Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.

For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.

All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.

Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.

Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”

I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.

Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)

I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)

I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.

In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.

I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.

Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.

I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.

So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.

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Success?

My time in Moldova comes to an end in exactly two weeks. I’ve been busy packing suitcases to ship home; trekking overflow items to Peace Corps office for adoption by other volunteers; saying goodbye to friends and co-workers; visiting a variety of restaurants I had no idea existed here; solidifying plans for various journeys I’ll take in the next few months – in short, distracting myself from reflexively seeking to affirm that three years of service have generated some notable positive outcomes. In a word: success! A fellow M27 just sent me an email in which he observed that, though he left Moldova over a year ago, he has yet to reflect or even talk about his time in country. I understand perfectly; it is an experience that I did not imagine completely absorbing for years, maybe even decades. Perhaps it would coalesce into clarity only on my deathbed, I thought.

I was wrong. Because this:

 :I boarded a bus yesterday evening to go say goodbye to a couple of friends, a delightful couple with whom I made a memorable trip to Poland (you will always remember the people who walked beside you through Auschwitz.) I was pondering our respective next moves, marveling at the circumstances that brought us into each other’s orbit – them career State Department employees who routinely relocate to a different country every 2-3 years, me having made an impulsive leap out of 20+ years of suburban stasis – when I unwittingly sat down across from this guy pictured above. At first, he was reclining with his head back, eyes shut, legs stuck out straight, for all the world as if his seat was a poolside lounger. I assumed he was a commuter catching a quick nap on the way home. Caught in my reverie, I was barely taking in the cues: wet, mud stained trousers, oil-slicked hair, crispy, sunburned skin. I’ve been living here long enough that my surroundings have receded into a backdrop and no longer command the stage.

A couple of minutes into the ride, however, he reared up, gasping, and the abruptness of the movement caught my attention. At this point I was sitting directly across from him, our seats facing each other in that oddly forced intimacy so commonplace in Moldovan trolleys. Through a milky film that occluded both pupils, his eyes locked onto mine as if grasping for a fixed point on a distant horizon. Like a dashboard bobble, his head seemed only loosely connected to an insubstantial neck. He had a harelip and a badly running nose. His eyes kept shifted from my forehead to my nose, to my mouth, to my hair, then back to my eyes again, perhaps trying to integrate the disparate signals reaching his brain. Far inside those murky depths, I sensed a drowning intelligence, a mind still fighting to surface but destined to be overwhelmed, ultimately, by a raging sea. Then he pitched forward, clutched my hands and collapsed face first onto my lap. I could feel his snot penetrating my pants and the grit on his hands abrading mine.

“Nu, nu, nu,” I murmured softly, hoping not to attract attention. “Nyet.” I disentangled myself and crossed the aisle to another seat, whereupon he slid sideways into his own, sinking slowly, inexorably downward for the remainder of my journey.

I’ve encountered sufficient drunks to recognize the acidic stench of an alcohol stew; this man did not give off that smell. For the split second his face was buried in my crotch, I caught whiffs of grass and dirt and sweat and a distant, lingering memory of detergent from his shirt. No, he had the vague, un-sanitized aroma of the mentally ill or of someone, perhaps, in the final throes of a devastating illness.

It is in these situations when that worn-out, abused meme elbows its way to the forefront in my brain: What would Jesus do? Not because I’m a bible-thumping, holier-than-thou proselytizer, but because I find the model of Jesus’ life and his philosophy, even more so than Buddha’s or Mohammed’s or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s, the ultimate ideal of human compassion, generosity, and unconditional love. As Stephen Colbert trenchantly observed:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Now, granted, I was riding a bus in Moldova, not the US, and I have no idea what this man’s economic circumstances might actually be, but you get the picture. For all my aspirations toward idealism in joining the Peace Corps – living a more compassionate and caring existence, crossing cultural divides and viewing the world from a different perspective, appreciating the ties that bind us as a global family, yadayadayada – my instinctive response to the “poor” and “needy” when they face plant in my privates is to distance myself, cut away, feign ignorance. Please don’t snot or grime me. I don’t see you.

