The helicopter of discontent

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Normally at this hour blades of sun cut through the gauze of the living room curtains and backlit the veins of the philodendron plant, but not today. A heavy veil of clouds greyed the sky outside. Inside, the apartment was cool, hushed, blue. It seemed as though the sun were just dawning, instead of it being 10:30 in the morning.

She had a vague memory of waking at dawn to the chopping of a helicopter. Rushing to the window, she saw it hovering. It slowly descended until it was level with the hight of the low apartment buildings that bordered the street. Two small lights on its underside twinkled alternately like seed diamonds. Behind her, still in bed, she heard Cayetano move the covers.

“What is it, Julia?”

“There’s a helicopter outside. I wonder what it wants?”

The helicopter was ominous. Its whirring blades skewed the quiet residential street into a dystopian scene, the helicopter a spy of the regime. Julia knew that inside, humans served its predatory bulk, but from her perspective now the machine was beastly and autonomous. It sniffed at the edges of the building, and Julia looked up at its underbelly from below, wondering again what it wanted. What disorder did it sense in her home? What fault could it find with her quiet life, lived sleepily as if beneath a calm pool, or within a bubble, separated invisibly but completely by the chaos and hardship of more difficult lives. Was the helicopter here to pierce her contented inaction?

The two diamonds blinked and the helicopter turned, moving slowly at first but then, nose pointed down to the trail of a new scent, hungrily away. By the time it returned, roaring past like a bloodhound on the trail, Julia was already back in bed, curled against Cayetano, half warm and covered and half cold and exposed, just as she preferred. When she woke up much later to the hushed blue of the morning, the helicopter was nothing but a dream.

A crime of purpose

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Karen made sure the door jangled noisily when she entered the corner bodega. It was important that Luís noticed her as she walked though the door, before she ducked past the bags of Takis and Plátanos Maduros. The bags crinkled loudly as she pushed past into the aisle, and Luís shouted good morning, Karenita, hows your hip?

She ignored his question. Karen had a plan. She hobbled down the aisle, past the hip-high freezer of ice-cream and frozen Snickers bars, past the cans of kidney beans and corn, past the bags of flour, white and wheat. Nodding to the workers who sat on milk crates in the back, she went straight to the beer refrigerator. She chose the fanciest looking beers (a label with intricate floral designs and a startlingly sexy skeleton in the center) and, looking both ways, she opened her jacket. It took all of the strength of her 70 year-old arm muscles to hold the beers just right, hidden but only superficially. She hobbled back out the way she came, and made sure to flaunt the bulge of the six-pack as she avoided Luís’s look and jangled on out the door.

At home, Karen left the beers to warm on the counter and lowered herself tiredly into her spotty easy chair, the one Harold used to sit in every night, watching the news. Harold was long gone, and it was time for the chair to go, too.

Luís knows where I live. Now I just have to wait for the po-po to show up and I’ll be back on easy street.

She waited. Eventually she dozed off in the yellow afternoon light of her dirty window, the dry remains of her once abundant houseplants serving as a kind of shade. She woke to the phone ringing.

Yes? She answered

Hi, Karen, this is Luís, from the corner. I hope I’m not disrespectful in noticing that you took some beer with you as you left the store today. I wanted to tell you that if you need anything, food, some money, Rosa and I are more than happy to help. 

Karen sighed. Thank you Luís.

She would need to come up with a new plan. For it wasn’t food or money that she needed. No, Harold’s pension took care of those basic necessities. True, she couldn’t know when the landlord would decide to kick her out in search of younger tenets willing to pay a higher rent. Security would be nice, at her age. But even more than that, she longed for the purpose that comes with routine. She had spent the last years passing the time, drifting through every day, every week, sometimes without speaking a word to anyone but her poor dead husband. Last week she figured it out. There was a place where everyone was welcome, where every day was regimented and where companionship was the only pastime. Clothing and food was supplied, and if you played your cards right, you’d never have to leave.

Karen laughed to herself. How silly she had been, thinking that Luís would call the cops for a measly six-pack! She’s have to up the stakes. Because when she went to prison, she wanted to stay there for good.

