Tag Archives: survival

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 I Was Just a Little Girl.

At the risk of missing their bus, Inna’s mother insisted on stoping by the kiosk that, judging by the sour smell of yeast and the line of bickering women upfront, had recently received a delivery of fresh bread.  It was an otherwise insignificant place, like most stores in larger cities.  As a matter of fact, when the kiosk windows were rolled down and locked, one could easily mistake it for an information booth, with nothing inside but trolley tickets and city brochures, and Marlboros for sale.

A Russian housewife was only as successful as she was savvy.  It was up to the women — the mothers — to discover stores that carried better produce.  Some of the legwork was done by their girlfriends, in a tradition of some old tribal hunt, adjusted to the urban life style.  Even the women in Russian villages, who aimed to live by the means of the land, needed to perfect this skill for when shopping at the weekend bazaar.  But Inna’s mother was too proud to probe other women for insider information on barters and schedules of deliveries of deficit produce.  To socialize with the common folks, especially about such common needs, was beneath her academic degrees and esteemed profession, she claimed; unworthy of her upbringing in the largest port city with Western waterways, from the Russian East Coast.  She was an elementary school teacher, painfully overqualified, who taught at Inna’s school that housed grades one through eleven; and most parents in their village wanted for their children to end up in her mother’s classroom, despite her famous and slightly abusive educational methods.  (Inna had known those methods first-hand, for they had been honed on her, until she officially reached puberty and got her period.)

Mother refused to make friends with any woman with a child of seven years old or younger.  And by the rest of them, she claimed to be bored:

“I just wish I had a girlfriend to take me to the ballet, Innotchka,” she confessed to her daughter, melancholically.  It was an uneasy situation whenever mother began talking like that, as if Inna were her contemporary.  But just as Inna was an assumed loner, being the only child of her parents — who were the only children to their parents as well — her mother, she suspected, had difficulty making friends as well.

Whenever the woman was in of those confessional moods, she tended to look down and to the side, as if reading her lines from the edge of the peeling wallpaper, dreamily:

“Ah!  If only you knew how I love the ballet, Innotchka!”   But despite the mood of informality, Inna knew better than to trust this yet another attempt by her mother to bond.  “One day (when you’re old enough), I may take you there, so that you can see for yourself,” her mother would zero in on Inna, suddenly viewing her daughter as a female competition, and her warmth would rapidly dissipate.  “I may.  I just may.  I can’t promised it, of course.  But I may.”

In the summer of 1991, the two women would journey into the city quite frequently.  Mother had applied to the Masters of Education faculty at the Pedagogical University No. 3.  Every academic institution, from kindergartens to the top level institutes that trained the best minds of Russia’s science, was assigned a number.  And although Inna, during the trips into the city, had never come across the Pedagogical University No. 1 or No. 2, she was sure her mother would not possess any trustworthy information on this curious matter either.  Most likely, she would grant Inna the chronic “It’s just the way it is!” response.  Inna’s own school — where mother had established a certain reign, especially since deciding to further her credentials — was assigned the number 7.  She realized she had never tried to decipher this puzzle before.  Perhaps, on certain topics, mother was right:  Some things — were just the way they were.  

On the way back from her mother’s interview with the dean of her future faculty, the two women had stumbled upon a display of oval white flatbreads in the window of a curios little kiosk.  It stood at the entrance of an alley of chestnut trees which would lead them to the city’s main transit station.  Inna, with her eyes studying the tips of her and her mother’s shoes, while mother talked and talked — this time about just how “cultured” the dean had acted toward her, a real gentleman not to be found in a single kilometer radius of their own village — she noticed when her mother’s feet slowed down, their oval toes slightly tilting away, at a forty-five degree angle, as if pulled by a magnet.

“Oy, dear god!  Are those little lavashes?!” her mother, with her fingers still splayed from that afternoon’s manicure, touched both of her cheeks and exclaimed.  “I haven’t had those since I was just a little girl!  My daddy used to bring them for me from his trips to Georgia.”

