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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Kibbutzniks Forever (1993)

“Dear Margie,

“I have just finished unpacking my last box of music at the new flat in Elkins Park. As you suggested, it costs way too much, and my savings are going to disappear if I can’t find more people to share it with – but that’s the idea. I like living with other people, and the potential housemates I have found seem cool. I like the psychologist a lot. I fed her my acorn squash bisque and spinach-pesto lasagna, and her response was, “Are you sure you didn’t sneak any meat into this?” I think they had the genders wrong when they said that old story about men’s hearts and stomachs. Her boyfriend is coming over this weekend. She says he wouldn’t share space with anyone unless they paid big money. “So what does he need to see the place for?” I asked. She just looked at me like I was from Mars, not Israel.

“School is OK. They love me because I sing, speak Hebrew, and think better than anyone here, but some times they just tell me they think I am ‘too full of myself,’ they call it. I would rather not be full of what some of them are full of, and being full of them doesn’t sound good, either. Who else should I be full of? They don’t know that I have already taken a trip up to Manhattan to see about conducting a youth orchestra. The youth orchestra rehearses on Saturday mornings. Shabbat! Oy, schande!  Well, fuck them if they can’t hear a joke – did I say that right?

“Did you watch Rabin and Arafat shake hands yesterday? Arafat looked like a schoolboy at recess, and Rabin looked like he had already been blown up by terrorists and put back together. Look. I grew up there. Bombs fell in our orchards. Some of our kibbutzniks died at their hands. I never kicked all the Palestinians out of a village, planted European pine trees there, and showed it to foundations like he did. I should be the one that looks like a zombie, not him. Well, history has an old body and an eternally young face, I guess.

“You won’t believe who I met here this week. Remember that kid with the Russian accent I played music with on the kibbutz? Dimitri – it was him! It looks like he made a job for himself as a lounge lizard, had a fling with the lounge manager, but left for a better opportunity in Atlantic City, and then made it with a Mafioso girl. He’s in Philly now, getting a teaching degree. I think I will go ride  – how do you call it – ball turret gunner with him. Just kidding. It looks like I will be too busy here.

“Speaking about busy, how’s your appeal going? Do they still think that you asked for your depression? They are threatening themselves with the loss of a good country doctor, just the kind they need. What the hell is wrong with them. Are you getting medication? What about that gym we belonged to?  I really hope you can pull yourself together, Margie.

Love,
Rafi”

“p.s. Albert Belle hammering and Steve Olin unhittable. Go Windians!”

Actually, Rafi was going out as Dimitri’s wingman. But Dimitri was in school again, too – this time working on a master’s degree in education. The close call under the boardwalk at Atlantic City, and the subsequent guilt over leaving Samantha first for the job, and then for the girl, seemed to age Dimitri. Tonight, they were off to the Drake Tavern, but from there it was the Regal in Warrington or the Ritz Theaters in Center City, depending on the movie they chose. But first, there was some catching up to do.

The Drake Tavern sat several steps up the ladder from the normal neighborhood bar, with its highly buffed oak bar and tables turning up their brass fixture nostrils at the Sheraton bar in Willow Grove, about fifteen minutes away. The kitchen manager doubled as the operations manager of Drake Catering. The owner and head chef dueled against each other to create new five-star versions of bar food.  On a weekend night, you couldn’t breathe in the Drake, but it wasn’t for the smoke – Pennsylvania bars were in the process of going smoke-free. Fifty-five year-old boomers, men and women alike, bump butts with lithe 25-year-olds looking to get laid. College students mill around, counting on older frat boys and other friends to  buy the pitchers while they spent their parents’ college savings accounts on the pomegranate gruyere chicken wings and oysters provençal.

But this was a Tuesday night, and the two guys looked pretty good to the waitress, so they got a seat with a direct view of Baseball Tonight. The plan was to have a few beers, eat the lower-budget offerings on the menu, and exchange scorecards. Dimitri started.