Block Party

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My mom lets me play in the street when it’s flooded water. One night, it rained and rained, and the leaves and trash got all clumped up over the sewer grate. I got to take my shoes off and splash in the river in front of our house. Gabriel from next door even had a floaty thing that he sat in like a boat. The water wasn’t that deep, so he mostly just got stuck scraping across the bottom. Still, it was fun.

Today, they blocked off both ends of Highland Street for us to play. Not because it rained. We’re having a block party. No Through Traffic. That’s what it says on the bright orange signs they put at both ends of the street to thwart the cars from driving in our party. We’re going to have barbeque and cotton candy and popcorn, and Julia’s Dad’s band is going to play music. We’re going to spend the whole day and even the night in the street, and we don’t have to watch out for any cars.

Gabriel and me are sitting on the Morrisey’s fence. There’s nothing much happening down here. It looks like the whole party is up the road a bit, not our part. Sweetie from the other side of the street and her dog walk by. Sweetie wears dark glasses, and her dog looks like lassie, and it barks late at night, when Sweetie comes home walking funny. Sometimes my mom helps her into her house.

“Hi Sweetie,” we both say. The only part of her face we can see is her smile. It looks like a worm that stretched long across her face so it could get away fast.

“Hello boys. Going to the block party today?” Her lassie looks soft, but I know he feels dirty if you pet him so I don’t. Gabriel does, though.

“Yeah, we’re gonna go soon.” Gabriel’s petting that dog and he reaches too far, and he falls right off the fence.

“I guess I’ll see you later then. Say hello and I’ll buy you some popcorn!” Sweetie walks towards the part of the street where more and more people are standing around. I see her waving at the neighbors, but she doesn’t stop and she keeps those glasses on, even though it’s not very sunny out anymore.

My mom lets me and Gabriel walk over to the block party by ourselves. “Save me a hot dog!” she told me when I left. We’re not scared because we know a lot of people, and the ones we don’t know are our neighbors anyway. Since our moms aren’t there yet, we go stand with Julia and their Dad. He makes sure we both get hotdogs with ketchup and relish, no mustard. I tell him I need one for my mom, too.

“Carol can ask me for a hot dog herself when she gets here.” Susana and Julia’s dad winks at me when he says it, so me and Gabriel decide to run around the neighbor’s backyards in secret while the band sets up.

When we come back to the block party, it’s blue all around, the way it gets before night time, and the band is playing. My mom’s standing there in a white dress that kind of glows, that’s how I cantell it’s her with all these stranger grownups around. They’re all in front of Julia’s Dad’s band kind of dancing by taking little steps and moving their shoulders, but the only one who’s really dancing is Sweetie. She’s holding a glass bottle just like all of them, but her arms are way up in the air, and she’s making funny noises like war cries. She twirls her body, shakes her chest, and bends her knees until she’s almost sitting on the ground. It looks fun, so me and Gabriel go and dance up front with her, really close to the band. Susana and Julia’s dad is singing with his eyes on Sweetie, and Sweetie already took her dark glasses off to look right back at him. This time her smile doesn’t look like a worm, because she’s showing her teeth.

“Hi Sweetie,” Gabriel says and Sweetie’s bottle almost hits him in the face.

“Oh, sorry sweetheart! I didn’t see you there. Hey, I owe you some popcorn, don’t I?” Sweetieturns to the band and blows them a kiss. Then she puts her empty bottle on the ground and takes us both with a sweaty hand and leads us out of the crowd, walking her funny night walk. Me and Gabriel try to imitate her, and we laugh a lot.

Before we get to the popcorn, we get to some big, dark, legs. I can tell that they’re the legs ofa man because of the pants he’s wearing: blue with a line right down the front of each leg, like a pieceof paper folded and then unfolded. Sweetie stops and sways in her tracks, holding tightly to both of our hands.

“Oh, hi Bruce. I didn’t know that you were coming over tonight.” I think Sweetie’s tongue is swollen in her mouth.

Bruce looks mad. He tries to grab Sweetie’s arm but she’s holding my hand still so we get kind of tangled.

