I was swimming in my neighbor's charming above-ground pool which I coveted at the time. I was probably 10 or 11 and didn't know any better that it was tacky and gross. All I remember was that it was totally fun and I wanted one in our yard (my mom made sure that never happened, much to her credit). The next door neighbor kids who I liked to play baseball with, a sister and brother, both of whom were sweet, nice and younger than me, told me their cousin was visiting and to come over for a swim. So I asked my mom, she said yes and I leapt headlong into my navy blue one-piece and ran over, my sneakers flopping off my heels because I was in too much of a rush to tie the laces.
I don't remember a lot about the cousin other than that she was closer to my age than my friends, my neighbors. She eyed me warily as I jumped in, feet first, holding my nose (something I still do, never once trying or even attempting to learn how to dive). I remember feeling happy and exhilarated and excited to talk to someone new and my age - finally. My cousins were much older than me, like my siblings were, so this was a novelty and didn't happen every day on Ridge Street.
I must have sensed something, my fight-or-flight kicking in, my bully-meter already on high alert and I didn't even know it. I joked with my friends, we laughed, we tossed a beach ball like we always did and then She caught it, moved it to the side of her body and looked at me. I caught the look out of the corner of my eye and waited for something to happen. She made me feel it was coming and she, and I, were right.
I remember the look, but I don't remember her face, if that makes sense. I remember the disdain, the judgment, the hovering moment of peace and happiness that bristled in the air for a split and final second: Is this the moment where my innocence was lost? Is this the moment when everything changed, where my self-confidence, at one time a hallmark of my personality (just ask my teachers) and something the grown-ups marveled at when they came over ("She's so independent. She can amuse herself on her own for hours. You're so lucky to have a child like that.") ... evaporated? Just thinking about the seconds before the moment she said what she said makes me remember how wonderful the whole universe was before that instant. It was a place where Mom and Dad kissed goodbye in the morning and hello at night, where we waited to have dinner with Dad because ... are you kidding? Eat without him? Where my grandparents still lived a few hundred yards away and my siblings, one in college now, one already out and working in the coolest job in the world (at least to me) at the U.N., of all places, loved me and treated me like gold, not a pariah, not an annoying little sister hell-bent on driving them batty. Everything was great in that moment. And then in the next, she took it away:
"Were you born with that face or are you sick or something?"
I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the hot flash that went from my toes to my scalp despite being immersed in ice cold pool water up to my neck. I remember thinking: Did my parents not tell me something? Was there something wrong with me and I am just now finding out? From this stranger with the ice in her blood and knives in her eyes? My friends, stunned, lost, looked away and started a game of catch with the beach ball, together ... two siblings, close in age, guarding each other in a war zone. The cousin smirked and dove in, no nose-holding, sort of splashy but a dive and not a jump, just the same. I got out of the pool and went home.
Some meaningless little girl from God knows where who, for all I know, never amounted to much, still stole something from me on that hot summer afternoon. If it had not been her, it would have been someone or something else. That's life. And really, was what she said really all that bad? To my 10 or 11 year old idealistic heart - you bet it was. She made me feel like there was something wrong with me. That I looked different, whatever the hell that means, so therefore I was different, and different was bad. And it still is.
If you hear anyone say that Billy Lucas or Asher Brown, Seth Walsh or Tyler Clementi didn't have to end their lives because they were taunted for being gay ... that 13 and 15 and 18 year old boys have to know that "it does get better", that there is always another way remember that someone needs to tell them that as close to the instant it happens for it to really help. I went home that day and my mom smiled at me and told me to take a hot shower and get ready for dinner. That was enough to fix it, for the moment. 38 years later, it still wasn't enough, apparently, to make me forget. As soon as I heard about the precious boys who couldn't imagine how to go forward one more minute after someone stole their happiness, I knew how they felt. And I wished my mom was there for them, too.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
I was on my 3rd glass of wine when my friend’s cell phone rang in the middle of a birthday dinner at a very loud Tapas bar. Friends of hers were out walking near her apartment building and had come across a stray, “crazy” dog and they wanted to know what they should do about it. She told them she was at dinner with 7 other people and really couldn’t help. Five minutes later they called back and said they were serious. They couldn’t just let this dog go. He was frantic and freaked and they didn’t know what to do. She told them, while rolling her eyes, to bring the dog to the local fire house and ask them to take it. The third phone call came a few minutes later and I finally piped up and said: Let’s just go see this dog, already.
Eight of us pile into three cabs and head from Tribeca to Ground Zero. It was the weekend of the 5th Anniversary of 9/11 and the area was humming with curiosity seekers and tourists. The floodlights were on full bore. We pile out of the cabs, a little drunkenly, and two men approach us, one holding a squirming, skinny, black and white poodle-ish something-or-other in his arms. They tell us, quite dramatically, what a nightmare it’s been with this nut for the last two hours when suddenly, the dog breaks free of the man’s grasp and leaps headlong into my arms. Everyone looks at me and I shake my head: I have a dog, she’s getting old and she doesn’t want company. I’m then reminded that my dog is away for the weekend in the country with my parents and everyone else in this motley crew has dogs at home that evening none of whom would be very interested in a sleep-over with this mutt. Somehow, and to my great dismay, I end up taking this dog back to my apartment, swearing up and down that I am going to find his owners (if in fact he has any and isn’t an abandoned dog) and will only foster him until he can find a good home.
