Family Trees

“The play concerns an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of a former serf; the family leaves to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down. The story presents themes of cultural futility – both the futile attempts of the aristocracy to maintain its status and of the bourgeoisie to find meaning in its newfound materialism.” Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard

 

We ate a picnic lunch under a shade tree in the abandoned graveyard of our great-great grandmother Jincy. The secluded cemetery had been neglected so long the headstones themselves had returned to the earth. Lined up like a search party, we used branches to sweep the overgrown grass for copperhead snakes. A cousin brought posh fried chicken from a place in the city with an ampersand name, and the elders passed around a bag of sweet cherries obtained at a roadside stand. We spit cherry pits into the sunken graves of our ancestors. “Maybe the next time we come here there will be a cherry orchard…”

 

I was spending a week in the country with family, and visiting a cemetery in Bonne Terre, Missouri was on their agenda. My mother’s cousin is an amateur genealogist who seeks out such places in search of primary source material, which was goth as hell until old age and heart failure threatened to make his hobby a permanent one. This day’s itinerary had expanded to an up-before-dawn expedition to the Boot-heel of Missouri, a famous hideout for bootleggers and criminals in olden times. “I just learned I’m related to Jesse James, so this is very on brand. Let’s get in trouble!” I announced. We piled into a jeep, stopped at a general store for floppy hats to avoid ticks, and made our way south.

 

After visiting the MacGregor burial site, we traveled to my great-grandmother Ruth’s family farm. It lay down a long dirt road that was gated but unlocked and lacked a “No Trespassing” sign. I clambered out of the back of the jeep and opened the gate. A man on an ATV came toward us from one direction while another pulled up from the opposite in one of those old-timey Ford trucks. “We called the owners and asked if they were expecting company. They’re on their way,” ATV man said with more warning than generosity his voice. We politely introduced ourselves. “Chicago,” he said a with distrust, “you’re on private property.” “This is my ancestral homeland motherfucker and people in Chicago know about locks,” I thought but didn’t say. He informed us that the old Vance farm had been torn down and that retired teachers from St. Louis now owned the property. We left a note in their mailbox and drove on deeper into inhospitable terrain. I learned that trees painted purple indicate danger and trespassers must leave immediately or be shot. I wondered if educating the rural south about fences and locks could bring down the NRA. After several more cemetery stops and detours to towns that looked like sets for The Walking Dead, I picked up the atlas and saw that we were well south of Illinois. And Kentucky. We were surrounded by Arkansas and Tennessee and generational poverty. The setting sun drew eye-level and scorched my right arm as we were meant to be heading back to St. Louis. “We are going in the wrong direction!” The further we drove, the more anxious I became. I’d wrapped a scarf around my head to keep my hair from slapping my face as we cruised up and down winding back roads in the open jeep. In a town populous enough to have a gas station, I was told I looked Muslim. If copperheads and ticks didn’t kill me, white people might. I regretted no local had smugly remarked, “You ain’t from round here, are you?” Because I was.

 

“I’m going to say… Middle Eastern.” “Italian.” “Greek.” “Eastern European.” “Russian.” “Wait, wait. I know! I know! Armenian.” I was soliciting guesses about my ethnicity. After years of condescendingly being told I don’t look Irish and being mistaken for Spanish (in Europe), Latina (in my neighborhood), Italian (by the patriarch of my Sicilian step-family, whom we dared not correct), Russian (by politicians), Slavic (by wooing men), Indian (by Indian friends), and Arab (by voters), I took a DNA test.

 

It was a gift from a friend, inspired by an evening of conversation about how little I knew of my grandfather. He died when my mother was young. My mother died when I was young. I didn’t even know what my grandfather looked like until a few years ago. I only knew all of his descendants look alike. I imagined we were Jewish, the most obvious reason for wanting to hide one’s ethnicity in the early 20th Century. He was born in 1898.

 

I spit in a tube and took it to the post office. The company said my results would be available in six weeks. They arrived after two, during my week in the country with family. After receiving the notification, I poured a glass of brandy and lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. If there were a secret, was it my place to uncover it? What if my mother’s talk of Irish, French, and Cherokee* were a lie? What if all the looks as if I were delusional when I claimed Irish heritage were justified? Could I handle the truth? Assuming there would be a number of steps before arriving at the Results page, a number of opportunities to turn back, I clicked the link in the email. A large blue map appeared on the screen. A large blue map of Europe. The whole entire rest of the world was empty.

 

“100% European”

UK & Irish: The breakdown included Irish, but not Scottish, which I am, but which has not gained independence from her colonial overlords so they don’t count. Vote Yes.

French & German: The breakdown even included Switzerland which isn’t a real thing let alone ethnic anything in my anti-Swiss opinion which I can have because I am Swiss.

Northwestern European: More of the above. But with the Normans and Saxons and Celts and Gauls screwing and invading each other, the admixture is too confusing to call.

Scandinavian: Is there anyone the Vikings didn’t fuck?

Southern European: “Oh, I can see that!” said my cousin. A feisty 3 percent.

Broadly European: This one included Russia. And the whole entire rest of Europe.

 

In shock, I came up the stairs with the laptop. “I’m the whitest person alive. White supremacists wish they were this pure. I could join the KKK.” My family gave me a look of horror. “It was a joke. In very poor taste. I apologize.” They sleepily scrolled through my results. “So. You’re European. Cool. Ok, well I’m going to bed.” 100% Boring.

 

Alone, I felt a surge of relief that I’d not been delusional when I told people I was Irish. And that my grandfather had not been switched at birth, as a friend had suggested. A rush of conflicting emotions followed. I felt humbled that there was no “mystery” ethnicity to explain my exotic appearance or my grandfather’s background. I felt ashamed of wanting to be all the interesting things people saw in me, of not wanting to be basic. I feared the test had been switched with someone else’s and reminded myself of the infancy of this science and that all humans came from Africa and panicked that I may be an alien because I had no African DNA. I felt a distressing euphoria upon finding out I am 100% European. What racist propaganda had I subconsciously internalized to produce that pleasure? I felt defensive. I hadn’t colonized, raped, or enslaved anyone. White supremacists, nationalists, and racists never mention the fact that the history of Europe (and America) is a history of invasions and migrations. Even the use of the term “white” implies all colors. White is not an ethnicity, as if by spontaneous generation a thousand fair-skinned Christians appeared atop the Alps and hiked down and in different directions evangelizing Western culture. I felt complicit. I have an affinity for Enlightenment ideals. I sobbed and soon developed a migraine and became delirious with pain and information.

