Tag Archives: stories

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.

“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.

“Except, Around Hollywood and Western — We Have to Keep Doing It!”

“Oh, but everyone’s got these stories!” a man of tired compassion told me as he heard my saga of homecoming, this jolly holiday season. “I mean, after all,” he said, “this country is made entirely of immigrants!”

I wondered, as I studied his ethnically ambiguous face:  Was he East Indian, a couple of generations removed from his native land and now free from all the confines of his original tradition — to make what he could of it?  It not, how ever did he find his way into my yoga class?

Was he like me:  Tasting all religions in his youth, in hopes of finding a recipe to peace?  Some religious texts had tempted me with their poetry before; others — with their majority.  I’d always wanted to belong, so I kept looking.

Was he, like me, at liberty to pick and choose between the details of his heritage, only wearing it when most convenient for his now American identity?  Did he carry his comedy routines in side pockets:  At the expense of his immigrant and heavily accented parents, he could whip ‘em out at gatherings of curious American friends?  Did he practice the routines on paper first, or did he merely get addicted to the laughter he could cause — and so he’d work them out in public?

The evening city hummed and sparkled outside the windows.  Across the street, I could see a casting space where I had once nearly died of shame by bumping into an ex-lover from a disastrous affair.  He sat in the corner, with his giant legs stretched out ahead, sounding every bit like that one asshole actor who must practice his lines out loud, at full volume, in a waiting room filled with his competition and the rookies from Ohio.

That morning, I had announced official warfare against my acne; and my Hollywood haircut refused to cooperate at covering it.

I saw him first, pretended not to, and thankfully got called immediately.  That’s when he must’ve heard my name; because by the time I had stepped out, he was standing by the doorway.

“I thought that was you!” he said and shifted on his feet as if leaning in for a hug.

Our story was so typical, it should’ve made it into a sitcom about actors in LA-LA:  He wanted a rebound with someone with his ex’s Slavic face — another actress — and I had wanted more.

“No fuckin’ way, American buddy!” I thought.

But out loud, I said, “I’ve gotta run,” and blew my bangs out of my eyes.  He noticed the stampede of pimples across my forehead:  stubborn and multiplying.  “Another audition!  Gotta run!”

“Yeah,” he said, mesmerized by my forehead.  “Yeah.  Definitely.  But let’s do coffee sometime!”

Natalia Vodianova

Everyone’s got these stories, it is true.  My friends had all suffered, at least once, from having used someone for sex, or from having been used.  And then, we’d all scrape up our dignity to have the courage to keep showing up:  to other dates and to auditions; and to the companies of friends, where we readily whip out our comedy routines and force-feed ourselves with laughter.

To be happy here, it takes discipline.  Or some serious delusion. Some of us had had those mental breakdowns that justified our flight from this fucking place.  Others would just have an episode, go home to recover — then return for more.

The ethnically ambiguous man continued:

“I’m going home myself,” he said.  “Can you believe it’s holidays already?!”

The traffic crawled along the boulevard underneath.  Two lanes of it:  one fire-engine red, another — silver.  An eatery at the corner was glistening with Christmas lights; and reflected by the changing colors of the traffic light, its giant windows would take on different shades, at well timed intervals.  With the shimmer of the hills behind it, the city looked so pretty, suddenly.  And standing above the traffic, out of it, I thought to find it peaceful.  But then, I changed my mind.

I wanted to object to my ethnically ambiguous co-practitioner of yoga:

“It’s not your turn to speak, American buddy!”

But he had been carrying on, by then.  He’s got that story, too!

And so:  I listened.

“Steadily Rewindin’, Tryin’ to Make Some Hot Shit… Oh, What a Job This Is!”

Trying to write at a coffee shop:  This nomadic lifestyle of mine is slowly taking a toll on me.

The joint that I’ve chosen is not on the beach, but it carries the name of one.  And it comes with a specific array of noises.  Noises and egos.

They aren’t corporate egos, thank goodness.  They belong to life-long outcasts and beautiful, quirky kids who are stubborn and mad enough — to keep at their stories:  At their art.

Like this tatted-up boy right here, with bleached hair:  He is smaller than me.  He walks in through the glass back door, smiles sheepishly; grabs the handle before the door slams and shuts it, slowly.  Quietly.  He knows there are others here — stubborn and mad enough to keep at their stories.  To keep at their art.

