Picking Up The Phone And Speaking Out

6

I barely managed to quietly lock the door behind me when the ringing made me jump out of my skin. Whoever was calling, I begrudged them. That phone was so loud, that you could hear it from any corner of the house… especially in the dead of night.

Great! My grandmother was already standing in front of me – the woman could certainly pull a frightening judgemental look, even in her frilly granny nightgown, measuring me from the tip of my high heel boots to my mascara covered lashes. Our make-believe game was working so well… I would pretend I got home early, she would pretend to care enough to stay awake and see when I returned; as long as nothing happened, so she wouldn’t have to be confronted with the truth, as long as none of her friends could prove my disobedience, the system served us both so well.

What time is it? I answered, defiantly looking her in the eye. Why did we need to pretend, anyway? Who was calling at this hour of the night? How was I to know? Perhaps I could find out, if she moved aside, so I could get to the ringing phone… No. That was unacceptable. The phone would not be answered. Calling that late in the night was simply a sign of bad manners. I scowled, as my grandmother stood in front of me, arms crossed, sleep marks on her face, yet stubbornly blocking my path to the phone. Maybe it was an emergency, I ventured a guess. No emergency justifies bad manners! I wasn’t going to win that one, I knew it.

Perhaps getting a mobile phone wasn’t an entirely bad idea, I thought to myself, entering my room once the ringing stopped.

*

The desk by the window remained empty that day. I hoped she would eventually show up.  But she didn’t, and I couldn’t fight that feeling of dread and helplessness taking over me as the hours went by.

*

I had to ring several times before the door eventually opened. Her brother looked sad, but relieved to see me. Something in his voice made me believe that he was constantly feeling the dread and helplessness I had experienced that day, but ten times, a hundred times more intensely. She was fine… well, she was upset, but she was fine… she just didn’t feel like going to school, that was all. Was he trying to convince me or himself? Why didn’t he go to work that day, if he believed it?…

Relax… No pills, no trips to the emergency room, she smiled sadly as I entered her room. No more of that, she did promise, after all… Was she trying to convince me or herself? She was just in a bad mood; everybody can be in a bad mood once in a while, right?

When she didn’t come to school for about ten days several months earlier, nobody could get in touch with her. But nobody worried too much either, she often missed school for days at a time. She was a bright girl, so she always managed to keep up with all the school work… and let’s be honest, we all did our best to skip as many classes as possible.

She loved life and she knew she had made a mistake in a moment of weakness. Last night was just bad, that’s all, she told me. She knew that talking about it would make her feel better, would chase away some of her despair, fear and loneliness. Her brother was out. So she tried calling her closest friends… but it was late, very late in the night, so nobody answered.

Of course they didn’t, manners were more important than emergencies, I thought to myself, not at all sure whether what I was feeling was anger or guilt.

Then she dialled some random numbers, she continued to tell me the previous night’s story. Eventually, somebody answer. A stranger. A kind, patient stranger, somebody completely unfamiliar with certain good manners, answered and listened. A stranger can sometimes be more understanding, helpful and objective than any friend. But most importantly, it can be a lot easier to talk to a stranger, especially when they do answer their phone in the middle of the night. She cried, she talked about things she didn’t even know she needed to share and in her turn, she listened to a stranger’s opinions and personal stories. In the end, the experience had been cathartic, but exhausting as well, because it was morning by the time they hung up. That was why she hadn’t come to school, she needed to sleep. I was relieved; at the same time, I felt awful.

I wanted to make my grandmother feel guilty, I wanted to make her understand how wrong she had been. It didn’t work; some people can never see anything outside that small box which represents their close-minded vision on life. But whether she liked it or not, telephone etiquette was no longer respected.

*

I often ignore phone calls, but to this day I always answer when the phone rings in the middle of the night. You never know when allowing someone to speak out about something completely irrelevant to you might actually be a matter of life of death for them…

Advertisements

Winter Moments – I Must Be Getting Old, Because I Felt Like A Child Today

7

I gave the car mat a good shake and put it back where it belonged. I had dragged so much snow on my boots, getting in and out the car, that I couldn’t just leave it. That was that, no driving anywhere for the day. I finally turned the key to stop the engine, grabbed my bag and my gloves, locked the metal igloo on wheels, and walked away.

I could actually walk to the park… Hmm… It hadn’t even occurred to me, I was so stuck on the little itinerary I had established for myself, that nothing else registered. I was going to drive to this spot where the sea would be spectacular, with all the snow and disturbingly low temperatures we’d been having. Then back to the park, for a nice walk in the snow and some more seasonal photos. Sure, I was going to brave the cold, spend some time outside, in the snow (mostly shovelling it off my car), but I wasn’t going to walk there… Remember Lorelai Gilmore’s “love affair” with snow? Well, I’m nothing like that. It is just frozen water falling from the sky at inopportune times, and pretty as it may be, it is just a nuisance, the annoying cause of bad traffic, countless broken limbs and stupid car crashes. (Fine, I watched Gilmore Girls, you can stop rolling your eyes now. What, don’t you have any guilty pleasures?).

Walking through the snow to the nearby park and thinking back of some pictures I recently found, an old, almost forgotten sensation started defrosting my soul. Since the first snow this winter, something has been nagging me; and when I found those photos and started going down on memory lane with my childhood friend, I couldn’t deny what used to be… Just as I once used to run in the rain, I also used to like the snow.

We had real winters, cold and white, in the little corner of the world where I grew up. There was always snow in December and we often got the first flakes in November. As the winter progressed, we got sick and tired of the frozen intruder, but for a while, it was the centre of our childish existence. What sort of mysterious energy did we possess, what kind of superpower drove us? We spent all our spare time building snowmen and snow forts, and plotting snow fights. Even as teenagers, we weren’t above snow fights; and much as we pouted and complained about wet clothes, messed up hair and smeared mascara, we secretly loved them. Unless, of course, the person(s) you really, really liked didn’t throw one single snow ball at you, that’s when the drama began…

Something miraculous happened. I stopped feeling angry about all the difficulties snow drags along. I stopped thinking about stuck cars, blizzards, bad traffic, icy roads and a myriad of other depressing things. They’d be there tomorrow as well… and there was nothing I could do about all that, except give myself worry lines. If I could detach myself from all that noise in my head and just enjoy something as simple and natural as a snowy day in the park, why shouldn’t I?

You know you’re getting older – no, let’s call it “more mature”, it sounds better – when you realize you’re feeling like a child. You recognize that sensation, you can associate it with specific moments, and you welcome it, because in some cases it can be such a joy to relive a version of it. The wind had calmed down a bit and the snowy park was beautiful. Narrow paths had been carved across the thick layer of snow. As soon as I strayed from them in order to take some pictures, I was really glad I had decided to wear my over-the-knee boots.

A few steps sideways and I could get the perfect photo of a tree bending to the ground under the heavy burden of snow… or I could have got it, had my behind not hit the snow at that very moment. Half a second later, I was back on my feet as though nothing happened – after all, I know how to fall. I immediately got rid of all the snow I had picked up during my unexpected incursion while worriedly looking around for members of younger generations. I was ready to smile at my own lack of grace, hoping they wouldn’t make too much fun of the thirty something woman with the crazy hat. But there was nobody around… my fall had slipped unnoticed.

Then it sunk in. There wasn’t anybody around… In fact, there weren’t too many people in the park, even though as far as snowy weekend afternoons go, this one was a lovely one… and most of them were adults. You know you’re getting older growing more mature when you feel like starting a thought with “when I was a kid…” I’ll take my chances. When I was a kid, we spent hours and hours outside, in the snow, in the cold, playing, sledding, having fun; we had to be dragged back home. Then, when we got a bit older, we did our best to spend as little time at home as possible; even being outside, at disturbingly low temperatures, was preferable. The parks were always full of children and teenagers. Now, almost everybody was over 50.

It was something along these lines that my friend and I were remembering, looking at old pictures of us in a snowy park, from our high school days… And we could not figure out how we managed to do that, spend all that time in dreadful cold, and not mind it. We didn’t just grow older and jaded, we also became overly sensitive – and it’s not only an age related matter, it’s a state of mind. That strength, that resilience, that mystical superpower, I think we drew it from being able to enjoy every little thing, regardless of all discomfort and inconvenience that also came with it. Was it madness? Was it recklessness? Perhaps it was – up to some point – but it was also a type of simple, instinctive wisdom, which we outgrew.

At least I can remember it, therefore I know that as a human being, I am able to feel it – and if I focus and dig deep enough in my soul, I can even overcome my jaded, cynical self. My toes were starting to freeze in my boots, but I could stand it, it was a good feeling, just like so many years ago.

