Looseleaf Tea A journal of cultural expression & hidden voices.
*Cover Art “My head is in the stars and my feet are in the sky” Screenprint Artist: Ivy Leighton
Staff Mehra Gharibian – Editor-in-Chief Sam Jeffrey – Prose Editor Uzma Amin – Prose Editor Kamin Kahrizi – Poetry Editor Marisa Kallenberger – Poetry Editor / Managing Editor Lekha Jandhyala – Visual Arts Editor / Marketing & Design
Dear Reader, The Looseleaf Tea was born just under 6 months ago. At that point, by definition it was just an idea. But it was more than that– it was a desire. With this literature & art journal we wanted desperately to provide an avenue for the humanization of cultural perspectives and unvoiced ideas. It was an area we felt was underrepresented, and evidently many felt the same way. We could not be happier where we are now with Looseleaf Tea. The team has worked tirelessly to personally evaluate and respond to every single piece of art submitted to us, and artists from around the world have given us the honor of housing their work within our pages. Every piece in this issue was created through immeasurable talent and passion. We were delighted at the opportunity to experience their art with them, and we are even more delighted to share it with you. Thank you for joining us. Mehra Gharibian Editor-in-Chief The Looseleaf Tea
Table of Contents Staff.............................................3 Editor’s Note.....................................4 Issa M. Lewis, Two Poems..........................6 Joseph Burrows, Never odd or even.................8 Laura Taylor, Dissonance..........................9 Minh Pham, 2 Poems...............................10 Christopher Dungey, Underwear....................12 Linda M. Crate, don’t forget.....................20 Michael Lee Johnson, Indiana Poem (Version 3)....21 Larry Hendel, Not Yet............................22 Ivy Leighton, Suit of Many Feathers..............51 Deborah Mashibini, The Women.....................52 Camille Goodison, Everything in Time.............53 Elizabeth Schwyzer, Happiness,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,55 Jacob Collum, The South..........................66 Sheila Frye-Matragrano, Colorgiver...............67 Danusha Goska, Hunger is a Form of Keeping Faith.74 Peggy Aylsworth, 2 Poems.........................78 Shannon Barber, Bridget Approved.................96
ISSA M. LEWIS
SLIVER MOON I keep staring at the sliver of moon a fingernail crescent an eyelash perched on a cheek, to be plucked between thumb and forefinger positioned in front of the lips ready for a hopeful gust of breath make a wish
ISSA M. LEWIS
NIGHT STORM Twisting shadows and the scratching of a raccoon in the attic, digging at rafters with his too-human hands. In bed, I listen. When I was a child, I feared fire, that it would consume our house and me, but mostly I feared the loss of things, the leap from my second floor bedroom window, the distance to the ground. My thoughts are too long for breath, even today. Even today, I inhale at the thought of a blown fuse, metal in a socket. My window now is deep with starless night. From my bed, I parse the darkness into shades, finding the sill’s edge. What is structure that cannot be burnt? The roof overhead is only illusion, wafting above the attic like smoke, like a raccoon’s memory of a comfortable shelter. A child praying each night that lightning won’t come, that she will be safe— A flash of electric light stills my breath; the raccoon falls silent. The night sky rumbles, and releases.
Never odd or eveN Madam, I’m Adam. He’s the apple of my eye Lewd I did live-evil did I dwel. But I love him We panic in a pew. Never right, but he’s a good kid Evil I did deliver-reviled did I live? He took the apple that never fell far Live not on evil. I told him I did, did I? He takes after me No it is opposition. He thinks he can change Are we not drawn onward to new era? He sounds just like his father now Drab as a fool, aloof as a bard. Chip off the old blarney stone Won’t lovers revolt now. He believes there is hope Now I won. But people don’t change We panic in a pew. Hoping for something new he will say again Madam, in Eden I’m Adam. Good luck son
Dissonance She disagreed with Gibran; it isn’t just your joy unmasked that leads to such great sorrow. Believed that someone else’s joy is more your sorrow shown than the flip side of the coin held in your own hand. That the scales holding human hearts must weigh something other than emotions of your own. That maybe Casy had it right, maybe we’re all one big soul: Holy Spirit, love and all, maybe that’s the whole shebang. She suspects a quota of collective joy and sorrow is balanced out upon the scales. Measured spatial energy. But we always change our script change our scripture packed to fit neat and tight to explain all of it. God knows who’s right
The Only Child You told me I was your Saigon; When it fell you had to leave. But you would not leave this time. On days when you were busy, You held my hands And we walked to the arcade. You asked the owner’s daughter To play Sailor Moon With me. My brother wanted The same But he had no childhood With you. With scraps of coconut bark You built me a shack Painted its walls with purple Mangosteen sap. When my brother Tried to climb in and play You chased him away with a sickle. In America he told you He never had a father, And that I was your only child. I thought it was true.
Breakfast in America The Bottom of my shoe Tracked dirt from The Mekong to the U.S. In LAX a guard said I was dirty. He pointed me to a McDonalds To clean out my tongue with Mustard and happy meals. I asked my mother for a quarter To buy cashews soiled with sugar. All she had were pennies. A man walked up to me and asked If I had a passport. I gave him a paper with My birth country – Vietnam. “Why are you here?” he asked. “To find my father,” I smiled.
Underwear My stepson and his girlfriend are at a stage of intimacy where they've begun to exchange underwear. No, they're not trading it, like in some Olympic Village friendship ritual--they're giving it to each other as gifts. I saw Kurt wrapping the fancy box on the dining table a few days before Christmas. The tissue paper was rose and violet folded around rose and violet silk bikinis. He seemed to have made fairly sophisticated choices-tasteful for his age. He's already learned, apparently, to balance his own prurient interests against the practical use of the garments. He won't see his purchases very often if they're uncomfortable to wear. Not to describe her in too lecherous terms, but Tara, his petite girlfriend, is what the kids call a hotie. She has very fair skin and less acne than you might expect for a seventeen year old redhead. I've found some of those long, long filaments in the tub and some kind of crumbled cinnamon mascara powder or blusher in the sink. She must occasionally wash that hair and make herself up for school in front of our mirror. They take turns driving to school. Imagine him dozing through senior Economics, that little russet bird's nest matted under his sheer gift, still fresh in his mind. Then, imagine a seventeen year old boy going into Victoria's Secret at the Mall. Not a place you want to take your mother along for advice. Thin, with his own dappling of acne, he must have been all Adam's apple when one of those gals working the floor came over to assist him—
stuttering out styles and sizes--the colors and textures he hoped to find. Those women are always attired as if they just stepped off a fashion runway. Hell, they still intimidate me. Kurt received boxers from Tara. They're still under the tree, so he couldn't have been too embarrassed about them. There are two pair in paisley and one pair with tiny Red Wings logos. She wouldn't have had any problem shopping for boxer shorts. Boxer shorts are practically unisex apparel. She could help herself to those bubble-wrapped cartons at any department store and still come out with stuff you'd see in GQ, There just aren't any potpourri scented underwear boutiques for men. And what seasonally employed check-out person at Kohl's would give her purchase a second thought? So, are they sexually active? I've been mulling that question over a lot lately. My wife Cheryl, Kurt's mother, should probably be asking herself the same thing. Kurt has older brothers so Cheryl has never asked me to have 'the talk' with him. The conclusion I reach is a resounding probably. One discovers glaring clues, such as condom foils at the bottom of the kid's Red Wings basket. I found several of the actual devices last summer when I was cleaning out the furnace enclosure. They were curled up like calcified jelly-fish on the chill concrete. Kurt has his waterbed in the basement and the furnace room is just behind his headboard shelves. But those were probably just for practice because the kids hadn't known each other very long at that point. And it wasn't that sort of physical evidence, after I'd subtly hinted that he should do a better job of cleaning up after himself, that finally
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turned the light-bulb on over my head. Nor was it the usual interruption of cuddled groping on the TV couch which always arouse parental suspicions. What I inadvertently discovered, earlier in the fall, was what I can only characterize as a loss of modesty. * I came home from work one day before anyone else. Cheryl had a Wednesday night class at the Community College and Samantha, my stepdaughter, was God-knowwhere, probably shoplifting for a new hair color to go with her new eyebrow ring. She's the youngest, fifteen going on twenty-three, and had recently been raising truancy to an art form. Anyway, she hadn't come home on the school bus. I wasn't alarmed. She would be phoning sometime during my Seinfeld rerun, for me to come get her at a girlfriend's Until then, I had my own rat-race agenda, beginning with various minor messes they usually leave me. I cursed, briefly, for lights left on, the furnace turned up to seventy-eight, the front door left unlocked--that sort of thing. At least the door hadn't been left wide open, I consoled myself. Then the pets came after me to be fed. I made them wait while I shut the furnace off and fired up the woodstove in the front room. That's one of the things the kids were supposed to do, if they ever came home on time. I dropped some newsprint and kindling scraps into the ornate stove and set it blazing. Then I fed Rodney, our arthritic dachshund. He gets some kind of lowfat pressed-and-formed meat offal which can't be very satisfying. He just licks the gravy off anyway to hold him until he can beg human food from someone. But really--we
have to watch his diet now. We've been lifting him onto the settee for his extended naps. He quit whining after the gravy, but Ophelia, the fussy, drama-queen housecat, was still winding around my legs. Can you believe a cat that won't eat tuna juice squeezed onto her kibble? That's Ophelia. I poured the plain, dry crunchers into her bowl and fled the kitchen. Next, there was laundry to do. As a guy, I don't object to helping with that, except that it usually comes on top of everything else. There were already two meals worth of dishes in the sink to make me feel guilty. Anyway, it was in my best interest to make sure I had a clean towel for my shower and jeans work in the morning. The hamper in the bathroom was overflowing. I gathered it up, chinning down on items that might tumble in my face or onto the steps as I went down to the laundry room. Sometimes the laundry room can be impenetrable on foot. You have to just go ahead and walk on the dirty clothes. I stepped in, felt linoleum under my feet, and caught the light switch with my elbow. We were behind, but clothes were still in sorted piles. There was still room to move between the heaps and the poised machines. I dumped the hamper onto a dune of towels. I intended to work my way through at least two loads to placate Cheryl. I was even experiencing a peculiar urge to fold some of it. I unloaded the dryer into a basket. I unloaded the washer into the dryer. I chose items for my first load, leaving aside some burgundy socks from the close-out store which were known to run. I separated terry-cloth towels to keep them from infecting sweaters with their lint buds.
