Tag Archives: self-esteem

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.)

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.

She and His

Be kind, be kind.  Must always be kind.  Be kind onto others.  Which is not the same as being kind onto yourself.

The silly self:  It’s like a whimpering babe, looking at her with confused eyes.  Why aren’t you coming for me?  Don’t you know how much I need you?  Poor thing, so dumb and innocent, it knows not its ignorance is bliss; but need, need, need.  I need you, need you, need you — to be you.

But she forsakes it.  It can make it on its own.  That’s the Darwinian rule that she had obeyed for years; the rule that had been done onto her, when her mother fled her marriage and parenthood in the family’s fourteen-year old Honda to live in Portland, with a lover — a vegan milkshake store owner.  For her, it wasn’t:  Do onto others as you do onto yourself.  (Some people can be so selfish, mother!)  But she had had a life-long history of being better to others — better for them — than to her whimpering self.

There’s time enough, she thought; and maybe later she could retire to finally tend to her needs.  By then, the self would be so tired (although she swore she had been tired ever since she was thirteen).  But she would tire herself out enough to retire, with babies and her future husband’s nightly strewn socks all around their bedroom.  Until then:  She had to be kind.

A decade ago, she used to be angry.  At all times, at nearly everything.  “It’s my prerogative!  I am what I am,” said the ego.  Except that it was all wrong:  She was kind.  Always kind.  She was the daughter of her father — a gentle man who, despite the damages done onto him, had never done it onto others; and being his next of kin came with the same unbalanced, unjust genetic mechanics of selflessness and never knowing how to ask for a favor.

But even though, in her youth, she would hold onto the anger, she felt it falling flat every single time, after the initial sensation in her body.  Like an off-key tune, it was uncertain and wavering; blue and slightly disappointed.  Like a story without an arc:  Who needs it?

“This is how I’ve always fended for myself,” she would defend the anger to her departing lovers and move the hair out of her eyes with a furious head shiver.  The lovers couldn’t understand why she insisted on living her life in so much difficulty.  Not everything had to be understood so thoroughly, so completely.  She “should learn to let go”.

Fine by me!  Go!  Go on and leave!

But they would miss her, she was sure of it; because in between all those hollow spaces of anger, she always offered kindness.  Kindness pro bono.  Kindness at the end of every day.  And besides, she had always made it clear they were never the point of of her unrest.  Instead, they could revel in her love, her compassion or her charity — all depending on the degree of availability of her kindness.  So, how difficult could it be to be loved by her?

But you should go!  Go ahead and go!

In those moments, she recalled an actress in a film that her mother seemed to be watching every single time she’d walked in on her.  The actress was good at crying well, with no resistance in her face.  And on that particular line, “Go!  Just go!” the actress would close her eyes completely, like someone aware of being watched.  And she, catching a glimpse of both actresses in the room, would always wonder:  “Why the fuck is she wearing full make-up, in a heartbreak scene?”

The departing would never find another her, she thought to herself; and she was right:  They wouldn’t.  But with all the others — who weren’t her — things were slightly easier and more vague.  Others left room for misinterpretation, so that the lovers could live out their love in mutual illusions, until the first point of cross-reference.  Hearts could be broken then, expectations — disappointed.  But they would’ve had some wonderful times by then.

And yes, with time, easy became boring; but boring — gave room to calm.  And into the calm, it was easier to retire.  Because in the end, we were all simply so tired.

So, be kind.  Must always be kind.  She almost terrorized her lovers with kindness, which was shocking to the recipients, in every beginning.  It made her unusual, unlike all the others.  The lovers could not have suspected, though, that she was merely collecting a reserve of it for when the going got harder, because it always would; and because the first time the anger came up in each affair, it stayed.  One note.  No arc.  Just co-habituating with the rest of her, not necessarily parasitically.

Some lovers would attempt to rescue her from the anger.  (Sometime, infatuation liked to pose as love.)  These more ambitious ones would suffer the most, from her resistance, from the complexity of her constant devotion to truth.  And only when they, finally tired from it — or of it — raised their first objections, she flaunted all the moments of previous kindness in her self-defense.

How she hated herself for turning calculating, pitiful and shrill!  After those endings, she would have to find healing in closure that took more time; because self-forgiveness was harder to summon by someone who did onto others better, than she did onto herself.

But they all would remember her kindness at least, she told herself.  In the end, they all would.  And, again, perhaps, she was right.  But no one could ever survive the lack of self-love.

 

I could do this one, why not?  She’s kinda cute.  Hot, actually.  She’s hot, and that’s so much better anyway.  She’s not one of those gorgeous girls who thinks she’s outta my league.  Fuck those bitches!  They get too expensive, anyway.  But this one is not like that, man.  I wonder if she’s the type that doesn’t think she’s beautiful at all.  Which makes it even easier.

I should ask her out.  ‘Cause I could probably do this one, easily…  Hands down!

Okay, maybe not “easily”.  She called me “Patrick” last night.

My name is Dave.  

Shit, man!  Just look at her!  Leaning over the edge of the bar, so obviously flirting with Stan.  Stan is old, but he can get a girl nice ‘n’ liquored up, I guess.  I tolerate Stan.  And that’s as far as I go with people.

