Tag Archives: memory

Suspended Saints

Now that she’s arrived, was there anything else to it?  A life summoned itself and paused for a while.  Yes, there was always a pause, Larisa noticed; a breather in between the chapters.

She never imagined her death, never was the type to bear the hubris of planning her own funeral.  Like weddings, death demanded metaphors.  To capture oneself, to be summarized, direly:  But how can one not be so many things at once?  Besides, the way she felt, ceremonies strived for a shared experience; not a centralized meditation that treated the self as the object of all other events; that separated and sought how different one was from the rest, taking for granted the universality of it all.  She didn’t have the ego for it.

Larisa had been living for others, certainly:  a symptom assigned mostly to her gender.  In her family, she had witnessed the earlier generations of women lose themselves in sacrificial love.  For the sake of their children, their husbands, their aging parents, they carried on serving; until they found themselves having a hard time remembering what they themselves had wanted, originally, all along.  Remember those days?  How many times she’d heard the mournful reminiscence in a woman’s voice:  Those days!  What happened since then, Larisa wondered, herself still a young girl; what force of obscurity slithered itself in between and demanded for a retraction, or a delay at least.

Definitely, she wouldn’t lose the sight of her own purpose, she thought!  Yet, the loneliness came scratching at the backdoor, becoming louder as she compared the things other women claimed as accomplishments:  dramatic courtships, the victory in which meant expensive weddings and doting husbands, as one could only hope; then, the automatic events of pregnancy and nest acquiring (building, building, gaining weightiness); the demands of a chosen lifestyle, or in the cases of the less fortunate — merely survivals.  Every woman she knew had leapt into all of it without ever questioning the reality of her expectations.  How could their husbands — the equally unknowing human beings with a whole other set of expectations imposed onto them — keep up?  They too, when young, once dreamt of following the call of the world’s magnificence.  But lives demanded to be defined by success; and what others made of success — was not at all what she’d imagined.

There was love, of course.  There would always be love.  Beyond her own anxiety and self-judgement, she could see that a life was only as successful as the love one projected.  Still, in the beginning, it was loneliness that determined the pursuit of it; and loneliness made things more urgent, non-negotiable and somehow crucial.  It conformed the shape of love, so it could fit into the missing parts; make-up for the previous mistakes of others; fix, mold, make it better.  Because in a person, there were always parts missing:  from too much love, or not enough of it, from the prototypes of our lovers (god bless our parents!), who couldn’t possibly step up to what love was meant to be, as she thought of it:  all forgiving, non-discriminating, fluid.

And what about the needs?  One had to have needs.  It was a path of nature.  Larisa found the balance between the self-fulfillment of those needs and the ones she could hand over to another — unpoetic and stressful.  So, she chose to handle all of them on her own; not with any sense of confrontation or showmanship, but with the esteem of self-reliance.  And surely, Larisa thought, it would only elevate the love.  Surely, if one handled the demands of one’s survival with this much grace, there would be more room for the beauty and the compassion; the reflection of the self in the suffering of others and the almost rapturous feeling of knowing exactly how it felt to be another; for such a love lacked fear, and it could take up spaces with its tide-like tongues, and whenever it retracted, one only had to wait for its return.  In light, in easiness:  What surrender!

 

Larisa wasn’t really sure how or where, in the self, the unease began.  On that day — a day unmarked by any significance — she’d gone into a church.  With her head bowed and eyes half-closed, she didn’t seek answers or help, only a space from which to observe the ways her thoughts moved, sometimes birthing moods, sometimes — nothingness; and she watched herself alter, even while in stillness, mind creating matter; thoughts becoming intentions; and she cast the net into the endless vagueness and brought them back into the very is-ness of her:  Into what she believed the most.

This church appeared make-shift, marking a spot where, under an influence of a former fanatical thought, an ancient Russian cathedral had been burnt down over half a century ago.  A modest wooden building, unheated, undecorated, in a shape of a polygon, sat in the shadowy corner of a square.  The country was living through an era of resurrected gods and revalidated heros, often dead by now, having been taken for granted for the sake of simplifying a former common ambition.  Things crumbled.  Alliances turned chaotic.  And when everyone woke up to amended history — figures worthy of worship long gone and nearly forgotten — a common panic ensued.  For even if it weren’t the ego that made a people matter, it had to be their spirit; a common memory of a civilization.