Just look at him!  I betcha he’s got a story or two, and he’s most likely figured out his medium by now.  So, he’s certainly gotten himself a hefty ego.  And that ego nags — until each story is told:  on paper or on his skin, or braided in between the strings of his guitar.

The boy leaves.  I notice that the bleached hair is actually brushed into a well-sculpted mohawk.  He does the handle thing again, looks at me, from the other side of the glass door; smiles sheepishly.  Thank goodness — for his specificity!

Shit!  I’ve gotta focus.  I still haven’t written, this morning.

I walk over to the counter.  I can tell by the way one barista is bickering at the other, under her breath, that the two ladies aren’t really getting along.  This one:  brown, pretty, with striking gray eyes is yanking the handle of the espresso grinder like she means it.  I catch myself wondering if her wrist hurts at night, and if that shoulder of hers needs healing.  Does it makes her moan, at times, about “her fucking day job”?  Does it fuel her stubborn madness — to keep at her stories?  To keep at her art?

Just look at her!  By the way she arches her eyebrows and tightens her mouth, I know she’s been doing this gig for a while.  And she’s really good at it.  There is a routine in her movements:

Yank, yank, yank, yank.  Swipe across with a single forefinger.  Press down the tamper, tap the side with it.  Press down again.  Brush away the loose grinds.  Get ready to brew.

This girl is a virtuoso!  She’s found art in the most mundane of occupations.

Okay.  Shit.  Focus.  I still haven’t written, this morning.

The girl taking my order is also the one working the milk steamer.  She is a bit bossy.  Some may even call her “bitchy”.  “Tightly wound”.  “With prickly temperament”.  (I would know:  I get called those things — all the fucking time!)  I watch her maneuvering each pot of steaming milk above a paper cup.

She reminds me of a woman conductor who has once taught me music:  That older creature of grace was an untypical occurrence, an exception in the world of classical music.  This one — must be some sort of an artist as well.  And I wonder if she’s got the balls to be a pioneer, in her very specific thing.

“Hey, now!” she says to a young skater boy who struts into the joint, through the glass back door.  He has a headful of African curls tamed with a backward turned cap.

The counter girl lights up:  She still knows how to adore…

Shit!  Focus, focus, focus!  Still haven’t written!  And it’s already — an after-fuckin’-noon.

I wait for my latte:  It’s being made, with such specificity.  They never serve watered down coffee here, with an aftertaste of burnt espresso grinds.  Timing is very important.  So is taking the time.

I pass a row of tables.  Each is occupied by a youth at work.  The girl at an aluminum table is wearing orange earplugs:  This joint comes with a specific array of noises.  Noises and egos.

“Yank, yank, yank, yank,” — is coming from behind the bar.  “Tap.  Pause.  Tap.”

And on top of that, there is a hysterical rockstar screaming over the radio speakers.  I’ve been in enough of these joints, over the course of my nomadic lifestyle, to have learned good music.  This — is not good.

The radio goes silent.  I look back:  The bossy counter girl is messing with the radio stations.  A sweet reggae beat takes over.

The boy in a hoodie, at the table next to mine, starts nodding his messy head.  His face is wrinkly with pillow marks, but it’s intense.  He is so young, yet already so specific.

Just look at him!

Shit!

Focus!

Write!

The tatted-up boy with bleached out hair returns to use the bathroom.  He does the handle thing.

The bathroom door opens:  A youth of about twenty rolls out of it, in a wheel-chair.  Damn!

He passes me.  His face is kind.  He smiles.

The girl with earplugs gets up, packs up quietly.  Leaves through the glass back door.  Does the handle thing.

A Mexican stunner walks in:  Long black hair, butterflies instead of eyelashes.  She smiles at me, full heartedly.  Does the handle thing.

There is so much beauty in specificity!  There is so much beauty in compassion!  And it makes it so much easier — to keep at my art.

“Shit!  Let me get this for you!”  I leap out of my seat, to help a lovely young mother who’s trying to get through the glass back door, with her hands full.

I smile, hold the door; say:  “No problem!”  And quietly — do the handle thing.

“There Is ALWAYS Something Cookin’!”

It started like a typical talk last night.  Because that was the only reasonable thing to do, with my dad’s people:  To be typical. Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices of his family.

When I resumed my weekly phone calls to Motha Russia, two years ago, I expected heightened stakes for a while.  After all, I haven’t been home in sixteen years!

