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S11: The Venetian Glass (A Memoir)

I am on a motor boat which is moving swiftly though the murky waters of Venice, and I listen to a pair of gentleman talk softly in Italian while the white bandage wrapped around my wrist slowly turns red.

I arrived to the city of glass with my family a few hours earlier, and after we dropped off our suitcases at the hotel, we decided to visit the Rialto Bridge to walk among the tiny boutiques which held colored glass figurines and black leather purses.  Before I was able to make it across the bridge, a salesman convinced me that the only way to truly experience Venice was to buy a glass stained necklace from him.

Afterwards, we went to St. Mark’s square where the golden mosaics inside the arches still managed to sparkle despite the ominous clouds in the sky. Inside the square the pigeons circled the children like buzzards while the children squealed with glee as they held pigeon food in their hands. It began to drizzle, and although the children ignored the fat raindrops that splattered on the ground, their parents began to hide their cameras. As our clothes started to dampen, my dad suggested that this would be the perfect time to eat dinner.

We gorged on salami sandwiches and red wine, and then we went back to the hotel. I decided to take a shower  to  wash off the evaporated canal water which had fallen on me from the sky. As I adjusted the shower knobs to find the perfect temperature, I recalled the effortless way the gondola drivers steered through the narrow watery corridors and the laughter of the tourists as they sat on the sleek wooden boats.

After I finished my shower, I opened the glass door to get a towel, and the entire glass panel shattered over me. I stood in shock for a few moments before I began to notice that the shower floor was covered in blood. The source of the red liquid seemed to be my left wrist. I wrapped a towel around my body, and without thinking I walked barefoot across the bathroom floor that was littered with glass.

When I made it out of the bathroom, my dad wrapped my wrist with his shirt, and my parents went to get the hotel manager. While they were gone I examined my feet and miraculously found only one small scratch. The hotel manager, a short middle aged man with a heavy Italian accent, walked into the room. He examined the broken shower door, looked at my wrist, and informed us that he called the paramedics.

We waited in the room for half an hour  before the three young paramedics arrived.  A man with long hair, who must have been the supervisor, unwrapped the shirt which was tied around my wrist. He put a white bandage on it and then he said something briskly to me in Italian.  We looked at the hotel manager in confusion and he translated for us by saying, “He says you do not have to go to the hospital.”

We looked again at the man with the long hair, but he continued to talk in Italian, annoyance filling his face.

“He says you do not have to go to the hospital,” the hotel manager repeated.

The long haired paramedic walked to the door, he stopped in the doorway to beckon us with his hand, and he muttered something in Italian.

“He says you do not have to follow him,” the hotel manager translated for us.

The paramedic continued to mumble in Italian as he began to move his hand in a way that implied he wanted to sew something.

“He says you do not need stitches,” the hotel manager told us.

I decided to trust my knowledge of body language instead of our translator (especially since I always win when playing charades), and I followed the paramedics out of the hotel room. My parents also followed them, and the young men led us to a motor boat which was parked in a dark canal. With a flat palm and a shake of his head, the long haired paramedic let my parents know that they would not be allowed on the boat. However, he did point to the location of the hospital when my dad opened a map.

As I listen to the hum of the motor, I find it amusing how different this ride is from the nightly Venice boat rides I always imagined.  In my fantasies the speed of the motor boat would force it to bounce on the water while loud and luminous red and blue sirens would follow us. Instead, the motor boat glides gently through the canal, and the air has become almost silent since the two gentlemen have stopped talking.

The boat arrives at the hospital and the paramedics show me where the waiting area is. There are a handful of people in this emergency room, and they look inquisitively at my wrist. After about ten minutes, a doctor beckons me to follow her into an examining room.

There is a man sitting in the room, and after the doctor unwraps my bandage and examines my wrist, she says something in Italian to the man. I am beginning to wish that I had taken Italian language classes in college, but then she asks me in perfect English, “How did you hurt your wrist?”

“A shower door fell on me,” I reply.

“A shower door….,” she repeats with disbelief written on her face.

She again speaks to the man in Italian, and he asks me in perfect English, “So you are saying a shower door fell on you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I was taking a shower, and the glass fell out of the door, and it shattered over me.

The doctor and the man do not seem to believe me, but they still put two stitches in my wrist and give me a prescription for antibiotics. I walk back into the waiting room and am happy to find my parents sitting there.

We walk back to the hotel through the silent dimly lit streets of Venice and only the occasional pigeon chirp breaks the silence. Although my wrist hurts, I am thankful that I have only one cut. The shattered shower glass could have damaged every piece of skin which it landed on.  I realize that although Venice is famous for its colorful and elaborately designed glass, it should also be famous for the smooth edged glass that is in its shower doors.

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S10: The Move

I watch the shore get smaller and smaller as the ship sails towards the open sea. The huge oak tree, which had shaded a group of women, now seems the size of a fist. Somewhere on that shore is my grandma, standing there with arms tired from frantic waving, watching our ship disappear into the horizon. Mother is sitting on a bench that is on the front deck, her fingers tightly hold a cigarette, but she seldom brings it to her mouth. Father is standing next to the rails, next to me, and he watches the brown line of the shore slowly get swallowed by the blue sea. He is holding baby sister in his arms, and she is holding on to her new hat

Grandma had given her this hat the other night so that baby sister would always remember her roots. “She is only three,” Grandma had said a few weeks ago. “She’ll have very few memories of this country, if any.”

“Perhaps that’s a good thing,”Mother had said, and Grandma nodded quietly. However, Grandma did not agree, because after their conversation she began to sew this hat. It is a beautiful hat. Grandma had made it out of white silk, and she had added a white lace trim to it, and in a deep blue thread that matched the color of the ocean, she had embroidered baby sister’s name on it. The beauty was not the only trait of the hat that gave it value. The silk and lace Grandma had used had been torn from her wedding dress. A dress which her mother and my mother had also worn. It would have been my wedding dress if I had chosen to stay, and to marry my fiance. Now, parts of this wedding dress are on baby sister’s head, to remind her of the woman who helped raise her and the legacy of her family; and although baby sister does not understand the significance of the hat, she still knows it is special, and her small hand clings protectively over it to shield it from the strong ocean winds.

Once the shore is no longer visible, Father, baby sister, and I join Mother on the bench. “What’s under the sea,” baby sister asks no one in particular as Mother inhales smoke from her cigarette.

“Mermaids,” Father replies. “Beautiful mermaids with golden hair and bewitching blue eyes.”

“Don’t lie to her,” Mother scolds. “There’s only fish under the sea.”

“And dolphins,” I add. Mother stands, walks to the rail, and flicks her cigarette butt into the water.

“There’s cigarettes under the sea too,” Father says, but baby sister is no longer listening, her attention has been diverted by two boys playing dice.

“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father for the third time today.

“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he reassures me for the third time.

Later that night I awake to the massive rocking of the ship. Baby sister is asleep beside me, breathing softly while her tiny fist clutches her silky hat. She had refused to let go of it when she went to sleep, and Mother had remarked that Grandma should have made her a toy instead. “This hat is silly sentimentalism. She is going to outgrow it in less than a year.”

Mother is awake too and she is silently throwing up into a basin. Father has lit a light, and he holds Mother’s hair back as she shakes violently. When Mother is done, she sits with her back against the wall, and she gives me a blank look that is void of all emotion. I remember seeing that look on her face during the horrible night, the night that changed our lives forever.

It was a long time ago, many years before the birth of baby sister. I had been awoken by loud knocking at the door. As I lay in bed I heard a strange man’s voice saying something. I had gotten up, and tiptoed quietly to the edge of the living room. I was afraid that my parents would hear me and give me a stern lecture. I did not yet know that disciplining me had been obliterated from my parent’s mind by the dark coldness the night carried.

I stood at the edge of the living room, and I saw a police man talking to my parents. I did not trust policemen. They always seemed mean and angry, and Mother always seemed frightened of them. I could not hear what the policeman was saying, but his voice sounded kind, so different from the angry shouts they usually gave in the street. Father sat in a chair his hands folded, and Mother stood next to the stove. She was wearing her night clothes, and mother never even had guests if her make up was not on. When the policeman was done talking, Father thanked him for coming by, and he walked the policeman to the door. “I’m sorry,” I heard the policeman say as he walked out of our apartment. The three of us stood still, father at the door, mother at the stove, and I trying to hide in the hallway shadows. It began to rain. At first only a trickle could be heard from the outside, but soon the thunder was making me shake. I walked into the kitchen, and it was as if my actions had given my parents life. They both sat around the table, and Father put his face in his hands. “What happened,” I asked, and Mother told me, quietly, calmly, as if she was telling me what was for breakfast. I began to cry, and somehow I found myself hugging Father, and we both sat there crying. Mother had watched us with dry blank eyes, and her stoic stare was the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep. I woke up in my bed, sunlight streaming over me, and the horror of the news from the night before had sunk into me, had become a part of who I was. That night changed our lives in many ways, and although my parents said the reason they are moving is to live in a place with a better economy and more freedom, the real reason we are leaving our country is so that we don’t have to live in the same place where the worst day of our life had occurred.

Mother gets back in bed, and Father makes the room dark again. In the darkness I can hear baby sister breathing. “Will things be better in America,” I ask Father.

“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he reassures me.

The next morning we are sitting at a table on the deck eating breakfast. Well only Father and I are eating. Mother is smoking her cigarette and baby sister is playing with her food. “You should eat something,” Father tells Mother. “I would if I could, I’m just really queasy,” she replies.

“I’m keesy too, so I can’t eat,” baby sister proclaims.

“I guess I could handle a piece of bread,” Mother says grabbing toast from Father’s plate, and his face lights up in a smile.

I began to wonder if my fiance, now my ex-fiance, would have been that concerned about my eating habits if we had gotten married. I did not have to move with my parents. I am nineteen and I could have stayed. Grandma would have been happy to have me live with her, and a few months after my parents left I could have worn her wedding dress while promising my life to my fiance.

My fiance told me this in similar words. “You don’t have to leave,” he said. “ We belong together. We could marry early so that your parents could attend. If you loved me, you’d stay.”

“I do love you, that is why I’m not asking you to move for me or to wait for me. I wanted to be married to you, but now that I have an opportunity to start over, I have to take it.”

“What your saying is that you don’t love me enough to stay.”

“You know I have to leave.”

He had said nothing. He knew what I meant. We had grown up together, my fiance and I. As children, we used to play in the park together and compete with each about who could collect the most acorns. We had known each other before and after that terrible night. He had tried to comfort me after the tragedy had happened, but there are times when words and hugs do not help. He had seen how this tragic event had transformed my family, and how even the birth of baby sister could not heal the wounds that night had caused. When we became older, he started to wait for me after school. We would walk together and laugh, and after a year of walks he had asked Father for my hand in marriage. I wanted to be married to him, not because of a deep passion, but because he had always been part of my life, and I could not imagine a life without him.

After I told him I would be leaving, we continued acting the same as before. I still called him my fiance, even though we both knew the wedding would never happen. The day before my departure, I met him one last time in the park. We held hands and discussed our favorite poets.

Don’t go,” he said suddenly.

“I thought we discussed this, you know why I’m leaving.”

“I know, but it’s stupid. You can’t erase the past.”

“I don’t want to erase it, I just don’t want to be surrounded by it all the time. You could come with me. Not this ship, but perhaps the next. Why do we have to start our lives here, a place that kills people out of principle. Come to America. We can start over.”

“If you really want me to come, I will.”

I looked at him. I loved him and before the move became a possibility, I was perfectly happy spending my life with him. However, when my parents asked me if I wanted to come with them, I had said yes without hesitation. It was not just this country I wanted to leave, but I wanted to shed all parts of my life that had been with me before the horrible night, and had been unchanged by the tragedy.

“I will always remember you,” I had told my fiance.

Father has turned his toast into airplanes that glide through the air and land in baby sister’s mouth

“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father, who is probably tired of my question.

“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he says with a smile.

After breakfast we walk around the ship. I hold baby sister’s hand, and Father holds Mother’s hand. “What color are the fish under the water,” baby sister asks.

“They are blue and green and red and yellow,” Father replies.

Baby sister giggles and says, “that’s a lot of colors.”

The ocean winds are blowing all around us, and scraps from people’s conversations assault our ears.

“When I get to America I’m going to eat lots of cake. I heard America is filled with cake,” a fat woman tells her friend. “I miss daddy,” a ten-year old girl whines to her mother. “I had the most amazing sex last night,” a mustached young man tells his friend. My parents look nervously at baby sister, but her head is turned as she watches something scurry across the deck.

“It’s a bird,” Mother exclaims as she sees the object of baby sister’s attention. A seagull has landed on the ship and it is running around looking for bread crumbs. Two boys are chasing it, trying to grab it with their hands. One of the boys leaps towards it, but he is tripped by the other boy, and lands face down on the deck. He gets up, tries to look dignified, but there is blood in his nose and tears in his eyes. The seagull seems to have decided the ship is too dangerous of a place for it, and flies away.

A strong gust of wind blows at us, and lifts baby sister’s hat into the air. I chase it, but unfortunately I am not fast enough, and the hat lands in the sea. A spec of white is visible only for a few seconds on the deep blue surface, before a wave swallows the hat. The sea is completely blue again, showing no signs that it has just obliterated a grandmother’s gift to her granddaughter. I turn around and watch as Father tries to comfort baby sister, who is loudly sobbing in his arms. Mother is lighting a cigarette.

“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father as he wipes baby sister’s tears away.

“I have no idea,” he answers, shrugging his shoulders. “But I hope so.”

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S9: The People in the Sky

The Aksoo

Sakiya, a 10 year old Aksoo girl, jumped up and down with excitement. The pink beads, which had been put into her braids a week ago, banged against each other; and the red rusty coins, which her mother had sewn into her silver dress for good luck, jingled from her movement. Her mother watched her daughter with amusement, and she told her, “darling you sound like a broken music box.” Sakiya did not care, because nothing could distract her from the excitement of going to her first Offering.

