Sunday, August 30, 2015


Laila Willow (holding her cousin, Harmony)
June 2014
Photo by Hannah Joy Photography

The day she was born changed my life.

I remember turning to Mario and asking, “What is today?”

He answered, “August 30.”

We hugged and I whispered that he was now a Grandpa.  He laughed, casting off my romantic mood.  “Thanks a lot, now I feel really old!”

She was born in Kansas City, to my step-son, David, and his wife, Lennae.  We heard from David after the event was completely over – Mother and baby were doing well. It was a very intimate birth – a delivery by a midwife of our first granddaughter brought into this world in a hot tub. 

It was the first of many facets of unconventionalism.  Not only was Laila’s birth unconventional, her name definitely was.  “Laila Willow Rodriguez,” I kept saying to myself, over and over and over.  I was hoping that one day it would just roll off my tongue. 

Since we were not present for the birth, we didn’t meet the little one until she was about eighteen months old.  David and Lennae brought her to California (bravely) on an airplane, and when I first saw her, I thought that she had the greenest eyes I had ever seen.  “Oh she’s so beautiful,” I gushed.  Laila clung to Lennae, afraid to let go and be delivered over to the new person fawning over her.  I was advised (by Mario) to give her time and to dial it down a little. 

That week I started to do grandmotherly things with this new little person.  We walked around the grounds of the hotel and observed geese. She hid behind curtains and resurfaced, making us all laugh.  She ate frozen blueberries.  She had her own toys and books.  She seemed content to be around all of us adults, wide-eyed listening to our conversation.  Every time she looked at me I smiled; she started smiling back.

Near the very end of the week, right before they were all scheduled to go home, Laila finally warmed up to me. I asked her if she wanted to water my garden and when she agreed, we went outsode.  I found a bottle of soap bubbles and started blowing them.  For each one I blew, she popped it. 

I cannot explain in words the magic of that day.  I became familiar with the simple pleasures of grand parenting.  A grandparent loves a child just because they are; they don’t have to anything to be special, they just are.  My daughter-in-law took a snapshot of that day; it was before cell phones or instagram.    I kept it on my refrigerator all the years we were in Africa; it remains tattooed on my heart.

Today Laila turns twelve years old.  She is our eldest granddaughter, and for that reason she will always be the one we see as the catalyst - the one who changed our lives.  She continues to sail into unconventionalism.  She is brilliant and thoughtful and loves reading.  Recently she has taken up a love of fashion design and mixed martial arts.  Right before the school year she shaved the sides of her head and dyed her hair a bright red; it looks so cool.  Even better than how it looks is how it fits her.  Just like her name, Laila Willow, it is a fresh splash of beauty in this world.  And it now her name does roll off my tongue, just like it was meant to be.

Happy Birthday, Laila Willow.  You changed my life for the better – and I love you for that and for so much more. 

Your Abuela.  xoxo

Laila Willow - 12 years old

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

11:00 p.m.

At 11:00, in a small coffee house on the outskirts of Paris, France, Jean Sivoya waited patiently for his date, a woman named Louisa who was supposed to meet him two hours earlier. The stone walls and wooden floorboards of the Café seemed to breathe of deep history. The boundaries of the simple meeting place, situated so close to the Sorbonne, were alive with stories.

Jean considered the sidewalk terrace that looked out on to a tiny square, where a couple who had been here for hours danced romantically.  He had switched from coffee to wine twenty minutes ago and paid the eight Euro for the Chateau Morgan, throwing caution into the wind.

He had taken a taxi three hours earlier, not wanting to be late for his first date to the Café. Now Jean was getting ready to call another. He would have done so had he not been interrupted by the clacking of high heels running at an ill-advised speed, straight toward him.

He looked up and saw her, a vision of loveliness wearing a gold chiffon dress that billowed as she ran toward him.  Her face was an inverted triangle; her legs, two spindles in high heels and her arms steadied her like wings as she approached. 

“Are you Jean?” she yelled, trying to slow herself down. The romantic dancers released each other and turned toward them, gawking unapologetically at the young woman who disturbed the ambiance of their romantic evening.  Jean rose to his feet, arms positioned to catch her, lest she fall of trip. 

“I am Jean,” he said, nervously.  He bit his lip, embarrassed.  The entire café was staring at them now. 

She was breathless; Jean saw that the beautiful girl was flushed from her exercise; she must have been running for some time. She wore no makeup, but never had he seen such amazing eyelashes.  The color of her eyes was watery green; her skin, pearlescent. 

“You’re not going to believe what happened to me,” she said, trying to catch her breath.

“Please,” Jean motioned to a black steel chair, hoping the girl would be seated. 

She sat quickly, placing both of her hands on her heart.  He saw her delicate white hands settle like doves against the plunge of gold chiffon; she suddenly leaned forward and took his hand.  With intimate speed, she placed it between her breasts.  “Feel my heart beating,” she whispered.  

“Honestly, you will not believe what just happened.”

Jean’s lips felt numb; his own heart raced at the feel of her skin.  He couldn’t think of anything to say, and when she released his hand it fell, limply to his side.  He was embarrassed.  Her mouth, a cupid’s bow, moistened with a gleam of gloss, asked him if he would mind if she told him her story.  “It is the story, after all,” she said.  “That led me here.  Poor darling, did you think I wasn’t coming?  I am two hours late!  Nevertheless, I am here now, am I not?”

Jean nodded in agreement and looked over his shoulder for a waiter.  A tall, aproned man  dove behind a curtain, trying to pretend he wasn’t staring.

 “I was in Los Angeles just yesterday, you know,” she began.  “The city is very difficult to understand.  It has quite a lot of people living there and none of them seem to care much for one another.  Nevertheless, I was there.  Might I have a sip of your wine?”

Jean forced himself to stop watching her mouth.  “Yes,” he said, sitting up straighter.  “I was just trying to summon a waiter…” He looked around again and saw the waiter at another table.  Jean cleared his throat in an attempt to call him over.  The waiter walked toward them, but turned back to the bar when Jean signaled for another glass of wine to be brought.

