I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while. Only it’s been twelve years and I don’t know where you are, anymore. The last time I looked for you, I saw that you’d done a live performance at a bar near your house that got a huge turn out and blitzed everywhere on Facebook. That made me so happy. That you were still pursuing your dream. Some dreams shouldn’t ever die.
Things have been strange for me. Recently my boyfriend got very drunk and said a lot of things, hurtful things, that have made me think, nonetheless. One of those things is that I’m an ’emotion hag’. I’m not sure if you know what one of those is. It’s like fag-hag, a gay man’s female best friend, only according to him, my area of expertise is people who want to talk about their emotions, not gay men.
And he meant it in an insulting way, because he was drunk and hurting and trying to be as hurtful to me as he could. It’s just one of the things he said, and one of the things that stayed with me, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing at all. I tried explaining to him when he was sober that he’s right, it is a pattern of my behavior. I do ‘listen’ too much, and let people vent to me, but that’s because that’s all I can do for them. These are people who are hurting, and the least I can do is to listen to them. I don’t have the finances to help them and I don’t have any way of changing their situation- Hell, I can’t even change my own. All I can do is listen, give them someone to bounce thoughts off, so I do that. It makes him uncomfortable because he doesn’t like my ‘range of emotion’, or at least, the amount of emotion I fluctuate through on a daily basis. It’s not that he doesn’t feel the same. He does, he just doesn’t believe in acknowledging it.
He likes to think he’s above such base human tendencies such as feeling. Only he refuses to see, and I’d never point it out, but every time he gets that drunk, he does just the same thing we all do. We feel. We let ourselves feel.
I thought of you that day. It was not the first time I’d seen an angry drunk, but the frustration, the desperation to lash out at someone, to see them hurt the same way he was hurting… It made me think of you. You got just as furious every Friday, when you could drink without having to worry about work the next day. The odd beers in the week days would just leave you dour, and sometimes surly, but never full blown bitter. That was reserved for weekends, when you could drink yourself blind and blame me for being sixteen when you were forty already. For being young when you weren’t anymore, for having a future when you hated your job, for being smart, and for not moving to UK to be with you, or for having guy friends were closer to my age.
I think a lot of that went over my head at the time. I was just a girl, even though I won’t deny I was perceptive even for my age. But that only helped me handle your bad moods. It didn’t help me understand them, or understand that that the relationship was fundamentally wrong. I was not your muse. That sounds a little silly, said out loud. I was not your partner or your lover. I was a damaged young girl who was unbelievably grateful for even having anyone around me who said they loved me, or gave me any respect. Because what you gave me was not respect by anyone else’s standards, but compared to what I got from the ‘real’ people in my life, it was still one of the best things to be happening to me.
I got scared, though. Over time, I couldn’t keep blaming the beer believably enough, and I couldn’t justify your resentment of my not being there with you. And somewhere during that period I started growing a spine in secret. Still battered emotionally and physically, but a spine nonetheless. And I’m sorry. The entire situation had veered off from being a place of comfort to a place where more hurt stemmed from. I was an adult at sixteen, like I was an adult at twelve, but even adults are slow to learn their lessons sometimes. And I was afraid of you, you gave me reason to be. I should have been more afraid of you, in retrospect. But I knew then as I know now, you were never a bad man. You are a good man. You were just troubled. And a sixteen year old girl an ocean away was not the answer to anything. Except more pain. And I regret causing you that pain.
I heard the recordings of your live performance. You still brush the hair off your forehead exactly the same way. And you still smoke incessantly. Although I can’t look at you scoldingly for that anymore, given that I’ve started smoking too ( I know, right? Who would’ve thought?) And you smile more fully. And no matter what happened between us, it is so heartwarmingly, gloriously wonderful to see you smile that way.
One day, I will too.
Back when I was a kid, I used to haunt my neighbor’s bookstore. That’s probably the best kind of neighbor a kid could ask for, growing up. His house was a treasure trove- comics, novels, magazines, some stuff that wasnt entirely age appropriate, some completely inappropriate.. and a fellow partner in crime, a girl a few years older than me. It wasn’t enough that the both of us spent every moment not in school or doing homework, together. We’d prowl around in her dad’s store/library, reading books carefully without bending their spines, putting them back, and moving on. We were fixtures there. That’s where I met Prophet.