 

Ruby

Ruby

This is my grandmother whose mother’s father’s farm I attempted to enter and was run oft from. She was one of 12 children born to share-croppers in southeast Missouri. She was born in 1911, but she told everyone 1913 or 1921. I stole this photo off Ancestry.com. I’ve never seen a photo of her this young. She couldn’t afford a sitting in a posh room or hair tonic, but she was a style icon in spite of the fact. She eventually got some hair tonic and opened a salon after my grandfather died. Growing up with her was like living in a Wes Anderson movie. mtDNA: T2b.

 

I returned to genealogical research to find information about my grandfather. The most respected sites disagree about the identity of my great-great-great grandfather. One option presents a dead end. The other asserts that he descended from slave-owners and European royalty. This could explain my grandfather’s silence about his family. He was an elected official and active in the Civil Rights movement, before there was one. A family plantation could have been a source of shame or motivation, and even a liability.

 

I find the royalty claim bit harder to swallow. If you spend any time at all on genealogy websites, you will find you are descended from nobility. My mother said we were. See, she would say the things that made you not believe her. I’ve never understood the American obsession with royalty. We fought a revolution to split from the British Empire. We assert (wrongly but forcefully) that hard work can make anyone rich and powerful. I understand wanting to be a royal now. All play, no work, glam taxpayer-funded weddings attended by Amal Clooney. But a descendant? What would your royal family think of you? You saw what happened with Meghan’s dad. And the life decisions and historic turmoil necessary to engineer such a fall from grace seems traumatic. Especially as an American. We’re meant to do the opposite: Overcome poverty and rise up through the classes over the course of generations. It’s the American Dream, if not the reality. If you’re an average American with a royal pedigree, your orchard was axed and replaced with purple-painted trees. You’re going in the wrong direction.

 

When I recovered from my migraine, I ventured outside to see off my cousin Rosie as she packed her car. As I gave her a hug, she said, “You’re my vampire princess.”

Vampire princess?

“You sleep during the day.”

“I had a terrible headache.”

“You wear all black.”

“I’m wearing flouncy blue and white pajamas.”

“You’d sleep in a coffin, admit it!”

“I have that spectrum thing where I need to sleep cocoon-like.”

She backed away. “Why are you arguing with me? I don’t want to argue.”

 

The headache had left me fragile and irritable. “I’m Irish,” I stumbled to explain. The DNA test revealed as much about human nature as it had about me as an individual. My entire life people have projected identities onto me that were not simply incorrect and dismissive, but frequently those we are encouraged to fear or deem “less than.” Like I was that hole in airline counters where people weigh and check their baggage. I not only allowed but participated in it. The test wasn’t important because Irish is best. It was important because my mother knew who she was. And I knew who I was. And know knowing who you are safeguards against being what others need you to be. And people needed me to be The Other. I could hear myself, the cringe-inducing absurdity of a white woman upset that people had judged her by the color of her skin. “Of course it would be cool to be a vampire. Or Persian. Or Latina. But I’m not. And I’m done. Done with people adjudicating my identity.” It felt I’d been waiting my whole life to be able to say this, the way it poured out. “I’m not a vampire. I’m a human being.”

 

As I unpacked my baggage, Rosie, being a cool Millennial, nodded in understanding. “I see you,” she said, pseudo-ironically. “But you have to admit you’re a princess.” Rather than mount a defense about problematic patriarchal stereotypes, I jocularly replied, “I do have the same DNA as many royal families, sooo…” and gave a pantomime shrug.

 

I am related to nobility by way of a shared maternal ancestor 10,000 years ago. My most notable cousin, thousands of times removed perhaps, is Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

 

*My mother did claim to have a Cherokee great-grandmother. She and her cousins spoke at length about this woman with whom they spent time and whom they knew as their great-grandmother. The woman’s existence and heritage are thoroughly documented. She was my grandmother’s sister-in-law’s grandmother. My grandmother and her sister-in-law were as close as siblings, and their children were too. Given the intimacy of the family, the age of the children when they knew her, and her treatment of them as her own, I don’t find my mother’s claim disingenuous. She had no reason to think this wasn’t her great-grandmother. By all accounts, she effectively was.

 

This reminds me that family and DNA are not equivalent, and the latter is no substitute for the former. I have no Sicilian DNA but count among my family a Sicilian stepfather who has contributed far more to my identity than any frisky Viking a thousand years ago.

 

But I don’t regret the test. It’s good to have the receipts, as the kids say. I’m no longer ready to call Henry Louis Gates Jr., with whom I also share a maternal ancestor, in desperation. The genealogical research I’ve done since the test is a hunt for cool old photos rather than a hunt for a holy grail. I’ll find new branches and sweep them across archives like the flashlights of a search party. And one day there may be a cherry orchard atop the bones of my great-great-grandmother. A satisfactory, even poetic denouement.

 

Coda

 

“View from Rosehill Cemetery: Vicksburg”

 

Here we have watched ten thousand

seasons

come and go.

And unmarked graves atangled

in the brush

turn our own legs to trees

vertical forever between earth

and sun.

Here we are not quick to disavow

the pull of field and wood

and stream;

we are not quick to turn

upon our dreams.

 

  –Alice Walker, Revolutionary Petunias

 

 

 

 

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Linda

“My next project is to make Linda Ronstadt a feminist icon for Millennials,” I posted late one night on Twitter. I’d just discovered Linda Ronstadt. Again.

 

I.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of comfort food. For me, it’s the bowl of spaghetti my mother made when I was home sick from school. She’s long gone, but I still make it for myself when I’m feeling existentially home sick. We don’t attribute the same magical healing powers to songs, but comfort music exists. When my brother was a baby, someone, perhaps a grandparent, observed that he stopped crying when he heard a Linda Ronstadt song. It was the 1970’s, and her music was ubiquitous. We adopted the Ronstadt Method. Fussy baby? Temper tantrum? Place Heart Like a Wheel on the turntable. Dinner guests? It was a party trick. Lyrics like “I’ve been cheated, been mistreated…” crooned in a lashing twang were hardly lullaby material. It raised eyebrows. We didn’t even listen to country music. But the baby did. When he grew into a raging punk tween, we’d tease, “Do we need to put on Linda Ronstadt?” and have a good laugh at his embarrassingly off-brand infancy. This is my first memory of her music.

My second memory is of childhood summer afternoons when my cousin watched us at her house. She was a bartender and a nurse. A badass. And her husband was No Good. Fortunately, he was not around a lot. But that song was. I remember her long hair feathered on the sides, floral camisoles, bell-bottom jeans, and wooden clog sandals. The exquisitely 1970’s haze of late afternoon sunlight diffused through cheap cotton curtains into the cool dark kitchen where she stood at the counter smoking a cigarette. The mood subtly tensed as the sun fell lower, the room grew dimmer, and the hour neared when she’d be returned to her no good marriage and us to our no good father. She didn’t need to play that song. Maybe she was just trying to calm my brother. A film auteur would have killed for that scene.

