the first hurt

photo-1473637634738-0bded2eac096

Back in the day there wasn’t a cigarette we wouldn’t smoke or a chicken skin we didn’t wrench from its bone. We put the television on blast because hearing Archie Bunker yell at Edith was better than the thumping from above and below. Heads got smacked into walls, babies were crying in every direction, and there go Luz smashing Bacardi bottles on the floor as her man made a run for the door. I mean, wouldn’t you want earmuffs? One time, the boys were roof jumping, trying to impress the girls with the slim hips. Girls who maybe got the bleed but compensated by slashing red on their lips. On the block, red lipstick meant you were a woman but one borough over it just meant you were Puerto Rican. Everyone was trying to be grown, even when they knew that right now–the gum they smacked and the loosies they smoked–was as good as it’ll ever get. Anyway.

So the boys were posturing, practicing their look at me when a girl jumped out of a window. Marlon was on the roof while Ricky was in midair and one of the girls screamed and Ricky lost his concentration, tumbled down, and wasn’t he lucky that the girl who jumped broke his fall. They covered the girl with a sheet because who knew when the ambulance would come. On the way to Maimonides, Ricky kept screaming in the back of the Chevelle that he couldn’t feel his legs. Are they there, man? Are they fucking there? Because I can’t feel them. Back on the stoop, mothers wrapped their daughter’s hair while they took sips from bottles in brown paper bags, talking about Marlon’s birthday at Sizzler. All the garlic bread you can eat. When word got back that Ricky was paralyzed from the waist down, the mothers held their grand pieta complete with head-shaking and teeth-sucking, and thank god he ain’t mine. One said: that’s one less casserole we have to make. That’s cold, said another. Nobody talked about the body gone blue in the alleyway because that’s how it was back then–trash got picked up faster than the bodies.

That was the summer they put bars on the windows and deadbolted roof doors. Nobody asked why a ten-year-old girl jumped out of a window but everyone understood why Ricky wheeled himself out to the street. Smack in front of an oncoming bus.

*

A woman falls asleep and wakes next to a man who’s killed more than a hundred women. Andy is a neurosurgeon who owns a tabby cat called Edith. For a time, Andy was a therapist who worked in a clinic that took patients on a sliding scale, when he met the woman who would become his wife. She walked into his office with a box of razor blades she ordered off the internet. I need you to take this, she said, handing Andy the box of blades. I need some distance from this. She wasn’t suicidal, he determined, she was more like one of those cry-for-help types, yet he found her gesticulations curious and her non-sequiturs endearing, albeit mildly tourretic. I have so much pain and I don’t know where to put it, she said. Do I put it in a box? If so, how big of a box? What are its dimensions? Do I take this box filled with my wants and my sadness to the beach? Should I ease it into the water and wait for the space between the box floating and the box being subsumed by the water? Do I mourn the box’s passing, the inevitable swallowing? To which Andy responded, fuck the box. Lay down your pain. Right here. The woman grew quiet and finally she said, do I get visitation rights? Can I come back for my pain once in a while?

Andy laughed, shook his head and said, you’re not a circus and this isn’t the zoo. Later that night, he drafted a paper on the structure and function of a psychopath’s brain. He wrote about the reduced structural integrity in the white matter fibers connecting the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. How the two disparate parts of the brain–the former controlling empathy and impulse control and the latter controlling fear–failed to communicate. It’s like two men on the range drawing their guns at dawn, only, in this case, no man is left standing. Sometimes, he thought about his parent’s boat, engulfed in flames, sailing in the distant horizon. Sometimes he remembered a book of matches of his hand, but mostly he thought about the fact that over the years he’s refined. He’s better at his work.

But he never tells his wife this because hers is possibly the one heart he can’t bear to break. His wife is clean, unlike the others. The others are gruesome, sullied, and deserving of the bleach that paled them down to bone.

There was a moment, though, when he thought about closing his hands around her neck. He even went as so far as to follow her home from one of their sessions. Andy watched her pause in front of her door. He watched her close her eyes and part her mouth and he could see that she attempted a scream but no sound came out. And as if nothing had happened, she then opened her eyes, slipped her key into the door, and made her way in. Andy witnessed her hurt, the whole of it, and realized his therapy failed to make a difference. He wondered, briefly, if her pain exceeded his. For weeks, he followed her home and saw her repeat the ritual. Home wasn’t safe, it wasn’t a refuge, rather it was a temporary container for her hurt. Once, he approached her door and leaned against it, hoping to hear her breathing from the other side.

