Hatikvah

Everyone else is already in the water, but I’m still on shore. I stand on a stretch of cool beach watching dozens of other people—some whom I know, some whom I don’t—writhe and splash and shout and struggle to come to terms with the fact that they don’t need to paddle to keep their heads above water.

It’s our third full day in Israel. That morning we’d hiked a mountain, toured an ancient fortress, descended the mountain (much to the dismay of my trembling inner thighs), and gorged ourselves on a buffet lunch as only those who’ve gone without breakfast can. Then we’d driven here, changed, and shuffled into the water. Well, everyone else had. I’d hung back, nervous.

“Come on,” Alex shouts, floating by on his back like an otter. Tanya has already waded in. I’ve lost track of Julia. My sister is in up to her neck. “Get in, Claire!” she hollers.

Fine.

When we were younger, 12 and 9, she was the one who dove into the deep end of our backyard pool while I took the stairs on the opposite side. I enter the Dead Sea in a similar fashion, mincing step after mincing step, wincing when my foot scrapes a salt rock, shuddering at the cold.

“Come on, Claire!” The call comes from Isaac this time—he bobs in front of me, hands held out in encouragement as though I’m a toddler in floaties. Slowly, painfully, I creep along the sea floor until the water rises to my navel.

***

When my sister, Eleanor, first asked me to come to Israel with her, I thought she was joking. Then, I thought she was insane. But she wore me down with the usual little-sister pleas of, “I really want you to be there,” and in the end the thought of her spending Christmas in Israel by herself (well, with a bunch of strangers) was too much for my older sister’s conscience to bear. I paid the deposit and reserved my spot on the trip.

Then, I panicked. I cried. I called my mom. I cried some more. I didn’t want to jet off to a foreign country—a war-torn one at that—over the holidays. I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of horrible college-age kids for ten days without respite. I didn’t want to risk getting lost or stolen or having an awful time or my parents disowning me because I wasn’t home for Christmas. (They both encouraged me to go on the trip, but I had my suspicions.) There’s a tenacity to my doubts. They seep in like water and take root like seeds, each one sprouting in the space of a few seconds: The ultimate chain reaction.

But by that time it was too late. I’d promised Eleanor, I’d paid the fee, and my relatives had preemptively forgiven me. I was going. I packed The Fellowship of the Ring to distract me from my misery.

***

Isaac is talking about a brick. He’s telling us all about the time freshman year he got so drunk that he smashed a full handle, pulled a brick out of a wall, and woke up cuddling said brick in his regulation twin bed. Julia almost falls off her own bed, she’s laughing so hard.

She, Tanya, Isaac, and I are sitting in our cottage-like room in a kibbutz in Gonen, just north of the Sea of Galilee. We’re about to attend Shabbat services—Isaac wears a button-down, and the rest of us are in dresses. It’s the first time I’ve looked marginally presentable all trip. We’re biding the time before dinner telling stories that should be way too personal to share with people we’ve known only five days. Somehow, though, they’re not.

By the time Isaac finishes I’m in hysterics, tears free-flowing down my face. I feel a dull, unfamiliar ache in my stomach: My abdominal muscles are on fire.

Then Tanya starts in with a similar story, and I convulse all over again. Soon it’s my turn, and I gasp my way through my own tale. I try to remember the last time I laughed this hard. I can’t.

***

“The Western Wall feels like cold soap,” I write in my journal on December 29. “Touching it is like touching time. The currents coursing through it also run through human fingers; we can jump right in without breaking the connection.”

I’m not sure if the jolt in my fingers when I touch the wall is real or imagined, but as soon as it happens everything else melts away. My surroundings blur out like fogged-up glasses until the wall and I stand there, alone, holding each other up. I trace a dozen of the thousands of tiny bits of paper shoved into its cracks, each one representing someone else’s blind hope. I press my cheek up against it. Without warning, I begin to cry.

I walk backward away from the wall (no turning your back on God in his country) still crying, and that’s when Eleanor finds me. I lean into her shoulder and she envelops me in arms and long red hair, some of which lands in my mouth. When I stop crying, we walk backward the rest of the way holding hands.

