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Archive for January, 2016

This is an unfinished short story from a while back… It takes place in 1991. 

 

It was in Palm Beach that I first wanted to be a cat. Or a dog.

I looked at them lounging poolside, each in its own chez striped in white and red, gray Puffy licking his paws, and two dirty-white Maltese, Buford and Twinkie, one scratching its balls, the other gnawing at its hind paw. Why was it that these puff balls had their breakfast and dinner served on a silver tray, walked three times a day, washed once a week while I had to scrub floors and pretend to be invisible like a modern day Cinderella? Because of Don.

He liked the dogs to kiss him on the lips, the cat to sit on his crotch, and all of them to sleep in his bed. I found the first two repulsive. The latter I could understand as Don was the loneliest man I’ve met, single and childless at 60. He also had the money for a dedicated live-in au pair for his pets. Me.

Didn’t these animals know that I had a graduate degree in Russian Literature (Silver Age) from a top university in St. Petersburg, I wondered taking out cat litter with one hand and squeezing my nose with another; that my father worked with Sobchak when he was the Mayor of Leningrad and that I was invited to model in Paris. Don knew all this, of course, and that’s why he hired me. Even though he later told me it was my long legs that made him choose me from sixty other applicants for the job. Had I not guessed by then that he was gay, I would have run away after the revelation.

Don also knew that I was a 20-year-old girl, alone in New York City, whose tourist visa would soon expire and who had not enough money to buy six chicken nuggets at McDonalds. Four I could afford, not six. How did he know? Perhaps by my look of wounded pride and panic, barely concealed by a forced half smile during the job interview three months earlier. Or conviction with which I told him that I’d be the best person for the job, as I had the intellectual upbringing and grew up with dogs, my broken English no longer an obstacle in conveying this half-lie.

After he explained my duties with the dogs, the dry cleaning and the upkeep of his Midtown penthouse apartment, he showed me to a side room – my own, with yellow and green wallpaper, a lock on the door and a separate pink bathroom, with a bathtub. Maid’s room it was called. Who knew that people still had maids at the end of the twentieth century, and that I’d be one of them? Try telling that to one of my high school friends back in Leningrad. They’d probably pee in their pants that their valedictorian classmate could fall so low. After Perestroika and Glasnost, after Russia’s first free elections, to end up a maid for pets in New York, herself leashed like a dog to room and board, and $150 a week.

The night I moved in, Don told me I could eat anything I wanted from his refrigerator. As I searched for words which would express my gratitude and not reveal the insult, he left the kitchen.

Back at home sugar and salt were allowed strictly in exchange for coupons, half a kilo per month. Was St. Petersburg of 1991 circling back to Leningrad of 1941, I thought, my fingers fetching slobs of crab meat out of a jar I found on the top shelf of Don’s monstrous kitchen cupboard. I’ve never tasted crabmeat before. As a daughter of a distinguished professor who survived the Siege of Leningrad, I didn’t appreciate being reminded that I’d starve, too, if not for the fancies inside Don’s fridge. I finished the crabmeat and drank the salty juice, catching the last drops with my tongue.

I then ate a pack of Raisinets. Their sweet warmth reminded me of childhood, of Grandma buying me a pack of chocolate-covered raisins every Sunday from a street kiosk near her flat. I haven’t had one in 15 years.

What was I doing in Palm Beach? Getting ready for Don’s New Year’s Eve party at his mansion. He told me he was expecting some of America’s richest (old money) and influential (politics) families in attendance and that besides making the house shine I should shine myself. While I accomplished the former in four hours – the four bedrooms, the den, the kitchen and now even the pool was sparkling – making myself shine was harder. I walked into my room, legs shaking, hands aching, and armpits smelling, and sat down on the high bed with embroidered white linens and hand-made quilt. I yearned for some stillness – to sit for a few minutes in the dim den, or lie down on the bed. And I only had one dress, long, black and sleeveless, which cost me whooping thirteen dollars on sale at Express. Not an evening gown, a 100% cotton dress a woman might wear to conceal her legs or hide her hips. I didn’t have to hide my body; people told me I had a perfect figure. I bought it because I could wear it on all occasions. When I showed it to Don, he wasn’t thrilled and left my room. I bit my nails.

