Monday, December 16, 2013

Fruits I Have Nibbled

  • The Softest and Creamiest of All Avocados
  • Papaya, blended into a juicy pulp with warm water
  • One small, fuzzy peach
  • An orange banana, not quite so creamy as the ones I am familiar with, but still delicious within its own context.
  • Several very small "apple bananas"
  • A cherimoya, which has a delicate skin of mermaid scales and white, floral flesh like pineapple but not so sour. Just as you find in a watermelon, there are molar chipping black seeds that you must spit into your bowl.
  • The avocado's crumbly spinster cousin, lucuma, which is far tastier as a pastry filling or an ice cream
  • A strange orange fruit that looks apple-esque on its deceptive surface, but when you break open its hard shell the inside is white and fibrous like the gritty substance beneath the peel of an orange and it looks like it might segment like an orange until you penetrate the white layer and discover an egg sack full of gray eyeballs, sticky like fish eggs and clustered like pomegranate seeds. This fruit cannot even be fully understood by means of comparison or even metaphor.
  • A perfect, piney mango.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vulture


This vulture is waiting for a tourist to die. The death will most likely occur due to natural causes, such as sunstroke, dehydration, food poisoning, hepatitis A, or a reckless bus driver fueled by too much pisco sour. The vulture will have no hand in it. She doesn't care what sort of structural damage is caused by impact with the bus; she doesn't care about the condition of the human carrion's exposed liver when she prods it with her beak. All the tourists look delicious, Australians and Brits and Germans walking in orderly lines to their potential deaths, but the rotund American man in the polo shirt would be ideal. His dark pink flesh could feed her bald children for weeks. The one with the tiny backpack. Yes.

***

There are buses here called "killers." They are red and yellow and green. No one knows when they come and go or what route they will take to get there. There is no formal schedule. The districts in which they stop are listed on the side of the bus in no particular order. This is the only information prospective passengers have to go on. For the leisurely passenger with no attachment to plans or even the prospect of arrival, it is the most cost-effective form of transportation available in the capital and the only form of public transportation at all. One or two soles for a hazardous rollick through the streets of Lima. The buses speed, turn sharply around corners, and infamously careen into neatly parked vehicles. On the bus, women sit wedged between strange grinning men and hug their purses. As the bus jerks onto a side street, questionable characters feel up unsuspecting human ornaments hanging from the overhead bar and probe their jean pockets for change. Just stay at home.

***

A stranded American man hunches under the insurmountable burden of his backpack in the park outside of the Plaza de Armas. Sweat soaks the armpits of his polo shirt and leaves two moist spots over his nipples. The sun colors his face a blooming shade of lobster and he desperately looks around for a street vendor purveying chilled sodas. Crippling nausea seized him just fifteen minutes after he left the restaurant and he couldn't be sure whether it was the desert sun beaming on his face or food poisoning from the disappointing lunch he ordered, which unexpectedly turned out to be octopus. When he saw the word pulpo, he supposed he was ordering something fruity. With terror he wonders if his hepatitis A vaccine was actually making him sick. If he could go back to the hotel and get an antacid and a cold drink, he would feel a hundred times better. He sees a bus coming towards him and "Miraflores" is written in bold letters on its side. He steps into the road, but the bus only seems to be flying faster.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Panama


Before I left for Lima, my friend at work brought me a picture of Machu Picchu from a travel brochure. She went there years ago before they regulated the number of visitors and hikers. She stayed in a hotel just outside of the ruins. When she looked out the window of her hotel room, Machu Picchu was right there. In bed she stared wide-eyed out the window thinking, That’s Machu Picchu.

She said, “The best part is when you’re standing on the ruins looking at the Andes all around you and you’re the same person as you were at home. You’re the same person, but you’re standing in the middle of an ancient civilization.”

Today I had this same feeling, but I was still flying over South America. From the plane, Dave and I could see the mounds of vegetation protruding from the ocean, the long fishing boats, and the fog hanging over the water. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I was in Panama. How did this happen?

These are the things I know about Panama. One: There is a certain kind of hat that people in Panama are known for. Two: When I was eight years old, my grandpa had a lady friend visit our house and she was from Panama. He had emphysema, so she may have been one of his nurses. He liked to flirt with them and give them his money. This one was a woman who was about my height – I was small for my age – and she had a baby. The baby looked huge in her tiny arms. I was bewildered that a woman so small could make a baby at all.

We got off the plane. The inside of the airport was humid and we were dressed for frigid New York temperatures.

“We’re in Panama!” I said.

Airports, Dave observed, are just malls that you fly in and out of. While we wandered around looking for our terminal, pretty ladies with stacks of advertisements tried to bully us into sampling Paris Hilton’s perfume. We passed shops purveying the quintessential Panama hats and Rolex watches and duty-free shops selling expensive liquor. Who would buy a Rolex watch on impulse?

“Let’s play the find-the-most-expensive-item-in-the-store game – oh, there it is,” Dave said, indicating a liquor aptly named Louis the Fourteenth. It came in its own locking travel trunk, s it should for $3,400.

“It probably tastes okay,” Dave said.

Dave looked for a lunch that would make up for the sardine tin of pasta he ate on the plane. There were Flying Dogs – apparently what people in Panama call the hot dog – and Quizno’s and McDonalds and Cinnabon. We probably passed five different Cinnabon stands. All Dave wanted was a sandwich.

At the terminal, where the passengers loitered around the desk, bored and waiting to board, the announcement for our flight came. The voice on the loudspeaker told us important information about boarding but did not switch into English. We realized that no one was going to translate anything for us at this point.

