Friday, January 31, 2014


Chinese Tiger Versus Dragon
by Heatherbeast

This afternoon I took Pippi out to her favorite Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year. I wanted to celebrate with her on one of her rare days off.   Even with her three-year-old twin boys in tow, I knew it would be a special mother-daughter luncheon.

I was hoping it would be like the old days.

Our family used to live next to Chinatown. Jose and I still laugh, wondering how we raised five kids in that  house in such a questionable area. Penelope was our baby, and our only girl. The boys called her Pippi. When all the boys were in school, I’d sometimes take her shopping and then out to eat at one of the authentic restaurants for which Chinatown was so famous. We made frequent trips, and Pippi learned how to eat with chopsticks at an early age. Her favorite thing was showing off to her father and brothers, who still preferred forks.

“Did you and Mama eat in Chinatown again?” Jose would ask her. Pippi would be dexterously using her bamboo sticks to pick up rice and veggies from her bowl a bowl. I’d wink at her, secretly.  In our large family, lunch dates were times of female bonding. 

“Why does she always get to go with you?” Roberto, my youngest son, asked one night. Like his brothers, he never got to have shopping trips and lunch with me.

“Because I’m Chinese, and you're not!” she answered. Our dinner table erupted with laughter. Pippi looked Chinese. She had my grandmother's almond shaped eyes, my straight black hair, and rosy apple-cheeks, like a painting. "God made me Chinese, and all of you are Mexican. Why do you think you can't use chopsticks?"

We never corrected Pippa's misconception, thinking it was cute. Part of me thought it did no harm, since she did anything to distinguish herself from among her brothers. It didn't take long before my thinking backfired.

The next week, Jose joined Pippa and I for lunch at Happy Dragon, one of our favorite restaurants.  Mrs. Lee, our favorite seating hostess, looked at Jose suspiciously when she first met him.

"I thought you were married to an Asian man," she said, pointing to Pippa. "Because of your daughter." 

"We're Mexican," I said. "In some regions of Mexico, the people sometimes have the same physical characteristics as Asians."

"Uh-huh," Mrs. Lee said, handing us our menus. I could tell she didn't trust my explanation.

"I am Chinese, Mama!" Pippa said, loudly. Mrs. Lee looked at her and smiled. As I tried to laugh and explain this outburst, Pippa shouted. "Tell her the truth! Tell the truth about our family!"

 I avoided Happy Dragon after that. 

Pippa grew, and her eyes became her trademark. They were framed with long lashes, and .  Everywhere we went, Pippi was admired.  I wasn’t ready for her adolescence, which came too quickly. It was like Pippa was body-snatched in the middle of the night and replaced with someone who wanted to fight about everything.

She never wanted to eat what I made for dinner. She never wanted to sleep or study. She suddenly withheld her affection. She was convinced I nagged and pushed her too hard. I probably did. In high school, she was an honor student and was in band, playing the flute.  One day after school I made the mistake of suggesting she branch out into different areas.  The remark brought a tearful eruption.

“I’ll never be good enough for you,” she screamed. 

“Why do you say that?  Such drama!  All I’m saying is…”

“I do my best and my best isn’t good enough for you.”

“You will always be good enough for me!”  Before I could clarify my words, she was running down the hall and then slamming her door.

What happened to my daughter?  Would I ever see my little girl again?  The one who loved me and knew I loved her?

Today we had lunch together and our conversation was like the careful, polite exchanges of two people who have only just met each other.  We have learned to be civil with each other so we don’t fight.

“That was good,”  I say, as we finish.

“Grandma,” Jacob asks me, looking at the ceiling.  “What is your favorite thing here?”

“Besides you two?” I joke, looking between him and Josh.  “I think it is….”

“Grandma’s favorite is the eggroll, always.” Pippa smiles, answering for me.  The boys agree that it’s their favorite, too.  I don’t have the heart to tell them that their Mom is wrong.  My favorite is the noodles without dressing.  It is a traditional Chinese favorite that Pippi and I have ordered for years. 

“Mommy, can we play in the kids area now?” Josh asks his mother.  Jacob waits closely behind him for her answer.

“I guess…”

“Thank you!”  They sing in unison and run toward the slides and swings that flank the restaurant. 

“Thanks for lunch, Mom,” Pippa yawns.   I know it’s been a busy week for her.  She and her husband, Greg,  have just landed a big account in their business and they’ve both been working a lot of hours. 

“When are you going to slow down?”

My daughter rolls her eyes.  “Don’t start, Mom.”

“You have twin boys, you know.”

“Really, do I?  Because I forgot!”

I let it drop and there’s a bit of silence as she reaches in her purse for her phone.  After checking her  messages our waitress comes over and picks up the check.

“You want to take with you?” She points at the last egg roll, a juicy temptation left between us.

“Not for me,” I say, raising my eyebrows at Pippi.  She shakes her head and the waitress smiles and walks off with the leather check-holder with the cash inside.  I forget to tell her to keep the change before she walks off.

“The last eggroll,” Pippi smiles as she texts. “You know you’ve been on a diet as long as I can remember?  Why don’t you ever give yourself a treat?”

The remark stings and she can tell.

“Really?” she says. “That offends you?  Admit it, you’re always on a diet.”

“I guess,”  I start to feel her claws against my neck. I feel trapped, unable to say the right thing.   

“Why can’t I say anything to you anymore?”

“You can,” I begin. I want to tell her that I feel the same way. I can't say anything to her anymore without offending. Even those words seem barbed, so I say nothin.

“Whatever,” she says. She finishes her text and puts her phone down on the table. I can tell she feels misunderstood.  I remember a younger version of the same face smiling broadly at me, picking up her bamboo chopsticks.