“We’re going now.” Bruce says to Sweetie. “Run along, boys.” Behind us I hear my mom calling. I’m a little disappointed that Sweetie didn’t get us the popcorn she promised, but as I watch Bruce hold her arm and kind of drag her back towards her house, I see that there’s no popcorn left anyway.

Who are you?

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“Who are you?”

The question hits you like a slap. Why are they asking you this? Don’t they already know? You’ve been talking together for hours now.

“I am Sofia.”

They ask again. “Yes, Sofia, but who are you?”

You try to relax into the simple answer for this simple question. “I cook for the church. I go there every morning to prepare food for the men who pass through, endlessly. Men who are looking for something better.”

“We know about the men. We want to know about you Sofia. Who are you?”

Perhaps relaxing was a mistake. Something that you’ve held, frigid, for a long time. A hard, protective coating. It begins to crack and to melt. The crack sounds like a sob. The melt looks like tears.

You cannot speak.

“Who are you, Sofia?”

You smile. You are embarrassed to cry in front of this stranger. You are embarrassed that this stranger has opened you up so easily. You are ashamed that this stranger is the first one who ever tried to do that.

“I don’t understand.” And though you will not answer the stranger now, their question will continue to echo inside of you, causing an avalanche that will not be held back.

 

Bronx Fire

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My mother mopped my memories in mayhem, drowning our broken lives
in the ashy snow of the Bronx with the dirty walls of Camden.
She picked-up our dusted debris and assembled them into
a crumbling second story, no foundation. Her careful ironing
pressed and straightened to make sure no creases remained:
She would not confirm the fire, radiant, of my dreams.

I remember in my sleep. Heavy magnets stuck to the stove
drove me in, red arrows and yellow stars pointing to the turn and the push
of off-limit buttons. My mother at the door, the one hot flame
made of four leaping high. Outside it warmed up as we watched
the fire call on the neighbors, two stories, five stories, many stories burnt.

My mother liked the look of clean. She wanted a child who’s
socks met at the ankles,with fingernails like the new moon.
A buy-your-own-lego-set kind of boy, the one who’s glimmer
is never a secret. He’d earn a scholarship, a Ph.D, and the dirt and blood
would never stain his knees. I learned to tie my own shoelaces
when I was four years old. You are my sweet boy, my dumpling darling.
Mama didn’t want us to be extinguished by one night, so she submerged
everything in a deep recess, where the fire still burns.

 

Women with Scissors

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I know a family of women with scissors. They are my boyfriend’s family. On Sundays we visit for lunch, and afterwards all of the women sit together in the living room. I don’t know where the men go– to nap, or to look at something outside in the yard. Whatever they do, it’s far away from us.
At first we sit formally, with tea cups carefully balanced on our knees. Eventually, one of us tucks a leg under, and another lies back on the couch. Someone moves to the ground where it’s easier to spread out. Our tongues loosen, too. It is here that I learned about the Women with Scissors.

My boyfriend’s grandmother’s soft voice starts the stories. She is a normally quiet woman. When we go to her home she constantly offers us juice from the fruit trees outside, and breakfast rolls that are almost as pillowy as her wrinkled hands. She told us of a day when she was young, a day she went to the hairdresser and asked for a complicated beehive style that doubled the circumference of her head. She was going to a party that night, and wanted to look her best. When she got home that afternoon, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to change her shirt without ruining the hair-do. She was wearing her favorite day shirt: it was yellow cotton, with elaborate embroidery of flowers at the throat. The shirt had small buttons at the back of the neck that were covered in the same yellow fabric. It would be inefficient to try to preserve the shirt: without a second thought, my boyfriend’s grandmother found a pair of scissors and cut right across that lovely embroidery, ruining it forever, but preserving the hair-do. She wore an open necked style to the party that night.

When the laughter had subsided, Aunt Margaret joined in with her story. She knew her first husband was having an affair with his secretary. It made her crazy but she didn’t know what to do. One day, he told her he was going out for the afternoon. She concealed her jealousy until he had left the apartment. Then, she rushed to follow him, slipping a pair of scissors into her purse. She followed her husband to the town square, where the secretary waited on a bench under a tall palm tree. Aunt Margaret watched her husband kiss the woman, and run a hand down her arm, offering the stranger a tenderness that he had never shown his wife. When she could bear the torture no more, she rushed towards them, waving the scissors in her hand. She grabbed a chunk of the secretary’s hair and cut it off, throwing the strands into the air to scatter with the leaves.