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What all this intends to illustrate is that I was busy down there. And, I was making lots of noise--clanging the hatches shut, twisting the cycle selection knobs. The washer filled with a gush. The dryer tumbled its hail-storm of zippers and buttons. Those kids had to know I was down there, even as they slammed the back door and clomped down the stairs. The laundry room door was wide open and the light was on, but for a moment, I felt like I must be invisible. Tara sat down on the edge of the waterbed. She unbottoned the coat she was wearing which was actually Kurt's varsity jacket. She flopped back onto the tangle of bedding. A muffled gurgle rolled from beneath her. She swung her feet gently over the side. I continued sorting the laundry I had just brought down. Kurt proceeded to drop his trousers and kick them to the floor, into the litter surrounding his bed. He pulled the tshirt he had worn to school over his head. Clad only in athletic socks and black briefs, he stood in front of the young woman. What accidental voyeurism was I about to commit? Could they possibly be unaware of my presence? Then Kurt began rummaging through his chest-of-drawers. Did he have one of those foil packets cached in there somewhere? Still, Tara remained fully clothed and made no move to disrobe. I suppose you could give them the benefit of the doubt-presume the innocence of the scene by comparing it to an outing at the beach or municipal pool. You might allow that those briefs were no more flimsy than a bathing suit. I tried to look at the incident from that perspective but it just didn't work. The materials are entirely different. Whereas, skimpy Speedo trunks aerodynamically compress and smooth one to the public view, you could see Kurt's entire
package, prominently framed and profiled in the front of those skivvies. Tara could certainly see everything. But she stared right through it with the nonchalant regard of having seen it before. He hadn't bothered to ask her to turn her head. He hadn't advised against 'peeking,' because, as it dawned on me, the sight of his poorly hidden private parts was old news to her. As Tara primly ignored my step-son's pride 'n' joy, it became apparent that they were more concerned with their own time constraints than with my presence. Kurt found the crew-neck Taco Bell shirt he had been searching for. He shoved the dresser drawers back in against a spilling wardrobe of t-shirts, then went about primping for work. They continued to share those details of the scholastic day that they hadn't experienced together. Kurt spritzed on some kind of aggressive sports body-spray, reaching the aerosol up under his shirt. "Hey, do you see my Taco Bell pants in there anywhere?" he called suddenly. The washer shifted gears to begin agitating. "Are they blue, with scaly hot sauce spattered on and a bad crease?" "Yeah, that'd be them. I thought Mom was gonna throw them in for me," he groaned. "I'll have to wear these." He was still standing under his dim ceiling lamp, his basket benignly aimed at the face of the little wraith on the waterbed. A second pair of uniform pants had been salvaged from under the wadded towel of last night's shower. He examined them briefly, then hitched them up and buckled the belt. "What're they gonna do, fire me?" Kurt has a high reliability rating, as fast-food workers go. The place is
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always calling him in on his day off to replace absentees. Usually he goes. It was our running joke that he would soon make assistant manager and be set for life. I began to wonder, seriously, if that might include some kind of medical coverage, particularly for dependent maternity. By now, my stay in the laundry room was stretching credibility. The kids had only come in for a pit-stop. Nothing untoward was going to occur. There was no need for me to chaperone further. I would prolong my loitering just long enough to allow them a discreet exit. I took up a broom and began poking in the corners and between the pyramids of clothes. The dryer vent must have been leaking somewhere, lint balling up with spilled detergent on the floor. In my peripheral vision, Kurt offered both his hands to the reclining Tara. He pulled her up, with a certain tenderness, I thought, into a standing position. After a quick embrace, they were on their way. Then, as they climbed the stairs, I heard someone--Kurt, I assumed-rather vigorously break wind. Tara giggled. "Oh, my God!" she cried as they went out the back door, into the garage. Kurt's was not exactly the etiquette of early, chaste courtship, I didn't think. As I switched off the light and followed, I felt a concern for them weighing in my chest. First love just doesn't have much chance in our post-modern culture. Most of us still wear the t-shirt from that adolescent tourist trap. Clinical psychologists count on it for a livelihood. And now neurological researchers were telling us that our own brain chemistry mitigates against it. Had they bothered to save anything? Were there any experiments of the flesh left to employ should their commitment evolve into an adult one? Surely they could not
have attempted every coital position, every variation on that ancient theme by which couples try to keep passions fresh; those innovations we all contrive to make one lifepartner (or two, tops) be enough. At the rate those kids seemed to be going, they would be reduced to stimulating each other with extremes of underwear sometime in their mid-twenties. I chuckled as I considered Kurt's departing faux pas in that context. As best I could recall, they had not yet had an opportunity to actually sleep over together. So he probably had never been tempted to try that age old initiation of shoving her head under the covers. But, at some playful moment, it would come.
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LINDA M. CRATE
don't forget bee sex a ritual not even i could interrupt sitting unaware until buzzing bees nearly collided with my nose i wonder how many tomorrows remember me forgotten in this land where the natives kiss and hold hands and make love, and yet we linger in our realms separate but together; jealously flairs when i see couples laughing as we used to, enveloped in the thoughts and lives of one another the world forgotten for another day — i can no longer bear the weight of lonely country roads, how could atlas carry the entire world? it's problems and hatred and apathy scream loudly demons i wish could be exorcised forever from my head, and yet your heart remains untouched by my pain and your sympathy dances to other flowers that bees have already kissed; they avoid me almost as if in apology for your absence here in my life — when are you coming as you promised so i don't remain here forever? or were those just words blowing on the wind to be forgotten later, that i just couldn't let go? you should know that my passion burns brighter than the sun star gold or a fire fly burning in a summer's sky; our love and passion once startled the leaves off of trees, so we cannot remain forever this way.
MICHAEL LEE JOHNSON
Indiana Poem (Version 3) A few tales of the reasons I love Indiana. Breaking loose from the state line of Illinois, bursting down the Indiana toll road near Lake Station heading south smelling smoke of old gray steel mills seeping out of Gary left behind me. Work disappeared dreams diedsteel men, strong men ribs of fire courage of union dreamers long gone and most laid off pension plans stolen, now gas station employees travelers of the past snuff chewers labor wages and laws, small lakes and fishing ponds with half sunken boats with tips pointed sky high and memories dripping off the lips of clouds. I’m banging out 75 mph in my raspberry Geo Trackerbut as Jesus said “I tell you the truth nothing ever changes in Indiana but the seasons and the size of the corn ears."
NOT YET I hadn’t budged from supine reverie in two hours when the doorbell rang.
It took some time to remove the laptop,
cell phone, TV remote, and sports section from my chest. “Just a minute,” I mumbled, flopping from the recliner to the wheelchair and then rolling my diabetic, obese body to the door of my studio apartment. Standing there soaking wet, in the hallway of my apartment building, five stories above Lake Union, was my oldest friend Andy Rohrbacher. He looked ridiculous with water dripping from his yellow slicker and Gloucester fisherman rain hat as if it were still raining on him in my hallway.
A sodden umbrella lay on the floor. Even with the
hat and the umbrella, a big droplet had formed on the tip of his nose. Some New Yorkers just never learn how to adjust to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s only eight o’clock,” he said, looking at my faded grey sweatpants and holey tee shirt. “We’re you in bed already?” “Yes,” I said. “With Angelina Jolie.” Then I yelled toward the bedroom, “Angie, sweetheart, it’s just Andy. No need to get dressed.” “Where can I plug in?” said Andy, holding his lap top under his arm, not even smiling at my joke. “I’m almost out of juice.” I had first met Andy at a Vietnam war demonstration in 1969. Henry Kissinger was speaking at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Andy had brought a banner that read “Bring the War
Home,” and needed someone to hold the other end. For the
next thirty years we belonged to three different socialist organizations, each of which had resulted from splits in their predecessors. We walked picket lines, demonstrated, went to meetings, argued over leaflets, went to more meetings.
It was our life.
“You got coffee?” he said. “I have something to tell you.” Andy always had something to tell me.
In the past
he’d have a sheaf of rumpled papers somewhere on him that he would thrust at me immediately– the latest bulletin, the latest analysis. Nowadays his scribblings were interred all neat and tidy inside his computer, and it was just his clothing that was rumpled. Unlike me, he was thin, but his upper body had started to slump like a sand castle. He still had the trademark shock of curly hair and sported the same goatee that he’d had in college when people used to call him “Dr. Leon” because he looked so much like Trotsky. But the whiskers had turned white over the years, and now he looked more like Trotsky’s grandfather. I, on the other hand, had blown up like one of my Aunt Sadie’s knishes. Or like Aunt Sadie herself. If Andy was Trotsky, I’d turned into Nikita Khrushchev, fat and bulbous, schvitzing on a chaise lounge by the Black Sea. “It’s been months,” I said. He threw his wet raincoat on the floor, and, holding his laptop plug aloft in one hand, announced to me, “I have a great idea.” “Nice to see you too,” I said. “Put that plug down. You look like Diogenes and the lamp, or whatever his name was, you’re making me nervous. The socket is by the toaster.”
He found a spot amidst the egg encrusted plates, coffee cups, bills and takeout menus that nested on my combination kitchen-den-office-living room table, and wedged in his computer. “Coffee,” he said. “I need coffee.” “I heard you the first time,” I said. “You want decaf? It’s late.” “No, the real stuff,” he said plugging in. “Aren’t you going to complain about the traffic on I5?” I asked him, as I wheeled around to make coffee for him and to pull out some leftover Chinese food from the fridge. Three years I’d lived in this apartment, and it was his usual opening remark when he drove up from the Central District, how Seattle traffic had become as bad as any city in the country. He didn’t respond. “Aren’t you going to say how pretty the lake is, but too bad it’s so polluted?” That was his usual second remark. But not tonight. When he was satisfied that his laptop had booted up and was on the right page, he looked up from the screen. “Al,” he said, “we have to talk.” “Your coffee will be ready in a minute.” I said, looking for a clean enough cup. “You want some Szechuan chicken?” We‘d both come to Seattle after college when the organization decided that what the revolutionary movement needed was two monolingual New York Jews to organize west coast cannery workers. Somehow they hadn’t realized that canning was on the way out and high tech and brew pubs were on the way in. After the canneries closed Andy became the
main writer for our organization’s newspaper, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” until it folded.
then he’d been teaching at North Seattle Community College, publishing books, and writing a blog, which I tried to keep up with, but usually not successfully. Me, I’d gone into social work. With mortgage,
twokids and a
I figured until capitalism was overthrown, I
could make a living patching up society’s wounded and sending them back out into the fray. And after twenty-five years, wouldn’t you know, it gave me a nice little pension. I didn’t get out outside the apartment much.
What was the
point? A retired, divorced fatty in a wheelchair, I preferred to face life from a horizontal vantage point gazing at either the television or the lake below. Admittedly,
I sometimes went to sleep with the thought of
revolution on the edge of my brain, like when a child stops sleeping with his favorite stuffed animal but still keeps it somewhere on the bookshelf
in the bedroom
himself of youthful fantasies and earlier times. But generally I left politics to the two-legs. At this point, life was to enjoy, best as I could. Andy looked me in the eye. “You know how I’ve been complaining about feeling nauseous all the time?” “Honestly I don’t track your digestive system that closely,” I said, spooning some extra hoisin sauce onto the noodles that surrounded my cold chicken. “But what about it?” “Well I went to the doctor,” he said. “And?” “It’s cancer.” I put down my plate. 25
“What kind?” I asked quietly. “Pancreatic.” Our eyes stayed locked on each other. “Stage three.” I was quiet. If I’d have been younger, I would have been furious at the injustice of it.
But at our age
terminal illnesses are frightening, but no longer shocking. We’re all just waiting for the news. “Andy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.” “Hey, I’m sixty-five years old,” he said. “And no one lives forever, right?” No, I thought, but these days most of us get past sixty-five. “Are you in pain?” I asked. “No, I feel fine,” he said. “They gave me some Vicodin, but I’m not taking it. I’m telling you I feel fine. But let me tell you about this idea of mine; it’s making me feel like I’m thirty-five again.” He fiddled with his laptop, his hands shaking slightly as they darted over the keyboard. “You remember Jack Miller?” “Andy,” I said, “this sucks. How long have you known?” “A while,” he said.
“Al, you’ll have plenty of time
for feeling crappy and sad, if you want. But I’m not going there now. So, do me a favor, and answer my question. Do you remember Jack Miller?” “I don’t want to talk about Jack Miller,” I said. “Well we need to.” “Look,” I said, “you need to get a second opinion.” “It’s cancer,” said Andy. “They’re sure. Anyway, Jack Miller just moved out here. Mercer Island. To be near his grandkids.”
“Who’s your doctor?” I said. “I know a great oncologist at Swedish hospital. Dr. York, I think his name is.” I couldn’t believe Andy was so calm. “I think we should take him out.” “My wife’s cousin, Barry,” I said. “They thought he had cancer too. Turned out it was gallstones. This guy York figured it out. He’s a genius.” “Al, did you hear me?” “Yes, yes,” I said. “Jack Miller lives on Mercer Island and you want to take him out. Why are we talking about him?
Let me call this guy York.”
“No, Al,” he said, somewhat irritated.
“I want you to
listen to me.” “I’m listening,” I said, getting somewhat irritated myself. “You want to take out Jack Miller. Where do you want to take him, Pike Place market?
Why don’t you show
him the houseboats from ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ Maybe he’ll fall in the lake.” “No,” said Andy.
“Take him out. Eliminate him.”
I stopped. “What do you mean, eliminate him?” I asked. “Rub him out,” said Andy. “Get rid of him. Let him swim with the fishes.”
He had a frightening twinkle in his
eye. “Excuse me?” “I have six months to live,” he said, “maybe less. Jack Miller needs to be punished. He has been a very bad man.” He sat there, at my kitchen table, all 145 pounds of him, looking frail and white, like a shell fragment on the beach, with the same kind of blue jeans and plaid shirt he’d worn since college, telling me he wanted to murder his 27
schoolmate from fifty years before. I wanted to laugh, but this was the same man who had organized a hundred students, mostly white, to fast in solidarity with the Black Panther Party in 1969. And later, the same man who helped organize three successful cannery workers strikes. I’d never known this man, even in his later years, to not do what he intended to do, and he seemed absolutely serious. “What are you, Tony Soprano all of a sudden?” Andy’s facial expression didn’t change. “Why don’t we knock off a few banks while we’re at it?” I continued. “I could use a few extra bucks.” “Jack Miller is an absolutely evil creature,” he said.
“He’s a war monger, a polluter and he’s a Jew who’s
helped turn Israel into the South Africa of the 21st century. And he’s made a fortune doing it.
Why should he
live out his old age in peace and comfort? And, now I’ve got nothing to lose. Is that coffee ready yet?” Andy stared at me and I could see the glow in his eyes and the beads of sweat on his brow. I remembered something about Miller and Andy from years earlier. “Didn’t you used to know him?” I asked. Andy nodded. “Stuyvesant High School, New York City. We were on the student council together.
