A passage about distraction from “Samsara,” a short story of about 5,000 words written for class.
Since her daughter entered college, she had a lot of time on her hands. What had originally been a text message a day turned into a word only every once in a while turned into nothing at all. And nothing was the worst. In many ways, no word, no trace was worse than the worst thing that could ever happen to a young woman living on her own for the first time.
There were tall hedges by the side of the house. These Lois cultivated religiously. She cut them down to size in great spiraling designs, with lampshade silhouettes, pear form. During that period when the police called every day to inform her about the ongoing missing person’s investigation carried out in her daughter’s name, Lois got creative with the yard work. She stood out on the lawn and routinely sculpted them—really just trying to maintain her domestic sphere—until the day her husband called out from the porch that if Lois didn’t leave the hedges alone, there would be nothing left.
Lois’s husband had a good job. A good job was a stable one, and a white-collared, briefcase-carrying, financial analysis managerial position with an investment firm on the Street was stable. It was constant right down to the late hours he worked on the odd days of the week, the sultry Dior he carried home on his sleeve to a wife feigning sleep in the dark.
On the weekends, Lois’s husband stayed home. With his jackhammer and chisel, he took it upon himself to break up all the cement surrounding the den, dig several feet into the foundation of the house, and reroute the water lines. After that, he patched everything up with fresh concrete mix. Then he needed to throw out the fireplace. Replace the carpet with hardwood. Repaint the walls.
Lois didn’t read the news, only cut vegetables for the slow cooker beside the kitchen phone. Down by Stony Brook, students made ribbons and buttons and put up fliers. Pressured for real information to release to the public, the press ran stories about the candlelit vigils, the classmate testimonials, and SUNY’s history of violence.
…from a short story of 5,000 words called “The Severe Love of Sisters.”
When wayfaring Viktor Pasternak drove into the sleepy town of Burr Ridge, traversing the shadowy foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the hell spawn-infested interstate to ask for Katherine Spencer’s hand, she instantly knew he was meant for her.
Or at least, that was one of many fantasies Anya and Katia had regarding the happy circumstances of their birth. Piecing together evidence from a handful of photographs and the lingering scent of lilacs pressed in the pockets of old dresses, the girls reinvented to their liking a history their widowed father preferred not to revisit.
In reality, all anyone knew for sure was that in Katherine Spencer’s many years of living and working in Burr Ridge, the shotgun-wielding auburn beauty had proven unquestionably capable of running a ranch alone. Yet when Viktor hitchhiked into town and persuaded her to hire him the winter of 1980, no one expected he would also convince her to marry him by spring. Small town gossip had it that Viktor poisoned Katherine within three years of their hasty wedding in order to inherit the ranch, but Anya and Katia knew they themselves were proof of their parents’ genuine love.
Gossip was one reason why invitations to barbeques and birthday parties always got lost en route to the Pasternaks’ mailbox. Viktor’s outlandish upper arm tattoos — which he said were a reminder of his Russian Orthodox faith — was another, and the remoteness of their ranch was a third. In any case, fantasy was an inexpendable occupation in the sisters’ early years. When they had only each other, theirs was always an equitable utopia, an impartial fairy tale in which Prince Charmings came in identical pairs and there was never a single fairest of them all.
This is another installment in the short story I’ve been working on. It’s an attempt to create a feel-good intermission in a tragicomedy.
The day after being released from her duties at Wine and Dine, Mona did as any strong, independent woman would do and practiced yoga on her balcony before the rising sun.
At eight in the morning, Miami traffic drowned out the songbirds, and the scent of orange chai brewing on the tabletop was overwhelmed by remnants of yesterday’s Gulf Coast catch rotting in back-alley dumpsters.
Yet Mona smiled as she performed salutations to the sky, her heart beating in tandem with the mp3 mimicry of ocean waves crashing upon the beach. Nothing should be quite as cathartic as sudden unemployment. She thought about jogging in the park, dancing in the dark and spending hours at the record store, just browsing. She imagined the world unobstructed by deadlines, and shuddered, unsettled by a sudden excess of freedom.
According to Guru Choudhury, the five steps to Creating a Better You includes identifying the toxic elements of one’s life, making reparations, wiping the slate clean, setting clear goals and visualizing success.
Thus in making a serious bid for DIY soul-searching, Mona first acknowledged her hunger.
