Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I ate


There on the shore of the Bosphorus on 
that baking hot summer evening, 
hotter still when Rudy and I stood next to the bearded 
old man and his small grill, waiting for him to wrap 
two fish sandwiches.With sweat pouring 
down our faces, we searched for a place to sit 
but gave up and strolled as we ate. 
The fish was cheap and delicious. 
We went back for more almost every day, sometimes twice. 
Our hotel room was unbearably hot.  
The window opened to an alley so narrow 
no breeze could ever find us. Many times 
during the night, we stood up in the dark 
and soaked our bedsheets in water 
and then laid our naked bodies on them, 
feeling cooled only for minutes. 
But we were happy. We were still in love. 
I didn’t know if we would stay together forever 
but I felt sure that whatever happened
would be fine with me. Being very young, 
I expected my future to keep changing. 
No matter how delightful the present, 
I wanted the future to be even better 
and knew it would. When I returned to 
Istanbul a few years later with a different 
young man, one who was afraid to eat fish 
from the Bosphorus, who could afford a room 
with air conditioning, those wet sheets 
were much on my mind and for the first time, 
the past seemed a little sweeter than the present 
and I was no longer certain my future 
would be the one I desired.
Istanbul August 1970 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My new car



Life would be more enjoyable if I had just one self or could hold a single point of view or didn’t feel so many different things at once. I have often wondered whether I lacked a dominant unitary Self, accountable for all my thoughts. Biologists say that each hemisphere of the brain may have a mind of its own but these are normally coupled. The coupling can come undone as it did for a woman I read about whose left hand sneaked up her neck and tried to strangle her until she was able to force it back down to her side and sit on it.  In a similar uncoupling, a continuous shift of feelings whirled around my head when I walked into the Datsun showroom in Philadelphia. I was 30 years old, and for the first time in my life, able to afford a brand new car. Until that moment, I had made do with a clunky old Rambler station wagon, inherited from my mother, followed by several squalid VW’s, all of them grey, and smelling of thrift stores. One rainbow colored Chevy that cost me $75 lasted only 5 weeks. But now with my new oil company PR job (a career that part of me saw as not far removed from turning tricks for cash), I could afford anything in that showroom. My new consumer power came with a jolting strangeness, thrilling and self-actualizing. The glossy wine-red sedan with the jet black acrylic roof rotated slowly on an invisible axis. The salesman stopped the car and held open the door so I could slide into the black leather bucket seat. The interior smelled rich and liberating. It smelled of freedom from the poverty of the army brat, of the Europe-on-$5-day vagabond, the penny-pinching college student, and of the low-paid public media employee. Instantly my winning, above-average self rushed to the front of the crowd, bursting with egotism and pushed aside my meek and nervous twin, the nutty one who could never fit in, who was always saving for a disaster, the innate idealist who decried consumerism and argued for class struggle. That kind and pleasant and ardent person was shoved into the back seat where she watched with a measure of shame and utter amazement as I, arched and overflowing with repressed pride and lust, leaned back into the sumptuous driver’s seat, like a shallow, arrogant capitalist in an Ayn Rand novel, and after only a quick and raucous glance at the car’s features, having noticed the only two things that really mattered at that moment--it was new and it was beautiful--and with complete disregard for its price tag, I declared: I’ll take it!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In the Rain (Finalist, 2013 Abroad Writers Conference Competition, Category: Stories 500 words or less


