Monthly Archives: February 2014
Have you ever had a chance to get crocked on really good champagne? It isn’t really so much like drinking as it is like taking drugs. Drugs that you inhale… because it seems to effervesce on your tongue and disappear as it goes down your throat. And you feel more high than drunk. For me, it’s only happened once, on a rainy night at a big fancy hotel in downtown Dallas, and I didn’t really plan on getting crocked. It’s just that, every time my glass got half empty, young white jacketed Mexican waiters with slicked-back hair appeared at my elbow like hummingbirds to top me up. Gradually, I, too, was flying.
This was a party for the debut of a brand-new French champagne and I was only there because my boss and his wife had just had surprise twins. He had to get home so he handed me the invite and told me to find a tie and borrow a jacket from the security booth.
They had a tie in Lost and Found, but it was pink. The two guys on duty laughed their asses off when I put it on, but I didn’t care. I needed a tie and this one was nice. The material was thin and slippery.
This was my first job after college at the fanciest small hotel in Dallas. It was called “The Chateau on Turtle Creek.” The cast of “Dallas” stayed there when they were in town to do exterior shots. One time, I saw the guy from “Kung Fu” get drunk and play the piano in the bar. I was the beverage receiver. Mostly, I took deliveries and restocked the wine cellars, the bar, the restaurant and the kitchen. I attended weekly wine classes and there were some other perks such as the spare invite that evening. It included free valet parking. I was impressed.
I drove my raggedy-ass Pontiac the few miles into downtown, found the hotel driveway, parked behind a Mercedes, and handed over the keys to a dismayed looking valet in a red jacket.
The tallest downtown skyscraper in those days was outlined in five miles of green neon and you could see some of it through the tall rain-wet windows of the hotel’s second floor parlor where the elegant party was underway. I’d missed whatever opening presentation had taken place and the sixty-some-odd guests were getting progressively more voluble as they delicately pinched only the stems of their glasses. That was something I always looked for ever since I’d learned to do that three weeks before. This was the first time I’d ever seen flutes used rather than wider, more saucer shaped champagne glasses. I was impressed.
I only knew one person there, a wine guy, and, after I talked to him for a minute, I wandered around a bit nodding and smiling. I talked to a couple of people, mostly agreeing that this stuff was good. And, as I said, they kept it flowing. And so was I.
I felt drunk but sharp and fine-tuned despite a newly developed tendency to not walk so well. I found a spot near a tall curtain and a small tree in a big pot where I could look up at the green neon and still watch the party. I stayed put, but I felt like I was kind of staggering in place. This stuff was good.
The neon and the rain and the occasional flashes of lightning reminded me of a planetarium laser show without the smooth jazz. When I looked back at the party, this beautiful, robust girl in a short plaid skirt was walking right up to me. She was all lit up and looking right at me. She said, “You’re pretty drunk aren’t you.”
I said, “You’re awfully pretty yourself.”
She smiled, even laughed a little, but she said, “That’s pretty lame.”
“I can do better.”
A waiter appeared, refilled our glasses, and was gone. I smiled and shook my head.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. The waiters remind of altar boys.”
“Oh, not another Catholic boy.”
“Well, used to be. That’s why I’ve still got this thing for girls in plaid skirts.”
“I’m a woman.”
“I noticed, but your skirt still reminds me of watching those 8th graders play field hockey.”
“You’re starting to sound a little pervy there, sport.”
I tried singing like the Big Bopper, “Oh Baby, you know what I like!”
She said, “What’s pink, 12 inches long, and hangs in front of an asshole?”
I said, “Ummm?”
She grabbed my tie and gave it a tug. Then she pulled my face down to hers and kissed me. Her lips were plush. I licked the top one just a little bit and just barely nipped the bottom one. We stopped. She looked right up into my eyes with my tie still in her fist.
She said, “It’s silk.”
Then she looked down, licked her lip, looked back up and said, “You wanna be friends?”
I spread my arms palms up, cocked my head and said, “I thought we were, baby.”
She was still smiling, but she said, “I’m not your baby and I ain’t ever gonna be, but we can be friends for a little while, understand?”
And I said, “Okay, it’s a deal.”
A whole lot of other stuff happened that night like her asking for a ride and then hooting with laughter when the valet brought my car around and, later on, her calling me “Jeff” at a very critical moment, but I’ll get to all that some other time. And the thunderstorm – remind me to tell you about that.
Air Garuda continued…
Finally, in the car leaving the airport, Claire felt some relief from the sticky evening heat of Bali. Ida had insisted Claire take the front seat, which at first Claire had resisted (surely she doesn’t expect me to drive? Claire thought to herself as Ida opened the front left car door for her, before realizing the driver sat on the right), but now she was grateful for the weak, but cool, current of air coming from the A.C. out of the dash. She had fumbled for a seat belt before realizing there weren’t any and thought to herself this may be the first time in her life she hadn’t worn a seat belt while in a vehicle. And from the way things were going, Claire thought it might be her last ride anywhere.
“Strange to be sitting on the left isn’t it?” he father asked as he zoomed around a large traffic circle with a large stone statue of an ominous looking winged god perched at the center.
Claire nodded as she braced herself for a collision with one of the many motor scooters also zipping around the intersection. Sitting to the left of her father Claire felt particularly vulnerable. She was a very safe driver and often bragged of never having gotten a ticket. Here in Bali it felt as if there were no rules of the road. Her feet pushed into the floor of the car as if pumping the brakes to slow down as her father sped through the seemingly endless traffic circle. He honked the horn briefly and the motorbike drifted to the side to let them pass. Claire saw the scooter carried a family of four, the father weaving thru traffic with a small child, who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old, standing between his legs, peering over the handlebars, while the mother sat behind, sidesaddle and holding an infant in her arms.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” She asked pointing as they passed the family on the right. “They aren’t even wearing helmets! Isn’t that illegal?”
Her father laughed, “Welcome to Bali!”
Traffic eased as they traveled further from the city. Claire was still amazed at the number of people out on the roads this time of night. Then she began to see the dogs. They were everywhere. And they were all different colors and sizes. There were yellow mutts sitting on the side of the road, yawning in the headlights. A tall black dog strolled nonchalantly in front of the speeding cars and scooters, somehow avoiding being hit without changing his pace. A pack of dogs were rummaging at the feet of the statues that seemed to populate every major intersection.
“What’s the deal with all the dogs?” Claire asked as a particularly bold tri-colored mutt strode in front of their car forcing her father to finally use his brakes.
“Bali dogs!” Ida laughed from the back seat. “They are free to go wherever they want.”
“But who takes care of them? Who feeds them?” Claire asked skeptically.
“We all take care! They eat the rice offerings we put out at the temples!”
Claire shook her head in the dark but didn’t say anything sensing Ida’s pride in the “Bali dogs.”
The rest of the drive Claire kept silent and only partly listened to her father’s explanations of this statue or that temple. It seemed that every corner held some holy significance. The road had climbed gradually away from the city and up into the hills. Claire could see from the car headlights that they were now driving by flat fields, which Ida pointed at and simply said, “Rice.”
When they finally arrived at the home of Ida’s family, Claire was almost delirious with exhaustion. She retrieved her suitcase from the trunk of the car and was trying to surreptitiously slide the stinky salmon bag out alongside it. Her new plan was to 86 the opened salmon by feeding it to one of the stray dogs. But just as she was pulling the bag out Ida appeared at her side.
“I take bags!” Ida exclaimed as she shooed Claire away from the trunk.
Claire felt defeated and followed her father and Ida, who carried both bags, into the family compound. As they entered through an ornately carved wooden gate, Claire saw that the house was actually a collection of buildings and pavilions all softly lit by the glow of candle lanterns. It was beautiful. Claire thought it looked like a staged setting. The air smelled like perfume and incense. She could hear soft chiming music from somewhere in the distance. Ida tilted her head to one side and asked, “You know gamelan music?” Claire shook her head. “Tomorrow I will show you!” Ida declared.