She put the wine glass down and exhaled.

“That is just what I needed,” she said.  “You must think I am mad, carrying on like this.  Did Philippe tell you I was mad?  I might guess he did!”   She covered her mouth with her white fingers and giggled into them.  Jean smiled.

“Anyway, Los Angeles.  I was there yesterday.  There are so many things happening there.  I actually saw a talking hot dog, but that’s a whole other story!”  Jean smiled, catching sight of himself in the mirror and seeing a ridiculous look of smitten foolery.  He tried to wipe the look off his face, picking up the glass she just put down and lifting it to his own lips.  He could see the faint imprint of lip gloss on the rim; it made him fantasize about kissing her.

The waiter returned with a tall glass of white wine and placed it in front of Jean, who was staring again.  “Oh, it is for the lady,” he said, motioning to his date.

“I’m sorry,” Jean said to her, as soon as the waiter disappeared.  “I don’t even think I introduced myself,” he said, leaning forward with an extended hand.  “I am Jean.”

“Yes, silly,” she said, smiling coyly.  She had two dimples; one was deep set in her right cheek.

“And you are Louisa?” he asked her, knowing the answer already.

“Yes,” she said, picking up her own glass of wine and drinking.  She never took her eyes off of him.  He could see her mouth take in the golden beverage through the clear crystal.   He could smell the roasting of coffee beans, but he knew it would be the wine they would remember.  They would tell their grandchildren about the wine- the crisp beautiful Chateau Morgan that would bring them together.  He would speak into the microphone on their wedding day and tell their guests that he knew the moment he saw her, flying over the tiles in high heels across the tiny square.

“What happened?” he asked her, almost as an afterthought.  In truth, it didn’t matter what happened; it was all over for him.  He had arrived at his life’s destination. 

“Well,” Louisa said, with a dimpled glow.  She extended her lovely white hand to him and he held it in his.  The action stunned her; confused her. 

“Look, darling!  Look at my hand!”

Jean took his eyes off the green pools of water and into her delicate white hand; it was there he saw the ring.  A brilliant white diamond on a gold band rested freshly on her fourth finger; he froze.

“Did you get engaged?”

Louisa erupted in giggles.  “Yes, darling!  I am engaged!  My former boyfriend picked me up at the airport.  What a surprise that was!” She told Jean the rest of the story with delighted abandon.  He watched her mouth, a proud and demonic weapon, spew forth the happy story.  Her ex-boyfriend met her at the airport repentant for his actions and got down on one knee.  She accepted him; she never fell out of love with him.  They were meant to be together.

At the end of the story, she picked up the glass of wine and drank, never taking her eyes off of Jean.  He wondered why she drank like that; it had to be the tool that Satan used to contract desperate humans into signing their life away.  She was indeed his messenger; he had no patience for her games.

“Why did you show up here?” he asked, finally.

“Well,” she said, sighing.  “I couldn’t imagine the thought of you sitting here, abandoned and feeling like I had no respect for you.” She looked at him, her eyelashes curling like the burning legs of a spider thrown into a cauldron.

“I see,” he said.  With that, both stood up and hugged.  He mumbled a congratulatory something and she thanked him profusely for waiting for her.  It showed his character, she said.  His character was a strong one, she said. 

He sighed and called the waiter for the bill.  Again, he dove behind a curtain, pretending he hadn’t heard anything.   

Monday, August 24, 2015

10:00 p.m.

Geralda, a precocious fourth-grader, was alone for the first time ever in her life.  Mama had taken a job working nights in town and left her only daughter at home by herself.  Feeling both mature and excited, Geralda knew she was ready; her mother agreed after they practiced several trial runs.  

Geralda knew where the emergency phone numbers, first aid kit, and silent alarm were located.  She had enough milk, cereal, and tortilla chips (in case she wanted to make nachos).  Also in her possession was a Blu-Ray DVD of Princess Bride, her favorite movie.

At 10:00 p.m., the time when Geralda was supposed to be brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed, she was reclining in Mama’s chair, eating tortilla chips from the bag.  All the lights in the house were turned off and Indigo Montoya was sword fighting the Dread Pirate Roberts when Geralda felt the first wave.  She sat up straight in her chair; the screen image of the duel zipped into a thin line and then disappeared.  There was a definite wave beneath her: a rumbling of motion – and then screams from neighbors. 

Being raised in Los Angeles, she knew that when an earthquake hit – it was time to duck and cover.  She started to go under the dining room table (covered with Mom’s taxes and a printer), but then decided to open the screen door and look out.   She loved how Los Angeles glowed in the dark – but at this moment, panic seized her. There was no glow, only darkness and an eerie silence.

A hard knock was on her door.  She had been warned not to open it for anybody.  “NEVER,” her Mom had told her.  “NEVER open this door for ANYONE when I am gone!”

There was activity in the hallway, people talking excitedly.  Geralda felt a primal sense of wanting to be with her neighbors who were out there, but she was scared that if she opened the door her Mom might never leave her home alone again. 

She went to the door and pressed her ear against it.  Was that Mrs. Gutierrez? Was little Lupe still awake?  She could hear voices saying, “It wasn’t very big, but she’s home alone!”

Another hard knock, this time with an open palm, jolted Geralda back from the door.   This time she definitely heard Mrs. Gutierrez’s voice.  “Mija, open up the door, it’s okay!  Did you feel the earthquake?”

Geralda looked outside again.  She heard sirens in the distance.  Moving toward the sliding glass door, she could see that power had been restored to the blocks beneath her.  Wilshire Blvd. looked busy, as usual.  The distant freeways looked like they were moving.  She could see the towers of L.A. Central, lit up in places.  Perhaps it was going to be alright.

Beneath her feet, another rumble came, this time a shake that knocked her off balance. 

Aftershock.  That’s what she learned in Earthquake preparation at school.  After a major earthquake there will be several aftershocks.  That one seemed larger than the actual earthquake.  What was going on?  Tears welled up in Geralda’s eyes.  She looked around for her cell phone; the apartment was still without power.  Where was that flashlight?  Was it in the drawer?

