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A Tourist in My Own Country
“Yalla, yalla we’re leaving!” yelled her mom, storming into her room. She was standing at the tip of the balcony and in front of her, she saw her whole life. She saw buildings slowly tumbling down, she saw the innocent turn guilty, and she saw her family torn apart like never before. All her life she imagined what it will be like growing old in this very same spot… but before she knew it, it was all just a dream, rudely interrupted by sirens. She heard the voice of the Muezzin and recognized that it was time for their prayer. But something seemed off this time. Every day she had been woken by the same sounds. She’d had the same routine. And she never expected anything less; until suddenly, prayers turned into warnings: “Live from Tahrir Square, the biggest Revolution in the Arab Spring since 1952.”, she heard the TV shout from next door. With no explanation, separated from her family, the next thing she knew she was in a car full of strangers, supposedly there to protect her. Each going into different cars, as it was too risky to all be in the same one. The naive little eleven-year-old girl with wet cheeks looked outside her window and all she could see were hopeless faces standing in the midst of destruction. Leaving family and friends behind with no warning and no time to say goodbye, she waved naively at the streets.
That was five years ago. And at the time, she would have never imagined that she would be put in such a helpless position. She wanted so badly to be part of the change, to help her country, and to prove to the people of her worth. But she couldn’t. “People stare and wait, wait for us to mess up, as if their happiness depends on it. Today is that day,” her mother told her on the plane ride to the unknown. Her family fled, and along with them she went. She knew she wasn’t coming back. She never understood what it meant to be privileged until she was forced out of her own country. She became a tourist in the city she called home. Next thing she knew, she was in a new country, new city, and new school. And the same little naive girl now stood on her own, on a different balcony. Unfamiliar.
That little girl was me. People tell me to forget about the past because as we say in Arabic, “Elle fat mat” which means what passed is gone and you can’t change that. This new life always reminds me that my choices have already been made by others and in order to move on I needed to accept that. “تحیا مصر ”, “Long live Egypt”, they said, not knowing that it had died long before it was able to live.
The two of them sat alone at the dinner table. The girl was fifteen. She’d only just lost the baby fat and was still figuring out her hair. It would be a long time before she figured it out.
“Can you tell me one of the stories about my dad?”
“Harry? Which one? You want the toothbrush story?”
“No, not that one—”
“Oh, I know which one you want.”
The girl’s grandmother was delicately-boned and vain. She dyed her hair dark brown and complained bitterly of her chubby youth. Really she was beautiful still, and everyone knew it. Her name was Dolores, and since she was a little girl everyone had called her Doe. Nicknames like that were all the rage when she was young. Doe, like a deer. It was fitting; she had large pudding brown eyes.
The girl, Samantha, hadn’t inherited those eyes. She hadn’t inherited anything from Dolores; not her eyes, which were small and pale and blue, or her hair, which was thin and golden and always shiny with oil, and which slipped annoyingly out of ponytails (Dolores’ hair had been thick, chestnutty and voluminous when she was Samantha’s age). Not anything. That was why Dolores liked Samantha the best. The other grandchildren reminded her too much of herself. She didn’t want to see her pudding eyes or chestnutty hair belonging to anyone else, especially when her eyelids now drooped and wrinkled and her hair had long ago thinned and whitened.
Samantha must have gotten all her genes from the other side of the family.
Anyhow, Dolores liked Samantha best. And Samantha and Dolores were sitting at the otherwise deserted dinner table, everyone else having gone off, the plates having been cleared, and Dolores was fingering her wine glass, which still held a sip of Pinot Grigio (Dolores rarely drank anything other than Pinot Grigio; it was her go-to).
“Well, you know how it goes,” Dolores said. Beatrice often requested the story about her dad that wasn’t the toothbrush story.
“Yeah, but I want to hear you tell it.” Dolores just loved hearing that. Samantha knew she was the favorite; she knew how to play Dolores.
