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Family Heirloom

It was the turn of her head full of dark curls that stole his breath. He wanted to come closer and place his hand on her neck, trace the curve of her ear lobs, bury his face in the unruly hair falling in a wave over her right shoulder. He watched her run her fingers over the cheap jewelry in the gift shop, her lips pursed, and decided to buy it all, the amber necklace, the blue-glass beaded bracelets, the fake emerald brooch, the silver ring with a large round crystal, if only she’d let him place them around her neck, over her breasts, on her fingers and wrists. He approached her from behind, and stood there, eyes closed, inhaling her scent of strawberries, with a touch of cinnamon.

      She turned sharply and he felt pain on the right, where his liver was, as her pointy elbow settled below his diaphragm. He groaned and bent over, placing a hand on her shoulder, a gesture unintentional yet fitting.

      “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said taking a step back and leaning away from him, her eyes two enormous question marks. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”

      He cracked his face into a smile and managed, “It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

      He felt so short of breath that he lowered himself to the floor, his back against the counter, and she slid down next to him. They sat there for a few moments, in silence, looking at the opposite wall with displays of masks and trophies, like two visitors in a museum staring at a painting they couldn’t understand.

      “You seemed really taken by those,” he said pointing to the jewelry counter above and behind them.

      “I designed them,” she said. “I come here every once in a while to see if anything got sold. Not much since last week. This is the first store in the city to take on my jewelry.” She sighed. “It’s exciting. But they don’t really sell anything.”

      He chuckled, and offered her a hand to get up.

      “Which one is your favorite?” he asked her. “You must have a favorite, right?”

      She leaned over the counter and he took in the curve of her lower back draped in a black tunic, her pointy bare knees, and tiny feet dressed in red leather shoes with silver buckles. He noticed braided leather bracelets on her wrists, and touched his own.

      “I love the emerald brooch,” she said. “It’s a replica of my grandmother’s. Was a family heirloom until my mother lost it. I recreated it from memory.”

      “I’d love to get it for you…,” he paused. “I don’t even know your name.”

      “Erica.”

      “I’d love to get it for you, Erica. If you let me,” he said.

      “That would be so sweet…” She stumbled.

      “Jake,” he mouthed.

      “Jake,” she repeated.

She lifted her eyes, and he saw the dark green dotted with yellow, circled in black; the curling eyelashes; the thin waves of her eyebrows; the dimples on her freckled cheeks, the chapped pink of her lips, and fell in love.

“Nobody ever bought me jewelry. Perhaps they thought I don’t need any since I design it.”

He paid the fifty dollars, the sum that would ordinarily last him for a week of lunches, and fiddled with the lock, trying to pin the brooch to her jacket, the needle escaping the round head, prickling his fingers. She placed her hand on his.

“Let me,” she said. When she finished, he kept his hand on hers.

Her eyes looked a deeper shade of green with the brooch sparkling below her chin, reflecting the ceiling lights, just above her left breast,.

coney

Jake offered her his hand, and Erica entwined her arm in the nook of his elbow. They walked over to the boardwalk.  The wind has picked up, the waves now crashing on the shore in a steady crescendo, the purple clouds weaving a pattern of giant leaves and flowers over the horizon. The Coney Tower silhouetted against the orange sun like a faithful guard of the boardwalk.

      “Do you live around here?” she asked.

      “No, I’m on the Lower East Side.”

      “What brings you to Coney then?”

      “Friends at the Sideshow. I’m a free-lance clown, mostly in Manhattan.”

      She took a step back and gave him a onceover, a look of disbelief in her green eyes. Jake wrinkled his forehead and nodded, reassuring her. Her laughter rolled like pebbles on the beach. Erica threw her head back, then bent over, hands on knees, charcoal hair falling forward, almost touching the ground.

      “Oh my God,” she said breathless. “I’m sorry. I’ve never met a real clown before. That is so funny.”

      He laughed with her, and their duet sounded to him better than any music.  His eyes teared up, and he had to hold on to the railing. Jake wanted to laugh with her when they were old, when their teeth had fallen out, and gums made smacking noises, and when they could no longer make love, just hold hands.

