Tag Archives: youth

“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.

“You’d Better Come on, in My Kitchen, Babe: It Going to Be Rainin’ Outdoors.”

The women would gather around at mid-afternoon.

All throughout the last weeks of every autumn, they took turns visiting each other’s kitchens.  The ones that arrived to my grandma’s house were the victims of a village-wide fame of being the best cooks, for kilometers around.  Grandma was somewhat of a matriarch herself who flaunted her expertise like the first Soviet Martha Stewart.

The women’s morning duties would have been long completed:  Their cows and sheep were milked and herded out to the fields and placed under the supervision of the blond and freckled Don Juan, Vanechka.  The children were washed, the men — fed and guided out of the front gates.  The adolescent rascals, visiting their grandparents for the summer, who turned increasing brown day by day, would find salvation from the heat by the river bank.  The old women, with poor appetites, were given a glass of fresh milk, still foaming with the temperature of a cow’s body, and a slice of warm bread.  They then flocked the benches — like birds on a telephone line — for hours; and with their nearly toothless gums, they chewed sunflower seeds and gossiped.  (You could always tell their most favored bench by the layers of black hulls surrounding its wooden legs, like seashells.)

When the front gate of the house began squeaking, I put down my book and listened up.  I’d never really been much use to the matriarch of the house:  My housework was obviously not up to her standards.  So, it was better to stay out of her way all together.

“Doesn’t your mother teach you anything?!” the old woman bickered and breathed down my neck while I clutched a soapy dishrag or the handle of a bucket with filthy, brown water with which I had just scrubbed the floors of the hallway and the storage room.  “Gimme that!  I’ll show you how.”

But I wasn’t really in the mood for lectures.  Holding back my tears with a single raised eyebrow, I would march off into the furthest removed room of the house:  The front veranda with giant windows and a single cot.

“Well, would you look at her?!” the old woman nagged behind my back.  “Can’t even say a word to her!”

As soon as the veranda door was sealed shut with a metal hook, I would anticipate visiting the never seen landscapes of snowy Saint Petersburg in the novels of Dostoyevsky; or the wild forestry occupied by the courageous cossacks of Sholokhov.  There was no room for the nature worshiping lyrics of Yesenin, or the gentle romance of Alexander Blok.  No way, man!  Fueled by the unjust opposition of my father’s people to my motha’s clan, I fancied myself belonging to the oppressed.  I was certainly en route to a rebellion:  An untimely outraged young female revolutionary worthy of being commemorated next to the poster of Lenin!

In the days of motha’s absence, after a number of such confrontations with the relentless matriarch, I would eventually would move myself out of the house entirely.  And by the time my motha ventured back to her in-laws, she’d find me living in the veranda, by myself, with a plastic white rabbit being my only confidant.

Most summers, she would return toward the end of our stay.  Smelling of expensive European perfumes and the thrill of the city life, she, like me, was not allowed to participate in the housework.  But then, if she arrived on time for these gatherings of the townswomen, her pride would force her to march out into the kitchen — in a scandalously low cut housedress — and to help out.

First, the heads of white and purple cabbage would be brought up from the cellar underneath the kitchen.  The wooden barrels would be washed and left to dry out in the sun.  After the final headcount, grandma would begin distributing the duties:  Some women would be assigned to shred the crispy leaves, while others chopped, crushed and ground additional ingredients.  The hefty redhead with mittens on her manly hands would sterilize the two- and three-liter glass jars over a steaming bath.  The only single girl was given the task of matching lids and making labels:  Nothing that could damage her perfect and yet youthful skin, untouched by any man.

If motha insisted on joining the kitchen mayhem, she would be given a sack of onion heads to peal; and she would weep in front of other women, openly, while improvising some melodramatic monologue that caused the group to laugh hysterically.

My grandma rarely joined in.  Instead, she took her only daughter down to the cellar and supervised the organization of the storage space.