“So if you wanted to sing opera, why aren’t you at the Seminary right up Broadway from Lincoln Center?

“You ever been to Manhattan? It’s crazy there.”

“Crazy like you?”

“No, crazy like Bangladesh. Do you know why there are no women and families begging on the street corner, Dimya?

“Duh?! In SCHOOL?”

“No, you Amerikanetz, it’s because they’re pushed off to less desirable spots by the men. It’s psychic water torture. Beside, the Seminary is run by the mitzvah police. I couldn’t get out to rehearsals.”

“Yeah.”

“So what the hell did you do? Last time I checked, you were starting a full-time concert career!”

“Yeah, I was the only lounge lizard in A. C. who took requests for Chopin and Liszt among the usual jazz standards. You’d like my fake book.”

“Your what book?!?!” responded a startled Rafi.

“FAKE book, durak! It’s a book that has one-page versions of jazz and pop repertoire, with the melody and chords, and any big changes. I copied my Liszt and Chopin material, and just punched the copies and stuck them in the binder. Voila – fake book, multicultural style!”

“So you never told me what happened.”

“Yeah, I’m embarrassed. The chick that had set me up as a pianist fell in love with me. So when I needed her to get me out of that Atlantic City jail, and she wanted to know what happened, what could I tell her? “

“Ouch.”

“Right, Ouch. Do you still talk to Margie?”

“In fact, I just sent off a letter this morning.”

Dimitri adopted his most laughable affect, one that could have been plucked from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.  “Dearest Margie, I think nothing but thoughts of you from morning to night. Does your heart tremble for me so that you can feel anything through that fat-filled breast? Do you cry your tears uphill over those chubby cheeks? Do your thighs, wobbling like lard-filled water mains…”

“Mamzer! Shut up or I’ll…”

It was too late for Rafi to threaten what he would do to Dimitri – he had already spun Dimitri out of his seat and was in position to execute a jiu-jitsu hip throw.

“Let me down, you gorilla!”

“OK, but no more about Margie. The poor girl doesn’t get that I’m here as much to escape her as to get back into music full-time. So we’ll take it that Stephanie, (was it?) didn’t like you fucking around on her. Were you living with her?”

Dimitri explained that he never was, but after the success of Second Tuesdays at the Red Lobster, Samantha kept taking him home. When Dimitri got the offer from the Mafia wise guy, Samantha even helped with the apartment search.  Yeah, they were kind of going steady. Not quite living together, but wasn’t it too much to ask him to stay celibate for weeks at a time, there in the glitz and glitter of the Boardwalk?

“Clear, no,” agreed Rafi. “You would have to know you love the woman to stand the separation. Also, it’s too easy for you.”

“What? What’s too easy?”

“Women,” continued Rafi. “I have never met a woman and gone home with her on the same night. Remember on the Kibbutz, you just took the leading lady, put her barefoot and braless on the baby grand, and lit up her cigarette.”

“I remember. You went running, didn’t you? Why didn’t you find a chick out of the chorus? Rafi-man, when you have the baton, you have the same power. Why don’t you use it?”

“I try. I fail. I just don’t know how. Women like me, but they don’t love me. That’s probably why I didn’t leave Margie faster.”

Rafi paused. Dimitri, for the moment, respected Rafi’s silence. When Rafi continued, he returned to Dimitri’s situation and Dimitri’s woman problems.

“So what ever happened to Sabrina, any…”

“Samantha,” Dimitri interrupted, with a hint of annoyance in his voice.

“Samantha. Do you still talk to her?”

“Well, I lived with her for a few months after the A. C. fiasco, but you can imagine that it was uncomfortable. She booked me for two evenings a month at the restaurant, and helped me get a job with a competitor. We even tried couples counseling, but I couldn’t connect to her that way.”

“You’d slept with her a lot of time, before, yes?” Every now and then, Rafi’s grammar would slip into word-for-word translation from Hebrew.