Sakiya lived on the island of Kondato, a place that had been ravaged by civil war. This war had occurred long ago, many centuries before the birth of Sakiya’s grandma. She had learned about this war in school, from dusty history books that had many missing pages. Kondato used to be the home of many tribes; however, each tribe had wanted full control of the metropolis. They killed each other with no remorse. Even at a young age, Sakiya knew about the atrocities of the famous war. Children had been set on fire, women had been raped, and men were chopped up into pieces. The Aksoo had a strong advantage over the other tribes. Their leaders were still on friendly terms with the country of Aksoon, the place where their ancestors had originated from, and the Aksoon leader sent ships filled with soldiers to replenish the ones that had been murdered. This advantage had allowed the Aksoon to win. They had run all the other tribes out of Kondato, and the people who would not leave willingly had been drowned at sea. These drownings, know as The Great Sink, had done something to the water. The shores of Kondato had turned acidic, and all ships leaving and arriving to the metropolis island would dissolve before they reached shore. The telephone lines which allowed communication with the outside world had also dissolved. Kondato had turned into a shipwrecked island.

Many chemists, like Sakiya’s father, spent every day trying to create a material that would not dissolve in the acid. However, these chemists had not been successful yet. Sakiya remembered how she had asked her grandma about these incidents. It was on a night that her parents had gone to the Offering, and Sakiya lay in her bed under a brown tattered blanket. The Aksoo were too busy using their resources and energy to raise food and collect water for their growing population, to waste time on making new materials. All the fabric in Kondato was at least a hundred years old. As her grandma told her bedtime stories about other worlds, she had interrupted her and said “Granny, how come the people from other lands don’t try to contact or rescue us?”

“They are mad at us because of the massacre that occurred during The Great Sink. They think we are monsters. They don’t want to help us.”

“But it wasn’t us who killed all those people. It was our ancestors!”

“That is true, but the world is slow to forget.”

“How do we even know the world exists? We haven’t had contact with them for centuries. Maybe they all died by now.”

Her grandma laughed. “You are such an inquisitive child. Perhaps your curiosity will be what saves our people.” Sakiya was old enough to know her grandma only said that to be nice. However, she still enjoyed hearing it.

Sakiya stared at her plate of fried lemons and rat chunks, but she was to0 excited to eat. If only her father would get home, so that they could go to the offering. Sakiya looked at her food, and she wished, as she had often before, that her plate had did not always have the same type of food on it. Two years ago, during a visit to the library, Sakiya had seen a photograph of a feast. The names of the foods in that feast had been forgotten by the Aksoo, but Sakiya had marveled at how juicy the food looked.

Once a week, when her mother had a day off from the Fields, she would take her to the library. Her mother worked on a green patch of land known as the Fields, that was in the middle of their city. The workers who toiled there, mostly woman, would raise rats, grow lemons, and collect water for the consumption of the Aksoo. They would also  raise dogs which were used during the Offering. Each family had a ration card, and each week they would get a seven day supply of rat meat, lemons, and drinking water. The drinking water was collected from the rains, and to make sure there was never a shortage, it was heavily rationed. Each family was only allowed to use the Shower Houses once a month. In the times of her grandma, when their had been less people living on Kondato, the Shower Houses were used once a week. However, since that time, a dry soap had been invented by the chemists, and there was no need to waste precious water in order to get clean. Although the dry soap kept the dirt off the skin, it gave the skin a gray tint, and it had strong rustic smell. Each family was only allowed to go to the Wash house, the place where clothes were washed, once a year. So even after Sakiya took her monthly shower, the rusty smell of the soap which was used to wash her clothes, still lingered in her nostrils.

Sakiya loved going to the library. She was not much of a reader, and most of the books had torn pages, but she loved looking at the photos inside the books. Her favorite photos were the ones where she could see the sky. The Aksoo was not the only tribe who had survived the civil war. The Raploo had also survived. The reason they were not killed during The Great Sink, was because their part of the island had broken off, and flown into the sky. They were somehow able to live upside down, and nobody knew if it was magic or the laws of physics that allowed them to lead such a life. The Aksoo children sometimes refereed to the Raploo as the people in the sky. Their upside down city blocked out the sun, and although light was able to enter the Kondato during the day, at night the island was pitch black. That is it would have been pitch black if not for the fires.

Without the ability to import gasoline, electricity had disappeared from Kondato. It was too dangerous to make fires for light, for the night winds could set the whole island aflame, and water was to precious to waste in an emergency. At night the looters would ravage the Fields, stealing the food and water supply of the city. The Raploo must have heard the anguished cries of the Aksoo, for they started to light fires every night. Without the dark cover of night, looting hardly ever happened, and the Aksoo no longer worried about starvation. Many wondered how the Raploo were able to start safe fires, but they figured it was the same magic or physics that allowed them to live upside down.

In order to make sure the Raploo would keep their fires going every night, every two weeks, as a symbol of gratitude, the Aksoo would offer dogs to the people in the sky. This night was known as the Offering. The Doji of each district, there were ten altogether, would get on a machine that would propel him in the air, and in the middle of the sky he would meet with the the Doji of the Raploo. The Aksoo Doji would have a freshly killed dog in his hands, and after much inspection, the Raploo Doji would take the dog. This ritual would continue all night, until 12 dogs were given.

“Why 12 ?” Sakiya had asked her father when he had first explained the Offering to her.

“I don’t know, it’s always been that way.”

“Why is the Doji so old,” she had also asked her father, for one had to be at least a hundred years old to be a Doji.

“The Doji is also in charge of each district. We need someone old and with experience to lead us.”

However, the neighborhood boys had told her a different story. They said that the reason the Doji were so old was because the Offerings were dangerous. A gust of wind might take control of the Doji, and throw his body against a spiky building, killing him. Deaths were rare during the Offering, but they did occur. “The Doji are so old, their deaths would not be a sacrifice,” they told her.

Her father finally walked through the door of their apartment, and Sakiya began to jump up and down again from excitement. Her mother told her that she still needed to finish her dinner, and Sakiya thought of the images she had seen of the sky to calm her down. The idea of seeing nothing but blue when she looked up made her calm, for when she stared at the sky, she only the black pointy roofs of the skyscrapers of the Raploo. With thoughts about a different world, she began to eat her rat chunks and lemons.

Finally, Sakiya was at the Offering. The women sang the song of Koo, a famous warrior from Aksoon, while the men beat on cinder blocks and whistled. The children danced to this music until the Doji entered the courtyard. She watched, barely breathing, as the Doji, with the dead dog in his hands, was propelled towards the people in the sky. The Doji of the Raploo, was too far away for her to be able to see his face, but she could make out his giant gray head, and his big outstretch hands. Then is was over! The Aksoo began to chant, and she was thrilled that she would be able to see this ritual 11 more times tonight. She looked up at the sky, and she wondered for the millionth time in her life, how it would feel to live upside down.

The Raploo

Fendix, a twelve year old Raploo boy, watched the sky with excitement. Although he had witnessed the Offering over a 100 times, he was still excited every time he saw the Aksoo Doji give their Doji a dead dog. However, nobody except the Doji called them the Aksoo anymore, everyone refereed to them as the people in the sky. Fendix rubbed his ashy hands together. During evenings, after school, he worked as a Fire Boy, and his job was too fan the local fire to keep it in its place; and if a few sparks got loose, he had to sound the alarm. The sparks could start a city wide fire, and that would be the death of them all. He understood his job was very important, and although he enjoyed the responsibility, he sometimes wished it did not stain his hands an orange gray color. When Fendix first started his job, he had asked the Fire Master, his father, why they had to light fires if they were so dangerous. His father had explained to him that because their island did not have any animals they could eat, their main source of food came from the people in the sky. “They are charitable enough to feed us,” his father told him. “ They are like gods, and we honor them by lighting fires in their name.”

Fendix watched as the Doji carefully lowered the dead dog to the ground. He wondered if his excitement sparked from the actual ritual, or because the dead dog meant that he would not have to worry about starvation. He looked up at the sky that was littered with upside down skyscarpaers, and he wondered for the millionth time in his life, how it would feel to live upside down.

 

 

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S8: Reverse Culture Shock (A Memoir)

I was five. It was a hot summer day, and the scorching yellow sun was forcing all the puddles outside to evaporate. I was happily out of the heat and inside a brightly lit air conditioned room. I was in summer camp, and I was busy discussing the importance of markers with my only friend. We did not become friends because of similar interests or complimentary personalities (although we did get along and always had plenty to talk about), but because we were the only Russians in an American summer camp. This was our first summer in America, and while the Americans chatted away in their strange language, the two of us were perfectly content not to interact with them.

It’s not that the American children weren’t friendly. In fact, the opposite was true. They would smile and wave at us, and we would always return the curtsey. If either of us had minimum contact with them, we would brag about that moment to each other. The bragging would always be embellished. When I retold a story, a simple hello might turn into a full length conversation; and according to my friend, a game of chase meant that she found a new best friend. I remember one time when my friend was sick, and I was stuck in the sea of American children by myself. The camp counselor wanted us to stand in a circle and hold hands, and I was afraid that nobody would offer me their hand. However, a girl with shoulder length blonde smiled at me and extended her palm. I happily took it, and from that moment on I considered the girl to be the nicest in the camp. In those days a smile was all I needed to decide if the person was worthy of my praise. When my friend returned to camp the next day, the girl with the blond hair was forgotten, and I returned back to my Russian bubble.

On this particular hot day, the camp counselors announced that we would spend the day outside playing in the water. I’m not sure how I was able to understand this plan. Perhaps the camp counselor made gestures, or maybe I had begun to recognize certain English words. Regardless of how I was able to understand the message, I was very excited about spending the afternoon splashing around in the water. All the girls were ushered into a separate room to change. Our parents must have been aware of the camp’s plans that day, because both my friend and I had swimsuits in our bags. This was the same swimsuit I had worn on the windy beaches of Ukraine the year before, but I was not worried about fitting in. My parents had assured me that this swim suit had come from America, and that all American girls wore similar swimsuits. Besides, my friend had the exact same swim suit. So we put them on, and in our excitement about spending the day playing in the water, we did not notice that the girls around us were wearing a different style of swimwear. We emerged from the room eagerly anticipating the moment we would be allowed outside.

When the two camp counselors saw us they were shocked. One of the counselor’s eyes began to grow large, and the other counselor’s bottom lip fell. They began to talk quickly and in incomprehensible words. Although we did not know what they were talking about, from the tone of their voices and the expressions on their faces, we knew there was something wrong with our swimming attire. We were wearing white bottoms with colorful pictures on them, but we did not have on any tops. As we began to look around the room, we noticed that all the other girls had their chests covered by either a one piece or a two piece swimsuit. The only kids who had bare chests in that room were boys. We were quickly ushered back into the changing room, and the counselors motioned for us to put our clothes back on.

The camp counselors talked amongst themselves, while our fate hung in their hands. At age five, being forced to sit inside while all the other kids are playing outside, is a cruel punishment. The camp counselors must have felt the same way, because they came up with a solution. While one of the counselors took the rest of the kids outside, the other one gave us gray shorts and a gray t-shirt to put on. We went outside in over-sized gray outfits, and we joined the other kids who had already begun to run through the sprinklers and play in the blue plastic pools. I had never done a water activity in clothes, and the wet cloth hung heavily on me. However, I did not care. I was excited to slide down a wet slide and make a big splash when I landed in the pool. Perhaps the other kids made fun of us because we were overdressed, but luckily our English was not good enough to understand. A few of the Americans jumped in the plastic pool where my friend and I were sitting, and we began a splashing war. By the time the day ended I no longer cared that I did not have on a swim suit, and I was happy that the wet gray cloth protected me from the sun’s rays.

When my parents came to pick me up that day, the camp counselors lectured them about my swim suit. It was obvious that was what they were talking about by the way they held my unused swim trunks in the air, and also by the way they were pointing at my chest. They offered to give me a an ugly pink swim suit, but my parents politely declined. A few days later I was the proud owner of a blue-green one piece swim suit that sparkled all over, and that met the approval of all American grownups. I wore my new bathing suit many times that summer, but I do not recall the first time I put it on. However, I do vividly remember how much fun I had splashing water in my friend’s face, how heavy the wet t-shirt felt on my shoulders, and the bewildered looks on the faces of two American women as they stared at the naked chests of two Russian girls.

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S7: The Murder

4/2/2002

He climbs down the ladder slowly, concentrating on his footing. Tonight would not be a good night to fall. She’s above him, and she places her feet with confidence on the brown rims. He stops, takes a breath, stares at her red shoes. Who wears red shoes to an event like this? “Do you think we made a difference,” he asks her.

“A difference?”

“Yeah, you know when you mix different chemicals together you can get different solutions.”

“I’m not a chemist.”

“Ok, well any scientist, when they put together an experiment, they can get different results.”

“I’m not a scientist either.”

“Fine, than imagine your basic, average, semi-rational human being. Every decision they make can cause a different reaction.”

“‘Your basic, average , semi-rational human being’; is that what you think of me?”

He doesn’t answer her, uses all his energy to keep his balance, as he slowly continues down the ladder. Although falling to one’s death is never a good idea, tonight it would be especially catastrophic. As he places his right foot firmly on the ground, he hears her say “of course it made a difference”.

They stand on the ground facing each other. He looks at her, really looks at her, in a way that he hasn’t in years. She has a page boy haircut, and although that is the style at the moment, it doesn’t suit her. He examines her face. Her skin is pale, her lips are naturally red, and her hazel eyes are too big for her head. She’s pretty, not astoundingly beautiful as he once thought her, but definitely pretty. She still resembles Snow White. He remembers when that was his nickname for her, but he hasn’t called her that in a long time, and tonight is not the night to start. He recalls sitting on a beach in Mexico, drinking two dollar margaritas, calling her snow white, and watching her mouth form into a familiar smile. “I can’t believe it’s finally over”, her voice interrupts his thoughts.

