en langage clair

anything and everything

Category: Personal Accounts

Rara Avis

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“When you were a little girl, you used to wake up happy.” My mother said this to me as we rode in the car down a wet highway. When I turned back to comment, I found I had nothing witty to say except, “I don’t anymore.” Her eyes darted from the road to me and back again, a sad smile on her mouth that did not reach her eyes; crow’s feet would have appeared to mark the many days of joviality that her eyes had known, and though she would not believe me if I told her so, I thought them beautiful. No one but my mother could make crow’s feet look beautiful; but then, there was never a time in my life when my mother was not beautiful.

When I was a child, she and my father seemed different in so many ways; often I found myself wondering how they had ever beguiled each other to begin with. He, a man of few words, would only speak when deemed necessary. Even then he was slow to respond, answering in the heavy, deliberate rhythm of an Ent out of a Tolkien novel, accompanied with the sonorous voice of Mufasa, which was enough in itself to turn any head in a room. A composed and reverent man, he seemed impregnable in every way imaginable, sapient beyond compare, with eyes as deep as fathomless wells bored into the Earth for miles, harboring an unsettling ability to penetrate your soul. I tested his tolerance only once, and I found it truly did have an end; I spent the night sporadically getting out of bed to spit out the soap that I had been subjected to use to cleanse my dirty mouth and conscience. Needless to say, he is the best man I have ever known.

My mother was a completely different story; or rather, she was an unfinished novel. She talked and talked, sometimes to me, sometimes to my father, sometimes to my grandmother, many a time to herself, even the dog; she talked and thought and yelled and laughed and cried. She flitted through your vision like a sparrow, darted about like hummingbird, always moving, never fixed, seemingly chaotic, helter-skelter, deranged; but inside her restless mind, there lay an elegant, masterful design. She was built to withstand the acrimony hurled at her, immune to the malevolence and deceit that plagued mankind, was made to penetrate to the crux of a situation faster than any one person had any right to, fashioned with a heart that meshed freely with her mind. She lived with the standards, yet found a way to remain outside them. This is a feat I hope to accomplish someday.

When I was two, I lay dying in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit somewhere in San Jose. What had begun as a simple rash on my cheek in the shape of the Hawaiian Islands, had distorted my little face and body into a swollen, gargantuan mass, with a skyrocketing fever of one hundred and five. I can imagine how monstrous and pitiful I must have looked, my ballooned frame speckled with tubes in my legs, arms, mouth, and a breathing apparatus covering the lower portion of an inflated face. My mother was in the waiting room, accepting comfort from a friend, preparing herself for the grief that accompanied the loss of a child, wondering how she was going to face all our family and loved ones and tell them of my death, when she began speaking to the father of a Muslim family sitting near her. He relayed that while driving parallel to her, he had watched a vehicle barrel into a car that contained his wife and two children. She suffered innumerable fractures and shatters in all parts of her body, and had to be transferred to a separate hospital away from her children, leaving him to run back and forth between the two in order to visit with both. He was told his first child would heal; his youngest, a three month old baby, had suffered irreparable brain damage and was not expected to live. The man listened to my mother recite my situation in the same somber manner, each sharing in their anguish, both bracing themselves for the departure of their youngest children, both asking different Gods the question always on the lips of the recently abandoned; “Why? Where is the justice? What sin of mine is being punished? What sin of theirs? Why not me in that bed, in that car? Why?

I read once that Muslims do not pray for non-Muslims, for we are the non-believers. The only offering they can give to us in prayer is the hope that one day we will see the light, and become one with Allah, their only true God. But that man in that waiting room prayed for me. Prayed, for me. I regret to say I am not learned in the rituals and ways of other religions, in fact hardly in that of mine own; I don’t know how many sacred laws may have been violated in that one act of benevolence. But since my mother told me of this momentous time in my life history, I have carried with me an unshakeable sense of spirituality that pervades every decision I make. Someone somewhere heard his prayer, the whispered wishes of a bereaved dissenter in silent grief. Whether he had lost his faith when he bore witness to the collision and no longer cared if labeled an infidel, or he had truly asked his God to show mercy on a little girl, or he just merely pretended to pray out of pity for my non-Muslim mother, I cannot say. However noble or ignoble, I am only grateful for the effort.

