Tag Archives: forgiveness

Making It Out

 (Continued from June 24th, 2012.)

After I got my first period — less than a month before my twelfth birthday — is right around when the two women began including me in their gabbing sessions, in the kitchen.

At first, I joined reluctantly:  I would much rather “waste my life away”, as mother dramatically accused me of, with a novel. But face it!  When the two of them returned from their separate errands, both beautiful and smelling of the same perfume — the flirtation of all the men still echoing in their voices — I would be a major “dura” to resist the temptation of their company.

And the stories, the day’s gossip — the life force pumping through the street of our town — seemed more titillating than my mother’s romance novels (through which I, when home alone, would rummage and then re-hide them in the cupboards of her bedside stand).  Now: Our neighborhood wasn’t really happening.  Someone would die, occasionally, after drinking too much.  Someone else got married, before an accidental pregnancy showed.  Both the town’s funerals and its weddings could be attended by anyone.  For Russians, it’s bad fucking karma to turn guests away!  So, as processions crawled through the main roads (not many Russians owned cars, not in those days!), neighbors joined in; because at the end of either line, they’d find free food.  And what’s more important:  Vodka!

Breathlessly, I listened to the women’s stories, never putting my two kopeks in.  Assigned the most menial jobs in the kitchen, like peeling of potatoes or sorting out grains of rice, I kept my head down and worked my ears overtime. At times, the exchange of information was packed with details so intense and so confusing, it hurt my brain to follow.  Still, I tried to comprehend in silence because asking either my sis or mother to repeat — was borderline suicidal.

“Now, mamotchka!”  (Marinka was already notorious for kissing up.  She’d learned how to work our mother’s ego.)  “Have you heard about Uncle Pavel?”

“Nyet!  What?”

The way my sis was blushing now, in the opal light of fall’s sunset, solidified that she was rapidly turning into her mother’s daughter:  A stunner, simply put.  The prospects of the townswomen’s matchmaking had already begun coming up at the dinner table; and every time, Marinka turned red and stole sheepish glances at our father.  There was no way around it:  She was easily becoming the prettiest girl in town!  Not in that wholesome and blonde Slavic beauty way, but an exotic creature, with doe eyes, long hair of black waves and skin the color of buckwheat honey.

Olga Kurylenko for Instyle Magazine

Marinka carried on.  “I got this from Ilyinitchna,” she gulped.  She’d gone to far, corrected herself:  “Anna Ilyinitchna, I mean.”  (The tone of informality common for most Russian women was still a bit to early for Marinka to take on.  But she was getting there:  Whenever she joined our mother’s girlfriends for tea, she was permitted to address them with an informal “you”.)

Mother was already enticed.  “What?!  What’d you hear?” she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and turned her entire body toward my sister.

“He and Tatiana’s daughter…”  There, Marinka took notice of me.  She looked back at our mother for a go-ahead.  The silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife.  I pretended to not have heard anything.

But mom had no patience for not knowing:  “Oy, Marina!  Don’t stretch it out, I beg of you!  What did you hear?!”

Sis ran her nails to tame the fly-aways by pushing them behind her ears.  Her hair was thick and gathered into a messy construction on the back of her head.  Ringlets of it escaped and clung to her sweaty neck.

“Well?!  WHAT!”

Whenever mother spoke, I noticed the tension Marinka’s shoulders — a habit of a child who took on a regular beatings from a parent.  In boys, one saw defiant thoughts of brewing rebellion.  But it looked different in girls.  We had to bear.  It could take decades to grow out of oppression.  Some women never made it out.  They would be transferred from the rule of their parents’ household to that of their husbands’.  Forgiveness already started seeming too far-fetched.

Marinka blushed again.  Lord, give us the courage!  “He and Tatiana’s daughter were seen having dinner together in the city.  He took her to a rest-aur-ant!”  She slowed down, for effect:  Dining at Soviet restaurants was NOT a casual happening.  “And she was dressed like the last whore of Kaliningrad.  She now wears a perm, although I’m sure it’s not her parents’ money that pay for it.”  Sis was on a roll.  “I mean you see how Tatyana dresses!  The thing she wore for her husband’s funeral!  A woman of her age should watch such things!”

It felt like something lodged inside my throat.  Was it words?  Or a hair-thin bone from a sardine sandwich from my breakfast?  Although I didn’t understand the situation completely, I knew it wasn’t something that left my brain untarnished.

Mother, by now, was smiling ear to ear.  “Hold up!  Which daughter?!  Oh, Lord!  Is it Oksanka?!”

Marinka shot another stare in my direction.  You’ll break your eyes, I thought.  Oh man, I wanted to get out of there!  Blinking rapidly to remove the layer of forming tears — the shame!  alas, the shame of it all! — I fished out the next wrinkled potato from the iron basin at my feet and hurriedly scraped it with the dull knife.

“Well, Oksanka, mamotchka!  Of course!  She’s got that job at the City Hall, remember?”

“Well,” mom shook her head.  “WELL.  That little bitch!  She knows how to get around, I’ll give her that!”

I looked at Marinka, she — at me.  Mother bluntness was a common happening but even we were surprised at her bluntness.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” mother concluded.  Marinka chuckled, fear freezing her eyelids into an expression of panic.  The clock of her girlhood had stopped its final countdown.

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Side of Things

(Continued from June 3rd, 2012.)

In beginning of the summer, he told her he would be flying in.  She waited for a clarification, in silence.

The flurry of his messages resumed in a few days:  the tiny little jabs that, with his craftiness and her gullibility in tow, could easily be reinterpreted as tiny strokes of her ego; and if she really, really wanted to feel needed and missed — she could be pleased.  He was visiting his mother.  She said hello, said that she was sorry about how things had turned out.  She’d always “liked her”.  He spoke about how sick and tired of the North-East he had grown.  (They’d moved there together years ago, on the basis of her curiosity alone, pretty much.  Being young in New York sounded perfect, at the time.)  And wouldn’t it be nice to raise a family out here, instead?  She would’ve made a wonderful mother.

On that, she came out of her silence:  “What do you want, Mike?!” she texted.  (She had always avoided abbreviations in her messages; but with him, she also insisted on being brutally precise with her punctuation.)

But her irritation went right over his head:  “dunno hang out?” he wrote back.

It had to be a bliss to not see life’s gray areas at all, and to trample over other people’s precious boundaries with this much oblivion.  Or could he be simply manipulative?  Perhaps, he enjoyed watching her lose her cool, for his sake.  But the casualty with which he treated their break-up she found plainly and increasingly offensive:  He had been acting as if nothing terrible had happened at all and as if they could remain friends, on the other side.  Didn’t he know long it took for her to achieve the lightness of the forgiven past?

They took a few days off from talking.  She began sleeping a lot.

 

When he finally appeared, she wished her mind had tricked her into not recognizing him.  She wished he had changed.  But no:  A pair of long shorts ending at his half shins; a one inch buzz cut of his coarse, tight curls, which he had worn the same way for years; and a backpack.  And a sizable backpack at that!  (The day they met back in college, she was stumbling across the campus from the bus stop.  Having left her glasses at home, she was walking by memory.  He was leaving his Calculus class, in shorts and — yes! — with a backpack.  A sizable backpack!)

Now, he was walking on the opposite side of the street.  He seemed to have noticed her from ways away.  Eventually, she noticed him too:  that gait, that tilt of the head.  She felt zero sentimentality.  Once they made eye contact, he didn’t smile.  Neither did she.

