Tag Archives: Laetitia Casta

The Other Half

(Continued from July 1st, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful, Irotchka!”

“Sasha!  Don’t manhandle your sister!”

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

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

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

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

She stopped.  “Mama?  She’s fine!”

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

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

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

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

The Times They Were

(Continued from May 13th, 2012.)

Inna woke up to the sound of the television set, located on the other side of her bedroom wall.  It was a common occurrence in their apartment:  everyone’s mandatory obedience to the schedule of her mother’s whimsy.  Sunday mornings of waking up to blasting music, recorded from the previous night’s TV concert, for which Inna was rarely allowed to stay up, were a part of the family’s routine.  Each time, Inna would attempt to ignore the ungodly hour and bury her head under the pillow where she would often find a flashlight and the book that she had been reading, in secret, under the covers, the night before.  There, she would give her interrupted dreams another try.  But knowing her mother to be convinsingly oblivious, soon she would give up on any hope for silence; throw aside the covers in a fit of rebellion, and march into the kitchen, sleepy, grouchy and barefoot.  (To protest mother with her own loud noises was her only resource — NOT that it would be of any success).

Father was often already there, at the wobbly kitchen table, slouching over the Sunday Pravda, with a large cup of black coffee, next to the bowl of white Cuban sugar.

“Well, brown-eyed girl,” he’d greet her with a conspiring grin, sleep crowding the corners of his cornflower-blue eyes.  “Good morning, eh?”

“I’ll say!” she would respond.

Inna couldn’t recall exactly when it began, but a change was happening in her relationship with dad:  a newly found bond, mostly communicated with knowing silences and smiles that betrayed the seriousness of what was actually being said.  In her classes on Soviet literature, a similar smile appeared on the lips of her teacher Tatyana Ilyinitchna, whenever she read out loud the works of Gogol and Evgeny Petrov.  In the previous quarter, they had studied the concepts of satire and irony, adopted by the Soviet writers against censorship.  Inna suspected her teacher’s smile was related to those concepts — and that’s exactly how one was to read such works.  (Although she still, for the life of her, could not understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.  But that was a whole other matter!)

Recently, she had also begun to notice her parents’ lackluster attempts to hide their arguments from her.  It was as if the two adults had suddenly grown tired, like many others in their town.  And while it appeared that everything else in the country was hurriedly revealing its flip side — scandals competing for the front page news, daily — Inna’s parents had also stopped putting up a front.  These days, father tended to drink more.  Mother bickered, easily irritable; and she eventually maneuvered their every argument to the deficit of money.

Still, father would never criticize his wife in front of Inna.  To the contrary, it was Inna’s mother who took such liberties in their one-on-ones.  And at first, Inna was thrilled:  Was mother also changing, from a strict disciplinarian to her friend and confidant?  But on their rendezvous into the city that summer, she quickly realized that mother’s confessions were a one-way dynamic.  Never was Inna permitted to quote her mother’s list of grievances or to voice her own.  She was there to merely keep her mother company; and it would be in her own best interest to adopt the delicate understanding of exactly when she was her mother’s ear — and when she was quickly demoted back to being her inferior (which quite often, as it turned out, happened in the company of other adults).

But this was a Monday morning.  With father traveling to Baykalsk, Inna was alone in her frustrations.  School would start in a couple of weeks; and she began anticipating the strenuous studies her first year of Junior High had in store.  After all, this was the year that everyone determined a profession and chose their future institutions.  Some boys would choose the army, although military service was no longer mandatory.  Inna, as most adults predicted, was bound for her mother’s job.  Which meant that after this year, she would be headed for the Pedagogical University No. 3.

“This once!  Couldn’t she just let me rest, just this once?!”  To stifle a grunt, Inna ducked under the pillow only to find the second — and the more tedious — tome of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don, which she pushed herself to finish, even if for the sport of being the only student in her class who had read everything on their summer reading list.

Not bothering to change out of her nightgown — “Maybe then she will feel guilty!” — Inna forwent washing up and made her way into the living room, from where the sounds were coming.  She had hoped to make enough noise with her bare feet, as well as the bamboo curtain hanging in her doorway, to let mother know that she was coming.  And:  that she was pissed!

In the living room, she found mother, in nothing but a beige bra and a pair of matching, shape-enhancing bicycle shorts that she would always wear underneath her pencil skirts.  She sat on the couch, nearly slipping off its seat cushion from leaning forward.  Mother’s right hand covered her mouth, as if to stifle any sound of torment.  Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.

