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Majoring in Magda (2005)

Magda had won a scholarship offered by Frida’s client Bimbo SA, the Mexican baked goods concern that Frida had helped increase its route sales by 40% in three months. She earned a shot at El Norte by applying to, and being accepted by, Temple University’s Fox School of Business, conditional on improving her English skills during the summer. Samantha, for her part, had found Magda’s posting for a housemate on a board at the Liacouras Center at a David Byrne concert. Magda never asked Samantha if Dimitri were a casanova. In fact, given her poor English skills, it was amazing that she could interview potential housemates in English. Dimitri had to start looking past his sister and brother-in-law’s house in Princeton. Dimitri’s command of three languages, Russian, Hebrew, and English, and his advanced standing in the Master’s program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages didn’t hurt either.
The apartment was down in the Temple University ghetto. Samantha cautioned Dimitri about living on-campus, but he wasn’t about to keep his 280 ZX with the salt-eaten exhaust system when he could get $2000 for it as a classic. So Dimitri would have to walk or take the bus everywhere he went, and his tuition grant had no money to subsidize housing. So here he was, on a third floor of a N. 16th St.row house, overlooking a rat-infested, trash-strewn vacant lot where two houses had been pulled down. A stump, five feet in diameter, remained from a junk tree that had burst through the foundation and crashed through the basement and first floor. I wonder what the neighbors thought when they looked through the window and saw the forest on the insideof the house. Did they just pass by, thinking it was an indoor pot farm?
The house itself had art deco molding and wood trim – if you could call it “art” when the red paint had faded to a washed-out fuchsia, and when you touched the wood, it crumbled as if it were made of plaster. Like most of the other houses on the block, its concrete steps were cracked or crumbling. Unlike most of the other houses, the wobbly wrought-iron railing remained in place, and from the change in color of the concrete where the railing met the steps, had recently been reseated.  The steps to the second floor were hardwood – freshly sanded and polished. Dimitri was impressed. On the way to the third floor, a threadbare indoor-outdoor rug whose color palette ranged from a dull weave of mud-brown and grey at the walls to the indescribable nothingness of packed clay where thousands of feet had tread.  Samantha groaned. Su forma es demasiado saludante para ser tan cansada, thought Magda. Samantha looked too healthy to be out of breath.
In the apartment, things looked up. The ceiling was a fresh white with new fixtures. The wood floor was buffed, and Magda’s space rugs and wall hangings showed a cross of good taste and ethnic pride, representing the best of the indigenous textile trade around Puebla. The appliances were old but functional, and unlike the original design of row houses built to contain the new industrial workforce of the turn of the century, cabinets and closets popped out of strategic places in each room. This cut into the evident living space, but as Samantha kept reminding Dimitri when he was staying with her after getting caught with a naked girl between his legs in Atlantic City, nobody wants to look at your personal stuff.  Magda really tried, but she sounded like this:
Dimitri: So how long have you lived here?
What length have you lived here?
Magda: Long in time?
Long in time?
Dimitri: (Long in what else?) Yes, when did you come to Philadelphia?
If when you come to Philadelphia?
Magda: Okey, okey, I come in April and I move from one week.
Uh, I came to find this apartment in April. I moved my stuff in last week.
Magda: I study the business. What you will study?
I am in the Fox School of Management, studying business. What’s your major?
Dimitri: TESOL.
Tea soul
Magda: Ehhhh, Tea soul?
Ehhhh. Tea soul? (What is with this college, and what is this, herbology?)
Dimitri: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I can use you as a guinea pig.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I can to use you as the African pig.
Magda: Perdon? You say, “pig from the west of Africa?
Dimitri: No, no, it’s an expression. Guinea pigs are little animals, like rabbits. Scientists use this animal to test drugs and cosmetics on. I can test my skills on you to see if I can make your English better.
No, no, it an expressing. Guinea pigs are little animals. I like rabbits. Scientists use this animal to test drogas (farmaceuticos?) and … I can test you my skills and see your English better.
Magda: Good, good. I can help you if you have a math class. You can help me English better.
Good, good. I can help you with math, and you can help me in English.
(¿Que debo preguntarlo?)
