Lightning in a Jar: Wounded Prey


I was raised on romance. Songs like, “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and countless memories of sitting in a darkened theater watching the larger-than-life romances of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Louis Jordan and Leslie Caron, not to mention Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and their respective princes.

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

Romance on the Silver Screen: Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

At home, I was hooked on late night movies. Two o’clock in the morning and you could find me watching Fred Astaire blithely dancing across a ballroom, in his top hat and coattails, whisking Ginger Rogers into his arms as they danced cheek to cheek. Or, a debonair Cary Grant gazing passionately into Grace Kelly’s eyes. Ditto, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who suggestively asked Bogie to pucker up his lips and blow.

As a little girl, I imagined one day meeting my own knight-in-shining armor. I even had a dream about this mysterious someone. He was on the battlefields of World War II (don’t ask), injured in combat and I was a nurse who had to nurture him back to health. We fell passionately in love and when I awoke, I had the faint memory of something that never happened. At least, not to me.

But then Jake swept me off my feet. There had been other crushes, as far back as first grade, but none amounted to anything but a passing fancy. With Jake, it was different. For six months we spent every possible moment together—in school, after school, on the weekends, and it seemed, whenever we couldn’t be together, we were on the phone. Kismet.

Maybe I would’ve been better off growing up on the set of a movie. I could have gone to the school sock hop with Andy Hardy. I would’ve treated Clark Gable a whole lot better than Scarlet O’Hara ever did. I could’ve danced in the rain with Gene Kelly, forever living my happily ever after on a Hollywood sound stage.

But instead, I grew up in reality and real life doesn’t promise the same happy endings. It’s filled with twists and turns, jealousy, misunderstandings and ultimatums. There’s love, yes, but there’s also love gone wrong, growing apart, moving on, and that’s all she wrote.

So, when Jake unceremoniously dumped me for another—a senior with soft brown curls, upturned nose and a smattering of freckles—I was devastated and downright miserable. Nothing and no one could console me.

James had said I was bubbly, which is why he called me Bubbles. But after Jake dropped me cold, it was hard to believe I had ever been upbeat or could be so again. Laughing and joking seemed pointless. Crying came naturally.

The shock of the breakup paralyzed me. After crying on my mother’s shoulder for two and a half hours, I took to bed, and stared at the ceiling, wondering how I would ever be able to return to school and show my face. The humiliation of it all. I had neglected many of my friends while I was dating Jake. Would they welcome be back into the fold or would I need to find new ones?

My best friend, Liza, had never liked Jake in the first place. “You could do better,” had been her refrain. I could do better, but it scared the bejezus out of me. I thought I had done better with Jake, but now Jake had a new girlfriend and they were in love. I wondered if Liza would say the same about her. That she could do better.

I couldn’t sleep that night or the next. I had no appetite, not even when my father offered to take us all to Sizzler’s for charbroiled burgers. I was mad at him. I blamed him for forcing us to go to D.C., certain as I was that the trip was the source of my problems. After all, had I not been gone a week, Jake and I might still be together.

I briefly thought about James. Last time I saw James, I was angry and said things I now regretted. I wondered what it would be like when I saw him again come Monday. How could I face him? Ugh. I wasn’t looking forward to going back or seeing him. And, I wasn’t sure which would be worst.

I heard the phone ring. Three times. My parents had a rule that the phone had to ring three times before you could pick it up. No more, no less. Go figure. There was a persistent knock on my bedroom door.

“Mónica, teléfono,” said my mother in Spanish.

Exhausted, defeated I dragged myself into my parents’ bedroom to take the call, carefully shutting the door behind me so as not to be overheard. A thought crossed my mind. Maybe Jake was calling to apologize, to beg me to take him back.

Picking up the receiver, I said, expectantly, “Hello?”

“Hey, heard what happened. You up for some company? Say the word and I can make it in 10.”

It was George, one of Jake’s good friends. I recognized his distinct nasal voice. George, who was just a tad taller than me, had jet black hair and swarthy looks. He also had no discernible personality to speak of, told dull jokes, and had a few whiskers that appeared to be growing willy-nilly on one side of his chin, which he said he kept to impress “the ladies.” George and I had never hung out on our own. I barely knew him and I found him rather annoying the few times he tagged along on my dates with Jake. And, now suddenly he wanted to pay me a visit. Someone must’ve told the hyenas that the prey was wounded and it was time to come in for the kill.

The smell of fried plantains wafted through the closed bedroom door. My mother was making dinner, and probably also cooking up her fritters made with white rice and bananas. My favorite. Her way of trying to make me feel better, and normally it would do the trick. Normally.