My third childhood memory of Linda Ronstadt’s music took me decades to learn it was hers. It was a jingle-jangle tune by the Stone Poneys my mother declared her theme song every time she heard it, which, if you’ve ever been in a store, you know is a lot. I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, all I’m saying is I’m not ready for any person, place, or thing to try and pull the reins in on me. SO-OOOOO (we’d melodramatically belt it out in the cereal aisle) GOODBYYYYYE… It was pretty twee for a feminist anthem, and frankly a little unconvincing coming from my mother who was married. But the point was to celebrate women’s liberation, in safe way, while grocery shopping for a family of four.

From a 1993 interview with Linda Ronstadt:

Q: What about non-musical topics? Feminism?

A: I’m grateful to the feminist movement and think it was very important. It helped us to find where we stand on things like abortion and birth control, and job opportunities for women.

Q: So, did you really ever want to be First Lady?

A: Oh, my God. Who on earth would want to be first lady?

Q: How do you think Hillary Clinton is doing?

A: I’m impressed with President Clinton, but I’m really impressed with her. They should run her for president next time.

 

II.

After Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I made a playlist of cheesy music: Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, yacht rock. I don’t remember creating it because of Donald Trump. I do remember being terrified about the precarity of adulthood in the current political climate. All my life I’d wanted to be an adult. When I became an adult, an infant was put in charge of the country. And everyone blamed adult women. The adult women who voted for him, sure. But also the adult women who championed his opponent. And particularly the adult woman who was his opponent. It was maddening. I plotted my revenge by seeking employment with an adult woman Democratic candidate for Congress and by listening to Barbra Streisand, the quintessential Democratic Adult Woman. I also fantasized about living on a remote island, untethered to this dystopia. Hence the yacht rock. The playlist was filled in by memories of other songs of that era which coincided with my childhood. Childhood. When there is an adult in the room, innocence prevents you from going mad, and older cousins protect you from no good men.

I got the gig and listened to the playlist while I sat at my desk typing up policy positions and content for trifold glossy mailers. I was right where I wanted to be, a political operative overthrowing the patriarchy to the saxophone riff of “Baker Street.” But when Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” came on, I’d play it again, clench my chest and belt it out as ridiculously as my mother and I had done when “A Different Drum” played in shops.

It’s a song about unrequited love. I’ve experienced it, but not recently. Old flames? The past two years have aimed a fire hose at them. Maybe it was the gubernatorial candidate who charmed me then blew me off. I’ll never keep a man’s house, but if he’s attractive and running for office and into civil rights, I will knock all the doors in his town. I answer the call to serve my country. Maybe that’s my unrequited love: America. The song begins in coy reflection on the universal truths that eluded her and hurls into guttural, visceral frustration. But when she sings ‘Cause I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine, And I think it’s gonna hurt me for a long long time, it’s not a caricature of a woman scorned. She doesn’t cash in on performative resilience, but neither does it sound whining or self-pitying. It sounds like human anguish, exhaustion, and defeat. Well, we are all feeling that right now, aren’t we? Maybe this is my adult woman version of America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

Maybe. I still didn’t know why I was listening to country music. She was a country singer, right? I couldn’t tell from these songs. Who was Linda Ronstadt? What happened to her? I looked up her Wikipedia page. Jesus. Incredible. No one had told me any of this. I followed link after link, fell down a rabbit hole, emerged evangelized, and announced it on social media. The Congressional campaign is over. And a new one begins.

 

III.

An incomplete list of things no one ever told me about Linda Ronstadt (a more complete list can be found by typing “Linda Ronstadt” into Google):

She sang that Stone Poneys song about women’s liberation.

Her grandfather invented your household appliances.

She called Donald Trump a “national emergency.” She’s championed gay rights and same-sex marriage, been evicted from playing a Las Vegas venue for speaking out against the Iraq war, is really into sustainable agriculture (there are whole articles about her views on topsoil) and anti-overdevelopment, marched against Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s discriminatory immigration enforcement measures and filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s SB1070. She’s from Tucson and is of Mexican descent. The song on Paul Simon’s Graceland that references “this child born in Tucson, Arizona” is about her.

She identifies as a spiritual atheist and serial monogamist.

She has Parkinson’s Disease.

When asked about the rock and roll party scene of the 70’s, she described her nightlife as cuddling up with a stuffed animal and a Russian novel. She did drugs, but her addiction “was to reading.”

She is a country singer. And a rock singer. And a folk, latin, jazz, broadway, opera, and pretty much anything else you can sing singer.

She was in relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown when he was a Democratic presidential candidate. (!) She adopted kids. She never got married. (!) When asked why, she neither sugarcoats it nor resorts to misandry. She just sums up the human condition:

“… he’s real kind but isn’t inspired musically, and then you meet somebody else that’s just so inspired musically that he just takes your breath away, but he’s such a moron, such a maniac that you can’t get along with him. And then after that it’s the problem of finding someone that can stand you!”

She may not talk about her personal life, but her memoirs included a laundry list of #MeToo experiences long before that hashtag was invented. And she’s had a lot to say about being an adult woman in a man’s world, about being treated like a “girl singer,” having male peers or band-mates either resent her for headlining or expect to sleep with her, being sexually objectified to sell records, made to dress and pose in ways that were degrading or just dishonest.

She’s sold over 100 million records. She was the highest paid woman in rock. She was awarded the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has been awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities.

If she weren’t already an actual rock star I would declare, “This woman is a fucking rock star!”

 

IV.

And I never drew one response from you, All the while you fell all over girls you never knew…

I may never understand what spell she cast on my baby brother. But I do seek an answer to why Linda Ronstadt isn’t readily found in the canon of female musical icons (or any gender musical icons) people my age and younger are encouraged to admire. Ignoring all other criteria, her vocal genius alone is an artistic contribution to civilization. She sang a lot of pop songs, but so did Ella. She sang a lot of country music, but so did Dolly. She sang a lot of folk songs, but so did Janis. She sang a lot of sad songs, but so did Nina. Her image was glaringly sexualized at the peak of her career, but look at Beyonce. And Dolly. And Madonna. She had some flops, but so did Babs. She’s a little flaky, but so was Judy. She gained weight, but so did Aretha. Damn it. She sang a feminist anthem and doesn’t even get a one-word name.

To my surprise, it was not her politics or countrified milieu that alienated her from our coastal standard bearers or problematized her legacy. And why did I know the Dixie Chicks hated Bush, but not Linda “I literally sold 100 million records” Ronstadt? I didn’t even know who the Dixie Chicks were until they hated Bush. Like they invented politically progressive female country music. They didn’t. Linda Ronstadt did. I think. She is a country music singer, right?

