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

“And where are you driving from?”

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

“Ow.  I’m so sorry,” he responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which way?

Northward.  Onward.

I leap up.  I must’ve drifted off.

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

“Ventura?” I recognize it immediately.

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

Seaward.

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

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

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

Where to?

Northward.  Forward.

Past Seaward.

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

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

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

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

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

Which way?

Not downward, but onward.

Onward and free.

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

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

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

And it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorious, she would return:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

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

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

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

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

“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?

“Can I Take You Home — To MY House?”

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

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

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

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

And then, everything would return back — to silence!

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

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

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

Sylvie Guillem by Richard Avedon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But You Know: It’s All in a Day’s Work.”

Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those:  A slowly crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, with a book, after a rare discovery that today, you have absolutely nowhere to be.

You’ve gotta earn a day like that.  There is always too much work; work that often works  you — not the other way around.  The work of Gotta.  The work of Must.  The work that should not be rescheduled:  It could be delayed — but it’s gonna cost cha.  So, it’s always best to deal with the work now, for it might go away if you don’t.  People have choices, around here.  They might take their business elsewhere.  So, you say yes — and take the work.

I wish I knew it to be different, somewhere else in the world.  But I didn’t start working until I landed here:  In the Land of Work.  Some call it “Opportunity”.  Sure, it is.  The possibility of that opportunity tests the desire and sometimes pushes the limits of your capability.  But If you seize the opportunity, it becomes:  More work.  The work of Should.  The work of Must.

Perhaps, it’s more desirable work — work you wouldn’t mind doing for free.  Ask any artist:  an undercover poet or the girl musician with purple hair that works in the front of your office as a receptionist (but mostly, she makes your coffee and keep unjamming the copy machine).  Ask a cashier at a framing store or the teenager with dreamy eyes that bags your groceries at Trader Joe’s.  Ask anyone from the army of these tired kids working night shifts at your restaurants:  They know the drudgery of free work all to well.

Some may still have enough gratitude to go around.  If fuels them to keep showing up after a day spent chasing the work.  There is enough passion in them still — to find the reasons to peel on their hideous uniforms every day, right around three or four, when most people start watching the clock for the minute to call it quits.  But the tired kids report to work in which they rarely believe — but which they absolutely must accept until another “opportunity”, for work.

I know one.  I study her bounce around the narrow sushi joint I frequent weekly.  Every night, and sometimes during the weekend brunch, I can see her doing the work.

(Ugh, “brunch”!  If you’ve ever waited tables in Manhattan, for the rest of your life, there is no more dreaded word in your vocabulary.  It’s enough to lose your appetite for “brunches”.)

She’s got a regular name.  It’s sorta pretty, but I always forget it, and I want to call her Clementine, or Chloe, or Josephine.  She is perky, quick and funny, always ready for some improv with a willing customer.  When she appears at a booth, she tends to find a nook into which she fits her soft places like a kitten agreeing to your caress.  But you better know how to touch her:  A slight degree of nervousness or clumsy inexperience — and she bounces off, while waiving the tail of her gathered hair as a woman used to being watched every time she walks away.

Scarlett Johansson for Vogue

“You want — the salads?  Is that safe to say?”

I know for certain that just a register away, therein lies her bitchiness.  She is too tired from the work to tippy toe around me, for her tips.  And I bet she can tear into a man with eloquence and composure even grown women don’t have the courage to possess .  But she is always nice to me, at first; until she remembers my routine — and she begins to flirt.

“Are you an actress?” I hear the booth filled with older men ask her.

They look like they work in production:  There is a certain air of exhaustion, long hours, terrible diet and lack of exercise that I can smell on them.  There is always too much work, for these guys; so much of it, most end up childless or divorced. They are this city’s doctors:  Always on call.  Always ready to take the work.  Because if they don’t, the work might go away.  So, they say yes.

Clementine says yes.  But she shifts, from one foot to another.  The lines of her curves change in a warning that she may let ‘em have it, in case of their commentary about the work she doesn’t mind doing for free.  But thankfully, the men know better than to ask her the civilian cliches of:  “How is that going for you?” or “Have I seen you in anything?”

They do know better; for they have sacrificed their forming years on putting in the union hours — sometimes, for free — in a dangerous bet that the work would pay off later.

Later.  They would build their homes — later.  They would marry nice, patient, pretty girls — later.  

But the work may not have happened later.  The “opportunity” had to be seized right then.  So:  They said yes.  

Now, newly and happily married, or unhappily divorced, they still find themselves chasing the work.  And in the midst of their private miseries, they chase the fantasy of Chloe’s possibility.  Like me, they find her youth titillating.  But it is her fire — that formed in her pursuit of the work — that makes them hope she would stay by their table just a little bit longer.

