Friday, December 10, 2010

Growing Up Smith

Imagine a childhood so rich it makes your memory feel full. A childhood so full of music, laughter, and art that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to replicate it with your own children some day. 
That was my childhood. And it’s because I was raised by Ralph and Mary Lou. 
My father was an artist. I say “was” because he’s no longer able to create. But when he was still healthy he’d create elaborate signs for every birthday, baptism, and communion party, not just for his seven children but for all of our family and friends, as well. 
Our Christmas cards were Broadway productions. Ralph and Mary Lou would build a set and we kids would be dressed up as sugarplum fairies or, in my case, Rudolph. 
Yeah, we had fun. 
My dad was a genius. He designed the stained glass windows for our church. His faith combined with his genius equalled art like few people in our parish had ever seen. 
That was my dad. 
My mom is a pianist and used to sing in the opera. But she loved show tunes and Frank Sinatra, too. So every Saturday as kids, my siblings and I would find ourselves dusting window ledges or wiping the bathroom toilet while humming Puccini or perhaps something from Camelot. 
It was a great way to grow up. The Smith way.
That’s why it's a strain on my heart to see my father the way he is now: thinner, hunched over, his blue eyes not nearly as bright.  The one thing that gave him his genius has been erased like a wrong answer. 
Alzheimer’s can do that to a person. It’s been eight years now since my father was diagnosed. He still knows my name but always states it as a question, searching my eyes and the contours of my face to make sure he’s got it right:
“Are you...Christina?”
“And your last name is Smith.”
That last line he speaks declaratively, like it's something he knows for sure.
“Yep. My last name is Smith.”
“Your name is Christina Smith,” he repeats.
We say the next part together, every time.
“Christina Smith. That’s it. Fort Pitt!”
And then we laugh hysterically, my Dad’s old laugh, the real one. I have no idea what “Fort Pitt” is, but I don’t care. The rhyming sounds help him remember me. 
Thank God he still remembers me. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Days Part II: A Very Merry Chris Smith!

Adam and I are hosting his family’s Christmas gathering for the first time. The last time most of them were at our apartment we had no furniture and served cheeseburgers and hot dogs on the grill. 
This time it’ll be crown roast, my famous mashed potatoes and my grandmother’s totally-made-from-scratch-stuffing (if I can get it right!). 
When I told my family about our hosting gig, they did what they normally do whenever I say “Adam’s family.”
They started singing, “The Addams Family. Buh-da-da-dum. Snap-snap...” Nothing derogatory, of course. That's just how maniacally silly we are.
But I digress...
Truth be told, I’m sort of a Christmas crazy person, so I really can’t wait. We'll have a fire, maybe sing Christmas carols while Adam and I play guitar. Yeah, the stockings with our initials are beyond cheesy but I still love them more than you’ll ever know.

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” -George Bernard Shaw

Today is a happy day.

Adam just found out he's been accepted to Northwestern University's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. He'll be studying under Stuart Dybek, a Chicago writer, a short story genius. 

That means he'll be writing again, his own stuff, instead of just helping me with mine. 

My heart is overflowing with joy for this man who has so much talent but is uncomfortable with compliments. 

He'll be writing again, creating. 

What else is there? 

Monday, October 18, 2010

To Chuck or Not to Chuck?: That is the question

I’ve stopped writing. 
Not because I want to but because I’m tapped out, plain and simple. After sharing the latest draft of my novel with two people I trust, I’ve realized that it needs a lot of work. Or, maybe, that I should simply chuck it.

This photo is a metaphor for my novel. When Adam and I first moved in here after I finished grad school, our giant living room was a blank canvas; with only a couple of chairs, a rug and some plants to fill it, we looked forward to making it come to life. So, too, with my story. Now that the walls have been painted, the color just doesn't feel right. And it's back-breaking work to have to do it all over again.