“Oh, no!  Your hair!” he said right off the bat.  He now stood in front of her, his lower lip chapped from the wind.  “What happened to your hair?”

She had cut it all off, in the heat of the new city; and she’d been keeping it that way, since they’d last seen each other.

“And where are you off to?” she responded, immediately defensive.  “Camping in the canyons?”

It was just like she remembered the very end of them:  terse non-sequiturs and impatient physical contact.  Now, they had both grown older, but not kinder.

Considering to take an offense, he looked at her with his shiny eyes, then shrugged.  They exchanged a stiff hug.  (How long does it take for the muscle memory of lovers to fade?)  She braised the air near his cheek with a polite kiss, but their skin never touched.  He pulled away, held her arms for a moment, looking into her eyes.  Forcing it.  Then, after studying her boyish hairline again, he shook his head.  At least, he was smiling this time.

“Can I get you a drink?” he sized up the empty plastic cup on her end of the patio table, with its walls murky from a blend of coffee and milk.

“I don’t know:  Can you?”  She narrowed her eyes.  She was beginning to feel tired and bitchy again.  A tension headache was squeezing her temples.  She sat back down.  His backpack now took up the chair across from her.  She began to study pedestrians, particularly the ones with dogs.  When the dogs were left waiting outside, tied down to immoveable objects, she wondered how this much love could ever be forsaken.  How could love survive this much waiting?

When he returned, with two identical iced drinks, he plopped the backpack down onto the dirt patch, himself — into the chair.  Brazen, she thought.  Not even an apology for having her wait for him for nearly half an hour.

“So.  How the hell are you?” he said, while twirling the cubes of ice inside his coffee with a straw.  They clunked against each other, dully.

“Well.”

He nodded:  “Yeah.  I’d say.”  She watched him take a good stretch in his metal chair and yawn.

“You?” she said.

“Bueno!” he said and grinned at her with that boyish bravado that he’d nearly lost at the end of their marriage.  His arms hung stretched behind his head.  “It’s good to be back, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.

She felt her headache tighten.  She needed fresh air, or rather moving air, against her face.  She wanted to be crying under the rain.  She wished to be in the water.

So, she stood up, groped the chair for her purse and picked up her drink.  “Mind if we walk to the beach?” she said.

His eyes, despite the panicked confusion (was it something he said?), began to shine with a curiosity.  “Yeah.  Sure,” he responded.  “That would be awesome!”

She shook her head.  He was pushing now.

Not wanting to go through the store filled with other people, exhausted by the sun, she began to search for the gate of the patio.  She needed to be near the water, to hear it, and to imagine all that distance stretching ahead of her and all the places on the other side.

Stronger

“So typical!” she thought after having gotten the message about his running late:

“Traffic.  B there in 5.  Smiley face.”

The part about the smiley face was written out.  In the very moment of reading his message, she was not tickled by his charm at all.  The joke felt stale and smart-Alec-y, and it was probably aimed at her expense:

Well!  He remembered that but not that I despise tardiness.  “So disrespectful!” she muttered to herself.

She’d already parked the car and taken the stairs.  A lanky man going the opposite way in the staircase overheard her.  Behind his bifocals, he blinked rapidly and hugged the wall a little more.  A tourist!  She, for a brief moment, considered covering it up:  by pretending to be on her cell phone or improvising a tune to which the overheard words could belong.  But she was too annoyed.  She clammed up until alone again, on the next flight of stairs.

What irritated her the most, it seemed, was that after all these years, he hadn’t changed at all.  She had.  She had had to!  He’d altered the course of their lives with a single request to end to their marriage four years ago.  She moved herself across the country, as if her shame would lessen with no mutual witnesses around.  She’d gotten tired to wrench her guts out in front of friends.  Their sympathy was too short of a consolation anyway, with nothing on the other side of it — but an even more agitated loneliness.

In a new city, she could blame all the hardships on her relocation.  That way the divorce would come secondary; and on the list of common fears — moving, death, break-ups, public speaking — some of hers would be at least on the same plank.  Divorce or departure.  Departure or divorce.  They became interchangeable causes for every new obstacle for a while.  But eventually, each claimed its own time of day.  Departure took the daylight, while nights were consumed by the consequences of the divorce.  She started going to bed earlier.

When things weren’t well, she’d text-message the ex.  It was a habit of the fingers — not of the heart.  She took him bouncing between her little devastations and the recently increasing occurrences of her gratitude.  No matter her original intention though, they always ended up bickering.  Recycling became their long-distance pattern.  But it seemed to her — and she knew she wasn’t alone in this — they both found comfort in that repetition, how ever painful the results.

 

“Fuck that, D!  What do YOU want?” her stepbrother Tommy, with whom she’d grown close through all of this, would say.  The man never slept; and when she called in the midst of her own insomnia, she’d often catch him painting at sunrise in New York, never having gone to bed at all.

Tommy was adamant that no good would come from her constant contact with the ex.  “All you’re doing is delaying the pain, man.  He won’t change.  It’s all about you!”

But that was exactly was she feared.  It was easier to fish for an apology — or at least a recognition — in her interactions with the ex:  some sort of an acknowledgement of all that former goodness of hers that he had taken for granted, by ending it.  It was as if she’d wanted him to love and lose again (someone else, of course, because even she wasn’t dumb enough to go in for seconds), just so he could learn to miss her.  It was the only route to getting even that she had known.

The ex and she continued fighting.  For weeks afterward, she’d wait for an apology.  There would be substantial silence (in which she began to see glimpses of a lighter life, a better self).  After a timeout though, his messages would come in flurries, a few days in a row:  Some woman wore her perfume on the subway.  He’d found an old photo in his college notebook.  A mutual friend had asked about her.  He missed her legs, her hair…  By what right?!

In the beginning, she did respond reflexively, as if flattered by the contact.  But when his tone turned whiny — he “missed her”, “wanted her” — she got irritated fast:  Who’s fault was that, exactly?!  And when he began insinuating at his lust, she would get struck with guilt toward his new woman.  The pattern grew old, like the baby blanket from her own childhood which she’d been saving for her firstborn.  The firstborn took its time happening while the blanket became a reminder of yet another one of her inadequacies.  She began to feel hard of forgiveness.  There was no way around it:  He’d made a mistake; and she, still picking up the pieces on the receiving end, failed to let go.

Carla Gugino for Esquire Magazine

“I mean:  Do you even want him back?” Tommy sounded flabbergasted.  He seemed so different from her!  Stronger.

But Tommy was different:  He belonged to a separate genetic line of bold spirits:  artists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, marine biologists, heros.  At family gatherings, they all came in with colorful stories about the world in which neither habit nor fear seemingly played any role.  Her people were hospital administrators and medical assistants, for as long as she remembered.  Being concerned with records of pain, causes and possible treatments was their daily bread.

(To Be Continued.)

Threshold

(Continued from April 8th, 2012.)

When she first arrived, the older woman took off her shoes before stepping over the threshold.  Unusually considerate, light in her step, she made her daughter nervous.

There had been superstitions, back in her mother’s country, about thresholds, doorways, windows.  Table tops and chairs.  And they were treated like traditions by the women in her family, as non-negotiable as laws of gravity and just as final.  To never kiss over a threshold.  To never sit upon a tabletop.  To never let an unmarried woman be positioned at a corner seat, while dining.  And with the slew of superstitions came antidotes, just as important to take notice of; so that when things did NOT work out — the victim could be still the one to blame:  You shoulda knocked three times on wood, spit over the left shoulder, and hidden a fig hand in your pocket.  These things would grow on one unconsciousness like barnacles of paranoid behavior.  And in a nation of world-renowned courage, it puzzled her to see so many doubtful people.

