L

After garbage day, after garbage afternoon, or rather sometime after the 5am and 4pm window where the garbage truck is finding itself thunderously wheezing down our street, there is trash everywhere. Unmoored and vomited across the street in little mounds, it’s in a gradient of sizes with the biggest wads at the base of their original receptacle and the smaller bits extending and almost reaching out to the bins posted at the opposite curb. Wrappers, broken bottles, Styrofoam takeout boxes, plastic sandwich baggies with half-eaten sandwiches, it’s all caked into the dirt and in the sparse, greying grass of the front yard strips that are squeezed between wide concrete driveways, tangled in the clumps of pine needles, leaves, and twigs, hanging at the edges of storm drains. There’s a soggy car seat, a couch with its molding cushions piled beside it, baby shoes, a deflated kickball, a deconstructed plywood end table with its screws and nails exposed, and three faux-gilded frames that smell strongly of cigarette smoke.

 

Around the bus stop, in the mid-morning heat, the air smells like raw sewage and the ditch behind the chain-link fence fills up to a stagnant pond during rainy weeks, bottles and other inedible fast food remains pile up on the banks. Instead of bringing them closer to the apartments where they live, the yellow school bus driver drops the elementary school kids off beside this fence where there isn’t any place for them to walk that isn’t directly on the road, apparently confident that the brightly colored backpacks that make up approximately 60% of each of their tiny bodies is armor enough.

 

The kids are always playing outside, bouncing basketballs and riding around on little scooters or in tiny electric jeeps. There’s a group of construction workers who sit outside in a circle of fold-up chairs at the end of the day, having a beer, still in their neon yellow vests. The neighbor’s motorboat, parked out front, is my landmark until he takes it out on sunny weekends and I drive right past my apartment. He told us his kids don’t take out his kayak enough and that we could borrow it whenever we’d like, we could even borrow the paddles too. On bright Sunday afternoons, the neighbor washes and waxes his PT cruiser for hours. When I invited him and his new roommate over for my birthday dinner, it was the first time either of them had ever had tabbouleh or falafel. We invited all the neighbors and ran out of chairs and plates and forks but thankfully not wine or beer or cake. It was an apartment warming party 4 months belated.

 

When my parents stopped by on their way down from North Carolina, I show them around the apartment, finally set up how I want it. We go out to eat at the local Vietnamese place two minutes away where we go whenever someone suggests going out to eat and talk about work, about starting school again, about Yosemite and Lake Tahoe and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my parents have been traveling. We do not talk about the dozens of Palestinians that were killed recently. My mom was smiling and laughing with us and I told myself that she had probably been too busy to focus on it too much. Probably but maybe not.

 

Someone told me there was a protest in town over the weekend, in support of Palestine, but I didn’t see it on any local news, before or after, and the whole thing seems so pointless and depressing anyway. And I’m conflicted internally with that Middle Eastern half of me; all I have is a deep-rooted sense of injustice and features ambiguous enough that people ask me where I’m from or if they’re especially obnoxious, what I am. Its why my dad told my mom to introduce herself as L instead of her real name. Hopefully people think its Elle and she saves that start up 15 minutes of invasive, uncomfortable questioning.

 

A couple weeks ago, I needed a key to another room in the lab of our collaborator and, passing him in the hall, I caught the attention of the scientists with the lanyard around his neck. He was Middle Eastern, I’d heard him berating his grad student in Arabic earlier through the half-open door in the microscope room. I had chatted with that grad student a few times before, he was sweet and humble and said he was from Qatar, and I think that he saw me before I decided it was a terrible time to ask for a key, edging out of the room. In the hall, the man hands me the key, tells me to bring it right back, and eyeing me more closely, asks where I’m from. I don’t tell him where I’m from, I tell him what he’s looking for, that my mom is from Palestine. He asks my name and I tell him.

Like a dream where the memory of the event comes back in images and phrases but doesn’t quite make sense spatially, he’s halfway down the hall when he’s telling me, “No, its Layla, its pronounced Layla”. He’s pronouncing it differently than I did, obviously, but I’m not going to specify how he pronounced because it doesn’t matter because it’s not my name. I said, “No, it’s not. My name is Layla”. He shook his head, he’s further down the hall now, and he said again, “No, your name is Layla, it’s not Layla, its Layla”, and he corrected me again, on my own name, like I wasn’t listening well enough the first time, like I couldn’t get my mouth in the right shape to make the right sound for the name that I’ve been wrong about my whole life, apparently, how embarrassing. Then he continued down the hall with a fucking smirk, a didn’t-anybody-ever-teach-you-anything smirk, and he was gone. And it took me one more minute to get angry but it was one minute too late and maybe it was symbolic of the force of men asserting dominance, of a man telling a woman how to be, what she is, defining her identity as it aligns with his worldview. Or maybe that guy was a fucking asshole in general. Either way, I told my least favorite coworker that it was her turn to go and return the key.

