This is Summer: Season Five {Episode 2}

Then: green rolling grass

Now: red light, stop light, city

Driving days apart

{Iowa}

~Natalia

This is Summer: Season Five {Episode 1}


A stock car racetrack 

Prayer before the engines roared

Small town ‘Merica

{Boone, IA} 

~Natalia

A Bottle of Water

There are hundreds- thousands- just like him.

Standing in intersections, sometimes holding a cardboard sign, sometimes not.

Red light, they walk the yellow-lined aisle between cars.

Wordless, usually.

I don’t have a rule, a standard, a constant choice.

Sometimes, music still playing, brake lights glowing, I roll the window down.

Extend a hand.

Extend support.

Extend what I have.

Sometimes I don’t.

It’s Sunday afternoon, pleasant but not quite warm.

I’ve never seen him before.

But it’s usually late, far beyond sundown, when I idle this intersection.

I see him, signless, standing there three cars ahead.

In a moment, I swipe an arm behind my seat, pull a water bottle from the case.

Give water, I read somewhere once, they’ve no place to go for just water.

I roll the window down more, my hand holding the bottle forward, towards him.

It’s a race then, between his staggering limp and the impending green.

But I’d wait.

He arrives, takes the water.

I glance up at him, where he stands so near my car.

Thank you for your kindness.

His accent is heavy, surprisingly Middle Eastern.

I don’t have any cash, I say. My voice comes out flat.

Was I trying to apologize? Explain?

But at least you gave something, he says as the light turns green.

I accelerate, slowly. Roll through the odd, y-shaped intersection.

His words ring in my ears. Humbling.

At least I gave something.

Comfort and kindness, encouragement from the man in the street.

And all I gave was a bottle of water.

~Natalia

 

That’s Nothing

We made the cake the night before.

1am driving home from bonfire conversations under the stars, my phone buzzes in my lap.

Where are you? Tam asks, hinting at the hours I know she’s already spent cleaning the house, amidst putting the three little sisters to bed.

On my way, I tell her. What do we need to do? 

And then we’re standing in the kitchen with the lights on low, casting short yellow shadows over the neat piles, the wiped counter. The day’s long hours etched on his face, he leans against the dishwasher while I mix cookie batter, eggs.

He pours the milk while I stir. Tam cleans the office while, down the hall, the rest of the family sleeps.

The clock ticking towards 2am, I unload the dishwasher while Tam sweeps. The scent of vanilla cake wafting from the oven mingles with the bonfire smoke still in my hair, and his sweater, and the dish-soap steam rising from the dishwasher.

Slowly, as if already in a dream, we finish the tasks, say goodnight, close doors on a long, working, waiting Saturday.

The next day, we’ve more than an hour between arriving home from church and the first buzz of the front door.

We’re three in the kitchen then; Tam and I and El Papa, too, rotating around one another, taking a turn at the sink, at the stove, at the fridge.

In the front room, three little girls step barefoot across the freshly-vacuumed carpet. The two youngest have arranged their egg hunt candy in piles, sorting foil-wrapped chocolate and off-brand jelly beans into rows and aisles.

The potatoes I made yesterday, two hours of peeling, cooking, layering, sit covered in the basement fridge. The cake is there, too; both spuds and dessert tucked into shelves already heavy-laden with a building’s worth of surplus food, drinks, groceries.

The kitchen counter empties, briefly. Papers, trinkets, plastic cups from the play kitchen filled with hair ties and assorted coins are swept off the speckled surface, leaving it unfamiliarly bare. Then, slowly, the space fills once more.

On one end, stacks of plates. Butter dishes. Salad bowl. On the other end, vases hold nearly every fork I can conjure from the cabinets, a napkin-lined basket awaits the rolls, who in turn await their time in the oven.

I swirl between kitchen and hall, move in quick, light steps through dining room, living room. Grab a dish, meet a guest. Check my phone, tidy a corner. The buzzer rings once, then again and again as the clock ticks towards 2pm, and with every buzz, the hum of conversation, of memory and story, of did you hear and do you remember grows yet stronger.

