Tag Archives: New York

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.

Threshold

(Continued from April 8th, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In purple:  “Let justice work itself out.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

“I have been looking, yes, mom.”

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

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

“Oh yeah?  That’s good.”

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

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

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

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

She felt exhausted.  “Mom.”

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

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

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

West, West, West.

You still have time.  In your defense.

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.)

“Wait in Line, ‘Till Your Time. Ticking Clock. Everyone: STOP!”

Okay.  I cannot do the electronic check-in for my overseas flight.  I find that hard to believe.  But then again, it’s been at least sixteen years since I have left the country, so what do I know?

Fine, then.  Okay.

Get to the airport.  That’s pretty easy.  It’s a day after Christmas, and I ask my driver if he thinks a lot of people are going back to work this morning.

“Most should,” he says.  “But then, again, a lot of people are still off.”  He pauses.  “Of course, I’m always surprised when there is any traffic, on a day like this.”  Another pause:  “But that’s LA for ya!”

There is a layer of pink feather clouds, hanging above LAX.  It’s pretty, in an exhausted sort of way.  A few silver jets sparkle in the sky as they ascend diagonally.  What an ambition of the human spirit!  A civilization is a succession of wills.

I get out at the curb within the first meter of my terminal’s ground.  A giant Lincoln town car attempts to cut me off.

“Just run me ova’, why don’t cha?” I mouth out to its driver with a bluetooth in his ear.  Be it the black, floor-long winter coat or the tightly wound nerves (and both are quite suitable for the Eastern European winter), I suddenly feel every bit like the New Yorker I once was before defecting to this coast.

He sees me, doesn’t as much as wave.

A giant line of exhausted passengers outside — kids in silly Christmas sweaters and adults with wrinkly faces — who are waiting in front of the terminal’s sliding doors is just a small preview of the havoc I’m about to endure inside.  I do not really know on what grounds I’ve previously assumed that just because United has its own terminal, the flow of today’s events would be well practiced and smooth.

The lines inside are hideous.  I find the international portion of the airport and read its awning, “International One Hour Cut-Off.”  Someone’s ought to proofread this company’s syntax.

Breathe.  I still have almost two hours.

I walk over to the Self Check-In Machines.  One carry-on, a winter coat and a laptop.  To lug one’s baggage through life is a hideous choice.  Forgiveness, no matter how hard, is lighter.

“These are for passengers with only one carry-on,” a short woman on a walkie-talkie grumbles and then proceeds her way.

“Yes,” I watch her get back to the talkie.  “I am.  Indeed.  Just that.  M’am.”  She is no longer interested.

“TAP HERE TO BEGIN.”

I do.

“ENTER CONFIRMATION OR E-TICKET NUMBER.”

I find a six-digit combination in my printout.  That should do the trick.

“NO NUMBER FOUND IN THE SYSTEM.”

Okay.  I try another number.   Another random combination on the paper.

“NO NUMBER FOUND IN THE SYSTEM.”

You’ve GOT to be kidding!

Okay, okay, okay.  Stay chill.

With the most mellow smile that I can manage at this hour of sunrise, I approach the first visible uniformed personnel.  And in the background, I suddenly can hear a few hollering infants and some foreign tongues.

I wait my turn, approach the woman.  Explain the situation.

“You have to call?” she tells me in her thick Asian accent.

“Excuse me?”  (Okay.  Be kind.  It’s wiser, lighter.)

“You have to call — the company?”

Oh, fuck it.  I assume my place in line.  The young man in front of me is calm and utterly consumed by his iPad.  On his cart, I see a guitar with a lime-green bandana around the handle and one piece of carry-on.  Like me, he has forgiven.  A couple of hippies with mounts of luggage on their cart are making out ahead.  An Asian couple is demurely standing by and holding the handle of a tiny bag, not deserving to be called “a suitcase”.

“And don’t forget the tag?” the Asian attendant hands me two tongues of paper.  Apparently, she only responds with questions.

“Thanks for your help,” I say.  Mmm-hmm.  I’m glad she’s saved the day with these.