      He straightened out, and placed his hand on Erica’s shoulder, then fixed the single hair stuck on her lip. They haven’t even kissed and he already thought of spending his last days with her.

      Erica moved in two weeks later, with her overweight cat, three old leather suitcases full of skirts and semi-precious gems and tools, and a jewelry worktable. He pushed aside the costumes in the closet, and sat on the bed watching her place skirt after skirt on hangers that looked like torture contraptions with multiple metal latches to hold several pieces. Erica hummed “Let it be, let it be,” as she struggled to fit in the last of her wardrobe. Jake got up and took the hanger from her, placed it on the closet door, and walked her to the bed. They stayed there until the stars filled the frame of a darkened window.

      The ring had a dot of emerald surrounded by specks of diamonds, the gold band thin as a hair. He had spent the last of his money on the vet for her fat cat. “Now you know why I’m always broke,” she had said as they picked up the cat. “He’s my best friend, and I’d do anything for a friend.” And he would do anything for her.

      Jake made penne with cherry tomatoes in olive oil, sprinkled with oregano, set the round table with tea candles and greeted her at the door with a glass of red.

    “Has it really been two months?” Erica kissed him on the lips and sat down stretching her legs. He traced the outline of her smooth calves, unfastened the silver buckles, slid off the shoes and kissed her toes, one by one, then placed the small box between her feet. Erica lowered herself on her knees, next to him. Jake thought he noticed a hint of hesitation cloud her face, but the next moment she opened the box, smiled, and said, “Yes.”

      He felt as proud as he had back in high school, when he won a national archery contest and all the girls discovered him for the first time. The trophy still graced one of the shelves in his apartment – their apartment – next to his cactuses and masks. He felt that he had finally won the main prize: his bride, the most beautiful girl in the world. What better present could he wish for his thirtieth birthday? He had proved his father wrong.

      Erica came to see his performance a week later. Jake felt proud to have her in the audience, emerald eyes locked on his hands, as he made tangerines disappear between his fingers. She came backstage after and invited him for a drink, just the two of them.

      “Sweetheart, wouldn’t you like to go out with the cast? They’re great people, and I’d love to show off my future wife,” he said, running his hand through her smooth black hair, kissing her forehead.

      “I’d like to be alone with you tonight, if you don’t mind.”

      Jake marveled at how much this woman loved him, and cherished every moment alone with him. He would do anything for her, anything at all.

“Of course,” he said squeezing her small hand.

Erica rolled and unrolled the napkin on her plate until the fork fell to the floor, its clinking interrupting the white noise of the restaurant. Heads turned and he saw a flicker of annoyance on her face.

“Is everything all right, sweetheart?” He asked and put his hand over hers. “Is something the matter?”

Erica removed his hand from his, and straightened in her chair.

“Everything is great. There is just one thing,” she said and took a sip of water.

Jake felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. “I’m listening.” He bit his tongue and flinched but she didn’t notice.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. I wasn’t sure about it, actually, but now I am.”

He felt warm inside, not worried at all. He knew what she was about to say, and smiled inwardly.

“I’m pregnant. It’s too late for an abortion. And I wanted to keep it anyway.”

Jake cocked his head to the side, marveling at her beauty and determination. He always wanted a daughter, a little copy of him, who’d run around and laugh at his magic tricks.

“Of course, my love! We shall have this baby.” He covered her hand with his, the engagement ring settling under his palm, stroking her perfectly shaped fingernails.

Erica wiggled out her hand and he watched her drink a full glass of water, gulp after gulp, her eyes set on him without blinking. She put the glass down and dried her mouth with a sleeve of her shirt.

 “I was pregnant when we met.”

The ice cubes from his glass hit the floor and slid under the table. Jake felt his shins prickled by the cold bites. He looked at Erica, who kept saying something to him, and couldn’t decipher the words, as if she was encased in a balloon and speaking in a slow motion, “boowaoo, boowaoo” coming out of her mouth. He felt pain in his chest and thought of all the arrows that have flown out of his bow.

