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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Woman in the Window

by Jean Venable


            It seems odd that at a terrible time in my life, the person who helped me the most was someone I didn’t know, someone who was unaware of my existence. She lived in a building across East 76th Street from me in New York City, our windows directly opposite each other. It was on my third night home after visiting my husband in the hospital that I became aware of her.

            We had received horrible news. “You have a brain tumor,” the doctor told my forty-seven-year-old husband. “It’s in the speech center so it’s inoperable.” As we sat stricken-faced, he proposed a course of radiation that would not eradicate the tumor, but would--as he put it--”shrink the hell out of it,” giving my husband more time. The treatment meant that my husband would have to stay in the hospital for five weeks.

            I made my way home, the streets a blur, to face the apartment we had so happily moved into the week before. Maneuvering through stacks of boxes to the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of wine and took it into the bedroom, setting up camp on a mattress still wrapped in plastic on the floor, to make the dreaded calls. Hearing myself say the words that the doctor had said made them harder to disbelieve. I gratefully accepted one friend’s offer to make some of the calls for me.

            As I returned to the kitchen for a refill, I glanced at the window across the street and that’s when I noticed her. She appeared to be in her mid sixties, with neatly cut gray hair, wearing a dark green robe which zipped up the front. She was headed to a table by the living room window, her headquarters, I was to learn, for her habitual evening’s reading.  It was quite late by now, and few of the other windows in her building were still lighted. As I changed into my nightgown, I found myself appreciating her presence.


            The next day my husband started his radiation treatment. We tried not to notice the condition of some of his fellow patients. That night I opted not to call anyone, which would involve reporting things I would rather not think about. I glanced across the street and saw that my anonymous friend had emerged from her bedroom in her reading attire. I was grateful for a form of companionship that did not require answering questions.

            With no appetite, I attempted to eat my dinner, which consisted of a large glass of wine and a linzer torte, the wrapper of which I used as a plate. As I munched, my stomach in knots, I observed the surroundings of my new acquaintance. Her living room was attractive and uncluttered, with dark wooden bookcases on two of the walls. As I looked around my own apartment I realized that the disorder of the unpacked boxes was adding to the grimness of the situation, as was my constant pacing, wineglass in hand, increasingly gravitating back to the bottle of Chardonnay. 

            At the beginning of the second week, it occurred to me to wonder what was in the glass being refilled periodically across the way. The next time the woman headed to the kitchen I turned out the light and grabbed my binoculars. What she was drinking was ginger ale, and I surmised that she was probably feeling a lot better in the mornings than I was.  The next day I made two purchases: a box cutter from a hardware store near the hospital, and on my way home that night, a six-pack of ginger ale from the deli across the street. I began with the box cutter, extricating two table lamps, their warm light an immediate improvement over the glaring ceiling fixture. With the help of the super, I got the mattress out of its plastic shroud and onto the bed frame. At supper, I had one glass of wine and switched to ginger ale.     

            At the hospital the next morning I tried to describe my new relationship to my husband. He regarded me quizzically at first, but grateful for anything that could be of help, came to appreciate this stranger whose order and serenity I was attempting to emulate. He did not encourage me to share this one-sided relationship with others.

            Back at the apartment, I settled into a nightly routine, which began with a call to my husband to report that I was safely home. I had often procrastinated taking my showers in the evening, but I started timing them so that my friend would still be reading when I emerged. I found it helpful, when trying to ward off morbid thoughts, to get into bed and turn out my light while she was still up, revisiting childhood days when I could hear my parents quietly talking after I was put to bed.

            My favorite nights were Saturdays, when the woman’s doorman would bring her the Sunday Times as soon as it was delivered to the lobby late Saturday night. This was a guarantee that she would be up half the night working on what I figured out was the crossword puzzle. If I were feeling desolate, I could crook up on one elbow in my bed, and no matter how late it was, she would be intently bent over, pen in hand, the light of her lamp enabling her to do her puzzle, and me to fall asleep not feeling alone.

            When my husband’s treatments were completed, he was discharged with a prognosis of one year and lived six, during which time we had a son. Our life was now centered in the apartment; shades were pulled at night, and I was no longer thinking about the woman in the window.