I never thought I would ever be in Panama, even for a layover. After graduation I despaired, wondering if my adventuring days were numbered and if I would spend the next twenty years working a number of menial, minimum wage jobs to pay off my education. Sometimes I feel like my brain is turning to the consistency of a deep chowder. As I was listening to this language that might as well be a secret code, my ears perked up. I felt the familiar feeling of the unfamiliar. It occurred to me that I was same person in a different hemisphere.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Essential Poe Facts


Very important facts about Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage in the Bronx:
There was no bust of Pallas above the chamber door, I am quite devastated to report.
There is this bust of Poe in the corner of the living room.

It's made of chocolate.

Poe rented the cottage for $100 a year from a farm.
The Bronx used to have farms, as well as forests.
Poe used to drink and play cards with the nearby Jesuit monks. Naughty.
According to the educational video played in a loop in the attic area, the cottage was built with high ceilings in order to conserve heat.
The low ceiling theory doesn't hold up – I nearly leaped over the barriers and lit a fire in the wood stove by rubbing together my dry, dry hands.
Poe had the best writing desk ever. Perhaps it’s a reproduction, but I don’t care. Just look at it.


Poe wrote next to this picture of penguins. You heard it here first.


Virginia Poe passed away in this bedroom.


After Virginia died, Poe wrote a prose poem called Eureka that anticipated the big bang theory.
The Bronx Historical Society volunteer guaranteed that if you read any sentence in Eureka, you will get a headache.
Poe was really, really depressed and thinking about Eternity when he wrote Eureka.
He considered it his magnum opus and submitted himself to death after writing it.
The educational video in the attic said that Poe spent the happiest years of his life there.
Ten minutes later it said they were the most excruciating years of his life. So which one is it?
Probably the latter.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Dirt Candy

My pictures did not come out, but here are four leeks. Or are they scallions? Hmm...
There comes a day in the life of every young woman when she does something absolutely abhorrent to her body in the name of having a cool experience. This is exactly what I did at Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City that serves whimsical dishes made exclusively of photosynthesizing things that grow in the ground.

When one hears “vegetarian,” one envisions something healthy, like steamed carrots. Dirt Candy wants to shatter that association and melt maple butter all over it. Here are some things that are vegetarian: French fries. Waffles. Deep-fried waffles. Ice cream. Five-cheese ravioli. Speculoos cookie butter. Speculoos butter on a deep-fried waffle.

In conclusion, “vegetarian” and “healthy” are hardly synonyms. I learned this lesson the hard way at Veggie Galaxy in Boston a few months ago as I choked down the last bite of vegan cream cheese waffle and this week I learned it again. I am no stranger to making myself sick with yummy foods. Everything I ate at Dirt Candy was deep fried, slathered in butter, or alchemically transmogrified into cotton candy.

Dirt Candy, it turns out, gets completely booked at least three months ahead of time. I found this out when I tried to make a reservation online. I might have secured a seat sometime in June of 2014. Instead, my friend Abbey and I showed up around the time the doors opened and tap danced in their window until they seated us. (Until someone forgot that reservation they made three months ago.) Every time someone got seated, we hovered in the window with a look of disdain that burned into the very essence of their beings, especially when they sipped a beverage. The unseasonable October heat was oppressive and I was dressed for autumn.

Inside, the seating was intimate. The waitress pulled the table out so that I would be able to squeeze into the bench against the wall. We ordered jalapeno hush puppies with maple butter. We liberally applied the maple butter. Maple butter is a shameful thing to waste.

Everything on the menu was enthusiastically named after its primary vegetable ingredient. Mushroom! Cucumber! Potato! I took my chances the Parsnip! while Abbey asked for the Corn! as her entrĂ©e. My dish was described as “parsnip pillows” – essentially, extra squishy parsnip gnocchi. On Abbey’s plate, a tempura-fried poached egg sat atop some very cheesy and savory corn grits.

One of my main motivations for wanting to go to this vegetable alchemy lab was to try a dessert made of vegetables. We wavered between an ice cream bar made of peas and rosemary eggplant tiramisu. We asked the waitress what we should order.

“You want the tiramisu,” she said very seriously.

Of course, the tiramisu was two dollars more than the other desserts. When the plate arrived, we first saw this white fluffy cloud hovering on the plate. The woman next to me leaned in.

“Is that a wedding veil?” she asked.

No, that was the rosemary cotton candy. Resting below the cloud was a 2” by 2” square slice of tiramisu. It tasted like tiramisu, but also like eggplant. Somehow it worked. The cotton candy tasted like rosemary and I haven’t had cotton candy since age ten and probably will not have it again. My pancreas got so angry at me. I can’t believe you've done this, said my pancreas.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I felt like I needed a small perambulator on which Abbey could wheel me through the streets of Manhattan. Instant nausea. Between the butter and the sugar and the creamy sauces and all the disparate food items, I felt like my entire body shut down in order to digest the chaos. I wanted to make words and talk to my friend, but apparently walking and digesting and listening and speaking at the same time was more multitasking than I could manage. I suggested we walk it off, perhaps in the direction of a hospital. The walking did not last long and I ducked out early to go home and recover.


Was it worth it? Yes. I enjoyed the eating. Can I eat like this every day? No. I felt a little sad after the meal because I don’t get to see Abbey too often and here I was channeling all of my energy into assimilating the parsnip pillows. We made some jokes about the cotton candy being a poodle, but the thing is I actually felt like I ate a poodle. If I ate a small, snooty dog, that is exactly how I would feel. The Dirt Candy experience, although delicious, was a good reminder of why I eat the way I do.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bird

I don't encounter a lot of wildlife at work. Once a friendly puppy bounded into my office, but it was promptly removed. Another time I caught a giant venomous spider in a plastic cup - perhaps a suitcase stowaway originating from the American west - and set it free in our parking lot. Last night was one of those rare brushes with the animal kingdom. The lull in incoming phone calls was interrupted by a bird thumping against our picture window.