The scissor stories went on and on– every woman had one. My boyfriend’s sister laughed about a fantasy she had of holding the scissors to her husband’s neck. His mother told of a time when, in a fit of rage, she had cut off every blooming rose in her garden and let the blossoms rot on the grass. Eventually, the sun dropped beneath the horizon and the stories ran out. In the quiet darkness, they asked me what was my scissors story. I had one but I was hesitant to share, not being genetically related to my boyfriend’s family. I told them that ever since I started dating my boyfriend, 5 years ago, he had stopped cutting his hair. Now, his curly black hair was longer than mine, past his shoulders and approaching the middle of his back. I told his mother, grandmother, sister and aunt that I dream of cutting his hair in the night. I even wake up sometimes and try to grab his entire mane with one hand, testing to see if I could do away with it with one chop.

The women of my boyfriend’s family listened to me gravely. When I finished telling my story, they stayed quiet for a moment. I worried that I had crossed a line with them. Maybe I should have told them I didn’t have a scissors story, that I rarely thought about the tool at all. Then, my suegra said, “If you want to do it tonight, I’ll lend you my scissors.” The scissors women once again broke into laughter, wiping tears from her eyes. My boyfriend walked into the room of women. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Oh, nothing you need to know about. Your girlfriend, though, she’s one of us.”

It Takes 2 to Make a Thing Go Right

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At noon on a chilly Monday, the line was shorter than she had expected. Though the nylon dividers were set up for a much larger crowd, the only people who stood between Carol and the metal detector were making up a large, boisterous wedding party. Several of the women in the group wore glittering pink dresses and high sandals. The door to the street was propped open, and the women clutched woolen scarfs around their shoulders. One by one, they had to revealed the thin straps and open backs of their gowns as they passed through security.

“Brr. They look beautiful, but cold!” Carol was wearing jeans and a bulky green sweater beneath her jacket.

Carlos was squinting at the pricing board. “It’s only $35. Wait, who’s going to pay?”

“We can use a credit card, don’t worry.” Carol avoided the question. She thought he should pay. It would add a little romance to this otherwise dry business.

The officer cheerfully ignored the loud beep that went off as she passed through the metal detector. On the other side, a handsome man sitting behind a desk smiled widely.

“Marriage license?”

“Oh no, we’re just getting a Domestic Partnership.”

Carlos came up beside her as the handsome man handed her a number. A11.

“Your ID, please.”

“Do you need mine, too?” Carol asked.

“Well, it takes two to make a thing go right,” he grinned again. Was everyone always so happy at City Hall?

Carlos and Carol walked into the yellow light of the hall. Around them, smiling couples prepared for their entry into legal coupledom. And though a Domestic Partnership could be dissolved easily for a small fee, many of these couples were preparing to brave the far more legally precarious slopes of marriage.

Now serving A11 at counter 10.

Carol followed Carlos to their summons, she paused at the entrance of the dingy chapel. Glittering bridesmaids were lining up for a procession in the cramped space, attempting, with their ceremony and beauty, to conjure a dream wedding atmosphere. A dream wedding at City Hall. Carlos pulled Carol’s hand and she wished them luck, following in her own small procession to the bureaucratic desk of the City Hall clerk.

The Magic Word

**This story is a little explicit. Don’t read it if you don’t want to think about sex.

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It had been a beautiful night, and it was coming to an end. Jenny sat next to Lucas in the sand, close, her side tingling where it pressed against his.

“I’ve had a really nice time tonight,” she said.

Above them, a dark sky shifted behind darker palm trees. A strand of her ponytail blew past her lips.

“I have too,” said Lucas. His face was turned to look at her. Moonlight bounced off of the smooth ocean and jumped into his eyes. “I’d like to kiss you.”