A Journey

Some days, in the Spring and Summer, I decide to sit my rump upon a seat that is entirely too small for it and pedal down the road. The site is akin to that of Idol Rock, the immense boulder precariously balancing atop a much smaller one. However, glaciation and water erosion didn’t have anything to do with the strange-looking relationship between bike seat and buttocks; a few genes and a German heritage did. Just as Thoreau wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” so too shall I embark on my miniature Odyssey with only my bike, my rump, and no expectations.

As I begin to roll along the path slowly, I witness the leaves up ahead blowing towards me with a sudden gust of wind, and I can see the energy rushing towards me like a tidal wave, and suddenly I am meeting the energy head on, and as it hits me it pushes the tears out of my eyes, and I know I have stepped over the threshold, gone through the portal, passed the Point of No Return. “If you love living a mystery as I do, alive is the place to be,” said Reg Saner in one of his more philosophical essays. The mystery of a few short hours lay ahead, and I shall experience each minute as though it were a droplet of water escaping between my fingers.

One of those minutes involved my passing of an elderly Hispanic man sitting alone on a bench with a little black dog at his side. It was actually only just a fraction of a minute, a couple seconds really, but as I approached and zoomed pass, I waved and said “Hello,” going so fast that I only needed to turn my head in his general direction and speak loudly, my voice cutting through the wind tunnel I was travelling through. His dog barked at me, and I took that to mean “Hello,” back. I imagined up a life as a mute for the man, with only a dog to communicate for him; what a marvelous, and terribly sad life that would be! To never be pressured to have to answer aloud a question that is asked of you, to be spared the embarrassment of stumbling through your sentences! If I were him, I would write long, beautiful letters to explain everything to everyone that I ever wanted them to know, without trouble or tribulation. Of course, that little dog was probably just barking because… it’s a dog.

I met with a second obstacle when three kids were pedaling towards me, each one spread out evenly along the path so as not to let me pass easily. They made no attempt to move to one side. Neither did I. Suddenly it became a game of Chicken, and I imagined what would happen if neither side gave in, all of us colliding into each other in a burst of confetti with a loud BANG! like a firecracker, four piñatas perfectly cracked open and leaking sweets and sparkles onto the hot afternoon pavement. I liked the idea of someone coming along and finding candy strewn about instead of a pitiful, gruesome site. I ended up dismounting and was relegated to walking on the grass around the little motley crew, like Pac-man avoiding ghosts in the most circuitous route possible. At the next street crossing, I stared down every car that passed by until they stopped, and I stomped across the road, my pride wounded by a pre-teen street gang.

Awaiting me before the wooden bridge was another man sitting on a bench, except this one was a little younger, had skin as dark as ebony, and teeth that reflected the sun into my eyes. I know this because as I speedily approached, he was staring at me full on and beaming like he was greeting an old friend, as if both of us had long expected to see each other just at that precise moment. I slowed to a lazy roll, and called “Hello!” and he said “Hello!” right back, his voice as sweet and smooth as honey rolling over the lip of a jar, a lilt of the tongue that made me feel like I was still a child sitting behind my old pond, my naked feet in the water, my toes mashing the slimy algae against the shallow bottom. And he plunged into a conversation about the weather, about the birds in the trees, about life, and held my head under the tepid, sun-touched pond water of nostalgia until I thought I could feel right at home in this warm, watery grave.

But I kept rolling along lazily, remembering the last bit of the journey ahead of me, knowing what I came for. His silver-tongue had lulled me like the sirens and nymphs of Homer’s writings, but my feet remembered how to keep pedaling. The way on from here would be nearly effortless. The last leg of the trip was deserted of people and street-crossings, the silver-tongued man far behind me, and I was surrounded by nothing but trees. They loomed over me like sentinels, only letting the sun shine through in patchy dissidence; and here is where I charged at warp speed. I was riding so hard and fast that the trees were nothing more than a tunnel of green, and I was cutting through the pavement like butter, sinking slowly into the earth until the worms became my only company and I could count each layer of strata.

And the next day, I supposed I would probably sit my rump upon a seat that will be entirely too small for it, and pedal down the road again.

A Face

With a face as malleable as copper, I am blessed. It is a plain, unimaginable face that is neither offensive nor beautiful, one that may opt to revel in its ability to hide in mediocrity, or may act as a blank canvas on which to paint a desired façade. I do hope that in the years to come it will not change, as I enjoy my shape-shifting countenance almost as much as I enjoy my own modesty; and it is that modesty that I believe allows me to walk the line between ridicule and unwanted attention. Do not see my face, but know my words.