“Yes, she was hot. Smoking hot, and flirty as well. Everything I could want. But I’m just unable to think about settling down right now.”

“You’re a man of twenty-nine fucking years, Dim-bulb! You haven’t grown up a bit since Hovevei Tzion. That was ten years ago. What do you think, Madonna is going to walk in here, and want to fuck?”

“No, actually I still sleep over there at least once a week. We had to settle for an open relationship, because the sex is too hot for either of us to give up, but she wants to meet someone who will marry her and…”

“You’re an asshole American man  who can’t commit.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Damn, thought Rafi. This wolf had better introduce me to Samantha.

Rafi switched the subject. “So what has you going to education? For the same money, don’t you think an MBA would bring you more money?”

“You forget. The program in Israel is only accredited as an associate’s degree in the US. I still need an undergraduate degree in order to do anything professional. So I’m going for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.”

“Like me.”

“Hables tu en español?”

“I don’t think you do. But you’ll have to teach Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and you can’t learn all those languages. But you’ll learn.”

“Rafi, did you ever teach in a classroom?

“Both here and on the Kibbutz. All Jewish kids, though. They all like my accent, and besides, I don’t have to prepare.”

“You’re no help. I’m guessing that I’ll wind up in the Barrio. But like you say, I don’t speak Spanish. Anyway, they have to learn English. I don’t have to learn anything except how to teach them. I just worry about what it will be like in the classroom.”

“I didn’t know that kids would be so disrespectful. In religious school, they mostly don’t want to be there. At Agnon, they had to take Hebrew seriously.”

A woman walked by, clutching her purse. Her strawberry blond hair swirled down her back, acting as a cape for her bare shoulders. The dress itself was vertically striped. And cinched in at the waist like business clothes. A beige belt with an oversized circular brass buckle held the assemblage together. Though strapless, the dress looked from the bust down as if it could have come from an office cubicle. The flip-flops and bare shoulders suggested that the office shoes had been kicked off on the way to the bar, and the matching beige jacket was draped over a chair in the bar area as a placeholder. Both men recognized this as the bathroom walk. The difference was that it was Dimitri who suggested the approach.

Rafi thought back to the volleyballers on the beach during the Haifa  Interzonal. He mustered his courage, approached the table with the beige jacket, and seeing that two of the four seats were empty, he sat down at one of the seats and addressed the cute, casually dressed brunette in Hebrew.

“Ah habibi, zocheret oti (Ah, sweetheart, do you remember me)?”

As Dimitri suggested, the brunette looked confused, but pleased.

Ani mazkir otach me-Haifa.”

The brunette looked confused now.

“Lo makirah oti?” Rafi switched to Italian. Abbiamo giocato il pallavolo insieme sulla spiaggia. Lei era con un gruppo da Italia. No?”

A flash of emotion crossed the brunette’s face. I am under her skin. Why isn’t the expression ’under her clothes?’ More fun, less bloody.

“Don’t you speak English?” the brunette shot back.

“Don’t you speak anything else?” replied Rafi, with a smile. OK, what would Dimitri do?

Rafi reached out and tapped the brunette’s left hand. “

“No, I guess not. You’re hands are soft, not like volleyballers’ hands. I thought I met you at the beach in Haifa. That girl played for hours every day. She also spoke Italian and Hebrew.”

“I don’t…”

“It’s OK. I live here now; I’m used to Americans. You take four years of language in high school, and you reach 25, you can’t speak it a word.”

“You’re a sabra?”

“I was born on a kibbutz that used to be a shooting gallery for the Suryans until we took the Golan.”

Rafi and the brunette, whose name was Deborah, were chatting away like old friends. Rafi wondered how Dimitri was making out with the blonde. That answer walked up to the table, with Dimitri guiding her.

“Rafi, this is Chris. It looks like you found her friend. I’m Dimitri.”