I could hear laughter in the distance and I could see somebody making a snow angel. Then I walked closer. He helped her up, laughing as well. They were having a snow fight and they were still laughing, yelling loving threats to one another. As I was walking towards the park exit, I met them again. She was throwing one last snowball at him, while he was picking up her designer bag. He came close to her and brushed some snow off her elegant coat. She broke free and they started laughing and running through the snow again. They were feeling like children too, even if they seemed to be in their forties. They had their own memories, their own impulse to feel like children. Too many don’t create such simple memories that might rescue them later, not anymore…

I was frozen, tired and exhilarated when I got home. So I can still occasionally enjoy snow, even if I still hate winter cold. Who knows, maybe I can still run in the rain as well.

Unseen Numbers

3

You have 20% sight left in your right eye.

She twirled the fork in the cold pasta once more, still unable or unwilling to taste it. She closed her right eye, giving the plate a suspicious look. She’d been playing that game for a week. The doctor’s words were ringing in her ears, no matter what she did. So she started repeating them once more, not caring that the man sitting across the table, eating his dinner in silence, had heard them time and time again, first from the doctor’s mouth, than from her, doubled by a variety of emotions. Sadness, disbelief, hope, despair, resignation, acceptance… hysteria… he’d witnessed them all. For a moment, she felt relief, as though saying the words out loud made the problem evaporate into thin air.

“You’ll have surgery and everything will be fine again. You’ll see.”

He swallowed his half chewed pasta. There was a faint aftertaste of guilt, he noticed… he’d heard the story so many times, that he’d become immune. He no longer cared about her drama – real or imaginary – but nothing in his actions would betray it. After all, they were married…

20%… It was that number that got to her the most. It was all about the numbers. She hated mathematics, therefore she spent the better part of her life stubbornly trying to disregard the numbers she despised. But they’d always been there, tormenting her, challenging her, making her happy and sad alike, even if she had chosen to look the other way.

But she was too young… wasn’t she? Wasn’t it only old people who needed cataract surgery? She swallowed the tasteless pasta. Apparently not, that’s what the doctor said… either that or she really was old, and she just couldn’t see it. She swallowed her tears along with the pasta.

She looked at all her bookshelves, absentmindedly trying to count all the books she had read and all the ones left to read; and there were so many more that she would never even get to hear about. The numbers were winning once more. Did she only have 20% of her life left as well? The surgery might very well fix her eye – the numbers were in her favour there – but it wouldn’t fix much else. How much was left? And what to do with it?

She closed her right eye again, staring at her left hand. Only half a picture, yet somehow it looked clearer than the full picture. The diamond sparkled as she stretched her fingers and she tried to remember all its numbers – the size, the price, the date she said “yes” to it, to him, the years that had passed. Were they wasted years? Half a picture said “no”; the other half told another story. No eye surgery could help her see her present clearly.

The pasta was blend that evening, yet he wasn’t complaining about it. He always complained when the food wasn’t the way he liked it. Was this good or bad? Was he trying to be understanding and supportive or had he reached that point where he couldn’t be bothered to care enough in order to complain? A 50-50 chance. She knew she often felt she was approaching that point. So potentially 100% for their couple… was that how relationship maths worked?

Her eye moved up to her wrist. The numbers pointed to the fact that it was almost time for him to go out and meet his friends. It was almost time for her to be alone again. The number of minutes in the days in the months in the years they had been married could easily be calculated. But she loathed the result, because she had the feeling she’d been lonely for the better part of them. She also loathed to think whether he was lonely as well.

Perhaps that was why there were no more watches, no more jewellery, no more flowers. As the numbers of their relationship went up, the number of tokens of appreciation decreased, until it reached 0 and stagnated. Or did he think that holding her hand at the eye doctor was a sign of appreciation? Maybe he did… after all, she thought that remembering to buy his favourite socks was a sign of affection. They barely remembered each other’s birthdays or their anniversary these days, but the memories of earlier years were crystal clear. His birthday had come and gone, adding one more uncelebrated year to his number. Her birthday was coming up; so was their anniversary. She didn’t feel guilty for not celebrating his; she would resent him for ignoring hers, theirs… But she would pretend she didn’t care, the way she had for the past several years. How many years was it now? Anyway, she would pretend not to care, she would make light of it… after all, they weren’t children… after all, they were married…

“We should have dinner somewhere nice on our anniversary… or maybe on your birthday. That way, you don’t have to cook…” He pushed aside the half empty plate of pasta and left the table. It was time for after dinner drinks with his friends.

Both her eyes were widely open, silently staring the man in front of her. But she couldn’t get a clear picture. Was it because he hated her cooking? Was he trying to be nice? But if he was, why didn’t he suggest they go away for a few days, just the two of them? Could he no longer stand to be alone with her for a few days? Could she put up with him for a few days, just the two of them alone, all the time? Would this year’s celebration celebrate something? What were the chances for that to happen? Surely they could be calculated. Perhaps she didn’t want a clear picture after all…

Husband Or Cat?

1

She was quickly becoming a pain in the neck… literally. Holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder while ironing may have not been one of my brightest ideas. But conversations with her were generally long and boring. I needed some other dull task to focus on, so that they wouldn’t feel like a waste of time. After all, that’s what people do, right? They try to keep in touch, they make an effort to communicate and mind each other’s dull nonsense… that is, until you start feeling like throwing your phone out the window.

Apparently she was having a husband bashing night and I just had to be part of it…. Oh well… Sure, I could let her vent and throw in a yes, no or a wow once in a while. I knew the drill, she just needed to tare him apart and contradicting her would only anger the woman even more. But strongly agreeing with her while listing all his flaws without mentioning any redeeming qualities was also a faux pas. After all, she wanted some compassion and empathy, she didn’t want to hear that she had married the wrong person, that the two of them were not compatible, or – horror of horrors – that some of their marital problems might have also been her fault. But once she was done, she generally occasionally able to hear that perhaps he wasn’t all bad, that she might not always be a delight to live with and that all in all, they needed to work together on solving their problems.

Then there were the times when conversations took a twisted, shocking turn…

“I just can’t do it anymore… I have to do everything… he can’t even be trusted to take out the rubbish… you wouldn’t believe for how long he can leave the rubbish bag right there, by the door…”

Oh yes, the “who takes out the rubbish” conundrum… I heard that one before. Whenever she’s mad at him, you’ll always hear about the rubbish.

“I put it next to his shoes and he still claims he didn’t see it, that’s why he didn’t take it out. I swear, next time he’ll find it all over his beloved loafers. I’m not joking, you know. I told him that.”

I had to stifle a few giggles. I know how annoying such small things can be, they get to me too. But for years and years, I keep hearing all about the rubbish drama. She keeps finding amusingly creative ways to point it out and he keeps ignoring it. I wouldn’t be surprised if one morning he found potato peels in his shoes, leftover pasta in his pockets and shrivelled lettuce in his wallet.

“He’s taken it too far… I don’t know how long I can put up with this anymore. I’m all alone all day, taking care of our sick cat and what does he do?… The poor thing isn’t doing better, I’m the only one giving her the treatment and it breaks your heart seeing how she suffers…”

Goody… more cat stories now. I made a face at the phone, while picking up a pillow case from the decreasing laundry pile. I am not a cat person. She always talked about her cat the same way doting mothers talk about their babies. Much as I wanted to be open and understanding, I couldn’t help thinking there were deeper issues behind her behaviour.

“I give the cat her medicine, I try to get her to eat something, I’m the one who stays awake watching her at night…”

Why would she do that in the first place? I was pretty sure the cat wasn’t awake all night… Oh well… moving on to the next pillow case.

“… and he sleeps right through it! Then he’s at work all day, of course. And who has to take care of a sick cat every day? Not him! You know he hasn’t taken one single day off to stay home with her?”

What sane person would?

“And now, do you know where he is now? Well, do you?”

Oh, that wasn’t a rhetorical question… How am I to know?

“No…”

“I’ll tell you where he is. At the hospital, visiting his mother! Every day, after work, he goes straight to the hospital to see her. He has a sick cat at home and he goes to the hospital to see his mother every day!”

Okay… this I was not prepared for… how does one react to something like this?

“Do you know that I had to take the cat to the vet all by myself because he was too busy looking after his mommy?”

I unplugged the iron and sat down, holding the phone with one hand and massaging my neck with the other. I like animals too. I had pets too. But this was too much. This was insane. There was a woman suffering on a hospital bed. Her husband was terrified facing the possibility of losing his mother, and all she cared about was a damn cat with an ear infection.