Adam is an editor of the highest order, to the point that it makes me jealous. Yes, he actually studied creative writing (and I didn’t), but still. With all of the books I’ve read, you’d think I'd have a grasp of what goes into good fiction.
Did John Grisham take a creative writing class? Okay, okay, he writes beach books. Still, my point is that with all of the writing I’ve done in college and grad school, I felt sure enough of my talent, or at least of my smarts, to give it a try. 
So, now that I have given it a try, I’m less than encouraged. What to do? Re-write the whole thing? One of the people who read this latest draft said, “I’m not an expert or anything, but there are a couple of chapters where it seems like there’s no action. Just a lot of dialogue.”
I wasn’t upset or hurt, probably because I knew she was right. Part of being a writer is having to deal with criticism. In graduate school I endured thesis peer review sessions that were so intense I thought my mind would melt from the pressure. 
So it’s not the criticism so much as the lack of inspiration at this point. When I first embarked on this writing jaunt, I was so excited. Now, I sort of can’t stand my female protagonist! Isn’t that just sad? Or do all writers hit a wall so to speak? 
Whatever the case, I’m going to try posting regularly again just to get the juices flowing. Plus, I really just miss my lovely blogger friends.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder, And More Rather Obvious Realizations

This is the trendy new restaurant that opened up in my neighborhood not too long ago. Adam and I dined there for his birthday this year. We were surrounded by the beautiful people. Adam had roast duck for the first time. 

It was fatty.
When we needed to get out of the house the other night, instead of heading to the overpriced trendy spot we mosied on over to a different joint one block down. 
To the naked eye, it’s a dive. A corner bar I wouldn’t dare be seen in (which actually wouldn't be  possible because there aren't any windows).
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
On the inside it’s one of those dark, old-school bars with round, high-backed booths that make me feel like Sinatra and Deano might saunter in. The air always looks smokey to me, even though there is no smoke. 

The clientele are a motley crew:  boys with ponytails and long beards; girls with thick black eyeglasses and bright orange hair;  a sprinkling of high-powered business men. 
Depending on the day, there’s either Johnny Cash or Coltrane on the jukebox. Add to that the fact that they serve the best bar food in the entire world (including homemade tater tots and the freshest salads), and it’s no wonder this dark little cave has become our favorite haunt.  
The ambience provides little moments. While I enjoy a cosmo (or two), Adam leans over and touches my arm. 
“You have the softest elbows,” he informs me. “You really do.” 
On the way home, Adam spots one of those mini murals of our delightful former governor that have been popping up all over the city. He gets such a kick out of it he simply must snap a picture.

So I ham it up like I usually do. He shows me the picture on the walk home and all I can think as I look at my ridiculous self is that in less than a month I will be given the title of “Professor.”
Adam is holding my hand as we pass by the trendy place--where the giant windows allow its trendy patrons to be seen in all their trendiness. We keep walking and laughing and being our silly selves and I say to myself, “Yep." 

Eye of the beholder.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Au Pair (Of Old Shoes) Part 10: Call me baby

“I need to get out,” I said. 
“Where are you going?” 
Calixthe plopped Stuart’s freshly soiled underclothes into a bucket that sat inside the laundry room washtub.
“I wish I could come with you.”
“So why don’t you?”

Calixthe shook her head. 

“Too much work to do.”
“Then let me help you.”
“Netta would kill me.”
I didn’t know how much longer I could stand the smell in the laundry room.  It seemed like every room in the Silverman home was stained with stink. I glanced around as though someone might be listening.

"Netta wouldn't even know."
“Oh, yes she would.”
“Just let me help you.”
More shaking of the head.
“You don’t understand, Chrissy. I have to be here to watch da baby, anyway.”
“Why can’t Netta watch the baby?  It’s her baby. ”
“I guess it wouldn't hurt to ask.”
There was only one window in the laundry room, and it was locked.  As Calixthe headed upstairs, I walked over to open it, struggling to loosen the rusty hinges. When Calixthe came back a few minutes later, she went straight for the bucket.
“I can’t stand the way they treat you, Calixthe,” I said, finally pushing the window out from the bottom.  “It’s almost like you’re their...”
“Their what?”
“No, say it.”
“Their slave?”
“I didn’t mean that, Calixthe.”  

A welcome breeze blew in from outside.  It felt like the first fresh air I’d ever breathed.
“You really should be careful, Chrissy,” Calixthe said, her eyes intent on the bucket, her hands looking rough and red.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, dey are still my family, you know.”  
More air rushing in, but this time, stirring up the stink.  
“I am not a slave.”
“No, please.  Listen to me.  Netta is my father’s sister.  My auntie.  She and James took me in when I needed a place to go...when I needed to get away from home.  They are trying to give me a better life here.  You have no idea what it is like to live in my country.”
Silence for a moment.
“It is hard to explain.”  

