I had my teacher forward a photograph of a painter’s handwriting to a writer I’m reading. I hope that if she sees it, she will think well of me for reading so attentively. This has always been my strategy. Read close, read deep, read intimate, read older. Forty at sixteen, she and I have this in common: our ages play dissonant chords with our faces.
You love your work. You’re thankful every day that you get paid, even though the donations trickle in slowly and the funding gets cut year after year. You still have a salary and you’re still doing something important. Something you care about. Something that moves people. You are in the very kernel of life, eighty-thousand leagues below the sea and down deep to the center of the earth. You have two children and a partner and you love them all. There are good days and bad days, because life isn’t perfect. But when your fortieth birthday rolled around, you were happier than you’d ever been in and you wondered whether people could see it on you, on your lined face and in your tired eyes. Happiness, joy, you’ve come to realize, are quiet things for you, and you experience them in the pit of your belly and the tips of your fingers and in the peace that falls on you when your head hits the pillow and you smell the familiar body of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with stirring beside you.
Two weeks after you turn forty, you get the assignment. You accept it, because you’ve never turned one down before. You will do your best, but you’re not sure how to begin. You make the usual phone calls. You do the necessary research. You watch the episodes of the better TV shows that involve these people whose lives you’re supposed to start showcasing. You get lots of help. But when you walk to the metro that whole first week you’re more aware than you’ve ever been before. Your eyes have been opened. You see them everywhere, lurking, smoking, talking, even laughing. You see them going into stores and buying things. You notice that they have cellphones. You see them near churches. You see them rummaging in their bags and baskets.
You don’t approach them on your own. You’re too scared. Too nervous. You feel superstitious about them. They are your black cats and ladders and umbrellas inside the house. They threaten to shake you out of your joy. They’ve already begun, without knowing it.
The couple you speak to, the pair of them, have been handed to you on a silver plate by a charity who wanted to help you. You’re grateful to the charity, to their contribution, which feels strange since normally it is the other way around with charities. They’re grateful to you, usually. The couple they’ve supplied are perfect for your story. They’re around your age but look like your parents, they have health problems, they are coherent and can be recorded. You go with them everywhere, that first day. You took with you a wad of five dollar bills in your pocket, anticipating the need to get them to cooperate with you. You’re surprised. They talk to you as if you’re a tourist to their world. They’re eager to show you around, share their complaints, explain their situation, but they don’t ask for a thing in return. It’s another upside-down situation – you’re the tourist, but they’re asking you to take the sound-bite photograph of them. They trust you with their lives. The man lets you hear him begin to cry in the soup kitchen as he worries about his partner’s health, and you wonder if you would feel the same responsibility in his place, caring for this woman with no teeth. The woman looks at the man, concerned at his expression of emotions, so rare and untried, and you wonder whether you would worry about another man’s feelings if your legs hurt all the time as much as hers do.
You are brought into reality by them, and it is painful, a red-hot poker to your guts. When you fall into bed that night, your partner rolls away from you and mutters that you smell of smoke. You sniff. You showered, but didn’t bother washing your hair. You were too tired. You imagine the couple, stretched out on the sofa bed in your living room, piled under duvets and heads resting on clean pillows. They aren’t there, of course. They’re in their tent underneath the highway overpass, where you left them earlier. You left them where you left the job, somewhere else, to be resumed and returned to tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave your home again.
This story was inspired by this news story on NPR’s All Things Considered. It is entirely invented and bears no real relation (besides that imagined) to the reporter or the subjects of the story.
Ever since coming home from school, I’ve returned to taking voice lessons. My teacher wanted me to be in the music-school’s end-of-year concert, which is how I found myself roped into singing the lead in Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as well as doing backing vocals for half a dozen other songs.
The other girls singing with me are of various ages between eleven and eighteen. I’m the oldest by three years, having recently turned twenty-one. Let me tell you, nothing makes a twenty-one year old feel her years like spending hours with girls six years her junior and realizing that they’re actually not as interesting to her as the eleven-year old. What is it about the middle teenage years that seems to erase half their brain-cells? One of the other singers, an incredibly talented girl who’s also very sweet, polite and bubbly, actually takes Justin Bieber seriously and thinks that he’s the bee’s knees.