Another hard knock.  “GERALDA!!”

“I’m here!” Geralda yelled from the kitchen.  “I can’t open the door!”

Mija, esta bien!  Open the door!  I told your Mama that I’d look after you in case of an emergency…”

From the recliner, Geralda heard a small rumble.  Her cell phone!

She ran to it and pulled it out from between the cushions, knocking the tortilla chips off the armrest and spilling them on the carpet.  She looked at the screen: Mama.


“Are you alright?” Mama asked excitedly.  “Mrs. Gutierrez said she can’t hear you in our apartment and you won’t open the door…”

“You told me not to!” Geralda felt a strange mixture of panic and anger.  She wished her Mama hadn’t taken the job downtown working nights; she wanted her here in the living room.

“You can open the door for Mrs. Gutierrez, especially in an emergency…” Mama’s voice sounded calm and watery. 

“Why aren’t you here, Mama?” Geralda gave way to her tears.  She wanted to be held by the woman that held her when she was sad or scared; where were those arms now?

“Geralda, listen to my voice,” Mama said calmly.  Geralda breathed deeply and forced herself to focus on Mama’s words.  “I will be home in three hours.  Can you set your phone alarm?”
“Yes..” Geralda sniffled, but knew that three hours wasn’t long. 

“If I get on the road right now, I will be joining the other panicked residents trying to leave the city…”

“Why are you working nights, Mama?” Geralda interrupted her.  “Why can’t you work at the El Huarachito anymore?”

She heard Mama breathe deeply and sigh.  “Mija, go to the door and open it. Mrs. Gutierrez says she is there in the hallway with Lupe.  Maybe she needs your help taking care of the baby.”

Geralda walked to the front door, slid the chain lock and undid the dead bolt and then turned the handle.  There, in the hallway was Mrs. Gutierrez, holding her two-year-old, Lupe.  At the sight of her, Mrs. Gutierrez fell to her knees and put the toddler down.  As she embraced Geralda, Lupe squealed with delight and began smacking the twelve-year-old’s elbows with glee.  From the phone, Geralda heard her mother’s voice.

“Okay, mija,” she said, gently.  “Go and sleep on Mrs. Gutierrez’s sofa and I will be home in three hours, okay?”

Geralda released Mrs. Gutierrez from their embrace and absent-mindedly nodded at the phone.  “Okay, Mama.”

“And don’t forget to set the alarm on your phone,” Mama said.  “I love you.”

Geralda wiped the tears from her eyes.  She breathed deeply and picked up Lupe in her arms.  “Okay, Mama.  I will lock our door.  Don’t worry.”

“I love you, mija.”

“I love you, too, Mama.”

As she hung up, a whirring sound alerted Geralda to the kitchen.  It was the refrigerator; the power was back on. 

“Oh, thank God!” Mrs. Gutierrez said, clapping her hands.  “Now lock this door, mija.  You will come to my place now.”

As she locked the door, Geralda looked around.  Crowding the hall were neighbors, watching her perform the simple task of turning the key.  They all seemed relieved that she was alright; she was a little embarrassed.  Holding little Lupe and following Mrs. Gutierrez, the girl went into the neighboring apartment as the hallway cleared and doors shut behind those who retreated into their homes. 

Geralda looked down at her phone.  It was 10:30 p.m. – Mama would be home in three hours.  

9:00 p.m.

Claus began his 9:00 shift at 7-11 wearing the giant hot dog suit and standing on the corner of West Sixth Street and South Alexandria Avenue in Korea Town.  He was hot and miserable, able to smell Kendall’s foul body odor and unable to scratch places that itched.  

He hated wearing the costume, not only because of its shameful appearance, but also because it was a haven for germs and parasites.  While most hot dog suits were embarrassing enough: the bun wrapped around the wiener with a mustard squiggle down the middle; this one was even worse.  The hot dog portion had a hood with an opening for his face to stick out- it clung to his cheeks.  A twisted beanie top crowned the whole outfit, meant to mimic the end of a sausage casing.  Claus stood on the corner with a handful of fliers that advertised specials of Pepsi 12-packs with a coupon for dollar hot dogs. At 10:00 he could take it off and go inside- one more hour and he was free.

Since Claus was naturally stocky, the costume fit him snugly.  He was forced to share the dreadful thing with five other employees who the owner called “young and adventurous” trying to encourage them in the midst of humiliation. Claus was indeed young; he was even adventurous in most ways, but not with hygienic cleanliness.  The other 7-11 employees who shared the costume didn’t seem to be as fastidious, Claus noticed.  Kendall was the worst: a tall, thick-waisted girl with three moles above her left eyebrow and a terrible stench that stayed behind when she left.

Although Claus and Kendall had never really spoken, he considered her an unpleasant person that he did not want to know.  When he was forced to work alongside of her he did all of the physical jobs.  She sat behind the counter on her fat ass, chewing her gum noisily and staring out the window. 

Instead of mopping or cleaning up around the coffee area, which were the easy jobs, she would organize the hanging .  He hated working the shift after her, mainly because the bathroom cleanup was a terrible job after eight hours of neglect.  She didn’t even bother to read when it was slow; just chewed gum and looked out the window.  Claus had never seen her use a cell phone.

A car filled with teenagers stopped at the red light.  Claus smiled and waved at them, even though they were laughing and taking pictures of him with their cell phones. 

“Man, I would NEVER do that job!” one of them yelled at him.  The other passengers roared with laughter.  

Claus laughed and shouted back, “Never say NEVER!”   
The people in the car were silent for a moment, then laughed.  As they pulled away they honked and waved.  Claus sighed. 

“Yeah, everyone thinks the hot dog is a dork,” he whispered to himself.

Traffic was steady, but very few people were on foot.  Now and then the tin sound of a shopping cart could be heard in the distance; Claus looked around to see where it was coming from. 

