Monday, February 05, 2007

Passing Through - This piece was accepted...oh, around five years ago (and I wrote it around seven years ago) and it just got published in Pennsylvania English. As you might guess, someplace that takes five years to get their act together doesn't have the piece online—just hard copy—so here it is.

Passing Through

I'm rarely happy here but sometimes I'm at peace. I'm most at peace when I'm driving. Anywhere.

Twice a week I make the forty-five minute trek from my lover Mark's house in Hastings back to my apartment in Minneapolis. I leave his place around two in the morning—after a year, we still don't spend the night. I pull out of his gravel driveway onto a dirt road that turns into pavement and passes through the three blocks of Main Street. Hulking buildings from the early 1900's stand dark and still. Old-fashioned streetlights shine on empty sidewalks. Not a car or person in sight, and I feel as if I'm the only living being on earth tonight. Main Street turns into a long, dark county road with no light save that of the moon. I drive through the middle of nowhere, hurtling through the night at eighty miles an hour. Halfway suspended between here and there. I like that feeling.

I pull into my parking lot not far from my apartment in the Loring Park neighborhood. I get out of the car and start walking into the quiet night. Quiet but not still. The wind always blows here, especially down the wind tunnel of Oak Grove Street. I walk with my face upturned. Yellow squares of lights against the dark background of buildings. Who else is still up? Who else knows the power of the night?

The next day I call Mark and tell him what happened on the drive home. Something always does. Another policeman pulling me over for driving too fast. A car driving the wrong way in reverse, in the middle of Highway 94, going back to fetch his passenger who is wandering by the side of the road.

But more often I talk about nature or the weather. The natural world looks different in Minnesota, larger somehow. And weather happens here. I'm not used to that.

"You should have seen the moon!" I tell him. "It was this huge orange ball just hanging there, low in the sky!"

"That's nice."

He doesn't want to know more. He doesn't like to reveal himself through words. If he gave too much of himself away, how would he get it back? So what I don't say is that when I saw that massive moon, I laughed out loud and then I cried. Sean, the one who would have loved that moon has passed through my life on the way to somewhere I have never been.

* * *

When people ask, "Where are you from?" I say, "Berkeley."

"Berkeley? Berkeley! What are you doing in Minnesota?"

"I'm passing through."

But they want to know more. I recite my response.

"I'm a traveler."

But they always ask, "Where else have you been?"

"I've lived in Israel…"

"Israel? Israel! What was it like? Why did you move there?"

I say, "I'm Jewish." Which I think says it concisely.

But I'm not talking to fellow Jews, and they look puzzled.

So I answer their second question instead, which seems to satisfy them. I pick out and recite another one of my memorized responses.

"In Israel, you become inured to the threat of violence; I kept house for an Israeli couple in return for food and lodging. One day I was cleaning up after a large dinner party when I heard a knock at the door. A man stood before me. He said there had been a bomb threat and we had to evacuate the building. I remember standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the windows of our third floor apartment, wondering when I could go back in and finish cleaning. I wasn't worried about the possibility of being blown up; I didn't think about what might happen if all my worldly goods, and more importantly, my passport were blasted to bits; I was worried about getting the dishes done."

What I don't tell them is what it's like to live in a country where the overwhelming majority were the same religion as me—Jewish. They live in Christian America. They know what it's like to belong.

But I didn't stay in Israel, because I was just passing through.

* * *

I'm always on the way to somewhere else, most comfortable when life is in a state of flux and I don't have to wholeheartedly commit myself to anything, anyone, or anyplace. Yet I didn't pass through childhood easily. I trudged. And waited. I was waiting to be pretty and popular. I was waiting for things to be different.

"You were such a good child," I can hear my mother say.

Of course I was. Ugly, shy children don't want to draw attention to themselves.

But how could anyone help but notice my nine-year-old self decked out in a polyester pantsuit my mother insisted was adorable. It was bad enough that the brown bell-bottom pants floated above my ankles, but the shirt was the real sight to behold. It was brown, with long orange sleeves, and smack dab in the middle was a large orange appliqu├ęd pumpkin.