“It’s not over, this is just the beginning.”

“I think it’s over. The hypothesis was fairly conclusive.”

“I thought you weren’t a scientist?”

“I thought you weren’t a murderer?”

“People change.”

“People do change, but not you. You never change.”

“You’re right, I don’t change.”

He looks up at the sky, but the street lights conceal the stars, so his eyes divert to the roof of the building next to him. Although he can’t see her, he’s certain she’s gazing at the same building he is. “It’s finally over,” her voice rings out in the night, and he thinks of the murdered man ten stories above them.

 

Nine Years Ago

 

“Allison Margaret Pearl Patterson”

“That is quite a long name!”

“Well you only have to remember the first and the last name.”

“Or I could just call you amp.”

“You could do that.”

She wishes she knew how to flirt. This is a feeling she usually gets when she meets a new man. When she discussed this problem with a childhood friend, her friend exclaimed “you’re beautiful; you don’t need to be interesting. Those women who have to make clever comments and crack jokes, do it because they have to, they are compensating for their looks.” She had argued vehemently with her friend, but deep down she knew her friend spoke the truth, or at least partially. Guys always approached her; she can’t even remember the last time she bought her own drink. The problem was they never stuck around past three weeks, probably because she lacked substance. And although she usually appreciated the unearned attention, at this moment she is willing to trade her “perfect” C breasts and her “beautiful” face for the ability to talk about something more interesting than her obnoxiously long name.

“So what do you do,” he asks her.

“I’m a professional reader.”

“Well I’ve been reading unprofessionally my whole life; maybe you could give me some pointers.”

“Well I mean I’m more of a summary writer. I work for a college, I read textbooks and summarize them, and then the professors decide which books to use in their class. What do you do?”

“I’m a chemist; it’s not as exciting as it sounds.”

“So then why did you choose this as your profession?”

“Well I had very noble aspirations. I wanted to create a cure for cancer.”

“No luck?”

“Well I did find new ways to cause cancer, but my boss doesn’t think that’s something we could sell.”

“Well maybe if you wrote him a persuasive report.”

“Maybe if I had a professional reader glance at my report, she could give me some ideas.”

She likes him, and she hopes that he passes the three-week benchmark. They come to a corner. “Well this is my street,” he says pointing to the right. “So we’re having lunch tomorrow?”

“Definitely,” she replies. They turn their backs to each other and head in opposite directions.

 

Six Years Ago

He sits in his favorite sofa chair and reads his semi-favorite book, or at least pretends to read it. He is actually wondering at what moment he started spending his Friday nights reading books at home. “John,” Allison’s high-pitched voice pierces his ears. She’s standing in front of him, and he wishes he was a chameleon and could become the color of the sofa chair, but she would probably still see him. He has been with her for three years, during which he has made a long list of grievances against her. They include the fact that she is never motivated in her professional or personal life, the way she taps her nails against the table when she eats breakfast, the fact that she is always accusing him of something, her inability to articulate herself properly, and the fact that she can’t even cook rice . These are just his top five complaints; he could spend hours picking at her imperfections, but he can’t break up with her, because every time he tries he’s miserable without her. During his last break up, a break which lasted a month, he realized he couldn’t live without her, and after numerous apologies on his part they moved in together. His realized he loved her during a murky tequila moment with his work buddy:

“I’ve always tried comparing my love for Alison to chocolate,” he told his friend. “Something that is tasty and delicious and you can’t live without. However, Alison isn’t like chocolate at all, she is like toothpaste.”

“Umm I think you had enough to drink,” his friend tells him, as he eyes the half filled shot in John’s hand.

“I know I sound crazy, but its true,” John says stubbornly. “And I’m not that drunk, okay I am drunk, but this thought is real. Toothpaste isn’t something special or something anybody ever thinks about.”

“Dentists think about toothpaste.”

“I’m not a dentist though. Anyway although I never think about toothpaste, it is something I need. If I don’t brush my teeth in the morning, my entire day is messed up. I feel dirty and unpleasant, and I can’t shake that feeling until I brush my teeth. However once I brush my teeth, I don’t think about toothpaste at all. That is what Allison means to me.”

The next morning, with a clear mind, John analyzed his ramblings from the night before. If he had been sober he would have said his thoughts using a much shorter phrase “I’m more unhappy with out her than I am with her.” He knows she ‘s about to ask him to go out, and even though he’s tired and just wants to stay in his brown chair reading the entertaining words of his book, he knows that if he wants her to remain in his life, he has to make sure that she is happy. So he agrees to go dancing while staring with longing at his sofa chair, because he has sat in that chair while he was single, and he had been too miserable to read any book.

 

Four Years Ago

Pierre gets out of bed and starts putting on his light pink button down shirt. Allison watches him get dressed wishing he didn’t have to go. She met him during John and her’s bi-monthly break up. It was a one night stand, a guilt free one night stand for she was officially a single woman at the time, and the next day she and John got back together. But she could not let go of Pierre.

He is so different from John. Every time she gets annoyed with the way John is always so serious, and the way he never laughs at anything; she picks up the phone and calls Pierre. He even dresses differently than John. She tries to imagine John wearing a pink shirt with a leather zebra print jacket, and she can’t help but laugh. “What’s so funny,” Pierre asks her. “Nothing,” she replies, smiling. “Don’t forget your socks.”

Later that day, John and her go to the movies. She has trouble concentrating, even though she had picked the movie, because she feels guilty. She wants to make her relationship with John work. They have been together for five years (if you don’t count the break ups), and when they aren’t fighting they get along very well. Pierre will only cause more problems for them. Allison decides never to call Pierre again.

They get back into the darkened apartment and John heads towards the bathroom. She gasps because on the couch she notices a a leather zebra print jacket. She thanks god that John is the bathroom, and she heads towards the couch to hide the evidence of her adultery. She stops. She thinks about how they can’t go a day without fighting, how John always complains about everything she does, and how at least once a week she wishes she was single. They love each other, and after each break up John always tells her how miserable he had been, but maybe there is a reason they always break up. If she was truly happy she wouldn’t crave Pierre’s attention. She can’t fight against John’s desire to be with her, but perhaps Pierre will kill that desire. She continues to stand staring at the jacket, and she waits for John to come out of the bathroom, and for the inevitable questions to follow.

One Year Ago

“We hired a new copywriter today, and she is hot,” his coworker tells him.

“You’re so professional,” John replies.

“I’m sorry Mr. politically correct. We hired a new copywriter whose great at her job, and has a terrific personality. Also if there are birds in the area they can rest on her perfectly shaped breasts. Better?”

“A bit,” John replies. His curiosity is piqued. He hasn’t had a serious relationship since Allison, and he is beginning to think it’s time to remedy the situation. He remembers the fiasco with Pierre, and how they tried to make it work afterward. They ended things and he moved away, but he always regretted his decision. Every woman he met did not compare to her, and he often had a strong desire to pick up the phone and give her a call. He never did though. He had pride.

His coworker interrupts his thoughts by saying, “There she is, let me introduce you.”

He points to a woman sitting at a table, and as the woman looks up, he sees Allison’s face.

“John,” she says visibly surprised.

“I see your stalking me,” he jovially replies.

“I had no idea you worked here.” She waves her left hand at him, and he notices a sparkle of color. “Don’t worry John, I won’t bother you around the office, I’m engaged.”

“You two know each other,” his coworker says.

“Oh yeah, we once were on a long and rocky roller coaster,” Allison says with a laugh.

“You want to have lunch today and reminisce about the roller coaster,” he asks her.

“Of course,” she says with a smile.

Three Months Ago

She’s late for dinner. Normally she would not care; she doesn’t need the extra calories. Today, however, she is having dinner with her fiance’s parents, and he will be angry with her being late. She realizes she left her laptop in the conference room, and she curses herself as she runs up the stairs to retrieve it. She doesn’t bother to turn on the lights in the upstairs hallway as she runs towards the conference room. She hears voices in the hallway and she stops. She about announce her presence, but something in the tone of the voices stops her. She listens, and her blood curdles at what she hears.

“You probably imagined it,” John tells her the next day during lunch. “You always had an overactive imagination.”

“I did not.”

“You really think they are planning on testing this drug on poor unsuspecting children.”

“You work with him, you can find out what it’s really about.”

“Does the president tell every police man his plans?”

“What are you talking about?” she ask annoyed. Ever since she found out she was working at the same company as John, they had lunch together every single day. Within a short span of time he became her best friend, her confidante, but it was moments like these she was glad that she never left her fiance for him. Not that John ever asked her to.

“I mean I’m at the bottom of the food chain here. I’m just a chemist. I decide how much opiate to add to a pill, not who to test the medication on. These messages go through ten people before I hear about them.”

“We have to do something,” she insists.

“Okay, I’ll try to find out some information. Just don’t anything rash.”

“I won’t,” she replies, and because she is feeling rather snide, she adds “I’ll just pretend I’m you.”

One Month Ago

Even though he knows he shouldn’t be, he is excited. Since he has rekindled his friendship with Allison, he has never met her after dark. He knows this dinner date is not romantic, but he can’t help but remember all the dinner dates they used to have many years before, and he can’t help but feel excited.

She meets him at the booth, and she is wearing a gray dress and sparkly blue earrings. “So you are certain,” she asks him. She is all business tonight. He nods. “This is horrible,” she says. “So horrible. It is so much worse than I imagined.”

“Don’t worry,” he says, even though he is also worried. “There is plenty we can do. We can make phone calls, write to organizations. We can stop this.”

“How?” she replies. “We have no proof.”

“You can get that rich fiance of yours involved.”

“Chris doesn’t care,” she sighs. “I told him, and he believes me, but he doesn’t think its matters. His morals aren’t the reason I’m with him,” she says, and then she shrugs her shoulders. “I was so unhappy with you. I wanted something different. I was young. I understand so much more now, and if I could do it all different, well…” She stops herself. He wants her to continue, but then he remembers that they are on a mission, a mission that’s more important than their failed romance.

“What will we do if we can’t stop him,” she asks.

“We’ll kill him,” he says. He meant it as a joke, but she doesn’t smile at him.

“Thank you,” she says, “for also caring about this.”

One day before

“Are you ready for tomorrow,” he asks.

“Are you,” she says.

She sits on the couch, the phone to her ear, listening to him breathe.

“We’ll be blood brothers after this,” he says with a chuckle. “I used think you would become my wife, but now you have become my conspiracy partner.”

“Can’t I be both,” she says.

“What about Chris?”

“What about him. He doesn’t understand this. He wouldn’t murder somebody for the good of mankind.”

“Well I haven’t murdered anybody yet. We can still change our minds.”

“We won’t though.” She sighs, a loud sigh she hopes he hears. She asks him the question she had wanted to ask him every day at lunch for a year.

“Why didn’t you ever try to be with me again. You used to say I was the only thing that made you happy.”

“You still are,” he replies. “I wanted to give you your space. You seemed so content. You never gave me any sign that you would want to be with me again.”

“I plan on murdering a man with you. I can’t think of a bigger sign.”

She thinks she can hear him smile on the other end of the line.

Three Hours After

“I don’t feel guilty,” he says. “I took a life, and I should be racked with guilt but I’m not.”

“That’s because you did a good deed.”

“Do you think God will agree?”

“He will. In the bible God killed people for the good of mankind, and that is that you did here.”

He looks at her. Her shoes are ridiculously red, and her reasoning is laughable. He thinks about what will occur in the next few days. He imagines the news reports, the lawyers, the police investigations. They had decided to wait a month to be together. They will still meet for lunch to avoid suspicion, but that is the only time they will talk. Things need to settle down, and she needs time to end things with her fiance. There is no rush.

“I was wrong,” she says all of a sudden. “You did change. Not once did you complain that my outfit was inappropriate for murder.”

He laughs his first laugh that night, and he replies, “It’s going to be tough to wait a month, Snow White.”

With a smile she replies, “I missed you saying that.”

The Next Day

Nobody has heard about the murder yet, and she is apprehensive. She knows there is still a lot that can go wrong, and although she acted calm the night before, she is worried about what might happen in the future. She does not want to go to jail. She inhales and exhales, and she waits for John to join her for lunch. At least she still has him. She can’t believe she had thrown him away four years, and she plans on never making that mistake again.

“Hey,” she says to him, as soon as he enters the restaurant, and she gives him a big warm smile.

“I have bad news,” he says, “I know I said I wanted to be with you, but I have changed my mind. I don’t regret what we did; we changed the world in a positive way. However, when you commit a crime with someone, at least something that would be considered a crime by most, you feel a closeness to that person. Let’s not confuse that closeness with love.”

“You’re breaking up with me,” she asks incredulously. “But you always said you…,” she stops unable to finish the sentence. “I don’t understand what brought this on, you seemed so certain you wanted to be with me last night, you called me Snow White.” She knows it’s a weak argument, but she doesn’t care. He seems so cold, and she can’t comprehend what changed. This is like those times when he would try to explain chemistry to her, and everything he said went over her head.

“It’s not healthy for us to be together. We were miserable. Being together would be a mistake. You should stay with your fiance if he makes you happy. I’m to old to start an emotional roller coaster with you again, and you would also be miserable with me. This is the best decision, trust me,” he says, and then he adds, “I put in for a transfer. Starting next month, I will be working in another state.” He kisses her on the forehead, and walks out of the restaurant. She stares at his back, wondering what had changed in less than 24 hours.

Ten Years Later

One day when he is on vacation with his family, he sees her on the other side of the parking lot. Although she has changed the color of her hair, and wrinkles had began to settle around her eyes, he recognizes her immediately. As his wife is helping their five-year old son buckle his seat belt, he calls Allison’s name.