***

Elad and I race each other up the stairs of our hotel in Jerusalem. We don’t know it at the time, but there are only seven floors—we stop at the sixth, winded. We climb slowly the rest of the way and laugh when it’s only one flight. It’s freezing out on the roof; I cinch the hood of my thin sweatshirt tight around my ears. In front of us stretches New Jerusalem, modern and boxy. Old Jerusalem lies behind. I turn and look at it. “That’s what I thought it would look like,” I say Elad laughs.

He’s always laughing. He laughs at my horrible Hebrew accent and at my funny way of describing things. He also laughs when he tells me about the time his father visited Jerusalem. Orthodox men there hand out strings of red thread in exchange for a few Shekel. If you pay them, they tie a string around your wrist—a blessing of sorts. Elad tells me that when he was drafted in the army (a commander in charge of his own unit), his father came to Jerusalem to pray. “He got one,” Elad says, gesturing to the men handing out strings. “He still wears it. When your son goes to the army, you do everything.”

He tells me that his friend died in front of him. He tells me that he doesn’t care what happens between Israel and Palestine, who controls which pieces of the country, as long as the fighting stops. He tells me about the time an explosion in the field lodged a piece of shrapnel in his right thigh. He tells me about calling his mom, who was frantic, from the hospital. He tells me he’s killed someone, and then asks me if he’s still a good person.

“Of course,” I say, and I believe it.

He says that a shadow hangs over Israel—there’s a feeling among the people who live there that something big is about to happen. He thinks it will happen soon.

***

The water is up to my chest and I’m still creeping along the seafloor, afraid to trust it with my weight. My friends churn around me, beckoning, backstroking farther out, then swimming back to where I still stand in the relative shallows. “Lift up your feet,” Isaac says. “Just lean back.”

I can’t lean back. All around me is proof I’ll be fine if I do, but I doubt my own eyes.

“I’m scared!”

“You’ll be fine,” Isaac says. “Trust me.”

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

“Okay.” I inhale sharply and lift my eyes to the surrounding mountains. I remove my feet from the seafloor a single toe at a time. My legs feel weightless; they rise up to meet the water’s surface like helium balloons.

They were right—I’m floating.

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Hatikvah

The Girl in the Woman Suit

I’m 22 years old, but I’m 12. I’m 5’4″ and shop at J. Crew, but I’m 4’8″ and the only clothes that fit me are sold at Abercrombie Kids. I cry when I read that ISIS has beheaded another hostage, but I laugh at Adventure Time. Somewhere along the way I grew up, and I’m not sure how.

For the last spring break of my academic career, I went to visit my mom’s parents in St. Louis. I used to drive the two hours (but really the hour-and-a-half because I took the highways at 85) there from Mizzou on weekends when I needed a refuge. I’d spent summers at their house since I was three, and the piney, sweet smell of their walls meant I was safe and happy and there would be a dark chocolate Hershey’s Kiss waiting for me on my pillow. I used their creaky old home as a refuge; spending time there was like floating in an impenetrable bubble 10 feet off the ground. Nothing could touch me.

In a mad dash toward that feeling, I took a plane from Laguardia to Lambert and was relieved to find my grandparents waiting, open-armed and unchanged. The same fragrance filled their old house, the same bed was mine, and the same chocolate awaited me just where I knew I’d find it. Familiarity breeds content, and I’ve never been one for surprises.

I had almost five days there to hide from my commitments in New York. My mom drove up from Texas and was there to greet me too. She took me underwear shopping. Then it was my birthday, and I could have anything I wanted. We went to the restaurant that had been my favorite when I was six, and I ordered the same spaghetti and meatballs I’d ordered every visit since my first, except the recipe for the marinara sauce was different.

Then, disaster: It was going to snow in New York Friday, and my flight that afternoon was canceled. I panicked and called Southwest. Was there any other flight to Laguardia that day? No, but there was one Thursday night. Tonight. In an effort to eek more time out of my last day in St. Louis, I had already packed.

Time was ripped away from me as my mother and I sped in her sequoia–the car I’d crashed at 16 just after I got my licensee and have to heave myself into to this day because we never replaced the running boards–to the airport. The end of the end of breaks had arrived too soon.

Before you’re released into the real world, you have a concrete concept of home. It’s where your parents are, where your bed is still made in the sheets you chose, and your walls are still painted poinsettia red. It’s where your mom lives, and your books, and your aging cat, the one you picked out at age seven and named after a character in a “Boxcar Children” book. But then you’re 22 and home isn’t that anymore. It’s of your own making. It’s the place to which you return, exhausted, after work every evening. It’s where you’ve stored extra food in the freezer just in case, and where your own cat waits, meowing to be fed.