And for the first couple of months of these telephoned conversations — with the family — things were indeed thrilling:  Someone was getting married.  Someone had passed away years ago.  This person was now a high ranking government official; and that one — had succumbed to full-range alcoholism.  Most of our shared excitement came from other people’s tragic tales:  immigration, disappearance, cancer, suicide.  And because Motha Russia always has had such stories in plentitude, we seemed to never run out of things to discuss.

So, for hours, dad and I would talk about other people:

“And how is Marinka, P?” I would ask him about my archenemy from high school, and that would spur another hour of gossip:  Someone was pregnant.  Someone was getting a divorce.  This person had left for Moscow.  That one — never returned from Chechnya.

But when it came to our own family, things weren’t discussed; not in any depth that revealed family secrets.  Nothing that would divert us — from being typical.  Surely, we talked about our distant relatives:  someone was cheating on his wife; another someone was graduating from medical school.  But the people in the immediate family — were not the topic for deep digging.

It was initially established by P:  He would answer the questions about his family living in the Urals with stubborn vagueness.

I could hardly remember my last visit to that middle section of Russia.  I was a teenager and bored out of my mind, on that trip.  Because just like the geography of the area itself, the common characteristic of my father’s people was an overall commitment to order and calm.  Every single one of them was always existing in the middle:  Not really subversive in any way and never disobedient.  They were — typical.

And the orderly flow of their daily events was dictated by the family’s matriarch:

Breakfast at 0700 hours.  Work at 0900.  Women cleaned the house and cooked — men left for the fields.  Bathhouse was ready by 1800 hours.  Dinner by 1900.

Having been a city-child my entire life, I was an immediate handful for my father’s mom:

“Why is she going to the library every day?” she scolded P in that passive-aggressive manner that was meant to be overheard, by me.  “What would people think?!” Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices in his family.

So:  We walked our cows to the feeding fields by 0600 hours.  Attended Sunday church by 0800.

And, last night, it started like a typical talk:

“What are you doing right now?” P began our routine, after the initial pleasantries were gotten out of the way.

“I’m cooking,” I answered.

I was holding my cellphone with my left shoulder and running a colander full of spinach under the water.  An entire head of garlic was waiting to be peeled.  He would have heard my kitchen noises anyway.  So, I didn’t lie.  And I didn’t stop cooking.  Because I assumed:  P would have preferred for me to have a typical night anyway.

“You’re cooking?  At 2300 hours?” (P — is an army man.  He still talks in military time, so typical of his generation.)

“Yep,” I said.  “I’m cooking from scratch.”

I braced myself:  I expected him to start talking about the diversion from my typical sleeping schedule; or the noises with which I was disturbing my neighbors.  (In which case:  “What would people think?”  Right?!)

But P — chuckled.  “What are you making?”

“Soup,” I answered.  I preferred not to elaborate, as to not give away too much ammunition for dad’s later scolding:  I was a child of an army man, and I typically don’t run my mouth much.

But then, I reiterated, while gloating a bit:

“I’m making soup — from scratch!”

“I know you are,” P got serious on me.  “You always made me things from scratch.”

He would proceed to tell me that even as a teenager, I was the cook of the family.  Oh, how it bothered his mother — the matriarch — he told me, when I competently took over making his breakfasts, in the Urals!

“Why is she crowding me out of my kitchen?‘ your grandma told me,” he said last night.

I chuckled.  Yes, I chuckled with my typical close-lipped laughter:  so typical of my generation of army brats.  So typical — of my father’s child.

“But in all truth,” P continued, “I always preferred your cooking — over my mom’s.”

God damn!  THAT — was untypical!  The family’s matriarch was being shaken off her throne; and her son was now conspiring with a woman who was anything but typical, for her entire life.  

“What would people think?!” I thought.

But then, feeling encouraged, gloating even more, as a woman proud of all her self-taught talents, I carried on cooking, last night:  Mincing the roasted peppers; adding spices to the mixture of red, brown and wild rice.

P was into it:

“And when do you add salt?” he inquired.

“Never!” I said, in my matriarchal voice.  “In my kitchen — I use lemon!”

P chuckled.  Yes, he chuckled with his typical close-lipped laughter.  But I knew:  He was choking back his tears.

Due to the untypical turn of events in his family’s history, I grew up in an untypical fashion:  On a whole different continent, one hemisphere removed from him and his people.  I had become a woman on my own terms.  And somehow, despite being extremely untypical, in my father’s eyes — I was absolutely perfect:

I was a good woman — so typical of my father’s child.

