humanity.  Maybe, the problem was she was easily bored.  Or, maybe, she understood too much.)

Sarah’s shrink was a poised woman who wore clothes from the manikins of Gap and Banana Republic — clothes that on Sarah always sat awkwardly and sadly, and made her apologize, for something, as she returned the silly plastic hangers to the changing-room girls:  “Sorry…”; the poised woman who appeared immune from being shocked by the atrocities Sarah’s mother had interfiled into her life, like thin jackets of DVD’s with splatter horrors,  hidden in a heart surgeon’s movie collection.

Nifty!  

The word one would never use in Sarah’s own obituary was made for the lives of women like her PsyD.  (Was the “p” silent, in that?  She’d assumed that, but was embarrassed to ask.  So, she began writing “Date with Sid” in her calendar, every Tuesday, even though the shrink’s name was Miranda.  Miranda Bloom comma Sid.)  Her Sid’s world — was nifty.  Nifty piles of magazines in a fan formation of a peacock’s tail.  Nifty little plastic plants, never wilting, lining the dust-less bookshelves with thick or thin books, always dense, whose reading made Sarah feel sleepy.  Or apologetic.  Even the clean-lined IKEA furniture — with unforgiving, hard surfaces and un-homey fabric patterns never to be found in her mother’s hysterical universe of tchotchkes — was nifty.

Sarah, unlike her Sid, could never be nifty.  She tried, coming back for another round of awkward mirror reflections in dressing rooms of Banana Republic.  But somehow, it just wouldn’t fit.  Any of it.  The store’s white lighting buzzed above and revealed Sarah’s old pockmarks from her 5th grade measles that her mother had decided to treat with holy water and sage.  Embarrassed, Sarah would place the nifty cloths over a pile of colorful and bejeweled women’s underwear while avoiding the bored and slightly inquisitive stares of the salesgirls (“Sorry…”); and she’d swear to never come back.

But she would.  After seeing another nifty woman laughing into the pinstriped bicep of a handsome man, on West End Avenue, she would attempt to shop for that life again, as if she hadn’t learned the lesson.  The same way she hadn’t learned the lesson with Doug — a tenured professor of poetry on an epic journey of trying to leave his wife.  She continued to come back to him.  Maybe this time.  They would carry on, until neither could recall whose turn it was to leave; who was doing the staying, the grasping, the scorning; and who would be in charge of forgiving.

“What do you want, ideally, from your life with Doug?” the shrink, looking particularly nifty, paced her words as Sarah thumbed the thinning threads of her sweater sleeves.  She often wore her clothes to tatters, until the freckles of rolled lint began crowding her armpits and crotch; and she would be, again, embarrassed.

“Sorry?”

She didn’t expect the question.  Between the two of them, Doug was the one with the plan.  She — was the woman with none.  She had met him at the library where she’d interned one summer, having purchased herself a Liberal Arts education that should’ve guaranteed her a teaching career, had Sarah really wanted one.  Except that she didn’t.  Hadn’t.  She hadn’t thought it through, while in college; and she landed in the library; landed with an intention to leave, eventually — like those grayish-white swans that landed in her Ukrainian birth village one autumn; but miscalculated, stayed too long and froze during the first drop of the temperatures.

She had been following her fragmented thoughts about her Sid’s sexuality, when the question got hung in the air, each word — an ornament of paper-thin glass:

“What do you__want?__Ideally.__From your life__with Doug?”

“I wonder if she dates women?” Sarah had been thinking, while thumbing her sweater, about the Sid, based on the mere fact that the woman wore primarily flat shoes.  Sarah stopped, having been caught red-handed.  Red-thumbed.

She, of course, would never say this out loud.  She — “of course!” — was much worldlier than that!  But Sarah was also an immigrant’s daughter, not born in this country.  (Which, to most, had made her worldly enough, but never exotic.  “Exotic” belonged to girls from the countries that Americans favored for tourism: the tan and taut creatures from escapist lifestyles, and from the irresponsible summer flings of middle-aged men, bored in their marriages.)  The dull shards of her mother’s old-fashioned prejudice still appeared in situations of ultra-Westernized pathos.  Like this one:  Sarah, on a very hard couch (surely earning herself cancer, later in life!); complaining, coming down hard, then taking cover from her shame in a numb silence of a spoiled brat; then, seeking refuge in a blunt stereotype with which her mother broke down the world.

No matter how hard she tried — to wring her hands, like that actress with the sloppy face — her shrink appeared unimpressed.  Some of Sarah’s college classmates had spoken of how easily they gained alliances with their Sids.  She, however, seemed incompetent at manipulation.  Sarah was smart but not that smart.  (Pretty, but not “exotic”.)  And she wondered if her shrink was now judging her for the extramarital affair with Doug.  (It was “extramarital” for Doug, not for Sarah.  Sarah was just an outside participant, far from being an outside force.  A third wheel, along for the ride, however crippled.  “The woman with none.”)

Could it be the case that her shrink was now appalled and no longer impartial?  Anything you say__or do__can__and will be__held against you?

Sarah never got the warning — from Miranda, the Sid.

Most of her teenage years, she had spend sorting out the world.  The one of her mother’s — which she was obliged to automatically respect — confused her with its invasive familiarity; and she found herself pretending to not understand the cashiers at the Ukrainian deli, who attempted to speak to her in Russian.  Somehow, they all knew her, even though their faces appeared no more familiar than the color-enhanced photographs of the folk dancers in the Times Travel Section, on Kiev.  But they knew her:  her name, her marital status (or the lack of one) and occupation.  Or, they knew her mother.  But did that at all justify their asking for her phone number so that they could fix her up “with a nice Russian boy” (which most of the time meant some young alcoholic heir of a local mechanic, who wore rhinestoned jeans and spent his inheritance on bottle services all over town)?