My co-worker Heather and I leaned close to the glass to get a good look, hoping it was not dead. The bird tumbled back onto the concrete, its wings flung awkwardly to the side and the wind knocked out of its lungs. Soon it began twitching, its chest heaving violently.

"That's it. The bird's fizzling out," I said sadly.

Our picture window is tinted like a pair of FBI sunglasses. During the day, you can't see in from outside unless you are pressing your nose to the glass. Heather speculated that the bird might have been somehow impaired before the impact. Such a collision seemed otherwise unlikely.

"Maybe it was having a stroke as it was flying by the window," she suggested.

"Or a brain aneurysm," I offered. "It probably has all sorts of neurological damage now."

I kept trying to envision the bird straightening out and flying away like it was nothing. In reality, the quick little pulses of the bird's chest did not make the situation look more hopeful. Now its tail was pointing upwards, it seemed to be curling into a ball. It's gauzy bird-soul was rising to the deck of the ship, trying to balloon its way to the avian heavens.

"I think it's having a seizure," I said. "What can we do? Should I give it CPR? What if it has a family?"

I imagined how mouth-to-beak resuscitation might work and what sort of diseases I might get from performing it on an accident victim. I considered going on break and bringing it breadcrumbs from the kitchen. Maybe the resulting sugar rush would give it the energy it needed to resume flight. I felt so helpless just watching and not taking action.

I left the office for a few minutes to use the copy machine. When I returned, the had bird flipped upright, looking tired, slouched, and hung-over. My hopes were skyrocketing.

"I wish it would just fly away like nothing happened," Heather said. We were still hovering at the window with our eyes on the concrete ledge below. I kept picturing the bird fluttering into a nearby tree. Suddenly, the bird straightened its posture, took a few hops in place, and flew into the bushes.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Perusing


All I want to do is leave the country. I have been daydreaming about it often since the last time I left the country. On a weekly basis, I torment all of those around me with stories of Romani kids and cheese-toting anarchists in the Czech Republic. Then I think about having another adventure. This all-consuming wanderlust often manifests itself in the form of looking at pictures of rainbow buildings in Argentina or teaching myself useful Polish phrases or reading an entire website about Bulgarian cuisine while at work. My workplace environment only enables me by making it extremely easy for me to spend an entire shift reading about Bulgarian cuisine.

Finally, some real progress. Dave and I are going to Peru in November. I will have someplace useful to channel this energy. Now here is a photo montage of pictures from Google Images!

Ruins!
Alpacas!
Chocolate!
Ceviche!

Wild camelids!

Peru is one country that Dave and I both can agree on. I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu since I was a wee beastie. I saw Matt Lauer traveling there on the morning news while eating my Fruity Pebbles and I thought, “Yes. I shall go there.” Last year I met some kids from Lima and got a favorable impression of that city as well. Did you know it is the Gastronomy Capital of the Americas? I’m not sure who has the privilege of awarding such titles, but I intend to find out if it is well-deserved. Peru is a great exporter of cocoa beans, so I can’t help but imagine chocolate gushing from the alleys like floodwater. And if there is good chocolate then I could easily live off of that for ten days (or until I get a chocolate hangover).

But chocolate addictions aside, I may need to start eating fish again to be able to survive in Lima. My last few experiences with fish have involved unparalleled bellyaches. Peru is famous for ceviche, which I tried with Dave several years ago. Instead of cooking the fish, it is prepared with lemon juice and spices. The lemon juice is supposed to kill the bacteria and parasites. We went to a restaurant near our college and ordered some sort of pink-fish-ceviche. It was delicious, but we both felt very weird during the car ride home. My whole body felt loopy. I didn’t know it at the time, but the feelings of loopy-ness were just hallucinations brought on by food poisoning.

I told a friend from Lima about my ceviche experience. “You shouldn't be eating that outside of Peru,” she gently chided.

One night after I came home from work, Dave and I stitched together the skeleton of the whole adventure in one big marathon. Dave found some not-so-expensive round trip plain tickets; I arranged our accommodations. We tried to buy our tickets to Machu Picchu ahead of time. Apparently, it is not so difficult to buy the tickets in Cusco the night before or the morning of the trip.

Huayna Picchu, the misty and impressive mountain peak that one sees in all pictures of the ruins, is a little harder to tackle spontaneously. You need to buy the tickets in a package with Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to climb it a day and you have to go through Peru’s government website to book it ahead of time. Peru’s website is notoriously screwy, however, so we had no luck in procuring any tickets ahead of time. Officially, it only takes Visa cards. In reality it does not even take Visa cards.

We also missed out on buying our lunch ahead of time from the only buffet-style restaurant at the peak of this precious ancient treasure. I suppose we will just bring sandwiches.

I began to consider what sort of footwear one would wear for the climb. Normally I would wear my barefoot shoes for hiking, but I wondered if something more heavy-duty would be necessary. Google provided us with heaps of wisdom. Some people climbed it in sneakers, others in Teva sandals. One person recommended that we wear two pairs of socks. He said that a friend recommended that he wear two pairs of socks and, though he can no longer remember the excellent reason, he now wears two pairs of socks every day.


While we have the skeleton of the trip pieced together, there are still other important things that need to be addressed. I need to bring my level of Spanish to at least conversational-caveman level in the next two months. I can hardly remember anything from my Rosetta Stone lessons from last year, but I really hope to see some women eating rice in Peru so I can make intelligent remarks. And at least one alpaca, which I will ardently embrace.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Millionaire's Bestiary

My short story "The Millionaire's Bestiary" appeared in Defenestration Magazine last week, so I drew this condor. Click the sensitive condor below to read the story. Go on. He's handsome, right? I am so proud of this crayon condor. It is the best condor I have ever drawn. Also read the other stories in this issue, because they are about Ronald Reagan and groovy love-powered vehicles.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Night in the Parking Lot

I didn't intend to spend most of the night in the parking lot of my place of employment, but that is exactly what happened. I got out of work at midnight and trudged into the shadowy parking lot with all the vivacity of a somnambulist. I unlocked my car. I put my car keys into my purse. I opened one of the rear doors, threw all of my bags into the plushy back seat, and closed the door. As soon as I opened the door to the driver's seat I realized my grave error: My car keys were in the back. I closed the door.

