Eulogy

crawling on all fours
in front of your new plasma
trying to decipher
if my Three-year-old’s plastic hammer
scratched your new tv?
Asking your elder daughter
to crawl with you,
“Yes! It is there,” she exclaimed
“Right there,
he scratched it.”
(You know she has your voice?)

You said that you always knew who you loved
but when you told;
first your mom
then your Shrink
that You wanted
to be normal.
Shrink
supposedly said
Sexuality
is a preference.

You wanted me to witness
unraveling of your normal…
to meet Her.
My homophobia had to wait by the door
Its still there.

You are crawling in front of your plasma
and I am watching you squint
And
I wonder if sexuality is really a choice…

Your husband’s voice on the speaker,
“Did he really scratch our new tv?”
I grab my kid
Leave his sandals
And we flee.

Later,
Same old static
You scream that what everyone says is true
- I throw friends out like trash.

I calmly remind you
that its way past midnight
and time to crash.

And I hang up the phone.

An Epiphany.

“The story of my family. . .changes with the teller.”  ― Jennifer Haigh, Faith

To the real Victor for allowing me to believe in magic. Thank you and Good Night.

The first time I saw forbidden love was when I was about seven – except that I didn’t know that it was forbidden, nor did I know the actual word – was when my older sister took me to work with her.  She was an engineer and one of a few women in the work place.  I brought my book from home and my sister gave me some plain paper with a few pencils in case I wanted to draw.  But I was never much of a self-entertainer.  I wondered around the office trying to match the people I saw to what I had heard at home.  My sister frequently told our mom various stories pertaining to the drama at the office; Mom would be all into it, laughing and asking for specific details, until she would notice me, then, as if on cue, she would fake boredom and tell my sister, “Lara, its not good to gossip.” One of the stories I had heard was about a man named Victor, who seemed to be the most recurring protagonist in my sister’s office gossip.  From what I could put together over the years, Victor was not just the sole inspiration behind “you will not believe what he said today?” but also evoked pronounced pity from my sister and two other women at the office, whom my sister referred to lovingly as ‘my girls’.  Apparently, my sister and ‘her girls’ all felt sorry for him ever since the day his wife came to one of the Christmas Parties at the office.  My sister described her as bossy, incredibly unattractive (“what is he doing with her, Mom?”), and painfully boring.  Lara, also, repeatedly spoke of his sky blue eyes.  I didn’t really see the fascination there, as my sister’s eyes were already bright blue and the need to obsess with something one already possessed seemed silly.

But she was right, it was the blue eyes that I also remember seeing first –  I saw blue eyes, wavy blond hair and my sister’s arms wrapped around his neck.  He was sitting up straight in his office chair with my sister embracing him from the back.  Her arms were crossed on his chest, her hands enveloping his shoulders with a grip different from the way she hugged our parents or I. When he saw me, a mix of surprise and discomfort ran across his face and then I heard my sister’s familiar laughter.  Nobody laughed like my sister.  Still, nobody does.  (A few years ago, while on the phone with one of my on and off friends, I heard a few familiar notes in her laughter and it made me, instantly, forgive everything that caused the off part).  My sister laughed without really letting go of the embrace and said, “Victor, this is my little sister.  She is hilarious.”  She looked down pressing her chin into him,  “And this, is, our Victor, in a blue shirt with blue eyes.” I thought to myself that I might have been hilarious and funny-looking and whatever else, but I didn’t talk in this ridiculous sing-song-y manner about some strange man’s article of clothing and eye-color. I walked out of Victor’s office and read various hand-written notices to staff along the walls (I was very proud of my reading skills and read everything that there was to read); on one of them, I read that my sister was responsible for fire safety in the office and thought – who in their right mind, would entrust other people’s lives to this airhead who collected toy owls and laughed like a hyena?

After a day of unsupervised wondering around the office; too much candy from my sister’s ‘girls’, sitting on various people’s laps, cheeks pinched, and lectures courtesy of my annoyed sister; listless wondering around the office came to an end – I made it home and quickly forgot about the day as all happy children do.

Some years later, my sister got married and moved far away.  She had a little girl named Annabelle who was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.  I know, everyone says this about the first baby that enters their lives.  But Annabelle really was as exquisite as a baby girl could be. She was born with skin that looked as though she just arrived from a week in the Caribbean; brown eyes rimmed with endless lashes and seemed just content to be present. What, after all is beauty, if its not a sense of peace in one’s presence, a sense of comfort with the surroundings and oneself.

According to my enamored sister, she almost never cried and just serenely observed the world around her.  In Annabelle’s first year of life, I only saw her twice.  During one of those two visits, I almost dropped her from the stroller and it immediately became apparent to me that I was no longer my sister’s favorite little girl.   She shot an angry look full of annoyance and agitation, a look I couldn’t believe one could have for a sister one hasn’t seen in over a year…She barked, “Will you be careful, for once?  She isn’t a toy.  Stop showing off with your stupid Hemingway book under your arm, everyone already took note how well read you are.  Put your book away and focus on what you are doing.” The comment about the book stung.  True, I was very proud of being well read.  However, it was especially true, that I did bring “The Old Man and the Sea” on this particular trip to get approval from my sister.  I always carried books and what my sister didn’t know is that I also, always, carried her daughter’s photograph as a bookmark inside the pages of every book that I read.  When I lost Annabelle’s picture during a subway ride to school, my mom said I cried as though we, God forbid, lost real Annabelle.  I had many pictures of my niece since then but never did this attachment to a picture repeat itself.

Why some people feel familiar the first moment you see them, while others remain strangers after decades of friendship or acquaintanceship, is a type of question, that just as some people, is better left alone.  Poking into the metaphysical is satisfying only in theory; in reality it produces hopelessness and depression.  Why do we love people that we aren’t suppose to love is a similar type of question.

I didn’t know that my sister was dying.  I was pregnant with my first child and my parents claimed later that they were afraid for my pregnancy.  But I know that they were afraid for me.  All I was told is that my sister was suffering from depression and I wasn’t supposed to take anything she says personally.  I lived in New York and she lived in Dallas; her husband and I never found common ground and ever since my niece was born our closeness came with six-month interruptions at best.  And yet, in the last two years of her life we spoke almost every day.  How could I not tell that she was gravely ill?