I’ve got less than thirty minutes to make it through this line.  We’re moving slowly.  The grumbling woman with a walkie-talkie reappears.  I notice that underneath her United blazer, she’s wearing a summer dress.  She, right away, begins to create order.

“Sir!  You cannot stand here!” she is demonstrative when speaking to a smartly suited Indian man who, just like me, is carrying no luggage.

“My flight leaves in an hour,” he sings in a way that’s expected from his heritage.  “And your ticket machines are broken!”

Okay!  So, it was NOT just me!  I glance at the now baffled Asian attendant.  It feels a little better to know I’m not a solitary idiot, afraid to ask for help.

“Somebody’s GOT to help us!” the Indian businessman continues singing, as if echoing my thoughts.  “Somebody’s got to do their job!”

“I’m doing mine just fine, sir!” the walkie-talkie woman grumbles and listens into her gargling apparatus.  “Anyone — to Mexico?” she hollers in a moment.

A few timid hands appear above our heads.  Their owners are ushered into the line behind the Indian man.

My check-in finally happens, and it happens exactly an hour before my scheduled flight.  Ivy — the mellow attendant who takes orders from the walkie-talkie woman in a summer dress, before she serves me — has done her job quite quickly (although she does appear to have typed a whole of a dissertation in order to issue my boarding passes.)

And in the next hour, I do remember Ivy gratefully when our entire gate is transferred to another one, where we, again, proceed our wait.  When, finally, we begin boarding:

“As you may have noticed,” a voice comes over the speakers, “we’re experiencing mechanical difficulties.  We’ve dealt with three different mechanics and shall be in the air as soon as we are done with our paperwork.”

Okay.  Stay positive.  Stay grateful and stay kind.  

I have about fifteen minutes to catch my connecting flight.

“I Want to… Thank You, Thank You. Thank You, Thank You.”

If this hour — or weather — were to happen back in LA-LA, I would be the only pedestrian seen for miles.

Well, at least I started off — as a pedestrian.  Having left my dear college comrade hibernating in the cocoon of her comforters inside the generously heated West Village apartment, I stepped out into the frosty morning with that blissful gratitude that came from knowing I had nowhere else to be:  Nowhere but here, in this City that left no human heart unaffected.  Because how ever New York — the Strange Iron and Steel Beauty — came off to others, indifference was never among Her effects.

That morning, I quickly understood:  In this City, I was in the minority.  Time moved relentlessly quicker for all others; and in my aimless, fancy free wandering, I belonged to neither the tourists nor the exhausted locals, who made it a point to survive Her every day.

The street sweeper, who was swinging his broom with enough intention to cause a flurry of broken black ice against my ankles and smoking simultaneously, gave me a queer eye, from underneath his Russian fur hat.  I had just passed him and made the mistake of smiling.

“Where is your coat, girl?” he growled in response, then puffed a visible cloud of nicotine in my face.  Yep, he was Russian alright, and not in the least bit entertained by my getup of a single turtleneck, a little red hat and thin running shoes, with funkily striped ankle socks peaking out of them.

“Can’t run in a coat,” I gleefully shrugged.  I was grinning.

Since when did I become so bouncy?  Back in the days of my aspiring to be a hardcore New Yorker, this Amelie character I was currently channeling would annoy the shit out of me.  But there I was:  Having gotten older, I had managed to also get lighter.  And if there were a single chronic mood of my soul — it would be its certain predisposition for gratitude.

To get my point across to the Russian, I began jogging lightly.  Right foot, left foot…  Ouch!  Ouch!  I hadn’t realized that my feet had gotten frozen in a matter of minutes of my being outside.  Stepping on my toes, as if leaping over tiny puddles, was my new running technique acquired back in Cali.  There, healthy living was merely a science; and I had actually studied it, not for the sake of getting off with others, at juice bars of some fancy, celebrity-ridden gyms of Hollywood — but for the sake of healing.