Then the car locked automatically. It takes all of ten seconds for Nina the Car to shut down like a tank. Because of this, no one will ever steal her, not even me. Her security system is so sensitive it can be set off by a firefly. It's like owning a really vicious Rottweiler. Every time someone takes a step too close, she starts snarling her head off, even when you're the one holding the end of her chain.

I shook my fists at the sky. I haven't had the car for two months and I've already had the check engine light turn on, a tire deflate, and the battery run dead. I seem to be going through the whole checklist of things that can go wrong with a car.


Not knowing what else to do, I went back into the building. I saw a security guard in his office and humbly asked what I should do. He directed me to the engineering department. The engineer and I walked out to the car, where he attempted to pull the doors open with his bare hands. He seemed strangely surprised that his fingers couldn't pry open a car door. Then he advised me to call the local police.

The engineer and I waited for the police outside under a streetlight in the otherwise lifeless employee parking lot. A coworker pulled up in a truck.

"Did you lock your keys in your car?"

I nodded.

"What you need to do is get a screwdriver and then wrap it in a piece of cloth and dig it into the top of your car door. Then you pry open a space to fit in a coat hanger."

I suspected that this coworker might be an expert car thief.

"You've been down this road before," I said.

As he drove away, I tried to imagine myself prying open a car door with a screwdriver. I was not the Herculean strong-man for the job, but the man swerving away in the truck might have been. The engineer was offering to fetch me a screwdriver when the police arrived. He scribbled down my licence plate number and information and gave me something to sign.

"I don't know if I'll be able to open the car," the officer said, producing a black duffle bag full of thick, rubber-coated wires. "We used to carry slim jims. Now the department says we can't do that anymore. The slim jim will open up most cars, but sometimes it will break the lock system. Then the people who own the cars can't sue because they signed a waiver."

Then I realized that the thing I had hastily signed was a waiver.

"But I can open up a car with a slim jim in ten seconds flat," he boasted. "I've been doing it for fifteen years. It's these new guys who don't have the proper training who break cars."

He proceeded to mutter about department funding as he wedged one of his tools into the corner of the car door. He was still unable to fit one of the wires into the door, so he inserted a thing that sort of looked like a whoopee cushion and pumped air into it as though he was taking the car's blood pressure. The air wedged the door open a little bit more and the wire fit into the space with ease. At the end of the wire was a little nub of rubber that was supposed to catch on the lock of the door and unlock it.

For the next ten minutes, I watched the officer fish wires of varying lengths into my car to catch the lock. This tense display of skill was like watching someone play the crane game in an arcade and dropping the teddy bear over and over again. The rubber nub would nick the lock, slip, and thud against the window like a bird. The officer took out the wire, bent it at another angle, and tried again. Finally, the lock bobbed up and the car alarm went off. I flung open the door and dug my keys out of my purse, resolving to make a copy of my car key and wear it around my neck for the rest of my life.

"Yeah, if I had the slim jim it would have taken me ten seconds, not ten minutes," the officer muttered. "But the department thinks this is better. What do I know?"

I thanked the officer and he drove away with his duffle bag of magical wires. I also thanked the engineer, who had been supervising the unlocking process. I waved goodbye and he walked away, waving. I called Dave to let him know why I was coming home late.

"Why didn't you just call me? I could have just brought you your spare key," he said.

When I hung up the phone, the engineer was still there, waving. So I waved again. I pulled around the parking lot. He was still there, slightly little closer to the building now, waving.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hello, Car Insurance!


I got the license, I got the car, but I needed to get car insurance before I could drive off into the sunset. I was forced to descend into a dark underworld of labyrinthine bureaucracies, to endure the relentless gnawing of customer service agents paid on commission.

I. Please leave a message.

In the beginning, I called a local insurance agent recommended to me by a Real Adult. The first time I called, I got the secretary. The secretary, sounding bored and crabby, told me the agent was in a meeting with an important client and that she would have to take down my information. The meeting must have lasted the whole day because I never got a call back. Later, I tried to call again and got her voicemail.

The next day I called again, got the same yawning secretary and left the same futile message. After the weekend passed, I knew that I needed to create contingency plan in case this woman turned out not to exist. I collected quotes from other insurance companies and called back armed with information, this time finally hearing the voice of the agent I was trying to contact all along. She took down my information and said she would call me back later that day with a quote.

She never called me back that afternoon. At work that evening, I saw I had a voicemail. It was from the agent, saying that the car identification number the secretary took down had too many digits, but she had a quote ready for me. I called the next day and got the voicemail. When I finally got in touch with her, the quote she gave me was twice as high as the highest quote I had gotten so far. I wrote her a nice email thanking her for her time, saying that I had taken another offer.

“It’s okay, we’ll get you onto our policy in six months. Give me a call then,” she wrote back.

II. BEST FRIEND.

The sites that calculate car insurance quotes are designed to be user friendly, but they ask a lot of confusing and seemingly unnecessary questions.

What is your social security number?

When was the date of your last period?

List three things you've never told anyone.

Besides that, I didn't know if I had anti-lock brakes. I didn't know if my car was a CE or a LE or a VE or a PE. The first site I went to on my quest for insurance quotes left me wondering, “Am I doing any of this right?” I picked up my cell phone and talked to an “Insurance Expert.”

Katie gladly answered all of my questions and then asked me for my credit card number so we could go through with the purchase. This was all moving too fast for me. I didn't know what to say. Did she really think I was going to buy insurance on impulse?