Claire saw an ornately carved wooden day bed at the center of it all. Her father saw where Claire was looking.
“That’s the Balinese living room. Tomorrow we’ll meet there and you’ll get to meet everyone. But for now let’s get you to bed! You must be exhausted.”
He took Claire to her own small building. Inside was a smaller version of the ornately carved bed, this one was swathed in fine white mesh mosquito netting.
“Hope this set up works for you. We don’t have any A.C. but if you keep the fan on and the windows open I think you’ll be fine.”
Claire happily climbed into bed and promptly fell asleep with all her clothes on.
She awoke with a start a few hours later to the sound of a rooster crowing from outside her window. It was still dark out but the dawn was just beginning to lighten the sky with pinks and purples. There were other roosters now calling in response and she heard bird call that she didn’t recognize. Claire felt very awake and realized it must be jetlag. Putting on her shoes and still wearing the clothes she slept in, Claire began to explore the interior of the family compound. She saw a light in one of the buildings and went over to peer in the window. She saw Ida standing with her back to her over a small charcoal fire stirring a pot of something. Quietly entering the open doorway, Claire cleared her throat to announce her being there. Ida turned to her and Claire saw she had something strapped to her side. A shock of white blond hair stuck out of the swath of fabric. Claire stood in place but her eyes grew wide. Ida placed her free hand on the baby strapped to her side and looked at Claire.
DNA: A LOVE STORY – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply.” ~ Jayne Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814
Definition of BROTHER – Webster’s Dictionary
1. a male who has the same parents as another or one parent in common with another
Definition of SISTER – Webster’s Dictionary
1. a girl or woman who has one or both of the same parents as you
Even though it was windy and rainy, the night was going great for Marie. She actually had the house to herself, which she decided to commemorate by drinking red wine, eating Nutella straight out of the jar, and watching You Tube videos on her Ipad. She was staring intently at a shirtless Adam Levine lip syncing to “Moves Like Jagger” when her phone rang. She glanced away from the screen at her caller ID. “AMY” blinked furiously.
Marie sighed and put Adam on pause. It was 7:38 in Seattle, so it was well into the Boston cocktail hour. She thought about turning the phone off, but knew she would be obsessed all night that a relative had died. She decided to give her OCD the night off and answer the phone.
“Hey Amy, what’s up?” she asked. “Had a good martini lately? Or three? Just kidding.”
“Do you always have to be sarcastic,” Amy asked. “Are you this way with everyone, or do you just save it for family members?”
“Depends on who’s calling me,” Marie responded, putting down her Nutella spoon and pouring herself another glass of wine. “I can be nice if I want something from the caller. Just kidding.”
Marie paused. Amy was silent on her end. Marie took a deep breath and decided that Amy could be the one little thorn in her perfect evening’s side.
“So Amy,” she said “what’s going on. What have I done this time?”
THE BOOK OF GENESIS – A biblical overview of sibling relationships.
1. In the Garden of Eden, Cain believes God favors Abel. Therefore Cain kills Abel. “Where is Cain,” asks Adam. “I am not my brother’s keeper” Cain replies. Garden of Eden residents now find Cain repulsive. Shortly thereafter, Cain moves away from his family.
2. Jacob is the quiet younger brother with smooth skin. First born Esau is loud and hairy, but is possessor of the family inheritance. Their father Isaac is nearly blind. Jacob wants what Esau has. Naturally Jacob dresses himself in Esau’s clothes and animal skins to trick sightless Isaac into granting him Esau’s birthright. When Esau threatens to kill him for this, Jacob moves away from his family.
3. Joseph was the youngest of several brothers and the most favored; to show him this, his father Israel made him a coat of many colors. That coat was the last straw for his brothers. His brothers sold Joseph into slavery. The other alternative was murder, which seemed harsh only to brother Judah. Joseph was forcibly relocated away from his family.
“You haven’t done anything, Marie,” Amy replied. “I need you to do me a favor. I need you to come out to Boston for a week and watch the kids.”
“R rated Auntie Marie? Watching the kids,” Marie laughed. “And wait a minute. Last week you texted “You are a cunt” to me twice when I was at work. I thought I was on everyone’s hate list. You told Sue that you, Angela, and John can’t stand being around me.”
“Sue told you that?” Amy said. “I told her not to tell you. What a bitch.”
“She told me when she came back from John and Cynthia’s wedding,” Marie said. “It was the first thing she told me. That, and that Cynthia looked fat in her wedding dress. Are they still married?”
“You know they are, it’s only been a month,” snapped Amy. “They’re really happy. They’re a great couple. Oh, and nice of you to send black tulips to your brother’s wedding. You’re funny Marie. Ha. Ha. Everyone got a real kick out of it.”
“I said I was sorry I couldn’t make it,” said Marie in a high, sing-song voice. “You know how much I love her and all her entitled relatives. So tell me – did she really look fat in her dress?”
“Listen Marie,” Amy said. “I need your help. Angela and her new husband are in Barcelona that week…”
“Oh Bar-the-one-a,” said Marie. “Well what do you know? Miss Junior California is now Mrs. Millionaire again. Parte Dos…”
“Angela’s sick of that Marie, quit it,” Amy said. “She can’t help it that all her husbands are well off. Look, I’m going somewhere, and I don’t want to leave the kids with Joey. Someone has to feed them and get them to school and….”
“Do you mean their dad Joey,” Marie interrupted. “Is that who you are talking about? Remember when you got married, you told me you were madly in love with him. And now you don’t want the girls to stay with him. Is it because he’s bankrupt? I get this feeling that it’s really hard for you, Angela, and John to love poor people. Do you guys secretly vote Republican? Just kidding.”
SHAKESPEARE: A family playwright
1. Hamlet: Hamlet’s father the king is killed by his brother Claudius. Claudius marries Gertrude, mother of Hamlet and ex-wife of the king. Hamlet’s father is so disgusted by brother Claudius that he returns from the dead to complain to Hamlet, an only child.
2. The Taming of the Shrew: Sisters Kate and Bianca Minola’s constant fights indicate they would never willingly or happily share a Padua villa.
3. Richard III: Richard’s disagreeable appearance and personality are exacerbated by sibling rivalry with his non-hunchbacked brother King Edmund. Mayhem, war, and murder ensue.
Marie poured herself another glass of wine. “So let’s change the subject,” she said. “How was Christmas? I saw everybody at the ski lodge bar on Facebook. Looked like fun.”
‘We invited you Marie,” Amy said. “We all wanted to you to come. But you refused. You always say you’re too busy, that your social schedule can’t be interrupted. Well, the girls really missed you. I saw them Tweeting you non-stop the entire time we were at the ski house. It pissed me off.”
Amy paused for a minute. “Actually Marie we all missed you at Christmas. Even Cynthia. She said she felt weird because nobody had made fun of her ski clothes.”
“Amy, Amy, Amy,” Marie said. “Be honest. If I don’t have fun with you guys and you don’t have fun with me, why should we torture each other during the holidays? Let’s just continue hassling each other via text.”
“Here’s why we should be together. Because we don’t have anyone else,” Amy said. “We only have each other now. You know that better than the rest of us.”
“Now I do agree with you there; I do think we had shit luck in the parent department,” Marie said. “Dad’s dead. Who knows where the hell Mom is? And frankly who cares. What did they ever give to any of us but huge psychiatric bills?”
“Well, at least they were both really good looking,” Amy laughed. “Look at all of us. We’re all good looking. Everybody we know says so.”
“Well thank God for the really important things Mom and Dad passed on to us,” Marie said. “How the hell else would you and Angela keep marrying rich husbands. Maybe we should hire a private detective to track Mom down, and send her a thank you card.” Marie snorted. “Look at me. I did the right thing and made my own money.”