Maybe she defies attention because she bucks both genres and archetypes. When Streisand sings, I am a woman in love, and I’ll do anything, you can see her going full Fatal Attraction. Dolly works 9-5, fulfilling the working man’s administrative assistant dreams and airing the working girl’s grievances. When Ella wants someone to watch over her, she’s a poor little lamb. When Nina wants some sugar in her bowl, she ain’t lyin’. Madonna literally had a song called, “Like a Virgin.” Bey, pregnant, veiled, married, wearing a bustier, and smashing car windows with a baseball bat, is the everything bagel of female archetypes. Linda Ronstadt’s music and life resist easy classification in our limited taxonomy of women: neither virgin nor slut, demure nor self-destructive, wife material nor party girl, naïve nor vengeful. She was attractive, but in a conventional brunette way. She was famous, but for her voice not her outfits. She was a stern perfectionist but not a notorious diva. She wasn’t selling an image or a brand or fantasy or a persona. She was just singing. That’s difficult for culture to caricature, co-opt, replicate, or exploit. If you can’t be imitated, are you really famous?

It would be unforgivably trite to say she traveled to the beat of her own drum, if it were not literally the most defining thing about her. I get it now mom.

 

CODA

Go listen to her music already! Sure, it’s off-brand, but it’s on point. Or fleek. 1970’s Linda will give you life. And if you’ve been reading the news and are terrified about the life you’ve been given, it may even help you stop crying for a while!

… No Millennials are reading this, are they?

… Ok. I’m going to go fall in love with Governor Jerry Brown now. For America.

Poetry, Politics and Hell

Critics note that in the Homeric narrative, Ulysses’ original mariners are dead. A significant irony therefore develops from Ulysses’ speech to his sailors—”Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56–57). Since Dante’s Ulisse has already undertaken this voyage and recounts it in the Inferno, Ulysses’ entire monologue can be envisioned as his recollection while situated in Hell. —Wikipedia

 

Everyone has a song. Upon hearing it, we declare our possession with pride, recite the lyrics like a religious mantra and exchange knowing looks with those for whom our song is our song. We cobble together a soundtrack of identity, connecting our inner lives to a moment in time, our culture, our history and the human spirit itself.

 

Few people have poems. “No one actually reads poetry anymore.” When my undergraduate Classical Studies professor made this dubious assertion, several of us came over our desks at him in protest. We read poetry. We were not no one. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat and uttered his trademark guffaw. “You read poetry?” We eagerly awaited his praise. “You are not normal.” After class, he accepted our invitation to serve as Master of our residential college and presided over years of bacchanalia and poetry readings.

 

I knew I wasn’t normal. My family wasn’t normal. From my first days, my mother read me poetry from an anthology originally owned by my grandfather. Given its fragile condition, I surmise it was the same book from which he had read to my mother. My grandmother was not well educated but made up for it with an aesthetic sensibility so refined it’s impossible to believe she was born into a family of sharecroppers. My grandfather was the intellectual, though most likely an autodidact. He made my mother memorize poems, learn Greek myths, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, practice the works of classical composers (for which she was rewarded a collection of small marble busts) and study art history – all before the age of 14. She in turn sought to cultivate her own children. We had Longfellow and Keats instead of picture books and cartoons.

 

My mother grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. I know little about my grandfather, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. There is a photo of him taken at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The rest is apocryphal. After a stint as a Prohibition bootlegger, he oversaw the local ammunition factory during WWII. There he hired the first African American foreman, causing some controversy to which he responded by inviting said foreman’s family to dine at his home. He bought the first television set in town and invited neighbors over to watch boxing matches. He drank, had mistresses, forbade the children from crying and impaled my mother’s seat at the dining room table with a knife. For her posture. The pistol-size cubbyhole mounted under the dining room table was not apocryphal; my brother and I used it in our childhood games. My grandfather was elected to City Hall and active in the Civil Rights movement. After his death in 1963, my mother was so distraught she was sent to live with “family” halfway across the country in New York. In Hell’s Kitchen. I have no relatives in New York.

 

Decades later, my grandmother would schlep us around her small town, introducing us as “Mr. Ladd’s grandchildren.” Old women fawned in adoration. It felt surreal to me that they’d known him but I never would. They’d say something about “everything he did for our fine city” which was a small town and not a city and ask us with intrigue if we knew that he had ridden in the very same car as President Kennedy? We knew. And did we know what an honor that was? Yes, we understood. Our grandfather had been involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign. A framed letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, expressing condolences and gratitude to our family after the death of my grandfather, hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. You’d have thought my grandfather and John F. Kennedy were best pals. It was a small town.

 

The early death of my mother and inevitable passing of my grandmother dissolved any connection I had to that town. My grandfather’s mystique dissolved as well when, propelled by rabble-rousing idealism and a desire to be part of something greater than myself, I found politics as an adult. Of course a popular Irish Democrat who made his name as a bootlegger and held elected office in a key state had chipped in for Kennedy. He’d met the candidate? I’ve met Barack Obama. Millions have. Professional etiquette dictates one acknowledge the death of a donor or delegate. It was most certainly a form letter with a stamped signature hanging on that wall. My foray into politics tarnished the cachet of my grandfather’s life. But something more meaningful replaced it.

 

“I know it’s silly and I know everyone hates what I do, but in some way I feel a connection to grandpa. I think he’d be proud of me,” I confessed to my brother. “We’re not a political family, Toscha. We’re a mafia family,” my brother replied, as if this were a more honorable option. “Same thing,” I joked.

 

We aren’t a mafia family. My mother never invited her Hell’s Kitchen “family” to visit us back home. My grandfather has been dead for over half a century. My stepfather’s grandfather was sent back to Sicily in the old days, but that scandal predates even my grandfather’s death. We’re not a political family either. We’re not any kind of family at all really. Too many of us are dead. Too many of the rest only call when they’re in trouble, have had too much to drink, both, or another has died. That’s not a family. That’s hell.

 

Yet our patriarch’s presence looms over our lives like God looms over the faithful. We’ve never seen him, but we revere him and trust that he loves us unconditionally. It’s not unusual that he’s mentioned in conversation with my brother, and on this occasion it was in the context of my job. We were hosting the son of Robert F. Kennedy. “Bobby,” my mother had called him, like he was some sweet boy who lived right down the street. “Jay-Effing-Kay’s nephew,” I exaggeratedly impressed upon my brother, to which he replied in an affected old lady voice, “Did you know that your grandfather rode in the same car with President Kennedy?” We howled in unison with laughter. “Well, that’s cool.” I was anything but.