“Pippi, let’s not fight,” I say. "We see each other so rarely these days. Let's not waste a day with a fight.

“You know, Mom,” she says, “every time I’m with you I feel like a child!  You’re the only one who still calls me Pippi! My brothers, Dad, my husband, my friends? They all call me Penelope, which is my adult name!”

Silence descends again. I'm looking at the placemat in front of me, a paper sheet with a circle in the middle. The Chinese Zodiak is explained in the middle. Pippi sighs. I wonder when we became so distant. How many mothers and daughters, who really do love each other, feel misunderstood or disrespected in their relationship?  I want to ask her opinion, but I don’t know how. Instead, I ask her a simple question.

“You want me to call you Penelope?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Alright, I will.”

“I’ve heard that before,” she says. I look up at her, and she's watching the boys. They're at the waterfall, an elaborate fish and turtle pond in the middle of the restaurant. A small children's slide and swing set is next to it. 

“Do you want some help getting the boys together?” I ask.  “I can load one of them in their car seats…”

“No, they’re having fun,” she says. “Can we just sit here and have some tea?” 

I nervously agree. “Alright, I guess.”  I want to add: “BUT let’s not start picking each other apart, okay?” but I don’t. 

The waitress returns with our change and I tell her to keep it. 

“Thank you,” she says, and smiles. 

“Can we still order some tea?” I ask.

“Actually,” Pippi interjects, smiling broadly. “Since tea comes with our meal, and we didn't have it, can we just have a pot of tea now?”

“Yes, yes,” the waitress says. “Of course. Oolong tea or Jasmine ?”

As I say Oolong, Pippi says Jasmine. We look at each other and smile. I start to defer her wishes, but the waitress laughs.

“I'll bring you green tea?” she suggests. “Green tea is made with the fresh leaf and costs a little bit more but I won’t charge you.”

I look at Pippi, who smiles and nods.  As our waitress walks away, and I think of what Pippi has just said.  Do I really treat her like a child?  Do I really not listen?  

In the ten years she has been away from home, she's become a mother and a wife and a business owner.  In very many ways she’ll always be my little girl.

“What are you thinking?” she asks, suspiciously.

“Nothing, really.”

“What is it?”

“Do you really think I don’t listen to you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Pippi  laughs, as if this is an understatement.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she says.  “Just listen to me.”

I have to swallow hard to accept her words.  I wonder if she knows how much her words hurt.  

“Here's, your tea!”  The waitress lays clean placemats before us and then white cups with no handles.  In the middle of the table she places a pot of green tea.  Pippi lifts the lid and decides it needs to sit awhile. 

“I’m just gonna check on the boys,” she says, leaving her seat. I sigh, looking down at my placemat. The Chinese Zodiac calendar gives an image of each animal, what year it corresponds to, and a brief description of people born under the sign. 

According to the chart, I am a tiger: a creative individual who is optimistic, resilient, and influential.  It also says I am sensitive and prone to getting my feeling hurt too easily.  Am I?

I quickly scan the chart to find Pippi. It says she's a dragon.  It reads: “Proud, strong, and self-assured, Dragons don’t have to ask for things, they demand them. They can be dictatorial and inflexible in their associations with others, but at the same time be the warmest, most gentle individuals you may meet.”  I smile and look around for Pippi, my Penelope, just to show her. 

She's walking toward me, Joshua following her closely.  “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m going to have to take a rain check on the tea, Josh wet his pants.”  I can tell she frustrated and I start looking around for Jacob, who comes running to her in tears. 

“Why do we have to go?” he is crying.  “Josh wet his pants, not me!”  His sobs echo through the restaurant as his mother tries to calm him. Josh, on the other hand, is ready to leave. 

“Bye, Grandma,” he says, almost too quickly. 

“Is there anything I can do?” I ask Pippi. 

“No, nothing.”

I pick up the placemat and follow her as she marches out to the parking lot. The waitress watches us, nonplussed, as we've left the teapot untouched on the table. I follow her to her car, even though Jacob is crying. He still doesn’t want to leave. Josh jumps into the car and buckles himself into his own carseat.

“Pip… Penelope, do you want to take this placemat home?” I ask. She turns around, and her face is like mine, or like mine was twenty years ago, when I was trying to corral the kids into the car. I numbly lift up the paper placemat, and it flaps in the cold wind. "I thought the kids might like to see it. It's Chinese New Year, after all. I was just reading these descriptions of the dragon and tiger…”  I try to show her twhat I'm talking about, but she looks at me like I've lost my mind.  

“Really, Mom?” she says. She clicks Jacob's car seat buckle and shuts his door.  “Are you kidding me?  Remember how you used to make the waitresses take that shit off the table? Because it conflicted with out beliefs? You didn’t want me being deceived by the Chinese Zodiac? All that stuff  you used to say, and it was so embarrassing. Remember?”

Her voice is agitated. It's drowned out only by Jacob's cries. I suddenly recognize my insensitivity. 

“Sorry, honey,” I say.  “I was just trying to lighten the mood, I guess.”

“Yeah, well, she says, fumbling with her keys. “I can’t understand you, sometimes.  I mean, sometimes I wonder why you used to be so… ”

She looks like she's trying to be careful with her words. I really want to know what I used to be, something that might explain why we're not friends.

“So what?”

“Never mind. Thanks for lunch.”

She gives me an obligatory hug and gets into the car. I blow the boys kisses; they manage a weak wave back. Pippi drives off, leaving me in the parking lot, filled with disappointment, and waving at the taillights of her Rav4 . 