“Uh, I really want to discuss this with my boyfriend first. It’s a big decision and I’d really like to call you back about it,” I said with some stuttering.

“Sure! Hey! Why don’t I call your boyfriend and we can talk him into this together? Don’t worry! I do this all the time with couples who have questions about our policies. Then I can answer any questions the two of you have. I’m sure that we can convince him that this is the best option for you.”

“No. That’s okay. I’d rather call back.”

“Okay, here’s what I’m going to do for you…”

I could not get her off the phone. I couldn't bring myself to say that I wanted to compare insurance companies without her breathing down my neck from a calling center in Omaha. Eventually she ended up asking me a lot of questions about my life, trying to develop an amiable relationship with me. Are you a student? You were a creative writing major! That is so cool! Are you going to write a book? I’m totally going to buy your book when it comes out. What kind of work are you doing now?

“I’m a telephone operator. I basically do the same job as you, but in a hotel rather than an insurance company.”

That’s a comparison no Insurance Expert wants to hear.

In the end, I got her to say goodbye. I told her that I had to follow up with an insurance company my parents suggested before making a decision. I was worried she would want to start a party line with me, her, and anyone I would ever consult for advice, but fortunately that didn't come up.

III. You seem like a smart girl.

In the end, I settled on the insurance company that gave me the best rate. Naturally. What else was I supposed to do? How else does one choose between a series of comparably sketchy options? I called the winning insurance company and set up a policy with yet another Insurance Expert named James. I felt like James was sitting at his switchboard phone snickering at some fantastic joke that I wasn't part of, playfully elbowing the ribs of his best friend who crouched beside his desk, trying not to burst out laughing. James was a bad actor and he was giving the performance of a lifetime.

“Wow! Look at this rate! You must have the best rate in the whole state of New York! I want to live where you live and get an excellent rate like this. I mean, you’re a new driver, you’re only twenty-three years old, and you’re getting this great rate! And the rate that I’m going to give you is only thirty dollars more than the rate you got online! Wow! You must be so happy with this rate.”

I found myself laughing out loud at him. I felt like I was walking into a scam, but I guess that’s how one always feels when purchasing insurance.

“Listen Brittany, you seem like a smart girl. I mean, you’re buying your insurance from us. So just bear with me while I read you these terms and conditions…”


Finally. I got my insurance, I registered my vehicle, and now Nina the Car is in my clumsy hands forever. Then the check engine light turned on, but that is another story for another day.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hello, Car!


Meet Nina, my Toyota Corolla. After years of practicing on cars forged for the likes of giants (i.e., a Ford F150), it is relieving to settle down with a car that is proportional to my frame. She was made when I was ten years old and has a duct taped mirror, but she will probably go on living forever. This is exactly the quality I like best in a car: immortality.

But I didn't always have a car, or even a license for that matter. Heavens, no! Nina was a hard-won conquest, the result of six years of carrying and renewing a learner’s permit, three repetitions of the five-hour licensing course, weeks of professional lessons, one successful road test, and several months of lurking on Craigslist.

The first ill-fated road test was eight months ago. In a fraught moment of circumstantial dyslexia within the first five seconds of driving, I transposed left and right and got into the left lane, which was not the right lane. Then I panicked and swerved from the wrong lane to the right lane but did not use my directional. Needless to say, the game was over and I was left in the dust with a lengthy list of errors. I did not even get to the parallel parking performance I had practiced for weeks. It was a catastrophic blow.

Crushed under the proverbial anvil of shame, I immediately contacted a professional. I needed a professional. For the next several weeks I was under the guidance of a kind, old black man with a salt-and-pepper afro and a flaky leather jacket. Propped upon a silken pillow embellished with the image of a peacock, I steered an antiquated transportation vessel to the tune of my ever-serene instructor’s encouragement as his toe hovered above the second break.

With the excellent teaching of my sensei, my driving act was cleaned up and I steered with the grace of a high seas pirate. I passed the test and finally got upgraded from permit to license.

As I endured the continued stresses of public transportation, it was clear to me that I needed to find a car. To avoid fees and ghastly insurance premiums, I was set on purchasing a used vehicle from an independent party. Unfortunately, selling cars brings out the worst in humanity. The Craigslist cars were over-priced and ancient. People were hawking cars from the early 90s for thousands over their value with the most atrocious grammar, usually accompanied by such phrases as “the check engine light is on.”

Every day I sent Dave a “Car of the Day” email with one or two cars that seemed passable. The response emails would say, “170,000 miles is too much” or “5-speed means it’s manual, Brittany.” And every time I opened an ad, I would think, “Wow, it has five speeds! Just like my bicycle! Surely I only need one speed.”

One thousand Craigslist ads later, Dave and I went to see a Subaru. A grandfatherly older man was selling it because he had already replaced it with a shiny new model. Dave and his knowledgeable friend poured over the details of the whatsits under the hood as I attempted to adjust the seat to fit a child-sized woman. They only found one flaw – oil leaking from something under the hood. Thus, an important car part would have to be replaced within the next month, but they didn't think it the cost of the repair would offset the tremendous value of the car itself.

Only after offering to buy the car did we find out from Dave’s mechanic friend that it was a $1500 repair, several times more than the price they expected and more than half the cost of the car. I was ready to throw in the towel and go to a dealership. I had heard tales of dishonest used car salesmen, but could they be any more disreputable than the sort of swindlers who sell cars on Craigslist?

In spite of all this, I made another call and I spoke with another seller. I was put off initially because I was trying to ask him questions and he appeared to be having a conversation with someone else. Speaking with him was frustrating. Besides the fact that he was not listening to me, I detected a strong Spanish accent that was difficult for me to decipher.

Dave and I went to see the car. On the way there, I had another exasperating conversation with the seller, who offered to show me the car at a different address but didn't understand me when I declined.

“It’s just a misunderstanding,” I assured Dave. “I’m having trouble with his Spanish accent.”