Inna adjusted her mother’s purse that she had been carrying since they left the nail salon, then moved up the adult size prescription glasses to the bridge of her nose from its tip, and gave the object of her mother’s curiosity a considerable study.

“They are!  Oy, they are, they are!  They are little lavashes!  Oy, dear god!”  Mother was under a spell.

Inna, who had been trained well enough to know that all of her mother’s sudden outbursts had to have specific objectives, had recently begun to notice her own decreasing desire to figure them out.  With her stubborn, teenage silences toward any hints, she figured out that her mother’s desires would become obvious, whether she tried to decipher them on her own.  Or, she could just wait.  Oftentimes, those objectives would become clear.  Some would be meant to provoke pity from any witnesses; and it confused Inna by giving her no active understanding on what to do next.  Certainly, mother couldn’t have thought of pity being a good match to her self-proclaimed dignity!

By now, her mother was trotting.  She was wearing a tailored skirt the color of pink-lavender and a custom-made black-and-white blouse with polkadots and a giant bow on the left side of her neck.  Her red stilettos, claimed to be the best damn pair of shoes mother currently owned, made her legs more defined, although still quite plum for mother’s short frame.  Adjusting the handles of the sizable purse again, Inna thought:  Were she not the daughter of this woman, who was jittering lusciously in all the right places while running through the alley of trees (that used to fill the air with an aggressive perfumed smell of blossoms, back in July), she would think of this sight as some famous passage from an Italian film, in which the women — who all seemed to suffer from outbursts of erratic and unpredictable emotions — were the only ones in the whole of the world’s cinema to even slightly resemble the women of her own culture.

By the time Inna had caught up to her mother, having been weighed down by her sizable purse and the damn oversized glasses that refused to stay in place, mother was already lingering by the kiosk window.  With her hands folded on top of each other over the giant polkadot bow, she jumped a couple of times in place, causing for the other women to look on, askance.  They were right:  There was something insincere in the forcefulness of mother’s emotional exposés, especially when they involved retardation into her girlhood.  In the now obvious and not necessarily pleasant silence that surrounded them, Inna continued to clutch the handles of the purse with her both hands, while stealing glances at the other women who by now resumed their hushed conversation.

“Um.  Excuse me, lady citizen?” her mother cut the line.  Surely, that would not go over well with the other women!  “Do you have a sufficient supply of lavashes left?”

The cashier woman behind the sweating window, who was in the midst of picking out a half a kilo of rugelach pastry for the kerchiefed woman at the head of the line, stopped her plump hands in midair and shrugged; then resumed bending over the plexiglass bin:

She responded “I have what I have,” and smiled a slightly sadistic smile that sat well on the faces of all small persons of Russian authorities:  secretaries to big bureaucrats and heads of the custodian labor unions.  “You’re gonna have to take you place in line, LIKE everyone else, and see for yourself!”

The kerchiefed woman scoffed, slightly shook her wrinkled head and rolled her milky-gray eyes in a conspiring gesture.  Inna’s mother feigned being immune toward the meaningfully condescending responses that trickled down to the hummed exchange among the other women.  There had been times when Inna had witnessed it go a different way, however:  Sometimes, mother teared up at the injustice and at the disheartening simpleton nature of her fellow citizens, while always managing to stand in enough light to be noticed by her offenders.  Other times, she chose to suffer through the unfortunate consequences to her own bouts of aristocracy.  Considering that these baked delicacies were impossible to come by in their village, this would be one of those times.  So, Inna’s mother squinted her eyes, as if studying other choices of produce that may interest her; then made her way to the back of the line.

“Are you last?” she asked a woman with an eggplant-colored perm and a still fresh layer of frosty pink lipstick on her narrow lips.

“Umn-da?” the woman nodded.  Inna wondered if the Italian women from the films also possessed such a succinct vocabulary of arrogant gestures.

Inna’s mother, again, appeared to be oblivious to her dislikable affect on the group:  “How wonderful!,” she said gleefully, “I’m — after you!”  Then, she yanked Inna by her elbow, to take her place in line.

(To Be Continued.)

“Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy Are Drifting Through My Opened Mind…”

Sorting it out.  Bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.  An echo of facts — here.  A token of shared memories — there.