Eventually, lead by my rambunctious motha, the women would begin to talk about sex.  While pushing, crushing, mauling the transformed cabbage into jars, and buckets, and basins, and barrels, the women’s bodies flushed with burgundy red.  Their arms and breasts vibrated.  And they, while sweaty and flushed, with locks of hair sticking to their foreheads, would succumb to fits of laughter, as each confessed the habits of their husbands and ridiculed the strange and hardly satisfactory practices in their marriage beds.

“The second you call your man ‘a baby’, you gotta breastfeed the fucker,” my motha carried on with her routine.  The women hollered.  My grandma, scandalized, hid out in the cellar.  And I would climb up onto my hiding spot, above the stove, and memorize the scent of garlic and women’s sex, of which no Soviet male poet had yet told me.

“See the Stone Set in Your Eyes, See the Thorn Twist in Your Side — I Wait…”

The shades were closed.  The house was dark.  It had always struck me strange the way she’d keep all windows locked down, in order to keep the cold air inside.  The manufactured cool would dry out her skin and the house would smell mechanical.  She’d complain, blow the arid air through her deviated septum; then slather her age spots with some sort of bleaching cream.

She lived too close to the dessert; and only late at night, she’d give the house fans a rest.  Their constant humming would finally die down, and suddenly the sounds of gentle quietness in nature would be overheard through an occasionally open window.  The skin of my scalp would relax at the temples:  I would forget to notice my constant frown during the 20-hour long humming.  My face acquired new habits since living in this house, and I was beginning to forget the girl who had been asked to pay the price of her childhood — in an exchange for the better future.

But on that day, it was too early to allow the nature to come in, yet.  And as I entered the empty house, I immediately noticed the hum.  I had been gone for half a week:  too short of a time to forget the climate of this house entirely — and most definitely not enough to forgive it!  I took off my shoes, remembering the stare she’d give her visitors whenever they were too oblivious to obey.  Slowly, I began to pass from room to room.

The light gray carpet that covered most of the house’s footage was immaculately clean.  And if there was an occasional rug — under a chair or a coffee table — it usually marked an accidental spill of food or drink by a very rare house guest.  I’d be the only one who knew that though:  I’d witness all their hidden faults.  And she would run the vacuum every night, pulling and yanking it in very specific directions.  Those vacuum markings had to remain there undisturbed; and only those who didn’t know better were kindly permitted to destroy them with their footsteps.

I opened the bedroom’s double doors first but found no courage to come in.  Instead, I stood on the cold titles, on the other side, and studied the footsteps by her bed.  There was a cluster of them, right by the nightstand.  Is that where she had been picked up by the paramedics?  I looked for outlines of boots imprinted into the fur of the carpet.  I thought I saw none.

The living room carpet seemed undisturbed.  The markings of the vacuum, which she must’ve done the night before, were still perfectly parallel.  The cold tiles of the kitchen floor had no residue of food.  She’d wash those on her hands and knees with paper towels.  And she would go over it until the wet towel would stop turning gray.  No dishes in the sink.  No evidence of an unfinished meal.  No evidence of life at all.  I began to wonder where she’d collapsed.

The door to my former bedroom was shut.  Most likely, it had remained so since I’d departed.  I made it to the office — the only space where some disarray was less prohibited.  The bills where broken down by due dates and neatly piled perpendicularly, on top of one another.  Her husband had a habit of resting his feet on the edge of the corner desk, as he played on the computer for hours, until she’d fall asleep.  Then, he’d come into my bedroom.

My bedroom.  Its door was closed.  I turned the handle and expected for the usual catch of its bottom against the rug that she insisted on keeping on the other side.  Strangely, it covered up no visible spots.  I pushed it open.

It was a sight of madness.  One woman’s rage had turned the place into a pile of shredded mementos, torn photos and broken tokens of forsaken love.  The bedcovers were turned over.  The sheets had been peeled off the mattress two-thirds down, as if by someone looking for the evidence of liquids near my sex.  The stuffed toys which normally complete my line-up of pillows were now strewn all over the floor, by the wall opposite of my headrest.