We didn't see until morning that in last night's black sack of fog and pouring rain when I stopped the car, no longer able to see a road, 
I had parked at the edge of a cliff, as if I had meant to drive over it but changed my mind at the last second. When we crawled out of the tent at dawn, that's when we saw it. We could be dead now, I gasped. We could have crashed through the fog into that ravine below, the car crushed like a beer can, Jim spread eagled beside it, a dazed face aimed at heaven with his eyeballs popped wide open, my body crumpled in the drivers seat. Was this trip worth all this? We were somewhere in the hills of Eureka because he wanted to shoot some ducks. After we pitched the tent, I admired how his big hands could start a fire in the rain, stack it with foliage until the flames grew larger and larger and the smoke rose like mushroom clouds, the flames whipping around the iron pot he filled with raw potatoes, carrots, onions, beef, and rain water, and how delicious it tasted without any seasoning, after which Jim pulled out his bourbon and drank in large, noisy gulps. I drank a little, too, and we smoked, speaking few words, until we crawled into the tent and unzipped our sleeping bags. Jim fell asleep immediately but I lay curled in the bag listening to my dog under the car lapping up the last of the stew, and to the incessant rain and wind, wishing Jim would stay awake and do what he did yesterday morning when he woke me abruptly with the weight of his naked body, pressing, and pushing, murmuring as I tried to push him off, feeling his hands under my shirt, caressing my thigh, his mouth sucking me, his fingers entering me everywhere. I wanted him like that now. If only he would just wake up and talk about ducks, about how to make a fire in the rain, about whether his wife will come back, whether he wants her back--anything to break through this loneliness of being together. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The back yard


On the west side of our house, my father planted 
a row of sunflowers, their heads towered
over the fence, and made a cheery sight-
their dark, round faces tucked inside 
those yellow bonnets nodding at passersby. 
In the wind, they swayed 
every which way, a line of excited 
teenagers at a rock concert. 
Under their shade I moved on hands and knees, 
poking around for grasshoppers, pulling 
off their wings, dropping them into pickle 
jars with leaves and bottle caps of water. A
city of glass jars built on my dresser
noisy with crawlers I thought were better off with me
than in the yard fending off predators like my brothers 
who crushed their bodies with riotous joy and
observed the horror of death for amusement. 
But with me, the millipedes, chameleons, beetles 
became my children, not my prisoners. 
Sprawled under the tall flowers, half awake, 
half asleep, I let them scamper over my face--
how sweet the tickle of hairy legs and soft wings, 
the feel of damp, cool skins. At night awaiting sleep, 
the lightening bugs turned their tiny bulbs 
on and off, my lizards moved the pebbles and I
wondered if any of my crickets lay upside down 
again, their little legs wiggling in the dark, 
and if I wasn't too tired, I turned on my flashlight
and checked. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Still going strong


As long as I can remember, I am afraid of the night. 
Most kids outgrow it. My parents predicted I would, too. 
But I enter my teen years more afraid than ever. 
That doesn't stop me from working as a babysitter.  
I arrive at my clients' homes after dinner.
Once I tuck the babies into bed, I turn on the TV 
and poke around the fridge 
for a snack. I stretch out on the sofa. 
Gradually, the room darkens.
I grow uneasy, more aware of being alone, 
of odd sounds. 
Was that the water heater?  
A cat at the back door? 
I become less sure. 
Time to turn on the light in every room. 
Turn off the TV and listen harder. 
I check the locks on the windows and doors.
Open closets, kneel down to see under bedskirts.
Peer into the babies' beds, behind curtains through windows.
Odd shadows flicker. 
I consider which household objects I will use in my defense. 
I wonder if the intruder is a neighbor or a serial killer or even a human. 
I sit beside the telephone visualizing the run for my life.
How I will fling open the front door and run 
across the wide street, the evil thing in pursuit, 
and pound on a door and scream for help. 
With an escape decided, I stare at the clock, 
my body in a knot, until at last they return. 
I greet them with a big smile, even laughter, 
express affection, praise for their babies, their comfortable homes, 
all that gushing brought on by relief in having survived. 
Years later I marry a musician. 
It is impossible to stay in the house by myself after dark 
so on nights he works, I pack a book, flashlight, a pager, 
and a blanket and move to my car, which I keep 
in our driveway just for this purpose. 
I lock the doors, leave the windows open just a crack, push back the seat, 
and read by flashlight until overcome by sleep. 
Now I'm a grandmother. 
When I am alone at home after dark, 
I begin my ritual. 
I check the doors and windows more than once, 
the closets, look under all the beds. 
I listen. Any noise makes my scalp tingle. 
I visualize escapes. Sometimes I keep a baseball bat near 
my chair and glance at the clock over and over 
until my husband returns.  
My parents were wrong. 
I never outgrew this fear of the dark. 
It is still going strong. 
Maybe stronger.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It's all a blur