He was a putz
even then.” I poured him a cup of coffee and then wheeled over to sit next to him at the table. “That’s right,” I said. “I remember. Andy, can I ask how you’re feeling right now?” “I’m feeling really good, mister social worker,” he said. “Brimming with clarity.
I can see your shrink’s mind 28
working. Andy gets a cancer diagnosis and wants to act out, or some such nonsense.” “Well?” I asked. “Of course it’s connected to my cancer,” he said. “If I had twenty more years, I’d keep doing what I’ve been doing…educating and organizing. But I don’t have twenty years, I’ve got six months. I have time for one last act.” “And when they arrest you?” I asked. “’Won’t happen,” he said.
“After I do him, I’ll turn
the gun on myself.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m going to be dead soon anyway. Might as well take the bastard with me. And the best part is that an hour afterwards, my blog will come out, and the whole world will know.” “Andy,” I said, “let me call this Dr. York.” “It’s all arranged,” he said.
“I’m doing it tomorrow
morning at the Erikson Health Spa. I’ve already joined the place and checked it out. He’s there every Monday through Thursday soaking his crooked back at six AM, rain or shine. I’ll be done by 6:30. The blog will be on a timer and be out by seven.” “You have a gun?” I wanted to see how serious he really was. “Right here in my bag.” He reached into his backpack, and pulled out a camouflage pistol case. “Camo?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding. Did you join the fucking NRA too?” He handled the case carefully as if it contained a piece of sculpture, his hands trembling slightly, and unzipped it on the table. The inside was lined with sheepskin, and the gun lay there, ugly and nasty, like a coiled snake on a child’s bed. It looked ridiculous 29
surrounded by the pile of plastic forks and chopsticks on my kitchen table. “Glock 26, semi-automatic,” he said.
gun on the market. I’ve been practicing every day.” “Why not an AR-15?” I snorted. “Turn him into Swiss cheese.” “Remember how we used to practice with those heavy Smith and Wessons?” he asked, smiling. I remembered. As a requirement for membership in the organization we had to own and learn how to use a pistol. Every week we’d go to the range, a handful of nervous intellectuals trying to be nonchalant with the hunters and creepy white guys who hung out at those places. Andy picked up the gun, gripping it with two hands like the cops do on TV. He aimed it at the wall over my head, his hand quivering slightly. With his skinny wrists and liver spots, the whole thing looked ridiculous. “Put that thing away, you’ll hurt yourself.” I said. “But I think you’re on to something.
After you kill
Miller, I bet lots of other old lefties with terminal illnesses will come out of the woodwork and start whacking rightwing big shots. The revolution will start at last.” “I’m serious about this, Al,” he said, returning the gun to its case.
“And when it comes out in my blog, I
guarantee you thousands of people will read it. Maybe millions. Everyone in the world will know about all the evil he’s done. And how he didn’t get away with it. That’ll do as much good as all the writing and organizing we’ve done our whole lives. Maybe more.” “Andy…,” I said sympathetically. “Don’t try to talk me out of it,” he interrupted. “I’ve thought this through. Amy died two years ago and we
never had kids. There’s no living relative who will suffer psychological damage or be hounded by the press. There’s no one that Miller’s heirs can harass or sue. The organization doesn’t exist anymore, so there’s no one there that the government can go after. I don’t believe in God or an afterlife. And I don’t want to end my life in agony, doped up on morphine, in a hospital bed somewhere. Frankly, I can’t see any down side at all.” He kept looking at his computer screen, going through his documents. Except for his wrinkled skin and white hair, he could have been a cub reporter on deadline. “You actually want to kill him. And yourself.” He didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “No, I’d actually rather live for another twenty years. But I don’t have that option.” The usual Seattle mist had steamed up my picture window and even though it was May, outside it resembled a Nordic December night. My usual companion, the television, was as black and silent as the lake below. I would have much rather have been watching ESPN than having this conversation.
Jamie Moyer was pitching, and since he was
from Pennsylvania, I’d been thinking about the special South Philly pizza from Pagliacci’s – cheese steak, sausage, mushrooms and tomato sauce. But that would have to wait. “Andy,” I said. “If you’ve got a year or whatever, why don’t you enjoy yourself? Have a three way. Go someplace you’ve always wanted to go to. Something.
Lie on a beautiful beach.
I could give you the money.
If I could get
around better, I’d go with you.” “No thanks,” he said grimly, squinting into his computer screen, “I still have things to do.” 31
I put my chicken plate in the pile in the sink. “Well even if I agreed with your idea, which I don’t, why go after Miller? He’s done his damage, why not someone still in power?” “Because I can get to him,” said Andy. “And I know him. Think of how it will look when one of his own, a Jewish kid who went to the same New York high school as he did, delivers the blow. Not a Muslim, not a foreigner. It’s got poetry to it.” “Poetry,” I said. “Oy vey.” “You know, maybe I shouldn’t do it at the health club,” he muttered to himself. “There could be people around, and the bullet could ricochet off of all that tile and hurt someone. Maybe I should do it in front of his house. I could just go up to his car window like I was asking for directions. He paused for a moment. “No I like the hot tub. I want him to be naked and helpless. Besides, I’ve never seen anyone else but Miller in there at that time of morning. It’ll be OK.” He sipped his coffee. “This has to be the worst coffee in Seattle,” he said, frowning at me. “Thank you,” I said. “For a dying man you’re pretty picky.”
He cracked a small smile. Maybe I could get him to
relax. “What was Miller like in high school?” I asked. He didn’t go back to his computer, which I took as a good sign. “Pimply,” he said. “And arrogant. He bragged about reading the New York Times from cover to cover on the train every morning on the way to school.”
This was good. He was calming down. “No friends?” I asked. “Not a one. He probably talked to me more than anyone. The boys thought he was a wuss and the girls wouldn’t go near him.
All he did was study. His spine was crooked too,
a birth defect or something. Kept him out of the draft. Senior year he got 1580’s on his college boards and went off to Princeton. Then the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School and he ended up marrying the daughter of some big shot banker and working for George Schultz in the Reagan administration. Those idiots made him Assistant to the Deputy Undersecretary of State for the Middle East.” “I remember your stories about him in our paper,” I said, hopefully reassuringly. “A total oinker.” Andy continued his narrative, as if he were rehearsing a speech. “Then after Clinton won, he started hanging out with Netanhyahu.
They were buddies from their Princeton days.
Miller lined up Jewish money in the states for Israeli business deals.
He did a little consulting for Shell Oil
in Nigeria -- polluting aquifers, busting unions, whatever. When the US invaded Iraq, the Reeps brought him back to DC to help with the war, and gave him some bullshit title, liaison to the Coalition Provisional authority; but really he was a fundraiser, an ideological bag man,
money for the party and the war.” He patted his laptop like an appreciative cowboy pats his horse. “I have it all right here. You know me, Al, I do my homework.” “I do know you, doctor, and I have to say, you’re starting to worry me.” 33
“I’m putting it all into my final blog.”
reading out loud.
Jack Miller has made a career of murdering innocent people and raping the earth.
His actions have caused
untold deaths and suffering in Asia and Africa, and have helped to pauperize the American working class. The traumatized vets who roam our streets can thank him and his buddies for all they’ve been through.
If you asked him
about threats to the environment, Miller would laugh in your face.
If you asked him about the thousands of people
who died here and Iraq because of make-believe weapons of mass destruction, he’d just smirk. He has never once apologized for or even questioned the cruelty and inhumanity of his life. He’s a Jew who learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust and because of what he’s done, anti-Semitism will flourish for generations. He is a war criminal and I intend to punish him for being one. “What do you think?” he asked. “I think I need a drink,” I said. I wheeled over to the cabinet, found my fifth of Jack Daniels and poured us each a shot. Christ, I thought, he’d really gone off the deep end. Talking him out of this was not going well at all. Maybe I’d have to take away his gun by force. Me, who has to work to make it to the bathroom. I’m not supposed to drink alcohol, but the whiskey went down very easy. Usually Andy didn’t drink but he downed his in two seconds as if it were iced tea. “Thank you,” he said. “Now, what do you think?” “Andy,” I said. “I agree with everything you said about Jack Miller, and I don’t a shit whether he lives or dies. But you’re a Marxist and humanist, not a murderer.”
The rhetoric of the old days was coming back to me. “You always told us that the only way to change things was for working people to take power, and you were right. Killing Jack Miller will just make you look crazy and it won’t do any good. You know that.” He stood up from his chair as if he were addressing the central committee. “You think we’re doing any good right now?” he said, glaring at me contemptuously. enemies.
“We never punish our
When we win, the bosses figure out a way to screw
us later. And when we lose, which is usually what happens, we pat ourselves on the back for sending a ‘strong message’ or some other nonsense.
The bad guys think we’re a joke.
They think we’re weak, and we are.” He leaned on the edge of the table. “Well, maybe this will make the next neo-fascist think twice before dropping bombs or hurting people.” He sat back down. “This coffee’s cold,” he said. “Andy,” I said, “you’re not an assassin. Come on.” He looked at me with total disgust. “At least I’m not someone who just sits around his apartment all day,” he grumbled. “Some revolutionary you turned out to be.” “If that’s how you feel,” I said, “why are you here?” That shut him up. We both knew he was here over because he didn’t have any one else he could talk to. “Think of it this way,” he said, resuming his lecturing tone of voice. “You remember the Starkist cannery strike in 1988? That strike started when Juan de la Cruz got fired for punching out the foreman who was harassing every one. That was the spark.” 35
“Bullshit, Andy,” I said, “We worked for a year preparing for that strike. We had charts and profiles of every worker, broken down by department, shift and union sympathies. We knew who they hung out with, who they were related to,where they went to church….that campaign was organized down to the last detail. And you were the one who worked it all out. Juan’s fight with the foreman had very little to do with it.” “Yes,” said Andy, “but don’t you see that was what people talked about. That’s what got people to put down their tools and walk out. So now I’m switching roles, that’s all. I won’t be the behind-the-scenes guy for once. I’ll be playing the lead.” “But Andy,” I said, “no one’s going on strike if you shoot Jack Miller.” “Not today. But it’ll spark something someday,” he said.
“It will be like John Brown at Harpers Ferry.
when my blog goes viral everyone in the world will know the story of how Jack Miller fucked over the people and how Andy Rohrbacher shot him dead for doing it. You don’t think that’s worth something? “Al,” he continued, “you’ve just given up, admit it. I haven’t given up. That’s the difference between us.” I was starting to feel very flight headed and frustrated. “You know,” I said, “Juan de la Cruz is a cop now. A lackey of the ruling class.”
Last I heard Juan was washing
dishes and parking cars, but I wanted to mess with Andy’s head. “’Don’t care,” he said. “He’s a hero to me.” I started to feel a little woozy, and I got my insulin kit out of the kitchen drawer.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’ve got to do this.” I grabbed some of the flab that hung over my belt and squeezed the suet-colored, hairy blob with my left hand so it swelled up like a balloon, and inserted the needle. Even after fifteen years, I couldn’t help wincing when the needle went in. Andy had barely looked up from his computer screen. He was as devoted as ever to his bizarre plan and I hadn’t turned him around at all. As I was extracting the needle, there was another knock at the door. “It’s Grand Central Station around here today,” I said. “Maybe someone wants to tell me their plans to smother Dick Cheney.” Andy quickly made sure his gun was in his backpack, and put the backpack under the table. “Daddy,” came a voice from the hallway, “it’s me.” “It’s Deborah,” I said to Andy. “Who?” he asked. “My youngest.” “Don’t say a word,” he whispered. “OK,” I whispered back. “Your lunatic secret is safe with me.” I wheeled to the front door and opened it. Deborah, my daughter, was standing there, smiling angelically. Occasionally she dropped by when a phone call would have done just fine, but I think she liked to see me in the flesh just to make sure I was still functional. “I was in the neighborhood,” she said, leaning over to give me a hug. “Sweetie,” I said. “You remember Andy?” “Oh yes,” she said to Andy, “The writer. you?” 37
“Still at it, “said Andy, turning away to face his lap top screen. Deborah, unfazed, asked me, “are you coming to my seder?” I drew a blank. “Is it tonight?” “No, silly,” she said, “next Thursday.
welcome to come too.” What a lovely polite young woman I had for a daughter. “No thanks,” Andy said, “I don’t do seders.” Deborah shrugged her shoulders. “Well, Dave’s downstairs,” she said. “He’ll pick you up at five, next Thursday.” me up.