On the small, black-and-white montage, Inna saw the footage of Moscow’s White House, flocked by tanks.  Crowds of locals had gathered around.  (Muscovites were always a courageous people!  Some of the best in the nation, Inna thought.  One day!  Oh, but one day, she would find herself among them, living on her own!)

At first, Inna assumed that mother was consumed by a documentary on one of the recent upheavals, of which, since the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, there had been plenty.  When a newscaster with a knitted brow interrupted the footage, through the bits of fragmented news Inna gathered exactly what she had nearly slept through:  Gorbachev’s heart attack.  Change of leadership.  Moscow in a state of emergency.

It wasn’t the first passing of a leader in Inna’s lifetime, but she was too little to understand the grieving of the nation that followed.  But Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev:  She liked him a lot!  She found him to be one of the more handsome General Secretaries that the Party had ever had; and even though in recent folklore, he was the pun of multiple jokes — for his Ukrainian accent or presumed provinciality — he seemed to be a less mysterious figure, often appearing among crowds, talking to factory workers; and laughing with children, women and American politicians alike.

The newscaster proceeded building sentences that to Inna’s mind, still groggy from sleep, sounded nonsensical:  The roads leading in and out of Moscow appeared to be cut off.  There were reports of downed phone lines.  New leaders were in place.  The news seemed mixed, somehow suggestive; but already it appeared that this was not a typical succession of one leader after the next.

Mother, silent and unaware of Inna, sat still; and Inna knew:  All was quite serious.

“Ma?” she said softly, fearful to approach.  “How long?”  She couldn’t finish her thought.  She found herself unsure on how to act in time of great upheaval.

When mother looked at her, Inna remembered how prettily her eyes appeared in photographs.  In the darkroom that mother always made in their half-bathroom, Inna liked to walk along the shower curtain with drying black-and-white photographs and study the wet images.  Unlike Inna’s eyes — of bluish-gray, as if diluted from her father’s (a metaphor or a simile here?) — her mother’s irises appeared nearly black; mysterious and endless in all photographs.

But father’s eyes!  When on the previous month’s salary, the family purchased a color camera, for the first time Inna would notice just how blue — was their blue.  And often, they appeared illuminated by a stifled smile, as he the shutter caught him in the midst of reading Gogol, out loud.

 

They heard from father on August 22.  By that time, all of mother’s quiet stoicism had long dissipated.  She now wore strictly head-to-toe black attires when out on the town.  She left the apartment every morning, returning with a group of worried-looking girlfriends who served her tea, rummaged through the kitchen drawers, and for some reason always spoke in half-whisper whenever Inna entered.

For several days, Inna had gotten her fill of the news:  Her favorite General Secretary was fine after all, but out of the city on vacation.  She’d also seen reports about a young politician called Boris Yeltsin, who climbed onto the tanks and spoke willingly, from make-shift barricades, to both the Russian people and the press.

When townswomen came to take over the living room, Inna returned to her bedroom.  The women’s eyes on the TV screen, their spoons — in the jars of homemade jam, they whimpered when the news shifted from uncertain to anything poignant or tragic.  Some pecked at Inna’s mother; while others crossed themselves and nibbled on their crumpled, pastel-colored handkerchieves.

Despite avoiding these congregations at all costs, there — into the living room — Inna ran out, when she overheard her mother whaling on the phone, inside her parents’ bedroom:

“Oy!  Sasha!  Sasha!  Sashen’ka!  How scared I was!  How lonely!  What if you’d died!  I’m so scared!”

The other women clumped together in the bedroom doorway, and finding it impossible to get past their motherly behinds, Inna gave up and listened to the bits of news from the other side.

“Oy, Sasha!  I was so worried, I tell you!  I hadn’t slept a wink.”  (When mother’s tenderness surfaced, it wouldn’t last for long:  Impatience always crowded it out.)  “Udmurtya?  Still on the train?”

“Ah!  Glory to God!” the women exclaimed in the doorway.  “He must’ve gotten out of Moscow on time!”

“Oh, yes!  What the Lord giveth!”

“Lord!  Bless this family!”

