© Copyright 2019 by Ruth Ticktin
Her Mom and Dad were rich but unhappy – seemingly oblivious to even notice their status. Dad was a doctor; Mom sold clothes at a boutique. They had a few Mercedes and a few daughters. Clara was daughter number four, the baby, and somehow, she got lost along the way. She wasn’t a great figure skater and didn’t try out for cheerleading. She hid with the dog in her room and read or wrote. She often wondered how she’d ended up in this family. It wasn’t just lack of love she suffered from, but also fatigue from years of yearning for the stars, until her wanderlust took over.
On her last day at home, her heart was beating loudly and so fast she feared it would fly out of her chest. ‘Was it abnormal being so scared and excited at the same time?’ she wondered. Her poor body was flustered. She had let her Mom take control of the packing, which meant that she merely watched. Mom was shipping her off to the big State University – desk, typewriter, electric blankets, and the entire contents of the bathroom medicine cabinet. There was so much stuff it filled a trailer. Clara fantasized capsizing that trailer and showing up at the dorm with just her backpack – that would be true freedom.
“Clara tell me if you remember packing these things.” Mom sat down next to her on the bed, shaking her pencil and displaying her nerve endings flying all around her head and hands at 60 miles an hour.
“Five pairs of wool socks” “Yeah”
“Rain poncho” “Yeah”
“Yeah, don’t read me anymore. I’ve got all I need.” Clara stood up, “If something’s missing I’ll let you know.” She left the room. “I want to leave soon, come on.” She walked downstairs leaving her Mom in the room looking lost with no more babies in her house. Now she’d have to face her husband and her emptiness, Clara thought.
I met Clara when we became roommates at the beginning of college. She told me later that she thought I seemed serious and quiet, like her.
On that first day Clara was thinking ‘It could be worse,’ as she unpacked. It became uncomfortable to arrange all of her piles of stuff when compared to the more barren look on the opposite side of the room, my side.
Clara said to me suddenly. “I refuse to put any more things away.” “Let’s go get something to eat.”
I put down my magazine and smiled, also relieved. We had pizza at the cafeteria which was not my first choice but it was fine. It turns out that Clara had imagined her mother saying: ‘Your roommate could be on scholarship to college, so don’t make her feel awkward about eating out.’ We talked about registration, classes, and the different stories we’d heard about teachers and courses. It turned out that we had one class in common. Neither of us mentioned home or family, it seemed like ancient history to Clara, and she was pleased and relieved to not have to talk about it.
The anthropology class was interesting, especially when Clara daydreamed between the lines. The teachers’ assistant had a heavy Southern accent and was cute. Meanwhile, Clara imagined herself dumped in the middle of Bayan-Ovoo, forced to mingle and get along with the people. That idea was so different from her family’s immigration and efforts at full integration into society. It made for amusing thoughts to Clara.
College was a lot more difficult than she’d expected, so there never was enough time for fantasy. It was full time reading and writing, listening and concentrating. For the first time she even dreamed about schoolwork.
One morning Clara woke up sweating from a dream – she was on horseback battling with Genghis Khan leading the way. He was smashing what looked like the Great Wall and conquering land in a flurried fury. Dogs and cats were lying slain on the ground next to smashed houses and skulls. Besides feeling so creepy when she opened her eyes, Clara was also quite confused.
On the way down to breakfast, after hearing Clara’s dream, I laughed and said:
“When I come back to live on this earth again, I hope it won’t be to live in this country.”
“Whoa, you’re making a lot of quick assumptions there,” Clara said, startled.
“Yeah well, it’s so hard to get ahead here and make enough money to be respected.” I looked up to see if Clara understood and unsure, I shrugged my shoulders and continued. “And the reincarnation bit, well, I think that’s just a way of saying it.”
“I like that way of saying it,” Clara responded right away, “It works for me cuz I’m always thinking of being somewhere different or being someone else.”
The following week a personalized essay was due in anthropology class and Clara was totally stuck. First, she wondered, what kind of essay is not personalized and secondly what was ‘societal infiltration’ and what did it have to do with her?
On Sunday morning, she refused to get out of the shower. It was clearly her only time alone, her time to pretend, where no one else could see.
Unfortunately, I had to snap her out of her reverie with a yell,
“Your Mom’s on the phone.”
“Oh damn, tell her I’ll call back. No… wait a minute, tell her to hold on.”
Clara turned off the water and quickly grabbed a towel, following me to the room. She heard me say on the phone: “She’ll be with you in a moment.” Clara grabbed the phone and hit the hold button.
“Listen,” she said to me, breathless and excited, “You pretend to be me on the phone OK?”
“Can’t she hear us?” I was confused.
“No, it’s on hold. Here, take this Kleenex to cover the receiver and tell her you have a cold.” Clara got a pad and pen and gave it to me. “You can write down what she says, and I’ll tell you what to say, or just improvise, you know, fake it.”