And was her mother brave at all, to just pack-up like that and leave?  To move herself with a child to the furthest removed continent, after the death of her husband?  His — was a death by drinking.  She didn’t want to die — by mourning.

And now, both women — tired but not tired enough to not be cautious of each other — seemed to be waiting for something.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop, albeit both of them standing barefoot in the empty kitchen.  In this new country, where everyone was in love with fun and smiley faces, they each would arrive to their shared home and try to force a lightness to descend.  It would be mostly out of habit, and not desire.  Her mother functioned better in these new rules:  “Have fun!”  “God bless!”  “I love you!”  She had no difficulty throwing these around, without taking any time to match their implications to the worth of the recipient.

The younger woman now waited by the sink full of dishes.  After enough silence, while stealing glances at her mother, who floated from one room to another like a trapped moth, the hostess began to rummage through the dirty dishes.

Had mother always colored her hair with that unnatural shade of black, when last she’d seen her, in New York?  The snow white roots came in aggressively, all over mother’s head, opposing the other color with no mercy.  When did she age this much?  When did this fear and sorrow find time to settle on her face?

A paw of pity stroked across the young woman’s tightly wound nerves:

“Mom.  Why don’t you sit down?”  She caught herself:  All furniture was made of boxes, uncouth for a woman with a living husband, according to her mother’s generation.  Before the older woman managed to react, the daughter hid her gaze in forming mounds of soapsuds and hurriedly amended her first offer:  “Mom.  Wouldn’t you like a drink?”

“Yes, please,” the older woman turned on her heels, seemingly delighted.  “White zinfandel?”

“Well.  Um.  I don’t have alcohol.  But would you like some juice?”

“Oh.  Right.”  An eyebrow went up and froze.  “No, thanks.”

She turned and walked away again — floating, balancing, looming — stopped by the sliding doors of the balcony, at the edge of the living-room.  The palm trees slowly swayed outside like metronomes to one’s slower heartbeat.  West, West, West.

She’d gone out West, with nothing but the ghosts checked-in as her luggage.  The letters from her best friend on the East Coast would hit the bottom of the mailbox on a weekly basis, for the first two months.  She praised her for the courage.  She mentioned pride, and dignity, and all the other things they’d mutually gotten high on, back in college.

It never happened in any of the books she’d read, but in her life, what others titled “courage” — was merely an act of following through.  Besides, she swore, he thought of the idea first.  What else was she suppose to do?

The best friend wrote her with gel pens, whose color was always given careful consideration.

She wrote in pink:  “It’s better to let it all go to the wind.”

In purple:  “Let justice work itself out.”

At least, unlike the others, the best friend never judged.  She wasn’t in a habit of taking sides.  She never called the husband names.  But then again, they’d never really found men to be the leading topic of their friendship.  Men merely existed.  Some men were good.  And back in college, the two of them hadn’t loved enough men to speak of the other gender with that scornful nostalgia of the other women.  Men merely existed.  And then:  There was the whole of the magnificent world outside.

 

Out here — out West — she could just start from scratch.  She only needed to remember how to breathe the even breath:  if not that of her calmer youth — then of her wiser self.  With time, she knew she’d see the point of it, the purpose, the lessons of her little losses.  She had too vivid of an imagination to not weave her life into a story.

“One’s life had meaning.  It couldn’t be for forsaken.”  (Oh, how she missed those wonderful convictions of her youth!)

So, while she waited to mature into that wiser self, she set aside some time and space in which the hurting self could flail, abandon graces, wag its finger, then call people back with tearful apologies.  But she would not have to confront her past out here, at least; except for when she opened the envelopes of her phone bills.

“So,” mother started speaking to the window, again.  “Natasha?  Are you looking for a job?”

“I have been looking, yes, mom.”

“Okay,” mom turned around.  Change of subject:  “I hear Mike got a promotion for doing the work on that new bridge, in Brooklyn.”

When rinsing a knife after all pungent foods, one absolutely must use soap.  Because if not, the taste will resonate on every meal for further weeks to come.  

“Oh yeah?  That’s good.”

“Yeah!  He’s a smart boy!  I’ve always liked Mike.  For you.”

It’s better if the handle of the knife is anything but wooden.  Wood stays a living thing forever.  It takes on other substances, breeds them, doesn’t let them go.

Here comes the second round.  Ding, ding, ding:

“I wrote Mike a letter.”  Mom searched for the effects of her intentions on her daughter’s face.  “I know!  I know!  It sounds silly!  We live a borough away.  But I have always relished his opinion.”

She felt exhausted.  “Mom.”

Out West, she’d found herself relearning how to use each thing with an appropriate instrument.  The sense of wonderment!   The love of unexpected beauty!  The curiosity she was resuscitating in herself, like a paralysis patient learning how to walk again.  Her days weren’t daunting, at all times; and they were full of curiosity.

And now:  Mom, barefoot yet armed!   In one woman’s kitchen.  So fearful, she could not release either of them from their pasts.  They stood, displeased with being a reflection of each other.  Another eyebrow arch.  A scoff.  One turned away, demonstratively disappointed.  The other looked down onto her pruned fingers submerged into a sink of cruddy water.

Mom faced the window with no curtains, yet again.  Those horrid, flapping, plastic blinds had been the first thing that Natasha’d taken down.  For the first weeks, she let the wind roam through the apartment, while she, sleepless and exhausted, observed the palm trees wave against the never pitch-black night of her new city:  You are alright.  Remember breathing?

West, West, West.

You still have time.  In your defense.

Trying

(Continued from March 18th, 2012.)

Was it just her, or had life begun to feel like an army of ants crawling through one’s capillaries?  Did enthusiasm eventually give room to tiredness, when overcrowded by one’s disappointments?  She watched the cautionary tale of her mother’s wilted curiosity; sitting in the downward-turned corners of her mouth, waiting to expire, along with the last of her youth?  Waiting —

Until There Was None.

If ever mother had the patience, the awareness and the discipline enough to write her autobiography — for, surely, she had the vanity enough! — that should’ve been its tittle.  Until There Was None.

But the joy:  Where had it gone from her?  There would still be moments of visible glee, some days — a sort of tightly wound hysteria; the same inside job that made her mother’s face quiver and the loose skin of her arms shake after each gesture.  She’d be like that in front of her girlfriends when seeking their alliance via pity; or in front of the 17th Century paintings in the galleries of Eastern Germany.  (Then, she would always speak to Nola, lecturing, lying, not knowing how to stop.)  The sight of it — Nola eventually found herself despising (in men especially, much later):  of something pushing — being pushed — past one’s irritability, beyond the limit of tolerance and truth.  Strained.  Pushed.  Perpetually trying.

Silence and walking away, to Nola, seemed easier.  And it was reasonable, in theory, for people to coexist in a peaceful fulfillment of their basic needs.  But then, they would always tangle themselves up in the ideas of the pursuit of their own happiness, where flaunting of entitlement and justice would become a sport.  The calmness of a grateful life had long surpassed her mother — that woman was way, way far down the line.  And all there was to live by — was a long list of her grievances and other people’s debts.

“You’re just like your father!” her mother threw at Nola, as if being calm and good was somehow indecent.  Once Nola turned twelve, however, there wouldn’t be much left to hurl at her expense.  Because before, when the two women found themselves alone in the house, mom reached for anything to throw:  her father’s rain boots, the ribbed hose from the Soviet-made (read:  nearly useless) washing machine; wet laundry; mom’s patent leather belt from the fur coat that she’d demanded for her thirtieth birthday.