Inna sized up the wall of motherly behinds again.  Feeling discomforted by the religious proclamations — which weren’t much done around her before — Inna returned to her room.  It was the first time she would notice that she’d run out with book in hand; a pair of her father’s giant earphones, unplugged and dangling around her neck.  (She had been using them to ward off the sounds of the women; their loud passing through the house, none of them offering to take off their heels.)

She looked outside the window.  The town’s cobblestone road glistened from that afternoon’s rain.  Inna remembered when, from the kitchen stove back at her grandmother’s one summer, she witnessed the old woman lower herself onto her knees.  Grandma had come out in a nightgown, in the middle of the night, to fetch herself a glass of water.  Her head, for a change, was barren.  A gray, long braid ran down her spine.  At first, the woman studied the black window with her own ghost-like reflection; and traced the cold glass along her lower jaw.  Before she kneeled, grandmother put down the glass, lifted her nightgown’s hem, and looked over her shoulder.  Inna, in her hiding spot, stopped breathing.

That was the first time Inna ever witnessed prayer.  She now imitated the old woman’s actions, slowly recalling them from memory.  Once kneeling, she felt awkward, silly.  But she forgave the unfamiliarity of the moment and lowered her head.

Trying

(Continued from March 18th, 2012.)

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

Until There Was None.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re just like her father!”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Does Enchantment Pour Out of Every Door? No! It’s Just on The Street — Where YOU Live.”

The street on which I live:

I seem to have memorized its every nook, and every speed bump; its every crack on the road.  Lord knows I’ve had enough time for that, for I have been walking it; strutting, running, driving — surviving — on it, for nearly six years.

Six years.  Who knew I’d last here for so long?

Just a week before I first landed here, I was promising a beloved back in New York:

“I’ll be back in a year.  Don’t worry.”

He didn’t:  The beloved moved on to another love, and suddenly I had no reason to come back.  So, I stayed here — for just a bit longer.

The street on which I live:

By now I know the patterns of its residential parking by heart.  This funky red house right here collects vintage cars, taking up quarter of a block for their parking.  The Spanish style apartment building at the other end:  People are always coming and going there; and if you sit in its driveway long enough, flashing your emergency lights at the rhythm of your heartbeat, you are guaranteed to get a spot sooner or later.  You gotta be quick though:  Keep flashing the lights and come upon the decked out Hollywood dandy, reeking of cologne, or the unsuspecting Armenian girl getting in her car, for a night on the town.

Pull up, roll down the windows:

“You leaving?”

Try to smile.  After all, they don’t owe you jack shit.  And if they let you take over their spot, give ‘em room to pull out.

Then, wave:

Gratitude seems to go a long way, around here.

Whatever you do:  Don’t park in front of this abandoned structure right here.  Because it’s not abandoned:  It’ll filled to the brim with emaciated cats and a single resident the face of whom I’ve never seen, for the last six years.  At nighttime, a window always lights up in the attic.  The front door is barricaded with abandoned furniture.  The front yard looks like a field of wild weeds and overgrown bushes.

Still, whatever you do:  Don’t park there!  That unattended garden with berried trees will kill the paint on your car.  And whatever you do:  Don’t feed the cats.  The sign written in crayon on the front gate says so:

“DON’T FEED CATS.  THEIR NOT HOMELESS.”

In my second year, I finally earned an occasional parking spot inside my garage.  I had been bouncing between jobs, one more terrible than the other; and after settling for a decent night gig, I negotiated to share a spot with a neighbor:  He would work the graveyard shift as a security guard; and by the time, my club closed and I came home with blistered feet, he’d be leaving for work.

In the morning, I’d have to get up, get dressed and re-park on the street, often finding my neighbor under the berried tree, still in uniform, feeding the cats.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he’d explain to me, as if caught redhanded; and his tired face fit for a Native American shaman would make me wonder how he got these emaciated creatures to come out of the house, in the first place.

At the end of that year, I would want to move:

“Stay!” my roommate recommended.  “That’s just your second-year itch.  Everyone gets it in LA.”

Curiously, I’d drive around other neighborhoods:  funky or cheesy, some parading their wealth, others — their transient despair.  I would do that for a week, applying to a couple of New-York-like buildings.  But then, I’d come back to my street:  That was just my second-year itch.  Everyone gets it in LA.

The street on which I live:

The faces of its residents have been tattooed into my memory, even after they move on.  And many have moved on.  A couple of working girls in my building with decent night gigs:  They’d get so tired surviving on this street, and in this city, while waiting for their big break.  A few would eventually land a small acting gig — a stand-in for the big break — and they’d move to better places, better streets.  Some would leave for their boyfriends’.  Others — would go home.