Like so many San Francisco nights, Fisherman’s Wharf disappeared into the fog that appears even denser now as I recall how boozed up Jim and I were when we left the restaurant and the rough force he used on me and the horrific thing that might have happened were it not for an encounter I took then and, even now, to be preternatural. I had been drinking vodka martini’s while listening to Jim's long list of sorrows and regrets. He had spread them out for me as he poured down whiskey sours and chain smoked. It was very late when we walked to my car. He wanted me to spend the night. I wanted to drive home. Come on, come home with me, he slurred insistently, too drunk for sex and so was I. For weeks my desire for him had been waning anyway. I could go a whole day or two without remembering how nonchalantly he made love, with that same careless air of pouring himself a drink. It used to excite me, loosened me up. But in those waning days, only the steam from his mouth came to mind, the way it drugged my air with liquor and smoke.  Key in hand, I leaned forward to kiss his cheek. But he grabbed the neckline of my dress, yanked on it violently, split the front seam in two, exposing my bare breasts. Oh my God! I cried. Oh my God! and I stepped back, walked quickly to the car, jumped in and sped away, hurtling myself down the Embarcadero onto the 101 south freeway. It's all a blur, those cars speeding past me in the murkiness, the smear of lights encircling me like a carrousel, my eyes frozen in a stare, my lids so heavy I was afraid to blink, worried once closed they might not open again, afraid to move any part of me, not even the pressure of my foot on the gas, every second feeling like an hour. Up ahead, I saw the exit sign, Army Street. That was not my exit, mine was miles ahead, but something took hold of me, turned my wheel to the right onto that exit and down the ramp. My hands held lightly on the wheel, obeyed its will, the car now in command of itself. I did not hand myself over to it, no choice was offered me. This is where the car would go, I could do nothing, the way a mountain stream flows where gravity pulls it. Once on Army street, my car slowed, rolled to the side, aligned with the sidewalk, and came to a stop. I heard the key turn off the ignition, the motor fall silent, and then the space before my eyes vanished, the world went instantly black, silent, and bottomless.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Mission


As a child, I was never alone. Not for a single moment, not ever. God kept a constant eye on me, as did Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, my patron saint, St. Theresa, my Guardian Angel, and my late grandmother.  Always there was another awareness in this skull with me.  It's why I believed that everything that happened, happened for my pleasure, edification, or punishment.  The green grasshopper that landed on my shoe, car crashes, my mother's moodiness, squalls -- all happened to get my attention, to reward or punish me. For this reason, I thought it entirely normal in the middle of 6th grade to ask Jesus for a miracle. 
I was desperate to skip 7th grade and that would take a miracle. I didn't have to explain to Jesus why.  He already knew my body was unlike any of the bodies of my peers. I wore a training bra and had started getting periods. I locked the bathroom door to leisurely examine every inch of my blossoming skin.  I secretly tried on my mother's makeup, even kissed a boy on the lips. Sister Millicent, the principal of St Joseph's, knew some of these things, suspected the others, and it was she who would have to make the decision. I prayed intensely for His intercession, so intensely that sometimes strange states came over me. I saw Crucifixes made of roses. Jesus stood there and light shone at me through the tiny hole in each of His palms.  I prayed for weeks, for months, and then one night, having received no sign one way or the other, I lay in bed flat on my back, placed my right bare foot on top of my left bare foot, stretched my arms out flat and wide across the bed, closed my hands into fists, shut my eyes, inhaled deeply, and prayed. Dearest Jesus, I am ready to feel what you felt. For as long as I can stand it. Just please, please, let me skip 7th grade!  I held my breath, waited. The bedroom was still. No horrific pain seized my feet or hands, no auras. Only a feeling of falling... falling like a leaf.  And it was morning. Bright sunshine, clear air, Dad shaving in the bathroom. On the morning of the last day of school, I lay drowsily in bed. There were tiny red spots floating on my bedroom ceiling. When I focused on them, they vanished and little hearts replaced them. It was a sign but I wasn't sure what it meant. At 3:00, my mother and I sat in Sister Millicent's stuffy office in the brick building attached to our stone church. On the wall behind her hung a very large and beautiful crucifix. We had been summoned here without explanation. My mother sat stiffly beside me. She had reason to feel anxious. The left side, the academic side, of all my report cards that year were lined with VG's, which meant Very Good. But the right side, which graded my deportment and piety, was marked top to bottom with NI's, Needs Improvement.  My mind wandered from my dusty shoes, to Sister Millicent's thin lips, to my mother's cold stare, to Jesus whose head bowed so low on His chest I couldn't see His face. The conversation about my deportment seemed endless. Sister Millicent mentioned the bucket bag on which I had written the names of cute boys. She was displeased by my giggling at morning Mass. She reminded me that she had caught me eating before taking Communion. I felt myself falling into the clasp of another strange state. And then I heard her say, "but next year.....enter eighth grade....skip seventh ..."  I was speechless. Elated.  It was a miracle.  For me on par with the Visitation at Lourdes.  I am an agnostic now but, still, that was a miracle.  