Of course, one must not discount my slightly buck-teeth and The Nose.

When I was ten, I told my parents I wanted braces and a nose job. I knew I would have a different life if only I looked like the person I was inside. I pleaded with them in my nasal voice. Said I couldn't breathe. Dad understood. He had his nose fixed when he was twelve—deviated septum. Besides, so many Jewish girls get nose jobs for their Bats Mitzvahs, that my request didn't seem unusual. I got the braces when I was twelve and the nose job the summer I was fourteen, going on fifteen.

"We'll just give you something to relax you," the nurse said, shooting morphine into my IV. "You have to be awake for this procedure, otherwise you could choke on the blood and die."

My memory does not fail me. She really said that.

When I came back to school people said things like, "You look great! You got your hair cut, right?"

I couldn't believe that people didn't notice that The Nose—the horrible nose I had always been teased about—was gone. But it didn't matter. They thought I looked good. Yes, The Nose was gone. Or so I thought.

My school locker was right next to Angus'. Angus was a tiny, pale boy. Freckled and bespectacled. A few days after school started and we were shoving books into our lockers, I noticed him staring at me.

"You look like Barbara Streisand," he said innocently.

Poor Angus. It's hard to clearly recall a memory born in the red haze of pure rage, but I see clearly my hands pinning his shoulders against the locker, the fear on his face, and his little feet dangling a foot from solid earth.

"Don't you ever say that to me again," I hissed, my new nose just a hair's breadth away from his.

The surgeon had resculpted my nose but it was up to me to carve out a new life. And I had no idea how to do it. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw The Nose superimposed on The New Me. I still carried myself as an ugly, shy girl who didn't belong anywhere.

* * *

"Where else have you lived?"

"I've lived in Brazil…"

"Brazil? Brazil! What was it like? Why did you move there?"

I say, "My boyfriend, Marco, was Brazilian."

But they want to know more so I oblige. "What stands out for me most is how important appearances are in Brazil. On social occasions you must try to leave at least three times (kissing everybody with each leave-taking attempt) before actually getting out the door an hour or two after you first stated your intention to go. Twelve kisses per person. Since everyone travels in packs, each social occasion requires puckering your lips and planting them on at least six different cheeks. Seventy-two kisses. Whether you want to or not. Whether you are serious about leaving or not."

"What else?" they ask.

"Brazilians and Americans are very different. But when Marco was living in the states, he did what most seasoned travelers do—acculturated. When he lived in California, Marco treated me like an independent woman, so I was culture-shocked silly when I moved to Brazil, and Marco turned into a sexist stranger. The first thing he'd do when he came home from work was flop down on the couch and say, 'Sweetie, bring me a beer.' He expected me to wait on him but he also expected someone (a woman) to wait on me."

"One night he came home quite pleased with himself. 'Sweetie! I got you a maid!' If anyone needed a maid, it was me. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness. 'She's expensive because she can read and write a little. I thought that was important. In case your Portuguese isn't good enough to explain things, I can leave her a note.'"

"My Portuguese was good enough but we did have communication problems. Meals were typically included in the arrangement so on the days she worked, I made lunch. But I could never get her to stop work and come to the table to eat. She ate while she ironed; she ate while she folded clothes. After two weeks of this I finally brought the problem to Marco's attention. 'What is it? Am I not saying it right?' I asked him."

"You asked the maid to sit at the table with you?" He was quietly horrified and amazed. "Sweetie, the maid never eats with her employer."

"Finally I told the maid, strange food, strange ways. Come sit at the table for lunch. And she did."

"Marco and I had to pretend we were married because in a Catholic country, living together is a sin. His family knew we weren't actually married but everyone else believed we were." But I didn't stay there because I was just passing through.

What I don't say is how much I missed Marco kissing me and calling me passao. "passion," in English. I don't say that I still have the wedding ring in a small black box in my dresser drawer.