Stan is, like, seriously deprived of love.  His woman is a total bitch to him, you can tell by the way he cranes his neck whenever he talks to a broad.  Any broad.  Like a fuckin’ abused dog that expects to be hit between his eyes for chewing on her slipper, just ‘cause he just wanted to taste the sweat of her feet.  Stan’s woman must castrate him every day, for breathing too loudly or for not looking the part, or some shit.   And I bet she thinks she should be with someone better.

Look at him!  Just look at him now!  God!  He’s shaking just ‘cause this girl is nice to him.  God…

I hate dogs!

Maybe Stan’s got a giant one.  Chicks always say that it’s not important.  But that’s just bull, if you ask me.  I’ve seen ‘em looking at me when there is no point of going back and I’m staring them in the face, erect but less than a handful.  Nerve-racking enough to shrink anyone.

“Ohm,” they say and look up at me with that face, as if I got them the wrong thing for Christmas.

I wonder if it’s those fuckin’ pills.  I told John, I’d rather be bald.  But then, his woman chimed in:  “Jenna”.

“I wouldn’t fuck Prince William, with that hair of his,” she said.

First of:  Who wants to date a chick called “Jenna”?!  Or “Trisha”?  “Trish”.  Sounds like a diner waitress with three grown children by another man, at home.

Anyway, “Jenna” has this habit of going out to our fridge, in the middle of a night, in nothing but John’s wife-beater.  She’s a bartender, comes over after her shift.  Drunk.  I hear them fuck.  I try to tune ‘em out, so I blast some ESPN, or fucking Transformers 3, I don’t care.  Whatev.  But it’s like this chick’s got police sirens for her moans.  And the really fucked-up thing is:  They really turn me on.  It’s like having a live porn sound-feed from across the hall.  So, I’ve started waiting for John to finish his first round; come out to the living-room, turn on the TV and I watch her, as she runs to the bathroom.  (Why do chicks always have to pee after sex?  Does urine kill sperm?  I fuckin’ hope so!)  But then, she comes out, all flushed and glossy from splashing water on her face and thighs; all the fattier places bouncing on her body.

“Jenna”.

…Frankly, I don’t like fat girls anyways.  Fuck ‘em!  I’d rather keep aiming high.  But the skinny ones are always meaner.

John told me “Jenna” likes big ones.  Makes her ears plug up, she says.  And she’s got this vein that pops out in the middle of her forehead.  Makes John worried she’ll hemorrhage to death on day, if he keeps winding up her sirens like this.  So yeah, it matters, he says.  Size matters.

“Jenna” lies to my face.  Says it’s all about the man’s hair:

“I’d rather fuck a bald guy than Prince William.”

So, these days, whenever she comes over, I watch TV with my cap on.  “Jenna” has these sick nails and she always paints them red; and she likes to rough out the top of a man’s head, then pull his face into her breasts and smother his silly grin with them.  But not me!  Not this guy!…

Ah, shit!  Just look at this one though!  She’s still talking Stan up and I can see that jittery part of her thighs from the way she hangs on the bar.  This one is hot.  Kinda like “Jenna”.  That’s the problem.

And I can tell she is not like one of those chicks back in college who liked to brag about sex all the time and confuse the attention they aroused — for being liked.  Those chicks had seriously low self-esteem.  But this one doesn’t talk sex.  She moves sex.   And we are all deprived.

I blame our mothers.

(To Be Continued.)

It’s Better to Have Loved.

(Continued from January 29th, 2012.)

The one that had preceded Nina suffered from a permanent tension of his vocal cords.  He had picked me up at the Santa Monica Library — a house of glass and metal, and the place of rest for many a homeless in the City where no one could ever find a home.  Not really.  Sure, one had a house, or a place.  A joint.  A roommate situation.  But to be at home — one had to be willing to belong.

“Hmm.  That’s an interesting pullover you’re wearing,” said the young creature, at the Library, smug with studied confidence.  Not natural at all.

I granted him a single glance-over:  An overachiever, to a tee.  Something about him lacked the swagger of those whose choices and whims were endorsed by family’s name or a bank account (which ever one had more clout).  Yes, still:  He tried.  Immediately, I knew:  He, who poured this much attention into his subject — who reached too far and tried too hard, straining beyond the plasticity of his compassion (which would already be magnificently excessive), he who choked with forced praise — would rarely be comfortable in silence.  Not in the mood for busy talk, I changed the subject whilst looking for an exit:

“What are you reading, mate?” I threw over my shoulder.  The echo played a round of ping-pong with my sounds between the glass walls of the reading room.  Ate, ate, ate.  To which, a studying nerd deflated his lungs, somewhere in the corner:

“SHHHHHH!”

Neither looking back at the distressed prisoner of knowledge nor wanting to look ahead at this new lingering aggressor against silence, I focused on the hardbound books with which he had been shielding himself, with brown, hairless arms.  The fading edges of their cloth binding would smell of mold at the spine, and then of dehydration from the air and sun; overexposure to the oil of human fingers and the salt of readers’ tears, surprised to have their empathy awoken by someone’s words:  Still alive, that thing?  Because the heart was usually the last one to give up.  And then, the lungs:  SHHHHHH.