This was a new low, and it had nothing to do with me not being a cat person or with a man too lazy to take out the rubbish. Nevertheless, I am the one labelled as uncaring and cold-hearted, because I am not moved to tears by the suffering kitty… Well, call me crazy, but I want to desperately hold on to this insane idea that people, especially the ones we choose to have in our lives, should be more important than a pet.

Weighing The Now

6No, she didn’t want any desert. Yes, she was saying no to the best tiramisu in town. Her daughter raised her eyebrows in disbelief – she had never heard her say no to tiramisu. Occasionally binging on sweets was their thing. Was anything wrong? No, everything was fine, she was just trying to cut back on sweets and eat healthily. After all, her daughter was doing the same for several years, she should understand. After all, the fact that she had just made that decision wasn’t relevant to the matter. More for me, and the daughter winked at her mother as the waitress placed the desert accompanied by two spoons between the two of women.

She watched her daughter obliviously savour her tiramisu. She used to be able to indulge in such calorie bombs, but she learnt not that long ago that such luxuries don’t last for a lifetime. Halfway into her mascarpone delight, her daughter put down the spoon, that was enough. A wave of resentment was coursing through her veins. The younger woman could still enjoy her deserts without worrying… and she could also control he urges. The only way she could stop herself from devouring the whole thing was by not even tasting it.

She used to wear the same size her daughter did. She used to borrow her daughter’s clothes whenever she had a chance, pretending not to notice how much the younger woman hated to have anybody wear her things, forgetting how much she herself used to hate it when the roles were reversed and her teenage daughter borrowed her outfits. Her daughter must have been relieved now, there was no way she could do that anymore.

Her eyes involuntarily went down on the loose top she was wearing, noticing the way it was clinging on her no longer flat tummy. Swiftly she straightened her back and readjusted the frilly ornaments of her top, hiding her flabby waist. A quick peek at their reflection in the nearest window reassured her. She wasn’t really fat, she was just fatter than she used to be… fatter than her daughter, that nagging reminder of how she used to look when she was that age, of how she used to look until a few years ago.

The evening air was getting chilly. Here, have my jacket, I’m not cold, her daughter offered. Her first instinct was to grab the cute little jacket and enjoy the youthful feeling wearing her daughter’s clothes always gave her. She stopped herself just in time. That’s ok, I’m not cold. Better the cold than the shame. What happened to that red leather jacket I gave you, do you still have it? The question was harmless, yet it felt like an insult. Yes, she had it, it was her favourite jacket. But nowadays she can only wear if she doesn’t need to close it.

After spending the day going from one store to another, trying on things and debating the latest trends, the way they had always done when they met, she felt she couldn’t sink any lower. Seeing her daughter pick a pair of skinny jeans off a shelf, the smallest size they had, made her strongly wish they wouldn’t fit. Seeing her daughter try a skirt and complain it was a bit large, made her hate the young woman with a vengeance. That used to be her! Only now that it wasn’t her anymore, was she able to understand what great a part of her identity that had been.

Two sizes. That wasn’t too much, was it? But when you live your whole life effortlessly having a perfect, enviable figure and you take it for granted, two sizes might as well be ten. She had always complained that people notice her looks before they notice her intelligence; only now could she admit she loved it. She was normal, she wasn’t overweighed, but standing next to her daughter in front of the mirror, getting ready to go out, was a bitter reminder of how much better than normal she used to be.

She liked these loose clothes, she repeated in a convincing manner. She couldn’t be bothered with too much makeup or high heels anymore; after a certain age comfort is everything. That was perfectly fine, her daughter agreed, as long as it’s comfort you’re looking for, rather than an excuse to let yourself go. She hated it when her daughter was right – she had given up on herself, because if you can’t be the most beautiful woman in a room anymore, what’s the point in doing anything? At least she still looked better than most of the women her age and she kept stating it loudly whenever she remembered she couldn’t stop time. In spite of what she may have claimed, maintaining her figure hadn’t been an effortless task; once she had stopped exercising, once she refused to adjust her diet to the changes her body was undergoing, time simply caught up with her. Fast.

Walking behind her daughter, she hungrily analysed every little detail about her yet again. Then she caught her reflection in the window once more. She looked fine… for her age. People used to be surprised when they were introduced as mother and daughter. Now they don’t even blink. Time. That’s all there was. Who knows, maybe she’ll decide to fight it again. But one thing made her feel slightly better – knowing her daughter would eventually go through it as well. She wasn’t alone in this.

Love of Her Life

3

The luxury car crawled by slow enough to let her notice every detail, from the tinted windows, to the impeccable paint shining in the sun, to the speckles rims. But in the congested early evening traffic it was still moving faster than most. A few more elegant manoeuvres of an experienced driver and it disappeared somewhere among the SUVs in front.

“Did you see it?”

Of course. A car like that was hard to ignore. So was the hungry, tormented look behind her sunglasses and those tiny beads of nervous sweat that had appeared on her forehead as soon as she noticed that ghost of a car on the other lane.

“Could it… Do you think it was him?”

No, his car is a different colour.

“Who knows…” She was already fidgeting in her seat, her eyes searching for the car that slid by just moments earlier.

“Can’t you catch up with him? Follow him, see where he’s going, see if it’s him?”

No way.

“Look at this traffic… there’s police everywhere, what do you want me to do?” I didn’t even try to hide the irritation in my voice, but she never noticed it. All she had eyes, ears and thoughts for was that car… was him… just like all those years ago.

“But you could try anyway,” she ordered, forgetting it was a favour she was asking for.

“No,” but the answer fell on deaf ears.

I had done more ridiculous things than try and follow a car, all in order to help with her romantic games over the years, but not this time, not for him… Even if I knew it wasn’t him in that car, she couldn’t have known. She was still chasing him, no matter what, no matter where, no matter who got in her way, no matter who got hurt. Well over a decade had passed since she hadn’t seen or talked to him, yet he was still haunting her. All it took was a glimpse of what might have been.

I tentatively moved forward, upsetting other impatient drivers, but the mystery car was nowhere to be seen, as expected. Yet now she could tell herself she had tried… and hopefully she wouldn’t have to tell me as well.

“Anyway, it couldn’t be him… I think I caught a glimpse of the driver and he looked nothing like him,” she tried to convince herself, settling down, disappointed the unexpected sighting was not going to become anything more. There was no way she could have seen the driver, but then again, she could never see clearly when it came to him.

The rest of our drive home was quiet. I knew all the memories, the regrets and the what if’s that car had triggered. While I may have despised him for the way he had treated her, while I resented her for what she had put everybody else through for the sake of their relationship, I couldn’t deny understanding at least part of her melancholy.

He had been and would always remain the love of her life. The love of her life and the passion of her life, both entwined in one selfish, arrogant, irresistible person…

Once in a while, she’d try to convince herself the man she married was the one she loved most. And once in a while, she would believe it. Yet, the more she saw herself disappearing in a marriage with a good, loving man who could never understand her, who had nothing in common with her, the more she looked back, remembering only the good times, only the passion, only the happiness. She used to have a life of her own, a career, she used to travel and be independent. She used to be alive.

Now she was somebody’s wife and nothing more. A housewife nobody minded anymore, that was all that she was, and most of the time she couldn’t even be bothered to care. She didn’t go anywhere anymore. She hardly left the house to go anywhere but the grocery store. She cooked meals, she cleaned their home, she listened to his boring work stories and once a year or so she managed to convince herself to visit me. So when one of her old, snobby, so-called friends told her how well he was doing and casually happened to mention one of the cars he was driving, she suddenly found herself canvasing the streets, hoping…

But she no longer was the strong woman she used to be. Seeing him, being rejected by him would have broken her. As one of the two persons who would then have to put Humpty Dumpty back together, I reasoned there was nothing wrong in trying to prevent Humpty from falling off the wall in the first place. Some feelings will never remain in the past, and just like she could never forget how much she loved him and how passionate their relationship had been, I would never forget how much I loathed him. She deserved a night out, I figured. She deserved some fun and she deserved to forget for a moment or two. She also deserved to be happy, but that wasn’t something I or anybody else could offer her anymore.

The luxury car drove by, obnoxiously manoeuvring through rush-hour traffic. This time, it was his car. This time she wasn’t with me. He drove the same way he lived – fast, recklessly and passionately. In his own twisted, selfish way, he had loved her too, that I knew; but he had never really cared. He would always be the love of her life. She might be his. For many of us, the greatest love of our life is one we can’t help but leave behind before it consumes our entire soul. That love remains so great in our memory also because it had no time to die on its own, to become mundane, boring and real. It existed in a dimension of its own, even when it lasted for years.