The roads had frozen overnight; and at first, she had snuck-in to thaw out her stiff toes.  She purchased a candle at the door, mostly out of habit.  She didn’t even know how that particular ceremony worked.  Two side altars, with figures of crucified saints, sat against the walls of the church, opposite of each other.  Standing there for a while, still and unnoticed, she studied the other women who moved like ghosts across the dirt floor.  Everyone was fully clothed.  She looked down at her feet and shifted:  There was little hope of her finding much warmth there.  Still, she stayed.  She paused, and in the growing shadows of her memories, she waited.

Older women in head scarves, with histories written across their tired faces, were crossing themselves at their chosen mantels.  Some moved their lips in prayer, repeatedly lowering their heads in a manner that came after so much practice, one was no longer moved by it.  What misfortunes had brought them here?  Loss required humility, otherwise one was consumed with fury.  Her country had lived through tragedies with a numbness of habit.  Resignation was often advised by the elderlies, yet she found herself incompetent at it.

She took another look at the suspended saints and walked over to the side alter with a Christ whose eyes were semi-open.  A little girl in a rabbit fur hat clung to the leg of her grandmother.  Larisa looked down at the child and without raising her hand, moved her fingers inside the mitten.  The child, sensing an interaction, got shy and clutched the old woman’s leg with more zealousness, for children often appeared overwhelmed with the energy of living.  Their egos struggled with the life force they had been granted (what were they supposed to do, to be?  how did they matter); and juxtaposed against the even flow of hours — one’s magnificence was only seen in silence, she believed — the egos expanded; for surely, they had to become something better.

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Side of Things

(Continued from June 3rd, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well.”

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

“You?” she said.

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.  He was pushing now.

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

Habitat for Humanity

The sound of the 1 Local rattled the windows; she untangled herself from his limbs, sat up and prepared for the sensation of mellow distain, in the vicinity of her diaphragm:  It had been his idea for her to move in here, after just seven months of dating.

 

It was the only time she had encountered a man so willing.  She was lucky, according to other women, most of whom, she suspected, had gone through the chronic toss between a want of love and a denial of it, due to their self-esteem.  A man’s attention could go a long way though.  She had been known to make it last for years, settling for either those who feared commitment or were half-committed — to someone else.  Bitterly, she would eventually begin to withdraw from all offers of courtship because she was sick of herself:  reaching, trying too hard; accounting, then settling for leftovers.

But this one loved her, it was obvious.  He praised her enthusiastically, similarly to the way one adored a deity or a Renaissance statue of a nude, made more precious by its missing parts and by the scabs of earth and time.  Never had she been with a man who wanted to parade her through the circles of his friends, all of them older, calmer and mostly academics, who got through their own marriages by sleeping with their students.  Sometimes, while she feigned being asleep on the couch after hearing his keys scratching their way into the lock; she listened to his footsteps get quieter, as he approached her, merely breathless; and he would sit at the edge of their coffee table, amidst magazines and her thesis papers, and study her.  She began to feel responsible.

Her girlfriends, of course, were full of advice:  Men like him happened rarely.  She was lucky, they hoped she knew.  But was she ready for their age difference; and for the ex-wife with a list of entitlements to his money?  Heartbroken men made for hard material.  But wasn’t it a woman’s sport, to fall in love, despite?

The night when they would sleep together for the first time, she found a photograph of the ex, tucked away into an old aluminum cigarette holder.  She wanted to light up.

The black and white face of a blonde looked over the shoulder, with one hand propped up like an awning across her forehead, her lips closed sternly, as if disliking the photographer.  She found her to be a forgettable woman, not at all like she preferred to see herself.  Now, with both of his habits gone — the smoking and the wife — he was not at all enthused by the idea of reminiscing about the past.  But she insisted on a talk, so that she could investigate herself the story through his sighs and avoided glances.  It was a hideous tendency for some emotional sadomasochism that she disguised as intimacy.  Or, maybe, she was already reaching.

She, of course, tried to be casual about it.  He would begin to speak, not from the start, but going immediately to when the ex blurred out her desire for a divorce.  It happened in the midst of a tiff over the shut-off electricity due to an unpaid bill — a woman flailing at him, in the dark — and he first thought she was quoting a film they may had seen together.  They’d gone to film school together, a decade ago, in the City, never pursuing the field afterward.  He’d stick to theory; she — to freelance writing.