At fifteen, I walked through rows of white stone, fingering a similar, rougher stone in my pocket that I had collected on the beach. It would be my only souvenir from this place, save my memory. As I walked amongst the ghosts, I stopped to talk to one in particular whose name was Unknown, and who was marked with a Star of David. Being careful not to tread upon his body, I sat down next to his head, and stared into his smooth, white face. How sad it must be for you, I said to him, to be confined to this place interminably; how sad it must be for your life to end at the point where mine has just begun; how sad it must be to always hear the crash of the surf on the sand, the same dastardly noise that pervaded your conscious the last day that you stood on this earth. Who were you, Unknown, to die without any face but the stark white stone that reflects sun into my eyes and blinds my vision? Did you shine so bright in life? Did you wonder, as you waded through the salty water and put boot to sand, if you had crossed the Rubicon? Did you wonder if an unknown girl with a face as plain as yours might someday be kneeling next to your grave fifty-four years later, ruminating on your missing identity?

My lips were like magnets stacked atop one another, clamped shut, and I severely hoped that ghosts could read minds, and that he knew I was sorry that his name was Unknown. And being a child, with a mind as impressionable and ductile as bread dough, I wanted him to somehow knead the answers into my brain with his translucent ghost-hands, wanted him to bend time and space and tell me his story and help me to know; I could not paint a face on him as I did myself, and he had no identity anymore. But I did. And so, like plucking a feather out of my tail, I pulled the pin out of my hair and handed it to him. His face remained smooth and emotionless as I placed it upon his stone head, entrusting him to a little piece of me, and as I walked away, I rubbed my thumb over the similar smooth stone in my pocket. His shapeless face would forever be in my possession.

The Mountains Again

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The omnipresent mountains loomed in the background of my childhood, stretching beyond the bounds of my conscious and memory. They stood guard over me, blue and purple and remote in the distance, the ever-present sentinels with snow-capped peaks protruding towards the heavens to catch a falling star that I once dreamed was just for me, while wrapping me in stony arms against rocky bosoms. Their presence permeates every moment I call back to my mind, and now when I close my eyes to sleep at night, I see them in my dreams, and I am home.

Our little house rested just at the base of the foothills, the dwarfed cousins. The hills were a far more tangible thing, a place where you could stumble up a slope of dust and dry grass and plod along the side of it; but I always thought the injustice of not being allowed to climb all the way to the tippy-top severely hindered my determination to stand atop those hills one day, with my feet apart and my little hands on my hips, demanding the gratuity of all the world to see what feat I had accomplished. I am Jeanne d’Arc, I am Fa Mu Lan, I am Boudicca, I am Tamar of Georgia! But then I would turn my gaze to the west, and see the mountains, and long to reach their summits, and know that I am eight years old. I would stand very still and tell myself, “I am a minuscule grain of wheat bending to the wills of the wind and safely planted at the base of the hill.”

Though not so mysterious a venture as the mountains, the hills still held wonders; a thousand tiny little frogs bursting forth through the crust of the mud, most no bigger than the size of one’s pinky nail; flocks of black birds that morphed into dancing shapes and amoebas against the orange evening sky; lizards skittering in and out of craggy crevices; snakes with colors akin to the blackest of night and the reddest of blood, as long as your leg and as thick as your wrist, lying dormant and coiled below large drain pipes in the gullies; a dead deer with half its entrails spilling out of its side, remnants of a plastic bucket protruding from its belly, huge black flies buzzing about it and making homes in the rotting and ghastly flesh of the abdomen. Is this how it is? The tiny, seemingly insignificant creatures emerge from the cracks of the earth to survive against all odds, the sly wait in the shadows for unlucky prey to innocently pass just a touch too close, the gifted are given the ability to fly off to wherever they desire, and when we are gone, we merely serve as meager sustenance to the parasites of the world? Surely not. I will prove it.