On top of an overturned coffee table I saw my letters:  My cards to her and hers — to me.  She’d even found the letters in my parents’ hand, and she shredded them to piece.  Nothing was off limits.  No love was sacred after hers had been betrayed.

I stepped inside to see the other side of one torn photograph that flew the closest to the door.  At first, I tried to catch my breath.  A feeling on sickly heaviness got activated in the intestines.  In murder mysteries that she adored to watch with me, I’d seen detectives scurry off into the corner furthest from the evidence, and they would throw up — or choke at least — at the atrocity of crimes against humanity.  Apparently, my insides wanted to explode from the other end.

I paced myself.  Carefully, that I, too, would not collapse, I bent down and picked up the shredded photo.  It was my face, torn up diagonally across the forehead.  On the day of my high school graduation, her husband had come over to the side of the fence where we were beginning to line up.  I can see the faces of my classmates in the background.  They smiling at his lens.  They are supposed to, as he — was “supposed” to be my father.

He was not.  And I’m not smiling.  I’ve raised one eyebrow, and my lips are parted as if I’d just told him to fuck off.  Not even there, he would allow for me to be without him.  Not even there, I could be alone for long enough to remember the girl who’d been asked for her childhood in an exchange… for what?

“Ah, Gur-url! (Inhale.) Girl, Gur-url!”

“There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom.  The rest is merely gossip, and the tales for other times.” —

Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm 

He was young — oh, so young! — but not convoluted at all, which is a rarity in itself.  He sat with his body turned toward me at a 45-degree angle, playing with the ice cubes on the bottom of his tall glass; but never letting go of me, with his eyes.

“What are you drinking?” he started up.  I could feel it with my skin cells:  The kid was NOT into chatter much.  He actually wanted to know.

“Um,” I chuckled and looked at my ice-less glass.  “Tomato juice.”

And I nodded.  I am not a barfly, mostly for that very same reason:  I don’t drink.  So, I nodded while bracing myself for the irony some tipsy idiot was about to point out.

The kid picked-up my glass and he sniffed it.

That scene!  It reminded me of that scene, in a quirky film about doomed love:  She asks him for a piece of chicken, and without his answer, takes it.  Just like that!  She reaches over and takes a chicken leg from his paper plate; and he is immediately disarmed at her lack of pretense and the intimacy at which he’d had to do no work, whatsoever.

The kid put down my glass, exactly into the water ring it had marked on my bev nap earlier.  Then, he nodded and pouted with his lower lip:

“That’s cool!” he said, without showing me his version of a deprecating smirk.

My self-defense was unnecessary, here; and all the jokes at my own expense popped, like soap bubbles on a child’s palm.

I had been approached by men at bars before (and I had been approached by women, as well).  Most of the time, with their courage slightly loosened by liquor, they negotiate their desire immediately.  But they’re never drunk enough to say it bluntly:

“I want your sex,” for instance.

Or:

“I just want to fuck around, for bit.  Is that okay?”

Instead, they loom, while flirting clumsily and waiting for me to bite the bait.  It’s amusing, most of the time, to observe the habit of other people to get in their own way.  (It’s also the reason I don’t drink:  I like to watch, instead.  That; and the fact that my sober tendencies of getting in MY own way — are already quite sufficient; and I needn’t be drunk to get a clearer look at myself.)

Soon enough though, the men get distracted:  Their drunken charm refuses to work on me.  What they don’t realize is that their honesty might’ve gotten them a lot more.

Eventually, they move on though — to someone easier, I suppose.  But while they loom, my drunken courtiers sneak peaks at other barflies — and butterflies — with whom their charm wouldn’t happen in vain.  They’re always pretty, those other girls, and more willing, perhaps.  So, I let the men move on quickly:

“Go loom elsewhere, honey.  It’s okay.  Really.”

But this kid:  He was different.  He would study the other women openly, and sometimes, at my own direction.

“SHE — is gorgeous!” I’d mutter into my thin straw; and so, he would look, in silence.