But Josephine must go:  She must go do the work.  She has to earn herself the “opportunity” to do her other work, for free.  And she has to work enough to earn herself one of these:

A slow, crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, in a tired body, with a book; after a rare discovery that today, she has absolutely nowhere to be, and that her conscience is finally at rest — from all the work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caution:  Courage at work.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here Comes the Sun, Little Darlin’. Here — Comes the Sun.”

The hospital walls were the color of…

I don’t know.  How does anybody ever manage to remember the color of these walls?

One of the walls appears missing entirely:  Instead it is taken up by a giant window, with a hideous air-conditioning unit directly underneath it.  They don’t build windows like that on the East Coast.  Everything must be larger in the West: More land, wider roads; bigger closets and endless windows — windows from which we gaze upon the same vast land and highways that carry us along the coast, to and away from love, in a never-ending act of our indecisiveness about solitude.

In Vermont, there are houses with porches and hammocks; and in those houses, the window are unhinged, then flung open, into the idillic streets, best colored during Indian Summer.  In Maine, the window panes collect moisture, balancing out the difference between the temperatures with precipitation and moss.  In New York, one can always find a jammed window, or a broken one; and often, there is some lever one must work, in order to let in some fresh air.

I’m staring out of the giant hole in the wall, with sliding glass, into the desolate desert landscape with gray domes of industrial buildings and rare traffic.  I can see the packed parking lot of the hospital on the ground floor, and judging by the way people leap out of their cars, once they find a spot, I can tell the status of their beloved’s health.  The worst cases pull up directly to the curb.  Others choose to ride in an ambulance.

I see the disheveled head of a woman clutching a baby blanket being helped out of the red swinging doors.  She is being lifted by two men in uniforms; and once on the ground, one of them must remind her how to walk.

I look away:  Dear God!  I think I’m starting to run out of prayers.

On the horizon — gray mountains.  They are always gray, on this side, and only in the deepest winter do their peaks adopt a different shade:  of stark-white snow.  I think of the East, again.  The mountains aren’t mountains out there:  They’re hills.

Everything must be larger, in the West. And I’m one of those travelers, speeding along its wider roads, in a never-ending act of my indecisiveness about solitude:  chasing, then running away from love — then, coming back for more.

The beep-beep-beep of the life-support machine brings me back into the room.  I am alone here.  Well, no:  She is here too.  But I’m not sure if her Here is in the same vicinity as mine.  The doctors have managed to bring her back from wherever that is a broken heart takes its victims:  They have struggled to bring her back Here, through a series of shots and shocks and tricks of the trade.

So, now she is back Here; but I know her Here — is nowhere near.  It’s a different space entirely — a different Here where I, despite my conflicts with love, do not yet wish to be.

The doctors have spoken of Hope.

“Here is still some,” they say; and because they don’t avert their eyes, I wonder how many times they’ve had to say this — just today.

And how are they going to say it again to the disheveled mother who’s forgotten how to walk?

I come up to her bed.  Her skin is ashen.  I’ve never seen this color on the living before:  It’s yellowish-blue, sickly and wax-like.  It juxtaposes against all other shades with defeated sadness.  So, the fuchsia pink of her pedicured toenails peaking out from under the sheet loses all vividness.  The acrylic nails on her fingers, of the same shade, now have an appearance of props.

I remember she used to snap them against each other, when laughing herself to tears while telling a joke.  She was good at jokes.  And in my memory, that hollow sound of snapping nails has come to mean her good moods.

The beep-beep-beep of the life-support machine brings me back into the room:  Again!  It reminds me of the rhythm her broken heart is forced to take on, in order to stay Here.  Is this — the sound of Hope?  This slow, mathematically precise beat of an intelligent machine that, despite its act of mercy, does not possess the sensitivity to understand?

Her body has left this Here:  The Here of the Living!  She doesn’t want to be Here, anymore!  And it is a terrible thought; and I cannot bring myself to say it out loud, in front the drooping face of her mourning husband.

I stand by her bed and study her face.  It’s not peaceful, as my useless novels have promised.  She looks perplexed, and I find myself fixated on the faded outline of her lipstick.  I want to wipe it off for her:  She would have wanted dignity, while — and if — she is still Here.  She is a woman with no heartbeat but perfectly manicured nails.  I think of paging the nurse.

The tubes, running to and from her wrists, fascinate me with their width.  I follow them with their eyes, up to the beep-beep-beep of the life-support machine.  I study the monitor.

What was I looking for?