“Don’t be mad at us because your downwardly mobile,” Amy said. “It’s not our fault you were too stupid to marry one of your fiances in LA. We all know your noble past; you put yourself through school, took John in when he was a teenager, made your own money, blah, blah, blah…”
“You’re right,” Marie said. “You, John and Angela are right. I’m an idiot.”
THE SOUND AND THE FURY: A Yoknapatawpha County study of sibling dysfunction – Wm. Faulkner
1. Caddie Compson – loves her retarded brother Benjie, loves her neurotic brother Quentin, tolerates her cry-baby youngest brother Jason. Gets her drawers dirty in the muddy river. Becomes a nyphomaniac, has illegitimate daughter. Marries a Nazi.
2. Quentin Compson – loves his tomboy sister Caddie a little bit too much, tolerates retarded brother Benjie, refuses to acknowledge little turd Jason. Gets ass kicked defending nymphomaniac Caddie’s honor to his Harvard buddies. Tries to explain said ass-kicking in really long letter. Kills himself over Caddie, ass-kicking, loss of family honor, and his broken watch.
3. Benjie Compson – loves his darling tomboy sister Caddie, not absolutely sure who neurotic Quentin is, dislikes horrid little Jason for teasing him, and loves his various babysitters and golf balls. Underestimates what an creep Jason is much to his detriment.
4. Jason Compson – hates all his siblings; whore sister Caddie, depressed suicidal brother Quentin, and embarrassing retarded brother Benjie. Only loves his mother; unable to recognize she is 100% the cause of family problems. Castrates Benjie because he is retarded. Burns Caddie’s letters to her illegitimate daughter. Plans on selling the family property and keeping all the proceeds for himself.
“Marie, can you shut up for just a minute?” Amy asked. “Just one minute so I can explain.”
“Go ahead, beautiful Amy,” Marie said. “Do tell.”
“You know that guy I’m seeing?” Amy said. “The guy from New York? I was telling you about him, remember.”
“After you told me about him, I googled him,” Marie said. “And you are correct, he is very famous. He’s also married. I told you that. I think that was the start of those infamous cunt texts…”
“You should talk, Marie,” Amy hissed. “You’re no angel. Remember? Me and Angela hauling you out of LA? Me and Angela helped you and I thought it was bullshit. John too. None of us are perfect. So what. We supported you in a lot of things we thought were crap.”
“So I watch the kids for a week,” Marie said. “And you manage to get him away from his wife. Is that the plan?”
“Yep.” Amy paused. “Will you do it? Come on, they aren’t happy anyway. They don’t live together. I love him. This is the one. All I want is to be in love, to be happy. Like you.”
Marie was quiet for a few minutes. “Will you leave me your Range Rover?”
“Yes,” Amy said. “Will you loan me Grandma’s mink?”
“Yes,” Marie said. “Can I take the kids to Salem witchcraft museum?”
“Yes,” Amy said. “Are you going to go for lessons? Brush up on your spells.”
“Fuck you, Amy.”
“Get your plane reservation, Marie. Good night.”
Marie turned her phone off. If anyone died tonight it would be too bad. She grabbed her Nutella jar from the nightstand, and rooted around in her bed for the spoon. She looked out the window. It was still windy and rainy. She took a drink of wine, and pushed play on her Ipad.
YOU CAN’T DIVORCE YOUR BROTHER
“Can you come by the house tonight?”
“What? Dad, it’s 10:30. I almost didn’t pick up the phone.”
“Yeah. Well, there’s kind of an emergency.”
My dad’s voice starts to crack and I feel my stomach clench.
“What’s happened? Is Mom okay?”
“Yeah. Actually, no. I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
I must be imagining it but it sounds like my dad is starting to cry.
“I’ll see you soon.”
The dial tone hums.
I change my pajama pants for a pair of jeans and pull on Darren’s hoodie.
Darren looks up from the television, “Who was that, calling so late, and where are you going?”
“It was my dad. I’m going over there.”
Darren raises an eyebrow.
“Do you need company?”
“Nah, it’s probably my mom having a panic attack or something.”
Darren is not a big fan of my folks, or my family in general. So it says something that he’s offering to accompany me. I must look terrified. And normally I would jump on an offer like this from Darren except that my relationship with him isn’t up to dealing with anything serious, and my dad’s voice sounds, well, serious.
Darren settles back into the couch and I’m digging through my bag for the car keys in the entryway when he calls to me.
“Lauren, your folks live in Shoreline, right?”
“Yeah, it’s going to take me a half hour to get there.”
“And isn’t their house white?”
“What? Why do you ask?”
“I think there’s a police raid happening at your parent’s house…I think I see your brother on the television…Lauren, I think the police are arresting your brother.”
I walk back to the living room and see a grainy shot of my brother in a t-shirt and boxer shorts as he’s pushed into a squad car. My mother is sobbing on the front stairs.
Oh my god.
“Darren, I’ll call you okay?”
“Look, let me go with you.”
It might have been a genuine offer but I’m already out the door.
My car keys are miraculously in the side pocket of my bag. I locate them as I’m running in my flip-flops across the flooding car park and jam them into the door lock.
Jeremiah, I think, Jeremiah. What have you done?
There’s not much traffic, but it’s been pouring all day and I try to avoid the standing water on the freeway. My windshield wipers should have been replaced several times over, and it’s tough to see.
My little brother, Jeremiah, has been needy and irritating and a little bit off for a long time. I can’t say that I’m surprised he’s had a run in with the law. I used to say that I wanted to divorce him, and my mom would quip, “You can’t divorce your brother!”
He’s been living with my folks for the last year because he doesn’t have a job and is broke – maybe he held up a convenience store or stole a car. But that idea doesn’t fit with the tone of my dad’s tone earlier on the phone.
My car hydroplanes and I almost hit the guardrail on the off ramp.
I slow way down, reminding myself that what waits for me is definitely not a happy situation.
I finally pull into the driveway. There’s no sign of police, now, but all of the lights are on in my folks’ house as well as in some of the neighbors’ houses. I see curtains part next door and know people are watching me get out of my car and walk up to the front door.
Jeremiah was a sweet but overactive little kid, desperate to be noticed. The kind of child that you meet as an adult and know needs attention, but as a sibling he drove me crazy and I avoided him. He so wanted to be liked. He’d offer up his toys to get other kids to play with him and he told the kind of tall tales that invite bullying. He got beat up a lot. When he was 12 he brought a gun to school for self-defense, and bragged about it to the wrong friend (or maybe the right one, who knows). It was about the time that school officials started to get tough on guns, even play guns (although the gun Jeremiah had was very real, borrowed from my dad’s gun locker), and my little brother was suspended for an entire year.
My mom and dad were both working a collection of jobs to make ends meet, and didn’t have the resources or patience to deal with my brother. No school in the school district would take him and we couldn’t afford private school. Jeremiah was left alone at home for the entire school year. He became obsessed with a particularly violent video game and played it at all hours. A family friend sometimes came by, and there was an older neighbor with an X-box that Jeremiah would visit, but that was it for supervision. Something happened that year, I think we all sensed it, but no one had the time or energy to figure out exactly what was going on. Jeremiah became secretive, withdrawn, hardened somehow.
“They took our computer,” my mom blubbers.
“They took our computer, they thought he might have pictures on our computer. He’s never even used our computer. He had his own. He had his own computer. I tried to tell them.”
“What are you talking about Mom?”
I look around. The house has been trashed. I look at my dad and he opens his hands. He has clearly been crying.
“What’s happened here?”
The year my brother turned 14 he returned to school a different boy. Big now, for his grade, since he’d missed a year of school, and no longer a target for bullies. Now he was the bully. But a careful one. He was never caught, but I knew he had a racket with some of the younger kids. Made them give him lunch money and whatnot. Do his bidding. Jeremiah was bright, but after the year out of school his grades went in the toilet. And except for ruling his “little minions” – the younger kids he had in his thrall – and playing video games with the older neighbor down the street, he wasn’t very social.