Sorting it out, for a sliver of some truth…

But that’s where it gets tricky:  My truth — does not equal their truth.

With my family, I’ve taken the easier way out, according to them.  For whom exactly have I made it easy, though?  I’ve made it easier on them, NOT on myself.  My truth — were it revealed — would break their little hearts:

“We didn’t know.  We’re sorry.  What a waste!”

Ideally, my truth would actually deserve their compassion.  For, in my truth, survival has been difficult, yes (and it is such, most of the time); but in the choices that it took to do it — my survival has been tragic.

When one starts from the bottom and walks the tight rope of having no such option as to fail, the choices suddenly become quite brutal.  They are self-serving most of the time.  They are uncivil and mostly driven by fear.  Because to fall down, in such a case, means having no place to land; no home to crawl back to, where by the means of heritage or hopefully some unconditional love one could be healed, recovered, reinvigorated.  One could begin again, and try again, if only one could have a home.  But having walked away from family — means having no choice and no space in which I could afford mistakes.

The mistakes that I have made, since orphaning myself — by choice — have taken years to actually forgive.  In most cases, that forgiveness demanded more walking away:  from the living witnesses; from those who have promised to step in, in place of missing family, and then gave up.  And from my own wrongdoing self.  And it is my truth that I hold no grudge; but in those case (of mistakes), forgiveness has demanded silence.  Because, as I have learned by walking away from my own family:  Their truth — will never equal mine.  So, I prefer to walk away, in silence — yes.

The way one justifies survival is not up to me to judge.  In their truths — in anyone’s truth — survival is difficult, yes.  (And it is such, most of the time.)  When it turns out to be tragic — it asks for myths:  Justifications for one’s actions.  And so we choose to make up our own truths, not necessarily lies, but truths — the way we see them:  Truths by which we choose to stand, in order to avoid self-judgement.  Are they delusions?  Maybe.  But when survival’s tragic — they may be the only way to go, without losing one’s mind to sorrow.

A decade of delusions in my family is ending with a crunch time.  We have been separated for long enough to acquire myths about each other.  And after all these years, I am the one to make a choice — to go back, so that we could finally compare our truths.

Their truths — will never equal mine.  I know that.  But neither do I any longer want that.  I simply want to hear their side of it, and give them mine; so that we can put it all to rest.

What made me do it?  It had to be my mother’s face that I began to see in the reflection of my own.  A lifetime of walking away — from truths — has compressed that woman’s forehead into an accordion of guilt.  And silences — from all the abandoned witnesses and failed stand-ins for her loves — are floating above her head, like storm clouds waiting to release their electrical wraths.

One day, that storm may break out.  Who could possibly survive its horror?  The flood of all the choked tears and the thunder of the silenced truths would then create a havoc.  Her truths — would break the oblivious hearts of those from whom she’s walked away.  And that’s the heritage I do not wish to carry, any longer.

I’m going back then.  I am reversing the pattern of the family — and going back.  I know better than the delusions of my mother:  That their truths — will equal mine.  They won’t.

But their truths may give me answers to the eventual questions of my firstborn, who has been murmuring into my dreams since I have managed to find a love that stays.  This time, I haven’t walked away.  This time, I have allowed for the flexibility of truths.  This time — I HAVE FORGIVEN.

So, I’m going back then:  to sort it out, bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.   A sliver of some truth, so that we could all move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Found Love in a Hopeless Place. We Found Love in a Hope-Less Place.”

(Continued from December 6th, 2011.)

The merger to continue onto the 10-East looped around the graffitied walls, arid lawns and long dead flowerbeds.  With one-eighth of my gas tank, I was speeding and leaving the City — exhausted by traffic, lack of time and money, never-ending construction and unrealistic expectations of its dreamers — behind.

Right around Baldwin Park, the freeway got deceivingly wide:  We were free flyin’.  All of us!  For a couple more zip codes, a few expensive cars would still zoom by me.  But as Beemers and Benzes began to vanish like a mirage, I knew I was heading into the Inland Empire.  An occasional five- or six-car train would crawl alongside the freeway; but despite some drivers’ strange road manners, I felt grateful for being able to dictate my own speed of moving — and having the wheels with which to escape.