That pretty blonde, who used to be a redhead in the first year of living here:  She got her first speaking role on a canceled show.

“It only took five years,” she said to me in my garage, and she scoffed with such scorn, it made me want to move on.

Her roommate, a pretty black girl with extensions and a shaggy dog, had already left.  She couldn’t wait for her big break any longer.

That pretty blonde, who used to be a redhead, would be gone within a week.

The security guard with a tired face fit for a Native American shaman would leave too.

The street on which I live:

Some of the faces seem to stay here forever.  There is the family of a jeweler — a family of good faces — that lives in a rustic house with wooden furniture.  They don’t smile much; but by now, the mother of the house has learned to nod at me, while she waters the lawn at sunset.  And the lonely old woman that always knocks on her second story window:  She would seem quite sad in her dementia, if she weren’t so childlike.  And the handful of Armenian men, selling random goods in their front yards every weekend:  They get quiet every time I walk, strut or run by; and they keep smoking their cigars.

The street on which I live:

There seems to be so much humanity here, and so much mercy.

In the gated house directly across from my building, there is supposed to be some sort of a shelter.  Another building, half a block up, serves as a home for homeless teenagers and runaways.  And than there is that abandoned structure right here:  It gives shelter to the forsaken cats.  But at least,

“THEIR NOT HOMELESS.”

And at the end of last week, someone had made a new shoefiti:  At the intersection that leads to my street, a pair of Dorothy’s sparkling ruby slipper was thrown over a telephone line.  Some say these shoes are meant to be stolen or unwanted.  And sometimes, they belong to a departed.

 

“Birds Flyin’ High: You Know How I Feel! Sun In The Sky: You Know How I Feel!”

(Continued from August 25, 2011.)

“Um.  Vie-rra?”

I look up:  The badass to take me flying is heading toward us, with an already extended arm for a handshake.  He is so much larger than me.

I make my move, grinning:

“I’m Vera!” I say.

I feel calm and yet impatient:  I cannot wait to leap out into the sky.

“Sean,” he says.  What a decent name, on a decent man!

Then, he adds:  “And for the next hour, I’m going to be — your bodyguard.”

“I like that!” I say, still grinning.  Apparently, for the next hour, I am going to speak only with exclamations.

Sean gives me his forearm.  I grab it, and for the first time in the history of my womanhood — I actually mean it.  I let him lead the way.

On the sidelines, I can see the other instructors readjusting the gear on their students.  But mine is much cooler than that:  He doesn’t fuss.  He’s not even wearing his own gear yet.  Instead, he starts talking to me, calmly, about today’s “exceptional” skies.

“You can see everything much clearer, from up there,” he says.

I assume it’s metaphor for something:  A life of wisdom, of persevering past the suffering and finally landing into humility, which often takes the very place — of grace.

It must also be a metaphor for luck.  And then I think it’s a good sign that in his name, there is an equal number of letters as in mine — and we share the same vowels.

We talk.  Where did I come from?  How did he land here?

“I used to be afraid of heights,” he tells me.  “Until my family gave me a skydiving lesson, as a Christmas present.”

And this, I assume, must be a metaphor for something, as well:  For human courage and the choice to defeat one’s limitations.

“THE SKY IS THE LIMIT,” says the sign behind Sean’s back in the alcove where we’ve walked off to pick up his equipment.

And this!  This too — must be a metaphor.  A good sign.

And I already know that I shall continue rewinding this day in my memory every time I want to land into my own humility.

The aircraft pulls up.  It’s a tiny thing.  It sounds rickety — and I LOVE that.  Because it makes survival seem easy, nonchalant — not a thing to fuss over, or to fear.

Calmly, Sean goes over what’s about to happen.  As he gives me instructions about my head and limb positioning when up on the air, he throws in a few metaphors:

“When we come to the edge, you kneel down on one knee, as if proposing to me.  Rest your head on my shoulder.  Wait for me to tap you like this; then bring your arms out at a ninety-degree angle — and enjoy the view!”

I imitate his movements.  The thrill, the impatience, the anticipation makes me a terrible student though; because besides grinning, I don’t notice myself doing much else.  But my bodyguard must know that already, because he continues with his metaphors.