During one of our conversations, she told me of a modernist painting she remembered looking at when she was pregnant with Annabelle.  It depicted a woman in late stages of pregnancy with endless phone wires attaching her head to her stomach.  My sister marveled at the accuracy of the painting.  She said pregnant women see and hear nothing except what goes on inside. She laughed at how silly it is to blame and sue employers for wanting to get rid of pregnant women at the workplace.  Only now, so many years since, did I understand that this wasn’t about employers or women’s rights. Everyday, on the phone, my compassion and focus was tuned in to the life that was forming inside of me not the life that was leaving her.   Last time I spoke with my sister was on her birthday.  It was January 7th,  and we had a typical ‘moody Lara, annoyed me’ type of exchange.  I think I hung up.

While I was spared watching my 39-year-old sister dying, my little niece was a front and center witness to the passing of her mother. A week after Lara died, my niece came to stay with me.  She was strictly instructed to not tell the-ever-so slightly unstable aunt about the passing of her sister.  I wonder what my parents were thinking in their assumption that this little girl was stronger than a new mother in her twenties. Regardless of the overarching age difference, my niece and I have always had a relationship evenly peppered with specks of jealousy.  My sister and I had an unspeakable bond and history long before Annabelle entered this world with her serene brown eyes. As for me, I was well aware of an even stronger unspeakable bond that exists between a mother and her child.  Our interaction for the first twelve years of Annabelle’s life succumbed to constant juxtapositions of experience.  I had known a younger, lighter Lara.  And around me, she had always embraced her goofiness and sang a lot.  Annabelle was jealous of our stories, of endless tales of five-year-old me coming to Lara’s bed in the morning on weekends, when Lara desperately wanted to sleep and tickling her into turning tv on.  We cuddled and watched ridiculously dumb morning shows.  Saturday mornings becoming the only time when I wasn’t ‘the annoying pest’ and she wasn’t the  ‘standoffish hyena.’   We were both drastically different from our parents and other relatives in our zest for life and occasional hysterical agitations.  We both talked non-stop and both believed in magic well into the years when believing in magic is considered a sign of a looming diagnosis at the shrink’s office.  To succumb to a cliché would be to describe us both as dreamers.  We refused to give in to the pragmatic necessities of this life, or as my father puts it, refused to grow up.  Both would easily spend the remaining forty bucks left on checking account, on purchases of the most non-pragmatic quality – some small funky magnets or a silly Shakespeare finger puppet for a random friend.  Our mom, my niece and her father were born knowing how to count money.  My niece, it seems, was also born with an alarm clock.  She is an early riser and an enviably organized person.

When she was in first grade and I came to Dallas for a week long visit, I wanted to read her a chapter from my favorite Judy Blume book; she was very excited and told me to come up at 7:30 right before her bedtime.  I procrastinated playing chess online or talking on the phone or just daydreaming, but when I came to her bedroom, Annabelle pointed at the clock and informed me that I was half-an-hour late and it was now her bedtime.  This unflinching characteristic in a seven –year-old was in stark contrast to seven-year-old me aimlessly wondering around my sister’s workplace seeking entertainment anywhere but inside my own space.

Many years since that day at the office, my thirteen-year-old niece sat next to me on the bed while I breastfed my firstborn, and talked unflinchingly about her mother, as though she was still alive.  It is those three days that are so hard to forgive myself for. I breastfed my child for what seemed like hours and my niece sat next to me for what seemed like hours.  Blessed or cursed with an ability to keep things inside, to entertain herself, to entertain me, mere seven days after she lost her mother.  Armed with my realization that Annabelle’s only crime had been that she was different from Lara and I, that she, in fact, wasn’t a robot, a cold pragmatist, a machine (particularly hurtful term my father used to describe Annabelle and her dad), I grew to get attached to the actual girl and not merely her a snapshot of her as a six-month-old.  As our relationship slowly transformed from mere competitiveness for who was, in fact, closer to Lara to a relationship of our own, we became comfortable enough to talk about the person that we competed over.  If time doesn’t heal all wounds, at the very least it conceals the rawness of the pain, so that the wound can be carefully touched.  I asked Annabelle about my sister’s last months, years after my sister was no longer here.  Annabelle talked a lot, she needed to talk a lot; I listened and didn’t listen… until she mentioned that my sister was in and out of consciousness for the last two months of her life and at one point forgot Annabelle’s name and called her Nadia.  I was about to repeat the only thing there was left to repeat, “Sweetie, I can’t imagine how much it hurt, how much all of it hurt…” When, my niece interrupted me and said that she had grown accustomed to this by then and that she was far more disturbed by her mother’s insistence that she, Annabelle, in fact had a brother.  Lara, coming in and out of the world that was about to swallow her whole, begged my niece to find her brother, she said his name was Alexander and he was only a few years older than Annabelle.  My niece asked her father and was told that when cancer spreads to one’s brain, one is no longer immune to believing things that have neither merit nor truth.

The moment when pictures in one’s mind – pictures made up of observations, overheard stories and snapshots of forgotten memories connect- is called an epiphany; the moment when I connected my sister’s plea to her small daughter to find her brother felt less like an epiphany and more like I fell through the ice.  My sister’s crying behind a glass door.  My father yelling at her at the bottom of the stairs that she is to quit being naïve or life will whip her even harder.   My sister’s bandana on her defiant forehead and screaming that she doesn’t have to live with my parents if they can’t accept the man she loves. My mom’s plea to accept that he has children, a wife, responsibilities, that he won’t leave his wife, that he is merely using her.  And me, years later, barely pregnant lying on the bathroom tile, exhausted from morning sickness that lasted into each afternoon, evening and night, dialing my sister….And her, telling me of two very different pregnancies….that being pregnant with a boy was different…that one time she barely managed to jump out of the bus before vomiting all over herself in the street…Victor’s blue eyes and look of discomfort when I walked into his office…  Lara must have been over four months pregnant to know with stubborn certainty that it was a boy…   My memories of snuggling with my sister on Saturday mornings had been shot through in a continuous, uninterrupted cinematic sequence. My goofy, lighthearted sister with a laugh that could wake up a log sleeping half a mile away, held on to her baby sister every weekend morning, while brewing the strength to terminate a life of a child, and say goodbye to the man she loved.   She must have succeeded in closing that compartment up until her own life was slipping away from her she hadn’t tried to reconstruct the pieces of the past.  But her pleas to Annabelle to find her brother ring with a final, excruciating attempt to validate a love and a life she almost lived.