He remembered when his father lost his job three years ago.  He was fifteen years old; Shelley was thirteen.  Mom left two months later, with no explanation.  Claus’ father was devastated and drank a lot; it wasn’t until Claus was forced to buy his dad’s whiskey that he realized how much he consumed.  Before long, Dad had drunk nearly all of the severance check and Claus didn’t know what to do.  He considered running away, but it would have meant abandoning his sister.  Desperate, he called his Chemistry teacher, Miss Gill, at home.  She came to their apartment right away, assessed the situation, and explained to Claus that he and his sister would have to go to “somewhere safe”.  It didn’t take long to realize that this meant foster care; this was how Claus learned that his father was in the throes of pretty advanced alcoholism. Dad was taken to a hospital; Claus and Shelley were placed in emergency housing with a foster family.  If it weren’t for Miss Gill, they would have been separated.   

Now Claus was determined to make a living that could sustain both of them; Shelley worked part time at Burger King as well, but she needed to graduate.  He was in community college, worked two jobs and was able to rent a small studio apartment for both of them.  All of it would get easier, he told himself, once he finished college.

“Hey, wiener!” He heard the voice of a bum, yelling at him from the sake house on the opposite corner.  Straining to see, Claus could make out the figure of a large-bellied man, leaning against his stolen cart.  The man looked familiar, was it Old Henry, the man that tried to steal the throw away dogs from the garbage?  It was hard to see in the half-light.

“Hello!” Claus waved a gloved hand.  The motion released the awful body odor smell.  He was repulsed, but quickly recovered – long enough to see the man shaking his head. 

“I said,” the man yelled louder.  “HEY WIENER!”

“Yeah, I heard you!” Claus knew the job was awful, but it paid well and it coordinated with his other job at the deli and school.  This way, he could rent the studio apartment for him and his sister. Pretty soon, he’d have to think about a scholarship application to UCLA. 

 “You know why I called you that?” The drunken man continued bellowing from across the street.  Where was a cop when you needed one?  More cars past, the whir of a city bus passed before him.  In one hour he could take off the costume and go inside to clean up the coffee stations.  That man was still yelling.  Why did his voice sound so familiar?

In a moment that stood still, Claus realized why the man looked and sounded familiar: it was his father.

There Claus stood, on the corner, in a hot dog suit – having this realization.  His father was pushing a shopping cart around Korea Town.  He was on the streets.  He was back to drinking, or he never got clean.  Shame filled him; it was worse than Kendall’s stench. 

He started to yell something at him, but his father suddenly stopped.  It was as if he recognized his son at the same time the son recognized the father.  Silence filled the tension between them.  West Sixth was quiet.  It wasn’t until the ground beneath his feet crested in a wave, that Claus snapped out of it. 

His father was a bum.  Was that an earthquake?  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

8:00 p.m.

At eight o’clock, Roxanne enjoyed the deep purple sunset from her balcony.  The violet-rose hues were painted across the sky and met the earth in ribbons of gold that wound through the buildings of Korea Town.  She breathed deeply, grateful for her freedom and her passion.  Her second story studio apartment overlooked the Wilshire Synagogue on one side and Wilshire Blvd. on the other.  Mimosa trees lined the streets and lifted their arms to her, as if they were small children needing to be held;  passersby walked purposefully.  She wondered if they were on their way to see a movie - she had seen three already this month.  Money was tight, but the proximity of the theater made it easy to abandon the budget. All around her studio apartment were her works, many on canvas and some on tiles.

She breathed deeply and looked at her stained hands; her fingers were darkly tattooed with the India ink she had been using for her latest series.   The pen and ink drawings were drawn on pages from vintage books that she had rescued from the dumpster behind the 7-11.  The pages contained mostly text, now and then interrupted by diagrams of the solar system or charts of the night sky.  The hand-set fonts were from the 1930’s, possibly been used as a college text at one time.  After she had pasted four pages on to a brown paper shopping bag, she sketched faces of different girls: one deep in thought, another crying, another laughing, still another biting her nail.  After each sketch was complete, she began the intensive work with India ink.  Roxanne loved the process and the way it was all coming together, but as an artist she missed having color.

The pen and ink drawings cost almost nothing to do, since she used found materials: paper bags, pages of the vintage textbook pages, and India ink discarded by the art school.  She regularly haunted Jerome’s Art School’s  garbage.  Since it  is publicly funded, they have the luxury of throwing away “almost empty” bottles of ink.  She was lucky enough to find them the day she bought two hot dogs for a dollar and threw the paper boats away outside.

Los Angeles is expensive and unforgiving.  Crouching in its shadows are hungry renters with first and last month’s deposit.  Mr. Lee told her many times that inquiries had been made about the apartment she was now occupying; if she was ever again late with the rent he would be giving her notice to move out.  She earnestly promised him she would have the money on time; she did everything she could to make good on her promise – even go without food.

A hard knock on the door alerted Roxanne from the balcony.  She stepped over her work, expecting to find her landlord, holding a clipboard with his calendar attached.  He would also be carrying a fanny pack with dollar bills in its zipper pocket in order to make greasy change for her.  When she opened the door, she instead found the agreeable young face of Jin, her neighbor.  He was holding a bowl, covered in foil.

“Hi, Roxanne!”

“Oh, thank God,” she stepped back swiftly and motioned for Jin to come in. Then she whispered: “I thought you were Mr. Lee.”

“Yeah, Roxanne,” he imitated the landlord’s high-pitched voice as he walked in.  “Tomorrow is the thirty first!  I have two other people who want this place!”

“Shhh!” Roxanne looked down the hallway both ways before shutting the front door.  Concerned that her landlord might hear them, she feared the temperamental Mr. Lee might kick her out anyway; he was just waiting for an excuse.  “What if he hears you, Jin?”

“What if he does?” the young man was still smiling as he set the bowl down on her kitchen counter.   It smelled of Asian spices that made Roxanne’s mouth water. 

“What did you make?” she asked him, moving toward the aromatic bowl. 