When I return home, I sit at my computer, and start editing a piece for the Sun-Times that is due in eight hours. Instead of giving it my full attention, my mind drifts back to the lunch with my daughter. I start to get tears in my eyes. I decide to draft an email to her. Jose has asked me not to send Pippi emails until he's read them first. I resolve to save it as a draft for him to read later. 

Dear Penelope,

I can’t stop thinking of you. 

You are my daughter, the beautiful blessing that God decided to give me.  Today as we left the restaurant, I wanted to grab you and hold you and scream “I love you! How can I help you receive my love?” Instead, I said nothing and just waved to you like you were any other person I have in my life.
But you’re not. 

You’re not like any other person I have in my life.  You are the one who is so close to me that you can hear me purr or growl before the rest of the world does. You can see right through the wall I've built and know me for who I really am. For all the years we have struggled, we have also understood each other. 

I thought it would be fun to go out on Chinese New Year for the same reason I thought it would be fun to read you what the placemats said about the tiger (me) and the dragon (you).  I don’t put much belief in that stuff, as you inferred earlier, but I thought it brought comic relief to all of the tension we were having at lunch. 

The truth is, every mother and daughter does this dance that we do.  We trade places in frustration, belief, hope and anger.  We sometimes believe (falsely) that we don’t understand one another.  We think we can’t see the other, but the truth is we do. I should say that I want to understand you; I want to know you; I want to love and be loved by you. 

Isn’t that better than thinking we already know each other? 

I love you and I’m proud of you.


Instead of saving it to a draft, I hit send.

When Jose comes home, I show him the letter and he rubs his forehead. “I thought we agreed you wouldn't send letters to Penelope without showing me first?” I smile, sheepishly. Then I ask him when he stopped calling her Pippi and started calling her Penelope. He tells me he started when she asked him to, and that was when she was twelve years old. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014


There’s no such thing as a beautiful night in a miserable, podunk town like this one.  If everyone weren’t out here at this Okie stomp party they’d be off doing drugs somewhere.  I’m miserable because I hate okies, I hate stomping and I guess I hate small towns.  I wouldn’t even be here if I didn’t want a good look at Old Man Stanley’s barn.  I thought for a second that it might just be haunted after all.

This evening I was in the bathtub reading 100 Years of Solitude when I got a call from Donna. 

“What are you doing?”


“What are you doing, really?”

I splashed my hand in the water so she could hear. 

“Oh, okay.”

“And I’m reading about Colonel Buendía launching another uprising.”

“Colonel who?”

“Why did you call, Donna?”

“Gosh!  I wanted to see if you want to go to an okie stomp tonight.  Don’t say no.”

I sighed.  “Okay…”

“Okay, you’ll go?”

“Okay, I won’t say no.  I was really looking forward to staying in tonight, Donna.”

“Yeah, that would make it like every other night you had this week.  You gotta get out more.”

I sighed again.  “I’m guessing Abby or Kevin aren’t going.”

“They’re taking the SAT’s tomorrow.  Why do you ask that?”

“I’m the only other of your friends that drives.”

“No you’re not.”

She started begging me, I mean begging.  When she saw that it wasn't working, she switched her tactic to appeal to my girly side: “There’s lots of guys there.  Jake will be there and he just broke up with Debbie again.  Maybe Donnie will be there..."

Then she threw out the biggest hook:  “It’s at my cousin Eddie’s barn.  Next door to where the flying saucers landed.”

I closed my book and decided to go, but only because that’s the kind of excitement we have around here.  It’s the only entertainment here that’s better than a hot bath and a good book. 

This town is so Hicksville that we have a crop circle in a cornfield. 

Supposedly in 1965 a UFO landed in the remote north-east corner of town.  Jedidiah Stanley (oh yeah, that’s his name.  What did I tell you about the hickness of this town?) owned a barn that overlooked the circles, three perfect  disks, set up looking like a triangle.  The police and the mayor and the newspaper came and took a bunch of pictures and for awhile our little town was slicker than hot snot on a cold doorknob. 

Pretty soon all kinds of people started visiting Stanley’s barn just to get a good look at the circles.  They’d show up without even asking permission and it used to make him mad as a hornet.  He ended up buying heavy iron gates and posting “NO TRESSPASSING” signs.  One day two drunk teenagers snuck over these gates and snuck into the barn.  Well, it turned out that they fell from the loft, drunk off their heads, and broke their necks.  They died instantly, but Stanley only found their bodies the next day when they were all pest ridden and stuff. 

After that terrible disaster, Stanley became a recluse and understandably wouldn’t go out on the town.  He felt awkward and uncomfortable.  People started calling him Old Man Stanley behind his back, even though he was only sixty or something. 

Donna’s cousin Eddie and his family bought the place next door about five years ago and built a dance studio in the barn.  Eddie started reporting strange, paranormal activity coming from the adjoining property.  He once saw two guys drinking beer by the fence on Old Man Stanley’s side and he hollered at them. 

The two guys looked over and waved, but when he started to walk over there they walked away.  

Supposedly he saw them a few times by that same part of the fence, right next to Old Man Stanley’s barn.  That’s when he got it in his head that those two guys might actually be the ghosts of the teenagers who died there. 

He got really popular at school and everyone started researching paranormal stuff.  Some people even thought the ghost teens had spiritual reasons for their stay here.  Donna was one of them.

“I have this theory... maybe those guys don’t know how to get to heaven,” she told me over our tray of cafeteria food one day.  “Maybe the aliens blocked the way because aliens don’t believe in God, do they?”

I was about to sip my coke, but decided not to because I really thought I would cough it up guffawing.  As I laughed, trying not to hack up a kidney, I heard her saying,  “Well, maybe.”

Once I calmed down I asked her, “How are we still friends?  A theory usually makes sense, or has some kind of sense in it somewhere.  Your theory has no sense in it at all.  Here's my theory: maybe Eddie is just bored and he made up this story.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I’d be bored out there.”

