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Time for tea
The way I remember it, the room was as bright as it could be and I was seeing it through my new guest's eyes. The roses were dried and wrinkled, posing shamelessly as if they were born for a New York window sill to lie dormant upon. They were smugly benign bathed in the natural light that is wasted on this grimy American city. And I remember wincing to see the light pour over them like that, and was is as if, after so many years, I realized I'm not in the dark. But the light isn't fair. The world isn't fair. Standing there in apartment and staring at my niece, I remembered the unfairness of life like a blow to the knees, and I realized how much I've been through to get right here. To get where I hate so much and have become bitter. If I weren't so dignified, I'd weep, but I don't cry. Not any more.
And all the while, angelic and mocking, the effulgence pours and pours over me.
` Grand Siecle is a variety of rose that is beautiful and delicate and outwardly trivial, the way I like things. Deep pink edges rim creamy petals, piecing together a perfect satin flower that bounces on the end of blithe green stalks, happy inside their fortress of thorns. I recall them like this in France, in the terraced garden behind the cafe where I worked. They were gentle and fragrant on the train, leaving their home and wilting slowly with remorse. The flowers were not the same as their dry petals crinkled together a year later, fleeing that sleepy Spanish village. On some unknown god's playful whim, they lived through a merry waltz all about Europe, the arbitrariness of their survival making it even more bitter. Though I know any discernible change beyond age would be a mere illusion, I thought I could see the difference as I pried them from my darling's little hands beneath what passed for a bright German sun. Something deep within their cellular structure must have been different as they rested placidly inside those tiny hands.
They were tiny hands with flawlessly molded fingers, like china, and so sweetly placed. A little bruised, a little bloody, but that just added to their heart-breaking humanity. They were resting next to their tiny heart, as still and as cold and as beautiful as a heart can be. You couldn't imagine such digits ever had a future, frozen like that in childhood. Something about their innocence made them even more perfect. Perhaps I romanticize-- I have found that everything guilty and tainted. But, oh, how can people say that they were just fingers, grim statistics made of ink and old unimportant paper when they were flesh and bone and joints and I loved them?
But I digress. Pardon, it is the age. I was born in 1917, and I am an old woman with no company and thus it is my god-given right to ramble on when I have the chance, is it not? My hands are withered and my voice is weak and I am d*mn well going to use the last of my strength to continue on at length about whatever I choose.
Yes, I was telling you about the day I met my sister's daughter. Her mother was one of my stupid little sisters and her father was a pointless little man to whom no one in possession of two brain cells would have been wed. And my niece herself was of course living proof that neither intelligence nor love of children are needed to produce offspring. Her name was Jara Cerulean Franciss and she was 14 and therefore young and silly. She was sad and awkward and unwanted and deep inside of her there was some sort of oddity so it was no wonder she was alone. My name was Rosalind Cassandra Franciss and I was 52 and therefore aging and set back. I had a so-called tragic past no one wanted to hear and a family I didn't care for so it was even less of a wonder that I was alone. But still, that's not all someone is. Otherwise we'd all be simple, uninteresting, and worthless. Maybe you're a cynical, jaded wretch and you think this is true. I don't care. I don't care about you, and I'm SORRY if that's not helping your picture of humanity. People have secrets. There are things you do not yet know about them.
I was reminiscing about Jara. See, there's an example. I believe with conviction that she was much more than simple or uninteresting or worthless.
I can remember our first conversation with utmost clarity, even when I am old and can barely bring to mind the details of yesterday and little is not tainted with age. There was a striking moment when for the first time I saw the beauty of my newly discovered burden. Busy resenting New York, my home for 23 years, and busy resenting being saddled with this strange and unwelcome child, I found that for a moment I was happy just to watch her. One balletic arm hanging up an old black pea coat, another already snaking across the windowsill to the roses that lay there seemingly unobtrusively. Her shoulders were inexplicably angelic when the light shone on them like that . It reminded me of my Siecle, giving me a warm feeling, like I wanted to hold and protect her. Perhaps those pretty shoulders were responsible for her choosing that particular god-awful sleeveless shirt. (Or maybe she was blind. That would have explained the pants. Or perchance the sixties explained the godd*mned pants. It was 1970 and I was still shocked that kids had not banished purple bell-bottoms to the h*ll from which they came. I was practically picketing clothes shops.) Still, despite taste that Beelzebub would have praised, she is gorgeous under the light in her yellow-and-pink spaghetti-strap tunic and ghastly violaceous leg-coverings. Spiky, ash-blond hair obscures her face, so that one can only imagine her hidden eyes. The light picks out every detail, and rests happily upon the two; the flowers and my niece. Such a lovely scene. Noticing that perfection after feeling dulled inside for so long is like seeing the sunlight after days and days in a bomb shelter. It is knowing, as the radiance swarms your retinas and warms your bones, that there is still no food and still no reason to celebrate other than that arbitrary animal need not to decompose. You want to laugh because you are still alive and cry because you aren't dead and that momentary high is going to wear off, again, and life will be miserable, again. The whole magnificent world is wasted on you, but you're here anyway, aren't you?