Jeremiah was my mom’s favorite child. She made excuses for his poor school performance, and let him do whatever he wanted. She turned a blind eye to his late night gaming and the fact that he didn’t have friends his own age. My dad barked a little, but was mostly too exhausted to parent. By that point I was trying to become my own person, was ready to divorce my entire family, not just Jeremiah, and I didn’t do anything to help him. Or stop him. And now we all get to pay the price.
“They say Jeremiah is part of a child pornography ring…”
My father’s face is ashen and his voice drops off as he finishes his sentence.
“They’ve taken everything out of his room. All of the computers in the house. His arraignment is on Friday. They say he will be charged with production and distribution. They say…they say they have all the evidence they need for a conviction…” My father sits down in a chair and buries his face in his hands. My mom is still sobbing.
The news makes my head hurt. It is shocking, but somehow not surprising. I look at my parents. They seem so old and pathetic, so unlikely to produce a criminal deviant. There’s a framed poster on the wall and I can see my reflection in the glass. That’s what the sister of a monster looks like, I think. What has happened to my poor little brother? Did we make him into what he is?
“I have to make a phone call.”
I retreat to the kitchen and dial Darren’s number.
“Hey – is everything okay? Did the police really arrest your brother?”
“Yeah. Yeah they did.”
“So I’m going to stay here tonight.”
“Okay. Yeah, of course.”
I hang up, thinking Darren would be a waste if you only had one phone call to make.
I sit at the table and put my head down. My dad comes into the kitchen and says, “They said we can go and see him tomorrow. Will you come with me? Your mom doesn’t think she can.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll go.”
Because you can’t divorce your brother.
“Please, George” I insist, “call me Muriel. It is the name I have chosen for myself.”
“For how long?”
“Forever, or as long as I need it.”
I stare plaintively out to the alley watching all the summer people pass by, laughing. I asked George to let us sit somewhere private, in the back, where there are no windows, no sunshine to make me hot. But now we sit on the sidewalk, watching all the happy go lucky shoppers walking by. I wish it was raining. Or dark. Or raining and dark.
“We’ll do what we can, um, Muriel.”
George picks at his fries, stares longingly at the waitress and his empty glass. So transparent, I think, his thirst driving him.
“Muriel, do you need a refill on the ginger ale?”
“Yes, with a cherry this time. Like I asked before. I told my contact,” I hiss, “that I would be sitting at a table with the two of you drinking a ginger ale, with a cherry. The cherry is important. It’s vital. Do you understand?”
“Certainly, Louise and her mom will recognize you cherry or no?”
Obviously, George does not understand. The third person at the table, Aunt Barb, smiles with her eyes and suppresses it at the mouth. She thinks I don’t notice, but I do. At least she’s not as clumsy as George.
“It’s alright Muriel; we’ll keep your cover. And get you the cherry this time.”
George sighs, resolved to carry on. He’s steady, good at the boring things. But at moments of great significance he can really let you down.
The two of them return to their conversation. My gaze returns to the people on the alley, but I just cannot shut George and Barb entirely out of my mind.
“It isn’t such a big deal,” says Barb. “You can have a name when you have a name. These things can take time, until you have one that feels right. Just don’t call him what you called me when I came home from the hospital.”
“Insisted on it for weeks. A sullen nearly eight year old. It just sounded so right.”
“But you paid for that. Many times.”
“Sure did – so funny. There was the time when all of my pals were over, and you kept walking around humming it, tables turned. I was chatting with Michael a couple of weeks ago. He still uses it as my salutation.”
“George, you little wanker.”
“You were a pain in the ass.”
“I was a pain in the ass? Imagine the sadness, arriving in this cold hard world. And my big brother calls me a little wanker for years. Secretly too, after he’d been told not to. A disturbing insight into the male psyche. And they called me precocious.”
“Well, I paid, didn’t I? I don’t even remember where I first heard it. I bet Dad called me that once.”
“Maybe. Well, what are we going to call the Baby Boy? Muriel, what do you think?”
I didn’t even bring my book with me. No refuge. Louise and your mom, come, save me.
“Sergio. We can call him Sergio. Then I can shorten it to Serge. Yup – that’s it. Any word from Louise’s mother yet?”
“Sorry Muriel. No word yet. I’m hopeful they’ll be able to get you before we go back to the hospital. Anna does not seem too worried about it. But I want to get a name, get the show on the road. I’m tired of this interim period.”
“Sergio sounds good to me. “
“Sadie, I mean Muriel, please. I don’t think Sergio’s on the list. Anything else?”
Fresh drinks in front of us, Dad, I mean George, takes a big taste from his drink. So, Sergio isn’t good enough for you. I think Muriel is going to call her brother Sergio.
“We’re not going to need anything else if you don’t call me by my new name.”
Barb offers me her sunglasses. I accept them gratefully, a cool facade to hide behind, a dash of elegance on this most boring of days. I sip at my ginger ale, choosing to focus on the small joy of the cherry and its sweetness. This little brother project is so dull. I’d rather be a spy, in my own world of drama and danger. If only. Hopefully this little it will allow me some space for my projects, Anna and George being less focused on interrupting my life. I need to get away.
“I wanted Joseph,” George said, “after Grandpa, but Anna wasn’t interested.”
“I’m with her,” answered Barb, “What about Liam? Edwin? Just keep throwing stuff at the wall, something will stick. Just like the gum wall.”
We walked by the gum wall before we came here. More narrow alleys. I was afraid we’d be ambushed there. It is the most disgusting place on earth to die, or be taken prisoner, or to visit. And we only go there during “special” events: new brothers, aunts in town, mom at the hospital. When I see the gum wall, usually it means I’m giving my room up for at least a night or two. Oh joy.
“Can’t we talk about something else? The baby is just so boring. We’ve been talking about it . . .”
“Him,” says George, “He’s a him now, not an it.”
“It, him, whatever. I’m sick of him already, and I’ve only heard him cry once.”
“You are going to be a great big sister,” says Barb. “Brothers can be a pain, but they can also help. You’ll see.”
“And we all need to pull together.”
“Why? Whatever. I’m bored. Tired of all this. Can you call Louise’s mom?”
“Relax Muriel. A sleepover has been arranged. Either they will pick you up here, or we can drop you off over there later this afternoon. Not much to do, we’re waiting on Louise’s Mom and I am waiting to hear from your Mom about whether she . . . “
“Will!” Aunt Barb interrupts George’s drone. “How about Will? Jeffrey? Leonard? Emile?”
“Will? Maybe. Jeffrey and Emile are out. Leonard, don’t even want to think about it.”
“Anyway, Muriel, we can go soon. We’ll finish our drinks and get the check. Keep an eye on the alley – don’t drop your guard now.”
“Are you going to go back to calling me Dad when you drop your . . .”
“Don’t say it George, you don’t know who is listening. Please, take me to Louise’s.”
“OK, OK, we’re almost ready.”
His phone rings. Oh no. I can tell by the ringtone it is Mom, a little bit of song that I normally love to hear. But not now. So close to escape. I ignore the half of the conversation I can hear, wondering when I can have my own phone so that I can text Louise with all of my bad news myself.
“Baby boy and Mama are ready to go. Sorry Sadie, Muriel, but we have to go up to the hospital and pick them up.”
“Sorry sweetie, looks like connecting with Louise will have to wait a while.”
I sigh, crushed.
“That little wanker,” I mutter to myself. “That little wanker.”
When two sisters are born six years apart, the younger one can expect certain things.
Such as hand-me-down clothes that look like hopeless relics from the “designer grunge” era, and which were only good for getting torn and stained during strenuous play outside
And the older sister, knowingly or not, presenting herself as THE example of what the younger sister, willingly or not, will become.
Hardly a day went by in which Tina didn’t say, do, or unspokenly reveal something that made Lotte cringe in fear for her own future.