As she hurries across the parking lot with a smile on her face, he remembers the conversation he had with her fiance six hours after they had committed murder. “I know what you did,” Chris told John while standing inside John’s apartment. “I recorded the phone conversation you had with Allison. I can tell the police about the two of you”

“You would do that to the woman you love,” he had replied.

“Could you do that to the woman you love,” Chris answered. “I’m here to make a deal with you. Let Allison go. Break up with her. If you do that not only will you have your freedom, but Allison will also not go to jail. It’s not like you really have a choice. Both of you will probably got to jail for a long time, and even if it’s only for a few years, are you willing to subject Allison to jail?”

“Why do you want to be with someone who would rather be with another man. Not to mention, she might break up with you anyway.”

“Let me worry about that. I want you to break up with Allison, and to never mention this conversation with her. If you do that, I will pretend that I know nothing about this murder. Do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” John had replied.

“John, is that you,” Allison replied when she finally made it across the parking lot. They stand there making small talk. The ten years apart had made them strangers. He introduces her to his son and wife, and she tells him that she had married Chris, but that they never had kids. They talk for about ten minutes, and she gives him an awkward goodbye handshake after he tells her that they have to get going.

“So that was your ex-girlfriend,” his wife says after Allison starts walking away. “Were you two close?”

“Very close,” he replies as he gets into their car. “Ten years ago we killed a man together.”

His wife laughs. “You are such a comic,” she says, and she also gets inside the car.

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S6: The Red River

“I will not think about it. I will not think about it. I will close my eyes to the horror that I saw. I will definitively not think about it,” thinks a man sitting on a drab green hill, staring at the weed filled fields in front of him. He is dressed in brown raggedly clothes, and his dull brown eyes are staring at the ground. “I will not think about,” he thinks stubbornly, however the horror of the years before comes rushing back. The bloody men falling like dominoes in the field, the sea of limbs and blood flowing through the jungle, and the screams. Screams. He tries not to think about them. In the movies he had seen, the screams had a romantic aura. The yell for his true love from the romantic, the yell for the brother from the family man, and the yell for the mother from the Freudian. However, real death was not like this. The screams were wordless knives piercing at the last strands of life. They do not show screams like that in movies. All of a sudden he hears Sergeant Gordy’s deep accent.

Sergeant Gordy was a boy scout from Atlanta, with a southern yap and a collection of farm stories. He was a man of pictures; pictures of his wife and son, of his beautiful farmlands, of his granny sitting on a rocker, and of pumpkin and blueberry pies. He was a good sergeant, but he was not cut out for war. After a day of battles, the men would sit around the fire telling stories from home. Gordy would an encyclopedia of anecdotes, trying to get the men to forget the events of the day. His entire face was a mask of laughter, all but his eyes, which if one cared to look at, reflected the horror of the sights before him. His warm southern heart had difficulty handling the screams of death.

Gordy had taken a liking to him, the man on the hill remembers fondly. As all boisterous southerners, he had an obsession of getting some noise from quiet northerners. At the beginning the man had shied away from Gordy, for cow antics and diaper tales were a foreign language to a Brooklyn only child. As Gordy told his tales, the man would sit by the fire feeling homesick and bored, and he would stare at the sparks that fell to the ground. However, one evening, a conversation ignited his interest. “Ah’m tellin yah tha rihva wuz bluhd reyd. Reyd az tha bluhd that flows in ya’ll,” Gordy said. The other men began to argue. “There can’t be blood rivers in Atlanta,” the other men said. “Stuff like that would be shown on TV.” The man, who had never before entered a conversation, decided to put his two community college cents in. He went on a lengthy explanation about how optical illusions can make clear water seem red. “Alright, Alright, yous convinced me,” Gordy exclaimed. However, this minor argument had broken the wall between him and the other soldiers. He began joining the campfire chatter every night, and he started viewing Gordy not only as a sergeant, but also as a friend.

The man gets up from the hill and dusts the brown dirt from his brown pants. Something had gone horribly wrong in one of the battles. There were men lying half dead in the fields. The grass was red with blood. Gordy had ordered an escape to the few men who were still breathing. As they were retreating, bullets smacked into the back of Gordy, who was running behind his men. The man had run back for Gordy, grabbed him, carried him to safety. However, all his effort was done in vain, because Gordy lay on the ground dying.

In times of peace, when loved ones are dying, people bargain with god. However, during war god is no longer around to bargain with, and one bargains with the dying person. “ You cannot die Gordy,” the man remembers pleading. “Think of your wife who still needs loving, think of your son who needs to learn how to throw a football, and think of the beautiful red river behind your farmlands.” Gordy looked at him, but he was too weak to speak. The rest of the soldiers had gathered around the dying sergeant, some comforted Gordy, while others also bargained with him. Gordy stared straight at the man, and with his last breath, he whispered “ Ahs nevah saw a reyd rihva.” Gordy died five minutes later.

The man drives his car down an old dusty road. “It’s time to go to work,” he thinks. He drives to an old brown building that’s in the middle of the city. It is still early, and the building has not opened for business. He looks at the building, the business he owns. On top of the building, in bright red letters not yet lit, it says “The Red River Bar”. The man smiles. “If Gordy could give me a red river without ever seeing one, then I can do the same for other men.” He unlocks the front door of the building and walks into the bar.

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S5: The Modern Day Geppetto

Every Monday and Thursday morning at 10 am, John would lock the front door of his apartment, and walk half a mile to the nearest food mart. The cashier at the food mart told anybody who would listen that John always bought the same groceries. He would buy two small chickens, a box of crackers, a block of cheddar cheese, a bottle of milk, a bag of lettuce, a small loaf of bread, and a box of cereal. The only variation in his purchase was the type of cereal that he bought. Normally the inhabitants of John’s neighborhood would not take such an active interest in a middle-aged man, but John was a street oddity, just like the pot hole that never got fixed and the poison ivy that grew next to the yellow fire hydrogen.

Every day from noon to 5 pm, John would open the curtain of his front window, and he would put a puppet on display. During this time, John would sit out on his porch, and he would be busy whittling a new puppet. These life-size puppets, which included both humans and animals, had simple bodies. However, the faces of these puppets were so intricate, that many of his neighbors wished they had the courage to ask him for their very own face sculpture. Although all of John’s neighbors agreed that his puppet-making was abnormal; they all had different theories about what drove him to this particular hobby.

Ms. Peters, after going through a horrendous divorce the year before, felt that he probably decided to start making puppets after his wife left him; Donald, who came to the street once every two weeks to either pick up or drop off his son(joint custody), thought that John was probably a millionaire philanthropist, who had given away all of his money to very important causes, and simply enjoyed spending his days carving puppets; sixteen year old Amber, who spent a lot of time volunteering with special needs kids, felt that John was mentally disabled; and twelve-year-old max told all the neighborhood kids what his brother told him: That John probably had sex with those puppets.

One day ten-year old Suzie McPheet was riding her bike past John’s apartment. Suzie, who was an only child, had a plethora of imaginary friends. Although by the time she was ten she knew they were not real, every time she did a solitary activity they would come and visit her. On this particular day, one of them told her to lift both arms high in the air so she would feel as if she was a bird soaring in the wind. Suzie, who was an expert bike rider, complied with this request, and she also closed her eyes so that she could imagine that she was a white dove. Suzie was so immersed in her daydream, that she completely forgot about the infamous pot hole, and went flying off her bike as soon as her front wheel hit the crack in the ground.

Suzie was not hurt, but the sight of blood all over her legs and arms caused her to start bawling. John, who had witnessed the accident from his porch, frantically looked around the street for other people, and after realizing that there was nobody to help the little girl, reluctantly walked up to her. “Come inside with me,” he said. “I have some band aids that will help you.” Suzie was too occupied by her tears to argue, so she followed him into the apartment.

John washed her cuts and applied band aids to all the right place. The shock from the accident had worn off, but Suzie was now filled with a different shock. She was inside the creepy puppet man’s apartment! Only the apartment did not seem so creepy. There was an obscene amount of puppets in this living room, but all the puppets looked friendly, and the puppet man reminded her of her uncle Bill, the way he kept fretting over her. “Would you like a snack?” John asked, and Suzie nodded yes. As John went to the pantry to prepare a plate of crackers and cheese, a cat puppet caught Suzie’s attention. She walked closer to it so that she could admire it, and the face of the cat looked so realistic, she began to pet it. “That’s Whiskers, my first cat,” John’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “He ran away fifteen years ago. He was a tough cat, so I’m sure he survived the streets.” “He probably died from old age now,” Suzie added, and John chuckled at her remark. “Let’s eat,” he said. They ate the crackers and cheese in silence and, and after she finished eating, Suzie thanked John for the band aids, and walked out the front door.

The next day during math class Suzie told her best friend Shelly about her adventures. “I bet he uses those puppets as voodoo dolls,” Shelly whispered to Suzie. “Those puppets are probably puppets of his enemies, and he punches them and pours boiling hot water over them, anytime he feels a need for vengeance.” “I don’t think so,” Suzie whispered back, “he didn’t seem vengeful at all.” “Well there is only one way to find out,” Shelly continued. “You have to go back there again.” So Suzie, who had no intention of ever returning to John’s apartment, went on his porch that very day, and said, “Do you think you could fix me that delicious snack you made for me yesterday? I’ve been thinking about it all day during school,” and John, too surprised by the request to say no, agreed.

They sat in the kitchen, eating crackers and cheese, and chatting quietly. As soon as John finished asking Suzie the usual questions which grownups asked her ( What’s your favorite subject in school, what do you want to be when you grow up), Suzie asked him the question that had been on her mind all day.

“Why do you make all these puppets,” she said, staring him straight in the eyes. “These puppets represent my memories,” John answered staring back at her. “Each puppet is a memory of a person or animal that I knew at one time. While I carve the puppet, I am able to relive that memory; and when the puppet is done, my eyes can view a snapshot out of my life.”

“So each puppet is like a photograph,” Suzie asked.

“Exactly,” John replied. “These puppets were made for the moments in my life that I did not have a camera nearby.” He points at three boy puppets that are hanging next to the couch. One of them has a malicious smile on his face, another looks surprised, and the third puppet looks serene. “I grew up in an orphanage, and most kids came and went. However, there were three boys who nobody wanted to adopt, and we became fast friends.”

“There was Lenny, who was too quiet for most parents to want. He enjoyed reading, and even when his face was not in a book, he would look at people with this blank stare. Speech had a difficult time escaping his mouth, and on those seldom moments when he did say something, it was always profound. I remember one time he told us how he saw a nurse kiss one of the visitors, and although he said it quietly, without adding any commentary, it was enough to start many scandalous discussions among the boys.”

“The second boy I was friends with was my namesake. John not only had my name , he also had my personality. We used to be called the J twins, and the only thing we did not have in common, was looks. John was ugly, and many suspected that it was his looks that kept him from getting adopted. He had dry flaky skin, a cleft lip, a lazy eye, and a giant smudged nose. However, his looks did not prevent him from running around and joking with the rest of the boys.

“The last boy of our group, who was also two years older, was jimmy. Jimmy was too violent to be adopted, and he got into at least two fights a day. He only tried to fight Lenny, John, and I once a week, and because of the infrequency of our fights, the other boys considered us to be his friends. He was loud and exciting, and it was always Jimmy who came up with adventures for us to go on(adventures that often ended with us being locked in the punishment closet).”

“Why weren’t you adopted,” Suzie interrupted. “I don’t know,” replied John. “I once asked the headmaster the same question, and he told me some kids are just unlucky.”

“Anyway, one day when Jimmy was twelve and the rest of us were ten, he told us that one of the ladies who was visiting the orphanage that day, was a witch. She had dark hair and smokey eyes, and she had come to the orphanage with her husband to find a kid to adopt.”

“’Aren’t you too old to believe in witches,’ John asked, and before Jimmy had a chance to punch him in the face, Lenny said ‘witches do exist, but they don’t speak in a human language.’”

“The head master and the couple was taking a walk in the woods behind the orphanage, and the four of us decided to trail behind them. It was windless day, and we were too far from the adults to hear what they were saying. The couple stopped walking as soon as they saw a creek, and we used this opportunity to get closer. ‘The boys go swimming in this creek,’ the headmaster said, and the lady turned to her husband, touched his thin arm, and said something that sounded like gibberish. ‘I knew it, she is a witch,’ said Jimmy, who was hiding behind the tree, and he ran from his hiding place, and pushed the woman into the creek.”

“The woman only got wet, but the four of us got into a lot of trouble. We weren’t allowed to go outside for a month, and Jimmy had to spend three hours in the closet every day for a week. A year later Lenny got adopted, and 2 years later John died of pneumonia. Shortly after that Jimmy ran away, and I heard years later that he went to jail for robbing a house. However, that day we were still friends; and I will never forget the loud laugh Jimmy had while he watched the head master and the man help the woman out of the creek, the look of shock on John’s face as he absent-mindedly crawled out of the bushes he was hiding in, and blank stare of Lenny who stood next to me.”

Suzie looked at the three puppets again, and she no longer saw wooden toys, but instead she saw three energetic boys playing in the woods. Next to the those three puppets hung a lady puppet with a dreamy look on her face, and Suzie wondered about the story behind that wooden doll. She was about to ask, but she noticed that it was getting dark outside, and she had no desire to end the day with a punishment for not being home before sunset. “It was nice talking to you ,” Suzie said, as she hurried out of the house.

The next day at 4pm, Suzie showed up on John’s porch. Before John even had the chance to ask her if she wanted a piece of cheese, Suzie inquired about the female puppet. “That puppet represents my wife,” John said. “But this puppet represents a time before she became my wife, before I even knew her name.”