That is the pain that is seeing and that is the pain that is light . You know the phrase 'to shed light on a matter´? Light wants to see you. It wants to know your secrets. With a flick of a switch, understanding floods in where darkness was before. And yet people don´t want to think about life in the dark. We reserve the dark for vampires and werewolves and beasties. In your casket, it is forever cimmerian. You are unscrutinized—should we not embrace it for that alone? And, despite this, we fear death. And naturally so. We fear losing our beautiful, terrible world.
When I was small, I would spend hours staring at a blade of grass because it was beautiful. The world was perfect back when I thought I understood everything but had no grasp whatsoever of an existence beyond my softly floating soap bubble. My universe was a small blue room with a doll house, a tiny bakery with warm baguettes, a paint set full of little squares of vibrant color, a countryside dotted with fog and bird's nests. My world began and ended in a tiny French village. When we moved to New York to be with family, it was like changing planets. Finally, at 16 I was no longer a child but a defiant young woman who hated New York. So I scorned my American-born kin—a few scattered sisters born of dysfunctional parents—to study in Paris. I was enchanted with the combination of a carefree bohemian lifestyle and my home. There, I decided I was an artist—a painter. Even after I married at 17, had children, and uprooted at 20, I felt that I was an artist (though no sane gallery would fund a teenage girl and her passing phase). I suppose the world is oh-so-lucky that I gave such notions up before they were unleashed.
Hitler himself had a similar notion of becoming a painter at one point and he, too, gave it up. I always find this amusing. at the age of 17, an over fanciful and lazy youth, traveled to Vienna and invested his money in art college because he had been told he had talent. He promptly failed, as he had little aptitude for painting and his work contained a notable lack of appreciation for human form. Because he had no appreciation for people's beauty, he abandoned painting and went on to lead the holocaust.
Myself, I abandoned painting and went on to survive Nazi Germany and post WWII Europe. It turned out this was only to move to New York and claim my inheritance from as a pathetic escape. I hardly mourned my long-forgotten parents. I learned to, at least superficially, make the best of the city and its upsides. Good theater, and lots of people to bicker with for the brief moments I can come out of my shell. Of course it is dirty and crowded and full of prejudice and I'm never free, of course. It was just... New York in 1957. And there was the dreaded family. 'Family' means tearfully insincere reunions, pretending you still care, and sisters that can't take care of their daughters themselves.
Blades of grass are no less beautiful now.
I no longer gaze at them.
So I was hard on Jara at first. I now know that she is intelligent and forlorn, and everything arouses her curiosity and awe. She's afraid of life, and death, and losing things. She decided very early on that love or any sort of attachment to anything meant loss, so she's afraid of that, too. Its strange how she has so little experience but can be, by turns, so jaded, and yet so open. As she explained to me just 3 years after the day we met, "Its strange how people will continue to love, or to persist in believing love exists, isn't? Everything will end, and it hardly matters, does it? I can't even look at a landscape without knowing it will be gone. Children grow up and resent you, friends change and leave you alone. People are fickle. You´re happy, than there's a mistake and something changes or you fight or someone dies, and then there's no proof you were ever happy at all. Its just gone, replaced with whatever comes next. It hardly matters. People become jaded as they age, sometimes, and its harder to see how wonderful everything is, but that makes sense, doesn't it, because they´ve learned it will disappear and then what did you mean when you said you loved something, or when something was important to you?" She understood me, I thought. I know that she didn't, of course, but we agreed on something. She watched everything, and was so—cynical, and yet so romantic and fanciful in everything. I suppose that she didn't know the tragedy of a bomb, but she knew the more wonderfully teenage tragedy of hiding when you have to cry because no one should ever see your tears and be hurt her or, worse, not care at all. And she tried to understand everything.