And I was the best cook — in the family:  How untypical!

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.

“Somewhere, There Is an Ocean: Innocent and Wild.”

So, there was this one time… 

“Show me — don’t tell me,” my brother always warns me.  He, himself, is a performer and a painter; so his stories are visual.  But the recipe works though, I’ve tried it:  My storytelling works best when I paint a picture instead of lining-up some words.

So, there was this one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut…

Motha sucks at storytelling.  When younger, she was anxious to teach me how to read, so I would stop bugging her for bedtime stories.  Nowadays, she tells me stories all the time, and she tends to tell the punchline long before I can wrap my head around all the characters and their histories.

Arizona Muse

And when it comes to jokes, motha — is the absolute worst.  She cracks herself up, and it is impossible to make out a single word through her roaring and yelping laughter.  She tilts her head back, as if in the midst of some exorcism, and soon enough things around her start flying onto the floor while she flails around her arms, utterly unaware of her vanity.  And it is also impossible — not to laugh with her, in return.

So, there was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  We were living in the Soviet Union at the time…

I’ve got a lot of stories, but I suck at delivering them.  I would much rather write them down.  When writing, I can relive them.  I  can get the details out.  I can get them right; or even fix them, now that I know their endings.

But I am not really good at reliving stories in front of others.  Unless, of course, they are someone’s else stories, then I can perform them:  “show, not tell”.

Anyway.  There was this one time, when mother had decided to bring home a coconut. 

We were living in the Soviet Union at the time, and coconuts weren’t much of a typical occurrence on our dinner table.  No, it was all about potatoes instead:  Fried potatoes, boiled potatoes — with skin and without.  Roasted potatoes, potatoes in a soup.  Early spring fingerling potatoes in a salad.  Potato pancakes.  Mashes potatoes:  Those motha always insisted on mixing with bits of semi-fried onion, and I would spend more time picking it out than actually eating (which didn’t thrill my mother much).  And even when we would go camping, potatoes would appear in various formats when it was time to eat:  Potatoes baked in foil, roasted over an open fire potatoes.  Potatoes in a soup.

A serving of macaroni would spice things up a bit.  Macaroni usually meant my parents got paid, and we were living it up for a while.  But then, the macaroni would be recycled too:  Macaroni swimming in milk for breakfast — fried macaroni for dinner.

But this one time, mother had decided to bring home a coconut.  She had been trying something out, with the family:

“A Piece of an Exotic Fruit — per Month,” was the name of the program motha had come up with.

The Soviet Union was on its way out.  We didn’t know it at the time, but the country, as we knew it, was over.  The economy was in the crapshoot:  Folks not getting paid on time, the worth of pensions decreasing down to laughable proportions.  The price of bread was growing every single day; and food was being sold in rations, according to a monthly handout of coupons.  But to get that food at the market, one had to show up right after its delivery.  Because, for whatever reason, there was always fewer rations than the actual people, in town.  So, we would have to line up by the store, hours before it would open.

It helped that I was finally of the age to stand in some of these lines.  I would get there before motha, often right after school.  Later, she could take my place, and I would go home to do my homework — not to play — then, start prepping dinner.  Because I was definitely past the age of innocence:  I had long stopped bugging her for bedtime stories.

Sometimes, I would stand in line for long enough to get to the front of it.  Soon enough though, the cashier would start announcing the lowering numbers of rations.

“Citizens!” she would holler out.  Somehow, she was alway chubby and shiny; and so obviously in love with finding herself in a position of an authority.  “We only have enough for twenty of you!”

People complained, shifted on their feet uncertain if they should keep on waiting — or just go home defeated.  The frontrunners gloated in their places.  Quickly, the last of the fortunate would be counted off.  Oh, how it would suck to be standing right behind her!  (I say “her”, because most of the time, the job of standing in lines was allotted to mothers.)

Still, even then, most people would keep standing, holding their place in line.  Because hope dies last, doesn’t it?  It can even outlast despair.  

The cashier would start getting annoyed:

“I told you, citizens:  We don’t have enough produce for all of you!  So, don’t linger!”

She was obviously getting off.  But people stayed.

They stayed!  Perhaps, it took an incredibly unreasonable amount of denial to survive in such conditions.  But they chose not to hear the abusive remarks by the shiny cashier; and only the ones at the very end would start chipping off, muttering, complaining:

“What is this country coming to?!”

