Tag Archives: grief

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.

“See the Stone Set in Your Eyes, See the Thorn Twist in Your Side — I Wait…”

The shades were closed.  The house was dark.  It had always struck me strange the way she’d keep all windows locked down, in order to keep the cold air inside.  The manufactured cool would dry out her skin and the house would smell mechanical.  She’d complain, blow the arid air through her deviated septum; then slather her age spots with some sort of bleaching cream.

She lived too close to the dessert; and only late at night, she’d give the house fans a rest.  Their constant humming would finally die down, and suddenly the sounds of gentle quietness in nature would be overheard through an occasionally open window.  The skin of my scalp would relax at the temples:  I would forget to notice my constant frown during the 20-hour long humming.  My face acquired new habits since living in this house, and I was beginning to forget the girl who had been asked to pay the price of her childhood — in an exchange for the better future.

But on that day, it was too early to allow the nature to come in, yet.  And as I entered the empty house, I immediately noticed the hum.  I had been gone for half a week:  too short of a time to forget the climate of this house entirely — and most definitely not enough to forgive it!  I took off my shoes, remembering the stare she’d give her visitors whenever they were too oblivious to obey.  Slowly, I began to pass from room to room.

The light gray carpet that covered most of the house’s footage was immaculately clean.  And if there was an occasional rug — under a chair or a coffee table — it usually marked an accidental spill of food or drink by a very rare house guest.  I’d be the only one who knew that though:  I’d witness all their hidden faults.  And she would run the vacuum every night, pulling and yanking it in very specific directions.  Those vacuum markings had to remain there undisturbed; and only those who didn’t know better were kindly permitted to destroy them with their footsteps.

I opened the bedroom’s double doors first but found no courage to come in.  Instead, I stood on the cold titles, on the other side, and studied the footsteps by her bed.  There was a cluster of them, right by the nightstand.  Is that where she had been picked up by the paramedics?  I looked for outlines of boots imprinted into the fur of the carpet.  I thought I saw none.

The living room carpet seemed undisturbed.  The markings of the vacuum, which she must’ve done the night before, were still perfectly parallel.  The cold tiles of the kitchen floor had no residue of food.  She’d wash those on her hands and knees with paper towels.  And she would go over it until the wet towel would stop turning gray.  No dishes in the sink.  No evidence of an unfinished meal.  No evidence of life at all.  I began to wonder where she’d collapsed.

The door to my former bedroom was shut.  Most likely, it had remained so since I’d departed.  I made it to the office — the only space where some disarray was less prohibited.  The bills where broken down by due dates and neatly piled perpendicularly, on top of one another.  Her husband had a habit of resting his feet on the edge of the corner desk, as he played on the computer for hours, until she’d fall asleep.  Then, he’d come into my bedroom.

My bedroom.  Its door was closed.  I turned the handle and expected for the usual catch of its bottom against the rug that she insisted on keeping on the other side.  Strangely, it covered up no visible spots.  I pushed it open.

It was a sight of madness.  One woman’s rage had turned the place into a pile of shredded mementos, torn photos and broken tokens of forsaken love.  The bedcovers were turned over.  The sheets had been peeled off the mattress two-thirds down, as if by someone looking for the evidence of liquids near my sex.  The stuffed toys which normally complete my line-up of pillows were now strewn all over the floor, by the wall opposite of my headrest.

On top of an overturned coffee table I saw my letters:  My cards to her and hers — to me.  She’d even found the letters in my parents’ hand, and she shredded them to piece.  Nothing was off limits.  No love was sacred after hers had been betrayed.

I stepped inside to see the other side of one torn photograph that flew the closest to the door.  At first, I tried to catch my breath.  A feeling on sickly heaviness got activated in the intestines.  In murder mysteries that she adored to watch with me, I’d seen detectives scurry off into the corner furthest from the evidence, and they would throw up — or choke at least — at the atrocity of crimes against humanity.  Apparently, my insides wanted to explode from the other end.

I paced myself.  Carefully, that I, too, would not collapse, I bent down and picked up the shredded photo.  It was my face, torn up diagonally across the forehead.  On the day of my high school graduation, her husband had come over to the side of the fence where we were beginning to line up.  I can see the faces of my classmates in the background.  They smiling at his lens.  They are supposed to, as he — was “supposed” to be my father.

He was not.  And I’m not smiling.  I’ve raised one eyebrow, and my lips are parted as if I’d just told him to fuck off.  Not even there, he would allow for me to be without him.  Not even there, I could be alone for long enough to remember the girl who’d been asked for her childhood in an exchange… for what?

“Give Me Hope, Help Me Cope — With This Heavy Load…”

I saw him nearing the intersection, about half a block away, on foot.  At first, I watched him pass my car, along the pavement: An ordinary man, like so many others.