The new world — again, chosen by her mother who left the old country with five-year-old Sarah, in the name of a better life — that world seemed to be fast-talking and brash, filled with people who suffered from fashionable dis-eases, like “depression” and “ADD”; inflamed “sciaticas” and bored souls.  The new world seemed allergic to sentiment.  Even sex wasn’t safe here; and after her first “mature” (as her mother called it) experience, Sarah began to notice that sex came with shame.  The smarter girls (often “exotic”) used it to negotiate free deals.  Free meals.  The dependent ones confused it for love, always making, forcing something out of it.  And Sarah pitied the men who had been trained to get it, but not know what to do with it, afterward.  So, it would sit — a pulsating blur in one’s living-room, underneath the soft light, waiting for the lovers to go through with it.

“You, Amerikan vemen,” her mother would say, in her reckless English, whenever she lectured the American womanhood in her daughter.  “You dan’t know vat you vant.”

On her ride home on the A-train, Sarah had made a hobby out of watching the two cultures collide on the faces of Russian teenagers heading to Coney Island, late in the evening.  She could always pick them out of a crowd:  Their Western fashion looked slightly misfitted (far from nifty, and somehow wrong:  “Sorry…”).  And the words — “Whack!”, “Sick!”, “Fo’ sho’!” — came out unaccented phonetically, but their cadence was off.  Something was off, always, in the immigrant world; but because she couldn’t name it, perfectly, precisely, to her American contemporaries, Sarah often found herself misunderstood.  And silent.

“What’s your beef with yo’ mama, anyway, man?”  J.C. always called her “man”.  He was an artist living in Brooklyn Heights, and yes, they had tried sleeping together once.  J.C. stopped it from happening though, when Sarah’s toes got tangled up in his socks while she tried to pull them off with her feet.  (There were many ways to make sex feel pathetic.  But a naked lover in white tube-socks — was the surest.)

“I wanna respect you, man…” he said looking down at Sarah from a propped-up pillow while she paved a trail of dry kisses in between his breasts and wondered about a sexier way to get rid of a curly hair, stuck in the back of her tongue.  There was no such a way.  So, she hooked her index finger, jammed it inside her mouth and began fishing for it.

By then, J.C. was already spewing out his theories on sexual politics.  Sarah nearly gagged.  He was first generation American born, from South America (so, did that even count?).  She had assumed, at the time, that J.C. knew something she didn’t; so, she stopped.  In those moments, it would’ve been less awkward — or less sad — to be one of those outspoken, brave American girls, with wild hair, layers of hippie jewelry and bright red lipstick, who had ready ideas on sexual liberation of women and mysterious comebacks via the ironic lyrics of Dylan or Ginsberg.  Sarah was smart, but not that smart.  Not nifty.  Not “exotic”.

That night, she took the subway home, fishing for the curly hair in the back of her throat, in an empty train car.  What was the big deal, she wondered.  And why was it that men could so easily justify speaking on behalf of her conscience, her desires?

Doug had done it to her, for years:  choosing for her from the menus of fancy restaurants.  Over the years, their eateries would change, going from the dimly lit expensive places to the crowded diners with hairy waiters who emerged from the kitchen with stained pots of coffee.  Doug had been on an epic journey to leave his wife.  But maybe, Sarah just wasn’t enough of a reason.

Sorry…

Sarah leaned her forehead against the cold glass of the sliding doors and cried, quietly, finger hooking at the back of her throat.

(To Be Continued.)

“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.)

“Can I Take You Home — To MY House?”

It was a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight.  There were no other signs, just my own prior knowledge, but I was sure the room was located upstairs.

Or, it could have been one of those houses that sits on stilts in my grandfather’s village.  There seems to be no natural reason for such a structure:  The inland area at the foot of an ancient mountain knows no floods.  There are no rivers that run by it, and the winters tend to be brutally dry and viciously cold.  But when the snow melts, it turns the ground into mush; yet, no river banks can be feared to overflow.  The thick, purple layer of evergreens that covers the sides of the dormant mountain holds its outer layers in place, and I have never heard of mudslides or earthquakes in the entire history of the family.  If anywhere else, there, in the middle of Russia, nature is obedient and tamed.

There was always a calm flow of hours whenever I came to town.  There would be bickering between the two sides of the family, and that would be the only noise I’d hear for days:  The Russian whites on my father’s side would find the brown tint of my skin somewhat scandalous.  My brown motha’s blatant sexuality didn’t help the matters either.  The matriarchs — the mother of the family and her only daughter (a matriarch-in-training) — would always insist on accompanying me in public.

But the town would be calm, and with an exception of an occasion hushing down of the old women, flocking benches at any hour of the day, I saw no outwardly confrontations.  And even those women would express their aggression with silence and gossip, to which I wouldn’t be made privy, because it would unfold behind my brown back.  This was no place for verbal confrontations or domestic fights.  An occasional drunken brawl would be talked about for months.

And then, everything would return back — to silence!

In a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight that’s possible only in August, there was a circle of mismatching furniture:  An old couch with wooden arms and flowery pattern of its material; an armchair of dark blue velvet, worn out and soiled in its folds.  A wooden barstool was covered with a crocheted throw of fluffy, egg-foam-colored thread.  And there was a rocking chair occupied by the ghost of my grandfather — the only member of the family who was always openly thrilled by the fact that I stuck out in all their photographs.