Deborah or Dave always picked
I had a car in the garage, a ten-year old Dodge
van, but my family couldn’t stand the idea of me driving. I hadn’t even turned the key for a year or so. “Remember, Thursday, five o’clock. Donny’s doing the four questions He’s very excited,” she said. Donny was my grandson. She bent down and gave me a kiss and left.
from a daughter really helps you appreciate life. Maybe if Andy and Amy had had kids he wouldn’t be having these thoughts about Miller. Andy grumbled at me, “Your daughter is a Zionist? An imperialist?” “She’s not an imperialist, for God’s sake, she’s a fourth grade teacher. Not everybody who has a seder is a running dog imperialist stooge.” “’Next year in Jerusalem?’” He scoffed at me like I was an idiot. “What do you think that’s about?
for kick out the Palestinians.”
“Well Deborah isn’t raising her kids to enlist in the Israeli army, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “You should come on Thursday.” Andy looked at me with shock. “Haven’t you been listening to me?” he snapped. “I’m doing this thing in a few hours.
I’ve got to get
everything ready.” He was starting to sound frantic. “So tonight will be your last night on earth,” I said. “That’s what I’ve been telling you,” he said and went back to working on his farewell blog. “You sure you don’t want some Szechuan chicken?” I asked.
He ignored me and kept pecking at his keyboard.
Maybe, I thought, I could work the Passover angle. “You’re right seders are bullshit,” I said. “But they’re fun. Telling stories, asking questions.
right up your alley.” “Fairy tales,” he replied. socialist or what?
“Al, are you still a
I bet Miller is having a seder. Hey,
maybe I’ll do him there.
When they open the door for
Elijah, I’ll be there on the front porch and blam.”
pantomimed shooting a pistol like Dirty Harry. Then he muttered, “No, no bystanders. Just me and him, face to face.” “When you get down to it,” I said. “Passover is about a slave rebellion. I’d think you would like that.” “That’s not what it’s about now,” he said. about maintaining Israeli territory.
I guarantee you that
at Miller’s seder the main items on the agenda will be expanding into the west bank and defeating the Palestinians. “How do you like this line?” he continued. ‘I
understand killing Miller won’t accomplish much right away. 39
It won’t bring clean up the rivers in Africa, or help the thousands of disabled American vets who wander our streets, or get the Palestinians out of their refugee camps. But it will send a message to all the Jack Millers in the world, and all the wannabee Jack Millers, that we do not forgive you, and you will not escape unscathed.’ ” “Too long to put on your tombstone, you sick bastard,” I said.
“ I think you should come to Deborah’s seder
Thursday.” “Al,” he said. “I need to do this.” “You know,” I continued, “Moses was the first trade unionist. He organized the workers to walk out, just like at Starkist. We could talk about all that on Thursday.” “Yes,” said Andy with a smile, “but after he killed the overseer.” Touché, I thought. I was hungry again and fantasized about an apple fritter, the kind they sell at Larry’s Market on Queen Anne hill, shiny with sugar and grease and big as a catcher’s mitt. Instead, I got out some crackers and cheese.
Andy wouldn’t touch any, asking for some juice
instead, “unless you’ve got some better coffee.” No wonder he was so thin.
I was getting a sinking feeling in my
stomach that I wasn’t going to be able to talk him out of this craziness, and I would have to stop him physically. That scared me. I rolled the ten feet over to my Laz-y-boy, retrieved my laptop from under the stack of newspapers, rolled back and set it up across from Andy at the table. We were sitting and staring at our screens like college students at a coffee shop. I googled Passover.
“Hey,” I said after a while, “did you know that Rabbi Akiba used a seder to plan a revolt against the Romans? First century BC.” “Mazel tov,” said Andy.
“Did you know that Jack
Miller personally lobbied Congress against the Clean Air Act? 1985.” I kept searching. “Did you know that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was on the first night of Passover?” I asked. “Did you know,” he replied, “that under Miller, Shell Oil spilled close to two million barrels of oil into the Niger delta, destroying the fish, infecting the drinking water and destroying 15% of the mangrove forests?” I kept searching. I found outtakes from “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston flirting with Hollywood extras dressed as Egyptian slave girls; a cartoon musical version of the Passover story called “who let the Jews out (ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh);” and lots of videos and articles on how to clean your house for Passover without making yourself meshugina. Not much help. “You know,” I said, thinking back on the story, “in Exodus, God doesn’t kill Pharaoh.” “Al,” he said, “I’m working on something here.” “Think about it,” I said. “Why do you think God lets Pharaoh live?” “I don’t believe in God,” he said. “It’s because killing Pharaoh isn’t the point,” I continued.
“The point is freedom. The point is
liberation.” “For me,” said Andy, “punishing Jack Miller is liberation.
He and his ilk are screwing up the world
the rest of us. We’ve got to stop them. Words alone don’t 41
work. I’m a Marxist.
I believe in action. You got anything
else Al? You’re not going to talk me out of this.” “Maybe,” I said, “I’ll just call the police.” “No you won’t,” said Andy.
“You may have given up on
the revolution, but you’re not going to call the cops.” He had me there. I might have strayed, but not that far. There was another buzz at the door. “Now who’s here,” asked Andy. “Did you call the police? You bastard.” “Oh my God,” I said, “It’s Mona.” I’d completely forgotten she was coming over tonight. “Who?” said Andy. “Mona, she’s a physical therapist,” I said. “Well sort of. She’s my masseuse.” “Your what?” said Andy, with a leering grin. “Shut up,” I said. “It’s not what you think.” I wheeled over to the door and opened it.
silhouette of Mona Alailefaluela filled the doorway. She stood six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds.
umbrella for her, and even without one she was barely wet, as if the rainwater bounced off her Samoan goddess skin. In her right hand she held a portable aluminum massage table, as effortlessly as most people would carry a purse or a briefcase.
In her left hand was a pink, plastic Chinatown
bag full of great island food, usually fried fish, spicy potatoes and a coconut dessert that slid down your throat like soft ice cream. A massage and dinner, once a month, after her shift at the Ballard Rehabilitation Center was over.
That had been our arrangement for years. She set the
food bag down on the counter and the massage table on the floor.
“Hello, Mr. Albert” she said smiling, her face a rising sun. “Oh, you have company.” “Mona, this is my friend Andy.” Mona smiled sweetly, and walked over to Andy, extending her large hand. “Pleasure to meet you,” she said. Andy shook her hand and said hello back, his eyes widening at the sight of this enormous woman filling up my small kitchen. He started to close up his laptop. Mona stood awkwardly by the stove. “Would your friend like some mahi mahi?” asked Mona. “I have plenty.” The sultry aroma of the fish spread through the apartment. Andy started to say something, but I cut him off. “That would be great Mona.
Yes, Andy would love to
stay.” “No, I need to be going,” said Andy. “You have plenty of time,” I said. “I’m not hungry,” said Andy to Mona, “but thank you.” “Well how about this?” I said. “Mona, would you mind giving my friend her a short massage?” Both Andy and Mona looked at me weirdly. “Just a short one at the table here. You know, a shoulder massage. Like they do at the airport.
me.” “That’s not really necessary,” said Andy. “Please,” I said.
“It will make you less tense.
You’ll like it. Do it for me. Mona, do you mind?
have time,” she said pleasantly. “You don’t even have to leave your chair,” I said. Andy stared up at Mona, who towered over him like a giant buddha.
For once in his life, he seemed to be
speechless. She took some waterless handcleaner from her 43
pocket, smeared it on her hands, and approached Andy from behind. Before he could say a word, her strong fingers were on the trapezium muscles at the base of his neck and she started squeezing. Andy sat there stiffly, like a man in an electric chair, his shoulders hunched together. “Just relax,” she said cheerfully. “Put your head down on the table.” I could tell he didn’t want to but her presence was too powerful to resist. He closed his eyes and let his head and shoulders relax.
Mona kept at it, working
on his neck and the back of his head.
It had been the
first time since he’d arrived that he wasn’t either typing or talking. Maybe, I thought, this is what he needed. Something to salve his ailing body.
If he fell asleep I could get his
gun and end the whole thing.
From the bones on the back of
his neck, Mona moved up to the top of his fevered cranium. Andy suddenly shot up out of his chair. “No,” he shouted at me, “I see what you’re doing. I’m not going to let you stop me.” Mona jumped back with her hands up in the air as if in the presence of a lunatic. “Andy hold on,” I said. “You sellout,” he yelled, corralling his backpack and laptop.
“Class traitor,” he yelled again as he grabbed his
coat and umbrella and fled from the apartment as if it were on fire. In my condition there wasn’t anything I could do to stop him. “Oh my gosh,” said Mona, hands on her cheeks. “Mr. Albert, what is going on?” “He’s very upset,” I said to Mona. “He’s sick.” “He’s crazy.”
“He has cancer,” I said.
“I’m sorry, that was a bad
idea. I was trying to help him relax.” “Oh my gosh,” Mona repeated, sitting down on the chair Andy had vacated. I dialed Andy’s cell phone but he didn’t pick up. “Damn,” I said to Mona, “I’ve lost him.” I started rolling back and forth.
Nothing I’d done or
said had dissuaded him. “Are you OK?” asked Mona. “Maybe I should leave.” I shook my head no. “Please stay,” I said. “I’m sorry about Andy. He’s my oldest friend.” “You have strange friends,” she said. I wasn’t going to be able to stop him alone. Not in my condition.
I thought about calling some of my old comrades
from the organization. Maybe they could help me.
realized at that very moment that I had lost touch with every one of them.
Andy had been my last link with the
movement. “Maybe we should eat,” I said. “I don’t know,” said Mona. “Please,” I said. “Stay. You’re probably hungry. You just got off work.” She paused, but then agreed, and silently set up the plates. I didn’t know who to call for help. Pretty fucking sad. When this was all over, I would have to fix that. We chewed quietly. “Will your friend be all right?” she asked. “I don’t think so. He’s afraid of dying,” I said.
She nodded. “I see that at work a lot,” she said.
fish was delicious, as always, and the potatoes restorative. Both of us calmed down. “How is the family?” I asked.
She had four children
and often talked about them. “Tommy is back home,” she said. “He’s so much trouble that one. The oldest girl is good, she’s working now.
like me, no benefits. Maybe we’ll get a union one day, then we’ll get benefits.” That made me feel good, hearing someone praise unions. And sad too that Mona did not have health coverage. After we ate I hunted around for my old address book and finally found it in my underwear drawer. I called Barbara, she’d worked on the newspaper with Andy. And Michael, a union guy.
I hadn’t spoken to them in years.
They didn’t answer, and I didn’t leave any details. It would have been too strange over voice mail. I just left messages for them to call back, even if it was late. I had a number too for Juan de la Cruz, and I tried it.
son answered the phone. He said his Dad was at work. I told him I was an old friend of his from Starkist and that Juan should call anytime. However this ended up, I was going to have to re-make those connections. “You ready for massage?” Mona asked, wiping her mouth, apparently feeling better. “I could use one,” I replied. Mona went into the bathroom, and came out with a bottle of massage oil and a towel. Her hair was undone, and a cascade of heavy black curls flowed over her shoulders and down her back. Squiggles of dark turquoise tattoos covered her arms and neck.
She helped me strip down to my
shorts and hoisted me onto the massage table. She turned
the lights down and started on my shoulders, pounding them down like pizza dough, then working them with her thumbs. The gardenia scent from her massage oil filled the room and I pictured Andy driving home alone, passing the restaurants and bars full of young people that dotted the loop around Lake Union, and then passing the Space Needle, overrun with tourists. I knew he was going over his plan for tomorrow, picturing Miller’s face, and, I’m sure, mentally editing his blog for the hundredth time. In a way, he’d been writing that final blog his whole life. Mona was working on the backs of my thighs now, and my buttocks, and I pictured Andy getting out of his car and walking into the small house in the Central District that he and Amy had rented for years. As she smacked, prodded and scratched my flesh I tried to reach out to him in my mind, wishing I could comfort him like Mona was comforting me. The hours we’d spent writing together, the arguing, and the thrill of jacking up some boss or sellout politician were a part of my being. Yes, the capitalists were winning, but every time Mona touched me I could feel from deep inside my chest that they would ultimately lose, that there would be a people’s victory.
As she caressed my purplish,
scaly calves, I could see the day when people like Jack Miller would be in prison, lonely and miserable, maybe mopping floors and cleaning toilets while people like Juan de la Cruz would get to relax and enjoy life. Andy, I thought, it’s going to happen. She moved down to my feet, oiled up her hands and squeezed my arches and puffy toes one by one. For a blissful minute she
held her head over my back
and gently swished her hair back and forth across my skin, tickling every nerve ending I had. She lay down on top of 47
my back, her arms on my arms, her legs on my legs, letting all the weight of her enormous body press onto every square inch of mine, and holding that position for a full minute as I slipped further into oblivion.