Nights, he studied his brain scans and saw a small glimmer of a connection between polar states. It occurred only when he thought of her.

On their honeymoon, she tossed and turned at night. Her body was volcanic. Andy held her when she woke up screaming. She told him the story of a distant cousin jumping out of a window, her body left covered by a sheet for three days until the men came and took her away. In a span of a newscast from her home in Long Island, she learned that a part of her family died. Her aunt of a heroin overdose, her cousin who couldn’t bear child services and chose to jump instead. She remembered her mother snatching the remote out of her hand and changing the channel to All in the Family. Her mother said, that’s not our family. That’s not our kind. Years later, she would discover that her mother was her aunt, a woman who couldn’t bear children and relieved her sister of her burden instead. The woman on the television screen, the aunt who died of a heroin overdose and the mother she barely knew, was, in fact, her kind.

Andy asked why she never brought this up. Somber, his wife said, we fell in love and I had to find a new therapist. Remember?

Come morning, they learned that a woman in their hotel had been strangled in her room. The wife was scared, drew Andy closer. Should we leave? Andy shook his head, smoothed her hair like did his Edith and kissed the red lipstick off her mouth when he said, I’d never hurt you. I’d never let anyone hurt you.

*

 

Hers was the kind of grave you couldn’t wait to dance on. It’s callous to say that, I know, I know, respect the dead, but we so rarely get the opportunity to say what we really think. What would you say if your mother’s been dead for a decade and bill collectors are still calling you in hopes of reclaiming her debts? Why should I be responsible for her ransacking the Fingerhut catalog? No one told her to buy seven of those QVC toasters. When it comes to my mother, I don’t have Hallmark feelings. When it comes to my mother, I don’t feel anything at all.

Did you see that TV special about the rich doctor on death row? That man killed 200 women and he only got caught when his wife discovered his lockup with four of the bodies. You didn’t see it? The special about Doctor Death? This is why I hate hospitals.

*

Kitty Katherine Knox once said dead people are always so messy. Look at them, blood splashing around. They don’t even look like people anymore. Before the good doctor, Andy Knox was executed by lethal injection in the State of California, he looked at the faces belonging to the families of the victims and said, I like you. I’m going to come back for you and all you love. Mark my words.  The morning of the execution his wife’s hand was shaking as she applied red lipstick.

 

*

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp. You could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

Image Credit: Mike Wilson

Uncategorized

new fiction*: this is our playground

Sad, depressed black man in a empty room, low light

 

Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.

 

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

 

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

 

What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.

 

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

 

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.

 

Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.

 

Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.

 

Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.

 

When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.

 

The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.

 

Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.

 

Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.

 

Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.

 

Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.

 

Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.

level-up

When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?

 

You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia

 


*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS

book buff

the long, winding journey to the middle

Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand
Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand

There was a time when, if you wanted to see someone, you had to pick up a phone, write a letter, or ring a bell. That was the time, I say and my father nods in tacit agreement. We laugh because this is what happens when you arrive at the middle of your life–you look back on the life you never appreciated while you were living it, and you recast it in sepia. You become a revisionist, a tawdry romantic. You forever remember your life as simple, even when it was everything but, even when your days amounted to you taking cover from ferocious storms that passed swiftly. When victory meant climbing out from under gravel and rock, in-tact. Still, you’re tender with your memories because that which you once considered life-altering–the manufactured dramas, the heart that swelled and broke, the incalculable losses–no longer bears the weight you once ascribed. Their intensity diminishes with time, for the fact that have lived. What you once considered large becomes diminutive simply because these are days you’ve endured.

You think Natalie Merchant was right, these are days you remember.

Over lunch I tell a friend that I’m in the betweens. I feel the years, all of them, but I don’t. When you’re young, you consider 40 old (ask any child and they’re certain to make allusions to your imminent mummification), but a certain calm accompanies this perception because all that you don’t know will be resolved by the years. The empty will be made whole, you’re certain of it. Until you reach the middle of your life and realize that resolutions are only met with more questions. The simple becomes a cipher and you spend your days saddled with riddles.