* * *

I left Berkeley at sunset and began the long drive to Minnesota. I wound through the thickly forested mountains of California. My mouth fell open when I saw the lights of Reno, Nevada. Millions of them, gaudy against the night sky. Past miles and miles of salt flats in Utah, I pressed on through the high desert of Wyoming—horrified to still see snow on May 5th. Drove 110 miles per hour all the way across Nebraska. I recall almost nothing of Iowa. I had never seen such flat, wide-open land—hadn't remembered such places existed. But driving through them, I'd have occasional flashes of memory of the marathon road trips I took with my family when I was a kid. Just snapshots—looking over my father's shoulder as we drove through Rapid City, South Dakota, and seeing the red needle hovering at 100 miles an hour, the indoor swimming pool in a hotel, swimming—outside—during a lightning storm in Kanab, Utah. Still, I was struck dumb by the desolation of Nebraska. I drove fast through Iowa telling myself Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa may have been utterly inhospitable but that Minnesota would be a bastion of civilization.

It's civilized all right, so stultifyingly nice that I long for a rude convenience store clerk who doesn't speak English as his first language. I long for a dark swarthy person annoyed at the idea of having to serve me, who says little. Instead I get a perky blond person, syrupy sweet, "ya betcha's" littering her speech.

* * *

"Where else have you lived?"

"I've lived in Italy…"

When people say "Italy? Italy! What was it like? Why did you move there?"

I tell them, "My best friend Sue picked me up at the airport. The first words out of her mouth were, 'Let's go to Italy.'

'Spain,' I replied.



'If you don't go to Italy with me, I won't go alone,' she said.

'Let's go to Italy.'"

Still, they want to know more. "I taught English there like I did in Brazil. I didn't like Italy much."

"Why not?"

I find myself reluctant to condemn half the population of a country, but I do it anyway. "It was the men. One day I was walking down the street, looking very American in a flannel shirt, denim skirt and cowboy boots. A man yelled from across the street, 'How much do you cost?' I was groped daily on the Metro. And my roommate's friend nearly raped me."

What I don't say, is what I had to do to get out of that apartment with my clothes still on. I've never been able to bring myself to tell that story.

Not long after, I left Italy and took a two month vacation, passing through, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, England, Spain, Denmark, and probably a few countries I've forgotten.

* * *

The other day I went to see Mark. The roads are tarless now. Totally torn up. The city is doing whatever cities do. Laying pipes or wires or some such. I pulled into the alley to park my car but three gigantic piles of rocks blocked my way. He came out of the garage pushing a lawn mower. Shirtless, black cut-offs hanging loosely on his sinewy frame. He stood there, pushing his hand through his sweaty brown hair. He didn't kiss me hello. A goodbye kiss, yes—but never hello.

"Quite a pile of rocks you've got there," I said.

He did something unusual—he smiled hugely, revealing his crooked, stained teeth.

"Look at my rocks!" He pointed excitedly to a pile. "Aren't they great? I spent four hours on Tuesday collecting them, three hours Wednesday, a few hours last night too. And the best thing is they're free!" He shouted happily.

"What do you plan to do with all these rocks?"

"First I thought just a planter box. Then I thought if I got more rocks I could build a wall by this side of the house, and then I thought with a few more I could build a stone wall around the whole house."

"You have enough to build a small English cottage. I think you just like picking up those rocks."

"Well, I do. There's something spiritual about it."

Mark usually pretends to be grounded in the physical world. But I know it's not true. I've seen him standing outside at 1:00 a.m. in the middle of a thunderstorm—staring at the lightning flashing across the night sky when he didn't know I was watching. He too, exists more fully at night when daytime reality is suspended and it's safe to be ourselves. In the wee hours of the morning I lie beneath him, our legs intertwined. He raises himself up, palms flat on the bed. His long hair brushes against my skin. I open my eyes. See bliss in his smile. He opens his eyes and looks into mine. Two souls briefly touching.

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