Archive for August, 2009

Bits & Pieces: the courthouse

August 30, 2009


I move my hand across the form. It snaps me out of it. Like a scream of victory from a losing team. The exit to the Funhouse or the Hall of Mirrors. My hand clenches the pen. I enjoy the feel of it. The way the black ink slides, unbroken across the page. I sign my name. My name. I sign my name.

Advertisements

Bits & Pieces: Karen

August 30, 2009

My friend is an artist. She’s visiting from England. She’s staying with us for the next four days. She’s never been to Madrid. Once, a long time ago, when her parents were still together, her mum and dad took her to Torrevieja on summer holiday. All the Brits holiday in Spain. They come down in July and August and no matter where you go on the coast you only hear English. You never hear Spanish, and when you try to speak it, you’re cut off and the shop keepers answer you in English. It’s frustrating because I’m not a tourist. But Madrid. She’s never been to Madrid. So I promise to take her everywhere.

I’m so happy that I cry when I see her at Barajas Airport. I see her beautiful brown skin in a sea of white and when she’s there, right in front of me, I hug her and don’t let go. It’s been ten years.

I’ve fixed up her room; the room overlooking the red roofs and green awnings of the gypsies that live behind us. The ones that have the chickens in cages on their terraces. My mother-in-law gave us R’s old twin bed. I found a desk for cheap at the flea market. And I bought posters of the famous bullfighters and a set of old red curtains there too. She will be able to see the sun come up from this room, and I can’t say that I won’t be a little jealous.

In Paris, we shared a one-room chamber-de bonne in Les Halles. It had a double bed, a shower, a toilet and a formica-top table with two chairs.  Maybe even an electric double-burner for cooking. I can’t remember. She never slept at her step father’s place out past the Bois de Boulogne because he’d make her watch the baby all the time, and she felt so far away from all the fun. Instead, she’d let herself into the courtyard of my apartment and yell up to my window to be let in. 26 Rue Rimbuteau. She wanted to be in the center, with me.  She was nineteen. I was twenty-one. We partied all night, missed the trains, walked back home at three, four, five o’clock in the morning and then slept all day. Sometimes we woke up with our legs wrapped around each other, and then laughed about it over a coffee down at the Saint Placid where we’d go for breakfast if money came in.

“For fuck’s sake, the closest thing to me getting laid is sleeping with you, every night.”

“Oh Karen. You really do live a rah-ther pathetic life…” I always tried to copy her London accent. She appreciated the effort.

We’d do shots of espresso, smoke long brown cigarettes, flirt with rich Americans doing semesters abroad and “get pissed” every night at the Violon Dingue. We never went back to the Alliance Francaise, where we met, taking classes. We remained together. Each other’s foreign education. From there on out, we lived a rah-ther cliché, expatriate life, and came of age where only a lucky few, privileged girls do.

Bits & Pieces: Castellon

August 29, 2009

Siesta_by_dogmadic

The train takes five hours from Madrid to Castellon. I hate Madrid. I am glad to be rid of it. I feel free. I course through olive trees and rocky, sepia colored cliffs. Then orange trees. Then lush green palms and eucalyptus, stopping once in Valencia and then on to Castellon. Everything we own is packed into four suitcases that a stranger helps me unload and roll toward a taxi. I am alive with excitement and hope. I will have my baby in Castellon. I will live by the sea. I. Me. We will live by the sea. Just to say that and really mean it sounds safe and pure and old. As if nothing could touch us here.  Protected by the flat line of crumbled walls and moats around the city. And the watchful eyes of the Virgin of Lledó.

We will actually have money now too. I have calculated it a hundred times. 80,000 pesetas for the rent, 40,000 for food, 50,000 for utilities, 10,000 for spending. We can go out to eat now.  I can get my hair done. We don’t have to wait Marie Carmen to bring us leftovers. Old furniture. Broken furniture. Just so that we can sit at a table with four chairs.

I tip the driver a few pesetas and I meet R at the Hotel Castellon, a few blocks from the station. He’s already arrived  en coche with Gisela, his co-worker. They are having beers in the lobby. Together, they will man the Unix systems of BP, British Petroleum’s corporate office in all of the Costa Azahar. I bring the luggage in, piece by piece to the desk and sit beside my husband on one of the sofas. The waiter asks if I’d like to try a horchata de chufas. I say, “por favor,”  and stretch out my legs.

I can smell the sea but I cannot see it.