I take a meal with a woman in her 20s who’s astonished over the fact that I still have questions, that I haven’t “figured it all out” when it comes to my career. How do I explain that in the same breath I have it all figured out but I’m not close to figuring it out? That I’m able to reconcile what matters to me but that knowledge doesn’t magically reveal what’s next. It took time to unload all the weight I’d been carrying–the weight of my generation and the expectations of meeting markers by specific age thresholds (married by 30, 2.5 children, house, career, the whole nine) and realizing that I didn’t want what had been prescribed for me–and how do I explain that I’ve merely traded in one bag for another, and the contents of each are demonstrably different?

IMG_1669IMG1231A
IMG_1670IMG1231A

So I looked up this Santa Monica on the Google, and you’ll be happy to know that there is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean, my father says, satisfied. I worry that he’ll be worried. Somehow I won’t feel right about leaving if he doesn’t give me his blessing, even if I’m too old for it, even if I don’t technically need it. But I’ve come to realize that his assurance is something I need, and I laugh when he measures the weight of this decision by the proximity of coffee shops. (He doesn’t, really. My pop, like me, needs a non-threatening opener, something that won’t ripple the waters, as it were. We need to take it slow–there’s no other way.)

The coffee, I understand, is my dad’s way in.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

We spend two hours in a car in front of the water, and I tell my pop I’m frightened. I’ll have to re-learn how to drive (so, you’ll learn); I’ll have to consider work (aren’t you already worried about that here? How is it any different there?); there will be times I will fly into New York and not have a home to go home to (home is in your heart, you know this, not where you lay your head down to rest). He says, of course you’re afraid.

In Spain, there are barnacles that are as expensive as caviar. This isn’t the sort of fish that’s affixed to rocks and certain ships, rather these crustaceans can only be found out in the deep, in the rolicking seas, and the princely sum we pay is insurance for the man who risks his life to harvest what we eat. I describe the way barnacles feed, their spindly legs and unhealthy attachments. We’re by the water now, and he inquires about the barnacles. Where are they? I point to rotten wood and the barnacles the blanket the surface.

What I don’t say is that I’ve been attaching myself to that which has only sustained. I’m taking what I can get.

My pop and I discuss probability, how he’ll likely board a plane to visit me in California than navigate a car to Brooklyn. Last night I walk along a street where I’ve walked over 25 ago, and I think about the girl then and the woman now and I’m trying to reconcile the two (a shadow behind you, a shadow rising up to greet you).

But it’s hard because the woman who grew up in Brooklyn is so foreign to the woman leaving it, and I can’t explain the sadness I feel being in between, over, under, around, beyond, the two.

This is what happens when you reach the middle of your life. You fold the terrific photographs of you from a former life, that young face washed in sepia, into a box. You preserve it. You care for it. You sometimes open the box and pore through its contents. You hold up your former self to the light. You practice nostalgia like sermon, like song. Then you realize that there are boxes left to fill. You realize that you are halfway toward the end of your life and you desire color. You need shadows under red rocks. You need new questions. You need new photographs. You need the life beyond the photo. You need to hold the still-beating heart in your hands. You need to breathe.

Update: I just listened to Isabel Allende’s talk on living passionately, regardless of age, and it was so fitting for this post and wholly illuminating.

the gathering kind

homemade blueberry pop tarts!

IMG_3283IMG123
I have few memories of my time with my mother that are worthing saving. My chrysalis from child to adult practically occurred in the womb, so sometimes I struggle to remember moments when we were two giggling girls, happy. Before cocaine transformed the woman I loved into a cold, paranoid somnambulant, before we moved to the pristine postmark lawns and expensive finery that was Long Island, we lived in Brooklyn. We feasted on Gino’s pizza, greasy Chinese food {spare ribs + pork fried rice for two!}, Carvel banana boats and boxes of pop tarts. Back then, I’d never heard of the word “organic” or understood the perils of white flour and sugar. We ate what we could afford and splurged on junk food and “naughty” eats when we were flush.