“But why?” For some reason I was whispering.
“C’mon it’ll be so funny.”
“OK.” I picked up the phone, pushed hold and said, “Hi Mom,” ...
Her mom went on to reprimand her daughter, but I was hardly listening. I was just concerned with watching Clara.
“Oh, I was just in the shower.” I tried to sound really cheery and take cues from Clara who was laughing. I certainly didn’t sound one bit like this woman’s daughter, but Clara seemed certain that I could pull off this acting gig.
“I have a bit of a cold that’s all.” I was saying nasally. There were several “ah ha’s,” “yeah’s” “really’s,” on my part, before Clara grabbed the pen, agitated.
‘What’s she talking about?’ She scribbled on the pad.
I shrugged my shoulders, raised my eyebrows, and trying not to show emotion on my face, took the pen that was forced into my hands and wrote back:
‘Saw Randy … loves Vassar … new chairs…’ But then I realized that I was being asked a question on the phone to which I needed to respond.
“Good” “… No, not at all.” I managed to say to Clara’s mom on the phone, my voice breaking up a little more than I would have liked. I opened my eyes wide, shook my head and still not looking at Clara I wrote on the notepad:
‘She asked: how’s your roommate and is she BOTHERING you.’
‘Tell her you got to go.’ Clara scribbled and added: ‘I’m sorry.’
Finally: “OK” “Bye.” I hung up the phone and attempted not to appear stunned.
“I’m so embarrassed.” Clara was blabbering, “That lady is just plain out of her mind. Forgive me. Somehow, I don't know, I thought it would just be funny.”
“It was sort of.” I paused, “She didn’t say ‘I love you.’ Damn, my mother says that at least every night. I thought I was sick of it.” I don't know why the hell I said that, Clara was distraught and I wasn't helping, so I bumbled along:
“You know I really think your mother means well, she just says it, you know, in her own way.”
Clara crumpled the paper with the notes and threw it in the garbage.
“Well, there you go, now you’ve had a taste of cold money,” she said, sitting next to the trash. “I wish I could just stay hidden, from them, and all of their baggage.”
Suddenly Clara was hit by a freezing gust of cold air and her teeth chattered. She threw on socks and a robe, and ran back into the bathroom to blow dry her hair. The warm air made her sigh deeply and breathe again.
I, meanwhile, went back to writing my anthropology essay on societal infiltration. I wrote about attempts to influence African society against female genital mutilation. Another classmate was working on the social taboos of breast-feeding older children.
After a few days, Clara was still blocked. She wrote ‘On Becoming a Swami’ in her notebook. But the thought went no further. Then ‘out of the blue’ she began writing about an Indigenous tribe that slept in family circles. The family would lay down with their feet towards the middle and their bodies splayed out like spokes of a wheel. When they awoke, each person would immediately recount their dreams to everyone else.
‘This custom was impenetrable and steadfast,’ she wrote. ‘I wandered over to them and told them I was cold. They wrapped me up like a baby in a blanket – one corner crossed to the shoulder, one over the other shoulder and the end folded up from my feet to my belly, until I was a cocoon. I curled up, fell sound asleep, and awoke to find the whole tribe sitting up next to me and across from me in the circle. They were staring at me – the newest spoke in the wheel. They asked me what I had dreamt. I told them I forgot. They told me I had to live with them for a very long time and I had to stay quite warm, always, and then, very soon, I would be able to remember my dreams every day.’
That time, I would like to think of, as the era when we became sure of who we were. I know that Clara began to sense that she was on the road to finding roots and identifying family. Some family members were her Southern European parents (or their great-grandparents) before they became what she called ‘nouveau-riche’ and ‘wanna-be.’ Some family became all of our peers; here, now, and in the future, thrown together to figure out the bonds of friendships and communal living. Some families were historical or fictional people who would always be present, informing us about identity, belief, how to live a true life, and how to truly and mindfully live.
As an experienced adult educator teaching English language skills and creative writing, Ruth encourages sharing stories. She has coordinated, advised, and taught in Washington DC area programs since 1977. Raised in Madison and Chicago, graduate of University of Wisconsin, publications include: What's Ahead? Transitioning from Adult Education to Career (ProLingua Assoc. 2013) Integrate Skills (DC.TESOL 2016)
Taking In (www.englishclub.com/efl/tefl-articles/taking-in/) (12-17)
When in High School (RCC Muse Literary Journal) (Spring 2018)
Brief Journey (https://issuu.com/niveousmagazine/docs/edition_1) (9-18)
Palma (https://bendinggenres.com/2019/02/08/donde-crece-la-palma/) (2-19)
While Walking (Genre Urban Arts. Print-No-7) (4-19)
to Washington DC (Thin Air Magazine) (8-19)