Normally, I’d be racing down to the kitchen to steal a bite before dinner. But I no longer knew what normal felt like. I had no appetite, nothing. Just a bland feeling creeping over my heart, cut by the pain of losing Jake.

“So, would you like me to come over or not?” The hyenas were getting restless.

Summing up all the enthusiasm I could muster, I said, “Sure. But make it in 30.”

I needed time for the swelling in my eyes to subside. Too much crying, I suppose.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.

Lightning in a Jar: Chapter 1

James at 16 – continued

MM in High School

It is said that when we grow up, we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture our youth. Each in our own way, we long to relive the best moments and hold on to them forever. Like a roll of bright, shiny pennies we keep in our pocket for safe keeping. Or the pouch of jacks your mom once bought you at the five and dime. These are the things we treasure, the mementos of our life.

But here’s the quandary: You can’t go home again. You can’t get it back, and thinking otherwise is like trying to capture lightning in a jar. For me, it’s the memory of James at 16.  When I think of him then, I feel an ache of a thousand dreams, for the choices we make in our youth can reverberate for a very long time.

By the time I met James, I was already dating Jake, a senior. I was a junior, and dating a senior carried a lot of cache, particularly if he had a car. Meanwhile, James was a lowly sophomore. Our high school only went from 10th to 12th grade, so you couldn’t get more bottom of the barrel than being a sophomore.

I was giddy, head over heels in love. Jake was an amazing guy who was so dazzling and over the top, he was like the host of his own game show, unabashedly greeting the rest of us as if we were the audience–his legions of fans. And perhaps, we were.

With his razzmatazz smile, he’d be pumping hands and doing his best game show host appeal. Guys loved hanging out with him. There were always a few around who didn’t seem to have girlfriends of their own, and, the fact that Jake had a car, while most of us relied on bikes was key, no doubt. But more importantly, Jake always had on hand a stash of pot, and he was happy to share. He’d look you in the eye, flash his best TV host grin and dare you to figure out your utmost desires–did you want what was behind door number one or door number two? I could never decide.

I was so crazy wild in love with Jake, I thought this was it (Read more about him in my post, First Love). That we’d marry one day, and have a slew of game host children. He told me what I wanted to hear, wrote me poetry, spent hours with me on the phone, and said we’d have a future together. I almost stopped breathing, holding all that joy inside. I was that happy.

James was in my geometry class. We called it remedial math because it was for slow learners who needed that “extra push”—a year and a half to learn about isosceles triangles and the like, when most everyone else could do it in just one year. I took the class because I didn’t have a choice. Math of any kind was definitely not my forte. Blame my guidance counselor, Mrs. W., who never really took me seriously as a student and was just trying to put me anywhere she could in order for me to stop pestering her. Mrs. W., with her teased, bouffant hairdo and a look that always made her appear dumbfounded.

“Mrs. W.,” I’d say. “I want to sign up for chorus.”

“Mrs. W., I have a note from home that excuses me from debating in debate class the rest of the semester.”

“Mrs. W, is there another English class I can take? Everyone says Mr. D is a tough grader.”

“Mrs. W, is it too late to sign up for music appreciation instead of home ec?”

Honestly, you’d think that someone who showed as much interest in my education as I did, would get a break from the guidance counselor. But she never did, which later proved to be a tricky thing when it came to my college apps.

Anyway, back to geometry. I spent at least two months, maybe more, without saying bupkis to James. I sat in the second to last seat, in the middle of the classroom and had a great view of the entire class, except the back row—and guess who sat right behind me? Yep, James, and next to him was his best friend from grade school, Sam.

Somewhere around the third month of class, our teacher, Mrs. C, had a brain fart. Mrs. C. was actually really nice. She only looked strict and scary. Inside her was one of those hearts of gold. Outside, she was painfully thin with pale, taut skin. Wait—who am I kidding? The woman was ghostly white. Practically skeletal, with a smear of red on her thin, veiny lips. Her stark black hair was cut off at the chin. If you ask me, she appeared almost like an aging Snow White. No make that Snow White as an addict. Addicted to what? I don’t know. Parallelograms, I suppose.

On this particular day, Mrs. C. decided we should break out into small groups to do some team assignment. Ugh. I hated group assignments. It usually meant you had to produce some work and actually participate, demonstrating that you understood how the problem was solved. And then someone had to be designated as the spokesperson for the group. And, you better believe, it wasn’t going to be me.

When it came time to break into groups, Mrs. C. assigned me to work with, you guessed it, James and Sam. Being in the class was bad enough, but now I had to team up with sophomores?