Yesterday, for some reason, I remembered a time when I sold picture frames, wall hangings and knick-knacks on a sheet on Thirteenth Avenue, and I remember passersby regarding me with a kind of pity. I used to think that the end always justifies the means, so I scurried home with my dollar bills and bought Little Debbie cakes and sticker books.

motherWe loved our television loud and in color {we did have one small black and white set in the living room}, and nights I’d sometimes watch evening soaps and the game shows my mother liked to watch — all the while ripping apart the foil of a strawberry pop tart, my absolute favorite.

Time passes, and we turned off our television sets, moved to different parts to New York, separated. Within a span of fifteen years I told my mother that I couldn’t have her in my life. She was my first hurt, and loving her always seemed to ruin me. This is the very definition of survival, I thought, and I never touched the foods we shared a love for, again.

Until yesterday. Until I spent the day with one of my dearest friends and business partner, Angie, and I thought I’d make her kids a sweet treat.

While these aren’t the prettiest of tarts {I’m notoriously for failing at icing because I’ve no patience}, I assure you they are the tastiest. The bleached-white Kellogg’s version has been replaced by a buttery pastry dough, awash in egg and sugar and sprinkles.

Don’t be freaked out by making butter dough — it’s easier than you think.

INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe
For the Pâte Brisée
Makes 8 pop-tarts
1 3/4 cups (245 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks / 228 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp cold milk {I used almond milk}
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup (340 grams) blueberry jam

For the Simple Vanilla Glaze
1 cup (140 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 to 3 tbsp water
Rainbow sprinkles for sprinkling (optional)

DIRECTIONS
For the pastry: Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a handheld mixer), mix together the flour, sugar, and salt for 10 to 15 seconds, or until combined. Scatter the butter over the top. Mix on low speed for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or just until the flour is no longer bright white and holds together when you clump it and lumps of butter the size of pecans are visible throughout.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and milk until blended. Add to the flour mixture all at once. Mix on low speed for about 30 seconds, or until the dough just barely comes together. It will look really shaggy and more like a mess than a dough.

Dump the dough out onto an unfloured work surface, then gather it together into a tight mound. Using your palm and starting on one side of the mound, smear the dough bit by bit, starting at the top of the mound and then sliding your palm down the side and along the work surface (at Flour we call this “going down the mountain”), until most of the butter chunks are smeared into the dough and the dough comes together. Do this once or twice on each part of the dough, moving through the mound until the whole mess has been smeared into a cohesive dough with streaks of butter.

Gather up the dough, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and press down to flatten into a disk about 1 inch thick. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before using. The dough will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

For the pop tarts: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it in half. Press each half into a rectangle. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each half into a 14-by-11-inch rectangle. Using a paring knife, lightly score 1 rectangle into eight 3 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch rectangles (about the size of an index card).

Brush the top surface of the entire scored rectangle with the egg. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the jam in a mound in the center of each scored rectangle. Lay the second large dough rectangle directly on top of the first. Using fingertips, carefully press down all around each jam mound, so the pastry sheets adhere to each other.

Using a knife, a pizza roller (easier), or a fluted roller (easier and prettier), and following the scored lines, cut the layered dough into 8 rectangles. Place the rectangles, well spaced, on a baking sheet.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the tops of the pastries are evenly golden brown. Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for about 30 minutes.

For the glaze: While the pastries are cooling, in a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and enough of the water to make a smooth, pourable glaze. You should have about 1/2 cup. (The glaze can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.)

When the pastries have cooled for 30 minutes, brush the tops evenly with the glaze, then sprinkle with the rainbow sprinkles (if using). Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the glaze to set before serving.

The pastries can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

IMG_3287IMG123
IMG_3282IMG123

pastry + bun recipes sweet recipes

prepare yourself for the giant…

IMG_8125
Do you know who I am? I’m alive you understand, the life, the life, the life…Are you prepared for the atom bomb, are you prepared for my aching arms? Are you prepared, are you prepared? Are you prepared for serenity, are you prepared to disagree? Are you prepared, are you prepared for meThe Bird and the Bee’s “Preparedness”

We were a family of lottery players. We sharpened our pencils, selected numbers at random, and stood on a line that snaked the length of a city block, because we believed that all we needed was a dollar and a dream. Come nightfall we’d sit on the stoop, still wet from the johnny pump and the spray of Colt 45 that matted our hair to the backs of our necks, listening to the elders trade stories of what they’d do if they hit it big. Sadie said she was going to buy me a house where all the white people lived. Promising us that she’d stand on her lawn, defiant, knowing that they couldn’t get rid of me, even if they tried. Some mused about giant boats settling sail in a blue ocean. No one had ever seen waves swell, seen the beauty of them rise up and warble like a long note held. No one bore witness to the descent, to the waves crashing onto the shoreline. Back then the only water we’d seen poured out of spigots and sprayed out of pumps on the street.