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Southern Gothic

The old house in the old neighborhood is a rotting, dilapidated monster of a structure with a sturdy front porch that used to wrap all the way around like a short skirt that held creaky rocking chairs in its shadowed folds back when the place was in its prime a hundred years ago, loved and cared for as a family home. I don’t know what color it used to be, but it was recently given a fresh coat of paint in a dull greige. In that quaint section of the city, walking distance from downtown’s farmer’s market and overpriced coffee shops, it was one of the few remaining houses split up into apartments, surrounded by grand, colorful Southern Gothics meticulously updated and kept by the more permanent and wealthy residents. The old house was a bit of an eyesore.

 

We all used to lock our bikes up to the banisters of that front porch and instead of rocking chairs, there was a set of wicker furniture in a faded lime green. The heavy front door, caked in dirt and cobwebs, boasted a large panel of grimy stained glass in pastels and a doorknob barely holding itself together, the rusted hinges never allowed it to open or close fully and someone had found a split gnarled log to wedge into the porch seams and the door’s edge to hold it while we came in with heavy loads of groceries in reusable bags or the freshly washed laundry that had to be done elsewhere.

 

Although shortly after I’d moved in and gained his trust, the boy living across the hall lifted a black tarp crumpled against the back of the house and showed me a washing machine he’d hooked up to the hose, if you don’t mind using cold water, he’d said, his polo shirts on hangers hooked to the branches of the trees overhead, rippling in the breeze. But it was discovered by the city and they sent a cease and desist so we went back to our generous friends with modern apartments and appliances.

 

My first-floor corner apartment in the old house was bigger than it looked, the living room and bedroom were two equivalently sized grand spaces with flat 12 foot ceilings, glossy, scored cherry wood flooring, white paneling against the yellow-tan walls, and thick crown, baseboard, and chair rail moldings. The kitchen, hallway, and bathroom were along the outside perimeter, what used to be the porch. I had the apartment in the front corner and the north-west facing kitchen was sunlit in the afternoons so we left the windows open for air and to greet the perpetual train of dog-walkers on the sidewalk three feet away. There was a single short strip of kitchen counter and cabinetry, shoddily made of plywood swollen into budges where it was exposed underneath the countertop overhang, shedding sawdust whenever the drawers were opened and closed but the previous tenant had installed a board of scattered hooks for pots and pans so somehow all our cooking instruments and gadgets and pots and pans and plates and mugs and various coffee makers and machines fit inside that little 8’x8’ square.

 

The walls were so tall and so empty that I printed 60 of my favorite photographs and searched the city over for framing, matching each picture to a proper border and crowding the walls with scenes from the beaches, churches, boardwalks, small town alleys, and city streets we were surrounded by overseas. The living room was mostly his, a gigantic amalgamation of canvases fused together from behind by a complicated, heavy framework and leaned against the wall once it got too big to hang. And he added even more canvas after that, the art expanding to the edges of the space, to the point where there was a removable piece that could only be in place if no one needed to use the front door. He hung up my dad’s old shop light to see better and worked and drew and painted until 4am every night.

 

I had just gotten a portable washing machine to hook up to the bathroom faucet when we received the eviction notice, 30 days to be out. November 18, the bastards that had bought the place couldn’t even give us until the new year. I read the notice, uncurling the single sheet of paper wedged between the doorknob and frame, pacing the street in the dark until my boyfriend got home from work. We sat in the living room that was no longer ours, staring at the painting, he was pacing and I was shaking. All the pictures arranged and hung so carefully, the painting so massive and fragile, the new couch that just filled the space beneath the porch-facing windows, the new plants on new shelves where the light could reach them, the nook that held all the spare canvases we’d bought and transported home strapped to the roof of the car over a period of months, carefully waiting for sales and knowing there would be room to keep them, where would we go with it all?

 

We met housemates on the stairs or on the porch, red-eyed and distraught. We begged the landlords to wait until Christmas – who the hell moves in or out in a college town like this during November? But they said the new owners wouldn’t do it, these people that knocked on the door unannounced at 8:30 am with their overly enthusiastic redheaded round-eyed realtor, surveying the place, sizing it up, imagining what it would look like without my frames and without his painting. That’s incredible, the realtor said, surveying and sizing up his art on my wall. Do you think they’ll let tenants stay if they buy the place? I asked, bleary-eyed and smoothing down my bedhead hair. Oh yes, she’d said. I really like this art, I buy art, she said, and she gave me her card.