2AM Photo

I don’t exactly wake up from the sound of the phone, but rather my husband’s elbow in my stomach.  “How many times do I need to ask you to turn your phone off before you go to bed?”  He shoves me to my side of the bed, towards my bedside table with a flickering phone on top of it, like a beacon in the darkness of our small bedroom.  I know my husband isn’t an angry guy, he just doesn’t want to wake our four-month-old and have to try to sleep to the sounds of crying baby. I quickly put the phone on silent and habitually tap the fluorescent green Messages window on my iPhone.  

At first, my groggy mind isn’t quite sure what I am looking at, but then I snort loudly trying to contain my laughter and get shoved in my stomach once again.  “Will you turn this damn thing off and stop radiating my head?” 

I stick my head under the comforter and zoom in on the picture of my old neighbor Xander.  In the snapshot, he is wearing my brother’s old baseball cap that says Goofy (quite appropriately!) above the velcro, that the latter left during one of his visits home.  How did it end up on Xander’s head? I try to think back to the last time he and my brother interacted?  And the last time he and I interacted?…

 Anyway, he is wearing a cap backwards as well as the very apparent blue eye shadow, generous strokes of blush and pink lipgloss.  Because its 2AM, i think even slower than I have already been thinking ever since the influx of hormones from my fourth pregnancy.  Why is Xander wearing makeup and my brother’s baseball cap?  Why did he send me this picture in the middle of the night? 

For a second I think that maybe he decided to come out of the closet, the way I accidentally forced my friend Jordan to come out in high school.  We were all at a big Thanksgiving dinner at Jordan’s house – my mom, her boyfriend, my brother with his first wife, me and my then boyfriend Drake with his mom, Drake’s cousin Jordan, his parents and some more relatives I can’t recall… I was quite sure that Jordan was gay and even more sure that it was common knowledge.  He was seventeen, gorgeous and showed absolutely zero interest in all the slutty girls in our high school that were throwing themselves at him. He dressed with an effortless cool, was neater than our school principal and knew every Madonna song by heart.  When my boyfriend’s mom, Jordan’s aunt, asked Jordan why he wasn’t playing football for our high school – “You have the looks and the physique, hun..” I blurted out  without pausing to think (unfortunately, I never outgrew this habit) – “Yeah, J, why not? Imagine all those dreamy Seniors tackling you to the ground.”  Jordan chocked on whatever he just put in his mouth, gave me an evil stare and quickly left the table.  As everyone got silent, I wanted to stick my foot in my mouth and choke on it to change the focus, but it was too late.  When i think back to it, however, I don’t even think my stupid comment was that obvious, but clearly Jordan wasn’t ready for these type of pronouncements or jokes.  Neither were his parents. 

But back to Xander..  Did he decide to come out to me at 2AM?  But the more i stared at the picture, the less oxygen I had under the new thick comforter that we just got at Kmart last week, the more I wished i could say that all this rouge and ridiculous make-up made him look less manly or less brute…

He and I became friends when we were ten.  I started fifth grade and he was the new kid that year.  He was athletic and very funny;  popular with the girls, so for a while, I didn’t approach him.  I was always easily intimidated by popularity.  Towards the middle of the year our class went on our annual field trip – to an ice-skating rink.  While my friend Sarah and I were holding on to each other, desperately trying to stay upright, she pointed out that he was looking at me.  I wanted to be half as cool as the other girls he hung out with, so I inquired: “What are you staring at?”  He shrugged and skated off.  

Back on the school bus he plopped right next to me before Sarah could say a word in protest.  “Your mom is really nice,” he said, and I found out that his older brother was in my mom’s class at the technical school down the street from our house, where my mom held her second job to pay for the house after my dad left us.  I don’t remember what else we talked about that day but our friendship progressed.  We walked to school and from school and sat together at lunch.  Sometimes he carried my backpack and at other times he hit me on the head with it.  We usually went to his house to do homework but ended up playing board games on top of an old wooden storage cabinet, so his younger brother Finn couldn’t get to us and steal all the game pieces.   When we got sick of board games we got more adventurous.  Sometimes, we jumped from the top of the storage cabinet across the room onto his sofa bed.  One time Xander missed, hit his head on the metal bed-frame and ended up in that same bed for three weeks with a severe concussion.  And it wasn’t even his first concussion, as he was proud to announce in class, three weeks later. Two years prior to the jumping incident, he slipped while blatantly ignoring the stupid sign “No Running” at the kiddie pool at the Y, rattled his brains quite a bit against the old cracked tile and ended up in the hospital for a while. 

 For three weeks, I brought him homework every afternoon but mostly stories of what happened at school while he was missing all the fun. I lay next to him for what seemed like an eternity, we were eleven, have been best friends for almost two years, and it didn’t seem awkward, except one time.  While watching some old movie on the vcr his dad only  let him have in his room for the time that he was on bed rest, we fell asleep.  When we woke up, his mom was standing over us saying that it was very late and time for me to go home.  I felt as though I was caught doing something wrong, I just wasn’t quite sure what it was.  Other than that aforementioned moment that as a child, I desperately tried to erase from my memory; I would shudder nervously when it would creep back up to the forefront of my recollection of memorable recent events; the three weeks on his sofa with as much potato chips as we wanted and more movies than we have seen in the entire year prior were nothing but unabashed joy (at least to me, as I was not the one with a severe concussion).