Dust balls

August 25, 2009

So. I’m invited to this woman’s house over in one of those new, treeless McMansion developments. Her name is Gisa, and as she explains, it’s short for the Germanic Gisela meaning “to pledge” (why I even mention this will make sense later). The development, like all suburban upper-class new construction sprawl is a development I’ve passed many times before, but never felt privileged enough to enter—us middle class types know well enough to stay out of cul-de-sacs called things such as “The Sanctuary,” or “Le Grande,” figuring membership cards are required in order to lurk around. But, her son and my son go to preschool together and as she wanted her little Merlin to grow up with “the people, ” for whatever reason, she denied him a private education.  I’d be in the parking lot of the school waiting for the closing bell and Gisa would always pull up with minutes to spare in this hideously grotesque conversion van with like, 20 doors on it. She never wore makeup and just moved here from Germany. I thought, yes! My kind of friend. Surely we have lots in common. So, she invites me over one afternoon. And as a mother who is incessantly looking for ways to occupy her kid, let alone herself, I took her up on the offer. Besides, I thought, it might be nice to bring a pie or something. If that conversion van is any indication of her newly acquired “status,” in this country, a pie will certainly be appreciated.

So, we head out, one Tuesday afternoon, me and my son, in my 2003 mini-van, driving a bit farther than our town’s comfort zone. According to my printed-out Mapquest directions (I don’t have a GPS) it’s the next left. I pull onto her street and one by one the houses get bigger and bigger and as they do, me and my mini-van seem to get smaller and smaller. Huge houses, then mansions, then estates. Her house is, of course, one of the biggest. I’m intimidated by the size let alone the two front doors. I didn’t know houses had two front doors. After about ten strenuous minutes of hoping that some previously learned, front-door etiquette comes back to me I end up choosing the door on the right. This one leads to the mud room for people who might have dirt on their feet (that’s us). We say our hellos and I hand her the pie, which she casually places atop the laundry machine and quickly redirects our small talk back to the fact that we need to take off our shoes.

A few awkward moments later, we go in. And even though I’m catching site of a three-story high cathedral ceiling, a fireplace with Texas longhorns above the mantle and not one living room but four, all I keep thinking of is the atrocity that I’m wearing sweatpants. My favorite line from Seinfeld re-runs streams through my brain when Jerry tells George that “wearing sweatpants in public is like telling the world you’ve given up.”

Oh well, I think. At least they’re not gathered with elastic at the ankles.

So as Gisa leads me around, from room to room, I secretly feel like a third class citizen from coach peeking into first class. But suddenly, I notice what I’d like to believe is a personality tick—Gisa, as it turns out, is hyper-neurotic about dust. In instances like these, you can only hope for such an obvious shortcoming. “See? See? Do you see the dust?” she says to me in her thick German accent upon entering each expanse of a room. Her finger courses over blond wood table tops. But there’s no dust. Literally. It’s as if there’s a plastic bubble free of all pathogens encircling the house and all its immune deficient inhabitants. I’ve never seen a cleaner place.

I think of my home. My little rancher. I have dust balls bigger than Arizona tumbleweeds. They roll around my floor like city trash caught up in a wind pocket, attacking me and my socks and my kids. I have the massive lint ball that hovers between the laundry room and the kitchen. There’s the clump of my husband’s chest hair under the baseboard heater in the bathroom. And there’s the ever-present motionless entity of dust and Fruit Loops that, fortunately, live under the sofa in the living room and cannot be detected by the untrained eye.

No, I say. I don’t see the dust.

As we make our way back to the kitchen, hovering over her granite bar and cherry wood cabinetry, I come to the bitter conclusion that this woman and I have nothing in common except maybe the van. I think: this is how envy gets a hold of people. This is what the Christians warn about, coveting thy neighbor’s goods. This is not “keeping up with the Joneses” because you’re not even one of them. Maybe you clean for them. But you’re certainly not a Jones.

I think how it takes massive amounts of confidence to be content within your own life when you are confronted with so much luxury and wealth. And despite the fact that every appliance in her house was shipped over from Germany, all her furniture too, that she’s got a sunken tub in the master bedroom with Andalusian tile and a fireplace the size of my living room, four walk-in closets, and a bathroom in all five bedrooms…despite all that, I think of my little life and I wonder how I can still feel quite proud of what I’ve got.