            Several years later, shortly after my husband died, some activity across the way caught my eye and I realized that the furniture was being moved out of the apartment on which I had once been so focused. The next morning when I pointed up to her window, her doorman confirmed that the woman had died. She was never to know the measure of solace felt by an anguished young woman who, one long ago summer, kept company with her across the darkness of East 76th street.


Jean Venable was a writer/producer for NBC Network News for 25 years in the Documentaries division and spent the last seven years of her career with the TODAY Show. Now retired from NBC, she writes from Poughkeepsie, NY where she lives with her second husband. She has one son, who is a cameraman for News 12, Westchester, and seven stepchildren.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Sounding Board

by Natasha Lvovich


“I looked inside the temple and saw a single monk praying. From his body came several voices…He produced these voices from within his body, offering a sounding board to storytellers who themselves had none…I began to pay attention to these voices as I spoke. Telling stories no longer took the place of listening: rather listening gave rise to stories.


Perhaps the ear is the organ of storytelling, not the mouth. Why else was the poison poured into the ear of Hamlet’s father rather than his mouth?”

Yoko Tawada, Storytellers without Souls, in Where Europe Begins (p.111-112)


I am often asked: How did you learn English so well? What’s the secret? So for about twenty years, I have been searching for an answer, telling tales of language and immigration, which, like childhood memories, never fade and never end. To my own surprise, an embarrassing story has recently popped out of a dusty memory drawer, and it seemed like the best answer ever.

In the building in Brighton Beach where we rented our first apartment in America, a neighbor befriended us. In his early sixties, tall and athletic, with a thick mustache and a patch of hair combed over his bald head, he was loud and exuberant, just like we imagined true Brooklynites, and he constantly spat out a mish-mash of words we were unable to decipher. Since pretty much all speech was indecipherable anyway, it did not make a difference one way or another. His name was Michael.

Michael would greet us in the lobby with a thunderous “How are you" (which we soon discovered was not a question) and would hold us there forever on our way back from the supermarket, shopping bags painfully hanging from our hands. He occasionally invited us for dinner to neighborhood Chinese restaurants, where he rambled, his mouth full, about still-incomprehensible American topics: baseball, Hollywood, TV, food, money, politics, as well as himself. He would go on and on and would get so worked up, bubbling and boasting, that he seemed on a verge of a nervous breakdown. No comments or dialogue were expected, so we just sat there and nodded, acting as a sounding board and painfully longing to go home to exhale the tension of our cluelessness.

At some point during these so-called interactions, Michael confessed to us that he was passionately in love with a young Russian woman he had met somewhere in Brighton Beach. The drama included convoluted descriptions of his encounters with her, his elaborate secret fantasies, and recitations of poetry. To us, there were some practical implications to the matter: Michael wanted to learn Russian to speak to the Love of His Life. He wanted to impress her and to understand her down to the core of her very being, from her Pushkin-immersed childhood to her adult Brezhnev stagnation years--in her native tongue. And he was willing to pay for it.

On my meager $12 per hour teaching, we were struggling to pay our rent. A little extra money would certainly help, especially so close to home--quite literally, next door. Always a conscientious teacher, I started preparing my Russian lessons—only to discover in disbelief that tutoring Michael basically meant doing exactly the same thing we had been doing in Chinese restaurants and in the building lobby: being a sounding board. For the first few weeks, Michael promptly paid me for the “lessons,” but then problems surfaced with the cash flow from the business that he supposedly managed. Still I faithfully showed up at his door every night.

In the spirit of classic immigrant mythology, my then husband, a former jazz musician, was washing dishes in a Russian restaurant, and this injustice deeply upset Michael. So one evening, he slapped his hand to his forehead, suddenly recalling that he had a great deal of useful contacts in various broadcasting companies and recording studios. He promised to help the “good Russian man” get a foothold in the music business, where he rightfully belonged.

Later in the week, Michael produced a piece of paper with a scribbled name on it. The address? OMG! Get it in the Yellow Pages! Phone number or extension? Are you kidding me? Everyone knows this person there, just go and say the name at reception. And don’t forget to mention my name. Wink, wink.