“Mama?” I would think at that moment, wishing she would get there and relieve me from my post.  I may have been long past the age of innocence, but I wasn’t yet ready to give up on my childhood.

So, that one time, when motha had decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus, and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers, in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling me a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; so, she would laugh and flail her arms around, dropping things to the floor.  I would keep clutching onto the coconut.

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh with her, in return.

(To Be Continued.)

“The Times We Knew — Who Would Remember Better Than You?”

I prefer writing about strangers.  It’s easier, I think.  

Like the creature of Gisele’s height but Kat Dennings’ build who walked into the mysteriously lit coffee shop yesternight and made me lose track of my thoughts.  She wore a pair of tight, dark blue jeans (which made her sound like a song); and red patent leather high heels.  Her tailored black shirt was unbuttoned on top, generously revealing her lace-bound breasts.  And by the time I slid my gaze up to her exotic face, I swear I began feeling a bit hazy-headed.

“Jeez!” my male companion said over a cup of his Moroccan Mint hot tea, as if blowing his breath over the steaming surface.  Perhaps, he was blushing; but I hadn’t looked at his face for seemingly a million minutes by then.

“Mazel tov!” I mumbled, followed the creature with my eyes.  Then, once she plopped down into the aged couch next to us, I concluded with a “Damn!” — for emphasis.

Her face.  I didn’t really see her face:  The rest of her upstaged it.

But in a story — any story in which she would dictate her own reappearance — I would give her the face of an angel, if angels were born on the coasts of Brazil or India.

Certainly, she would have droopy eyelids with velvety eyelashes, best worn by those smart girls who are always either in the midst of a compassionate tear or a self-deprecating prank.  I would give her a well-carved nose, but on the larger side.  It would be Roman-esque, resonant of the young Sophia Loren.  And it would juxtapose well in relation to her chin which was in the shape of an Italian prune plum.

The lips…  I normally don’t pay attention to the lips.  I just know that most of the time, they complete a  woman’s face perfectly.  Sometimes, the mouth is worth mentioning, but I must see it in action first.  It’s the manner and the breath with which the mouth makes out words that gets my attention.  But by that point, I’m most likely so stricken by the girl’s smarts, that again, I don’t pay attention to the lips.

Yesternight, I didn’t really see her face, but it is her face that would guide me into the fiction of her.  Into the fantasy.

I prefer writing about strangers.  Because it’s easier, I think.

Like when, the other night, I stood in line behind a tall boy who wore a white tee and a pair of slim fit, ripped jeans, he could’ve easily existed — in someone else’s fiction.  But then, his shoes caught my attention:  They were black, lace-up boots with missing laces.  Scuffed and dusty, as if he had just walked miles through sand and perseverance to get here, they reminded me of a pair I once photographed up in the desert.  Those other boots were parked outside a cabin inhabited by a group of outcast artists, and a blue-eyed boy with a Siberian husky.  The boy and I wouldn’t sleep that night; and when the dawn illuminated miles and miles of sand ahead, he peeled on those same boots and rode away on his motorcycle.  The blue-eyed husky would follow him, and I would wish I had memorized his face a little bit better.

The other night, the bottoms of the boy’s ripped jeans where tucked inside each boot, but somehow I knew that despite the nonchalant appearance, it took some careful thought and manipulation to get the job done.  I slid my eyes up his long legs, past the aesthetically, half-tucked tee, and along the shapely back.  I didn’t really see his face, but in a story — any story in which he would dictate his own reappearance — he would have a beauty mark above his lips.  And he would be blue-eyed, of course.

Yes, I prefer writing about strangers.  Because it’s easier, I think.

Like the calm old woman in a burgundy housedress and slippers that reminded me of my grandmother’s pace, the other day:  I saw her walking a girl child, up a tiny hill in Griffith park.  It was overcast, and the fog of the marine layer refused to burn off.  The two of them walked slowly, and I could tell by the curvature of the woman’s spine — over and above the child — that she was quiet and listening to the stories made out by the little mouth.  And so, she reminded me of my grandmother’s pace.

The kiddo wore a gray mouse outfit:  with ears, and a tail; onesie feet and all.  And by the way she walked, with more assurance than the adult in her company, as if leading the way; and by the way she swayed her tiny right hand to punctuate her stories; and by the way she gripped her grandmother’s index finger with the other — she made my heart moan with memories.

I didn’t see the child’s face.  Neither did I see that of the grandmother. 