“Hot and sour soup,” Jin said, proudly.  “I watched a YouTube video and decided to make it for dinner with stuff I had in my fridge.  I kind of put my own spin on it.”

Roxanne giggled. “Does your spin include ramen noodles?”

“Of course!”  Jin circled around the counter and opened a drawer.  After finding a clean spoon he lifted it up in the air.  “Now eat, then tell me what you think!”

“What would I do without you?” Roxanne asked, taking the spoon from him and removing the foil from the top of the bowl. Inside, a rich broth with bits of steak and purple cabbage accents floated against a backdrop of ramen noodles.  A few sprigs of cilantro were on top.  “This looks amazing!”
Jin smiled.  “Thanks.”

Another loud knock on the door made Jin and Roxanne look at each other and freeze.  “Should I get it?” Roxanne whispered.

Jin shook his head, indicating she should not. 

After tasting the soup, she put her spoon down and went to the door.  She opened it slowly, revealing a young woman dressed in a Chanel dress.  “Carla!” Roxanne’s whole body relaxed in relief at the sight of her sister.

“Roxanne!” Carla seemed as if she were on a mission.  “You have to come out with me tonight.  I need a few artists on a shoot we’re doing.”  Carla, an executive assistant to the CEO of an entertainment company, always had the most exciting opportunities for Roxanne to make money.  If the shoot paid, she would be able to make rent.

 “Is this a paying job?” Roxanne raised her eyebrows. 

Carla stood still, a Gucci bag dangling from her forearm.  She had just taken notice of Jin, and the bowl of soup on the counter.  “Am I interrupting something?”

“Carla, this is my eighteen-year-old neighbor, Jin,” Roxanne said.  “And no, we are not dating.  He’s much too young for me.  But he is a good cook.”  Roxanne looked at Jin, who seemed a bit wounded, and winked.  He brightened and stepped forward to shake Carla’s hand.  She complied, quickly shifting her focus back to her sister.

“Alright,” Carla said to Roxanne. “Get dressed.  Wash your hands.  Pack up…” she looked at the pen and ink drawings all over the floor.  “Can you bring this with us?”

Roxanne looked at Jin, who was putting the foil cover back on the bowl of soup.  “Wait, Carla.”
Carla turned on her Jimmy Choo’s and faced her.  “What?”

“Well,” Roxanne stammered.  “Am I going to get paid or is this just a favor to you?  I mean… I hate to ask, but..”

Carla sighed heavily.  “I suppose if you want to be paid we could probably manage five hundred bucks.  If that money is so important to you…”

Roxanne clapped her hands and resisted the urge to jump up and down.  “Thank you!!  I’ll do it!”  The weight of financial burden had been lifted off her shoulders, at least temporarily.  Suddenly, it occurred to her that she didn’t know what kind of shoot it was.  “Is this a photo shoot I have to be in?  If so, I can wear clothes, right? This isn't going to be some nude thing, right?”

Carla removed her iPhone from her Gucci bag, rolling her eyes dramatically.  As she texted, she nearly shouted: “Oh for heaven’s sake!  No!! We just need you to sign a release so we can use your art.  We’re doing a night shoot at the MOCA and none of the art can be photographed with the artist’s permission.  Yours is…” Carla searched for the right words.  “Yours is transitional.  You’re not famous yet so we won’t have to worry about…” Her text was sent and she looked up at her sister’s dumbfounded face.  “What?  What did I say?”

“My art is going to be photographed?  For what?” Roxanne could hardly believe her ears; after years of struggling this one night might change everything.  Everything.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Roxanne,” Carla said quickly.  “Get dressed.  Let’s go!  I have to be on the set in half and hour and it’s at least that far away if Wilshire isn’t a parking lot!”

As Roxanne dove into her closet looking for something to wear, Jin politely excused himself, leaving the covered bowl of soup on the counter.  Carla didn’t even acknowledge him as he quietly tried to say goodbye.  He exited, broken hearted.  All Jin remembered about the evening was his beautiful neighbor introduced him to her sister but told her  they were not dating.  All of the hope in his heart was diminished, and he went on to his own studio to play video games and eat ramen.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

7:00 p.m.

At 7:00 p.m. Mpho Sibanda boarded a South African Airways flight 1137, bound for Los Angeles.  They were scheduled to arrive at 7:00 p.m. the following day, after a scheduled stop in Singapore. 

The plane had a special section in business class that was reserved for the business elite: those special professionals that were bound for glory.  Mpho was not given one of those seats, however.  She had requested - and was granted- two seats in the bulkhead, where she and her charge, a lingerie model, would spend the next twenty-four hours.  

An attorney by profession, Mpho spoke seven languages and was able to write eloquently in five of them; all of this didn’t matter.  She had a limited budget, given to her by Divine Inc., and she wasn’t about to blow it all on wider seats when she and her companion had model-sized bottoms.

“Are you comfortable here?” the flight attendant asked her. 

“We are, thank you,” Mpho said, officiously.  The flight attendant disappeared and Mpho turned to Bellita.  “These are very good seats,” she reassured her.  “We will all get to Los Angeles at the same time.”

Bellita nodded, wide-eyed.  Mpho looked closely at her charge; she appeared to have a case of pre-flight panic.  Bellita’s face was covered in sweat, and her neck muscles protruded beneath the veil of her caramel skin.  Her hands were gripping the arm rest tightly- and she seemed to be holding her breath.

“Bellita?” Mpho whispered.  “Are you alright?”

Bellita nodded again, but her pretty, triangular face looking anything but peaceful. 

Mpho unbuckled her seat-belt and pushed the button for the flight attendant.   She faced Bellita and took her small hand into her own.  “Look at me,” Mpho whispered.  Bellita’s eyes shifted, her gaze transferred to look into Mpho’s face.  It was a calm face, one that was darker than her own.  Her wild hair spoke of the unapologetic pride she had in being black; her glasses spoke of how intelligent she was.  Bellita sucked in a breath. 

“Good girl,” Mpho whispered. 