“After I left the orphanage, I went to the university. After class, I would go to the school library to study, and every time that I went, I would see the same woman sitting at a table and studying. The woman always wore long skirts with peasant tops, and she would keep her eyes on the her books, while she tapped her pencil against the wooden desk. She had long brown hair, and she always wore a clip to keep it from falling over her eyes. Her hair ornament always had a depiction of flowers on it . Sometimes it was rose, sometimes it was a lily, once it was a blue daisy, and when I would peek at her face from behind my books, her hair always reminded me of a wild and beautiful garden. One time she saw me looking at her, and she looked back with a friendly glance, and she smiled. I smiled back, but I was too shy to do anything else. I had grown up in a boy only orphanage, and the only women I knew how to associate with were nurses or teachers. So I watched her silently for weeks, the way one would look at flowers growing in the wild.”

“One day, after three weeks of silent stares, I noticed she had on a plain clip without a flower.’Where is your flower,’ I asked, forgetting to be shy. She looked at me with an amused expression and said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know anyone noticed my flower clips. I was actually wearing a tulip one today, but it fell out of my hair, and I accidentally crushed it with my foot. I borrowed this one from a friend. It’s hideous, isn’t it?”’

“’Not at all,’ I replied, and she giggled at my response. ‘I see you in this library all the time,’ she said. ‘Sit down next to me, so that I can get to know you better,’ and she tapped the wooden chair next to her with her pencil. I only needed one invitation. We became friends first, then we dated, and later we got married, but I made this puppet to represent a time when she was just a beautiful stranger who stared at her textbooks.”

“Did you have any kids,” Suzie asked.

“Yes,” John answered, and then he changed the subject.

The next day John was ready for Suzie to come over. He had a plate of crackers and cheese ready for her, and he sat on the porch waiting for her arrival. But she never came. The weekend rolled around, and there was still no sign of her. By the time it was Tuesday, John was ready to accept the fact that he would only see Suzie during her occasional bike rides, when all of a sudden he saw her skipping down the street towards his house.

He invited her in, and as she sat on his couch munching crackers and cheese, he told her the story of one of his dog puppets. Suzie had eaten a big bag of cotton candy earlier that day, and her eyes wandered around John’s apartment with sugary fueled restlessness. She noticed a dark curtain in the corner of John’s living room, and she was surprised that she had not noticed it before. “Whats behind that curtain,” she asked him when he finished talking. John’s face got serious. “I’ll tell you about that some other time. You are coming back right?”

“Well I can’t come tomorrow because I have karate practice,” Suzie replied. “But I’ll be back Thursday.”

“And I’ll have crackers and cheese ready for you,” John replied.

For the next four months, every Tuesday and Thursday (on Monday and Wednesdays she had karate, and on Fridays she visited her grandma), Suzie would spend an hour in John’s apartment. There one week where she had the flu, and only came on Tuesday, but every other week John knew he would be sharing his memories for two hours with a bubbly little girl.

Suzie’s parents thought she was doing a good deed by talking to John, and they encouraged it. “Poor man, he must get so lonely,” Her mother said. “It’s good that you provide him with someone to talk too.” Suzie’s dad nodded in agreement. Her friend Shelly had discovered beanie babies, and she no longer had any interest in a middle-aged puppeteer (even if he really did make voodoo dolls). The residents of the street had tried to milk Suzie for information, but Suzie enjoyed the idea of keeping her meetings with John a secret, and after a short time, they stopped badgering her with questions.

Suzie learned many details about John’s life. She learned about his adventures in the orphanage, about his quirky former co-workers, about his stern boss, about the sadness he felt when the headmaster of the orphanage died, and about the yellow flowers that John’s wife used to plant. She learned everything about his life except what lay behind the dark curtain. Suzie was usually too enthralled in his stories to remember to ask about the curtain, and when she did remember, John skillfully avoided the question.

One day Suzie asked him why he took the puppets out on the porch. “I feel my memories need sunlight to flourish, the same way a tree needs sunlight to grow,” John replied.

Another time, after her school had gotten a visit from a local author, Suzie asked John why he did not share his memories with other people. “Keeping my memories a secret makes them sacred,” John replied. “Nobody knows about the teacher who influenced me to go to college, or how I felt when I bought a parrot. These memories are special because they are private, and they only belong to me. If everyone knew about them, it would not be any different from a TV show. Nobody thinks TV shows are sacred because everybody has access to them. But I suppose you are too young to understand this.”

“I am not too young,” Suzie replied indignantly, who felt her lack of understanding had nothing to do with her age. “If you feel this way, why do you share these stories with me?”

John smiled and said, “I share them with you because sometimes a person needs to vocalize his thoughts, to make sure they are real.”

After four months of these visits, Suzie got some unpleasant news from her parents, that forced her to run to John’s house on a Wednesday. “My dad found another job, and we are moving to another town this weekend,” Suzie said with tears in her eyes. “It will be okay,” John comforted her. “You’ll make new friends and have new adventures. Come back tomorrow and we will have a proper goodbye. I’ll get you a surprise.” The next day, the cashier at the local food mart, told all of his customers that John had showed up in the store on a Wednesday night, and that he bought a big chocolate cake.

John and Suzie sat at a table while they munched on chocolate cake. “Will you make a puppet of me,” she asked, and John nodded his head. “You know,” She continued, “ You never did tell me what’s behind that curtain.”

“I suppose this is the my last chance to tell you ,” John sighed. He walked to the curtain and lifted it up. Behind it were three puppets. One was of the woman Suzie knew had been John’s wife, but she looked older, and she had worried look on her face. Next to the woman were two boy puppets, of different ages, who had downcast eyes and expressionless faces.

“After I got married I had two kids,” John said. “I was so grateful to have a family. I was never able to bond with people before I became an adult. Most of the people in my life came and went, and the ones who stayed either stayed because they were paid too, or they were boys who had the same luckless fate as I. Every morning I would wake up and be amazed that I had three people who wanted to share my joys and sorrows with me. I swore that I would never take them for granted. One day we were returning home from the movies, and my wife had forgotten her purse. I was tired that day, and I was annoyed that her careless action prevented me from getting home sooner. I couldn’t see the kids faces, but their squeaky voices were giving me a headache. At that moment, I wished that my entire family could disappear somewhere, and that I could lie alone in my comfy bed. All of a sudden a truck appeared out of nowhere, hit our car, and caused our car to flip over.”

“The police said it was a miracle that I survived the crash. The doctors said that it was a medical phenomenon that I did not have any broken bones. My wife and kids were not as lucky. All three died that night. I got a huge settlement from the truck driver who killed my happiness, and I was able to stop working. I retired from life, rented this apartment, and dedicated the rest of my time to reliving my memories. I did not want to go back to life and try to pursue happiness again. I had achieved happiness, and I had taken it for granted, and I did not feel I deserved a second chance. That was seven years ago.”

This was the first time that Suzie experienced what sympathy felt like. “I think you punished yourself enough,” she said. “Perhaps,” John replied. “Perhaps not.” They continued to eat their cake in a comfortable silence.

When it was time for Suzie to leave, she gave John a hug, and told him that she would miss him. She walked out of his apartment without looking back, and she knew that out of all the people she would never see again, she would miss John the most. He watched her walk out of his life, and he wondered how he was going to start spending his Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

12 Years Later

It is a slow day at work, and I decide to give into my grumbling stomach, and buy something to eat. As I walk to the corner store, a coworker yells “Hi John”, and I wave back. I have been back in the work force for ten years, and the best part is that nobody at work knows about my puppets. I still carve them from time to time, but it has become a part-time hobby instead of a full-time occupation. I walk into a store and head for the fruit aisle, and I accidentally bump into a bookshelf. A book falls to the ground, and I bend over to pick it up. I had seen this book in many stores before, but I have never been a fan of popular fiction, so I always walked right past it. As I pick up the book I notice there is a photo of the author on the back. The face looks familiar, and I bring the book closer to my eyes. Although she is now a young woman, and has a different last name, I recognize Suzie’s face immediately.

So little Suzie became an author, I think, and I can’t help but feel proud. I turn the book over and see the title, The Modern Day Geppetto, written in big red letters on the cover. I open the book and start reading. After I finish the first chapter, the book falls from my hands, and I run out of the store. Maybe I’m not running, maybe I’m walking or jumping or skipping, because I am not aware of myself or the people or the cars that are around me. I can barely handle the horror of what I just read, and I stop next to a bench to catch my breath. It is difficult for me to breathe, and the first sentence of Suzie’s novel is resonating in my head: “Every Monday and Thursday morning at 10 am, John would lock the front door of his apartment, and walk half a mile to the nearest food mart.

 

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S4: Pandora’s Box of the 20th Century

A thirteen-year old girl walks down the lonely city streets. She has straight brown hair that hangs around her face, shielding her face from the world. She is wearing old Wal-Mart clothes which are beginning to show their age. She has crystal clear blue eyes, but the other people in the streets do not notice them, because her eyes are downcast, staring at the pavement, that is quickly passing below her worn-out sneakers. Her mind is troubled. She has no desire to go back to her crummy apartment, which she shares with her mother. She thinks of her dad, who she has not heard from in eight years, and she enjoys imagining that he is living the white-collar life, and will come and rescue her some day. She knows this is not true, but she rather enjoys rehearsing the fantasy in her mind. She thinks of her brother who is rotting in jail. People expect her to follow the same path, after all it is only expected, for a girl from her neighborhood, with her family history, to end up either in prison, pregnant, or a crack head. She thinks of just ending it all. This has become a common thought, especially after Kelly’s death.

She passes an antique shop and on a whim goes in. She trudges thought the door, her eyes still hidden from the world. She looks around at all the beautiful objects on the shelves. There are silver hand mirrors, intricate brushes, and chromatic jewelry boxes, all of which she could never afford to buy. Her mind wonders from her problems for a moment, and she thinks of all the people who could have owned these possessions. She imagines their lives filled with happiness and glamour, and other wonderful traits that are void in her life. In the corner of the store she sees a gorgeous box, with glassy pink flowers on the outside. She opens it to find shiny red velvet covering the inside. There is a gold figurine built into the inner lid of the box. She looks at the price. $240! That is out of her price range by just a smidge. And suddenly she grabs the box and rushes out of the store.

Perhaps an alarm went off as she did that, perhaps she is chased, but she is oblivious to the matter. By the time her rundown sneakers stop running, she is blocks from the store. She finds a stoop to sit on. She examines her stolen treasure. This was her first robbery, but definitely not the last. She likes the rush. She examines her jewelry box. It is quite intricate. There is something mystical about it. She opens it to get a closer look at the inside, and decides that the red velvet would look good against her cheap jewelry. She glances at the figurine, and all of the sudden the figurine moves.

Startled by the movement, she almost drops the jewelry box. “Do not be alarmed,” the figurine says. “I am an enchanted jewelry box .” The girl stares at the figurine, with disbelief in her eyes. “What is your tale of woe” the figurine inquires? “Woe?” The girl seems more confused about this word than the talking figurine. “Your story of sadness,” the figurine explains. “How do you know I have a story of woe,” the girl asks suspiciously? “Because all the people who come into contact with me have a story of woe, that is the type of people I attract.” The girl glances at the box, and with the earnestness only a thirteen year old can produce, says “well I bet you have never heard a story as tragic as mine.” “Try me,”  answers the figurine. So the girl begins her story.

She tells the figurine how when she was five her parents got into huge a fight. Her dad had come home drunk as usual, slinging curse words at the furniture that got in his way. He had thrown her brother in the corner, and the girl had hidden under the magazine table. She had felt the wrath of her father, and was not looking forward to feeling it that night. In his drunkenness he attacked her mother, breaking her arm. The evening after that became fuzzy, and she remembers closing her ears to mute out the screaming. She falls asleep under the table. She wakes up the next morning to see the aftermath of the fight. Her mother has a broken arm, her brother has four stitches on his head, there are two broken lamps, a broken chair, but the greatest effect of all is that her dad is gone. She never saw him again after that night.

She tells the figurine how at age ten she accompanied her mother to the courthouse. Her brother was on trial for attempted murder. There had been a bad drug deal, her brother had a gun, there was screaming and shooting, and some kid ended up with only partial use of his arm. It was unintended, but what kind of help can one expect from lawyers appointed by the state. She watched them find her brother guilty of attempted murder. She remembers the disappointed look in her mother’s eyes. It was one of the few times her mother did not reek of alcohol, and all she could see in her mother’s face was disappointment. She remembers making a promise to herself to have a better life, but she sees this promise unreachable.

She tells the figurine how a year ago, Kelly, her best friend, got killed in a random shooting. Kelly, who helped her fight the lunch stealing bully in first grade, who went on a private excursion with her during the fourth grade field, and who knew her innermost secrets, was dead. She thought about Kelly all the time. Kelly’s death had killed any scraps of faith she had in god.

She tells the figurine about her present life. How she comes home to a disastrous apartment to find her mom passed out half the time. Her mom does not hit her, but she does not do much else. She drinks away all their welfare checks. She hates going home and finding her mom passed out on the couch reeking of whisky. She hates cleaning up the throw up from the night before. She hates going to sleep at night hearing the sirens outside, worrying that she will have the same fate as Kelly. She hates her school life. People make fun of her, her shabby clothes, her flat chest, her plain hair, and her inability to think of good comebacks. She has no self-confidence to talk to boys, and other girls intimidate her. She eats lunch alone. She misses Kelly, because with Kelly school was bearable, but now she prefers it less than her detestable home. She hates her life. She thinks of all the horrible events that have happened, and feels that she undoubtedly will have the same destiny as her mother. She no longer sees the silver lining in the clouds. She tells the figurine that she has plans of killing herself. Hanging by belt. She read somewhere it was an effective method. She has given up all hope on life, and is merely waiting for the day when she will no longer be too cowardly to end it all.

The figurine listens without any interruptions. “Have you ever heard a story as tragic as mine,” the girl asks. “I have,”  answers the figurine. And with those words, the figurine starts its story.

