Staying

We cling together like droplets of water, crawling up or down glass in order to fuse with similar molecules. We isolate ourselves and shut our eyes to what happens outside our safe haven. We are loyal to one another and to no one else.

When we climbed onto rooftops as children, we saw the reason behind our elders’ warnings not to go up there. The view beyond our narrow streets and teetering buildings was grim. If our own children’s expressions are anything like our own were, the world outside our walls has not improved.

When the rare outsider arrives, we celebrate. It is a low-key celebration, nothing like the City Holidays. We pour coffee and bring out the biscuits covered in chocolate, the ones we save for special occasions, and we ask the newcomer questions. We ask about faraway places, the names of which we often mispronounce. R-Kansas, we are told, is actually Ark-n’-Saw. Mehico, the outsider corrects, is Meksico. New York, he says, hasn’t been New for a dozen dozen years. And York, he adds, is not a place you want to know about. Whatever makes a person’s eyes alive dies when he says this, until we ask about Boss-town, and then he smiles and takes out a digigraph of his niece, who was born there, who is beautiful.

We all host the outsiders when they come. We take turns and try not to be greedy. We sometimes wonder whether the newcomers would prefer to settle in one place while they stay here, but the truth is that while we are all eager to talk to the people from outside, we also don’t trust them, not entirely. It is safer to keep them on their toes, keep them moving. We don’t want them getting too comfortable. It is the rare outsider who receives a permit to settle here, and we don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Not ours, not theirs.

City Holidays are magical. Fireworks are shot into the air and the power stays on all night and we break out the cosmetics and paint our faces as if we were Hollywood stars from the old 2D pictures, with lipstick and eyeshadow and cufflinks to match. We dance in the squares, in big circles, holding hands. We stay up until morning and then get together in big prearranged crews and clean up all the garbage our revelry generated.

There is a time for play and a time for order, and we teach our children to recognize the difference. When the thrice-yearly referendum on the state of our City come along, we show the children how to vote and explain why we choose the things we do and try to present a cheerful face even when the opposite result comes through, because that is what democracy is about, after all.

We remember our first votes, just after our fourteenth birthdays, coupled with our first apprenticeship placements and, for many of us, our first budding romances, kindled in the heat of the ironically called baby steps towards adulthood and the bittersweet flavor of responsibility. Our first votes were sweat-stained affairs. The decision, yae/nae for whichever proposition was our first, felt like a life-and-death one, even though no bullet-fueled weapon was being held to our heads, nor was there a threat to our beings should our vote ultimately be cast on the losing side.

There are rumors of people disappearing occasionally, but what society does not include conspiracy theories? We know our government, though. We are our government. And we aren’t thugs. We occasionally get into scraps when heavy drinking is involved, and of course we have a rotating schedule for guard duty and there are some nights when the more desperate among us attempt theft or assault, but murder is not a common crime. Similarly, kidnapping or “disappearing” criminals or, indeed, those who don’t agree with the more powerful among us – this is not a practice we condone. It is, besides, unnecessary. People know when they are not wanted, but it is more often by their family or their spurning lovers or, more tragically, by their resentful children. If people disappear from our City, it is because they have been active, have “disappeared” themselves, have, in short, left.

When the outsiders leave, though, few of us have the desire to go along with them. We remember our early days of rooftop adventures, and we remember the gray barrenness that lay outside our secure City. We’re safe here, and we’re staying.

Beauty Queen [Flash Fiction]

My name is Gwen. It’s a good, strong name. That’s what my pop always said. He said: Gwen, with a gee and a double-you, you’ve got nothing to be scared of in this world because the hardest thing for you will be learning how to spell your name with those big letters in it. I don’t know what my mama said because she skipped out on me and my pop when I was still real small. My pop always said she was the second prettiest gal in the world, after me. Then he would laugh and say: you had the best looking parents I’ve ever seen.