“Are you calling my cousin a liar?”  Donna actually was offended. 

“No, of course not.”

“I’m just saying.  What if the flying saucers put a force field around the whole field?”

I tried hard not to laugh.  The harder I tried, the more my laughs escaped me like screams. 

“Stop laughing at me!  You don’t know!”

So this brings me to tonight.  I've been dying for any excuse just to come out here and see the field for myself.  The thing is, it's dark and I can't see anything.  Old Man Stanley's barn looks a lot like any other barn around here.  

I'm left with a cold realization that I am here at an okie stomp.  It's not as bad as I thought it would be, but instead of enjoying the company of  friends, I have to admit I'm bored out of my mind.  Beer drinking, line dancing, and butt swinging isn’t my idea of a good time.  Donna is outside making out with Kyle Monegue, the cutest guy here.  The rest of the guys who want to talk are drunk and fast and I just chose to come out in the fresh air. 

Like I said before, there is no such thing as a beautiful night when you’re in a miserable Podunk town like this one.  I left Gabriel García Márquez to come out here and sit on the ground looking up at the stars. Instead of admiring Cassiopeia or Ursa Major, I’m just thinking of how nice it would be to strap myself to a missile and light the bottom just to get out of this place. 

“Hey, sweetheart,” a voice calls to me from the fence.  I look over to see a random hick drinking a beer.  He’s wearing a checkered shirt and a ball cap and has a cigarette hanging from his mouth.  “Got a light?”

“No,” I say.  It’s hard to hide my disdain. “You shouldn’t smoke so close to a barn.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  Probably.”

I’m surprised that he agrees with me so I watch him put the cigarette back in his pocket.  Right when I think he’s going to come over and try to talk with me, he turns around and walk in the other direction.

Toward Old Man Stanley’s barn. 

Kinda scary….

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


photo credit

Once upon a time in a Kingdom of Peace, there stood an Emerald colored castle by a large lake.  Inside lived a King and Queen who were deeply in love with each other.  

Each day they would rise from their sleep and have breakfast  together at a crystal table, overlooking the lake.  Most of the time their breakfast was eggs and waffles made from the finest ingredients that were naturally grown and collected in their peaceful Kingdom.

The reflection of the castle upon the water was full of so much beauty that the King and Queen would stare for hours.  They were so happy and wanted nothing more than to have a child, a bundle of joy that would make their lives complete.  Unfortunately, the King and Queen were not able to have children and it made their hearts very sad.

One day, after breakfast, the Queen and all of her friends were down in the garden cutting roses for the royal flower arrangements.  As they did, the Queen pricked her finger upon a thorn  and fell down to the ground in a faint.

Her friends, thinking that she had only fainted from pain, tried to fan her and bring her water. Still,  the Queen would not wake up.  The friends sent word to the King, who stopped what he was doing and ran to the Queen at once.  He tried to revive her, but it was no use. 

“Fetch the doctor!” the King called to his servants, who ran into the town and came back with the doctor, who had his medical bag. 

The doctor tried his best with all of his medical knowledge to revive the Queen, but he could not.   Instead, he ordered the servants  to take the Queen up to her room and lay her down in her bed so that she not be harmed by anymore rose thorns.

Days past and the Queen would not wake up.  The King could neither sleep nor eat, knowing his true love was sleeping from an unknown malady from which she might not wake.  

At church on Sunday, the King asked his pastor what the matter could be. 

“Let me come out and pray and perhaps God will show me the answer.”  The King was happy to bring the Pastor out to the castle, and did so immediately.  The Royal carriage, pulled by six horses, sped its way home.  In his haste, the driver almost ran over a deer with a fawn, two ducks and three raccoon.  The Pastor bounced around in the back of the carriage, knowing that speed was of the essence.

When they arrived, the Pastor looked at the roses and then went up with the King to pray over the Queen. 

“Do you believe that she can be healed?” the Pastor asked. 

“Yes, I do!” the King answered.

“Then I say to you, my Queen, please get up.”

At once, the Queen woke from her faint and looked around.  She was so happy to see the King (and of course she was a little surprised to see the Pastor), but she also looked around for someone else.

“Where is she?” the Queen asked. 

“Where is who, my love?”

“Where is my daughter?”

The King was speechless.  He thought maye the Queen had a dream where she had a daughter and now he did not want to upset her by telling her that she had none. 

“Where is my daughter?” The Queen asked again.  

The King shook his head and could not answer.  He was saddened, thinking that the Queen had enjoyed having a daughter while she slept and now he had to tell her the girl did not exist.

“My love, we have no daughter.  You have been asleep for a week after fainting in the garden.  You must have dreamed her presence.”

The Queen threw off her covers and knelt up on the bed, she placed her hands on the King’s chest and said, “My King, I did dream it!  I dreamed I was gardening and then fell ill.  When I fell ill, I could do nothing but walk around the garden and there, behind the hedgerose I found a young orphaned girl with tattered clothes and tangled hair but such a kind face.  I asked her if she wanted anything and she said she just wanted a mother!  We walked and talked for days and days!”

The King did not know what to say.  It seemed the queen was so happy about her dream, but what could he say? 

“My Queen, what can I do?”

“You must wait for me while I dress,” the Queen said as she jumped out of bed.  “I am going to dress and we will go out to the garden to find her. 

The Queen ran into her extensive closet and began pulling down gowns off the hangers.  “Where is it?” the King heard her say.  “Where is the gown I was wearing when I met her?”

Finally, the Queen emerged from her massive closet, smiling in a beautiful green gown with a blue silk covering that danced all around her.  She grabbed her jeweled crown and took the King by the hand, pulling him down the stairs and out into the garden. 