Very possibly, I think, it’s because I’ve got nothing. As a child growing up, we had nothing. My family came from nothing. My grandparents before them came from nothing. For generations we affectionately and proudly described ourselves as “peasant stock,” vindicating the obvious deficiency of worldly goods. Instead, we assigned value to immaterial things– our voices, our musical talents, our minds, our creativity, our humor and our closeness as a family. Those were the things that really mattered. Not all the “stuff.” Even my unconventional religious upbringing– a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality–taught me the importance of giving up all but a few necessities in order that we may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. So, it is at these moments, when I am faced with such abundance, that I recall the worth and value in that which cannot be seen, touched, shipped overseas or purchased with a Visa card.

Gisa and I notice how well the kids are getting along. And aside from the occasional assault upon the children she makes to not touch the white walls, she seems happy that Merlin has found a friend. I want to say that I imagine it’s quite lonely for the little guy being so far from him native country and family. I even want to tell her that her obsessive-compulsive fear of dust is merely a manifestation of Freudian guilt for having too much stuff. But I hold off. I don’t want to seem contemptuous.

“How about we come to your place later this afternoon? You can show me your house,” she says. And I choke on my Chai tea latte she just whipped up for me on her espresso maker from Norway.

I have a pizza box still sitting on the counter from the weekend, month-old oatmeal ground into the Berber, and the lingering smell of a diaper that was discarded three diapers ago is possibly still wafting out of the family room. I imagine little Merlin playing some middle-class version of blocks at my house, rolling around, as kids do, on the floor. It would take eons to pick the dustballs off his Karl Lagerfeld designer toddler wear.

“Well,” I manage to say, “I’ve been having problems with my Audi (I don’t have one). I simply must get it into the shop. And, to be quite honest,” I add, as I clear my throat, “my cleaning lady took the month off (don’t have one of those either). The place is a little messy.”

So much for pride in peasant stock.

She tries to be laid back about the fact that I might have a messy house. “You don’t have to clean on my account,” she says, but she flinches and quickly adds, “another time might be better.” Her name in German doesn’t so much mean “to” pledge, I think, as it means to keep a bottle of Pledge handy under any circumstance.

I coolly agree.

We head back into the mud room to put on our shoes and say our goodbyes. Tonight, she says, she and her husband will take a stroll through “their woods” (three acres worth). He’s a triathlon. An Ironman. A glass designer by day. Oh. I say. How nice. I’m headed over to Wal-Mart to buy a pizza cutter. Mine mysteriously disappeared (could have been the dust ball in the kitchen). We don’t have much more to say. Finally, she asks me, “you work out?” I know she’s referring to my sweatpants.

Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic garden

August 22, 2009

Last night D and I watched “In a Dream” the documentary of Isaiah Zagar, his life and work as a mosaic artist and his relationship with his wife Julia. It was a beautifully filmed documentary by their son Jeremiah Zagar, which portrayed the forty-year love story of his parents, as well as his father’s obsession with mosaic art.

I loved the documentary and so when we went into Philly today to visit D’s friend R, we decided to go to the mosaic garden, just to get an in-person look at Zagar’s work. Before heading over there though, we had lunch first at Beau Monde, one of my favorite places to eat in South Philly. As we’re finishing up, the hostess seats two people by the window and as usual, I’m staring. The longer I stare, the more it becomes clear to me that it’s Jeremiah Zagar and his mother Julia. We were pretty shocked at the coincidence.

Normally I don’t do this, but I went over to their table and mentioned that we had just seen their documentary last night and that it was brilliant. I wasn’t sure how they’d react, but they were both very gracious and even made a bit of small talk. How nice. And right as I was about to leave, the son says to me, “and here’s the star now,” or something to that effect. I turned around and in walked his father,  looking somewhat out of it, but nonetheless pleasant. At any rate, it was hugely exciting to have see this documentary, then the actual work and mosaics on the wall, and finally the whole family. The art, the film and the family all came together very serendipitously, and what’s best was that D was there to experience it all with me.

Here are some of our photos from today. And I strongly recommend seeing the film (now on HBO).

Summer

August 18, 2009

Bedroom Window


It was late August. She lay down in bed for a long while in the morning with Henry, feeling the start of the day already heavy with heat and humidity. The cicadas were singing their summer song in a woosh through the trees. It was a perfect day for the cicadas; still and warm, and laden with the quiet tick of timelessness. Hers and Henry’s bodies tingled with the reverberations of the night before as they listened to life through the open windows. “I love the sound of the cicadas,” she said. “I wait for it every summer.” Henry smiled back. “Me too,” he said,  ”Year after year.” He crawled closer to where she lay, kissed her softly and said,  ”I love you. For whatever it’s worth. For however long it lasts.” She looked up at him tenderly and nudged his warm skin with her arm. It was early, but it was hot enough that if they lay too close, they would stick together.