 

At one in the morning on the day all nine residents of that cozy, weary house were evicted, we heard arguing and fighting and screaming from the couple who lived upstairs, something heavy fell, and the door slammed and rocked the walls. He flew down the stairwell and she followed, calling after him sobbing. He got into his car and we heard it rumble and screech, tearing down the little neighborhood one-way streets. She called and cursed and cried and then it was quiet again.

 

I found a place for us three days later after the kind of frantic but controlled searching I’d perfected from too much practice, using the search term “vaulted ceiling” on Craigslist. Our new landlords are a couple, a guidance counselor and a firefighter. They didn’t make a fuss when we took down the ceiling fan on its long pole in the middle of the living room, an impossible obstruction to the painting, and amid the half-emptied boxes and discarded bubble wrap, we re-erected the art in this new space, in a way christening it and sighing big sighs of relief that nothing was punctured or bent.

The spare canvases are hidden behind this painting or stacked upright behind the couch like a kind of headboard. We now have one armchair too many and it took three full days for me to put the seven boxes of frames back up on the walls. It’s a bit crowded. And the large square tiles throughout the house are 2’x2’, an easy way to measure the size of each room, easy to slide dressers and bookshelves back and forth on to find an arrangement that fits. The tiles are a warm marbled tan and the walls are a cool bluish gray which still throws me off but we have a backyard with a hammock, potted plants crowded into the spots that get sun, and a laundry room. We have a dishwasher we’ll never use.

 

There are no sidewalks in this part of town. The university students get off the busses in the evening, back to their senselessly named apartment complexes, and dash across the street to walk along the side of the road in the dark. People ride their bikes against traffic and dart around the woman in an electric wheelchair who uses that “bike lane” to get out and about during the day and sometimes even at night. The bus driver flies past my stop not infrequently and on the walk home there are little kids playing basketball in big open parking lots and bonfires when it gets cold.

A pair of stray cats came with the place and I’ve adopted the one that let me pet him. He is allowed inside in the evenings for a couple of hours and likes to sit in my lap purring, glancing up and around, contemplating the place. Then he jumps up and slinks back and forth across the length of the apartment, the effect of his carefully placed silent paws ruined by the tiny bell on his collar. He weaves between the couches and armchairs and around the bikes and canvases, only content to sit between us, meowing plaintively. He has a box outside stuffed with old sheets and mismatched cereal bowls by the front door for his kitty food and water, we’ll make this place an eyesore. There’s no one to talk to through the window screens, no communal front porch, no uneven floors or paint dried in beads on the walls, no downtown farmer’s market, now a bus transfer away, no termite wings falling from the ceilings from the rotting walls upstairs. There are no candy-striped, graceful Southern Gothics around here. We skip from place to place, every year or two, and I think we’ll be leaving this town soon and it’s so sad but I don’t think I’ll get a chance to live in that old neighborhood again.

Mitchell

A few years ago I found myself a one bedroom apartment downtown at the corner of fifth and fifth and convinced my parents to pay for it because it cost less per month than my tiny truck bed cinder block dorm room and a girl gets too old for extra long twin beds. In a big pink manor of a house that had been split up into 8 apartments, mine was in the top left corner, up a narrow staircase paneled with the corpses of flattened mosquitoes, behind a door that locked itself when it closed, apartment number one. There was yellow peeling paint in the kitchen (my dad was sure it was full of lead) and the wallpaper that padded the shelves of the cupboard with peeling and stained but there was a bearclaw tub in the bathroom, sitting on broken tiles or lack there of and the Swedish girl before me sold me all her gorgeous furniture and I loved that place for all the crud forever trapped in layers of wax on those hardwood floors.

It was so close to perfect. My boyfriend and I would have coffee in that corner living room and pick through the shelves of books we (he) had collected over the years at the local book fair. I would feel so snug and complete and I would tell him that I really liked all the paintings that I had hung all over the walls and he would scoff and say that he had painted them in high school and it was a little embarrassing and they were really kind of shit but he wasn’t really trying to change my mind. In the spring and summer, all the windows would be open and the door to the kitchen closed to keep out the heat from the radiating gas stove and because it was an old, old house and as the living room must have been a porch in another life, the wall between it and the kitchen had a fully paned and functioning window so that J and I would pretend to serve each other like we were at a drive-through and charge exorbitant fees for refills.