“Yes?” The flight attendant turned the light off above Mpho’s head.  When she saw Bellita, a frozen statue holding the hand of Mpho, she instantly bent down and whispered: “How can I help?”

“Please bring us some wine,” Mpho said, authoritatively. 

“Right away!” The flight attendant disappeared, and Bellita took another deep breath.  It appeared she was trying to say something.  Mpho leaned closer to her. 

“What is it, young one?”

“I…” Bellita whispered breathlessly.  “I don’t drink alcohol.”

“Today you will,” Mpho said, curtly.  “It will calm you down considerably.  Nothing is wrong with wine, dear.  Nothing.”

Bellita breathed again, laboriously.   Her eyes seemed frightened as she looked into Mpho’s face.  Mpho had to have been ten years her senior, so Bellita knew she should trust her.  Yet, it was a standard of their church to live drug-free; Bellita knew that this was a test to see if she would remain faithful to what she said she believed. 


For a moment, Mpho considered slapping the girl.  It would establish a firm boundary right away – she was in charge.  The small girl would do what she said ever after.  To her credit, Mpho dismissed the thought immediately; she was a woman of thoughtful action, not violence. 

“Listen here, girl,” Mpho said firmly.  “I have no intention of babysitting these hysterics all the way to America.  This is one flight in a long line of flights you will be taking if you want to travel the world; believe me, I know.”

Tears clouded the girl’s eyes and Mpho felt sympathy; but she knew the girl would only get worse as they went along. 

The flight attendant returned with a small bottle of red wine and a plastic wine glass.  She knelt in front of the two ladies and began to pour it.  She stopped when she saw Bellita’s tears, her eyes pleading her to intervene somehow. 

“Is there a problem?” the flight attendant asked.

Mpho redirected her focus to the flight attendant- a white woman wearing a name tag that said Frances.  “Look, Frances,” Mpho said, “it is common with these rural people to have religious beliefs that prohibit the use of any kind of central nervous system depressants.  They believe the drug inhibits intimacy with their God…”

“Do you want me to pray for you?” Frances whispered.  At this, Bellita nodded her head furiously.  Mpho was dumbstruck, but she was glad for any help that Bellita would accept.  In a swift motion, Frances handed the half-poured wine glass to Mpho, who took it and watched as Frances put both of her hands on the small knees of the frozen girl.

“Heavenly Father,” she began.  “You are the God of the skies as you are the God of the earth. There is no man-made invention that could ever steal the peace of your little ones.  You are our peace, Jesus.  It is by your power of the resurrection that we can rest.  Please allow this girl to rest in you all the way to Los Angeles.  She is your child, first and foremost.  Let her remember who she is.”

“Amen,” Bellita said, audibly.  Mpho whispered an “Amen” herself, as she saw the delightful embrace between the flight attendant and passenger – something that she had never seen before.

“Amen,” the woman across the aisle said, loudly.  All eyes, including Bellita’s refocused to see the woman, an elderly Indian woman smiling broadly.  “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

Bellita laughed, causing Mpho to look back at her, and smile broadly.  “That worked?" she asked, incredulously, pointing to a smiling Frances.  "Really?”

“Thank you so much,” Bellita said to Frances as she stood up.  “Now I can go on!  I knew I was missing something!”

Mpho watched the two ladies exchange a knowing expression, something that she was surprisingly envious of.  In a moment, she remembered she was holding the glass of wine; the plane was about to take off.

“Are you alright now?” Mpho asked Bellita.  The girl looked as if someone breathed fresh life into her, she had pleasant color in her face and a peaceful expression.

“Yes, thank you.” Bellita looked at her hands and nodded.  In a moment, she reached for the in-flight magazine and began to read about the beverage service.  Mpho was nonplussed, but grateful for what had just happened.   As the engine roared beneath them, she checked her watch. 

It was 7:15 pm.  The plane was actually boarded and leaving early.  Imagine that!

Without much else to be concerned about, Mpho looked at the half poured glass of red wine and drank it down. Mmmm-mmm. 


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

5:00 p.m.

“Hey!” Jin nudged his friend, Claus, as the train took off, heading for Korea Town.  “That was a movie being filmed, right?”

Claus looked up from his phone.  “What?”

“Didn’t you see that lady in the long dress?” Jon persisted.  “That giant crane with a camera?  The boom hanging from a pole?” He tapped his friend’s elbow.  “No wonder you’re always confused!  You don’t pay attention!”

Claus’ round face looked concerned for a moment, but quickly lost any expression at all.  He returned to the game on his phone.  “I’m confused because you’re always interrupting me at the most inopportune times!”

Since he was six foot two inches tall, Jin looked over the heads of the other passengers. None of them seemed too concerned with the film-making at the platform.  Jin shook his head, discouraged.  

An eighteen year old college freshman, Jin sought out hope in the world still.  No one seemed too interested in convincing him that there was such a thing as hope; or even steering him where it might possibly lay.  He attended Los Angeles City college sporadically with his friends who, like him, could take it or leave it.

“What are you doing after you leave the train?” Claus asked him.

Jin was surprised to hear Claus’ voice: he seemed too caught up in the digital war he was waging on his phone.  The tunnel had thwarted reception and Claus was actually trying to engage Jin in conversation; it made him smile.

“I guess going home,” Jin answered. 

“You guess?” Claus was starting to laugh, and he would have if Jin’s face hadn’t turned to stone. 

Claus could tell by Jin’s expression that he saw something- a big something - over his shoulder.  
“What is it?  A robbery?”

Jin’s face was ashen, but he shook his head.

“It’s Yoda, dude! Reading a newspaper.”

“Shut your face!” Claus whispered loudly, and then looked over his shoulder to see a tall man, reading a newspaper, seated comfortably in the bench by the sliding doors.  He looked back at Jin, who was unable to stop staring- a pathetic look on his face.  Claus looked back again.  “That’s yoda?  Are you sure?”

Jin nodded, star struck.  

