"La La Land" Epoch, March 2019
The four of us were outside, sitting under one of those expansive umbrellas they have in California to shield you from the sun, because even though it was already six o'clock, the light was still blinding, and I was wondering whether it had been a mistake to drive out to Encino. The situation was fraught on multiple fronts. Not only was Kai, my boyfriend—partner—in one of his moods, but I felt like I owed Scott an apology, or, if not an apology, then at least an explanation, Scott having been my best friend in college.
The fact is I'd done my best to distance myself from everyone I knew back then. I'd moved away from La La Land—all those palm trees and strip malls and men pushing shopping carts down the sidewalks in Venice Beach—to find a new life, a new identity. Isn't that what gay men do when they come out after pretending to have sex with girls in Cabo while their fraternity buddy is in the bed eight feet away pounding a señorita who keeps yelling "Cabrón, cabrón" at the top of her lungs, like she's seeing God because he grazed her elbow with the palm of his hand? Or if not pretending, exactly, then going through the motions.
Published in One Story, February 2019
She’d been what was once called a mail-order bride, a Latvian beauty from a village eighteen kilometers south of Rēzekne, her advertisement indexed under the section of the international periodical titled “Remarkable Women.” Remarkable not because of her thick, blonde hair or outgoing personality, but because of the growths on her back—wings akin to those of a small dove—sprouting from her latissimus dorsi, which, from an early age, had made Klara certain no man would ever find her attractive, despite her mother’s assurances to the contrary. Her mother, a seamstress, had called Klara mans enģelis, my angel, and though some villagers had caught glimpses of the miraculous appendages, most had not.
The year was 1993, just two years after Latvia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, back when few people in Latvia had traveled to the United States, and what was known about life abroad came mostly from magazines and radio shows and, occasionally, TV. Televisions were a luxury few could afford, requiring electricity and enough cash to feed a family of six for more than a year.
Published in Shenandoah, December 2018 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
Last spring, a new Chipotle opened two blocks from my apartment. In a neighborhood full of vendors that sold costume jewelry and plastic beads, asparagus ferns and Gatorade by the case, it was a welcome addition. I was one of the first customers to have lunch there, and within days I’d come to recognize most of the employees—the woman with the gold tooth who called me mi amor, the hipster with the cupcake tattooed on his neck, the blond girl with the raspy voice who looked like she’d grown up selling more than just Girl Scout Cookies. I’d recently been fired from my job and I had time on my hands. Also, I like Mexican food. It’s cheap and filling and for me that’s enough.
Whereas at another point in my life I might have eaten quickly and left, I now took my time. I’d take a bite, look at the people in line, peruse a few paragraphs of whatever reading material I’d brought along, ask for more hot sauce. Lunch could take an hour, maybe two.
I found something about the atmosphere comforting: the bright lights, the expansive windows, the upbeat music and crowds. Being there made me feel younger. It made me feel au courant. Most of the people who frequent Chipotle, I’ve noticed, are in their twenties and thirties, twenties mostly. I myself am forty-three, almost forty-four.
The summer before I started seventh grade, not long after Patty Hearst was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, my mother married a man who owned a ranch house with a yard full of lemon trees. As far as she was concerned, she'd hit the jackpot. Gerry didn't drink, he had a job, and, whenever we went out to eat, he always picked up the check. After dating a string of losers, after moving from apartment to apartment at least once a year for nearly a decade, my mother told me—three weeks into her new relationship—that, no matter what, we could not spit on the luck God had given to us. "This chance is once in a lifetime," she said.
My mother met Gerry on a ski trip organized by Amway. She put the vacation on her credit card and arranged for me to stay with a family that lived down the street. "Bingo," she announced on the phone, four days after she left. "I met someone perfect. He's a little tight-lipped and has a tummy, but he's an accountant, and he owns a condo in Mammoth." A few months later they got engaged and we moved from Ventana Beach down to L.A.
Enormous in the Moonlight
Published in Glimmer Train, Fall 2017 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
Last night, after scouring the vegetable drawers in the fridge, Stewart set his alarm for 7:30 a.m. He set the back-up travel alarm for 7:35, then brushed his teeth and checked both alarms again. Not that either alarm was actually necessary—he spent most of the night awake, dozing off briefly just after 1:15, then waking up for good at 2:54. He thought about taking a sleeping pill but worried that, even with the alarms, he might not get up in time. For the last twenty-four hours, his stomach has been going haywire, pitching and churning and making animal sounds.
Finally, at 6:45, he gets out of bed and makes a bowl of plain oatmeal. Maybe that will calm him down, he thinks, but when the phone rings at 7:50, he's only managed to eat a few bites. "Hello?" he answers. For some reason, there's a hopeful sound in his voice, though there's no reason to think it's Luis. Luis's plane won't arrive for another three hours.