The aged tomes in the man-child’s arms promised to titillate my ear more than his words.  Words, words.

“What am I reading?!  Oh.  Um.  Nothing…”  (Oh, c’mon!  The nerd in the corner was turning red, by now, from the justified resentment at being invisible to us, as he had been his whole life.)  “Well.  Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, actually.”  The man-child finally spat out, then hesitated, gave this cords another straining pull:  “I know!  Not butch enough — for a straight male!”  He nearly choked there!  Words, words, word.

Oh.  One of those:  Simultaneously eager and tormented!  The one to flaunt his politics out loud, just so that the others didn’t get the wrong idea.  Because whatever happened in beds he visited (even if out of the other lover’s loneliness or boredom) would be the reason for his later torment.  The guilt, the loathing.  The other obstacles to self-esteem.  And he would wear them like a frilly scarf from Urban Outfitters, meant to accent things — to draw attention, and perhaps make him more “interesting” — but not to serve the very original function.  The it-ness of the thing was lost.

With me, the man-child, worked his words (words, words) to become liked enough.  And after one eve of heavy breathing and pulsating blood flow, perhaps, he would be asked to stay.  I questioned, though, if he knew exactly what he wanted:  sex — or its statistic?  The mere happening of it?  Sex was a fact of his hormonal balance; and if he could help ignore it, he would move out of his body entirely and occupy his head.  But for right now, the boy still had to get some, however accidentally.

The love you take — is equal…

He took, he claimed.  And if he didn’t, he would storm out of sentences with scorn of having to sublimate his desires, yet again.  Alas, the world was so unfair.

“But you!”  Against the walls, he kept thumping the words like racket balls.  The poor boy was trying!  “You! — must be so erudite!”

“SHHHHHH!”

“Or really?” I hissed, considering the possibility of the nerd’s heart attack for which I was not willing to bear the responsibility.  At least, not on a Monday night.  “Is it the pullover?”  I asked and pushed him out of the way.  Over, over, over.

The man-child lingered, then began to laugh with that obnoxious howl meant to draw attention.  Again, too much.  Too hard.  So insincere!  Petrified!  SHHH!  SHHHHHH…

“He sounds messy!” diagnosed Taisha, while she herself was negotiating the rush hour traffic.  It was always rush hour, somewhere, in this City.  Her windows rolled down — I could hear the screech of others’ breaks in the lazy heat of another smoggy afternoon.  If one survived the mind-numbing dissatisfaction at having to just sit there — while getting nowhere and watching life slip out thorough the vents of fans — half of LA would give up on the idea of stepping out again, that night.

“I think I’m coming down with something.”

“…It’s food poisoning, I think.”

Like nowhere else, here, people were prone to canceling plans.  To giving-up.

“I’m waiting for the cable guy.  It sucks!”

“My cat is sick.”

Each night, the people landed in their private spaces, shared with other people or their own delusions.  They heated up some frozen options from Trader Joe’s and locked their doors agains the City.

I listened to the life force of LA:  Still plentiful, it breezed through all four open windows of Taisha’s Prius.  This place — a forty four mile long conveyer belt that moved things along, living or inanimate (it moved lives along); and if one could not keep up, the weight of failure would remain under one’s breath.  The City of Lost Angels.  The City of Lost Hearts.

“Now listen!  Don’t do ANYTHING! until I see you!” Taisha ordered me; and although my heart maintained its pace, it winced at little, subjected to her care.  “Don’t sleep with him!  You’re dangerously close to some stupid choices, right about now!”  (She was referring to the draught of my sexuality.  When I blew out the thirty candles of my birthday cake, the promiscuity that granted me some fame, was also put out, surprisingly and seemingly for good.  Into that space, I started cramming wisdom.)

“I am one lucky bastard — to have you love me like you do,” I responded, singing my words halfway through the sentence.

Oh, how she fought it!  My dear Tai!  All business and busyness, the girl refused to slow down for sentimentality’s sake:  “Oh, you, white people!  Ya’ll get so mushy ‘round love.  My people, back in Kenya…”

“Ah, jeez!  Alright!” I interrupted, misty-eyed.  “I’ll talk to you.”

Taisha would be talking, still, like “peas and carrots” in the mouths of actors.  But I could hear her smile break through.  Humanity still happened here, amidst perpetual exhaust and one’s exhausted dreams.  Somewhere along the stretched-out, mellow land attacked by bottom-feeders and the self-diluted who knew not why exactly they made a run for here, but mostly headed West in a trajectory that had been paved by others — it happened.  Some stayed, too tired or too broken of hearts.  And they comprised my City.

 

“Everyone seems so shallow here!” the man-child (he would be from Connecticut, but of course!) was overlooking the crawling traffic, like a Hamlet in his soliloquy.  And from the upstairs patio table we’d taken while splitting a bottle of ginger ale (for which I’d paid), he seemed to be in perfect lighting.  The row of yellow street lights had suddenly come on above his head.  The dispersed taillight red reflected on his face from the West-bound traffic.  The boy was slowly sipping — on my drink.

“Big spender!” I could already hear the voice of my Kenyan Confucius.  “RUN!  Run while you can!”