“But didn’t you see it coming?” she asked him, watching his fluttery eyelashes add to the dark circles under his eyes.  “Any signs at all?”

The gray-haired lover shook his head but held it high.  Still, for the first time, in his habits of disobedience to his emotions, she saw a once crumbled man; a man, perhaps, still in need of repair.

This predisposition of her imagination — to be able to see her men as children (or worse yet, as children in need of rescue); to truly feel their suffering; to be moved to tears by their losses that happened a decade before her, but always so unjustly — that evening, made her weary.  Hadn’t she had enough yet?  She couldn’t possibly save every one of them!  She wasn’t here to fix it, to make-up for another woman’s whimsy.  Still, she would begin to feel responsible.

In the light of an exposed, yellowed by months — or years, perhaps — of fried food in his kitchen, that first night she watched him cook dinner for the two of them.

“That’s a big step!” the girlfriends rolled out their eyes and smacked their lips.

“A man that cooks and does his own laundry.  You are one lucky bitch!”

The more she listened to the women get involved (for none of them actually listened), the more she regretted exposing her tales of love and loss.  Perhaps, her ex was right:  Over the course of the last century, women had become a collectively confused group of people.  She herself no longer knew what she wanted at the moment.  And she could not remember what she used to want.

 

He was exhausted from the emotional testimony and was now fussing in the kitchen:

“I haven’t used this barbecue since my last apartment.  So:  should be interesting!”  She’d gone too far.  She shouldn’t have probed.

Albeit the open doors of the top floor patio, the hot air clustered the entire apartment.  It took up every corner.  She, having just come out of the shower, felt dewy in her crevices.  There used to be a lot more vanity, in love.  Perhaps, she wasn’t trying hard enough with this one.

She watched him cutting up fresh herbs plucked from the flower pot along the kitchen window sill.  He operated with a tiny knife at the edge of a wooden cutting board, blackened by mildew on one side.  There was nothing visibly sloppy about his appearance, yet she could see the absence of a woman in his life.  Perhaps, the shortest distance between his earlobes and shoulder blades had something to do with her aroused compassion.  Or the bulk of crumpled Kleenex in the pocket of his sweats.  Or the rapidly blinking eyelids, when he decidedly walked away from his story.  He wasn’t cared for.  He was recovering.  It made her heart compress.  Responsible!  She had to be responsible.

While nibbling on twigs of dill, flirtatiously at first — although mostly out of habit — then suddenly more grounded in her kindness, she studied him while standing by his microwave.  She didn’t find herself impressed, but tired.  Tired and kind.  If not in love, she would be grateful for this one, she decided.  Just look at him:  He needed her so much.

Two Women

The two women met in an unfurnished apartment.

“I like it,” one said, “I think” (unusually sheepishly for her nature).  “It’s got some,” she rotated her wrists up in the air, looking for the less poetic word, “‘good light’.”  It took a talent to be so vague.  Or it took years of mutual knowledge and histories of hurt.

The younger one averted her eyes quickly.  She was getting better at busying herself in the kitchen.  Throughout her childhood, she’d witnessed mother’s chaos when other people came over to visit their place.  They had been lucky that way, due to her father’s reputable profession:   Always finding better living quarters, so others came over quite a bit.  Wanting to be the talk of the town, mother buzzed and chattered in the kitchen; and she would bang the drawers with aluminum dinnerware and slam the cupboards in an orchestra of her exhibitionist domesticity.

While mother whipped up meals and refilled drinks, her girlfriends wandered around nosily, every once in a while coming upon a tiny girl, with eyes so large they took up half of her face, playing her own game of house in the furthest corner of the bedroom.  Alone.

“So cute!” the women hissed, turning on their heels unhappily for having to divert their poking.

Mother continued conducting the percussions in her kitchen:

“She’s so quiet, that child!  She’s all — my husband!”

The women moved about the living-room; lurked by the family’s photographs; touched, shifted, sniffed, demanded to know the origin of things:

“You are one lucky bitch, I hope you know.”

“They meant it as a compliment,” after the women’s departure, mother would attempt to clarify things — the delicate things that her daughter could not understand yet (but perhaps with time, she would).  The evil smirk of the local Algebra teacher branded itself into her memory:  How could these women mean anything good?  But mother didn’t want to hear it:  “Stop asking stupid questions anyway!  This is adults’ business.”

