Tag Archives: soul

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.)

When She Was Good

(Continued from April 29th, 2012.)

And the lavashes were indeed worth the wait!  Still warm and covered in flour, against Inna’s skin, they felt like those smooth boulders from the beaches of Odessa, upon which she, as a child-delegate to the biggest Soviet Pioneer Camp — the Artek — used to fall asleep.  After being pummeled by the waves of the Black Sea, she would crawl out and rest atop of them, out of breath and tired out by all that laughter and by the salty water that tickled, stung and got inside her nose, eyes and mouth.  The sun, permanently in high zenith, as it seemed, shone onto her like an anomaly unseen in the moody climates of Russia to which the family continued to relocate for her father’s job.  And only the fear of being left behind by her Artek teammates would keep Inna awake.

Eventually, she managed to talk her parents into signing her out for the whole afternoon at a time and taking her to the beach with them.  It was their month-long summer vacation, for which the family had been saving up for nearly half a year; and it appeared to be one the more exceptional times in her parents’ marriage, when mother was jolly at every visit.  She sported a brand new haircut a la Mireille Mathieu and a collection of summer dresses Inna had never seen her wear before.  On their downhill walk from the Artek campus to the beach, mother, who trotted ahead, let the wind take a hold of her skirt and reveal the back of her highs, all the way up to that part where during the winter, on their outings to banya, Inna would notice long and curly black hairs, coarser than anywhere else along mother’s body.  If ever the wind did scandalous tricks with mother’s dress, Inna looked up to notice her father’s grin, thrilled and shy; and if he appeared embarrassed at all, it was at being caught glancing at his wife with this much pleasure.  Inna felt delighted:  She knew she was witnessing something secret about her parents; something she could not yet understand, but knew it had to be a very good sign.

By the time Inna would wake up on the beach, however, suddenly chilly from the cold breeze of the sunset yet still finding some warmth on the boulder’s surface, she would find her father nearby, in his swimming shorts and asleep underneath a newspaper.  Only a trace of her mother’s body could be found in the flattened patch of beach sand next to him.  To console the 10-year old Inna about such a stealthy departure took more than her father’s patient explanation about mother’s obligations to visit friends in Odessa:  It took three cones of chocolate ice-cream.

The warm flatbreads that brought on the memories of that summer now stretched between Inna’s fingers and teeth.  Inside each bite, she tasted the chewy texture that, if combined with a warm glass of milk, could make a soul howl for the ways of her motherland!  The two women would take turns pinching the edges of the breads that stuck out of her mother’s sizable purse, while they made their way to the bus stop; then again while waiting for the bus.  Inna’s mother would eat only until a parent of one of her students — current or former — showed up on the platform.  She would become all business then, shaking the crumbs off her clothes and asking for Inna to remove any residue of the flour from her face or decolletage.  She then left Inna to her own devices, to harbor the hopes that perhaps once aboard the bus, mother would drop all this formality again and return to the repeated game of discussing just how good this batch of purchased lavashes turned out to be:

“Best ever!”

“Better than that one time, remember?”

“Yes, yes.  But remember that other time, when they were a little burnt along the edges?  So crunchy!”

This time would be no different.  While mother chatted up the father of her leading Math student, Inna stole pinches of the warm, stretchy dough from the purse.  Out of the dough, she began to sculpt geometric shapes whose names they’ve learned in the last academic quarter.  Turned out:  a cube was a more cooperative structure.  Each of its ribs could be measured by the tips of Inna’s index fingers and thumbs.  Interestingly, no matter the change of a tactic, the surfaces a pyramid defied precision and demanded more focus.

“Hypotenuse is a rat,” Inna recited a rhyme they’d learned in order to remember the function of this foreign name and concept.  “And it runs from an angle to an angle…”

In the midst of conforming a perfect sphere into an ovoid, Inna noticed a figure of a man nearing their platform.  He was coming from the furthest removed corner of the bus stop.  Dressed in military uniform, he carried a small travel bag of brown leather.  In all of his movements, the man possessed a certain manner of discipline and economy.  Everything about him said:  order, cleanliness, grace.

“Papka,” Inna uttered to herself — a habit for which she was lucky to not have yet earned the reputation of being strange.