What was he looking at, I would wonder?  Was it the silky shimmer of her brown shoulders?  Was it the beauty mark revealed by a backless dress?  The curvature of her rear?  The endlessness of her naked legs leading up to heaven?

What was it like to be so young — and to want so much?  

So, he would look at the other women, but then return to me — always.  He was one of those:  The type that tended to hit things right on the nose.  He would ask me questions that would make me shift in my seat; and under his examination, I, too, began studying the girl in a wraparound dress with no underwear lines, anywhere along her body.  I was studying — me.

I surprised myself when I asked him about his mother.  I could feel her, distances away, praying that her son was under the care of only good people.  Only good women.  She would have a confident face, I imagined, just like her son’s:  With no ticks to betray her habit of getting in her own way.  I couldn’t possibly know the extent of her courage yet; what it was like to let her child leave her watch.  But I was pretty sure that if I were a mother, I too would hope — and I too would pray! — for the goodness of other people.  Of other good women.

He spoke of her willingly.  It was unlikely for a young man to be aware of the sacrifice a mother must make.  But this kid — this young man — understood the courage of a woman’s heart:  The courage it took — to be a good one!

“I’m not sure what it is…” he would say to me later.  “I’m not sure what it is — about you.”

His hands would be steady:  They knew the common crevices along a woman’s body; but he had yet to learn the specificity of mine.

“It’s just sex,” I’d tell him, “and that’s okay.  Really.” And I would cradle his head, brush his hair and soothe his eyelids.

He was under a care of one good woman.  And the good woman, waiting, praying for him from distances away, had absolutely nothing to worry about, that night.

“She Works Hard for the Money! So Hard for It, Honey!”

“I am… um… parent.  Every-thing changes.”

She stands at about my height.  I rarely see much difference between me and other women, though:  And unless they’re tall enough to grace the covers of beauty magazines — or the streets of Manhattan — I consider them pretty much my height.

Although born on the coast of Mexico, her skin bears the same caramel color as mine.  Her face, I can tell, used to be very pretty, even doll-like.  Her formerly black hair is snow streaked with gray highlights; and it is gathered in the back of her head into a thick ponytail of luscious curls.  Rich women would kill for thick hair like that!

I catch myself wondering how much she would have aged — had her life not been so hard.

I bet there is an encyclopedia of domestic tricks up this woman’s sleeve:  Washing her hair with egg yolks, making masks out of avocado and honey, moisturizing her heels with Bengay.  I’ve seen my own motha invent a few of those.  We are immigrants:  We get crafty, in survival.  For life is relentless:  It takes a toll on all of us all, but it’s most unforgiving — to us, women.

“I come herre… twenty fah-yv jears,” she formulates her words slowly.  “I am… um… sixteen jears.”

“Me too!” I say, and I begin nodding and smiling aggressively:  Just anything to make her feel understood.  “I was sixteen too!”

I want to tell her to switch to her native language, because I am pretty sure I get the gist of her already.  Despite the difference between our birth coasts, we seem to speak of the same tales.

But then again, maybe not:

I keep flaunting my American education in order to impress employers with gigs at a higher rate.  She — cleans houses for a living.  I tend to get hired to work the phones and to organize the lives of others that have gotten cluttered with too many demands.  She — creates order in other people’s homes, with her no longer soft, but womanly hands.  Besides the existences of my bosses, I am responsible primarily for myself.  She — has three kids to take care of, and a boyish husband.

“You?  No marr-rried?” she asks me.

The importance of family defines happiness in her culture; so, I get slightly embarrassed for a moment.  Despite the difference between our birth coasts, I so very much want us to be alike.  Is it this woman’s approval that I’m striving for; or just her empathy?

In one breath, I deliver:  “NoIamnotmarried.”

“In a couple more years, you’ll be middle-aged,” a man has declared the other day.