But downstairs there was Mitchell and Mitchell was into experimental music and Mitchell had big speakers and Mitchell kept odd hours and at 7 in the morning, hours before my first class, I would wake up to vibrating walls and I would be filled with that special kind of rage that doesn’t quite dissipate no matter how violently you curse the person in your head. I remember having dreams where I would drag myself out of bed as my paintings and my dresser mirror rattled against the walls and, as if I was suspended in a tank of molasses, throw all my energy into stomping my foot heel first into the ground. And of course the impact was lessened by the sheer viscosity of my atmosphere and after nearly dream-crying in frustration at my hopeless situation I would wake up to very real vibrations and I started to actually get out of bed and stomp and stomp until the noise was lowered to an acceptable level. And yes I owned ear plugs and yes I refused to wear them. They hurt and this was my perfect apartment and my precious sleep and I almost called the landlord so many times to complain and J would tell me that he had the right to play his music and he lived there too and maybe I should relax a little and I would glare at him and stomp around the place for the hell of it.

But poor Mitchell had a really shitty ex-girlfriend who used to confuse him and use him and sometimes Mitchell would call me and tell me all the awful things she did and I would tell her to stay away and keep away from her and then a weekend later she would stay the night.

When a pipe broke beneath my sink at 9pm on a Saturday night, all the neighbors came into my kitchen to keep the place from flooding, offering various pots and bowls to catch the pouring water as every towel I owned was on the floor soaking it up. I remember that our landlord’s pager (yes, a pager) was going straight to…..voicemail? and every plumber we called refused to do work on a house without the property owner’s permission so, thinking quickly, our neighbor and resident fantastic wonderful person paid a dollar or two online to find the personal address of our landlady and drove to her house and pulled her out of a dinner party to get someone to shut off our water. We got a pathetic passive-aggressive email first thing on Monday but the pink house was a united front against her and pipes always burst on weekends anyway.

The worst thing that ever happened in that place was when a gust of wind knocked a canvas from my boyfriend’s tryptic set up on easels in the bedroom and the thing fell onto the corner of my dresser and punched a hole through the middle. It happened while I was in the shower and he swore so loudly I thought he’d broken his foot but when I saw the canvas on the ground with the L-shaped rip I blamed myself for not closing the window, cried in the shower so that he wouldn’t see and it was such a set-back that he didn’t pick up work on that piece for another two and a half years. But mostly it was good, on weekends when J would ride his bike to the grocery store for fresh bread to have with zatar and olive oil, when I would make us chicken salad and ice tea, when we took turns playing his favorite computer game and when we would get on such a horrible sleeping schedule that nothing but an all-night could fix it but we’d fall asleep at 7 am anyway. I have to get back there this year, find an old house downtown – my blow-up bed can be deflated and the rest of my furniture put into the back of a van, its nice to feel light and mobile, all I need are two closets of clothes, 4 ways to make coffee, my coffee mugs from all those European cities, and big airy windows – I’m not a hard girl to please.

Blinds Drawn Tight

At one in the morning while I’m lying in bed waiting for sleep, the new pledges of the fraternity house next door are being made to sprint up and back down the road. A continuous strain of short, shouted bursts of Go Go Go Come on Go Come on Go Go is echoing between the apartment buildings and I get up to open the window and look five floors down. Their Frat Leader is in khakis (of course) and a bright blue polo, he has thick rimmed glasses and he’s standing below me watching, scrutinizing, admiring? as the seven shirtless boys jog in a tight group, shining with sweat. The Frat Coach is running beside them, shouting his monosyllables and his Frat Assistant Coach brings up the rear of the group, shouting “you do NOT want to be the last one” but its not very threatening because no one runs any faster.

Across the street I can see the silhouettes of the boys in the apartment on that fifth floor, they’ve come out curious and irritated like me. But they have balconies to step out on and big sliding glass windows and a stairwell with lights that never turn off so that I have to draw my blinds tight in order to get to sleep. Those boys and the ones above them, on the sixth floor, are the only ones that ever keep their blinds open. You would think they were the only ones living in that apartment block – you can’t even see light poking around the cheap, flexible plastic strips pulled across the windows and doors everywhere else. And why even have big windows and glass doors then, what’s the point? I remember in Amsterdam, when J and I took that little boat tour down the canals at Christmas, you could look up into the flats through their gigantic windows and see the dining room table, the bookshelves, the staircases and the chandeliers and the painting over the fireplace and everyone kept their windows open. There was so much light and warmth that it almost blanketed the space between the blocks over the water, even though the city was so damp and cold.