Since she began to headline Wine and Dine nearly a decade ago, she ate little more than morsels in between sips of citrus water. In her prime, Mona could leave multiple-course dinners with her appetite piqued and her stomach empty, yet the maître d’ would watch her receding back with bated breath because gauntness in a critic was testament to her authority.
It was acceptance of this hunger which drove Mona all over the city in search of food, to the Chevalier Wine Cellar and the midtown Cheese Course. It led her to the fish farm on South Beach for shrimp and sashimi, then down to the farmer’s market on Sunset Drive where ripening fruits overflowing from their crates fermented in the street. She spent days filling her fridge with the delicacies of the sea and shore, ran her heels down to the sole hauling grocery bags alive with angry lobsters.
Step two entailed cooking and eating. Mona spent the next several weeks crushing tomatoes on the vine into caramelized onions, barding filet de bœuf with bacon grease and simmering capon breast in virgin olive oil while shaving white truffle over sautéed Mediterranean vegetables. She gained a healthy twenty pounds in the course of a month, elevating her BMI to an only moderately underweight status.
Besides cooking and eating, Mona even went so far as to blog about freelancing food. Some supporters of her old column made the transition, though other cyber anons preferred to bring up the reasons for her termination in ill-natured jest. In the meantime, the good Guru published Turning a Blind Eye to Anger, which she ordered. After that, she terminated the blog and seriously considered starting work on a memoir or throwing a plastic-ware party.
This is only the first part of something that hasn’t been titled yet. It’s sort of an experiment in introducing characters with a bang.
At eight in the evening, the Calle de Sonrisas resounded with the clatter of heels and young people’s laughter steeped in herbal humor. The sun had barely set and the air was heavy with the scent of sea salt and charcoal from the neighbors’ patios.
A clear breeze wafted through the open skylight of Mona Lee’s penthouse bathroom where she, sweating in the heat of Miami in July, sank naked into the bath with a glass of her late grandfather’s prized No.2 1889 cognac.
The tub was short for Mona, as were most men in her life, she thought regrettably as she crossed a pair of emaciated legs over the edge of the bath. She was sore all over after a long day, and gently kneaded her stringent muscles, taut tendons with the tips of her fingers.
It had been a long day in court, spent sitting under scrutiny on the wrong side of the courtroom. It had been an exceptionally long, disappointing afternoon of bogus verdicts, millions lost and pink slips. Her ass hurt from the hard wooden benches and from shame, from her boss’ pointed displeasure.
But that was no good to dwell on when the night was new and the bath hot.
Closing her eyes, Mona thought instead of exotic restaurants, dark evening dresses heavy with the fame of the names they carried, avant garde dishes of third world portions hand-carved by some of the most self-indulgent chefs in Miami.
She thought of the curious eyes of waiters peeking out at her from kitchen windows and how they dazzled at the tiny James Beard medal clipped into her lapel.
She held her breath in recollection of crisp aftershave, from that night she leaned forward and whispered into the ear of her vegetarian editor-in-chief, “Not the sea cucumbers,” just as one wriggled on the plate.
And as the blood fumed beneath her skin, Mona slid beneath the scorching surface of the bathwater. A trail of oxygen sacs rolled toward the surface as she exhaled.
Mona recalled late-night coffee in the newsroom with Tom Geier, writing the cover piece of “Wine and Dine” magazine in a haze of drunken eloquence. He held his liquor better than she did, which wasn’t saying much if the flare in his cheek and the tousle of his hair and the one more open button in his shirt than was appropriate meant anything.
“I think you mean the old-world balsamic oil was sensuous, not sensual,” he had said, leaning close over Mona’s shoulder.
There was the screech of wheels on the street, the crack of skulls against brick, a gunshot in the distance barely distinguishable from the sound of shattering glass beside the edge of the tub. The salsa bars across the street were opening up shop for the night.
Mona shut it all out, her toes trembling above the surface of the water.
Sweat, sex, psychological distress. There was the rumble of the earth in heat, the planet turning on its side and South America drowning from the tilt of the oceans. Mona recalled nearly drowning in the sink as an infant. The need to breathe so absolute back then, she had opened her lungs to the faucet thundering over her face before the giantess hands of her mother rescued her.
She broke the surface gasping for air, a murky fluid spreading like octopus nerve poison between her legs. Standing from the bath, Mona turned her face toward the cool shaft of starlight falling through the window, dripping with fatigue.