His hair and beard were completely white (and I’ve always found it impossible not to trust white-haired people, for they seemed so much wiser than others).  So, immediately, I thought of him not as much as handsome but somehow dignified; trust-worthy.  Surely, I thought, he knew something I didn’t.

He wore a pair of well-ironed black slacks and a white dress shirt, unbuttoned at its collar.  A pair of polished, laced-up shoes and a yellow manila envelope under his armpit:  But of course!  He had to be an important somebody!

Maybe he was someone’s tax accountant, I thought.  Or, a divorce attorney walking over the final papers to a drained, tragic face of some recently single mother.

The fact that he was passing a gas station specifically for cop cars helped my fantasy, too.  I had just noticed it the other day:  What looked like a parking lot behind a film production building was filled with the killer whales of LAPD being served by a single, rusty gas pump.  I didn’t know that the same people granting us our justice also had to pump their own gas.  It made sense, of course; but my initial assumption that they were tended to, by someone else, made the idea of my world slightly better.  Or, more just.

(That’s when I looked away:  I was waiting for the traffic light to change.  It hadn’t yet.)

I had just passed that one crowded intersection where every LA egomaniac insisted on wedging in the giant ass of his unnecessary Hummer, thinking that the yellow light would last forever — just for him!  Instead, he would get stuck there, right in the middle of the mess, blocking the rest of us with an awkward tilt of his giant ass.  Oftentimes, driven to the ends of our nerves by all the heat and strife already, we flip out, honk and scream at him, with lashing words and foaming saliva.  Aha:  Another day, in LA.

My own rage is so powerful, at times, it scares me:

What if I don’t manage to come back to the saner side again?  What if I go way too far?

They had just erected a significant palace of yoga, precisely at that one intersection, where most of us are ready to lose our minds.  (And those people granting us our justice:  Why aren’t they granting it at that specific spot in the city?!)

On the other side of the street sits an ill-used parking lot, permanently fenced in by a giant net.  Its neon orange sign reads “FENCES”.  No shit!  There is never enough parking in this city, and there is never enough space.  Or, there is too much space — and not enough humanity.

But then, again, no one ever promised this city would all make any sense.  No one ever promised for it — to be just.

And maybe, that is why it’s always so much harder to come back here, every time: Because we tread at the very end of our nerves, due to all the heat and strife, and some of us go way too far.

The white-haired man was walking slowly; and that was somewhat unusual, of course.  But then again, he was nearing that one police station in Hollywood, where quite a few of my acquainted restless souls have spent a night or two, after losing their minds a little.  Maybe he was someone’s DUI lawyer; or perhaps, he was delivering someone else’s bail.  As he neared the pedestrian walkway, with the quickly expiring countdown on the other side, he began to squint his eyes:  Eleven, ten, nine…

(And did I mention he was wearing glasses, with an elegant metallic rim?  Yep:  Definitely, an important somebody!)

“Ohhh…  Ohhh, nooo!” he suddenly began to cry, quietly, almost under his breath.  He wound up each word in a register unsuitable for a dignified, white-haired man, like him.

He stepped out onto the road and began to cross.  Seven, six, five…  He crossed right in front of my windshield.

“Ohhh, nooo!” He squinted again.  “They took my car…  Oh!”

I looked in the direction of his grief.  The curbs in front of that one police station, in Hollywood, were completely empty.  It was that time of the day when the rules demanded for us to give each other more space.

“They took my car…”  The white-haired man continued, and in the way he stumbled onto the pavement at the end of his walkway, I thought he was way too close to collapsing on his feet:  Way too close to his insanity — as he had gone way too far.  

“I can’t take this — anymore…” he wept.

It separated inside of me and dropped — some dark feeling that comes from suspecting that nothing in the world had promised to be just.  And that departure of my own hope scared me:  What’s life — without hope?

Someone honked behind me:  The light had changed, and I had to give them way.  I had to give them enough space to pass into the lives that stressed them out ahead.

 

“Call ME! On the Line! Call Me, Call Me, Any, ANY TIME!”

My cellphone broke down yesterday:  Finally, that poor thing!

It had been with me for over three years, and by now I was getting texts and phone calls from the Verizon people on a regular basis, begging me to get an upgrade.

“Did you know you were eligible for a $50 rebate?!” some nice girl would be trying to tell me after I would call to complain about the most recent malfunction on my device:

“The flip is not clicking anymore,” I’d say.  “I think it’s loose.”