One time, unrooted by her madness, the woman tipped a pot of cold cabbage soup that had been sitting on the stove, waiting for her father’s dinnertime.  She had been panicking in the kitchen — (mom always panicked, in the kitchen) — and when she found her words surpassing their brutality, she speedily relayed her gaze from one sharp object to the next; and after an unsuccessful search, reached up behind and steadily poured the pot of cold liquid onto Nola’s head.  The slimy cabbage crawled under the collar, under the skin; and the orange, chalky layer of frozen oil tangled up in her hair and stayed there for weeks to come.  When finally, most of the liquid hit the floor, Nola looked up:  Not one, but two women stood there, drenched in terrible humiliation.

For the first time, that night, Nola had gone beyond forgiveness.  Mom was susceptible to losing her control, she realized; but from some losses, one could not come back.

“You’re just like her father!”

Blunt objects or her mother’s limbs ungracefully ended their trajectories anywhere along Nola’s small body.  If she tipped over, mom dragger her by the hair to rooms with better lighting, where harsher punishment ensued.  While mother pushed and pushed and pushed — the child stood, or lied still, in silence.  She learned to receive.  She bared.  She endured.  And secretly she hoped that surrender would make her mother slow down.  So visible was mother’s sorrow, so palpable — unhappiness, that from behind the raised arm with which Nola guarded softer places, she pitied her aggressor.  She waited for the feeling of tremendous heat in all the new swellings.  She’d welcome them, eventually giving herself over to resignation, and to sleep.  A strange bliss would be found at the end of every horror.  For one was never given more than one could handle.

 

In those days, Nola still could still portion out the world into manageable pixels.  There would anger.  Disappointments.  A one unhappy woman.  Through repetition, Nola learned that mother’s love was functioning through let down expectations.  If one was loved by her — one owed her, forever.  The closer Nola neared her own womanhood, the more difficult, the more unbearable would become that love — and debt; until one day, none in her family could ever able undo, unsay the things that they had thrown at each other, in an attack or self-defense.  And in the loss of reason between all cause and effect, it would begin to feel like pure insanity.

And then, one summer, mom had admitted herself to a resort on the Ukrainian Republic’s shore, famous for housing patients of political insanity and tuberculosis.  She dropped off Nola at the house of her in-laws, called up her husband and said that she had lost the sight of “her own woman”, and that she was going away, to find her self, for an indefinite amount of time.

Unheard of!  Scandal!  Her father’s mother ranted for about a week.  But quite quickly, the old woman focused on saving the family’s face and made up more suitable stories about her daughter-in-law’s passage.

“Yeah, a bleeding ulcer.  I know:  that poor thing!  She hadn’t eaten for a month!”

“A teacher’s conference attended by the Ministry of Education.  She’s getting a Hero of Labor.”

But in her own house, behind her mother’s back, the old woman talked.  She called her names for every single time she found Nola staring out of the window or writing letters to no address that mother left behind.

“A flea-ridden bitch — that’s what that woman is!” the old woman muttered on repeat, when she discovered a clump of tangled hair above the nape of Nola’s neck which Nola harvested for nearly a year by then.  The knot had grown so large, that during the summer, she began to pin her grandma’s rhinestone brooches into it.

No remedy was masterful enough to get that thing out!  Lord knows, grandma tried!  The naked old woman labored and puffed in the wet steam of her bathhouse, her deflated breasts flapping above Nola’s shoulders, like freshly baked Georgian lavashes.  After two hours of brushing, oiling, lathering; of pulling and of being pulled; of swearing, sweating, renouncing; and baring and receiving — the hair had to be cut out; and Nola walked away with half of it missing from the back of her head and a headache that took days to sleep off.

The story tilted then.  Inside her family, she never would be able to find much calm.  That night, unable to find a spot on her scalp that wasn’t raw and throbbing, with the face down in her pillow, Nola would begin to plot her own escape, with or without her hair.

 

And now, here it was:  Her thick and magical, red hair!  It had began to slip out of its follicles and clog up all the drains in the apartment; and after every shower, the water drained slowly, allowing for the soap scum to settle on the walls of her tub, like growth rings on a cut down tree.

Must color mother’s hair, she decided.  The shower head was dripping at an even pace against the standing pool of water, in the bathroom.  Mom lost all memory.  Her dignity did not belong to her.  It mattered to the living though — to those who were living, trying, still — so, Nola owed someone that.

Fine by Me.

(Continued from March 4th, 2012.)

At first, she said, sure:  The lake would be “fine”.  She went there a lot anyway, especially in the summer, with her books, only to fall asleep under their inky tents pitched over her face.  The strangers, if they were to walk by, could probably tell what she was surviving, based on the titles under which she napped, giving up on her consciousness all to readily.  From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Goodbye, Columbus.  (She must’ve had a hunch about all the departures she was about to endure).  Then, at twelve years old, only two quarters after she got her period, she slept with The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother.  That shit was written like fiction and she felt the anger swelling, beyond control for the first time since her mother had ran off:  anger — at all of those fuckers who managed to wedge their lives into an arc of a neat story, with lame metaphors and cute closures.  All so fucking neat, with a ribbon on top!

Her life was not like that at all.  But then, Forgive but Never Forget was even worse; while Zen and the Art of Love had her stoned on the dullness of someone’s clinical explanation of the pure chaos she had always thought human emotions to be.  (But maybe she was just different.)  The Power of Now — who wrote that shit?! — made her ravenous with envy at those whose nows were tolerable enough to want to be IN them.  But still, she could always have books.  It was the only thing on which she had learned to rely, the only journey she could actually choose for herself; and she would secretly crave, upon every first sentence of every newly picked-up tome, that it would speak to her in her own language; just so that she could nod and slap its pages:  I know EXACTLY what that feels like!

By the time this kid came along — lanky and greenish-white, like one of those strange tropical insects that trembled at the slightest breeze, along with the stems against which it camouflaged itself — she had entertained a sliver of amusement:  What in the world was he planning to do with her?  It wasn’t even about the matter of her substance — but all about THE matter.  Her matter.  Her body.  If you have a body — you must matter.  Well, ain’t that a crack o’ shit?

She knew she wasn’t a stunner.  Not by any means.  But with what was given to her — she knew what to do quite well.  It had to have come from her mother, this awareness of her appeal, the sweet ‘n’ sour smell of her own sex.  Her shit wasn’t abrasive like that heavy decor she had seen her contemporaries wear, whenever they stopped by the diner after a night of clubbing.  She would be working a graveyard shift, serving mostly the exhausted truck drivers who, having ran off and driven away from their troubles, now couldn’t stop running; and they watched her with their sad golden retriever eyes, as she poured them refills of bitter coffee and seconds of tenderness.  When the uptight cops accompanied by their boisterous rookies, horny on their illusions of power, came in, a difficult silence would cover the whole place like a dome.  Even if just for a minute, everyone got quiet, which made her think that in life, no one was really innocent.  No one — was clean.  (But still, shouldn’t her mother have given up on the idea of being entitled to happiness?)

Right around three in the morning, the young came in, with their tipsy laughter and entitled cravings.  This is where the boys usually closed their deals, taking their prey home.  Or not.  Somehow, all that trying made her nose itch with the reek of despair.  Her own thing was made of simplicity; and in simplicity, one never had to find herself embarrassed:  for doing too much, for going out on the limb way-way too far.  For the despair, for the loneliness; for the need — to matter.  Besides:

Sex was easy.  Staying — was hard.