Earlier today when the rain had let up a bit, the boys on the fifth floor stood out on their balcony and I stood at my window, watching them and the people below that passed by on their scooters and by foot. There’s the one that I see often, standing alone in the mornings smoking in a t-shirt and slim cut jeans and I like him because he reminds me of Madrid but he has a friend with him now, in a logo’ed visor and university sponsored athletic ware and I’m not always sure if they can see me through my window but today I guess they could and the sponsored boy points at me to his slim-jeaned companion. I’m feeling spunky and even though the newly short bits of my disheveled hair are falling out of my triangular messy-bun and I hadn’t really gotten dressed, I wave eagerly at them. Logo-visor boy thinks this is really, really funny and doubles over laughing and then him and his friend go back inside and close the glass door like I’m a TV show they’ve just turned off, like I’m not still standing there watching.

A few days ago in the hallway of my apartment building, as I wheeled my bike to stand beside a fellow resident to wait for the elevator, I watched him debate whether to make small talk or whether the elevator would get there in a reasonable amount of time. We both watch the changing lit up numbers intently. Finally we both break and say something along the lines of the elevator being really slow, and it is, and he looks over at me and says “My name is Josef, what’s your name”and he has thick brown hair, he’s wearing a blue plaid shirt and I just know he spells his name with an f. I smile and tell him “Layla” and he gives me a know-something-you-don’t internal kind of sneaky, suggestive look and says “is it really” and although its not really a question I say “yes…. is that strange?” and he says “no, no” and the elevator comes. Maybe he thought I was 4 years younger than I am and maybe that was his way of flirting or maybe he knew a mysterious girl named Layla somewhere in his dark, murky past, but again, as it so often happens, he reminded me of my students, the ones who were just learning to flirt, and I wanted to take a textbook out of his backpack, turn it to the right page, and tease him about not doing his homework. How old do I look? They didn’t even card me at the hair salon for my complimentary beer. It was probably the mascara and the pointed flats. Across the street, the boy with the slim cut jeans is outside again, 2:30 in the morning and I can see the tiny orange spark in his hand after he exhales. If it wasn’t so horrible for you, I know I would have taken up smoking years ago, I hear it goes so well with coffee and I always need something to do with my hands.

Caffe Freddo

We had such a shit place in Trapani. Our room was one of three on our host’s second floor, a narrow hall with a single sharp turn, punctuated by particle board-thin doors with loose knobs and studded with thick picture frames of bad art and big maps that we took pains not to bump with armfuls of groceries in ripping paper bags. It was June and the heat was unbearable. Unwilling to open the door to our pseudo balcony for the mosquitoes, we dressed ourselves in the stagnant, humid air every morning, hopped between bakery, beach, and cafe, and stayed out until the espresso machines were retired for the night.

Coffee culture is different in Italy. The sheer quantity of cafes and bistros on any one street in even the smallest towns is astounding; they open early in the morning with display cases of breads and cheeses mixed with meats and vegetables in every shape and form and more often than not there’s a space in the back, filled with stainless steel ovens, cooling racks, and wide, floured counters where they make all the food on site.

Stepping out of the sun, behind a dense line of thin hanging ropes or beaded strings in an open doorway, there’s always a line of people standing at the espresso bar. An older man glancing at an open newspaper, a woman with her baby gurgling in a stroller, a young professional in a tucked-in button up on his way to work, they alternate between sipping the steaming shot and the seltzer water in a little plastic cup, complimentary at any shop worth its salt. The walls are always decorated with advertisements for ice cream and Lavazza or Illy or whatever bean they’re serving and surrounded by corporate artwork, the barista knows his patrons and takes pride in his work. Cafes there are very much pit stops, a place to refuel, cool down, warm up; some people get a bite to eat, take their pizzetta or pastry standing, held in a piece of wax paper, but most take their shot, leave 90 cents on the bar and move along.

There was a place on the main drag, on a street corner one big parking lot away from the Mediterranean and just before downtown. The first time we went, the owner of the place poured our shots and gave us samples of caffe freddo from the nozzle of a slushie machine. Its so good! we said and he delighted in our attempted Italian. A young teenaged boy worked there too, I think he was the man’s grandson. With blond hair, blue eyes, and a thousand freckles he would frown in concentration as we pointed at pastries through the display glass, “cuesto” “cuesto?” “si! grazie mille” and we’d smile sheepishly. I caught him watching us speak English to each other and he reminded me of my old students who I missed and miss a lot and try not to think about.

