The ritual of Domino Night began the summer after we immigrated to the United States. On warm, dry Friday evenings, after we ate dinner, Mama and Papa collapsed the card table and a folding chair from our kitchen, then Papa hefted them the entire half-mile down the tenement-lined sidewalk to where Broad and Union Streets converged, ending in the emerald triangle called Salem Park.
Once there, Papa plunked his table and chair among the labyrinth of other players—all Russian-Jewish Papas and Grandpapas—and commenced doing battle. The United States and the Soviet Union were waging their own war in the eighties, each threatening to nuke the other into extinction. Speaking Russian within earshot of American passersby was asking for trouble. Too ashamed of their broken English, the players spoke to each other through the slide and click of their moving tiles.
When I wasn’t off trapping fireflies in old jam jars, I was hiding behind the bushes on the northern angle of the park, which pointed towards Manhattan, secretly practicing my English curses with a tribe of equally naughty grade school kids. Or, I was hanging with Mama on the southern angle, which pointed towards home, my presence shielding her from heckling in-laws. Or, I was standing beside Papa, watching him play, a distraction he would allow only while winning.
Today I know that Domino nights were a proving ground for Papa’s much later conquests—like wealth and corporate celebrity—personal victories that, according to Papa’s polemic, upheld the American Dream as something available to all who were willing to work hard and sacrifice. In between moves, he used to sit in utter stillness on Domino nights to consider his hand, bony elbows propped on bony knees. A still life of sinewy limbs folded in on each other, poised to capture a hundred black dots, like a young mantis seconds before pouncing on a colony of beetles.
Meanwhile, Mama and I waited—often in corners of hedgerows, often until midnight—for it to end. Once it did, Papa hefted my small, sleepy body onto his shoulder, carrying me back along the concrete path lined with tenements, my head bobbing beneath his chin, the sounds of motors and the threat of epithets muted by the nighttime sigh of a city that was, for the moment, too tired. The world silenced by my ear pressed against his heart.
To make room for me, Papa left the card table and folding chair behind, to be delivered later by one of his opponents—a tacit consequence for losing.
Tali Perch earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys writing about parenting, feminism, cultural anthropology, and her childhood as a Soviet-Jewish refugee. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Under The Gum Tree, The Colorado Review, Longreads, Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. Tali’s essay “Records on Bone” (2019) was nominated by The Colorado Review for a Pushcart Prize. Currently, Tali is working on a memoir about the challenges of assimilating into American culture as a soviet-Jewish émigré during the Cold War.
I have no photographs from that time. Perhaps even then I knew it was a relationship I didn’t want to chronicle.
But there are memories nonetheless. In my mind’s eye there is a picture of you with your guitar, the blond Les Paul, the one with a hairline crack in the neck. I am so sure that I did not make that crack. That was all you.
You’d stand in the dining room, in the apartment when we still had furniture. You paced as you played. “Noodling,” you called it. I didn’t think, “When is he ever going to get a job?” Not then.
In this memory you are standing over the stove. You had learned how to make stir fry from a cookbook.
“The hot oil is what cooks the food,” you said.
And it seems like a miracle. We now know how to make something other than tuna fish and hot dogs. You were so proud of yourself.
“You chop zucchini too slowly,” you said.
And I thought, is that a thing? Being a slow chopper? Then I thought, this is how I will remember this relationship: you criticizing the speed with which I cut vegetables, totally ignoring how perfectly even each zucchini slice is. I could win a contest for how evenly sliced my vegetables are.
I don’t remember how you cut vegetables. All I remember is how you cut the limes for the tequila shots, sawing each fruit in to wedges with a dull steak knife, probably taken from the drawers of our parents’ kitchens as we were leaving home.
You always arranged the limes with ceremony. You’d put them on a plate, your favorite plate, the one with the mustard yellow swirls on the edges. The one I threw against the wall, missing your head, not because you ducked, but because I had bad aim, after we’d eaten all the limes and drunk all the tequila.
I’m not sorry I broke your favorite plate.
Janine Kovac is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing workshops and curates literary events. Her memoir Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home was a semifinalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize and the memoir winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Awards. An alumna of Hedgebrook and the Community of Writers, Janine was the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship. Her current project is a collection of essays about a family of five that dances in the Nutcracker.
I headed toward Central Park West and 75th Street after leaving Dr. Zimmermann’s office. As usual, I pretended my mood was improved in order to avoid prolonging any conversation about adjusting my antidepressants. But honestly my mood wasn’t all that bad. It was my favorite kind of fall day: the wind gusted fitfully, and it was just cool enough for a light jacket. I like to cover up as much as possible. With nowhere to go immediately and a long, lonely train ride ahead of me back to my lonely apartment in Poughkeepsie, I decided to idle along the park side of the street. As I crossed 75th, I sensed someone looking at me. Waiting at the light, a dramatically handsome man—wavy blond hair, early forties, square shoulders, soap opera good looks—smiled at me as if I was his long-lost best friend. Propped on his bicycle seat, he hunched forward slightly, right foot on the sidewalk to steady himself. He wore a flannel shirt over a white tee and faded jeans, and, like me, seemed in no rush to get anywhere. Or maybe he was just that kind of confident person who gives the impression of being exactly where he needs to be at all times. He smiled even more broadly, perhaps amused by my obvious shyness and the confusion on my face. It was an unexpected flirtation. A rare flirtation for someone like me.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day?” he asked.