 And then I remembered.  Four summers ago, when Gaby was only 2 and my husband and I took her and our older son and drove down to the Outer Banks for a week in August. My brother came there too with his daughter, he and his third wife were on the brink of divorce, and we shared a small house in Corolla right on the beach.   We ran into Xander during our second night there while scanning the menu at the door of one of those seemingly plain looking restaurants that end up costing a fortune because they are the hidden treasure of the islands that are not so hidden anymore.  Gaby was crying because she missed her nap, and because my husband and I had a big fight in the car on the way to dinner, and it always took her a long time to calm down.  It still does.  Last week, her first grade teacher told her that she can’t chase boys during recess because its unladylike and because it will make boys not like her, she cried from 11am until the time I picked her up.  Her teacher, Mrs. B, told me that I need to show her to a specialist, because no normal child can cry for three hours because of a meaningless comment.  But, anyway, Gaby was crying and my husband was trying to read the menu and decide whether or not we will have enough money to last through the remaining 5 days if we eat at this particular establishment.  Then I turned around and saw Xander and a skinny blonde woman in a lime spaghetti-strap dress with a white cardigan neatly thrown over her shoulders.  My first thought was that I don’t remember last time I wore white.  My second thought was interrupted with Xander’s arms around me – “Quit stalking me, T” – he laughed loud in my ear and pressed me just long enough for me to realize he smelled the same, a cocktail of hay thats been out in the sun too long, oranges and childhood.  He always called me T, even though I always thought that Tina is already short enough.  We had dinner and went home to put Gaby to bed. 

 That night my husband and my son watched Mighty Ducks on tv, while I washed the dishes and thought of a night in November when I was walking home from school and ran into Xander holding Ellie’s hand.  I didn’t expect it to feel the way it did, because it was he first time I felt this proverbial ground disappear below my feet…I struggled to find my balance and when I did, I asked them how they were doing?  Ellie looked beautiful.  Her cheeks were flushed from the November cold and the lack of warm clothing.  She was wearing a tight black hoodie unzipped, revealing a white fitted t-shirt with some perfectly sparkling design and great jeans that I only ever saw in teen magazines.  Everyone knew that Ellie was ‘experienced’ with boys.  There was even gossip that she got her experience from her mom’s second husband.  But to this day, I hope it was only jealousy fueling the imagination of my classmates, and not real events.  

After that November day, Xander and I saw each other less and less. I ran into him with various girls and in various compromising positions and after a while I stopped noticing it as much.  Only that November evening got imprinted, perhaps, because my mom couldn’t afford warm clothes that year, but I wasn’t cool enough to go around without them like Ellie, and who was I kidding, my mom would never let me…long story short, my mom bought a long winter coat from our 45-year-old neighbor Anne. There they were – impeccably dressed, holding hands and there I was – in Anne’s old grey coat that reached all the way to the ground but couldn’t hide me from the pain.  My mom never did find out why i cried all night in my room and why i never again wore that coat no matter how much she threatened to ground me indefinitely. 

 Towards the end of our week in Corolla, my husband and my brother invited Xander and his wife to our rental house for some drinks; a small goodbye gathering to celebrate the end of our vacation and a big reason to drink which neither my husband nor my brother could ever refuse.  The house was tiny, space limited and the louder the men got the more scared were the kids.  I sympathized because I very well remembered that long before my dad left, he used to drink and behave in a way that frightened five-year-old me without really giving any reason, other than the fact that he acted differently that the dad i knew.  Girls are always more sensitive and more easily frightened, so I gave Gaby and my brother’s daughter my makeup case to distract them from the drunken state of their fathers.  I don’t remember how Xander ended up as the Gaby and her older cousin’s first client but he ended up lying on the floor while a toddler and a kindergartener were applying his makeup. My brother’s daughter said that he needs to gel his hair back so he looks like a beautiful girl, which is when Xander’s patience ran out and he said, “Enough girls, let me talk to grownups for a bit.”  I didn’t want Gaby to start her wailing so I took the cap off of my brother’s head and placed it backwards on Xander’s head.  I was stunned at how manly he looked with all this make up on, his features were blatantly staring at me reminding me of everything that pulled me back to my childhood, when no one woke me up six times in one night and when I thought that I will grow up and be famous.  He was beautiful – strong and so familiar.  I held back my breathe but must have been very obvious because I noticed that he was looking directly at me.  I thought that I shouldn’t have had that second glass of Asti because I was seeing things.  I don’t remember how Xander and I ended up alone in the kitchen, but there we were and it was just us, not counting the loud commotion just a thin wall away.   He walked towards me and I thought he would ask me if I ever regretted not being with him, the way beautiful, glossy haired heroines always get asked in the end of sappy romantic films, my husband and I sometimes see at the cinema on Fridays when our neighbor agrees to watch the kids….But he didn’t say anything.  He put his entire hand on my hair and firmly pressed against my head.   He moved his hand down along the length of my hair and played with the strands for a mere second before stepping back as we both heard footsteps.  

 I didn’t know that someone took a picture of him that day.  And a blurry closeup too.  He is staring right in the phone camera, his brown eyes laughing and piercingly intense at the same time.  It must have been his wife who took the picture because I doubt my brother or my husband would text him the shot, as neither is big on texting.  

I turn off my phone.  I think off putting it on airplane mode, but am worried that the light will wake my husband and baby.  The comforter is no longer over my head and I can breathe.  The air feels cold against my overheated face and shoulders.  I must have been starved for oxygen because i just lose myself in this sensation for a while and think about how little we value things that are basic and given and always right here, just like this fresh cool air…   

Banana Esquire

I have gotten into a habit of saying that I do not like women. When I first began to drop that line, it was out of an uncomplicated desire to give the impression of being unruffled and unapproachable; the two uns uniting to make me unique – oh-so-different from the proverbial girly-girl chatterbox and shopaholic. Yet, just as the next girl I love to discuss clothes, ‘who-said-what-and-when-and-why’ and in general I talk crap and wish that I would just shut up and stop being one of them…. The only way to fall out of the loop of realization that I was the most ordinary woman and attempting to flee that newfound insight was to quietly despise all the members of my sex.