 

When Kennedy entered the pub, he strode right up to me. The man running the event swiftly grabbed him by the arm and walked him toward a group of retirees. I have no internal censor (likely the reason he was yanked from my presence) and yelled in Kennedy’s direction, “I have to talk to you!” Before taking the podium, he removed my purse from the chair at my side, sat down, leaned over, focused his blue eyes on mine and introduced himself. I viscerally registered that oh so this is the Kennedy thing happening now wow ok while he waited for me to express my position on Medicare for All or something. I leaned forward. “What I am about to say is obnoxious and presumptuous and you’ve heard it your whole life and it’s going to bore the hell out of you and I apologize for that, but I have to do this ok?” and I told him about my grandpa and everything his family had meant to mine. He endured it with grace. Before I could embarrass myself further, I changed the subject to the Cape, about which he was more eager to swoon. The man running the event saved me: “Hey Kennedy don’t you have like a speech to give or something?”

 

A friend took an empty seat across from mine and nodded accusatorily. “What?” “It’s true about the Kennedy men and pretty girls.” I clarified that I’d been doing the chasing and, despite the absence of a knife in my chair, sat up straight. After the meeting, I stayed to drink and talk shop. “What he said about Trump being the product of an uneducated electorate is true,” I said, gulping a martini. “You can’t say that in a stump speech!” a political advisor objected. “Well someone has to. Education isn’t just about jobs. It’s about creating an informed citizenry. No, not just informed – people are being bombarded with information – but capable of filtering and synthesizing all that information, otherwise voters will act from a position of fear, because that’s what ignorance breeds. Fear. Education opens minds, cultivates empathy, connects us to history and the whole fucking human condition. You need that stuff when making decisions that impact the lives of strangers.” I should have given the stump speech. “Why didn’t he mention his family?” someone asked. “Yeah. That was weird. I mean, he’s a real Kennedy,” another chimed in. “Right? I wanted him to talk about his dad. Like whoa what was that like?” yet another exclaimed animatedly. I shuddered.

 

The Kennedys aren’t normal either. Americans who would never read a celebrity gossip mag or watch TMZ will discuss with abandon the most gruesome and personal details of this family’s private lives and tragic deaths. They may be an actual family and are most certainly a political one, but our morbid curiosity about them must be its own kind of hell. I was surprised that these cynical political operatives wanted the juicy bits. This is Chicago. We do real politics, not Arthurian legends. Sure, I have a magnet of JFK on a boat and let people assume it is “ironic.” But we don’t want to live in a world where we are judged by our refrigerator art. Judge us instead by our poems.

 

I have poems. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” But seemingly from the beginning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

 

“Ulysses” is a well-known poem, referenced in everything from Frasier to the James Bond franchise. It’s so popular I wince to admit it is my poem. It’s like declaring “Imagine” your song. It’s a good song. And a Miss America pageant answer. I don’t know how it came to be my poem. It is in the Bedford Introduction to Literature I purchased for high school AP English. Marginalia suggests I wrote a class paper on it. In college I posted To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought along with a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and specimens of ironic and erotic art on the door of my Northwestern dormroom. When a long-term relationship collapsed in my 30’s, I wrote Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows on a large scrap of paper and taped it to a wall while listening to Cher. Less publicly but no less ostentatiously, in private moments of success or defeat, I’ve opened the AP English book, its spine having broken at the poem after decades of use, and read aloud, hardly glancing at the pages but gripping them for dear life, tears streaming down my cheeks and the tip of my nose as I reach the crescendo, Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

A few days after the meeting, I went to the library to pick up a book on jazz. Becoming a jazz aficionado was my New Year’s resolution; it seemed more achievable than eradicating fascism. While there, I scanned the shelves for the new Hillary Clinton book and found a series of Kennedy bios instead. “Like whoa what was that like?” echoed in my head. No. Don’t. Using the excuse that I’d promised my stepfather to read more history, I randomly clutched a Kennedy bio and scurried off. Feeling self-conscious, I grabbed one about Peggy Guggenheim too so the woman at the circulation desk would just think I was really into biographies. I got home and skimmed the Kennedy book. The political history I mostly already knew. The private lives were none of my business. But the motif of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” stopped me in my path.

 

My poem was their poem.

 

I’ve never given thought to how it became mine. I just assumed it came to me as poems do: by serendipity or comparative literature courses. I was now confronted with the possibility that I’d inherited it along with the apocryphal stories and literary tendencies of my grandfather. Or worse, I heard it on TV. We weren’t a family who spent evenings in front of the boob tube, but we did eat our dinners with C-Span on in the other room. I was a child when Ted Kennedy gave his famous “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech, which like those of his brothers, borrowed from “Ulysses.” But I was a precocious child. I remember trying to divine the sadness and anger that fell upon our household when Reagan was elected. That I may be less a discriminating consumer of classical literature than an indiscriminate consumer of political rhetoric haunted me. As did the fact that this realization followed the arc of my conversion from librarian to politico. It was too tidy. Too poetic.

 

Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone so bold as to believe their ambition nothing less than heroic, should be drawn to this story of Ulysses. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone born to a romantic, thrill-seeking, stubborn brood, should be drawn to this tale of doomed but glamorous adventure. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who refuses to hang up their sword after enduring unknowable loss, should be drawn to this ode to perseverance. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone whose family history is as much legend as truth, should be drawn to this humanizing of the mythic. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone immersed the terrible world of politics, should know the value of pure oratorical gold. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who has a poem, should have “Ulysses.”

 

Of course, I may very well have discovered the poem in AP English. Let us not discount the power of formal education, not after my moving speech at the pub! I may owe this debt of gratitude to Mrs. Votoupal at Marquette Catholic High School. Or I may owe it to Ted Kennedy. Or I may owe it to my grandfather. I will never know. And as it was for Ulysses, the unknowable is hell.

 

 

 

 

 

Yesses. August 13, 2017.

“By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” ― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

 

My devoted and quirky giant tuxedo cat, Oscar. The grace of a great blue heron taking flight. The enchanting arrival of a snowy owl on a winter day. The majesty of a red-tailed hawk swooping low overhead. The breath caught when coming upon a deer in the woods. The respectful nods exchanged when passing a coyote on a dark city street. That humans and animals, and animals and animals, form emotional bonds with one another.

 

Finding people waiting for you on the platform when you disembark a train. The unexpected arrival of a lengthy hand-written letter. Acquaintances with heads full of knowledge generously shared and who remain curious into old age. Thank You and Please and Excuse Me and I’m Sorry. The old world etiquette of never showing up to someone’s home without a gift of wine or chocolate or flowers. The ease with which you make friends when you travel. The endurance of a friendship you can set aside for a decade and pick up where you left off as if only days had passed.