It’s not the cushy respite of your parent’s house, where you’re loved and welcomed and where you can take a break for a bit from the crushing world. It’s where you pay the bills, because this is adulthood or bust.

The Girl in the Woman Suit

Eve Tells All

Today is Friday the 13th, and it’s also Eve’s first birthday. When I adopted her in November the vet estimated her age at seven months, meaning she was born mid February. I chose the 13th as her birthday, partly as a distraction from the following day, and partly on the off chance it was ever a Friday. And no, I hadn’t checked this year’s calendar.

Because Eve’s birthday, Friday the 13th, and #FreeWriteFriday coincide this year, I thought I’d give you a day in the life of my cat. Yeah I’m obsessed, but she also dictates my daily operations in a way I didn’t anticipate.

7:15 a.m. – I leap onto human’s stomach. When this fails to illicit a reaction, I meow loudly into her left ear, then her right. I rub my face against hers. Purrr.

7:17 a.m. – I leap away to avoid a right-handed swat.

7:20 a.m. – I redouble my efforts. I lick her nose, bat her chin, and continue to yowl in a manner that suggests the apocalypse. If I don’t get food soon, someone will die.

7:30 a.m. – Human moves. I mew appreciatively and nip at her heels as she plods into the kitchen, mechanically scoops breakfast into my bowl, and starts the coffee maker. I know it is a coffee maker because it makes coffee.

8:00 a.m. – Human turns on warm steam especially for me. I perch on the edge of the smooth white basin and watch her work white foam through her sad tiny hair patch. I stare at her in judgement. Why not use her tongue?

8:15 a.m. – Human steps out of the basin, and I leap in. I lick as many water droplets from the floor of the basin as possible. Delicious.

8:17 a.m. – Human opens the sweater drawer, so I jump in. I nest there until she pulls me out. So rude.

8:30 a.m. – A sizzling sounds comes from too high up for me to see. I leap onto the counter to look. Human looks dumb when she screams and flails her arms like that. It is very warm up here. I poke my nose toward the heat, curious…

8:31 a.m. – On the bed where human has dumped me unceremoniously. I have found a patch of warm yellow light. I close my eyes and soak it in.

8:55 a.m. – What? Huh? Of course I’m awake.

9:05 a.m. – Human is paying attention to something that is not me. I meow very loud until loud she turns her head. That’s better.

9:07 a.m. – The thing that isn’t me is a silver hinge with lots of small squares and a large screen. The screen flashes different colors. I leap at it. Human does the dumb arm-flapping thing again.

9:30 a.m. – Human is in the tile-floor room. I hear water running. Second breakfast. I race into the room and leap up onto the sink just in time to butt human’s head out of the way. I lap up the water stream with my tongue. She spits onto her sweater instead.

9:31 a.m. – Back on the bed. She seems displeased.

9:45 a.m. – Human dons puffy black layer and heads for the door. Nooooooooooo don’t leeeeeeaaavvvvveeeeeeeeeee…

10:00 a.m. – She left. Back to the warm patch of light.

***

3:00 p.m. – The light is gone, and I am cold. I stretch, then spring onto the windowsill. I observe my kingdom with the calm demeanor of a true ruler.

3:15 p.m. – I leap down and run across to the kitchen window. Two friends wait in the window across the way. We twitch tails at each other and meow through the glass. Our daily discussion on the world economy, politics, and global domination has commenced.

4:00 p.m. – Friends retreat from the window, so I follow suit. Time for lunch. Ug, leftovers.

4:05 p.m. – Eating makes me tired.

***

6:10 p.m. – Human is back; woke me up with loud stomping and shuffling. So rude. But maybe she will feed me dinner. I meow at her ankles until she notices, then fills my bowl.

6:15 p.m. – Human is playing with the glowing screen again. I jump onto her lap and shove my head into her armpit. Purrr

6:17 p.m. – Back on the bed.

6:18 p.m. – She will not pay attention to me, so I claw the couch until she does.

