I See You

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Many minutes passed before I noticed her. She sat, still and quiet, on the edge of the bench. Oblivious to the post-class bustle around her. The toilet flushed. Someone sprayed deodorant. Doors slammed, a water bottle dropped on the concrete floor, and I continued my call at full volume. Everyone in the locker room that Wednesday morning knew that I would be having a massage, a deep tissue massage, at 11am. With a male therapist. Which was not my preference, but it was very last-minute and I would take whatever I could get.

Still she sat.

“Ohmygd. Jess* are you okay?” The scheduler had put me on hold for a minute. Booking a massage was more involved than I anticipated.

Her dark eyes looked deep into mine, as if there she would find the answer I wanted to hear.

“I’m having a really hard two days.” Simple. Honest. My heart ached.

I thought fleetingly about how she had looked when she walked into class earlier: disheveled, her top on the wrong way, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. I had helped her get her arms through the right openings before taking my spot in front of the mirror.

She waited for my response.

“What was that, sorry? Fifty or 80 minutes?” I repeated into the phone. “Hmmm, I don’t know…” I looked around the almost-empty locker room for someone to weigh in. The few women still there kept their eyes down. Nobody was interested in my dilemma.

“Eighty minutes definitely!” My eyes swung back to Jess. Her mouth was smiling (for me I thought) but her earlier confession hung between us, heavy and hard, like the aching lump in your throat that won’t go away no matter how many times you swallow. I know it wasn’t easy for her to admit to her difficult time… I’ve been there too, mired in the muck and messiness of snot and tears and sadness.

I felt like an asshole. Scheduling my massage, loud and bright for all to hear, voicing my preference for a female therapist, explaining my schedule… and now asking Jess, who had just bravely admitted to me her pain, whether it should be 50 or 80 minutes. Why would she care? But she did.

I don’t really know Jess. I mean, I know she likes to work out, I know her schedule is similar to mine (we often find ourselves in the same class), I know she likes to push herself through the hardest part of class (I glimpse her in the mirror, eyes closed, exhaling through lips pursed in determination… I know the girl in that mirror), I know that I like her. We say “hey how’s it going?” and “gees that was a hard class.” She wears tights and tops in matching shades of purple and green, and her monochromatic aesthetic appeals to my desire, my longing even, for order and decorum.

Thank G-d my phone call with the high maintenance massage scheduler was over. I wanted to give Jess my full attention, but it was 10.45am and I was almost due at my massage: 50 minutes (80 felt too indulgent and also I knew I couldn’t endure someone’s hands on my body for that long), deep tissue, male therapist (I had to get over this part – it would be fine). I was the high maintenance one.

“Jess.” I put my hand on her sweaty shoulder. She was still sitting on the edge of the bench and it took me a while to realize she was waiting for the shower and not simply staying right there for the rest of the day. Sometimes it takes all the energy you can gather just to show up.

Those dark eyes again peering into mine.

“I’m so sorry you’re having a tough time. If you want to talk, any time, I’m here. Really. I mean it.” I hope she knew I did mean it. I was still wearing my workout tights, the high-waisted ones that keep everything in and up, but sometimes I put my top on inside out. Or upside down. Sadness can be lonely, especially if it’s unexpected.

She squeezed my hand, told me she appreciated it. The shower was now free and I had five minutes to get to my massage.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Jess. I thought about her during the massage. I thought about her while I was driving, at the ATM, at the grocery store. I thought about her while making dinner, the barking dog and chattering kids vying for my attention. I was worried about her, wandered what had happened to make the last couple days “really hard,” and I wanted to help her. But I hardly knew her.

A few days later, I saw her again in the locker room.

“Jess! How are you?” There was so much more I wanted to say.

“Better,” she said. Her smile was gentle. Sincere.

Tell me what happened. Why were you sad? Do you often feel that way? Why then? Why do you feel better now? “I’m so glad. I’ve been worried about you.”

“Nicki.” Those eyes. Damn. “You helped me so much. Thank you.”

I had done nothing. Nothing. I had helped her untwist her top, and put my hand on her shoulder.

But those dark eyes had gazed with so much pain and sadness into my distracted green ones, and I saw her.

And she saw that I saw.

Inspired by a prompt from Linda Schreyer and this line from Rumi: “Look at yourself and remember me.” And by the song “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala. 

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “I wish I’d known…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Kenya.

*Not her real name. 