At her school she was mostly thought of as quiet; and being the smallest child in her class, was also considered the weakling of the group.  However, she could never own up to the consequences of her character alone:  So vapid and wide-spread was the reputation of her mother, she felt she would walk in her mother’s shadow until she herself, once grown, would move to a big city and become a famous Soviet ballerina.  Or the first female astronaut to land on the moon.  Then, they would all realize just how special she was, all along!

“Mom,” she tugged the scratchy material of the pink-lavender skirt.  (How ever did this woman manage to survive in a wool skirt, in the balmy, mid-August air? Suffering certainly had to be a part of mother’s love of fashion.)

Mother, in the throws of laughter at something her Math student’s father had said, ignored Inna’s hand.  “Mama!” Inna tugged again, rougher.

With a single look darted over her shoulder, mother caught Inna’s wrist with feline precision, suddenly forgetting about protecting her fresh nail polish from an accidental scratch.  Her eyes shimmered with aroused temper:

“What.  Have I taught you.  About interrupting when adults are talking?” she slowly pushed the words through the tightly closed crowns of her front teeth.

Inna felt her stomach tighten, as it always did whenever she found herself in trouble.  The Math student’s father was witnessing it all.

Inna lowered her eyes then lifted them again with pleading courage, “But mama…  It’s papa.”  And before tears deformed her mouth and speech, she made a vague gesture in the direction of the Army officer, who by now — having noticed the two women himself — was making a determined, yet balletic stride across the platform.

(To Be Continued.)

Mother of Myth!

From what was told of my mother, back in the old country, there had never been — and considering that she would immigrate her fine ass to the U.S. of A. later on, in life — never again will be a beauty of equal proportions.  Now, okay!  I get it!  Being the first prototype of a woman I had been born to emulate, I was supposed to be in love with her.  (In certain years, though, my affection would seem to border on affection of lesbian proportions.  I adored my mother, wanted to be — not as much as like her — but with her.  A female version of the Oedipal complex.)

And, of course, considering the passageway that we, children, take in order to encounter this world — god bless it for being so bloody beautiful! — I knew my mother, from her very insides.  There is no stronger bond, they say.  But I must’ve studied up the woman’s inners pretty well; because my own tiny fist would carry on clasping the genetic bouquet — of her generosities and neuroses alike — from the time it was the size of a shriveled potato and until the future days of my own aged self, when my fist would shrivel up again.

While taking residence under my mother’s lungs, I swore I felt her heart’s rhythm go berserk when she discovered a letter from her in-laws about what they had really, REALLY thought of her:  “A girl so dark and pigheaded!  What is she, anyway:  Some gypsy’s bastard?”  According to the myth, that letter included a few racial slurs at my expense, too.  (Way to go, pops’ peeps!)  So, mother — lost her shit.

She always stood no more than five feet from the ground, but don’t be fooled by the compactness of her being:  Her rage had super-human powers!  Upon discovering the letter while doing her husband’s laundry, so blinded became her vision, so overwhelming the heartbeat, she had stormed out of the flat we’d been assigned by the Soviet Army headquarters; and she marched — on her now increasingly fattened from water retention ankles — back to her own parents’ house.  Fury on two points of contact with the Earth!  A few kilometers stretched between her marital base and the house of her girlhood, but this babe refused to hitch a ride from a parade of old Volgas catching up with her, along the route.

(Although six months pregnant, the woman was still a total babe.  And even more so, considering that now her breasts and hips had been gearing up for my arrival.  My mother’s assage was always worthy of anyone’s obsession:  Hence, my own Oedipal Complex.  But the two perfect hemispheres of her breasts I would not witness in real life again until, by then on the American continent, I would discover the new ideal of a woman:  in Playboy ads.

But then again, it’s not like Motha Russia was ever ill-equipped at building the female form.  Perhaps, the starchy diet of the natives was to blame for it — we threw potatoes into everything!  Then, slathered sour cream on top!  For centuries, the Russian broads were always famed for their bodywork.

For instance, how does that one poem go:  “She’ll stop a horse in full stride / Walk into a burning house”?  So, that dude knew a thing or two about them, Russian women.  And understandably, he sounded like a doomed man, nyet?)