“I understand if you want to break off the engagement.” He watched her take the ring off. “That man meant nothing to me. I just wanted a baby. I don’t expect you to understand. I’m really sorry.”

She got up from the table and headed towards the exit. Jake now felt as if he was in a movie, and couldn’t wait for it to end, for the titles to appear, so that his Erica could come back to him, without another man’s child growing inside her.

“Wait!” he shouted.

Erica stopped and turned half way, craning her neck, the gesture that stole his breath two months earlier. Jake watched her loosen her hair from a bun with one hand, the black waves settling on her shoulders. She completed the turn, like a gymnast straining not to lose balance at the end of the performance, looking small but determined, waiting to be judged, a smear of red lipstick on her right cheek.

“Wait!” his father had screamed at him, the eight year-old balancing on the edge of a cliff. Thirty feet below, the dark ocean water roared like an animal. Jake turned back, then pushed away with both feet.

He was flying.

(c) Vica Miller 2012

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The Veil

The white mesh hung from the broken wedding tent like a veil, forgotten.

Her daughter became a wife a few hours earlier.

Jill was alone on the beach, now dark and silent, with the solitary boat blinking its yellow eye in a distance. The tent stood like an abandoned ship run ashore, the garland of flowers still woven over its wooden poles, the mesh curving in the wind – a damaged sail. One beam has fallen to the ground forming a giant upside down V with another. Jill picked out a few flowers. White lilies, maroon gerberas, orange birds of paradise. Why didn’t they bring them inside after the ceremony? They would have made beautiful bouquets, for her daughter’s suite, for her own room.

She remembered how Ross brought her a white rose every Sunday.  She’d still be asleep, and he’d walk in with the first rays of sun, an old aluminum tray in his hands – the one they had bought at a flea market the day they had moved in, now riddled with scratches,- a cup of coffee, a toast with jelly, and a single white rose on it. She’d stretch and smile and he’d lean over and kiss her good morning, then watch her drink the coffee.

She had since defined happiness with that moment: the first sip of coffee, her husband watching her.

When the cup was half-empty, he’d take it from her hands, and put it back on the tray, pull the sheets down. He watched her for minutes, sometimes half an hour, as she lay naked in bed, not moving, his hand gliding over her shoulders, breasts, belly, thighs. She had once asked him what he was doing. “I’m remembering you,” he’d said, “for when I’m not here.”

Image

Jill stood under the tent. She no longer cried. She had stopped a while back, two years to be exact. Ross had known for a while but didn’t utter a word. She blamed his paleness for sleepless nights, and his thinning body for a new diet he took to observing, welcoming his Sunday observations with eagerness. There was something exquisitely seductive and forbidden in the way he traced her collarbones and nipples, circled her belly button, never crossing into where she wanted to be. He loved her on other nights and mornings, always when she least expected, but never on Sundays. “One can’t make physical love to a Goddess,” he’d say. “This is how I worship you.”

Jill wondered if Zoe’s husband knew the art of seduction. He must have since she chose him. And who was she to worry about it – a widow, a broken ship in the desert? A decade without him. Why was she still here?

The single beam of light from the hotel’s roof cut in her eyes and she turned towards the ocean. The mesh caught her right hand and she let it. “A widow’s glove,” thought Jill as she traced individual tiny squares of the white web with her index finger and thumb.

She remembered her own wedding. Thirty years has passed, and she still felt the touch of his fingers, dry and nervous, as they traced her eyebrow after he lifted the veil. Ross looked through her, his eyes filled to the brim. Her own mother wasn’t there to see that, but she, Jill, was here for her girl tonight, her little princess now twenty-five. But Ross wasn’t. How she still missed him, every day, every morning, tonight.

She stood under the tent, inhaling the damp air, getting lost in the monotonous rumble of the waves, their drops settling on her face. Someone touched her shoulder.

“Mom, what are you doing here? Everything alright?”

She turned to face her daughter, lean and strong, a stubborn little girl with green eyes and thick flowing hair, Ross’s.

“Yes, baby. All is well. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“I want you with us, Mom. Please.”

Zoe kissed her on the forehead, and turned back, now in a cocktail dress, the gown gone, no veil.