Fuck!  I didn’t even know I needed it, to tell you the truth, until I finally settled down into the natural flow of the local time, so different from New York’s.  It didn’t gnaw on my nerves and upset my inners.  Nah.  LA-LA had its own stresses and costs to the system, but at least there would be much more time — and space — to be a Self.

“‘Scuse me,” I sang out.  I made sure to smile.

(Seriously:  Who WAS that girl?!)

The bundled-up old woman, dragging her comatose Yorkie through the snow buried flowerbeds, looked back at me.  A thought had no time to form in my head before she granted me the dirties elevator look since the one I earned from a Kardashian lookalike, on my first Hollywood attempt to go clubbing.  (That young one assumed I was rubbing up against her man:  A short and hairy creature in rhinestoned jeans buying her girlfriends a round of pink drinks.  I, however, soaked from dancing my ass off next to the Go-Go Girls, was just leaning over the bar to ask for some water:  A request hated by the bartenders all around the world (but hated a little less than when I requested a cup of coffee).)

Upon my “‘Scuse me?”, not even a centimeter did the old woman move over.  Here, time and space had to be fought for; and considering she had to, most likely, persevere through mortal hell in order to own her rent-controlled apartment in Washington Square — the woman was highly unlikely to budge for my sake.

By that point, I could feel neither my toes nor my hands.  Still, it would take a lot more than a couple of dirty or simply baffled looks from the locals to snap me out of my grateful mood.

“Just look at this, would you?!” I kept thinking.

The perfectly aligned, naked and black with wetness trees were covered with sticky snow.  The skies were arguing with its fluffy clouds on whether to grant us some sun or snow that day.  The skeletons of Christmas trees littered an occasional side of the road, but the smell of trash and sewers had been put on hold until the next warmer front.

Left foot, right foot…  Right:  Ouch! ouch!  The black asphalt underneath my feet was sparkling with shards of ice.  Leaping over the tiny puddles and seemingly fallen down stars, off I went:  Navigating the seemingly different City unlike my former self claimed would have done.

But which one of us had changed more?

My every rhythmical exhale resulted in a visible cloud.  I was hardly the only pedestrian, but definitely the only runner seen for miles.  It was my new way of exploring new lands:  Right foot, then left.  Flying.  Slowing down only to zigzag in between the baffled, sleepy or plain disgruntled locals.

Grateful.

Right, left.  Right…

Yes:  Definitely grateful!

“If I Can Make It There, I’ll Make It — Anywhere!”

As far as I felt, I was still a fucking nobody:  commuting to my graduate classes six out of seven days a week, on a 45-minute subway ride from the Bronx.

Sure, as any not-too-lame looking chick, I tried to upgrade my style with an occasional ten-dollar purchase from the H&M on Broadway and 34th.  And I had even managed to go out with a few finance guys from Wall Street and realized they were no more sophisticated than my 20-year-old ass.  But despite my now impressive expertise of the Island’s neighborhoods and demographics, my favorite shops to browse and windows to shop (only the ones where I was least harassed by salesgirls) — I was hardly a New Yorker yet.

Shit!  I didn’t even know any good places to eat!  Despite the 50/50 scholarship, the pleasure of having a graduate degree — forty five grand later — was leaving my ass seriously broke.  For one, I could never join my classmates to their lunch outings.  And because of my immigrant pride, when shooting down their invites, I would give them reasons related to my studious nature (and not because I was eating beans out of a can, in an unheated basement apartment, every night).  So, for the entire twelve hour day spent on the Island, in between classes, I would have to last on a pitiful, homemade sandwich made out of a single slice of pumpernickel bread and a veggie burger, glued together with a thin spread of margarine and then cut in half.  The meal was so embarrassing, I would do my best to chomp it down alone, in the staircase of a school wing unlikely to be visited by my classmates; or, if I was getting the shakes — inside a bathroom stall.

And this was with my two shitty, part-time jobs accounted for!