“Hey, black-haired beauty!  You wanna ride?” the silly players rolled up behind my mother’s glorious hips that, underneath her nearly transparent house dress, swayed like a pair of brand new church bells.  Angelic stuff, I tell you!

They were the men about town in those days of the U.S. of S.R.  I mean, a man with a Volga!  What woman wouldn’t dream of one?!  But the danger of finding themselves decapitated by my mother’s fierce tongue — without the help of any anesthesia, because, in wrath, the woman rejected all her manners — made itself clear with the single sideways askance glance she granted them.  Medusa, had she been non-mythical, would find herself taking lessons from this sister!  To turn all men to stone!  To entertain some wicked fashion of wearing a snakes’ nest on her crown.  The message got transmitted to the players with no static, and they kept their rolling by.

Oh, how mother was determined!  (I’ve seen some mad women in my life.  But if the rage that boils my own blood at times is just a mere taste of what it’s like to be inside my mother’s being — I do pity the poor fools standing in her way!  Oh, do I ever pity them!)

Young mother watched the coffin of a Soviet bus roll past her, too.  That thing had zero to no chance of making it over the next ditch on the road anyway; and if my mother mounted it, she knew that she would have to simmer down when someone offered her a seat.  And that conflicted with her personal religion, which ruled:  Revenge was better served at scorching temperatures.  

So, mother kept on fuming.  She waved off the driver’s curious linger and kept on marching.  The Soviet coffin passed, and the exhaust fumes ventilated that clammy spot that, in the heat, forms where women’s thighs collide into each other.  My mother realized she had stormed out of the house while wearing no underwear.  What outrage — What scandal! — it would’ve been on any other day, but that one.

Now, mother’s family was never one to practice any organized religion.  They seemed to care for no church and for no party.  But hallelujah!  There was soul!  And the only thing that seemed to arouse my predecessors’ souls to erection — was myths.  Historical accidents of magic.  They swore by them:  Some cats in my family said they saw the ghosts of the old guys at those crucial points when a mortal needed a little guidance by the hand of god.  There was, for instance, one old cracker who claimed the spirit of his drowned baby sister awoke him from sleep and got him out of his house, just mere minutes before the black Chaikas of Stalin’s secret police parked outside his gate.  The women claimed that they would see their dead mothers, on first nights of their marital copulation; or during childbirth.  If I were to believe all that, I’d say I had been born into one of the most resilient clans whose offspring liked to fuck around with the supernatural.  Or, it could be that, after centuries of oppression, we all began to lose our marbles.  Collectively.

You call it what you will, but there it was:  contributing to my family’s survival and the unheard of strength of our women.  And now, it was carrying my mother — albeit commando — through the dusty, roadless suburbs of Eastern Motha Russia, on an Indian Summer’s eve.

“You see, the things that man makes me do?!” the chick was growling at me.

Or maybe, she was chanting at her absent-minded gods who had allowed for her suffering of being overshadowed by this other woman in her man’s life.  It’s bad enough that in three  months, she’d have to give over the spotlight to me, whoever the fuck I thought I was?!  (Back in the days, there was no ultrasound to assist Soviet women in their burdens of motherhood.  With my gender underdetermined, mom wasn’t sure if I would be born to worship her in my male form; or if she would find her greatest competitor, if I were born a girl.  My gender was up for grabs in the elders’ prayers, too.  The old women scrunched their constipated faces over glass jars of holy water.  The wise guys shrugged.  Apparently, with all those ghost stories, no spirit bothered to show up and shine the light on my future gender.  My mother, though, could truly care less; for motherhood was sort of “thrust upon her”.)  So, yes:  It was already bad enough that this fine broad was only around the corner from surrendering her currently unconditional, undivided reign.  To add to the damage, the suddenly obvious conservative culture of the natives reared its head, and this recently wedlock-ed woman realized that:  She would ALWAYS take secondary loving from her man.  That’s just the tragedy of women.  And in my own womanhood I’d learned:  No woman had the guts, nor the consciousness, nor the strength to beat her mother-in-law in a competition for the love of that one man-in-question.  No woman — but my mother.