They were all blue-eyed, tall and sinewy; and in every picture, they stood behind me like a white backdrop.  I would look at the lens from underneath my bushy eyebrows, with eyes so dark, no camera could distinguish the ending to my pupils.  And above my serious, mismatching face, I would be balancing a cloud of messy hair, which, before the flash went off, had been aimed at by one of the matriarchs’ hands and yanked into a careless ponytail.

(Looking back at these photos, you can already see that my body would belong to neither my motha’s clan — a curvatious creature of wild nature — nor to the shared lean physique of the white matriarchs.  I would be somewhere in the middle:  My adolescent frame would already exhibit some softness, but the brown legs, darkened by my chronic solitary play in dirt fields and haystacks, belonged to someone who knew how to run.)

Sylvie Guillem by Richard Avedon

In the sunlit living-room, one of those hand-woven rugs took up the middle section of the floor.  On it, I would be permitted to play, occasionally, after the matriarchs confirmed that there was no work left to be done around the house.  Still, I would hide out, until my grandfather’s return.  Like me, he would be ushered out of the kitchen by the women; and while he watched TV, I finally felt safe to bring my toys out of their hiding places and spread them out at his feet, upon one of those hand-woven rugs.

There was no eating on the floor.  No eating was permitted anywhere but the kitchen and the garden bench.  At times, the old man and I would sneak behind the house and curb our appetite with fresh cucumbers or a few unwashed tomatoes.

“It tastes better this way,” my grandfather would wink at me while polishing the giant berry on against the cloth of his knee.

But seeing a skeptical glimmer from underneath my bushy eyebrows, the old man would reaffirm:

“You get all the natural vitamins when the tomato is unwashed.  Trust me.”

The secret would be to chomp it down quickly, before the matriarchs came out to the garden to collect some scallions or a bouquet of dill for the dinner salad.  So, we would climb back up the stairs (the house sat on stilts, remember?); and reassume our positions of most safety:  His — dozing off in his rocking chair, and mine — conducting stories upon a hand-woven rug.

But in my last night’s dream, the wide living-room, luminous with August sunlight, was filled with other people.  They were loud and beautiful; and they laughed with such violent joy, I noticed the open windows of the house and the shimmering dust suddenly visible in that angle of the sun.  We would be heard, I realized; and what would happen to the silence so strictly protected by the locals — it, at times, eliminates all life?

The beautiful people kept laughing, though.  The women with golden hair intertwined their limb in ways that only women do with each other:  with an intimacy that comes with tenderness and, most importantly, a lack of angst.  The children straddled the wooden arms of the couch; climbed onto the women’s knees and crawled all over their feet.

My grandfather’s chair sat empty.  I watched it from the corner of the room, where I had wedged myself in under an armpit of a tall man with laughing eyes.  He, too, was in on the joke; and he kept shooting over loving gazes my way that seemed to say that I was the pun of it.

Is this what families are supposed to look like?  Is this the way I wanted mine — to feel?

I had so little to remember them by, that all I seemed to want to keep was the empty rocking chair and my grandfather’s ghost.  The rest was up for my rewriting.

“She Works Hard for the Money! So Hard for It, Honey!”

“I am… um… parent.  Every-thing changes.”

She stands at about my height.  I rarely see much difference between me and other women, though:  And unless they’re tall enough to grace the covers of beauty magazines — or the streets of Manhattan — I consider them pretty much my height.

Although born on the coast of Mexico, her skin bears the same caramel color as mine.  Her face, I can tell, used to be very pretty, even doll-like.  Her formerly black hair is snow streaked with gray highlights; and it is gathered in the back of her head into a thick ponytail of luscious curls.  Rich women would kill for thick hair like that!

I catch myself wondering how much she would have aged — had her life not been so hard.

I bet there is an encyclopedia of domestic tricks up this woman’s sleeve:  Washing her hair with egg yolks, making masks out of avocado and honey, moisturizing her heels with Bengay.  I’ve seen my own motha invent a few of those.  We are immigrants:  We get crafty, in survival.  For life is relentless:  It takes a toll on all of us all, but it’s most unforgiving — to us, women.

“I come herre… twenty fah-yv jears,” she formulates her words slowly.  “I am… um… sixteen jears.”

“Me too!” I say, and I begin nodding and smiling aggressively:  Just anything to make her feel understood.  “I was sixteen too!”

I want to tell her to switch to her native language, because I am pretty sure I get the gist of her already.  Despite the difference between our birth coasts, we seem to speak of the same tales.

But then again, maybe not:

I keep flaunting my American education in order to impress employers with gigs at a higher rate.  She — cleans houses for a living.  I tend to get hired to work the phones and to organize the lives of others that have gotten cluttered with too many demands.  She — creates order in other people’s homes, with her no longer soft, but womanly hands.  Besides the existences of my bosses, I am responsible primarily for myself.  She — has three kids to take care of, and a boyish husband.

“You?  No marr-rried?” she asks me.

The importance of family defines happiness in her culture; so, I get slightly embarrassed for a moment.  Despite the difference between our birth coasts, I so very much want us to be alike.  Is it this woman’s approval that I’m striving for; or just her empathy?

In one breath, I deliver:  “NoIamnotmarried.”

“In a couple more years, you’ll be middle-aged,” a man has declared the other day.

This woman’s arms are cradling a tiny dog; and in the folds of her stomach, he easily goes to sleep.  Her figure belongs to a mother:  She is fuller, curvier than my boyish frame.  Her hands are more sure and seemingly more knowing than mine.