Then there’s the issue of the guy who used to be my guitar teacher when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. I hadn’t seen him for ages, until tonight when I found out that he was leading the rehearsal we were having. Since seeing each other he’s become more clean-cut and I’ve had time to go wild and come back down a little again. It was strange seeing him and realizing that six years had passed since spending weekly hours together with our guitars. Knowing that I’m now at an age where he looks at me like an equal, an adult, is frightening in some ways, exhilarating in others.
Growing older is strange, but so far it’s not actually displeasing.
On the grandest of summer days, beneath a willow tree in the beautiful park that I can see from my bedroom window, I met my true love.
Wait, no, that was only the stupid plot of some sappy romance novel I read a while ago.
Truth is, I’ve never met my true love. How can I, with my line of work, my bad hours, and worst of all, my bad hair? No one could be attracted to this hair, that’s for sure. Sadly, it’s part of the job description.
Nowhere in my very extensive memory can I remember wanting to do what I do. Sure, I was smart. I loved watching all those television shows with chemistry sets and experiments. Yes, I got straight As in elementary, then high school. Of course I got into the best school there could be. But nope, I don’t think I ever really thought that I’d be applying for a post as “Mad Scientist, Female.”
No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not really a mad scientist. I wish! No, I’m only playing one at the Museum of Scientific History and Literature. It’s an odd place, to be sure. They have all these different characters here, some playing cliches like me – there’s a Frankenstein plus monster, of course – and some taking on the parts of historical figures like Galileo or the Curies. Me? I was fired from my grown-up job at the Modern Science Research Center because of “budget cuts.”
With student loans I still haven’t paid off, rent and utilities due every month, and one mean landlord, I had no choice but to get a job as quickly as I could. So here I am, working at the weirdest museum known to mankind: we’re open between 10am to 5pm, and then from midnight to 5am; we have an Einstein who’s got worse hair than I have and a horribly false German accent; drunk science geeks traipsing around in the middle of the night; and finally, to take the cake, a huge fake library with bookshelves bearing fake cardboard books. What’s with the library? As the sign says when you enter: WE’VE CATALOGUED ALL SCIENCE-ORIENTED NOVELS SO THAT YOU WON’T HAVE TO! People are supposed to walk around and write down titles of books and then see if our amazingly understocked bookstore and gift shop happen to have them. They usually don’t. We get lots of complaints.
But it pays alright, and I’m applying for jobs during every spare moment I have. Oh, the hair thing? Well, it’s a wig, obviously, but it doesn’t agree with my real hair, and so my dull brunette mop is matted and disgusting after every time I put that stupid fake tangle on top of it. The woes of the young and… employed?
I know I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. But not having a steady boyfriend since high-school has started to wear on me. During college I was stuck in my books, during my summers I interned everywhere that would take me, and after I graduated I was lucky enough to get a job at the Research Center. Working there for another four years has gotten me to the age of twenty-six without having kissed anyone since I was seventeen. Okay, that’s a lie, there have been encounters here and there, but I’m pretty ashamed and revolted with all of them, so I try to pretend that they haven’t happened.
Yes, people, even science geeks have needs, you know!
The point is, I really would like, for once, to meet someone who isn’t a) a smoker; b) an alcoholic and c) a complete idiot. Is that really so much to ask for? Apparently it is. But don’t they say that intelligent women intimidate men? Well, I seem to have scared all of them away – although I think the ones I dated were all much too dumb to have recognized me as being super-smart anyway.
No, excuse me, I’m not blowing my own horn, I’m simply stating a fact. I’m smart. I have powerful deductive skills, I grasp new concepts quickly, and if I don’t understand something then I’ll work at it until I do. I also have very small and steady hands which are an asset when you’re working in a lab.
So here I am, ready to break through all the barriers and say that Gertrude Jenkins, twenty-six years old, five-two and one hundred and ten pounds, is looking for a date. Not true love, so don’t get freaked. A good date will do just fine to start with.
[IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO CONTACT gertrude_j CLICK HERE]
It was opening night, and Vonna sat in the back room with the gallery owner and breathed into a paper bag.
“It’s going to be alright, honey, just breathe for me,” the kindly old man tried to soothe her.
“But-what-if-they-hate-everything-?” Vonna gasped through breaths. Her voice came out slightly muffled by the bag, but the panic in it was still clear.
“Darling, they’ll love you,” William, the gallery owner, said. His gray hair was still thick and shiny, despite his advancing age. He was past eighty, but Vonna would never have guessed it. He had the dulcet tones of a gentleman, having shed his New York accent over the years since he’d left the Big Apple.
Vonna finally put the paper bag down and looked into his eyes. He looked right back, faith shining there. “What was it you said to me the day I brought you my paintings?” she asked.
“I told you the truth. I would never let any artist show and sell their art in this gallery if I didn’t think I’d make a profit out of it. I know art and I know people. They will love you, my dear, and they’ll buy up every piece you’ve got. Maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but within a month, your pieces will be hanging on strangers’ walls. Do you remember what you said to me then?” he chuckled.
Vonna offered an embarrassed smile. “I said that I wasn’t sure if I wanted my pieces hanging on strangers’ walls. And then you said that if I didn’t, well, I’d be just like all those singers who get their mom and friends to buy up all their CDs, and that I’d be pathetic. I didn’t like you much that day.”
William began to laugh. “Dear, dear, I can’t imagine that you would have! But you know better now. You know that I simply want the best for you, and that I believe in your work, otherwise I wouldn’t let you sell it.”
“True. You’re a greedy old goat, just like Sanjay told me you’d be.”
“You’d better tell the same thing to anyone you refer me to – I have a reputation to hold up, darling. Now let me go check that everything is ready. You sit here – sit!” he pushed Vonna back into the chair she was about to rise up from. “I’ll call you a few minutes after we open the doors and then you’ll circulate like the social-butterfly that you can be.” He left the room, winking before he shut the door.
Vonna got up the moment he was gone. She began pacing up and down the little office, three steps in each direction before turning and going the other way. Within moments she was dizzy and sat down again. She had forty-two paintings hanging on the walls out in the beautiful space of Marigold Gallery, one of the better known small galleries that seemed to be the life and soul of the art scene in the city. Gallery openings, she knew, were social events for anyone who wanted to scope out competition, invest wisely, or else mingle with the artisy and the rich. She’d been to enough openings as a guest to know the drill. The doors would open, the crowd would come in looking disdainful, excited or haughtily curious. Half would rush to the table where the champagne glasses were set, and the other half would begin to walk around lazily.
She pictured herself at the last gallery opening she’d been to. It had been at Wings of Freedom Gallery, a bigger place that had openings for multiple artists at a time. She’d walked in at the tail end of the crowd and had begun to walk around, feeling that curious leap in her stomach when she saw something she loved, and that strange plummet that made her look away from something that bothered her, revolted her or bored her.
But tonight it was her turn and – heaven forbid! – people would be looking at her own pieces like that! Forty-two paintings she’d done in four years. Soon, all would be gone. Except for those three that weren’t for sale (“It makes people more interested to see that the artist is keeping his or her own personal masterpieces for themselves,” William had patiently explained.)
Vonna felt like hyperventilating again. Maybe if she fainted, she needn’t go out there at all. But no, there was William, coming back in.
“They’re all in there, dear. Are you ready to mingle? A couple people have already asked where you are. They already have things to say to you, you see? Nothing to worry about. Come,” he held out his hand, wrinkled and soft. Vonna took a deep breath, took his hand, tossed her own graying red hair back, put on her social-smile, and stepped into the gallery.