So, what possibly could she be scheming in that moment?  Well, if I was getting the newsfeed from her heartbeat correctly:  My mom — was up to murder.

“You’re getting a what?!” I heard my grandfather’s voice as if I were submerged under a pool of bloody water.  Oh, wait.  I was.

My mother’s voice, in response, cut up the air like shards of hail.  She sounded cold.  Ice cold.  She wore that tone well:

“Abort.”  (Here is your first crash course in my native tongue:  Our words sound often like the very actions that they advertise.)

“You are NOT!  DOING!  Such a THING!”

Oh how, he roared, my grandfather!  According to the testimonies, the dude was as chill as the nerve-racked culture of centuries-old terror and rebellion could ever manage to produce.  The man was zen, by other-wordly standards!  He had been born and always lived by the Pacific Ocean; so perhaps, the frequency of tides had something to do with his temperament.  Some ancient astrology shit, or something.  Or maybe, it was that soul-thing of the fam again.  But never-ever in his life, had he been witnessed to raise a hand — or let alone his voice! — at anything or anybody living.

“Are you?!  Completely out?!  Of your silly little mind, WOMAN?!”  In that particular instance, his daughter stopped being his child.  In a primal standoff, she was no daughter of his.  No daddy’s little girl.  Neither was she the treasured firstborn of her reproductively challenged (or, some would say “cursed”) parents.  “The little sun of the Earth.”  “The baby-rabbit.”  “The navel of the planet.”  At her renouncement of me, my mother suddenly became a rep of that insane and crafty race, called Female.  And in his very first and very only act of violence, the sinewy arms of the old man had lifted up my mother — and by extension me — and not so gently threw us onto the nearest soft surface.  Mother and I went for a ride onto the faded couch from which my grandfather usually listened to the radio — or watched his knitting wife, while she cooed to him stories from her day.  (C’mon!  It’s obvious:  The fam had witches long prior to my mother; and this old man was just another doomed fella, head over heels in love with his broad.  Go figure!)

“You wait!  Till your mom!  Gets back!”  The old man was now heaving above my petrified carrier.  “You stupid bitch!”

By no means was it a scene unseen in human history before:  A parent contemplating a murder of his offspring as if to spare the world the damage that same offspring could cause later.  “From my hand you were born — and from my hand you’ll die!” kinda shit.  But in the ancient culture whose every glory  came from great suffering (of which my Motha Russia’s got a shitload!), such stories of generational collision are plentiful.  You have Ivan the Terrible, for one!  The man had famous rage in him!  (See the above quoted threat he had been testified to throw at his son, before putting an end to that son’s life, albeit accidentally.  Or, so some say.

Over a woman, too:  The Terrible’s daughter-in-law.

Just sayin’:  Russian broads!)

(To Be Continued.)

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.

“Let Me Sleep All Night in Your Soul Kitchen.”

In grandma’s house, there were no days of waking late.  They could’ve been such days, but it would take some stubborn courage to not succumb to my innate Russian guilt and to stay in bed while the rest of the household filled with busy noises.

The women would always rise first.  My grandma was the first to make it to the kitchen, and after the dry footsteps of her bare, callused feet against the wooden floor, intermixed with the thumping of her wooden cane, I’d soon smell the smoke of an oil lamp that she’d start inside a cove of a stone stove, in the corner.

That thing took up half the room:  Built of wood and red brick, the stove was the oldest characteristic of a traditional rural Russian home.  Its purpose was not only for cooking, upon a single metal plate located right above the fire pit; but for the heating of the entire house.  So, the bedroom was often located on the other side of it.  The stove was always painted with white chalk; and after a few of my un-welcomed visits of my grandma’s cot, where I would try to warm up my feet but leave markings on the wall, the men of the house took turns repainting that damn thing, upon the grouchy old woman’s instructions.

“Little gypsy children have dirty little feet,” my grandfather would joke through the side of his mouth in which he perpetually held a slowly fuming pipe.

Per old woman’s instructions, he was not allowed to smoke in the house.  So, I’d shrug my skinny shoulders knowing that I too had some info on him that could get him also in trouble, really fast.