“But YOU!  You seem like you’re here by accident!”  His terrorism by kindness did have one thing going for it, called lucky timing.

“I am so lonely,” I wanted to let out, right underneath the yellow light now holding conferences of moths and fruit flies.  At a table nearby, a girl blogger clacked away on her snow-white Mac, while glancing at us from underneath her Bettie Page bangs.  What does it feel like — to be written?

“What if I slept with him?” I thought.  It’s better to have loved…

Except that:  I had turned thirty.  And I could no longer take for granted the ghosts of previous lovers that crowded a bedroom during a seemingly inconsequential act.  A Greek Chorus of the Previously Departed.  And then, the heart of one participant, at least, would wake up — with yearning or having to remember its wrong-doings or when the wrong was done to it — and things turned messy.  So, sex was never simple; especially for this one, who now tipped the last drops of my ginger ale into his glass.

“You wanna drink?”  Familiarity had started working on my sentences already, like cancer in my marrow.  Still, IT — could have happened, still.  IT would have started with a shared drink.  “A beer, or something?”  I tensed my body to get up.

“Nah, thanks.  I’m in AA.”

I looked at him:  His eyes began to droop like a basset hound’s:  Just ask me — of my suffering.  The frilly Urban Outfitters scarf picked up against the gust of wind.  My chair scraped away from him — and from the table now mounted by issues of his angst.  My entertained desire shriveled.

Yet still — I stayed!

When he and I made loops around the neighborhood, dumbfounding the drivers at each intersection with our pedestrian presence.  Through windshields, I would find their eyes — like fish in an aquarium, unable to blink — and they calculated the time they had to make the light without plastering our bodies with their wheels.  Preferably.  The man-child let me lead the way.  A winner!

And still — I stayed.

I stayed when I had climbed onto a stone fence, and now even to his height I waited for the lean-in.  The boy hung back, decapitating his hands at his wrists by sticking them into his pant pockets.  His words continued to pour out:  His praise came up along my trachea, with bubbles of that shared ginger ale, which now tasted of rejected stomach acid.

But still.  I stayed.  I waited.  Because sometimes, to those who wait — life grants, well, nothing.  And nothing, sometimes, seemed to be the choice of greater courage.

 

“She never rains.  The poor girl, She’s all cried out.”

Nina’s hair, unless right after the shower, shot out of her head in spirals of prayer.  Of course, she hated it.  A black woman’s hair:  Don’t touch it, unless you’re done living altogether.  The glory of it was slightly confused by auburn shades inherited from Nina’s Irish mother.  And underneath that mane — sometimes set afire by the sun’s high zenith — and right below her smooth forehead, two eye, of furious green, devoured the words that she had been reading to me from headstones.

“Which one is that?” I asked and walked to her side of a burgundy granite, with jagged edges, still shiny like a mirror.  It had to have been a pretty recent death.

She wrapped herself further into her own arms and chuckled, “No one, silly.  I just said that.  About this City.”  Like an enamored shadow, I hung behind her.  “This would be the perfect time for rain.  Except that She — is all dried out, you see?”  The furious green slid up my face.  “But She — is really something, isn’t She?”

It was indeed refreshing, for a change, to be with a woman so free from posing.  Of course, I’d witnessed moments of vanity on her before:  When her pear-shaped backside lingered at the boudoir before she’d finally slip in between the covers and curve around me.  And all the open spaces — she occupied by flooding.

I wondered if she knew the better angles of herself.  Because I saw them all.  When in an unlikely moment of worrying about my long-term memory’s lapse, I whipped out my phone and aimed its camera at Nina’s regal profile, she must’ve been aware that her beauty was beyond anything mundane.  For I had studied many a pretty girls before, the ones with the self-esteem of those who have never been denied much.  But Nina’s beauty wrote new rules, of something warm and living.  It came from occupying her skin with no objections to its shape of color; from delicate sensibility and softness, like the wisp of a hair across a lover’s face.  But there was also:  strength.  And heritage.  And underneath my touch, she moved.

“My baby,” she half-whispered and molded to my shape.

This Time — It Would Be Different.

(Continued from January 15th, 2012.)

“I’ve decided__to let Doug__go,” Sarah told her Sid, on a typical Tuesday morning.  Her mother would have scoffed at the idea of anything typical, let alone the chronic event of Sarah’s whining on the hard couch, never to be found in her own hysterical universe.  Nonetheless, Sarah had said it; and surprised herself when, out loud, she had to insert a glottal stop between “Doug” and “go”.  She had thought it before, those two specific words in a row; but never let her mouth take them over.  Because when she practiced speaking to Doug (while in reality speaking to herself, alone in her narrow kitchen), she had never let “go” — go after “Doug”.  She didn’t know how to let “Doug go”.  So, she would continue to come back.

Did the Sid notice it:  Sarah’s surprise at the way phonemes worked, once her mouth took them over?  For a second, she imagined her face on an infant, cooing and choking on her first words.  What wonderment!  It wasn’t necessarily Sarah herself — as an infant — but perhaps her firstborn.  That was the exact problem with these only children, in the world, like Sarah:  They made for more desperate mothers, for they hadn’t yet seen themselves reflected in another human being.  But back in the day, when she had asked her mother for a sibling, “I have not time — for such a sing!” — her mother answered, every bit the tired woman this new chosen world had begun to make of her.  Eventually, Sarah would give up asking; and by the time, she herself could biologically mother a child, she had forgotten all desire to mother a child — spiritually.