There stood that giant brown Wells Fargo building of some hideous shape unknown in geometry.  On the way back, I had learned to notice it every time.  Even at night, I see its sign illuminated by the seemingly never ending, moving headlights and the sparking skyline of the City in which I had finally learned to live.

No, not “survive”, like I used to, back on the East Coast — in my more youthful days, when I had better habits for chasing or persevering time.  Here, I had actually been living, on my own terms.  And the case of my unrealistic expectations from the clocks and the traffic of LA-LA had been getting worse.  But then, it was a commonly spread disease anyway.

My chosen radio station was still blasting:

“Ooh, sometimes:  I get a good feelin’!”  

Montclair’s malls sprawled out for miles.  They were the first to signify that I was no longer in my City.  I was leaving, chasing the clock; already late.  It would be something I had to get used to, from then on:  The nearly identical signs, imposed by the same corporations — over and over again! — would begin greeting me in every new city, from the side of the road.  Malls, malls, malls:  The only mode of entertainment.  In Montclair, the modestly covered-up two-tailed mermaid of Starbucks reminded me about my promise to deliver some sugar-coma costing drink to motha.  But then, they seemed to appear on my every other exhale, so I had time.  I checked my dashboard:  Shoulda gotten gas last night!

Mileages for Pomona’s exits began invading every road sign, from the top.  That’s always the half-way point.  In my old, two-cylinder clunker, climbing over this hill would have been a bitch.  So, I would find myself in the slowest two lanes, crammed into the moving wall of white trailer trucks.  And they would swing in and out of lane dividers and make my heart skip a beat.  But somehow, especially around wintertime, they appeared hideously beautiful.  From the furtherest left lane, I looked at the moving, swinging white wall.  This route belonged to them.  They were the common site of California’s self-sufficiency.  And I loved it.

The Forest Lawn Cemetery overlooking our hustle and bustle from up a significant hill had a habit for a serene appearance.  Perhaps, it’s because, in six years, I’d never seen a living human on its evenly green surface.  The white statues at its gate hung above the otherwise flat surface.  On every trip, I kept trying to figure out what they were:  Angels?  Warriors?  The Relieved Deceased?

Motha had always liked cemeteries.  This one seemed endless, so I’d better remember to bring her here, for a stroll.  Lately, she had been obsessing about transferring her parents’ remains from a vanishing town, in the Far East of Russia.

“Otherwise, they’d disappear,” she’d been saying.

Holding on.  That’s perfectly human.

“I wanted love!  I NEEDED love!  Most of all!  Most of all!”

The radio was beginning to struggle with its waves.

Pomona happened with its horse racing tracks and a major attraction for County Fairs.  After it, as always, I went blank until I came up on the convoluted exists of the Ontario Airport where I had originally landed, half a dozen years ago.  The exits for Rancho Cucamonga would never call the city by its name.  Too bad:  It was the only truly idillic land for miles to come.

The mountain range that came up on the horizon after the halfway point would be the only other place of peaceful beauty.  And it was looking mostly gray these days, with ice caps on top.  Below them, in the valley, laid a land where people struggled and survived.  But at least, time and traffic would move slower here.

The slightly tilted bridge of the 15-North onramp reminded me of a roller-coaster.  I hated those!  But there, I went:  Whee!

Then, another freeway, recently renovated — and my radio began sounding like shit.

“We found love in a hopeless place…” — it gargled.

Turn that scratchy shit off!  Get some gas!

I sped up.

Since the city limit of LA-LA, I hadn’t seen a single cop car, for sixty miles.  And motha’s exit was coming up.  I couldn’t believe I had pulled it off.

The gas light went on, while I was on the off-ramp negotiating my way behind a clunker of an uncertain make with horrifically smashed-in rear.

What this?!  A 7-Eleven gas station?  A wolf whistle came from behind me when I stepped one foot out of my car.

“Really?!” I looked back at two Mexican workers sitting on a curb.

“Hola!”