Was Lotte doomed, she obsessively thought, to become just like Tina? A slave to her own whims and hormones? Gushing with rapt adoration over some boy one day, furiously raging against him the next, gushing again over him the day after that?
And that was just part of the yapping. Tina could absolutely Never Stop Talking. Except when she was told to, usually at the dinner table.
Thankfully for Lotte, Tina’s talking wasn’t always about crushes.
Sometimes it was about teachers who gave impossible assignments and wanted them turned in, perfectly, the next morning.
Or about Tina’s ongoing feuds with some other, apparently equally vacuous, girls, over stakes that Lotte perceived as completely worthless. (Bragging rights in class, a lead-vocal spot in a talent show, a chance to be homecoming queen.)
Or about the supposed “school slut,” whom, after Lotte’s questioning, TIna admitted had never actually been seen in the company of any guy, but whom “everybody just knows” was the school slut because she dressed and talked and acted like it.
Or about the guys in school who were rumored to have done the most awful things to girls but get away with it because of family connections.
Or about other guys who would be completely dreamy except for that one grating habit of theirs that every girl knew about but nobody would tell them about.
Or about everything Lotte had to look forward to: breasts (which in this family would always be either droopy or next-to-nothing). Periods (a shock only the first time) and PMS (the “gift that keeps on giving”). The horrifying looks given to teenage girls by some creepy men and even a few women. Guys’ “things” and how they were both ugly and unreliable (at least that’s what Tina’s girl friends said to Tina).
Then there was the unspoken example of future horror that was Tina’s taste (if you could call it that) in clothes.
If anything, it had gotten worse since when Tina was Lotte’s age. Tina now wore gaudy, borderline-frilly things, in colors out of some nightmare vision of an old Nickelodeon cartoon. Dresses that were simultaneously “modest” and loud, worn to impress the supposedly “nice” Christian girls who seemed to run everything at the dreadful looking concrete suburban high school Lotte was doomed to enter. If Lotte ever had to wear a single neon lavender frock top even once, she knew she would positively DIE.
First silently, then (once their mother could afford a place with separate bedrooms) aloud, Lotte prayed every night. “God, or Goddess, or Whoever’s Out There, please don’t make me turn into another Tina. I mean she’s my sister and I love her, but sometimes I just can’t stand her, you know?”
One night in her room, when Lotte was a still-rambunctuous nine year old and Tina was a ditsy teen (or at least playing the part of one for popularity’s sake; Lotte sometimes couldn’t tell), Lotte came up with a personal slogan, a life’s motto for herself. “WWTD?” Lotte wrote those initials in black felt tip inside of a slash-circle drawn in red felt tip, inside a folded sheet of paper that she placed inside an old greeting-card envelope, that she hid behind the dresser where even her snoopy mom wouldn’t find it.
Its meaning: Figure out what Tina would do in any given situation. Then do the exact opposite.
If Tina would desperately try to win a guy by first coming on to him, then backing away before anything got “too serious,” Lotte would, when the time came, express a total and sincere disinterest toward such games, and toward the “prizes” to be “won” by such games.
If Tina would hustle and sell herself to try to get into a “good” college, then try to load up on “easy A” high school classes to ensure a good GPA, then Lotte would take the toughest couses she could, to become the best student she could.
Lotte figured she wouldn’t have to look at her “motto logo” again, just to remember it and never forget it.
Over the next two or three years, she didn’t have to remember it. Lotte went full blown into the phase of the withdrawn, sullen “tween.” The age when all the fun little girl activities suddenly didn’t seem like so much fun any more, but when everything else offered to her seemed just so immature. Certainly the boys her age seemed not to have aged emotionally since, say, age six; and the boys older than her seemed to have even regressed to before that.
And you didn’t dare get her started on what the magazines and the cable TV shows wanted her to like. From the Disney Channel to the fashion rags, everybody seemed to expect Lotte to dream of someday becoming just the kind of pathetically ditsy teenager Lotte had been rebelling against.
By age 12, Lotte had become Tina’s mirror opposite. She spoke only when she absolutely had to, except to the family dog, or to make dinner-table pronouncements. In one of those, she said she wanted to convert from Baptist to Catholic so she could become a cloistered nun.
Only Stepfather #2 seemed to know to stay away from Lotte when she got into one of these moods. Her mother and Tina kept badgering her to be more polite and open up and smile, always to smile.
Few things made Lotte smile during that year. Not Tina getting only into her fifth-choice college. Not Stepfather #2 switching his own religious affiliation from Jesus to Scotch, then leaving. Not Stepfather #3 turning out to be an authoritarian creep who also didn’t stay long.
Later on, Lotte did forget about the envelope.
She found it again, when she was 15 and she and her mother were moving to a smaller space.
She found the envelope in back of the dresser, the last thing to be moved out of her old room. She remembered what it was before she opened it. It looked like the work of some other girl, from long ago and far away.
The hormonal assault she’d long feared had come to pass, and Lotte found she hadn’t had to fear it after all. Her mother didn’t make her wear Tina’s old high-school clothes. She felt neither interest in, or too much pressure to participate in, the games of clothes and gossip. She had teachers who allowed her to be smart (at least some of them did).
And oh yeah, those hormones. Those showed up just about right on schedule.
But she had dealt with them.
When the same boys who had seemed dumb and awkward now seemed dumb and awkward but cute, she let her new reactions just be.
When she’d felt stronger, more specific desires for one specific boy, she took it in stride, and methodically devised a time/place/situation in which she could explore said desires, and said boy, within the proper balance of solitude and safety.
Tina (still perky, but not insuffrably so; still badly dressed, but not insuffrably so) had showed up that day to help Lotte and their mother move out of the overmortgaged house and into a cozy two-bedroom townhome in a different subdivision.
Naturally, Tina entered Lotte’s room just as Lotte had opened the old envelope with the motto logo. Naturally, Tina asked (in somewhat fewer words than she used to have needed) what it was.
Lotte made no attempt to hide the drawing from Tina. She said it was simply something she’d made in a fit of rebellion one night. Lotte tossed it into a big trash bag in the middle of the room, placed there for all the stuff of hers that wouldn’t be moved, recycled, or donated.
Then Lotte, still a girl of few words, said something she’d never expected to say.
“Thank you for being you. And for letting me be me. Except for those times when you and mom kept ordering me to smile when I didn’t want to. That sucked.”
Tina grinned and moved in to bear-hug Lotte. Lotte accepted the hug but didn’t smile back.
“Do you think Vinny could be gay?” Lil said as she took off her dark glasses and sat down at the outside table.
“Hold on, hold on woman. That’s my brother you are talking about. What are you drinking? The usual? Hey Stevo, a Tanqueray and tonic for my friend, lots of lime and a Perrier for me.”
“Thanks honey. I am so stressed out.” Lil scooted her chair up to the table settled her oversize purse at her feet, adjusted her thick Norwegian sweater, squirmed until her jeans were comfortable. She put her IPhone face down on the table, ran her red manicured nails through her short black bob, jangling her collection of silver and gold bracelets, finally ready exactly when Stevo brought the drinks out.
“Now, Tell me. What has been happening? I know you guys have been on rocky ground at least from what you have told me. You’ve been together now for how long?”
“Yeah, you know how they say familiarity breeds contempt, well, whoever thought that up was dead on.” Marian took a long sip of her drink and sat back in her chair with a deep sigh.
Meanwhile, while the girls were having a blather, Vinny was on his way to the gym. He usually dressed in all black and today was no exception. It was black sweats and hoodie, a pair of black Nike’s with a hint of red. His short black hair was carefully trimmed. Beards were in fashion and his was short but definitely tribal just like his tattoos and hoop earrings. He was running late and already sweating when he got out of the car.
He had to look great. Everyone in town knew him or knew how he was supposed to look. His stage persona required it. He was on display wherever he went and even though his “star” wasn’t at a high point, right now, people still pointed at him and nudged one another when they saw him at a restaurant or at a show. Vinny played the guitar. His career had soared in the Eighties. The band had a breakout hit and when music changed “The Few” faded. Lately there has been a re-interest in eighties music scene. Vinny was back practicing with the boys.