“If you feel like you can’t breathe — scream!”

And this too!  This too — must be a metaphor for something.

There are three other students besides me.  Two of them start leading the way to the non-fussy aircraft, accompanied by their instructors who are still adjusting their gear, yanking on the belts, clicking the hinges.  But mine is much cooler than that:  He doesn’t fuss.  Somehow, he’s managed to get geared up already and to check up on own my belts and hinges.  And he has done his job with grace, without arousing any adrenaline in me.

I feel calm, yet impatient:  I cannot wait to leap out into the sky — which must be the limit — and past my own limitations.

We are not even inside the plane yet, but already, I can hear the echos of Sean’s metaphors:

“When we come to the edge… kneel down as if proposing.”

“Rest your head…  Wait.”

“If you can’t breath — scream!”

Inside the aircraft, the two students making the jump at 10,500 feet straddle the bench ahead of us.  Their instructors start adjusting their belts again.  The four of us sit behind them.

My bodyguard and I continue talking.  Come to find out:  He is a gypsy, just like me, traveling mostly in pursuit of conquering his fears.  For eight years, he’s been leaping out into sky.

“You must be fearless!”  I say.

“No,” Sean answers, calmly.  “But this job — is a good metaphor for dealing with life.”

Underneath us, I can see the pretty geometric shapes of farmlands and fields that I have seen before out of the windows of other planes.  Since a child, I had always wanted to leap out into the clouds, somehow knowing that there wouldn’t be anything to fear about that.

I turn to Sean:  “How high are we?!”

I notice:  I myself have started speaking in metaphors.  Or, maybe, I have always done that.  Which must be why I still find myself leaping out into the skies of my limitations — on my own.  It must be hard to keep up.

“Six and a half,” my bodyguard answers and he shows me a watch-like device on this wrist with that number.

I grab it, meaning it, wanting to devour every bit of knowledge and skill that comes with leading a fearless life.  Sean tells me that’s the exact height at which he’ll open our parachute.

I do the math.  (My mind is clear, still unaffected by adrenaline.)

It means:  We shall free fall for 7,000 feet.

Wow.

My gratitude — floods in.

Calmly, I watch the other two couples leap out at their heights.  There is something very incredible in the way they make their final choice to go, letting the skies sweep them off the edge.

AND I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS.  IT’S HUMBLING.

We keep going up to our height.

“In what order do you wanna go?” Sean asks me, over my shoulder:  Somehow, he’s managed to have done his job again, and I am now sitting strapped onto his body, at my hips and shoulders.

“Let’s go first!” I answer, still grinning.

And still:  I am calm.  And still:  I am impatient to jump out into the sky.

Soon enough, we start sliding onto the edge.  When I put my goggles on, I hear the echo of Sean’s metaphor:  He must’ve told me that it would be the last gesture we do — before leaping out.  He’s amazing.

The four of us shake, slap, squeeze each other hands.  I can feel the heat rising up behind my goggles:

THIS!  THIS HUMILITY AND GRACE — THIS VERY HUMANITY — IS WHAT LIFE MUST BE ABOUT!  

Sean slides the door up.

“Come to the edge.”

“Kneel.”

“Rest.”

“Breathe.”

I hear the echos.  The heart — is on my tongue.  I think:  I’m screaming.

Maybe not.

We get swept off.

IT. 

IS. 

AMAZING.

When daydreaming about leaping out into the sky before, I used to think I would cry.  I was wrong:

It’s all joy!  All rapture!  All gratitude! 

Like a giant orgasm, for 7,000 feet!

And it tastes — just like the Ocean!

I am air-bound now, above California.

Above my life.

But God Bless the Child That’s Got Her Own

“I want…  I want…  What is it that I want?” she was squeezing herself into the corner of a vintage, peach-colored chair that couldn’t have been a better throne to her feminine divinity.

She scanned her eyes across the tiny room she’d made her home, as if the answer were somewhere around there:  Was it under this tiny bed that she’d surrounded with her art and nature?  Or had it fallen out of these mismatching picture frames in various degrees of hanging on and leaning against the walls, as if Frida Kahlo herself had been living, working, pacing here?  Had she slipped it, by a forgetful accident, into the unfinished pack of cigarette on her windowsill — the only visible sign of her insomnia and self-destruction, committed in the name of the departed, then turned back into her art; her nature.

“I want to be adored!  Because I — I adore!”