Dimitri offered his hand, Deborah took it. Rafi exchanged handshakes with Chris, and rephrased his approach to provide context. He thought he had met her on the beach, playing volleyball, in Haifa. And Chris, you look like Salman’s Mermaid, too. Good thing I prefer brunettes.

Over the next fifteen minutes, Dimitri and Rafi managed to get Chris and Deborah to buy another round of drinks and nachos with shredded white cheddar, olives, and jalapeños. Rafi suggested a film. Deborah suggested Philadelphia. Dimitri countered with Jurassic Park. Chris had seen that, and Deborah didn’t much want to. They settled on The Wedding Banquet by Ang Lee. Perfect date movie.

Perfect choice. Perfect non-double-date. The night concluded perfectly. Each man drove a lady home.

Death to Bromeliads (1992)

Eric Eschenbach, CEO of Plantopia, Inc. called an emergency meeting of his VP of Research, his manufacturing engineer, his technical advisor from Ohio State, and his general business analyst. Rafi happened to be the latter. As Rafi returned to his office after a run at Edgewater Park, he flipped open his Plantopia file, kicked off his shoes, and took a copy of a patent filing out of the file.  “Semipermeable container to protect cut flowers.”  OK, this is Patent Number 3,896,437. Probably about 1981. I remember – they got the science wrong, but the idea was right. That’s why Plantopia has a product. I’ll check the math on semipermeable membranes before the meeting.

Rafi had converted his quick mind and broad interests into a business career. Another sabra had managed to get him in front of a rich family by securing an invitation to a paddleball tournament. Rafi didn’t play paddleball; he had never heard of the game. But he was a solid Class B racquetball player, and he had picked up squash well enough to compete at the 13th Street Racquet Club. As a personnel recruiter, a job that any high school graduate could do, Rafi was the poorest member of the club by far. If he had better manners, he would have been able to get connected at a higher level to the business community in Cleveland. But he had five racquets, but four of them were broken due to his bad competitive disposition.

Given the opportunity to play paddleball with rich people, Rafi had practiced sitting on his temper. Literally. The 13th Street Club had a performance coach who used mindfulness meditation to control the internal game. Rafi signed up – and spent more time in a seated position, breathing, than he did playing against the coach. The coach acknowledged that the rich folk wouldn’t tolerate him sitting on his racquet (or paddle)  and breathing between points. In fact, by his fourth session, Rafi was practicing intelligent banter between points, win or lose.  When he got to the private club, he knew what to do.

“Rafi, I want you to meet Steve Longstreth. He’s looking to start a venture capital business of some sort. He’s also a pretty good paddleballer. Give him a go.”

Rafi exchanged pleasantries with the gold-haired twentysomething who looked like a model from GQ. Rafi’s white Lacoste polo shirt still had the creases from having been purchased earlier that day. Longstreth’s monogrammed polo was pressed, for heaven’s sake. Rafi’s socks showed the concern that evidenced their random selection from the sock drawer. Longstreth’s were again, monogrammed, and just as crisp as his shirt. Both men were wearing clean, well-fitting white shorts, but Longstreth’s looked better, naturally.

Five points into the match, the casual dialogue between points began. Rafi knew to let Longstreth initiate the conversation.

“You said you’re a composer. You can’t actually make a living doing that, can you?”
“No. I do it because my life is better that way. I make a living in personnel.”
“I have a friend who’s a headhunter. I’ll introduce you.”

Another few points in, Rafi starts.

“My friend says you’re in venture capital. What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to find funding for startups. I get a percentage of the investment if it works.”
“Even if the company goes bust?”
“Yep, Some firms keep on consulting to the venture capital company or the startup after the placement.”

Rafi was on serve, so he stopped the action for a moment.