Prophet was a big guy. In my recollections he seems even bigger than his sizeable 6′ 6″- when you’re a kid, everyone does seem a lot bigger. But the scraggly beard and trademark flannels that would be intimidating on someone else, just served to soften him even more. His real name was Sam, but hardly anyone called him that. The name ‘Prophet’, I found out later, was a college tag that had followed him for his whole life because of his invincibility. He had been in not one, but four near fatal accidents. Two on the road, and two at the construction site where he moonlighted. Not that he was particularly clumsy, he wasn’t at all, really. Just had really bad luck. The last accident, which had totalled his car and one that hit him, killed the other guy on the spot. Prophet had crawled out and dragged himself across the wreckage, which is where the EMT found him when they came. He lived, but the last one had taken his back. He would walk with a peculiar shuffling gait for the rest of his life. When he got to know us better and realized that we weren’t a pair of squealing, squeamish teen girls, he showed us the scars around his calves, too. His calves were nothing but scars.
That, and his odd knack for telling people the right thing to do, had earned him the nickname ‘Prophet’. He was a big teddy bear of a guy, all seriousness and wry jokes around the adults, and an infinite amount of patience for two girls who asked him an endless stream of questions about anything and everything, all the while devouring every book in their reach. Technically, we weren’t the same age. I was eleven, and my best friend was fifteen. That didn’t matter as much as it seems it would, we had exactly the same interests anyway. And Prophet was so familiar a face that her dad would often leave him to manage the register and keep an eye on light fingered customers, if he fancied a chat with someone, or took a break and went off fr lunch. The only times we couldn’t badger him would be when my neighbor’s son stopped by, all grown up at seventeen and having man-to-man conversations about girls and what not- Prophet didn’t care, he treated us all the same anyway, but a couple of kiddie tag alongs aren’t good for a newly cool guy’s image, so my friend’s brother would turf us to the back.
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint what moment was so significant in the impact that he had on us. Or maybe there’s so many of them that I can’t think of one that stands out. What I do know for sure is that he was one of the most important formative influences in my young adult life – some of the lessons of which I’ve carried well into my adult life. Whether it’s his penchant for smoking Reds (which I frowned upon back then), the fact that he drank coffee black as Lillith’s heart (which I would gag on back then, but drink multiple times a day now), or that staple uniform of flannels, which I still associate with safer times, happier times. Or the fact that I learned as much about the real world from him, as I did about the world inside my head from the books around us. About honor, about courage, about morals… never in so many words, often as stories or recollections. About loyalty, about love- the value of both, and the pain of both when broken. His wife left him during a particularly rough patch with his disability, and he never really moved on. While me and my friend used the forbidden words for her when alone -the bitch- he didn’t even need to move on. He loved her, and that was enough for him. Just like he dealt with pain- every. single. day. But it was just pain, and he was master of it. We’d know on days when it was really bad, but the man never complained, never made an issue of it. He was fine, it was fine, everything was fine.
Kindness. Patience. A sense of humor that led him to tolerate out nonsense, and on whimsical days, even contribute to it. Like finding me a solid window frame from God knows where for the rickety shed I built on my roof. Other kids had treehouses. I had a room made by own two hands. I probably wouldn’t anyone’s kid come within four feet of such a dilapidated construction today, but back then it was a fortress. It would be baking hot in the sun, but I’d be up on the roof, away from the shouting that would filter through from the house, and I had a fucking window. Not even the boys had fucking windows.
Things changed eventually, though. He didn’t tire of our questions, or of the fact that his adolescent fan club had whittled down to one. My friend finally discovered guys when he hit sixteen, and boys finally separated us in a way five years never had before. While she fought the make up fight, I was still struggling along with my usual, now working through a pile of my grandfather’s books that had been shipped in from Moscow. And while I pestered Prophet with incredulous questions about Marxism and the World Wars – I always asked him. I doubt my father can even spell ‘Marx’ without asking me which exam I’m asking for – while this fabric of the bookstore bunch frayed, things were changing in his life too. His father passed away, when I was thirteen, and suddenly he was faced with the responsibility of having to care for his mum. I think he was thirty eight at the time, or thirty nine. But he was gone for a month, and then when he came back, he came back only to wind everything up from here and move away permanently. I barely spoke to him for five minutes, while dad watched suspiciously from the window as a guy a good head taller than him stood on the doorstep, handed me a box of his old comics, and told me I’d always been a good girl, and a good friend to him. And that if he was a prophet in any way at all, I’d be in his prayers. None of which made much sense to dad, but it was one the first real partings for me. I was old enough to know, and to understand. We probably wouldn’t see each other again.