But, she said, sure.  The lake would be “fine”.  (It would be a downgrade from finding herself alone there, she suspected immediately after agreeing.  But still, it would be “fine”.  For now.)

The kid gulped.  “Cool…  Um, yeah…”  He scanned her face, nearly shivering from surprise:  Was she just fuckin’ fucking with him?

She push-pinned her pupils into his:  Sure you can hack this, buddy?  His eyes seemed incapable of sitting still in their orbits.  She just noticed that.  Bad vibe.  A red flag.  Intuition activated.

But fuck it!  “The lake would be fine.”

“Well, cool.  Yeah.  Um, tell you what:  I’ll call yah on Saturday, yeah?”  (Stumbling over his words, he’d won himself some time to get his cool back.  He was grooving now.)  “We’ll set something into motion.”  (Sorta.)

It had to be hard:  to see this much, to understand so much.  But she wouldn’t know any different.  She seemed to have been born with no skin in between her and the rest of it all.  Even as a kid, she remembered feeling people even before they opened their mouths and convoluted her intuition with their noise.  So, she went into her books:  Was there — or had there ever been — anyone else like this?  But after she woke up to her father, weeping on the doormat, one morning — a man broken, the consequences of his goodness discarded — and after she joined him there and cradled his graying head in the dusty footprints of her departed mother, she assumed that the two of them were just born different from the rest.  But they had each other.  And she would always have her books.

She scanned her inners for that same sensation:  The heavy warmth of maternity she had previously felt toward some of her lovers.  Nope.  None.  The kid left her cold.  Outside the phases of having to work, work, work — then to recuperate — she felt nothing.  And as she watched him limp away, with not even a look in a departing cliche over his shoulder, “It is all way too easy,” she thought.  So, when did it turn so hard?

 

Shit.  Well, that’s cool…  I guess.  She said, “Yeah.”

(Fuck!  I was totally wrong!  This chick’s got lower self-esteem than I thought.)

Swelling.  This is good.

But what’s good for me — is not so good for the bitches.  I build myself up on the parts I borrow.  I take.  They call it “love”, them silly broads; I call it rehab.  I’m just taking back what was taken from me.  (Thanks, mom.)

I take my power back.  That way, if a broad ever leaves me, she won’t have much to go around after.  She won’t move on undamaged into the arms of the next guy.  Fuck THAT shit!  ‘Cause I leave a mark, man.  I make myself indispensable.  So, it’s a win-win for me:  I feel better — she feels like shit.  That’s the only way I know.

True that:  Sometimes, I wish I could just disappear.  Make a shit load of money and go away.  I could just live on my couch then, with my TV, and my health food and internet porn.  Eat well, sleep forever, get other suckers to serve me.  I could then buy myself pussy whenever I wanted, then kick it to the curb.  I wouldn’t have to work for it any more.

(I mean it actually would’ve been better, as Ashley said in her last text, if I weren’t born at all.  But it’s not like I had a choice in the matter, hon.  So, instead, I get myself what I want, at whatever price.  I weave the lies, tell ‘em what they wanna hear.  I can even make my shrink’s eyes bulge out with my stories.  I can say anything to a broad to get her, and she can keep coming around until I start picking up on the hints of her attachment.  Then, it’s over, man.  Like, A-SAP!  No one gets hurt.  Well.  Maybe, she gets hurt, but how’s that my problem?  I’m just taking what’s mine.  I’m taking what was never given to me.  And I get my revenge.)

(Except.  Ashley.  Ash.  How could she erase me like that?  As if I weren’t born at all?)

But this one said, “Yeah.”  “Fine,” she said.

She and His

Be kind, be kind.  Must always be kind.  Be kind onto others.  Which is not the same as being kind onto yourself.

The silly self:  It’s like a whimpering babe, looking at her with confused eyes.  Why aren’t you coming for me?  Don’t you know how much I need you?  Poor thing, so dumb and innocent, it knows not its ignorance is bliss; but need, need, need.  I need you, need you, need you — to be you.

But she forsakes it.  It can make it on its own.  That’s the Darwinian rule that she had obeyed for years; the rule that had been done onto her, when her mother fled her marriage and parenthood in the family’s fourteen-year old Honda to live in Portland, with a lover — a vegan milkshake store owner.  For her, it wasn’t:  Do onto others as you do onto yourself.  (Some people can be so selfish, mother!)  But she had had a life-long history of being better to others — better for them — than to her whimpering self.

There’s time enough, she thought; and maybe later she could retire to finally tend to her needs.  By then, the self would be so tired (although she swore she had been tired ever since she was thirteen).  But she would tire herself out enough to retire, with babies and her future husband’s nightly strewn socks all around their bedroom.  Until then:  She had to be kind.

A decade ago, she used to be angry.  At all times, at nearly everything.  “It’s my prerogative!  I am what I am,” said the ego.  Except that it was all wrong:  She was kind.  Always kind.  She was the daughter of her father — a gentle man who, despite the damages done onto him, had never done it onto others; and being his next of kin came with the same unbalanced, unjust genetic mechanics of selflessness and never knowing how to ask for a favor.

But even though, in her youth, she would hold onto the anger, she felt it falling flat every single time, after the initial sensation in her body.  Like an off-key tune, it was uncertain and wavering; blue and slightly disappointed.  Like a story without an arc:  Who needs it?

“This is how I’ve always fended for myself,” she would defend the anger to her departing lovers and move the hair out of her eyes with a furious head shiver.  The lovers couldn’t understand why she insisted on living her life in so much difficulty.  Not everything had to be understood so thoroughly, so completely.  She “should learn to let go”.

Fine by me!  Go!  Go on and leave!

But they would miss her, she was sure of it; because in between all those hollow spaces of anger, she always offered kindness.  Kindness pro bono.  Kindness at the end of every day.  And besides, she had always made it clear they were never the point of of her unrest.  Instead, they could revel in her love, her compassion or her charity — all depending on the degree of availability of her kindness.  So, how difficult could it be to be loved by her?

But you should go!  Go ahead and go!

In those moments, she recalled an actress in a film that her mother seemed to be watching every single time she’d walked in on her.  The actress was good at crying well, with no resistance in her face.  And on that particular line, “Go!  Just go!” the actress would close her eyes completely, like someone aware of being watched.  And she, catching a glimpse of both actresses in the room, would always wonder:  “Why the fuck is she wearing full make-up, in a heartbreak scene?”

The departing would never find another her, she thought to herself; and she was right:  They wouldn’t.  But with all the others — who weren’t her — things were slightly easier and more vague.  Others left room for misinterpretation, so that the lovers could live out their love in mutual illusions, until the first point of cross-reference.  Hearts could be broken then, expectations — disappointed.  But they would’ve had some wonderful times by then.

And yes, with time, easy became boring; but boring — gave room to calm.  And into the calm, it was easier to retire.  Because in the end, we were all simply so tired.

So, be kind.  Must always be kind.  She almost terrorized her lovers with kindness, which was shocking to the recipients, in every beginning.  It made her unusual, unlike all the others.  The lovers could not have suspected, though, that she was merely collecting a reserve of it for when the going got harder, because it always would; and because the first time the anger came up in each affair, it stayed.  One note.  No arc.  Just co-habituating with the rest of her, not necessarily parasitically.