6:19 p.m. – I dodge a fountain of water from that awful spray bottle. I take a flying leap and peer down at the human from atop her bookshelf. Her arms are flapping again.

7:00 p.m. – Bored. I discover a small black furry object that escapes my paw as soon as I lunge for it.

7:02 p.m. – Black furry object seems to be attached to my body.

7:03 p.m. – Tail. It is my tail.

***

9:15 p.m. – Human sits on the couch with a book. I climb into her lap. I’m feeling tired again, so I curl onto her thighs and rest my chin on her knee. She scratches me behind the ear.

10:15 p.m. – Human shifts an inch to the left, so I leap down in protest. I run into the tile-floor room then all the way back to the couch as fast as I can. I jump up two shelves, then down to the floor, then up four shelves, then back down, then onto the bed, under the bed, wrestle with suitcase straps, rush out again, scratch my scratching post, then the couch, dodge the water, claw the rug, dodge the water, run to the kitchen, leap into the sink, lick at the faucet, dodge the water, back to the bathroom, tackle the bath mat, sprint through the shower curtains, race back under the bed and wait, holding still.

10:20 p.m. – Human’s foot approaches. Wait for it…

10:21 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:24 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:25 p.m.POUNCE!

10:26 p.m. – Human wails. I run and hide behind the sink.

***

11:10 p.m. – Human is a lump under blankets. It is dark. I jump lightly onto the bed and curl up in the crook of her left knee.

Eve Tells All

Playground Games

When the shout came from behind, it was deafening: “GET HER!”

It was an order, and it was not to be questioned. Spurred on by the taller boy’s screamed encouragement, the shorter came pelting after me. I turned and ran onto the playground.

My kindergarten class got an hour of recess every day which, when it comes to kindergarteners, is pretty inspired. Tire them out so they can’t misbehave in the classroom. Make a mess of the playground instead of the teacher’s desk. Throw soft, spongy dodge balls at each other instead of wooden blocks or dollhouse furniture.

I hated recess. I hated the sweat and the running around and how there was always a line for the swings. I’d race the others to the swing set (just because I hated to run didn’t mean I was slow) and, if someone got there before me, would find a quiet patch in the shade and build fairy houses in the dirt instead.

That day, Preston Sherer and Ben Jones sent me running for a different reason. Preston was the leader; he was tall, popular, and charismatic. The other boys thought he was cool because he made loud, rude farting noises in class and brought in the best toys from home. Ben was shorter, slighter, and needed a belt to cinch his hand-me-down shorts around his waist. He was quieter than Preston, but unquestionably his minion. Both boys had bowl haircuts. After all, this was the 90’s.

Both boys were also fast. Preston was faster, but he wasn’t running. Instead, he watched Ben’s progress and sauntered lazily some yards behind, still shouting. Ben tore after me as I ran like a hunted animal across the woodchips, through the swings, around the tires, up the stairs, and onto the bridge of the jungle gym. I thought I was safe there because if he came up one side, I’d go down the other.

He watched me up there for a minute, catching his breath. I smiled and waved, my courage restored from my vantage point. Then Preston caught up and manned the second set of stairs. I was trapped.

I made a snap decision. Quick as a lynx I bounded down from the bridge and leapt to the ground only inches in front of Ben’s surprised face. The chase was on again. I ran around a soccer field, over a small creek, through a wooded area that was technically off-limits, and across the basketball court before he caught me.

In the dirt yard just in front of the silver double doors that spit us screaming and squealing outside each day, Ben made a grab for my red skirt. I refused to wear pants in those days—only skirts and dresses—and this was my undoing. He caught the hem and brought me tumbling down into the dust. He fell across my extended legs. We were both panting. I’d scraped a knee and could feel the tears behind my eyes welling up, about to spill over.

Preston came ambling up behind us completely at ease. He looked down at our pile of tangled, dusty, bloodied limbs and laughed. At his approach Ben sat up. I struggled away from him but ended up on my back, pinned down by Ben’s knees on my skirt and his hands on my wrists. I looked up, terrified. They’d caught their prey. What would they do with it?

Preston looked at us there in the dirt. Maybe our pose recalled some illicit movie scene he’d watched with his older brother Trevor (another sandbox bully), or maybe he just wanted, childishly, to test forbidden waters for the thrill. Whatever the reason, he gave Ben a simple instruction.

“Kiss her.”