At first, the King had hope, looking everywhere around the hedgerose for a small orphaned girl.  Then, after hours of searching their extensive grounds, both King and Queen grew weary and realized it was all a dream. 

“Perhaps God wanted me to have comfort in my sleep so he gave me a daughter that I would have only in my dreams.”  Her tears flowed  and the King brought her inside the castle, only to find the Pastor still sitting there, waiting for them. 

“If you could not find an orphaned girl in the hedgerose, may I make a suggestion?”

Both King and Queen looked at each other and nodded.  “Yes, please do.”

“There are many children who live in the orphanage who need homes.  Why not go and see if you can find the face of the daughter who was in your dream?”

The King and Queen thought this to be a wonderful idea and said so.  After a night’s sleep, they set off with the Pastor, for the orphanage the next morning.  On their way, they prayed for God to help them find the daughter the Queen had seen in her dream. 

They arrived at the orphanage and all of the orphans were very happy to see them.  They bowed and curtseyed like proper ladies and gentlemen and looked into their faces as they scanned the crowd for the girl. 

There were about sixteen orphans in all, half boys and half girls.  They were all lovely and delightful, but none of them had the face of the girl that the Queen remembered from her dream. 

The Pastor asked the Queen to repeat the dream to the maid in charge of the orphanage.  When she did, the maid, a woman of about twenty four years, fell silent. 

“Your Highness,” she said.  “This little girl in your dream is me!”

“What?” the Queen asked, in a confused way.  The girl did look a lot like the girl from the Queen’s dream, but she was fully grown.  “The little girl I saw was very small and very dirty.”

The maid sat down in a chair and began to weep.  She put her apron to her face and then told the story of how she was found. 

“My parents died in a fire.  I was very young when this happened and since I had no home, I stayed in the forest all by myself, surviving on nuts and berries.  One day, a man of the royal guard came along and asked me if I needed anything.  I told him that I needed nothing – only a mother.  He brought me here to the orphanage, and since he found me behind a hedgerose, he named me Rose. 

The King and Queen were both amazed at this story;  so amazed that they even had tears in their eyes. 
“You must come and live with us, then!” the Queen said. 

“I can’t Mum,” Rose said, drying her tears.  “If I leave here, who will take care of these orphans?”

The Pastor agreed.  “Rose is the one who has been giving the necessary care to run this orphanage.  Although the church has been giving them money, Rose is the one who loves the children.”

“If that is the case,” the King said, merrily.  “Then all of the children must come with us and live at the Emerald Castle!”

At the news of this, there was great celebration and joy.  The King and Queen were happy that their large castle would now be filled with children.  The children packed their clothes and toys and rejoiced that they would all now be princes and princesses.  The Queen laughed aloud, encouraged that she found Rose, the daughter of her dream. 

From that day forward, the Emerald Castle had rooms that were always filled with life and children.  The orphans were no longer orphans, but princes and princesses in the happiest, most peaceful kingdom in the whole world. 
Every morning, the King and Queen and Rose would eat breakfast on the terrace, overlooking the lake that reflected beauty and peace. 

And their hearts were full.    


The pine boxes were originally designed for use as packing crates for potatoes or other root vegetables.  They each were rectangular and had oval openings at each end for lifting the crates and moving them from place to place.

Today, they were the seats that Yafa had chosen for sitting shiva.  It was not a popular choice; her own mother had complained that the seats were not sturdy.

“When my husband died,” Mama told Yafa.  “Remember we had the stools?  Those were for me and you and the uncles and aunts and neighbors.  Then I had the folding chairs for the elderly visitors.  That way they could sit up straight the way they do and not worry about toppling over, Umbashrien!” 

“These are the ones I want, Mama,” Yafa said softly.  Today was day one.  She would have seven days of sitting shiva with her mother, hearing her opinions and suggestions without once asking about how her heart was.  Yafa was the one who just lost her husband, Oris, but the stories Mama was telling were of Yafa’s father, Klein, who had died in October. 

The entryway mirror was covered in a black velvet that Mama had leftover from his shiva and the dark burlap that Hadas had given Yafa was no longer needed. 

“That Hadas giving you this rag,” Mama said folding it up and placing it under the sink in the kitchen.  “Like you’re a schlump on a lump.  This is an American shiva, not one in the Middle East!  When is she coming?”

“She’s getting the food and coming over.”


“By twelve, noon.  The minyan has been set for one o’clock.”

“Yes, but our shiva has begun.  The food should be here…”

As Mama began her tirade, Yafa looked out into the street, still covered with a light dusting of snow.  When Oris first showed her the house, he told her that Spencer Avenue would be their new home and the home of many generations.  His face beamed, and when Yafa hugged him, he wept with joy. 

She didn’t like Oris growing up.  He was a proud, fat little boy who had no brothers or sisters, just like her.  Because of this, he got it in his head that they should be married one day.  At seven years old, Yafa laughed at him.

“Why would I marry a stinky little fat boy like you?”  She said, giggling with Hadas.

“Because I’ll be rich!”

Twelve years later Oris finished at Columbia with an MBA and went straight to Wall Street to make good on his promise.  He soon visited her family regularly and Yafa, a third year art student, was scared.

“What if he really wants to marry me?” she thought.  Not only did the thought of marriage terrify her, but the thought of Oris did.  She couldn’t imagine the act of union with him.  She knew he was trying to be a serious man, but he seemed fat and comical to her.  Not at all how she would envision a husband. 

Her painting instructor was more her cup of tea, even though he wasn’t Jewish and had an eye for every skirt in the room.  He respected her art and that was like lovemaking itself…

When the Shidduch happened, Mama and Papa acted like the most blessed people on the planet, even though they both knew that Yafa did not love Oris. 