Others hatched plans about taking a trip around the world although they secretly knew that the whole of their world would always be Brooklyn. Their prison was a ten-block radius, yet once a week they’d shuffle to the market with their dollar in tow, plotting escape.

Back then we were naive to believe that money bought you freedom. Back then we wanted the life we saw on our black and white television sets; we raged war with the wire rabbit ears to bring this life into focus. Back then we wanted the giant.

Recently, someone upbraided me for my decision to abandon a comfortable life. Think of all the money. Think about what you’re walking away from, she warned. Shaking my head I sighed and said that what I was running toward was infinitely richer. It was the ticking that was the bomb. Granted, I’m being smart about things. I’m squirreling away as much money as I can. I’m buying only what I need. I’m ridding myself of the unnecessary, the things that only bring me anxiety rather than sustenance. I’m making my preparations for the day when I’ll walk away from security to something other. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t worry about it, fret over my decision, a little. I’m pragmatic, cautious, but then I recall a conversation I had with my friend Kate a few years back. I considered renting a more expensive apartment than the one in which I’d lived, but worried that I wouldn’t have the money to pay for it in the long run. Kate told me that I should always bet on myself. I was my biggest investment and that I should nurture myself. The rent line would be stable and my potential could only grow — all things being equal, of course.

Ever since then I try to remind myself to bet on myself. To believe in myself. To know that I am the ticking that is the bomb. To know that money is actually the prison, not the thing that sets you free. To believe that I can break from third person and rush to first. That I can be the giant.

All this while having lunch at Campo de Fiori.

IMG_8121
IMG_8116
IMG_8112
IMG_8119
IMG_8134

new york eats

the gathering kind {part 4}: the nobility of living a quiet life

IMG_7531
It must be very beautiful to be finished. When the train rushes into the station, to let the wind blow into your face. Suppose your whole life surges back to you. I try to believe that Harris summoned all the beauty of his life. — Sarah Manguso, The Guardians: An Elegy

Over a telephone line my father tells me about his life. It’s been five years since the day I dropped another line and sprinted twenty blocks to a train to a taxi to a farm where my father nearly lay dying. I remember his face the color of a bruise and the gash still raw from where he smacked his head on the pavement. Standing in his home painted yellow, where swords and feathers festooned the walls, I shook a bottle of pills in my hand. Why didn’t you take them? What do you mean, you forgot? Who wakes up after thirty years and forgets to take their pills? In a small voice, I said You’re killing me. Furious, he told me he didn’t need them anymore, that he had a new plan. He was drinking wheatgrass every day, you see. He was a fit fellow even though everyone around him was dying. And hadn’t he collected me from the train station in Locust Valley — when the sky was a blanket of black and the squirrels ravaged through the trees — and put me into the car when I couldn’t stand from all the drink? Didn’t he put up with the wine lips all those years? My mother, me, difficult women on the road to ruin — he shouldered all of this. A year sober, I leaned against the wall as if it had the ability to buoy me up and I wondered if this was the very definition of retribution.

Sorrow never hides, it just lies dormant. It festers, metastasizes and spreads like sickness. We’ve been here all along, it torments. Here’s our card; we’re in the business of reunion. That night I dreamt of a woman with moths for eyes.

This was the year his boss’ heart stopped and all the horses were sold, when my father was forced out of the home he’d known for ten years. In that moment, when his face was all swollen and his apartment barren, I felt the shackles clasp tight around my ankles. And my body went cold, as if all the power had gone out. There goes the moths fluttering out of your hair. Rewind the tape and I was back to where I’d started: parenting a parent. Mothering without a map. Having to clean up the blood and pack the bags in the car. I needed to say goodbye to all that, so in a restaurant in Long Island I told my father that I was done being a parent. And we didn’t speak for five years. Until now.

It occurs to me that my mother and I had abandoned our cats. Funny the things that linger.