Miranda, the Sid, was studying her with glossy eyes.  She must’ve just stifled a yawn, Sarah thought.  Then, she reiterated her decision, whose courage appeared to have expired back in her kitchen.  She was looking for the long overdue alliance:

“Yes.__I’m going to let Doug (stop) go.”

“Going to”.  Not “gonna”.  Sarah judged all American contractions quite bluntly, holding them away from her face with the two fingers of her dominant hand:  Violations to the language!  decapitation of words, ew!  Her own native tongue sounded too proper in her mouth, for she hadn’t practiced it much, since leaving the old world.  Her mother’s Ukrainian was always humorous, bawdy and full of life.  Sarah, on the other hand, sounded like an academic; or like the librarian that she had become, her intention to leave, eventually — forgotten.  She had stayed too long and froze.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. said to her on the phone.  He had a “gonna” on his voicemail greeting:  “I’m gonna call you back.”  It had been bugging Sarah for all the years that she had loved him, learning for the first time that some men do stay long enough to reveal their faults — and to teach you to adore them, still.

Still, the “gonna” would bug her until she stopped listening far enough into the outgoing message.  (And if anyone had an “outgoing” message — it would have to be J.C.!  “Peace!” his voice always announced at the end of it — a naive ultimatum to the world by someone who hadn’t experienced much unkindness.  But before Sarah could get to the “peace”, she would’ve already hung up before the “gonna”.  NOT “going to”.)

Eventually, she mentioned it.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. responded, from the back of his throat — the same geography from which her mother spoke, as well, in both of her tongues.  Her mother’s words had a chronic tendency to fall back, making her register chesty.  Or, hearty.  Everything about her mother — was hearty.

Sarah propelled her words forward, as her American contemporaries did:

“I’m not!  I have a Liberal Arts education and I work at the New York Public Library.”  Her self-patronizing didn’t work.  So, she thought about it, sweating the phone against her ear.  “Okay.  I’m going to try to be better about it, you’re right.”  Still:  “Going to” — not “gonna”.

But when she told the news to her Sid, while pacing her words, “What made you decide__to do that?” — the Sid responded.

Like attracts like, Sarah let the flash of a thought slip by.  Like attracts like, and she had been spending every Tuesday morning observing — and sometimes admiring — this nifty woman who hung up her words, niftily.  Sarah could never be nifty.  She was frozen, in between the two worlds of her mother’s; sorting something out because something was always off.  She was constantly relaying between wanting to belong and not knowing why the fuck should she?!  And she would narrow it down to the pace:  Things moved differently here; differently from what little she could remember of the old world.  It wasn’t so much the speed of things, but the direction — a lack of it — making each life’s trajectory chaotic.  It took longer to sort out a life; and even when one finally did, the life could easily shake off one’s grasp of its saddle, run off its course and resume flailing between others’ ambitions and desires for you, then your own delusions and ways of coping with losses and defeats.

To the Sid’s question, Sarah finally responded:  “I feel badly__for doing that__for all these years__to Doug’s wife.”  Except that, by then, she would be in her narrow kitchen, alone again, talking to herself.  She was never quick enough for an eloquent comeback, face to face with another human being.

(Her mother never seemed to have that problem.  Mother would always speak her mind, causing a brief gestation of shock in her conversations.  But then, the American participants would laugh off their discomfort, patching their sore egos with “You’re so cute!”, at her mother’s expense.

“God bless you!” Sarah’s mother would respond then, mocking the American habit for only jolly endings.)

 

Once, Sarah had tried imagining this woman — this other woman — in Doug’s life, who had been so epically hard for him to leave.  Except that Sarah had gotten it all confused, again:  She — was the other woman.  The third wheel.  She had read theories about women with low self-esteem before — women like her; women who prayed on other women’s husbands and who envied the wives of those sad men, with the eyes of a spaniel.  (What was the difference between jealousy and envy, again:  The doer of one — but the assumer of another?)  So, Sarah had tried imagining the woman she should envy:  The one who got Doug full-time — something that she should be pitied for, actually.

That night, Doug had taken her out to a pan-Asian restaurant on the Upper West Side.  Or, actually, they had just walked-in — into the house of dim lanterns and dim sum; because otherwise Doug, according to his disgruntled self-prognosis, was “gonna crash”.  (“Gonna”, not “going to”.  So much for poetry, professor!)

The shrimp stew he had ordered for Sarah arrived to her golden-and-red placemat.  The shiny shrimp tails, as pink as newborn hamsters, stuck out of the white rice, covered with milky-white slime.  She didn’t even like rice.  Her people came from the land of potatoes.  Potatoes and sorrow.  He wanted none of it.

“I can’t sleep over tonight,” Doug broke the news into his bowl of steaming miso soup.  His hunger has been staved off with cubes of tofu.  “It’s Beth’s birthday.”