“Is good you no married so soon,” she says.  She must’ve picked up on my embarrassment.  “Life more hard.  I am… um… parent.  Every-thing more hard.”

I ask her about her kids:  She nods and smiles when describing each of the three:  a two-year old baby-girl and a little boy.  Her oldest daughter wants to be a nurse.  When she speaks of her husband, she averts her eyes; and despite the slow manner of her chosen worlds, she quickly switches the topic to his job.

“Is good…” she concludes.  “Warehouse.  Down.  Town.  Is good!”

The little dog shifts on her stomach and extends his fluffy paws toward me. I take them and rub the un-callused pillows on the bottom.  She laughs and teases the bangs above his eyes; and when her hand brushes against mine, I notice that her skin is tougher than the one I’m rubbing in between my fingers.

“You…  work?” she asks me.

“Of course,” I say and begin listing my gigs.  This is the first time I doubt she understands me.  To my own ears, I begin sounding busy, and slightly fussy.  So, I stop.

I interrupt my list.  “Everybody works here,” I conclude; and the woman begins nodding and smiling aggressively.  She is getting the gist of me.

I study her eyes:  She stands at my level, and most definitely — at my height!  But then she leaves for work; and I reluctantly begin mine.  It’s life — at work; and in its working, it is especially unforgiving to us, women.

“It’s in the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride of my step / The curl of my lips…”

I had a dream last night:  of walking into a room full of beautiful women.

Some of them, I’ve known for years; a few of them for long enough to have forgotten their faces.  Some of the other faces could’ve belonged to my future, perhaps.

When I entered through the door with chipping white paint — a door that was more obedient to the pull of gravity than that of its rusty hinges — every woman looked up at me:  A stunning constellation of loving, familiar eyes sprawled before me; each pair of eyes — with its own story of similar pathos that have led us all to the common denominator of womanhood.

A tearful redhead sat at the teacher’s desk, up front.  I assumed she was leading the classroom.  Lines of poetry were written on a blackboard behind her.

“I’d seen her somewhere,” I thought in my sleep.

Perhaps, she borrowed her details from my Russian Lit. professor back in the old country.  That one was a tall, mighty blonde that might have stepped off the pages of Nekrasov’s poetry.  Or:  She could’ve been one of those pre-Napoleon aristocrats, attending a ball in St. Petersburg, while wrapped in the fur of a red fox and emeralds to accentuate her gorgeous green eyes.

Her name was Tatiana.  She had a middle name, of course; but in a radical fashion, she demanded we didn’t use it.

“By god, I’m only a few years older than you all!” she’d correct some brown noser testing the air, in class.

True, we were all quite young then, and typically confused.  But we had grounds for it though:  Our country was falling apart at the seams.

One morning, Tatiana walked into my first class of the day in a solemn mood.  Her magnificent hair of a Russian blond beauty was pulled back into a messy bun; and by her eyes, we could tell that she either hadn’t slept or had been crying all morning.  Or both.

It was common for Tatiana to bring up politics in class.  After all, she belonged to our generation:  of curious and passionate, and justifiably confused.  But that morning, she would remain silent, stunning all of us with the expectations of the worst.  And she would stare out of the window while burying her chin into the cream-colored crocheted shawl wrapped around her magnificent, mighty shoulders.

Inspired by a thought, every once in a while, she would look at us and inhale, as if grasping enough air to deliver the news.  Breathlessly, we watched her.

Caution:  Courage at work.  

But she would lose the train of thought, tear up again and bury her face in the shawl.  After the longest minutes of our assuming the worst, Tatiana left the classroom; and none of us would see her again.

But I would — in my last night’s dream, about walking into a room full of beautiful women.

There were a few from my college years:  Of various heritages, they were American-born, opinionated and seemingly fearless:  The tall one, with an Irish brogue, had been known to lead her life along a courageous path of rebelling against the confines of tradition. The quiet brunette, cradling her little girl in the corner — under a tent of her long East Indian hair — had been burdened with the most gentle of hearts I had ever loved.  And I had loved her the most — and oh, for so very long! And I had known the brown, graceful one with the pixie haircut very little back then.

A handful of others came along after my most innocent years of womanhood.

The one who stood up to applaud me had recently left for her homeland:  She had always been luminous and proud, in the way of an African queen.  She wore a heavy necklace when she left for her odyssey:  something borrowed from the neck of Nefertiti.  And she wore that again, in my dream.

The poetess who had guided me toward a path of quiet victory had borrowed a headdress from my favorite writer of Caribbean descent.  And she walked to the front of the room to introduce me.  

I struggled with the door for a moment, then pushed it with my hip. There is nothing in the world that won’t obey a woman’s hip!  On it, we bounce our children, or carry the weight of our unhappy burdens.  With it, we can dislodge any jam in our way; make a man lose his sleep over it, or find his rest — in its soft curvature.

“Well…  That’s been conquered,” I said to the women, once I turned around.  They laughed:  A sound that may have made me smile in my sleep.

While the laughter subsided, I studied the floor under my feet:

There was none.  Just dirt, covered with loose planks of wood; and as I made my way across them, the boards chomped and sank into the wetness.  I couldn’t tell where exactly we had gathered that day:  Which of our old countries had granted us refuge.  But this morning, I had slept in, for a change, missing the sound of my alarm clock and the call of my obligations. And I would have much rather remained dreaming.

“There Is a Girl in New York City Who Calls Herself: ‘The Human Trampoline’.”