My fate was sealed. My eyes widened. I struggled, but it was no use. For a moment Ben looked uncertain. Kiss me? Here on my back in the dust in broad daylight? Maybe it seemed an odd climax to the chase. But he was six years old, so he did what he was told.

His lips came toward me and I struggled harder, like a washed-up fish flopping on land. I turned my head a fraction of a second too late—his lips found mine. They were hard, puckered, and chapped. He smelled like goldfish and tasted like dust.

In half a second it was over. Ben got up, blushing, and wiped the playground dirt off his too-big shorts. I scampered to my feet, too upset to cry, and fled for the safety of trees. There I crouched, back to a fence, waving a stick in case they should come after me again.

They didn’t. They left me alone, a scared animal in hiding.

The kiss part didn’t seem as threatening to me then as it does now. Sure, it was gross—every six-year-old girl knows about cooties. And anything is unpleasant when it’s done against your will. But Ben was nice enough, and I liked his blonde hair and watery blue eyes. Preston was a pig, but Ben was all right.

But at age six I didn’t understand their motivation. Why had the chase ended in a coerced kiss? Why had Preston chosen that as his ultimate punishment? Even at that age, the two boys felt a surge of confidence from overpowering me. I had no choice, and it thrilled them. They didn’t know why it thrilled them any more than I did—maybe it was imitation, or maybe it was instinct.

Maybe these two little boys were mimicking scenes from their own lives—Dad dominating Mom, older brothers pressuring girlfriends, images from TV, movies, or video games. It’s no secret that women are hyper sexualized in mass media, and that youth culture absorbs the concept almost without realizing it.

Whatever motivated those two boys on that playground on that particularly hot and dusty day, they couldn’t have known the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t have known that, years later, I’d still be that animal with her back against the wall, walking home with my finger on the trigger of my pepper spray, carrying a torch for them all this time.

Playground Games

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

4:58 a.m.

I wake to the sound of something falling.

In my apartment, this is not unusual. I have a cat–a kitten, really. She knocks things over all the time. She isn’t at the foot of my bed, so I grope for my glasses, get up, and go into the bathroom to see what it is this time.

I flip on the light and look around, confused. There’s nothing on the floor. Then comes another noise like the first. It’s coming from behind me in the kitchen. It’s coming from my front door. It’s coming from a key inserted in the lock and turned.

I live alone, and the key is not mine.

For a minute, I doubt my instincts. Surely, I think, the noise is from across the hall. it’s the neighbor getting in. But the neighbors moved out a week ago. A construction crew descended upon their apartment, blasted out every tile in the kitchen floor, and kept me awake for a night and a half. Now I have no neighbors.

I flip the bathroom switch again and ease my way to the front door. I do not turn on the light. Shaking, I stand on the other side–so close to a person I do not know–and, with my index finger, open the catch to the peep hole. I look through.

There is a man on the other side of the door. I can hear his coughs and grunts, animal noises, so close that the door feels porous. He’s pale, an inch or so taller than the peep hole, with greying hair cropped short on the sides. Maybe it’s the fish-eye effect, but his nose is beakish and his eyes squinted. His key doesn’t turn, so he removes it from the lock. His forehead wrinkles in concentration as he peers down at an entire ring of keys–many more than average. He chooses a new one. He will try again.

The next key enters the lock. My breath catches. My hands sweat. Because it’s the only thing I can think to do, I grab the bolt with my left hand to keep it from turning if the key fits.

It doesn’t. Through the peep hole, his frown deepens. Back to the ring. Next key.

My hand starts to sweat. If the key fits, will I be able to keep the bolt from turning? Will my fingers slip? Will my small, desperate force win out against cold, mechanical steel? No.

The door, which has always seemed solid, turns to cheesecloth–an inch of wood between me and the stranger. I can see him–can almost touch him–from the other side. Surely he can hear me breathe. Surely he can hear my heart pound like a caged animal’s. Surely he knows that I am trapped, frozen, inches away.

My ferocity is gone. The fury I feel when I confront cat-callers on the street, the savagery that bubbles to the surface when I’m faced with an assailant, has deserted me. I am not fierce. I am small. I am terrified. I am vulnerable. I am in tears.

He tries another key.

Adrenaline courses through me. I unstick my thumb and forefinger from the bolt. I close the peep hole. I retreat into my bedroom, close the door, and call the police.