“Love is overrated!” Mama sighed that evening after dinner.  “The things that matter in a marriage – trust, faithfulness, family – those things Oris will foster and protect, you know that.”

Yafa nodded and in her heart she knew that Mama was right.  After all, Hadas had just married Abe and they were very happy.  Abe, however, was taller than Hadas and wore fashionable clothes. Abe bought an apartment in the Bronx and Hadas decorated it beautifully.  Yafa knew that if she consented to the marriage with Oris, she could live in an apartment close to her friend.

The following week, when Oris came over for her answer, she asked to speak with him in private.  Everyone refused, saying that tradition would not permit it, but Oris asked if they could meet in the open lounge in the living room and everyone else stay in the kitchen, where they were able to see and not hear. 

The compromise was accepted. 

“I am not a traditional girl,” Yafa began.  “Not as much as I want to be.”

“Are these your paintings?” Oris was distracted by the floor to ceiling pieces that her parents had commissioned from her. 


He took off his round glasses and began to stare at them, taking his time to drink in each one.  She watched him, not interrupting or insisting that he listen to her.  He began at the iceburg (an abstract that Yafa had named for the mood she was in that day), looking at it carefully and not saying anything.  He moved to the next one, where the color began a crescendo that would climax in the middle of the room.  He was hypnotized by them, and Yafa was pleased. 

She looked at him as he looked at them.  He had grown up well over the years and looked much like her father: a man of understated splendor.  He had a neat beard, smelled nice and wore expensive - but not flashy - clothes.  He wasn’t tall, but he also wasn’t so fat anymore.  Why hadn’t she noticed?
As she watched him he looked at her.  She was caught off guard and stepped back.

“These are amazing,” he said, tears in his eyes.  They smiled at each other and no further discussion was needed.  Yafa fell in love with him, right there. 

Their first kiss was after the glasses were broken under their feet, under the canopy.  Later, they were twirled about on chairs by all of their friends and Yafa knew her life would be happy. 

She was wrong about everything.

Yafa was wrong that the sexual union between her and Oris would be awkward.  It was beautiful and intimate and filled with pleasant surprises each time they were together.  At public parties she would remember him and look across the room and they would smile secretly at one another.  She was wrong about the apartment in Riverdale – Oris gave her the keys to a house a week after they were married.  He had the bathroom retiled because she didn’t like the formica. 

She was wrong that she wouldn’t share romance with him.  He was a hopeless romantic and made her feel like a secret princess, capable of sincere passion and a long happy life together. 

She got a call last Thursday as she got out of the shower.  Oris had died of a sudden heart attack at work and the ambulance had come to collect his body and take him to the mortuary. 

She was a widow before she celebrated her one year anniversary. 

All of the dreams they had together – basset hounds, children, a summer house in the Poconos- came crashing down on her like a piano from a high rise.  She was in a state of shock, even as his parents insisted that he be in the ground that day, in a pine box similar to the ones they had ordered for themselves.  She didn’t know how to comfort his mother, his father.  She watched the burial, then returned to her house to begin sitting shiva.

Today, as her mother went on and on about losing her most beloved father, Yafa was numb and wondered what she would do.  Oris had left her quite comfortable financially, but had taken her heart with him wherever he went.

“Are you even listening to me?”  Mama’s voice broke Yafa out of her trance. 

“Yes, Mama,” she sighed.  “But I’m sad.  Please let me be sad.”

Mama was quiet and looked wounded, but she said, “Okay,” and shut up.

The door opened and Hadas and Abe came in, red eyed and carrying trays of food.  Yafa looked over at her best friend, who looked away quickly and carried her portion into the dining room, where the table had been set up.

When she returned, Hadas touched her friend’s shoulder and Yafa turned around.  Hadas was crying and Yafa hugged her.  Together, the friends shared an outpouring of tears that had no words or reason.  They were cold, empty tears that they were used to crying together.  They were used to weeping together, but today it was different.  Today they began sitting shiva for Oris. 

One by one, the mourners gathered in her home, surrounding the crates that they would sit on.  It was important, according to Jewish tradition for a minyan – at least ten men -to gather so that the service could begin.  Yafa wasn’t good with crowds, but inhaled deeply and remembered this was exactly the way it was supposed to be.   

The mourners all were important to Oris (he was the social one of the two of them) so Yafa welcomed them the best she could.  The Rabbi arrived, as did several of Oris’ male colleagues (even the goys) to recite the Kaddish.  The parlor soon filled with men, women and children, all waiting respectfully for Yafa to sit on her crate. 

She took her place at the center, flanked by her mother and mother-in-law.  Hadas sat behind her and the Rabbi lifted his head.  The prayer he was about to pray was a welcome tradition, one that made Yafa feel secure and cared for by everyone present.  Her community knew how to respect the bereaved, as well as honor the deceased.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


photo credit

Zeke had made a plan to get new Van’s from Goodwill.  His grandmother had twenty dollars she owed him from her next paycheck and if no one had bought them, he would go in and buy them for himself.  His own black slip-ons were falling apart.

“Dope!” Job yelled, clearing the ramp and landing on the asphalt, still upright.  “Dope!”

“Yeah,” Zeke was tired, but the move was dope for sure.  It had been awhile since he and his friends slept.  Job and Jeremiah were both younger than him and he was getting too old for this.  He was strung out and exhausted and he was hoping his Grandma would let him sleep at her place tonight.  She didn’t get off work until three – that was three hours away. 

Zeke didn’t even remember the last time he had had food.  Grandma would have real stuff at her house and when he went there maybe she could even give him the money she owed him. 