“It looks like we’d better have a bite to eat.” Marian hailed Stevo and ordered salads for the two of them. “But you guys have been together for so long. What’s happened? What has changed?”
“I guess I hadn’t noticed in the past but lately he has been acting strangely. Look it’s like this. He’s become so concerned about how he looks. He spends so much time in the mirror. He’s going to the gym everyday sometimes twice a day.” Lil slumped in her chair.
“Girl, sit up straight you don’t want to be spotted looking like that, not now since the band is getting back together.”
“You’re right. I don’t want people to start gossiping about me, to think I’ve got something wrong with me. It’s Vinny who has the problem. I thought because you are his twin sister he might have talked to you.” Lil raised her hand. “Stevo bring me another please.”
“I don’t know what to say Lil, I haven’t really talked to him since Christmas. I might be his sister but he has never confided in me. He’s always been so standoffish to the family and he’s always been eccentric.”
“Yeah I guess that’s why I liked him so much. I was everything to him.”
“Plus you had the money.” Marian smashed a slice of lime into her Perrier with her straw. “He didn’t have to really work, he could just live off the little fame he had, and the royalties from their one hit wonder The Pleasure Principle.”
“We did have a great life. I did everything for him you know. I created his look; I picked the clothes he looked so good in. I learned to cook everything he liked just how he liked it.”
“Did you ever think you might have spoiled him a little?” Marian sprinkled the tinniest bit of vinaigrette on the spinach salad Stevo delivered.
“I don’t think I spoiled him I just took care of him after all he was or should I say is quite the lad. He was so into me but that has faded too.”
“I probably don’t even want to know what you mean by that remark but seeing as I am already caught in this drama.” Marian pulled her pale blue Pashimina around her skinny shoulders. She had been away from the city for a lifetime devoting her time to raising a brood of kids in Central Oregon. Her husband Dan had recently passed from a long battle with lung cancer and the so-called children now adults had taken their lives in their own hands and moved away. She sold the farm, traded that for a lovely condo in Northwest Portland.
Lil hell-bent on unloading her own troubles, plunged into details of her private life with poor Marian’s dear twin brother.
The gym was necessary to Vinny. If he wanted to revitalize his musical career he had to look young and vibrant. He thought he might have a new chance to make it and if he made it he could finally be his own man. He worked on the Elliptical and pushed himself hard on the free weights. This particular gym had other fitness classes. In fact he’d found out that he really enjoyed practicing Zumba.
He’d never told anyone especially Lil who would have laughed in his face or worse yet tried to take the class with him. It was his secret and he was going to keep it that way. His favorite instructor Chris, was a little late this afternoon. He waited patiently by the door.
By the time Lil was finished telling Marian all the things that she despised about Vinny, Marian was more than ready to pay the check when it came. She tipped Stevo generously kissed Lil on both cheeks twice. The girls promised to keep in touch.
“Please don’t tell Vinny we hooked up and I told you all our secrets. He gets so mad almost jealous when I talk to anyone and he hasn’t even seen you yet. I don’t want to mess things up more than they are already.”
“Oh Lil don’t worry. I’m sure everything will work out soon. I do think you guys should go to counseling. It is so hard to live with much less pretend to love someone that you can’t stand. It might be best to move on.” Marian quickly moved on herself to her waiting Prius and her new life as a rich widow.
Marian softly staggered towards her crowded tram stop. Her thoughts were much more confused under the influence of the Tanqueray. She knew Vinny was at the gym so instead of going home decided to stop into Jake’s until rush hour was over.
Having a bit of time to think while he was waiting for Zumba, Vinny knew he had to be real with Lil. They had been together for years now but this was the first time in a long while that he felt alive and excited again about life. What a total mess this was going to be. Lil might try and kill him for all he knew.
Chris finally arrived for class. Earlier, Vinny had put a small box by the stereo. Chris saw it, caught Vinny’s eye in the mirror and smiled. “Here we go kids.” The Latin beat was thumping. Vinny started bouncing to the beat. Chris could really move and Vinny followed move for move thrusting and grinding in time with the music. Chris came up behind Vinny and adjusted his hips. He whispered into Vinny’s ear “Thanks for the gift darling. I’ll meet you at the usual place after class.”
Kelly Told Lies by Shanna
Kelly liked to tell stories. Everyone in the office told stories, but none were as good as Kelly’s. Did you know she saw that famous celebrity couple on the street last weekend? You know, the couple that claims they aren’t dating. Well, he’s not as tall as he looks on television and she wears a lot of makeup. Of course, that just made Kelly miss her ex-boyfriend. They broke up because he is an astronaut and was leaving on a mission to the space station and he thought it wouldn’t be fair to Kelly to have such a long distance relationship. But she’s dealing with him not being here. Oh, and you heard how the boss took Kelly aside today to tell her how much he liked her pitch and that she was next in line for a promotion. Kelly liked to tell stories but we all knew that none of her stories were true.
“You will not believe what happened over the weekend!” Kelly exclaimed as she stood over my desk.
I cleared my throat and slowly looked up from my computer screen, schooling my features into feigned interest. “What happened?” I asked.
Kelly bounced into my cubicle and sat down across from me. “Well,” she said, “I was walking home from the bar and I decided to take this shortcut through the park since my apartment is right on the other side of it. And it’s not like I was drunk or anything because I wasn’t. I mean, I had like 7 beers at the bar but you know I never get drunk. I just have a good metabolism that way.”
“Of course,” I said, nodding my head. I leaned back in my chair and clasped my hands together in my lap.
“So I’m walking through the park and I can feel someone watching me because you know I have that sixth sense. I can usually tell if someone is watching me. I could feel these eyes staring at me so I decide to hold onto my bag a little tighter. All of a sudden this guy comes out of the bushes and grabs my bag!”
“Oh no!” I said, feigning dismay.
“I know!” Kelly said, her eyes wide. “Luckily I had taken those kickboxing classes so I quickly hit and kicked him. And you know I have a real strong kick. The guy let go of my bag and fell down and I ran. I wasn’t far from my apartment so I just ran home.”
I gripped my hands tighter. I worried that they would reach out to grab Kelly’s shoulders and shake her. I managed to reply. “That’s amazing Kelly. I can’t believe you were able to get away.”
“Me too! Can you imagine what would have happened if I didn’t know how to defend myself? I guess I’m just lucky that way.” Kelly shrugged with a smirk on her face and stood up. “Well I’m off to lunch. I’ll see you later.”
I let go of my hands and watched Kelly walk away. “What will she think up next?” I thought as I shook my head and turned back to my computer.
Kelly liked to tell tales. Did you know she grew up in Zambia in a tribal village? Her parents were missionaries who were killed when their Jeep was trampled and attacked by wild zebras. The tribe was the only family that Kelly knew so she lived with them until she was ten. Plus, that way she didn’t have to abandon her pet warthog. The shaman that she lived with taught her all kinds of witchcraft and made her an honorary priestess. But she ended up moving back to America to live with some family friends, which was a good thing because otherwise she would probably be married now with 5 kids. All the tribal families wanted Kelly to marry their sons because she was just so beautiful, even at 10 years old. Even now she frequently gets stopped on the street by strangers wondering if she is a model or an actress. Producers and agents are always passing her their business cards when she goes out. Kelly liked to tell tales but we all knew they were fake.
“Coffee, I need coffee,” I mumbled to myself. Grabbing my mug, I navigated through the maze of office confusion and made my way to the break room. As I got closer I could hear voices coming from within and I slowed to listen. Was that Kelly talking?
“It’s simply mind-blowing. You have to try it.”
“But isn’t it scary?” I recognized the voice of the newest employee, Tina. Tina had only been working here for a week but was already an avid admirer of Kelly.