We start by exchanging words between our telephones, not picking up from the place we’d left off but going somewhere new. We both have new jobs and we talk about my mother, how she has a new family now. How she’s a mother to a daughter who has the name I was meant to have. We don’t tread in the waters that were those lost years; we text in present tense.

When we finally gather, it’s like old times. We take comfort in the stories that used to make us laugh. He takes new pills now, blood thinners, and they make his legs hurt. After a few moments I wonder aloud if he should be taking them. We laugh cautiously and press the sentences on. He tells me about his new life, a home beautifully made on a new farm with a family who adores him. When I tell him about Paris, he proudly talks about the aftershave his boss wrapped in tissue. Smiling, I nod into the phone and ask him if he’s happy. My father’s life is uncomplicated and quiet, and this pleases him. And part of me wonders if he aches for the world and everything in it, or if this, this life, is all he ever wanted. Whether he’s content being a man who works on a horse farm, lives in a warm home and takes wheatgrass in the mornings.

When I hung up I realized that there’s nobility in living a quiet, dignified life. My father is possibly the most honest man I know. He is the embodiment of good, and sometimes I feel small against all that goodness. That I was always the ambitious one — I was the savage who wanted the world and every single thing in it. And maybe I judged him for serving as a mirror to a flaw in my character. Maybe this is why we lost all those years. Maybe he and I will talk about it one day.

What I do know is this. When he asked me about my writing, my baking, my life, when he asked me if I was happy, I remember not answering the question. I remember changing the subject. The hand that shook the bottle now shakes the head no.

Remember the photo that your mother took? The one of you with the whisk? Remember that? my father asked once. You looked really happy. When I hang up the phone I whisper to my pop that I’m getting there.

Last week, after French class, I was exhilarated. Practically levitated all the way to Smith Canteen. Ordered a pile of delicious (delicious!) food that I knew I couldn’t eat because it was SO. MUCH. But it felt like home to me. The flaky crust that caved into the sweet pumpkin, the sage mayonnaise on the turkey sandwich and the peppery bite of the sausage biscuit gave me shelter during a time when I’m starting to climb my way out of the betweens.

IMG_7541
IMG_7538
IMG_7540
IMG_7533
IMG_7524
IMG_7529

new york eats the gathering kind

we all scream for ice-cream: van leeuwen artisanal ice-cream, brooklyn

van leeuwen artisanal ice cream, brooklyn
There was a time when I was mad for frozen yoghurt. Lock me in a room with a pint of Haagen Daaz coffee and I was golden. And it wasn’t until I set eyes on buckets of whipped cream in a seemingly endless cacophony of colors, it wasn’t until I let the flavor of toasted nuts settle into my tongue, did I fall deliriously in love with artisanal ice-cream.

Believe me when I say that this sort of treat isn’t for the weak of heart or tepid of taste buds, but rather it’s for those who want a deep, enveloping flavor. So if you’re content with your bucket of Baskin Robbins, you may want to turn away. However, if you’re game to make a leap of faith, I implore you to consider this: when it comes to ice-cream, you’d better go big or go home.

Enter Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream. I first encountered Van Leeuwen in the form of a parked truck on Spring Street. A seemingly serene and astringent treat truck, the Van Leeuwen offered a handful of flavors at a price that seemed princely. Until you wrapped that little spoon around your tongue, because FOR THE LOVE OF PONY is this ice-cream divine. Whether you’re sampling pistachios grown on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily or red currants harvested in Hudson Valley or settling into a spoonful of Oak Barrel Aged Vanilla, you’re guaranteed to feast on a regal dessert worthy of servitude. And that’s just the flavoring. Let’s not forget the hormone-free milk, and a product free of stabilizers, preservatives or the tar gum so ubiquitous in those supermarket tubs.

I often fantasize about owning a bake shop, and when I walked into Van Leeuwen it’s as if my vision had come to pass. A verdant garden, white, soothing decor, and glass windows ushering in the light — this is what makes one take their time with their cup of pistachio greatness. These are the kinds of desserts worth savoring.

van leeuwen artisanal ice cream, brooklyn
van leeuwen artisanal ice cream, brooklyn
van leeuwen artisanal ice cream, brooklynvan leeuwen artisanal ice cream, brooklyn

foodie gal