One evening I was sitting outside this cafe alone, a pit stop on the way downtown, a caffee freddo sweating in a clear glass cup with a little metal handle on the plastic table. A Roma girl comes up to me to beg. I’ve seen her before, nearly every day in this part of town; her mother, obese and unkempt, puts a paper cup in her daughter’s hand and urges her forward into the group of us sitting outside as she always does. The little girl, olive skin and long, wavy black hair holds her cup out to me and I avoid her big eyes and look down and shake my head no, no, no and she’s persistent because I think she knows I’m not from here but eventually she moves on and I watch her advance to the next table.

There are two men, maybe 30, well-dressed with motorcycle helmets under their arms and fucking gorgeous like all Italian men under 60 are, with their girlfriends in maxi dresses, espressos on the table, the Roma girl walks towards them and holds out her cup and begs. The blond girlfriend is empathetic and apologizes and says no, the others are looking at the girl with a tired pity because she’s not even 12 and begging sucks for everyone. But one of the men gets up, secures his sunglasses in the breast pocket of his button down, reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, and motions the girl to walk with him inside the cafe. They both come out a few minutes later, the girl with a big brown paper bag, a little fold at the top and grease stains showing through, she looks at her mother, wondering how to react, and her mother, standing on the side lines as she does, thanks the man and he nods, grimacing, wondering as we all do if we hate her more than pity her. With that the mother and daughter leave, the man sits with his friends, they continue their conversation and I can’t stop staring at him. But its simple: they’re all Italian, they’re all Trapanese, they’re neighbors in a town in a country that’s not doing so hot financially and when everybody’s suffering, it didn’t take much to let that kid pick out a treat and make her feel normal for a couple of minutes. Or maybe the Sicilians don’t feel ashamed and sad and irritated like I do, seeing these kids jingling coins in their cups; food is cheap, maybe that happens to her all the time.

God and the Boys I’ve Talked To

I remember the thick berber carpets in our old house in western Michigan. We had a big backyard with a hill to go sledding, a playroom basement, and a neighbor with a dog called Mon’amie. I remember the flat facade of my elementary school gym with its asymmetrical roof, creaking bleachers, and the light-up tennis shoes that sparked when we all ran the perimeter of the tiled floor for a warm-up. I don’t remember ever being bullied; I had friends and a best friend and we used to write notes to each other and stash them in lockers until they would tumble down as we pulled on our snow pants at recess.

But I was such an anxious little kid, for no reason at all I dreaded school every morning, so much so that I would make myself sick with the anxiety and wake up my dad to come and sit with me and tell me stories to distract me from the horrors of the looming day at school. And not just stories, I asked him to tell me about space, about the planets and galaxies and how the stars worked. I wanted to know about the dinosaurs and what happened and how they all died at once. I wanted to know when God fit them in during his 7 day creation spree and why nobody mentioned them in the Bible. He told me that maybe God’s days were different than ours, maybe his days were like centuries or millenniums and the dinos existed a few God-hours during his animal day. My ten year old brain thought this was both reasonable and possible. At what felt like 4 in the morning and what was probably midnight, I would be calmed down enough to get to sleep.

We went to church somewhat regularly back then, for years I only knew the Arabic word for tights as my mom matched them to my crushed velvet dresses and patent leather shoes. The churches were always grand and dramatic, with banquet halls and nurseries and libraries and a stage and dressing rooms behind it that weren’t unlike the theaters I performed in years later. Back in Arizona, my brother got to be baby Jesus in the Christmas play and later I would sing in most choirs, playing the piano to accompany a few, that was the only time my dad ever came.

But no matter the denomination, and we tried them all, we never stayed in any church for very long. Sooner or later, my mom would drive us home after Sunday school in a huff with an angry kind of hurt I was too young to understand. The pastor had something a bit too Zionistic and my mom would march up at the end of the sermon to clarify and when the pastor would affirm that yes, he did in fact believe that the Israelis were the chosen people and they had a right to all that land, I have no doubt she verbally tore him apart before swearing she would never be apart of that congregation again. Then we’d try another one.

At that time I went to this camp a few summers, a Christan camp built around catchy worship songs and tie dye, where all the counselors were called Uncles and Aunts and the week culminated in an emotional ceremony where we were told to solemnly imagine Christ walking up a hill with that cross on his back and reflect about something in our pre-pubescent lives about it. I couldn’t decide if it was completely lame and overdone or if I actually felt something, but a few girls from my cabin were tearing up and everybody was so quiet and glum that I pretended the exercise meant something to me and played along.