This woman’s arms are cradling a tiny dog; and in the folds of her stomach, he easily goes to sleep.  Her figure belongs to a mother:  She is fuller, curvier than my boyish frame.  Her hands are more sure and seemingly more knowing than mine.

“Is good you no married so soon,” she says.  She must’ve picked up on my embarrassment.  “Life more hard.  I am… um… parent.  Every-thing more hard.”

I ask her about her kids:  She nods and smiles when describing each of the three:  a two-year old baby-girl and a little boy.  Her oldest daughter wants to be a nurse.  When she speaks of her husband, she averts her eyes; and despite the slow manner of her chosen worlds, she quickly switches the topic to his job.

“Is good…” she concludes.  “Warehouse.  Down.  Town.  Is good!”

The little dog shifts on her stomach and extends his fluffy paws toward me. I take them and rub the un-callused pillows on the bottom.  She laughs and teases the bangs above his eyes; and when her hand brushes against mine, I notice that her skin is tougher than the one I’m rubbing in between my fingers.

“You…  work?” she asks me.

“Of course,” I say and begin listing my gigs.  This is the first time I doubt she understands me.  To my own ears, I begin sounding busy, and slightly fussy.  So, I stop.

I interrupt my list.  “Everybody works here,” I conclude; and the woman begins nodding and smiling aggressively.  She is getting the gist of me.

I study her eyes:  She stands at my level, and most definitely — at my height!  But then she leaves for work; and I reluctantly begin mine.  It’s life — at work; and in its working, it is especially unforgiving to us, women.

“It’s in the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride of my step / The curl of my lips…”

I had a dream last night:  of walking into a room full of beautiful women.

Some of them, I’ve known for years; a few of them for long enough to have forgotten their faces.  Some of the other faces could’ve belonged to my future, perhaps.

When I entered through the door with chipping white paint — a door that was more obedient to the pull of gravity than that of its rusty hinges — every woman looked up at me:  A stunning constellation of loving, familiar eyes sprawled before me; each pair of eyes — with its own story of similar pathos that have led us all to the common denominator of womanhood.

A tearful redhead sat at the teacher’s desk, up front.  I assumed she was leading the classroom.  Lines of poetry were written on a blackboard behind her.

“I’d seen her somewhere,” I thought in my sleep.

Perhaps, she borrowed her details from my Russian Lit. professor back in the old country.  That one was a tall, mighty blonde that might have stepped off the pages of Nekrasov’s poetry.  Or:  She could’ve been one of those pre-Napoleon aristocrats, attending a ball in St. Petersburg, while wrapped in the fur of a red fox and emeralds to accentuate her gorgeous green eyes.

Her name was Tatiana.  She had a middle name, of course; but in a radical fashion, she demanded we didn’t use it.

“By god, I’m only a few years older than you all!” she’d correct some brown noser testing the air, in class.

True, we were all quite young then, and typically confused.  But we had grounds for it though:  Our country was falling apart at the seams.

One morning, Tatiana walked into my first class of the day in a solemn mood.  Her magnificent hair of a Russian blond beauty was pulled back into a messy bun; and by her eyes, we could tell that she either hadn’t slept or had been crying all morning.  Or both.

It was common for Tatiana to bring up politics in class.  After all, she belonged to our generation:  of curious and passionate, and justifiably confused.  But that morning, she would remain silent, stunning all of us with the expectations of the worst.  And she would stare out of the window while burying her chin into the cream-colored crocheted shawl wrapped around her magnificent, mighty shoulders.

Inspired by a thought, every once in a while, she would look at us and inhale, as if grasping enough air to deliver the news.  Breathlessly, we watched her.

Caution:  Courage at work.  

But she would lose the train of thought, tear up again and bury her face in the shawl.  After the longest minutes of our assuming the worst, Tatiana left the classroom; and none of us would see her again.

But I would — in my last night’s dream, about walking into a room full of beautiful women.