Reality is a different sort of game. She continued her life with her husband, who never started really seeing her. Once in a while, life would through a tantrum and they’d lean on each other, weathering the storm, hoping that would bring them closer. Then they’d forget it as soon as the weather was good again and they’d go on ignoring each other, living apart together, until the next storm would throw them back into each other’s arms. But one way or another, the past would always loom, breeding frustration and unhappiness. Or was that happening because the present was breeding frustration and unhappiness?

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – The Things We Leave Behind.

Bang Advice

1

I don’t remember her name. But she always wore bangs, that I remember. She wore bangs when not many fashion conscious women dared even consider it. Her haircut wasn’t always the same, neither was her hair colour, but she always wore bangs… and she looked great. Looking impeccable at any moment seemed like an effortless endeavour for her, like it was an extension of her being. From all my mother’s friends, I liked her best. Beautiful, elegant and graceful, she had an extraordinary ability to combine elements and come up with the outfits that suited her perfectly. Unlike some of their friends, she was never ostentatious, she knew exactly how to discretely emphasize her features in order to look attractive without being vulgar or tacky.

But it was her bangs I was particularly interested in that summer, and I had a good reason for it. After all, I wanted to get bangs as well, yet I wasn’t allowed to. If I wanted to be pretty, I couldn’t have bangs covering my forehead or strands of hair getting into my eyes for that matter; besides, all I had to do was look around and see that no pretty girl wore bangs, I was told. I rolled my eyes, but my grandmother had deemed the conversation over.

I loved spending time with my mother’s friends. They were an endless source of interesting information and great gossip and they never filtered their conversation when I was there. I felt like one of the girls, not just a child, and being with those wonderfully independent, outspoken women was so much fun. They were nothing like my friends’ old-fashioned, boring mothers, even if some of them did have children. So in a moment of relative silence, while coffee cups were being refilled, I walked up to her and asked her, how come she always wore bangs? In my mind, I was going to put a flattering spin on my curiosity, but before I knew it, I had just blurted out my out of context question.

She stopped smiling. She stopped looking at me as though I were some adorable doll, the way she usually looked at me. All of the sudden, she was serious and I was her equal, I felt, as her eyes were staring into mine while speaking. She never wore too much makeup, I couldn’t help thinking, and her face was always fresh and natural.

“You make your own style. You don’t let fashion or people dictate how you’re supposed to look, do you understand me? You adapt fashion to your needs, to your personality, not the other way around. You…”

“Don’t depress the girl,” the one who was always the loudest and the most direct of them interrupted, giving her a friendly nudge. “She just always wears bangs, it’s her thing,” she winked at me. “Just like my thing is being a bitch,” she continued, noticing her friend’s sad, lost gaze. She caressed her hair and handed her a fresh cup of coffee.

Years later I would think of her when seeing the Samantha character in Sex and the City.

Somebody dispersed the tension by announcing she had a new lover. Everybody lit up cigarettes, sipped their coffee and loudly asked for details. I kept mulling over the serious style advice I had just received. Sure, my mother had told me the same thing, but it never hurts getting a second opinion… after all, mothers weren’t the most reliable source, were they?

On the way home, I was told the full story – I was old enough to understand and I had to know I hadn’t done anything wrong. Besides, my mother thoroughly enjoyed to have me as a gossip partner, since I could be trusted not to tell anything to my grandmother. Her friend’s haircut wasn’t a fashion statement, it was necessity. She had adapted her hair style to suit her needs after having been in an accident which had left more than emotional scars. There was also a very real, visible, long scar on her forehead, one she hid well with skilful makeup and by wearing bangs. She was self-conscious and didn’t like to be reminded of the trauma she had suffered, yet it was unavoidable, the scar taunting her from the mirror every day. I regretted having voiced my curiosity… or perhaps I didn’t really, since it had gotten me answers. Nobody was perfect, yet one could still be remarkable.

A few days later, while my grandmother was taking her afternoon nap, I was taking a pair of scissors to a chunk of my hair (what girl hasn’t done that at least once?). I contemplated the result with great satisfaction, even though I wasn’t yet sure it looked good.

As a result of my actions, I was rushed to the hairdresser’s. My grandmother couldn’t contain her outrage, while my mother couldn’t contain her amusement. I had been overly enthusiastic with the scissors and had cut a bit too much, so my amazing new bangs were too short and I looked slightly ridiculous. The hairdresser did her best to fix what she could; after that, all it took was patience over the following weeks, until my hair grew… and surprise, surprise, I discovered that I could still be pretty, even with bangs. Besides, what mattered most was that I liked my look, that I was happy with it. I was taking steps in the right direction and she had been right, I realized.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – A Piece of Advice.

Preserving Time

1

Fine, fine, I admit it. I liked the Spice Girls for about five minutes, back in the ‘90s… or 20 years ago, as the annoying news lady decided to inform me the other day. That couldn’t be true… could it? But as I rushed from the kitchen to stare incredulously at the TV (as though that was going to change anything), I quickly did the math and horror of horrors, the lady was right.

Snippets of old videos followed on the screen and flashes of old memories ran through my mind. It’s been 20 years since my friends and I used to jump up and down in front of the TV, dancing to the Wannabe video, choosing our favourite Spice Girl and believing that “girl power” was a given. When the perky blonde came back on the screen, about to move on to some more depressing news, I made a face at her; in fact, I’m pretty sure I stuck my tongue out at her, a gesture strictly reserved for the most obnoxious drivers. But the perky blonde was not done with me, as her next piece of news involved a grey haired Jon Bon Jovi singing at a wedding, looking a lot older than a few years ago, when I saw him live in a concert. That’s what you get on a slow news day… although, ironically enough, lots of important things were going on in the world at the time. But clearly not important enough to push aside trivia reminding me that it’s been twenty years since then. In the ’90s sounds so much better than 20 years ago.

“You know, I told somebody you were 24 the other day.”

Ha? I paused, not knowing what one replies to that. Somebody had asked her how old her daughter was and apparently “24” was the right number for my mother.

“I see you’re not sticking with 28,” I finally recovered my voice.

She stopped counting at 28… not 29, not 30, but 28. I never lied about my age, but apparently my mother feels the need to, for several years now. I will try and preserve a little bit of mystery and won’t say for how many years I’ve been turning 28 according to her… suffice to say that she knows my age, yet she will not admit it to anyone, sometimes not even to me. And apparently, starting this year, I’m 24 again.

I can’t come up with a good reason why she chose that particular age, other than the fact that if I’m 24, she’s still in her 40s. In a way, it does make sense. She liked herself a lot more back then, so many things still seemed possible for her. I can understand why she would want to go back to those days, to somehow relive certain moments, so she could both have the chance to feel that happiness and make different decisions, take a different path. I know she chooses to often forget her own age and certain aspects of today’s reality, succumbing to the mirage of better days. Once in a while we all do that. Once in a while, when she doesn’t exaggerate, I understand her… after all, I’d rather say “in the ‘90s” than “20 years ago”… But I dread the moment she remembers how much she loved who she was in her 30s. If she keeps this up, I can see the day when I reach for my gin & tonic and she smacks my hand – soon enough, I won’t be of legal drinking age anymore.

Preserving time seems to be an obsession for all of us, trying to bottle up certain moments so we could repeatedly savour them at a later moment is not at all uncommon. Everybody has their own way of saving those instances for later use and their own reasons for occasionally sinking deep into those memories. For instance, aside from a plethora of photos, old notebooks and a variety of other things, I also have a couple of old dresses from back when I was about 18. I fear time, just like everybody else, so trying them on when I am really sad somehow makes me feel better, because I can still fit in them, and it also makes me laugh, because of how ridiculous I look. But what I don’t do when I’m sad is sink into happy moments and memories from the past, that’s just a recipe for depression. What can I say, we each fight time and preserve our sanity, our own way.

I’m not delusional about my past, I remember the bad at least as well as I remember the good. That’s why I think it might be about more than preserving time, it might actually be about preserving that person I was at a given moment – I may not have always liked my life, but I generally liked myself. That’s why the present can’t be overlooked and forgotten while we sink too deeply into the past – we need to set something aside for the future too. On that note, I think I’ll go and pour myself a glass of wine (while I still can) to go with my ice-cream and enjoy a nice summer evening, here and now… because who knows what’s to follow. Cheers! 🙂

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – For Posterity.

Retro Gifts, New Memories

1

A particular birthday present from a family friend really captured the essence of those moments… Not that it was expensive or out of the ordinary (it would certainly present no particular interest to today’s twelve year olds), not that it came from a person I so greatly admired at the time, what really mattered was the symbolism of the situation.