This was well before facebook and social media. I never even got his last name, any way. I like to think that he did move on eventually, and had kids of his own to be a great father to, instead of just to a lost kid like me, and some others. One of the first things I ever wrote was in the diary that he gave me, and that my father later read, triggering one of the worst periods of my life- but that’s a story for another day. I wonder if he’s even read my work somewhere, anywhere. Would he know that the girl he gave a window to, shared his poisonous coffee with, has grown old enough to smoke her own Reds now, write articulately enough to miss him on the Internet, and have an obsession with Orthopedics? I do hope he knows. I also hope he knows he taught me how even seemingly indestructible people can be secretly vulnerable. How pain is just another beast to tame. And how a little sincere attention given to a growing, shaping mind, can shape an entire person. Now I’m trying to be that person for a friend’s younger sister, who’s recently begun to write poetry- quite seriously for a fifteen year old, and none of that Insta-crap either. And as I write back to her about how her sonnets work, and how punctuation fits in, I know Prophet would’ve been happy at least with some of the ways I turned out.
Fluctuat nec mergitur
I think I made it.
Being up before dawn is quite something.
And Other Psychotic Pastimes
One of the things I grew up hearing about my father, and was thankfully too young to remember seeing, was his penchant for rat catching.
My house has two large, spread out yards. The backyard is somewhat separated from a stretch of ditches, scrubby land, and swampy holes. Ever so often when the rain has been heavier than usual, rats tend to shift from their hidey holes (which I assume, fill up with water), and show up on our side of the fence. It’s not unusual anymore, and the rats don’t make a nuisance of themselves. We see them maybe once in the morning, for a couple of days, and when the rain stops and the water vanishes, so do they. Over the time we’ve built a tenuous understanding of sorts with each other, which mostly involves looking the other way from each other. I even managed to make friends with a couple of bigger fellows who even learnt how to sit up and beg for food, or to sit on our sun-rock and wait till someone saw them, and do their begging trick. The cats remain supremely unconcerned of all these goings on, and for the most part, so do we.
Till last week, though.
Friday morning, I woke up earlier than usual. Thought I’d make myself coffee and sit in the yard, watch the morning come in. When I peeked outside, Dad was standing like a knight in boxer armor, holding aloft a Mop-Lance, preparing to sneak up on one of the rats and smack him with the pointy end. The rat was just sitting there minding his own business, probably waiting for one of us to toss him a fruit loop or something. The minute Dad went in for the kill, I nearly spat out my coffee and went running down to stop him. The rat saw me before he did, probably thought I’d gone mental, and skittered off back into his burrow. Safe, though, thankfully.
After a morning of explaining to Dad how the rat system works (and listening to a lot of rants about the bubonic plague and hygiene and what not), the entire matter was settled. Later in the day, mom told me this story- or should I say, horror story.
So apparently, this rat business has been around for ages. Since my grandparents time, even. They show up in the rains, when the lower levels are flooded, and go away on their own. But rat catching has always been a huge favorite of my dad’s. His preferred method employed a wire cage, bread, a sharp iron poker, and boiling water/hot oil. My mom first saw this stake-out-and-trap-the-rat business in their first year of marriage. Mind you, in my opinion that should’ve been warning enough, but she ‘had faiiiiith in him’, back when she was still naive and what not.
The process went like this. When the rain started, Dad would rig up those trapdoor sort of walk in cages for the bigger rats. He wasn’t after the small fry. He wanted a good fight on his hands, or something. The bread anc cheese would lure the rat in, the trapdoor would snap shut, and next morning, the torture began.
First, he’d bean the poor critter with the poker. When he got tired of that, he’d pour boiling hot water or oil on it, so it was essentially fried alive. And then, triumphant and victorious, he’d be mighty satisfied with himself for the next few days or so. Till a few months later, or till the next time it rained for a few days straight.
Obviously, mom was beyond horrified. She told me how she stated crying when she saw the brutal scene, and later told my dad never to do that again. And obviously, dad was all ‘nothing-wrong-with-that’ and ‘religion-says-you-should-kill-harmful-pests’ and all. After seeing how defensive and vehement the topic made him, she dropped the argument. But she saw it happen a couple of times more, and couldn’t take it. She pointed out that his defense of ‘religion-says’ doesn’t work because ‘religion says that you’re NOT, in ANY way whatsoever, supposed to torture any living being, pest or not’, and boiling water, oil, and those beating to death sort approaches, are even more strictly forbidden. You are, under no circumstances whatsoever, to give pain to any animal. Kill it mercifully, or just release it somewhere else. No oil and poker shenanigans.