There were a few from my college years:  Of various heritages, they were American-born, opinionated and seemingly fearless:  The tall one, with an Irish brogue, had been known to lead her life along a courageous path of rebelling against the confines of tradition. The quiet brunette, cradling her little girl in the corner — under a tent of her long East Indian hair — had been burdened with the most gentle of hearts I had ever loved.  And I had loved her the most — and oh, for so very long! And I had known the brown, graceful one with the pixie haircut very little back then.

A handful of others came along after my most innocent years of womanhood.

The one who stood up to applaud me had recently left for her homeland:  She had always been luminous and proud, in the way of an African queen.  She wore a heavy necklace when she left for her odyssey:  something borrowed from the neck of Nefertiti.  And she wore that again, in my dream.

The poetess who had guided me toward a path of quiet victory had borrowed a headdress from my favorite writer of Caribbean descent.  And she walked to the front of the room to introduce me.  

I struggled with the door for a moment, then pushed it with my hip. There is nothing in the world that won’t obey a woman’s hip!  On it, we bounce our children, or carry the weight of our unhappy burdens.  With it, we can dislodge any jam in our way; make a man lose his sleep over it, or find his rest — in its soft curvature.

“Well…  That’s been conquered,” I said to the women, once I turned around.  They laughed:  A sound that may have made me smile in my sleep.

While the laughter subsided, I studied the floor under my feet:

There was none.  Just dirt, covered with loose planks of wood; and as I made my way across them, the boards chomped and sank into the wetness.  I couldn’t tell where exactly we had gathered that day:  Which of our old countries had granted us refuge.  But this morning, I had slept in, for a change, missing the sound of my alarm clock and the call of my obligations. And I would have much rather remained dreaming.

“Big Black Boots. Long Brown Hair…”

“The definition of growing up is that you are supposed to get better at tolerating ambiguity.” — Jeff Tweedy

Oh, but we always know what we’re doing, don’t we, ladies?  Between the hair flipping, and the chin tilting; and the swoon-worthy flutter of our lashes; the sway of our hips and the elongating devices for our legs; the belts, the garters, the built-in bustiers:  Oh, how deadly our choices can be!

Karina Lombard

The curvature of our breasts and the narrowing slide of our waistlines rarely fails, especially if we get enough tools to accentuate the details.  The mere apothecary of our perfume-infused lotions and bottled scents is enough to send a man spinning into a life-long addiction.  Most of us are soft to the touch; and sometimes, our skin shimmers in the light.  And when the skills come out, what is a man to do?

We know exactly how to announce our availability — or the possibility of that availability.  And even if that availability is a mere illusion, the attention it receives sometimes is a sufficient reward — for all the above mentioned troubles.

We don’t always know why we are doing it.  Some of us do it for the money, in those jobs that hire us for the tricks.  Others do it for money in a one-on-one basis with their male victim of choice.

But I’ve known some of those girls who thrive on the male interest alone.  Fuck it, I’ve BEEN — one of those girls!

One of those girls who would approach every male as a conquest, leading him on for just long enough to not diminish his manhood.

One of those girls who would quickly confuse sex for love.  But sex — is just sex:  When done correctly, it can be quite wonderful; but it CANNOT be confused for anything else.

One of those girls who would feel “used” or “empty”; or god forbid, “lonely”, after all of it was tried and settled; and she would quickly suffer the consequences of her self-delusion via shame and loathing.

And I have also known those girls who always prefer the company of men.  It validates them.  So, they amputate themselves from the rest of their gender.  And it’s painstaking to watch a woman of such great insecurity navigate her way through a man’s world.  One of those girls — I have never been, so I don’t really catch their drift. But, god bless ‘em, anyway!

I was pontificating all of that the other night, as I was waiting to yield onto Hollywood Boulevard and get the hell outta dodge, on a Friday night.  It was a tricky spot located at the curb of one busy 7-Eleven.  There, you gotta deal with all the stray drivers making their stops for all kinds of irrational calls of nature.  The parking lot of the joint opens directly into a lane that merges with the 101.  So, any sucker like me — trying to make it into the second lane — better possess a vocabulary of telepathic stares and classical-conductor-like gestures, in order to bypass the other baffled and irritated drivers trying to make their way onto the fucking freeway.  And we’ve all got less than half a block to get to our lane of choice.

