Auditoriums of the Adopted Bourgeoisie

royal ballet

The dancers were done and stood on stage as the house lights were brought up after curtain call and the petals were swept away with large brooms. Some of the troupe went down into the audience to mingle. A few people came up on the stage to talk, gesturing at the golden headdresses, wanting to touch them, but afraid of overstepping proprieties. Sok wandered upstage, avoiding conversation; she could not disrobe from her public persona and greet them in any heartfelt way. She was safe up here on high behind her smile; no need to come down to earth.

Down below, before the stage, earthbound and stuck in the mud, Lily looked on as the aura of the Apsara dancers, the closing event of the school’s cultural festival, slowly dissolved back into the banality of the badly lit high school auditorium. Her mother pushed at her to go up on stage and talk to the dancers, but Lily was rooted as firmly as Sok, and could only look on from a distance, the two of them not able to make a connection, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

“So many of them were killed,” Lily’s mom said to her. “They can never take away the dances you have danced, your knowledge; the only thing they can do is kill you, and even then that won’t stop the music.” The daughter grimaced and did not really reply to her mother, she was so . . . there was no need to trample over the emotion shimmering between her and the stage tonight, to try to break into that world, to force herself in where she didn’t belong; it made her angry like it always did, but her mother’s words burned into her mind and were not forgotten. Her mother was not one of them, as Lily was by blood, yet she felt the need to lecture her, but . . . mom herself was an artist, a good musician; she understood dance, and Lily’s life, adopted as an infant, was as American homegrown as the next.

The cloak of unselfconsciousness Lily threw over herself when she watched these dancers, when she waded into the world of music and was freely at home, and particularly whenever she wrote her poems, was now torn off, and an awareness of her own self and her surroundings engulfed her, suffocating her. Her mother could do that, rip her protection off, just like that, like she did just now. Without its sheltering embrace, Lily was stricken with doubt, afraid her work conveyed little of what she felt; in fact, she carried around a poem by a Russian person, Marina Tsvetaeva—Ms. MT, she called her in her mind—torn out of an old copy of Vogue, and read it whenever she felt particularly enabled.

She would read MT’s words:

Foretasting when I’ll fold
Time like a rough draft…
A flash of the eye, the last,
And the world’s not a moment old…

Then she would read her own:

What would you have done, if they had not broken you so young
The weight of obligation curves my spine.
I am not one or the other
My story is not a case of either/or…

‘A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist. A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist,’ Lily now repeated over and over as the evening’s disintegration spooled out without resistance. She had prodded herself with this nonsense mantra into a transcendent state; so much so that she seemed to be bouncing back and forth between the stage and where she stood until she was blurred out and was neither at one point or the other, but somewhere in between and everywhere, that she had somehow managed to overcome, just for this infinitesimal second, the weight of race, and distance, and time, and had become universal.
.
* * *

Sok had danced for Nuon tonight, for some reason she was stubbornly in her head. As though they had just been together yesterday, though she had been told Nuon Sitha probably died that very first day the soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, the last day of the world as they knew it. She hoped so. Sok became aware of the fervent gaze latched upon her as she moved about under the lights, and looked down at the Cambodian girl with the American mom; well the kid was American too, most likely, like Sok herself someday–maybe. Not Nuon, however . . . no. Royal. Eternally so. Khmer spirit, kindred soul. One sister in heaven; one here on earth, standing there in front of the stage, staring as if in a trance. ‘Dance,’ was what she would tell them. ‘Dance, run in your dreams of me. I dream of you. Turn your eyes toward heaven, toward better men; steer your ship into better times. Every movement, every gesture slows our evanesce.’

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Nocturne

nocturne (2)

Since leaving Travnik, I was troubled, not surprisingly, by phantoms. Flies were my especial tormentors: I felt them settle on me as I tried to sleep; I saw them—whirs on the periphery, an abandoned wing on my sleeve. When Uncle Dekek brought out a bottle of plum brandy to offer his hospitality, one floated round and round on the surface of the pale ginger-colored liquid. I said nothing as the living drank their toast to the dead, but I could taste it.

After the events of the Lipizzaners being found, after the boxcar journey, the hatchet blows and the death of the stallion, Tulipan Sava; after Louis’ heroics, Richard and I stopped at Dekek Marić’s home in Zenica. We were on our way to Tuzla as we made our way out of the country. We stopped to pay our respects, which, I think, the family appreciated. Dekek Marić loved his brother, adored his niece, and at one point during our conversation, he buried his head in his hands and wept. I turned my head and looked out the window, spring was pushing itself upward, coming back, no matter the judgments passed on the human race. I was suffused with an unspecified guilt, and did not have it in me to comfort him.

The sun set, and after dinner, in the too hot living room, Uncle Dekek insisted on playing the piano for us; it was all too much to suffer through. He wanted us to hear Enesa and her father’s favorite pieces. He wanted to give us something of them. The roaring fire, unnecessary in this mild weather, the aftereffects of the suspect Rakia, fatigue, dehydration, combined with the torturing of Chopin, produced at once a lethargy of body and a nervousness of mind, the anxiety escalating with each pump of the piano pedal until I thought I would succumb, give in to the panic, and run out of the room screaming. Finally, we were released from his tribute and allowed to retire.

I couldn’t remember putting my head down on my pillow, but woke up in middle of the night to the strains of Chopin ebbing in and out of my consciousness. I sat up and pulled the heavy quilt off me. Three o’clock in the morning and the man was still banging away? How could such a thing be possible? I got out of bed and opened the door to investigate. I found myself not in the hallway I had stumbled through on my way to bed a few hours ago, but in the smoky, rubbled passageway outside Enesa’s old bedroom, yellow light streaming through her open door and the strains of nocturnes ruffling the air. I stood there as I had done what seemed a thousand years ago, but this time there was no hesitation; I wasn’t frightened. Grasping the door jamb with both hands, I closed my eyes, leaned in, then opened them.