I had already decided that I was old enough to choose how I’d spend the big day – you’re practically a grownup when you’re twelve, aren’t you? – and not go along with the family’s dull ideas about the ideal celebration. Not surprisingly, the adults had a different take on the matter. They informed me that I was either having the party they had planned with the guests of their choice or no party at all… Naturally, I chose to be equally stubborn – if the adults were going to be unreasonable and childish about it, then I could be stubborn – and have no party. Not much of a sacrifice, considering that in our circle, kids’ birthday parties were more of an opportunity for the adults to show off and network than a chance for the young ones to enjoy themselves.

Shortly before that controversial birthday, this person I admiring from many points of view paid me a surprise visit, in order to bring a little token of her affection, a reminder that a special day is more than a good party. In her early twenties, beautiful and smart, about to graduate from a prestigious university, engaged to what I used to think should be the man of any woman’s dreams, she was my best friend, the big sister I never had. Her life was far from perfect and anything but easy, I would later find out, but that was not the reality of those days.

The nicely wrapped box contained her old photo camera, a couple of black and white film rolls and a brand new photo album. To my not so little little friend, so that she could make memories of her own, she said… I didn’t need to explain, she understood what I was going through; she always understood and she always knew the right thing to do. The days of mobile phones and digital cameras being as ubiquitous in a kid’s life as bubble gum weren’t there yet, but some of my friends were already allowed to occasionally use their parents’ photo cameras. Of course I wanted one of my own, but much to my chagrin, I was not considered old enough to be trusted with such technology…

When I saw the used, old fashioned, simplistic camera that was all of the sudden mine, I knew things were finally looking up. Memories of my own, I repeated, fiddling with the new toy. It had been a gift from her father, she was about my age when she had received it, and now it was my turn, I was the closest thing she had to a younger sister.  We wondered about all afternoon and she taught me how to use it, how to adjust all the settings and how to make the tricky machinery behave and capture all those memories for me. She was passionate about photography and she had a gift for it, but that cannot be taught, unfortunately…

I used the second roll of film on my actual birthday, for my non-party. My school friends and I decided it was a shame to waste such a beautiful day – my birthday, of all days – and time would be much better spent in a park, so we skipped school for the first time. A birthday I would spend as I pleased, starting to make memories of my own, growing up and independent from my family – she had gotten it right yet again – and the old camera played such a significant part in it, as the day turned out to be perfect in its simplicity.

The days when an old camera meant freedom and all the desired happiness and independence are gone; the kids running around the park that autumn day grew up and failed to stay in touch. The adults never found out about our little escapade; I used my savings to get the films developed and all my friends got copies of the photos. But those black and white pictures are still around, testimonies of days that sometimes may seem unreal.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Analog.

Beginnings, Beginnings…

4

Adults were the enemy, no doubt about it… Yet they had all been young once, children, teenagers… So at what point did they start to mutate, when was it that they stopped understanding and started forgetting?

The 12 year old me had no answer to those daunting questions, and neither did any of my friends. But I was afraid it might happen to me eventually. No, no, never, that would never be me. Yet… what if forgetting is stronger than the human being? Not forgetting actual situations – adults seemed to remember many things, they all had childhood stories – but the feelings behind them, the implications, the reasons and the results. It wasn’t about remembering, it was about remembering it right.

There was only one thing to be done about it. I picked a nice mote book that I was saving for just such an extreme occasion and decided it would be the first of many. Everything had to be documented. There was no other way I would grow into one of those narrow minded, uncaring, depressing, oppressive people who accepted nothing but their own biased judgement and could not understand us… because they could not remember correctly how it was like to be us.

I was no exception, I soon discovered that most of the girls kept diaries… and even a few of the boys were bold enough to admit they kept “journals”. In fact, there was an absolutely hilarious afternoon when we were about 14 and we found one of these journals. One of the boys had been careless enough to bring it to school and leave it on my desk… My friends and I got our grubby little hands on it and the public reading that followed in a nearby park after classes turned out to be embarrassing to say the least. here were certain very private physical matters in there that no adolescent boy would like to have read by the girl he used to like in front of the girl he kindda likes… and all of her friends and his friends. Oh yes, we were merciless… But if you don’t want your classmates to read your diary, you don’t bring it to school, it was a known fact.

Whatever the reasons each and every one of us had, journaling was a widely spread activity. But that wasn’t writing, none of us perceived it as such… writing sounded too much like homework, that was just too tedious. Yet I was right about one thing – that first note book was followed by several others over the years. I may have denied their existence in front of my friends (that was just too girly a thing for me admit to), but the truth was that writing cleared my mind. It may have been meant for my eyes alone, but it was cathartic. It was calming whenever I could no longer control my anger; it was soothing when I felt I couldn’t control my tears; and it was comforting and motivating whenever I felt there was no hope.

I eventually came to understand my personal writing as the best way to gain some perspective. Writing then became dialogue. I would write letters to a good friend of mine who was older and had moved away. My closest friends and I had this notebook where we kept writing whatever went through our minds, everything that troubled us or that made us happy. We did start letting others in, but one thing remained the same – none of us could relate to, confide in or trust the adults in our lives, we had to rely on each other. That we did have in common, it was a fact, not mere adolescent rebellion.

Yet some adults were different. I couldn’t deny that when my middle school literature teacher came to me one day and told me I had won some prize in a writing competition. I vaguely remembered being told about that competition and I had dismissed it immediately; what did she want from me, I couldn’t be bothered with that, I didn’t write like that… She said nothing else, she just asked me to hand in another copy of a composition I had written as a school assignment. She send it in for me and apparently some people liked it… Hmm… who would have thought? She repeated the stunt whenever she got her hands on something I wrote and she liked; that’s how I won a couple more prizes in various writing contests for kids my age and that’s how I ended up accidentally writing occasional pieces for the school paper. Writing could help me if I let it, she made me understand. I didn’t have to take it too seriously, I didn’t have to make it into a career, I just had to allow it to be an outlet. That was my decision… unlike the various competitions she chose for me to enter unwillingly.

She was right, I later had to admit… everybody should have a hobby to sink into whenever they need to let go of everything. As for the life of the misunderstood teenager… well, there was more to it than I had initially imagined. Some of that lack of understanding and tolerance was not about forgetting or about not remembering it right. Some of it was nobody’s fault, neither the adults, nor the kids could be blamed for the incredibly fast paced life and for the way everything evolved beyond everybody’s perception.

I got my first taste of that bitter reality very early in my twenties, when a friend asked me to talk to his younger sister about sex… So many things had changed from social and technological points of view in less than 10 years, that nothing I had written down could have helped me with some of the scary question that perfectly average 13 year old had. I remembered it right and I remembered it all, yet the context was no longer the same. It wasn’t only about remembering, it was also about adapting what I knew to her context, if I wanted to convince the girl that she could and should be her own hero, first and foremost…

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Origin Story.

Imagining Adventure

4

I drove past the sign and as the car was moving faster, I started feeling less restless. I had just stopped by the petrol station, I had a full tank and enough money in my purse to refuel once more. Things had definitely been worse for me at some point in the past, but I didn’t want to think about that. I left the town behind and I could just keep driving… But where?

Some people get antsy when spring arrives, it’s like the warm air defrosts their adventurous side; others get edgy when autumn or winter start imbuing the air with their specific fragrance. For me, it’s summer, early summer. It’s always been early summer. That’s the time of year when I become particularly restless… some might smirk and call that restlessness careless or even self-destructive. I couldn’t argue with them, it’s been known to happen…

This is the time when I feel a desperate need to shake everything up, to uproot my entire existence. This is the time when I fantasize about change, about complete change that I cause voluntarily by simply turning everything upside down and starting fresh. Am I still able to do that, I wonder? I don’t know anymore, but every early summer I feel like putting myself to that particular test. As I drive past the city limits, I can’t deny the urge to never come back. Perhaps I’ve lived here long. Perhaps I’ve gotten all there was to get out of this place. Perhaps it’s time for somewhere else, for something else. Perhaps it’s time to pull everything down so I could rebuild something entirely new.

While I’m still in town, I try to distract myself by focusing on the small things. Maybe I could focus this energy on adding something new rather than on starting new. I drive past a cyclist and I think, I could do that too, he seems to enjoy it. Yes, I could do that, but I hate cycling, I always have; that’s no fun for me. I want something else, something more adventurous, more thrilling. Mountain climbing perhaps? I’m not the mountain climbing type either. I’ve tried it many moons ago, I ticked it off the list and then got over it. I can’t say I hated it, but it didn’t suit me either. Once I proved myself I could do it, I moved on. None of those things are me, I crave some sort of adventure, not a reinvention of myself.

