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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


This first one was not my own but B.'s, my husband: Mrs. Beetham, fifth grade teacher, who always kept in her desk a stash of Jolly Rancher candies. She was an older woman, stout, and maybe did or maybe didn’t wear glasses. B. doesn’t remember. (I think she did. Mother-of-pearl frames, though they might have been expensive for a teacher, with a silver chain hanging from the frame hinges and looping around her neck. I also think, for some reason, that she didn’t wear comfortable shoes and so developed corns that her husband shaved off with a razor on Saturday mornings after her bath.)

She loved Jolly Rancher candies. When she’d assigned her class an exercise to work on independently, and nothing could be heard in the room but the scribble of pencils and the quiet, absent-minded shuffle of fifth-grade feet on the floor, she would open her candy stash drawer ever so carefully. Not taking her eyes off the children for one moment, she would fumble for the candy – that must have been one of the pleasures of it, surprising herself with the flavor her fingers settled on – and unwrap it. B. remembers the crinkle of the cellophane wrapper mixing in with all the other raspings and whispers in the classroom. It was a familiar sound, and a funny sound, because Mrs. Beetham appeared convinced that nobody else could hear it. Then she would cough slightly, cover her mouth with the hand in which the unwrapped candy was nestled, and pop it into her mouth. All innocent looking, as if her deception was too clever for anyone to see through.

I can feel, though I was never there, could never go there in the flesh, the tension in the room releasing once the candy is in her mouth, her body softening as the sugary fruitiness fills her mouth. I can see a girl lifting her head from her work and looking at her with a wry smile, and Mrs. Beetham suspecting – for a fraction of a moment only, then swiftly brushing the thought aside – that her secret wasn’t a secret. I can imagine Mrs. Beetham being called out of the room for a minute or five, and a few brave souls scurrying to her desk, opening the desk drawer and looking at the bag of candy, the other kids half-standing at their desks and peering in the hope of seeing but staying out of danger, a nervous giggle breaking out in the back of the class, and the air thick with the fearful pleasure of discovering an adult’s hidden world, how much and how little it has in common with one’s own world as a child.

Now for one of my own fifth grade teachers: Mrs. Seracin Angela – or rather Comrade Professor Seracin Angela, because the Communists were still in the full flush of their power while I was growing up. Her winter boots were black, high-heeled and so well-polished you could see your reflection on the leather. She had the blackest hair I’ve ever seen, very curly, cut short around her face so that it framed her white face in a beautiful and striking way, and left to grow long in the back. Her eyebrows were thick and carefully plucked, and her mouth bright red; she was the only teacher I had whose lipstick never smeared, who was never ruffled by the antics of the boys in my class. She called me out to the front of the class once, with another handful of classmates, to examine me on the lesson of the day. She taught Romanian language and literature, which was my favorite subject. I did very poorly on this examination although I had studied. I had a stutter (still do) and couldn’t say what I knew. It was a very sunny day, and as I stared out the window struggling for breath and words, I picked at my cuticles so hard that my fingers started bleeding. Later that year I gave her, with great trepidation, my notebook of poems to read. I don’t remember what she said to me about these poems but I was discouraged. In retrospect, I think perhaps she didn’t know what to make of them. They weren’t good poems but they were my heart and soul, and it is no easy thing to be given a child’s heart and soul and find them wanting and yet not say so out of an indistinct feeling that the fact that they are wanting now doesn’t really matter, that what matters is that they be given room to grow.

If it hadn’t been for Professor Gary E.’s world literature class, I would very likely have become an architect. He was my first literature teacher at the community college where I took classes the summer we immigrated here. We read Homer, Virgil, Boethius, Dante and Plato, and even before the semester ended I knew that I had already fallen from grace, that I was going to abandon architecture and take the dangerous path of being a literature major. Professor E. was in his mid-thirties then, shaved his head, and had a bouncy, childish gait, and a sharp, cheering laughter. He had been an initiate in a Catholic monastery but left before he took his vows. I was thoroughly infatuated with him; the mixture of his knowledge of literature and irreverence and monastic past went straight to my head. I made my first American friend in his class; it was she who told me when we were driving to school one day that Professor E. was gay. She was very amused by my utter surprise at this revelation. It took me a long time to recover from this, but when I did the splintered and cracked pieces of my idea of what it meant to be homosexual – an abomination in the eyes of God – could not be put back together again. That was the beginning of my another kind of education for me, that of seeing a person as an individual rather than a member of a group that I was instructed to be afraid of and reject.

His class left me with a desire that has lingered all these many years to go back to the Iliad and Odyssey and read them with the mind and the knowledge I have now, to notice how I have changed in relation to them, and to mull, once again, over that question on the in-class final exam: “Does the universe of Homer’s poems support or contradict King Lear’s lament that, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the the gods; They kill us for their sport.’?”


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