She was sitting on the edge of her barstool, with her bright red hair cascading over a tea-light candle, on the bar:  Dangerous.  

How many poets, I wondered, had lost their minds to a red-haired woman before?

Never a barfly — always a butterfly — she knew how to balance her glorious womanly behind on the edge of the shiny, brown leather-bound seat.  No way she’d fall off — from her dignity!  Her back had learned the perfect arching, the angles of which made it irresistible to the gaze.  Or to the camera.

It’s a fascinating skill that came with the habit of being looked at.  I knew that:  Beauty and sex were prone to that habit the most.  

Perhaps, most civilians couldn’t even pinpoint the hair-thin boundary between the real girl and the red-haired fantasy.  Most civilians just found themselves dumbfounded, with her.

But I knew:  I knew the game.  I used to play it all the time myself, before I got way too tired to keep up with the nuances.  Beauty was insatiable:  It demanded constant maintenance.  And for a while, I began relying mostly on sex.

But then, I got tired of that too, and I settled for truth.  Truth — all the time.  

Besides, sex was always much easier, for a woman.  And in my bedroom, I would keep all the lights blazing:

Fuck it:  Truth — all the time!

And if you don’t like it — LEAVE!

We had entered the bar together, that night.  Earlier, she had taken me all over the City:  Her New York.  She hailed all the cabs herself with the flip of that magnificent red-haired cascade.  And the green vintage coat off the rack of Marilyn Monroe or Betty Davis was flung unbuttoned, at all times.

“Boo.  Put yo’ hat on!  It’s fuckin’ freezing, out here!” I scolded her, always a few steps behind.

I was entering my own age of self-awareness:  and my most self-aware self, as I discovered, would be maternal.  And true. 

True — all the time.   

But she would just clap her fluffy cashmere mittens in response, and redistribute her lipgloss by smacking her lips.  The hair would be flipped again; and as soon as she baited some unknowing cabbie and we’d slide inside, onto the shiny, black-leather bound seats — the mane would be tamed into a low bun:  Show over, buddy!  

Her New York was very different from mine.  She lived on the island, I — right over the bridge.  She cabbed her way all over the place.  I braved the subways, studying rats playing house in the garbage on its tracks.  And when it would get unbearable, I’d come up for some air, in Harlem, and unbutton my jacket:  Ay, mami!

She made her living by mixology behind the bar, similar to the one we were now flocking:  with her low-cut blouses and perfect lighting hitting the hemispheres of her breasts.  Businessmen, cheating spouses conferencing in New York and horny boys from NYU would claim to be her regulars alike; and they would study their fantasy, while playing with the labels of their beer bottles and the hot wax of tea-lights on the bar.  From behind the rims of their rock glasses, they would gather their courage to start up a conversation.  And their drool would backwash onto the ice inside — if ever she paid any attention to them.

She didn’t have to, though.  That’s the thing about bartenders:  They aren’t at the mercy of our egos, for their income.  It was all up to her:  When to lean in, while arching her back.  When to cascade the hair, when to pull it back into a bun.  And when to tell them — TO LEAVE!

While I settled for bargains, she knew the importance of well-made things.  But for the first time in my most self-aware self, I was willing to learn.  I was open — to changing my mind. 

It was about dignity, I was beginning to suspect, despite my artistic premonition about some artsy suffering in deprivation.

“It’s crucial, for an artist, to be proud,” she said earlier.

Street lights were about to take over from the sun, as she strutted in her high-heeled boots through the shadows of concrete high-rises in Chelsea and red brick oldies in the Village.  I followed her, in jeans and flats, with the rest of my life packed inside a mighty Mary Poppins’ shoulder bag.

We were both competent, in our own way.  But she could survive on her credit card alone (although a girl like that never paid for her own drinks).  And I was spending my youth in a perpetual state of readiness for a take-off.

Our bartender that night would be a model by day.  Or an actor.  (I wasn’t really paying attention.)  To me, he was bitchy right off the bat.  With my girl — he was debonair.  We hadn’t been at the bar for half an hour, yet he had refilled my girl’s glass at least three times.  The petals of her lipgloss had circumvented the thin rim entirely by then, but the only sign of her tipsiness was in the pout of her lower lip.

Despite being seasoned by New York already, he could not have foreseen his purpose that night:  He was supposed to comp our drinks.

Which he did — in exchange for her number written on a bev nap and held in place by a tea-light candle.  He would even hail us a cab.

Inside, on a shiny, black leather-bound seat, she shook off the snowflakes from her red hair and smacked her lips.

“That number is fake, right?” I asked.

“No,” she answered.  “I would never do that, to a man.”

She gave the cabbie her intersection.  We were silent.

“But he’ll have one hell of a time — chatting up my shrink at Bellevue,” she smacked her lips again and pulled her hair into a low bun.

Show over, buddy!  

Back to truth.

“Not Bad, Huh? For Some Immigrants?”

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” —

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

A girl with an unused-up face was working at the counter of Rite-Aid.  She seemed to be in training, still; wearing that horrid polyester polo shirt made in China.  It was too large on her, too loose; un-pretty, untucked — and without a name tag.

“You’re fine for today,” her manager must’ve told her in the morning, when he completed her “uniform check”.  “But after the training is over, you must remember to wear it, everyday.”

The fucking name tag!  That’s the rule.  There are always rules, in jobs like this.

I often squint at those tiny plaques that sadly dangle by their pins on chests of any customer service personnel.  I try to decipher them, figuring out the pronunciation; and I try to guess the origin.  Sometimes, the names are easy:  Maria, Sally, Mark, AJ.  The names longer than three syllables are always harder — but they make for a perfect conversation piece.  But in cases like that, the name bearer — the name tag wearer — is often sick of being asked about it.