“Well, we were down by the shore one summer. Your grandpa always insisted on wearing that ridiculous Speedo… No man should go near one of those things, in my opinion… There were seven of us. Your Uncle Ronnie must have been thirteen, which means Harry was fifteen. Helen, my sister—”
“I know who Aunt Helen is, Doe” Samantha interjected, rather brattily.
“—Of course you do, dear—and Nathan, and the Benjamins, who were very close friends of your grandfather’s—goodness, what a shame; Marty Benjamin died just a year after that summer down the shore. Perhaps the adrenaline had something to do with it…”
Dolores’ doe eyes lost focus. She was remembering how Marty Benjamin used to look at her, how his hand used to linger at her waste, how his green eyes twinkled when he played all those practical jokes. She was remembering that terrible sunburn he got, red and ugly all over his back, and how, when everyone else was at the beach, he’d asked her to rub aloe into his skin, to take the sting away…
“I think Don must have been about thirteen as well! He was there too, of course.”
Two children ran into the dining room and crawled underneath the table. “Shhhh,” they told Dolores and Samantha from behind the curtain of the tablecloth, and the women nodded solemnly in response, though the children couldn’t see them do it.
“Well, you know how your father liked to swim,” Dolores continued. “And he was such a strong swimmer. We never could figure out who he go that bit from.
“So we were down the shore, all of us, and one morning, Harry went for a swim. It was a gorgeous morning, I remember I’d looked out the window when I’d gotten up for a glass of water. It had rained in the night so the air was fresh, and the little shore animals had just begun scuttling, but the seabirds hadn’t caught on yet. Not a squeak or squawk out of any of ‘em.”
Samantha, in her mind’s eye, saw a lightly lapping pastel sea, a bright pale sky that hadn’t decided what shade of blue of it was going to be yet, and a hermit crab or two on the beach, scuttling, as Dolores had said. Soft yellow sand that looked white in the early light. A lone umbrella, striped and beachy, stuck lopsidedly in the sand, with her father’s flip-flops abandoned underneath. She could smell the salty sea air, feel the salty sea breeze stirring the downy golden hair on her shoulders. All she could taste was the bitter Pinot Grigio, which Dolores had let her sip.
“He’d told Don; Don was the only one up when he left. He’d said to him, ‘I’m going for a swim, Don.’ That’s all he said. Don couldn’t remember what time that had been. All he knew was that it was early.”
Samantha, in her mind’s eye, saw her Uncle Don, thirteen years old, kicking a soccer ball in the scruffy yard of the rental house. She heard the thwack of his bare foot against the—
“Have you seen them?” a flushed child rushed into the dining room and inquired in a loud and breathless voice.
“Seen who?” Samantha asked. She felt a small hand squeeze her around the ankle.
“Jessie! And Marissa!”
“Who’re those goons? I’ve never heard such ridiculous names in my life!” At this, Samantha felt someone sharply pinch her calf, and she sent a soft kick in the direction of the suspected culprit.
“You’re no help at all!” said the bossy child, and she huffed away.
Samantha went back to imagining the thwack of the soccer ball against her Uncle Don’s thirteen-year-old foot, and Dolores went on.
“God knows your Grandpa and I were still sleeping soundly. Anyway, Harry went out for a swim, and no one knew except for Don, and soon everyone woke up and started putzing around, and it was a little while before anyone realized that Harry wasn’t there. You know your father—he mostly kept to himself, especially around Ronnie.
“I think it was Ronnie, actually, who realized Harry wasn’t there. I just remember him stomping up the stairs and barging into our room, saying, ‘Harry told Don he was going swimming but Don thinks it must have been two hours ago and we can’t see him anywhere.’
“It was eleven o’clock then. The sun was already beginning to burn the sand—it was the middle of summer. The dead of summer. I remember because I’d grabbed the binoculars and run out of the house in my bed clothes, without bothering to put on shoes, to try to see Harry in the waves.”