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends were sophomores. Like Barbara. She and I would sometimes hang out during lunch and sing duets of old tunes like, “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” We were so good, we could’ve taken our act on the road. Okay, maybe not.

But, the verdict was out on these two yahoos. True, I had talked to Sam a few times and he was pretty funny. Acerbic and witty. My kind of humor. But, James on the other hand was shy. Super shy. I never really heard him talk. Perhaps he was thinking hard of what to say, but I didn’t have time to wait around and find out. On the few occasions that I had given him a nod in greeting, I always caught him gazing at me with some foolish grin on his face. Okay, maybe it was a cute grin. More like a half smile. But really, who smiles like that for no reason?

I turned my chair around and said, as I often did, as a result of watching too many late night Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies on TV, “Okay, you dirty rats. Let’s cut to the chase. Which one of you is going to do the assignment and which one is going to present?”

For a second, they blankly stared at each other. Then, James looked me square in the eye. Handing me a pencil, he replied, in his best Bogart impression, “Listen here, Sister, this is how it’s going to be, see? You’re gonna help us solve this problem, and Sam here, he’s gonna present. I’ll make sure of that. But, you’re in it for the long haul, see? Now, suppose we get to work.”

So, the kid could talk and hold his own, too. Feeling somewhat chastened, I took the pencil and moved my chair closer in. Maybe team work wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.

In Praise of Black & White

Several years ago, my daughter was having a sleepover party for her birthday. She had the whole evening planned. Pizza, board games, cake, a game of Twister, and a movie.

Not just any movie, but, a classic: The Naughty Nineties, starring my personal favorite duo, Abbott and Costello. Who can forget the baseball routine, “Who’s on first?” This iconic comedy bit debuted in their 1945 film, “The Naughty Nineties.” Here’s a clip:

So, my daughter’s plan was to screen the movie. She couldn’t wait to introduce her friends to this comedic duo, who had given us hours and hours of laughs and guffaws. But, no sooner did the opening credits start rolling, when one of her friends said this:

“Black and white!?? This movie better be so good I forget it’s in black and white.”

And with that, my daughter’s excitement in sharing with her friends something she found thoroughly enjoyable was unceremoniously deflated, like a pin, pricked into a prized balloon.

Which makes me wonder, have black and white films become a relic of the past?  Today’s kids, accustomed to movies in color being the norm, not to mention 3D, and out-of-this-world special effects and graphics, seem to have little tolerance for the cinematic gems of the past. Or what I call, the golden age of the silver screen.

Yet, there’s so much these films still have to offer. Granted, they may look dated, but many of the story lines still resonate. Why else would today’s Hollywood moguls pore through the vaults of MGM, Paramount, and United Artists in search of movies to remake?

Films like, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, which was remade into You’ve Got Mail, 1998; The Big Clock, 1948, became No Way Out, 1987; The Mummy, 1932 and 1999; The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 and 2008;  King Kong, 1933 and 2005; Cape Fear, 1962 and 1991; and Father of the Bride, 1950 and 1991. And, that’s just naming a few. In fact, plans are underway for a remake of one of my favorites, The Thin Man, which will star Johnny Depp. Yet, when all is said and done, there’s nothing like the original.

Black and white dramas have timeless morals, and the comedies, wit and snappy banter that inevitably leads to a happy ending. The horror films are all the more exciting because they leave much to the imagination, and the singing and dancing are pure delight. It’s not for naught that the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films feature black and white movies in the top two spots: Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

If black and white cinema is a dying art (and thank heavens for The Artist for its attempt to revive it), then it’s up to us to take a second look at the legacy these classics leave us, and share them with the youth in our lives.

So, the next time you have movie night with your family, consider staying home and watching a black and white film. Trust me, you watch them long enough and, frankly, you do end up forgetting they’re in black and white. My kids started watching these films at a young age, and, as a result, black and white is second nature to them.

I have gathered a list of some of my favorites. They are in no particular order, and represent a smattering of the films my kids were raised on. Quite a few of these are Cary Grant films. (Hint: Look for the “CG.”)


A Patch of Blue, a 1965 poignant drama about race relations and love, starring Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman.

To Kill a Mockingbird

A Patch of Blue

All About Eve (Bette Davis at her best!)

Mr. Lucky (CG as a bad guy with a heart)


The Miracle Worker

Film Noir:


The Big Clock

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Double Indemnity

The Lost Weekend

Alfred Hitchcock (He’s in a genre all by himself!):



Suspicion (CG)

Notorious (CG)

Shadow of a Doubt

Mystery & Crime:

Myrna Loy, “Asta,” and William Powell star in the original, “The Thin Man,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. Together, they made an additional five films for the series.