Beth.  She bet Beth (insert a glottal stop in between) was patient and calm; living steadily ever after, while quietly meeting the expectations that her parents naturally harbored for their next generation.  She must’ve colored her hair every two weeks, in settle shades of red; wore flat shoes, hummed while folding Doug’s clean laundry; and she cut her nails short, as to not cause any breakage on surrounding surfaces.  And she bet (stop) Beth had a sibling.  Nifty.

“Nifty,” Sarah echoed.  Neither the slimy shrimp nor the sticky rice could balance on her wooden chopsticks.  So, she grabbed it by the tail:  “Shouldn’t you be__taking her out__then?”  She was beginning to pace her words again.  It started to feel like rage.

Doug squinted his eyes.  It wasn’t his first time, but not something that she had gotten used to yet, in their affair:  The beginnings of their mutual resentment.

“No need to get snappy,” he said, suddenly looking like he was about to cry.  It was an expected trajectory, for him:  going from a man-child who felt uncared for (what, fending for his own food, or he was “gonna crash”, while under her care?!) — to the scorned lover, exhausted by his failed expectations.  Then, why wouldn’t he just stay with Beth, who sounded smart enough and mellow; at peace and never shocked at this world’s disorder; unfazed by chaos, as children of full, healthy families tended to be?  (Nifty.)

And how ever did she, herself, end up here, wanting to take the place of the woman who deserved her pity, actually — a woman Sarah would much rather like, were she to meet her, on her own?  On their own, could they fall into a gentle admiration — love? — of each other?

“So, how old is good ole Beth__going__to be?” Sarah asked.  But her words came out shrill, and the sloppy face of the washed-up actress began inching its way down her forehead.

 

There had been other break-ups, in their history.  Most of them, she had instigated herself, practicing them ahead of time, alone in her kitchen.  But in reality, the break-ups came out clumsily, and not at all ironic.

In her heart — or rather somewhere around her diaphragm, underneath her lungs, perpetually under her breath — Sarah felt she would be punished for this.  She was already getting judged by her Sid — the woman she was paying to side with her, and then to guide her from that place of purchased empathy.

This time — it would be different.

It would be Sarah asking Doug out.  She had told him to meet her at a Starbucks, located at least two zip codes away from his and Beth’s neighborhood.  Doug would arrive first, with some latest book of poetry moderately well reviewed by critics under his armpit; and she would find him — drowning into the soft leather chair in the corner and muttering — while making ferocious notes on its pages and sipping from a Venti.  Except that this time, she wouldn’t listen to his embittered theories, always delivered in a slightly exhibitionist manner, as if pleading to be overheard:  on this poet being undeserving, or on that one — being, god forbid, better connected.  (“When is it gonna be about talent, in this industry?!”  “Going to” — NOT “gonna” — professor!)

This time, she would pass up her dose of caffeine, walk out into the wind and pace ahead, while the fat snowflakes sloppily kissed her forehead.  The five o’clock sun overlooked the island with its rouge glares.  This place had a flair for nonchalant beauty.  It never posed, but grew and changed — a once magnificent idea merely running out its course:  New York City.  This City left all acts of sad foolishness and silly coverups of aching egos to the ones that could not keep up.  (“You’re so cute!” — “God bless you!”)

And she would try to keep the break-up neat; because catching the A-train after ten at night meant freezing on the platform while watching giant rats have their supper in the oil spills of the rails.  Later on, on the phone, that would be her mother’s favorite part; and she would ask Sarah for more details:  the color of the rats’ fur in Ukrainian and the reek of the tunnel, made dormant by the cold temperatures, which she demanded for Sarah to translate into Celsius, in order for her to understand — to get the very gist of it, the very heart.  Everything about her mother — had a heart.  Perhaps, that was the secret to her overcoming chaos.

But when it came down to the heart of the matter — Sarah’s dull ache of disappointment, the failure of words, and the resigned mindset of someone frozen in loss — her mother became quiet.  And the phone continued sweating against Sarah’s tired ear, surely causing her something, later on, in life.

“I Told You: I Was Trouble. You Know That I [Was] No Good.”

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“You.”

“‘You’ who?”

You, silly.  It’s you — but from a decade ago.  A memory of you reiterated by someone else (who’s always claimed to have his own interpretation of you).  The evidence from the past that you weren’t too proud of, to begin with.

Here it is, you!  The ghost of you, desperately trying to keep your head above the water, with no parental guidance or a homeland to which you could go back.  (Not that you’d want to, though:  Those bridges have been burnt, their ashes — buried with your hind legs.)

You, talking yourself out of an encyclopedia of uncertainties and doubts, every morning; wishing to be someone else — anyone but you! — then blackmailing your gods for any type of a new delusion to lap up.

You, clutching onto love — any love, how ever selfish or unworthy — just so that you could feel an occasional liberation from the drudgery of life.

This is exactly why I’ve learned to not stay in close contact with my exes:  I rarely enjoy a stroll down the memory lane.  Shoot, I don’t even like a drive by through that lane’s neighborhood, while going at ninety miles an hour.

Because I’d rather think of it this way:

“It happened, thank you very much.  But I don’t ever want for it to happen — again.  I myself — don’t want to happen.  I repeat:  NEVER again.”