“Well, m’am,” the nice girl would be studying my files on her screen.  She seemed to be patient, and yes, super nice.  Perhaps, in those files, she could read all the records of my previous love affairs, from start to finish; and she would take pity on me.  And even if she couldn’t see my love stories unfold through a progression of texts between my exes and I, I bet she could tell I was going through another break-up by the gastronomical size of my bill that month.

And sometimes, I would imagine she had some sort of a hidden camera thingy connected to the flimsy flip in my hand, and she could actually see all the terrible truths about my life.

“Hmm.  It says here you’d drowned your phone in a cup of coffee nearly a year ago.”

(See!  I told you she had that hidden camera thingy!)

But yes, it is true about the coffee.  You see, about a year ago, I had finally decided my motha and I were ready to cross the next boundary in our relationship — and that we could try texting each other.

Now, I am not one of those absentee daughters.  I call my motha on a regular basis, one-to-two weekend nights per week.  Even if we feel like we have nothing to say to each other, I would much rather hear motha’s repeated monologues on the other end of my cellphone — than suffer the passive-aggressive silence after I had somehow forgotten to call her one weekend.  Because let me tell you:  Jewish mothers have NOTHING on my motha with their guilt trips.  My motha copyrighted that shit!  And she is not really the silent type, neither in Russian nor English.  So, when she does go quiet on you, she can raise the hairs on the back of your neck with feelings of her orphan-like abandonment and saintly martyrdom.

Anyway.  At the end of last summer, we had passed a new threshold:  For the first time in our lives, we each had our own place with which we were finally perfectly content.  There would be no more terrible roommates.  No more partners with messy habits.  And we had vowed that each would stay at her place for at least a couple of years.

Conveniently, my motha’s joint had horrendous cellphone reception.  So, before she got herself a landline, I would have to text — to test her availability.

“CALL NOW” — motha would respond, often with no punctuation marks and in all caps.

But my very first text to motha was actually less than technical.

“Lov U, shawty,” I wrote.

I was feeling mushy that morning.  It’s a consequence of having a heart that’s easily prone to gratitude.  Motha would understand that:  I am sure I’ve inherited that damn thing from her.  And so:

“Lov U, shawty,” I composed.  But right before I could hit the red button of SEND, the flip phone slipped out of my hand and dove right into the middle of my morning cup of coffee with a precision of a kamikaze.

“SHIT” — I thought (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).  “My coffee is ruined.”

As I said:  I had just moved into the place, and before I had unpacked my kitchen supplies, I had walked to the 7-Eleven on the corner to get my caffeine fix for the day.

The flip phone was retrieved eventually and immediately buried in a jar of rice.  It wasn’t white rice, but one of those healthy wild rice mixtures from Trader Joe’s.  So, the trick wouldn’t work, and I would go through the hassle of filing an insurance claim and waiting for some hideous device to arrive in the mail.  My old flip phone would eventually be revived with the help of a hairdryer, and I would feel like my faithful device and I had passed another hurdle in life.  We were veterans.  Survivors.  And we weren’t ready to part ways yet.

Because one of the terrible truths in my life was that, just like everyone else, I was married to my cellphone.  It was the most significant relationship in my life — and an appendix to my ego.  And even though every once in a while (like after a break-up, for instance) I would lock that thing up in my car for a day to punish it — to punish the whatever him I was breaking-up with — I couldn’t live without it.

And there had been moments when I would fling the poor thing across the room after a prolonged wait for a Time Warner rep to pick-up my call.  I had used it to break-up with my old bank from the East Coast, utterly useless on this side of the country.  Because my cellphone was perfect for confrontations; and I think it had something to do with the flip feature of it.  It added a certain umph to my endings, like a punctuation mark at the end of a text message.

But about a week ago, I could tell:  My poor thing — my dear veteran — was on its very last stretch.  It was no longer responding to its charger, and seemingly its screen was starting to suffer from some sort of electronic epilepsy.  Two days ago, it was over.

Finally, that poor thing!

“NO CHARGER DETECTED” — the screen said (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).

And then:  It went dark.

Strangely, despite all of our history, I didn’t feel any sadness about its departure.  It is true we had passed through many hurdles together.  We were veterans.  Survivors.

But I knew:  Ah, it was time.

“How can I help you?” some nice boy with an iPhone clipped onto his belt said to me when I stormed into the Verizon store last night.

“Well,” I said, whipped out the dead body of my cellphone and slammed it against the counter.  “You tell me!”

The nice boy smiled:  He couldn’t help it.

“Ow… Ouch.  What happened to its gloss?” he said, ever so charitably.

And I remembered the very first day I bought my baby at another store:  It was caramel-colored and shiny, and it would light up with red lights when I caressed its surface.  The gloss was long gone now, and I would begin to be slightly embarrassed to take it out in public.