The Thin Man (see the entire series before you see the Johnny Depp version)

The Roaring Twenties

The Spiral Staircase

Angels with Dirty Faces

White Heat

Some Like it Hot (gangsters and comedy)



Duck Soup

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade into Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty)

His Girl Friday (CG)

The Awful Truth (CG)

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (CG)

The Time of their Lives

Arsenic and Old Lace (CG)

Cheaper by the Dozen

I Was a Male War Bride (you guessed it, CG)

Father of the Bride

Bringing Up Baby (CG)

So, are there any black and white films you recommend? Please add your favorites to the comment section below.

The Road Taken: Mr. Woo’s Tree House

Chapter 9:  Flying the coop didn’t necessarily mean all would be cozy and perfect. After all, this isn’t a story about living happily ever after. Just a series of events, some good, some not so.  The good news? We did find a place of our own that more or less met all our criteria, which consisted of:

•       Could not be located inside Stan’s house or within 50 yards of it, yet should still be close to campus, where we both worked.

•       Preferably affordable and not something for which we’d have to hand over an arm and a leg.

•       Not a dump.  Or a pit, for that matter. Which meant nothing that was falling apart, had holes in the walls, or cigarette butts and roaches ground into some threadbare carpet.

Not quite our tree house, but close enough.

The place we found might as well have been a tree house. It was a secluded duplex apartment, perched on the edge of a cliff and surrounded by evergreens with branches so thick, you couldn’t see the forest for, well, the pine needles. It was small, about 600 square feet, with bird-size windows in the bedroom, and ample, wall-to-wall windows, covering two sides of the living room.  That place should have had a spectacular view, but the trees made it impossible.  Which was probably a blessing, because had there been one, the rental price would have skyrocketed beyond our reach.

There was no natural light in our tree house. Not a speck of sunshine could make its way though the dense foliage. Even at high noon, it looked like nighttime inside. Certainly, would have made a perfect hideout for Jimmy Hoffa. Or, a great place to raise bats. Our only neighbor, a single mom and her 8-year-old son, kept pet rats on their side of the tree house, which, if you ask me, was reason enough never to go visit them.

Our landlord, Scott Woo, was Seattle’s version of a slumlord. He owned lots of properties in the University District and was used to renting to college students, charging exorbitant prices and not giving them any perks—such as cleaning the carpets or repainting before they moved in.  His apartments had seen years and years of partying. You could smell the keg parties, and the faint scent of puke  and sweat, wafting through Mr. Woo’s units and, frankly, Mr. Woo didn’t care.

He had a business to run and that didn’t include coddling his tenants with any niceties. Plumbing problem? So what! Refrigerator not working? Don’t look at him! Mr. Woo believed in empowering his tenants to take charge of their own destinies, which, in this case meant, their own apartments.

Mr. Woo didn’t have an office, but worked out of his car, and kept all his tenants names and phone numbers on his body.  He carried a Bic pen wherever he went and kept his notes on his arms and legs. Inky tattoos, I called them. I assumed, if we looked hard enough, we’d find a copy of our lease on one of his calves or forearms.

So what was the bad news? Three days after moving into our tree house, Joanie and Spock called to say they’d decided to move to Seattle and would be arriving that weekend. Suddenly and out of left field.

Joanie and Spock were G’s friends from college.  They were the kind of couple that had spent so much time together that their looks had melded, making them appear more like siblings than spouses. The only difference between the two was that Spock had pointy ears, which is how he got his name.

They had started dating at the beginning of their freshman year and were married by junior year. They separated senior year—long enough for Joanie and I to plan a female, self-empowerment cross-country trip for the summer. But, two days before graduation, and on the eve of hitting the road, they reconciled. Joanie called to tell me that Spock would prefer she stay at home.

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns of the world, she walks into mine."

“He needs me,” she added, as if that helped justify tossing all our plans out with the bath water–and the baby.

And so, our trip, that was supposed to enlighten and make us stronger, was thus extinguished, as was my dream of seeing America from the open road. Which also meant I was out the $250 that I had plunked down toward the down payment on an RV, which Joanie ended up keeping.

And now the happy travelers were on their way to Seattle in the RV that I helped subsidize, no doubt using my money to help pay for the gas. I hadn’t seen Joanie–or Spock–since that incident. A lot of thoughts went through my head, but somehow, the only one that stuck was Humphrey Bogart’s line in Casablanca:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

Feeling my pulse quicken, I knew that I didn’t want to be anywhere near this gin joint when they arrived.

This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).