Jill stood under the tent as if it could save her from herself; two used and broken things, now superfluous and forgotten. She untangled her hand, put a few flowers into a small bouquet. The fragrance, sweet and already rotting; some petals wrinkled, some falling. He had always called her “My flower”.

Jill picked more flowers, reached up to the horizontal beam, and tore them out, one by one, the gerberas, the lilies, the birds of paradise, her hands full, flowers falling on her shoulders, breasts, feet. She put the heap on the sand, and rushed to the left beam, untangling the leaves, tearing off the stems, cupping the flower heads. She held them all, her hands forming a giant O, her face inside the fragrant breathing sphere. The ocean lulled its song. Jill stood upright, then let the flowers fall to her feet. Her sorrow went with them. She stripped the right pole of the flowers, tore down the mesh, spread it on the sand. They were hers, Zoe’s, Ross’s. She gathered every last one on the mesh, folded its corners, made a knot. The bale was heavier than she thought, so she dragged it. She thought of knocking down the beams, their listless nakedness hovering over like a bad omen, but had no strength.

Jill entered the ballroom as the first dance was ending.

“I’m back,” she said to Zoe, and poured the flowers at her feet. “This is from Dad… He loved you more than anything.”

“Thank you, Mom.”

© Vica Miller

1/27/2013

Poetry

My Salon tomorrow is poetry, so I felt it fitting to give you a sampling of mine.

Warning – it’s mostly sad.

* * *

flowers blooming, as the sun has set
….the moon is closing its eyes
i am quiet and loving and speechless

glittering smile, in half and in
quarters
conquers my face as you asked
…waiting for you – i am a
peaceful lilly…

* * *

I died today a hundred little deaths.
The hands that clasped my heart
Are cold and nervous.
The touch of death. It needs no gloves.
It cuts through my insides like knife through butter.
The ribcage shattered, pierced lungs, my heart still beating.
It bleeds maroon, the color of my lips, of monthly flow.
They sit around my bed, the sister-deaths. It’s quiet.
I’ll give them all of me, it’s their turn to claim me.
My eyes will go first, they can’t see you.
My hands will wilt and dry for yours won’t hold them.
I’ll let my mouth rot, then disappear.
You’re too far to notice.
My hair thins and falls, no shoulder left to hold it.
My legs of silk, you called them, now gone.
The sacred cave between them can’t stop bleeding.
It bleeds my love, my river that you drank.
The life itself is soaking through the sheets.
But not to worry. The bed is empty now, room is cold, there’s no light.
All forms of energy evicted.
No longer spark of two adoring smiles.
No more accords of ringing laughter.
Nothing.
All has been claimed by death
but used and left by you before that.
* * *
==========
Good Morning
Every morning I wake up next to you,
familiar curves settled against my body.
Your warm skin smells of summer fog,
and I know it won’t rain today.
You look peaceful, and your smile wakes
before you do. Because my hand brushes
through your hair, and over your shoulders.
And you know it won’t rain today.
How long have we been here, together?
Do you remember the time before we met?
It faded in the distance, like yesterday.
But I know it was raining then.
* * *
==========

 

You almost made me whole.

I am unbroken.

Undone, revived, no longer nursing wounds.

The “almost”. Which is more?

The “all”, the “most”, the lingering of doubt?

You almost made me whole.

Now set me free.

I’ll slowly walk away; my steps will leave no prints.

Your eye won’t catch my shadow

For I have none.

And maybe I will fly. You gave me wings.

Please don’t look.

I’m unbroken.

When I am whole, I’ll call your name again.

 

* * *
==========

 

Элегия

Сегодня переменная влажность. Безоблачно.
Завтра безветрие. Беззавтрие
вальяжно расположилось на
подлокотнике моих мыслей.

Вчера почернело в тумане. Погналось
за призраком смысла. Устало, но
осталось зудом напоминать
о прожитом. Ладно.

Сейчас перешло в сию минуту.
Часов не осталось для ветра.
Облачность погрустнела,
отдалась фиолетовым тучам.