And because my education was costing me an arm and a leg — and possibly my sanity and longevity, in the end — boy! did I look forward to the end of every semester.  Most of my colleagues would leave for their wholesome looking families — in Connecticut or wherever else purebred Americans had their happy childhoods — and there, I imagined, they sat around on their white-fenced porches and threw tennis balls for their pedigree golden retrievers to fetch.  For Christmas, they retold their tales of crazy, filthy, overcrowded Manhattan while clutching giant cups of hot cocoa and apple sider in front of electric fireplaces, and waiting for the contributions of cash.  In the summer, they’d allow their parents to pay their airfare for the pleasure of their company in the Caribbean or the Riviera.

I, on the other hand, would remain stuck in the Bronx.

(Well.  It was either that, or going to visit my obese stepfather and endure his interrogations about what I was planning to do with my art school education, for which he was NOT paying.)

So, for the last two years of grad school, I stuck around on the Island.  And whatever happy lives my classmates were deservingly pursuing elsewhere, I still thought I had it the best:  I was free and young, in New York Fuckin’ City!   Unthought of, for my long removed Russian family!

In those days, it was between me and the Island.  Just the two of us.  Finally, I would have the time and discipline to follow the schedule of free admission nights to all Manhattan museums.  With no shame, I would join the other tourists waiting for discounted Broadway tickets at the Ticketmaster booth in Times Square.  In the summer, I would gladly camp out in Central Park over night, so that I could get a glimpse of some Hollywood star giving Shakespeare a shot at the Delacorte.  I read — any bloody book I wanted! — at the Central Branch, then blacken my fingers with the latest issue of Village Voice, while nearly straddling one of the lions up front.  And in between my still happening shitty jobs, I would work on my tan on the Sheep Meadow; then peel on my uniform  (still reeking of the previous night’s baskets of fries) and return for my graveyard shift in the Bronx.

Yes, it was MY time:  to be young and oblivious to the hedonistic comforts of life.  I was in the midst of a giant adventure — that forty five grand could buy me — and outside of my curiosity, all the other pleasures of life could wait.

“Now, what are you planning to do with your art school education, hon?” one of my former undergrad professors asked me during an impromptu date.

Snide!  Ever so snide, he had a talent for making you feel not up to par — ever!  If he were to try that on me today, I would flaunt my post-therapy terminology on boundaries and self-esteem.  But back then, I was eating lunches inside the bathroom stalls of my Theatre Arts Building and wearing a button name tag for work, at nighttime.  So, I would endure the condescending interrogations over a cup of some bullshit organic soup he’d insist I ordered — and for which I would pray he would offer to pay later, as well.

“Well.  I guess you could always teach,” he’d say while packing up to leave for his rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.  (Whom did he have to fuck in order to live there for the last two decades?)

He had a point though:  New York didn’t need another girl with her romantic dreams of love and starlet success.  New York — could do just fine without me.

But still:  It was MY time!  MY youth in the city!  His — was long gone, and I supposed it was reason enough to despise me.

But how ever unrealistic were my pursuits — and how ever hard was the survival — I still had plenty of curiosity in me to give it all a fair try.

“Sometimes You Wanna Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name…”

He is quite pretty.

Yes, I said “pretty”.  Or, rather:  He is luminous.

I’ve never seen him here before, waiting tables at this joint I frequent.  In the City ruled by the most beautiful gay boys who always bitch-slap my occasionally fearful face with the courage of their specificity, I have finally found my corner.  It’s calm here, and I am still completely anonymous.  I make it a point to be as sweet as Amelie when I come in, and I am always a generous tipper.  But no one knows my name.  They let me be.  And that’s somehow soothingly perfect.

Diagonally from its floor-to-ceiling window panes, I can see at least half a dozen of rainbow flags.  The parking is a bitch around here, but the stroll is always worth it.  And no matter what comrade of mine I’ve introduced to this place — a single mother with an unruly child or an ancient director with my father’s face — they all seem to find comfort, if not peace here.

“Reminds me of a Noo Yok di-nah!” a Russian from Brooklyn once correctly tagged the reminiscence of this joint while falling into the only round booth, and nesting his bulky body next to my bony elbow.  I could see it in his eyes:  A chord has been struck.