We arrived on the crowded one-way street where our rendezvous was to take place. Dave’s dad was there to help us judge the car and haggle, if necessary. When I called the man to let him know we were outside, I couldn't understand him at all. I passed the phone to Dave in frustration. After a couple of minutes of difficult conversation, Dave finally asked, “Do you speak Arabic?” He asked the question in Arabic. Then he passed the phone to his dad, who speaks fluent Arabic.

“Spanish accent, Brittany? Really?” Dave asked.

“He’s Arab?” I asked, dumbstruck.

“Probably Egyptian,” Dave said.

Not only was he Arab, he was a sort of family friend. He drove up in the Corolla, garish with Christian artifacts and strung with rosaries. There was a large bag of bagels in the back seat.

“Do the bagels come with the car?” I wondered aloud. We all know where my priorities lie.

There was a fringy throw pillow with a butt-shaped indenture in the driver’s seat.

“My wife, she is very small,” the man said.

“So am I!” I cried.

Dave took the car for a test drive up and down the one-way streets and back to where we began. The Egyptian man sat in the back seat and together they bewildered me with mostly-Arabic conversation about their families. I noticed the duct-taped mirror to my right but decided as long as it wasn’t a $1500 fix I would happily take it. Dave’s dad proceeded to try to talk the Egyptian man down in Arabic. The man took out his phone.

“I have a call from an 815 number. What area code is that? And 917 – that’s somewhere in Queens, right? So many people are calling to buy this car,” the man said with downcast eyes.

We talked him down a few hundred dollars and perhaps still paid a bit more than it was worth. I didn’t mind. Throw in the bag of bagels and you've got yourself a deal, I thought to myself.


Now Nina is sitting in the driveway, un-drivable due to her lack of plates and my lack of car insurance. But this is another story for another day.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Let's Read Short Stories

It’s National Short Story Month. It’s also National Poetry Month, although it seems rather unfair that the two writing forms that have to compete for a single month. One of my goals is to read 26 short story collections and anthologies by the end of 2013. I’m reading a lot of women writers particularly, because they don’t get enough love. Not even from me, a woman. So far I’m on the tenth book. I’m a slow reader, easily distracted by online literary journals and articles about the fiber content of ground flax.

I told a friend at work, an avid reader of romance novels, that I was reading short story collections for a while and she was surprised.

“I didn't know authors wrote books of short stories,” she said.

Quite understandable. Until rather recently, they were considered unmarketable. I suppose the last time she saw a book of short stories, it was a fifth grade English textbook – a time in life that no one likes to look back on. Or maybe it was a collection of fairy tales or Greek myths. I didn't know I liked short stories until I read Poe and Kafka in high school, but I always loved fairy tales and myths of all sorts.

Some very good reasons to read short stories: You can read a short story on a fifteen minute bus ride. You can read a few short stories on a forty minute train ride. You can read a short story on your cell phone now. You can squeeze one in at the end of your lunch break. And if your job happens to be waiting for a phone to ring, you can read stories in between calls and not feel as jolted out of the story as you would reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27 volume opus about cats.

Here are some short story collections and anthologies that fill me with immense readerly pleasure. This list features entirely women, because they don’t get enough love. If you have a penchant for the surreal, absurd, uncanny, and grotesque, you would probably appreciate these. If not, click here to be led away from this nonsense forever, as it will annoy you and furrow your brow. And if you would like to discuss the beneficial lignans in ground flax, feel free to contact me on the “Contact” page.

1. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link


Kelly Link might be my favorite living short story writer at the moment. The cover says, “A Best Book of the Decade.” I thought to myself, “That is, indeed, a haughty claim.” This book lives up to the hype on its cover. Kelly and her husband, a sci-fi writer, had to create their own press just to publish her first collection. At the time, short stories were considered to be unmarketable and her stories also don’t conform to one genre. They are a mix of experimental literary fiction, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, myth, fairy tale, and surrealism. Ghosts, zombies, and fairies are presented in unique ways. They present you with uncanny pajamas or dog fur handbags. A ghost wife gets divorced from her living husband in Disney World; the Devil gets Seven Minutes of Heaven with a cheerleader. Kelly Link does magical things with sentences. Whenever you think you know where the story is going, you really don’t.

Definitely read: “Magic for Beginners,” “Lull,” and “The Faerie Handbag.”


2. Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray

I read a lot of these stories multiple times and I never get sick of them. These stories are mostly very short, have unusual forms, and make me laugh loudly but also make me deeply depressed. It’s an emotional roller-coaster to say the least. The collection lives up to its name with characters feasting on their own hair and toes, an armadillo hitting on a penguin in a bar, and a guy who marries a bag of frozen tilapia. Click here to get threatened by the author.

Definitely read: “Babies,” “The Cottage Cheese Diet,” “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” and “Code of Operation: Snake Farm.”


3. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting has an awesome brain and I would pay thousands of dollars for it in an Ebay bid. This is a very funny book. The humor sometimes reminds me of Futurama, maybe because there is an intergalactic deliverywoman in it. You may wonder what unclean jobs it features. There’s a porn star who is paid to have sex with a game show contestant on the moon, a human ant colony, and a romantic funeral home employee who smokes blunts stuffed with the hair of the dead. I'm kind of in love with the "Sweedishy" model Garla (just like everyone else is) and the experimental rock singer who wears a tight leather jumpsuit with a butt-flap so he can easily relieve himself anywhere. So many characters that I love. So much awesome.

Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Model’s Assistant,” and “Bandleader’s Girlfriend.”