Outside Is the Ocean
Published in Ecotone, Spring/Summer 2017 (Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2018; Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
The man offers him a drink. Gin and tonic? Bourbon? Cognac? Stewart isn’t much of a drinker. “Whatever you’re having,” he says, standing in the living room, awkwardly, looking over the harbor. He can’t quite remember what the guy said he does for a living—something with investments, some kind of advisor or banker. Clearly he’s loaded. The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows and a Steinway. Stewart wishes he’d paid more attention when the guy told him his name. Tizak or Tazak, something with a z and a k. Stewart was too surprised to register what he actually said. Stewart had been checking him out from across the room for at least half an hour, until the banker disappeared in the crowd, then bam! he was right there, introducing himself.
He had a British accent. It threw Stewart off; he wasn’t expecting him to sound like he’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge. He was ripped and had a leather band around his left bicep. Stewart wasn’t sure what the band meant, but he felt himself growing aroused. “How come you’re standing there all by yourself?” the banker asked, smiling. He had a killer smile. Stewart liked the contrast of his white teeth against the black skin of his face. Stewart imagined the man sticking his tongue deep in his mouth. He looked strong. He looked like he knew what he was doing.
Memoirs of a Gentleman Caller
Published in StoryQuarterly, Winter 2017 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
I should probably state, up front, that these particular events took place around the time the shoplifting started. It's not that I couldn't afford the things I stole; I wasn't destitute. I'm not sure why I did it—maybe it gave me a thrill, like those kids in high school who asphyxiate themselves.
The first item I stole was a vase small enough to fit in my hand. I was in a store downtown that sold home furnishings, and everything was overpriced. It was the kind of place frequented by women with too much time on their hands: celebrities and housewives with sunglasses and gold jewelry and large, leather handbags that cost God knows how much. I'd only been there a few times, just to browse.
I was on the second floor, looking at the vintage bottles—bottles that were cloudy and weathered with age. "Where are these from?" I asked a clerk standing nearby.
"They're beautiful, aren't they? Our buyers get them from flea markets all over the country. Those are from Texas."
I looked at the price tag, as if I were the kind of person who would pay $80 for a trinket from the junkyard. The vase was on a shelf across from the bottles. It was emerald green, like something from the ocean, and stout: small, rectangular, made of glass. I picked it up and examined it. It reminded me of something my mother might have owned. My mother, who died when I was just 36, had lived in New Jersey, in a mobile home full of knickknacks. Woodcarvings from Vienna and Salzburg and Munich, glass figurines she ordered online, ceramic dogs and cats made by a woman she met at church.
Five years ago, when his mother announced that she was flying to Moscow to adopt a six-year-old girl, Stewart did his best not to react. His mother had always been the kind of person who made threats, who cajoled and coerced, until she got her way. For years, she'd been threatening to adopt one of the children she sponsored in Mexico and Guatemala and Romania, to bring a child home to live with her in Ventana Beach, so she would have someone in her life who loved her, who appreciated her.
According to his mother, Stewart was an ungrateful son. He was ungrateful and unloving and his decision to move to the East Coast had been a slap in the face.
And what had Heike done to deserve such an ornery child? Why should she grow old alone in California and die, leaving her savings to him, when she could adopt one of the cute little girls whose photos she'd seen in the magazines and newsletters and Christmas cards she received from abroad? After everything she had endured in this country wasn't she entitled to a little happiness?
In a matter of weeks, it seemed, Stewart's mother had become obsessed with the dog. Despite—or maybe because of—the fact that he, Banjo, didn’t belong to her. Things like that didn’t matter to Heike: who was the rightful owner of something, of a pet or a piece of property. She had no sense of boundaries or decorum. She liked to be in charge, to exercise control. Over pets, renters, people she came across at Vons or Taco Bell, over her husband, Gerry, over her twenty-four-year-old son, an adult last time he checked.
Heike lived in California; Stewart lived in New York, where he was in grad school, studying oppression and alienation and identity politics. He loved New York, loved sitting in his room overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, listening to the traffic—the sirens and horns—reading until midnight, then going out to the bars. He took the subway downtown.
The Sky and the Night
Published in Joyland, March 2016
The dog’s name was Marydog, named after the woman Ray loved, a dancer from Lubbock, Texas, who he swore was the most graceful creature he’d ever set eyes on. The Airedale was meant to lure the woman, his love, the angelic being he could not live without, back home: to coax her, if not to stay permanently, then at least to visit him for a time. The truth was that over the expanse of months and eventually years during which their romance had developed, he and his love had spent just a few weeks together—her arrivals always sudden, taking Ray by surprise, lifting the heavy fog from his soul until she disappeared again, equally unexpectedly, leaving him heartbroken. Between visits, the woman, Mary Frances Lucero, a descendant, she claimed, of Spanish royalty, called from various payphones—motels by the side of the road, gas stations, truck stops—places that made Ray fear for her well-being.