Although he was no longer aware of me, my gaze kept shifting back to him, a lone, crumpled assemblage of bones among upright rows of briefcase-toting professionals, young women reflecting themselves in mobile phones, grandmothers in shapeless housedresses, fathers holding babies.  Draped over the seatback and hand pole in a submissive posture of degradation and vulnerability, despite being clothed in what may have been, even recently, business casual dress and buffed leather shoes. What was his story? What had happened to him between womb and trolleybus? Where were his people – his parents, or siblings, or school mates, or friends? How had he been reduced from chubby-cheeked toddler to desperate adult, riding an endless bus to avoid the rain?  How indiscriminate, blind, the hand of fate?

I thought of the kids I had worked with for two decades back in California, foster youths, wards of the state, removed from dangerous or apathetic parents, trailing burgeoning files of nasty diagnoses: paranoid personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, anti-social/psychopathic tendency, etc., all usually stemming from the post-traumatic stress rooted in the horrific conditions and experiences of their pasts. And all I could do was get up and change seats.

It slammed into me then, that unsought assessment of what my time here has been worth, catching me unaware, unprotected against the futility and sadness of the epiphany. It is, indeed, a very small world. Six thousand miles and an intervening ocean don’t alter the face of the poor or the needy. It’s only the excuses that change. Back in the US, I had traversed the familiar stages of many a social work career, descending from occasional bouts of disenchantment to a more constant, simmering disgruntlement before landing in the bubbling cauldron of seething disillusionment. I was mad at office politics and national politics, city government and non-profit boards; frustrated by the blatant materialism encouraged in our clients to distract them from the challenges of their circumstances; anguished by the generational abuse I stayed long enough to witness, deeply defensive about the pervasive obstacles I viewed as outside my control.

The notion of Peace Corps – overseas service, a change of scenery, escape from the whirlpool of my cynicism – became the saving grace to which I pinned my faltering notions of what ‘being the change’ I wanted to see in the world really meant. I was going to make a difference. Again, at last, finally.

But what truth  I finally allowed admission here – one not endemic to the Republic of Moldova, but to most nations and most people, and, most painfully, within myself.  In both the villages and the capital, during training and throughout an extended third year, among other PCVs and ex-pats who had come to serve the needy, through a slew of projects and initiatives that purport to foster sustainable change, I encountered a new cornucopia of excuses, reasons why we failed.  And I suddenly realized that there will forever be excuses, we have two thousand years’ worth of reasons why we fail, justifications for why one can’t fit that huge, hairy camel through that ridiculously microscopic needle’s eye.  How prostitute’s feet have been shown to carry disease.  And how impossible it is to throw the moneychangers from the temple once they’ve got the keys. After all, Jesus was a special case, right?  And – even though the United States has cast itself in the role of world savior, a “Christian” nation that touts the four gospels of freedom, equality, opportunity and democracy – it has it’s own citizens safety to prioritize and ensure, doesn’t it.  And surely I cannot not be blamed for avoiding potential contagions or possible threats to my personal integrity, can I?

Please. Scroll up. Read Colbert’s quote a second time.  Spend a sobering 15 minutes seriously pondering the tableau of humanity above, as I did on that bus ride last night to visit those lovely friends who pondered the piled luggage and shorn hair and abandoned eyeglasses and moldering shoes alongside me at Auschwitz. Who spent a solemn three minutes inside a gas chamber, wondering how it happened.

An hour after this experience I was wolfing down a tender brisket, fried okra, baked beans and mac-and-cheese, some of the definitive staples of America’s Southern hospitality. A day later, I’m still doing my damnedest to digest that gluttonous feast, to shut him out, close my eyes, file through the myriad reasons I’m not to blame. But damn if he doesn’t keep thrusting out an intruding hand, chipping away at the glow of my final days, calling into question every moment of the past three years.

Leaving me with just one word: Nyet.

Escape from the Isle of Skye

Lorraine at 20
Lorraine at 20

It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.

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Me & Lorraine0001
Me & Lorraine circa 1983

I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it.  It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days.  It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.

Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her.   An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.

I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house.  Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker.   There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship.  While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood.  She made me a little nervous.