4. Fantastic Women, an anthology of stories from Tin House

Here is an anthology of 18 stories by women writers that are uncanny, absurd, and surreal, all bound together behind underwhelming cover art that doesn't really fit. Kelly Link is here; Alissa Nutting is here. There are quite a few authors that I had never read before that I love now. The women in these stories undergo metamorphoses, travel between pocket universes, and socialize with lonely circus dwarfs. Sometimes they are tied up and suspended from the ceiling of their charming suburban homes. There are  even werewolves and somehow I don’t want to punch them.

Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Abroad,” “The Wilds,” and “The Entire Predicament.”


Last year I got an email from a former professor suggesting that I read this collection. She knows me too well. The narrators of these stories are precocious children on an imaginary island near Florida. They lure baby turtles out of the sea, learn to behave like humans, and follow the Oregon Trail with a Minotaur. Their voices are wonderful; you want to give them a hug even when they make atrocious mistakes.

Definitely read: “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” and “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ethiopian Food



I have a list of 24 things I want to do before I turn 24, and that list includes a lot of food adventures. One such food adventure I longed to experience was eating at an Ethiopian restaurant. Dave was my sidekick on this adventure and together we set off to Westchester’s only Ethiopian food restaurant, Lalibela. It was in a little pedestrian shopping strip with brick sidewalks and budding trees.

We found the restaurant in a side street, right next to a People’s Bank. There was a trail of petals through the doorway. “Ooh, they’re trying to seduce us,” I said. These petals were the product of flowering trees and spring winds.

Dave and I took a seat at the window and picked an appetizer to share. Ethiopian dishes are presented lumped on an enormous, crepe-like bread called injera, which tastes like a bit like sourdough bread. It’s made from a grain called kamut that is indigenous to this part of the world. We received our appetizer, an avocado salad, heaped onto some injera. There are no utensils. We ate with our hands, pinching up the meals with torn off strips of injera. It was delicious.


Just when you think you’re jaded to the disorienting nature of faraway cuisines, someone takes away your utensils and bids you use your hands. Yes, there is still magic in the world. Like the first time I used chopsticks.

Next came the entree,  a spread of lentils, cabbage, green beans, and collard greens. One mound of lentils was spicy and the other was buttery and mild. I liked them both, but the spicy one was unsurprisingly my favorite. The lentils and avocado salad were the stars of the whole meal, and the injera was very moist and fluffy like a pancake. I found myself at home later thinking to myself, I wish I had some injera now. Sigh.


Now that I have conquered Ethiopian food, I need to cross of Sri Lankan food off my list next. This adventure will take me well out of Westchester, I am sure.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Walk the Cat

The world is mine oyster.
Walking cats on a leash is rather boring.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about it.

The hardest part is convincing the cat to wear a harness. It offends their deepest sensibilities. Olive feigns a struggle on principle, knowing secretly that the harness is her ticket to the mysteries of the unknown.

It’s adorable for the first five minutes or so, watching the cat behold the breathtaking world of grass, trees, and swarms of insects. Within seconds, there is a cloud of flies in orbit around my head like space debris. I want to go home.

When I walk Olive, the first thing she wants to do is ditch me. She tries to duck under a spiky bush or crawl into the spaces under the stairs. No amount of arguing will dissuade her from exploring tight crevices, so I pick her up and move her somewhere more human-friendly, hoping to disorient her enough that she forgets just how fascinating the spiky bush is.


Then Olive sees a majestic cardinal and she ducks down to watch it for the next ten minutes, chirping with predatory flicks of the tail. I wonder if the chirping is Olive’s interpretation of a mating call, in hopes of luring a desperate and confused bird into her open jaws. The bird is twitching its crest, fanning its tail feather – a come-hither in the universal language of love.
                                                                                              
Soon she finds something a hundred times more interesting than either bird or bush. It is a bit of sidewalk covered in a metropolis of ant hills for Olive to roll in. These are ants either of the red, bity persuasion or the refugee ants that gorged on our tahini last year, eventually conquered by Dave and some borax. Somehow they all live in quiet harmony in the cracks of the walkway. Olive collapses onto her back as though coerced by something stronger than her will. I lift her away from the anthills before the ants recognize Olive as a point of entry into our home.

Once Olive is begrudgingly within the apartment, freed from the leash that binds her, she is already craving more. What secrets lay entangled within the spiky bush? Will rolling in the ant hill fill the emptiness inside her? Now Olive will never know. Penny is nearby and before she knows what is happening I have the harness slipped over her head and fastened around her legs, secure as a straitjacket  I am very proud of this accomplishment. After six months with Penny, I have never managed to hoodwink her into a harness. Now she’s nice and snug and I lift her through the door.

For ten minutes, Penny stands just outside of the doorway. She is testing the waters. I don’t think Penny remembers grass and dirt. Then the spiky bush calls to her like a relentless siren. Come all ye cats, says the spiky bush. Alas, I cannot hear the bewitching music myself.

Penny weaves her way up the stairs to my landlord’s part of the house and gets tangled in the railing. With a tremendous tug, she shoots through the harness and leaves it dangling on the rails. Fortunately for me, she is too bewildered by nature to get far. I scoop her up and bring her indoors.

Once cats get a taste of taking walks outside, they can never go back. Olive is at the door now, trying to turn the doorknob with both paws, falling short of the strength and the appendages needed to actually do it.

Now that Penny has experienced the harness, I’m one step closer to training my cats to pull a chariot – the only reason I take them for walks at all.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Disconnected


A portrait of my cell phone: Elderly at the ripe old age of five. Scratched burgundy shell, the cover long since peeled off. Old but reliable. Not quite old enough to have an antenna, but not quite recent enough to know what an “app” is. It flips open, revealing a screen black and blank. In its disabled state, caused by concrete-inflicted injuries, it no longer remembers how to add a contact. It can recall neither the calculator it once new so well nor the alarm clock. Text messages are a laborious task when you can’t flip a flip phone. I press the number “3” three times for an “I.” When agitated, it takes blurry pictures of the inside pocket of my purse. The phone powers down, exhausted, before I even get to work.

