Warm Milk

When I was little, we always called it “warm milk,” even though it was really hot-chocolate. I don’t know why. Maybe “warm milk” sounds nicer, more wholesome somehow. To this day, though, I still think of it that way.

When I was little, in my grandparents’ home in Los Angeles, I had a cup with a screw-on top. It had handles, and the top was pink. I also had a yellow one, at some point, although I’m not sure which came first. The cup was clear plastic, with little drawing stenciled on it of butterflies and flowers. It was the kind of cup that adults love, because if it falls, very little can spill out of it in the time it takes for the fall to be noticed. It was the kind of cup I loved, too, because it was unique. I was the only one who drank out of it.

The taste of warm milk with chocolate Nesquick mixed into it brings me memories of that house where I used to drink out of that cup. The smell of the wooden floors in the kitchen seem to magically rise into my nostrils, as well as the smell of cleaning supplies that accompanied any late night in that kitchen, seeing as how my grandfather always cleaned the kitchen meticulously after dinner.

It is so strange, somehow, the way memories rise at such trivial moments, such as a regular Friday evening. The taste of warm milk is still in my mouth.

___ Drive: An Essay

This was the essay I submitted to the University of Chicago. It’s more of a creative writing piece than an essay, though, which is why I decided to share it here.

Nestled in the gorgeous hills of the city called Los Angeles, there is a street. It is a pretty street, suburban and colorful. It is called ____ Drive.
Many of the houses on ____ Drive are rather old, though you wouldn’t guess it by looking at them. In the fifties, all the houses were new and pristine, perfect little packages of suburbia. Young couples or families just beginning their lives moved onto the street, and made it what it really became – a homey, beautiful, precious place to live.
The street starts out with a wide bend, curving off the main street that leads up the hill. There is a store there, right near the corner, ridiculously overpriced and adorable, all brown wood on the outside and the good smell of bread and snacks on the inside. For me, that’s where the street really starts, at that store.
Right on the bend into the actual street, there is a single, solitary apartment building. It’s been renovated so many times over the years that it never seems to actually house anyone at any given time. After the building, the street starts proper, with a dip down straight off, houses looking crooked on both sides. There aren’t any sidewalks on the street – for why would there be? This is LA, the city of cars – and so you always need to be careful to walk against traffic, along the side of the road.
Every house on the street is different than its neighbor. There are no two alike, not even a little – each has its own unique brick patterns on the outside, its own colorful or bare garden, its tree or its bushes or its roses, the swing next to this house and the bench in front of that one. This one has a porch, the next might have a wildflower garden, and the next might have a collection of stones in front of it. Some of the houses are memorable, and some aren’t.
Although time has been kind to most of the houses on the street and they still look classic and well-tended, some newer families have moved onto the street and they decided that the houses they bought were too small. So what did they do? Why, what any upper-class family trying to live the American dream would do. They tore down the old, endearing, family-sized house, and built large concrete monstrosities with four garages and five stories, and park their Hummers on the street, because apparently the kids need the garages.
Still, if one can ignore those places, which stick out like sore thumbs, the street is one of beauty and tranquility. On Sunday mornings the grandkids come visit and ride their little tricycles in the driveways. Their parents sit back indulgently, speaking of times when they were that little with their own parents, the inhabitants of the street. On most other mornings, you will see sixty- and seventy-year olds walking briskly up and down the street with their usually-outdated portable music players, or maybe you’ll see them driving to work in suits and ties, with hair and mustaches sleeked.  You’ll see the younger families carpooling to work with their children bouncing in the back seat, watching Spongebob Squarepants on their portable DVD players.
The afternoons on ____ Drive will be quiet, people napping, resting, doing homework, relaxing and giving themselves alone time, swimming in their pools by the light of the setting sun and its reflection on the water. Occasionally the sound of a helicopter will break the peace of the quiet afternoon, but more often than not the street will be serene, almost eerily so.

So, the days. The nights are different. The nights might be noisier, as one house or another is bound to be having a dinner-party, a birthday, a casual get-together, a wild night of drinking in the house where the parents have gone on vacation. Even when it’s quiet, the patches of yellow glow from the windows cast a pretty light up and down the street. Everyone remembers dutifully to turn on the garden lamps as well, so as to help drivers coming down the road to see well.
There are walkers at night too, of course – the people with their music players, all bundled up now because of the cool, crisp mountain air. It is always cool at night up there, even during the height of summer. Some nights it’s foggy, making the air smell deliciously damp, like being in a real cloud.
If you walk down the street very late at night, it will be quite dark. Although many people leave their garden lamps on, their light is dim, especially at that hour of the night. Coyotes and raccoons often roam the street, the raccoons even opening garbage cans to rummage inside, and deer creep into the backyards to eat the flowers or drink from the pools. The man with the hybrid wolves will be walking down the road, taking them for their walk when the fewest people are around. The wolves are part dog apparently, but they look fearsome, even though they’re muzzled, and their size, their ice-blue eyes, and the ample amount of spiky grey fur on them isn’t very reassuring, though beautiful to look at.