Calixthe dropped the scrub brush into the bucket. The murky water splashed her face. “Netta is demanding.  And I hate dat I have to clean up after da children.  Like I told makes me sick.  But still...”
Calixthe looked back down at the bucket of murky water and finally wiped her face with the back of her hand. 
“To be honest, I don’t know what else to do. Maybe they really do tink of me as their...”
“No, Calixthe.  I never meant..”
“But it’s true.  I have no freedom here. Dey keep me locked up in dis house. Sometimes I tink about leaving, you know? But where would I go?  I have no money, no place to live.” 
“That could change.”
“I really want to go to school, get a job and then...get my own place, you know?”
“We’ll make it happen.”
“I’m registering for classes tomorrow,” she said.
I didn’t blame Calixthe for her loyalty to Netta, after everything Calixthe said she had done for her.  But I couldn’t help thinking about Netta’s earlier assessment of Calixthe’s language skills, how she had dismissed her abilities so flippantly, the condescending tone that was almost cruel.
“I’m suffocating in here.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You want some help?”
“No.  Just go.”
Calixthe took her hands out of the bucket, dumped out the water, then emptied the soggy clothing into the washing machine.  
“Don’t worry about me, Chrissy.”
“I don’t want to leave you here.”
“I said don’t worry about me.”
“I hate this.”
“Won’t be the same without you.”
Calixthe threw up her hands. 
“How man go do?”
I left Calixthe there, her hands scrubbing out excrement of ungrateful children, trying to clean up a mess in order to maintain a family’s image, desperate to demonstrate to Netta her deep, unwavering loyalty. I left her there, alone, with that stench while I went off to get drunk. 
I tiptoed up the basement stairs. Netta knew. She read my thoughts. She was waiting for me.
“Stepping out, Christina?” 
“Actually, yes.”
“Where to?”
“Maybe for a walk. Not sure.”
“Please do make sure to pick up the children on time.”
“I’m aware of my duties, Netta.”
“Before you leave, I wanted to discuss one more thing with you.”
Netta sat down at the kitchen table and handed me a small black box. 
“James and I decided to buy a cell phone for you to use while you’re with us.  You’ll have to buy the minutes, yourself, of course, but otherwise it’s yours to use for the duration of your stay.”
“Here’s the number.  You can use it to call internationally, so you’ll be able to reach your family whenever you need to.  You can purchase the phone cards at any café or brasserie. Enjoy your walk, Christina.”
Netta waited for me to leave. The second I closed the door behind me, I heard her click the lock.  I headed toward the gate and found myself skipping like a school girl.  I knew that I had only a couple of hours, so I would have to make them count.  I held the phone in my hand, slid it around, pressed all the buttons. I would be able to call Adam whenever I wanted. Freedom. 

Free at last...
I wandered down side streets. Flowers, everywhere. Wrought iron railings, white-shuttered windows, blood red geraniums spilling out of every window box. 

A fairytale. 