Now Samantha saw her grandmother, attired in her elegant pajamas—she imagined a silk paisley sleeveless top and matching silk shorts—rushing through the scruffy yard and over the path on the dune that led to the beach and the sea. She saw the lifeless, empty sea beyond, the calm waves of early morning now frothing under the nearly-midday sun. The sky had decided on a deep, shiny blue without clouds, and the sun was beaming down on everything and making it all too bright, too hot. The scene was muted—the sea’s frothing was a whisper, and no one else was saying anything. That great big sea, whispering its secrets. Had it swallowed Harry? Dead before the sun reached its zenith?
She saw her grandmother wading into the water, waves crashing against her legs and soaking her paisley silk pajamas, cramming the binoculars to her face. She saw there was no wind, and that her grandmother’s naturally dark hair (she would have been in her mid-thirties at this point) hung still and lank against her neck. The soft sea breeze had burned off with the nearly noon sun.
Samantha saw, through the lenses of the binoculars (so it was blurry around the edges and rimmed in black darkness), the seething, empty sea and she didn’t see anything resembling Harry’s bobbing head or his strong, swimming limbs.
“Then Jimmy, that is, your grandfather, went barreling past me on the hot sand, stumbled through the surf, and dove. I watched him through the binoculars, all his inelegant splashing, until someone grabbed my arm and pulled me away. I only realized later it was Mrs. Benjamin. My sister and Nathan had still been in bed, they had no clue what was going on, no one had woken them up and they’d slept through the commotion.
“Mrs. Benjamin took me into the house and closed all the blinds. She made me a cup of tea that I didn’t touch. They all thought someone had died. They thought someone was going to die. Harry, or Jimmy, or Mr. Benjamin, when he went in to save Jimmy when Jimmy was flailing and gasping for breath thirty feet from the shore (it was a cramp, he told me later, trying to be heroic).
“Mr. Benjamin dragged Jimmy onto the beach and no one noticed when Harry came back. He just walked right out of the water, like a phantom, like some creature of the sea. Jimmy was the first one to see him, and he thought he really had drowned, and then he thought Harry was a ghost.”
Samantha saw her fifteen-year-old father, gangly and awkward like the boys in her class, rising from the sea. She saw it from the perspective her grandfather must have had at the time—lying down on the beach with everyone crowding around him, blinking sand and salt and sun out of his eyes and coughing up the sea. And there was this black, glistening shadow, and the shadow stood over her, blocking out the sun…
“Harry was fine. Not a scratch on him. He even thought he might have seen a sea turtle. He said he was sorry; he’d swum very far without looking back, and when he had finally looked back, he couldn’t see the shore in any direction. So he turned right around and hoped he was going in the right direction. That had spooked him a little bit. When he’d caught sight of land, he’d relaxed and slowed down. Taken his time, he said. He promised he’d never do it again, but then he went and moved across the country!” Dolores clenched her fists in mock anger.
Samantha laughed at this.
They sat quietly together at the large wooden dining table, in the large wooden dining room, listening to the clanging of dishes and the running faucet in the kitchen. Dolores had finished her wine at some point during the story. Samantha was glad. She didn’t like the taste but always felt compelled to accept whenever Dolores offered a sip.
Dolores liked Samantha because Samantha, unlike the other children, didn’t feel the need to fill every waking moment with chatter. The truth is, though, Samantha thought she should probably say something to fill the silence; she just couldn’t figure out what.
“You know, Samantha, I have a theory,” Dolores was the one to break the silence. She had both her hands wrapped around her wineglass, and her head was tilted down so she looked at Samantha from under her finely-tweezed eyebrows. It was a knowing look.
“My theory, is that every person has this one summer. This one, incredible summer, during which all of their dreams come true, and they have no worries, none at all, and they’re surrounded by their favorite people, and the future looks bright and full of promise. And they spend the rest of their lives trying to replicate that summer, trying to live up to it. That golden summer. Their golden summer. Do you think that’s true, Samantha?”
“I dunno, Grandma. Maybe.”
Samantha bent to look under the table. The children, Jessie and Marissa, were fast asleep on the hardwood floor, curled around each other.
“Of course you don’t. You haven’t been on this earth nearly long enough to understand what I’m saying. But what I’m asking you, is, do you think you’ve had your golden summer yet?