This entire evening I had been watching this face — and all that hair — and her gentle grace; and I had been wondering:  Was I just like this, in my own youth?  Or did I possess more corners:  All anxiety about my self-sufficiency and my self-enough-ness?

I’ve arrived here from a harder history, you see.  For centuries, it had been unforgiving to our women’s youth and tenderness.  Back where I came from, we worshiped our men, but only behind the closed doors of our bedrooms.  For the rest of the day, it was a nation filled with female fighters, women-survivors –hustlers — who assumed enemies in every living soul (especially other women, younger and more tender) and who are most content when standing in breadlines.

But by now, I had paid my dues around here.  I had suffered and survived the often ungraceful — and sometimes undignified — existence of an immigrant.  I had done my share of standing in different lines to get approved as worthy; only to rush myself back to the university library and learn at double the speed, just so that I could be more than that:  Just so I could be equal.  And I worked.  I worked hard, harder than most of my colleagues, American or foreign-born, like me.  And only behind the closed doors of my bedroom would I worship my men:  For the rest of the day, I was just an Amazon, refusing to let them in on any of my softness.

“I want to be adored,” she repeated, then looked in my direction.  Had I seen it laying around her artist’s quarters, by any chance:  This adoration that she deserved and was willing to return ten-fold?

“You know?” she asked, then didn’t wait for my answer and said, “You do know.”

My comrades and enemies had so far been unanimous at calling me out on my generosity.  In my motha’s fashion, I tend to grant it upfront, as if to back up my name with it.  My name:  Truth.  (Or Faith, depending on which language you speak, or whom you ask around here.)

But even that has altered a little bit with age and cynicism:  I am slightly more withdrawn these days; more careful.  Because I have yet to raise a child, so I cannot give it all away.  And because I myself haven’t finished dreaming yet, so I need my strength.  Because these days, if a lover’s departure must be easy at all, it is only if I hadn’t lost myself in him.  So, I take my time now.  I only meet my people half-way.  And I wait:  I wait to see if I am — to them — indeed, the adored one, too.  

Some souls though!  They still know how to draw it out of me:  this uncensored generosity, this kindness that hangs in the back of my first name, like the middle initial “V” by which I had been called for most of my life (in all languages).  And she — the soul resembling the past child in me and the future one, at the same time — had been like this from the first embrace she’d once decided to grant me.  Never once had I caught myself wondering if I was going out too far on the limb, for her sake.  Because I knew that her need — was not all consuming; that I wouldn’t lose myself in it (even though, I’d much rather, at times).  And in her case, my generosity felt returned ten-fold:  The more I gave, the more it replenished me.

So, despite the exhaustion (that this late at night begins to feel like defeat), I had shown up to her home.  Other women had come and gone already.  I could tell by the variety of the pink shades of lipstick they had left of champagne glasses.  A couple were in the midst of departing as soon as I arrived:

“Here!  You look like you need a lot of space,” they seemed to be saying while peeling on their coats, and sweater, and ponchos, and shawls.

And I did.  I did need (even though I had come here only to give).  I immediately dominated her bed.  I took over her library, dreaming of the day I could find my own name leaning on it, sideways.  And after the last woman departed, I took over the kitchen too:  Putting away the disorder, just so in the morning, she would find a clean slate.

She chirped behind me — my darling sparrow! — about whether on not to discard this aging chunk of cheese, or whether or not to dismiss this old lover.  Occasionally, I would look back — at that face and all that hair — and wonder:  Was I just like this, in my own youth?

But then, suddenly, I blurted out:

“Did the other women bring you food?”  My words came out commanding and little bit too loud.  She got silent.  I landed:

“Oh my!  So sorry!  I’m so sorry!”  Wiping my hands on the towel with force, like all the women in my family do, I gushed:  “I sound like my motha.  I’m so sorry!”

But her face showed no evidence of having been undermined or offended.

Instead, she rather seemed tickled by this hard softness of mine — an underbelly she must’ve suspected long ago (or why else would she decide to grant me her embrace?).  She was in the midst of being adored — by me — and she knew it.  She adored it.

And I, suddenly finding myself standing out on a limb, didn’t mind this incomparable generosity of mine:  Because it was already replenishing me, ten-fold.

Man vs. World

“Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone.

It’s not warm when he’s away…”

Fuck.  THAT.  Shit.