Selfhood


I shoplifted food in college. 
My roommates were not against shoplifting.
My core personality, the judgmental and mildly obsessive one, 
the one who was me most of the time, 
disapproved of shoplifting. 
But when you're a multiple personality, 
the alternate--in my case, 
the childish, impulsive one, who fancied herself a free spirit--
was quick to justify

I'm not a typical multiple: I wasn't hung out of windows 
or locked in basements. 
But my mother, with her explosive temper, 
and my father with his cold, sarcasm scared me. 
And the Catholic church with its many levels of hell and sin, 
scared me too.  Being a child under constant threat 
of violence and damnation
may have caused my selfhood to seek safety in disintegration, 
a way of compartmentalizing all that angst. 

I'm not sure having two personalities is an illness. 
People are naturally bisexual, biracial, bicultural, 
why not bi-personality? 
That's how my free spirit sees it. 
In the opinion of my core personality, however, 
being multiple is just a defense mechanism. 
She's convinced my alternate personality 
craves attention, that my alternate slammed that block of cheese 
on the kitchen counter for applause. My free spirit asks, 
Aren't we all really multiples? 
Look at all of our previous selves--selves we can't even remember--
the preschooler who was terrified of the dark, 
the teenager who stuffed her bra with tissue. 
And don't we disappear every night in our deepest sleep? 
And don't we turn into Pterodactyluae in our dreams? 
So really is there a one and only true self? 
One that can't slither Houdini-like out of one belief into another? 
Selfhood is a mystery. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

In the hospital


I did something in that hospital 
that I never told anyone. 
It happened when I was alone 
with my mother in the last weeks, 
when she is not conscious, 
and I did it only for seconds at a time, 
when I didn't think my mother lived 
in that little body any more,
(Are we in our bodies or are we our bodies?), 
while I sat by her bed trying to remember 
her without white hair and parched lips, 
without ashen arms, noticing how thin her fingers 
had grown, the strange long nails that seemed 
not to know it was time to stop--no one had 
trimmed them since she fell 
(Only now I wonder, why didn't I trim them?), 
watching her mind-essence slumber, 
this barely breathing body, 
trying to remember her right leg, 
cut off just the other day with my permission, 
but not hers--how my sister and I agonized 
about letting it go, right below the knee, 
under the patella--the doctor said her bones 
were too thin, fissured like glaciers. 
Even in this near death sleep my mother 
sensed her leg's absence. Her fingers woke up, 
moved down her thigh like a spider, tapped 
just above the knee, no doubt sensing something 
was not right, deceived by a phantom, 
and that's when I lifted the sheet from her thigh 
and looked at that stump, thinking, this isn't human 
but an animal, not the limb she was born 
with and had used every day around the mall, 
and then I made myself touch it--I had to force myself--
I placed my hand gently on her thigh, stroked the 
bandaged joint now connected to nothing, to empty space, to air, 
because I wanted to see, because I didn't want to see, 
but thought I must to show her I'm not afraid, 
that this is nothing to be upset about, that life is still worth living, 
and then tears welled up, flooding my vision, 
my throat, for my mother, the amputee.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Out of the corner of my eye