Andy wouldn’t go to
sleep tonight, he’d just pace the living room and talk to himself until it was time. I thought of his loneliness and his fear, and all I wanted to do was make things right. She worked on me for close to an hour and my mind somersaulted with images of my ex-wife, and our old friends, and Andy by himself in his room with his thoughts and his facts and his blog. But damn if I weren’t alone in my room too.
I’d abandoned my friends and the struggle and
I was alone.
Well almost alone, God bless you Mona.
After I paid her and she left, I checked my phone.
one had returned my calls. Who knows if they even remembered who I was? It was going to be up to me. I set the alarm and closed my eyes.
At four thirty, when the
alarm went off, I started some coffee and found my car keys. Then I microwaved the rest of Mona’s deep-fried island fish, and, after dousing it with Louisiana hot sauce, inhaled the whole thing and most of the potatoes too, washing everything down with coffee.
I had an hour
and a half. I wheeled myself down the hall to the elevator, took it down to the garage, and heaved myself into my dusty old van. It took me a full minute of playing with the ignition switch and fiddling with the wires under the dashboard to get the old hunk of junk going, but when she finally started, she roared to life like James Dean’s motorcycle. I eased out of the garage, and in a few minutes was on the freeway headed west to the wooded estates of Mercer Island.
By the time I crossed the island bridge and hit the perimeter road, dawn had started to break tentatively over the water. There were no other cars, just the wildness of low clouds and rain whipping over the lake. When I got to the back side of the island, the one with the view of Cougar Mountain and the Cascades, I found the private road that marked the entrance to the health club. The road weaved through a wooded canyon, with no houses in sight, and ended at a brand new Scandinavian-styled building of molded concrete with cedar beams, on the water’s edge. Except for the employee section, there was only one car in the parking lot: a new, black Mercedes sedan. Miller must have gone inside already. I opened my window partway to let the cold damp air rush across my face, and waited. Huge gusts of freezing rain passed over, thumping on the rusty roof of the van. The lake roiled with ragged edged whitecaps and pale gulls huddled on the cold, gray waves. After a few minutes, a tiny, baby blue Toyota Tercel pulled into the lot with a small white-haired man hunched over the wheel. it.
As I expected, Andy was going through with
He pulled his car right up
next to Miller’s.
up to me now. I didn’t wait for him to get out, Instead, as soon as he stopped, I put the van in drive and drove hard into his rear bumper, denting the trunk and smashing a tail light. Then I backed up, put it in drive again and smashed the other tail light and the fender. I staggered out of the van and, leaving my wheelchair behind, lurching one swollen, painful foot in front of the other to get to the driver’s side of Andy’s car. He opened the door, with the Glock in his hand, yelling ‘get the hell out of here,’ and without thinking I grabbed the gun from his fingers and heaved it into the lake. Then I put my forearm against his 49
ribcage, undid his seatbelt and pulled him out of the car like you’d pull a person out of a burning building.
struggled but I pushed him to the ground right away and lay right on top of him, smothering him with my flabby chest and pinning him down with my arms, almost like Mona had done to me a few hours earlier, except Andy and I were face to face. “I won’t let you do this, god damn it,” I said. “It’s my life, what do you care,” he said straining against me. “Get off of me you fat load.” I had to smile at that, him calling me fat, there in the pouring rain on the stony parking lot, as I lay face down on top of him. “Because I love you, you jerk,” I said. “Besides, who you calling fat?” “Revisionist pig,” he said. “Look at you protecting the capitalists.” “Petty bourgeois adventurist,” I said, a phrase I hadn’t uttered in decades. “It’s always about you, isn’t it?”
I pulled his arms out sidewise to increase the
pressure of my weight on his chest and lay there on him, listening to his wheezing, hoping he would calm down. “Al,” he said with tears in his eyes, “we failed. Our whole lives, we failed. ” He stopped struggling and lay still, his face a pale yellow, six inches from mine.
I thought I could see the
cancer surging through him “We didn’t fail,” I said, at that moment feeling as alive as a teenager, “we just haven’t succeeded yet.”
Suit of Many Feathers Acrylic Painting Artist: Ivy Leighton
The Women What is this thing you call feminism? They asked, covering their mouths as they laughed, pronouncing each English word precisely. We Americans sprawled showing way too much leg, bodies draped in bright African cloth. The Wakamba schoolteachers sat poised in long dark skirts, legs crossed properly at the ankle. We spouted proud about women’s rights, quite vocal in our assumptions about their oppression.
You Americans, you are so funny! Their laughter peeled out, down and through the dusty schoolyard below. Don’t you see? Our men - they are like the birds! See, that one, you can tell he is male by the color. Bright! Beautiful! Men are like that. They need to strut through the town square, blankets over their shoulders, smoking their pipes as they consider important matters of the day. “Ah yes,” they say, “I see” and “yes, indeed. That is a very important matter.” But watch closely…. Eventually they say, “I will sleep on it.” And then they come home and ask us what to do! Their laughter rang like bells through the hills.
Everything in Time 1 The accordionist played “Tout est en son temps”—Everything in time— with precise staccato chords which dugged brains, ears and eyes. Those eyes of the crowd stared unblinking, as the fellow stomped his feet and wailed, all while playing. Did anyone else notice the shops that lined the street? Telephone box-sized confectionaries selling anything lavender: violet candy, cakes and teas. Easy to take your mind off sweets when you’re part of a crowd now swaying, singing crisply to the man’s melodies. 2 Eventually, like all crowds, the mob got bored and drifted when Lance the Pants and Victoria entered the town’s cathedral. One bystander-waitress looked to its spire as Lance held Vee by the waist and brought her near. All the better for betrothed and betrown to sigh before a kiss, then a turn and wave to their smattering of well-wishers. 3 Kolo-Kolo-Wedding bells ripped Toulouse’s early Saturday morning peace, as not too far away, down a back alley street, a merry bicyclist’s whistles, bounced off the heightened stonewalls. His basket full of bread, wine and cheese. The sun rises high, near the dead center of the sky, and the warm burning on your shoulders helps you forget your lack. You appreciate this gift—song, sun and memory. 4 Memory of the guava tree by the side of the house with a swing Dad made for me and my sisters. Mom’s ackee tree, cherry tree, cotton tree, and banannas. And in front she grew pepper, thyme, mint and basil. Also, hibiscus and crotons and lilies and a palm. The beach wasn’t far away but we spent our school days studying, or playing with our friends. The devil finds work for idle hands, mom would say. Life for our parents meant work and due diligence.
5 Faded blood spots the floor of the cleaned-up abattoir. Instead of dripping, raw meat, the walls hang art. No more stunned, shitting cows lining up dumbly for slaughter. Here near the perimeter of the city, musee-goers blink cow-like at contemporary art, by people estranged from hunger. This room once smelling of frothy black-red blood, and ramped-up adrenaline, smells now of tourists eagerly waiting. 6 Now, how do you climb from way out here, in the outerreaches, and back to the town’s center, near the trains and buses? Well, you walk and walk, and walk some more, until the streets’ graffiti becomes totally unfamiliar. You’re lost, crisscrossing some industrial-age maze, and the weather report said it would rain. There’s some car traffic heading this way. You reach out and flog the bug-like minicooper. The boy and his girl smilingly tell you to enter, and deliver you zip-zip to your long-awaited terminal. You’ve seen this young love before, the kind you can envy. You tell them, if they ever visit New York, you’ll repay them kindly. 7 The train’s superhot, hotter than Jamaica. The French don’t believe in things like air-conditioners. But I’ve walked for miles, and my sunburnt lips sting. So, I’ll take what I’ve got, a hundred free miles left, for nothing but thinking.
All around me, women were having babies. My little sister Diana had recently given birth to the most beautiful child anyone had ever seen. My own mother was so redeemed and gratified by this event that she’d retired from teaching, and now spent her days buying organic cotton jumpsuits and rings of plastic keys and other benign, brightly colored objects. Her Christmas letter raved about Diana and Marco’s parenting skills, and Leo’s superior beauty and intelligence. It didn’t mention me at all. “I thought about including you,” she said when asked about the omission, “but I wasn’t sure what to say.” I was thirty-two years old, a graduate student and journalist, a creative writing teacher and youth worker, a marathon runner and martial artist. I’d nearly married in my mid-twenties but changed my mind, and though I still hoped to raise a family, I hadn’t yet found the right partner for a lifetime commitment, let alone pregnancy and parenting. In other words: nothing to report. A quick scroll down my Facebook news feed made me feel like the last woman left on earth who hadn’t reproduced, and wasn’t making imminent plans to do so. It was as if, unless and until my status shifted from ‘single’ to ‘married with children,’ my life hadn’t truly begun. “I never knew I could love so deeply,” one friend said of motherhood. “It makes you a better person,” said another. “I can’t wait until you experience this.”
And though it was easy to imagine that true happiness was to be found only in motherhood, the mothers around me didn’t seem all that happy. Heather, whose daughter was two and whose son was four, reported losing it one morning and throwing a bottle of Comet down the stairs, splattering the walls with green-blue powder. “All I’m good for is cleaning this fucking house!” she had screamed as her husband Dave ushered the children outside. Jessica, pregnant for the second time, was trying to train her preschooler not to bite people when he got angry. Carla worried constantly about her son’s dental expenses and her husband’s drinking habit, and cried so often that her toddler had learned to wipe her face and say, “No sad, Mama! No sad!” I attended his fourth birthday party, where the beach swarmed with knee-high children, and Carla threw an arm around my shoulders and introduced me to everyone as her “childless friend.” A few days later, she called to apologize. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said. “I guess I’m just jealous of your freedom.” Freedom. I’d forgotten to think of it that way. I’d been so fixated on what I didn’t have that I’d overlooked the obvious. That weekend, I determined to begin making the most of my childlessness. I resolved to have adventures that Carla, with her toddler and his dental bills, could only dream of. And so I booked a flight to Laos. “Laos?” most people asked. “Taos? Where is that again?” Laos, is a long, narrow country in Southeast Asia, landlocked by Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. Culturally, it’s a blend of Theravada Buddhism
and French colonial influence, all kept in line by a repressive communist regime. Despite a brutal and prolonged civil war that lasted until the 1970s, the Lao people have a reputation for contentment. My plan was to start out in the capital, Vientiane, where one of my few remaining childless friends was doing her fieldwork for a PhD in social policy. She was studying happiness. I had met Christina a decade earlier when I lived in Scotland, and we had remained close. Like me, Christina hoped for partnership and motherhood, yet found herself involved in a string of dead-end love affairs. We spoke every few months via Skype, comparing notes on growing older as, one by one, our friends paired off and entered the land of parenthood. “I’m running out of time,” Christina would lament. “Your life is amazing,” I would counter. Christina, I thought, would be the perfect person to visit, and Laos, the ideal destination for my journey: exotic, remote, and a world away from my daily confrontations with slender young mothers jogging with their babies in high tech strollers, bearded young fathers carrying babies in linen slings, toddlers waddling by in designer jeans—even in the privacy of my own home, the daily email slideshows of newborns held by their exhausted yet dreamy-eyed mothers, babies taking their first bites of solid food, babies taking their first poops, babies wearing tiny hats knit to look like the stems of eggplants. I planned my trip to coincide with the dry season, and with an elephant festival in a rural province a full day’s drive from the capital. I loved the idea of roughing it in a remote corner of Laos, and I’d heard the festival was a 57
highlight of the eco-tourism circuit. Their website boasted of elephant rides, sacred elephant rituals, and a giant elephant fruit buffet, all of which sounded most intriguing. I booked my flight to Bangkok and my overnight train to the Lao border. I got my typhoid shots and my anti-malarial pills, stocked up on bug spray, and went to bed each night with my Lonely Planet. I bragged about my itinerary on Facebook, where my friends shared travel tips, and left notes of enthusiasm and envy. Among them was a dear friend of Christina’s and mine, who was so thrilled to hear of my plans that she decided to fly out from Scotland to join us in Laos—along with her four-year-old daughter. Fiona, known by those of us in her inner circle as Voony or simply Voon, is an unstoppable force. She’s a loyal and devoted friend, though unlike Christina and me, she’s unflappable and pragmatic. She comes from an upper crust British family and was educated in England’s best schools. Voon’s attitude concerning all matters is one of utter confidence. She holds a PhD in artificial intelligence and travels the world attending conferences and giving obscure and brilliant scientific papers. When her daughter was born, there were complications during labor, and for a few excruciating hours it seemed both Voon’s life and the baby’s were in danger. Yet when I spoke to her a few days later, it was she who comforted me. Not one to settle for an ordinary name like “Alice” or “Mary,” she named her daughter “Eilidh,” a Gaelic word meaning “The Radiant One.” I heard of Voon’s proposal to join the trip from Christina, who sent me a string of excited emails from Laos—“I’m sure you won’t mind but what do you think if they
come out at the same time,” she wrote, “I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.” I felt incapable of saying no. I spent the remaining weeks leading up to my departure battling waves of self-pity and dread. Could I cope gracefully with this change to my plans for an exotic, child-free holiday, or would I spend my two precious weeks in Asia begrudging poor little Eilidh, and possibly losing a friend in the process? Mixed with the resentment and disappointment was a rueful recognition: Try as I might, there was no avoiding babies. Voon and I agreed to meet at Hualamphong, Bangkok’s main train station for destinations to the north. After the sleek, chrome-and-glass gleam of Suvarnabhumi Airport, Hualamphong was reassuringly humid and filthy, and thick with the mixed smells of garbage, exhaust, and meat roasting on spits. Birds nested in the rafters of the vaulted roof, and hundreds of people occupied the station floor, sitting in plastic chairs or directly on the concrete, waiting for their platform to be announced. Upstairs, I found a table at a terrace café where I could look down on the throngs while sipping an overpriced Singha and reading my guidebook. “There are few cities in the world that reward exploration as handsomely as Bangkok,”
Lonely Planet informed me, but for the moment, just sitting at the train station was exploration enough for me. I had never been to Thailand, or anywhere in Southeast Asia for that matter, and here I was, dazed from jetlag and woozy from the beer, yet triumphant: a proper backpacker making her way through a foreign land without a guide, or even a companion. At least not for the next hour or so.
