Lightning in a Jar: Wounded Prey

CHAPTER 4:

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.

The Road Taken: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

When I was young I wanted to be a cowgirl. I wanted to live on a farm and ride horses all day long, milk the cows and chase after the piglets. Of course, later, I realized I was allergic to hay and grass, and just about everything in between. Besides, as a Latina from Queens, what did I know about living the farm life?

As Pam drove down the freeway, passing the exit for the SeaTac Airport, I thought about my other dream. That of flying away. I loved flying, and had been doing so since birth. Getting on a plane was second nature to me.

I fantasized sometimes about embarking on a journey, with no care or concern as to where I was going. It felt thrilling to imagine taking off without telling a soul I was leaving, let alone whether I’d be back. I could be somewhere else, relaxing in Paris, along the Seine, with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Expatriates, we’d be, clinking our glasses, brimming with champagne, and laughingly toasting to our good health. We’d be joined, by Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, for a scintillating conversation about whatever novels we were working on. Then, Zelda would ask me to read one of my poems aloud.

These were the dreams that excited me. In each, I was doing something, making my mark, for I was sure there had to be more to me than this: being a married lady with a husband that was gone all the time.

But so far, I hadn’t figured it out. All I knew was that my entire life had led me to this point. Marriage. It was supposed to be the end all, starting with my Barbie and Ken dolls, and all the wedding scenarios I concocted for them. It continued through the Doris Day movies and Donna Reed shows on TV. Marriage, marriage, marriage.

The problem with marriage was the focus on the happily ever after part. It didn’t tell you what was supposed to happen after the vows. The road to marriage was like this big, amazing ride that builds and builds to this incredible crescendo and then you reach the other side and nothing. There is no manual on what to do. Just an abyss, and suddenly there you are, having to create your own rules, your own version of how it’s supposed to be. Only I was flailing.

Back to reality, I flipped through the latest copy of the Ladies Home Journal, one of the magazines I’d brought along for the drive. I had started buying it as soon as we tied the knot. Perhaps, I was expecting it to be my marriage road map, as all the articles seemed focused on helping young wives deal with their relationships.  So far, it wasn’t working.

The best part of the magazine was the monthly feature, titled, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  I immediately opened to it, and offered to read it aloud to Pam. We both loved reading these seemingly hopeless stories of marital discord. The more futile the better and the editors of LHJ seemed to know that, too, because each story always seemed bleaker than the previous one. And yet, no matter what, the marriage could always be saved.

In this particular issue, the husband kept telling his wife he had to work late, but really he was having an affair with his secretary. And when the wife found out, she cried, but in the end she forgave him. The marriage counselor gave the wife instructions on how to revive her marriage and keep him close, and recommended to the husband that he avoid being at the office late at night with the secretary. The counselor, having put the burden of keeping the marriage together on the wife, now concluded that everything would be fine, as long as the couple followed his advice.

Pam laughed, “That guy’s a total jerk and the wife should leave him and leave him now.” Looking at me askance, she added, “I’m sure she’ll be happier and better off.”

Better off? I pondered this for a moment. I thought about G and my momentary lapse with Rick. A heavy dose of guilt pored through my veins, making me feel sheepish. I wasn’t sure which of us, if any, would be better off.

Looking outside my window, I noticed the skies were turning. Clouds were beginning to form to the south the direction in which we were headed.  It would start raining soon. As we approached the Washington State border, Pam got off the freeway.

“Let’s stop and get a bite to eat.” I nodded.

We pulled up to what Pam would refer to as a cheesy restaurant. The kind that had a flashing sign that read, “Cheap Eats,” only some bulbs were missing, so it only said, “Cheap.” Pam turned off the ignition, but I made no attempt to get out of the car. She seemed a bit agitated by my lack of movement. Raising one eyebrow, she looked at me skeptically, she said in a raised voice,

“Well? Are you going to snap out of it or what?”

Leave it to Pam to give me an ultimatum. She knew it was always the “or what” that stymied me. I knew I needed to pull myself together and make a decision about what I wanted, but the idea of taking any action was outside my comfort zone and made me numb. There was safety in staying the course. And then it hit me. Without realizing it, I had settled for the tried and true, and that was G.

