We Sheltered

Bomb shelters aren’t romantic.
As children, we cowered under our desks, hands stuffed tightly to our mouths to keep ourselves from giggling. The teacher, struggling to stay in her high heeled shoes, would hide under her big table just like us. We worried about the brown-bag lunches in our desks, and how we would get to them if we had to stay crouched for a long time. We worried about our bladders, which only made the urge to go worse. But we were ultimately thrilled every time the duck-and-cover drill came along. We felt important. We were Americans, and we were worthy of being saved. We also got to miss ten minutes of New Math, another plus.
When we grew up and had children of our own, we told them the stories of that old-school naivete. They laughed at us, at our time, at the hair we had in the crumbling photographs we never bothered putting in photo albums. We felt less important. We tried to make our children feel more so. We put their photos in albums, until Facebook came along and they did it themselves.

We remember our fathers digging bomb shelters in the back yard. We remember asking him if he was trying to dig to China, and the way he picked us up and swung us up to his shoulders and told us it was the damn foreigners he was trying to get away from. We sat on his shoulders on the 4th of July too, and felt that much closer to the fireworks exploding above us in the sky. Our dogs would hide during the explosions. They understood better than we did that things that go boom in the sky are to be feared, not welcomed with gleeful applause.

Our children fear things more intelligently than we do. We were brave. We wanted to change the world, get out the vote, stop the war. We had more ideals than fears. Our children roll their eyes at us and tell us we don’t understand, our privacy is at risk, the government is listening in on us, it’s a George Orwell nightmare. We remember 1984 being so far away, we tell our children. We remember believing a desk could protect us from the atom bomb. We remember trusting.

Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.

Update Me

He said he’d left Chicago, but he was still there. He’d said he was moving back to Connecticut, back in with his parents, or maybe some friends, there was a job opportunity actually, one that would help him come back. Back to the big city. Back to her.
Farewell, he’d told her, via instant messaging system. Not goodbye. Goodbyes are for the decisive. He was not decisive.
Did he lie to her, she wonders, every time she sees he is still in Chicago. Did he concoct an elaborate tale to keep her away from him, or did he simply change his mind.
Was it because she’d spent the night in his bed, needy for an evening of closeness with someone who said “this is going to happen” under thick eyelashes.
Was it that she got too close too fast when he told her about his brother committing suicide when he was sixteen.
There were a thousand reasons for him to have told her the truth, lied, omitted. But he’d said she’d done nothing wrong, and this she refused to believe.
There was something she must have done, something she could punish herself with every time she saw his updates. He wasn’t telling her anything, but he was updating the world, each and every time he wrote something funny or informative that included his location underneath it: Chicago, IL.

Seventy Four and Human

Seventy-four years old, the old man preserves his memories. Laboriously, he types them into the computer. This is easier on his hands than a pen and notepaper, but his arthritic fingers still ache with every hard stab to the keyboard.

When the bell rings, he stops. He is only allowed to write for an hour a day. His doctor daughter has forbidden any more. He occasionally wonders whether her medical advice is sound. Maybe she just doesn’t want him to get very far. Scared of what she might find out about him.

The old man never thinks of himself as one. He hears that seventy is the new fifty, and he would agree if he had the full use of his hands. But he has been degenerating since his early sixties and has never felt more tired in his life. He feels ill, not old.

He thinks of what he has written today. He doesn’t have a method, a system of chronology. He writes the memories as they come. Sometimes they are of his wooden toys and childhood friends. Sometimes they are of his mother’s death when he was working as a guard on a train in his late twenties.

Today he wrote about Luba, his first love. They were twelve and shared a birthday. They met on the streets of Boston, where both their families had ended up after fleeing Europe. They liked the same flavor of ice cream and the same music. They had very different opinions on kissing. Luba wanted to. He didn’t. The last time he saw her was when he graduated high school and she came to the ceremony as a drop-out watching some boy she was dating get his diploma.

This is the sort of thing the old man’s daughter doesn’t want to know, he thinks. She doesn’t want to believe he has ever been anything but hers, first her father and now her charge. She takes care of him and is a good girl, but she has never entirely believed he is human.

He hopes she will read his memories when he dies. He hopes she will understand. He hopes she will remember.