I still remember the first time that I saw her. B.B. and I were sitting at one of the ‘Russian’ tables in our high school cafeteria and Banana (then a complete stranger) was listening to a girl whose utter awkwardness alone seemed to guarantee her a spot at Harvard (after all, there had to be a consolation prize for being such an unforgivable dork). Banana did not seem to be bothered by the raconteur’s ill at ease mannerisms; her clothes, frizzy hair that could not conceal the painfully uncomfortable owner from the merciless ogling by her high school classmates. What’s more, Banana seemed more and more engrossed in the girl’s monologue. An unintended witness to Banana’s powerfully committed attention span I became mesmerized by her. At fourteen, few of us wonder why certain people appeal to us as much as they do; we merely introduce ourselves if the situation allows and proceed to either form a bond or realize that the bitch told your other friends that there is something dreadfully wrong with you… “What are you staring at?” B.B. screamed in a futile attempt to be booming over the lunch hour cacophony of the international section of the cafeteria at Brookline High School. I realized that my loyal friend B.B. has been telling me something of absolute importance, something that I might never find out…”I am sorry,” I give in and plead guilty, “I’ve been ignoring you, because this girl across from us seems familiar!”
“Banana!” – B.B. yells out and Banana runs up to introduce herself, apparently B.B and her went to the same middle school….Banana was an athletic 14-year-old, with perfect abs and flexibility to match that of an Olympic gymnast. Once we borrowed a video camera from our high school library and under the pretense of doing a school project, locked ourselves in a study room and video taped each other. She was doing a shoulder stand, legs spread wide, blue pants billowing and creaking. “How long have you sat on a stretch before?” asked L. who decided to join our afternoon of goofing off. She was one of the Russian girls who were under the impression that Banana only spoke English, even though she was perfectly bilingual. “Excuse me?” Banana replied. She was upside down but I could see that she was snickering and that the snicker was directed at L’s English grammar and pronunciation. She still gets this look in her eyes when she judges people, but I think she has learned not to snicker. I still have that video tape somewhere, I am afraid to watch it…It was that day that Banana told me about him for the first time. She was almost home but we kept on turning around and walked back and forth along Harvard Street. Banana promised to show me his pictures. Once, a few month later, she brought an old plastic bag filled with her childhood photographs; most of them were of a bundled up toddler pressing her cheek against the face of a bony young man; tiny Banana and her proud Pap hugging on top of an icy slide. Her mom remarried when she was in kindergarten and before she could blink she had a baby sister and a new dad. She was not allowed to see her biological father (as she referred to him) even before they left her hometown, but after they did he faded from her reality…I do not like women. I prefer my male friends. I prefer their vulgar comments and one-track mind to the deceivingly lighthearted gossip and hysterical judgment that is so characteristic of women (not excluding myself).The days of scouting Harvard Street are long gone, a solid number of the stores have gone out of business and many families since have occupied the apartment from which I once heard her cry… Banana signs Esquire after her name, and that heavy word makes the rest of her name disappear. I try to lift the word up and find the girl that has long ago hypnotized me with her empathy, colossal strength and unflinching integrity….ever since that day when she so intently listened to someone that no one else saw.

friends

Boiled Eggs or How not to be a Chicken (an old blog post)

chicken

This morning, over yahoo chat, my good friend V. asked me how to boil an egg. Brave survivor of last week’s stomach flu and a stranger to bland foods, my thirty-two-year-old pal has conquered the making of white rice; yet it seems that eggs remain a complete mystery! As I pondered my answer; how many minutes does one boil an egg before it cracks? How to check whether or not the egg is ready? …Vaquely remembered something about spinning it…yet, how does one spin a boiling hot egg?; thoughts unrelated to the gracefully twirling, hopefully uncracked egg began to flutter in my restless yet utterly useless, as of late, brain. 

V. lives alone and seems perfectly happy with it, except the time when he needs to boil an egg. I do not live alone. I live with my husband and my son. The former is well aware of how to boil an egg which leaves me, a slothful mother of one, without an immediate need of updating that knowledge. The latter still needs to be convinced that the stove is far from the most exciting place in the three thousand square foot house. But back to V. and his egg. Besides discussing the aftermath of gastrointestinal problems, we managed to touch upon the subject of marriage…The subject, as it always does, came up suddenly…”Did hell freeze over!?” inquired V.? Since I do not have any windows next to my desk at work, and I did not think that V’s inquiry warrantied my burging into my co-worker Andrea’s office (given that out of utter boredom I already picked at least fifteen random conversations with her and have clearly reached my limit of random and her limit of tolerance) I could not make sure what was going on in Hell. I could, however, tell you what was going on with R. College where I work. Nothing much. As usual.
Since it was not established that Hell has been covered by ice, it was safe to conclude that V.’s interest in marriage did not change since last time i asked – a day or two ago. Why this opposition to marriage?! Well, in his own words, he does not know himself yet and if he does not know himself how can he share his life with someone? I think that at a rather intimidating six feet and five inches my friend V is one giant chicken! Marriage is not for the weakest of hearts (and neither is the honeymoon. :) Though knowing V., the one part of marriage he would not mind would be the initial getaway. Undoubtebly, (God be gentle with the poor girl’s heart!) on the way back, he would demand separate apartments, aka his own space. 
I do not dare tell V. that were he not such a big chicken, he would have someone to make him a boiled egg and make sure he eats it. He would have someone to take his temperature and yell at him for not taking care of himself (other than his parents over the phone!) And I definitely keep quiet about the possibility of someone bringing him this egg to bed (particularly if it has not been very long since the honeymoon)… I keep quiet and my thoughts perform their quotidian narcissitic dance and twirl back to myself and A. and thoughts of days long gone; lazy sunday mornings when breakfast was the last thing on our minds…We would stay in bed for what seemed as endless days and talk of baby names, traveling, moving to Europe and then we would not talk for a while..and talk again…I remember that sunlight would stealthly leak into the room and betray our denial that there was in fact a world outside and that not everyone was in bed on weekend mornings/afternoons (something I very well know these days!). If I were to share this memory with him right now, he would tell me that I have an overly active imagination (even if i had a quarter of a penny everytime I heard that, I would not need to live in my mother’s house in a wealthy suburn of Boston…) But one does not long for what one has imagined….human mind longs for things that have passed and could have still been if life did not get in the way.