But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.

“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”

Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.

“Nope. It’s mine.”  Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.

She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place.  And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me.  But she never ceded.

So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March.  Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.

Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores.  She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.

“You wanted white.  I thought we could be twins.”

I think I actually made her mad with that one.  But she never said a word.  And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.

It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.

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What does one do with dead people’s things?  How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?

Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber.  My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.

What to do with all of this?  How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space.  Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore. 

It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet.  I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.

Mine now.  Sissy, it’s mine.

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The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams.  Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers.  The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.

But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.

My daughter, too, comes to covet it.  I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic.  But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.

“Really, mom?   It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”

“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”

She flings me the withering look.

“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”

It catches me.  When will – if ever – I let it go?  When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her?  Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.

                   No. Not yet.

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I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines.  (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.)  She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust.  Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time.  Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight.  About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.

I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded.  I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to?  In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.

Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate.  In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust.  Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.

I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains.  I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pile and bring it with me to Moldova.

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I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list.  I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.

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So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart.  Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in.  It is gone, disappeared, leaving  a black hole within my suitcase.  Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure?  Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms?  Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday?  Who knows?  It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.

I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.

And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.

Godspeed, my dear sissy.

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First Encounter

Last night, I was granted a quintessential Peace Corps experience. One every volunteer rather expects when imagining her service in strange lands, foreign abodes,  and different climes, but which faded from consciousness rather quickly after I fortuitously dropped anchor in the pseudo-suburban dwellings of my training and assignment villages, with their multi-floored units, double-paned windows, and tightly meshed screens.  I had let my defenses lapse; I wasn’t prepared for the WHIRRING BLACK HORNED BEETLE ENCOUNTER….Horned beetle

It is past 10:00pm when I finally shut down the computer, turn the fan around to cool the bedroom, and flip on the overhead lamp.  Two steps into the room I register the whirring of a helicopter buzzing toward the light.  (I swear I feel its rotors graze the topmost hairs of my head.) Startled, I jump back to the perimeter, sheltering in the doorway, performing a quick scan of the airway. My eyes lift and lock on a freakish black mass the size of my big toe furiously slamming into the Japanese paper lantern hanging innocently above my bed.  It takes a couple of seconds to register…that’s not a helicopter, it’s a freaking BUG!!!   As loud as a helicopter, almost as big as one of those toys my 40+ brothers still obsessively play with on holidays – but this is no flimsy, plastic, remote controlled whirlybird, this thing is seriously ALIVE!

With my heart slamming in my chest, I blindly grabbed for the door handle behind me, poised on the tips of my toes to bolt from the doorway if it changes direction.  What to do, what to do, what to do??? No husband, no roommate, no mama gazda will respond to my bleating SOS.  I don’t want to take my eyes off it, give it the opportunity to find cover, chance losing this down-sized Star Wars Rancor somewhere in my sleeping chamber. 

Lieutenant Rancor
Lieutenant Rancor

Meanwhile, he continues to mercilessly slam the paper lantern, whirling in dervish circles, up and around, tumbling and pivoting, bam! Thud! Wham!  In the crystalline second it dawns on me that he is helplessly caught in the current of air blowing forth from the fan, Rancor inexplicably plummets from view. I run pell mell for the broom.

Returning with trepidation, heart now bubbling up in my throat, broom wielded aloft, melded sword and shield, my eyes dart frantically about the room: dresser, nightstand, clothing rack, walls, bed….OMG, nasty guy is sprawled supine in the MIDDLE OF MY BED.  Faking coma, I am convinced, stealthily waiting for me to approach.  Oh unholy spawn of Satan – is this your beastly strategy?  Slyly still, menacing behind pregnant silence, plotting my solitary demise alone in this Moldovan cell? (Why do lapsed Catholics always revert to Biblical invectives when grappling with terror?) I watch him for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds; his thorax never moves.  (Can one even see insects breathing? I stupidly wonder.)

Well, this standoff has to be brought to a head somehow: make a move Brave New Woman!  You’re the one gloating about living alone.  Deal with the consequence, baby.  Summing every vestige of courage I can mop up within me, I sally forth and swat – take THAT ye demon – each fine hair on my body stiffly alert, prepared for combative reprisal.