I wound up on the Rue de Pologne. Sidewalk cafés, shops, and the clink of wine glasses like bells that cut through clouds of cigarette smoke.  Men and women wrapped in elegant scarves, even though it was nearly eighty degrees.
A fairytale, indeed. This lifestyle of leisure, food, love-the good stuff.  The people of Saint-Lucie did it well. Saint-Lucie, birthplace of kings, playground for the wealthy.  Saint-Lucie, where people lived in chateaux, where people were too busy to parent their own children. That’s a job for les étrangères, like me, to step in to raise their children for them.  The wealthy wanted au pairs, so au pairs came here to work for the wealthy.
I sat down at a café. The Au Reveil Matin. I ordered a cold duck salad and a glass of Bordeaux. The post office clock, just meters away, read 1:35. Time was running out.
I sipped my wine, listening, learning.  The waiter brought my salad. A young man was sitting at a corner table, alone. He raised his glass to me and smiled.  I knew I would need another glass of wine.
“And this is is for you...from the gentleman.”
The waiter handed me a paper napkin with a note on it. The young man a few tables away had indeed been watching me:
What is your name?  Are you American?  You are very beautiful.  If you’d like, meet me under the clock in twenty minutes.  My name is Islem. Here is my phone number. 
Call me baby.
“Apparently you have made a friend.”
“Excuse me?” 
A distinguished older gentleman sitting at the table next to mine turned toward me.   
“I’m sorry, madame,” he continued.“It’s just that you seem to have caused a bit of a stir at our little café, today.”
The distinguished gentleman laughed heartily.  He had salt and pepper hair and wore a turtleneck and wool cap.  I was beginning to believe that French people were impervious to heat, or maybe so fancy that they didn’t even sweat.
“We don’t see very many Americans in our little town.”
“Really?  I thought that was a favorite French pastime: making fun of Americans who invade their beloved country.”
More hearty laughter.
“It would behoove the French to remember an invasion of another sort...which was impossible without the Americans.”
He continued through sips of wine.
“It’s mostly, how you would say...locals.”
“I work for an American, actually.”
“Ah, then you are jeune fille au pair?” 
“Yes, how’d you know?.”
“One can just tell.”
The young man at the other table was still watching me. I looked over at him for a second. His eyes immediately caught mine as he dipped his finger in his glass of wine, swirled it around, then slowly slid his finger into his mouth. He slid his finger out then puckered his lips, all the while, watching.
I waved down the waiter as I searched my purse for money. The bold young man lit a cigarette.
“This has been lovely, but I really have to be going,” I said. 
“Off to meet your new friend?”
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Madame.”
“Same here.”
“My name is Guillaume,” he said, holding out his hand.
“I’m Chrissy.”
Au revoir, Chrissy. And good luck!”
I stood to leave, and as I did, the bold young man walked toward me.  He approached me, leaning forward as he moved, swinging his arms with an awkward, lurching gait. Though I had turned away, he followed me onto the cobblestone street where I had already begun to cross.
Exusez-moi, Mademoiselle.”
I turned around to look at him. He had ice-blue eyes and messy black hair.  His nose was long and hooked.  At first glance, I thought he looked classically French, but the longer he stared at me, the more I noticed that his eyes said something different, the way they at once seemed to bulge out and recede--almost melt--far back into their deep, wide sockets.