I could no more get on a plane and fly to parts unfamiliar, than I could become a cowgirl and live on a farm. I was me, 26 and tethered to the path I’d chosen with G, whether here because of succumbing to societal pressures of marriage or because of decisions I’d made by my own, damned self.

How I wished I had one iota of Pam’s grit, and her tenacity to stand up for herself. But these weren’t mine for the taking. Sigh. Who needed dreams, anyway?

I opened the door and got out of the car, feeling a flicker of light extinguish inside me.  You know what they say, even cowgirls get the blues.

Read past installments, by visiting the page, The Road Taken.

The Uptown Express

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, we spent many weekends trekking into the city, and for us, there was only one way to get there:  the New York City subway system. We’d take the E or the F train to mid-town Manhattan. Once there, we became creatures of habit.

First, we’d go to Radio City Music Hall, where we’d take in the latest Doris Day flick, followed by a spectacular show, featuring the world-famous New York City Rockettes. Then, lunch at our favorite automat, the Horn & Hardart, where individual servings of Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, and warm apple pie were neatly displayed behind glass cubicles. You’d insert a few nickels in the coin-operated slot next to the food item of your choice. The door would unlock, and–voilà!–a fresh, tasty dish, piping hot from the oven, was yours for the taking.

“His Master’s Voice” was RCA’s trademark, depicting this real dog, Nipper, listening to his owner’s voice on a phonograph.

After our meal, we’d cross the street to the RCA building, where you could see a life-size version of the RCA dog, proudly listening to his “master’s voice.” How I loved that terrier and so wanted one of my own.

Sometimes, we’d stop by the Time-Life building, too, to view the photo exhibit in the lobby area.  During the holidays, we were sure to visit Rockefeller Center and gaze upon the breathtaking Christmas tree, all decked out in dazzling lights that reflected upon the skaters below. Then, there were times when we’d take the uptown express to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I loved our trips to the city. Whenever we went, no matter where we’d go, these were magical times, indeed.

Taking the subway was the only way to go. If you ask me, it was the fastest way to maneuver through the city. I was fascinated by the long, pitch-black tunnels that stretched from one end of the city to the other, crisscrossing it (see map), in a mad-dash attempt to keep New Yorkers, moving.  I took comfort in the whoosh of the express train as it sped through each station. The rattle and clatter as it swayed side to side, and the lights that would turn off at random moments, leaving passengers in utter darkness.  It was enough to stir the imagination of any wide-eyed child. It was more than enough to inspire me to write this poem about the subway of my youth.

Laughter From the Uptown Express

We boarded the Uptown Express,

Mother, Older Brother and me,

On a clear afternoon in November.

The train heaved from the station,

Mother sighed, closed her eyes,

Brother tugged at his red bow tie,

While I pressed my face against the window,

Scummy from a thousand rides before.

Darkness swallowed us as the subway

Plunged ahead, grinding a path through the

Blackness, mad maze,

Screeching like nine monsters prowling

  In the night,

Racing like hungry rats down a crooked track,

Fingers curled tightly around the seat’s edge.

The lights flickered off inside when the train,

Rocked and reeled down a curve,

Shaking furiously till Brother fell against me,

And the door between cars flew–

OPEN!

Brother grabbed my arm as a lone woman,

In the doorway’s shadow swayed on flaming stilettos,

Elegantly wearing the glint of an emerald snake on her brow,

While the train howled down through the tunnel.

Moving toward Brother and me,

Frenzy spinning about her head like

Moths caught in a spark,

One thin arm reached above us as we cringed

In anticipation and—OH the lights came on!

The woman saw me shiver and Brother squirm

In his scarlet bow tie,

Her painted lips shaped a wild, cunning laugh,

Like purple goblins dancing maniacally in the wind.

The train slowed,

Grinding to its knees while Mother stretched

From a deep, somber sleep,

Glancing at Older Brother and me,

Meekly sitting beside her,

She took my hand and adjusted Brother’s crimson tie,

 Swiftly leading us off the train,

The door shut tightly behind us,

And as we reached the stairs on the platform above,

I could still hear the laughter from the Uptown Express.