The kind boy was by now studying my files on his screen.  Could he see all of the terrible truths about my life?  Could he read the histories of my relationships in the gastronomical sizes of my previous bills?  And considering the low amount due this month, could he tell I had been finally single — and contently so — for the duration of the last season?

“Did you know you were eligible for a $150 rebate?”

“That bad, eh?” I said and smiled.  I couldn’t help it.

“IT’S TIME” — the nice boy said (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).

And when he asked me if I wanted to save any of my old text messages or voicemails — for I would be losing ALL of them in this transition — I did not feel any sadness at all.

“No,” I answered.  “It is time.”

“A Rusty Heart Starts to Whine, in Its Telltale Time…”

“That’s just UNACCEPTABLE!”

He was foaming at his mouth, at the front desk.

A little man.

His face, red from a lifetime of terrible diet, was boiling with outrage.  Everything in the world seemed to have gone askew for him; and overhearing the routine of his ready complaints, I could tell this was not the first time he ever voiced his grief.

Quietly, I slipped past the heavy doors of this mountain spa resort and I lingered by the doormat.  I had come here for silence.  It wasn’t really the noise of all the others left back in LA-LA that I minded.  They could just go on and on, for all I cared, about their dreams and their sex lives.  About their dreams of better sex lives.  As a matter of fact, I preferred they went on and on:  It gave me something to write about, during the day.

But the noise in my own head was rattling my balance with an ache:

Survival.  Dignity.  Freedom.  Art.

“I DEMAND my refund — or you’re gonna have to talk to my lawyer!” the little man was getting carried away with the routine of his ready complaints.

I had always wondered what it was like to live one’s life by fronting.  It sucked, I recently thought, that we all had one hell of a time negotiating our boundaries with other people.  I wished it didn’t have to be so strained, so testy.  Couldn’t we just leave each other enough space and air:  Enough dignity?  Enough freedom?  But this clan of others that lived their lives by fronting: It must be miserable to be perpetually expecting some sort of injustice.

Still though:  I was fascinated.  So, I lingered by the doormat.

A couple of drinkers hanging at the bar shot their confused glares in the direction the front desk:  They would’ve been much more interested in getting involved had they not drank too much free wine at a tasting earlier that night.  Or maybe, just like me, they had come here for silence.  I couldn’t see the bartender.  The lounge was empty.  And the only other civilian caught in the avalanche of the little man’s outrage was the nighttime clerk, at the front desk.

I had seen her early in the morning when I arrived, and she graciously allowed for my early check-in.  Her kind smile reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite remember.  A cloud of curly strawberry-blond hair framed her freckled face, down to her collar bone, and it suited her well.

It suited this place, to where many had come for silence:

Compassion.

“How late is your spa open?” I asked her, at the time.

“It’s open 24/7,” she responded.

I looked up, puzzled.  I had already arrived here with gratitude, and this was causing me a bit of an overload.  She smiled kindly, reminding me of someone I couldn’t quite remember.

“We’re all adults here,” she said.  “Right?”

Now, she was sitting in her chair, looking down at her desk calendar as if meditating.  I realized this entire time the little man had been screaming on an old-fashioned, ivory phone mounted onto the wall.

He, by now, was a goner:

“You know what?!  I’m gonna call THE POLICE!”

The nighttime clerk noticed me, lingering by the doormat, and she smiled kindly.  Bingo!  She reminded me of someone who had helped me once through a transition in LA-LA (of which I had many, in between my needs for silence).

I nodded at the nighttime clerk.  It sucked, I thought, that she was having one hell of a time surviving the avalanche of other people’s entitlements.  And I wished it didn’t have to be so strained for her, so testy.

I smiled, kindly:

Compassion.

“LOOK!” the little man — that poor lost soul! — was now screaming out every word.  “I’VE DONE THIS BEFORE!”

But of course:  Everything in the world must’ve gone askew for him; and overhearing the routine of his ready complaints, I already knew this was not the first time he ever voiced his grief.

“Excuse me?” I said to his wife — a woman a stocky stature — who was blocking the stairway with three giant, overstuffed pieces of luggage, while she lazily scrawled through her BlackBerry messages.

The woman looked up.  I had expected a scowl.  A boiling outrage.  Instead, she looked at me with such a sheepish apology, I wished it didn’t have to be so strained for her, so testy.  And she smiled at me, ever so slightly.  Ever so kindly.

Suddenly, I remembered:  I had seen her earlier, at a seafood restaurant right above the roaring ocean.  All the windows of the place were flung open, and not till later I realized there was no ambiance music to distract us from silence.

It seemed we had all come here — for silence — from the noises in our heads:

Survival.  Dignity.  

Some of us didn’t live our lives by fronting.  Some of us were still prone to gratitude:

Freedom.  Art.