“What is your name?”
“I don’t know you. Why would I tell you my name?”
“My name is Islem.”
“I really have to be going,” I said, peering past his alien eyes to see the time on the post office clock. 
He grinned. 
“At least tell me your name.”
I waved goodbye to the bold young man as I turned away and headed toward the International School of Saint-Lucie.  It was time to pick up my little spawn of Satan.
                                                                  *   *   *   
3:26.  Students swarmed the sidewalk outside the school.  I scoured the crowds for any of my little spawn, and, within a minute or so I spotted Soryah.  Stuart was standing behind her.
“Hey guys, how was the first day?”
“Where’s Lia?” 
 Stuart and Soryah looked at one another and shrugged.  
“She knew that I was coming to pick you up.”  
More shrugging.
“I reminded her three times this morning.  Where else would she be, Stuart?  ”
“She might have already left.”
Instant images of arriving back at the house, minus one of my little spawn.  
Soryah stomped her foot.
“Can’t we just go? She knows the way home.”
“Hey.  That’s enough.  We’re not leaving without Lia.”
Racing around the grounds, I ran up hills, leaped over bushes, peeked into classrooms, and still, no Lia.  I was slowly coming to realize that little Lia might be more of a handful than I had first thought.
When I finally headed back toward the main gate, I was relieved to spot a giggling Lia standing beside Stuart and Soryah.  She was talking with a very tall boy who leaned toward her when he spoke.
“Nice of you to join us.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, barely acknowledging me.  “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is Remi.”
“You can roll your eyes all you want, Missy,”  I calmly explained.  “You’re the one who’s late.”
Lia was silent the whole walk home.  If only I could have said the same for the other two.  We were blocks from the house when suddenly I realized that I had forgotten to pick up a phone card.  Without one, I wouldn’t be able to call Adam.
“I have to make a little stop, if that’s okay.”
“What for?” inquired Stuart, whose index finger was currently lodged up his nose.
“It’ll just take a second.”
There was a cafe just a block away, so I ran in, bought my phone card, and held it tight.  
“Mom’s gonna be mad that we’re late, ya know,” Soryah informed me.  
“I guess we’ll just have to explain why, then, now won’t we?” 
Lia shot me a look.
“Does she know that you had to make an extra stop?” Lia asked.
“As a matter of fact she does.”
It was just before five o’clock when we approached the side door.  Stuart and Soryah had their backpacks looped around their ankles like leg-irons.
“Pick those up,” I said.
Soryah and Stuart started giggling.  
“Those are brand new bags,” I said.  “Please carry them properly.”
Stuart and Soryah were doubled over with laughter.  When they stood up, I noticed their pants.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “What did you guys do?”
“You cursed, you cursed.” 
They were chanting, pointing their fingers at me.
“We’re telling mom, we’re telling mom.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had to go?”
“This has happened before,” Lia said.  
“What is your mother going to say?” 
Stuart and Soryah entered the house giggling, still dragging their backpacks. Netta was in the kitchen, waiting.
“Why are you so late?” Netta asked, her face as fierce as I’d seen it. “I’ve been trying to call your phone, Christina, but it just kept ringing.”
The children--who had been clambering to get to the refrigerator--all turned around to look at me.
“I’m sorry about that Netta.  I wasn’t able to pick up the phone card until just now.”
“But why are you so late?”
“To be honest...” 
Lia didn’t even bother looking my way.   
“Some of us got our signals crossed.  Lia was waiting for us at a different spot.  We didn’t find one another till after four o’clock.”
Netta put her hand to her forehead.  
“Christina, this is only the first day of school and already we’re having problems doing something as simple as picking up the children?”
Stuart and Soryah were strutting past their mother, still dragging their backpacks.  
“Like I said, it was just a case of miscommunication...I’m sure it won’t...”
Netta put her hand to her nose.
“What in the world is that smell?” 
Stuart and Soryah started hopping in place, their legs crossed one over the other.
“Come over here, Stuart,” Netta said. “Soryah, you too.”
“Christina, what happened here?” she asked, looking Stuart and Soryah up and down, examining the urine stain down the front of their pants.
“They didn’t tell me they had to go,” I said.  “I just noticed it before we came in."
“You just noticed it?”
“So how was your walk, Christina?”  
“Stuart, Soryah, march upstairs right now and take off those wet clothes. And then take a long, hot shower.  Both of you.”
Lia led the little spawn up to their rooms. 
“I should go help them,” I said.
“It’s a little late for that,” Netta said. 
“Is there something you’d like to discuss, Netta?”
The veins in Netta’s neck were fully constricted.  She started to pace, then stopped.
“I’m very relieved to hear that you had a ‘lovely’ afternoon, Christina.  Your happiness is my first priority, after all.”
“What does my lovely afternoon have to do with anything?”
Netta wasn’t listening to me.  Still, I stood there, daydreaming about my lovely afternoon.
“I understand your wanting to have some free time.  I do.  But if it interferes with your responsibilities here, then I’m afraid you’ll have to alter your...activities, somewhat.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“It’s time for dinner,” Netta said, waving me away. “Please make sure the children have washed up.”
From where I was standing in the kitchen, I could see the framed print I’d given the Silverman family the day I arrived.  My eyes were drawn to it because of what it represented to me.  It was my sister’s painting--two open hands, offering to the world whatever love and truth and compassion they were capable of giving.  And in that moment, as Netta dismissed me, I felt sick at the thought that I had given her something so meaningful, so much so that in my imagination I pictured myself stealing it back from her, wondering if anyone would care, or even notice, that it was gone.
I walked upstairs, not really caring if the children ate dinner with dirty hands or not. I didn’t really care if Stuart and Soryah soaked themselves silly, day in and day out.  For all I cared, they could wallow in bathtubs full of their own filth.  
“Dinner time. Wash your hands,”  I called out tepidly. 
Lia was in her room.  I stopped in to steal the laptop.
“Do you mind if I use this for a minute?”
“Take it.”
“You owe me one, you know.”
“I know.”
I was hoping to check my e-mail before dinner, to see if Adam had written me back.  It had been three days since I’d written to him.  But still, nothing.
When dinner was over and the kids were put to bed, I rushed upstairs to my room to check my e-mail.  A newsletter from Martha Stewart Living.  A much-needed message from my sister.  But nothing from Adam.  Nothing.  
I picked up my purse and pulled out the cell phone.  The crinkled napkin from the bold young man came tumbling out.  I studied it, remembering his alien eyes.  I thought about Adam, about how much I missed him and desperately needed to hear how much he missed me.  
In the darkness of my dingy room, lying beneath the stained blanket of the fungus bed, I listened to late summer crickets, their mating calls lulling me to sleep.  Tears welled up in my eyes, always the tears. They kept coming, wouldn’t stop.  I needed to talk to Adam, to hear his voice, but wondered if he needed me.  I looked again at the crinkled napkin, then threw it on the floor.  
With everything to lose, I picked up the cell phone and dialed.