“I love you,” she said. “I miss you. I want to come home.” This from a train station outside of Sacramento, California. “I’m having a baby, a baby girl.”
It was his child, she said, conceived miraculously during a handful of rapturous nights, nights that still nourished him, the expression miraculously used by her and eventually him, because it was a kind of miracle that a woman who in four weeks would reach her fifty-ninth birthday and a man twelve years older could come together at this time in their lives and make love to the sound of ten thousand crickets lost in the high deserts of New Mexico and thereby create a new life.
Queen of Sheba
Published in Cosmonauts Avenue, October 2015
Al gives me zero. All day long he sits glued to his armchair, drinking glass after glass of V8 juice and making a mess with his crackers. The crumbs end up everywhere—the upholstery and carpet, not to mention the little table he drags in front of the TV. At dinner, he’s tight-lipped. In bed it’s the same. For quite some time, he’s been unable to satisfy me. From the moment we met, he had difficulty in this department. He was not even seventy then. I was just fifty-four. For a woman, especially one who keeps in good shape, this is quite young.
I play violin. I play tennis. I go hiking and skiing. None of this interests him. Finally, for my birthday, I said, “That’s it! I go crazy with you. At least take me on a small trip.” I called up his daughter, Laurie, who has this adorable little Crystal, and invited them along to Las Vegas. “Come on,” I said, “we go to the Circus Circus hotel.”
The summer before I started seventh grade, not long after Patty Hearst was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, my mother married a man who owned a ranch house with a yard full of lemon trees. As far as she was concerned, she’d hit the jackpot. Gerry didn’t drink, he had a job, and, whenever we went out to eat, he always picked up the check. After dating a string of losers, after moving from apartment to apartment at least once a year for nearly a decade, my mother told me—three weeks into her new relationship—that, no matter what, we could not spit on the luck God had given to us. “This chance is once in a lifetime,” she sa
My mother met Gerry on a ski trip organized by Amway. She put the vacation on her credit card and arranged for me to stay with a family that lived down the street. “Bingo,” she announced on the phone, four days after she left. “I met someone perfect. He’s a little tight-lipped and has a tummy, but he’s an accountant, and he owns a condo in Mammoth.” A few months later they got engaged and we moved from Ventana Beach down to L.A.
A Period of Time
Published in Guernica, May 2010
It had been such a small thing, the thing that made them split up, the thing she later cited as the reason she’d left him. At least it had seemed small to him. He’d left the stopper in the bathroom sink plugged—he’d meant to leave it open, but then the phone rang and he went to the living room to answer it. He was only gone a few seconds, but the bathroom sink was shallow, and the water filled up quickly, and soon enough, water had spilled over the side onto the counter and the floor. Some of the water had made its way into the lower cabinet, the drawers with her combs and clippers and toothpaste. He’d mopped up the water quickly, had acted quite efficiently, he’d felt—he’d been proud of how he had handled things. He hadn’t hesitated, as he sometimes did. She’d been at work and he had taken charge.
Wasn’t that always what she’d wanted him to do? Be decisive. Be proactive.
He’d mopped the water up, and then he’d dried the counter. He’d emptied out her drawers and dried each item carefully—with paper towels, just as she would have done.
He’d been meticulous.
Published in Slice, Fall 2009 / Winter 2010 (Nominated for a Pushcart Prize)
All summer long she's used her savings to pay the girl down the street, a high school student, to tutor her. "Even if it is a small thing, please correct me. It is very important that I make not so many grammatical errors." She meets the girl three times a week. Yesterday they were practicing the past perfect tense: On Tuesday Eloise ate baked potatoes, but last week she had eaten nothing but ham.
Occasionally, on mornings when Heike feels more certain, she stops by the bakery and asks the man with the heavy beard whether he has any bread she can feed to the birds at the lake, the mother and her little duckies. Even to him, she calls them her duckies, and he smiles and hands her a loaf. Heike zips Stewart’s coat up to his chin. She ties off the bag of scraps she’s collected and tucks it into her pocket. Today she won’t stop at the baker’s. She turned thirty only recently, but already she feels she has made mistakes that cannot be undone.
House Made of Snow
All evening, Stewart has behaved properly. Of this he is certain. Now it is late though, and night coaxes him into its arms. They are in his father’s car, his mother in the front seat, he in the back, driving to his father’s house in the country, where they will stay until morning.
Soon it will be Christmas, and this is a special occasion. His father invited them to a ballet, a performance with soldiers and swords and sugar plum fairies in flowing white gowns. “Promise me you do your best to be good,” his mother instructed today, as they were getting ready to drive to his father’s house from their apartment in Denver. His father lives at the edge of a forest with towering trees. “If he gives us the check, I buy you the coloring pens you want from the store.” Heike had explained her plan to Stewart painstakingly, going over every detail. She needs his father to give them two thousand dollars so they can buy a new car and drive to California together. Otto, her bug, is too old to travel this great a distance.