“Oh course it’s scary but that’s the whole point,” said Kelly. I frowned. What was Kelly exaggerating about now?
Curious, I peaked my head around the door. Kelly was standing next to the refrigerator, a bottle of juice on the counter along with a bagel. Tina was staring at Kelly in rapt attention.
“But how do you not die?” asked Tina, her eyes wide in adoration.
“Oh it’s easy,” said Kelly. “You stand at the top of the falls, looking over. The falls seems so high, they just seem to go on forever. Then, you climb into the barrel and close the door and push off. You kind of float along for a while and then all of a sudden you’re free falling, down, down, down towards the water. Then, bam!” Kelly slapped her hands together, making Tina jump. “You hit the water and sink. Then the barrel bobs up to the surface and you get out and go back to the top to do it all over again.”
“Wow,” said Tina. “I don’t think I could ever be that brave.”
“You should really try it,” Kelly said, sipping her juice. “I was nine when I went over Victoria Falls in Zambia. I only had an old ripped mattress stuffed with hay to absorb the shock inside the barrel.”
I slowly backed away from the door. I was no longer in need in coffee.
Kelly boasted of many things. Did you know she went to school with that famous actress? You know the one, she just won an Oscar. They’re still friends but it’s really hard for them to meet in public because of the paparazzi. Of course, if Kelly had joined the CIA like the recruitment officer wanted her to, then she would know how to evade the paparazzi, but she didn’t. Then again, it’s hard for Kelly to evade the paparazzi ever since her leg was broken after being attacked by a shark while snorkeling. Kelly boasted of many things but none of them were true.
I was kneeling on the floor, rooting around in a filing cabinet, searching for an old marketing flyer. Spying the one I wanted, I grabbed it, stood up and turned around, only to come face to face with a stranger. He was tall with blond hair, and was holding a yellow flower in his left hand. I could feel my cheeks heating with a blush as I stared at his face.
“Is Kelly here?” he asked.
I stumbled over my answer. “Yeah she’s right there.” I looked around and pointed at Kelly as she walked down the hall towards us with Lori.
Kelly looked up. “Mike!” she cried, as she ran into his arms. Lori and I glanced at one another as the couple embraced.
Kelly turned to look at us, her face beaming in the florescent office lights. “This is Mike,“ she said. “He’s been on the space station for the past 6 months. I thought we were meeting tonight,” she turned to ask him.
I stopped in midstep. “Space station,” I thought. I could have sworn she was lying when she said that.
Mike looked down sheepishly and scratched the back of his head. “We were,” he said, “but after getting back to Earth and being cooped up in that medical lab for the past 4 weeks, I just couldn’t wait to see you.”
‘”Awww,” cried Lori as the couple embraced again.
“Space station,” ran through my mind as I watched Kelly and Mike smile and gush at one another.
“Can you leave early,” asked Mike. Kelly sighed and bit her lip, glancing down the hall towards her office.
“Yes!” cried Lori. “Go, leave. I will cover for you.” She made shooing motions at Mike and Kelly and herded them towards the main entrance. I could hear all three of them laughing and giggling as Mike pulled Kelly through the reception area and onto the elevator. I stood there, dumbfounded, in the same spot I had been standing in for the past 5 minutes. I heard Lori run past me to Kelly’s office and then run back to the elevators with Kelly’s purse and jacket in her hand.
“Space station,” I mumbled. Maybe Kelly didn’t tell lies?
NAPLES – by Dalmatia Fleming
Nancy had been fascinated by Pompeii since she first became aware of it, around the age of ten.
She arrived solo at the Naples train station, because her friends weren’t interested in seeing Pompeii. Didn’t want to see Pompeii, are you kidding me?! As long as they were enjoying themselves back in Rome, that’s all that mattered, Nancy mused. She tried to not think less of her friends for their lack of culture and poor judgment. Nancy would return to meet up with them in a few days.
WOW! This place was not like northern Italy! Hardly anyone spoke English, as was the case in the large cities to the north, so perhaps Nancy would actually have to rely on her “Italian language skills”.
Nancy had taken “Italian for Travelers”, a ten week night course at the Community College. It was easy to drag oneself to class after work largely due to the hot Austrian instructor, Luca.
The class was difficult. There were forty students to begin with and by the last day only four were left of which Nancy was one. Verb conjugation and the articles, my God, the articles! Who knew there could be so many versions of “the” and “a” by the time one considered masculine, feminine, singular, plural plus irregularities!
After managing to not get mugged by the riff raff at the station while spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone trying to secure a room, Nancy walked the two blocks to her hotel, the ninth one and near the bottom of her list. WOW … this place just might be worse than the train station! Time to check in and get the heck outta there. With Arte Card in hand, Nancy hopped the bus to the Archeological museum, housing all the artifacts of Pompeii, a much more interesting and safe place. She wouldn’t have a lot of viewing time, the museum would close soon.
The next day Nancy hopped a train to Pompeii. Nothing more to say; it was all she had imagined it to be, and more!
Semi-tame feral dogs cavorted through the site much to Nancy’s delight. She suggested to the trinket vendors that they should create a “Cani di Pompeii” calendar to rival the “Gati di Roma” calendars found all over Rome. Based on her enterprising idea, they guessed she must be from New York City. New York City?! Who says people from Seattle can’t come up with big dollar ideas! They all had a good laugh.
After checking out of “The Riff Raff” hotel, Nancy made one last trip to the Archeological museum
“I’m sorry, with the Arte Card, you can’t enter the same museum twice. It’s good for three museum visits, but it has to be three different museums, no repeats.”
Nancy was momentarily stunned and relieved by her perfect English. “You’re kidding! I just went to Pompeii today. Yesterday I came here just for the last hour before you closed. I wanted to look at some things again”.
The clerk paused and studied her face, leaned close and said in a whisper “Go on in, I won’t swipe your card”.
“Oh, thank you! I really appreciate it!
Nancy hopped another bus to a pensione referred to her by a very helpful clerk at a four star hotel near the train station. Nancy had stopped there on her way to Pompeii to ask for advice on where to next stay. The thought of working her way down another long list with similar results was unbearable.
Nancy made her best guess as to where to depart the bus. Once off, she opened the map and studied it in earnest. I woman approached her, unable to speak English but clearly wanting to help. After an unsuccessful attempt at communication, the woman flagged down a man on a motorcycle. He stopped.
It was a large black bike with huge compartments on either side of the back wheel. The man was decked out in a snazzy black leather jacket. Everything about the man and the bike were immaculate. After Nancy listened in awe to the beautiful exchange of Italian between the two locals, the man turned to Nancy and stated in perfect English “English or French”.
“Where are you going”?
“I’m trying to find this pensione”.
Nancy handed him a piece of paper with the address and the man inspected it. “Hmmm… where did you get this”?
“The clerk at a four star hotel near the train station gave it to me. She says she knows the proprietors. They’re just starting in the business”.
The man pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called the number. “Boun Giorno. Blah, blah, blah, una Americana, blah, blah blah… Grazie.” He furrowed his brow, paused in thought and hung up. “I know of another place you might like, how about if I call them for you”.
“Oh … OK”.
Again he called. “They have a room for you”.
“Oh… that’s too much. This is the last four days of my four week trip. I don’t want to spend that much.”
“OK. I know of another place to call”. Again he called and asked about a room and price.
“Well… I’d rather not spend that much”. Pointing to the piece of paper she had handed him, Nancy asks “So you don’t think I should stay there?”
… “Not really… I don’t think it’s a safe part of town, especially for tourists. I really don’t think you should stay there. I’m a little surprised the clerk suggested this place to you.”
“Well, she said she knows them…OK, how about this place. This is one I was considering before I had talked to the clerk”. Nancy handed him a list of “official pensions” she had picked up from the concierge at the train station and pointed to one.”
Again he called… “Fifty Euros”.
“OK, I’ll take it. Where is it?”
The man paused… “Hop on the bike”.