Knowing this, I see I was stupid around her that first time we met, when I first spoke to her. I was a little bit angry she was noticing my things. Did I mention she gravitates toward whatever in the room carries the most emotional baggage?
"DON'T TOUCH THOSE! ah. um. They carry a communicable disease best not discussed in polite company."
"Oh! Forgive me, ma'am. But if you were to discuss, I would be very quiet as to their origins, de rigueur¨
"That is Spanish, my dear, please don't be so stupid, it's a really unpleasant trait. While you're at it, you might want harness you're mastery of appearing senseless and set it to a purpose beyond giving me a headache. And. Um. I said 'Perhaps not'."
"Oh, but surely I would keep quiet if you told me. Quieter then if you don't." She ignored my insult. She winked.
"Um. I'd best not discuss those until I figure out some names, get a book deal."
"I'm sure I'll buy it." Her eyes fall on mine, and her smile sinks a little with them. I need to fix my eyes to grin like hers, but I cannot. When she opens her mouth to speak, I dread what words will fall out of it.
"So, there's a... past?" Her whisper is thick and tragic, like it has mopped up all of my pain neatly and showed it to me. She'll take a little away, to keep inside her, because that's the kind of person she is. I don't need her to do that.
"Yes, they have a past, all right?¨ I aim for snideness, but I miss and fall nearer to dejection. It is a rare and desperate a time when I cannot be at least a little disparaging.
"Oh." She can´t meet my eyes anymore. "What makes them special?"
"An apparently horrific method of deciding where to travel." This is technically not an honest answer. It is also witty, obscure, and maddeningly indecipherable. I am truly an artist displaying mastery of her art.
"Oh." It is more than obvious that she doesn't understand.
I supplement her confusion.
"They lived. They survived."
No one in my family knows how to travel somewhere decent (my parents moved from France to New f***ing York, for god's sake). But I was the worst, of course. What kind of person flees a desolate Guerinica for the outskirts of Berlin? Still, as with all things, it wasn't entirely my fault. My husband, a debonair and handsome German gentleman, chose to move to Spain in January, 1937. I was only 17 when we were married, have I mentioned that? We were young, and he understood my ambitions, but we both wanted change. He wanted Spain. I chose Guerinica.
We were to celebrate our anniversary on the 26th of April, so I was meeting him in a tiny bistro in the village. I was getting ready. I had braided the flowers I took from France in my hair, because they reminded me of home and they grew just in the place we met. When we were first introduced he smoothly put one in my hair and told me I looked more beautiful than the sun above and the idle sentimentality made me feel as if I would burst with joy. They were such pretty flowers, even wrinkled after so much time and travel. I was in a happy mood, humming softly to myself as I picked out a shimmering burgundy dress and laid it lightly on the soft blue bedspread. It was good to be 21 and light-hearted and looking forward to cool gazpacho and buttery rolls, dreaming of sipping red wine and having time to talk. Having lived like an adult for what felt like a lifetime to such a young girl and a little worn from taking care of children, one night out seemed like a lovely, delicate thing. Siecle was standing there, such a pretty little creature, tugging at my dress and pleading with me to let her come. I felt so young and vibrant that night it was disconcerting to have my 4-year-old daughter tugging at my hem, but she was so darling you just couldn't brush her off. I was just placing a second emerald in my ear—I didn't have very much jewelry and was ridiculously proud of my emeralds—when people started to explode.
The first reverberation hit me like an anvil in my temple, driving me mad with fear and sending a scream through my skull. Then it struck me that the screaming wasn't in my head. We are animals, and our brains are not programmed to fight bombs. A predator or advisory is THERE where you can see them and you can blind them by going for the eyes. With the bombs in the air, everywhere, like some kind of merciless, explosive rain, it was like being smote by an all-powerful god— and I must say, that must have been the only religious moment in my life. I was filled with adrenaline, and there was nothing to fight, no comprehensible cause for the chaos in my poor confused mortal mind. I just grabbed Siecle's hand away and threw it from me to free myself, and she slumped against the counter and the pins and the brittle stalks in my hair hurt as I fled to nowhere like a fledgling bird, scared and small and flying too fast. Suddenly there was mud below my feet, then it seemed to be a meter? (no, not so much) below me because my feet were higher than my head. The only thing in my line of vision was a wall and then there was a crack and I saw a woman was lying there in the mud, dressed foolishly like a stupid child who had donned and ruined her mother's clothes. The heads weren't staying on the bodies like they should, and the earth rotated under my feet until the bodies were flying off the heads, flailing as the fell to the muddy skyline. Fire ripped across the ground and all I could think was no, it isn't supposed to be like that. I could hear children screaming and maybe Siecle was screaming like that, too, and maybe Rose was in her crib crying but I wasn't there for her.