But ‘tis the season; and somehow, despite my good behavior this year, a single message from a former love has managed to slip in — and it appeared on my screen.  He has been reading my fiction, he says, and has a few objections to it.  And could he, he wonders, tell his story:  He wants to contribute.  He, as before, has his own interpretation he’d like to share.

And could I, he says, write about something else:  Like good memories?  Remember those?  Because what he remembers of you — is sometimes good.  So, he, he says, would like to see you in that light.

“‘You’?  ‘You’ who?  ‘You’ — me?”

Me don’t have much to brag about, in my past.  Me is humbly grateful for her former opportunities, but the opportunities of mine now — are so much better!

And me has fucked-up plenty.  (Don’t YOU remember?  You — were there.)  But then again, isn’t what one’s youth is for:  To live and learn?  Well.  Me — has done plenty of that.  And as for the suggested good memories, if it’s up to me (‘cause it is MY fucking fiction, after all!) — me would much rather remember the mistakes, just so that me don’t ever repeat them again.

Normally, in the vacuum of my blissful isolation from my exes, I do sometimes think of me — but now.  The current me:  The one that has survived.  The one with enough intelligence and humility to summon her fuck-ups and to make something out of them (like knowing better than to repeat them).

And so, behold:  A better me.

A kinder and more mellow me.  The me who knows how to get a grip, when to summon her patience; and also the me who knows how to let go.  Me who allows for her time to have its natural flow, who knows how to free fall into the tumbling, passing, speeding minutes of her life with gratitude and ease.

The ME who’s finally proud to be — her:  The HER who knows how to live.

Like any woman that I’ve known, in my life, I wonder about aging.  What will I look like, after the decline begins?  Will I be kind enough to not compete with youth?  Will I be loved enough to never fear the loss of tautness of my skin or breasts?

And when occasionally I panic at the discovery of a gray hair or a previously unwitnessed wrinkle, I bicker at my own reflection and I begin to research remedies.  Nothing too invasive, but something with a bit more help.

But NEVER — I repeat:  no, never! — do I, for a second, wish to be the younger me, again.  It happened already — I happened — thank you very much. But I am good with never happening again.

I’d much rather want to be her:  The current me.  The one who’s loved, respected and adored and who knows how to accept it, for a change.  The one who gives her kindness, but only until she starts losing the sight of herself.  And then, she’s smart enough to stop.

She who refuses to give up her younger self’s beliefs in the general goodness of people, still; but who is too wise to not give up on those who do not know how to be good to themselves.

She is fantastic, and ME is very proud — to be HER.

“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.

“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.

“Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on — and TAKE It: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now, Baby!”

There are days when it’s hard to clock in.  But then, I see a single human face — and I’m on a roll.

Like the luminous face of a woman who, yesterday, made me wonder about my aging self.

She would have otherwise be found plain:  Quite tall and long-limbed, in unmemorable clothes.  A pair of ballet flats, a pencil skirt and a V-neck, all in jewel colors.  That’s exactly how my eyes travelled too, along her thin body:  from the ground, up to her face.  From humility, up to humanity.  And then, they got stuck.  On her face.

Under the haircut of no longer than two inches that was bleached to camouflage the gray, her face was completely open.  Readable, as if I expected to find my own reflection in it.  Having not a dab of make-up on her — like she had nothing to hide — she seemed incredibly open and present.  Up for anything.

“Like someone possessed by a clear conscience,” I thought.

“I didn’t expect you to be so petite and, um, lovely,” she said to me.  It was our first meeting.

I can always tell.  Especially when it comes to other broads, I can always tell when I’m being fed some insincere bullshit.  And then, I can always tell when a woman means it; when she’s got no time — or in my case, no tolerance — for competition; and she’s got a sister’s better interest in mind.  And I tell you, compliments from such a broad are a better ego treatment than a week-long stay at a beauty spa with, say, Olivier Martinez as your lover.

So, when she said that — I was hooked.  First, I studied her well nourished skin with seemingly no trace of plastic surgery, and I pinpointed the gist of her:  She was a happy one.  She had done the work.  That hard work one’s gotta do on herself in order to not be tortured with doubt, jealousy or self-loathing.  She had the balls to be happy, to like herself, and by extension (or by my hubristic assumption that I was heading in the same direction), she seemed to like me just fine, too.

I was about to learn in one, two, three minutes — she was also a writer.  It must be a common thing among artists, writers especially:  We just can’t fucking give up on people.  We cannot NOT like them.

Like every other fucker, over the course of a life, we acquire a history of letdowns and opinions.  Every heartbreak hurts equally.  After enough shit has been handed to us, though, some of us learn to pray to our Zen deities and pretend to surrender all control over the matter.  But I suspect the truth is a lot more painful:  Each fuck-up hits us below the belt and we hate it.  Because by definition of our craft, we cannot lead with disappointment.  We ought to stay in love with humanity, or at least in awe of it.

And why CAN’T people live up to their goodness?  Surely, they had to be good at one point.  It’s kind of a universal thing in the beginning:  We are born good.  We remain good for a while, and complete strangers get sidetracked at the sight of our still undamaged faces.