He sleeps under my bed that night. Calmly and silently. When I get up the next morning and beckon him out, he calmly appears, wagging his tail and willingly lets me put my dog’s spare leash on him for a morning walk. He does just fine and acts like this is something he knows how to do. We come back home and I make him breakfast and he devours it. When he’s finished, he stares at me. And I stare back.
Over the next two weeks, after posting fliers with his picture all around the neighborhood where he was “lost”, it becomes clear to me he was never lost at all and the knotted semi-ripped leash that came attached to his collar (tag-less, of course), was probably a result of his escape after being tied to some chain link fence or telephone pole by the soul-less people who didn’t have the patience for him anymore. I got a lot of calls, all from kinder souls who thought he was the cutest thing ever and wanted to know if they could adopt him. I kept coming up with excuses about how I had to wait to see if his owner came forward. But what I really wanted was for that day to never come. It never did. And it’s a good thing, because on his second night with me, when he got on the bed and snuggled in to the curve of my legs and slept peacefully there all night, I knew Gui wasn’t going anywhere but home with me for good.
Phoebe, my Corgi of, at the time, 10 years, eventually grew to a begrudging acceptance of this little French interloper. In fact, Phoebe is approaching her 15th birthday, a milestone almost never heard of in her breed and until the last day she is with me, I will believe she got a new lease on life when her little brother trotted into the house, circled her, tail wagging and rolled over on his back with a look of joy I try to think of whenever I feel the least bit sad about anything on earth. Gui was a rescue. It worked both ways.
I grew up about 50 yards away from my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and two cousins. When I was young, very young, about ten, let’s say, I would sometimes come home from school and ask my mom if I could go over to see my grandparents for a while. So I’d cut through the next door neighbor’s lawn and crawl under the wooden fence that separated that middle house from theirs. In the spring, the fence had lilacs and forsythia growing on it that I would have to push aside to sneak through.
I’d go inside by the basement door that was in the garage and turn left. In a cool, dark room in the back, my grandfather did tailoring work for the local ladies in town. I’d hear the rhythm of his sewing machine that he ran with his foot on a wrought iron panel underneath as I entered and he would look up, his tape measure draped around his neck. I’d kiss him hello, he’d ask me how school was. Then he’d quiz me in Italian on the days of the week and the months of the year that he was starting to teach me to say by writing them out in neat columns on the cardboard backings that came in the pressed shirts from the laundry. “Tuesday – Martedi. February – Febbraio”. Then I’d go upstairs and my aunt, Zizi, would grab me, pinch my cheeks and ask if I was hungry. I’d say no and she’d make me a snack anyway. The yellow wall phone would ring, and it would be my mom, ostensibly calling to say hello to Zizi but in all likelihood, checking to make sure I made it across the 50 yards of uninterrupted lawn without incident. While they chatted, I’d walk down the short hall to the bedrooms and go see my grandmother. She would be seated in her upholstered swivel chair at the foot of her bed, close to the TV, watching AS THE WORLD TURNS. She’d smile at me and ask me to sit in the chair with her and tell me what I’d missed that day on her “story” – the one that she never missed, that helped her to perfect her English and that made her smile that unbelievable, beautiful smile I will work hard to never forget.
This week, I will hand in my last writing assignment for AS THE WORLD TURNS. It will go off the air on Friday, September, 17, 2010, roughly 38 years after any one of those many afternoons with my grandmother and 53 years after it’s debut. It’s been an honor to be part of this story as it ends. I am grateful to everyone there for the opportunity to help ease the show into memory. And I hope my grandma, “Mom” as we all called her, would have been proud to know that I had a tiny part in helping some other grandmothers and granddaughters create their histories together. And I hope those granddaughters remember, if nothing else, how good her smile made them feel while the credits rolled over the spinning globe, and a nice sounding man would declare, always with a degree of hope in his voice: “Tune in tomorrow for the next episode of AS THE WORLD TURNS”.
-May 24, 2010
Taste is subjective. Who am I to think that the opening titles for “Dear Masha” are cheap or crude or disgusting? Who am I, a lowly, or perhaps low-level American soap writer, working in Moscow because I can’t get arrested in Los Angeles to say that the opening for our little jointly produced, Russian-American telenovela isn’t progressive and ground-breaking as opposed to misogynistic and blatantly pornographic? Perhaps this is exactly what the Russian television audience has been craving, waiting through Siberian winters that we cannot even imagine from our lofty rent-controlled New York apartments that are 3 hours away by plane from the tropics. Who am I, really, to say that the silhouette of a mini-skirted Russian woman, legs spread as much as she can spread ‘em, dancing to atonal, incomprehensible Russian “pop” that sounds like it was recorded under the Volga on a reel-to-reel in 1973 with the super-imposition of the Eiffel Tower between her legs is not the hottest thing east of Minsk, like, ever? Really, couldn’t this be 21st century Tolstoy, for all I know?