At first, when I spotted Voon and Eilidh, I sat perfectly still. I watched as they picked their way through the crowd: a pale-skinned mother and daughter in matching Indian print skirts and dusty, floppy hats. Voon held one end of a fabric strap, at the other end of which trotted Eilidh, as if still linked to her mother by an umbilical cord. The little girl stopped sometimes to look up at the roof or examine a candy wrapper on the station floor, then felt the tug and stumbled forward. Beneath her oversized tshirt, her pudgy arms were flushed from the heat; her blond hair spilled to her waist in sweaty, tangled curls. Yearning is an uncomfortable but not entirely unwelcome sensation. The desire to be a mother, like all desires, is a mixture of pleasure and pain. I watched Eilidh scamper along behind her mother, and I watched heads turn to follow their progress through the crowd, and I felt both longing and repulsion. In a moment, I would call out to them, and Voon and I would embrace, and I would kneel on the station floor to introduce myself to Eilidh. But just for a moment, I hesitated, watching them from a distance and letting their image sink in: A mother and daughter making their way through the world together. Or was it a woman struggling to maintain her accustomed independence while dragging her young daughter behind her? Though Eilidh stood out from the crowd at Hualamphong, that was nothing compared to the attention she would receive as soon as we crossed the border into Laos. Her hair in particular would become the focus of intense interest—even in the Lao capital where foreigners—phalang— were a familiar sight, a blonde child was a rarity. For the next ten days, Eilidh would be pinched and prodded, cooed
over and stroked by more adoring strangers than had ever so much as winked at the wee bonnie lass at home in Scotland. I, on the other hand, alternated between delighting in Eilidh and feeling claustrophobic. When, after days of fried rice and noodle soup, we found a restaurant that served French fries, I found Eilidh’s ketchup-smeared smiles deeply gratifying. At Buddha Park, a whimsical sculpture garden and tourist attraction on the outskirts of Vientiane, I took photographs of Eilidh as with surprising reverence she placed a heart-shaped sticker on each statue— a purple heart on the toe of a reclining Buddha; a pink one on the body of a giant snake. After a few days in my presence, she grew familiar enough to crawl into my lap, where she would ask strings of existential questions, then answer them herself in her precise, baby English: “Elizabeth, do cars live forever? No! Nothing lives forever.” “Where are we going? To the next place.” “What will we see when we get there? We don’t know yet.” Sometimes, she would throw her arms around my neck, and I would allow myself the unexpected, almost frightening bliss of feeling loved by this small child. Yet more often, she snuggled up to Christina, whom she knew far better, and I felt irrationally stung. Eilidh’s fair skin and tiny legs made long walks impossible, so we were forever hailing tuk-tuks, which cost more and left me feeling antsy. And when Eilidh got sleepy, or couldn’t find anything to eat on a menu of spicy fried items, or had simply had enough of the heat and dust, she threw a proper four-year-old tantrum, stomping her feet and wailing and tossing her bag into the street. In these moments, I found 61
myself fighting resentment: I came to Laos to ride an elephant and find contentment—not to watch a red-faced toddler stage a snotty meltdown. It finally began to dawn on Voon that Eilidh’s presence might be altering my experience, and she drew me aside one afternoon as the four of us walked back to our guesthouse. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about it,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically shaken. I tried to assure her that having Eilidh with us was enriching the journey—a claim that felt true—but I also wanted to level with Voon. “It’s not the trip I had envisioned when I booked my flight,” I told her, “but it’s also a joy to have her here.” Voon looked stricken. After that, she took to whisking Eilidh off for a nap each afternoon, leaving Christina and me to go explore another temple or find a cold Beerlao. As much as I had battled my resentment of Voon’s willfulness in the weeks before my arrival in Laos, I now found myself admiring her nerve. Here was a woman who wouldn’t let motherhood stop her from seeing the world, nor let cultural expectations limit where she would take her four-year-old. Had Voon been a more passive person, a toer of lines, she would have sat this one out, and stayed home for the majority of the next decade. In some ways, her rejection of the mores of first-world motherhood inspired me. And at the same time, I felt that I—and in some ways Eilidh—had been made victims of Voon’s indomitable resolve. One evening, returning from a late dinner, we were making our way to the back door of the guesthouse when there was a crash, followed by a moment of silence, and then a piercing wail. In the darkness, Eilidh had stepped on a rusty grate balanced atop a construction hole near the
building’s foundation, and fallen through it. Voon pulled her out, and beneath a porch light we assessed the damage— just some mild scrapes on her legs, and a bad fright. Eilidh continued to howl. The owner of the guesthouse appeared, rushed inside again, and returned with a cookie. Though Voon and then Christina held Eilidh and spoke to her softly, she kept on crying, as if she’d finally found the opportunity to express all the anxiety and frustration of the past week. Or was that my projection? I marveled that the same tantrum that made me want to run for the closest bar prompted Christina to hug Eilidh and rock her patiently, until the little girl had cried herself out, and fallen asleep. Apparently, Christina’s happiness studies were paying off. Had it been just Christina and me, we would have taken a public bus all the way to Sayaboury province, where the elephant festival was to be held. Instead, at Voon’s request, we hired a minivan and a driver, allowing us to make the journey at our own pace: a leisurely two days rather than one. When we finally arrived, provincial Sayaboury was dusty, crowded, and gearing up for a massive influx of tourists, most of them Lao. We had learned by now to bat our eyelashes and point forlornly at the little blond child whenever we wanted preferential treatment, and so while most people had to walk the last few miles into town, officers in flat caps and crisply pressed uniforms waved our tuk-tuk through the barricades. Over a bridge across the river, the streets were lined with vendors selling fried chicken feet and smoked eggs, elephant-shaped balloons and cans of Coke. Our driver let 63
us off at the festival’s information center: a dusty clearing where we paused to read the posters. “Elephants have the longest gestation period of all mammals, carrying their young for nearly two years before giving birth,” explained one sign, adding, “Females with calves are at all times dangerous to approach.” I snuck a sideways glance at Voon. Despite the fact that it was dry season, I hadn’t been prepared for the volume of fine red dust that stuck to our sweaty arms and faces, lodging itself in every pore. Within hours of our arrival in Sayaboury, Eilidh looked like a street urchin, her blond braids matted and frizzy, her face smeared with dirt and the sticky remains of lunch. This was the child who, later that afternoon, begged for an elephant ride, but whose conviction waned when she realized her mother would have to hand her over to me in the process. I sat swaying slightly in my bamboo chair, having climbed a ladder and stepped indelicately on the elephant’s head as I had been shown to do, and now Voon steadied herself on the ladder and lifted her daughter as high as she could, holding the quaking child out to me. Just then the elephant lurched sideways, and I found myself moving quickly away from the ladder and from Eilidh, who screamed while the men on the ground cursed and prodded the enormous animal back into place. Again, Eilidh was lifted, and again the elephant sidestepped at the final moment—I hardly blamed him. Finally, he resigned himself to his fate, and I reached out and grabbed Eilidh beneath her arms, murmuring reassurances as I drew her to me. She was rigid with fear now, and moaning. I gripped her tighter. “It’s all right, you’re safe with me,” I cooed. “Mummy will be here in just a minute.” I allowed myself a fleeting
sense of maternal pride—I was keeping her safe; I hadn’t dropped her yet, had I? Voon clambered in, and there we were, three phalang perched atop the lumbering beast, while Christina followed along on the ground, snapping pictures. I had to admit; Eilidh’s joy was infectious. When our elephant tossed back his head and trumpeted, we all squealed with laughter. And later that afternoon, when Eilidh threw a tantrum and lay face down in the dirt tossing handfuls of the stuff over her back much as the elephants did in their nearby pen, I simply smiled and strolled off to find an iced coffee. Back in California, my therapist—the woman in whom I had confided my darkest jealousies and most bitter resentments of the mothers in my midst—was wearing a maternity shirt. Tucked in among my unopened mail were two baby announcements. Among my unchecked emails was one from my sister: a slideshow of my nephew eating his first slice of chocolate cake, little of which appeared to have made it into his mouth, despite his superior beauty and intelligence. I sent her back a slideshow of my trip—the temples and the waterfalls, the elephants and the bamboo bridges across the Mekong River, the dramatic limestone cliffs and the crowded night markets. I forwarded the slideshow to all my mother friends: they who had spent the past few weeks chasing their toddlers around the house trying to wipe their noses. And then I sent a copy of the slideshow to my own mother. “I rode an elephant!” I wrote in the subject line, resisting the urge to add, “Feel free to brag about it in your next Christmas letter.”
The South with golden leaves loosing red and green on fields where cows crop grass, treading over ebony obsidian where it’s hidden underfoot a pupillary glint by the old fire road breaking the trunks, leading to the abandoned church with broken lock and books and dust coats everything, the pews, your lungs, the cobble stone ways where centipede grass grows with a fever. With rivers in Georgia where green water lazes forth faster than you think. He jumped in naked, pulled from sight, shoes still tied on the bridge where men and women sally forth in night finding each other under the ochre moon behind Zarzar’s, city café, behind dumpsters. Beds of pick-ups, briefly one, then separate again, zipping. Ring of light in denim. Lip full. How many hung in Tennessee? The Walking Bridge people loved sunday when it was so warm in January the trees on Cherry Street blossomed, briefly pink and white and crimson.
Now past noon, I’ve been lying fully dressed and motionless for three hours.
During moments of wakefulness I open my
eyes and nod to my imagined captors:
that oversized oak
chifferobe filled with fancy dresses too tight to dance in, the bland oil painting of blue and yellow flowers that never spoke to me, the big window draped with heavy hot paisley curtains that let in the heat but not the sun, and finally, the portrait on the wall above my head, my dead husband, Peter, still looming large and oppressive in this stale room.
I lie still.
Still, waiting for my death.
But as usual, my nurse catches me. Ashley knocks at my bedroom door lecturing, “Get up, Julia.
Let's go out.
We can get some groceries or sit in
the park.” Sticky and restless, I secretly welcome the opportunity to postpone my death.
“I'll get up,” I yell
through the door.
I pick up the museum
“But no park.”
brochure from the nightstand to 1985: change. memories.
and read, “Poland From 1885
A Century of Change in Color.” A century of color.
A century of
A century of memories.
Memories I’m not sure I want.
Since I’m not
going to die today, I might as well go; the paintings are knocking at my bedroom door even louder than the peck-peck taps of Ashley’s knuckles. me out of bed if she likes.
Let this hummingbird nurse buzz I’ll act alive for her.
I ease my stiff body from the prison bed and dress slowly while Ashley twitters around the house gathering things for our outing. 67
And then she shoves my unyielding body into her
red Firebird and we are there. The museum is arranged in a circle but somehow we start at the end- the contemporary times.
Arm in arm we
pass each painting, but I’m not compelled to stop and examine them.
I have my impression.
I see in the
paintings straight gray lines confining my earth's blues and greens.
I see boxes instead of squares.
estranged from the canvas.