I still remember it with wonder, the sight of him naked, 
the sight of him impressive and appalling-- 
I had never laid eyes on a bare-skinned man
(but had imagined how men might look, 
had turned over images in my head,
ruminated about the angles beyond 
the pelvis), and now here lies such a beast in person. 
In the hallway, in the early light and hush of our house, 
(I am the only one up), when out of the corner of my eye, 
I see my parents' bedroom door ajar
and there in all his raw vitality lays my father, his bulk 
and scale so marvelous: 
a buttocks in full view, a heft of thigh 
roofed in tangled hair--and, terrifyingly--
that ripened kiwi dangling.  
My parents lay side to side, his face in fields 
of her hair, his arm a bridge from his 
breathtaking flesh to hers, 
his thigh a mountain along her dunes .
My eyes wander without shame over their bodies 
as if they were dead.


.


.

To Me At 20

You don’t know it yet but your life has assembled.
Your vignette fully formed. Your brain custumized.
Your heart swooshable. Your are unchangeable
beyond what’s required. Yet still straining in the yoke, 
which will never yield but you don’t know that yet. 
You think you’ll wiggle out with time. It’s good to think that
(I even think it now so late in the game)
but here’s what you don’t know yet: the yoke is loose 
enough to tolerate. You won’t make a huge fuss.
But if we ever get a second chance, little girl,
let’s break out of it, let’s really break out of it. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Insomnia


The worst time is 3:45 a.m. hope is gone. 
It is the most melancholy feeling. 
The room fallow in that shade of night. 
Dreary, desolate, even the breeze 
from the open window is misery. 
My eyes burn as if peppered. 
I repeat dumb things to myself, 
not complete thoughts, just vague bursts. 
I think about the word, Burgundy
My mother wore a burgundy dress 
to a wedding. 
Did we bury her in it?
I roll from my stomach to my side again. 
I try again to count to 500. At 76,
my mother's burgundy drapes float up
then vanish. 
No one on earth understands why
creatures sleep, 
why they must sleep to stay sane. 
If only I could see the stars! 
Is that a piano I hear? 
It's my old love. 
I lay still, listen. 
He looks stern, almost angry when he plays. 
I remember the burgundy gown 
my mother gave me, how it annoyed me.
She gave me something so formal!
Me, who hasn't worn a gown since my prom, 
and that was knee length, a ruffled taffeta 
dress, fuchsia, which is almost burgundy. 
I guess the love of burgundy runs in the family.  
Come to think of it, 
my mother dressed her porcelan dolls in burgundy. 
Wouldn't it be wonderful if I am dreaming
If I am actually asleep?  


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bad Habit

I must stop watching 48 Hour ID.

A thrilling distraction but all those murders

make me wonder: will my husband club me

in my sleep? Will my son arrange

a drive-by? My daughters?

They want new cars, new stuff.

So they all have motives.

The scary part: it's often those you least expect.

Possibly my niece. A lawyer with a social conscience.

Who would think she'd kill her aunt?

She's the person I least expect.

Hard to know when a good person turns killer.

Greed, vengeance, jealousy degrade our souls.

And yet we are not all killers.

I couldn't kill anyone.

I have wished people dead:

the leader of North Korea,

child abusers.  But I couldn't kill them.

The very thought of murder freaks me out.

I don't believe in ghosts but I imagine

the murdered haunting the earth.

Just to witness life fading from a body naturally

makes for a frightening spectacle.