For a moment, Jin wondered if the seated man would actually talk to him.  Would he be one of the snooty Hollywood elite who refused to sign autographs or talk to his fans?  There was only one way to find out.

“I’m going to say hi,” Jin bravely told Claus. 

Claus grabbed his friends’ elbow.  “Don’t make a fool of yourself, dude!”

“Chill.  I won’t.”

He carefully squeezed his way through and around passengers, who were gripping the rail above them to steady themselves.  Most of the people looked intelligent enough, why could they not recognize greatness in their midst?

“Hi, Frank,” Jin said, extending his hand to the man behind the newspaper.  The man looked up at the sound of his name and into the eyes of Jin. 

“Do I know you?” He held his newspaper calmly in both hands, even after noticing Jin’s extended palm.

Jin leaned closer, as if he meant to speak discreetly.  “I’m a big fan of yours,” he whispered.  “I think you’re amazing.”

At the sound of praise, Frank Oz put his newspaper down and shook Jin’s hand.  “Thank you for coming over.  I’m glad you appreciate my work.”  The other passengers didn’t seem to notice the exchange. 

“Do you have any advice for me?" Jin asked boldly.  "Any words of hope?”

Frank stared back at the young man, a handsome fellow who seemed to have a lot going for him.  What should he say?  “Well, like what?”

Jin smiled, trying to hide his immense admiration for the person of yoda.  Mr. Oz was his voice, but he also made the character come to life.  He had to have some secret of life worth imparting. “I don’t know.  What would Yoda tell me?”

“Oh,” Oz smiled broadly.  “This is about Yoda!”

“Maybe…” Jin started to feel silly. Was it about Yoda?  Maybe it was about listening to an unlikely hero that had survived so many things.  Who lived humbly, but was so spiritually powerful.  Maybe it was about Yoda, maybe it was about hope.

“Hey,” Frank said, shrugging his shoulders.  “It’s Lucas, not me.  I read what’s in the script.  And I just read it like Yoda would read it.  That stuff doesn’t come from my head.”  When he saw Jin’s wounded expression, Frank sighed.  He re-positioned the newspaper in order to draw a barrier between himself and the needy young man. “You know, it’s just Yoda.  He’s not the Dali Lama.  He’s not Moses or Jesus Christ, after all.”

“I know,” Jin stood up straighter.  “But he is the Grand Jedi Master; the oldest and most powerful in the Star Wars universe.”

Frank raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“Look, I know he’s not real.  I’m just saying if he were, what would he say to me?”

Frank shook his head in a way that implied he was finished talking.  “I can’t say.”

Jin nodded.  “Okay, well.  Thanks anyway.”   He wondered why Frank would be so stingy with sharing the hope behind Yoda; why he would be so stingy with his own advice…

After an awkward moment of watching Frank reading his paper, Jin worked his way back to Claus, who had been watching the whole thing. 

It was five o’clock.  It was a time when the commuters were wearing the expressions of panicked rats trying to find a morsel of food on a stinky sinking ship.  He wondered if the same life was in store for him.  After college, after studying, after day after day on the train watching Claus play the same games…would it be the same for him?

Where was the magic of Yoda?  Where was the wisdom he sought under ever rock and behind each curtain?

“What did he say?” Claus asked, once Jin was at his side. 

Jin shrugged.  “Nothing much really.  Nothing much at all.”

“Well, what did you say to him?”

“I asked him for hope.  For advice.”

Claus felt terrible suddenly.  He saw that Jin had been wounded, deeply.  He resisted the urge to put his arm around him, if only to offer him consolation.  “Don’t worry about it, man,” he said, flatly. 

“He’s not really Yoda.”

“No, he’s not.”

Five o’clock.  It was, perhaps, the saddest time in the whole wide world.  It was the time that lacked hope more than any other hour of the day.  


Monday, August 17, 2015

4:00 p.m.

It was 3:57 in MacArthur Park and Gerri knew that she had waited long enough outside.  She entered the train terminal in the cool darkness underneath Los Angeles’ shadow with a mixture of fear and anticipation, hoping that the 4:00 would arrive on time.  A scruffy, tall man smelling strongly of alcohol and sweat passed her, grumbling about the apocalypse.  Gerri hugged the stair rail, hoping that he would not speak to her. 

She stood out among the passengers; dressed in a long gingham dress and wearing a cloth bonnet.  Even in the varied population of central L.A., Gerri looked foreign, as if she didn’t belong in the twenty first century.  Had she escaped a prairie cult?  An abusive husband who advised her to cover every bit of skin that man would covet or lust after? 

4:00. The train arrived at the platform.  Passengers exited, passing Gerri with unapologetic haste, brushing past her so fast that she lost her balance and stumbled backwards.  A teenager with ear buds pushed her forward, and then scowled back at her.

“Be careful, lady!”  He jumped on to the train with the hundreds of other passengers, wanting to get on with their lives.  Gerri had none to speak of anymore; she hovered over the edge of the platform.

She considered the train fearfully. 

She had to get on that train; it was now or never. 

“If I board this train,” she whispered aloud.  “I can never return…”

Suddenly a loud shout called “CUT!”

From the train, a collective sigh exploded.  An airhorn blew, making the take virtually unusable.  The set director charged into view and clapped his hands loudly. 

“That’s it, people!  Re-load!!”

People stepped off the train, including the young man with ear buds.  The rest of the clueless passengers watched the crew as the sliding doors shut and the the train left the station.  Gerri looked around for her directo, Bernardo.

When he appeared he was smoking a small cigar… again.  That was not a good sign.  “Darling,” he said in a condescending manner to Gerri.  “You must whisper LOUDLY!”

“I thought I did,” Gerri protesting, itching her scalp beneath the bonnet.  It was 95 degrees out; why was this wretched costume so hot?

“Remember rehearsal?  That was nothing.  All of this…” Bernardo waved his hands in the air at the terminal.  “All of this AMBIENT NOISE drowns out that whisper.”

Gerri grimaced.  “Will she be believable if she whispers very loud?