Disarmed by the easy intimacy of his warmth, I returned his smile in my own timorous way. Just at that moment another cyclist nearly ran me down, screaming as he passed, “Get out of the way, FAT ASS!”
I was so startled I barely knew what was happening. I turned and saw the second cyclist riding away, decked out in his expensive jersey, cycling shorts and shoes, and an aerodynamic helmet. Slowing down only momentarily, he glanced back as my beautiful friend screamed after him: “He has the light, asshole!”
For a moment I stood frozen in the street, shamed and a bit disoriented. All I could think was “…but I had the light.” Strangely, I didn’t feel even a little angry. I dropped my head to avoid eye contact with my soap opera hero and continued on my way. We exchanged no more words. Certainly, I’ve known greater injuries. Of course I have. Yet frequently I find myself compelled to reopen this lesser wound, reckoning with the abjection of that lovely fall day. Maybe it is the strange and disorienting coincidence of kindness and cruelty knotted inside of me. The arrested moment of an entirely unexpected intimacy and a very public abasement
Hiram Perez teaches in the English Department at Vassar College, where he also directs the Women’s Studies Program. Presently on a hiatus from academic prose, he is at work on a memoir that contemplates the relationships between racial embodiment, sexuality, and shame. His first book, A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire (NYU Press), was awarded the Lambda Literary prize (or “Lammy”) for LGBT Studies in 2016. He has published essays in a variety of journals, including Social Text, Camera Obscura, The Margins, and Scholar & Feminist Online.
When I was ten years old, my grandmother and caretaker took her life in my childhood home. I am now sixty-six years old, five years older than she was when she died. I realize what a pivotal experience that was for me.
For years, I’ve been studying the reason people take their lives. I learned a lot by reading her retrospective journal and while writing my book, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal. I’ve also been thinking about the role of women for the past 100 years. My mother told me that my grandmother took her life because she was depressed and didn’t feel she had anything to live for, as I became more independent. She had no personal passion. Thankfully, I feel different, as my children and grandchildren need me in another way and my writing is thriving. Times were also different for my grandmother, who was orphaned during World War I. There were fewer opportunities then.
Recently, I’ve reread Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book, Goddesses in Everywoman which reminded me of the power of women to initiate change and transformation. After all, my name, Diana is after the Roman Goddess of the Hunt, which resonates with the way I lead my life, as a seeker and a hunter. I’ve also always experienced a theme of loss of love, which Bolen says is a common theme in many heroine myths.
She explains that most women define themselves by their relationships rather than their accomplishments. Women’s identities are very closely tied to their relationships, so when a loved one dies, we suffer twice—loss of the relationship and a loss of an identity.
According to Bolen, we may be different goddesses during different times in our lives. The goddess archetypes are deep desires that vary from woman to woman, providing autonomy, creativity, power, intellectual change, spirituality, sexuality and/or relationships. She identifies seven complex archetypes within each woman which can be called upon at various times during our lives. These can be used to describe certain personality patterns or characteristics.
On a more personal level, I can say that I am a creative and sensual person, the goddess I most identify with is Aphrodite, which is characterized by heightened energy, stimulating thoughts and feelings. At other times in my life, such as after graduating university, I felt like the goddess Athena, focusing on career enhancement. After marriage, I became Hera, who puts marriage first.
While we might be different goddesses during different stages in our lives, there’s usually one goddess that is the most prominent. Understanding this provides a container for our sentiments. It’s okay to be who we want to be when we need to be. Currently, I’m in the wise woman stage.
According to Carol Pearson in her book Awakening the Heroes Within, archetypes or inner guides, help us on our journey. Whichever archetype is prominent at a given time brings with it a task, a lesson and a gift. Overall, they teach us how to live and behave. It’s powerful knowing and believing in our archetypes as we navigate this life journey. One thing I can say for sure is unlike my grandmother, I am not ready for my life to end yet. I have so many more stories to share with the universe.
Bolen, J. S. (1984). Goddesses in Everywoman. Harper: New York: NY.
Madison, P. (2011). Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty or Becoming a Juicy Crone.” Psychology Today.
Pearson, C. S. (1991). Awakening the Heroes Within. Harper: San Francisco, CA.
Diana Raab, PhD, is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and author of 10 books and is a contributor to numerous journals and anthologies. She’s also editor of two anthologies, “Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency,” and “Writers and Their Notebooks.” Raab’s two memoirs are “Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal,” and “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.” She blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, Sixty and Me, Good Men Project, and Wisdom Daily and is a frequent guest blogger for various other sites. Her two latest books are, “Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life,” and “Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal.” Visit: www.dianaraab.com.