But now:

“So,” the older woman spoke from the bedroom doorway and eyed the open, empty space.  “Are you going to ask Mike to ship you the bed?”  (Pause.)  “Or do you plan to house this draft in here forever?”

“What do you mean by that?” the young woman stopped, knife in her hand.

“I mean, haven’t you, guys, divided things up officially yet?”

The young woman looked back down at the gutted pickled fish under her fingers, on the cutting board.  It was a task that every Russian woman performed from A to Z.  From A to YA.  From A — to I.  Her mother would’ve drowned the detailed fish in a pool of sunflower oil; and it would stare out, with dehydrated eyeballs from underneath a layer of butchered onions meant to cover up a job so messily performed.

While peeling onions, mom would begin to cry demonstratively:

“Oy!  I so pity the little bird!”

What did the bird have to do with the fish?  The bird — to I.  The I — to eye.  Still, mother was a funny actress, so the child would spit with laughter.  She couldn’t help it:  She was still in love with her original prototype back then.

She now thought of that one time a thin fishbone lodged in her throat for a week; and how she gagged every night, while mother hooked her sharp nails into the back of her tongue.  For months to follow, sometimes, loose scales would reveal themselves stuck on her clothes or skin; or swimming in buckets of water with floor-scrubbing rags.  Mom was a disaster in the house.

In her own kitchen, however, the young woman never kept the head.  She wished she had a cat to feed it to.  A cat — to make-up for the missing child, to make the loneliness less oppressive.  She stared at the oval crystal bowl, with even filets of pink meat, neatly arranged.

She herself was a better housekeeper, yet heading toward a divorce nonetheless.  Most likely:

“Mike and I aren’t talking, mom.  You know that.”

“Oh!  Yes.  I see,” the old woman eyed the empty bedroom yet again:  Why so much space for someone with defeated ovaries then?  “You, young people!  You have no concept of marital endurance any more.”

 

She swore, he thought of the idea first.  At least, that’s how she remembered it.  In his defense (why was she so willing to defend him?):  In his defense — she wasn’t “willing”.  He was right.

“It’s just that… something isn’t working,” Mike told her over the phone, the week of one Thanksgiving which they’d agreed to spend apart.  He “couldn’t do it anymore”.  Her work.  Her books.  Why was he always taking second place after her life?  Once she hung up, she cried, of course, but mostly out habit; and out of habit, she started losing weight and sleep.  That’s what a wife in mourning was supposed to look like, she decided.  She cropped her hair, and started wearing pants and laced up wingtip shoes.  In their crammed-in basement apartment in the Bronx, she found room to pace and wonder, “Why?  Why?  Why?”

Her girlfriends were eventually allowed to visit the site of her disastrous marriage.  They bitched; they called him names.  They lurked, touched, shifted, sniffed.  They studied family photographs, still on display, for signs of early check-outs.  The women patted her boyish haircut and teared up a bit too willingly, some of them — being slightly grateful for feeling better about their own men.

And then, one balmy New York August afternoon, she called him from a pay phone in Harlem.

“Meet me for dinner.”

An hour later, he showed up with lilies.  After a dry peck that tasted unfamiliarly, she lead the way to a Dominican joint whose wall-full of French doors was always taken down for the summer.  It breathed the smell of oil — and of fried everything — onto the sweaty pedestrians on Broadway.

On their side of the missing wall, the night dragged on with a strained politeness.  His eyes were glossy, wet.  She stared out onto the street.  From either the heat of New York’s August and the lack of ventilation, the giant buds sweated under the plastic wrap; and by the time they finished picking through a pile of fried plantains, the lilies open completely, and just like everything at that time of the year — from sweat glands to subway sewers to perfume shops — they began to smell aggressively, nearly nauseating.

“I’m going to California,” she announced after finishing her white fish.

“Why?”

She looked down:  After their six-month separation, she had begun to wear dresses and curl her hair again.  She’d gained a certain swagger in the hips from wearing flat shoes through every season in New York.  The flesh of femininity was finally beginning to lose the aftertastes of her youth’s self-loathing.

Not having gotten an answer, “When?” — he examined her with wet eyes of a lab.

She looked down again.  The suppleness of her brown chest surprised her.  She looked up:  “Soon.”