Samantha thought back to last summer, the summer after her freshman year of high school. She certainly hoped never to recreate that summer.
“No, I don’t think so,” Samantha said.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t have.”
When Samantha didn’t ask, Dolores explained, “Mine was when I was twenty-one, just after I married your grandfather.”
Now Dolores saw herself as she had been fifty-five years ago. Bronzed, perched on the precipice of her newly married life. Jimmy was there too, also bronzed, somewhere in the background. There was a swimming pool. She stood tall on the diving board with her arms out, face towards the sun, eyes closed, wearing a content, close-lipped smile.
“What happened that summer?” asked Samantha.
“Oh, nothing much,” Dolores said, and she pursed her lips.
a year (and a half) in boys
break a pound of questions
while I forget
a fool named Columbus
tries to conquer
a love island already full
who else saw that roof?
drank that beer?
liked that moon?
I can’t tell
if we’re friends or
if your music is ironic
you came in my bathroom
twice and I never
let you back in
ugly god, a tight joint
hey you reached nina
sorry I missed your call
in my attic
does wine taste the same
and does your mother
still talk about me?
it was me or her
and then me
and her then nothing
somebody else’s high school crush
put on a red condom
and got me high
you were too big for me
in more ways
I’m still not sure
if you were a boy
or a mirror
about your bed in particular
at 4 a.m.
of a romantic comedy
we don’t care
I feel bad that my picture’s
plastered on your mind
I heard you’re engaged now
and I think about her mouth
on your tattoos
a leather jacket
couldn’t keep you warm
in my winter
at the bend of the bar
I almost wish I remembered your name
a soft lottery boy
every time we talk
it’s like you’re walking me home
“everything is embarrassing” – sky ferreira
you brought Vermont charm
to a knife fight
I sent you home in pieces
another boy another pantomime
except this time
you don’t know what love is
and I’m not the one
to teach you
twenty three boys on my shelf
I pick one up and look for a minute
then I set him back down
A Tale Of Time and Space Compression
The cold wind bit into my lungs as I pushed harder and went faster. My feet pounded across the pavement as beads of sweat rolled down my forehead.
Upon reaching a dead end, I decided to run back. It was only 3:36 p.m. yet a cloudy darkness had settled across the sky. I was at a stoplight holding onto a frosty metal pole. I had arrived at the intersection of Division, Catherine and Chatham Square. In front of me I saw a maroon board and in large white letters, it said “貢茶 Gong Cha.”
Tears and sweat dripped down my face. People rushed past me to cross the street but I stood in shock. There was a five-story brown brick building with a rusty maroon fire escape. On the street level, there were several stores with bright yellow boards and in the mix of navy blue Chinese characters I had forgotten, there were two which stood out, 貢茶.
The warm aroma of oolong and tapioca flooded my nose as I walked in through the sliding glass doors and into the small and cramped tea shop. There were two brown tables with matching chairs. An old Chinese lady sat in the corner while a couple sat on the other table. He had his arm around her but she was too busy drinking her bubble tea. The decaying cream walls were covered in brown and white posters with facts and information like how many Gong Chas there were in the world. It still listed Singapore as one of the locations. There were maybe 4 or 5 employees who stood behind the black countertop at the front of the store. They wore red aprons and looked at my tear-soaked face in a sympathetic yet slightly confused way.
As I watched the familiar fortune cat wave its arm up and down, I was transported to the Gong Cha 9521 miles, 3 oceans, 4 continents and a 21-hour plane ride away. I was back in the basement level of Great World City, my neighborhood mall. Opposite a sushi restaurant, Ichiban Boshi, and a Nike store, there was a maroon board and in large white letters it said, “貢茶 Gong Cha.” There were no seats or even walls, it was an open cafe with nothing but a dark brown counter. Brown and white posters lined the front of the counter displaying facts about Gong Cha and the various locations it was in. I guess I never noticed that New York City was one of those locations. There were only 2 employees and it always had a long line unlike the Indonesian confectionary store beside it.