Honestly, it really isn’t my place to judge what the Russian audience will think when a beautiful woman in a yellow dress who could be the Soviet reincarnation of Grace Kelly enters her husband’s office and finds him with another woman. And by “finds”, I mean she sees him having sex with her on his desk, his pants around his ankles in broad daylight. Above their startled heads, her two pointy-ass Munchkin-land 6 inch heels are stuck in the wall from where she kicked them, one would assume, as he mounted her. The aggrieved wife stands 20 paces from the desk, whispers her lines, turns and walks out. I’d tell you what she said, but I can’t since this scene never came back from the translator who lives in Germany because the weekend before, he broke his neck, sky-diving.
Ees not posseeble, you say? Yes, ees posseeble, even when the Russian writing team tells you eet’s not. Which they do, every day, several times a day and conclude the sentence by adding: “Ees not logical” every single time you tell them what the American headwriters in Los Angeles want the scenes to be. But what do you know, you stupid American?
Did I mention how they lie? Not just conventional lying, the way Congress lies or the heads of broadcast television. Pathological, easy-as-it-is-to-breathe lying – about everything. “What did you have for lunch today, Galina?” Galina says: “I deed not eat lunch. I have no time to eat.” But, you say, I was in the same restaurant with you on Tereskaya. I saw you there. Eating. Galina replies: “No. I deed not eat.” Kind of goes like that.
But I love the Russians. They are confounding and Quixotic and rude. And gorgeous. The women are, at least. The men are not. They all smoke and drink so much that they die before they’re 50 but they look like they’re octogenarians. The women though, who also drink and smoke, somehow manage to stay beautiful. Perhaps it’s because they marry and divorce very young. Getting a divorce in Russia is as easy as asking for one so all of these young girls marry, divorce, marry again, maybe have a baby, divorce and then marry once more, usually before they’re 30. That would keep you young and on your toes. But truly, the women in Russia are jaw-droppingly beautiful. They are breathtakingly spectacular. And they are wary as hell. They look you right in the eye when you speak and then they look at their feet, careful not to expose anything real, terrified of what may happen to them if they do.
The younger people don’t remember Communism but the idea that it was once the law of the land still permeates every interaction and decision and the work ethic. Ah, yes. The work ethic. I have never seen people in an office look as busy as these people do only to learn that they are doing absolutely nothing. And they get paid next to nothing to do it, so perhaps it’s understandable. They glance over their computer screens at the Amerikanskis and wonder when we’re leaving. We were brought to Moscow to show them how to produce 5 hours of television a week. Needless to say, they’re not interested in how to do that if it requires actually getting work done and “shooting” on schedule. They call taping, shooting. All the time. It’s a little disconcerting considering that people get shot in Moscow quite frequently and virtually no one outside of the city learns of it. Ever. While I was there, an American journalist working for the Russian language edition of FORTUNE magazine was doing an expose on the corruption of the economy by the wealthy oligarchs. He was gunned down on his way out of his office one night and left for dead. That was 6 years ago and his murder has never been solved. He was the 13th journalist killed in 3 years in Moscow.
So yes, it was scary there. It was unfamiliar. My Russian producer, Alexander Akopov would vehemently insist in writer meetings that there “Ees no cultural deeference!” between Russians and Americans, but I knew better. If nothing else, the translation of the work we did proved as much. Here’s how it worked. Pay attention because it’s confusing. In Los Angeles, two writers would come up with a story document for a week’s worth of episodes, in English. This would be sent to the Russian scriptwriting team in Moscow … after it had been translated from English to Russian by the translators, in Germany. Then the Russians would write the scripts based on this document, in Russian. Obviously. Then those Russian scripts were sent back to Germany, again, to be translated to English so that I could read them and edit them and then, finally … back to Germany again for translation to Russian at which point maybe, if the stars were aligned and the Midnight Sun had not set, they would have shooting scripts. To shoot. Six weeks behind shooting schedule, Jenet. That’s what they called me. “Jenet”. I quite liked it.
But those translations into English are the very things that sustained me for the 3 months I was there. Here’s one. The characters are Nina, a former supermodel and Tanya, her younger sister who aspires to be one herself. Then Masha, the current supermodel, enters, at the end.
Nina: I feel like I am living in a nuthouse, not in my own home! Tanya, tell them!
Tanya: Tell them what?
Nina: That they are crazy!
Tanya: (IMPERTURBABLE) You are crazy.
Nina: Sprinklers don’t pour water over normal people!
Tanya: Normal people don’t take taxis to a bakery!
Masha: (ENTERS, LOOKS AROUND, SATISFIED) You’re all as good looking as ever. (CLAPS HER HANDS) Now take off what you’re wearing except for your underwear!
Alexander: (THEIR FATHER, JOINS) Long live the uncomfortable sandals!
Long live Moscow. Long live cultural deeferences.