And especially those who got caught in the avalanche of outrages by little men and women — by the poor lost souls — still deserved our:

Compassion.

“Let It Be, Let It Be. Whisper Words of Wisdom: Let It Be.”

When you forgive — you love.

I stumbled across that, somewhere in my reading.

Because I want to be a writer, you see.  So, I read.  A lot.

Sometimes I read for inspiration, other times — to put myself to sleep.  But mostly, I read out of my habit for empathy.  Secretly, I cradle my hope that someone else, equally or more insane than me, has once felt my agonies and thrills before.  And perhaps, that someone has been able to find the words for it all.  But then again, maybe I just want to get myself disappointed, frustrated enough to start looking for the words on my own.

“Lemme do that!” I would think, and I leave the book by someone else unfinished, on my dresser; then, I start weaving my own stories.

It’s a trip, I tell you:  Reading.  Which is why I size up my books carefully before committing to them, with my time and my empathy; and with all of my expectations:  I need to make sure they are exactly what I need at that moment in life.

Kind of like:  Love.

Except that in love, I continue to commit that same mistake and I wait for the story to fit me perfectly, at that time in life.  It doesn’t.  Ever.  Because a love story always involves another person and I am never too careful in sizing him up.

With books, I eventually forget about my initial expectations, and I get on with the journey they offer — if the adventure is worth my wandering, of course.  But in love, I seem to forget about my side of the story — and I lose myself in his.  So, the empathy gets lopsided and it limps around like a polio survivor; never remembering where exactly I had started losing track of myself.  Until the eventual departure by one of the parties returns me to my memories — of love.

When you forgive — you love.

I stumbled across that in my memory, yesterday, as I stretched in between my naps on a sandy sheet at the beach, next to a man guilty of loving me better than he loves himself, with his lopsided empathy.  Every time I looked over, he seemed to be asleep.  And right past the curvature of his upper back, I could see a family of tourists doing their slightly quirky things underneath a colorful umbrella.

The woman looked lovely, but not really my type:  She was a blonde, model-esque, calm and seemingly obedient.  The little boy looked like her, with her pretty features minimized to fit his Little Prince face.  He sat by himself, quietly imitating the things he imagined in the sand; and, like his mother, he never fussed for attention.

The older child — a 7-year old girl, in a straw hat — resembled her father:

He was tall, dark, Mediterranean, but not at all intimidating in his physicality.  As a matter of fact, his body belonged to someone with an athletic youth that eventually gave room to the contentment of a well-fed, well-routined family life.  By the way he lounged in his beach chair, I could tell he had plenty of theories on homemaking and childbearing; and that those theories — were the main means of his participation.  Still, he wrapped up the picture of a complete union, so I changed my mind and dismissed him with a kind thought.  Then, I resumed studying the little girl.

She was tall, Mediterranean; dressed in a blue-and-white, sailor striped dress. Lost in her stories, she wandered around her family’s resting ground until the wind would knock off her straw hat and send her running after it.  On her balletic legs, the child would skip for a bit, then  resume walking, very lady-like.  The wind would pick up again and roll the hat for a few more meters, and again, the girl would begin skipping.

I could tell she was either humming or talking to herself.  She’d catch up to the hat, put it on, start walking toward her family’s resting ground while humming, weaving her stories; until the wind would send her skipping again, after the hat two sizes too big for her, in the first place.

I looked at the man next to me:  He seemed to be asleep.

“When you forgive — you love,” I stumbled across that in my memory, felt my legs get heavy with sleep, snuggled against the man guilty of loving me better than he loves himself — and drifted off into yet another nap.

When I woke up, the Little Prince had gotten a hold of his sister’s hat and tried wandering off on his wobbly legs, in search of his own stories.  But the instructions from the father’s chair, put an end to that adventure quite quickly; so the boy returned to resurrecting the things he imagined — in the sand.  In the mean time, the little girl was already skipping through waves, on her balletic legs, but still talking or humming to herself, while weaving her own stories.

There is a forgiveness that must happen, with time, toward the insanities of our families, in order to continue living with them.  That I had known for a while; and past the forgiveness, I’ve benefited with more stories.

Then, there is the forgiveness of those who have failed to love us, with or without their lopsided empathies.  Still, it must be done in order to arrive to new loves, to new empathies, and again — to new stories.

But the forgiveness of ourselves — for the sake of weaving a better story out of our own lives — that seems to be a much harder task.  And it takes time.  It takes a light open-mindedness of a child continuously running after her straw hat, seemingly never learning the lesson because the adventure itself — is worth the wandering.

And when the lesson is learned — forgiveness equals love — the story-weaving gets lighter.  And so does the loving.