Jenny was not surprised. The beach, the breeze, the moon, the trees. The excitement in the skin on her side grew and began to warm the rest of her body, her face. A mist of sweat joined the mist from the ocean on her brow. Kissing him would be nice, but so would stretching this moment out a little longer. It was her favorite moment, the one before a first kiss. The tension between two people at this moment felt like a substance that should be bottled up, sold for a thousand dollars per ounce. It hardly ever happened, only now, before a kiss. It might not ever be there again for her and Lucas. So she would wait.

“You would?” Jenny let her smile wander out towards the ocean.

“Yes. Wouldn’t you like to kiss me?” His face was closer now, and his arm was creeping around her shoulders, pulling her in.

“Well…why should we kiss? We’re already having such a nice time.”

“It could be nicer.” Now he was talking into her neck, his breath was on her neck. His nose, warm, was rubbing along her jaw line. If she turned her head just a little, their mouths would meet. The special moment, the moment of liquid tension suspended in a spot just below her belly button, had reached its crescendo and was almost gone. The ball had dropped. Now, that tension spread like honey and she began to ache, the ache of honey and honey eater at once. An ache in what she could only describe as her womb…she turned her face.

The first kiss was soft, as though they were passing a dandylion seed from lip to lip. They looked at each other. He seemed unbelievably happy, as though that kiss had affirmed everything he believed was good in the world. She was happy, too. This had been a wonderful night: dancing with friends, meeting this man, sitting on this beach. This kiss. It could all happen again. She could fill the summer with happy nights.

Their lips met again. This time, she let her mouth open a little to his. He mashed his mouth into hers, opening her more, the material soft but the action hard and urgent. He pulled her body to face his, his hand dropped to the waistband of her jeans, slipped around her thigh, up under her shirt.

And what was she doing? She was receiving it all, and letting her brain catch up, little by little.

By the time it caught up, Lucas’s hand had already dipped into her pants again, and now it was fumbling with the buttons of her fly. She grabbed his wrist and pulled it away, all while sustaining the kiss that had never stopped. With a little more force, he pushed his hand back, deeper into her pants. “Oh, you’re so wet…”

She pulled his hand out again and let him feel her smile with his mouth. They were playing a game! A game where she wouldn’t have to make a choice, and he wouldn’t feel rejected. They would both go home happy, and repeat the whole thing again tomorrow.

His fingers had finally gotten the buttons of jeans to release, and he was trying to pull them down. Sand caught in the fabric as she tried to pull them back up, and stuck to her skin. He caught her hand and held it, continuing to tug at her pants.

Jenny pulled away from the kiss. Leaning back from him, she looked at him, leaning in to her. His hand pressed hers into the sand, his face was flushed, excited, handsome, intoxicated by her. She wanted that look to last, if he looked at her again, she wanted it to be that way.

“I’ve had such a nice night…” the night swirled around them, intoxicating, flushed, particles of magic blowing through the fronds of the palm trees.  The word would kill the magic, the flush, the intoxication, the look. It would muddy everything.

Lucas’s was kissing her neck and then he was pushing her back, lying his full weight across her twisted legs. His hand was inside of her now. It had to stop, just this part, she didn’t want it. Yet. Maybe tomorrow, or later in the week, but not now. But the rest, his happy look, the quiet beach, their budding happiness, that she wanted to last, to keep going forever. The word would kill it all, both what she wanted and what she didn’t. He was pulling his own pants down, kneeing her legs to open wider.

Say the word.

Heaven

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They grew up together playing in the slick sand of the Long Island Sound. Mollie was the granddaughter of a rich man who owned many of the grandest houses in Glen Cove. Minor’s family was more modestly well-off. They were married a week before he shipped off for his second tour of naval duty, as a captain of a warship stationed in the Phillipines, and their first son was born before he came back. They lived in San Francisco, New York City, and finally settled with their three children in a little stone house on 40 acres just outside of Willmington.

Mollie’s wispy hair and crooked grin made her the “fun one” of the couple. She was known for her mischevious cooking, such as the wine jell-o that she liked to serve to her grandchildren. In the fall, Minor sometimes went out on the porch and shot a goose from one of the V-shaped flocks that flew over the house, and Mollie plucked it, cooked it, and presented it to be eaten. Their cocktail parties were frequent and sometimes raucous. They were an admirable couple, and it was shocking when she died (of complications from a hip surgery), but what surprised everyone the most was that he didn’t die with her.