“The first time the jewelry box was opened was over a hundred years ago. The first person to lay eyes on it was a beautiful Spanish maiden. She had lovely black locks, and soft brown eyes, which were filled with kindness. An Italian cellist, who had cohabited her as well as Madrid, had given it to her. She had gotten more extravagant gifts from wealthier suitors, but this gift meant more to her, for she knew how much her lover had saved to buy it. He was a poor man, but she loved him greatly. He understood something deep inside of her, something she was unable to explain. They would walk the streets in the late afternoons and have sweet conversations that varied from politics to the best way to cook potatoes. And on the nights she was able to sneak out, they would make love passionately. She knew she could never marry him, for she was of high nobility, and he was a commoner with no money. However, she could not say goodbye to him.”

“They had an ardent affair. And this jewelry box, which he had spent weeks saving for, represented their undying love. He begged her to leave her family, to run off and get married to him. He could not promise her riches, but he could promise her a life of happiness. She toyed with the idea, but deep down she knew it would never happen. She had been raised a certain way, she had certain expectations to fulfill, and she could not abandon her family and her traditions. So when a rich noble suitor came around, one whose company she did not detest, she agreed to marry him. Her Italian lover, pleaded with her, but she would not concede. She was a lady, and ladies often have to make sacrifices. On the morning after her wedding the papers held a story of an Italian cellist who hung himself in his room.”

“She was left heartbroken and devastated, blaming herself for his death. However, aside from the jewelry box, he left her another gift, a seed inside her womb. She gave birth to his daughter, who she named Emily. Although she proceeded to have four more children with her husband, Emily remained her favorite. It was with her that she spent all of her free time; it was with her she did all the motherly duties, instead of having the nannies take care of them. Emily was her pride and joy. She looked different from the other children; she had a deep tan, a strong Italian nose, and her father’s face engraved in her. If her husband noticed these features, or was suspicious about all the attention she gave her first-born, he was quiet about it. He was a good man, who loved her, perhaps not as passionately, but he wanted her to have a good life. At the age of ten Emily got tuberculosis and died.”

“It came as a sudden shock to everyone. Her mother could not handle it. She felt god was punishing her, for following society’s rules and not her heart. The only piece she had left of her lover was gone. She decided to follow in his footsteps and hang herself. As she was preparing her trip into the next life, she heard crying in the other room. It was her four-year-old son, who the nannies had left unattended. As she rushed to calm him of his fears, she realized that she was a mother of four others. She realized, that her husband, although not as sensational as her Italian lover, was a good man who loved her. More importantly, over the years, she had learned to love him. She realized that she loved the other children, and the life she was living; perhaps Emily’s death was god’s way of telling her not to hang on to the past. Though she knew Emily would always be in her heart, she realized it was time to let go of her past, and to embrace the life she had made for herself. She decided to get rid of the jewelry box, for if she was going to start a new life, she should not hang on to old possessions. She donated the jewelry box to a church charity.”

“The next person to open the box was a young priest. The priest loved god. He was a slave to beauty, and he noticed beauty in things other people took for granted. A lone butterfly on a flower, rain bouncing against the oak trees, the way shadows fell in the evening, and every other minor point of beauty the world offered. He wanted to serve the painter of these creations. And while an artist would find a master, he found god. He thanked him every day for allowing such beauty to be formed. He spread god’s word of love and beauty through out, and he was truly content. “

“Until a young maiden entered his church. She was a beauty, a classic rose. During mass he would concentrate on the shape of her lips as he read from the bible. At night he would remember the way her hair curled at the end, and with those thoughts he would go to sleep. When she went to confession, he stared at the intensity of her green eyes. He had never been with a woman, and although he had desires, his love for god had subdued them. But when he was around her, god would disappear, and not only lust, but admiration would also appear. He knew he was wrong, he knew she was a human filled with sin and imperfection, but he was blind to it. She came to talk to him in private one day, and she told him she was in love with him, and although she knew it was wrong to love a man of the cloth, she was drawn to him.”

“An affair started. Their relationships consisted of pure lust; he knew little of her, just her name, and that she had not been promised to any man. Conversation had no room in their affair, and their bodies were quick to silence any spark of colloquy. Every night the priest prayed for forgiveness. He knew he was wrong, but he could not give up his lover. She became his obsession. Every morning he would wake up, thinking not of his creator but of her. And when he looked at a sacred painting of the baby Jesus, and imagined his lover holding Jesus instead of Madonna, he knew the affair had to end. Yet he could not end it, and he realized he had disappointed god. God had given him such beauty and he had betrayed him.”

‘”He knew suicide was an iniquity, but he felt perhaps he had already failed god’s test so he should hurry on with the punishment. He wrote many drafts of farewell letters that he would give to his beloved. He had set a date for his death.

Walking down the rusty streets, he saw an old homeless woman sitting in the shadows. She pulled at his coat, ‘father’ she said in a sarcastic tone ‘how can you still believe in god when you see the horrid events that surround us.’ The young priest answered ‘it is not the sadness that god provides but the happiness. Every bit of life you enjoy, despite the despicable events that life is filled with, is because of God.’ The woman grunted at his answer, not using words to dignify it; however, as the priest walked away his words were ringing in his ears.”

“He realized that his affair, though not approved by the human judgment of morality, could not be completely disapproved of by god. For it was god who created pleasure, and he was just putting into use of all of god’s resources. Now he realized that he would perhaps have to end the affair, or stop being a priest, but no matter what his decision was, god would always be on his side. God was not there to punish him, but he was there to be his guide. He decided to share some of god’s beauty with the old homeless woman. He went back and gave her the jewelry box.”

“The old homeless woman admired the jewelry box. It would bring her plenty of money in food and booze. But before selling the jewelry box, she opened it and shared her story . She was not always poor ,and although she was never rich, she had lived rather decently. Her bad luck started when her husband died. He left with her debt and two small children to support. She was an orphan, and her husband’s family were not in an economic position to help her out. She found a job working in a factory to support her children. She would come home tired, in a wretched mood, denouncing any signs of love her children would show for her.  She began drinking to fill the emptiness in her heart. She was a good provider; she made sure her children had clothes to wear, food to eat, and textbooks to take to school, but she became emotionally absent. She did not know about the bully that picked on her son, or the favorite music of her darling little girl. She must have done horrible deeds in her past life, because her daughter developed cancer. She deteriorated into dust.”

“This sobered up the woman. She felt blessed, for at least she still had her son. She became not only his provider, but also his mother. She learned about his preferences, his desires, his  and his future goals. He was much like his father, in his humor and sense of ambition, but he had an affinity towards alcohol, which she feared he got from her. He grew up to be a handsome young man, popular with the ladies. He began courting a lovely girl from a better side of town. She remembered with a smile the day he came running home, late for dinner, screaming she said yes, she said yes! He decided to get an education, and he helped make ends meet by working at a local tavern. She missed her daughter and husband terribly, but she had her son, and he was her pride and joy.”

“One night, there was a knock on her door. It was a police officer. She did not remember much after the screaming, and she was not even sure if the screaming came from her. It was as if she was not attached to her body anymore. His body was not in recognizable form. It was grotesquely scarred by the burns he had suffered from when the tavern caught on fire. It was a humble funeral filled with crying, and after his death she completely gave up on life. “

“She became an alcoholic roaming the streets. When money was short she slept with men. She was not a beauty, and the men she got were hairy, sleazy pigs. She did not care, as long as she would have money to drink herself into a stupor. Life had lost all meaning for her. She was killing herself slowly. The jewelry box looked expensive, and hopefully it would  keep her supplied for weeks in bread and booze. She was in a sober frame of mind as she walked the streets observing and loathing the happy families.”

“She noticed one family whose son had wandered off. He was about four, and was aimlessly walking down the central street. A car was rushing by, instinct overtook her, and she ran and pulled the kid out of the way. His parents ran to their son, and words of gratitude were spilling out of their mouths. She observed the rejoicing. She realized she gave three people a chance at happiness. She knew that it was too late for her, because she lost everything she held dear, but other people still had a chance at a joyous life. At that moment she decided to dedicate her useless existence to helping people achieve happiness. She decided that she would use most of the money gotten from the jewelry box to help people, and a little bit of it for booze. “

“She sold the box to a nicely dressed newly wed couple. The couple had little use for the box. They were a happy family. However, when their eldest son decided to move to America, the mother gave him the box as a parting gift. The son happily went into the land of opportunities. However, the land of opportunities, became unconquerable. He got laid off the job he had been offered, and since he was young and inexperienced, he could not find another.

“He threw away his dignity to go work as a waiter in a shabby restaurant. He was alone in America, and he had not made any friends. He came home every night; miserable, alone, and tired from his thankless jobs. He did not want to move back to Spain, for coming home would mean admitting failure, and he was determined to make it in the land of opportunities. He knew many people shared his predicament. He, however, had never experienced failure.”

“ He had grown up in a fairly well to do family. He graduated in the top ten percent of his class and had been voted most amiable. He also had an affinity for languages, or so he thought. In America nobody understood his English. His life became pointless and worthless, and thought of home often.”

“He thought of what he had given up, to move to America He missed his best friend with whom he had the most intriguing adventures . He missed his parents and although he had never gotten along with his brother, he had begun to miss him too.”

“He remembered one summer night when he was at a park with his former girlfriend. As they were sitting on the monkey bars, he looked at the stars, and dreamed of a better life. One where jobs were easily found, and where his paycheck would not be plagued by taxes. He told her of this thought, of moving to America. He expected her to laugh at him, to call him a foolish dreamer, as she had done when she had heard many of his other ideas. However, she looked at him with her big brown eyes, and told him that she knew he could achieve anything, and that he could conquer America with his hands tied behind his back. They broke up later, but he always remembered her speech to him that night, and it was the memory of that speech that motivated him to move across the globe. However, he had lived in America for almost two years, and he had achieved nothing aside from finding new ways to kill cockroaches in his apartment. He sadly laughed at the image of his former girlfriend seeing the useless existence he was leading.”

“His depression was on his shoulders like a pile of heavy coal. He thought of killing himself. He played with the idea every day until one day he went out and bought a gun. He sat in his apartment, staring at the gun.He was a decisive fellow, but he could not muster enough courage to push the trigger. All of the sudden the phone rang. It was his coworker. He had been working double shifts so his coworker could spend time with his newly born granddaughter. The coworker had called to thank him, and to invite him to dinner with the family. After the conversation, he felt a little better. He was still depressed at being a failure, but he realized someone in this cold vast country knew of his existence. Although this did not solve his problems, he decided to give life another chance, after all opportunities could happen at any moment. He sold the jewelry box a few days later to buy some decent clothes.”

The figurine finished its story. The girl sits there thinking. “But you don’t know the conclusion of any of those people’s lives, “ she said. “They could have all killed themselves a few weeks later.” “Your right ” the figurine agreed ,“but when they last talked to me they were filled with desire for a better life. Perhaps they killed themselves, or perhaps they didn’t, but at that moment they were willing to give life another try, and it is that moment that counts.”

The girl closes the box. Her woes are still on her mind. However, after hearing those stories, she has a new outlook on like, She still has her share of problems, but she is determined to have a better life. She could get good grades, get a decent job, and get out of the neighborhood that had held her family down for generations. She could sell this box and use part of the money to help with the rent, and another part perhaps to get herself some decent clothes. Maybe these thoughts were unachievable dreams. Perhaps she would fall into the same downward spiral her mom had fallen in, the spiral society envisioned for her. However, the people who stood nearby,  saw a thirteen year-old girl walking down the street, her crystal clear blue eyes staring ahead, brimming with hope.

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S3: The Old Wall

An old crumbling wall stands in the middle of town square. It is in a town where old crumbling walls are the norm. This wall had once been used to guard a palace against intruders. The palace had turned to dust decades ago, and had been replaced by more modern architecture. This wall is now accessible to the public from both sides. There is a legend that says one of the stones that was used to build this wall is magical, and if a person inscribes their wish on that stone, it will be granted. So this ancient wall, which had originally been used to keep the poor and hopeless away, has now become their confessional. Locals and tourists alike scratch out their wishes on the wall with hopes that they chose the right stone. One area of the wall holds an inscription of a person asking their son not to die. In another area a person asks to be able to have children. In the middle of the wall, there is an engraving of a person who hoped to find a job. Two feet from the ground someone wrote about how they want to own a doll with blue eyes; this wish was probably written by a child. Various names are seen through out the wall; these names belong to disbelieves who want to leave their mark in this town. But this story isn’t about the markings on the wall. It’s about an old man who walks next to the wall; a man whose youth had disappeared from his face years ago, and whose eyes carefully examine every stone, as he searches for a message he should have looked for fifty years ago.

He remembers her at seventeen, her hair going in different directions as the wind blew through it, her dark eyes with their blank stare, and her delicate small hand that clutch her red skirt to keep her from tripping over it as she runs towards him. He remembers her standing next to him, her hair disarray, her eyes still blank, as she flashes him a colossal smile and says “I have the most hilarious story for you.” They had been neighbors his whole life, and she had always been his companion while they were growing up. When they were children he would spend the afternoons playing ball with her, and chasing her tiny body through the alleys of their town. When they became older, they would spend their free time walking next to the old wall, and mocking all the wishes they saw written on it. However, this was the first time that he realized how beautiful she was. And he kisses her, a kiss that interrupts her story. It is their first kiss, but not their last. She glances at him with her vacant stare, grins, and continuous her story. “My uncle finally lost it! He wants to name his upcoming baby Lawyer because he thinks that will make it become a lawyer.” She continuous on with her story, but he doesn’t care about her crazy uncle, and he can only think about how strange it is that he never noticed her beauty, and before she leaves that day he gives her another kiss.

Over the next few months they take walks next to the wall as usual, but now their walks include kisses at very possible moment. She never reacts to the change in their relationship, not with her eyes which still remain empty, and not with her voice which only mentions trivial subjects. One day he asks her why she never comments about them kissing, and she replies “what’s the point? We are of different religions, and our parents would never let us marry. I see no point in discussing something that has no future.” He tries to convince her that she’s wrong, that they will be able to figure out a way to be together, but she refuses to listen. “Let’s just enjoy our time together,” she tells him and changes the subject.