A year ago she sat at a table out on the lawn with a man named Jack that she’d been dating for several months. They talked about Hindu “pain religions,” elephants, monkeys and the Temple of the Rats. She had experienced her own religion of pain back then but didn’t realize it; chanting Om to the numbing sensation of shallow, pretend love; the kind of love you force upon Ken and Barbie when you’re a kid. That simulated, dress-up love that feels real and fun at the time, but then one day just disappears when you grow up and stop playing with toys. She had had a conversation one night with him. She asked him to tell her the truth. “I only want to know the truth,” she said. But he looked at her like she had asked him the mystery of life. The truth, it turned out, was something as illusive, if not more so, as the love they were trying to create with their plastic, doll parts.

A year before that she was following George around his front yard, watching him water and mulch the trees they had planted the previous year. She felt connected to the seasons then. She knew when the blueberries would ripen on the vine. She knew when to expect the abundance of the harvest in the fall.  And she knew that when the frost of winter came nothing would grow and George wouldn’t be able to water or plant anything until spring. She knew that they’d lie stale and frozen too, until something came along and thawed their cold, tired selves. Something extraneous and fleeting, that neither of them could grasp on their own. When the tall grass was cut, they tried to make love under the shade of the big maple, but it didn’t work. It never did. She would kiss him and he’d push her away. And his response was always the same: “The love between us is so much deeper than that, baby.” And so she wrapped her arms around herself in frustration and believed him.

She thought of the past as if it were something she possessed, whether she liked it or not. It was part of her. And she kept it with her, despite Henry asking her if she wouldn’t enjoy life more if she let it go and live in the moment. But it seemed to her that if she did let it go and move on, she would not recognize herself. And that scared her. And yet, she was certainly not content knowing that over the past five years there was no permanency to her life whatsoever. She hated the fact that she had several different lovers after her divorce. She hated that there were no patterns created, no traditions built upon the previous years, nor anything remotely related to Time to convince her that she was secure in this life, with this man, or that she would be.

By noon, while she and Henry lazily fumbled for their clothes, the cicadas stopped chirping.  She wondered if the little bugs went to sleep, or if they were like those insects that only live for a day. Temporary. Only on earth to serve the menial task of chewing up deciduous trees. Or to mate. Nothing more. This thought seemed to disappoint and leave her feeling empty. What, if anything, was the purpose and beauty of a life if only lived one day? By late fall the cicadas would be gone.  All of them. Lovers, friends, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Someone new would crawl up the trees to take their place. The singing would start again. But the song would be the same. Carried by voices that grew into summer for only a season.

She shook out the bed sheets to cover the bed and fluffed the pillows, ambling around the room so as not to create too much energy in the early afternoon heat. Henry collected his things from the floor; his shoes, his shirt, his suit and tie, leaving behind, as he did each time he’d visit, another piece of clothing for her to wash and place in the spare drawer she had offered him when he first started spending the night. It became a sort of running joke between them. The first time he slept over he left behind a t-shirt, then two, then three and so on. He said to her one night, early on, “It’s all a part of my master plan!” and she laughed at his quick and lighthearted sense of humor. But after she finished covering the bed, she eyed the undershirt and socks he had placed atop the hamper, well knowing that they were two more items of his to add to the growing pile.

“Not sure if you realize this, baby, but you now have two drawers, not just one.”

He turned to her and looked in humorous disbelief. “Two drawers?” His mouth was agape as if in shock. She laughed and opened the dresser drawers for viewing. Each of them was filled with Henry’s socks, underwear, t-shirts, shorts, books, CDs and so on. Seven months of stuff.

“Two little worlds,” he said, “That’s all.”

“And expanding,” she added.

She walked him to the front door and kissed him goodbye in a playful, housewifey way. Her children would be coming in soon from their father’s and she had lots of mindless tasks to do.

“If it makes you happy, I’ll clear some of that stuff out of here when I come over next,” he said.

She paused and looked at him; searching for something less irreparable to say than simply yes or no. “Why don’t we wait till the cooler weather,” she said. “It’s too hot to bother with that now.”