I guess he was right. I won all the beauty pageants when I was a kid, except for that one year when I was eight when I had to be in the hospital because I tripped and broke my head open. I don’t really remember it but my pop told me that I near broke it in two pieces just like an egg. Like the egg with kings and the horses, only my pop said that because I was the prettiest gal in the world we had the money to fix me up good. I still got a scar under my hair that I can feel. It’s all bumpy, and I kinda like it. I like having this one ugly thing on my head where no one, not even the meanest judges, can see it.

Henry used to tell me that I should be happy that I’m pretty. That was before he and Mick drove into a tree and got their drunk asses killed. I’m still mad at Henry for that, even though it was Mick who drove. I would have told Henry: don’t you get in the car with him, he’s drunk as a skunk. And maybe if it was me then Henry would have listened. But maybe not. My pop told me that there’s nothing I can do now except pray for their souls. But I don’t know if they need me to pray for them because if they died drunk then they must have stayed drunk in the next life too and those two pals had the best time when they were good and sloppy together. They could laugh at anything, even me when I let them and they were the only people who dared do that to my face so I liked it and I let them.

One thing that Henry never told me was that he thought I was pretty. He just said it as if I knew it, like it was the same thing as saying: the sky is blue like the ocean. All the others always kept telling me: do you know how pretty you are? But Henry didn’t because he knew that it didn’t matter to me one way or another if he thought I was pretty, just so the judges kept thinking so. Henry told me sometimes that I was smart, and I liked that best of all.

A Bus Ride to Say “I’m Alive”

I got on a bus at the corner of 33d and 7th. It was a big bus; red and black, with a white lightning bolt emblazoned on it. The message was clear: this bus was express, fast, and going places.

The driver, Miss King, was a black woman with frizzy hair and a wide smile. She was big, and as she walked down the aisle to use the bathroom before we started out, she asked people to excuse her. I guess she felt that squeezing her bulk through required an apology. It didn’t, really. She looked happy and comfortable the way she was. She shouldn’t have been apologizing to anybody. A man in his twenties wearing a red-and-black baseball cap (did he wear it to match the bus?) eyed her lasciviously when she passed by. They bantered for a bit, flirting casually.

The bus ride was long. Four hours and fifteen minutes. Not as long as a lot of the flights I’ve been on, but long enough. I slept for about forty minutes, but that’s it. Sleep and I aren’t the best of friends these days. I don’t know what happened between us. Maybe sleep was offended by me somehow? Personally, I feel hurt that sleep comes to visit so reluctantly and leaves so quickly after he arrives. Maybe we’re just playing a pride game now, neither one of us willing to apologize and make it up with the other because we each think that we’re not the ones to blame for this estrangement.

I thought that we saw Baltimore twice, but it was actually only once. The first time wasn’t really Baltimore. When we actually saw it, I was surprised because it looked exactly like I imagined it. There was a port that seemed to cover half the city with boxes and shipping-yard type stuff. The rest of the city was smoggy but beautiful.

Spring Break sounds like the name of a movie with drunk teenagers and naked blondes. Or maybe it’s a safety video about how to take care of trampolines. What spring break really is right now is a piece of family in Virginia, a road-trip, and a lot of homework.

I’m writing. I’m writing almost every day. When I don’t, I feel odd. A red Moleskine has become a new journal. It’s too conspicuous to be one, of course – it fairly screams “Open me!” – but I’m using it anyway. It’s important that I keep using pens. I never want to get to a point where I don’t love pen and paper anymore.

 

A Crucial Fireplace

Some say that Fate guides them through life. Others believe that it is God who grasps their hand and tugs them, gently but insistently, into the future. Whether one or the other is true, or whether life is just a series of random happenstances, I am certain that things might have turned out very differently if Amanda had known the the room had a fireplace. Circumstances, then, be they under divine control or not, have the utmost impact on people, and Amanda would always look back at that dratted fireplace as the start of the whole sorry tale.