I closed my eyes and inhaled that perfect blend of oolong milk tea and delicious black tapioca pearls. I was back home. The grey concrete floor underneath me turned into the yellow marble floor in Singapore. The walls, couple and elderly lady vanished. The black counter turned into a higher and more dark brown counter.
When I used to live in Singapore, my brother and I used to spend our Sunday afternoons walking to Gong Cha and updating each other on high school stress. One day, we were disheartened to see the simple white letters of Gong Cha replaced with the big, bold, bulky bright red letters of diarrhea-inducing Li Ho. To then see this Gong Cha, in another continent so far away, my mind was racing with emotion.
Time-space compression is a concept Doreen Massey maintains in her discussion of globalization and its effect on our society in her essay A Global Sense Of Place. She states that because our world is “speeding up” and “spreading out,” time-space compression is more prevalent than ever as internationalization takes place. People are able to connect with those across the world as easily as they are able to connect to those across town. We can experience different cultures without ever leaving our country. You can experience authentic Taiwanese bubble tea without ever having to go to Taiwan. Time and space have been erased.
I slowly walked up to the counter and in a shaky voice, I echoed the same words I did with my brother “may I please get a medium milk tea with pearls 50% sugar, less ice.”
I was transported to a time before Li Ho and a time in Singapore with my brother and feeling of longing crawled over me. My mind raced with thoughts and emotions filled my headspace as my excited taste buds danced with each flavor of sugar, Oolong, and tapioca.
Seeing that Gong Cha reminded of what I left behind. It reminded me of where I wasn’t and the people I wasn’t with. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my previous life. I remembered my friend telling me about how nervous he was to serve in the mandatory Singaporean military, I remembered when my friend came out as bisexual, I remembered stress-drinking bubble tea while studying for my AP Biology mock, my father’s first time trying bubble tea, my brother telling me about a nasty rumor, the day my best friend moved back to Houston, getting lost whilst on a treasure hunt with my oldest friend, being sad after a terrible after prom. It was a stinging reminder of the time before Li Ho and the time before I moved here, the time before I was alone.
Walking into Gong Cha was not unlike me walking into a spice store at the beginning of the year. Inspired by Frank O’Hara, we were assigned to write a ‘walking around’ poem. A new friend, Alice, and I caught the L to Alphabet City. After updating our Instagram and Snapchat stories we arrived at E 6 st and Ave B when a pungent smell caught our attention. It almost smelt like my mom’s kitchen. Curiously we followed the scent and found ourselves in front of a quaint spice store. I wrote the following in my poem.
Then I walked into a small spice store
The familiar smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, mustard
The store was called SOS Chefs of New York. It was a very dimly lit narrow store. Mediterranean lamps and bottles of spices lined the walls. In fact, there were so many spices, there was hardly any wall. I closed my eyes and tried to decipher the smell. There was ginger and turmeric, which mixed together is my mother’s remedy for everything from a stuffy nose to a broken heart. There was cumin and crushed coriander, the essence of Khichdi, the most comfortable comfort food. Ajwain and tamarind which create a brilliant flavor in pickles and rice. Clove and neem, which are the heart of Ayurveda and a staple in every Indian household. There was also Egyptian spices and Moroccan spices. Spices from every corner of the world. Everything you ever needed all in one little spice store on 1st Avenue.
In that store, like Gong Cha, home had come to me.
In her essay, Massey discusses how local streets are now lined with global foods such as pizzerias and Kebabs. Our very own University Place has everything from Vapiano’s famous aglio-olio to Anita Dongre’s designer saris, to Ramen Takumi’s authentic sushi. Time-space compression, she says, is the “geographical stretching of our social relations.” You can go abroad and find the same shops, the same music, eat the same food as you did back home – and all of it is just “down the road.”
You no longer need to travel for days and nights along extensive trade routes such as the Silk Road or go to quaint spice markets in Marrakesh or herbal shops in Goa, you can just take a short subway ride to alphabet city.
As is with most Indian women when they get married off, their mothers will part them with a spice box. My mother’s is 4 generations old. Like the SOS Chefs, my mom’s box boasts spices from all over the world. Spicy chili powder from Everest, aromatic saffron from valleys in Kashmir, Harissa from the Mediterranean coast. These are used in everything from dal to shaak.