There are two things that make ____ Drive the most wonderful, beautiful, splendid street in the world for me. The first is what you will see if you walk down to the very end, at night. Once upon a time, when I was very small, there was no gate there. There was just a long, long driveway, leading down to the biggest, ugliest house of all that sat alone on a huge plot of land, surrounded by out of place palm-trees and odd gazebos. Now, the house is the same, but there is also a gate before the driveway, a big black gate.
Still, nothing, not even the gate, can ruin that spot. You can stand there and see the whole of Los Angeles spread out before you, all twinkling lights. The lights are arranged in grids, little squares of suburbia similar to the one you’re standing in. It’s an astounding sight, awe-inspiring, especially when the air is clear and you can truly see so far. It is just a blanket of endless fairy lights, all seeming so happy.
The second reason for this street’s splendor is the fact that it was the center of my visits to the US all through my childhood; it was where my beloved maternal grandparents’ home was. The memories of it are now bittersweet. I will probably never venture up there again, as my grandparents have both passed away and we’ve sold their gorgeous, comfy house. Still, I will always and forever remember every detail of the street and its atmosphere, both with the sweetness and innocence of my childhood days there and with the cynicism of my older state today.

Dora’s Birthday [Part III]

Part I

Part II

Dora was curled up in an uncomfortable hospital chair, pretending to sleep. She felt like they’d been in that stupid waiting room for hours and hours. Either her father or her mother were always with her, but her Grandpa had gone to sit with Grandma in her room. Dora’s mother explained that Grandma was still unconscious [“sort of like asleep,” she’d said when Dora asked what that meant] and that Grandpa wanted to be with her when she woke up. Dora wasn’t allowed in yet.
This was her worst birthday ever. She was hungry and uncomfortable and tired and bored. She was also scared about Grandma – everyone was acting like Grandma might not wake up at all, and that thought made Dora so sad. She loved her Grandma very much. It was she who had let Dora help bake chocolate chip cookies, and it was she who gave Dora lovely books to read and helped her read them. Her parents did some of the same things too, of course, but Dora always spent Friday afternoons and evenings at her grandparents’ house, and she loved their routines there together. Grandpa would make something yummy for dinner and Dora and her grandmother always had the dessert all ready for afterwards. Then they’d maybe watch a funny video or play games or read books together, all three of them. Dora was scared that things would  change now.
Just as Dora felt like she would start crying again, she felt a soft touch on her shoulder. Her father shook her gently, thinking she was asleep. She opened her eyes and saw him peering down at her with a smile.
“Dora-Dear, Grandma’s awake now. She says she’s feeling well enough for you to come in and see her.”
Dora sat up immediately. Her father took her by the hand and led her down a long corridor. Dora glimpsed people in the rooms they passed. Some of them frightened her, because they looked so very ill or they had tubes coming out of their noses and mouths. Some were moaning and some were snoring loudly. Dora averted her eyes and clung hard to her father’s big hand. She didn’t want Grandma to look like that.
Her father stopped at one of the rooms and gently pushed Dora through the door, encouraging her. She walked shyly up to the big hospital bed and stopped beside her mother who was sitting on one side of it. Her mother lifted her up into her lap, and Dora could see that her Grandma was sitting up in bed, smiling at her.
“Grandma!” she yelped and almost threw herself on her. Her mother held her back with a smile.
“Grandma’s feeling better but she’s still a little weak, pumpkin. No jumping on her quite yet, alright?” her mother chastised gently.
Dora was smiling fit to burst, and leaned over and gently pecked her grandmother who was proffering her cheek. “Grandma, are you okay now?” she asked.
“I will be, beautiful Dora, I will be,” Grandma answered in her smooth, melodic voice.
“And I’ll be able to come over to yours’ and Grandpa’s house and we’ll bake cookies and you’ll continue reading me The Little Princess?” she asked hopefully.
“Yes, honey-pie. When I get out of here, we’ll be able to do everything we used to.”
Dora felt as if her heart would burst. She broke into a fit of giggles. She was so happy that everything was alright with Grandma that she even forgot about the fact that she hadn’t eaten any cake.