The fire pit was covered with a rusty door on squeaky hinges.  The pots were stored onto the shelves along its wall.  But right on top of the structure, one could pile up blankets and pillows stuffed with duck feathers — and sleep.  But in my grandma’s house, no living soul was welcome to lounge around up there.  (No soul was welcome to lounge around anywhere, really; because the family’s collective labor was its own religion. Except on Sundays:  And then, there would be church.)

Two curtains, each about three meters long, were hung to hide the gap between the top of the stove and the ceiling.  So narrow was the opening, a grown man would have to climb up there from the side and remain reclining.  But I could sit up and lean against the pillar that lead up to the chimney; which I would still do whenever I would not be caught.  I’d drag up my toys, but mostly books; and spend hours at a time, frying my soles against the hot stones.  Some days, the heat would be expiring until the adults returned and started another fire.  But late at night, after the dinner had been cooked, the pots — soaked in a tub of warm, soapy water, then rinsed under the spout sticking out from the wall of the house, outside — the stove was hot.  The wooden floor of the kitchen had to be scrubbed every night; and under the strict overlooking eyes of the old woman, the young wives of her sons would find themselves on hands and knees.  These chores would make the women be the last to bathe.  They’d be the first to rise — and last to rest.

It would require a conspiracy between my motha and I for me to sneak up into the gap behind the curtains.  First, she’d push me up, then store the drying cast iron pots in a row and pile them up in such a way, they’d create a wall behind which I could hide, if only I could hold still and flat on my back.

“You must be quiet like a spy.  Shhh!” my motha’s hiss at me while winking and tucking me in.  Her smirking eyes would tickle my insides with anxiety:  at the adventure and the danger of being discovered by the old woman.

“‘Cause if she finds you,” motha’d warn me, “she’ll kick both gypsies out!”

I wasn’t sure where motha and I would have to go if my grandma followed through with that punishment.  And I was definitely confused at why my father would not follow us into our homeless adventure.  But the threat seemed real enough to keep me snickering into the pillow — from little fear but mostly the thrill.

I’d hear my motha’s hands moving the floor rag quickly and impatiently.  I’d hear the dry footsteps and the cane of the old woman spying on her, while muttering passive-aggressive instructions on how to do it better.  The men would come inside the house together and they would wash their faces and their sweaty necks above a metal sink in the corner, while the women helped by pouring water from aluminum cups.  The men would puff and spray liquids from their mouths and noses; and I would hear the women’s chuckles, as the cold splatters landed on their exposed arms and chests.

“I’ll get you after she goes to sleep,” my motha’d promise, and as the house settled down, I’d play a guessing game with others‘ noises and shadows upon the walls and ceiling.

And sometimes, I’d wake up to another day of never rising late.  Most likely, I would have drifted into slumber while waiting for my motha to come back.  Then, I would have to wait some more, upon a now cold stove, while listening to the noises of the waking household.

I couldn’t yet understand the griefs and grudges that the adults held against each other.  But from behind the closed curtains, I could watch their uncensored selves and make up stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarlett Johansson for Vogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Skin — Is Brown. My Manner — Is Tough.”

There is a spirit, in certain women, that lives so powerfully — it resurrects my own ways.  

I have loved many of such women, in my life:  They are essential to my every breath.

And they always have a special talent for obeying the time clock to my own destiny, whose ticking I often fail to understand.  Still, I seek them, by intuition — whenever in need of inspiration (or, of just a confirmation, really, that I am still getting it all right).

Sometimes, they reappear whenever I have a reason to celebrate.  But only in the most dire of my moments, do they seem to unite, unanimously, and come to the forefront of my days as a magnificent army of undefeatable souls.

There is a woman with her hair on fire:  She lives at a halfway point between the two coasts of my identify.  At any given time of every day, she is an expert at whipping up a meal soon after making love; and as her lovers, we make for one doomed lot because she will not happen to any of us, again.

Instead of breakfast, she begins each day with a party.  At a round table of her restaurant, she often shares a drink with her clients and her staff, late into the night.  She drives fast and laughs for so long, the windows begin to rattle like an orchestra of chimes.  Her fire-engine red lips are never smeared.  And god forbid, she tames her hair into anything more modest.