“Click, Click, Click, Flash…”

There are faces on the streets of this town that make me want to whip out a camera and take them home with me:  not the people — but always their faces, like yellowing Polaroids in my back pocket.  Every day, I drive by them, on routes that must lead to my dreams — or at least to survival in between the dreams’ happening — and I fight the urge to leap out of the car, leave the engine running, and steal a shot or two, preferably unnoticed by my subject.

But if they do see me, I hope they aren’t offended much.

“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say, shielding myself with kindness, as if they were my lovers telling me of their final decision to depart.

(I’m such a fucking hippie.  Forgive me.)

There is a homeless man, in one of my regularly visited parking lots, who always reads a pamphlet, in a plastic chair by that neighborhood’s laundromat.  He rests here, maybe even lives, with his cart parked right around the corner.

Keith.  This is his spot.

The truth about Keith:  He is homeless — not a pauper (and you better know the difference).  He’s made that aggressively clear by the cleanness of his clothes and the presentable look of his laced-up shoes.  I had tried giving him money before:  I might as well have slapped Keith’s tired face with a wet towel full of sand.  But food, he’ll take food.  He’ll nod, humbly; thank you, and pack it away, so methodically and slow, it breaks your heart.  Because if ever you have known poverty yourself, you comprehend the deficit of dignity in it.  Organization and routine become your only saving graces.  And that’s exactly how you get by:  sweeping off crumbs of dignity from the kitchen table and into your hand; and methodically storing them away — for later.  

Well, Keith’s got his dignity in spades.  I can tell it by his face with carved out wrinkles and his not so poorly groomed beard.  In a striking juxtaposition to his African features, a pair of lime-green eyes overlooks from above.  Sometimes they freeze in a gaze of departure; and even though I’ve wondered a few times about where Keith goes when he goes like that, his eyes give out no hints.  I don’t trip out about that too much though:  Because the ownership of his story — is one of the few things a man should be allowed to possess.

His right eyebrow gathers into a poignant awning.  Not much of a frown, it ever so slightly changes the man’s face from solemnity to something grievous.  Just like that:  a little shift and the departure of his lime-green eyes — and the man’s face becomes a story.

“You’re beautiful,” I’d probably say.

Another man — another story — lives just a few blocks away from my street.  I am never sure where he sleeps, or where he stores his things.  But he is impossible not to notice as I run to the subway station, always late and always immediately embarrassed, when I notice him.

On a cold day, the man stands underneath an electronics store sign long closed down for sale.  In heat, he looms in the shadow of a bus stop nearby.  The accidental passengers waiting on metallic benches seem to not mind him more than they mind the exhaust fumes from the never-ending traffic.  Years ago, when I first moved here, the man used to ask them for money, while shifting on his feet.  But now, he just sways there, in silence, waiting for dumb charity by someone with a guilty conscience, like my own.  But mostly, he lets his life waste him away with the corrosive elements attacking his skin behind this bus stop.

Painfully thin, he sways too much when shifting on his feet, as if at any moment he can tip over and break into a thousand shards of something irreparable.  But whenever I can get past my embarrassment and actually look at the man’s face, I realize it belongs to someone long departed.  He seems calm, surrendered; almost smiling, with his eyes.  And if he can feel the scratch of my dollars in his palm, dried up to chalky whiteness, he shivers his head a little.  Those aren’t nods, but a dozen of little ones — like shivers.

Another story — another ghost — trails in the footsteps of a local woman that always sits by one of this town’s guilds.  She’s irate:  There ain’t no bloody surrender in her face.

On the stone fence of the building, she usually sits with her bags parked underneath her feet; and she mutters while scratching the matted hair, usually wrapped in a shredding scarf.  Her clothing is nonsensical, as if she’s rummaged through a vintage shop or a drag queen’s closet, that morning.  But you better be sure there’ll be some sequins somewhere on her body.  And it’s not the angry face that gets my attention every time:  It’s those fucking sequins!

She must’ve loved them as a little girl, as all little girls do.  And as all little girls, she must’ve found them magical, like fairy dust or sparkly refections in the water from the mirror mosaic on the bottom of a pool floor.  And she may have long departed — in her mind and in her face — but this child-like addiction is the only sliver of sanity that separates her from those of us, insane enough to give it up.

They are never dangerous, these faces; no more dangerous than the minds that hide behind them, storing away their stories of horror and loss from which the only sane thing to do — is to depart.  Alas:  The faces of the departed.  There are so many of them, in this town!  

Who knows what has brought them here, and why they never left.  Is it because hope dies last; but when it does, it leaves a person too exhausted to depart?  Or is it because they, like me, have nowhere else to go.