The African Violet

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I bought the African violet
because it reminded me of my
Grandmother.
There was always something
growing
on the kitchen windowsill.
A violet.
Beans sprouting on a saucer.
An avocado pit in water.
She was always
planting.
Tending.
Helping things grow.
Seeds.
Water.
Sunlight.
When I bought this
violet
it was purple.
I’m sure of it.
Its single bloom
a deep hue
against the furry green leaves.
I smile every
time I look at it.
I remember her
windowsill,
sunny kitchen.
Afternoons baking.
Or weeding in the
garden.
I’ve always loved weeding.
Grabbing the encroaching
plant
by its neck and
yanking it out.
The key is to use a
single tug.
Make sure the
root comes out too.
Monotonous, satisfying work.
The purple petals wilted.
Dried.
Fell off the plant.
The leaves stayed
green and healthy.
I watered when
I remembered.
This bloom is
white, tinged with purple.
Still an African violet.
I smile when I look
at it.
I keep it close.
It reminds me of
my Grandmother.

This post was inspired by the prompt “Seeds” and written today in an online writing group with the magnificent Jena Schwartz. Jena encouraged me to play with line breaks: “No matter what words come, follow them to wherever they wish to be planted.” 

What Life Does

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This is what life does. It gives you four children, spread over eight years, and you wonder how you got yourself into this mess and if you’ll ever, ever get out of it and you pray to G-d to clean it up so that you can take a small break, just a breath really every so often, not even that often, but enough to take in small sips of quiet air untarnished by squeaky cries of “mommy mommy mommy…” And then one day you realize you don’t want it to be clean. You look up from the apple you’re slicing – “with cinnamon please Mom” – and see four faces, so different yet all undeniably yours, and you not-so-suddenly but very, very completely understand how much you love this mess that’s yours and oh please G-d keep me in it, just like this: slicing apples, spilling milk, “Don’t hit your brother,” school lunches and a new pair of shoes every other week.

This is what life does. It gives you a friend who gives you a mug. Olive green and cream, monogrammed with a swirly lower-case burgundy ‘n.’ It’s slightly rounded in the center and a little larger than usual, and is the perfect size and shape for holding in your two hands. You drink tea from it every single day, and every day you marvel at how she knew you always wanted that mug. Even though you never told her.

This is what life does. It wakes you with an alarm that sounds like loud crickets chirping in your ear. Rude. It’s still dark outside and you wonder, not for the first time, if you are certifiably crazy. It’s 5am and if you hurry you can make it to the supermarket and get your grocery shopping done before your 6am workout. That is crazy. But doable. And no fight for parking. It gets you in a dark, candle-lit spin studio with ten other women way before the sun rises and there is something warrior-like and badass about it. Maybe it’s not so crazy. The spin instructor is the perfect amount of inspiring and kick-your-butt and she urges you to “take ease in the recovery” and to appreciate what it means to “endure instead of push ahead or back off.” These are wise, essential words to hear at 6am… or any time.

This is what life does. It makes you smile and remember your grandmother whom you loved with all your heart. She was the only gran you knew who said “shit” and she let you stroke the soft, crinkly skin under her neck. She wrote you quirky, amusing letters which she would fax to you across the miles. Her fish ball recipe is included in one. You make them a few times but they will never taste as good as hers. Nothing will. And that’s okay. Life gives you memories of Granny Mary’s ginger cake and long, meandering walks with her on the beach, collecting shells. And a blanket that is over 20 years old crocheted by her long and knobbly fingers, the ones that look exactly like yours.

This is what life does. It hands you a book and says, “Read this!” So you do, and you are lost in the world of its words and images and characters and story, and reading is easily your greatest and simplest pleasure. You never want it to end and you hope that one day you will write a book that people will love to read as much as you love to write.

This is what life does. It holds you in a time zone on the other side of the world, far far away from the ones that you love. And no matter how hard you try to catch up to the time difference between you, it’s always too early or too late and days and then weeks go by without hearing her voice and your one urgent hope is that you get to talk to each other before the baby’s born.

This is what life does. It draws you to the scale day after day, weighing and measuring and calculating BMI and body fat percentage, and did the red wine and dark chocolate last night show up on your hips this morning. And what if it did? Would that be so terrible? And you know without a doubt that it would. It would be terrible. And the next morning you step on the scale again.

This is what life does. It presents you with every possible opportunity, affords you luxuries you take for granted like water and electricity and soap and Internet on-demand and TV and a car and easy access to any food you want and and and. And it gives others nothing. And when things go wrong for you, you say #fwp (first world problems) and feel bad and uncomfortable for having when most of the world does not.