“Fuck off!”  I barked.

Yep:  I had arrived.

“I’m Sittin’ in the Railway Station, Got a Ticket for My Destination. Mmm…”

“And where are you driving from?”

“Um…  Los Angeles?” I said and somehow felt an immediate need to apologize.

“Ow.  I’m so sorry,” he responded.

I looked at his squinting eyes:  This one was meaning well, I think.  His skin was brown and eroded by the exposure to the sun and to the demands of manual labor.  And at the same time, I knew that there was peace in the simplicity of his survival needs.

A cowboy hat with tattered straw edges covered his hairline, but judging by the streaks of gray in his eyebrows, his head was most likely silver haired.  Against the darkness of the skin, his baby-blue eyes stood out and promised me that I was talking to a good one.  I quickly permitted for a flash of memory of my own old man — (What would he look like, now?) — and I decided that this one had to be meaning well.

“She ain’t so bad,” I said.  I shook my head and smiled from underneath my own embarrassment on behalf of the City that everyone was so willing to leave.  The moderately pleasant woman handing me my smoothie from behind the counter looked sideways at the cowboy, then at me.

So, I reiterated to them both:  “No, really.  She ain’t so bad.”

The night before I fled Her city limits, I took a risk and climbed up onto the 10 East.  I was initially going to zoom through side streets, out of habit, while circumventing the intersecting onramps and the already buzzing malls.  But when nearing a freeway underpass, I noticed the dashing by of traffic headlights.  The cars were moving for a change, and so I took a risk.

At first, my path had to be negotiated with an impatient female driver of some Japanese-made SUV on her way to the Valley:  She demanded her right of way toward the 405 merger by scowling and widening of her heavily made-up eyes at me, through her tinted, rolled-up windows.

“I’m not the one driving with an iPhone glued to her ear,” I thought, and motioned for her to pass.

She zoomed in front of me, honked in a departing act of her aggression, then stepped on it.

“Yeah. You, too!” I muttered in response.  “You fuckin’…”

My navigation of the remaining six miles, however, lacked in adventures.  In silence, I calmed down.

The cars were moving, and for the first time, I noticed the clearness of the night.  It had been raining for a day and a half, and the asphalt in my lane was black and glistening.  On the North side of the freeway, in the crisp, clear air I noticed the square skyscrapers, all lit up in silver.  Is that Downtown?  Nope, too soon for that.

I rolled down my windows.  The air was crisp.  The City was quiet.  She smelled like sweating piles of leaves, pine sap and chimneys.  The hellish pace of the looming holidays was coming upon us; and with the exception of the City’s newcomers, flooding her with their yet un-jaded dreams, Her every resident would begin to plot escape routes.

“She ain’t so bad,” I thought, that night.

I was, however, already that someone who’d preplanned her routes out of the City.  To stick around would either turn out painfully lonely or exhaustingly disappointing.

And so, a day before the year’s first giant migration would begin, I drove out.  At first, my way had to be negotiated along the loop of the 405 merger.  But on the next Northbound freeway and for at least two hundred miles, the traffic would begin to move.

I studied the faces of the other drivers.  The further North I drove, the more relaxed the others would appear.  The permanent tension between my eyebrows softened, and I would talk myself out of my repertory of glares and profanity.

A gray-haired couple, cooped up inside their vintage Volvo hatchback along my ride through Santa Barbara, wasn’t talking.  But in their intimate silence, they seemed to be conspiring against the world.  A college-age girl in a white Honda with writing on its side window kept fiddling with her radio.  Had she forgotten the tensions at the Thanksgiving table of last year, or was she born to parents who loved her unconditionally?

Couples with strapped-in children in the backseats seemed talkative as they discussed the lengths of their future stays at each other’s in-laws.  The brown faces of Mexican workers seemed fancy free no matter the content of their weathered trucks:  Some could be working in the vineyards, others — driving to the wealthy ‘hoods of Cambria and Morro Bay.  The eyes of truck drivers appeared tired but content:  Migrating through the country always promised an escape from obligations and other people’s stress.

