imperfect lives

Once a month, like a dutiful sister, Tania visited Karmen at her cluttered apartment above a boarded-up lighting store in Pittsburgh’s West End Village. She found her sister sunk into the living room sofa watching Home Shopping Network with a glass of straight bourbon on the table beside her.  The smell of dust, yellowed newspapers and dried flowers was suffocating, and the weight of all that accumulated stuff seemed to diminish the already wispy Karmen.  Tania worried her older sister would eventually be squashed under the burden of daily life.

Karmen, wearing a gray sweatshirt that said BEST. AUNT. EVER. muttered a half-hearted hello and mentioned that Luka had called to see if he could stay with her. Of course, she had no space amidst the piles of magazines, stuffed animals, yard ornaments, tattered romance novels, and unopened bills to put anyone up. “Why is he looking for a place to stay?”

“Because his apartment lease ran its course. He never paid a freaking cent on it. You know, I had to pay his rent all six months since I foolishly co-signed. I refused to extend the lease, even if meant he’d be homeless.” She sighed. “He’s never given up his dislike for work.”

“Who likes work? Nobody, that’s who,” said Tania’s sister.

Karmen, once a copywriter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had lost her job two years back for coming to work drunk. She had such a gift with words, Tania had believed her sister would become a top reporter, but she’d never put forth the effort to advance in her career. And then, after she was discarded by Gerald, her married lover of eight years, her drinking and hoarding expanded to unmanageable proportions.

Once she was fired, she took on a job digging up and moving plants at Phipps Conservatory. She had managed to hold on to the job, but Tania had no idea how she kept her drinking a secret.

Tania sat amidst the disorder and listened to Karmen marvel about the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures at the Phipps, and the new Cuba exhibit and the desert room, which Karmen liked for its prickly residents.

“What else did Luka say?” Tania feigned nonchalance.

“He was gonna get on a plane to Costa Rica. He wants to connect with the land.”

Tania didn’t even want to imagine where her twenty-year-old son got money for a plane ticket. His leaving the country partially explained the boxes Luka had left in Tania’s Washington garage in the middle of last Wednesday night while she was asleep. “What did you tell him?”

“That it was a great idea.”

Karmen was as disconnected from reality as Luka. Tania had tried to give Luka every opportunity in life, but he refused to do anything she suggested, including going to college. He wanted to start his own business designing edible landscapes but had abandoned the project when business didn’t materialize as he had hoped. Full of get-rich-quick schemes and idealism, he didn’t have the patience to wait for things to develop like most things did in life, in a methodical fashion.

She told Karmen she was going to have to cut back her visits because the Postal Museum, where she worked in Washington, wanted her to work more weekend hours. Her two days off per week would now be Tuesdays and Fridays, making it impossible to make the four-hour drive to Pittsburgh. She actually had no change in her schedule but thought she’d like to spend time lingering over her stamp collection and doing yoga instead of focusing her energies on people who didn’t want to be fixed. She felt guilty lying, but she knew she needed to detach from her sister.

Later in the afternoon, Tania made her escape by telling Karmen she had plans to meet her old college gang from University of Pittsburgh for dinner. She left $200 on her sister’s kitchen counter on the way out the door, swearing to herself it would be the last money she’d give her sister. As she drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel toward the city, she thought of the movie, Perks of Being a Wallflower, where Charlie’s friend Sam stands up through the sunroof of the car. Though Tania would love to let loose in such a wild way, she knew she could never be so carefree.

She was careful and caring, at least that how she thought of herself. After all, she was surrounded by alcoholics and addicts of one kind or another, from her sister to her son. She had always appointed herself to take care of them, but lately she’d been attending Al-Anon meetings, for families of alcoholics, and had learned that her helpful fixing wasn’t beneficial to them, or to her.

She parked her Chevy Volt near the University of Pittsburgh and wandered with nostalgia through “Cathy,” the Cathedral of Learning. She dropped into her favorite of the Nationality Rooms, the Yugoslav Room, where once she had fallen in love with Art History and with her professor Grady, who eventually became her husband and Luka’s father. Luckily no classes were being held in the room, and she sat in one of the student chairs and ran her fingers along the inside edge of the hand-carved Slavonic heart on the chair-back in front of her. It was smooth from nearly 80 years of students sitting and being lectured on various subjects. She remembered her father, long before he was killed in the war in 1991, “notch-carving” such designs with his penknife.  She studied the double-headed eagle that symbolized the religious influences of Byzantium and the Western Roman Empire and thought of how the clash of those influences had torn her country apart.

She got up to leave but first ran her fingers along the bronze sculpture of “Post-War Motherhood” — a barefoot mother nursing her child whom she has protected during the long months of war — and remembered how her mother did just that, protecting her and Karmen long after they were children, when they were young women, by finding a way for them to leave Zagreb and immigrate to Pittsburgh a year after the war started and after Tania’s father and her fiancé Josif had both been killed. Tania made the sign of the cross in front of the lace panel of Madonna of Brežje and prayed for peace of mind and for the Virgin to take care of her son and her sister. She knew she could no longer do it.