Religion to me was a collection of stories in a book made of bonded leather and tissue paper that my dad didn’t have time for and that made my mom upset. It was something I was supposed to agree with, that everybody followed suit with, like wearing jeans every day at school or eating an apple at lunch. But I always felt like it entirely superficial, like it was some kind of inside joke we were all in on, like a friend’s parent would catch my eye as we bowed in prayer before a dinner, would grin playfully at me then bow again and play along. My parents never prayed before meals.

But in high school, when the boy I was infatuated with would shrug at the mention of any god and church and would give vague and noncommittal answers to religion in our texts before bed, I was almost scandalized, like I should report him to someone, like I should report myself to someone, turn myself in, for agreeing with him. That kind of freedom, that freedom of thought from religion, taking back control and trusting yourself to differentiate right from wrong was so incredibly sexy. It was empowered and independent and I wanted it but I thought maybe I could keep a little God for myself and keep quiet about it, to pull out Christianity, display it when I wanted it and store it back away when I just wanted to live. But when we were kissing in my car until the windows fogged up and policemen knocked on the dashboard, God and his modesty didn’t make any sense.

So I took a class in world religions in my first semester at university and met a boy who was cute and funny and one evening we got take-out and went to his apartment and stayed up talking all night. And I was curled up on one couch and he was sprawled on the other and he said he didn’t believe in God at all and he told me stories of the people who did and how he tried to reason with them, walk through the logical cause and effect and where was God’s place in it? How did it make any sense? It didn’t make any sense.

And I listened and looked at him, lanky and fresh faced, animated and indignant and I thought he was really fucking smart and pragmatic and reasonable and I nodded and listened because I was tired but also because I agreed. The word atheist used to sting and stun me like the word fuck but there were days that year when I was so lost that I asked if he could pick me up and if I could study at his place and he did. I did chemistry problems at his kitchen table and then college didn’t seem so awful and hard and it was the nicest thing and its stupid but I was and am so grateful and I stopped being scared of bad words and godless people and when he dropped me off in his Mustang I felt alive and I felt free.

I met my boyfriend at the gym, doing sit ups and watching water polo out the window. He told me about a depressing documentary he’d just watched then he made jokes about the polo players and made me laugh. The next day on our first date, I told him about the possible side effects of Splenda that I’d just done a report on after we’d finished the linguini he’d made and served on the metal patio furniture in his dining room. I thought his road bike with rams horns was sexy as hell and he introduced me to real coffee and real coffee shops and told me what it was like to be a scientist and work in a lab. He’s fascinated by religion and religious people, as someone who’s always been on the outside, who’s never believed that it could be anything more than a fable. And he’s convinced me to fully embrace all that comes with being an independent woman in the 21st century and I’m a better person because of it. I’ve got my own road bike now, with rams horns, I grind my coffee beans before each cup, and sometimes I go out without wearing a bra.

8:45 to 5:15

If I’m ever asked, in some uncomfortable first day of an organized group get-to-know-you activity, “what is something interesting about you?”, my go-to response is that I’ve got a double row of eyelashes, some kind of genetic mutation, like Audrey Hepburn. I don’t mention Audrey Hepburn for the same reason that I don’t say instead that I’ve traveled to 8 countries with my boyfriend before I turned 24: that would be showing off.  But if someone asked me about a weird talent that I have, I would definitely say its my ability to understand the most broken and twisted English and carry on a fluid conversation in spite of it. My mother all but has her own dialect and having lived abroad in different countries for so long, it was and continues to be a necessary skill to survive.

My life is much more boing now, much more normal. The lab I work in is small and I’m the youngest by about 15 years, the least experienced by far. I have my space at the long desk, my own computer with a wide monitor speckled with a solution that’s dried brown in the middle of the screen. I have my own little bench space with pipettes on a rotating stand and tip boxes I’ve stacked beside my little vortex. None of my microcentrifuge tubes have been autoclaved yet because I’m not important enough but I don’t mind, I’m not really in a hurry.

My coworkers compliment my sweaters and scarves and I get the feeling no one before me really bothered getting dressed – they say I have a European style which I take as a compliment. I tell my coworker I love to thrift and there are quite good shops in this town, all the rich kids coming in and out. She tells me she’s afraid someone’s died in the clothes. I’ll take my chances.

There is a calendar from 2007 taped onto the cupboard and old, used gloves filling the drawers on the benches on the other side of the aisle. My coworkers eat at their desks. The janitors only take out the trash, they never sweep or mop the floor and there is caked hair and grapefruit skins in the corners on the tile, a pile of dirt and dust around the freezers. Our microwave in the lab, with a big sticker saying No Food or Drink, Lab Use Only displays the words FOOD IS READY whenever it dings.

