Thursday, November 13, 2008

You, and you, and you were there

Ana Maria Carmen and Ruben Sanchez sit at a very large elaborate banquet table. Maria sits to the right of God and Ruben sits to her right. They are nibbling on tiny green peppers as they talk. Ruben has a Dos Equis and Maria has a Margarita. God sips champagne.

"My mother said I could not get married until I was five feet tall, so I stood very straight and always wore two-inch heels," Maria said as she shrugged one shoulder. "I married my Ruben in a  white muslin dress with a flowing white Mantilla as soon as I was 18. You blessed us with a good life together."

"I was the luckiest man alive for 42 years," Ruben said. "Maria was my beautiful lady."

"Oh no," Maria said, stifling a giggle, "Our daughter, Giselle, is so much prettier than I ever was. She was always your favorite."

"You were a wonderful mother," Ruben said.

"Sometimes I think I loved shoes almost as much as I loved my children," Maria said. The giggle bubbles out. "I taught Elizabeth too well. She spends too much for shoes, and so many.  I worry."

"Our sons are good men, good husbands, and good fathers," Ruben said. "You don't have to worry about them."

"They yell at their children so much," Maria said. "And they work such long hours. I wish we could have done better for them."

"You had a lot to overcome," God said. "You had no education, no health insurance, you lived in a dangerous neighborhood.  Sadly, prejudice continues, even now." 

"I worked three jobs until all the kids were in school," Ruben said. "We lived with Maria's aunt in her big old house for so long she left it to us."

"Do you remember her antimacassars? She was so proud of them," Maria said. "It was so funny. Ruben went around saying something smelled bad." Maria covers her mouth with her fingers as she laughs. "I'm sorry. We're eating. I was embarrassed to admit I knew what they were."

"That smell stuck like smoke. I worked on getting rid of it for years," Ruben said. "Made the house into a nice inheritance for the children. Worth a lot more now than it was then." Ruben's belly jiggles over his big belt buckle as he laughs and pulls at his moustache.  

"This is just like Father Texerios said it would be," Maria said. "The food is delicious, family and friends are here, everything is perfect."

"Thank you," God said. "I appreciate your gratitude. I do so love providing this big party, lots of good food and wine. It's too bad those very things are what send so many here before I expect them."

And that's true. To some extent.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Wanda Olive  Coleridge hated her nickname. Her mother's friend started it as a joke before she even went to school. Get it, her initials in reverse are COW.

"I want to be one of those girls who stand up on the ponies in fancy clothes," she said at the circus on her 10th birthday.

Then Cirque de Soleil came along and blew her away. Literally. "I imagine myself, dropping from the sky, moving in slow motion to the sound of my own heart beating," she said at her 18th birthday party.

This made sense to Little Wanda-Cow as she was known in her crowd because she had developed a nasty drug habit before she dropped out of high school. She hid her secret at the Dress Barn where she worked 30 hours a week, so she would have, ahem, money to live on. Then she got busted for shoplifting and the judge said rehab or jail.

"I'm not stupid," she told the judge. "Rehab. Here's the thing, dude. How would you like my name?" Her 'tude tipped the scale.

"Your name is Wanda Coleridge. What's wrong with that?" he asked. "And, young lady, you'll also do a year of community service. Note: Do not call a judge, 'dude'."

Little Wanda Cow whined and sulked in group at rehab. It was the best she could do, what with withdrawal sapping her powers. "They called me COW," she snapped at the girl with tatts covering both arms. "They thought it was funny."

"So what," tatt girl said. "Do you drink a lot of milk?"

"No," Wanda  said. She had to think about that.

"You don't even know your own name, Wanda Coleridge," the tatt girl mocked. "I mean like, there's a famous poet with your last name. If you don't believe me, Wikipedia it."

After dinner Wanda what-ever-her-name-is searched for her name. It took her awhile, all she knew how to be was a gamer, but what she found took her breath away.

Kubla Khan; or A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 at a farmhouse near Exmoor (wherever that is), England.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, a sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to sunless sea.

"Wow," Wanda said out loud. She felt his vision. "That is really beautiful."

She read some more...

For he on honey-dew fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In group the next day, Wanda read the poem. "Maybe, he's like, my great-great-great-great grandfather," she said when she finished reading.

"I'm really into genealogy," tatt girl said.

"I think maybe the dude smoked," a guy with glasses and bandages around his wrists said. "Opium."

Wanda sighed. "It's still so cool," she said to everyone in the group. "I mean, like, someone could have called him STD, you know what I mean, as a joke. But he wrote this great poem anyway."

And that is true. To some extent.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Qu 'y on the High Seas

Jeanie is your average Vietnamese mom-down-the-street. Jeanie is also a professional genie when it comes to manicures and pedicures. You may come in the salon with dishpan hands, or feet, but you will leave with mitts fit for a kiss. While you are soaking, if you are lucky, she'll hum or sing a little song that let's you know how she really feels.

One of her favorites goes like this: "A kiss on the hand may be very continental but diamonds are a girl's best friend..." Jeanie knows Jules Styne wrote the music and Leo Robin wrote the lyrics. She knows what year the movie came out and lots of other stuff. She usually finishes the song with a surprise of a belly laugh.

Jeanie chats when she isn't singing. "Qu 'y is my real name," she says if asked. "It means precious. Americans can't say it, so we picked the name, Jeanie."

A lifetime later, Jeanie/Qu 'y remembers her trip to America like it was yesterday.

Qu 'y was 11 when she and her aunt left Vietnam in the middle of the night on her uncle's fishing boat in 1984. There was no room or money for other family members. "I had to be so quiet. We couldn't talk at all," she says.  

According to Jeanie, the boat didn't make any sound as it slipped out to sea with just enough rice, sugar, pickled stuff like cabbage, and water for 70 people.  It was a Noah's Arc overflowing with Buddhists. The plan was simple. Ride the open seas until a freighter found you, they would take you to the Philippine Islands where life would start over, much better. 

"I was too scared to ask any questions. My aunt took care of me. I promised my mom I'd do what she told me," Jeanie says.

Qu 'y's uncle handled his boat really well through a couple pounding storms and blistering winds. But when the wind stopped, the boat rocked side to side going nowhere. When their drinking water was gone, sugar was mixed with sea water for drinking. 

"It was nasty," Jeanie says, as she shivers and scrunches up her face. "My aunt made me drink it. That's all there was. We had to lean out over the side of the boat to go to the bathroom. Everyone would look away, but we didn't care."

Qu 'y, her aunt, and all the women prayed to Buddha for a freighter to find them. One did. The captain gave Qu 'y a red dress and an orange one--her first Western clothing. But since no one was dead, he did not take them onboard.

"It was so hot. My aunt said we must now pray to get to the Philippine Island," Jeanie says. "Pray for your uncle to get his boat there, but when he did, we were told to go to a different island," Jeanie continues.

At last, they docked the boat and went to the refugee camp. "My uncle had a brother in Norway who was supposed to sponsor us," Jeanie says. "But, a Protestant Church in Los Angeles did."

Qu 'y, her aunt and uncle lived with an American family while they learned English, how to eat with a spoon and fork, where the Buddhist Temple was, and how to get around the city. 

"Linda and I," Jeanie says as she gestures to another manicurist, "trained together. Now we carpool to work with two other girls. Save money."

Jeanie's mother and sisters and brothers still live in Vietnam. She does not ever intend to tell them she and her husband have allowed their unmarried daughter to live away from home. "They would never understand that an American college girl does that," Jeanie says. 

And that's true. To some extent.