I know how to handle this sort of craving after all the times I’ve experienced it. I also know I’m not a pleasant person to be around when this sort of mood hits, so I try to stay away from those I care about. The truth is, the main reason why my adventure fantasies remain just that and I prevent them from materializing is the fact that nowadays I have something to lose. The truth is I don’t hate my life; I actually am aware of all the things I have to be grateful for… The truth is I also have people I care about, people I wouldn’t want to lose. Yet these restless thoughts I get every early summer make me envision and crave just that – a brand new existence, with brand new challenges, because it seems it’s in our blood to get bored, to stop appreciating, to take things and people for granted.

Driving back on a more scenic route, the way I always knew I would, I feel a bit calmer. I always know when I want to leave a place or a person for good and I generally manage to focus on the reasons I have to go back. But imagining how it might be to escape my own existence and build a new one is still something thrilling, something motivating, something I ultimately and selfishly don’t want to share with anybody else. It’s my adventure, after all.

However, there are pertinent compromise versions of it – I hear that’s what adults do… Hmmm… I know that part of my restlessness is the fact that I miss travelling. After a year of going back and forth almost on a monthly basis, after practically living in two countries at once, now I realize I miss it. In spite of all the difficulties, I grew to like it… or at least to get used to it so much and so fast, that apparently now I miss it, on top of everything else. So I know that some small travel adventure – be it locally or internationally – is a compromise I could very well live with and enjoy enough to calm down these early summer urges. There’s the adventure we dream about and then there’s the adventure we can afford to live with in real life…

I’m often told that people “my age” settle down and should be perfectly fine with living uneventful lives; and if I crave adventure, I should just spend a day on the beach without solar protection. Well, call me crazy, label me hopelessly immature, but once in a while I need more than that. And as long as I can offer myself at least a part of that which I want and need, I will do just that, regardless of the frowns it might bring on certain brows… who, I might add, have no business minding my business.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Adventure.

Forgetting What I Learnt

12

The words and phrases are floating over me, trying to break free from a fog refusing to dissipate. There is a certain familiarity about the text, I should known what it’s all about. I knew it at a point… But I keep reading, pushing those feelings of disappointment and panic somewhere deep and far away in my mind.

That’s what happens when you promise to help… You’ve studied something like this at university, right? I had to say yes, I couldn’t have asked why he wanted to know before saying anything… Serves me right – live it, learnt it!

Hey, wait a moment, this isn’t the same categorization we were taught, what the hell are they talking about? Rather than going straight to the point, they just confuse everything… how’s a person who doesn’t know about it supposed to understand anything… oh wait, a few pages later they finally do it right… good thing I know what the story is, that saves a lot of time.

But that’s exactly it, I do know, I do remember! A sigh of relief… my memory is still what it used to be, it’s not failing me yet, the years haven’t changed me that much from that particular point of view. Yes, I can actually help with this, I won’t make a fool of myself, nor will I be a nuisance.

I may be able to jolt my memory, I may be able to piece together information that I’ve assimilated, but I would definitely be a lot more challenged if I had to learn it now than I used to be back then. Well, this is exactly what my friend is going through these days and I can’t say I envy him. We’re the same age and while we both got admitted to different universities after high school, life got in his way a lot worse than it did in mine, and he is only now working towards getting his degree.

We learn differently, he and I… and many of the things we had to learn, we learnt together, both when it came to academia and when it came to life and its struggles. I helped him understand algebra in middle school and I frightened him into learning the conjugation of French verbs in high school. I found it terribly annoying that many of my class mates took so long to understand what to me appeared simple things; but he could keep up with me, so making him see how easy everything was became fun.

So once again we go back to that routine, the one where we discuss the course material, because that way he remembers it a lot better. That’s how he learns. I, on the other hand, have always studied best on my own; group studying was a waste of time and it held me back. I had no problem studying efficiently while sunbathing on the beach, as long as I was left alone…

Here we are, once again… we spend a day and the better part of the night figuring out the course material I had studied too, although I attended a different university and took different courses. Sure, they labelled it differently for me, but it’s really the same dry, boring, theoretical stuff that I only managed to understand because I had a gifted professor who could create a context and challenging examples to get our attention… and apparently to help me remember something I hardly ever need to use. This might in fact be the first time I do…

That’s why I was worried when I thought I had forgotten everything… Not because I needed to remember it – I am aware of having forgotten a lot of useless things I studied and learnt mechanically – but because this had made sense at the time. I may have hated the theoretical side, but the applied part was great fun. And I always remember that which I have understood, that which has made sense, that which I could have even exemplify in an interesting way.

No, I am not good at forgetting. I have yet to learn how to do that. Just like this highlights of an irrelevant course, everything that I’ve learnt and experienced comes back to me one way or another, no matter how hard I try to not remember certain things. It’s exactly those instances I try to forget that have the bad habit of coming back to me exactly when I least expect it or want it. Good memory is an amazing asset… and it can be a tremendous liability as well. But once you’re used to having access to such a tool, no matter how challenging it might be to handle it, the mere thought of losing it is the kind of fear you still need to learn how to control.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Learning.

Apologies and Silence

cloud

My grandmother was one of those persons who manage to transform silence into a guilt inducing, “think about what you’ve done wrong” ordeals that only a cherished adult can inflict on a child. Only later did I understand the manipulative power of such loaded silences and the fact that they were equally efficient weapons against any adult in the family, as they were not meant to keep in check only children. But this most efficient weapon backfired eventually – it was bound to happen after having been used so efficiently for a lifetime, even when it was not needed.

There are so many kinds of silence and they serve so many purposes, but it was primarily a means of attracting attention in my grandmother’s case. The punishment side of it was merely a bonus, I latter understood, after I had already given up on figuring out what I had done wrong in order to deserve the much dreaded silent treatment.

It always followed the same pattern: you got home and all of the sudden you were persona non grata, whose kind “hello” didn’t trigger a response anymore. Naturally, one tries to find out what they did to upset the dear old lady, and that was generally when one also gets the all too familiar, snappy “You know very well what you did wrong, and it’s too late to make it better now,” followed by a very disappointed, “I’m such a martyr” look.

Nobody ever knew what triggered the silence attack, because nobody ever did anything to deserve it. My grandmother was a very verbal, argumentative, bickering lady whenever a mistake had actually been perpetrated, whereas the silence was merely a way to become the centre of attention, to be consoled and cuddled, begged for unnecessary forgiveness, which she would eventually half-heartedly grant, after having had enough of somebody’s grovelling and little favours offered in exchange for her clemency.

But her strategy soon failed to produce the same results with me; logical thinking worked its magic, even if I was just a child: I hadn’t done anything wrong, I knew that for a fact, so why was I supposed to apologise and have imaginary remorse for never committed mistakes? Navigating through the tormenting guilt her unuttered words instilled in me in spite of all my logical thoughts, I discovered a completely new and precious side of silence: I could finally do my homework or read the books I liked without any interruption from my generally very curious, talkative and intrusive grandmother. Without knowing it, I had offended her silence; and I had consequently offended her, thus almost deserving my punishment.

Silence had turned against her, leaving her powerless, and that was when I learnt that the first one to talk lost the imaginary battle of wills between the two of us.Why would I have been the first to utter a word, when I was so quietly comfortable with all my books, while she was all of the sudden alone and in desperate need of a listener, of somebody with whom to share the latest gossip? So she would eventually enter my room like nothing had happened and start talking and talking and talking – we were friends again, all was forgotten.

Nevertheless, her strategy worked wonders with everybody else, including my grandfather, getting her everything she wanted, from that feeling of control and superiority to a nice leather bag, a trip to the mountains or whatever she felt entitled to receive from those around her. Yet I still cannot help wondering why they refused to see what lurked behind the silence of the old, but not often dear lady. Is it really easier to fall prey to this sort of manipulative silence than to confront it?

After all those years I became as talented at throwing silence in people’s face as my grandmother was – how else would I have defeated her, after all? Yes, I can master silence now, but I choose not to become a pitiful creature who uses it in order to get undeserved and unnecessary attention. Once you learn to be silent both in a positive and a negative way, you also learn how to break silence and transform otherwise uncomfortable moments into a source of genuine communication in this overly verbal, often unable to establish real connections era.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Apology.

A Time For Chance Encounters

10

The car slows down and stops next to mine. We’re listening to the same radio station, I instantly realize, as our open windows allow for the warm wind, traffic noises and the same music to intertwine. I turn my head to the left, curious to see who else feels like listening to ‘80s songs today. Equally curious, the other driver looks to his right and just for a moment, through the dark tint of our sunglasses, our eyes meet. We exchange a quick, playful smile as our attention seems to switch back to the traffic. The light turns green, but we motion forward slowly even though ours are the first cars stopped at the traffic light.