Bernardo rolled his eyes and guided Gerri toward the stairs.  The actor playing the homeless man was standing there, drinking yerba matte with a production assistant.  Upon seeing Gerri and the director, his shoulders dropped.

“Again?” he said, in frustration.

“Once more, darling.  Another train will be along in ten minutes.”

People passed them on their way to the platform, paying attention to the boom operator, the cameras, the costumes, and the actors.  Most of them were in a hurry, which made Bernardo thankful.  He turned back to Gerri and looked in her face, intently. 

“We have ten more minutes, darling.  This time GET IT RIGHT!  Like you did in rehearsal, remember?” 

Gerri was worn out, and Bernardo could tell.  They had been filming all day in L.A. central and the costume she was wearing must have been sweltering.

“One more take, darling.  Then we will go back to the hotel, take a dip in the pool and drink those luscious sugar-free margaritas!”

Gerri smiled and nodded.

“Alright, let’s do it.”

The boom operator snapped his fingers under the mike and nodded to Bernardo.  The homeless man handed his unfinished yerba matte to the production assistant.  Bernardo kissed the air and ran down the stairs, for his seat .  Gerri heard the echo of his encouragement.

“Big kiss for luck, darling!”

Gerri watched Bernardo descend.  He was such an important director and she wanted to please him.  The actor playing the homeless man came into view and scowled at her.  “Get it right this time,rookie.  I’m sweating like a sonofabitch underneath all this shit.”

“Me, too.”

She faced MacArthur Park again.  Fresh air, people staring at her like she was already a movie star.  She regrouped and got back into character.

She had to make the train.  It was now or never….

3:00 p.m.

At 3:00 the post was distributed and Belita waited for the envelope to be placed in her box before taking it outside to read.  She now sat on the bench outside with the unopened letter in her hand.  Its contents would decide her future.  If the envelope contained a form letter, thanking her for her participation in the contest, she would be staying in Diepsloot until the next opportunity to model.  If the letter was an affirmative invitation, she would soon be on her way to Los Angeles, in order to pose for a lingerie feature in a national magazine.

Belita had modeled lingerie since she was sixteen.  Her first job was very dodgy, where the models were asked to pose for a photographer with a hand-held camera in front of a sheet.  She had been taken to downtown Johannesburg with three other models in a long car that served them champagne and told them they were going to be rich.  It was only partly true: the models took home two hundred and fifty rand that day.  Posing in a bra earned her whole family groceries that week, which was good enough to warrant congratulations from her Gogo.  Belita did not have the heart to tell her that she modeled her underwear for strangers; she knew her religious Granny would not approve.

At first, Belita kept it a secret from everyone, until she started getting national recognition from photographers and advertizing agencies.  At eighteen, she posed for a headshot advertisement with a young man she thought was quite homely.  To her surprise, one of the photos was used for advertizing  Durex Condoms.  Her friends teased her, saying she was now famous.  They asked her for money, assuming that she would collect part of the royalties for her face on a million street signs.  Little did they know the eight hundred rand payout was for one-day’s work.  She had signed a release and didn’t profit from the picture at all- no matter how popular it became.

After two years, the condom stigma wore off.  Her Gogo found out she was a lingerie model and pretended to object; she didn’t stop eating the food Belita brought home, however.  The Pastor and his wife took her aside one day and confessed they were worried about her salvation; they advised her to find other work. 

In truth, it was easy for others to judge.  It was easy to say “Oh, yes, I will begin looking for other work!” In reality, modeling lingerie put food on the table – lots of food.  The more reputable the agency she signed on with, the less nonsense she had to put up with.  It led her to some very nice work environments; all she had to do was look good in bras and panties. 

Two months ago, she entered a global contest called “Pearls of Africa” – a scouting of fabulous models from all over the continent.  She submitted a portfolio of work that she had managed to save over the years.  She had also enlisted the help of her brother, an amateur photographer, who took additional shots with a borrowed camera.  They sent the portfolio off, paying an exorbitant price for DHL shipping.  Her return address was a box at the 3-in-1 at Fourways Crossing, down the road from the township.

The letter arrived today from the magazine; Belita was strangely afraid to open it. 

She had made peace with modeling, even lingerie modeling.  She had not yet made peace with success.  Success meant she might be choosing a wicked path and disregarding the pastor’s advice.  In truth, she sought the counsel of God at every step; He remained the very core of her being.  He was the One who had caused all of this to happen, Belita thought.  If He willed it, it would come to be. 
“Lord,” she whispered.  “Not my will, but yours be done.”

The wind blew and she quivered, clutching the envelope tightly.  At last, she dared to break the seal.  Inside was a letter that was addressed to her, looking official.

“Dear Ms. Mbantwa,

Thank you for your entry in the Pearl of Africa Photo Shoot contest for Divine Magazine.  We regret to inform you that you were not among the Top Ten applicants chosen.  Your portfolio was beautiful, however, and we would like to invite you to come to Los Angeles as an alternate model for the upcoming lingerie feature.Your entry provided us with a phone number that has been disconnected; we are hoping that you will call us when you are in receipt of this letter.  Kindly phone our offices in Sandton at 011-456-0809 at your earliest convenience.  We would like to discuss the possibility of bringing you to Los Angeles as soon as possible.

With Warm Regards, 

Chanelle Rossy
Executive Director, Lingerie Department
Divine Magazine
New York, Los Angeles

Belita read the letter three times before going back into the 3-in-1 to ask Janet, the clerk at the counter to read it as well.  Both ladies agreed that the letter was not a hoax and that a phone call should be made. 

Janet allowed Belita to use the landline behind the counter since her boss was ill and therefore not around.  As soon as the phone was answered, the woman directed Belita’s call to her supervisor.  The next voice Belita  heard was deep, professional, and sincere. 

“Miss Belita Mbantwa!” he said.  Belita could tell he was smiling.  “Good day to you!  You are a very hard woman to find!”

Belita looked up at Janet, and the two ladies smiled at each other.  They both knew that Belita would be soon bound to Los Angeles for the trip of a lifetime.