I want to see the lush red and
gold I remember the dancers in my village wearing.
the broad landscapes of my childhood, the warm liquid pinks and the cool layered blues.
I want a feast.
generation of contemporary Polish artists, people I had left long ago when I stepped on a ship to follow my love, portray a history of fighting for freedom and I see, reflected by their famine, my own colorlessness. I do not stop until I pass backwards in time long enough to see a painting with a pink-orange sky curving into orange-green mountains melting into a green pasture and I begin to remember.
When I was a child I loved to
watch my father as he walked through the fields.
sit in a tree by the house and watch his colors, first the blue of his flat cap, then his tan square face.
jacket blurred with the swing of his arms as he smoothly moved over the curves of the land.
His blue and green
blended with the same solid earth colors, both softened by the pink sky, comforted at the end of the day.
could distinguish his features I would wave and he would walk directly to the tree, teasing, Julia, come down, my little kapusta.
And we would walk hand in hand.
earth tones he offered protected me.
Through his blues and
lush greens, I was bound to the earth.
I pat my nurse’s little hand and notice my own hand covers hers. one.
Mine dry and aged over her fresh inadequate
I do not mention my memory to her and yet, I feel
exposed by it.
She doesn’t seem to notice my sudden
vulnerability and merely pushes us on to the next painting, by the same artist, with the same broad strokes giving birth to the distant sky.
In the foreground twirl
traditional dancers with printed skirts made with tiny dots, clean white blouses and vests painted thick and black just like the velvet one I wore as a child.
My mother put
beads on the swirls of copper wire which adorned it and let me wear it whenever we feasted and danced. My mother loved to dance.
She would gather with the
neighbor women on these special days and they would touch hand to waist, until they swirled alone, faster and faster. I watched the women's skirts billowing rich red and gold, their thin white legs kicking circles. me to come dance with her. motion.
Mother would urge
When I joined, I took on her
I was spirited into her luxurious red and freed by
its extravagance. to remember. carelessly.
It’s been so long since I allowed myself
So long now since I could move freely and Dancing was so much a part of my life I did
not think of it as an indulgence.
I thought it was
essential air or water, but it was really a gift from my mother.
I even think Stashu fell in love with me because I
could dance. “Do you dance?” “I suppose so.
I ask Ashley. At the clubs sometimes, if someone
cute asks.” In my head I hear the Polka station playing on the radio.
After dinner Stashu and I would twirl around
bumping into the chairs and the cupboards of our little 69
kitchen, the same exact kitchen as our neighbor’s, row upon row of tiny bare rooms. When we danced we pretended we were somewhere else, somewhere perfumed with rosewater and freshly baked cakes instead of sweat and overcooked cabbage.
On those nights, Stashu insisted that life would
be good and we would have a family, but these were the privileged ideas of a healthy man.
Stashu was stubborn,
and when he felt well enough he insisted on dancing, masking the black with gold.
We eventually danced slower
and closer and sometimes I merely held him in a desperate grip to keep him standing. And the morning when I woke and he did not, I pulled the blanket over his shoulders.
I picked up the shirt he
had thrown over the chair and hung it in the chifferobe so it would be neat for him. for soup.
I scrubbed the wash basin, the floor and every
clean pot in our cupboard. wake up.
I cut up his favorite vegetables I waited all day for him to
And then I crawled into bed and slept with him
one more night.
I clung to his back and whispered in his
ear that I loved him and would stay with him here in this bed forever.
And that last night while I slept, I felt him
kiss me and say goodbye. Without Stashu I became brown. smothered in its dust.
I spent my days
It grew on me.
It was my skin.
night I slept in it while tears streamed through the thick mud color revealing tiny jagged veins of soft pink flesh underneath.
And like moist dirt, by morning the brown had
seeped back to hide the exposed tender skin.
my palette with him when he died and Peter gave me money in its place.
I'd give it all back for one more dance.
“Are you hungry?”
Ashley startles me.
“No, not yet, wait, just a few moments more.”
I hear her warn me.
“I'll be fine.
Just a minute more.”
not so hard now. Peter was the first to welcome Stashu and me when we arrived in America, so young, so silly, so willing to accept any promises spoken in Polish. friend.
But when I look back I think Peter was waiting for
Stashu to die.
He carried him out of our bedroom.
me I could stay in the apartment even though it was big for just one person.
He bought a little stone for Stashu and
paid for his burial.
Maybe he did this for all his factory
workers, but me he visited at the woolens mill and gave easier jobs and longer breaks.
Instead of combing the
material we took walks together until the other workers hated and distrusted me.
Slowly the brown in me faded.
Peter offered me safe and passionless white.
married him I didn't feel a betrayal to Stashu who was my myriad of colors. The paintings in front of me begin to blur like years. A man playing a violin.
A young girl nursing a baby.
A young girl nursing a baby.
in the fields.
A young girl nursing a baby.
I weaken and grip Ashley’s shoulder.
An old woman
She eases me to
a bench in the middle of the room and says, “Sit here. I'll get a wheelchair from security and we'll go to the cafeteria.” A young girl nursing a baby. strong enough. only.
My babies - only one was
Some grew for a few months, red life blood
Others lived long enough to be named.
My love of
I began to fear its memory, the memory of
bright violent red, the loss of my children.
I used to
think they died because they were not begun in love. 71
once when I was pregnant I pretended the baby was Stashu's and then my Barney was born. such a kind boy.
He was big and strong and
Born to die.
I knew when he left on that
ship to go fight that he would be a hero.
He was that way.
Always a quick-temper, always in the middle of it, but always fighting for someone else. The government gave him a stone just like all the others and I think he would have been proud of that.
stones too are works of art, reflecting the lives of their owners.
Barney’s grave was solid and simple and seemed the
same as all the others, until you looked at the design from a distance and saw the beauty in the communal stones.
of my babies has a grave marker - a wooden cross or a rock from the river, smooth and polished with a single name scratched in.
Peter's stone, granite with block letters,
He was born, he lived and he died.
sisters were angry with my simple choice, but only because once Peter was gone, and I had all the money, I bought a huge marble stone, white with subtle bluish lines and two beautiful angels carved in the sides, and put it on Stashu's grave. I glance at the paintings around the room, all too far away to see clearly. catches my attention. waterfall?
One on the far side of the room Is it a woman?
A woman in a
My curiosity overwhelms me and I push myself up
and slowly walk towards it.
Halfway there I see the naked
body of a woman - full hips and rounded stomach remnant of carrying a child, ample breasts hanging beautifully on her white chest. adornments.
She wears no jewels, no ribbons, no Nothing to enhance or to hide.
I want to be her.
She is on her own and beautiful, her
nakedness revealing her freedom.
I admire her.
Freedom from attachment, 72
freedom from all these constraining pitiful memories. Around her I see only shaded browns and blues and blacks. But as I walk closer I see those seemingly shapeless shades of color are not just water falling, but the faces of people - an old man, a young child, another woman.
as I had admired, free and whole - but she is not alone.
stare at the faces until each one becomes vivid and then I step back to see them blend again into the woman's painted background.
Beautiful brush-stroked memories.
“So, this is a nice painting.”
Ashley comes up behind
me. She thinks it is nice.
I say to myself.
a silly girl.
But I notice her intensity as she stares at
I study her face.
Her light brown eyes have
a greenish tint on the edges I have never noticed before. Her nose is too pointy. opaque.
Her face too narrow.
But she seems calm and serene looking at the
voluptuous woman in the waterfall. painting means to her.
I have no idea what the
But I want to know.
Another life to put in my background.
Her skin too
Hunger is a Form of Keeping Faith My people in Slovakia are still peasants. Go there today, mention my name, and they will feed you and house you and you will be fatter when you left than when you came. I was born your third year in the special school for experimental chi – No, the experimental school for special children. We didn't have such stuff; though nuns experimented on us enough. But for a mother to call her son special – oh – that'd be a curse. There wasn't much food in the house. Apa was drinking again. Momma had to go back to the factory right away. Your dad ran the factories, in a flat corn state far away. At a key stage in your adolescence you would not fight and nobody liked you. I could. I downed a guy twice my age when I was seven. Both of our reputations interfered with our relationships. You went from crew cuts and laid out shirts to San Francisco. I was cleaning the bathroom the day you arrived, sore to run down the woods soon as the floor dried smelling green and mud through Clorox. You lived communally; with one big family; I slept and can still feel Toni's elbow in my ribs. You made acid. I made bologna sandwiches, biked them to momma lunch times, vowing I'd never end in the factory. You ended the war. I sat on the stoop with my dog Tramp, watching fireflies, awaiting puberty. You went to India. I went to High School.
When you were 24, a woman you truly loved hurt you, and you changed. When I was sixteen, alone in the woods, a soldier stuck his tongue in my mouth. You took a shot at divinity school. I became confused about mass, and especially confession. Something called, but not a bat, we could not quite locate it. A guru met by chance on a blank beach directed you to nothing: Epiphany: I broke down and took the job in the factory. Up ahead, they had me scared: my brother, on drugs. My brother, back from Nam sad. My brother, suddenly religious. My brother, suddenly dead. I read, secretly, on breaks: Proust, Thoreau, "The Anarchist Cookbook." As your circle was closing, hitched in a backpack, I hit the shoulder of interstate 80, stuck out my thumb, to leave Jersey and cabbage and kitchens forever. San Francisco my destination, I slept through your home state. I was looking for you. I wasn't told that you had gone. Momma says, "When we came to America, it was just a mess to me. I didn't know what we were looking for; all I knew was what we lost. What we found we couldn't name, so we couldn't ever own it." Momma says the unpluggable gap with her American children is hunger. "You'll never know what hunger is, not in this land. You get better garbage here than we had some Easters. 'Buy'? There was no such a thing as 'buy.' Some years the sap snapped and you had to hold the gone cherries in your tongue for four seasons more; we did. I tell you after hungry so long, the food bites you! Keep the whole damn supermarket; leave me the taste of one sugar beet cake after sixteen hours in the fields." They taught us hunger to hold us back to give us need pleasing things were held from us to make a hole inside as our inheritance. 75 Â Â
She wasn't pretty, but stable, and you were tired. You did the same form of meditation. A series of black matted chests and muscles earned in factories. Members of a quieter generation, we screamed privately. When I couldn't abide the hunger any more, I had to turn to you. I caught up in Kathmandu. You were my teacher. You told me, earnestly, about Buddha. It told you, in detail, about the latest hairy chest. Never having met anyone quite so white, bored in class, I played at making you sweat. After several years of meditative abstinence, you drank your first liquor. No matter what you tried, I wouldn't reach enlightenment. No matter what I tried I couldn't make you strike. You laughed. I felt known. You encouraged me to come to class on time. I danced. You watched. Suddenly you said, "Your spirit made me come." Steadily, I worshipped you. You laughed. "If we'd met as kids you would have beaten me up." "But I wasn't born yet." "Timing." Your wife served tea. I was Catholic, strong and good. You were enlightened, above all this. For years. Among all else the Germans did, they denied their victims graves, so the living could have no place to go to work out what one must with the dead. Today flowers blow and candles melt on sewer drains where resistance fighters died. No addresses were exchanged. And I still wonder, am I not supposed to mind because We were American or I was working class or this was the real world or this was not or you had transcended or you had not? Â
Somewhere now bowed off my map you may still be. But I never indulge: how the shades have fallen in under your eyes Do you still see beauty you once showed me? Is your jelly sweet in the morning? A material girl I am back in Jersey, scoring hairy chests when I can seeking work with good dental benefits. And the women still wear babushkas, as they did when momma left. They hold to the strange, American face that holds lines of a good-bye two, no, three invasions ago, and cry. "I remember. I remember. The flowers on the oxen. Don't you worry. We are here. Come and you will always be welcomed. We remember."
Dedicated to Dwight Holmes and Pam McKenna
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DRY CLOUDS OVER SUDAN A glimmer from this stingy land. Into the rocks, mouths dry as dust, this thirst to turn a speck of gold into a marriage bed, under a roof of skin. A child, born to metal milk, the cracked, raw ground once ruled by pharaohs, must swallow want. Men crouch, biting the sediment, backs like amber clouds in the treeless hollows. Seekers grow blind, their shovels dull against resistant shale. The women, with long necks, keep balance in mind. Days conceal new springs as water waits in burrows of hidden rain.
BEETHOVEN CHORUSES THE CONGO Sleepers in the dust wake, pierced by splinters to the bone, holes too long without, or filled with bullets bleeding ash. Up from an interior vibrato, he urges a drive toward the communion of music. Black markings between the lines will not decipher until ears unlock the code. Fingers discover wood can harbor strings, metal with slides, with flares that round the air. What leaps from the life of instruments from the chorused throats holds miles of walking, sun-cracked rocks. Feet stride toward new-found water, rushing, rising. It charges through the breastbone, a continuum, quantities of going forward.