It was almost 7 p.m by the time she arrived at Fuel & Fuddle to meet her friends. They were already gathered at a table nursing craft beers. A waitress wearing an aqua-jeweled nose ring, mismatched dangly earrings and a “Feminist Killjoy” necklace, took Tania’s order. Aaron asked the waitress about the necklace and she shrugged, “I guess because I’m a feminist, I’m a killjoy.”

Tania ordered a Hitchhiker Trial by Fire beer and Chipotle Polka, mini-potato & cheese stuffed pierogies smothered with adobo sauce and smoked jalapenos. Her friends caught her up on happenings in Pittsburgh and in their lives over dinner.

For dessert, Tania ordered one of her favorite oddities from the menu, a fish-shaped waffle-covered ice cream. Tania always loved Fuel & Fuddle but wondered sometimes at the strange array of items on the menu.  The waitress brought everyone at the table fortune cookies.  Tania’s said: “The wheel of good fortune is finally turning in your direction!”  She hoped so but seriously doubted it.

Another server wore a black tank top that said on the back: No crap on tap.  Yet another had her hot pink hair pulled back in a ponytail. It was bustling place, with athletes tossing balls around on wall-mounted TVs.  The brick walls displayed painted logos from brewing companies and a chalkboard listed names of brews such as Wowie Zowie and Green Zebra.

Over dessert, her friends spoke about the addicts in their lives. It turned out everyone had one.

“There is no way to win,” Mari said. “If you do the tough love thing, you feel guilty and if you care too much, you feel angry and taken advantage of.”

“We’re all spellbound by our own imperfect lives,” Tania said, “because they’re lives and because they’re ours.” She bit into her fish-shaped ice cream and got a brain freeze. She remembered another time she’d eaten odd-shaped food on the Dragon Pearl in Vietnam after Grady had left her for one of his students. She had run away to Asia for a month to escape her heartbreak, and had left Luka, still a toddler, in Karmen’s care. At dinner, as they floated on Halong Bay amidst pointed karsts, the chef had brought out with a flourish a dragon carved out of pumpkin and a junk carved from a watermelon, and she had flirted with a French boy named Pasquale over cilantro-infused dishes.

Hussein shook his head. “Why are we talking about this? We’re ruining our evening.”

The women protested that this was the most interesting topic they had discussed all night and Tania drifted back to that dinner party on the Vietnamese junk and the French boy who never showed up at her door in the unsurprising end, the tedious denouement.


THE PROCESS: This story is pure fiction but is set in several real travel destinations.  It originated in a creative writing class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland where we did the following exercise:

  • POEM, DREAM, CONFLICT (Exercise from The Portable MFA in Creative Writing (The New York Writer’s Workshop):
    1. Select a line from a poem, biography, anything that resonates with you. Next consider a recent (perhaps troubling) dream. Then recall a problem you’re having with another person.
    2. Once you have each of these items firmly in mind, begin a fictional account that weaves these three disparate strands together, following the steps below:
      1. POEM: Write one or two paragraphs based on the line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.
      2. DREAM: Write one or two paragraphs using fragments or themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.
      3. CONFLICT: Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.
      4. PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. When you write the piece, set it in your destination.

The story came about from a poem by Canadian poet Robyn Sarah, a dream I had while on a junk in Halong Bay, Vietnam, and a conflict I had with my South Korean co-teachers with whom I’d shared a carpool for six months. They had invited me to a meeting where they served up a fish-shaped waffle cone to smooth over their bad news to drop me from the car pool.

I wrote the last part of this piece, the dinner party, from that exercise.  My goal here was to write a story set in Pittsburgh, so I added to the short exercise to flush out the characters and to set it in some of the places I visited in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t really flush them out as well as I’d like because I limited myself to 1,500 words.  If this ever becomes a novel, I’ll have no such restrictions.

I’ve had in mind for quite some time to write about this character, Tania, who emigrated from the former Yugoslavia during the war, and who was educated in Pittsburgh and moved to Washington to work in the U.S. Postal Museum. My goal is to expand on this character and the story, including a journey to her former home in Zagreb, Croatia (when I am finally able to visit Croatia).  The story will need a lot of research and time. I hope it will eventually become a novel.

I’m also quite intrigued by the idea of “Bringing a character to…..” (some travel destination).  I’ve wanted to try an exercise such as this for a long time.

“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write up to a 1,500-word post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose.  In this case, my final intention for my Pittsburgh trip was to write a 1,500 word fictional short story set in Pittsburgh using all five senses.

It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction for this invitation.  You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose & poetry.  (This page is a work in process.) You can also include photos, of course.

Include the link in the comments below by Monday, June 25 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this invitation on Tuesday, June 26, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!

the ~ wander.essence ~ community

I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community.  I promise, you’ll be inspired!

Thanks to all of you who wrote prosaic posts following intentions you set for yourself.  🙂