I succeed in knocking Rancor to the floor.  Hovering, keeping a good three feet between us, I peer at his armored hide, noting his serrated claws, the horn he must have lifted from a rhino, the multitude of hairy appendages protruding from his steel-plated body.  No wonder he whirred. This is not an insect, it’s a drone, a veritable military assault helicopter, designed to evince shock and awe, to inflict terror and damage on its stricken, limp-limbed victim.  Horned beetle 2Stretching the broom out in front of me, I scoot him toward the kitchen but am thwarted by the door sill (why, why, why do Moldovan doors all come implanted within inch high molded frames?)  Now, the beast lies between me and freedom, to all appearances comatose.  But I know better.  This is evil incarnate, waiting for a lapse in wariness.

Performing the highest leap I’ve managed since fifth grade field day, I clear his bristling weaponry and make another dash for the kitchen, securing the long-handled dust pan (thank god for at least one Moldovan implement with a long handle!)  I hurriedly unlock my apartment door, fly across the center entryway, flip on the light, scramble to unlock to outside door and fling it wide, then race back to the bedroom doorway, where my foe remains fiendishly feigning rigor mortis on the tile before me. Giving myself no time to ponder best tactics, I boldly reach forward, wincing, and scoop the tank-like thing up – his passage is audible, metallic, like a size 10 wing nut skittering across the floor – and then utilize the broom bristles to pin him savagely to the bottom of the dustpan.

I flee with captive held out arm’s length in front of me, almost tripping over the front door sill (damn those things!) and fling the beast out into the murky darkness of the rain-spattered courtyard.  I hear him thud down the steps in front of me.  Hightailing back inside (if I had a tail, it would be firmly between my legs) I slam the door, locking my thwarted nemesis out in the night.

It takes a full five minutes to stuff my heart back where it belongs.

Only now does a vestige of rational thought come creeping back, the tickling awareness that I may have only dispatched a front running scout.  Perhaps there is a lurking company of soldiers – lord almighty, maybe even an entire battalion – waiting in the wings, plotting my downfall, clacking their pointy jaws and waving their snipping pincers in glee! Where in the bloody hell did that monstrosity come from?  How did it gain access to my bedroom?

There is no outside door to my apartment, you see; I am separated from the outdoors by ten feet of gleaming linoleum that is scoured to a lustrous sheen everyday by the sturdy, swishing mop of the industrious Katya. No bugs are making forays down this well-traveled corridor on her watch.  Most of my windows are tightly screened – the two that are not I lock fast, fortifying their sills with armies of personal hygiene items to protect them from being opened by an unwitting guests (who are mostly more afraid of six- and eight legged critters than me.)

There are three vents (which I imagine to be useless, leading to nothing, since this building’s heating system is operated through wall-mounted radiators and air-conditioning is a pipe dream) but all are covered by ceramic screens with openings barely larger than the tip of my pinky – Lieutenant Rancor did not worm his way through one of those pinholes.

There comes the line of thinking that truly makes me shudder: did this intruder attach himself somehow to my clothing? Hitch a ride like some latter day Trojan inside the swirling panels of my floor length skirt?  Or did he clamber like a pirate into a crevice pocket of my backpack, tricking me into slinging him over my shoulder and giving him safe harbor within my personal belongings?  Or worse yet – did he claw his way out of the shower drain, poking his tentacles up from the sewer periscope-like, assessing both occupancy and opportunity in one stealthy search?

I realize I may be a bit overweening here.  Having just read a nightmare account of fist sized spiders in a pitch black outhouse that far exceeds my piteous-in-comparison skirmish with a venom-less beetle, I really have little justification for parading my tiny bravado.

By I did allow myself two OTC sleeping pills to calm myself into slumber.   And in the morning, when I tiptoed out to the courtyard to snap a picture of my conquered foe?

A great stretch of damp brickwork  lay before me, littered with the detritus of storm, not a corpse to be found.

He’s out there, somewhere.   Waiting.

Military helicopter