The clock was nearing midnight, and the entire process was slowed down by the traffic on the opposite side of the street where a newly opened club’s parking lot was swallowing and spitting out expensive cars on a second-by-second basis.  The penguin uniforms of the valets were slipping in between traffic, on both sides of the street; and the cars kept on coming out of the 101 off-ramp and taking their place in the miserable congestion.  The rules didn’t seem to apply to that particular demographic of drivers, and every once in a while we would be made privy to some impressive U-turns and parking tricks.

The head of a giant, spinning spotlight machine was happening in the background of all that circus.  For a few minutes there, I was mesmerized; and a honk by a middle-aged man in a rickety Honda got my attention:  He was waving me in while granting me one of those same telepathic gazes.

Immediately, I

–  nodded,

–  waved,

–  and merged.

(Oh, and then, I waved again, in between my two seats, to make sure — that she was sure — that I was very grateful.)

Now, trying to bypass the freeway traffic, I turned on my left blinker and began waiting for someone else to let me enter into the middle lane.  But the sight of two honeys trying to cross ahead diverted the best of my attention again.

They were both tall, brown and gorgeous.  One was wearing a flowing baby-doll dress of canary yellow (and I respect any woman who can pull off that color).  But regardless of her appeal, it was her girlfriend that I could not stop watching:  In a skin-tight little black dress that barely covered her glorious behind, she was trying to lead the way, in a pair of transparent stripper heels.  A couple of times, she would step off the curb into the merging lane and attempt to make her way across.  But after a few more steps, she would get scared and scurry back to the curb, while pulling down the non-existent bottom of her dress to cover the spillage of the ass.

I got awoken by a honk on my left:  A kind woman in a black Land Rover was waving me in.  I wondered if I was the only one spacing out on the girls.  Perhaps, their choice of attire failed to seduce the rest of the angry Hollywood drivers; and I as began navigating at a much more favorable speed, I wished them better luck for the rest of the night.

But I also felt grateful:  for having grown out of being — one of those girls.  For giving up on this chronic dance of ambiguous seduction and promises that can be prolonged enough — to be broken or misconstrued.  For learning how to sit and live in my own perfectly soft skin.  For knowing how to hold the ground with my womanhood that finally had absolutely nothing to prove.

Yet still, I couldn’t stop thinking — about those girls.

“Freedom’s Just Another Word — for Nothing Left to Lose.”

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” 

Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”

I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly.  I could see myself:  A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.

I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown.  I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place.  My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions.  Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.

Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much.  A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.

As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.

She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed.  I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message.  It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news.  The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces.  It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness.  I was about to find out which.

My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.

“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.

“I know.  They are still on hold,” she answered.

The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine.  I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy.  My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.

The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes.  There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.

“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.

Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:

She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?

Make a list of all the things, they told me:  things to be placed inside her coffin.  Did I know which she had treasured the most?

Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted:  Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?

And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead?  (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath:  After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)

The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place.  No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes.  Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.

“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.

On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering.  They had wanted us to start early:  The first burial of the day.  And the morning would be so cold, and dewy.  The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you.  It means so much.

The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet.  The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad.  I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.

I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.

“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”

What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:

Where would I end up?  And would I end up free?

And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

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

“All You Got To Do — Is Try… Try A Little Tenderness.”

And you know what I’m doing today?

Nothing.

That’s right.  I’m doing nothing, in a Kundera sorta way.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I wake up late due to the afternoon sun blazing through my window.  (The shades are helpless against this blazing.)  I wake up to sunlight, and not to the monotonous tune of my alarm clock.  I wake up to another day.  (I’m helpless against waking.)

And when I do wake up, I stay in bed, despite the habitual bounce of my thoughts about the stuff that needs to get done.  It’ll get done.  Eventually.  So, I stay in bed, reading.