He opened one of the back compartments and pulled out a helmet. Nancy put it on, climbed on the back of the bike and hung on. About five blocks later, he stopped. “There it is”.
“Great!” Nancy climbed off the bike. “I just can’t thank you enough for taking the time to help me. You really saved me. Here, take this”. Nancy dug in her pocket and pulled out two Euros. “Have a cappuccino on me”.
He smiled. “No.”
“Really now … please … take it, you really saved me.”
He laughed. “No, I can’t take that”.
…”OK… you have two choices, either you take it or I will take your photo”.
“OK … wait … my camera”. Nancy took his photo; they said their goodbyes and parted ways.
The 3:50 to Heaven
Living in Venice was like living in a dream, especially in deep winter, December till Carnival. For years now, I had rented a small pension on the top floor of an ancient building where I could hear the bells of the Frari church ringing me the time to get morning coffee and sweet rolls, time to close the shutters for a mid-day nap and when to venture forth for a leisurely dinner with my Venetian friends who I thought of as Mermaids and Mermen driven to ground and instead of needing fins relied on oars to get from canal to canal sure and swift upon the murky jade water like dragonflies skimming alien pond scum.
La Serenessima resembled a city of the dead. There are but few trees, little dirt, no daffodils pushing through the cool crust of spring, no hedgerows of tea roses, no streets full of dead leaves in the autumn that need raking. Motoring is restricted by canal edges that echo the constant rumble of a Vaperetto or swift motorboat. What were once campos of stingy grass have long since been paved over with stone slabs.
Venice is timeless in those seasons when the garish colossal tourist boats are missing and the city is deserted except for locals going on their quotidian routes to work in the shops, in the market in back of the Rialto Bridge or leaving to take the train back to the mainland and their mainland lives.
The streets, the courtyards and the sidewalks are all stone. The facades of buildings front and back, top to bottom are stone intersected by undulating waterways and stone stiles. There are potted plants in stone urns in front of stone abodes and isolated trees surrounded by high stonewalls complete the image of this stoned citadel.
But I digress. This dream, my dream, keeps reoccurring crowding out reality. Today the dream seems to last forever. Lucidity won’t awaken me. I am being oared silently through a series of ever narrowing canals, being poled through the thick liquid in an ever-deepening fog. The stone fronts of familiar buildings magically appear and disappear fantastically out of place.
Where the Alta Agua never gets deep enough for a gondolier to pull his gondola, we glide impossibly through the Basilica de San Marco and back out again. We pass under the archway of the clock tower where the Moors strike the hour. We go on inside the Doge’s Palace and under the Bridge of Sighs, across the Rialto and plunge into narrow canals that seem to dead end but instead we fly past places I know we shouldn’t be able to. We go inside vast churches and Sculolas, my faceless gondolier poles us steadily around the Venetian Lagoon.
People in palazzos wave to us drinking an umbra seated on sodden chairs chatting and smoking without care, sans souci, ashtrays and delicate wine glasses partially submerged by the lapping of the green water.
We go on silently, him stroking the oars expertly past the palaces of the Grand Canal: rose, ocher, sienna, jaune and aquamarine, the beauty of these relics of a time that could only be a figment of one’s imagination. A time lost in the faded beauty of crumbing richness.
The water gives off an odor of decay and I am overcome by an inexplicable sadness. As we travel like the wind I lapse into a familiar regret about my wanderlust, my inability to settle down. I was free just like I’d always thought I should be. When I was young there was plenty of love, sex and drama in my life but now approaching seventy, awareness of a deeper loneliness haunts me. I was still vibrantly sexy and had a ton of friends who loved me or perhaps tolerated me. I had enough money so that I was not a burden, a liability or a drag to anyone.
I never wanted children so, of course, no grandchildren and as an only child no family ties either; no sisters, brothers or even cousins I could count on. My parents had long since faded away and turned to dust.
I had pushed the thought of mother completely out of my mind. It was as if I had been immaculately conceived, a virgin’s child. I didn’t exactly choose this life. I was left with these choices by the unraveling of the thread of life and have dealt with the fate I was ordained for. I didn’t feel sorry for my life but sometimes wished that I had more of it, that I had gotten more out of it.
A dirge, which the gondolier hummed quietly at first, got louder as his oaring slowed. I recognized this particular narrow canal that slid alongside my favorite chiesa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli. I recognized it easily because I was in love with its stately marbles. When I first discovered this church I thought innocently enough that the marbles were children’s playing marbles those glass balls of color. I still like to imagine that when I open the doors there would be a fantastic outpouring of brightly colored marbles rolling forth crashing along the stone alleyways.
I came to love this particular edifice it’s pink, grey and white marble outside and inside, perched on a stone slab in the middle of this stone city. It was like a tomb. We rode up gently to the right side of the building up its water door. The dirge started by the gondolier emanated from the inside of the church. It was a mournful Kyrie Ellison. There must be a funeral going on inside. As I walked into the church a deep fog rose from beneath the water filling the inside of the church lit by hundreds of candles. The fog mixed with thick Frankincense and Myrrh from the swinging brass Thurible, charcoal glowing like a genie’s trapped eyes.
I walked around to the back of the church where I could get a good view of the steep stairway that rose up to the shrouded coffin under the painting of the Miracle of the Madonna.
I was miraculously lifted into the air. I felt elated. I was a non-corporal being. Thoughts about myself and where I belonged in this world, fell around me. I’ve always said I wanted to live in Rome and die in Venice, and in fact; I had lived in Rome for the past twenty years. Youth had kept me living the Vida Loca in Rome as busy importer of women’s shoes and boots.
I traveled Europe and Asia and back and forth to and from the states. I was as familiar with Hong Kong as I was with Milan and LA. Even though I traveled the world I ended up going to Italy over and over again until it seeped into my very being.
Rome was the ultimate place to live it is a vibrant and ever changing city full of life and joie de vivre. I found an apartment and set up my home. I filled it with beautiful objects d’arte and my fast paced life style had kept me there for the past thirty years. It was my home. From there I explored the boot extensively. I fit in. I was fluent in all things Italian. But it was here in Venizia that I felt my soul.
As I was suspended above the crowd swirling in that mystical smog I understood that I could actually hear what the people that had gathered for the funeral were saying to one another. To my surprise the first woman looked just like my neighbor Jacqueline. She was whispering to another friend Angelina. I was surprised to see them here. I didn’t know of anyone who had just died.
“My god, I am going to miss her. We had such fun together. And those parties she gave.”
“Oh Yes it was almost decadent, the way she took care of us.”
“I didn’t expect her to be taken away from us so soon, did you? You knew her so much better than the rest of us.”
“She was perfectly fine the last time she was here in Ven…”
“I know that was only last month when she came for Christmas.”
“You know, they say that the winter is a bad time to be sick and that it is easy to die when it is cold. But I thought she looked fine then. We had a wonderful time at the Fenice. She loved the opera so much.”
The two ladies continued chatting about their friend, a friend I should have known, until the priest appeared at the top of the stairs. The all male choir gathered on the steps leading to the chancel and chanted the funeral dirge in Latin. The mourners rose and fell to their knees in perfect unison stirring the interior fog with the men dressed in long black coats, the women black veils and cloaks. Everyone attending wore antique Carnival masks.
Suddenly the music switched to The Carnival of Venice and couples paired up and completed a formal dance full of complicated steps and patterns. I rose higher into the rafters where the Prophets faces, which I could only admire from below; I could now reach out and touch.
I continued to float above the crowded nave finally coming to rest above the shrouded coffin at the top of the chancel. I looked at the glorious painting of the Virgin and Child. She seemed to know me and nodded at me giving me permission to uncover the shrouded face of the deceased.
I reached out and pulled back the heavy ivory cloth. Lying before me was me. I was dead. I glanced up as the crowd disappeared with the fog and I was left alone with the realization of my inability to escape this dream, my thread dangling in the vastness of death.