“When in doubt — be generous,” she says.  “Generous and kind.”  Nothing has disobeyed her love.  And no one — can overcome the kindness.

She is all that:  magnificent, magnanimous, braver than the rest and always in the heart of every love.

To each — her own way. 

An erudite poetess with African hair sends me postcards every once in a while, from the Mediterranean coast where she retreats to rest her skin from the abrasive gazes her beauty attracts.  From a writers’ colony, with wooden cots and tables by the window, she writes to me in stanzas.

“At work,” she’ll say.

And she will mean:  RESPECT.

In her profession, I have known no equals; and in the written word, she is much further than me:  always ahead, as it testing the ground that I am meant to follow.  She is political, on edge, and often absolute.  She is a socialist in success:  Others, she believes, must benefit.

Her people:  They have suffered way too much.  And so, she prowls, proudly:  paving the way, pounding the ground.  And it is worth the awe to see her never skips a step or stumbles.

“TO NEVER APOLOGIZE,” — she has tattooed upon her forehead (and she scribble that on mine).

In stanzas!  She often writes to me — in stanzas, even when writing about the most mundane, like laundry or her lover’s breathing.  And I watch her, moving through the world of men with a grace that is so undeniably female.

To each — her own way.  To each — her own manner.

The woman that shadows all of my most difficult choices with patience worthy of saint:  She has been bound to me by some unwritten, never negotiated rule of sisterhood.  With her, I’m never orphaned.  With her, I’m never-ever afraid; and life — is not unjust.  She is the kindest one I’ve known.  The worthiest — that I have ever loved.

It’s not that she hasn’t witnessed others error.  No doubt, she has seen me lose my own ways, as well.

“Don’t you ever question?” I used to challenge her, in my youthful disobedience.

“Question?”

“I dunno.  Question the purpose?  The faith?  The validity of it all?”

At every significant marker of each year, “God bless you,” she jots down, with a steady hand.  From her lips — and from her hand — these words never acquire comedy or scorn.  To speak the truth.  To call each thing by its own name.  She’s fine with that.  But the cost — alas, the cost — she never loses the sight of human cost.

Once, long ago, her hand had gotten lost in my growing out mane.  She had a mother’s touch.  With her, I’m never orphaned.

“Remember this!” I thought to myself, but all too soon, I drifted off to sleep.

To each — her own grace.

My Kindness, Truth and Patience.

One gives.  Another fights.  The third one — perseveres.

All — in the name of Love. 

“Give Me Hope, Help Me Cope — With This Heavy Load…”

I saw him nearing the intersection, about half a block away, on foot.  At first, I watched him pass my car, along the pavement: An ordinary man, like so many others.

His hair and beard were completely white (and I’ve always found it impossible not to trust white-haired people, for they seemed so much wiser than others).  So, immediately, I thought of him not as much as handsome but somehow dignified; trust-worthy.  Surely, I thought, he knew something I didn’t.

He wore a pair of well-ironed black slacks and a white dress shirt, unbuttoned at its collar.  A pair of polished, laced-up shoes and a yellow manila envelope under his armpit:  But of course!  He had to be an important somebody!

Maybe he was someone’s tax accountant, I thought.  Or, a divorce attorney walking over the final papers to a drained, tragic face of some recently single mother.

The fact that he was passing a gas station specifically for cop cars helped my fantasy, too.  I had just noticed it the other day:  What looked like a parking lot behind a film production building was filled with the killer whales of LAPD being served by a single, rusty gas pump.  I didn’t know that the same people granting us our justice also had to pump their own gas.  It made sense, of course; but my initial assumption that they were tended to, by someone else, made the idea of my world slightly better.  Or, more just.

(That’s when I looked away:  I was waiting for the traffic light to change.  It hadn’t yet.)

I had just passed that one crowded intersection where every LA egomaniac insisted on wedging in the giant ass of his unnecessary Hummer, thinking that the yellow light would last forever — just for him!  Instead, he would get stuck there, right in the middle of the mess, blocking the rest of us with an awkward tilt of his giant ass.  Oftentimes, driven to the ends of our nerves by all the heat and strife already, we flip out, honk and scream at him, with lashing words and foaming saliva.  Aha:  Another day, in LA.