The more fragmented my schedule, the lesser are the chances of my reading a book, these days.  A whole book:  Not a book of vignettes by a Parisian melancholic, or of poetry by an angry American alcoholic.  A book, a long novel, or an epic story hasn’t rested in my palms in a long time.  I still read though — but of course! — in between the fragments of my day.  But I never read in bed.

But today:  I do.  Because I’m doing — nothing.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I take a scorching hot shower with a bar of handmade soap with tea tree oil and oats.  It smells like the pine tree bathhouses that my people would heat up for each other, late at night — before a generous dinner but after the hard work — and they would come out with red and calm faces of innocence, long ago traded in for survival.

I take the first sip of my black coffee:  I’m feeling peckish, I must say.  I haven’t eaten the first meal of the day, and I’m about to skip the second.  But there is no way I’m cooking today:  Because I’m doing — nothing. 

Nothing, as in:  I walk to the farmers’ market.  I do not drive.  Instead, I accompany my kind man who tells me the fables from his previous day.  His long stories.  As we walk, we study the neighborhood:  The homes that sit at an architectural intersection of San Francisco and Venice Beach.  Homes with abandoned toys in their play pins and enviable tree houses decorated with Chinese lanterns.  Homes with old vintage cars in their gravel covered driveways and disarrayed trash bins at the curb.  Homes I’ve promised to build for my people — my kind people — and my child.

I watch an older couple approaching us:  I wonder what I would look like, when I’m older.  And I shall be older, certainly.  The romantic notion that I would die young has expired with forgiveness.

And now:  I want to live, in perseverance and stubborn generosity; and every day, I want to start with a clean slate on the board of my compassion.

What time is it?  I have no clue.  I do not own a watch and my cellphone has been off since the very early hours of this morning, when I was just getting to be bed after a night of seeing old friends and playing cards until we began to feel drunk from exhaustion.

I think of them — my friends, my kind people, my kind man — as I walk, and I can see the white tents the hippies and the hopefuls have pitched behind a plastic barricade.  They’re all so specific, I get inspired to see them in a book:  A long novel about perseverance and stubborn generosity; an epic story in which its heroine travels toward her forgiveness.

“When you forgive — you love.”

Someone else has written that in a romantic story about dying young.  I don’t want to do that:  I want to live.

Yes, I want to live.

We purchase things that only speak to our taste buds:  Black grapes and persimmons.  Sun-dried tomato pesto and horseradish hummus.  Sweet white corn and purple peppers.  I watch a tiny curly creature with my baby-fat face and a unibrow dancing around her mother’s bicycle, in a pink tutu and leopard uggs.  I look away when she tickles my eyes with tears only to find a brown face, even tinier, resting over a sari-draped shoulder of her East Indian mother.  Live, my darling child.  I want you — to live.

My kind comrade and I walk over to the handmade soap store:  I want more smells of home.  We both notice her:  She is African and tall — PROUD — with dreadlocks and a pair of bohemian overalls.  How could you not notice her:  Her face belongs to a heroine traveling toward her own forgiveness.

“Are you doing okay?” a very gentle gentleman asks us from behind the counter.

I smile into the jar of eucalyptus body butter and nod:  Zen.

“How could they not be okay, here?” the heroine making a rest stop on her journey toward forgiveness says.

We laugh.  All four faces in this store are calm.  They are calm with innocence long traded-in for survival.  But then again, maybe it’s just compassion.  (And I’m helpless — against it.)

“I was riding my motorcycle this morning,” my proud heroine starts telling us a fable from her previous day.  Her long story.

At the end of it, we would laugh.  Not wanting anything from each other, but having so much to give back, we laugh with lightness.

We laugh — with nothingness, in a Kundera sorta way.

I think:  We are no longer innocent.  But that’s quite alright, I think.

Because with enough forgiveness, compassion often takes its place.  Compassion takes the place of innocence.  And that’s quite alright, I think.  And I want to live — a life of that.

Yes.

I want to live.