Rummaging through old family photos with the burden of displaying my mother’s life at the wake, (with the purpose, it seems, to prove the dead did not always look as they do in the coffin, polished and waxy, lips unnaturally taut), I am arrested by a sepia-tinted photo of a young girl looking out at me with a faint smile as if she could already see all the irony. I cannot cry for the difficult woman she would become, but I cry for this young girl in a sturdy wool jacket, a barrette pinning her blond hair to one side, her face, pure light like the girl with the pearl earring or Anne Frank in the attic or Mona Lisa—before the world happened to her. Before her father gave away a beloved, three-legged dog she nursed back to health, or refused to keep the piano left behind in their new house. Before worry. Before she learned her mother’s depression. Long before her spine refused to support her. Before she would ask God what she was being punished for. I cry for this girl who smiles softly at me, claiming some small peace in a big and blistering world.
After a death
it occurs to me that I need to take a hard look at myself, a sort of accounting. It occurs to me that I am easily distracted by a drop of water making its way down the pane, that I take everything too seriously or not seriously enough. It occurs to me that I feel guilty because I’m wasting time when every good minute should be spent writing or baking pies or sorting piles of mail. It occurs to me that something is very wrong with that. It occurs to me that I need to be a better person, that my students should be more vocal, that I lack some cool approach. And I really hope my husband knows I love him because I am trying to be a real person in a world where I find myself lacking every day. It occurs to me that I believed I would be a new, truer kind of woman after my mother died, with this new life stretching out across a prairie of waving grasses and endless sky. Instead I am the heroine in a black and white foreign movie where I get up every morning and make the coffee and take the turns through the day and go to bed where the nights are so long and I have to meet my sleepless self and I don’t know where to put her or what to do about her.
Raphael Kosek’s poems have appeared in such venues as Poetry East, Catamaran, and Briar Cliff Review. Her latest chapbook, ROUGH GRACE won the 2014 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize. Her lyric essays won first prize at Bacopa Review (2017) and Eastern Iowa Review (2016). She won the Bacopa Review’s 2019 poetry contest (Pushcart Prize nominee). Her full-length poetry book, AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY, was recently released by Brick Road Poetry Press and Garrison Keilor has chosen two poems from it for The Writer’s Almanac. She teaches English at Marist College and Dutchess Community College where her students keep her real. She is the 2019-2020 Dutchess County NY Poet Laureate. Find her at www.raphaelkosek.com
September 2, 2003. The phone rings and my sister says, “You’d better come now.” Sound like a line from a sentimental movie? Not one my family ever starred in. Not one in which I’d have chosen even a minor role.
My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous year. A life-time smoker, she would not survive the thirteen months of poisonous treatments. No doubt that, coupled with fifty some years of epileptic seizures and the panoply of required drugs she swallowed, made her no candidate for long life. Ever the palm-reader, she predicted an early death. 70 is not bad, right?
To come now means a willingness to sit with my mother as she dies. Because I hate flying, because too abrupt, too jarring, because I no longer fly home, I decide to drive from Wyoming where I have lived since 1983. Thirteen and a half hours to Seattle will give me enough time to grieve and be pissed off at my mother. Thirteen and a half hours—getting up before the sun, heading over the pass above a valley I now call home—will keep me wary, guarded. At that time of day, wildlife cross the road before you can stop: the porcupine or mule deer, a roost-bound owl or chipmunk, suddenly crushed in my mad rush to be there now.
When I am in a hurry to get to Washington, I drive south to I-84. For a time, this route follows the Snake River toward its confluence with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities where my family lived in the early 1960s. It seems natural that I again live close to the Snake, close to the continent’s headwaters.
When I am in a hurry, I shouldn’t stop, but do: to take photos. Near Craters of the Moon a strange gold light seeps under the clouds and across the green dawn’s sage. Outside Hill City, Idaho, towers of cumulus stretch into the blue zenith. How can I not stop.
Soon the Snake will veer abruptly northward through Idaho toward Lewiston before turning westward again, and so I leave that drainage to cross the high desert country of Oregon, through Baker City, and eventually bridge the subdued Columbia at Umatilla.
When I have more time, I hug the Washington river bank before heading north through the Horse Heaven Hills, drawn to the undulating earth, picturing horses with their manes and tails lifted, racing the wind. But there are no wild horses and the only now that means anything: my mother’s last breath.
There is never a question about not going now, though I have a full-time job as a bookkeeper. My mother will die three days later, after midnight on September 6, at home, with me stretched out beside her, my sister’s best friend pressed to her other side. Both of us whispering over her body that takes her away—one soft breath at a time.
Connie Wieneke’s poetry and prose has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in Talking River Review, Camas, Split Rock Review, Pilgrimage, Stand, as well as anthologies. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and received two fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council. Since 1983 she has lived in Wyoming, where she has worn various hats.