Amanda, the reader might want to know, wasn’t religious in the proper sense of the word. She believed in God, although she characterized Him with the sense of humor of a rather crotchety, bored old man, but she often forgot about Him in the fun and flurry of the holidays. It was hard to remember, when hanging up cheap silvery-colored ribbons on the Christmas tree and laughing uproariously with her two roommates over wine-coolers, that the celebration on December 25th owed anything to religion at all. It was all a big pageant to her, full of red, white and green, golden stars winking from shop windows, snowmen standing in backyards and children carrying little ice-skates over their shoulders. The magic of Christmas was to Amanda the same now, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, as it had been when she was four years old and wearing a full pajama suit that made her look rather like a koala bear.

But we are straying from our story. The moment of the fireplace, as we must call Amanda’s first glimpse of it, happened on Christmas Eve, but was not directly connected to the birth of the Son, nor to Amanda’s remembrance – or rather, lack thereof – of the meaning of the holiday. The fireplace lay in the room where she was to have her interview for the position of copy-editor in the Local Post, a weekly newspaper that was distributed for free around town and was filled with advertisements and coupons. The room where the fireplace lay was on the ground floor of the tallest office-building in the small city, and Amanda had been working in the self-same building since she’d gotten her M.A. in journalism. Because of her familiarity with the rather old high-rise, she dressed warmly to work every day during the winter, since the heating never worked properly. Naturally, she assumed that her interview for the lowly position in the Local Post – which was, nevertheless, better than her current job as a secretary – would take place in a cold room that had a crack or two in the window.

But, alas, as Amanda discovered when she walked in and saw the figure of Mr. Charles Forthright, the old fireplace that was in the editor’s office was ablaze, and warmth washed over her. She was much too embarrassed and tense to begin pulling off her two sweaters and one of her undershirts, and so she sweltered, face growing redder and forehead sweatier, answering the questions Mr. Forthright posed with liveliness and enthusiasm but what seemed to be extreme guilt or discomfort. It is a sad fact that sweat and redness often are products of liars, and Mr. Forthright was a rather supposing man, in the sense that he supposed things he thought were true without bothering to check them too deeply – he had fact-checkers on staff to do that dreary work for him. And so, although he thought that Amanda looked like a lovely young girl, he supposed that she was hiding something, such as an unwanted pregnancy that would lead to taking time off, or perhaps a health concern that would lead to the same, and as a calculating man, he decided not to give her the job.

Amanda conveniently forgot that she could have asked for a moment to remove her sweaters and get more comfortable. Throughout the changes that she would go through in coming years, she still insisted obstinately that if it weren’t for that fireplace, she would have gotten the job at the Local Post, and her life would have turned out entirely differently.

Style Aping

I’ve fallen deeply in love with Virginia Woolf lately. I’m generally enamored of the classics that I read, if only because the kind of writing styles that existed in the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are so utterly different from the contemporary books I read. This isn’t a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned, because writing, like everything else, changes over time. Language changes, mannerisms change, people look and speak differently… So even though human nature probably hasn’t changed all that much at its core, stories about people are definitely going to sound different at various points in time.

Virginia Woolf has a beautifully unique writing style – in my opinion anyway – and I feel that she loves language just as much as she loves people. Yes, I think she loves people in general for being so different, versatile, strange, quirky and interesting. I truly believe that nobody could write the way she writes without loving the process of writing, even if it caused her much anguish and hardship. However, that’s not even the point, because much as I find her a fascinating person, I want to write about her style right now. That style, in my view, is distinctive. There’s a very stream-of-consciousness feel to it, although at the same time there’s a calculating purposefulness to it, a feeling that the writer knows and understands so much more than her characters do and that she, in looking at them from above, is smiling down at their thoughts and hearts that are laid bare to her. It’s beautiful, self-conscious but at the same time utterly abandoned – I don’t know how Mrs. Woolf achieved this duality in her writing or if she was even aware of it, but it’s beautiful.