“Dude, do you know her?”  Jeremiah was looking off into the distance, over Zeke’s shoulder.  When Zeke turned around he saw a woman dressed in a blouse and skirt waving like crazy to him. 

“Ezekiel!”  she was shouting.  She was so far away that her voice was muffled but Zeke knew right away that it was Miss Vierra, his high school English teacher. 

He smiled to himself.  Other than using his full name, she was cool and Zeke wondered how she recognized him from so far away.  She was now walking straight toward him and Zeke felt self-conscious in front of his friends.  He didn’t meet her half-way, but instead called back to her.

“Miss Vierra, is that you?”  He shouted.  She was moving toward him, coming into focus.  She was older and maybe chubbier than the teacher he remembered.  Still, she was beautiful.

“Ezekiel Morris!”  She was all smiles as she approached, grabbing him for a hug and not grimacing when she smelled him.   He hadn’t bathed this week, his only home had been Jeremiah’s car. 

“Hi, Miss Vierra!”  He was embarrassed that he looked the way he did.  He had at least two facial piercings and a neck tattoo she hadn’t seen and she was a teacher.  He was sure she would say something. 

“Oh, Ezekiel!”  she smiled and sighed.  “I thought you’d be somewhere in New York or Los Angeles by now!”


“How are you?”

Zeke gave his standard answer to people who usually didn’t want to hear how he really was. 

“I’m good.  How are you?”

Miss Vierra answered his question one of her own:  “Are you still writing?”

“Not really.”  Zeke sucked at his lip ring. 

“Why not?”  Miss Vierra’s eyes were searching his and he was uncomfortable.  She was one of the teachers who mattered to him; one that recognized that he was more than just the rebellious, troubled youth.  No matter how much he tried to push her away, she would come after him.  She was old enough to be his mother, but Miss Vierra always reminded him of a big sister, or what a big sister should be. 

“I don’t know.”

“Where are you living now?”

“Nowhere right now.”

“Your car?”

“His car,” Zeke pointed to his friend, Jeremiah, who was trying to get the air under his board that Job did earlier.  He was failing miserably and it made Zeke laugh. 

“Why, Zeke?  What happened with your folks?”  Miss Vierra put her hand on his elbow and Zeke raised his hands to his head.  Hopefully she’d get the message: Don’t touch me. 

“Ahhh… They’re doing that tough love thing.  They can’t trust me because I stole from them and wrecked their car so now they’re not talking to me.”   Zeke said it with disdain.  He hated the idea that his parents weren’t talking to him and then calling it tough-love.  There was no love in it.  They were just sick of the bullshit, but they’d never say “I’m sick of your bullshit,” because they were good Christians.

The whole idea was sour and bitter and Zeke spit at the ground.  Miss Vierra was watching him.

“Are you done with it all?  If I called them and got you guys talking would you go back?”


“Why not?”

“Faggot!” Job yelled from behind him.  Jeremiah had run into him and Job was now  bent over in pain.  Zeke ran to his friends’ side, Job starting yelling expletives at Jeremiah and Zeke told him to calm down.  Miss Vierra walked away, into the grocery store to buy whatever it was she came to buy.

Zeke watched her go and felt even more discouraged. 

He had been raised Christian and had a fairly good childhood.  His friends were mainly his brothers and sisters (he had eight), and life was slow and good.  At twelve years old his homeschooling parents enrolled him in Christian school and the place was a nightmare.  The kids who went there were either straight-laced  snobs or the kids who had been been expelled from public school.  The latter group was easier to be friends with. 

He started smoking pot recreationally with a few of his friends (Job was one of them) and quickly graduated to meth – the drug that empowered him to have the control he never had in his whole life.  Everything became easy and his mind cleared and triumphed. 

It was the administration of the school that peeved him and as he tried to keep their stupid rules, he started growing weary of their church ideology, their snobbery.  

Their hypocrisy. 

There was Mr.  Wen, his science teacher who seemed to love the subject enough to make his love contagious and then there was Miss Vierra, who read aloud like she was pouring gold all over the students’ heads.  She loved his poetry and hung it up, even the stuff with bad words. 

She was cool.

But Mr. Wen and Miss Vierra weren’t enough to make him stay.  He had to leave school and he never graduated.  Now he was unemployable and his parents weren’t even ready to let him move back in just until he had a GED. 

Fake hypocrites.

What about family?  What about love?  The only love and family that were steady were Job and Jeremiah, as messed up as they were.  Then there was the pipe, which was always there…always paid off.

After Job recovered from Jeremiah plowing into him, he lit his last smoke and shared it with Zeke. 

“Who was that lady?” Job asked him, passing the cigarette. 

“One of my teachers.”

“From that Christian school?”


“Yeah, she dresses like a Christian school teacher.”

“She was one of the cool ones.”

“Oh.  English teacher, right?”

Zeke smiled, impressed that Job remembered.  “Yeah.”

They smoked it down to the filter, finally throwing it down and picking up their boards.  It was almost time to walk to Grandma’s.

Miss Vierra came out of the store and started walking deliberately back to Zeke. 

“Uh-oh,”  Jeremiah recognized the purposeful gait of someone with something to say. 

This time Zeke met her half-way.  “I forgot to say goodbye,” he said.  Miss Vierra’s face looked worried and she held two plastic bags that she tried to hoist up as she spoke. 

“These are for you.”  Zeke glanced down and saw the outline of chocolate milk.  How could she have remembered?

“Thanks, Miss…”

“I’m calling your parents, Ezekiel.”

Zeke’s shoulders dropped and he shook his head, smirking.  This gift had a price tag attached – he’d have to apologize to his parents again and then hear their lecture.  Again.