My own rage is so powerful, at times, it scares me:

What if I don’t manage to come back to the saner side again?  What if I go way too far?

They had just erected a significant palace of yoga, precisely at that one intersection, where most of us are ready to lose our minds.  (And those people granting us our justice:  Why aren’t they granting it at that specific spot in the city?!)

On the other side of the street sits an ill-used parking lot, permanently fenced in by a giant net.  Its neon orange sign reads “FENCES”.  No shit!  There is never enough parking in this city, and there is never enough space.  Or, there is too much space — and not enough humanity.

But then, again, no one ever promised this city would all make any sense.  No one ever promised for it — to be just.

And maybe, that is why it’s always so much harder to come back here, every time: Because we tread at the very end of our nerves, due to all the heat and strife, and some of us go way too far.

The white-haired man was walking slowly; and that was somewhat unusual, of course.  But then again, he was nearing that one police station in Hollywood, where quite a few of my acquainted restless souls have spent a night or two, after losing their minds a little.  Maybe he was someone’s DUI lawyer; or perhaps, he was delivering someone else’s bail.  As he neared the pedestrian walkway, with the quickly expiring countdown on the other side, he began to squint his eyes:  Eleven, ten, nine…

(And did I mention he was wearing glasses, with an elegant metallic rim?  Yep:  Definitely, an important somebody!)

“Ohhh…  Ohhh, nooo!” he suddenly began to cry, quietly, almost under his breath.  He wound up each word in a register unsuitable for a dignified, white-haired man, like him.

He stepped out onto the road and began to cross.  Seven, six, five…  He crossed right in front of my windshield.

“Ohhh, nooo!” He squinted again.  “They took my car…  Oh!”

I looked in the direction of his grief.  The curbs in front of that one police station, in Hollywood, were completely empty.  It was that time of the day when the rules demanded for us to give each other more space.

“They took my car…”  The white-haired man continued, and in the way he stumbled onto the pavement at the end of his walkway, I thought he was way too close to collapsing on his feet:  Way too close to his insanity — as he had gone way too far.  

“I can’t take this — anymore…” he wept.

It separated inside of me and dropped — some dark feeling that comes from suspecting that nothing in the world had promised to be just.  And that departure of my own hope scared me:  What’s life — without hope?

Someone honked behind me:  The light had changed, and I had to give them way.  I had to give them enough space to pass into the lives that stressed them out ahead.

 

“May You Build a Ladder to the Stars — And Climb on Every Rung…”

I promised to pick her up from school, and unlike all of my own commitments, this one made my heart beat faster.  I was hyperaware of time the entire day; thinking, daydreaming about the nearing hour, fearing its passing:  For I could not, for the life of me, be late!

I mean I’ve seen that happen before, in films:  flustered, hysterical mothers, with messy hairstyles and tired faces, running (sometimes, in heels) toward their disappointed children.  Most of the time, the message of the film was about absentminded motherhood:  Motherhood of the unlucky.  It happened to women in unhappy marriages, with broken dreams.  There was always a justification to all human faults, I’ve learned.  Still, in those films about bad motherhood, I was always more interested in the faces of their children:  with their tearful vulnerability before they would be hardened by continuous disappointment.

“Ma-ahm!” they would whine, pulling away from the hysterical woman’s overcompensating tugging, and hugging, and nagging.  Or, there would be an indifference between them; and it would hang inside their car until someone threw a resentful glance through the rear-view mirror.

Honestly, I didn’t care that much about my reputation:  Her parents would have been able to forgive me if I failed the task; and I could handle all the passive-aggressive remarks by the schoolmasters.  But what I didn’t want to confront — for the life of me! — is the child’s disappointment.  She was a kid — an innocent, still; and even though she wasn’t my own, I had no business letting her down.

I could tell by the density of the traffic that I was near her school zone.  Fancy SUV’s with tinted windows compacted the narrow residential streets.  They double-parked and lingered, with zero consideration for the rest of us stuck behind, and with their break lights flipping us off in our faces.  Staring at the zero on my speedometer, I felt my temper — and heartbeat — rising:

“Why are we sitting here?!”  I swore, wishing I could see the faces of the incompetent creatures behind the wheels of their giant cars.  I wanted to honk and speed around them.  But then, I would remember:  The streets were filled with children, and the loss of my self-awareness could cost a price I was never willing to learn — for the life of me!