 

Apres moi le déluge….

 komunalka2

All of the rooms were on the third floor, but the kitchen and the bathroom were on the fourth. As I ran into the kitchen I saw one of my neighbors -Tanya- a rigid, masculine woman in her mid thirties, already missing a couple of teeth, holding on to her daughter with one of her massive hands while gripping tight hold of another neighbor, six year old Dimka, with the other. In what seemed as a surprisingly calm tone, she was instructing her daughter to bite her playmate: “bite him, Natasha, bite him while I can grab hold of him.” Natasha obliged. He screamed in pain and I became frozen inside the high pitched sound…
I must have not thought that he was little, for I was his age; all I remember was the redness of their faces and the air of determination. The mother and daughter were indomitable in their conviction that Dimka must be taught a lesson He was screaming and kicking and trying to free himself, but all was in vain. I ran downstairs as fast as I could; the stairs were old, wooden and steep; shaking from a nauseating mix of confusion, fear and empathy, I literally flew down and away, away from “This is what you get for…” discipline of biting and forced constraint and unfathomable, useless high-pitched defense. The flight back to the row of doors each leading into the rooms of one of seven families living in our communal apartment ended at the second door down the hall – my nanny’s room.

“Can’t you walk in like normal people?” she asked, “All my dishes are shaking.” She was attempting to sound strict; however I knew that I was now safe from the disturbing events of the kitchen. The screaming was still audible, but I was already quite preoccupied with trying to get up on a chair to reach a jar full of candy that for some reason were called “theatrical.” It was hard candy, wrapped in dark green paper, and there was absolutely nothing special about it, except the fact that my parents never had any candy and my nanny always did.

***

I just knew that they did something wrong. Nobody told me what it was, but the suspense was enough. I must have been not more than six, Dimka must have been the same age too, (about a year after the gruesome biting incident we ended up in the same first grade class); Natasha was a few years older. My parents did not let me play with them, but I do not remember them telling me that I could not. I just knew that spending time with the two of them was not something good girls did.


I do not remember where I came from that day, or what I was doing after I ran into my nanny’s room, as every other distant memory this one simply appears out of nowhere and fades without a clear connection to anything that came before or after. But I can easily see Natasha, as though I just saw her come in to borrow some sugar, as she used to. She was big boned as was her mom, with thick dirty blond hair that Russian girls often have, but hers seemed different than most…It seemed dirtier, heavier, and straighter. My thin red curls were probably just as dirty, but the sheer mass of her hair lingers in my memory along with the desire to braid it. And one time I almost got that chance. I remember the buildup of excitement at the thought that I was going to play with that river of hair all by myself. As always, I was in my nanny’s room and when Natasha happened to walk in, instead of completely ignoring me as older girls tend to do with much younger ones, she suggested we play mom and daughter. I happily obliged provided she accommodates one simple request – letting her daughter braid her new found mother’s hair. She agreed, but asked me to feed her – “Mama is very hungry!” – from the tube of special liquid candy that I was holding in my hand that I became completely oblivious in anticipation of being able to brush and braid her hair. What I now know to be the green artificial goo that comes in little tubes is something I would never let my own son put inside his system, was back in the day and place of my childhood highly coveted desert. One could slowly squeeze out of a tube onto a finger or directly in the mouth, either way it was suppose to last for what seemed as a lifetime. As a cynical adult I am well aware of Natasha’s practical motivations. Having been send by her mother on an errand to my nanny’s room (Salt? Sugar? Yesterday’s newspaper?) Natasha saw me with a tube of candy and immediately had her own agenda to rival mine of getting to touch and braid her hair. The latter was never realized, in a loud-hurried swish reminiscent of the popping sound of the last balloon you try so hard to save, the door into my nanny’s room was flung open. My mother and that expression I knew very well. Time to go! In fact, I was not supposed to be there in the first place. I was supposed to be reading in our room waiting for my mother’s return. 

As for Natasha, from time to time her mother would chop off most of her hair with what seemed as a kitchen knife, but that is of course my adult cynicism. In that world nobody could afford to cut their childrens hair at SnipIts and there was no SnipIts, the only reminder of the distant America was a poem that most children knew about an aggressive capitalist from United States who owned a bunch of ships and factories but was miserly and lonely. The poet did not care to elaborate whether or not the protagonist was lonely because he did not grow up with twenty five people in one apartment with one kitchen and one bathroom. 
***
Natasha was biting Dimka – the son of an alcoholic father and a gentle hard-working mother who had night shifts at the local factory…Everyone predicted that Dimka will end up growing up into a thug ever since he was three years old. During the months Dimka’s dad was out of prison for some drunken fight or a random misdemeanor charge, he would keep busy by drinking, beating his wife and singing on the infamous staircase that lead to the bathroom and the kitchen…the same one where Dimka was being bitten by those he wronged. Before your imagination sketches a pitiful portrait, let me stop you: imagining Dimka’s dad as an abusive husband and a drunk would not serve him justice (justice! HA!) , in fact, his artistic self was certainly dedicated to his marriage, at least while he was on the staircase, for he would only sing one song: an old Russian catchy pop from the seventies – the chorus line began with the very profound statement that a wedding ring was far from a simple piece of jewelry.Getting lost in the memories that are becoming more and more blurry I try to regain my control over them. One second it feels as though I can almost touch them, but just like the possibility of playing with Natasha’s hair it fades into non reality.

The fact that during Soviet times, a lot of Russians lived with a multiple number of unrelated families in one apartment (a room per family) is no longer surprising to anyone, but it does not cease to amaze me how people didn’t murder one another, the gruesome killings provoked by the neverceasing wife-beating and drunken singing. I think if fate would put six or seven modern-day American families into a seven bedroom apartment with one stove and one bathroom, nobody would come out alive… It is definite that no one would sing. But here we were families, sharing one stove and one bathroom, with no shower or bathtub..

I ran into my nanny’s room to hide from something my six years old mind could not comprehend, something that I was hoping to leave behind me as I shut the door behind myself and faced my warm, protective caretaker. But every time I see little kids fight in the school yard or a neighborhood playground I realize that regardless of the fact that one had to go to another floor to wash one’s face or boil an egg, I had a happy childhood. If only I knew what Dimka thought.