There was this one time, though, a Nigerian man began to tell me his.  All I could hear were endless consonants and glottal stops.  He assumed I was an American. He was getting a kick out of it, making a scene.  Immediately, I felt ignorant and humiliated.  Because I thought I had at least some clue — more clue than most — about what it had to take for him to get here.

So often I stand at a counter — or behind a plastic window — and I desperately calculate the timing of thanking these people by their names; as if that would make the insignificant exchange of ours more meaningful.  No.  I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.

And I am sure they still go home in the evenings, complaining about their managers, who nag them about silly things like schedules, lunch breaks “by law” — and those fucking name tags.

“Why can’t he just leave me alone?!” they ask the rhetorical question of their equally exhausted spouses, at dinner, their words belonging to forsaken prayers.  They get drowned out by the hyped-up realities happening on the television screen.  And in the morning, they’ve gotta do the whole thing all over again.  And if they aren’t running late, they’ve gotta remember:  to grab the fucking name tag.

Still, I prefer to say these names out loud.  No, I don’t expect to please.  And I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.  I just want a little bit more humanity, in places like this.  In jobs like this.

There was already plenty of sadness in the fluorescent lights buzzing above the unused-up face of the girl working at the counter of Rite-Aid.

“Why must they be running these things right now?” I thought, noticing that despite the blazing sun outside, the rows of lights remained lit.  Lit and buzzing.

And yet underneath their cold rays whose pulse can send an epileptic into an episode, this girl appeared very pretty.  She had long spiral curls on each side of her brown face.  And because she wore not a hint of make-up, I quickly imagined her on some simple, yet still exotic shore, drinking milk out of a coconut cracked open with a machete.

I wondered if she was a student of some sort, at a community college, working this job “just until…”  Or if she was a daughter of an immigrant, meant to be grateful by that very definition — for the privilege of her minimum wage and health benefits.  And if she goes home, exhausted and confused:

What exactly is the meaning of this daily drudgery?  And when, exactly, does it end? 

And then, there was her face.  It was unused-up.  It had no traces of bitterness, no histories of lovers’ betrayal or disappointment.  Other humans hadn’t gotten to her yet.  And she smiled a little while holding a pack of cigarettes, immediately humiliated, waiting for her trainer to find the time to explain the exact procedure of selling those things.  She waited, while her customer — a strange, muttering woman — scoffed and squinted her eyes at the name tag of the manager standing nearby.  Watching.  Why must we get off — on other people’s humiliation?

It would take a few beats for the girl to settle down.  The scoffing customer would storm out, muttering about her own miseries.  The trainer would return to his routine, indifferently.  The manager could be traced by the jingle of his keys, as he walked away into his hideout, behind the swinging door.  (At least, he had a space of his own.)  But the girl would have to regroup, in front of us, and wait for the awkwardness of the moment to pass.

“I think she’s open,” an old man behind me was breathing down my neck.

Yet, I insisted on holding my spot until I was called over.  The girl with an unused-up face deserved her dignity.

And dignity — takes time. And space.

“I can help the next customer in line,” she said.  Her voice was light, resonant.  It better belonged in a choir of St. Patrick Cathedral.

I walked over:

“Hello, love.”

She wasn’t wearing a name tag, you see:  that fucking name tag I used to have to wear myself, at my very first jobs as an immigrant in America.  But I refused to treat her good, yet unused-up face as nameless.

So, she would be Love — the bearer of my motha’s name — at least for a few seconds that day, at Rite-Aid.  She deserved a name; and if not love — she deserved some dignity.

And dignity — takes compassion.

And space.

“I Fly Like Paper, Get High Like Planes. If You Catch Me at the Border — I Got Visas in My Name!”

I am at a rehearsal last night, and I’m thinking:

“I don’t want to be heavy anymore.”

Now, I don’t mean my physicality here:  I’ve got a pretty compact bod on me — always have had — and I’ve always been light on my feet.

I seem to have inherited the smallest features from both sides of the family:  My motha’s people run quite low to the ground in their height; and dad’s tribe, although quite tall, is nearly transparently thin.

And then, my head’s rarely in the right place:  It’s always wanting to be elsewhere.  So, the restlessness of the mind adds to the activeness of the bod, adds to the shedding of the weight.  I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s all for the better, anyway:  My size fits best into airplane seats and packed buses, New York subways and Moscow bread lines — and wherever else the mind urges the bod to fit itself in.

So, when I thought, “I don’t want to be heavy anymore,” I think I meant:

I don’t want to be dark.

Now, I don’t mean the color of my skin here:  I’ve got a pretty dark complexion on me.  Motha’s people — are fucking gypsies, so they are really more like Russian blacks.  In my childhood, motha would have to keep me out of the sun — just so I would still resemble my father’s child a little bit more.  Because his tribe — is quite light (although they’re quite heavy in their footsteps).  And they’re nearly transparently thin.

It’s bad enough I traded in my father’s blue eyes over the course of the first year of my life.  He came back from his military training in some bleak lands of Motha Russia to meet me at the hospital.  I was only a couple days old.

“He’s got my eyes!” he said before the doctor had a chance to explain to him that I was actually born a girl.

(So sorry!)

Whether or not ultrasound existed back then in Motha Russia, motha chose to rely on the old school witchcraft of her people when predicting my future sex.  Surprise, surprise:  That shit didn’t work, and dad was now cradling a blue-eyed brunette of a nearly black complexion in his arms.