Fine!  I backed out, pulled into another side street, parallel parked.  I got out:

“Shit!” I realized my passenger side was buried in the bushes.  So, I got back in, pulled forward.  “Phew.  Now, she’ll be able to get in!”

My heart was still racing:  I was fifteen minutes early; but I couldn’t, for the life of me, be late!

So, I started speed-walking.  Having caught up to the fancy SUV’s, still lingering in their spots, I could see the flustered faces of tired mothers — ON THEIR FUCKING CELLPHONES!  A few times, I saw small children bolted into the back seats while the women continued to gab and block the traffic behind them.

I sped up:  What if she got out early?  I could not, for the life of me, be late!

When I saw her school from the corner diagonally away, I began looking out for her immediately:  the familiar strawberry chin and forever curious black eyes that seem to yank the dial of my heart’s speedometer by some invisible strings.  The crossing guard in an orange vest was sitting in a director’s chair on the corner, and she was laughing with one of the awaiting dads.  At the sight of her, I felt slightly more relaxed:  What a face!  What a soul!  She seemed absolutely wonderful.

A woman with a wrinkly face and droopy bags under her eyes shot me an icy stare in the middle of the road.  She was speaking to her child — an arian boy with golden locks.  But as I got closer, she stopped talking and bent her pretty mouth downward.  I smiled:  How else could I apologize for the nearness of my youth?  When the two of them reached the other side of the road, the woman resumed speaking.  Yep:  Russian.  And she spoke of judging me.

The front lawn was already overpopulated by tiny creatures.  The tops of their heads, of multiple colors, peaked out like a field full of mushrooms.  Not a single one seemed to be sitting still.

Two brown boys were leaping over benches and flowerbed fences, and for a moment I studied the rules of their imaginary warfare.  One of them tumbled down, got up, crouched down to study the scrape on his knees; but then resumed the battle:  Warriors don’t cry, no matter how little!

“M’am!  You have to move!” another crossing guard raised her voice behind my back.

I looked over:  Shit, did I fuck up already?  In the company of these tired mothers, I feared to be obvious in my lack of expertise.  So, I had hidden myself under a tree with protruding roots (not that it saved me from a few more icy looks from the bypassing women).

“M’AM!” the guard was pissed off by now.  She was knocking on the tinted window of a white Land Rover.  From where I stood, elevated by one of the roots, I could see a naked elbow of a woman holding an iPhone inside, with her manicured hand.  Immediately to the right of her double-parked vehicle, I could see the neon red of “NO PARKING”.

Hesitantly, the Land Rover began pulling away.  As the crossing guard turned her tired face at me, I smiled sheepishly:  Could she see my being a total fraud?  In response, she pressed her lips tighter and shook her head.

“People…” she seemed to be saying.

I watched a tiny girl with my complexion skip unevenly, with no apparent rhythm, next to her slowly walking grandmother.  A beautiful boy holding a basketball walked upright behind his father who was texting on his BlackBerry, non-stop.  A luminous woman patted her daughter’s head as the little one was telling about her destiny earlier predicted in the game of M.A.S.H.

I began recognizing the classmates whose names I’ve heard in so many stories.  My heart began racing:  Have I missed her?  Am I standing by the wrong gate?

“M’AM!  YOU HAVE TO MOVE!” the crossing guard was pissed off again.

Behind my back, I saw a giant Lexus packed at the curb with the “NO PARKING” sign.  A disgruntled old woman with a boyish haircut was standing outside of it, with her hand holding the car clicker up in the air.

“Where am I supposed to go?” she said, through her clenched teeth.  “I’m running late!”

I sensed myself shooting the woman an icy stare:  A look I quickly censored when I noticed the familiar strawberry chin marching toward me across the lawn.

She had seen me first.  I felt my heartbeat speed up again.

I didn’t fail the task, this time!  I didn’t let her down!

And the day was young and suddenly reinvigorated:  with endless adventures and her trust the loss of which I could NOT — for the life of me! — afford.

“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.