This is what life does. It gives you a page and you write 800 words on it and you want so much to make a difference in the lives of thousands but all you can really do is make a difference in your own.

Inspired by the poem “Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman and by the prompt “What Life Does” by Linda Schreyer.

Where The Streets Have A Name

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In my hometown of Pretoria, South Africa the streets all have new names. It’s been 21 years. New government. New era. New names. Charles Street is now Justice Mohamed. Duncan is Jan Shoba. Queen Wilhelmina has changed to Florence Ribiero but it’s still long and familiar. You cannot get from there to here without crossing it… no matter what it’s called. I don’t know why it was ever Queen Wilhelmina in the first place.

The hadedas call good morning before 7am. The African sun glows gently. It lights the whole sky from the inside. A car honks outside. Irreverent in the early quiet. For a few moments the hadedas wage a shrill war with the car. The sun climbs higher. The sky is brighter. The car moves on. The hadedas settle down.

The meat thaws on the counter. Somebody’s been up before me. Chops and steak gleam purply-red through the tight saran sheath. A faint smudge of frost clings to the plastic. Drops of water pool on the counter, as the meat softens in the warm kitchen. Coils of boerewors – literally “farmer’s sausage” – slowly defrost. So much wrapped up in those faintly spicy spirals.

There will be hot, crusty rolls. A crisp, green salad. Cabbage finely shredded and doused with sweet, tangy vinegar. Potato salad for sure. Homemade pickles. Cold beer and all kinds of soda. The meat is at the heart of it.

We will eat with towels wrapped around our swimsuit-clad bodies, water dripping from our hair onto our plates. We won’t care what the grown-ups are talking about and we won’t remember to say please or thank you. Not even when we ask for seconds. The meat will sizzle on the braai (barbecue) and everywhere will smell like smoke (the good kind) and chlorine. We will shoo away the lazy flies and pesky bees, and the grass will tickle my bum and make it itch.

Charles Street is still Charles and you always make a right at Duncan. This is the way from here to there.

We will swim some more and make up dances and tell our parents they have to watch us perform on the patio. Why wouldn’t they? We are their stars, shining with promise and bellies full of smoky boerewors and potato salad. There’s nowhere like home and even though their conversation is full of apartheid and Israel and Houston and Sydney, home is where we are and we are here.

We will have bright yellow mangoes and granadillas for dessert, meringues and something custardy. “Maybe there’s a bag of kosher marshmallows in the pantry…” someone will wonder.

Tea with milk and sugar. Plain “minute” cake. Or a rich, dark chocolate decorated with cherries and chocolate sprinkles. We will lie on the bedroom floor and play rummikub. So happy and easy together. As if we’ve been doing this forever and we have.

Years later, separated by vast oceans and complicated time zones, we will find our way back to each other time and again. Forever will come with us and the decades before and after will always be gently smudged with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s desires. But for now there is now. So happy and easy together. We will do this forever.

The sun will start to sink and the light will change. Woodsmoke, charred meat and jasmine will fill the air and wherever in the world my home becomes, the smell of fire outside will always make me ache with homesickness.

One day I will leave. Home will be where the foghorns are much louder than the hadedas, where the streets roll up and down the hilly city. They are long and will become just as familiar. The weekends will smell like smoky meat on the braai because my children love boerewors as much as I do. But we won’t have granadillas.

Charles Street is no longer Charles. But even after 17 years, you still turn right to get from there to here.

This post was inspired by the prompt “Food & Comfort”  from the online Winter Joy Writing Retreat I’m currently enjoying. Hosted by Jena Schwartz and Cigdem Kobu of The Inky Path, the theme of the retreat is Edible Memories. It’s astounding, enriching and a little scary to discover where our food memories take us!

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt is, “What I’m really trying to say is…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Mardra of Mardra Sikora and Vidya of Vidya Sury. What I’m really trying to say is, so many things make home home. Even if they’re not there anymore.

Current Status:

HunkyDoryIt’s a weird and wonderful thing to be a living family that spans two centuries. My husband and I come from the 1970s, while our kids are born and raised in the 2000s. They have never known a world without wi-fi, on-demand TV and artisan pizza.

They casually FaceTime their grandparents half a world and ten time zones away, and when they say goodbye they do not marvel like I do at the technological wonders of 21st century connectivity. They believe most minor problems can be solved by Amazon, and they know they had better stay on top of their homework and their grades because we can access all that information any time we want with just a few key strokes.