I sat with horror next to her bed

when my mother in law took her last breath

in the nursing home. Her boney chest rose and fell

all morning and suddenly it did not rise.

I stared at the spot, waiting for her breast to move again,

slowly realizing it would never, never move,

all her being was gone, and then my own breath

refused to rise from my own chest as I grasped

the meaning of never.

And oh how my mind slipped from my body,

like a sword from a sheath, the evening I walked

into that hospital room where my own dead mother lay.

What fear seized my body, paralyzed it.

I had to feel around for the chair like a blind person.

That's how frail I was in the presence of death, turned

into a pile of salt like that woman in the Bible.

Yes I must stop watching 48 Hour ID.

It's a very bad habit. It keeps my mind

on the dreadful question:

Who wants me dead?



Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My dread was gone


The hole in the tree grew bigger with each cut. The tree stood in our neighbor's front hard. I cut into it aimlessly, out of boredom, pealed back the bark and dug deeper with my newly found Swiss Army knife. What else can a 10 year old do on a warm Sunday afternoon with a Swiss army knife but cut a hole into the membrane of a tree? Each slicing of tissue released a bit of brown ooze. My hands became sticky with sap. Suddenly the wound looked big, really big, as big as a dinner plate. The sight of that enormous injury woke me from my trance. I heard my little sister's voice, What if they see you?  The tree now looked deformed. And my God, I was the deformer. If they found out, the neighbors who lived there would tell my parents. My mother would fly into a hair-pulling rage. We ran. The injured tree grew under my eyelids that night until sleep finally took me. The next day, walking home from school, there stood the tree, its trunk bandaged like a wounded soldier. I tried not to look but I felt its dim awareness of me, heard it heave and sigh as I passed, felt sorrowful eyes on my back. Every day, my pace quickened as I approached the tree. I had asked my sister to keep silent. She was kind, understood the dire consequences for me. From time to time, her silence required a small favor, but I felt grateful. As the weeks passed, the tree became the only thing I knew on that street. The houses and lawns, the fences, everything disappeared behind that deformed, now hallowed, tree. From the church, I brought Holy Water and poured it next to the trunk. I focused my gaze on the wound, prayed that God would hurl His healing power up through the roots, into my presence. Then, under the ground, under my feet, the roots squirmed and swallowed. That is what I felt and my dread was gone.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ice


Long after nightfall, my father parks 
the Ford in the driveway of our new house, 
just blocks from Noter Dame.  
A quilt of snow beds down the rooftops. 
The street glistens with ice 
under the glow of lamplights. 
It feels like Christmas but it’s February. 
I leap from the car to the white spears hanging 
from windows, snap one with an ungloved hand, 
lift up my face to the stars, the dagger 
melting in my hand, trickling down my forearm
into my sleeve, soaking my sweater, but my gaze
stays pinned to the blaze above and my body 
starts a spin to take them all in.  Like a skater, 
I hold out my arms as if to welcome all those suns 
into my life, clutching the spear as if it were a wand. 
I forget about my cold, wet sweater and spin. 
I do not yet know the earth too spins under me, 
and so the moon and planets and sun, each spinning 
around itself, each in its own orbit around 
the others, all of us together, 
my family, the earth, the galaxies, 
all at our own paces, spinning, 
pushing into the darkness, 
where there is absolutely nothing 
until we get there.



You there, cash

You there, cash, remember how it used to be?
You played so hard to get at times, I thought
I wanted you more than you wanted me.
I made a fool of myself for you--
The things I said and did to keep you near--
Some of it I regret but honestly, most I don’t.
Marriage is a risky business. It takes time to learn
who you are and who I am and how to live together.
Hallmark may not make a card for how we feel but that’s ok,
I never knew such loving as I’ve had with you,
through thick and thin. (Remember the times
I threw my purse at you?)
Didn't we always make up to find
we cared more for each other every year?
To be honest, I cared way too much:
Shouldn’t have let you make so many of
My decisions, but it’s too late now for us to part.