 

The fearlessness and camaraderie city living cultivates. The gritty noirish hue Chicago’s sulfur streetlights cast on the night. The 24-7 street life and fossilized Jazz Age buildings of Uptown. The spic-and span glamor of the Gold Coast. State Street decked out and bustling at Christmastime. Miller’s Pub. The Green Mill. Merz Apothecary. Chinatown shops full of mystery candies and Hello Kitty pencil sets. The elevator operator in the Fine Arts Building. Escaping from the world at the Art Institute and humming the Ferris Bueller song when you look at the Seurat. The view of downtown Chicago from Lake Shore Drive that always induces child-like awe. The view of Lake Michigan from Montrose Point that clears your mind of worldly preoccupations.

 

The first warm day after a long winter when everyone leaves their homes like released hostages, mesmerized by the thawing rays of sun on their skin and the vivid colors of the natural world. The first firefly of the season. The late summer dirge sung by a chorus of cicadas. Autumn harvest festivals that echo ancient traditions beneath their façades of epicurean hoedown amusements. Sweater weather. Charlie Brown weather. October. Children dressed like the goblins they are. Pilgrim weather. The warmth of Thanksgiving dinner. The dance the Peanuts kids do and you do too when you hear that song. Christmas carolers. Real Christmas trees. The quiet that descends upon the city after a heavy snowfall. The way snow looks like diamonds in the moonlight.

 

The cinematic suspense of watching a storm approach from a Midwestern farmhouse or from a North Atlantic cape. Early morning spectral fog. Early evening sunlight filtered through leaves- komorebi. The seductive smell of decaying leaves and mud and moss. Fall foliage and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. The way barren winter trees look like haunted calligraphy. Ravens. That there is a lake on the bottom of the ocean floor. That there are places on Earth completely uninhabited by humans. That there are humans living in space.

 

Being able to fly in your dreams. Returning to places in dreams you’ve only ever been to in other dreams. The way when you swim in the ocean you feel the waves again when you lie down to sleep. Sleeping with the windows open to a cool breeze. Sleeping until you wake up naturally. Mid-afternoon baths on weekdays. Slipping into crisp white cotton sheets still warm from the dryer. Mornings when you awake feeling gloriously relaxed and bathed in love. A full body, cat-like stretch. A scalp massage. The shiver down your spine when someone whispers in your ear. Exhilarating sex.

 

The way the bodies of men in cowboy boots move. Riding a motorcycle down county roads and going to biker bars. The petty criminal atmosphere and funnel cake aroma of carnivals. Skinny-dipping. Hitchhiking on a New Jersey back road in the middle of the night and surviving it. The devil-may-care catharsis of crying on a public bus. Campari sodas on long summer nights. A day of sweaty manual labor followed by beers and classic rock. Dive bars. Guys who smoke cigarettes outside of dive bars. Men who fly you to strange cities.

 

Moscow. Paris. New York. Hanging out in the lobbies and bars of posh hotels you’re not staying in. La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that nothing bad can happen at Tiffany’s. Grand Central Station. Waterfront property. Meeting Mary Oliver and her dog on a beach in Provincetown. Being carried along a bank of the Seine by a beautiful man. Falling asleep under the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre. Patisseries and boulangeries and brasseries. Street musicians. Terrace cafes in public plazas. Georgian feasts and toasts. A troika ride across the Russian winter steppe. The mystical pulse under the Russian soil that I think just made up but absolutely believe in. Banyas. Orthodox icons. Catholic goth and ostentation. The blue mosques of Islam.

 

Yves Klein blue. Post-impressionism. Abstract art. Miro. Modernism. Art Deco. Ostalgie. Constructivism. Symbolism. Russian ballet. Bob Fosse choreography. The Costume Institute at the Met. Satin ribbons and miniature perfumes. 1920’s drop-waist dresses. The September issue of Vogue. A man in a well-tailored suit. Palazzo pants. Sunglasses. Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My grandmother’s cat-eye glasses and red lipstick. Black turtleneck sweaters and never out of style trench coats. Calvin Klein minimalism.

 

Sunflowers in blue pitchers. Vases of pale peonies the color of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Fresh cut flowers on the breakfast table. Literally stopping to smell the roses. Formal public gardens full of people minding their own business. Lilac bushes in their ephemeral bloom. The honeysuckle trees that lined my grandmother’s yard. Cars with Christmas trees strapped to their roofs. That sensible modern people bring entire trees into their homes all pagan-like. Vetiver. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Eucalyptus branches hung in the shower. Lavender used in food and drink.

 

An expertly made martini. A Casino Royale vesper. A G&T with elderflower. Freshly chopped herbs and the aromatic stains they leave on your fingertips. Bowls of lemons. Calhoun County peaches from roadside stands. Homemade apple butter. Beach plum jelly. Hibiscus sorbet. Saffron bastani. Zanzibar chocolate ice cream. Jean-Yves Martin’s croissants and Picasso’s Coffee cappuccinos. McDonald’s French fries. 99 cent slices of pizza in Midtown Manhattan. Jewish food. Borshch. Homemade soup and crusty bread. Making crepes for Pancake Day. Blueberry pancakes at the old Lincoln Inn. My grandmother’s latticed blueberry pie. My mother’s peach cobbler. The bowl of spaghetti my mother always made for me when I was out of sorts. Family recipes.

 

Communal meal preparation. Homes where the kitchen is the central gathering place. Sun filled rooms with high ceilings. Built-in bookshelves. Blue and white china. Cloth napkins. Mismatched antique furniture. Down comforters. Deep claw-foot bathtubs. Black and white tile. Secret staircases. Shoe boxes containing small objects of sentimental value. Old photo albums. Apocryphal family stories. Finding the forgotten cemeteries in the woods where your ancestors settled.

 

Ghost stories. Russian novels. The spare, poignant observations of Capote, Modiano and Hrabal. Red leather notebooks. Colored pens. Wood-paneled library reading rooms. Ephemera found in old books: a pressed rose, a late 1930s Austrian train ticket, a pre-revolutionary Russian leaflet… Poems you return to in times of strife or exaltation: Oliver, Whitman, Mayakovsky, Tennyson… The book you can’t put down. The book your mind picks up. The movies you’ve seen a hundred times and mouth the lines to while you watch them. PBS. British murder mysteries and Merchant & Ivory films. Woody Allen films. Going to the movie theater alone.

 

Going on day trips with sassy great-aunts. Unsolicited glances of approval or mischief from old ladies. Smart, courageous women who make you stand up and applaud. Living long enough to know what you need and what is not worth it. The day you realize the world won’t end if you say or do something shocking. An innocuous observation that forever changes the way you think of something. Tipsy-headed, impassioned political debates. The adrenaline rush of a bustling political campaign office. Winning.