Bits & Pieces: the Lover

August 13, 2009

The Lovers

I have lost myself in visions of New Orleans, voodoo and Cafe du Monde. I imagine a lover waiting for me at the station, ready to pick me up and meet me for the first time. He will take me to the Bienville Hotel on Decatur street and we will make love for twenty-four hours. We will lie in a big bed with soft blankets and soft pillows. He will be soft and gentle; he will smell good; and there will be no rape scene. Nobody will climb up on top of me, against my will and force himself on me. I will not have bruises after the act. Neither the neighbors nor the children will hear my screams. No one will wonder if the police should be called. The room will look like a garden of marigolds, sunflowers, begonias and verbenas; the sun will stream through the window and warm our bodies, generously, kindly. No one will try to convince me of anything or try to purge their guilt. No one will say, “you like it like this.” They won’t have to. Because inside me, I will know.

Sign of god

August 12, 2009

Jesus Burger

When I opened my quarter-pounder with cheese meal (no onions) there on the sesame seed bun was a crucifix! I kid you not.  Unfortunately the only thing left of it to sell on ebay is this photo as the stigmata was eaten right along with the medium sized fries it came with. Still, I love the way God makes himself known even in the most ubiquitous and culturally impoverished metaphors of  capitalist society: fast food.

A dollar a donut

August 12, 2009

pink_sprinkled_donut

Yesterday, my kids asked me if they could get a donut at Dunkin Donuts. I hesitated. The first thing I think of when I think of donut is fat kid eating cheap food. But I said OK as they never eat those things, and they wanted to use their own money. “How much is a donut?” they asked. I hadn’t been to DD in years, so I said, “I don’t know, maybe forty-five cents. Seventy-five at the most.” I remember paying a quarter for a donut. A dozen was three dollars, plus tax.

I used to eat donuts almost every day. Seriously. Almost EVERY DAY. Sometimes two or three. And not those little donuts that come 40 in a box. I loved the big, round, Homer Simpson donuts with lots of frosting on top. I preferred Shop Rite donuts. I would buy one for Dani, one for Julien and two for myself as I could never choose between vanilla frosted or chocolate glazed. Mostly, I’d cut them both in half and eat half of one and half of the other. But other times, I just ate them both and had my regrets. How I managed to process that amount of sugar I’ll never know.

I pull through the drive thru at Dunkin and order two strawberry frosted with sprinkles. I have change in my hand. The Indian woman behind the speaker says, “One dollar, ninety-one cents.” I’m shocked. Almost two dollars? I pull around and ask how much one donut cost. “One dollar and six cents,” she says. “You are getting a discount since you bought two.” Wow. I just saved myself twenty-one cents.

This is one of those moments where  you remember when cigarettes only cost two dollars a pack. When a phone call was ten cents. When a stamp was even less. Heck, I remember buying two hotdogs for a buck down on the Wildwood boardwalk. A donut is now a dollar. A fried piece of dough with a hole in it, no bigger than your hand is now a dollar.

When I tossed the bag back to the boys and effectively yelled at them not to get sprinkles on the carpet, they ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the treat. They smacked their lips together and devoured the pink, sprinkly cloud within seconds, thus leading me to believe it was mostly air and very little dough. They thought a dollar was reasonable. I just drove off in disgust; in search of a tall, Starbuck’s coffee that now costs me four dollars and some change.

mental stimulation

August 5, 2009

inbox

I had teacher training yesterday. Coming up from the shore, in the middle of my vacation, took a bit of time for my brain to start working again. I haven’t thought about anything other than sex, food and shelter for an entire two months. Maybe longer.  More like years. To top it off, I feel like I have a mild onset of Alzheimer’s. I was talking to J and J the other night over a glass of wine and I had no vocabulary. I lose or forget the simplest of words. It’s like, “what’s that word? Oh…it’s on the tip of my tongue…ummm….oh, yes! DREAM. That’s the word I was looking for. Dream.”

So very sad.

This is my fear when it comes to teaching. That I’ll get up there and have nothing to say. Completely blank. I have become more and more dependent on writing as my brain cannot really handle the capacity for lecturing, talking or discussing. It’s been virtually wiped out. Could be stress, too much coffee, not enough stimulation. Most likely it comes from stagnation. I never challenge myself on topics other than boys, sex, food and kids. Oh! How I’ve drowned myself in a small, spiraling pool of mundane facts. Reptilian brain taking over. Well, thank god for grad school. Hopefully that’ll give me a cold hard slap across all that unused gray matter.