You'd think me a monster. I left my children in the house without a glance. I was out the door before they could register anything beyond shock. Siecle came running out of the house screaming. When I fell, there she was, a tiny, perfectly crafted angel of furry screaming and screaming. I had to pick her up and carry her, if only because it made her stop screaming so much. A monster.
My husband—god only knows what happened to him when the bombs dropped, but it ended with his head in an alley a good 3 feet from what was presumably his body (the stampede of running feet had mutilated it until it had to be identified by his wallet and both arms were dislocated from trying to climb the alley walls to get away from it all)—still had family in Berlin. They would pay their remaining grandchild's way to the city. I got on a train as fast as possible, not even changing clothes. When I unbraided my hair, the roses fell out into my lap like god was serving me a horrible reminder through a waitress with no manners. Something tearfully masochistic deep inside me wrapped them up gently in a soiled handkerchief and kept them.
I didn't have the money to take both Seicle and I anywhere and then get some sort of living arrangement. My husband's family was not like him, neither gracious nor charming, but cold and disproving to their h*ll-wrought cores. They did not take to me, disheveled, hungry, covered in mud and coming into their life with only a ruined dress, a pair of earrings, and some twisted flowers. They did not mention that they would not be paying for a seat for a baby and they did not mention that a baby was not on their doorstep angrily demanding milk. It was like Rose had never existed, and I really think they had the godd*mned nerve to be glad because of it. And yet, despite her severance from any other part of this world, all I could think about when I fell asleep that night was how I held her, ran my hands through her soft saffron hair. Ma fille chérie, ma ange, ma petite enfant. But I still had Siecle then, all through Germany.
World War II started a year later.
I managed to lose everything except a string tied around crumbling, almost petal-less roses. They haunted me throughout Europe, waving their phantom stalks and I carried the d*mn things, carried them in and out of every bomb shelter and across every wasted city I had to walk.
So, yes, yes they "had a past".
Jara has no clue as to what I am thinking, but her eyes fill with empathy and pain I want to smack away. "Oh. I'm sorry, ma'am."
"Oh, I'm sorry, too. I regret it that I didn't burn them the moment I found out they worshiped Satan." I smirk. She misses my attempt to steady the mood again, and leads me merrily into another brief spiral of depression.
"Its just--it makes me sad. The roses are just cells that used to be alive and aren't anymore, there's really no difference other than oxygen starvation, but you think they're special. I can't describe it I guess." She faltered. "They are special of course, whatever happened, but we'll be like that someday, too, and then... I don't know. Will someone think we're special?"
Who would value me?
The roses I thought were worthwhile, because they were there every time I was bombed. They were there when my children died. They were the only other things on this planet that could remember. The roses were in Siecle's hand when she perished that day outside of Berlin. They had still been in that tiny German apartment, wrapped in a rag and stowed in a drawer when Siecle needed decorations for the shed out back. The shed has served as a space for her and her dolls, which were so old and grimy they must have been a health hazard. I was in town trying to get more rations when a noise like thunder bruised the air. Baby Siecle grabbed the roses and the dolls and the old tablecloth quickly, I suppose. But not quick enough. This time, bombs dropped without the routine warning on the radio. The shed came down, the flat we shared came down, streets came down, the sky seemed to come down, and then her little body was protected by the rubble as much as crushed. I wasn't there for her when she died, I wasn't holding her. She was just clutching those things and staring up at the sky, as if reproaching it for for smiting her so. Her dead eyes reflected a watery sun and a brilliant, brilliant sky. The sky was such a magnificent cerulean as to make you cry all over again.