 

My mother’s record collection. My grandfather’s Dvorak album. Mozart’s violin concertos. Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” Post-punk and New Wave and 80’s dance pop. Dancing to the radio when no one is home. Listening to opera or soul music while cooking. Listening to Kind of Blue in the wee hours and Time Out on dreary days and Vince Guaraldi when leaves begin to fall. Practiced notes wafting from the music school behind your building. The typewriterly tapping of rain on a roof. The clanging of sailboats in a harbor. The sound of a train in the distance. The faint snores of a sleeping cat.

 

Love.

 

 

 

 

Solstice Specters: Four Midsummer Ghost and Faerie Stories

“Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare.”Mythology Matters

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

I routinely have vivid dreams I rarely remember. When I can recall them, it is only in fragments, like a person recovering from amnesia after a terrible car accident. Because no one ever gets amnesia on account of a fortunate event, I assume the dreams I know I’ve dreamt but am unable to remember are not the kind I’d want to anyway and allow my subconscious its private traumas.

 

Dreams I do remember upon waking are often loose adaptations of some mundane event from my waking life. For example, the other day my cat was trying to get into the windowsill behind my bed. Oscar was a large tom in good health, but has grown to a Bulgakov-sized Behemoth as a side effect of daily steroids. A 20lb black tux with queerly human behaviors (I recently found him brushing himself with his brush clamped between his two front paws) he’d fit nicely into Woland’s entourage, but not the window. He’s grown too large to slink between the curlicued bars of the bed frame to taunt and be taunted by urban wildlife. I was always a bit anxious he’d fall from the precariously framed screen, so perhaps life behind bars is best for him. Then I dreamt my cat was on the window ledge. See? Mundane. But for this “thin and porous” business…

 

I dreamt there was a tornado, a plot device also plagiarized from real-life and more mundane than you might imagine here in the Midwestern summer. I looked around for Oscar as a funnel cloud barreled toward us from the horizon, all Dorothy and Toto-like. On the window ledge behind my bed, on the exterior side of the screen, lay my cat. My mother’s cat, to be precise. I’d inherited the fat white cat after her death, and the cat itself had passed away many years ago. “Bella! You have to get inside!” I dream-screamed. She paid no attention to my demands, attached determinedly to the concrete ledge. The wind picked up. “Bellakin!” I fought to wrench her from her perch, but she simply would not move. I awoke in a panic.

 

White cats are bad omens. That’s what my mother believed. Her head was full of superstitions and faerie tales and god knows what or how it got there. Mind you, her own cat, Bella, was mostly white. But a mysterious white cat showing up outside of one’s home was bad mojo. When a massive, long-haired, solid white cat came lurking around our house one year, she said it was a “harbinger of death.” I protested. “Mom, it’s beautiful. It’s a stray; can’t we please bring it in?” We’d brought in all types of animals over the years. But inviting this creature into our house was verboten. It sat each night outside the sliding glass kitchen door, under our windows or on our porch in front of the door. Bella would cry and howl and growl and hiss. Eventually I too became afraid. When I arrived home one night to spy it sitting under my bedroom window, I genuflected and slept on the couch. We talked at length about calling a priest but opted for animal control instead. It was a crazy thing to get caught up in over a poor stray… My mother was dead within the year.

 

I can’t for anything imagine Bella out there in the afterlife doing Uber but for Death. And whose soul had she come for? Perhaps the cat was a representation of my mother, slipped through the porous boundary of the spirit world and planted firmly on the threshold between me and a coming storm. Perhaps, as Puck would implore, it was just a dream.

 

City Gates

 

I went to the store for coffee.

 

I’d put off going until there was no coffee and only a tin of tuna and some ramen left in the cabinet. I’d put off going because storms had threatened daily for the previous week, and I’m doing my part to save the earth by walking and using canvas bags. I’d put off going because I get vaguely ambivalent when the food v. bills v. everything else times hit. But I am not ambivalent about coffee. And once I was inside the store, I was no longer ambivalent about food. Blueberry carrot hempseed bars? Organic peanut butter with flax and chia? Sprouted wheat bread? Superfruit spread? Australian lemon curd yogurt? Watermelon water? I am the novelty food market’s target demographic: a single white female freelancer whose ridiculous lack of money is matched only by her ridiculous abundance of curiosity. Momentarily giddy and greedy, I justified my purchase of fruit with the prefix “Super-” by the fact that I was in a German supermarket for poor people: so continental, yet so practical! I wondered if there were even any poor people left in Germany or why there wasn’t more German food here and remembered the coffee. And milk. And eggs. As the cashier muttered my total, I realized I totally could have gotten the watermelon water.

 

I returned home on foot in the blazing late sun like a little mule laden with canvas sacks of treasure, wobbly and strained. I scanned for cracks in the treacherously underfunded sidewalk infrastructure and for rogue summer children, either of which could send me crashing to the pavement. I successfully dodged dogs and bikes and paleteros and women in majestic, sail-like abaya. The earth’s strong gravitational pull keeps things upright on the solstice, I remember.

 

And so it was that I was not knocked into the street when just steps from my building, a large black iron gate clanked unlatched and opened onto the sidewalk blocking my passage. It had opened neither too slowly with a spooky creak nor too swiftly as if thrown open by the wind. It just … opened. I stopped abruptly, set down my bags and waited a moment for it to close again before continuing, as if it had been a proper human who had opened the gate. And in fairness, at one time, I suppose it may have been. “Hey, howabout you look where you’re going next time, huh?” I complained aloud as would to anyone who’d flung a giant iron gate open in my face. As I continued on my journey, I threw an accusatory look back in its direction and grumbled something about why do ghosts even open doors and gates when they can go right through them? Like, what the hell is that about?

 

Some days I think everything I know about living in the city I learned from Seinfeld. Hardly a day passes that my friends and I don’t share tales of the infuriating, inexplicable or downright absurd situations we’ve been subjected to throughout the day, and the equally absurd schemes we’ve come up with in response. I do love living in the city though, precisely because you can yell out loud at a ghost gate to have some fucking respect and literally no one is talking about it at the supermarket the next day when you go back for that watermelon water. Because the inhabitants of cities have lives.

 

Even those who no longer do.

 

A Romance in 3 Acts, by either Shakespeare or Chekov, I don’t know. But it’s utter, utter crap. See Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 instead.