Massey’s claim about things speeding up and spreading out is not wrong, however, no matter how advanced globalization gets, nothing ever matches up to mom’s cooking.
In fact, even the most authentic south Indian food on Lexington avenue’s ‘Curry Hill’ can ever be as good as mom’s food. On the corner of 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, you’ll see Saravana Bhavan. It’s a brownish-red 3-story building. On the street level, there is a white store and in big red letters, it says “SARAVANA BHAVAN. INDIAN VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT.” It looks exactly like the one in Singapore, with the same strange green logo. As soon as you enter through the glass doors, fermented idli, hot ghee, and spicy sambar fills the air. The inside is completely white unlike the lime green interior in Singapore. The tables and chairs look elegant on the white marble floor. The one in Singapore is much smaller and in a 2-story Singaporean heritage shophouse. It is noisy and mostly filled with workers from Bangladesh. The one on Lexington has soft music and is filled with white-collar workers. .
This is yet another example of Massey’s time-space compression. In the last part of the essay, Massey discusses the introverted and extroverted sense of place. The introverted sense of place is one that provides stability and rootedness in the midst of change. We seek refuge in our sense of locality.
In Singapore, my family made it a point to go out for dinner or lunch at least once a week. More often than not, we would ditch the fancy restaurant and end up in little India at Saravana Bhavan. I was looking for that stability and just as Massey said, I found refuge in that Saravana Bhavan, in the same way, I did at the Spice Store and Gong Cha. In the midst of this change and madness, I found rootedness here. So many miles away, I was back in Singapore and forgot about NYC. For one quick second, I forgot how alone I was. I still pictured my family outside my bedroom door instead of a lonely Goddard hallway.
Earlier this year, we visited the Modern Museum of Modern Art and observed the aptly named City Dreams exhibit by Isek Bodys Kingelez. We saw stunning and intricate sculptures made largely of paper, paint, and glue. In the mix of the fantastical and utopian “maquettes,” “Ville de Sète 3009,” caught my attention. It is a city surrounded by water with towering buildings and futuristic structures. Electric lights glimmer by the orderly gardens and towering buildings, all constructed in buoyant colors and shapes.
The structures that composed of “Ville de Sète 3009,” are not unlike the structures which make up Singapore. One of the lesser known tourist destinations in Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s City Gallery is a museum with 3 miniature “maquettes” of Singapore carved out of wood. It displayed everything from the large circular swiss hotel building to the concrete Central Business District, the 5 buildings of Suntec City, Park Royal’s vertical gardens to Hort Park.
In “Ville de Sète 3009,” Kingelez references Postmodernism with Japanese pagodas, Art Deco, Dutch gables, similar to the model of Singapore which has Japanese gardens, British architecture, and French rooftop bars.
This idea is echoed in Massey’s extroverted sense of place which discusses “place” and it’s links with the wider world which integrates the global and the local. She defines “place” as a unique point of social intersections and understandings. This is exactly reflected in the Kingelez exhibition. “Place” doesn’t need to have a fixed identity and definition, it can be progressive and changing. Massey claims that cultures and communities are merged during time-space compression because of rapid growth and change, as “layers upon layers” of histories fuse together to shift our ideas of what the identity of a “place” should be. This is reflected in Kingelez’s artwork and in Singapore.
“Home” and “place” are progressive words with progressive definitions. In this postmodern society and globalized world, everything is forever changing and in constant flux. Though Gong Cha and that Spice Store and Saravana Bhavan remind me of home, it is important to maintain an extroverted sense of place and recognise Massey’s understanding of place as immersed in global networks/processes, a product of interrelations and continuously changing. I may not like change, but I have to accept it.
When the changing gets too much, though, don’t worry, there’s always a Gong Cha right around the corner.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Books, 1974
Fusselman, Amy. “How To Make Rape Lemonade.” 12 April 2018. McSweeney’s Internet
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1988.