I realized that other travelers kept their eyes on their destinations.  They drove to:  To places and addresses of their beloveds.  To me, however, my from — was what propelled me:

From Her — I’ve learned to get away.  From Her — I’ve learned to leave and somehow learn while leaving.  But the more froms I would accumulate, the more often I found myself thinking, “She ain’t so bad” — when heading back.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

If it snowed on New Year’s, it would have to mean good luck.  That’s what the old folks said.  Or, so my motha told me.

To me, it would just mean magic:  That no matter how dry the winter promised to be, we could wake up to an already sleepy town, with mellow women and hungover men; and we would move ever so slowly — ever so gently, for a change — through a brand new sheet of snow.  It would mean a clean slate.  A promise of a new beginning.  A hidden prayer — for a better year.

The only citizens of the town still giddy from the night before would be the children.  For us, the first of every year meant gifts under the sparkling pine trees in the living-room.  And it meant truce, for all of us:  for the tired adults, tortured by survival; for unhappily married parents; for the intrusive force of poverty, uncertainly and chaos. Truce, on just that one day.  Truce.

The preparations for the celebration at midnight would be in full swing, in almost every household.  Motha would prepare for it, weeks before.  She’d start with a new haircut, and possibly new color on her nails.  Regardless the tight budget affected daily by inflation, she’d manage to whip out a new outfit for herself.

The hunt for foods would begin several weeks before the holiday.  Things would be preserved.  Money — borrowed, portioned out.  And just a couple days before the actual Eve, the cooking would begin.

School, of course, would be out for me; and I was expected to help out in the kitchen for that week.  Nothing crucially important though:  Peeling of potatoes or scaling of pickled fish.  I would boil eggs and root vegetables for the layered Russian salads.  I’d roast parts of chicken or grind the meat for the stuffing of cabbage parcels.  I would battle with pots of rice that took forever to get soft, and then would burn immediately.

Some days, I would be trapped inside while watching pots of stews or motha’s reinvented borscht.  And as I tended to the burners, I studied the darkening sky for any promises of snow.  Because, despite the obvious presence of poverty and chaos in our lives, snow on the Eve would still mean magic — if not some better luck.

On the last day of preparations, motha would be chaotic.  All day long, she would run out in her leather, high-heeled boots:  to get her hair done, to pick-up a missing spice from a girlfriend across town; to drop off a gift to a high rank bureaucrat at the City Hall.  But mostly, she’d keep picking-up “deficits”, all over town:  produce, not necessarily delicacies, that we normally would not indulge in, any other time during the year.

Victorious, she would return:

“Hey, little one!  Look at this here!” she’d holler me out of my bedroom.

Just by the sound of her voice, I knew she was in a good mood.  I would emerge, with Tolstoy under my armpit, and find her beautiful flushed face in the hallway.  She’d have her make-up done, and for New Year’s, it would always entail sparkles.  The smell of crispy frost would intertwine with her perfume.

“So beautiful!” I’d think, and with my father’s eyes I’d understand the power of that woman’s witchcraft.

And then, I’d see the fox fur collar of her coat glistening with tiny drops of moisture.

“Is it snowing yet?” I’d say while motha, still in boots, would begin passing to me the tiniest jars of caviar or cans of smoked anchovies.

“I think it’s about to,” motha would respond, flirting.  (So beautiful!)

And for the first time in weeks, she’d suddenly remember that I was still a child.  And children only need magic, for survival.  Not wads of cash, or cans of “deficit”.  Not banners of protesting citizens against the old demagogues or the faces of the newest heros.  We do not need untimely compassion toward the vices of our parents.  We wish to know no gossip and no strife.

Just truce, if only on one day for every year.  Just the simple magic — of truce.

Motha would retreat into the kitchen and immediately start banging metals.  I’d brace myself for more work.

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

I would run out, in an unbuttoned coat.  On every flight of stairs, new smells would smack my nose from every household.  To call upon my friends would be useless on that last day of the year.  Like me, my girlfriends grew up way too quickly and would be cooking in the kitchen until the arrival of their guests.  But in magic, I rarely needed company.

