|Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
At seven, Zora is a strong swimmer, although she did fail each lesson at the local pool. Today her brown hair follows her like an eel through the warm ocean. Zora daydreams—not for the first time and most certainly not for the last in what will be a long lifetime. Today, implausibly, she is Malibu Barbie in the striped lime bikini with matching sunglasses. She is in a race with Ken to the yacht, which she will win, much to his astonishment. In real life, Zora has dog-paddled too far. A wave rises toward her and perhaps for the first time—or is it?—Zora knows fear. Then she is rolling downward before being lifted up again. Her uncle's sunburned arms clutch her around the chest as he drags her onto the crowded beach. Zora's mother is angry—technically for the 127th time—with Zora, her most vexing child. The rip current has stripped off Zora's baggy one-piece and left her smooth, small, and white, like Skipper, the lesser doll.
San Diego, 1974
Zora and her mother are quarantined in a corner of the screened porch. The sofa's metallic threads prick Zora's thighs. Mother is perched neatly on the yellow ottoman as she wields a large diagram. She looks like a schoolteacher, which she is, actually. Zora hears "blood," "normal," "cycle"; "male," "sperm," "baby." With its slanted ovaries like eyes floating above the uterus, the female reproductive system is an unsmiling alien. Through the window into the house, Zora sees her father and sister watch TV, silently laughing. A few feet away outside, the stupidest kitten falls in the pool again. Life is everywhere, an indignity, unstoppable.
They're driving from Vienna to Budapest. It's spring break from school in Iran. Sister isn't speaking to Zora since she spun the black market Jethro Tull album like a Frisbee into the dump across from their apartment. In Austria, the fields are being tilled with shiny machines. At the border, the guard flips half-heartedly through the family's American passports with the gaudy stamps. Time is flashing backward by centuries, like it does in Star Trek; the Hungarian fields are being cleared with scythes. The family gets lost driving across the bridge from Buda to Pest and then back again. In the hotel dining room, Zora sees her science teacher, an immense woman who seems unsurprised to see Zora. Sister kicks her savagely under the table, over and over again. Sitting up in bed later, Zora admires the moon above the silent city, like a white boutonniere pinned to the black sky. In the morning, they pack up, buy a violin for five U.S. dollars. "We got that for a song," Mother sings happily.
A passerby pinches Zora's bottom, hard. It is like a switch has not only gone off but also perhaps blown. Pleasure and rage intertwine like the strands on the DNA model in Mrs. Assadi's classroom. At the hotel, Zora stares at the teen-aged waiter with the long hair and tight suit. "Thy servant boy art comely," Sister says. "Shut up, he probably speaks English," Zora hisses. That day the family visits the Coliseum; listens to their guide angrily decry the American bombings during World War II. Defeated, the family buys a salami, green grapes, and bread to eat in their room. The waiter passes them in the lobby, frowns at their groceries, mutters, "Cheapskates." Zora's Italian love affair is over.
San Diego, 1982
Roommate No. 4's older boyfriend is hounding Zora. He has a sixth sense, seems to know who the virgin is in the group house. No. 4 takes algebra at the community college, smokes Marlboros, sleeps late with Older Boyfriend in the back bedroom. Zora smokes, too. Reads paperbacks. Invents a study for her P.E. class in which she sleeps 10 minutes less each night and charts the physical and psychological effects. On Saturday the housemates go to the beach and drink boxed wine. Older Boyfriend's denim cutoffs are so short that his pink penis pops out when he sits next to Zora. He says something so obscene that it is unprintable. Zora cries; No. 4 blames her. Two weeks later, No. 4 won't come out of her room. Older Boyfriend has disappeared, taking $261 in savings, a gold bracelet, and Zora's bike. Zora, who is down to sleeping two hours a night, writes in her journal, "Hallucinations, impaired problem-solving, sudden euphoria."
Washington, D.C., 1991
Zora has moved to the East Coast with her true love to become a writer, although at the moment she faces a classroom full of hostile government workers. According to the pre-set syllabus, Zora should be teaching restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses. But with such a slender grasp on grammar, Zora decides to fill the remaining half hour tonight by teaching a basic aspect of creative writing: establishment of character. Dumping out the contents of her beat-up purse, Zora holds each item aloft for the class to inspect: dirty hairbrush, parking ticket, Grammar for Good, half of an Almond Joy. Her class looks at her with disbelief, but Zora forges on. She asks them to write a page about her, Zora, as a character in a story. The 20-minute break from teaching is marred by the students' assessing stares, titters, and pilgrimages to the electric pencil sharpener. Later, with True Love sprawled next to her in bed, Zora reads. "You're a terrible teacher. I'm dropping this class." "Too bad about your ticket." "Zora was a nice lady, but lacked confidence." At first she thinks that they have missed the point, but then it dawns on her that she has become a character, all right—just not on the page.
San Francisco, 2001
On the drive to the museum, Zora's toddler lobs his sippy cup at her head. Following the surprise of the dull thud, juice trickles down her neck and into her wool coat. "God dammit," Zora curses while veering wildly into traffic. Righting the old car, a quick look in the rear-view mirror shows a red-faced Toddler Boy straining against his throne-like car seat. At first she thinks he is choking on one of his expensive organic molasses cookies, but then she hears the laugh, eerily similar to True Love's. Zora feels relief and a flood of goodwill, even toward the driver who just flipped her off. To Zora thus far, motherhood has nearly Shakespearean highs and lows; tragedy follows comedy, with disaster looming beyond the next curtain. In the park, Zora leans down to unbuckle Toddler Boy from his stroller. She breathes in his scent, which is a warm custard with a hint of something faintly gamey. Hurrying toward the museum, Toddler Boy is oblivious to more cars, unleashed dogs, and Zora, his Sherpa loaded down with food, blankets, and too many emotions to shoulder.
Zora takes off her clothes and stares at herself in the mirror. Her breasts are large and round. These are her best feature; forget the eyes. "One for the team," she mumbles. Her gaze drops to the C-sections that have left lines across her abdomen, scrunched her belly into a miniature beanbag chair. "Down 10 points," she says. Lately, Zora realizes she's taken her eye off the ball, corporate jargon that now comes just as easily to her as the foreign language did when she was young. Zora fusses over her old house, talks too much about her children, wins a workplace award called The Bronze Compass. If this were one of Mrs. Assadi's pie charts, Zora would have about seven percent of her own self left. That self is battle-scarred by middle-aged, middle-class American womanhood. Zora stares down at her feet, seemingly unchanged after 50 years. "Get a move on," she says.