A week or two ago, I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes Virginia Woolf, although I would say that you should read her Mrs. Dalloway before reading The Hours. In certain, well-chosen, parts of the book, Cunningham manages to copy Virginia Woolf’s style beautifully, to its smallest details, while still keeping the plot and character fully immersed in late 20th century New York City. The man, in my opinion, is an incredible writer. The fact that he can mimic Mrs. Woolf’s style so wonderfully, while also giving other characters their own distinct voices, makes me admire him no end.

Now I finally come to the question this whole post was about: what do you think about copying a writer’s style? Personally, I think it’s interesting as practice. I feel myself trying to do this whenever I finish a book I particularly enjoyed, and I have fun with it. There’s something challenging about writing according to specific rules and trying to adhere to a very distinct atmosphere. It’s not easy, but it’s also a very different feeling than trying to find your own voice or a character’s specific voice. Still, I don’t think that I’d ever try to write something long or substantial while mimicking another writer’s style, unless (as in the case of The Hours) I was doing it purposefully and obviously.

So… What are your thoughts on this?

Bad Hair Day

I have never paid much attention to my hair. I’ve tried, time after time, to care. I’ve tried arranging it in different styles, I’ve tried dying pieces of it to see if my old love of black hair would resonate on my own, I’ve tried to muster up the courage to cut it into some completely different and new shape. But no, none of it’s worked.

My hair is long, right down my back. I’m told that it’s a blessing that it’s so straight and thick, although personally I just feel that it’s rather dull. I’ve been told that I’m anything from blond to a redhead, but yet when I look at it I see a very normal, dull shade of light brown and nothing more. No matter, though. I truly don’t care about it enough.

My default hair-style is a ponytail, tight as can be, so that I don’t feel it tickling my neck or shoulders and so it doesn’t get in my face. Sometimes, when I take the scrunchy off at night, my hair retains some of that pony-tail shape, giving the hair going down my back a funny little dent in it where it had been restrained all day.

For all that, I can’t cut it. I have dreams of getting a cool new haircut, shorter than it’s been since I was just a tiny tot, but nothing ever comes of them. I’m scared of the change, I suppose. Still, even though I find my hair to be rather dull, I’m blessed with never having had a bad hair-day. Day started on the wrong foot? I’ve got those. Days where I seem even clumsier than usual? Got those, too. Days where I just wake up and think something’s absolutely wrong with my life and the world? Yup, those are around as well. Day where I wake up and think about my hair being problematic? Nah. Not at all.

A Barber

In a small room with two mirrors, two swiveling chairs and three stationary ones, in a corner of Tel Aviv often overlooked by ordinary passerby, there is a barber. He seems a quiet man, a tactful man. Though it goes with his profession to be tactful and flattering as a rule, he seems rather sincere and serious when speaking of styles and colors.

Currently, it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking he was religious. The truth, if you inquire a bit, or if you hear him speaking to one of his regulars, is that his father has passed away, and he is in mourning. He is carrying out his mourning period, as is often done even by non-religious Jews, by not cutting his hair and beard and wearing a “Kipa”, a skullcap. The death of his father, not two weeks past, seems to weigh heavily upon him, because although his face lights up with a dazzling smile when greeting a true friend, it is fallen and tired the rest of the time.

All day long, he is on his feet without rest, charming and flattering the elderly women who come to get their hair dyed, joking with the men who come for a shave, welcoming in the stray stranger who finds his little shop. Despite being small, it is always overcrowded – he has dozens of regular customers, all popping in on their way to and from work, bringing their children and their dogs, making appointments on the fly or writing down their numbers for him to call them back and make proper engagements.

The warmth, the quiet chaos as customers change places constantly in the cramped shop, the kindness of the proprietor – all make the little spot a diamond in the rough of the Tel Aviv streets.