“Do you do that?”
“No, I don’t think I’m credible as an analyst.”
“What kinds of projects would you do, if you could?”
“I’ve got a client with a waterjet cutting tool that’s really good with aerospace polymers. If I could only find out how much linear cut is available in the market, I could set a figure for the total available market for their machine.”
“I can do that – it’s a math problem. And an information problem.”
“Let’s finish the game. We’ll go to the bar, grab a drink, and talk.”

Rafi worked for Steve for three years until Steve closed down his office. Then Rafi picked up enough of Steve’s circle of friends as clients to open his Superior Avenue office. His prospects brightened when he started living with Margie, because they set their financial plan based on a low average of their two incomes, so they had saved some money for times when Rafi would not have business. The current client, Eric Eschenbach, was a childhood friend of Steve’s, so it was easy to convert Plantopia into a client. Now Rafi felt the cold industrial wood floor on the soles of his feet and thought back to the Kibbutz, where he would spend his free time as a child in the greenhouse.

Little Rafi in the khaki shorts, uniform shirt unbuttoned if on, barefoot in class or in the greenhouse. Little Rafi wandering through rows of U-shaped cucumbers, “desert-sweet” tomatoes, and hybrid tea roses. Little Rafi slipping a metal chip into the greenhouse lock so he could slip out of the dorm later and experiment with the controls, read the logs, or just daydream. Little Rafi with an incredible crush on his teacher. Little Rafi leaving the cafeteria without breakfast in order to take the bouquet of roses he had cut for her the previous night. Little Rafi learning to play the violin because he couldn’t drag a piano through the greenhouse doors – and he wanted to experiment on the growth rates of flowers and vegetables in response to music.

Now the client had grabbed a Plantopia package containing a bromeliad, a kind of jungle plant that uses its roots only to hold on to branches in the canopy and high understory, with a brilliant cactuslike efflorescence in the middle of waxy leaves. Noticing in fury that he could see three tiny insects called thrips inside the HD-PE plastic housing with the neoprene back and that the gas permeability was off enough to cause fogging on the display plastic, Eric punched through the semipermeable neoprene backing. He ripped out the unwitting bromeliad and its three unlucky thrips and choked the plant in his right fist as he drop kicked the package from a left hand drop. Then he dismembered the plant, leaf by leaf, until all the leaves were down and only the efflorescence remained. He squeezed the efflorescence like a wrist grip and smashed what was left of it on the window to the production facility and ground its every last drop of pigment into the plate glass. Now barefoot Rafi, all grown up, gazed over at the lab he had built in his shared office, at the packaged bromeliads and orchids sitting in gas-controlled Plexiglas boxes.

Now I don’t produce bouquets of puppy-love. Now I grow orchids in plastic. Greenhouses. Greenhouses. Who would have ever thought, Orkney the Orchid, that you need your own greenhouse where no boy can take of his shirt and tread barefoot?