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Bridget Approved My Mother is one of those people who thrives on tragedy, emergencies turn her into a superhero and when shit is really bad, she glows like some kind of archangel. It follows that sometimes when she needs that jolt of energy and her special flavor of beauty she invents tragedies, being that I am her only child often I am the cause of those emergencies. “Nini, what is that? What did you do? Oh, oh no my Lord in heaven what did you do?” I'm sixteen and standing in the kitchen exhausted after sitting in a chair for twelve hours getting my hair done. I have nearly yard long thick gleaming black braids hanging around me like snakes, I wish I was a mutant embodiment of Medusa in that moment, I want her to look at me and instead of clutching her chest and gaping at me, she'd turn to stone. “Oh, what did those hoodrat Negroes convince you to do? You look like a tramp, oh Jesus, oh Jesus help me are you having sex? Are you pregnant?” I know to weather the initial barrage of crazed panic. I wait, I hang my coat and get myself a glass of milk, I tune her out until she has run out of steam and is wheezing, puffing on her inhaler. I stay calm. I smile. “I don't look like a tramp, I'm not having sex and Tamika is not a hoodrat. She's trying to get a chair at a salon and needs volunteers so she can take pictures and make a portfolio. It's like doing a resume; they have to see her skill set. That's all Ma. I just wanted to change it up a little bit.” She gauges how far she can go, before I turn to stone and stop talking. “Oh, Naija. My beautiful baby, what is on your head? Why would you do that? Did Sister Ann see you? Wait, I'm calling Pastor Anthony.”
I sigh and sit at the table, all I really want is a peanut butter sandwich and to get to bed. I have to work the next day and I'm exhausted. While she yelps into the phone, her accent thickening bit by bit. I can only semi pray to not her God but one I haven't figured out yet, that her Pastor can talk her down. After a half hour she's weeping but calmer. She hangs up and turns to look at me, holding a wadded paper towel to her trembling mouth. “Naija, you come right home from work. Pastor Anthony is going to come check on you. There's a plate for you in the fridge, eat and go to bed young lady.” She looks at me like I shit on the table then sweeps out of the room, weeping and praying. That is my whole life. My Mother held the reigns on my Blackness as if there was an off switch. Get out of that sun before you're too dark; let me perm your hair you look like a wild bush woman. Don't wear those disgusting earrings, why are you dancing like that. Never ending. I understand now what was wrong with her, she believed if I could somehow wedge myself into a White approved level of Blackness, I would succeed. Instead of working at one of the shops in our neighborhood she took me to the White mall to put in applications. I worked in a bourgie retail store where, without my employee discount I wouldn't have set foot one in or worn their overpriced ugly clothes. She screened my friends, any slang heard in her vicinity sent her into a flaming frothing rage that was hard to explain to my friends. The barest strain of hip-hop music from my room sent her into rants about morality and how we debased we were. How, if I kept listening to that jungle music I would end up strung out, pregnant and unmarried. When I wake up the day after hairgate, I sneak out of the house and am actually grateful for the long bus ride. I take refuge in a book about the Black Panthers and dream 81
about having a mother who is proud of her Blackness, who wears it like a badge and not a shroud. “Hey gurl, whatchoo readin'?” I look up to see a blue-eyed blond haired moron smiling at me. “It's a book about the roots of the Black nationalist movement.” I never get loud with boys like this, “Oh, oh you smart and fione gurl.” He rolls his eyes in apparent ecstasy and I think of the old pictures of people in Blackface, minstrel shows and I want to smash his face in. “Is there something I can do for you kid? I need to finish this book.” His expression sours. “Damn why you gotta be a snob, why don't you give me them digits?” I close my eyes for a second. “I am not giving you my digits for two reasons. One, I don't have time for boys. Two, I don't date racist pieces of shit who think it's cute to try and 'talk Black' to me. Fuck off.” My tone is so low it takes him a minute to catch up. He straightens up and rings the bell over my head. “Fuck you then, bitch.” It always seems like, even now that White boys like that are the harbingers of doom. I get to work and when I spot a big stain on something a girl is trying to return she decides it's because she's White. She complains to my manager and makes up a wild story including her impression of me rolling my neck and sucking my teeth at her. Her version of the events filtered through a television Angry Black Woman filter. I plead my case and get a warning.
It’s “nothing” but I get warned anyway. On my way out, my purse is checked because one of the other associates hates me and says I steal and of course, it’s never personal but it’s very personal. By the time I make it back to my neighborhood I'm spent. Despite the warning to come right home I stop and chat with the guy from the Nation of Islam who is always posted up at the corner. He stopped trying to recruit me and we talk music or books and I buy a bean pie. I forget about it and drop it in my pocket; I forget how much my Mother despises him. She calls the Nation of Islam the Begging Brothers. She hates them, she hates the disabled man who sells incense every couple of weeks, and she hates the homeless guys around the neighborhood. She hates anyone who makes us look bad she says. It's exhausting how hateful she can get, how much she loathes Blackness if it is not Bridget approved Blackness. I'm thinking about this when I walk in the back door of our little house and see Pastor Anthony drinking coffee and patting her hand. She looks up and I don't know how but zeroes in on the bean pie and wails. “They got her, I told you Pastor Anthony they got her. Lord knows what they'll make her do now, turn her out, get her pregnant and hooked on drugs. My poor baby, my baby, my baby.” My head starts to pound instantly. I grind my back teeth so hard I break my first molar. Pastor Anthony is a decent man, I'm not into his church but he seems to understand my situation. He stands up and puts his arm around her shoulder, leading her to the door while I untuck my ugly shirt and drop into a chair, my appetite gone, the weight of my life pushing me into the ground. “Sister Bridget, don't set off your asthma now. Why don't you go in your room and lay down for a bit okay?” Mother sniffled and gave him her doe eyed look. Infused with her panic and manufactured fear she looked flushed and pretty, her eyes sparkling and beautiful.
“Thank you Pastor. I just pray she doesn't have a demon. I'll leave you two. Naija, you be on your good behavior.” While he walks her to her room I get a glass of milk and sit at the table sipping it and staring at our pristine tablecloth, when he sits back down I look up at him and try to smile. “I don't think I have a demon Pastor Anthony.” He smiles back at me. “I don't think you do either sweetheart. Your hair looks nice, very pretty and natural.” I stroke one of the braids and really smile. “Thank you, I like it. It'll be nice to give my hair a rest for a while.” The silence between us is awkward at best and I toy with my milk. I felt myself blush, I had never been complimented by a grown man in a sincere way before. “Are you okay Naija?” It takes me a long time to answer, no one ever asks me that.. “I guess? I mean I'm kinda stressed out but I'm okay. I'm not having sex with everybody, I'm not in the Nation of Islam and I promise no one is turning me out or giving me drugs. I'm sorry you had to come over here for this.” I get up and refill his coffee automatically; I get the nice crock of half and half and offer him some cookies. “No thank you. Listen, I know things have been rough since your father passed. Your Mother is, well she's a wonderful lady.” He squirms, he's trying not to say that my Mother is nuts. “She is if you're not me.” He watches me closely.
“Are you really okay? You look like you've lost some weight and you look tired. You can be honest with me I won't disclose anything you say.” I do know that she won't eavesdrop while I'm talking to Pastor Anthony. “I'm stressed out. I'm taking all AP classes, studying for the SAT, work, Mom. I guess it's all a little much. I lose my appetite sometimes.” To illustrate my point I plop the bean pie on the table and stare at it. “Have you had one of these Pastor? That guy who sells them? He makes them and they are so good. That's really the only reason I get them. He doesn't talk nasty to me or anything. And we like the same books, and we were talking about colleges and-” I feel the break in my voice but don't hear it. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I'm not saying, I mean. It's just that sometimes, it's hard. Would you like to try the bean pie?” I'm desperate not to cry and jump up to get two plates, two napkins, two knives two forks. I rinse the forks and put the pie in the microwave, I'm chewing the inside of my cheek so hard I feel the weird little pop of my teeth cutting the flesh and taste the blood but I don't feel the pain. I never feel the pain. I've grown an iron skin; I even cut it a few times to see. I felt nothing. I'm shaking when I take the pie out of the microwave and I can hardly cut it. I wipe my eyes on my sleeve and turn around smiling while tears roll down my cheeks. “Uh, it's really hot in the middle. I um..I” I manage to put the plates down but then I break. Over the years I learned this technique when I can't stop myself from crying, I swallow the sound and it comes out in rocking near convulsions in my body. I hold my lips tight and hold my breath. Pastor Anthony stands up and rubs my back. 85
“Just breath, you're okay. You're okay.” My Mother must have fallen asleep, I have a brief vision of her coming in and seeing this and flying at me screaming about me being a harlot and how far down into Hell I'd go for seducing a man of God. I laugh. “Will you hand me a paper towel please?” The tears are fast and violent as always. I hurt physically when I'm done. My abs are sore, my back hurts and my head is pounding harder than ever. Pastor Anthony pours me more milk and gives me paper towels. “Now tell me the truth Naija, what's been going on?” I sigh. “She's been so crazy. It's like she hates everything and everyone. She hates my friends, she hates that I read books about Black people, she hates other Black people. She threatened to disown me because I told her I went with my friend to the clinic because she thought she was pregnant. I didn't do anything, I mean I held her hand and stuff but I didn't do anything. It's like everything is my fault and I'm the worst person in the world. I think I am, I can't do things and I lost my 4.0. I ruined everything. I’m a terrible person.” The look he gives me shocks me, instead of pity or agreement he looks angry. “Naija you listen to me. You are not a terrible person. You are a smart, capable, responsible and a wonderful young lady. You are a good friend you have a kind heart. Your Mother has issues. I suggested she get some counseling-” I laugh. “She says that counseling is for weak minded people who need Jesus. Can church fix me?” He sighs. “Honestly, no. You don't especially need fixing. Listen. I know how your Mother feels about counseling. How about I make you a deal? Do you have college plans?”
I drop my voice lean over and whisper. “I want to go to either NYU or maybe UCLA. She said I am going to state since it's twenty minutes away and I wouldn't have to move out. I want to get the fuck out of here. He nods and takes my hand. I blush again at the contact and realization that I said fuck in front of a pastor. “Here is what we're going to do. I'm going to ask your Mother to come help out more at the church and with her busy with that, I hope to mitigate some of the fallout on you. For you, I'm going to send you to talk to my sister. She works with kids your age and she'll help you stay on track for college and be kind of a mentor. How about that?” I let him hold my hand, no one had touched me in an affectionate way without tears, screaming or swatting since my Dad died. “I would like that. Uh, I hope this isn't rude but is she um, a pastor too?” He laughs and pats my hand, pushed my plate over closer to me. “No actually she's an agnostic. She finds my church a little foolish but I pay it no mind. “ For the first time I had hope. I felt something inside me unclench and relax. Now, I'm older. I was mentored well and lovingly. My Mother had a panic attack so bad when I told her I was accepted and going to NYU when I was 18 I had to call an ambulance. I learned to be still in the wake of her storms. I learned not to take all of her problems personally. I went to college, when I shaved my hair off and declared my intent to go natural my Mother called me an extremist. She fully believed I had been lured into some new era Black Nationalist movement. She wailed, she cried, she begged Jesus to take her before I did something awful and became a lesbian. I'm not a lesbian but I am a daughter who lives at a distance from her Mother. I am alternately her brilliant scholar daughter or her wicked Jezebel daughter. 87
When I turned 30 and went home to help her move into an apartment, she had lost much of her manic hardness. Instead of screaming, she mewled. She said she would die alone, she said I would catch a disease; she said I looked like some jailbird radical with my fluffy red afro. “I'm fine Mom. Really.” I reassure her. When it hurts, I don't eat myself from the inside with silence and obedience. I went to therapy and she declared to all and sundry that I had gone completely insane and was close to being committed to a hospital forever. She mourned, I learned. I learned how to cry out loud. I learned to wear my Blackness with pride. I learned to forgive her. White boys trying to fit their tongues and attitudes around what they think Blackness is are still the harbingers of doom, I don't shop in bourgie stores where my bags are checked because I shop while Black. My Blackness is not and never will be Bridget approved. Somewhere along the way between screaming fights over my nappy hair and frequent sensible combat boot shoe choices, I stopped worrying about it. I did the most important thing I could do; I survived.
Thank you for reading. Sincerely, The Looseleaf Tea
Published on Jul 1, 2013
A literature and arts journal aimed toward the proliferation of cultural perspectives and previously unvoiced ideas. Enjoy, and thank you fo...