Some lovers would attempt to rescue her from the anger.  (Sometime, infatuation liked to pose as love.)  These more ambitious ones would suffer the most, from her resistance, from the complexity of her constant devotion to truth.  And only when they, finally tired from it — or of it — raised their first objections, she flaunted all the moments of previous kindness in her self-defense.

How she hated herself for turning calculating, pitiful and shrill!  After those endings, she would have to find healing in closure that took more time; because self-forgiveness was harder to summon by someone who did onto others better, than she did onto herself.

But they all would remember her kindness at least, she told herself.  In the end, they all would.  And, again, perhaps, she was right.  But no one could ever survive the lack of self-love.

 

I could do this one, why not?  She’s kinda cute.  Hot, actually.  She’s hot, and that’s so much better anyway.  She’s not one of those gorgeous girls who thinks she’s outta my league.  Fuck those bitches!  They get too expensive, anyway.  But this one is not like that, man.  I wonder if she’s the type that doesn’t think she’s beautiful at all.  Which makes it even easier.

I should ask her out.  ‘Cause I could probably do this one, easily…  Hands down!

Okay, maybe not “easily”.  She called me “Patrick” last night.

My name is Dave.  

Shit, man!  Just look at her!  Leaning over the edge of the bar, so obviously flirting with Stan.  Stan is old, but he can get a girl nice ‘n’ liquored up, I guess.  I tolerate Stan.  And that’s as far as I go with people.

Stan is, like, seriously deprived of love.  His woman is a total bitch to him, you can tell by the way he cranes his neck whenever he talks to a broad.  Any broad.  Like a fuckin’ abused dog that expects to be hit between his eyes for chewing on her slipper, just ‘cause he just wanted to taste the sweat of her feet.  Stan’s woman must castrate him every day, for breathing too loudly or for not looking the part, or some shit.   And I bet she thinks she should be with someone better.

Look at him!  Just look at him now!  God!  He’s shaking just ‘cause this girl is nice to him.  God…

I hate dogs!

Maybe Stan’s got a giant one.  Chicks always say that it’s not important.  But that’s just bull, if you ask me.  I’ve seen ‘em looking at me when there is no point of going back and I’m staring them in the face, erect but less than a handful.  Nerve-racking enough to shrink anyone.

“Ohm,” they say and look up at me with that face, as if I got them the wrong thing for Christmas.

I wonder if it’s those fuckin’ pills.  I told John, I’d rather be bald.  But then, his woman chimed in:  “Jenna”.

“I wouldn’t fuck Prince William, with that hair of his,” she said.

First of:  Who wants to date a chick called “Jenna”?!  Or “Trisha”?  “Trish”.  Sounds like a diner waitress with three grown children by another man, at home.

Anyway, “Jenna” has this habit of going out to our fridge, in the middle of a night, in nothing but John’s wife-beater.  She’s a bartender, comes over after her shift.  Drunk.  I hear them fuck.  I try to tune ‘em out, so I blast some ESPN, or fucking Transformers 3, I don’t care.  Whatev.  But it’s like this chick’s got police sirens for her moans.  And the really fucked-up thing is:  They really turn me on.  It’s like having a live porn sound-feed from across the hall.  So, I’ve started waiting for John to finish his first round; come out to the living-room, turn on the TV and I watch her, as she runs to the bathroom.  (Why do chicks always have to pee after sex?  Does urine kill sperm?  I fuckin’ hope so!)  But then, she comes out, all flushed and glossy from splashing water on her face and thighs; all the fattier places bouncing on her body.

“Jenna”.

…Frankly, I don’t like fat girls anyways.  Fuck ‘em!  I’d rather keep aiming high.  But the skinny ones are always meaner.

John told me “Jenna” likes big ones.  Makes her ears plug up, she says.  And she’s got this vein that pops out in the middle of her forehead.  Makes John worried she’ll hemorrhage to death on day, if he keeps winding up her sirens like this.  So yeah, it matters, he says.  Size matters.

“Jenna” lies to my face.  Says it’s all about the man’s hair:

“I’d rather fuck a bald guy than Prince William.”

So, these days, whenever she comes over, I watch TV with my cap on.  “Jenna” has these sick nails and she always paints them red; and she likes to rough out the top of a man’s head, then pull his face into her breasts and smother his silly grin with them.  But not me!  Not this guy!…

Ah, shit!  Just look at this one though!  She’s still talking Stan up and I can see that jittery part of her thighs from the way she hangs on the bar.  This one is hot.  Kinda like “Jenna”.  That’s the problem.

And I can tell she is not like one of those chicks back in college who liked to brag about sex all the time and confuse the attention they aroused — for being liked.  Those chicks had seriously low self-esteem.  But this one doesn’t talk sex.  She moves sex.   And we are all deprived.

I blame our mothers.

(To Be Continued.)

That Goes Without Saying

(Continued from February 12th, 2012.)

The fact that I had lived to tell the tale, to play the endless hide-and-seek with my fam’s myths — defeating them or playing the fool to their call — my murder obviously did not materialize.  And neither did my mother’s old man finish off his wrathful deed in that ill-fated, loaded moment, in their shared past.  They both eventually calmed down:  the old man of stubborn dignity and his very proud daughter whom he himself had raised to never — EVER! — grovel.

Although that child would milk the incident until the man apologized, then, backed it up with some expensive gifts:  a coupla golden objects and some vinyl records by four pretty boys from England, whose bangs of ponies and cherubic cheeks sped up the sexual maturity of most of the world’s teenagers.  Considering the rarity of vinyl back in the U.S. of S.R., those might as well have been made out of gold.  The records could be found ONLY on the black market.  Illegal gold!  Now, THAT’s the stuff worthy of that woman’s beauty!  The gifts from my own father, who had been mortified to have his woman flee like that — with no shame or underwear — were also pouring into my mother’s pretty hands.  After about a week of pouting, she would resume her residence upon the marital bed, but would impose the punishment of her absence every weekend; then, go off to play house back at her parents’ joint.  (Whatever made her think, however, that that was a punishment still testifies to her very high and never wavering opinion of herself.  Because, you see, it was, if not the myth of our women, then certainly some centuries-old wisdom:  That any woman willing to put out on a regular basis was a catch, of course.  But those broads that looked like mother and had some skills behind the bedroom doors (or so I’ve heard) — were copyrighting a category of their own.)

My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my own sex life…

What?  Are you surprised a chick like me would need professional assistance?  It could’ve been the wisdom from beyond my predecessors’ graves — some intuition that, as I was most certain, had always lived in my fallopian tubes — but I would ask for help when I discovered the power of our women’s sex.  It happened via a curious case that struck me in my sophomore year:  A night of my first Romeo’s serenading under the windows of my college dorm, which then resulted in a serious dose of hatred on behalf of all the other females in the building.  When after that one sleepless night, half of my Medieval Lit class failed to show — and our drained by life professor went literal and Medieval on our asses — I quickly knew that I could never bear the responsibility OR the amount of guilt that I began attaching to the act of sex.  So, quite A-SAP, I located my shrink, off-campus.  (All I had done, in my defense, was let my Romeo feast upon my breasts which I never bound with a bra.  Not back in those days.  Or, actually, not ever.  They weren’t obnoxious glories of my mother’s, by any means:  Her hemispheres that guided men to heaven.  Mine were just little handful reproductions.  With Romeo, it was the stuff of innocence, I swear.  A little shadow fuck of that dark force that was behind the family’s myth.)