“Here,” he said walking back in and handing me a flat white box tied with a silk red bow, puffing on his cigar. “Try that on. I want Koch and Shriver to appreciate my taste in household help.” I heard neither the names nor the offense. I felt like Vivian from “Pretty Woman” – the first film I saw upon arriving in New York. I didn’t have to sleep with the benefactor, though.

What was inside that box? Was he giving it to me for the evening or for good? Maybe I could meet someone at this party who’d tell me that this slaving for Don was only temporary, that I’d get a real job in no time. I united the bow and opened the box. A shimmering piece of red silk slipped from my hands and fell on the bed. The perfect dress I’d seen in my recurring dreams.

“Try it on and let me see,” Don said leaving the room. “The guests arrive in 30 minutes. You’re greeting them with champagne at the door. Have to pour it first, too.”

I took another shower before trying the dress on, as if afraid that the Cinderella transformation wouldn’t be complete without the cleansing. As I watched the water swirl around my feet, I wondered what my ex-boyfriend would think if he saw me in this dress. But first it had to fit.

I smothered my body, shoulders to toes, in a rose body lotion I found in the shower cabinet. “Crabtree & Evelyn,” it said on the label. Smelling like a rose, I wondered what the crab had to do with Evelyn, and who she was. A rose? And then I started to feel like one, petals slowly unfolding, ready for my grand entry to the ball. The look in the mirror, though, revealed that I also shined like a Russian samovar. I powdered my face, then found some talcum powder and put it on my chest and arms to stop them from reflecting the lights. Now I looked like a sugared apple, or a Geisha.

The guests would be arriving in ten minutes. I rubbed off the talcum with a towel, my skin burning; my eyes stinging. Inhale. Exhale. The dress was waiting for me, as was the beginning of something wonderful. I was certain of that.

To be continued

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My nine-year-old daughter told me she’d be entering a NYT poetry contest.

When she was six, we co-wrote this short piece below.

 

The Magic Flower

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl. She loved to sing while walking in the rain, and to pick flowers. Her favorite color was red, and sometimes orange. More than anything, she liked to dream. One morning, when she woke up in her high bed, she saw a rainbow flower outside her window. It was as tall as a horse. The girl leaned out the window and tried to pick the flower, but it moved to the other window. The girl thought, I’ll just go to the next window and touch it. But then she thought, what if the flower moves to the window after next? She decided to walk out into the garden and talk to it. She knew it was a magic flower: if it could move, perhaps it could talk.

The dew kissed her feet as she took a few steps on the sparkling grass toward the flower. It remained still, and when she came closer, the flower leaned over the girl with its seven petals, and she found herself inside a giant rainbow umbrella. Is it raining? She thought. But the sun was shining – through the flower’s petals, red and orange, yellow and blue, making kaleidoscopic patterns on her white pajamas, as if pronouncing her the queen of the magic kingdom. The girl touched each petal, whispering a wish into their softness. The flower didn’t answer, only caressed the girl’s bare arms, and she knew that each dream would come true.

She dreamed of friends, who’d never betray her.

She dreamed of meeting a magician, who would understand her dreams.

She dreamed of traveling to magic countries and speaking in foreign tongues with people who looked nothing like her.

She dreamed of creating a magic kingdom of her own, where only kind, smart and funny people were allowed.

She dreamed of being an inspiration to people around her, even though she didn’t know yet what inspiration was.

She dreamed of never getting hurt again by people.

She dreamed of her mother being alive.

More than thirty years have passed, and most of her wishes came true. Except for the last two. Perhaps, it wasn’t a magic flower after all, she thought, sitting on a windowsill of her apartment, smelling the rain outside. Perhaps it was, because five wishes out of seven is better than nothing.

 

 

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