For five years he lingered on. His children helped him to move out of the stone house and into a home, and he had to give up his guns and his tractor. At the breakfast table old ladies wearing pastel sweaters twittered around him while he read the newspaper, and in the afternoons he sat by his window and watched the ravens circle a copper beech tree down by the forest’s edge. One spring, half of the beech tree remained bare while the rest of it grew green with sprouting buds. By the summer, it was clear that the half tree couldn’t survive. Minor, too, was dead by November.

He found the path to heaven clear enough. It was smooth and narrow, and flanked by great bushes of goldenrod on either side. At the gate he asked for Mollie, but no one had heard of her. “Heaven’s a pretty populous place, you know,” he was told. He found a river, rushing with ice and trout. She wasn’t there. Nor in a peach orchard, the warm grass brushing his hip and hopping with katydids. “Are you sure she made it?” somebody asked him. He was sure.

He found a cool looking bar and decided to rest for a bit, knowing he wouldn’t find Mollie in there. He ordered a scotch and asked the bartender about Mollie. The bartender was young and wore a short embroidered vest over a clean white t-shirt. He gave Minor the whiskey in a fine blown-glass cup.

“You know, a lot of you new-comers are lookin’ for someone. Who was she, anyway? An old flame? A childhood love? A sister? A daughter?”

“She’s my wife,” Minor drank his scotch, suddenly impatient. There was no point to being in heaven if she wasn’t there with him.

“You’re wife? Well, if your vows were anything like the rest of ours, they didn’t say nothing about any kind of obligation after death. You might just find out you don’t have a wife anymore.”

Minor finished his drink and held the glass, looking at it. Green glass blended into a red blush, and at the lip all color had bled away to the finest rim. “No, I know she’s somewhere around here, waiting for me. I just have to remember where we said we’d meet.”

“Well, I wish you the best of luck. Heaven could use a good romance.” The bartender made his way down the bar, rubbing the wood with a rag until it glowed.

Outside, Minor looked left and right down the neat dirt road. To the left, the buildings became more crowded and cars stopped for people as they crossed the street between busy sidewalks. To the right, the houses gave way to fields of yellow grass and the odd grove of trees. Minor turned right.

I can’t fly

I’m the only one who’s been to Mexico City.

My parents want to eat dinner. We spent the day walking up and down the Aztec ruin in the center, walking up and down the Spanish cathedral in the center. The thin air and the relentless sun leave us transparent. My parents want to eat, preferably something vegetarian.

I know of a place. We’ll have to take a taxi, though.

The taxi-bus is on a cliff, overlooking the city. A nun leads us, smiling, to the launch pad. I’ve done this before, but I didn’t like it. The nun anticipates my fear. Above us, the taxi-bus is hovering, already primed to go. It begins to lower, coming closer and closer to our uplifted faces. My parents smile, welcoming the newness of this experience. I crumple, my body’s survival instinct stronger than my brain’s rationalization: “The taxi-bus is lowering until it can absorb us. Once it has come close enough, we will appear on the inside, safe and sound.” The solid mass of the vehicle is too much for my body. The idea presses me down in a faint to the floor, and I come to on the inside.

We are flying. The pilot smiles responsibly, just as the nun had below. He looks forward into the sky, bringing us to dinner. There is one other passenger besides us, strapped in next to the pilot. We are not strapped in.

The pilot has a neat trick. Do my parents want to see? They do. The back of the taxi-bus opens. We are unguarded from the velocity of the sky disappearing behind us. We are not strapped in. My parents let their bodies slide out of the back. They are walking in the sky. They walk in the shape of a square. They walk in the shape of a line. They walk slowly, as if in a garden with large manicured hedges. They leave a yellow dotted line behind them.

I am too afraid. I grip the wall of the taxi-bus, the wind and velocity tearing at my hair, my clothes. I am crying, and my tears fly out of the back of the plane, to my parents, who are walking in the sky.