He goes off to the university because in this town it is the norm for boys to go far away to school. They exchange letters while he’s gone. His letters are filled with promises of love and passion, he compares her to the bright yellow sun, the composed fluorescent moon, and to the multicolored wildflowers that grow outside his window. Her letters are filled with amusing anecdotes about her family and friends, and she only mentions nature if she is talking about the weather. He sits in his room at night, not studying, but staring at his rigid white ceiling, and he recalls her laugh, her dimpled smile, and the way she refused to take no for an answer when he didn’t want to help her save a baby bird. He decides he must figure out a way for them to be together.

When he comes home for break they decided to meet  at the old crumbling wall. “I’ve missed you”, she tell him. “Perhaps we might figure out a way to marry.” He knows he should be happy that she’s willing to discuss a future with him, but he feels uneasy. For when he sees her walking towards him, with her messy hair and dark blank eyes, he realizes that despite what he wrote to her in his letters, he can imagine a life without her. And when he kisses her it is because of obligation and not desire. As the weeks go by and their plan becomes more concrete; his body gets consumed with doubt. He is certain that he loves her, but he no longer feels that love is worth the consequences he would have to endure if he marries her. However, he was raised in a time when honorable men keep their promises.

He goes back to school, and they continue to exchange letters. All of the sudden the letters stop. His letters start coming back to him unopened. He spends a month in agony, not understanding why her pen has been silenced. Finally the long-awaited letter arrives, and in it she informs him that her dad has found out about their correspondence, and has forbidden her to write to him. She also mentions that she will meet him at the wall when he comes home for vacation, and they will finalize their plan for a secret marriage. He reads her letter over and over, trying to find meaning in between her neatly written words, but all he sees is the realization that when the consequences from their marriage will arise , he will have to be content with their love for each other. He commits to memory the misery he felt during the month she had not written him, and he decides to recollect that month anytime he feels doubt about his decision.

He watches the sun disappear behind trees as he waits for her next to the old wall. She finally arrives, walking slowly towards him. Her hair is neat; her arms hang calmly at her side, and her dark eyes which are usually void of any emotion, are filled with sorrow. “Was it difficult for you to sneak out, and do you have to be home soon?” he asks her. “I didn’t sneak out,” she answers. “My father let me see you so I can say goodbye, and I can stay for only a few minutes. We are moving from this town, from this country, only my father won’t tell me where because he doesn’t want you to find us.”  Her eyes well up with tears, and they start to roll down her oval face, vanishing from sight when they fall off her chin. “I have an idea,” She continues. “On the day that we move I will ask my father if I can go look at the wall one last time, perhaps to make a wish; when I get to the wall I will carve my new address on one of center stones, and when you are done with school, you will be able to find the address on the wall and come find me.” “But how will I know if the address is yours?” he asks her. “I’ll write a message under the address, and when you see that message, you will know that it was written by me.” He gives her a kiss. His eyes observe her face, and he wants to tell her a few words of comfort, anything that will take the unhappiness out of her eyes. So he utters the only words he can think of at that moment. His words seem to do the trick because the tears evaporate from her face, and her eyes regain their usual blank stare. She smiles at him, gives him a kiss that would be their last, and whispers a response to his words in his ear. He watches her walk away, her back straight, her hair long, her hands unclenched, and he makes a promise to himself that he will see her again.

The old man walks next to the old crumbling wall, and becomes exasperated because he cannot find the message she had written him. He remembers the first day he stepped into his parent’s house as a university graduate. He had excused himself to go to the wall, fully intending to find her address. But as he walks near the wall, an overwhelming wave of uncertainty stops him in his place. He is not close enough to the wall to be able to read its inscriptions. Is she really worth it, he asks himself. If I never see the address I cannot be blamed for not finding her. He decides that he is not ready to know where she lives, and when he truly decides he wants to marry her he will go search for her address on the wall.

It has been fifty years since that day. The old man wonders about his first love, where she lives, what she did during her life, if she ever married, if she had children, if she forgave him for not keeping his promise to her,  and most importantly if she is still alive. Finally his eyes come across her address. He knows it is her address because underneath it are written the last words he ever spoke to her. “You can’t stop the world from turning, so you might as well turn with it.” He looks at her inscription; it is faded and barely visible, and soon it will probably become a place where someone new writes their wish. The old man, who spent his whole not believing in any kind of magic, picks up a jagged edged rock, finds an empty space on the wall, and scratches out the last words she ever spoke to him, “and may you be happy with every turn.” Somewhere in a town far away; a place where old crumbling walls are only seen in textbooks; an old woman smiles.

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S2: The Dead Leaves


She lived in a red brick house and out of her bedroom window she could see the nearby forest. During the autumn of her fifth year, she accompanied her mom on a stroll through the forest. And as they watched the auburn leaves break away from the branches and glide swiftly to their final resting place, her mom remarked “these leaves die gracefully”. While her mom continued to talk poetically about the nearby trees, a leaf that still had specs of green landed on the girl’s shoe. She picked it up, and as her eyes soaked in the skeleton of the leaf and its sharp edges, she decided to take it home with her. At home her dad gave her a big piece of white paper, and she outlined the leaf with a black pen. She used pastels to color in the leaf’s outline, and she tried to preserve the leaf’s hue to the best of her ability. She remembered her mom’s remark about the leaves, and since the girl recently learned to read and write, she used a pen to title her picture in sloppy letters “Dead Leaf #1”. The next day she ventured into the forest again, and found another leaf. As the cold windy days of the autumn flew by, a collection of pictures titled “Dead Leaf #2”, “Dead Leaf #3”, “Dead Leaf #4”, and so forth filled a big brown box that stood in her bedroom. She continued this hobby every year, although every year the number of leaves she collected grew less and less. And during the autumn of her twelfth year, she found other interests, and she stopped collecting leaves. She only remembered the leaves when they crackled under her feet, as she took the forest path home from school.

During the autumn of her fourteenth year, a boy she had known since third grade took an interest in her. They had geography together, and every day before class the boy would ask her about what she did the previous day or about geography homework. She did not like the boy and she always kept her answers short, but she smiled at him while she answered because she was a polite girl. And although she did not like the boy, one day when he was sick from school and she had nobody to talk to before geography class, she realized that she missed their banal conversations. A week later he asked her if she would be interested in getting ice cream with him on Saturday. She said yes, not because she liked him, but because she had a craving for raspberry ice cream.

She was looking out of her bedroom window when she saw the boy arrive at her house on his bike. He got off his bike, but instead of walking towards the door, he stood for a moment and just stared at the house. She watched him while he used his right hand to fix his hair. This task proved pointless because a moment after he lowered his right arm, the wind blew his hair into disarray again. He began slowly walking towards the door, and when she heard the doorbell ring she knew it was for her.

They rode their bikes to the ice cream shop. She was grateful to the wind that shook her bike and bounced against the trees because it made it impossible to talk. At the ice cream shop, they sat at a table near the window, and the boy began the conversation by asking his usual question, “how has your day been?”. She told him how her dog chewed up her favorite red sweater, and how she had to chase him all though the house. The boy laughed, although she had not intended to be funny. “Do you like the zoo”, the boy asked.

Yes”

My favorite animal is the giraffe. I like it because there is not another animal that is similar to it.”

Giraffes are cool.”

Do you like the beach, I love going to the beach when there are plenty of waves.”

The beach is alright, I don’t go that often.”

One time I was surfing, and I lost my balance, and before I knew it I was flung underwater. I thought I was going to drown. As you can see I didn’t. I would have lost the surf board if my foot wasn’t tied to it.”

Sounds scary”

I really wish I had a dog. Do you think you will have a dog when you grow up?”

Maybe.” And the girl proceeded to ask the boy about his recent art project, not because she cared, but because she knew the boy would spend at least twenty minutes describing it, and she would not have to contribute to the conversation

They decided to ride their bikes though the forest before going home. They stopped next to a huge oak tree, and the girl had somehow lost her hair tie, and since she was standing up wind, her long hair kept whipping the front of her face, and protecting her from the boy. The boy gathered her hair in his hand, he held it behind her head, and he kissed her on the lips. The girl smiled because this was her first kiss. The second time the boy kissed her was on graduation day; he kissed her on the cheek and wished her good luck. They only kissed twice because two days later, while they were standing next to bright red lockers, the boy asked her if she wanted to “go out” and the girl responded “no, but I would like to be friends”. They were inside, and the boy did not have the comfort of dead leaves to soften her words.

During the autumn of her twentieth year she met the man she was going to marry. He was in her cultural anthropology class, and it became tradition to have coffee with him afterwards. One day, while discussing the Wodaabe tribe , the man said “I envy them. It must be nice for those men because all they have to do is put on makeup and do a little dance, and the women pick whichever guy they want, and they have sex with him. In our society men are required to put in a lot more effort if they want to get laid”.

Would you put on makeup for me and dance around?” she asked seductively.

If that’s what you are into,” he replied. And that jocular remark was the start of their relationship.

They dated for nine months and twenty days before they became engaged. During those months they saw each other every day, and she got used to telling him the most minuscule details of her life. By the time they got engaged he had heard twenty broken nail anecdotes and knew the biography of all of her friends. They laughed, talked, and argued passionately about what movie to watch on Friday night, and when he popped the big question, she kissed him and yelled yes, and spent the next day describing the proposal to her friends. However; the evening that he proposed, she lay awake all night, and as she listened to his breathing next to her, she wondered if she really loved him. She loved spending time with him, and she knew that she would be devastated if he broke up with her, but she didn’t have the feelings toward him she always imagined a person in love should have.

During the autumn of her twenty-sixth year, she spent a Saturday afternoon walking though the city alone while her husband was on a business trip and her three-year old son was visiting her parents. She collided with a man, and he accidentally spilled coffee all over her. “Let me make it up to you,” the man offered, and she agreed, mainly because the man had a handsome face. He bought her coffee and they went to a nearby park. They swung on the swings while they pleasantly conversed. She observed the way the sun made his wedding band gleam, and she wondered if he noticed her wedding ring. They did not talk about their jobs, spouses or children (she did not even know if he had children), but instead they talked about politics, religion, and Monet paintings. Towards the end of the conversation the man announced “it is so refreshing to have a real conversation with a person. I’m sick of answering superficial questions that include the words ‘what do you do’, ‘what degree do you have’, and ‘how many children do you have.”

I don’t think those questions are superficial,” she replied. “The degree you decide to get has to with you inner qualities. And the job you acquire has to do with the type of degree you get. And with all the available birth control, the amount of children you have has to do with your personal choice, and not with god’s.”

I don’t agree. The person you are is the person who spent the last two hours talking to me. The way you talked, the jokes you made, the opinions you aired; that’s what makes you an individual. Everything else is just facts. If you know that someone is an engineer with two kids, what do you really know about them?”

That the jokes aren’t true, and engineers really do have sex”

The man laughed and looked at his watch. “I have to get going,” he said. They both stood up, and he walked towards her. He kissed her on the lips, a kiss that lasts too long to be considered proper. They don’t exchange contact information, but before they part their separate ways she asked him, “what is your favorite season”.

He answered, “fall.”

Mine too,” she replied, and they both smile. Then they turned around and walked in opposite directions.

During the autumn of her thirty-fifth year, she and her twelve-year-old son went on a stroll through a golden leafed forest. This was not the forest of her childhood, although it did have many similarities. As she listened to the crackling of the lifeless leaves under her son’s feet, she told him the story of how she used to collect and trace leaves when she was a child. “What a stupid hobby,” he replied. “Why did you do it?”

“It was not a stupid hobby,” she answered. And she tried to explain to him the beauty of those leaves, but she could not find the right words. Her son smirked at her silence and continued walking down the forest path as his shoes tore apart the auburn leaves beneath them.

During the autumn of her thirty-sixth year her divorce became finalized. Six months earlier she had discovered that her husband slept with half the women in America. Maybe she was exaggerating; maybe he only slept with one-third of the women in America. The signs had been there all along. The long weekend “work” trips, the clothes that smelled of a perfume she did not own, and he did not even need to lie to her because she was a master at deceiving her self. However; when she saw his credit card bill, and noticed that he spent one thousand dollars on a necklace she never received, she could no longer live in denial.

It was her idea to get a divorce. She would have forgiven him if he had apologized profusely, and if he had sworn that he would never cheat on her again. She would have been satisfied even if those words had been lies. Instead, he said that although he loved her and wanted to stay married, he was not going to pretend that he would stop cheating on her, and he would understand if she wanted a divorce. She should not have been surprised by his words because this was the same man who admired a tribe where cheating was encouraged. In the divorce settlement she got the house and full custody of her son, although she did agree to let his dad see him when he wanted to.

She is alone in the house, and she is sitting in a wicker chair while trying to reread one of her favorite books, but her mind keeps wondering off. She remembers the comments she got during the divorce.

Her mom: “You are lucky to be rid of him, think of all the diseases you could have gotten.”

Her dad: “You are lucky to be of him, think how awful you would have felt if he had a love child.”

Her best friend: “You are lucky to be rid of him, you deserve so much better.”

The words “you are lucky to be rid of him” resonate in her head. She knows he was an awful husband. She is lucky to be rid of him! He was the man who cheated on her, lied to her, and made her delicious grilled cheese sandwiches every morning.

During the autumn of her thirty-eighth year, she goes to the second wedding of one of her friends. Since her divorce she has become a gym member, and when she looks in the mirror she knows her body looks good. She decides to wear a brown strapless dress to the wedding. At the reception everybody compliments her dress and the way she looks in it. In fact one bawdy friend tells her that the dress makes her boobs look “absolutely luscious”. Despite these compliments she feels empty inside, and spends the reception going from one group of people to another.

The group of people who are sitting at a table are laughing and reminiscing about drunken college nights, the group of people who are standing next to buffet are severely criticizing the government, and the group of people on the dance floor are admiring the decorations and music of the reception hall. She talks to every group, and depending on the group she laughs, scowls, or nods. However, she is on autopilot and her brain is busy repressing the memories of her own wedding.