Oh, the comic scene of a heavily gesticulating Russian man, speaking a few English words from the Ray Charles repertoire and showing a crumpled piece of paper to a stunned front desk receptionist at NBC, ready to call security. Oh, those frantic calls home, even more frantic (unanswered) calls to Michael, and the excruciating return to Brooklyn, filled with the inexhaustible reservoir of Russian dark humor…Michael would reappear, several days later, mumbling excuses and pulling out another piece of paper with a name scribbled on it. The saga, amazingly similar in every detail of immigrant gullibility, would repeat itself several times, with the trips to the city, a bewildered receptionist, and a bitter trip home.

Michael’s next philanthropic action was directed to our friends, Sasha and Irina, frequent guests in our house. Sasha, today a reputable doctor, was then studying for his medical license exams, and his wife's job as a receptionist supported them. Dirt poor, they were renting a tiny decrepit attic. Hearing their story, Michael offered one of his apartments—of which he had plenty, all over the city. Of course, for his Russian friends, he would immediately make a gorgeous one-bedroom available, in a brand-new building, with all new appliances. He even took Sasha for a tour so that he could see for himself the friendly neighborhood and the building, and stare in awe at his dream apartment windows--from the outside! The lease was signed. Sasha and Irina paid Michael the security deposit and the first month rent. They started packing, ready to move in, when it occurred to them to contact the super, just in case. The super had no clue. And Michael was not home. 

It was only much later that somebody suggested that Sasha file a complaint about that rent money in small court. By that time, we had moved out of the building and Michael had completely vanished. For the next year or so, as we were emerging out of culture shock, Michael’s case became a taboo in our households. One day an older woman contacted Sasha and paid back his deposit, apologizing profusely. She introduced herself as Michael’s legal guardian and explained that he was severely mentally disabled and not responsible for his actions. She also added that he had to be committed to an assisted living facility, since he couldn’t manage life on his own.

And that is how I learned English.


Natasha Lvovich is a writer and scholar of second language acquisition and bilingualism. She teaches at CUNY and divides her loyalties between academic and creative writing. She is an author of a collection of autobiographical narratives, The Multilingual Self, and of a number of articles and essays. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in the academic journals Life Writing and New Writing, in the anthologies Lifewriting Annual and Imagination and Place, and in many literary magazines, including Big.City.Lit, WHL Review, Post Road, Paradigm Journal, Nashville Review, and Two Bridges. Her piece, Balakovo, was nominated for 2011 Pushcart Prize.

Friday, March 8, 2013

All the Way Through to the End

by Elizabeth Stainton Walker

Years later, sitting in my college physics class, I would learn about Schrödinger’s cat, and my thoughts would go immediately to that hour between the time I woke up and the time I found her. That time when my mother was neither alive nor dead.

            For as long as I can remember, she had been a night owl. She would stay up reading into the early morning, the light in her room still glowing hours after I had put myself to bed. In the years before I could drive, I would have to wake her up two and three times to get her to take me to school in the morning. So, no, it was not strange. Her room was always quiet in the morning. She was not missed.

            When I called 911, the operator told me, “You have to turn her over on her back.” I tried to tell him that because of her extreme obesity and her proximity to the edge of the bed, moving her was simply impossible. I could only rock her back and forth. Each time I rocked her, I saw her cheek, blue from lack of circulation, and her swollen mouth. The operator kept telling me how important it was that I roll her over. It turned out not to matter anyway. She had been gone for hours by that time.

            The first person I called was Kathy. Red-haired and busty, my mother’s best friend had only recently moved back to Little Rock after twenty years in Atlanta. It had been cute to see my mom act like a teenager again. The two of them would spend whole days together, shopping and drinking limeades, the same things I did with my own best friend. Kathy and my mother made sex jokes. They would giggle and talk about men.

            Kathy had recently begun online dating, and my mom would help her navigate these new interactions. Because of my mother’s weight and her frequent bouts with depression, she had not been on a date in my living memory. It was strange to hear her talk about condoms and penis pumps. Riding in the car with Kathy, with me leaning forward from the back seat, my mom told stories about men from her past. These were anecdotes I had not heard, like the time Jimmy Buffett asked her to a party after one of his concerts. “You never told me that!” I would shriek, squeezing the fat on her upper arm. But then, at sixteen, I had never been on a date or kissed a boy, so I suppose there is no reason the subject would have come up anyway.