And it is true:  The leather-covered booths, plastic tables and chairs are squeezed against each other with economical consideration.  Identical bar stools, bolted onto the floor, look like a net of mushrooms sprouted after the autumn rain; and I’ve once, especially tipsy over a boy, spun on one of them while waiting for my smoothie with red cabbage.  (Shit!  I’ve become a hardcore hippie, in this California livin’ of mine!)

The UFO’s of lamp shades with single, off-white bulbs inside each light the place up with a certain light of nostalgia; but every kind face slipping in and out of the swinging doors of the kitchen reminds me that I ain’t in New York — any more!

But will you look at them?!  Just look at these faces!

There is the Zenned-out brown boy with gentle manners who insists on diamond studs that sparkle from underneath his backwards-turned baseball cap.  Underneath his crew-necks or fit t-shirts, he hides a fit but lithe body.  Sometimes, I catch him texting underneath the only cash register; but from where I sit, in those moments, he simply looks possessed by bliss, behind the tiny glass display of whole grain muffins.

The only older gentleman working regular shifts here has a quite voice.  He is not as effeminate as the other waiters here, neither is he flamboyant as most of the clientele.  When he tends to my table, I cannot always distinguish the content of his speech, but his Spanish accent is lovely.

So, I grin and stretch my arms to the other side of the tiny table. “I’m fine!  Thank you,” I purr, and wait:  Is this the day he’ll finally smile at me?

But this boy — is pretty, and I have never seen him before.  Dressed in the most perfect caramel skin, he has one of those faces that makes me regret not having a talent or even any predisposition for drawing.  His body seems perfect, and a pair of rolled-up jean shorts reveals a runner’s legs.  He carries just a touch of feminine grace, and oh, how the boys love him!  The entire length of my 3-hour writing session, they come in to quietly watch him from corner tables.  Some hug him while sliding their hands along his belt-line.  A sweet boy, he doesn’t seem to mind.  Men in couples flirt with him discretely, but I recognize their desire — for his youth and goodness — underneath the nonchalant gestures.

A woman with a complexion I would kill to have when I reach her age, has entered the joint shortly after me.  From the bits of overheard conversation, I figure out:  She lives in Laurel Canyon.  Has “a partner”.  A writer.

“130,000 people lost power last night,” she reads the newsfeed to the pretty boy, as he flocks her table.  He seems to possess an equal curiosity toward both genders; and if there is any hint of discrimination, it’s in his innocent desire to be in the proximity beauty.

Oh, right.  I nearly forgot:  Last night was messy.  When the winds initially picked up, I was willing to believe in the magic on some beautiful female creature blowing in, with the wind, to save this last hope of this forsaken place.  But then, my night turned tumultuous; and in my chronic want to flee from here, I thought of the more unfortunate souls, with not as much as a shelter of their car.  I checked myself in.

The morning ride to this joint was rough:  Fallen over trees, freaked out drivers and broken traffic lights.  But once I landed in my booth — and the angelic, pretty boy approached me — I remembered that I was always the last to give up on human goodness.  So, I hung around and recuperated in beauty.

And I’ve been hanging here ever since.

“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.

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“And It’s a Hard, It’s a Hard, It’s a Hard, It’s a Hard: And It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall!”

It was her first fall in LA-LA.

“What is — this place, out here?” she thought, when she noticed that beauty wasn’t throwing itself, suicidally, into her face.  Or, humanity, for that matter.

“May I, at least, have some humanity, around here?”

On those first mornings when she woke up in soaked sheets, she would slide open the windows to air-out her bedroom.  But it made no difference.  The heat would keep hanging at the ceiling of her top floor apartment — much more spacious than the one she dwelled in, back in New York.  And by the end of the day, its molecules smelled of smog — and of her own sweat.