Vagueness as a revenge:  She’d learned that from her mother, the best that ever was!  She owed him nothing.  He was the one who’d given up!  He was the one who left!  But now, it settled at the bottom of her stomach, along with the plantains, like something begging for its freedom.  And she, in her defense, was no longer “willing”.

(To Be Continued.)

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.

“You Are the One That Got Me Started.”

I saw him first!

The roles reversed:  When I departed, nearly twenty years ago — so reckless in my youth and dumb — he was the last to disconnect our gazes.  

Such had to be the burden of the ones we left behind!  And such — the mindless blessing of the ones with great adventures to distract them from the pain of leaving. 

What courage it had cost him — to hold the ground and not crumble then, until I turned the corner!  And how I would never learn it, until I birthed a child, myself! 

And yet, he did:  My darling old man.  The hero of my lifetime doomed to never disappoint my expectations.

The one to whom my every love would be compared:  the ultimate ideal for a man’s goodness.  My goodness.

The one who, in tumultuous times, had to commit the ultimate, unselfish act of love — and let me leave in my pursuit of bigger dreams than our homeland could offer.  (Would those dreams turn out to be worth our mutual sacrifice?  My life is yet to reveal its bottom line.  But how I pray!)

And when my hardships happened, oceans away — the one to suffer heartbreaks of a parent’s helplessness and the titan strength of prayer.

The one to not let go, despite the distances and family feuds.  (Alas, human stupidity:  It never fails to permeate a story.)  The one to change in order to keep up.  The one — to love and wait.

And pray.

This time, I saw him first!

The crowds of tired passengers were whirling all around him:  Loves leaving, in their acts of youthful recklessness or being pulled by bigger circumstances.  The lucky ones — were coming home.  The floor tiles of the airport endured the writing of rushed footsteps, scoffed wheels of those things that people felt they had to bring along; the punctuation of chic heels of pretty girls; the patter of children’s feet, so blissful and undamaged in their innocence.  Tomes could be written if every footstep could be interviewed:  The snippets of humanity’s stories that were so often unpredictable, impossible to imagine.  But when these stories happened to make sense — when stubborn courage persevered, when love learned to forgive — they found unequal beauty.  (Oh, how we could all pray for that!  Oh, how we should pray!)

One million more of pedestrians could be packed into the terminal — and I would still recognize my father’s outline.  The mind’s a funny thing, of course:  Recently, it began to blackmail me with forgetfulness.  The first nightmare in which my father had no face — would be the turning point I’d call Forgiveness.

But when I saw him — and I saw him first! — I knew that I would not be able to forget him, ever!  Because he was the one I’d spent half a lifetime trying to get back to; the one with whose name I’d christened my every accomplishment; with which I had defeated every failure.  He was the love; the never failing reason for it.  My starting point and the North Star whose shine I followed to find my way, in and out of grace, and back again.

And when I saw him first and called him:  “Oh, my goodness!”

It had to be a prayer, for I had learned to pray — in order to come back.

No cinematic trick can capture the surreal speed with which he turned in my direction.  The mind sped up.  It knew:  This had to be THE memory of my lifetime.  This — was where my life would turn its course; and in the morning, I would no longer be the prodigal daughter looking for her homecoming, but an inspired child of one great man. 

He turned.  The smile with which he studied my departure, nearly twenty years ago, returned to his face, this time, again:  It was a tight-lipped gesture of a man trying his hardest not to crumble.  The loss had been magnificent; an the return — worth every prayer.

“My goodness!  Oh, my goodness!  Oh, my goodness!” I continued muttering.  (That’s how I prayed, for years!  Oh, how I’d prayed!)

I waved.  And then, I waved again.  The mind continued turning quickly.  It had to remember every single detail of that day, so it could last forever.  And fleetingly, it granted me a thought:  The manner of my wave was very childlike, as if belonging to an infant mirroring a kind stranger’s hand.  But in the moment, I knew no vanity.  I cared none — for grace.

When dad’s hand flew up, I noticed:  He’d aged.  His timid gesture was affected by the trembling fingers and the disbelief of someone who hadn’t realized the perseverance of his prayer.  C’mon!  There had to be some moments in his life, historical events of giant hopelessness that the entire world endured since last I left, when he, like me, would lose the sight of reason.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps, my father prayed!  Perhaps, he prayed and bargained with his gods for this very opportunity to persevere life — and see my running back into his arms.