In one swift decision, I climbed across the drain pipe one day, accompanied by my brother. With the path along the hill and the gully beneath us, we looked forward and up at a forbidden world and began our ascent. The pungent smell of dry brown grass baking in the California sun filled our noses; it was a familiar smell, and thus we felt safe. Through groves of trees, between branches, over rocks we went, putting each foot carefully in front of the other, all the while marveling at our own boldness for daring to do what we knew we should not. When the sun had begun to set, we reached an outcrop of boulders that provided a nice sitting place. The streetlights all across the city were springing to life, while the hills were rapidly becoming ensconced in darkness. I longed to see the stars twinkling above those lights, the mirror, sepia-toned version of the sky, two worlds piled on top of one another. But my brother dutifully told me that we must go now, we will never find our way back in the dark! And I knew he was right. He said he felt something on his back. I lifted his shirt to see, and there they were, the parasites already begun to feast on us before we were even dead! We should never have come, we must get down the hill before the sun hides behind horizon! So down we went, all caution thrown to the wind that was turning chilly in the absence of the sun’s warmth, sliding and falling and tripping over ourselves, down, down, down… I didn’t know what happened on the hills at night. I had only experienced the wonders of the day, and the day was all I knew; and so by the time we had reached the drain pipe, we grappled and scampered over it as fast as we could, over the wide trench of the gully and onto safe ground, our path along the hill. Looking back up, all that could be seen were the trees and the darkness beyond looming over us, seemingly reaching out to grab us, wanting to pull us back into its blackened womb. I frantically looked to the west, searching for my mountains, my guardians, but they were too far away, and I hurt my eyes struggling to see them in the darkness. But I told myself that they were there, and they always would be, immovable and unshakable  And though I live in a flat land now, I can still feel them somewhere in the back of my mind, like an amputee with phantom limb. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I am home.

A Highway

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Days that I drive myself to school never seem to lack their fair share of piquancy and quirk. Besides the fact that everyone seemed to be under the impression that they were the only people on the road (isn’t that always how it is?) in the midst of me wiggling in my seat to Mony, Mony, I decided to take a break from my jam session to sip a bit of that sweet, caffeinated life-nectar otherwise know to all of us as coffee; and as I tipped the cup towards me, a waterfall fell down the front of my sweater and onto my thighs. I kid you not, there was a puddle of latte in my lap. In that moment I became that schmuck you see in movies on his way to work, yakking away on his cell phone, fiddling with the radio, checking his teeth in the rearview mirror, when all of a sudden as he’s attempting to daintily sip his coffee, a flood of blisteringly hot java finds its way onto his shirt and into his lap and he veers off the road in shock and lands in a ditch. Well, thankfully, that didn’t happen to me; in fact, I don’t even really know what kind of significance spilling coffee on myself had.  You know you’re really reaching as a writer when the most interesting thing you have to talk about is a little espresso between your thighs.

Of course, when you’re alone in a car, there are so many weird things to notice. Like the random McDonald’s cup sitting on the side of the road and wondering how it got there. And I’m not saying it’s sitting on some shoulder somewhere on 50; I’m saying I saw it sitting right along an exit, in a place where no one could stop and safely exit their vehicle at any time of day to gently place a McDonald’s cup so anyone who drove by could see it and wonder how it got there. One couldn’t even come to a slow roll and place it there without getting rear-ended. I mean, why? How?! Shouldn’t it have blown onto its side by now? Did someone knowingly stick rocks in there to weigh it down or something? People are so strange. And I’m even stranger for gawking about someone who appears to be the perfect combination of magician and litterer.

There are also the things you are forced to notice. Most days I carpool with my mother, which always ends up as either a weird amalgamation of hilariously awkward conversation, a two-woman sing along show, or an extra hour of sleep for me. But when it’s just me and my lonesome, I see things like crushed and mangled guardrails, skid-marks on the pavement twenty feet long that are black as ink, massive bucks laying dead by the side of the road; and you can’t help but wonder how that happened. Was someone hurt? Have they passed? Did they leave behind families somewhere, still grieving for someone they loved, another soul claimed by the deadly highway? Whenever I come across these sites, I always feel as if I should avert my eyes so as not to pry into what was possibly someone’s most terrifying moment in their life thus far; it’s as if I’m looking at someone’s grave. It’s akin to the feeling you get when you visit the Tower of London, and you are shown by the guide to Tower Hill. “Here is where Anne Boleyn was beheaded,” they say so casually, and you are overcome with that familiar melancholy, because although you were not acquainted with each other, your conscience recognizes the loss of human life. Maybe it is an overreaction to feel such things. Maybe I have silly little woman feelings and a silly little bleeding heart. But ultimately, it will never matter how fast you go down that highway; we’ll all end up rolling to a halt at the same stop light, eventually.