I’d like to start this post by just saying how much it meant to me to read the replies you all wrote. It means more than I can articulate to have people believing in my, people who have never met me or talked to me, but have only known my through this blog. It’s more special this way – there are no biases, you aren’t here just to flatter me, and if you didn’t like my blog, you’d leave and needn’t reply. I know these things, though they’re hard to really accept sometimes, and so I truly appreciate your support. Starting Sunday (because in Israel, the week starts on Sunday) I will begin my writing schedule, and we’ll see how it goes. I hope that I won’t disappoint myself!
I also would like to thank those of you who say that they wouldn’t guess my age… Age doesn’t matter when it comes to friendship, as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll admit that I’ve always had a little nagging doubt in the back of my mind – I’ve worried, you see, that I’ll somehow become or appear childish without meaning to, and that my friendship would be denied or pushed away. That hasn’t happened, and I’m relieved – and I’ll take those words of surprise at my age as compliments, because I know you mean them as such.
So. On a side note: is there some sort of requirement that people who wish to write have low self-esteem? Because, clearly, I’ve been gifted with an overabundance of that particular asset.
School-building: hardback chairs with metal legs,
grey, grey tables, scratched, scored.
A fly buzzes.
Heads turn, murder in their eyes,
longing to swat the
Laughter returns to faces,
Sighs of relief can be heard,
A lot of it was a blur. Hours seemed to pass between the time spent in a strange mall, all closed up except for one store blasting out strong music, and the actual event. It was strange, the way everything lost proportion. Time either crawled or hurried past. Scenes and people and views changed in a flash. Only some moments stand out clearly in my memory… That’s how it always is in dreams, isn’t it?
But it wasn’t a dream. It was real. We got to the mall at 15:00, found the neighboring stadium and the cluster of people. It felt like coming home. They were happy, energetic, giddy with excitement. There were nerds, and girls and Goths and metal-heads. There were young boys, barely into puberty and women in their thirties, clearly original fans. Bottles of beer, vodka and even white wine littered the ground along with what seemed to be a thousand cigarette butts. But it was the one place, the only place, in which I felt perfectly comfortable with it.
We were there for a concert, a show. The rules are different when music pumps in people’s veins and the sun burns their backs to a crisp as they wait at a gate guarded by a couple heavy-set men. The rules have to change in an environment like that – it’s inevitable. Better to throw bottles on the ground where the organizers know it’s going to happen than throwing bottles into a crowd later and injuring someone.
It seemed as if we were in and out of the mall for food and bathroom breaks a hundred times, but finally, at 16:45, we were in the crowd waiting at the entrances. It was hot, sticky, and the sun was piercing and bright. People kept whooping for no reason, getting everyone just a bit more pumped up. Sir B. F. and I played games, guessing at what this or that person was like outside of Concert-Time.
Concert-Time is a different dimension, holding a dream-like quality, and consisting of no more than twenty-four hours in which time itself seems to shrink and elongate. The sunlit hours are the longest, whereas the moment evening falls, the breezes hold sweet and short promises. Crushed in a crowd, time elongates again in the heat and airless place. But then, suddenly, time seems to jump forward – by fifteen minutes, half an hour, an hour. The opening bands are on the stage forever, and then they’re not. The stage is empty forever, and then, suddenly, gloriously, it’s not.
They came on-stage, four men in the their mid-forties, and the crowd roared. We were part of a beast, a many-headed animal that thrashed and begged and demanded to be satisfied. The moment the first note started, we began to feed. Music, loud notes one after another, lyrics yelled at the top of our voices while the men on-stage sang loudly with us, for us. The speakers, huge and foreboding when the sun was up, were now a welcome friend, giving out the drug that we needed – the music.
Metallica haven’t been in Israel for eleven years. Finally, on Saturday, May 22nd, they performed at the Ramat-Gan Stadium to the ecstasy of long-time and new fans alike. There were sound issues, issues that the stadium staff blamed on Metallica’s equipment. But it didn’t matter whose fault it was – only that it was fixed, and that the crowd, and I inside it, roared approval at each return of the full blast of the speakers.
There are concerts you can’t ever go to again. Concerts that you know were likely once in a lifetime opportunities. This was one of them, and I cannot express how glad I was to be there. It was a night of enchantment – a night of dreams coming true.