Yeltsin On the Tank Part II

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Why so glum, habibi?” Margie used the diminutive that Rafi had taught her.
“Watch,” Rafi half-growled, half-pleaded, his normally barely distinguishable Israeli accent garbling the single word. Margie plopped in Gordon’s slightly tattered, downmarket black leather recliner and set her hands on Rafi’s shoulders in anticipation of giving a shoulder rub, but before the first squeak came out of the matching footstool on which Rafi sat,  she thought twice.
It was 6:45 am on a Wednesday morning during summer vacation. Rafi never adjusted his chin from the bookshelf that his left fist created, elbow on his knees. Barefoot, in jean cutoffs, and a tie-dye T-shirt with an irradiated indigo and orange peace sign on it, Rafi looked like he was Gordon’s twin, from the 6o’s and not a decade younger. Rafi last remembered going unshod in front of anyone he cared to impress when he was part of the Chovevei Tziyon dance troup performing r’kudey am, the national dances of Israel, for tourists. Oh, yes, and when Salman was in Israel for the Interzonal. I spent so much of the time playing beach volleyball with the Mermaid and her friends that there wasn’t any reason for shoes. Girls who were half the weight, physically and in every other measure, as Margie. Remote control in his right hand, he focused on the tank dominating the screen, and the scrolling English subtitles that some bleary-eyed State Department translator had spent all night refining. He could barely make out the white pouf of the alcoholic, frequently depressed President of the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic, but from the coverage from the previous day, he had the voice committed to tape recorder.
            “Citizens of Russia: On the night of 18-19 August 1991, the legally elected president of the country was removed from power.
Margie’s head snapped up. “This guy is crazy!” she exclaimed in her best “everybody-is-sleeping-except-for-my-obsessive-boyfriend” voice.
“Yeah. Hishtaga legamré. What if the guy in the tank shoots him in the crotch?”
“And that’s why you’re sitting here looking like a church choir director in summertime? I thought you had no use for the Party.”
“Margie, on  the kibbutz I hated everyone and everything, but I loved The Dream. These halutzim, the pioneers, saw what they did as prophecy, but the prophet was as much Marx as Moses.  It was on us to perfect the human spirit. Only we could bring about a true equality and carry out God’s vision. You’ve taken the Intro to Judaism class. What do the four most important words in the prayer service mean?”
“But there are six.”
“No, Margie, stick to the liturgy, not the Torah. Here they are, ‘L’takein olam b’malchut shadai.’ That means, ‘To perfect the world under the Kingship of Heaven.’ That’s Marx. That’s Engels. That’s Herzl and Golda and Ben-Gurion and…”
“Rafi.”
“What?”
“Rafi ben-Berak.”
“You get it! See, these bastards, from Stalin on, excepting Khrushchev, created a cult of personality. No Little Red Book, like Mao, but still! Communism was not tried and found difficult – “
“It was found difficult and left untried.”
 “That’s why I like you, Margie; you have less patience than me.”
“Birds of a feather. But why does it matter?”
“You sound like a chaver kibbutz, a real kibbutznik. “Mah ichpat l’cha? Do you have any idea how many times the other kids asked me what did I care? – ‘I don’t wanna do chalivat boker.’’Tough, it’s your responsibility.’ ‘Mah ichpat l’cha?”  Or, ‘There’s a big debate between Labor and the Party tonight.’’Mah ichpat l’cha?’  Or, ‘OK, batlan (good-for-nothing), can you clean your supplies off our lab bench before we go plant?’ Mah ichpat l’cha?’”
 “But Rafi,” Margie asked, half with credulity and half with empathy. Rafi cut off her response.
“It does matter! If Communism is proven fraudulent, who the hell am I, anyway!?”
The commentator was trying something akin to historical analysis.
“He’s talking so far out his asshole that his head comes out in the same place and nobody can tell the difference.”