“Well…  At least she’s got my eyes.”

With quite a blow to his dreams of the first son, dad left again for some other bleak lands of Motha Russia:  He was always light enough to move.  (But we, Russians, often tend to have heavy footsteps:  We love to step on others’ toes; so if we aren’t playing war — we seem to be always training for it.)

Anyway.  When dad returned home, half a year later, he found his newborn with eyes so black, he could see his own reflection in them.

“He… she — don’t got my eyes no more!”

(So sorry!)

So, when I said, “I don’t want to be dark anymore,” I think I meant:  

I don’t want to be perpetually difficult on my loves.  

Now, I do seem to be easier on my friends:  Over the course of our loves, they’ve gotten used to the restlessness of my mind that adds to the activeness of my dark, compact bod (that adds to the weightlessness of my footsteps).  From all the distant corners of the world, however bleak or perfectly civilized, my loves receive messages of my journeys:  The messages of wanting to belong — if only I would stop moving for long enough. 

But then again:  My friends don’t have to live with me.  They don’t see me pacing my living quarters at night, as if needing more room.  They don’t witness my restlessness accumulate as surely as the hours in each day — until I finally decide to move again, to whatever bleak or perfectly civilized corner of the world.

My loves, however:  My loves are constantly subjected to the restlessness of the mind that adds to the activeness of the bod, that adds to the shedding of the weight, that adds to the weightlessness of the footsteps.

Just ask my family:

My motha’s people — are fucking gypsies.  Yet, for at least two generations before mine, they’ve given up on moving, only following the call of some bleak lands.  Over a century ago, they’ve settled on the East Coast of Motha Russia, much less civilized, unconquered:  The lands that were waiting to be discovered by the more unsettled hearts.  Over the course of the last few centuries, it was populated by the subversive many and the courageous few.  There, the Russian blacks of my motha’s people found their home.

That’s, of course, until I came along:  A blue-eyed brunette that swapped her father’s eyes for a pair of those, black enough to serve as mirrors for her loves.  And as soon as I was old enough to obey the restlessness of the mind, I would follow the call of my gypsy complexion.

(So sorry!)

Because my motha’s people may have given up on moving, but they haven’t settled, I decided.  Not yet.  Perhaps, not until I myself birth a child in some bleak or perfect civilized corner of the world — and I see my own reflection in his or her black eyes.

So, when the other night, I thought, “I don’t want to be heavy anymore,” I think I meant:

I don’t want to negate myself the joy of freedom.

Courage!

Only courage should elate my heart, from now on:  the courage of following my gypsy complexion and the heart that never settles for anything less than love.

And when I do love, I don’t want to deny my loves — the utter joy of my freer self. 

“Put Some Colored Girls — in The MoMA!”

She was brown, in a silky slip of raw salmon pink; and when she walked, the wind played peekaboo from underneath her skirt.  The hair was down, relaxed in that magical way that made it soft, but with some mighty heft:  One could easily bury a hand in it, or an entire limb; or tangle up a heart.

On her feet, she wore a pair of sandals borrowed from some Amazon warrior, which buckled all the way up to her magnificent mid-calf.  The muscles trapped under all those belts and copper buckles moved and flexed; and at any moment, she could’ve shaken off the dainty shopping bags from her shoulder blade — and start leaping:  to save a child or to defeat a monster.

“God damn!” I muttered to my partner.

But he was already on the same page:  squeezing my bicep and smiling the grin of a six-year-old who has just discovered he liked girls — most definitely!  He waited for the creature to get another meter ahead of us, stared at the ground — out of his respect for me and for my brown dream girl — and he quietly said:

“I know.”

Immediately, I thought of that ugly, old dog I have been honing to become my muse, in moments of my literal dry spell:

“but why do they do that?

why do they look like that?

why do they let the wind do

that?”

Bukowski, Hank:

Always in love with some magical bird’s legs, treating every infatuation like a temple in which to worship a departed lover.

Just as I do.

Amen!

But then again, that’s all it took:  a flight of one magical bird, in a silky slip of raw salmon pink — and my hunger was resurrected.

I felt the urge to play again, to worship, to want.  To dream.  To love.

And the literal dry spell — was over.

Another one sat sideways on a tiled step of a whirlpool, reading The New Yorker, folded in half, lengthwise.  She barely looked at me when I slowly descended into the hot water.

Okay:  There was one glance.  But that’s all it took:  a glance by one magical waterbird.

Then, she returned to reading, while all I could think was:

“Was there a smile?”

Because I swore there was.  A small one.  The one that I use myself to thank a man for his attention but to prevent any further advances.  The pressed-lipped one.  The smile-off.  (You know the kind:  It’s kind.)

She wore the tiniest bikini the color of the first summer tan.  And in between flipping the pages, she would put the magazine aside and go under the swirling, hot water entirely.  The silky hair of her Persian heritage would float above; and when she would come back up — it would cling to her long neck and the upper arms like second skin.  Or like an oily film on the wings of some magical waterbird.  She would read some more, do that thing again.

And when she slowly ascended out of the hot water, the hair continued on:  sticking to her lower back and all along her toned, capable arms; and it would invade the boundaries of the tiniest bikini the color of the first summer tan.

“you don’t know how exciting life can get

around here

at 5:35 p.m.”

(Bukowski, Hank.)

The dry spell, how ever literal, was over.