I wouldn’t even go very far:  Just to the lawn in front of our apartment building.  I’d watch the waltz of snowflakes against the darkening sky.  They would catch the light of egg yolk foam colored street lights and descend onto my mittens of rabbit fur.  There would be not enough snow on the ground to make braided patterns with me feet yet.  But just the sight of a new beginning — would be magical enough.

Before heading back home, I’d look up to our window and often see my motha’s face.

“So beautiful!” I’d think and understand the magic of truce, if only once a year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stubbornly.

“Where Are You Going, My Little One, Little One?”

It was her skirt that I noticed first:  one of those floor-length gypsy numbers, with wide parallel stripes of different colors all best found on a yarn of some baby blanket, or in a pack of dyes for Easter eggs.  The skirt looked vintage and slightly tattered at the bottom where it touched the ground.  It may have been a tidbit too long for her, but she strutted in it well.

She wore a simple gray turtleneck on top and from a few times I saw the toes of her Uggs peak out from underneath the skirt, they too — were bluish-gray.  The tossed waves of her strawberry blond hair ran down the back of that sweater.  I wondered if she had freckles, like girls with such hair often do.  I wondered if she was prone to blush a lot; and when she slept, I bet she could disarm the world’s most ruthless villains and defeat her mother’s monsters.

I slowed down.

Her three brothers were walking a few steps behind her.  The oldest one could not have been older than five.  But the boys were already of that age when they understood that no matter how much younger she may have been, hers would be the last word, in the family.  To them, it was still child’s play and video games; but she already knew how to stand-in, when mom was busy.  And I imagined she had a stool that was brought out every night, into the kitchen — specifically for her; and there she stood, becoming a woman as she adoringly studied her mother’s cooking.

A couple of times she turned to look at the young boys, checking if all three were still in tow.  If one was walking too close to the road or climbing up a dirty hill, he would immediately get back into a safer place.  But she’d keep walking ahead, a few steps behind her mother — a tall, lean woman with the gypsy-girl’s hair and the strut that her daughter was trying on these days.  (These would be the privileged days still, I hoped her mother knew; the days when in her little daughter’s eyes, she was still her deity.)

Truth be told, I could never pull off the little girl’s style.  I wear skirts like that, for sure.  But to double them up with a sweater was more like what those cool hippie chicks would wear, in the vicinity of NYU.  Her hair was messy, but not from a lack of care.  I wondered if she had just began to learn the lengths and hairstyles she liked the most and wearing hair ties around her tiny wrists.  In the manner of her mother, she’d learned already how to tie her hair back with lightening speed, in moment ready for play or bedtime.

I’m not the one to walk around here much; and I would prefer to never park in these alleys late at night.  There used be a giant homeless man who lived here, sleeping always in the same spot — along the gray wall of some sound stage; and he would guard these streets.  Like everyone in Hollywood, he had his own story; and that story had to do with broken family, a quick rise to fame, then loss of everything — and after that, survival.  So many times, he’d been arrested and led away, only to reappear at his same spot a few days later. With him, standing in dark corners or sitting on the curbs, I somehow felt protected.  But now, he’s gone; with nothing but a vigil by his wall.

The girl began to let her brothers pass her.  Her mother had, by now, located the family’s silver van, and she opened the door on the passenger side, closer to the curb.  The boys took their time conquering the vehicle.

The tiny gypsy-child looked around — and then, she let out a twirl!  Just one 360-degree twirl!  It was the same move I’d seen girls do in their brand new dresses, often times around other girls or when dancing at a wedding.  And while they turn their feet in one place, they lose themselves in the fabric rising underneath their eyes.  They still see magic.  To them, the world is still extraordinary.

She finished twirling, gathered her loose locks again, and threw them over the right shoulder.  That’s when she noticed me, smiling.

She gave me an askance look:  That was twirl was meant to be between her and her imagination only!

I got embarrassed, but even as I lowered my eyes and sped up to my own car, parked on the other side of the street from the silver van, I kept her image living underneath my eyelids.

She was a girl on the verge of growing out of her childhood.  But how I prayed that some of it — would never leave completely!

“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.