????????

Long Haul

“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”  – Anton Chekhov

The streaks of pink and dark blue in the evening sky were in such striking contrast, one could not help but think two worlds collided in battle, leaving us to helplessly observe in awe from down below.   The celestial argument was settled quickly and darkness reigned until dawn.

Marina slept on her side, with the covers tucked closely around her.  Ever since she was a little girl darkness left her feeling uneasy.  She was vigilant about covering each body part.  This irrationality followed her into adulthood – for as long as neither toe nor elbow peeked from underneath the blanket, she would be safe from all startling mysteries of the dark.

In unintentionally defiant contrast to their mother’s fears, her girls slept on top of jumbled up covers.  Limbs stretched out across the bed in simultaneous celebration of childhood, unabashed freedom and joy; the latter being temporarily on pause, but ready to sprout at the first sign of dawn.

The youngest one, Abby, was just a baby when Marina decided to leave her husband, Abby and Sam’s father, and pursue what started as a mindless love affair at the office.  Her new husband was fifteen years her senior and little remained from the passion that caused the centripetal force of events leading Marina to leave the safe harbor of her previous marriage.

Sam was a girlie replica of her father, down to the unruly hair that, these days, Marina had to struggle with every morning.

“Leave me alone, Mom.  You are hurting me.  Nobody cares what my hair looks like except you, ” Sam would scream as she pulled away from Marina and the brush, leaving the former with a persistent desire to smack her and the latter with a chunk of long, coarse, tangled, but nevertheless shiny strands. Sometimes, while cleaning out the brush after Sam’s morning escapades, Marina thought of her ex-husband and how, long ago, she sat next to him in the passenger seat of his old Pontiac and continuously brushed coarse brown waves away from his perfect forehead.

Marina frequently argued with her eldest daughter, hated herself for it and secretly wished she were more like her.  Ever since she was a baby, Sam’s balletic grace was a jarring source of Marina’s pride and, even a trace of envy.  ‘How could have I created someone so perfect,’ she thought, as she watched then three-year-old Sam, move to some cheapened version of classical music, in one of a million ‘parent and child’ classes she took her to, back in the day.  Anytime she would catch a glimpse of Sam dancing or simply walking down a long corridor at home – Marina stared at her daughter’s straight back, long limbs and wondered where a child this small learned this confidence, this almost monarchial presence.

Marina, herself, could not walk five steps without tripping.  She battled every sharp corner of furniture, as though purposefully in the way of her middle-of-the-night walk to check on her children or get a glass of water. She hated her daughters’ toys scattered around the floor specifically in her hurried path.  She despised innocently flat hardwood because it rarely failed to trip her in an awkward and painful way, particularly when there were visitors.

Sam had a loud laugh and found her mom’s clumsiness hilarious.  The child’s throaty unrestrained laughter had no trace of ill-wishing (unbeknownst to Marina, Sam adored her mother and preferred her company to that of any friend) nevertheless Marina interpreted it as insensitive mocking, proceeded to lose her temper, occasionally slapped her kid, and immediately hated herself for it.

***

When the youngest, Abby, cried, which she did often, the blue with scattered patches of grey in her irises became almost translucent, creating a misleading appearance of an opportunity to look in.  When she was a toddler, Marina frequently consoled her; picked her up, held, hugged, explained –simultaneously amazed at the immediate transformation of her eyes, at their transparency and, paradoxically, how impenetrable they seemed.  But as Abby got older, Marina realized that the more she consoled her daughter the more she cried, so she learned to tune out her daughter’s wailing and frequently told her to toughen up.

She saw a lot of herself in her younger daughter, and worried that she would repeat her mistakes…

The first thing she noticed was that his wrists were very thin, too thin for a grown man of his height.  She watched his arm move along the paper and tried very hard to focus on what he was saying, writing and drawing in a notepad, after all, it was detailed explanation of what had to be done before the first review.  Marina’s numerous jobs after college convinced her that work was not something that required emotional or mental commitment, it was merely something that had to be gotten through with minimal effort.

As a young girl, she dreamt of becoming an actress, but the images this career choice evoked in her mind were drastically different from those of her father, who frequently told her that life as an actress comes with a single guaranteed role – that of a beggar with a large coffee cup, as well as a single line -“Change, please?”  Following her father’s advice she ended up with a degree in accounting and hopped from job to job in search of something that did not exist in the field of assets and liabilities.  At her first husband’s advice she solidified her resume with a few computer courses and was armed with knowledge and experience to sustain a job in any market – her father’s dream come true.

Marina’s superior continued talking and she continually followed his skinny wrist with her half-absent gaze and thought that she could not imagine being in this office eight hours a day.  Her mind frantically searched for something that would help her make peace with reality of nine-to-five existence between grey walls, with Kafkaesque characters, and this grown man with wrists that could easily be that of a dainty woman if they were not abundantly covered in black hairs.

At times she became very angry with herself for this perpetual inability to focus and made countless promises to herself that she will change. This was not new.  Years before two husbands, daughters – when Marina was a child; she stood next to her desk, tuning out embarrassing lecture by her teacher for being tardy as well as for forgetting her notebook on the very first day of third grade.  At that precise moment, unexplainably –  as most memories that haunt for a lifetime,  she made her first solemn promise to herself –  to be permanently done with lack of focus, tardiness and being lectured by teachers.

The desk, notepad and hairy forearm monotonously moving before her eyes were very different from the scenario surrounding her school desk and ninety-page-lined notebook, with the squirrel on the front cover, that her mom bought for her at some back-to-school sale about a quarter of a century ago.

Her superior continued inundating her with simultaneous writing and talking, taking a pause from writing only to emphasize, twice, that what he was about to sketch was very important… Marina made an effort to follow but got distracted by an overweight older woman on the other end of the office, who was making an attempt to extricate herself from the entrapment of her chair and desk and walk towards the door.