For this one moment, all — had been worth it!  My life was worth when my father held me for the first time since nearly twenty years ago.

And I?  I kept on praying:

“Oh, my goodness!”

For that had been my father’s name, for years.

“Unforgettable — That’s What You Are. Unforgettable — Tho’ Near or Far.”

C’mon, think!  Last memory.

There’s gotta be evidence of what he looked like, back then.  Considering it’s only been half of my lifetime ago since I’ve last seen him, I should be able to remember.  So, think!  Last time.  Last memory.

Half and half.  That’s how this story goes.  One half — chalked up to my childhood; the other — to having to grow up.  The first — to innocence; the other — to no choice.

And only in the later day reflections of myself in the glossy surface of a photograph with someone who looks like the younger me, do I occasionally notice it again.

“Huh.  Is that — innocence?”

Sometimes, though, I can’t even name it.

“That thing, that thing… you know,”  I snap my fingers, trying to speed up the memory.  The others grant me weird looks:  They’ve got no problems remembering.

So, think:  Last memory.  Last time.

I was innocent.  He — was quickly aging.  I was rushing time.  He would die if only he could slow it down, at least a little.

How could that happen:  that the other half of life demanded a leap larger and longer than any of my or his predecessors have ever committed?  Why wouldn’t growing up alone — be enough?  Life had to change.  So, continents shifted, and so did our outlooks.  Our lives.

And I couldn’t wait, too.  I’m sure he had something to do with it, though.  I couldn’t wait to be of age, to understand him so completely; to answer him right on the dot, precisely, perfectly and so grown up.  I wanted to become the company he’d always choose over all others, while he walked and chain-smoked.  I would be equal, I imagined.  And I would be so poignant, when grown-up, so fascinating, he’d want to jot down my statements.  Then!  Surely then, he would be so proud!

But first, I think it started as a rebellion against my kindergarten naps:

“When I’m grown up, I’ll never nap!”  So serious — so stubborn and determined — I was already very certain that my life would go in a different way; my way.  At least, the other half of it; the one that I myself would dictate.

And so I got my wish:  Somewhere at the end childhood, things began to change.  For all of us.  Most grown-ups I knew had no choice — but to catch on.  The children had to grow up:  Historical transitions aren’t merciful to innocence.  So, yes, I got my wish; and halfway through my teens, grew up so quickly, one day, he would have to rediscover me, in awe:

“Whatever happened to my little girl?” he’d say.  Surprisingly, he wasn’t proud at all, but mostly shy, a little bit embarrassed and definitely awkward.

He’d go on thinking that he had failed me; had failed my innocence.  He could not protect it from the avalanche of new events.  Why wouldn’t growing up alone — be enough?  So, for the entire second half, my father was ashamed.

To think:  Last memory.

I was already grown up, or striving to be so.  Completely clueless about the challenges of an adult life, I was flippant and quite impatient to depart.  I would choose to do it all alone:  to make a leap larger and longer than any of my or his predecessors had ever had the courage to commit.

But I — had the courage.  I was his daughter, after all.

One thing I do remember:  Dad always bore his feeling bravely.  In all my life until then — in all of my innocent first half — I hadn’t seen my father cry.  I would that day:  The day of the last memory.

But think:  The details, the evidence of what he looked like.

Stood tall, I think.  Or was I merely short and still a child (although no longer innocent).  His hair had been turning gray quite rapidly.  On every waking morning — another start of his courageous bearing — I’d watch him pour another cup of coffee and become an older man.

That day:  He chain-smoked.  But of course!  Standing outside the airport, he chained smoked.  That day — he’d look at me, so proudly, I’m sure, but to protect my innocence, to prolong my childhood — he thought he’d failed.

Neither one of us suspected that it would take a whole half of my lifetime — to reunite; and that a half of a life — is long enough to lose one’s last memory.

So, I would rather learn:  What does he look like NOW?  What will he look like, when we reunite.  But any way he looks, I think — shall be a start.  A good one — of a new memory, after the second half.

“It’s NOT Going to Stop. It’s NOT Going to Stop. It’s NOT Going to Stop — ‘Til You Wise Up.”

They said their goodbyes over two cups of soup, in a narrow joint with floors filthy from the slush just outside the door.  Instead of a doormat, the management had placed down sheets of cardboard.  Not a pretty picture, but it was all somehow very… New York.