So, anyway.  My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my sex life, would over the course of my last two years in college break down the driving mechanisms of mother’s psyche:  She strived on endless guilt trips.  If one bestowed a love upon her, in mother’s eyes, they were forever indebted for the sole pleasure of her company.  So, only when one was NOT in trouble — was when one was advised to worry about unrequited love.  Love.  Equalled.  Suffering.  That’s a direct quote from my mother’s Bible.

“But little daughter.  Love of my life.  My sun and earth and all the stars above,”  was singing my grandmother, gray haired fully by the age of forty.  Every week, she would pamper her child in the fam’s private bath house — called “banya” in the mother-tongue — which even in Russian stood for:  “Those bathers are bourgeois pigs and we shall gut them in our next Revolution!”  Such luxury did not naturally run in our fam.  So, there had to be a story about it!  (Oh, but of course:  Another fucking myth!)  And that story went:  When my young grandfather, smitten by his girl, suggested they should marry, she arched her impeccable eyebrows at him and said:  “I do not want a stupid wedding band:  It gives me blisters.  You build me a house with a banya — and we shall talk.”  The chick, who had been showered with men’s vows of their eternal love since, say, the age of six — was doomed to learn the fragile nature of men’s word.  She would have learned negotiating her way through life; and then, behind the closed doors of that same banya, she’d pass her wisdom to her equally gorgeous female child.)

Now, scrubbing each other’s bods with soap suds, then whipping themselves raw with soaked birch branches every weekend, the women bonded.  Some girls grew up admiring the carriers of wombs that birthed them.  (Case in point:  Yours painfully, sincerely.)  My mother never suffered through that stage, however, as a youngster:  From birth she was immediately gaga over papa (but also anything that walked and was preferably male).  Sex was a mere currency.  But since she was NOT about to become a village ho, the young woman quickly learned the suave negotiation — via her stick and honey pot — that could’ve made Edith Wharton herself flip up her elegant white arms in awe and in surrender.  But this recent mishap back in the home of her marriage took our pretty woman for a spin.  And she, spun out, began to seek advice (or rather, pity) from the one woman who’d learned to love her unconditionally, despite the distance the young woman maintained between them, most of their lives.

“This, too, shall pass,” the wise woman was now cooing.  She was beside herself.  After years and years of desiring this closeness with her child, she was on the receiving end of it — FINALLY!

But her advice expired right in that same bathhouse, its hopeful body asphyxiating and curling up under the wooden bench for the young woman to step over — and move on.  This purely Russian, innate resignation of the soul — the forced surrender because otherwise things would never, ever change — was not an outlook my mother practiced much.  She hated Chekhov, walked out of women’s conversations about “That’s just the way things are!”  She never tipped a shot of Stoli to someone’s fatalistic toast; and even as a child, her parents’ “Just because!” was not an acceptable answer to her three-year-old’s “Why’s”.

Everything in life could be negotiated, which to a First World Reader would seem quite reasonable of an expectation.  But we’re talking:  The Soviet Union in the 60s.  So, our young lady had better had a plan!

 

Naturally, something would come out of that incidental female bonding (which, with all due respect to my own gender, could amount to nothing good).  After one night of bathing away her heartache and stress, haloed with a cloud of steam, my mother stepped out into the world, all squeaky clean and suddenly light; her calculating mind — refreshed.

She had an idea!  Hallelujah, a plan!  And it was inspired by the old woman’s promise:

“Your dad and I could always care for your baby, if the going got rough.  And you can always leave her with us.”

My mother’s beautiful face, now red and swollen from the admirably well-timed tears, stopped shedding water for a minute.  She swiped her eyelids with the backs of her soft wrists and muttered through the bubbly saliva inside her rosy mouth:  “How do you know it’s a ‘her’?”

The old woman smiled and raised her hand to brush her daughter’s hair, cut short in yet another recent act of resentment toward her wedding vows.  But from that point on, according to the young woman, the going got so “rough”, it would be border-line of questionable safety for her or her offspring.  As much as a question from mother’s husband about, say, the length of her skirt or the color of her nails — and she would throw a fit.  I mean, seriously:  “Could you pass the salt, please?” at a dinner table she sometimes treated as a scathing comment about her cooking.

“What happened to the man I married?!” she flailed.  It’s true:  The chick was starting to feel jipped.

Oh, that poor girl!  She still could not accept that, in the world, there never again would be a love that equaled that of her old folks!  That’s how the human race had worked for centuries:  “Just because.”  So, off she’d go again:  Storming out of the kitchen and locking her man out of the bedroom.  Or marching through the unpaved roads on her two legs of fury, yet again.  I, by then pushed out of her womb, would roll and bounce inside the baby carriage that mother pushed through mud, dried mounts of cow dung and ulcerous ditches.  Like an unready kernel of un-popped popcorn, I thumped against the cardboard walls and bottom of the Soviet-made transporter of our future generation.  And by the time we reached my grandpeep’s home, I’d been exhausted, bruised and ready for surrender.

“What did he do — again?” too readily, my grandmother leapt out of her house and onto the porch.  And for a while, my mother would think up some fiction, exaggerating the events of her home, for an effect.

Be it out of some male camaraderie, or simply out of his adoration of me (or did he simply want to rescue me from being accidentally brainwashed by these two women?), my grandfather avoided their dissing sessions at all costs.  Instead, he’d take care of some dirty business inside my homemade diaper and carry me off onto the couch where he had been dozing off after his graveyard shift at the local port.  Or he would take me out for a walk — a bundle cradled in the hammock of his left arm, while he continued smoking with his right — and he would meet his buddies for a glass of foaming beer, at sunset, in the park.

If I remained awake, “Hey there, lavender eyes!” he’d wink at me, occasionally, and flick my button nose while balancing a cig between his lips.  To my unknowing eyes, it must’ve looked like a magnificent firefly.  Some hopeful planet that formerly belonged to the Little Prince.  The North Star that paved the roads of my future paths with flickering, yet never dying, light.

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.)

Sleep-Less, in Warsaw

The pigeons of Warsaw are singing blues lullabies, at night.

Were I not on a week-long hangover, from my tightly wound nerves and a lack of sleep, I may have not even noticed them.  But on the first night of getting here, I’ve first slept through all of daylight — sore from soaring the skies above the Atlantic — and then risen to an unfamiliar (to my now native but still adopted land) sound.  The murmur resembled the noises of a submarine submerging into water; or, of a bored babe blowing bubbles through a straw into a half-full glass of milk he had no intention of drinking up:  Quick pops of air, my little darling, with your tender, mumbled giggles, in between.

Even the local insomniacs have given up on their daytime nightmares that chronically keep them awake.  They’ve all gone off to sleep, by now.  In this old city, murmuring with blues, I seem to be alone; and I pull through my groggy, swollen stupor — of changed time zone and altitudes in the last twenty four hours, of overcome little tragedies (“the circumstances”, as other people call them) in order to get here — and through the anticipation of a major turnaround in my life.  Here, I have come to meet my father.  Here, according the story, lies my redemption.  (You know, THE story.  Everyone has one.  Not necessarily a fairytale, and nothing particularly dignified — but something that we lug around, to make us special. Or, different, at least.  “The story.”)

But still:  The sound.  Not a single soul seems to be awake to explain its origin, right now.  And after a lifetime of aloneness, loneliness is not in the repertory of my moods (let alone of my fears).  So, yes, the sound:  Is it coming from the pipes of the town square fountain, waking up in the midst of its winter-long hibernation?  Or is it authored by a stray mama-cat — with twice the thickness of her fur, being a much wilder thing in this part of the world — and she is purring her recent litter to sleep, somewhere on the raspberry, tilted rooftop of the apartment building across the street?