Half smiling to myself, I scrutinize discretely while feeling scrutinized myself. He’s cute, he’s driving a great car and he’s younger than me. I know I don’t show my actual age and today I feel even younger, but it’s still flattering and amusing at the same time. I speed up a bit and so does he, keeping up with me.

It’s that time of year again… summer is in the air, it’s still mainly us, locals, so we still have the town to ourselves. First weekend this year when it really feels and looks like early summer and everybody’s enjoying the moment in their own way, it seems… From angry, aggressive, frustrated drives we become flirty drivers… at least for a few brief moments, until we get used to the summer routine and fall back on our jaded cynicism.

Nobody is in a hurry on such a day and it looks like many have taken their summer toys out for a spin, thoroughly enjoying them and showing them off. It’s fun to see 80’s music lover keeping close to my car even when I challenge him with a couple of unexpected turns. He’s played the game before, I see… But I must admit, today’s lazy traffic isn’t that tricky. As he passes my car and smiles at me once more, I can hear the same music. I catch myself inadvertently smiling and I effortlessly keep up with him for a couple of minutes and then pass him again. I’m a lady, he needs to chase after me, right?

I don’t normally drive with my window down, I simply switch on the AC. But even those of us, mere mortals, having to drive through life without a convertible, like to feel the wind messing up our hair once in a while. I don’t normally listen to that radio station either, but I’m restless today, I’m bored of the predictable, repetitive rhythms of the usual one and I don’t feel like playing something in particular either. I want to be surprised… And as I can hear the same music reverberating in the car next to mine at yet another traffic light, I realize the surprise is an entertaining one.

The car on my right is slowing down, waiting for me to do the same. As I don’t, he speeds up until he’s right next to me. While waiting patiently for pedestrians to cross, he points to the right, to the parking lot belonging to a trendy pub. They’ve gotten their umbrellas out and the terrace looks so inviting. I know they don’t play ‘80s music there… He still looks at me, his head tilted to the right, smiling crookedly and inquiringly. I smile back when the last of the pedestrians is on the other side of the street and I really have no excuse to be stopped there anymore. With a quick wave of my hand, I drive straight forward while he pulls over in the parking lot to the right. I can see him wave good bye as well. Then the street bends to the left and he disappears.

Yes, it’s that time of year again… when the sun brings out the best and the worst in us in this little corner of the world. It’s that time of year when the fun begins again, when it’s acceptable to be wild and young, no matter how old you are. This time of year, in other years, I would have stopped to have a drink with a cute stranger and see what chances a chance encounter stands to become more. Yet these days I keep driving, and not because of my age, but because I choose to. There are chance encounters and chance encounters… some of them serve as innocent reminders that the person we have in our life for the time being is one we have chosen, not one we have settled for, in lack of better options.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Chance Encounter.

Driving Through The Fog

4

The grey early evening seemed sticky and was threatening to liquefy in a matter of seconds. Yet somehow it felt like ashes would start pouring down instead of rain. A couple more minutes and I’d be home and cosy, closing the curtains on this depressing, dreary weather. Some good food, a nice cup of tea… oh, let’s be honest, a nice glass of wine is more like it.

My car slowed down and then stopped, together with all the other ones, before I became aware of the reason or even of the fact that it was happening. Instinct, force of habit, muscle memory, all of them combined and more, it’s what keeps us safe when driving while completely immersed in different thoughts. Well, not all of us… the line of red lights from stopped cars was leading to a set of different lights, blinking ones, piercing through the heavy fog. Not that again… now it’ll take forever…

I would normally see my building from where I was stopped, but on that fog I could barely distinguish those distorted lights blinking ahead. Nothing new, that bend in the road is yet again the scene of some incident. The visibility is terrible and even if they moved the crossing further down the road, that doesn’t stop people from using that exact place in order to get on the other side… of the street, of course. Many have lived in the area for a long time and changes of that sort are simply something they cannot accept – nothing can determine them to walk a few extra metres, even if that distance could be what separates life from death. If you live or work around here or if you simply have to drive down that street often enough, then you know better and you slow down, just in case someone decides to plunge right in front of your car without looking or thinking twice about it; but if you don’t, then you’d better have really good breaks… Nothing special really, there are so many spots of the sort in any big town, that you hardly think about it anymore.

Damn it, I should have stopped by that little pastry shop… an assortment of their delicious treats would be just right for the evening… after all, if this isn’t the weather for that kind of splurge, then what is? But we’re barely moving, it’s rather late already, by the time I manage to get back there, they’d be closed. Now I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about their chocolate cake all evening… and those éclairs, their so delicious and the choux is so light… I’d make it back there in time, but for this stupid traffic jam… Damn it, damn it, damn it!

Oh look… that must be the car… and that must be the person who tried to get on the other side of the street… Some people would normally get out of their cars for a better view of mundane drama. But nobody wants to be out in this weather, not even the few pedestrians can be bothered to slow down and take a closer look. Everybody’s in a hurry to get to whatever sheltered destination they’re heading to, so the paramedics can do their job undisturbed.

But maybe… let’s see… I close my eyes for a moment and review the contents of my kitchen cupboard. Yes, that’s it! I could make brownies tonight… the good ones, the really chocolaty ones. Do I have all the ingredients, do I have enough of everything? Maybe I’ve got the recipe on my phone as well, I can’t remember the exact quantities… I know I have it on the computer… no, no, it’s not on my phone… why would it be on my phone anyway? Oh well, I’ll see what’s what when I get home.

The old lady seems fine, she’s standing and chatting with the paramedics. She’ll probably get away with a few bruises and a good scare. Maybe she’ll cross the street somewhere safe from now on… Or maybe not – I know a few persons who have been through similar experiences, yet they haven’t learnt anything. Somehow it always comes down to blaming others for your own carelessness.

There’s the driver as well, leaning against her small car. I get the feeling that’s the only thing that prevents her from collapsing, that’s how terrified she looks. She’s about twenty and judging by the license plates on her car, she’s from another part of the country.

There’s really nothing to see. Slowly, one by one, the cars drive by the accident scene without paying too much attention. We’re jaded. We’re resilient. But above everything, we’re used to it. We live in a big town and such accidents are all too common. We’ve all seen much worse than this, most of us have witnessed car crashes and/or people being run over by cars at least once in our lives. See this sort of thing often enough and you’ll become immune; you have no other choice, if you don’t want to go insane.

The girl’s terrified face somehow got to me through the fog. The pedestrian wasn’t badly injured, the little car had no visible dent or broken bits, so she must have been driving slowly, carefully… I know the general tendency is to blame the driver, yet who was really to blame, who was the reckless one?… I remember how much I used to hate driving through that kind of weather. But after having done it enough times, I got used to it; I can’t say I particularly enjoy it, but I don’t mind it either. That’s just the way things are. I do remember how afraid I was, though… the same way I remember how I was afraid of running somebody over when I was learning how to drive. Each time I avoid hitting somebody who suddenly decides to run in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, right after that instant the danger has passed and my heart can start beating again, I remember that fear.

Some feelings and sensations are difficult to outgrow… so how come we’ve managed to outgrow our own instincts, our survival instincts? I’ve seen stray dogs looking left and right before crossing, or waiting at a traffic light for people to start walking first and only then would they also start crossing, convinced they were safe. Yet judging by the way some humans tend to simply throw themselves in front of moving vehicles without taking the slightest precaution, I can’t help but wonder why we imagine we’re such intelligent creatures.

They’re the ones driving, they can stop. They should be careful. I’ve heard this kind of statements more times than I can count or remember. I dug my nails deep into my mother’s arm once, preventing her from stepping in front of a car just because some unknown revelation made her believe the other side of the street would was better place to be. Very displeased with my actions, she noted that I bruised her arm by doing that – anyway, what was I trying to prove? The heap of metal driving her way would have hurt a lot worse, I thought. Well, they should have stopped, they should pay attention when driving and protect pedestrians. But what if they didn’t stop, what if they couldn’t have avoided you? Obviously it’s their fault – you’re not trying to blame me for crossing the street where I wasn’t allowed to, are you? – they are the ones driving. Would it hurt any less just because they were driving? Would you enjoy being an invalid better just because they were driving? Would rotting in a grave be more satisfying just because they were driving? I hated her that instant – she used to drive too, she knew what a difference a second can make and how difficult it is to avoid certain situations. If you care that little about your life and wellbeing, why do you expect anybody else to care more?