And the sweat was different here, too.  In the heat of August that made New Yorkers flee the City, she loved to venture out into the streets, still just as crowded, but mostly with baffled tourists — not locals — who would jump out of her way, startled by her outraged footsteps.  She would walk around for hours, feeling the unmistakable humidity that made the City smell like rotten garbage and, yes, human sweat.  And while she stood on subway platforms, she could feel the drops of her own perspiration slide slowly from her ass cheeks to the back of her knees, under her long skirts.  She felt the whiff of sex, hers and others’:  And it promised — more life.

There seemed to be some unexpected romance in those days:  For the first time, she finally felt like she was belonging.  But how could she belong in a place she was leaving, so soon?

The one-way ticket already had been bought by her mother, who upon hearing the news of the divorce, put away her dramatics and got stoic, for a change:

“You’re coming to California,” motha said over the phone.

“You make me sound like a folk song,” she thought, in response.  Yet, she obeyed. 

It was the wisdom of the women of her motha’s clan — to never plead or grovel for a man to change his mind.

She was going to California.

There would be plenty of chaos upon her landing:  Finding an apartment seemed easier; for there always seemed to be plenty of departing who packed up their shit into double-parked U-Halls, sweating and swearing at the city’s expense.  But the city’s leasers seemed indecisive and slow.

“Everyone keeps acting as if they’ve got better choices, out here,” she told her best friend in New York.  “Or, they just namedrop.”

Like the little man with glistening eyes who, despite being bound to a wheel-chair, managed to lurk over her when interviewing her for a roommate position.  On his living-room wall, she could see a framed, autographed poster of a recently released indie flick that was pretty well reviewed in The Times, that summer.

“I produced that,” the little man said, reminding her of one those exotic birds on the Discovery Channel that puff themselves up into alien shapes — just to get some tail.  From under the smeared lenses of his glasses, his narrow eyes were sliding up and down her body.  His face was glistening with sweat.  She got up, feeling like she needed a shower at the closest motel she could find, on Sunset Boulevard.

“Well, what do you think?” the little man wheeled after her, to the door, lurking.  “I could make you a star!”

She walked out.

“Really?” her best friend said calmly.  “Do they actually say things like that, out there?”

And then, there was the job search, in which every lobby looked like a waiting room for an audition or a cattle call.  And no one else seemed to be breaking a sweat, after driving in the apocalyptic-degree heat.

“We aren’t making any decisions right now,” the interviewers kept saying.  “But we’ll keep your resume on file.”

“Then, why did you waste my time?” she actually said to a group of young entrepreneurs who looked like the cast of Entourage and, after sliding their eyes up and down her body, asked her to tell them “something they couldn’t have known — by looking at her”.  (She told them she was good at harakiri.)

She walked out, got back into her car and wasted more time.  The heat outside was still insatiable!  And in the midst of it, everyone was always up for a hike.  Or “a coffee date, sometime”.

The rain would finally come by the end of October.  And it wouldn’t stop.

The roads would get shiny at first, and for the first time, since landing, she would smell the nearing of another season — not of her own sweat.  The nights would get cold, and she would insist on walking, to any outside cafe, on Sunset Boulevard, and getting soaked. It was the first time she would cry the tears worthy of the women of her motha’s clan:  They weren’t filled with self-pity anymore, but with rage.  And rage — was always better, for survival.

 

Finally, there would be a callback for a maitre d’ position at some pretentious overpriced restaurant, on the West Side, with a diva-chef in the kitchen.  She would swim in her motha’s decade-old clunker to other side of the city.  Driving in the middle lane seemed safer, but some maniac in a German car would always honk and zoom past her, on the right, and give her car a full rinse with the filthy water from the gutters.

“You’re terribly overqualified,” the general manager with a bulldog’s jaw would tell her, at the end, after the two-hour drive.

She got up and tried to make it to the door without breaking down into another outraged tear shed.  Her scuffed shoes made a chomping sound:  Her feet were soaked.  So was her hair.

He would follow her, to the door:

“We’ll keep your resume on file though,” he’d say.

“Please, don’t!” she actually said.

Because it was the wisdom of the women of her motha’s clan to never plead for a man to change his mind.

She walked out.