            It was only after I phoned Kathy that morning that it occurred to me to try to reach my aunts and uncles who lived two hours away, outside of Memphis. It must have been around eight by that time, and while I was on the phone with Uncle Joe, my mother’s favorite of her three brothers, the paramedics came and told me my mother was dead. Looking back, I cannot think why Uncle Joe would not have already left for work by this time. As an ophthalmologist, he had his father’s habit of getting to his practice hours before he saw the first patient. I am sure if I were to ask him now, he could not tell me why he was still at home when I called. I do know that it was he who was on the other end of the receiver when a female paramedic looked at me and nodded. I am certain that I was speaking to Uncle Joe when my story changed from, “Something’s happened to my mother” to “Yes, she is definitely, definitely dead.”

            Kathy and her sister Bonnie appeared at the house a few minutes later. Bonnie was shorter and slimmer than Kathy, dark from the tanning bed, and more tightly wound. She had arrived in her bathrobe and wanted me to get her clothes to wear. “You’ve got to get your Aunt Bonnie something to put on!” Ten years later, this still strikes me as an odd request.

            A few minutes after the sisters’ arrival, our house phone rang, and it was obviously a telemarketer. She mispronounced our last name when she asked for my mother, and I remember screaming into the phone, “She just died!” and slamming down the receiver. As an adult, I wonder now what the poor salesperson must have thought, if she imagined I was making it up, just a rude teenager who thought death would be a funny thing to joke about.

            For the record, it was an arrhythmia. She had died in her sleep and without pain.

            In the following hours, I was swept away to Bonnie’s house. I have no idea who locked our home after the coroner removed the body. These are the questions you do not think to ask at the time: Who locked the house? Why is Uncle Joe not at work? I can remember so many strange details of the day, like my friend’s mother gathering my dirty laundry to wash at her house. But then there are things I cannot remember, like who locked the house. And in thinking about it, I know I must have been the one who locked the house. But I cannot say for sure.

            I do remember dialing the number of the boy I liked, the line ringing with hope as I paced around the tree in our yard waiting for him to pick up. His name was Colin, and even with my only parent now dead, I felt a bit excited I finally had a reason to talk to him.

            That evening, I went my friend Anna’s house and waited to receive visitors. My high school friends got off work or returned from sporting events and made their way to Anna’s living room.  The film Zoolander was playing. Someone must have brought it over, and to this day, I have never seen it all the way through to the end. I remember looking around the room, thinking, “All my favorite people are here” and “It’s nice we can all get together like this.” Then I would remember why everyone had gathered in the house in the first place, and my stomach would sink.

            Colin arrived around nine. Truthfully, I do not remember what he was wearing, but odds are it was his navy Transformers tee shirt. He wore it most days that year. I walked outside with him, and we sat together on Anna’s porch swing.

            “How are you doing?” he asked.

            I shrugged. I had been asked that question one hundred times and was still without an answer.  I was too tired to feel anything. “You know,” I told him, “I think everyone is waiting for me to cry.”

            He smiled warily. I wonder now, knowing what I know about men in general, and young men in particular, if he might have feared I would in fact start sobbing uncontrollably and that he would be left sitting there, unsure of how to get me stop.

            We were on the porch for maybe twenty minutes. The warmth from the day was still hanging on, and Anna’s mother’s lilies combined with the Arkansas humidity to make the air smell heady. The cicadas hummed in the darkness. A grey tabby jumped up on the swing with us. Colin stroked her and told me about his allergy to pet dander. He was on Claritin, he said. It had helped.

            When he fell quiet, I put my head on Colin’s chest and felt the worn cotton of his Transformers shirt, or whatever tee shirt it was that day. This close, he smelled like chorine. His long arms folded around me. His chin stubble sanded my forehead.

            Inside, my school friends talked about what would happen to me now that I was an orphan. Outside, my life was perfect, and still.

Elizabeth Stainton Walker is completing her M.A. in English at the University of Arkansas, where she also works as the English Department secretary. Her story, "Detritus," was published on the MonkeyBicycle website. She and her husband are both great dressers.