The bacon-wrapped dates, a dish we’ve anticipated since the morning, arrive, tucked safely under an arm and an umbrella. The press in the kitchen is tight then; our tummy-sucking, arms up, slide sideways rotating around one another grinding to a halt in the wake of the delectable appetizer.

It takes five minutes for each date, encased in crispy, dripping bacon, to be pried from the pan, set out on the largest serving tray that Tam can find. Five minutes and nearly 20 of them have been consumed, even before the tray leaves the kitchen.

There’s a list on the fridge. Dry erase-written sum of the dishes to be served. I’m standing there in front of the fridge, erasing things accomplished, when Tam leans over to check the ham, one hand pulling the oven door open, the other reaching into its heated center, meat thermometer extended.

Amidst the sound and the movement, there’s a moment’s pause. I watch her brow furrow, follow her eyes as they dart to the oven dial, then meet her wide eyed gaze as she darts to turn the dial, cranking it higher. The list and the ingredients, the cheese tray and the hummus bowl; it’s all there, it’s all served and ready, and we’re here in the packed kitchen with a ham that’s not been cooking properly.

What’s wrong? Someone asks, stopping short on her way through the kitchen, her eyes catching our own in that one, anxious instant. Nothing, we laugh, smirking at each other as she steps over the threshold, down the hallway.

And really, it is nothing. More than twenty guests, sitting in huddles throughout the living room, leaning into the conversation, heads and shoulders thrown back to laugh: that’s something. A kitchen counter laden with food, and standing against the counter, watching athletes and grad students heap their plates, returning once, twice for another plate: that’s something. Standing around the dining table, swapping corny jokes and puns long after the meal has been finished: that’s something. Collecting dishes, arranging and rearranging stacks to be washed with the helpful hands of a kind cleanup volunteer: that’s something. Sitting together, a family of seven so rarely in one place at one time, on the couch after all have left, clinging to the moments of wholeness: that’s something.

But a ham that needed another 30 minutes in the oven? That’s nothing.

~Natalia

Would You Miss Me?

Miss Shull. Would you miss me if I was not in your class? 

We’re swinging. Side by side in the back of the school yard.

It’s been weeks since I let them out here. Weeks of mud. Snow. Cold.

But it’s not quite so cold, the mud is tolerable, and in these after-lunch moments, we’re outside.

I’m watching the jungle gym. Eyes fixed on the ten pre-teens scrambling over the bars, across the bridge, down the slide.

They’re playing lava, and I’m watching, waiting for disagreements to arise.

I don’t hesitate to answer her, though.

Of course I would! I exclaim, my voice heavy with the absurdity of her question.

What would be different if I wasn’t here? She asks as our swings take turns advancing, retreating over the muddy mulch.

This, the child who cried this morning, hunched over a half-done math page.

Are you crying because you’re at the back table, or because you got in trouble? I had asked, leaning low across her work, speaking in quiet tones under the low rumble of a classroom on a Monday morning.

She shook her head then, tears falling afresh.

It’s rare, in that third floor room, for tears to appear.

Are you crying about your math? I used the pencil I’d taken from her hand to tap the page in front of her.

Tears.

Now, we’re side by side on the swings, and upstairs, the math’s complete, but no one really cares.

Instead, I tell her all the reasons I thank the Lord for her presence in that class. She knows many of them, has heard me pray them over her many mornings since September.

She’s quiet barely a moment when I finish speaking. She’s rarely, so rarely quiet.

You’re like the best teacher ever, she says as her feet kick into the air in front of her.

I laugh, looking over to where she’s holding the chains of her swing, eyes flicking to my face for just a moment.

You just have so much joy. Like, it’s crazy. All the time you do. 

I shake my head, grinning. Thank you, I laugh. That’s the Lord. 

And we swing again. Tandem movements, peaceful silence.

And it was not until just now, these quiet evening moments when I mentally prepare myself for another day on my toes, another day on the front lines of education, that I realize what she was saying, really.

She’s saying that it’s worth it.

Worth it when I raise my voice for what seems like the majority of the day.

Worth it when the student arguments are endless, and the parent emails even longer.

Worth it when the stress nauseates me, and another day seems like a lifetime.

Worth it because she can see, and she knows, and somehow- miraculously, wonderfully, somehow- she can see God right through me.