I return to her face, looking for answers.  A tiny tear, that has formed at an outer corner of her right eye, begins crawling across her temple.

“Are you here?” I whisper and grab her hand.

But I have never felt that temperature on the living before.

Not Here.

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

Trembling.  Waiting for clearer thoughts to come in.

Here comes one:

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

That’ll do, for now.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfectly groomed, neon green lawn — FAKE!

The deceivingly white and pink exterior — FALSE!

The beautiful rotunda window of its office space — LIARS!

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

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

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

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

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

The Body:  Coping.

That is the name of her current disease.

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

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

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

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

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

And:  She.  Starts.  Walking.

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

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

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

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

Away.

“All the Lonely People: Where DO They All Come From?”

She always comes in here, right around this time (which probably says a lot about her, and the same — about me).

And when she appears — she is impossible not to notice.

You can tell a lot by the way a person enters through the door. Some come in with certainty, as if they own the joint.  Some have indeed been here before:  They call out to the sleepy cashiers or the slightly baffled manager, and the rest of us are meant to take notice of the commotion they’ve created.  Others slip in quietly:  They tread their ground with no presumption; and I would like to think they spend their days causing the least amount of damage, in the world.

Local young couples come in here, to play out yet another day in the perseverance of their love.  It’s them against the harsh world — together.  Them — against us!  And I don’t blame them:  Togetherness — is hard enough.  So, I watch them seeking refuge in each other’s company, because they still haven’t lost their love’s ability to hear — to receive each other — completely.  They still haven’t taken the privilege of their intimacy for granted.  Lucky kids!

Other times, this is the place for friends:  buds and girlfriends, best friends.  And they vent to each other about the little injustices in their relationships and lives; and expect alliances from the people at the other end of the table.

But she always comes in here alone, right around the same time. It is her voice that I hear first:  It sounds like baby-talk that comes from a child who’s having a hard time growing up.  I’ve often heard that voice from children with newly born siblings.  They aren’t ready to share their parents’ love yet, and they still cannot comprehend where their self-importance has gone.  So, they regress, even if only in their voices.  And that’s exactly how she sounds.

Her clothes are simple, most likely begotten from a thrift store:  A pair of loose jeans of no particular label and a long-sleeved crew neck sweater of pastel color.  She wears thick, beige socks around her perpetually swollen ankles and a pair of nursing shoes.  It’s not that she appears poor, just not well-off.  And for that, the rest of the joint finds her at fault.

Or maybe, it’s her face:  Something is not right with it.  Her brown skin is deeply lined, although there is an overall puffiness on her cheekbones, forehead and neck; and under her eyes.  The distance between her ears and chin has collapsed due to her absent teeth; so, she protrudes the lower jaw and smacks her lips a lot.  The eyes are bulging and big, striking in the lightness of their hazel color.  They make you lower your own gaze when confronted with hers.  They are fully present, no matter how far and how long her mind appears to have been gone, by now.

“Can I sit here?” she’ll say, in that baby voice, asking for a group of girlfriends to move their purses from the chairs at the table she prefers.

That table is the worst!  It’s right by the door, in the outer row, with the draft hitting her from both the outside and the overhead vents.  When sitting there, there is no way she wouldn’t get in the way of people, coming over for their refills of coffee and water; and I’ve seen a few act discombobulated by her positioning.  But she is sitting right by the door, as if already apologizing for not fitting in here. And before we notice — she will be gone.

The girls always act rushed when they move their bags, and they get uncomfortably silent once she finally sits down.

“Can I have some ice for my drink?” she’ll ask the Mexican fry cook, from behind the glass counter.

It’ll take a few tries to notice her:  She is tiny, plus, she’s got that baby voice on her.  And sometimes, if the kid at the fry station is new, he cannot understand her while he studies her face with embarrassment.

And I suspect it is her face:  We all get stuck on it a little.  Something is not right — with her face.

She’ll then sit down quietly and eat her meal so methodically she betrays her lack of family and money.  Only the people that have known poverty eat like that.  And I wish to apologize to her — for all of that pain and injustice; and for the shunned reactions of others.  They think if something isn’t right with her face — something must be not right with her.

But her only fault, really — is the lack of beauty.  She is not exotic, as retired youth has a chance to become.  Neither is she dignified from the excess of money to take care of herself.  She is simple, plain and just a little strange.

She comes and leaves alone; and while completely alone, she starts and finishes her meal.

One of these days, I shall strike up a conversation with her (but only if she’s willing to let go of her loneliness), and we’ll share a meal.  And we may even share a silence.

Because she always comes in here, right around this time, alone; which probably says a lot about her, and the same — about me.