I decided not to go straight home – the brownies could wait a little bit longer. I drove through the fog for a while. We learn to bend our survival instincts to suit the risks we need to take on a daily basis. We also accept the metamorphosis of these instincts, the walls we need to build to protect our mind and soul in order to thrive. Metaphorically speaking, we are both road kill and daring drivers, sometimes both at the same time; we are aware of it and supposedly we know how far we can push the boundaries. So what’s the point when we decide we’re invincible on all plains? When and why do we decide it’s other people’s duty to protect us more than we are willing to protect ourselves? Somewhere, somehow, we decided it was acceptable to relinquish even that responsibility to ourselves, that it was acceptable to burden other people’s conscience with our own self-destruction.

I got back home none the wiser. I enjoyed the chocolaty brownies and life went on, the way it always does. I didn’t expect to find answers in the fog, but it was a good reminder to ask the questions – as long as I still ask myself certain questions, I feel grounded in reality.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Risk.

Names and Identity

name

A word gains magical depths when connected to an individual, to a personality – that’s the moment it becomes a name, it can open or close doors and it can shape destinies within the blink of an eye. In spite of all the instinctive prejudice and socially awkward situations certain names might trigger, we tend to make peace with these words, accepting them as part of who we are, but not necessarily as the best description of our identity. Ultimately representing notions we’ve imbued with traits of our character as adults, names will still occasionally haunt us with some of their hidden memories and undesired associations.

Paradoxically, it’s often not the given names that exert the greatest amount of pressure on a young person in search of their identity. It’s all the other words gaining name-like valences and all their implications which are often the most difficult to bear, especially for those still struggling to discover who they are and where they belong.

Years ago, on the first day of high school, I made an unexpected friend – we knew each other since kindergarten, we lived in the same area, but it was only that day that we bonded instantly, in spite of not having anything in common.We never became best friends, but an inertial type of connection kept us close throughout those four years.

Like so many teenagers, this friend of mine – let’s call her D – was terribly insecure and had various self-image issues, constantly lashing out against what she believed to be a world conspiring to hate and destroy her. I remember all her notebooks had her name on their cover and first page, except for one – and this was the one that I and another friend of ours started to dread. Whenever she had a bad day, we would receive the nameless notebook with the explicit request for us to write her something, preferably what we thought she was feeling (because she wasn’t able to express it, she’d occasionally mention).

She didn’t like reading books, but she loved it when we wrote her various quotations from authors she hadn’t heard of, especially if we added personal interpretations, which she would later assume as her own. She didn’t like to be told what to do, but she wanted us to write her what we thought her behaviour should be like, pointing out real or imaginary flaws, often becoming hysterical if we didn’t agree with her self-deprecating attitude. Other times she simply needed us to write whatever thoughts were going through our heads at a particular moment. She would read everything over and over again, her joy perceptible whenever she could find some similarity between our thoughts and her own – that meant she was on the right track, she could say she was just like us, and for a moment all her identity issues were solved. Her only contribution to the big book of teenage thoughts was the colourful scribbling of our names around the written fragments. Her name was absent.

She eventually found herself an identity, but to this day I wonder whether it was a real one or simply an assumed version meant to help her fit in a group. I was there when it happened. All it took was one rock concert and perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was the drinks we all had such easy access to, perhaps it was the surreal atmosphere, but by the end of the night D was no longer D, she was a convinced rocker. The following week brought a change in wardrobe and makeup aiming at expressing her newfound identity, the one described so much better by a word entailing her musical interest rather than her own name.

It didn’t take long for the other kinds to start referring to her as the rocker, rather than D, especially since there was another girl with the same name in the class. ‘Which D?’ was a question answered without too much thought or regard to personal feelings – there was ‘the cute one’, ‘the nice one’, ‘the hot one’ and there also was ‘the rocker’, ‘the crazy one’, ‘the bitch’… So many other words can become names without us even noticing it…

In her turn, D had no problem relinquishing her own interests in favour of those generally accepted as defining the social group she had joined. She still wanted us to be friends, in spite of my eclectic taste in music (much as I liked rock music, I enjoyed other genres as well, which disturbed her quite a bit), but all her future friends would be chosen strictly according to their musical preferences. She would still ask us to write various things in the big book of thoughts; but new names – those of her favourite rock bands – found their way in the nameless notebook as well, together with lyrics from their songs, which D would write from memory over and over again.

As time went by, those names and lyrics started to invade all her notebooks and textbooks, her desk, they were on the shirts she wore, on her backpack, on her jeans and often on her skin. She clearly didn’t pay that much attention to her own name and thoughts, but she needed those of others in order to define herself. She used to get upset when people referred to her by means of descriptive nouns, even when they weren’t offensive, but she saw nothing wrong in labelling everybody else with a series of rude, derogatory terms. The big notebook of other people’s thoughts started spreading over several volumes, but it never contained any personal expression of D’s own ideas.

After graduation, the feeble connection broke as suddenly as it had appeared. Other names got between us, names of people, names of universities, perhaps even some choice words she had addressed to me instead of my actual name. D continued her desperate search for herself in the names the abusive man she married calls her every day… and it makes me think that some of the saddest situations derive from those cases when names are merely a façade for despair and insecurity, when there is no real personal identity behind them.

In response to WordPress Discover Challenge – Identity.

The Typewriter

 

3

The computer is resting casually on my knees – ubiquitous part of a calm, quiet afternoon at home; but once in a while my glance wonders off to the old typewriter… Oddly enough, the object belonging to such different times doesn’t make for a strange anachronism.

I wanted to take it apart as a child, even before I could read, that’s the first memory I have of the typewriter which had to be stored out of my reach, on the top shelf or in a hidden corner. Even if the characters it produced made no sense to me at that time, once I understood what it was used for, I immediately concluded it held the mystery of all the books I pestered my grandmother to read to me. She was the keeper of that great skill that allowed her to magically transform the gibberish on the page into words, into mesmerizing stories, but she didn’t feel like sharing this gift with me as much as I would have liked her to. So it only made sense that once I solved the puzzle of the typewriter – by taking it apart, of course – everything else would fall into place and I would learn all the secretes of those books my grandmother refused to read.

What can I say, the oddest of things can make sense to a child… My grandfather was the one to put an end to my destructive impulses, showing me that the typewriter is the source of new mysteries and in no way the solution to understanding the already existing ones, enclosed between book covers. Once in a while he’d write lectures, speeches or even some fairy-tales he had made up for me and those were the moments when I sat on his knees, while he typed and uttered the words out loud, so I’d know what the mystery maker was compiling. My grandmother rolled her eyes disapprovingly at what she considered to be a boring, useless activity, but I was fascinated by the eloquent discourse and the clicking of the keys.

It was a time auspicious for fast, radical changes and much like the typewriter, my grandfather became obsolete, lost and irrelevant after his retirement, losing his identity in the blink of an eye. The old and noisy typewriter would make itself heard occasionally, as it was trotted out for him to relive the glory of long forgotten days. But much like him, the mystery maker had lost its power and nobody would ever listen to the somewhat nonsensical words filling the pages that my grandmother would immediately deposit in the bin, muttering about wasted time and noisy typing devices.

But the old man would never accept that his trusty companion was no longer of use to anybody, having become the laughingstock of the contemporary world. He was dead set on reaffirming the relevance of the old device which had survived decades of changes, happiness and misery. So it became a habit for him to type invitations to all sorts of family events, invitations which my grandmother would surreptitiously throw out, telling him she had mailed them. It worked out fine, until one day when he decided to mail the invitations himself, thus offending his wife’s sensibilities. The infamous typewriter was immediately stored away in some obscure corner of the house – much like when I was child – and he was told it had suffered a bad fall and was no longer functional. The old man muttered for days. Much like everything else that accompanied him along his sinuous path to success, defining who he had once been, the typewriter had been suddenly taken away from him, without any possibility to be redeemed, because he no longer had the energy to fight for it.

I wasn’t quite sure why, but when I left for university I felt that the old typewriter had to go with me. Several years passed before it saw the light of day again, I had actually forgotten I had it. But it was such a pleasant surprise to eventually rediscover this childhood relic! From that moment on, it could finally live its retirement days in peace, in its own corner amongst old books and photo albums, receiving the appreciation and respect it always deserved.

“It gathers dust, but it looks very cute,” my mother very pragmatically noticed when she saw it. That may be the case, but the retired typewriter is so much more! It lives as a constant reminder that there still are instances when dreams come true and some persons can shape and control their destiny, reaching the peaks of success and achieving the goals they set for themselves. Yet life has a perverted sense of balance – or perhaps a sense of humour – pushing the same persons into the abyss without any warning. And there are cases when no amount of caution can save them. All we can do is enjoy our personal moments of glory and do our best to type a happier sequel to our sad stories of despair.

In response to WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge – Memory.