Kingelez, Bodys Isek. City Dreams. 26 May 2018-1 Jan. 2019. Museum of Modern Art, New
Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Space, Place, and Gender. University of
Minnesota Press, 1994.
Mehta, Anjali. “Alphabet City Walking Around Poem ” 2018.
Singapore City Exhibition. 12 Mar.–4 Dec. 2016, Urban Redevelopment
Sarah and Marie and I Take a Road Trip to New Orleans
Caroline Grace Steudle
My mother is right,
This is a bad idea, and the tornado watch that
Covers Louisiana like the shadows cast by stormclouds
Is more than just the violent downpour
That will batter us as we dash through knee-deep puddles
Down cobblestone streets.
I know we’ll never get that far;
I drive, white-knuckled,
And the car is nudged back and forth
By rain and wind that comes from everywhere at once,
Over this causeway that spans a hundred miles, I swear
And Marie and Sarah can joke because they can’t drive,
They playfully wonder if we’d be safer
Jumping into the choppy waves and trying to swim for it, or
Staying up here, in the car,
Either way, only to be blown away
And discovered weeks later washed up on some shore in Alabama,
Bodies nibbled by alligators,
Bloated with rainwater and seawater and the tears of our mothers,
Who lament that they ever let us go on this trip
That they knew and told us was a bad idea.
Yesterday I Had A Dream
(Exquisite Corpse written by entire class under supervision of Prof. Lina Meruane, later edited, ever so slightly, by classmates Alexis Plath Ibarren & Mila Maksimovic)
Yesterday I Had A Dream.
Reality became as blurry as clouds on a Sunday.
There, we consider if it’s ugly or not and decide on no.
Who is it?
Wow! A plethora of shoes!
My personality is like cheese – Sharp. Salty.
A vibrant display of colors.
Waves crashed against the fore and then again fell silent.
Yesterday I had a dream.
Falling snowflakes on a wintry day.
Nothing is ever the same.
And then there were none.
My contact lenses are melting in my eyes; and piercing a tattoo on the membrane;
Oh, I’m going blind.
Time is short and precious.
Poetry may be.
Remembering That Overcast Afternoon
- For the First Time, When he is Dad and I am Ten
My dad was sunshine. He looked like Danny Zucko from Grease even though he was 49 and never made it to his senior year of high school. Passion burst out of him in invisible rays, piercing the air endlessly, and stopping only when they landed on something. Dad named his restaurant Isabella’s, meaning there was a big sign on the front of the building with my name on it. Dad was the most talented man I knew—I ate five-star dinners every night. All of our pride was in one another.
When I was ten I remembered an overcast afternoon from that year. I’m sitting on the edge of the rickety grey futon in our one bedroom apartment. Dad is standing in front of me in his white t-shirt and jeans—he’s one leather jacket away from singing “Grease Lightning.” At this point I’m in the four foot range, my hair still blonde, skin marshmallow soft, and I don’t need glasses. Good thing, because now I’m crying.
With tiny soft thumbs I wipe my eyes, mewling, “I feel sad.” Dad gently pulls me into a hug; my arms are caught bent against my chest as he presses me closer. But I don’t need them anymore to wipe away my tears. His sunshine keeps me warm and dries them all up.
- For the Second Time, When he is Antonio and I am Fourteen
Antonio, on the other hand, looked less like Danny Zucko and more like My Cousin Vinny. Antonio built a cheese factory in his 24-square-foot kitchen. Antonio once tried to use Elmer’s School Glue to hang a fifteen pound whiteboard. Antonio had a few screws loose.
When I was fourteen I remembered that overcast afternoon again; I’m sitting on the edge of the rickety grey futon in our one bedroom apartment. My eyes are dry when I mutter, “I want to die.”
Without moving forward or backward, Antonio just kind of stands there with his arms hanging.
After a while a soft gust of voice blows my way: “I had a friend once who wanted to die.” I am crawling my way out of a broiling desert, aching for another breeze of his voice to cool me down. But the air is stagnant.