Because they are already — the departed, and this — is where they have departed for.  And this is where they continue to depart, dragging behind their carts and their beauty —  like cautionary tales for the rest of us.

“I said, No: That Bitch Ain’t A Part of Me!”

“I mean…  I just went ‘crazy bitch’ on him!  Completely out of control!”

For anyone, it would take some serious balls to admit to the loss of grace — to acting beneath what we all deserve to call ourselves, beneath our self-esteem.  But for this tan, fit, statuesque creature of perfect hair and teeth, it must’ve been particularly difficult to own up to her defeat.  Because (insert a drumroll, please):  EVERYONE has choices!  Some more than others — yes!  But she had committed the lesser of choices repeatedly, with this one man; and the pattern of cheating herself out of the better ones — and out of her better self — has amounted to an avalanche of consequences.

For years, she had suffered in her relationship of questionable commitment — an arrangement in which something wasn’t ever enough:  Something was missing.  It had started with sex (as it often does); and for a while, it was good.  At least:  It was good enough.  He wanted to keep her around, fed her slivers of encouragement; but she would eventually want more.  She continued to ask for it, succeeded in an engagement.  Still:  Most of the time, it all left her feeling uncertain, unfulfilled.  Something wasn’t enough.  Something was missing.

Now, I could see from the desperate gaze she kept trying to hang onto my eyelids, my nose, or my chin, like a wet towel:  I could see she wanted me to take her side.

“What a jerk!”

“What an asshole!”

“He doesn’t deserve you!”

She’d gotten used to hearing that — it had become just another pattern; and now, she was pleading for me to chime-in.  But I wouldn’t:  I knew better.

First of all, I didn’t know the guy; I didn’t know his half of the story.  But even if I did, something told me, I still wouldn’t find the answer.

Because the affairs of others get so convoluted, so hard, loaded with pain and meanness, they eventually become gratuitous in the eyes — and the ears — of those forced to witness them.  It would take me years of untangling the yarns of these lovers’ objectives, needs and secret desires; their failed expectations, lies, intimate manipulations.  So, it was not my place to give him an unworthy name.  And no matter her despair, I could not judge him, cheating myself out of MY grace, for the sake of making her feel better at his — and now my — expense.  I knew better!

But my second truth was that, in all honestly, I knew:  He had to have been a good man, merely based on the fact that no one was born a villain; and because he had to have earned her love, once upon a time.   He HAD to have been good!

Now, she wanted to carry on.  Armed with a generous pour of merlot in one hand, she started listing all the ways in which she had felt cheated:  He did this, and that.  And then, there was this one other time when he did not do that other thing…  With every injustice, her breathing sharpened.  She began to get flushed, upset, reliving the history of his and her lesser choices.  She was getting carried away, when she confessed to snooping around his Facebook account, searching his phone; rummaging through his drawers for signs of what had been missing; violating his privacy — and her better self:

“I mean…  I just went ‘crazy bitch’ on him!  Completely out of control!”

Proudly, she started flaunting the evidence of his lesser goodness, so desperately wanting me to take her side.

But, still, I wouldn’t:  I knew better!

And when she finally demanded some verbal charity on my part — making herself feel better at his and my expense — all I could find the compassion to say was:

“Why are you angry?”

“BECAUSE!” she whiplashed her perfect hair and spat out something bitter and dark.  It landed between us, onto the glossy bar; and it sat there, sizzling:  “I knew it!”

Suddenly, I was tempted to distract this heartbroken from her loss by reminding of her better choices:  She had her whole youth ahead of her, and all that goodness! 

But as years of beholding for others have taught me, years of collecting their grief — good fucking grief! — I knew that in that moment, she wanted to hear none of it.  Because she was still hanging on:  To him, to the life she had imagined; to the fantasy of his being her better choice.  She was hanging onto her grief, desperately; and I knew better than to get her out of it.  Instead, I beheld, quietly; staring at something dark and bitter she had just spat out in between us, onto the glossy bar.

She inhaled, hung her head, hiding her face behind the curtain of that perfect hair; and then, she fragilely exhaled:

“It’s just that…”

I looked over.  The curve of her neck belonged to someone collapsing under her grief.  Good fucking grief!  My heart bungee-jumped into my throat:  She had to have been good!  Despite the slip-ups of her self-esteem, despite cheating herself out her own grace, despite acting beneath what she had deserved to call herself — she had to have been good!  So, why?!  Why was there something dark and bitter sizzling on the glossy bar?

“It’s just that I knew it all along,” she said.  “I knew better.”  