Dora’s Birthday [Part II]

Part I

When Dora’s parents pulled the car into the driveway, Dora’s mother said “Oh, no!” in a strangled voice before ripping off her seat belt and running out of the car. There was a big ambulance sitting in front of the house, and two men in blue zippie-up clothing – kind of like Dora’s pajamas when she was very small – were rolling a big bed with wheels on it towards the back of the ambulance, which had its red lights swirling around and around, but the siren was off. Then Dora saw her grandfather run out the door after the men. Dora’s mother ran to him, and then they both got into the back of the ambulance with the men.
Dora’s father started the car up, and began following the ambulance, which now had its siren on.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” Dora asked from the backseat.
“Well, sweetie, I’m not sure. I think something happened to Grandma, and that’s why the ambulance was there. We’ll follow the ambulance to the hospital and we’ll see your mother and Grandpa there and they’ll tell us what’s going on.” Dora’s father sounded very worried. Dora knew he sounded worried because he sounded like this when Dora had tried to make herself some toast alone and had ended up burning her finger badly. She’d been taken to the hospital then, and the doctors gave her some sticky lotion to put on the burn until it healed. Her father had sounded exactly the same then as he did now.
“But Daddy, Grandma will be okay, right?”
“I hope so, sweetie.”

Soon they were pulling into the hospital parking lot. Dora’s father parked the car, and Dora leaped out of the backseat after him. They walked towards the big double doors of the emergency room [Dora knew that’s what it was because that’s where she’d gone when her finger had been burned.] The doors opened automatically and they walked in.
“Mommy!” Dora called out, and ran to her mother who was hunched over in a chair, half leaning over Grandpa and talking to him softly. She caught Dora up in her arms and settled her on her lap. Dora’s father sat down on her Grandpa’s other side, and asked quietly what was happening.
“She had a stroke,” Grandpa said. He sounded so tired. Dora never thought of her Grandpa as an old man, not like the other old men she would see on the street sometimes. But now she thought he did look old. She turned and buried her face in her mother’s hair. She was scared. Everyone was acting so sad and tired. It was her birthday. Everyone, herself included, should be happy today!
“What’s a stroke, Mommy?” She whispered in her mother’s ear. Her mother pulled her backwards a bit so she could look at her face. Dora was sucking her thumb, something she almost never did anymore, not now that she was a big girl and going to school and everything.
“Well, honey-pie, you remember how we read in your encyclopedia about how the brain works?” Dora’s mother answered. Dora remembered. She had gotten a nice big set of children’s encyclopedias for her last birthday and she’d been reading them with her mother and father and lately also alone a bit. The books were illustrated and she remembered the picture of the brain, all wormy and pink. She nodded to her mother.
“Well,” her mother continued. “A stroke is when a big clump of blood blocks some parts of the brain off. That throws the whole balance of the brain off and then some parts of it stop working for a minute or two. That’s what happened to Grandma.”
“But Mommy,” Dora spoke quietly, her thumb still half in her mouth. “Grandma will be fine, right? And we’ll go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and have cake and I’ll blow out the candles, right?”
“I don’t think so, baby,” her mother replied. “Grandma’s going to have to stay here for a while and I want to be here with Grandpa once she wakes up and the doctors see how bad the damage is from the stroke.”
It was all too much – first she’d gotten ouches on her birthday, then no dessert at school, and now even this was ruined. No cake on her birthday. Dora burst into tears.

The Teacher

The Teacher heaved a deep sigh as she clasped her worn brown bag. Her hands, no longer slender and delicate, were riddled with swollen veins. Her wedding ring couldn’t come off her finger even if she’d wanted it to. Thankfully, she didn’t. Her marriage was the one thing that still made sense in her life.

The Teacher’s hair had been dyed red so many times that it had taken on a slightly metallic orange tint. She knew she looked like a joke, and she definitely knew the various nicknames she was known by throughout the student body, but white hair meant being a grandmother to her. That word hurt her too much. Grandmother. She had almost been one, and if the loss hurt her, she could only imagine how much it had hurt her daughter. Hurt enough that she had cut herself off from her parents because, in her words, it had been too difficult to see their eyes wander to her barren stomach and then fill with tears.

The Teacher picked up her case and walked slowly down through the empty halls, littered with crumpled paper and the occasional forgotten textbook. She sighed again as she walked. teaching didn’t make sense anymore, and for the last few years, this simple fact threw her whole life out of skew.

Her students weren’t different. Perhaps there were more cellphones in class, more kids copying essays off the internet, but all in all, high-school hadn’t changed all that much since she herself had been a twelfth-grader. No, it was some general something that irked her. Maybe it was the fact that so many parents didn’t seem to care what or how the teachers taught anymore. Maybe it was the fact that Bobby Jones and Nora Lessinger kept showing up to school with no text books because the funding for students like them who came from very low-income families had run dry. Maybe it was the fact that her daughter wasn’t speaking to her, and every teenager she looked at in her class seemed to somehow remind her of her personal life.

The Teacher exited the school building, and the sun flooded down from between a few grey clouds. In the parking lot, as always, was her husband in their old dark green Fiat. She could faintly hear the first Led Zeppelin album playing inside. She smiled at him, gave a little wave, and walked over. At least something still made sense in the world.