The metamorphosis that Marina’s body underwent following three pregnancies, only two of which were viable, made her extremely empathetic to women who carried extra weight.  She was unwavering in her conviction that inside every woman of any weight there was a memory of a previously lanky skinny supermodel version of her present self.  The idea that some people were happily voluptuous seemed to her as an excuse that people made because they did not have the stamina to stop eating after six o’clock in the evening.  This arbitrary six o’clock rule became a staple of healthy way of life,  as weeks of promising herself to not overeat after the girls went to bed, became years.

The heavy set finally made it to the door.   Marina wondered why a lot of women who carry extra weight end up in a proverbial pear shape.  It was certainly silly, she thought, to assume that extra weight around the shoulders would appear more attractive.  She mentally shifted the extra fifty pounds around the body of the woman that just left the office, but could not find peace with any redistribution of weight. She sighed in order to vocalize her empathy for her newfound, unfortunate, co-worker; superior looked up from the notepad and turned his head to look at Marina.  She coughed and stared at the desk, making an effort to appear extra focused, even though by that point she had absolutely no idea what the diagrams were referring to.   She thought she misheard when he said: “You are clearly bored, why don’t we take a walk.”

***

Marina woke up because she heard Sam yelling for Abby to get away from the former’s toys and the latter’s whaling response that she had no intention of touching Sam’s stuff and, that, she, in fact, hates Sam and the last thing she wants to do is touch anything that belongs to her sister.  Marina tried to block the ever-rising pitch of her offspring’s voices, she hid her head under the pillow and tried to remember what day it was.

Sunday! That means Seb is playing volleyball and she is the only one who can settle life-and-death argument in the room next to hers.  She sat up on the bed, her foot found Seb’s shorts with belt pulled through halfway tangled up with the pair of his dirty socks.  Marina cursed, picked up her husband’s clothes and got up from the bed.  As she shuffled her feet to the door she contemplated making chocolate chip pancakes with silly faces for the girls, hoping to momentarily relieve their eternal frustrations with each other, and, perhaps, mitigate her own, by now overgrown, resentment of her husbands oh-so-cliché midlife crisis.

Seemingly eternal subject of mockery for her friends, Seb ran seven miles every morning, lifted weights four times weekly and played volleyball with his, much younger, friends   When it came to this schedule, Seb was unwavering; neither anger not tears helped Marina in getting her husband to accompany her to an event or, simply, to stay home with her and the girls on Sunday mornings.  She knew, that approaching Fifty terrified him, and that he spent more time looking in the mirror than she did.  His own two sons were now in college, and he did not feel any responsibility for Marina’s daughters, other than, on occasion, when their incessant arguing interfered with his deadline, he would snap and, that, usually, resulted in half-an-hour of quiet.

Marina’s thoughts performed their quotidian dance and twirled back to the early days in her second marriage, after the black-and-blue marks of divorce were starting to heal, and finally she and Seb were free to be together and free of looking at watches, phones, and, at last, free from their conscience.   During those first weeks in their first joint apartment – lazy Sunday mornings when breakfast was the last thing on their minds; they stayed in bed and talked of baby names (he desperately wanted another to add a fifth child to their own sets of two), traveling, moving to Europe… And then they would not talk for a while..and talk again… Marina remembered that sneaky sunlight would leak into the room through the tiny spaces that curtains seemed to miss and betray their denial that there was a world outside, that they were living a rare, momentary privilege.  Not everyone was in bed during Sunday afternoons entangled in warmth and connection; arms, legs and thoughts intertwined – that Marina knew very well these days!  If she were to share this memory with Seb at present, he would tell her that she has an overly active imagination.  But one does not long for what one has imagined, human mind (and heart!) longs for things that have passed and could have still been if life did not get in the way.

Marina showered and tried to avoid the mirror on the way out of the bathroom.  Extra thirty pounds were ever-present, uninvited company and any reminder ruined, already rather unstable, mood.  By now, the girls settled their argument and were waiting for her in the kitchen.

“Mom, you do realize its eleven o’clock and we are hungry,” Sam interrupted Marina’s scattered thoughts.  Somehow, her daughter’s tone made Marina abandon the earlier idea of pancakes.  She put a box of Cheerios on the table and told Sam to get the milk.  Hopping on one leg in front of the fridge, Sam was wearing a tank top, her perfect profile and shoulders sent a twinge of piercing warmth through Marina’s heart, but her child’s lack of focus, as well as the shaking of the floor, injected a dose of annoyance, which quickly the previous emotion.

“Stop jumping like an idiot,” Marina barked at her daughter, “I asked you to get milk ten minutes ago.”  She knew very well that she asked merely a second ago and that she was acting as someone she, herself, would have judged very harshly –  a parent taking out her own frustrations on a child… But she could not control herself.

Sam’s mood was not affected by her mom’s unexpected discourtesy; she hopped over to the table with the carton of milk, and proceeded to hop back to the dishwasher to retrieve some clean plates.

“Mom, can we turn the music on ? Its so dull, dull, dull?” she hummed as she scanned through one of Seb’s devices that seemed to be perpetually connected to the speakers ready for the selection du jour.  Before Marina could respond, Kylie Minogue screamed from the speakers – “I just can’t get you out of my head.” Marina laughed at her eleven-year-olds slightly outdated selection and got up to dance.  Abby jumped up and grabbed her hands and they twirled and yelled out “la, la, la!” along with Kylie, whose pictures in gossip magazines suggested that she was just as preoccupied with retaining her youth as Marina’s husband.

Sam wasn’t dancing. She sat down at the table and picked cheerios one by one out of the box.  “I thought you were the one who wanted music?” Marina laughed as she continued twirling in circles with giggling Abby.  Something about the way Sam looked at her made her feel self conscious, she turned the volume down and sat back at the table.

“How many times did I tell you to not stick your hands inside a cereal box.  Are you a girl or a pig?” Marina inquired with such firmness in her voice, one could have thought that she wanted a definitive answer. “What did I do now?” retorted Sam.  Overall, Marina was not sure how to answer that question.  She did not have much time to ponder it too, because the dog gave up on looking at Sam and her cereal, with eyes that conveyed that Cheerios were the only thing that stood between it and death, and ran towards the front door, wagging his tail.  Seb was back from volleyball.