There was Uncle Dekek, playing in the corner, but playing smoothly, playing not as before, playing beautifully, his back to me, hunched and dark over the keys like a crow. Enesa still at her desk. Her dirt farmer stood next to her slumped body. He lifted her out of her chair and took her in his arms. She was roused by his touch and he placed her lightly on her feet; she walked around behind him, running her hand over his shoulders. She faced him, and pressed her hand against his cheek. They danced together, swaying rhythmically back and forth, Enesa never breaking her gaze into her lover’s eyes, her arms round his sunburned neck. Dancing unconstrained, sweet and free. She left his embrace and glided out to the hallway and turned to look at me. I reached out a hand for her, but she shook her head and smiled at me, turned and ran into the darkness. The dead are never truly gone until they return, one last time, to tell us that it is all right, to force acceptance. I turned back to look in the room again—it was empty, the setting sun, glaring through the window brighter and brighter and brighter, as it did the day of her death, until I opened my eyes, the brightness giving way to the whiteness of the ceiling above my head. All was silent except the twittering of birds in the bright morning distance. A tear left the corner of my eye and ran down my cheek to fall into my ear, tickling it. I rubbed my head up and down on the lace of the pillow, turning my face toward my bedroom door. Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, then knocking on the door. Time to get up. Time to go. To Tuzla, then to Budapest . . . somehow. Then home.

Star Gazer

bosnia scan

My warm and dreamy reflections on my lover are broken by the clicking and clanging of fork and spoon against dish and bowl, as in the other room my family scrape away at the last of the always too little food.

“Very dramatic, Enesa,” I said flipping the diary shut.

“It’s just the way I write,” she shrugged her shoulders. “Someday I’ll write a movie about me, about my life. Evan will star in it.”

“Well, he’s a singer, not an actor, though if you’re famous enough, they’ll let you do anything, I suppose. It’s annoying. Actors singers, singers actors. Do what you’re supposed to do, I say.”

“I’m sure Evan can do whatever he puts his mind to.” Here Enesa flicked her hair out of her eyes with her fingers, a slight look of annoyance passing across her face.

Enesa Marić was a fifteen-year-old girl living in a small village between Jajce and Travnik, Bosnia Herzegovina. Enesa Marić was a lover of language and music, and Enesa had been in love for years, it seemed, with the singer/songwriter, Evan Dorenberg. When she found out I had been at some of the same festivals with him when Jay and I were together, she grilled me for every last tidbit of information. I told her many times I had only spoken to him once or twice, but for her this didn’t matter. I had been photographed with him, so that was that. For all her self-proclaimed sophistication, her idea of America remained one of a bunch of rich, famous people all shopping at the same stores, all friends, all lovers. She didn’t understand the isolation or the bleakness that engulfed so many there as well as here. Only her world was streaked with grey and splotched with mud; America was all candy and smoke machines.

“Tell me again,” she would say.

So the few time I visited her and her family, I needed to repeat like a mantra, “Evan’s cool. He’s cool when he plays; all the women fall in love with him, and he’s funny.” She always tried to extract more from me than I had, but was ecstatic with what she got.

And then I would explain as well that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’d tell her everything was bartering, money, commodities. I’d tell her the tale (her mother would banish me if she knew) of Howie yelling, ‘Welcome to the NFL!’ right in my face after a most unromantic grappling session in an Indianapolis hotel room.

“To say such a thing at sexual climax,” she would muse. “I don’t understand American football.”

Her love burned on bright and pure, untarnished by me or any brush with reality. Her brother, however, knew what was going on. He had worked at the Lipik stables for two years before becoming Richard’s contact. Nazer had been there during the shelling and bombing, had seen several stallions felled by the smoke, and barely escaped with his life. Back home now, he was working with us as well as he could without raising too much suspicion as we tracked where the Lipizzaners were being taken; we knew they were in Karadordevo, Serbia, moving northward.

I met Enesa when Nazer invited us to his parent’s home for tea with bread and olives. She had that one photo of Jay and me and Dorenberg and his date, lined up couple to couple, from some fan publication and stared at me until she figured it out and I admitted my past. Her excitement was charming. I stopped by to chat with her when I could, but it was becoming too dangerous. I knew these visits would have to stop. Our cover was not holding, and Richard was sure our movements were being monitored. When their village came under fire, the Marić’s front door would be one of the first to be kicked in. We could have gotten them out of there, somehow—possibly—but they were determined to stay.

Partly to assuage my guilt over befriending this girl, then bolting, I told her that once things were “sorted out” and life returned to normal, maybe I could arrange for her to visit me in the States, and maybe even meet Evan before one of his concerts. Whether or not I had the chits to do this was not clear; I felt I was being generous with things not my own, like taking some pretty thing off someone else’s mantelpiece, and announcing, ‘Here’s a gift from me.’ But it didn’t matter because I knew these promises would not be kept, these dreams would never happen. The cessation of violence, Enesa visiting America, Enesa meeting Evan; it was all pie in the sky.

But I pushed this fantasy along as the road looked bleaker and bleaker. Always the contrarian, Enesa seemed surprisingly hesitant about the whole idea, reluctant even. “Well, don’t you want to meet him?” I asked her one day. She gave me her look.

“It’s not that. It’s like staring at the stars and suddenly shooting up into space, flying though the blackness.” Enesa made a wavy motion with her hand. “So far away, and now close. And you would never want to come down. But you do.” She stopped and looked through her smeary window. “How could you go out the next night and look up at the sky? I am not brave. What if it didn’t happen again? What if it never happened again? Just memories . . .”

My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”