But in my story — any story in which they would dictate their own reappearance — I bet they would have the details of the face I see in my mirrors.

Because I tend to memorize the faces of my loves with my heart.  And I prefer writing about strangers.  It’s easier, I think, for my empathy to speak — and for my loves to dictate their own reappearance. 

“With You: It’s ALWAYS Midnight.”

Um…

I just woke up.

It’s noon.

It’s kinda late for waking.

So, what did I miss?

The coffee machine is already doing its thing in the kitchen, but maybe I should just have some tea.

I mean:  It IS noon.

And it’s kinda late for waking.

I gotta start packing up my joint:  I’m leaving in a week.  It’s not a move to another city or continent (not yet, at least) — just an excuse to go research all the possible next stops, and to revisit my beloved hearts.  And I should come bearing gifts.  Or food, most likely.

Someone in the building is cooking breakfast.  I can smell it through the open doors of my balcony.  Someone is cooking breakfast…  Um, wait.  It’s lunch time.  And it smells like yellow curry, pepper and paprika.  Slowly, it’s starting to feel so wonderful — to be so awake.

If it were my brother though, he would be cooking breakfast, right around this time.  I mean:  It’s noon, and it’s kinda late for waking.  But at night, he prefers to dream with his eyelids open:  an artsy insomniac like me.  For him, it is always wonderful to be awake; and whatever the rest of the world is sleeping through — he takes down onto his canvas:

“You gotta see this nonsense, Ra!” he calls me past midnight, less than twelve hours away from noon.

I come over, while bearing food, most likely; and I take a look.

It’s beautiful. 

Tormented. 

Tired.

I rarely tell him what I see splattered underneath the paint.  But it is always so wonderful — and somehow very awake.

By the time he finally takes a nap at sunrise, the apartment smells like old acrylic paints.  And a little bit like magic.  I adjust the mountain of his blankets, brush his forehead, and I slip out.

And in the morning…  Um, sorry.  In the afternoon, he walks across the drying canvas barefoot and starts making breakfast in the kitchen.  Yes, breakfast!  The smell of eggs and chocolate mixes into the air, and by the time I return bearing coffee, it feels so wonderful — for both of us — to be so awake.  And it smells a little bit like magic.

He is coming home tomorrow.

I — am leaving in a week.

So, I gotta start packing up my joint.

It’s noon.  It’s kinda late for waking.

And it’s kinda late to start packing.

But it is always just the right time — for a change.

The air — in the afternoon — is already heated through, feeling like summer, not the very next season that often smells like yellow curry, ginger, and paprika.  It’s not like the air at sunrise, these day.

Because at night, it has begun getting colder, and I go to sleep gratefully bundled up in a mountain of blankets, dreaming of love under my closing eyelids.  Because there is always time — for my beloved hearts.  And there is always time — for change.

In the fall, at nighttime, my joint starts smelling like soup or some hearty stew.  I take a whole day to make a pot.  The timing is specific, but it always starts with cooking the spices first:  yellow curry, turmeric, or paprika.  And I by time I start delivering containers of it to my beloved hearts — while feeling the peace cooked up by my generous heart — the airs smells like home.  And a little bit like magic.

Someone in the building has just started thumping music.  I can hear it through the open doors of my balcony.

I mean:  It is noon, and it’s kinda late for waking.  But it is still no excuse for this Eurobeat that lacks all magic.

The music is turned off.  Someone in the building must’ve objected:

“It’s so wonderful — for all of us — to be so awake.  Please don’t ruin it with your monotony.”

It’s noon.  I gotta start packing up my joint.

But where do I start?

The bedroom.

The joint is already in disarray:  from being so awake so late at night, from my artsy insomnia.  I’ve attempted to start packing past midnight — less than twelve hours away from noon — but in every corner I got distracted with the keepsakes from my beloved hearts.

Some gifts have been stored away, and I have nearly forgotten about them.  Because they used to belong to the beloved hearts that have departed, by choice.  Out of sight — out of memory.  But now that the keepsakes are being retrieved — I feel awakened by their stories.  And it does feel so wonderful — to be so awake.

Some stories have lost their meaning:  They’ve been stored away for too long. Their magic has expired like a drawer full of old spices.

So, I shed them.

Other items may still be worth keeping.  I stuff them into a box with “STORE AT BROTHER’S” label.

The pile of things — of stories — that are coming with me is the smallest one.