 

I’d been witnessed having a bit of a low-key row at the pub over vodka tonics, and he’d checked in with me when my boyfriend got up to use the bathroom. He came back to check on me each time my boyfriend excused himself. He seemed a bit shy and sweet. Not at all like my boyfriend, who was not in the bathroom because he had to relieve himself, who thought American Psycho was a how-to manual. Things eventually ended with Patrick Bateman and I. Meanwhile, I became accustomed to my server at the pub, a preferred meeting place for my client. I was there routinely for work, and so was he. He had raven hair, pale olive skin and a subtle Slavic accent. He told me he wanted to get out of Chicago and move to Moscow. I wasn’t lying when I replied, “Me too.”

 

I know people who immediately become friends in such situations, dropping in unannounced, inviting each other to shows, saying things like, “My friend Kristian so-and-so… Do you know him? Oh I’ll have to introduce you…” These people usually bang on about being loners but know someone at literally every establishment in town. Then there are people who draw hard and fast lines between their waiters and their peers, who cloak class anxiety under pretense of professionalism but fuck the coat girl. These people fancy themselves well-adjusted but are horrible humans. Me? I was just happy to see him every month. It was nice to be around a nice person in a cruel world. It helped that he was devastatingly handsome, a cross between Rami Malek and a young Vladislav Surkov. Macedonian. He could have been one of those hackers for all I know, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t possibly care. And I was content to leave it at that. I was in no mood for relationships after Bateman. A routine lament for Moscow with a beautiful man was enough romance for me.

 

One day I showed up to the pub, and he wasn’t there. Earlier in the year my scarf had disappeared from this very same pub and then inexplicably reappeared, so I didn’t panic. Schedules change. To be honest, I was a bit sadder than I thought I would be. A young girl busing tables came up and asked me how to get involved in our organization. “Who are you and what have you done with Kristian?” I thought as the long memorized lines from the bylaws rolled off my tongue. As I headed toward the door, my waitress inquired if she could ask a personal question. I was done talking. “You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.” “Are you … dating anyone?” She seemed like a nice person, but that’s not my scene. “Who is asking?” “Kristian. Do you know Kristian? He works here. He thinks you’re so beautiful.” “No. I mean, Yes. I mean I know him, and I’m not dating anyone.”

 

And then I left. Like an idiot.

 

There was much ado about if I should call the pub, but I decided I would just see him the next time I was there, like my scarf. Because now I believed in magic. The next time, however, moved increasingly farther down the calendar. No matter, he had been there for ages… Until he wasn’t. There were over a hundred people crammed into the event room to see the kind of person a hundred people should cram into a room to see, but not one of them was him. If he had wanted to see me, then… why… It was hot and damp from the torrential evening rains and I wanted to weep a little but I didn’t. Before leaving, I staked out the waitress he’d asked to ask me personal questions. “I was rather hoping Kristian would be here.” “He doesn’t work here anymore,” she explained. “Why?” “He’s moved away.”

 

I wanted to weep a lot and I did.

 

After a summer rain, my mother would take us children into the back yard to see the drops of dew on the tree leaves, which she would have us believe were faeries. Rain, or idiot faeries who fuck up people’s romantic lives… Workplace, or magical Irish pub where things strangely materialize and vanish… Psychologically moving between the realms of the material and immaterial seems no more preposterous to me than physically moving from Avondale to Moscow. But I can think of few things more absurd than when the living become ghosts to one another.

 

For Sentimental Reasons

 

It’s always raining these summers now. Searing heat and flooded underpasses. We’re far enough north for there to be fewer hours of darkness than required for sleep, but the weather feels more like that of a subtropical developing nation. The trauma of climate change, like terrorism, is best responded to by maintaining a sense of normalcy. And by leaving the AC off. And by walking places. So one sweltering evening, a friend and I headed out for ice creams. A light drop of cold sky water here and there on our sweat-slick skin felt exhilarating. We arrived at a busy paleteria and debated eating inside or nah while making obnoxious guesses about the flavors. “It’s black, so black currant.” “No, look at it. It’s black brown. It’s tamarind or coffee.” We brazenly settled on scoops in cups, chocolate chip and strawberry cheesecake, straight up owning our basic whiteness. But we chose to eat them in the rain on our way home. We weren’t so basic we couldn’t get our hair messed up. I didn’t mention the matter in deliberations, but I think everything is better in the rain. Everything.

 

Living in my neighborhood requires navigating both cultural barriers and dangerous streets. “Basic white girl.” There is in fact no confirmation of my ethnicity, and most people here don’t see me as an interloper since I am on the swarthy end of the Caucasian spectrum, and everyone here is from somewhere else. But guilt is guilt. And girl is girl. So when I hear a lone man’s voice behind me on a dark side street, I move into the light. Which is what I did when about three blocks from home we heard a voice behind us that put the hair on my neck on end.

 

I stepped into the parkway and turned around. Emerging from the inky night and backlit by the rain-blurred neon lights of the city, an older man approached, passed, and continued down the block, acknowledging neither us nor any of his surroundings. The words I had been unable to make out earlier were lyrics.

I love you and you alone were meant for me
Please give your loving heart to me
And say we’ll never part

I think of you every morning
Dream of you every night
Darling, I’m never lonely
Whenever you are in sight

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I’ve given you my heart

 

He sang the song slowly and sonorously in a professionally trained, and I suspect professionally performed, baritone voice as luscious as our ice creams. We followed behind, mirroring his pace despite the increasingly inclement weather, caught up in whatever spell had been cast upon him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing so beautifully, so intentionally, outside of a concert, and even then maybe only at La Traviata. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood Lyric Opera singers reside in. It’s not even the kind of neighborhood season ticket holders reside in. I wanted to approach him to pay a compliment and perhaps to inquire, but I feared doing so would break the spell.

 

“You really missed something out there,” I announced as I whirled into the apartment, dripping with rain and delirious with noirish romance. “I know. That’s why I don’t go out there,” my roommate joked. I scowled and began singing in an unfortunate tone but with all the cheeky swagger of Bill Murray’s lounge act. “I love you. For sentimental reasons. I think of you every morning. I dream of you every night. I love you. For sentimental reasons.” I looked like a drown rat, my ice cream had melted, and I was really hamming it up for my audience of confused felines. Everything and I mean everything this week had been so fucking awful, it felt good to blow off steam. But I meant each word I sang. About my mom. About my dead pets. About my mercurial Macedonian. About everyone who is still around until they no longer are. And then I simply could not stop singing, as if possessed.

 

“You’ve been pixilated,” my mom would say whenever I fell into these silly moods. Pixilated meant gotten to by the pixies. By the faeries. By Puck. There was nothing she couldn’t explain in terms of the supernatural. And maybe it’s just where the sun’s been in the sky, but I confess there seem increasingly fewer events I can explain using logic. And those I can? They frighten me more than ghosts.

 

Besides, even though faeries can fuck things up for no good reason at all, they at least apologize:

 

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends

 

–Shakespeare, from A Midsummers Night’s Dream