“Miss Vierra, don’t even get involved…”

“How can I not?  I’m your teacher!”

“You were my teacher.”

“Once a teacher always a teacher.”

“They don’t want to have anything to do with me, Miss Vierra.  Now it was good to see you, but I don’t need this.”

He picked up his board and trotted behind the building, leaving Miss Vierra holding the groceries in her hands.  He felt like a jerk, but he was tired of being told what to do.  Besides, she wasn’t offering him a place to stay or even a place to sleep and get clean for a night.  All she was offering were groceries that would fill his stomach for one day.  She used to be so cool, but maybe she was just like all of them. 

NONE of them, Zeke thought, would EVER offer him a place.  They’d never offer him a second chance or time to turn his life around.  To all of them he was just the screw up.  The one who they should leave alone and let die in the sun.

“Why didn’t you take all that stuff from her ?”  Job asked him, catching up to him behind the brick building.  “I’m hungry, dude.  I know you are, too.”

“Yeah.  I guess if I take it…  I’ll owe her something, I guess.  She wanted me to go talk to my parents again after they were the ones who kicked me out.  They’ll  ask me to go to church with them, all over again.  I just can’t reenter that whole life.”

“Why not?”

Zeke shrugged.  “I don’t believe in God anymore.”

For some reason, the answer satisfied Job and he put his board down and skated off.  As they rolled to Grandma’s  house, Zeke thought of his mother.  In truth he couldn’t forgive her after all of the betrayal and the sacrifice of him to all of the church hypocrisy.  She chose them over him.  God had nothing to do with it all - the real answer was far more painful.


I knew that my Mom was trying to stay up later than me so that she could stick the needles in my toes once I fell asleep.  She thinks I don’t know that she’s been doing this, but everytime I look at her I can tell she is ready to break out the syringe and give me the meds I've stopped taking.

She looks over at me and says “What, Eldin?” like I’m going to accuse her in front of my sisters and my Dad.  All that will lead to is the normal name calling “Schitzo! Schitzo!” and more needles being put into me or maybe even the serum being put into my mashed potatoes, which she knows I love. 

I am sitting here writing in my journal, the “reprobate letters” I call it.  That name is powerful because it makes her mad.  It made her start the needles in the first place.  She keeps looking at me and sighing, but I am pretending not to notice her, which of course makes her mad. 

I suppose I want to chronicle how the whole thing began, this multi leveled horror show that they don’t think I know is going on.  It wasn’t too long into my stint at Cornell, after I got my scholarship when I was living in the dorms that smelled like armpits and cheese.  The calamity was one  day, on my way to the cafeteria and I was being followed by some guys who wanted to copy my homework.  They had asked to copy it earlier and I said no, but they wouldn’t stop following me.  I was on my way to the dining hall and they were hot on my heels and that’s when I turned around and said “Leave me alone!”  I called them a name I shouldn’t have called them and I did hold up my fork like it was a knife, which is probably why the hall monitor came over and asked me what the hell was going on.  I tried to tell him what was happening but those guys were so freaked out and almost crying that he was listening to them.  It turned out they were all from India or Bangla Desh or some country everyone feels sorry for but doesn’t know anything about.  


I got put in the hospital.

My roommate, Peter Iscariot (at least that’s what I call him now), told the Dean that I never slept and had a bunch equations that wouldn’t stop in my journal and I talked to myself all the time.  I never told them how that jerk was addicted to pornography and talked to his mom like she was his girlfriend, but if I did, I bet he would have been in the bed right next to mine. 

First they drugged me.  Then they asked me a bunch of dumb questions, like if I knew what year it was and who was president and if I knew the square root of three.  Shit like that.  They all watched me like I was a two-headed cat, making notes that they never again referred to again.  Then they drugged me some more.  The next thing I know my Mom and Dad are there and Mom won’t stop crying.  She tried to hug me, but I was wearing a jacket that they put lead in or something because I couldn’t raise my arms. 

When I came home, I kept saying “What about school?  I have a test.” But everyone would say “Don’t worry about school right now.” Which now I know meant that I was never going back. 

My bed felt like it was stuffed with socks and I told Mom that I thought the doctors were asses who didn’t know anything about the medication they put me on.  It made me feel like a moth with powdery wings.  It was soft and chewy like licorice once it was in my stomach and my stomach chewed it all day long.  So I felt drugged like a giant moth and my stomach was chewing all day and I couldn’t sit or lie down or write without feeling drugged like a horse.  So that’s when I started skipping my medicine.  I knew this was a risk because I chased people with forks if I didn’t take it, but I couldn’t get them to take me to a better doctor.  One that might know what he was doing. 

Instead she watches me and waits for me to fall asleep so she can give me the serum.  She melts down the pills and puts them in needles and gives them to me in my toes.  I found the holes there when I was taking a bath and I asked her about it.  She acted like I was the crazy one and when I started writing about it in my reprobate letters, she accused me of cuneiforming. 

She said, “Why are you writing in that book in cuneiform?  Are you Tutankhamen now?”  Like I didn’t know what she means.  If you scramble the letters in Tutankhamen's name, you get Tukuman - the devil of the Nordic underworld who carries needles and writes in blood. For all she knows, the equations of my script are cuneiform and she can be confused herself for a change and see how she likes it. 

Dad says to take my medicine if I want to live here and I guess at some point they have to take me to a doctor.  I don’t want to be in the hospital again because there I am an elephant, not a moth.  I wish everyone would stop asking to copy the reprobate letters, especially when I’m trying to get breakthrough.  One day I’ll take it to Cornell and they’ll admit they were wrong about me and they’ll have to admit that I am a genius. 

You have to be a genius to get through this.  A genius elephant moth with holes in his toes.