I’m leaving in a week, and I am taking very little with me.   Because it’s not a move to another city or a continent.  Not yet, at least.  It’s just an excuse to go research all the possible next stops, and to revisit my beloved hearts.  And to collect more stories.

Um…

It’s noon, and it IS kinda late for waking. 

But it is always the right time — for change.

And it’s just about the right time for the very next season that smells like yellow curry, cinnamon and paprika.

The coffee machine has stopped doing its thing in the kitchen.  The smell of coffee mixes into the hot afternoon air, and it’s starting to feel so wonderful to be so awake.

I start packing up, for change.

“All My Ladies: If You Feel Me, Do It! Do It! WHIP YO’ HAIR!”

I follow a tradition:  To get a man outta my hair — I cut it down.

I have a lot it:  My hair.  My mane of plenty.

And in it, a man always finds his very first addiction, along my body.

So, naturally:  To get a man outta my hair — I cut it down.

It grows in unpredictable patterns.  Every day, it does its own thing:  between the gypsy wave and the tight curl of a brown girl, a sleek streaming down, along the upper vertebrae of my neck; a flip to one side, a curtain above my eye brow.  After years of managing it, I’ve finally learned not to — and I just let it be.    

I usually can sense it when it’s time to get a haircut — or a hair-shave:  I get itchy with impatience, and I stop wearing it down.  Instead, I yank it back and up into a brutal balletic bun, lacquering down all the flirty fly-aways with some nuclear spray.

And any time I let it down:

“Do you think I should cut it?” I ask anyone who happens to be nearby and listening.

Because by that time, the lover is long gone, having left little behind, or nothing at all — but so much to get over.  So, I can no longer turn to him — and ask the same question.

Yesterday, I skipped the questionnaire.  I drove the car, plopped down into the chair of the only brown girl I trust with my hair; and I said, with that fake accent I take on for comedy’s sake:

“Khelp me!”

She tilted back a headful of her heavy dreads and she roared:

“Jesus!  The Russian is a mess!”

“You can say that again.”

“The Russian is a mess!”

I tilted back a headful of my messy mane — and I too roared, spinning in her chair:  It was good to be back for some serious shedding.  I was about to get a man outta my hair, with the very first addiction he’d ever found along my body.

Her confident brown hand reached over and unleashed my bun, scratching the scalp with her firm nails.  She’s Caribbean, wears tats and feathers; and she is always listening to heavy music.  (Unless she is having a bad day:  Then, we do Nina.)

For three years now, she’s been freelancing out of this joint with floor-to-ceiling windows, flung open throughout the entire year, with its heavy music echoing along Venice Boulevard.  And for three years now, she’s been cutting my mane of plenty.

We both examined my reflection in the illuminated mirror.  She smiled, about to roar again, and her teeth reminded me of coconut meat.  Mine — were yellowed with coffee.

“I look like a shaggy dog!” I said.  “Khelp me!”

That was the last of it:  The last time we would mention my hair:  My mane of plenty.  For the rest of that hour, we talked about the adventures that had happened since the last time I sat in her chair, saying:

“Khelp me!”

She started doing yoga since — and I began flying.  She was thinking about running.  I had been.

She roared a lot, and I would spin in her chair, pleased that I was the cause of her lightness.

There had been times before, somewhere in the beginning of our camaraderie, when I would go to sleep in her chair, and in her hands; and she would let me.  But after all these years of shedding, she’s become my only permanent confidant in this city.

In an hour — filled with more laughter and questions, with tales of our future adventures — we both examined my reflection in the illuminated mirror.  She smiled her coconut smile at me and buried the brown, confident right hand inside my now shorter mane, of still plenty.

“No hair-dryer, right?”

“Nyet!  I hate that thing.”

Some magical potion smelling of ginger was rubbed into my scalp.  I was feeling lighter already.

“Jesus!  You’re magical,” I said.

She roared.

And when the covers were lifted, I swung my chair around to see pound and mounts of my former mane of plenty, at my feet.  My girl began to sweep.

“It’s enough for a whole other person,” she joked, and shook her headful of heavy dreads, while flashing the coconut smile at me.

It was.  It was a whole other person — a departed lover, to be exact.  And there he was:  I man I had committed to get outta my hair, now at my feet.  And having shed the very first addiction he’d ever found along my body, I had also shed him.

I stepped over the pile.

Back in my car, Nina roared en route home.  The air smelled like ginger.