A man asks her to dance and she politely accepts. While they dance he asks her, “where do you work,” and she answers him. Than he asks her “what degree did you get” and “and how many children do you have.” After she satisfies his inquiry, she asks him if he enjoys going to art museums. “I don’t have time for art museums,” he replies. “I have three lovely daughters who take up all of my time.” He than proceeds to give a monologue about the many wonderful qualities his daughters possess.

It is two in the morning and she is at home admiring herself in the mirror. The compliments weren’t lies; she does look good in that dress. She thinks about the bride, and how happy she looked dancing with her second groom. She tries to remember a time when she had been deliriously happy, but she can’t think of such a moment. She recalls all the shallow conversations she had at the wedding. She wonders at what age did she become alienated from her friends, and then she begins to think that perhaps the connection she used have with them was an illusion. She ponders this new thought as she unzips her dress and washes off her make up.

During the autumn of her forty-second year, she decides to visit her parents, while her son and ex-husband chase after college girls. Her parents still live in the same red brick house, and her bedroom had not been altered since she moved out. She stands in her bedroom and she looks out her window at the familiar forest view. She remembers the games of tag, the bike rides, and the midnight kisses under the stars which she experienced in that forest. She remembers the long walks home among the trees, and how she used to imagine her future during those walks, and she realizes her current reality does not match those daydreams. She walks towards her closet, which once was overfilled with clothes, but now is overfilled with mementos from her past. She sees a familiar brown box in the closet. As she opens the box, she sees a pile of papers with traced leaves on them. They are arranged in numerical order: Dead Leaf #324 at the top, and Dead Leaf #1 at the bottom. She looks at every leaf drawing, and she examines the coloring and outline of each leaf. She notices the way her handwriting deteriorates from cursive to sloppy letters. She walks out of the house and enters the forest. She is on a mission to find dead leaf #325.

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S1: The Drinking Companion

I am awake. My right hand opens up my swollen eyes. First my left eye, and then my right eye. My head is throbbing. I look around my room, and I take a whiff of the stale smell. The floor is cluttered with piles of dirty clothes. The writing desk in the corner, which had once been part of my every day use, has a thick layer of dust upon it. Part of a baloney sandwich lies on a table. I look over to my side, and pick up a bottle of whiskey, ¼ empty. I take a sip out of the bottle to lessen the throbbing.

This room once had a different view, it had been clean, and an aroma candle filled the room with the scent of lilacs. Instead of the old sandwich remains, the table had held a glass vase filled with lilies. Her favorite flower. Those days had disappeared, never to return again. I take another gulp from my whiskey bottle. I remember my first shot of whiskey, I had been sixteen, it was at a party, and my friend Tyler had cheered me on. I took the shot, and felt a terrible burn in my throat, followed by a feeling of warmth and light headiness.

I take another sip, but the burn of whiskey, just as the smell of lilacs, had disappeared. It just goes down now, smooth as water. The throbbing lessens. I close my eyes, and open them, making sure they still work, and all of a sudden I see a man, sitting in a chair with a flask in his hand. He looks at me, and his eyes seem to be all-knowing, mocking. I duplicate the stare back at him and ask,

Who are you?

Bernard, you?

Tony, why are you in my apartment?

Felt like stopping by.

My head is spinning; I cannot make sense of the situation. I close my eyes. I am five years old. I remember swinging on a swing in my back yard. Forward, backward, forward, backward. The wind beats against my face, and the fresh smell of grass after the rain invades my nostrils. I could feel my mom’s light touch as she pushed me forward. All of the sudden she says, “you’re a big boy, pump your legs, you can do this on your own”, and she stops pushing, puts all her concentration into my brother, whose two years younger, and swinging on the next swing. I feel this strange sensation, which I later identified as jealousy. It was not that I needed pushing, in fact swinging without any outside help made me feel exhilarated. I just missed the attention, and I wanted it back. So as I swing forward, I push off the swing with my hands, and go flying through the air, imagining my perfect landing. But I land on my knees, look down, and see a river of red beginning to form. My mom runs towards me, and I began to cry. She checks my knees, and I guess seeing that I’m not in any danger, starts comforting me. I do not stop crying. I am not sure why I didn’t stop, I felt no pain, and I was no stranger to skinned knees. Yet somehow, in my five-year-old wisdom, I figured out that as long as I kept on crying, all the attention would belong to me. I open my eyes; Bernard is still there.

Good memories, he asks.

Yeah, childhood ones.

I prefer the childhood memories of my kid, I like being in control.

You have a kid?

Had a kid, had a wife too. Kid died, wife left.

Sounds familiar, I have the same story.

What a coincidence, and Bernard laughs. A heavy laugh, his whole body shaking

That’s not funny.

Oh come on, the whole point of being an alcoholic is so you can laugh. So you’re not always consumed with sadness.

I am not an alcoholic.

Bernard smiles, and takes a swill out of his flask.

Believe what you want. I am not an alcoholic, and I do not laugh.

Bernard smiles and mumbles, if you say so.

I do not smile either.

I take a gulp of whiskey, close my eyes. I remember Anna. She was seventeen. Her hair had been brown then, and it was slightly curled and falling at her shoulders. She sat opposite of me at the café. It had been our first date.” You’re wrong” she was saying.“It’s just like a man not to care about the environment; you’re just a jock, stomping around all day, not noticing the grass you’re damaging.”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t play football, because I damage the grass?”

“You’re being ridiculous!”

“I’m being ridiculous, you are the one who gets mad at me because I do not recycle, and then accuse me of being some sort of male chauvinist grass killer.”

“All I am saying is that if every person put in at least 10 percent of their energy into helping the environment…”

“Alright I’ll recycle.” And Anna smiles. It was the type of smile that lit up the room, the type of smile where I instantly knew I would get a second date. And at that moment, I would have been willing to stop using every product that hurt the environment, just to keep her smiling. If only it had been that easy.

So why did your wife leave you, Bernard asks.

Well our kid died, she couldn’t handle it.

You should have shared the whiskey.

I wasn’t drinking then; I wanted to be happy, I wanted to start over. She would start screaming at me if she noticed even an ounce of happiness. If I smiled, I was accused of not loving our child. And a laugh, well lets just say the crusade was more understanding when a person denounced Christ.

So that’s why you became an alcoholic, to stop laughing?

I am not an alcoholic.

Well I drink to laugh.

He takes a swig out of the flask. I take a big quaff of whiskey, and the throbbing disappears, so I sit up a bit.

You know my wife Anna; she looked so beautiful on our wedding day.

They all look beautiful on their wedding day, even the ugly ones.

No, it was different with Anna, she was…. It’s indescribable. Only I never got a chance to tell her.

Call her, and tell her.

He throws the phone at me. Call her!

That’s ridiculous. I don’t even know her number. I doubt she wants to hear from me, it was a graphic divorce.

I remember when I used to be like Bernard, simple-minded, thinking everything can be fixed with a few words. Those days are long gone. And I lean against the wall, drinking from the bottle, and I remember my wedding day:

How beautiful Anna looked. I had been a modern husband, I had seen her dress beforehand, and in fact I helped pick it out. However, when I saw her enter the church, in white, face glowing, I just wanted to run to her, and tell her beautiful she looked. But it would not have been appropriate at that moment. She came up to me smiling, and the priest began to read the vows. I stood there, barely listening, concentrating only on her beauty. The ceremony ended and everyone went into the reception hall to eat. I will tell her now, I thought. But everybody was staring at us, and I wanted to tell her during a more private moment. Finally, the moment of the first dance came, I’ll whisper it in her ear, I thought. However, before I had my chance, we heard a cry. It was her 4-year-old cousin Suzy. Suzy had slipped, and somehow managed to hit her head against the metal part of the table. Too this day, I still don’t know how that happened. We were all hovering around her, waiting for the prognosis. My uncle Jack, the optometrist, who everybody consults when they need to consult a doctor, examined Suzy. “Nothing serious, just a skin cut,” he announced happily. The wedding continued, but the moment to mention her beauty had passed. It was getting towards the end of the evening, and people were beginning to leave, and I thought, now is the perfect moment. Just as I opened my mouth to tell her, my mother calls my name, to inform me that one of her rings is missing. The guests, the ones that were still there, went on a search, but the ring was not found. The wedding ended, and we drove home, exhausted. It seemed kind of silly to mention her beauty at the moment. So I never had a chance to tell her. I realize that even if I told her, it would not make any difference today. But still, I wish I had.

Remember the moment when your child was born, Bernard says.

It’s a nice moment.

What did you have?

A girl, we named her Amy.

I drink from my bottle, and close my eyes again, voices swirling inside my head. “You’re a daddy,” The nurse says. I look at the little baby, and I have to admit it’s ugly. It’s hard to believe that I had created this. Maybe I had seen to many TV specials, but it didn’t matter that the baby was ugly. It would not matter if she remained ugly. She belonged to me, I made her, and I felt this overwhelming love. “You want to hold her?” the nurse asks. “Of course.” I held her, pictures were taken, and I thought, I’m going to give her everything she wants. I am going to make her the happiest girl in the world. Unfortunately, I never got that chance.

What do you do for living, Bernard inquires.

Drink.

Before?

I was an engineer, and my wife was a teacher.

Did you like your job?

It paid the bills.

That’s all it was good for?

No, it was also a good hiding place.

I sip my whiskey and close my eyes, and I am transformed back into my old office. John says, “Time for you to go home Tony, maybe you should go on vacation, everybody will understand.” “You don’t understand John, this is my vacation.” However John is right, I do have to go home eventually. Although I procrastinate that moment as long as possible. At home Anna is crying, her hair is two different colors, she doesn’t bother to dye it anymore. It’s been two months since Amy’s death. She had been two. Anna sits staring at the wall,” about time you came home.”

“I had a lot of work to do.”

“Like always, it’s amazing how all this work just appeared out of nowhere,” she doesn’t even put in the energy to use her sarcastic voice. “I think we should see a counselor,” she says. “I don’t need someone to tell me that I am sad,” I answer.

“Really, because it seems you aren’t able to figure it out on your own, you are never here anymore, all you do is work. I feel as if I lost a husband and a child.”

“All we ever talk about is Amy, I want to talk about something else, I want to go on with life, and I want to have other kids. We were going to have other kids anyway, why not now?” “YOU HEARTLESS BASTARD,” she screams, runs to the bedroom, slams the door. I look at the clock, ten more hours till I get to leave for work.

A long period went by, after our child’s death, before our marriage fell apart, Bernard says, more to himself than to me. There was a moment when I thought we could make it, a short moment of course. But the grief came back. I guess grief is one those things that either pushes a marriage together or breaks it up.

The grief in our marriage broke us up.

I take big guzzle out of the bottle. I don’t need to close my eyes to see Anna standing at the doorway, dressed in a purple sweater and jeans, staring at me. She is all packed, and she looks me over, as if she’s reconsidering. There is nothing to reconsider, we haven’t been living together for weeks, and the divorce papers had been filed. She had come here to take the last of her belongings. Convincing her to stay was futile; I’ve been doing that for months. She sighs, “Well, goodbye.”

I remember thinking that if this was a movie scene, I would have seen longing in her eyes, and I would have said “I never thought it would end this way, I thought we would make it,” and Anna would have answered “yeah, so did I, but I was wrong,” and I would say “maybe we should give it another try,” and we would hug, and a happy upbeat melody would sound from the street. If it had been the middle of the movie, we would have passionate sex, or if it were the last scene of the movie, we would substitute the sex, with a loud obnoxious prolonged kiss.

But this wasn’t a movie. Her eyes held no longing, only sorrow and weariness. “Bye,” my bland voice fills the room. She looks me over again, and I see the back of her purple sweater head out the door.

So when did you start drinking, Bernard’s voice brings me back to reality.

Four months after she left. I was good for a while, concentrating on my work. One day I came home really depressed, unable to handle it. I opened a bottle of whiskey. Skipped work the next day. Had a horrible hangover. Went to the store to buy some Tylenol. As I passed the liquor section I thought what the hell, why not use alcohol to lessen the hangover; you know I’ve never done that before, so I bought another bottle. I haven’t been to work since.

How long ago was that?

I’ve lost count.

If you keep on living this way, you’ll probably die.

Maybe that’s what I want, not to mention you are no better. What’s your sob story? I just realized I’ve been rude, share your story

There really is no point; it’s disturbingly similar to yours.

Bernard closes his flask. He puts it in his pocket. He’s looking at me, the same way my father used to look at me, before he was about to give me a lecture. But than his face changes, he smiles; I guess no lecture for me.

Well I’m all out of alcohol, I have to go refill, Bernard says. That’s the problem with being an alcoholic, and I ‘m only telling you this since you’re not one, but a person cannot carry on a decent conversation when their alcohol is gone.

Well I see you again?

Only if you sober up, you’re too serious for me. I’d like to hear some laughter.

How do I get in touch with you?

You have my number.

I do?

Yeah, so am I going to get a call?

Only if they run out of whiskey.

Bernard laughs, walks out the door, silently waving goodbye.

Everything has become hazy, my mind is spinning. I try to sit up, but the task is unavailing. I look at my bottle, only a shot of whiskey left. I think of Bernard, I’ll miss him, he was a jolly fellow. He reminds me of someone though. Could it be Dave, my best friend from college; Dave had similar mannerisms. No, it’s definitely wasn’t him, Dave never asked questions. Did he seem like Paul, or maybe Chris? No, they had different personalities. All of the sudden I realize who it is he reminds me of, and I began to laugh. Laughter fills the room, and I take my last shot of whiskey from the bottle, throw the bottle on the floor, and I cannot stop laughing. I close my eyes, and in the darkness I can still hear the laughter, and it doesn’t seem to belong to me anymore. Maybe I will stop drinking, I think, and I fade into darkness.

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