dark night of the soul

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it’s not pleasant to awake
in the middle of the night
and meet your true self

when this happens
when what you fight against
remembering during the day
comes rushing into your head
with a lingering notion
that you could have done better
suddenly you know
you could not have

the course you took
the way you handled everything
is emblematic of who you are
and not a lesson to be learned

it’s how you were made
and you know this to the core

which along with
guilt pain horror
hits you with a force
that really should slay you

but in the morning
when light falls softly
through the window
and you awake to a newness
that feels like a reprieve
you give yourself
another chance
to change

what’s new? ~ short story

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Dating a rich boy is a challenging thing. Recently, the guy I’m dating gave my small and narrow balcony a condescending glance and said I should place planters on the ledge and grow beautiful flowers so that my place looks distinct from all the other apartments in the building and, for that matter, the rest of the apartments on the block. Well, this is a good idea, of course, but I don’t have time for flowers on balconies. They would last maybe a few days before they died of neglect or, worse, the planters managed to fall off the ledge and land directly on someone’s head (nice lawsuit). Besides, I work three jobs and take classes online toward a paralegal certificate, which leaves little time to cultivate flowers. I know he made this suggestion because he was carjacked recently with a gun pointed at his head and everything, but this happened in Beverly Hills, outside a fancy restaurant, not Van Nuys. Even so, he’s now projecting his mistrust and fear onto me and my balcony, suddenly hyperaware of the low-rent area (where I suppose he figures the robbery should have taken place) and thinking a floral arrangement would distract him from the surrounding blight and danger.

When I first noticed him, I had no idea he came from a rich family. He had just been hired as a piano player at one of the restaurants where I work. I assumed he was a starving-artist type, dressed as he was in a rumpled white dress shirt and black slacks a bit too short for his long legs. On that first night I was stationed behind the buffet counter near the front entrance but in full view of the piano bar at the back. Now and then, our eyes met as I slung potato salad or coleslaw onto someone’s plate and he played anything from a ragtime tune with sprightly runs to something more melancholy with long stretched-out chords. Later that evening, on a break from playing, he appeared suddenly at the buffet with plate in hand and asked “So, what do you recommend?” Of course, I said, “Me.”

After my shift was over, I sat alone at a table at the back of the bar and listened to him play. I found it strange that of the handful of people still hanging out, not a single one clapped after he had finished a song. His playing, obviously skillful, certainly deserved recognition, and yet he didn’t seem to mind the lack of attention. He just went on to the next song and the next. I remember feeling sorry for him that night: no general applause, no tips (just a clear glass vase on the tile floor in front of the piano with a crumpled five dollar bill inside that I later learned he had put there himself). How did this poor guy manage to support himself, I wondered?

Afterward he joined me at the table, and we talked and had a few beers on the house (part of his payment). I learned pretty quickly that he didn’t need to earn a living. His grandmother had died last year and left him an inheritance, enough to allow him to pursue his music career, at least for a while. And he still lived at home, which, he was quick to explain, gave him the flexibility to tour, which was his goal. He and his parents lived in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the rest of us slaving away below (at least, that’s how I looked at it). Anyway, I understood right away that he didn’t have the workaday worries some of the rest of us have (meaning me), but I couldn’t find it in myself to hold it against him that night. When he said, “I’m so glad I got up the nerve to talk to you,” and his green eyes blazed amber from the overall red glow of the bar, I set aside my objections.

And I continued to set them aside after that. I try to be open minded, you see, even when it comes to the wealthy, so in the beginning, I made a conscious effort to keep such biases to myself. For example, when he took me to meet his parents a few weeks later, as we drove up the mountain, I was determined to see his home as nothing extraordinary: it might be large and extravagant (just like all the houses flitting by) but it was still a home, one that Evan and his parents had lived in for years. But when we passed through the gates of a high stone wall beyond which loomed a Spanish Revival mansion surrounded by immaculately tended grounds, complete with a wraparound driveway and a small Versailles-style fountain in front, I was both in awe and distressed. And even though his elderly parents were extremely kind and welcoming as they ushered me into their cathedral-like home, aglow with chandelier lighting, my head was spinning with questions too embarrassing to give voice to concerning their right to live so lavishly.

We ate at the end of a glossy wood table long enough to accommodate at least 20 people and still allow elbow room for everyone. I ladled soup from a tureen for the first time in my life and used gleaming silver tongs to put salad onto my plate. His parents, real estate investors of some sort, spoke about a recent vacation to Santorini. “How clear the water was,” his father said, “almost like a swimming pool.” “And how beautiful to walk among the white-washed houses, dripping with bougainvillea,” his mother exclaimed. I didn’t know what to add to the conversation, so I listened and occasionally said, “Wow.” To say I was uncomfortable would be an understatement. But most of all, I was conflicted, wishing for the meal, the entire evening, to be over with so I could return to the comfort of my small, humble apartment. Alone.

But as days went by, and I saw Evan at work, at his piano, in my bed, I distanced myself from that evening. Well, I thought, at least I’m no gold digger. I could never see myself living in such a waste of space, with my entire being devoted to a life of conspicuous consumption. Good for Evan for distancing himself as best he can from such a life, I kept thinking (even if his family, donors to USC, did enable him to attend the school and get his music degree from there).