It’s the first time I’ve ever dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

I do not have an emergency. If the key fits, it will be an emergency. But he’s still outside trying key after key. He’s been there for 15 minutes.

“A man I don’t know is trying to get into my apartment.”

“Can you describe him? Where are you located? What phone number are you calling from?”

I give her the information. She assures me that officers are on their way. I thank her and hang up.

From the kitchen, the scratching continues. Next key. Immobilized, I crouch by the fire escape (a quick exit if he gets inside) and call my dad. I’m a five-year-old child afraid of the monster under the bed. This is more than I can handle. Every minute that passes is torture. The man is patient. He has a ring of keys and all the time he needs.

By the time the police arrive, the man is gone. I buzz them into the building and they do a search but cannot find him.

“He was definitely drunk,” one of the officers says. I’m standing in the doorway talking to them. In one hand I clutch my phone, and with the other clutch an enormous cardigan around me. It’s long enough to disguise the fact that I have forgotten to put on pants.

Maybe he was drunk. Maybe, as the officers leave, they chuckle at the petty fears of a terrified girl. I don’t mind. I would rather have them present and laughing than absent.

Because, if the key fits, the lock means nothing.

9:08 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

It’s a wonderful town

You stupid fuck, what are you doing?
My neighbor’s screen flies open. His whole head leans out, cell phone angled away from right ear, face screwed up, livid.

I’m sitting on the fire escape reading a book.

You scared the shit out of me! Fuck, I had no idea you were out there…
He’s still going. He’s talking to the person on the phone, right?

They’ll give you a huge fine if they fucking catch you out there. Fuck.
No, he’s talking to me.

Little Girl Claire is deader than ever
as I stare into the face of my new neighbor.

My first celeb sighting, my first rat,
my first New Yorker.

It’s a wonderful town

#FreeWriteFriday – Ghosts of Toyota past

Most of the tears sunk into your matted fabric seats with one too many
cigarette burns (I don’t smoke, really)
are mine.

Dual service: vehicle and incubator of
anguish.
Tint the windows, lock the doors. 
Muffle sobs and animal sounds in heavy metal.

I can’t count the number of times you listened to me play shit music and ran me away.

But once, you chased a sunset to see if you could catch it.
Sure, your acceleration sounded like the contents of a hardware shop dumped into a magic bullet but god, you tried so hard. 

When it faded you’d taken us to the river
which was just as good.

#FreeWriteFriday – Ghosts of Toyota past

Talking to Sage

Children amaze me — they cut to the heart of social pressures they see in the world around them. They have no filter, and they fear no judgment. Some conversations I have with the 7-year-old girl I babysit are gut-wrenching. Although her name begins with ‘S,’ it isn’t Sage. Given her 7-year-old wisdom, though, it fits.

S: Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: Nope.

S: Why not?

Me: Because I don’t want one. I had one, but we broke up.

S: Why did you break up?

Me: It’s complicated.

S: Well, why don’t you try to get a new one?

Me: Because I don’t really want one right now. Sometimes, boys are the worst.

S: Yeah, I know, because sometimes mommy and daddy argue, and daddy yells and makes mommy cry.

***

S: Holding her short hair behind her head in a ponytail I would look better like this. If my hair was long enough for a ponytail, I mean.

Me: You think so? I think short hair looks cute on you.

S: Thanks. Pause. I wish I looked like you.

Me: What do you mean?

S: I wish I had light skin like you. This dark skin makes me look dumb. And I wish my hair was blonde like yours.

***

S: Do you want to be a singer?

Me: Not really. I was a singer for a little bit, but I stopped.

S: What did you sing?

Me: Opera stuff, mostly. Usually in Italian.

S: Sing one for me. I comply. S listens with wide eyes. That was good. I want to grow up to be a singer, but I don’t know if it will work out. I don’t really like myself. But we’ll see.

 

Talking to Sage

#FreeWriteFriday – Things fall apart

8:54 a.m.

Scientifically speaking, we are never together. We lose thousands of skin cells every minute — they slough off as we ride the bus and walk to the office and sit in a cubicle. They fall through the cracks of the keyboards and remain there in caked layers of whitish dust.

Each moment, we fall apart.