Back home, on my phone, I’d find a message from a creature an ocean away.  She was brown, caramel-brown, to be exact; and she had a library of hair styles, each more striking than the next.  At times, she’d wear it down, relaxed in that magical way that made it soft but with some mighty heft:  and every time, I would bury my entire heart in it.  Other times, she would tame it with a scarf the color of dry grass on the veldt of her heritage.  But my favorite was always the halo of tight curls, each perfected with some potion that only the brown girls know — and seemingly with a twirl of her long, pinky finger.

She would get inside my car and unleash her hair, filling the air with the aromas of coconut and that very magical potion that only the brown girls know — and with the perfume of her dreams.

“God damn!” I’d say and yank us into traffic.

And I would start speeding, as if we were a pair of Amazon warriors, about to leap out:  to save a child or to defeat a monster.  But really, my only excuse for speeding was to make her laugh, while shaking the halo of those tight curls in which I would bury my heart — for keepsakes.

“200 years ago they would have burned her

at the stake

now she puts on her

mascara as we

drive along.”

(Bukowski, Hank.)

Her message on my phone had come from the veldt of her heritage.  She had flown home, after a break-up; and instead of healing herself in the arms of the next lover, she went off to help the others, more in need:

To save the children and to defeat the monsters.

“God damn!” I muttered, this time to myself, and I sat down to write.

Because that’s all it would take:  a flight, a bird, a wing, or a kind heart.

And my dry spell, how ever literal, would finally be over.

Amen.

“Blame It On: A Simple Twist of Fate.”

She sat on her futon, bare-breasted, with her strong brown legs stretched out before my face; and they clasped the edge of the antique coffee table with her kitty-cat paws — each nail perfectly polished with the color of the Dead Sea; and she read to me, something about angels.

Where the fuck did she come from?  

I knew the details, of course; the original coordinates.  Something about a disheveled family.  Occasionally, she, no longer impressed with herself, would mention the routes she’d taken — “Been there,” — the detours dictated by the whims of her heart.

She would learn to never follow the lead of a man — only of her dreams.

“At least, those — are worth the heartbreak.”

But even with all those words in between us — the words which she did not take seriously because she was no longer impressed, with herself — I could NOT have known the many distances she had gone, in order to arrive.

But where the fuck did she come from?

Never before had I seen a girl who could sit in her brown skin so calmly, wearing nothing but shivers.

Which would make me get up, close the window, fetch her a blanket.

“I’m fine,” she’d wave it off, of course.  For she had gone some very long distances, and she would learn to never follow the lead of a man.

And it surprised me that she could be so mellow while stripped, wearing nothing but shivers over her skin.  Most women would freak out with sudden timidness and cover-up their glorious breasts with silly arm gestures.  The way their breasts would spill out over their forearms or in between their fingers would still be enough to make me want to conquer my fears, in their name:  To make me want to be a man.

She, however, was beyond getting in her own way.  For she gone some long distances — in order to arrive.

“It’s bad enough,” she’d joke, “that I’ve got this brain of mine!”

She was always in on the joke of herself.

But really:  What the fuck did she come from?  And how in the world — was she happening?!

With an erect spine of a disciplined dancer, she had been sitting up, watching me get dressed.  I wondered:  Would she write me into her poetry in the morning?  Would I make it into her stories?  (Dear god!  I always get in my own way!)

On top of her knees that were fuzzy with shivers, she was holding an open book of poetry.  I had just picked it up for her, from a bookstore where she was always finding something to read, about angels.  By now, we had shared many books — and plenty of poetry.  And we would share even more had it not been for one annoying habit of hers:  of always reading the very first and the very last sentence before committing to the rest of the text.

“It’s the perfect test — of everything,” she’d always joke.  So impatient — but always in on the joke of herself.

I’d get irritated, at first:  “I don’t ever want to know the ending!”

But she would already be ahead of me, with her charm and that angelic face.

“Where the fuck did you come from?” I said to her last night, while she sat comfortably in her brown skin.  I wanted to think of myself as poignant, or ironic at least.  I reached out to move her hair out of the way.

Her hair!  I had never seen it this long before.  She would normally lose her patience and chop it off, coming back over the threshold of my house while looking like some French actress, with an angelic face.  And it would fling above me, and it would sway, in passion — that glorious wing of hers! — and I would forget to say a prayer to my memory:

Please, please, please hold on to her!  Just this way:  Riding above me, long beyond my comprehension.  Taunting with her riddles and poetry, never meant to be captured.  Always:  Above!

But instead, I would trip out:  There would be so much of her!  So much to remember.  And I would try to say something poignant, or ironic, at least.  And I would ruin it, of course.  (By god!  I always get in the my own way!)

Her hair!  Last night, it was heavy with sweat and the grime of the city.  I could smell other beings on her, because they would always want a piece of that compassion.  They were entitled to it — that wretched lot of conflicted parasites! — and they would pull her down, down, down with them, by that very same mane of hers.

To keep it out of her face, she would yank her hair back into a bun — with an erect spine and a confident hand of a disciplined dancer.  Or, she would flip it, side to side, as she did last night; and it would stream down — that glorious wing of hers! — and in its waves and long centimeters, I could see the distances she had gone.

But:  Where?!  Where the fuck did she come from?  And how in the world was she happening — to me?!

I didn’t know.  I couldn’t have known the distances she had gone — in order to arrive.  I only knew the privilege of her time and poetry; and instead of getting in the way of myself, this time around, I would let her read to me, about angels.

“and she says

when I defame her 

dream:

you are trying to 

pull me down 

by the wings.”

I shall not do that, not this time, with trying so hard to be poignant, or ironic, at least; with trying so hard — to matter.

Instead, I’ll let her soar above.

Always:

Above!