Click. Now MSNBC was replaying the speech, but in addition to the crawl, there was  a twentysomething (maybe) voice-over talent reading the State Department translation. At least, as far as Rafi could discern, the State Department knew Russian. The Soviet guys didn’t know any English, as anyone who was alive twenty-four hours ago knew by now.
            “Regardless of the reasons given for his removal, we are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and severe trials being experienced by the people, the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character.
            “The peoples of Russia are becoming masters of their destiny. The uncontrolled powers of unconstitutional organs have been considerably limited, and this includes party organs.”
“Would it make you happier if the people chose Communism?” interjected Margie.
“Later,” Rafi snapped – but then reached back and patted Margie’s left knee with the hand that had cradled his brooding chin. The broadcast continued.
            “…has adopted a resolute position toward the Union Treaty striving for the unity of the Soviet Union and unity of Russia. Our position on this issue permitted a considerable acceleration of the preparation of this treaty, to coordinate it with all the republics and to determine the date of signing as August 20. Tomorrow’s signing has been canceled.
            “These developments gave rise to angry reactionary forces, pushed them to irresponsible   and adventurist attempts to solve the most complicated political and economic problems by methods of force. Attempts to realize a coup have been tried earlier.
            “We considered and consider that such methods of force are unacceptable. They discredit the union in the eyes of the whole world, undermine our prestige in the world community, and return us to the Cold War era along with the Soviet Union’s isolation in the world community. All of this forces us to proclaim that the so-called committee’s ascendancy to power is unlawful.
            “Accordingly we proclaim all decisions and instructions of this committee to be unlawful.
            “We are confident that the organs of local power will unswervingly adhere to constitutional laws and decrees of the president of Russia.
            “We appeal to citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.
The speech continued for another moment. Margie delivered that promised shoulder-rub. Ted Koppel, his own coif looking like he had never missed a moment’s sleep, was commenting on ABC.  Neither person made the obvious comment, until after ABC inserted a media portrait of Yeltsin in the lower left corner of the screen. Without a word, Rafi and Margie started giggling. Then they grabbed their faces to suppress the growing laughter. Rafi’s olive cheeks glowed no less red than Margie’s vitiliginous ones. Laughter turned into breathless hacking. Tears puddling on his hand, eyes slammed shut, Rafi said it.
“Do they share a stylist?”
“Or a wig??”
It was over. Both witnesses to history convulsed in hacking, snorting, and eventually belly-produced laughter. Neither could snatch more than a thimbleful of breath for the next week. It must have been at least five minutes, because Rafi had all-but fainted. Death by hairpiece?
Margie’s sister had woken up, angry. She only jumped out of bed when she recognized that this was no regular mirthful outburst. Neither Rafi nor Margie could notice that she had entered the den with two glasses of water. Neither noticed until the thermal shock hit that she had unloaded matching glasses of ice water on them.
“(gasp)”
“(gasp)”
The coughing slowed. Both squinted up, gratefully. Neither made excuses, but neither could explain it if they tried. Later in the day, when Koppel was repeating the claim that if the putsch collapses, it would be a result of the greatest blunder in the history of the post-Vietnam world, and the Yeltsin insert would materialize again, Margie’s sister was at the verge of losing control of her guffaws. Rafi, still barefoot, still without breakfast, offered to get a glass of ice water.