And for that, I could do this 100 years over.

~Natalia

The Valentine’s Gig

The bar is half full when we arrive; pushing through the door, trading the Chicago streets and swirling snow for the pounding swing of live jazz music. We move slowly, almost aimlessly, towards the cluster of small round tables just beyond the band. There’s a pause as we glance at one another, eyes vaguely questioning, before sitting down.

We’re barely seated when the band takes a break. They’re an hour on, thirty minutes off, and here in this thirty minutes, we’re greeting old friends, shaking hands all around, grinning nice to meet yous to acquaintances just made.

There’s a door in the wall behind us; the kind of half-door they have in church nurseries, with a menu fastened to the top half. We stand in the gap, scanning menu items, pondering between catfish, perch, wings, nuggets. The pizza puff, we’re told, is amazing, and I order one, standing there in that half-open door.

The food comes with three minutes left in the band’s break. Paper baskets of fries, fish, chicken, with little containers of homemade barbecue sauce, fill the tiny table in front of us. I’m hungry, and curious, and the pizza puff burns my tongue; the price of not waiting for the rest of the table to be served. The drummer, the bass player- the reasons we’re here, really- rush a bite or two before returning to their instruments, their own pizza puffs emitting steam from where they’ve been bitten.

The band’s leader, a man named Greg, grabs the microphone. We sit at our table, munch our fries, while Greg’s easy manner as an entertainer fills the darkened bar. He introduces the band again; the same titles, intonations we heard 30 minutes prior. He invites a guest musician- a bright-eyed woman holding a flute- to join the group on the stand, and stand catches my ear, because it’s not a stage, but the wooden floor, the border lines of black amp cords delineate the stand as their own place- the place where music is born.

The bar fills slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the next set unfolds. The opening ceremony for the All Star game plays soundlessly on the two TVs over the bar itself, and a small ring of men has formed there. Their eyes flick to the screens occasionally, but it’s their conversations that grip them; swapping words, nods, stories, over the drinks they grasp in crossed arms.

There are two couples at the bar, their backs to one another. One woman, the outline of her black sweater almost fading into the dark behind her, gazes calmly around her, her eyes most often falling on the screen beyond her man’s head. He faces her, his hands resting on her lap, and she holds them, gentle fingers curled into his. I can’t hear their voices over the roll of the band, but I watch her look at him, listen to him, nod, speak.

Behind her, another man sits at the bar with his love. Unlike the other’s crew cut, this man has long hair twisted into locs and pulled back, away from his face. His shirt is bright red, like the woman’s beside him, and holes that have the distressed look of intentionality fill both their jeans. They must speak, I know, but I don’t catch the movement of their mouths, or the flick of recognition in their eyes. Instead, this couple moves. Seated atop her bar stool, the woman swings her shoulders to the beat of the jazz, her movements sultry, loose. He moves, too, his hands swaying, beating the air in front of him with the same easy drive.

Beyond both couples, the bar has filled as night falls with the snow outside. Men drinking beer, watching the game above. Couples out for Valentine’s Day, leaning into one another over drinks, across the tiny clothed tables. Women in red, hair neatly coiffed, out with friends, sisters, aunts. The light is dim, yet not threateningly dark, and the music rises, consumes, but never overwhelms.

Later, I step into the bathroom only to be accosted by the shouts of an angry woman. She’s in the far stall, screaming into a phone at a man I can only assume to be her boyfriend.

Later still, the band stand empties and I stomp snow off my boots outside, haphazardly brushing snow off the drummer’s car while he loads a waist-high stack of equipment into the trunk.

Not much later, he pulls the car onto the snowy street, leaving the bar- with its dancing, laughing, shouting, listening, arguing, loving people- far behind.

~Natalia

 

One Minute

Pajamas on.
Hair flying.

Coat flapping, unzipped.

Boots pounding, echoing down the deserted street.

Footprints disappearing in the falling snow.

Wallet forgotten, find it back in the car.

Less than a minute, from front door and back again.

Sixty seconds of time suspended.

Floating, flying, through the crisp chill.

Snowy night, dark street.

Completely alone.

For one still, heart-racing minute.

~Natalia

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