Наверное мучат чувства,
призраки их заметались, замерло
постоянство, открылись дебри

сомнений. Страшно.

Дым запотевших ладоней,
холодная ясность взгляда.
Было когда-то нужно,
теперь никому не надо.

(c) Vica Miller

Underwater

Underwater, it’s quiet.

Light blue, pale green, misty grey, transparent – the quiet envelops her when her lithe body submerges, washing away thoughts, erasing faces, settling vibrations, dulling the pain.

Underwater, her arms stretched forward, her legs a dolphin’s tale, she swims close to the bottom, observing small cracks in the pool’s floor, or gliding over white shells on the ocean’s sand, the air bubbles escaping to the surface in intervals.

Twenty seconds, forty, sixty.

When the air almost bursts her lungs, she comes up, inhales greedily, and dives right back. It’s safe there, in the vastness that doesn’t obey others but is tamed by her, the only place where she can be her true self, unafraid and peaceful, in love.

As she dove for her second stretch two months earlier, she felt something open up inside, and a notion flowed in, like a fish settling under a coral: I’m in love. She lost the air and came up to the surface midway, startling the old lady in the next lane. She apologized, and continued freestyle, her arms plowing the water in rhythmic succession, a breath on the left, three strokes, a breath on the right, three strokes, a steady geyser at her feet, a somersault turn, repeat.

She was the last person to leave the pool that night. Her arms hung like willow tree branches and she couldn’t push herself up to get out, using the staircase instead.

She didn’t tell anyone, not even her best friend. She couldn’t tell him either.

Everything stayed the same. She went home, cooked dinner, asked her son to set the table. Her husband noted how quiet she was that night, but she blamed the swimming and the extra wine after.

She goes swimming every evening now. Only under water she lets herself be the lover that she is. Every stroke is his, every turn is hers, and every bubble is theirs.

The water keeps her secret; washes over the want; quiets the heart.

She could stay underwater forever.

She doesn’t need to breathe, if she feels the pressure of the currents – his hands – against her sides; listens to his words, unsaid, flowing over her; sees the blue – his eyes – all around. She’d swim day and night, until she reached the shore, on which they could walk together. But they won’t. So she swims in his eyes, his smile, his hands, until she almost drowns, then comes up for air, returns for more.

His love is underwater.

Every night, she swims in it.

It’s quiet there. He doesn’t know.

Happy New Year!

Saying Goodbye to 2011… Welcoming 2012…

Every December 30 I try to jot down some thoughts about the year passed, to relive special moments, meditate on new experiences, say goodbye to disappointments and gear up for the New Year!

And every April (or May or June) I stumble upon those December notes and see them unfinished, dropped in the middle of a sentence because (pick one) the youngest woke up from a nap, the oldest needed me right that moment, or someone called about work… I hit Save and run out thinking I still have December 31 to finish my year-end report.
And then April (or June or May) comes. You get the picture…
So today, January 13, 2012, on the eve of the Russian Old New Year, I wanted to reflect on my Salons, my almost three-year-old baby, my lifeline to the world of creative effort, to people who write and read.
The stats: we hosted five fantastic salons, featuring poetry (twice!), humor, short stories and – not to forget – Russia!

The take-away: We introduced new writers, met new friends and discovered new depths in ourselves, and others. The writers had new books, poems and stories published in 2011, some of them for the first time!
I’m happy to mention that I belong to this group: my short story Aunt Lucy was published by The Jet Fuel Review.

The highlights:
Lara Vapnyar, one of my favorite Russian-American writers, read at the Russia! Salon. I’m still tingling from the humor and nostalgia in her writing.
– I’m thrilled to have met – and then feature at the Salon – Simon Van Booy, my favorite living author. If I were younger, I’d be his groupy. But I don’t think there’s such a thing for writers.
– I had Eugene Ostashevsky read at both poetry salons. If you heard Eugene read his work – you’d come back for more. I did. I envy his poetry students at NYU.
– My friends came through over and over – recommending excellent new writers, spreading the word about Salons, bringing friends over to experience the magic we create together. Thank you!