Sometimes I long for the simplicity of the late 1900s. Handwritten letters, cameras with film and rotary dial phones meant life was slower and less immediate. Less reacting, more thinking.

Also less connection.

If there’s one thing I have embraced with arms flung wide in this new millennium it’s the seemingly limitless power to connect. Over broadband and wi-fi and satellite. Through text and email and social networks. With hi-res photos and hi-def video and hundreds and thousands of weightless words flying like so many graceful cranes through space.

It is in this infinite space of connection that I encountered Kelly, a fellow blogger and now friend. Kelly writes the often hilarious and always real stories of her life with wit and heart at Just Typikel. I admire and aspire to her humorous and pragmatic approach to life’s inevitable chaos and I was delighted when she tagged me in a blog challenge. More fun ways to connect! 

Four names people call me other than my real name:

Nix. This shortened, affectionate form of my name is my favorite. It means we are friends and comfortable with each other, and really I wish everyone I know would call me Nix. Or Nick. That works too.

Mom. It’s usually Mom, sometimes Mama, hardly ever Mommy. I will answer to all. But not if they whine it.

My darling child. Obviously only my mother calls me this, and usually at the beginning or end of a conversation. It is a sweet reminder that someone else on this earth is responsible for me.

Crazy. This is recent and has everything to do with my impending swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco in shark-infested waters.

Four jobs I’ve had:

English tutor.

Waitress. For maybe a minute.

Client Services something or other.

Event Planner.

I always wanted to work in a book store. I still do.

Four movies I would watch/have watched more than once:

Pollyanna. This was my sister and my favorite movie when we were kids and we can still recite the entire movie by heart, complete with tone and inflections.

Grease.  Another favorite. Another one we know by heart, including all the Travolterrific dance moves.

Say Anything.

Dirty Dancing.

Clearly I heart the 80s.

Four books I would recommend:

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell. I still love reading this to my kids. The hands-off mommy owl reminds me of me.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Kate Atkinson could write gibberish on toilet paper and I would love every word. This book is magnificent.

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. Read it. Now.

The Martian by Andy Weir. This is the last book I read and I loved it so much I insisted my 14-year-old son read it. I forgot the opening sentence is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” My son was hooked.

Four places I have lived:

Pretoria, South Africa: My hometown.

Grahamstown, South Africa: My college town.

Ra’anana, Israel: The place I grew up.

San Francisco, USA: Where it all began.

Four places I have been:

Austin, TX. I love Austin for the fun, food, friends. And red boots.

Nashville, TN. Country “Music City.” The perfect place to wear red boots.

Sydney, Australia. My family has a real affection for all things Aussie.

Edinburgh, Scotland. Kilts, Highlanders, accent. Och, say no more.

Four places I would rather be right now:

I can say with complete honesty and utter surprise that there is nowhere I would rather be than right where I am.

Four things I don’t eat:

Tongue.

Pork.

Shellfish.

Eel.

Four of my favorite foods:

Hamburgers.

Truffle brie cheese.

Hot, buttered toast with jelly.

My sister’s chocolate cake. Especially the frosting.

Four television shows that I watch:

Nashville

Orange Is The New Black

The Good Wife

Anything with Jon Hamm.

Four things that I’m looking forward to this year:

The end of Halloween.

Swimming from Alcatraz… Tomorrow!

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity.

Winter break at home.

Four things I’m always saying:

Wash your hands. With soap.

Sorry is sorry.

#FWP (as in First World Problems).

Oy.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “In 1,000 years from now…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Lizzi of Considerings and Dana of Kiss My List. In 1,000 years from now perhaps someone will stumble on this old-fashioned blog post and wonder why the hell people needed to wash their hands. With soap.

I am tagging three wonderful bloggers to answer these same questions and to keep the connection going as long and far as possible:

Kristi of Finding Ninee. Kristi is the engine behind Finish the Sentence Friday and an extrordinary blogger whose thoughts and words squeeze my heart every time and leave me feeling all the feels.

Dana of the wonderful Kiss My List. I wish I lived next door to Dana or at least within driving distance. Her “moderately snarky,” always entertaining, unique approach to everything is always just what I need.

Jason Gilbert’s The Blog That Killed JFG is a masterpiece of exquisite photographic essays that weave wit and humor with everything that is raw and real. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with here (no pressure JFG ;)).