And there it was:  A lifetime of lesser choices.  Whoever that man was — however good he was — she herself had committed the crime of ignoring her intuition.  There had to be signs all along that something wasn’t enough:  Something was missing.  Yet, she forged forward, making a pattern of her lesser choices, cheating herself out of the better ones (even though she knew better, “knew all along”) — until it all collapsed under an avalanche of consequences.

But good grief!  She still had her whole youth ahead of her — and all that goodness!  And next time around — she would know better.

Good fucking grief!

Oops, I Did It Again! (and Other Psychological Disorders)

Crawled out of my skin last night, hung it on the door knob and, till this very gloomy morning, I haven’t put it back on yet.  Stark naked I write to you, my comrades — souls all over the world who share with me no private history but the common ground of humanity.  And every once in a while, completely unexpected (for my art needs no reason to exist), I hear your “Gotcha!” echo via an electronic transmission; and in that moment, you’ve gotta know:  you repair my very heart.  So:  Fuck yeah!  Fuck da!  Thank you for reading!

Still stripped and skinless, superimposed by the little girl I once was a few decades ago in a country that exists no longer, I am about to have a lil’ tete-a-tete on the topic of grief.  ‘Cause you see, you magnificent co-participants in the utter chaos of living — I’ve got me a shit load o’ that.  (“A shit load,” by the way, is V’s democratic solution between the metric system of her Motha‘ Russia — and the rest of the world — and that other one she still doesn’t know how to convert to.)

I haven’t lived long, my comrades, but certainly a lot; enough to accumulate some losses.  I’ve lived through deaths, heartbreaks, break-ups and a divorce.  I’ve commemorated violence — others’ and my own — by jotting it down on my skin.  I’ve been thrown around by historical turmoil and have survived poverty.  And although I still insist on calling upon humanity’s goodness, I have seen it at its very worst.

And that is exactly where grief comes from:  From its mama — the Loss. I wiki-ed it for you, my stubbornly good people; and according to wiki-wiki, it’s “a multi-faceted emotion.” A free-for-all, eh?  And emotional twofer.  A Round Table for your every feeling.  (A’right, V:  Settle down with those metaphors!)  Numbness, blame, sadness and anger — yep, I’ve done ‘em all, a shit load of each, to be precise.  But the part of grief that I still seem to be unable to reach — like the only dream I deem to be impossible — is acceptance.

I gotta tell you, I have managed my forgiveness of others, “for they know not what they do,” right?  (But that IS a funny one though:  forgivenessFor me, it rests somewhere between mercy and the resignation of justice. In other words, only when I’ve suffered enough and when I want to be justified or carry the weight of the mistakes no longer — I cry uncle and I forgive.  Sometimes, forgiveness results in dismissing the offender entirely:  leaving him to his own devices and never wanting to hear from him again.  Other times, my forgiveness is more peaceful:  It permits for a friendship after the shit storm settles; but boy, do I tread carefully there.)

But acceptance:  That one — is a bit of a moody bitch for V.  Just when I think I’ve tranquilized the ghosts of my past, some current player wakes them with his misbehavior; and off I go:  reliving the emotional free-for-all of griefs I thought have already exorcised and put to sleep.  (“Hush, hush, you little monsters!”)  And if I’ve learned anything from my relationship with my beloved shrink:  these above mentioned players — the hooligans that set me off — are here for a reason.  They are part of V’s pattern.  Kinda like that Britney song:  “Oops, I Did it Again!” — right?  So, until I figure my shit out — the hooligans will continue to pop-up out of my Pandora’s Box.  (Does that sound naughty, or is it just me?)

So, I am starting to gain some unsettling glimpses at the correlation between acceptance and self-forgiveness.

“DING-DING-DING-DING-DING!”

— I can forgive others:  Check!

— I can forgive my life for its sorrows:  Check!

— But can I forgive myself for my choosing all the wrong hooligans in the past chapters of my life?  Not so fast, you Russian gypsy!  Thus far, it’s been seemingly easier — messier, but easier — for the vagabond in me to pack-up and run away.  I am a woman with no country after all!  But alas, to stay and to deal with the hand I’ve been given (or rather, I’ve given myself) — that, my comrades, has been much harder.  Because at the end of it:  I must hold myself accountable. Isn’t much easier to blame others; to parade your scars and bad deals in order to earn the compassion of your witnesses?  Or to suspend your self-forgiveness via embarrassment?  Yep.  But in the end — I’m SO gonna go existentialist on my own ass here (no pun intended) — it’s between you and you.  Or rather, it’s between me and me.

Well, that’s enough psychology for one Saturday morning, nyet?  I’m gonna go put my skin back on and get to work, my adored boys ‘n’ girls.  But in the mean time, allow me to leave you with this little bit of wisdom by another foreign comrade-in-arms.  (Shit!  We, foreigners, do like to get heavy!):