I’m not used to the sting of disappointment yet. Immunity takes a long time to build up. Personally, it took four years for my sunshine to become my toddler-on-a-leash, my patient, my sign-language-speaking gorilla. Four years of, “You can’t go into the restricted section, Antonio,” and, “I’m not pretending to be eight for a discount, Antonio, it’s Golden Corral,” and, “Antonio, stop taking pictures of random kindergarteners, you pedophile.”
Maybe if I cry he will hug me, I think. And his sunshine will keep me warm, and dry up all my tears.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected a toddler or a patient or a gorilla to start parenting or healing or speaking to me.
He waddles back into the kitchen. My eyes are no longer dry.
III. For the Last Time, When he is Anthony and I am Eighteen
Everyone calls him Antonio, but his real name is Anthony.
I don’t know anything about Anthony.
When I was eighteen I remembered that overcast afternoon; I’m sitting on the edge of the rickety grey futon in our one bedroom apartment. Anthony is so old now. His skin hangs in bags under his chin and eyes and cheeks. He doesn’t look like anyone. Too shabby to be Vito Corleone, too hollow to be Geppetto. This is the clearest this memory has ever been, yet I know that shouldn’t be possible.
My back is haunched—I’m trying to hold back the floodgates in my eyes with my palms. Until a sentence my lips were virgin to slops its way out of my mouth: “I want to kill myself.”
If there is someone clawing at the other side of Anthony’s stonewalled face, I can’t tell. He marches around the corner to the closet—the only corner of the apartment I can’t see from the edge of the futon.
When he comes back, his right hand is clenching a silver and black handgun and his left palm is sliding the clip into it until it clicks.
By the time he stops in front of me, Anthony is holding the gun in one clutch from the barrel, presenting the handle toward me.
The weight of that gun is exactly the same as one jug of chocolate milk or half a watermelon. That’s what I calculated ten months before this overcast afternoon, after the first five or six times he wrenched my tiny fists open to wrap my fingers around it.
For the first time voluntarily, I take the gun.
No, no. He misunderstood. I howl again, but louder, “I want to kill myself.”
When he finally speaks, he says every word the way he spits on the sidewalk, “Huh- I had a friend who wanted to kill himself…he wanted to kill himself- wanted to shoot his brains out! But you’ve got nothing to be crying about- You’re spoiled!…
So here—take it—blow your brains out! Do it…You wanna do it?- Do it.”
The best grip my tender fingers can make is shaky and awkward; keeping my finger on the trigger is hard to do without squeezing it; I try to keep it a quarter inch away from my skin, but every time I cry it bumps into my skull. It is ice cold and getting tangled in my thin, blonde hair. “I’m gonna do it!…I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna kill myself!”
The cancerous feeling, the reason I’m saying these things, is rooting deeper into my stomach. It scares me to not know what it is. I wanted to ask him. I wanted to stop crying. I wanted him to be sunshine. Unfortunately, there’s a hereditary element to depression.
Anthony strolls back to the kitchen where I can still see a sliver of him in the dark behind hanging pots and pans. My arm is aching from the weight of the gun—the cycle of rapid debate on whether or not I should do it is ricocheting off the inside of my skull; it’s a tornado in a hamster wheel of incoherent thought; in my mind I pull the trigger: my brains are shot out my left ear, across the futon, across the dark hardwood floors, across the brown comforter on the bed, and then. I feel too nauseated from the spinning to kill myself. And lower the gun.
After finishing his last batch of cheese Anthony makes his way back to snatch the gun from me. Soggy drips from my nose and drool in my mouth are all that’s left of my sobbing. I inform him, almost asking, “You gave me a loaded gun.”
Anthony’s face curls up like he bit into a lemon before he uses his are-you-stupid voice on me. “Ta! Nooo. Are you kidding me? I would never give you a loaded gun.” He shakes his head, disappointed that I assumed he would be that crazy. He tells me he took out the bullets when I wasn’t looking.
I’ve stopped crying. The gun is back on the easy-to-reach shelf in the unlocked closet. Anthony walks back into the kitchen to cook us a five-star dinner.