It’s interesting, I think, to notice flaws that make people human: a bra strap sticking out, a wrinkle in a trouser that’s perpendicular to the seam, one sock pulled inches higher than the other. ‘Put together’ is the goal, but detail trips us up.

None of us is perfect.

I stroll down the street in the image of a corporate world: pumps click, tailored skirt swishes, red lipstick stains my latte. My curls bounce; my mascara does not smudge.

Then, the straw splits down the middle. It knicks the edge of my lip. Red lipstick turns to blood.

Were my outward appearance a reflection of within, my hair would be a snarl, to start. I’d struggle to keep my shirt tucked, and every three steps one shoe would slip off at the heel. Coffee would stain my blouse front and my skirt would have a tear. I’d be sobbing one minute and singing the next —  natural responses to thoughts and memories too strong or sweet or bitter to repress.

Scientifically speaking, we jump to conclusions. The amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex absorb details about behavior and appearance to make snap judgements.

They presume too much. Sometimes, they are wrong.

9:15 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Things fall apart

#FreeWriteFriday – On the bus

Every day I take the bus to work. Public transportation is a godsend, and an interesting context in which to gauge human interaction. Little things happen all the time — a crossed gaze here, a side-eye there. They stick with you. (Title inspired by this Vox Magazine story in which several of my friends participated.) 

9:10 p.m.

When he boards the bus, I am already seated. He walks with a limp and his eyes are ever-so-slightly out of focus. The front of his orange striped polo is dusty. So is the back. He peers through rectangular glasses and under the brim of a close-fitting baseball cap. I’m not sure, but I hypothesize that the backpack he totes holds all his worldly possessions.

I’m sitting at the front of the bus in one of the three seats that face each other opposite the aisle. He is diagonally to my left in a front-facing seat. When I look up from my book, I find him staring at me. Our eyes meet. I look down again, but not before I see him nudge the man next to him. He whispers something. I look up again and find he is pointing at me.

Eyes locked on mine, he makes a circle in the air with his index finger — a motion that traces the circumference of my face from five feet away. Then he winks and gives a thumbs-up. He thumbs-up’ed my face, I think, shocked and a little pleased. Whatever traces then gene pool has left there, he approves of them.

I smile back at him, blush, look down again.

***

Now I’m in the front-facing seat and he’s in a sideways one. The little boy, that is. And he isn’t in the seat precisely. He’s squatting in his mother’s lap facing her and fiddling with the beads on her necklace. She’s talking to him, stroking his hair (done up in tiny braids) and doing her best to keep him entertained. Her own hair is in a slick knot on the top of her head. She looks tired.

I watch the two of them together, my eyes drifting in and out of focus. It’s early. Then, all at once, he’s looking back at me. Huge, calf-brown eyes stare into mine, scrutinizing me in the honest, open way of which only children are capable.

After a few seconds he remembers himself — remembers that, in our world run by social norms he is only beginning to learn, it is rude to stare.

He looks abashed and buries his little head deep in his mother’s sternum. For the rest of the ride I only see little braids.

***

While we were stopped on Congress and 11th, the ladybug flies in. It darts around the cabin for a bit and comes to rest on our windowpane. The man next to me jerks so sharply away from it that I’m afraid he’ll land in my lap.

I have the aisle seat; his seat is closest to the offending window. The insect appears to terrify him, although I’m not sure why.

“They don’t bite,” I tell him. He looks at me mistrustfully. “No, really,” I say, “watch.”

I reach up and deftly sweep the bug from the window into my open palm. The man shivers. “Be careful,” he says in heavily-accented English.

“It’s okay,” I say, “they’re completely harmless. They’re a type of beetle I think. I know they’re insects. They come in all colors: orange, red, yellow with black spots…”

He looks at me uncomprehendingly. Then his eyes fix on the cocoon I’ve made with my hands so the bug can’t escape. I’m planning to let it out when the doors opened at the next stop. From his attitude I am an insanely brave medieval knight taking on a full-fledged dragon without a sword.

The bus comes to a halt. I step lightly down the set of stairs separating the front of the bus from the back, hold my cupped hands out the open door and blow the ladybug into the air. When I return to my seat the man is slumped against the now-safe window, beads of sweat evident at his temple. He’s been watching me the entire time.

I feel positively heroic.

9:39 p.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – On the bus