You might call it cruel of me to keep its nose to the grindstone when I should be pushing it to sea in a viking boat and singing sorrowful hymns, yet after several weeks I still haven’t replaced it. I can’t open at a text message longer than five words because the outer screen is too small. I can’t look at a picture. I can’t set an alarm. Dave is my begrudging alarm clock now and I have done nothing. I am in denial. I am waiting for the problem to fix itself.

Nothing annoys me more than technology with a lifespan shorter than that of a hamster. Electronics die and are replaced with a newer, shinier inventions faster than I am willing to keep up with. When I latch on to a cell phone or an iPod, my attachment outlasts battery life expectancy. My phone was a constant in my life throughout college. When I graduated, my phone was there. When I moved downstate, my phone was there. It even lay dormant in my suitcase for four months while I frolicked through Prague.

Dave gave me his old Android phone, a hand-me-down upgrade from the old flip phone. I thought of the advantages of catching up with current technology. Emailing on the bus. Googling engrossing questions. Immersing myself in an emerging genre of literature only accessible with a smart phone. I spent hours on the phone with Verizon trying to set it up, only to find out that I would have to pay a data plan. This I was not willing to do. So I trudged onward, stubbornly clasping a powered-down flip phone that reeks of death and dementia.

When I get a new cell phone or a computer, I want it to meet my parents. I want it to grow old with me. If I get a replacement phone (and that cell phone will likely be an identical flip phone), it better be ready for a commitment. I'm in it for life.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Monday, April 15, 2013

Massage

Cats give very poor massages, actually.
Dave surprised me with a side-by-side massage to celebrate the fact that we've been together for five years. He refused to tell me where we were going beyond the fact that I should be clean and might want to shave my legs. He also indicated that we would have to have a late lunch afterwards, probably in the form of sushi.

“We’re doing naked yoga, aren't we?” I asked. “Are we pole dancing? I knew it was pole dancing.”

“Yes,” Dave said. "We're doing naked pole dancing yoga."

Whether it shows or not, I was very suspicious that we were going to get massages. As soon as it became clear that the surprise was not food-related, my suspicions took root. But I certainly wasn’t going to make a deduction that ruins the surprise.

“We’re getting coffee enemas, aren't we? I knew we were getting coffee enemas.”

Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that anyone would stay with me for five years. I feel extremely lucky to have found someone who is willing to put up with my nonsense. And my ever-evolving, unconventional eating habits. And the elaborate messes I leave in the kitchen area, caked with turmeric and peanut butter. And the hornet’s nest of notebooks and tea-stained index cards that inevitably covers most surfaces in my home.

“Yes, we're getting coffee enemas,” Dave said.

Dave put on a magnificent hoax the morning we left to do the thing we were going to do. He said we had to stop by his gym to drop off something for a friend. I eyed the spa on the upper level of the building and thought to myself, This is a setup. But I’m not going to say anything.

“Let’s go wait in the doorway,” Dave said.

We went through the doorway and he pressed the button on the elevator. The elevator opened and we went inside.

Rising up several floors, Dave attempted to distract me.

“I thought we were going to wait in the doorway,” I whined.

“The doorway of the gym,” Dave clarified.

We got off at the top floor, which was the spa. As we walked in, the woman at the desk handed Dave a pair of clipboards.

“Where is the gym, Dave? Where is your friend? I don’t see him here.”

The jig was up. As we filled out the clipboards, Dave at long last explained that he had gotten us an hour-long massage in the same room. A massage of that length was inconceivable to me. I had only had two in my life, each ten minutes long and unpleasant in their own special way. The first was at the side of a hot spring in Colorado, performed by a stoned fellow with a blond ponytail and an uncanny resemblance to my poetry professor.

The second was during a benefits fair at work, where the masseuse seemed to be using martial arts on my spine. I kept crying out and the woman from accounting in the chair next to me groaned, “Brittany, why can’t you just relax?

Dave had thoughtfully arranged for a woman to work with me so that I would be more comfortable. He requested a man, having read that male massage therapists are often discriminated in their line of work. Many women feel more comfortable with another woman and many men don’t want to be touched by a dude.

“I guess I would feel more comfortable with a woman. Should I tell them about my plankton allergy? I feel like that could be important.”

The lines of communication had been crossed. As we waited in a dim room, me in a robe that was too long and Dave flip-flops that seemed too small, I accepted the firm, meaty handshake of someone who appeared to be a body builder. Dave was approached by a kind-looking woman with gray hair. He whispered something to her about wanting to switch. They all turned to me and asked if I would prefer to switch. Now that I had actually met a male massage therapist, I would have felt terrible switching. I didn't want to participate in unfair social constructs. I went with the body builder.

The actual massage was far more relaxing than my previous experiences. Not that I’m very good at relaxing. I’m not. Every once in a while I caught myself clenching my teeth or unconsciously tensing up my shoulders. Once I was genuinely worried that the massage therapist was trying to knock me out with pressure points on my temples, much like a ninja. Some of the places he focused on made my back and neck so uncomfortable that I started to laugh.

“Are you ticklish on your neck?” he asked.

“Yes. I mean, no. I was uncomfortable and that made me laugh. Never mind,” I said.

Laughing is my first reaction to almost everything. It is my first reaction to something funny and my first reaction to something stupid and my first reaction to absurdity and my first reaction when someone falls out of a window. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes it happens anyways. I once laughed on the phone when a friend told me her grandmother had passed away. I didn't think it was funny at all.

At the end we went to our locker rooms. It was nice to not to feel all of my cracks and cricks when I moved. I changed into my pedestrian clothing and met Dave in the entrance where he stood by a rack of fragrant lotions and massage oils. I opened one of the oils with nostrils ready and it erupted all over my face.

As I said before, I am extremely lucky to have found someone who is willing to put up with my nonsense.