I wondered that as I studied the face of a babe who was being carried across the street by her father.  She was little.  Too little for me to remember what it felt like — to be her.  Too young to have a palpable fear of time.

Facing out, over the man’s shoulder, the young girl was moving her mouth and pressing her plum cheek against her father’s stubble.

“That man’s heart is forever taken,” I thought.

The seconds on their walkway sign were about to expire, but the two creatures — one still innocent, the other one living vicariously through her — were so engrossed in their chat, they were hardly among us.  Finally, by the time the man began jogging slightly, with his daughter bouncing uncomfortably in his arms (he had to be still training for such new functions of his body), they crossed in front of my left headlight.  Two more lanes of traffic — and they would be safe.

Bouncing on her father’s arm, the girl noticed me.  The green of her eyes got stuck to my heart.  I waved, timidly, with one hand.  Hesitantly but innocently, she squeezed her tiny left fist, then released it, and squeezed it again.  She was imitating my gesture.  She was still good.  Up for anything.

It would be horrific, I thought, to lose my soul’s sight.

Then, I went home and wrote this.

“And She’s Never Seen with Pin Curls in Her Hair.”

It would take her years to process the truth.  Not the truth of the last moment:  Her, weeping at the airport into the shoulder seam of a man’s sweatshirt.  She was upping the ante, that day.  Making the ultimate bet, the win of which — would be her staying.  (At least, she thought that was the win she’d wanted, at that last moment.)

And it was not the truth that he had been feeding her for years.  No, not his truth:  The truth that he begged her to accept, just so that he could buy himself more time.  So that he could continue to have it both ways.  Both women.

But how much more time could a man need?  He had already taken six years out of her life.  Six years out of her youth — and out of her better self.

When they first met, she still had a cherubic face:  The same face he would’ve seen had he expressed an interest in seeing photos of her younger self.  Her better self:  The self before the sans six years had happened.  It would’ve foretold the face of their firstborn, if he were to have any courage to follow through with the affair.

But then, perhaps, it was not a question of courage.  It was quite possible that the matter narrowed down to the initial intention.  Down, down went the spiral, to the root of the matter.  On every loop, their faces changed.  Their characters changed slightly, altered by each other:  And that was the only way she could expect to matter, in the end.  In the truth of that last moment, and beyond.  After six years, she would have changed a man.  She had happened to him.  And after her happening, he had to have changed.

She failed to change him for the better.  She couldn’t as much as change his mind to make her life — his first choice.  For the duration of the affair, she would remain the back-up; the retreat in which he hid when things weren’t well at home.  She would remain a fantasy.  The Other Woman:  The one that fabricated her own calendar, rescheduled her holidays and channeled each day toward the brief line-up of hours when she would see him; then, dismiss the rest.  The one that pressured herself into better housekeeping, into whipping up gourmet meals and shaping her body into the best he could have had.  His life’s first choice.

In literature, women like her were despised.  They were often written mean, or needy; with serious daddy issues.  Complete head cases, in films these women went berserk; and they would do the unthinkable things that later justified their suffering.  They were insecure, although often very beautiful.  Their puffy faces waited by the door on Christmas, and by the phone on birthdays.  They were the back-ups, forever waiting for arrivals.  They fed themselves on leftovers of loves.  The paupers.  The self-imposed outcasts.  And their faces — sans the years that their lovers took out of their better selves — were the faces she never hoped to see in the reflection of closed store fronts, by which she, too, had waited all these years.

“A bright girl!” she had been called before.  A bit naive, perhaps, but not an idiot.  But it would take her years:  because she wanted to believe that she was good enough to change his mind.  Good enough to deserve love.

Up, up went the spiral, up to the clarity of truth.  Not the truth that she had wanted to believe so desperately.  Not the truth that may have been actual, when the lovers were intertwined:  In those moments, he may have loved her; but no more than he loved himself.  He too had to be thinking that he deserved love, that he deserved to have it both ways.  That he deserved — both women.

The truth was to be found in the initial intention:  The root of the matter.  He never wanted her for keeps.  An adventure, an escape from the dissatisfactions of his chosen life.  In his chosen wife.  That was the matter:  He felt he deserved the comforts of the chosen wife and the fantasy — of the Other Woman.  He deserved both.

The problem was:  She was a good woman.  A good girl.  “A bright one”.  And to protect himself from the guilt, he had to tarnish her.  So, he would leave it up to her — to make the choice to stay.  To be the back-up.  He left it in her hands to keep on waiting, while he continued — to come back.

And he would have kept going until she lost the memory of her better self and would become that woman:  that Other Woman, with puffy-faced reflections and reconstructed calendars.  The pauper.  The disregarded.

She would have lost her self-respect, and how could anyone respect a girl like that?  So, he wouldn’t.  He left it in her hands — to destroy her better self.  And that would always justify his choice of the chosen wife.

But in the truth of that last moment, she upped the ante:  He could either have her better self — or whatever was left of her, after the sans six years — or no self of hers at all.  She left him to his chosen life.

And in that last truth, the only person who deserved compassion (because she still would not receive his better love) — was the man’s Chosen Wife.

But hers — was a whole another story:

Of yet Another Woman.