And the lines of their dialogue did not resemble any tragic love affair from the best of the world’s cinema.  He was civil but not tender, just maintaining a casual conversation.  It had been a chronic anxiety, for her, when others relied on the arrival of tomorrow.  Since childhood, she was silly with her goodbyes, always making room for them.  Just like she did that day:  Insisting on sitting down for it, instead of aimlessly walking through the City that had seen way too many unhappy endings prior to theirs.

She had made a mistake of ordering something that sounded the most exotic, with yellow curry; but then she discovered ground chicken in it.  She was a vegetarian.  To save herself from the embarrassment — in front of him and the tired black woman working the line alone, during the rush of lunch hour — she pretended to eat around the white meat.  Until he noticed it.

“You’ve gotta order something else!” he scoffed; and for the duration of their entire pathetic meal, which they’ve spent fully clothed, in their coats and he — in his hat, her mistake would be enough of a diversion from what was actually happening:  He was leaving, like so many before him; looking for a graceful exit that no longer existed due to his cowardly procrastination.

“Oh, c’mon!” he kept trying to make her the pun of the joke.  “You can’t just eat around the meat!  You can’t keep doing… this thing that you do!”

Bingo!

A few months into the affair, he had begun reminding her of someone else.  That day — on the repeatedly reiterated subject that suddenly so obviously annoyed him — she finally tracked it down:  Someone else had happened to her, in this same City, nearly a decade ago.  Someone else who had no intention of sticking around; who often got shamed of her in public — and in front off much chicer dressed young women, with whom he had to think he had a chance.  Someone else who had hidden her from his family and friends, who pleaded for only private getaways; who gave her slivers of his time — if any — during the holidays.  Someone else who’d made a good use of her youth and sex, but had no courage to end it.

Even back then, in her much younger — less jaded, more innocent — self, she felt something was akimbo.  Not right.  The intuition kept scratching on the ventricles of her heart.  In those days, she wouldn’t call it that:  Intuition.  Not yet.  She needed a few more disastrous repetitions and embarrassing endings — to become more in tune with her self-respect.  But the sensation was already there:  Something wasn’t right.  By the universality of her gender, she knew:  Not right.

Now, a decade older, she still couldn’t name it:  that feeling of not being enough.  Too poor, too orphaned; with not enough stock or family inheritance to her name.  Pretty enough and selfless in bed — that was the only thing that made them last.  But the awareness of that same feeling was beginning to land in the corners of her eyes with a melancholic recognition of the pattern:  He — was leaving.  Maybe not that day, and maybe not even after they would reunite at home, on the other coast.  But eventually.

This trip had to end abruptly for him.  He had to go.  Maybe it could last a little longer:  She could walk him to his town car.  They could grab another drink at their hotel’s bar.  But he would finish his cup of soup — and hers, with the chicken — then hug her outside the door, in the snow, among the locals who, just like their City, had grown indifferent to the sight of all endings.  He would be clumsy, as that earlier someone else, trying to avoid meeting her eyes.  Their height difference made it impossible though, so he would scurry off as soon as he couldn’t help but notice her face:  Heartbroken.

“That’s right, fucker!” she thought of him meanly for the first time.  “You will NEVER forget me!”

What else could she do to repair herself, in that moment — but to gloat in the peacefulness of her lack of guilt?  She had been good, to this someone and the other one.  To so many others, she had been good, or generous at least.  It could’ve all been simplified in their honest communication of intentions.  Instead, they had chosen to drag her along, while offering just enough attention but never too much of it.  They procrastinated past the moment when she would fall in love; they scurry off into the landscapes of her Cities.

And the bloody New York — was still there.  Like a background action shot, fabricated meticulously by a film crew, it continued to happen:  with the never ending honking of cabs and beeping of closing and opening bus doors; with people coming and going — toward their dreams, careers and sex; or running away from love.  Nowhere else did it smell or sound like this.  And even with the strange sensation of something ending — something snapping and curling up to catch a breath — she knew she was still glorious:  Because she loved it — all of it — so much!

“Never, never, never!  You will NEVER forget me!” the City was humming along with her.  And she didn’t even care about the already vague memory of someone leaving her behind, in it.

“I Change Shapes Just to Hide in This Place. But I’m Still, I’m Still — an Animal.”

I would have much rather gone out for a walk.  But stubbornly, yesterday, I began to run.