I didn't mourn her enough. She was the last special thing in my life, and and after the routine flood of tears, I was free. Less attached. I could love what I wanted, or not care for anything at all. I wasn't worth anything, really, I never became an anything like I'd wanted when I was younger. I just became a cynical old woman who cared only for herself. That hurt, but after the hurt, it was okay. I had all of that hope bottled up, and hope can be cut and it can bleed. The hopeful person can feel scared for the future and isolated and worried. So I paused and looked at all my hope. "I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to h*ll'- and tore it up. It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said." The words aren't mine, just a memory of a long-gone literature class, but doesn't that only help to prove the universalizes of resolution? How many people have gone through that same somber epiphany, no matter what it is that they're tearing up?
I move back to reality suddenly.
"Jara, no one will care when I die. I can deal with that." I sit down dramatically in an old armchair and turn it towards the window so I can see all of the people walk past so far down below. All of the people and their busy little lives and sorrows, unaware of my unimportance.
She was plaintive and shy. "Maybe I would care, if you died. Maybe I would care about you."
"Maybe. Maybe that's a lie. But maybe I would thank you."
"You would be dead."
"So? Am I above a little ghosting?" I smirk. She can't see.
"Oh, no! I would be honored by your spectral presence." She pauses. I pity her and ask stupid questions like a real adult. But not 'what is your age, your grade, your school?'. Real questions.
"You said each cell in the roses used to be alive?"
"Every cell making you up is alive. I mean, some are dying and coming off, but every cell really that you are is alive."
"Is that so?"
"And the best part is that they're different from when you're born, I heard. Except for maybe parts of your brain, you have all new cells. You're not the same person." She sits down a grabs my solitaire cards off the table.
"Of course we are not the same people. Everyone changes and get's older."
"We can change for the better, though."
"You are young and can change in any way you want. That has no bearing on how I can or will change."
There is a silence as I imagine the lives of the people walking the past and Jara builds a house of cards. Absentmindedly, as if falling into another one of my brain's bitter patterns but with less emotion, I sketch onto my table what the painting I will make of her will look like. I feel detached and calm as I observe her card-made structure come to life. It is tall and imposing, this castle of cards, arch ways and triangle pillars and terraced roofs replacing the ragged kings and queens and jesters. She opens her mouth to speak, not looking up, her curvaceous digits still busying themselves and her eyebrows pulled in concentration.
"What do you think of troops moving into Cambodia?"
"People will die, won't they? That's the point, right there. As Stalin said, 'One death is a tragedy, but one million is a statistic.'. Who will care for all of the dead children and families? It will not be evil people who die, but will we care?" I take a moment to curb my emotion. "Stalin also said, 'Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.' So I suppose war in Cambodia will work, then, won't it?" I smiled wryly. She grimaced.
" Of course humans may cause problems, but, but, h-how can he say that?¨ Such a whiny, naive voice. I sigh and roll my eyes.
"The vocal cords, that's how. They vibrate and you channel these vibrations with movements of the mouth and tongue."
She laughs, she frowns, she asks if she may open the window. I momentarily forget why I have forbidden that architecture to come ajar.
For some time we sit thus. A gust of wind blows her castle flat. All of that precision, all of that balance, and she doesn't look as if she cares if it is gone or not. Her only comment as she sweeps the cards up is, "If the the cards are in the box, where does the house go? " I don't reply, or care where a structure goes when it collapses. She looks up to speak again. Do all people talk this much, or is she just leading a crusade against silence?
"What about the stand off with Russia?" The wind picks up her hair and swirls it around her face, but her huge grey eyes do not blink.
"Someone will launch a bomb. There will be deaths, strange and terrible like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Death is commonplace to everyone, even as horrible as war is. The world will look on with disgust."
"Are you sure they will launch the bombs?"
"Humans cannot have a weapon and not kill each other, since the moment we started to sharpen rocks and sticks. Watch. America: doomed, Russia: doomed, and all of the neighboring countries. I swear it."
"Humanity itself is doomed, of course. But not now. There is time. Time for children to grow up, maybe. Or for countries to make peace, maybe."
"Time to have some tea?"
"Plenty of time for tea."
We go into the kitchen and I take a large kettle from a hook. She busies herself making sandwiches, and I ask her about herself. Not 'what do you think of school, what is your favorite class your favorite subject?' but questions about her. At the window, petals are picked up and tossed through the grimy city on steady wind currents, but I do not think of them. Outside the window, a child smiles as she catches a rose bud that is tumbling down like rain from an open apartment window, and I do not know of it. There is time for tea.