Magda: Is the Samantha your new? (Samantha crosses her legs , a little uncomfortable, and smiles nervously)
Is Samantha your girlfriend?
Dimitri: Well, it’s a long story. But let’s say we’re very close. Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?
Well, it long story. But let say were very close to it. Are you married? Do you have a boy or friend?
Magda: I am a … we call it “soltera.” No boy, no girl. My friend is in Mexico.
I am unmarried and have no children. My friend is in Mexico.
Dimitri: Good. When do you get to see him next?
Good. When do you get him to see him next?
Magda: I get him since made in high school.
I became an item with her in high school.
(Magda had a real issue with personal pronouns; in this case, that was a good thing.)
Magda (to Samantha): What length of time you have him?
How long have you been with him?
Samantha: I can’t really say I have him. It’s hard to have a guy like Dimbo. He can be an asshole sometimes, but he’s contagious.
I can really say, I have him (no?). Is hard to have a … like Dimbo. He can be … some times, but he is infection.
Magda: Infection of elephants?
Infection of elefantes?
Samantha and Dimitri look at each other and giggle. Both answer: Dimbo, not Dumbo! It’s a nickname.
(pause) Dimbo, not Dumbo! It’s a nick name.
Magda (laughs nervously): Oh, not elefante. Light bomb.
Oh, not elefante. Light bombera.
Samantha (reaches over and puts her hand on Magda’s hand and smiles at her, looking into her eyes): You’ll do fine. You keep trying.
You do fine. You keep to trying. (Flinches at first, then returns warm look and locks fingers with Samantha and smiles.)
Magda: You watch careful, Dimbo, I take him from you!
You watch out, Dimbo, I will take her from you!
As Magda, Samantha, and Dimitri hacked out a conversation in one-and-a-half languages, it became clear that Magda was looking for a man as a housemate because of security reasons, but really wanted one with a girlfriend. Hearing sex, in Magda’s mind, was better than being hit on for it. As for her situation, Samantha figured out that Magda was, in fact, a lesbian, and that her comment about taking Samantha from Dimitri was a jibe with a foot in fact. Magda had not mentioned Flora by name, choosing the code phrase, “mi socia,” or “mi compañera.” Samantha didn’t understand the female suffix at first, and Dimitri missed it completely. But Samantha noticed the slight flush in Magda’s light complexion when she tried to talk about Flora. Magda also squeezed her slight legs together and looked up. It seemed that Magda touched her own right thigh just below her denim miniskirt.
Magda’s mind wandered to the first time she suspected that she wanted to be with a woman. In Catholic Mexico, it was a matter of common knowledge that homosexuals were going to hell, and even heterosexual sex outside of marriage was a mortal sin. In this repressive environment, the liberalization of the previous decade seemed more rumor than fact. Even Flora, the journalist who wore tie-dye and hemp sandals, found herself dogged by boys, and later, young men, who wanted to be her first encounter. They even said so. Frida knew Flora, when the latter was a chubbly teenager and Frida, a little girl. By the tie-dye and hemp days, Flora’s baby fat had disappeared, but her curves had not.
When Frida introduced them at the conference, only she knew that her best friend would never be interested in boys. Or in men. It was a lucky bit of matchmaking to surmise that Magda would be interested in Flora. As Magda sat in front of Dimitri and the smoking-hot Samantha, Magda’s mind wandered and her whole body thought about her “socia.” Flora’s broad, soft facial features. Flora’s rich latte skin. The shape of Flora’s thighs, her calves. The infinitude of ways that she touched Magda with all her body. And those incomparable hands. Magda didn’t notice that her right foot had slipped out of her sandal, embraced her left, and all her toes were curling.
All parties snapped out of their reverie, and concluded their business. Dimitri paid Magda the $250 for the first month’s rent. He shook her hand, put his left hand on her right shoulder, and placed a chaste kiss on her right cheek. Samantha hugged the shorter woman around the shoulders, while receiving Magda’s arms around her waist. The embrace lasted only a few seconds, but engaged both women from head to toe. They kissed, just for an instant, and smiled.
On the way out of the row house, Dimitri stumbled over Samantha’s ankle and caught himself on the wrought-iron railing. Whispering a silent “thank-you” to the landlord for making that repair before worrying about the non-carpet on the steps, he turned to Samantha, who had grabbed his other arm to keep him from falling.
“You like her, don’t you.”
“She seems really nice. You’ll have a great roommate.”
“And which one will you sleep with?”
Samantha swatted Dimitri over the head with her Fendi purse.

About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at

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