First of all, it’s the bloody desert out there today!  Look at it.  The sun has swept off the last of yesterday’s clouds to return the sky to that dreamy blue I had seen only on this coast; and give it a couple of hours, I’ll be basking in it, naked.  (Ah, but I ain’t telling you where:  It’s my secret spot.)Secondly, since his departure, my own comrades and beloved hearts — and all of my small world’s children — have swooped in, dusted me off (for I have not only bit the dust in this fall — I fuckin’ made a meal of it!) and have been taking turns serving me cups of hot tea to melt away my midnight shivers.

“You’re a’right,” they tell me.  They always tell me, never ask.  Not that they’re ever surprised by my strength or resilience; or my refusal to lead an ordinary life.

“It’s not becoming — for a woman like you!” one of my comrades commented on my tears the other day, in his laconic, Tony Soprano-esque way.  (SHIT.  Can’t an Amazon get a break?!  Nyet, apparently.)

“Always an inspiration,” uttered my East Coast angel before departing from me after this weekend’s visit.  She herself is far from shabby when it comes to the quality of her sought life; and soon enough, she’ll return that inspiration with a single postcard from some exotic coast with gorgeous brown people and white sand.  Not too shabby.

In my blunt Russian-ness, I must admit:  I am not really the pining type.  Nyet, I definitely don’t pine much.  So, okay, I’ll mourn the loss of a love while rummaging through my bookshelves for like-minded words.  I may even dwell in nostalgia a bit.  But even that — is more of a Russian thing:  I’m just another Olga, wanting to get to Moscow.  (Chekhov, comrades!  Check that Chekhov:  He knew a thing or two about humanity.)

Perhaps, being an only child had something to do with it:  for as long as the memory of my young self spans, I was always perfectly self-sufficient and often in preference for my solitude.  Considering my parents’ occupations (father was an officer, mother — a social butterfly), they left me to my own devices quite often and willingly.  And if ever one of them wanted to go parental on my ass and demonstrate how to do something, in response, they got my very assertive:

“MYSELF.”

According to motha, it was the first word I learned, and obviously — it was my favorite.  Yep:  While other infants were taking the easier, more natural to their tongues routes and learning to call out for their parents, I was already self-asserting.  To make this tale of V’s childhood even more poignant, I spoke of “MYSELF” in its masculine conjugation.  (Unlike in the English language, in Russian one must conjugate every word in a sentence; which makes our tongue quite difficult to navigate.  Try navigating Moscow, for Lenin’s sake:  Nothing we do is easy!)

When it came to my early life romances, I was a late bloomer.  Always a bookworm, in all honesty, I found the characters in my novels much more interesting than boys.  Between that and the adventures promised to me at the time by the Communist Party, the world appeared to be more tempting of an adventure than another single human being.  Here, I wonder if my men ever even had a chance, considering they had to compete with the entire planet.  But when my first Russian boyfriend announced he was interested “in seeing other people”, a month later, I won a full scholarship for my pre-collegiate studies in the United States.  He had other people to see — I had other places to be.  (I hear he lives in a hamlet now, married to a milkmaid and working for the “collective farm”.  Mazel tov, darlin’.)

In the history of my womanhood, I’ve treated every break-up as an opportunity to grow.  It’s kind of the way it flows in Motha Nature, don’t you think, my comrades?  When something old expires, it makes room for something — or someone — new.  And the more I live — the more losses I suffer — the quicker that interchange happens.

It’s as if I’ve become more connected to my own intuition; and I’m able to hear the voices off all other opportunities the world has to offer, no matter how loud the moaning of my ego and heart may be.  So, during this currently happening ache, there is a somewhat habitual thrill about everything new — everything yet unknown and unforeseen, yet somehow anticipated.  I may not know what this new shift is going to bring, but I suspect:  It’s going to be magnificent.

Because it has been, my beloveds, all along; every time until now.  Every departed lover was replaced by someone wonderful and better suitable for me.  Every old occupation gave room to sometimes humbling opportunities.  And the only part that I am obliged to play at this time of loss is to respectfully behold for my departed beloved — to wish him well, for the sake of my own grace — then, to grant MYSELF the time and space to heal; because give it half a phase — and that space will be flooded with the world.

And to quote my favorite sister Olga:

“Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet.  We shall live!  The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some naked basking to do.

Love yous.  All of yous.  (And who said I couldn’t conjugate English pronouns?  I just did!  MYSELF.)