People ask what I want to do, which PhD program I want to be in, which school, when and how soon. I don’t feel any urgency to make that decision. I don’t have a timeline, a list of things to be done with at a certain age. I don’t want kids, don’t care about getting married, and I’m not ready to dive into a PhD program. I’m not. Stop asking. And all of my friends may be finished by the time I start but what does it matter? I only feel too young or too old in all of my social circles.
I’m paying for my own apartment, paying all my bills for the first time, trying out life as a scientist at a university. I’m halfway to completing my coffee-maker collection, I’m waiting to see my boyfriend again, and I’ve got my second therapy appointment on Friday because sometimes you just need to fucking talk to someone with a PhD in listening and helping. I took a little packet of tissues from the basket in the waiting room at my first appointment, they had the name of the health clinic and therapy unit on a big sticker right across the front, like everyone in the world needs to know why you won’t be coming into work until 10. 

I want to tell an old flame that my boss has his same laugh, I want to tell my female coworker its not recommended to talk politics at work and neither is commenting on my butt. I’ve become the type of person that needs soft music to concentrate, who watches BBC Masterpiece Theatre, Reddits at work, who wears mascara and perfume every day. I don’t get a paid lunch break, so I have to work 8:45 to 9:15, although no one’s really watching. I bought a shirt that says “I like you a latte” because its so cliche and it makes me grin.

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This is Paris in Febuary. Our apartment was an attic with a matress on the floor and a window on the ceiling of the shower you could stick your head out of. I remember wearing my thick, light pink turtleneck and spending every day in a museum. It’s not really that great but this is a picture I’m proud of.

Baubles in Orbit

My parents have been in the process of disowning me, by their choice a long and drawn-out ordeal. After one of the more final blows I sat on the carpeted floor and cried a bit; I told my boyfriend and he made me a White Russian and we watched a documentary about Gore Vidal. I feel so completely alone. To fill the silence I like to listen to podcasts and watch youtube videos of girls putting on their makeup. Youtube is how I learned how to put on eye-shadow in high school but now it’s more for the companionship, I know the girls and their boyfriends or husbands and they chat about their day between powderings and you’re not really expected to contribute. Between the job searching and coffee brewing I like to watch documentaries in Italian and French about cooking and history and read novels by Russians or about Russia in the turn of the 18th century. I’ve almost learned how to drive my boyfriend’s stick shift, well maybe halfway to almost. My boyfriend’s dad is patient and quiet and brilliant and selfless. His mother tells me about the silk dresses at dances in Texas while we choose xmas cookie recipes and hang bulbs from the chandelier like orbiting planets. My parents have judged my entire self worth and female viability  by the number of men I’ve slept with. Isn’t that dramatic? I hardly recognize them anymore. I could text back something hurtful and final and let it linger while I miss another Christmas but I don’t have the energy and I don’t care. The hair from my wet, overnight bun dried in perfect corkscrews this afternoon, I’d make myself get up before one but there’s hardly a reason to when everything you need to accomplish can be done in a few hours. Why doesn’t anyone just hire me? I’d be like the best lab drone ever. I guess I’m old enough to have secrets that actually mean something. Who can you talk to to feel better when telling your story from the beginning aches and aches?

Pensar means To Think

I hadn’t seen my brother in two years. He’s tall, has a beard, and the upstairs of his new apartment is thickly carpeted.

At the Starbucks in my old college town, a group of girls sit with bubble-lidded drinks and their bubble-lettered notes, glancing between notebook and iphone lazily dangling from each left hand.

My mother tells us she visited a factory that made parts for the autopilot on planes and helicopters and they test them next door. They ask her if she wants to go for a ride and she thinks to her life insurance policy, and how it needs an update.

It took four years for me to feel comfortable calling my boyfriend’s parents by their first names.

At home, I help my dad to make his special pizza. There is tofu instead of pepperoni and the spinach overtakes the cheese. We eat and discuss the price of fruit.

I did my makeup this morning and even though my boyfriend tells me its not true, I’m sure I look better than when my face is bare. I take a shower, but don’t wash the skin around my eyes so that the liner stays on a bit longer.

I have suitcases of clothes to fit into a full closet. Looking over each piece, spot-cleaning and snipping the loose threads, is so calming. Some of my clothes are like museum pieces, displayed on hangers; I remember where I bought everything and I like the idea of wearing them.

I recommending watching Force Majeure with a significant other. Its a Swedish film on Netflix. You’ll pause it at parts and discuss the movie, and you might learn something about your partner that you didn’t know before.