Well, that put a damper on the rat catching. Thankfully, I should add. I don’t know where those genes went but all my siblings inherited mom’s Love Thy Rat and Love Thy Every Animal philosophy. I’ve had pet house lizards, pet spiders, pet crows, pet random assorted birds, and God knows what other animals. Other girls’ mums would forbid pets, or picking up injured animals. My mom welcomes them. We even had an electrocuted crow who she nursed back to health for three months. He actually flew away on his own two wings afterward, it was the most beautiful sight to see. Dad would’ve probably been like, “yum, yum, roast crow” or something.
He’s a lot more civilized now. The traveling and the job and the money have taught him how to maintain the veneer. But after hearing all that, as I sat opposite him laughing and joking around with his actually civilized friends, and doing a brilliant job of faking it, all I could think of was the barbarian who lives inside his ‘gentleman shaped suit’.
The Painted Smile
You get up early morning, to the clattering of dishes.
Nothing’s breaking outside your door, or in the kitchen, but thrown about to within an inch of breaking. Just almost. Almost is where the smart people do their work.
You edge the door open and tiptoe across the hall, making sure that you’re not seen or heard. The Dishes are a sacred ceremony. Crossing the High Priest in any way is an instant ticket to some good ol’ bloodletting. The Dishes should not be interrupted.
You sneak your clothes in across the yard, surreptitiously sneaking your phone and an apple into your bag when ghosting through the living room. It’s the youngest one’s turn to be a bonded slave today, heck, even slaves probably had some rights back then. But, it’s not your turn, not yet at least. That’s good enough for now.
You wind up your unnecessary chores, being as invisible as possible. Your filing system would make a PA proud, and your handwritten notes and letters would put a typist out of a job. In the real world, in the cruel world, sawdust has more value. So you do your chores and keep your head down. Heads that are raised up get pushed back down pretty sharpish anyway.
You change into decent clothes. As unassuming as humanly possible, since you’re terrified someone will see you, know you. Even more so, you’re petrified that someone will want to know you more than you dare show. There are things in your life no one should know. No one can know. So you paint a smile onto your face, and go about your day.
You paint a smile onto your face and go through the motions. Walk through the morons wrapped in their own worlds, stopping for those few people you can see right through. They have eyes like yours, they have painted smiles like yours. You know them, and they know you, but you cannot show or know anymore. Neither of you can afford it.
You throw the ball around. You read, you eat. You laugh as often and as loud as you can without seeing overtly fake You pretend to worry about your toenails like the other girls. It has to be just right. You keep the smile painted on till it’s time to go home.
And then the paint washes away. Not tearproof you see. You stand and take the pointless yellings and beatings like a man, even though you’re not really a man. You’re a girl who comes shoulder high to one of the biggest monsters the world has seen, but still forces herself to look him in the eye. But you’re the closest thing to a man in the house, so you ball up and goddamn take it.
You play the secretary, then the maid. Then the nurse. Then the counselor for the younger ones. Then a shoulder and a listening ear for the oldest one. Then you clean and feed and soothe the menagerie. Occasionally you find time for studying. All the while you hitch up the slipping painted smile back onto your face, ’cause the Monster thinks he’s being fucking adorable. Yeahhhh, hahahaha that’s so funny!
And then finally it’s time. The High Priest settles down to worship the laptop for the rest of the night, and you see your chance. You make sure everyone’s safely in bed, and you find your way to your own. No major bruises or breaks, it’s been a good day. You take a moment to talk to that ocean eyed beating heart of solace so far away, and he helps you wash the pain of another day off your skin, off your mind. He makes you chuckle too. Because he loves you, as broken as you are. You talk to your ocean eyed oracle too, she knows you through and through. They love you, and they make sure you know you’re loved. Which is why you love them so goddamn much. So much that they could break you completely, just by not being, but you know, you know, they never will.
You leave the painted smile on your bedside, you’ll need it tomorrow. Tonight you can sleep with a real one on your face.
Who knew? Turns out there’s a real smile alive in there, somewhere, after all.