I ran mostly out of habit, and because I was running out of time.  But even as I changed my stride, from one block to the next, I still thought:

“I think I’d much rather be walking, right now.”

It had always been my thing:  to run.  In junior high, I’d run long distances.  I never thought of myself as being good at it.  It was just something that came easy.  And it happened way before I knew about meditation or understood transcendence of the mind.  To me, it simply granted the easiest excuse to be alone and not talking.  Just breathing and placing down my feet.  My breath would change throughout the course, and so would the stride.

Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground:  The soggy fields of Russia, and the uneven asphalt of Eastern Germany.  I’d study the way the surface would respond to the impact of my feet.  We had no knowledge of American footwear back then, so the cloth running shoes with thin rubber soles were the only type we knew.  And even as the surfaces would change — as I would change my continents — the thin-soled shoes remained my favorite choice:  In the gravelly passages of Central Park, and the dusty hills of Southern California.  

Other times, I would look ahead.  It was best to do so on an open track.  I wouldn’t strain my eyes for a strip of color marking the end of the course.  Instead, I would let my vision get blurry, and I would study the blending of objects in the endlessness of what’s ahead.  Things didn’t matter.  People would be accidental.  So, I would find the empty spaces of air ahead, and look at those.  That’s why running in the fall of Russia’s coastal cities had always been the easiest.  The fog already blurred my vision, and all I would feel was — the change in breath and stride.

I don’t remember being tired, as a kid; and not until the first menstrual cycles of my classmates, did I begin to overhear excuses for not running.  My thin, balletic body was one of the last to be introduced to its new function that made my female contemporaries embarrassed and secretive among each other.  But even when it happened to me, I kept up with my running.  On bleeding days, I would wear longer sweaters and tighter underwear; but the slow, moaning ache in my lower stomach would not matter.  It would change my stride a little:  I would prefer to run lighter then, as if doing a chasse step across a dance floor.  I’d land on my toes, as I would when leaping over strewn blankets on a lake’s bank in my grandma’s village in the Far East, while I myself dashed for the water:  to join other sunbathing kids and to avoid my motha’s strict instructions to put on sunblock.  (But secretly, I hoped that my silly chasse step would make her laugh and shake her head, with bangs getting into her glistening eyes.)

The days of tiredness that would seduce me out of running would happen much, much later.  They would happen in the late mornings of waking after a graveyard shift at a Westchester diner.  A pair of ugly nursing shoes with sole support and splatters of dried foods would be the only visual reminder of the night before.  And the heavy lead-like weight of my calves would talk me out of running.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I’d holler down the hallway with three other doors.

And if the bathroom at the end of it was free, I’d forget about the lead-filled feeling in my calves and make a run for it, while pounding my heels into the carpeted floor.

Much later in my running history, I would begin to study people.  It had to happen in California where exercise is fashion; and depending on one’s routine, we all belong to little clans.  When running with others, it would propel me, out of competition, anger or inspiration.  Sometimes, I’d follow their footsteps like a shadow of compassion:  The sweaty faces of lonesome hikers in the Hollywood Hills, or the bright eyes of those rad people of San Francisco who’d made a life out of NOT giving up.

When running stubbornly, yesterday, I thought of the history of my strides; and then, began trying them on.  At first, I ran tiredly, as if I was back to working my way through college, in Westchester, New York.  Then, I began to push, hitting the ground with my heel (so unhealthy!) — out of anger and never wanting to give up.  The chasse step would eventually take over, and the lightness of it spread up my body, up to my lungs and face.

That’s when I saw him:  A headless man walking slowly ahead.  At first, I thought he may have dropped something to the ground and was now retracing his steps.  But as he continued slowly placing his feet onto the smooth pavement of the quiet neighborhood, I realized he was a victim of arthritis, age, and most likely incredible loss.  He was hunched over so low, I could not see his head, as I ran up on him, from behind.  I slowed down and began following his footsteps.

A pair of khaki shorts revealed his thin, brown legs, covered with sores and age spots.  His shoes were worn out and the thick white socks were pulled halfway up his calves.  I studied his stride:  He dragged each foot ahead, then struggled to gain balance.  Then, repeat.  Stubbornly.

He would much rather have been walking, yesterday, alone and not talking.  I shook off the idea of offering help (this was the time when charity would have been offensive); passed him quietly, and began to run.

Stubbornly.

“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.