The Lady With the Violet Hat

The moisturizer on Lynda’s desk at home is past its expiration date by several hundred months. She bought it thirty years ago and never used it. She discovered that moisturizer was not her cup of tea, but the bottle was pleasing to look at and so she kept it.

Lynda is not a hoarder. She is a collector. She collects various items and keeps them around her in lieu of family photos. Lynda has no family anymore.

The back of the medicine cabinet in Lynda’s apartment goes back deeper than expected. She keeps her safe there. With the family jewels, such as they are.

Kids in the neighborhood call her Lynda with a Y because that’s what she is. Lynda doesn’t begrudge them that. Linda is a popular name in her age bracket. She’s glad she sticks out somehow.

When the lady with the violet hat came to call, Lynda always pretended she was out. Except one time. This one time, Lynda lets her in (that time is in fact right now, this exact moment). It feels momentous, letting the lady with the violet hat in. She is beautiful, and Lynda has the strangest urge to kiss her forehead, but she restrains herself.

The woman in the violet hat has no name. She is as invented as Lynda is. She is a figment of Lynda’s imagination, as Lynda is a figment of mine. But she is important, just like Lynda is important. She is made, the lady with the violet hat, of the sentences that go through Lynda’s head and then disappear. She is the accumulation of all of Lynda’s castoffs.

Lynda makes the woman with the violet hat coffee and they sit together. Lynda waits patiently to hear the lady with the violet hat start talking. She wants to take notes when that happens, but fears it might be rude. She knows just what kind of voice the lady with the violet hat will have. It will be zesty, like an orange.

Goal Oriented

Rest when you’re dead. Carve up those calves, chisel those muscles. Make a sculptor of your will. Your body is the block of marble. The angel just needs to be freed.

Don’t mumble, stand up straight, wear suits. Make a good first impression. Crate your baggage upstairs on your own and leave it there to rot. Leave it in the attic, at the top of the house. Lock the door, swallow the key. Leave the skeletons to decompose. You have thousands of years at your disposal. You can afford to wait.

Sport a pair of sunglasses. Hide your eyes. Leave the sagging skin in bed with the rumpled sheets. Keep the smile in the corners of your mouth. The only acceptable wrinkles when you’re pushing thirty are laugh-lines.

Good Enough

The sponge lying on the floor of the tub is unattractive. It is still relatively new, but its shape is unappealingly squat and it has sooty stains on it, as if someone has been scrubbing rust crumbs off their body.

It is leftover, this sponge, from previous tenants. It is incredibly absorbing, I find, when I get in the shower and begin to use it. Some people would find this disgusting. My roommate would tell me off, like she does when I pee and don’t wash my hands. She is a neat freak, putting ever pin in its place and surrendering her body to the needle over and over again. There are knife scars on the inside of her wrist. She’s exchanged one habit with another when scratching the surface stopped being enough.

She and I have just moved into a new place. We’re getting actual furniture. We listen to music loudly and don’t care about the neighbors. There are children in the apartments all around us and they cry at night. It’s not exactly payback, blasting Led Zeppelin, but it’s close enough to be vindictive somehow.

The windfall that has allowed us to do this comes from my disgusting habits. My frugality knows no bounds. I scrimp and I save for a living. Companies pay me to do this. It’s a handicap that I stumbled through for years until someone told me it was a talent. I get paid nicely now, but I make my roommate pay me back exactly for half of everything. When we move out one day, each of us finding a new home, we will saw our things in half. I can see the gleam in her eyes at that suggestion. She likes playing with knives.

My room is bare of artwork, books, personality of any kind. Like me, it is unadorned. The only items of significance are hidden beneath my bed, in taped-up boxes. The cardboard is old and falling apart, but I wouldn’t let me roommate unpack and repack them when we moved. Their rotting edges remind me that they won’t always stay shut. It’s important to remember that things can burst from their seams.

One day, maybe I’ll open those boxes. And maybe I’ll buy a sponge of my own. But for now, I keep the boxes shut tight, reinforcing the tape and sweeping away the cardboard dust that accumulates under them. And for now, I use the leftover sponge to purify my pores. I shave my legs with my roommate’s old razor. I tie string around my pants instead of a belt. It’s a good enough way to live, for now.