And then from the hibernating memories of my childhood’s self (what’s the use to remember, when all I do — is move beyond “the circumstances”?  toward “the story”?), I connect the dots:  If the memory serves me right, this sound comes from a choir of feathery creatures flocking the buildings’ gutters and windowsills, resting on phone poles (they are too clumsy for the tight ropes of phone lines, and they leave those for the little guys, the sparrows).  And they are murmuring the town to sleep.  The air is quieter in this part of the world.  The streets are narrower and filled with lesser aggression.  So, their songs — and the other tunes of nature — are easier to hear.  And so they happen:  These little harmonies of cohabitation, the peaceful melodies of nonviolent living.  Quite exceptional for the new century of ours!

Not a footstep can be heard along the cobblestone roads:  The town has been hushed down by the song.  There is always an hour, one at sunrise and a couple at the end of each day, when the surfaces of these streets look clad in blue — a shade that has been coming through in photographs of my father’s face.  While cradling a cooling cup of coffee against my breast bone, I break down the color by the palettes, while peeking through the tule curtains, which aren’t a common practice in my adopted land, except in immigrant neighborhoods.  For, on the other side of the Atlantic, every thing and body is in love with white spaces.  Still, the ways of life here do not appear strange to me; and all the memories I’ve forcefully filed away are gently slipping out to the forefront, to the bluesy murmurs of Warsaw’s pigeons.  I know I’ve seen these colors in my childhood.  I know I’ve heard these sounds.

The windows are sweated from the inside, but they’re not frost painted yet.  (That — I do remember well:  my tracing the magical cold patterns with my chubby fingers, while waiting up for Father Frost’s arrival, on New Year’s Eve.)  The streets below look narrow and ancient; and even though they are of a more recent generation, no older than five decades, the cobble stones breathe with tales of one old civilization (and of its “story”).  Never again will these streets be evened out by another nation’s ideologues with unthinkable experiments in mind!  The gracious land of Poland is resting now; and tonight, despite the turmoil in my head (reflections of my immigrant life competing with the memories of my original self), this land appears sleeping, submerging into fluid of some peaceful bliss that’s well-deserved, good lord!  Good land!

In about an hour — after this shade of blue is dissipated by sunlight — the town will begin its waking with the sounds of women’s heels upon the cobble stones, shiny in the morning with black ice.  A few antique cars, going one way, then parking and unloading fresh produce to a couple of delicatessens, will follow.

Food hunting takes some time and expertise, around here:  You cannot swing by a giant, windowless supermarket and get all of your needs fulfilled at once, while losing track of time in a hypnosis of excess.  No.  You must take your time to learn your neighborhood by walking and match a specific store to each food category.  Liquor and fruit — a reasonable pairing — is sold out of narrow closets, crammed in between first floor apartments.  Milk and meats are paired together, but never fish:  Fish is sold a few blocks down, on a larger, two-way street (which must be easier for deliveries, I dare to theorize).  At each store, you twirl the packages and wrappings in your hands.  They come from neighboring countries, each speaking in a different language:  the little oddities that feed one’s curiosity despite one’s being jaded by age.  The banality of your basic needs somehow dissipates when curiosity of hunting is rewaken; and you aren’t embarrassed for asking questions.

There is seemingly never more than half a dozen of each product in stock; so, you’re doomed to settle on variety; and if the local stores run out of your preferred produce — you wait until the sound of the antique cars the next morning.  (Here, waiting no longer proposes a burdensome occurrence; because the town’s time has slowed down, according to my clock.  And there is suddenly an endless list of missing objectives, as I adopt the natives’ strolling pace along these peaceful, old streets, until the blue of sunset, at the end of each day, and sometimes past it.)

The three women cashiers at the liquor store across the street are always visibly amused at my crippled Polish.

“Tak, tak, tak,” they smile and nod, and hand each other their guesses of what I’m pointing at.

“No, no,” I panic.  “Apple… not a pear…  Um…  Yabloko?  Yeah?”  (I throw in some Russian, what the hell!)

Sometimes, I juggle English, when my original tongue fails.  They smile and give each other teasing looks.  I do not worry though:  They look like grandmothers, completely free of evil thoughts toward other people’s children.

This one, behind the liquor counter, looks mighty — like the type I’d call in case of a prognosis of some feminine disease, or just to share a round of shots for no reason than to avoid thinking of “the story” (“the circumstances”, as other people call them).  She looks like she can laugh for hours, her giant breasts vibrating with resonance of her chesty, smoker’s register.

“Mozh?” she forcefully tilts her head toward my male companion who’s at the moment pleasantly negotiating with the other two women — in the produce corner of this closet space — that after all, we won’t be needing any onions.

“But, thank you.  Um…  Dzieku-ya?  Yeah?”  (He’s a lot more willing than I am!  His “story” must be lighter.)

I shrug, roll up my eyes to reconsider, press my lips together into a sheepish smile (this mighty broad is a Catholic, judging by the amber cross around her sweaty neck), and then I shrug again.  What’s Polish for:  “It’s complicated”?  She gives me a preview of the silver crown in the right top corner of her mouth and lifts her thumb.  She approves — of him, or of my progressive sexual practices, from my adopted (but not native) land.  Her nails are filthy, and I love her!

The woman stocking the shelves at a larger deli down the street has also picked me for a foreigner.  No matter which tongue I utilize with her — I might as well be speaking in Chinese.  Her face communicates her single, stubborn point of view:  If Looks Could Kill…  I feel no residue of my self-protective aggression.  (I’m suddenly so tired of “the story”.)  But one thing I have learned with these unwilling types, resentful toward tourists — as demonstrated by the apathetic shrug of a gray-haired, handsome cabby, earlier this week, who turned down a handsome fare to the airport by refusing to communicate in any other language but his native:  They aren’t obliged to speak to me in Russian anymore.  I cannot blame them:  It’s a new world, indeed!  To each — his or her own politics of forgiveness.

“Yeah?”

The resentful woman still doesn’t get me.  I let her be, in dissonance with me.  I let them be.

The young barista with a boyish haircut at a packed coffee shop pretends to not understand my “pleases”, “yeses”, “thank yous”.  (A little cunty, if you ask me, she shoots down all of my attempts for grace.  But nothing I can do about that.  I let her be.)  While waiting for my order, a stunning couple gets my attention; and I forget about the slightly patronizing smile of the child behind the register, who’s probably spitting in my coffee.  The woman in the coupling is wearing an African headdress, and he — is gloriously giant.  I hear them murmuring in Polish to a nervous woman tourist:  When did the world get smaller?  And, more importantly, how much longer — until it becomes kinder, juster, too?

Still sleepless, I keep studying my street, through the tulle curtains:

An amber store is lazily glistening with all possible shades of yellow, some silver and glass.  The arch doorway of the watch repair store right next to it looks like a replica from an old fairytale:  I try to cast the face of the kind and fragile watchmaker who tinkers with the hands of time, inside; but all that comes to mind — is the one of my father, illuminated by the shades of blue.

His face — is kindness incarnated.  Mercy defined and grace continuously — stubbornly — resurrected, despite “the story”.  My father’s hands, affected now by age and years of living past “the circumstances”, have been the ones in charge of my chronology.  Like a magician, from ten time zones away, he has been gently tapping the wheels of my clock with pads of his aging fingers, to slow down the loss of our minutes.

If only our “story” would have some mercy!  And from the ends of now smaller world, we have been rushing to each other:  If only there’d be time enough!