Magda (1991)

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Fulgencia, Anna’s mom, had returned to Puebla several times during the first year after her fancy clothes and her Bible had tiptoed out when Anna was 8. Each time, the mother became more sarcastic toward the daughter, gradually moving to open rage. It was as if the mother returned only to throw aside her previous life by destroying the links that bound her to those who loved her. Anna, try as she might, could not move past the place that children go when a parent leaves, by abandonment, divorce, or death.  One morning, she would look up at the crucifix she took off the wall – that wall in that room with that empty bed for one alone – and hurl invective at a God she had started doubting long ago. The very next morning she would kneel in front of the crucifix, with its cast-iron martyr peering out from under his crown of thorns, and beg Him to care for her mother and to remember her among the myriad billions of believers on this world or any other.
When she was eleven years old, she had discovered her classmate Magdalena sitting cross-legged in front of the giant sycamore tree in the school’s courtyard. This deciduous gift came from the Archdiocese of Seville as part of the earthquake reconstruction effort sixteen years earlier. The tree towered above the stumpy palmeras of the native climate, its bark looking like an endless row of greenish chameleons by comparison to the scaly brown exoskeleton of the much smaller palms. Magdalena’s light skin and blond hair marked her as an outsider. Anna felt like an outsider on the inside. Since Magda’s Danish mother had divorced her father and returned to Copenhagen, Magda and Anna shared parallel lives, but until this Tuesday in October, a bright sunny interpause in a month of solid rain, they had never spoken.
Wordlessly, Anna sat down on an exposed root of the great tree. Unlike the sticklike Magdalena, Anna had hips to tuck under herself even as a sixth grader. Noticing the slighter girl’s shoes neatly placed next to her schoolbooks, Anna placed hers the same way. The girls sat in lotus position like two yogis.
“What are you reading?” Anna asked.
“La Indagacion de la Poesia.”
“Mande?”, which is the Mexican idiom for, “I did not get that. Again, please!”
“It’s one of my brother Marco’s textbooks. When I was born, I was careful to choose a family that would have a brother ten years older, so I could read his books.”
“With my luck,” replied Anna, “he would have been a naco futbolista.”
“That was part of the bargain. If he wasn’t a reader, I don’t get born.”
Si, claro. Por supuesto.”  Anna had never heard the white stick-girl talk before. She liked it. “What would he do if he knew you had his book? I’m telling, jajaja!”
“You don’t know where I live. In fact, you don’t even know my name, do you, burra?”
Magdalena’s tone, the little toss she gave of her rich Mexican brown hair, and the furtive wink of her Danish blue eyes put the lie to the harsh words she had just uttered.
“Magdalena da Silva Jort. Babosa.”
Mande? How did you know my matronymic?” Magda’s eyes widened, and her thin lips remained parted slightly at the end of her question. She blushed, more from embarrassment than from anger. The idea of a nearly-complete stranger knowing such a personal detail, especially as she perceived her mother as having abandoned her, felt like a violation.
“I do my research.” When the girls were in fourth grade, Anna had noticed a tall, blonde woman in the school. Perhaps it would be better to say that the tall, blonde woman penetrated Anna’s consciousness, striking a silent blow to Anna’s self-image and placing a permanent chip on her shoulder. Anna walked in the tall woman’s shadow to the office, and hid in the stairwell until she saw which girl left, hand-in-hand, with her goddess mom. Anna had the classroom responsibility of running messages to and from her classroom, so she spent the last three periods praying that the Sra. Morales would ask her to take something to the office. The moment finally arrived in art class. A new poster and English phonics game had arrived earlier in the day, but Sra. Morales had left it in the copy room by accident. Her lesson for last period depended on having this material, so she sent Anna to retrieve it. Anna feigned casual disinterest when she glanced at the early dismissal sheet, and there it was:
Heike Hjort      Magdalena da Silva
Now Magdalena da Silva Hjort was reaching for her shoes.
“No, don’t,” Anna pleaded. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“It’s just… just… nobody talks – uses matronymics. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“So tell me about, who is that, Villanueva?”
“Yes. He says that the central moment in the creation of a poem is like the moment of consciousness. Like the way the first man realized that he was a man and not an ape.”
“Yes! I think that this is the big idea in being human. Every moment is a new awareness…”
“A new possibility! And a whole universe is contained in it!” Magdalena gushed.
“Magda, would you read that passage to me?”
Magdalena read from the book. The entire passage occupied a page and a half, but it took up most of recess to read. That is, to read a single paragraph of it. The language was dense for an adult, and these girls were eleven and thirteen. But they savored the language, the thoughts, the seriousness, the ADULTness of it, and they interrupted themselves interrupting the reading. Occasionally, Magda would look up whenever an older boy took up position nearby. She would shoot the boy a cross look and try to pick up where she and Anna had left off.
“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Magda sniffed.
“Do what? Who?” Anna replied.
“The boys. They haven’t stopped coming since you sat down. Do they do that to you all the time?”
“No, but maybe,” speculated Anna, “I just don’t notice. That’s bruto. Barbaro.
“They don’t do that to me, and I guess I could carry their naquisimo baby.”
The bell rang, indicating that the children had five minutes left to go back to class. Both girls gathered their shoes, replaced their lunches, barely touched, in their book bags and caught each other’s gaze. Anna spoke first.
“Do you want to come over after school?”
“I’d love to! But I have to take my younger brother home. Then I have to…” The words froze between Magda’s larynx and tongue.
“My mom left too.” With that, Anna placed her free hand on Magda’s shoulder. The girls hugged. “I’ll come to your house, then. My father knows I usually stay in the library, so he won’t expect me.”
Even to the European thinness of their lips, the girls saw themselves reflected in the other.