What else? My 5 year-old knows that I host literary salons and thinks it’s cool. And she now reads in English and Russian! I wish the same to all of you! Let’s find more time to read!
Happy New Year! And remember – our biggest Salon to date is coming! Be there!

I haven’t written in a while, and not just here. I haven’t written a new line of fiction (or non-fiction) since January. I’ve been silent all winter – not because of the cold, or snowstorms, or trees broken in hurricanes. My silence bordered on being mute. I sent off my novel to an agent in December and… forgot about writing.

I was fed up and tired. I felt that whatever stories I had inside of me were buried under the mundane, that which you can neither recall nor appreciate later, as it blends into the white noise – work deadlines, kids’ deadlines, me being dead tired. Until… Until one day in April a friend sent an alert that a group of brilliant young writers were to read downtown. Something told me that I MUST go. I called the husband and asked him to have the evening with the kids so that I could have the evening with literature. He understood, as always.

As a writer, I should be able to express what I felt when I first heard Ilya Kaminsky read, and then Simon Van Booy, but I’m still lost for words. I sat in the front row at the Housing Works Bookstore, listening to the finalists of the Vilcek Prize for Literature read their best works, my face under the microphone, as I leaned forward, swimming in the words that flowed into me. If Kaminsky had read one more poem from “Dancing in Odessa”, I’d have been in tears. But he stopped on time, and I don’t know what was louder – my clapping or my sighing.

And then it was Simon Van Booy’s turn. I could almost touch the podium. He read the first short story from his prized collection “Love Begins In Winter”. He took me somewhere where I haven’t been in so long, yet yearned to be so badly. I felt as if I were 15 again, sitting on a windowsill of my St. Petersburg apartment, breathing in the summer rain, the drops sliding off my palm, in love with the idea of someone who’d kiss me in the rain.

We were introduced. Simon signed the book for me. I told him about my Salons. And then I started reading his short story collections. First, “The Secret Lives of People in Love”, then “Love Begins in Winter.” His characters were from my world. I had a strange feeling that I could have been one. After simmering in this thought, I sorted it: his voice was familiar – similar to mine when I wrote in Russian. Did you guess? I started writing again; this time – short stories (in English, of course). And a couple of people told me that they loved them.

Could it be that I found my voice thanks to Simon?

I want to make it official: Simon Van Booy’s writing is an inspiration.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because he’ll be reading at my Short Stories Salon in June.
And so will I.
Because I resumed writing in spring, after reading his “Love Begins in Winter”. His first novel, “Everything Beautiful Began After” will be published July 5, 2011

I’m most excited about this upcoming winter salon on February 9. Its theme is Russia! and we have over 60 people coming to listen…
We’ll also have books for sale by published authors – Lara Vapnyar and Jennifer Gilmore – thanks to a smart little company Mobile Libris. And I thought – how interesting it is, that while an unpublished writer’s life’s desire is to get published, the main appeal of this upcoming salon (for me) is to hear Lara Vapnyar read from her unpublished book. For me, it’s as if I were allowed to peak into a closed room, or let in on a secret that nobody is allowed to know but me. And as I thought all this, I realized that hearing works that haven’t been published is indeed the main attraction of my salons and the reason I started them. Because let’s face it. Some writers will never get published (even though they might be very well deserving), while published authors might take a long time to write something new… And here you have it – access to something that can’t be found anywhere else… The secret only you can know.

I’m one of the unpublished ones (for full length fiction that is). Yet I realize that getting published for me is not a goal in itself (I’ve only sent out two queries for my book). It’s about being heard, it’s about being on stage, watching the sparkle in the eyes of the listeners and knowing (or hoping) that they want to know more…

I believe that storytelling will never go away, the kind of storytelling where the reader and the listeners are in the same room, seeing each other’s facial expressions, postures, gestures, watching lips move and eyes dart over the page. We might live in the age of the Kindle, but listening to a good story (just for you) won’t perish. Because it’s going back to your childhood: when your mother read to you before you went to bed, and you treasured every moment of it.

Those memories sustain you, long after the stories are forgotten and the mothers are dead. “And that’s all I have to say about that.”