But this morning, something in my thinking has shifted. As I stand on my balcony, sipping from a strong cup of coffee, readying myself for a day of work at the all-you-can-eat deli in Century City and the hordes who demand ever-polite service, I think it’s time to reassess the situation. I listen to the birds huddled inside the cypresses on either side of the balcony, their constant chirping reminding me not of joy today but of their sweet ignorance of class division. I watch a homeless man, hunched over his cartful of soda cans, heading for the encampment a few blocks away, and I can no longer set aside my inner convictions. I cannot ignore the differences between Evan and me. Just the other day as I was in the midst of taking a challenging quiz on my computer, he said, “Why don’t you aim for something bigger? Why do you just want to be a paralegal?” I had no ready answer to give him, nor do I have a convincing reason now. If I tell him my mother was raised in a one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor who worked her whole adult life with nothing to show for it or my father was a machinist in South Central until the company moved operations overseas or my brother, not entirely homeless, is a drunken casualty of multiple stints in a war of endless greed, how could this poor rich boy understand any of that? I barely do.

So I now see the end to this affair. Maybe it will be at the place where we are both still working. (Although I heard the other day that the owner is thinking quite seriously of replacing the piano with multiple TV screens.) Or maybe we’ll take a break and meet again at some other restaurant where the owner will get the crazy idea of hiring a piano player (instead of installing TVs). Whichever scenario it will be, I imagine Evan will suddenly launch into one of my favorite songs—maybe even “What’s New?”—just as I’m taking an order at a table. Perhaps the customer will see my eyes grow distant as I’m writing down his selection and realize my thoughts are far away. Maybe he’ll even be sensitive enough to ask, “Is something wrong?” but I’ll just smile and say, “I love this song, is all.”

scar

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a cascade of consequences
can tumble from a scar
especially when its story
is unknown

my grandmother had such a scar
running the length of one brow
she arrived from italy with that scar
at the age of 18

i’ve been told that when asked about its origin
she’d say it’s nothing or say nothing at all

when her daughter asked once
(at 8 already aware it was something not to ask)
her mother just kept her eyes fixed
on the meal she was preparing
and said the same: it’s nothing

i never met my grandmother
but i found out the truth
from her daughter (my aunt)
who learned the story behind the scar
years later from a distant cousin in italy

it’s a secret i’m hesitant
to divulge since my grandmother
must have wished to take it to her grave
but when i reflect on how this secret
may have affected her children’s lives
(if only i had known my aunt said)
and the generations after
i think of that day long ago
when a child was attacked
and left for dead in a field
i think of this child’s fright and pain
and of the woman protective of that pain
and how love and trust must have suffered too
locked away in a secret that was
too deep not to share

barcelona

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just like this cloud
he said
you’ll go away
already its intentions waver
already it’s moving on
soon you’ll forget this day
and the promises you made
not in words
but in a single playful glance

no that’s not true
she thought
not exactly true
years from now i’ll remember
this day in a barcelona port
with a sky as blue as blue can be
and clouds as pure white as white can be
with one small cloud drifting high above

i’ll remember being young
but not innocently swayed
being wary of you a stranger until then
and whatever promises i made
were in your mind alone
though the clouds were right to say
i was meant to drift away

sadness resurrected

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it happens when you are
playing scrabble and you have
the tiles in your tray that
spell out the name dora

your opponent is waiting
for you to take your turn
no doubt thinking you are
playing a word game as if it’s chess
when in truth at the moment
it’s more like an archaeological dig
as you sift through layers of memory
layers of hurt

finally you select your tiles
and spell out dour instead

swept clean

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with her small hands
she strung together chiles into ristras
and twisted rags of cloth into rugs
under her mother’s guidance

she once rode a wild horse named azul
without her brother’s permission
only to encounter a low-hanging tree limb
and her brother’s wrath

she swam naked in the rio grande
and had to walk home in the nude
when los indios stole the clothes
she had left on the riverbank
(she got in trouble for that too)

and sometimes she picked sugar beets
with her mother and brothers
in a land far from home
to earn money to make good on taxes
owed to the government
to keep it from taking their ancestral land
which it ended up doing anyway

these are the stories my mother told
of her childhood that have often made me
wonder how such experiences shaped
the life of the person i came to know
or perhaps never really knew

though in truth there is one story
that has given me some clarity
it is about the adobe house
my mother lived in
i was surprised to learn that
it had a dirt floor inside which
my mother assured me the family
swept every day to keep clean
(why bother sweeping a dirt floor
i remember thinking at the time)

but now when i look back
and think of the stubborn strength
that saw my mother through a life
that was never easy
i am beginning to understand

caves of lascaux

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let us dream
let us imagine
a way out
let those of us who
have lost loved ones
or have survived a bout
with this plague
remain hopeful
in our cloistered cells

let us be like the cave dwellers
who lived entire lives
in fear of dark forces
who nevertheless painted
scenes upon their walls
of hope and desire

let us paint our walls
in like fashion
in thought or in deed
with visions and schemes
and stampeding dreams
of what we desire

let us emblazon our walls
our unblemished walls
with handprints
drenched in brightest red
the primordial cry
of our ancestors
to remind ourselves
that we are thriving
in our own space and time

in this way perhaps
we can reassure ourselves
that we too know the magic
our ancestors knew
that we too know how
to cast a spell
to conjure a world
of brighter days