Monday, September 29, 2008

Gorilla Faces and Sweet Blondes

by Zinta Aistars

Teetering out the third floor window, I rubber neck. Straight down: a lush green courtyard, a neat space of trimmed trees and shrubs, compact flower beds, a swept clean walk, and entryways to the left, to the right, to the far end. Toward the street, I see more brick houses, city houses, the kind that lean one onto the other’s shoulder, human lives bustling inside like busy ant hill inhabitants, each holding their own story. I will never know most of these stories. But for this too short weekend, I am privileged to take a quick peek into the short story of my daughter’s Chicago life.

I let her know without hesitation: I love her new digs! The setting is near perfect. Turn left out of that courtyard below, and she is one mere block from Lake Michigan. Stand on the walk, and you can close your eyes and feel the lake breeze kiss and caress your cheeks. Nice. Very nice.

Turn right, and not more than twenty steps is the busy drag of Belmont, brimming with cafés, little bookstores, antique stores, coffee shops, eclectic art galleries. It makes for fine walking, and the rubber necking is grand.

We’ve done our work quota already on the Friday eve, soon as I arrived from my drive from Michigan. Off to pick up random pieces of furniture she’d found online. My girl is a maestro of bargain-hunting, unearthing any number of odd treasures. Tonight, we are tracking down a kitchen island on wheels, fold-down leafs, insertable wire baskets. Naturally, it is on the third floor of someone’s city apartment, and naturally, my daughter lives on the third floor, too. I suspect everyone in Chicago does, the first two floors mere painted windows of imaginary lives. Another treasure is a frosted glass bar table, a tiny thing on tall, spindly legs of steel with two slim benches on equally spindly stork legs. Perfect for the tight space of a city studio abode. We sweat the pieces down stairs and up stairs again, then stand back to marvel at the tightly fitting perfection.

The rest of the weekend is stalking the pleasures of city life: a variety of ethnic meals, for starters. One night we eat Vietnamese, and my girl pushes aside the menu to explain instead to the waiter just what it is she wants to see on our table. Last spring, she had traveled to Vietnam, and she was intent on my sampling some of the delicacies she had enjoyed there. She explains, he nods, and soon enough, the table between us groans with the weight of steaming dishes. White water spinach, a sort I’ve not seen, rich with brothy flavor. The juiciest duck I’ve ever tasted, and I give up on the chopsticks to eat with my fingers, juice dripping down my fingers, smacking my lips, sucking bones clean. Flaky fish near buried under straw mushrooms and something diced and something spliced and something julienned, I know not what, but it is all moaningly yum. Another day, we dip into Middle Eastern hummus and yummus, fried little balls of falafel, stuffed grape leaves, and something spicy and tingly on the tongue. I don’t have to know what all this is to enjoy it, do I? I ask, and she laughs at me. I claim to be old enough now to be eccentric, if not senile … the freedom-giving benefits of a woman growing older.

My favorite is a Sunday brunch at North Pond, a pretty building, all stone and wood and earth colors, a building once used to warm ice skaters from the frozen pond. My girl heckles and harasses the intrigued waiter to name every ingredient and mystery flavor in the three courses we are served. She is working on a third degree, this one sheer fun, in a culinary school, and the magical intricacies of food preparation fascinate her. Every meal has become continued education to her. And because she is such a sunny blonde with batting eyes and sweet curves, not one of her requests goes unbidden. The waiter trots obediently to the kitchen to whisper to the chef and is back again with his revelations, once, twice, three and four times. Cherry soaked in port wine, he says. Or, a type of caviar. Cardamom. Or, he lists the three absolutes of a perfect sauce.

Even walking through the parks, she knows no peace, but like all pretty young girls, has learned to ignore the stares. I tease her and she rolls her eyes. Oh, that one was for you, she says once, an older gentleman’s eyes gluing a moment too long on my face, my lips, gliding down my shoulder as we walk by, but he is only one and her admirers are past counting, and I realize, after the first sting of realizing myself an older woman, gradually fading into invisibility, that it is, actually, a rather sweet relief. I can scratch my nose in public. I can exhale. I can tuck the loose hair from my graying ponytail behind my ear and not give a darn. There is real freedom in this, and I can walk the streets with a firm and knowing stride. Let the young girls battle the constant glances now, I bid them a glad farewell. When the peppering of stares accost my girl overmuch, however, my eyebrows scrunch, and I start to feel protective of my offspring: I unleash my own killer stare. Especially on the middle-aged ones with other women by their sides. Enough. But my girl walks oblivious and swimming in youth by my side, chattering away about her plans and dreams and hopes, and I glory in them, too.

We walk along the marina, and the wind is fresh on our faces. Sleeping boats and yachts bob in the water, silly names painted on them. Forever Late, one is named. An Hour’s Bliss. Sweet Nuthin’. The shore curves in and back out again, and we can see Navy Pier jutting out from a dazzling city of sky-scraping towers. I was born in this city, in its seedier Cook County parts, in a hospital known for handling the victims of violence. But since my girl has moved here, I’ve seen a different side. I find myself looking forward to these city trips not just to see her, but to see this city, again, to pick up its scent, taste its juices, dip into its rippling currents of water and traffic and lights.

We wander into a park around a lily pond with jutting flat sheets of stone surrounding it. A sign tells us—it’s been here since 1889. More recently, cleaned up again from neglect, so that it reminds one again of Monet’s watery scenes, lily pads with their flat green faces open to the sky. We wander more, and there are flower gardens, a conservatory, a jungle of ferns, a greenhouse of fragrant orchids, and a zoo. I know you hate these, she says, but keeps walking, and we are in, and I admit, I am drawn to stare at the gorilla’s handsome silvered face even as I mourn the cages and the glass and the bars. He opens one sleepy eye and gazes back. My heart skips a beat, as if in first flush of love. Oh, his great, black face, thick-skinned and hard, yet somehow soft, beckoning caress. His round beer belly, smooth muscled chest. His green-black fingers like thick blood sausages, and he opens his palm like a baseball mitt in a tender vulnerability. I want to place my hand inside that great hand. I want to press my forehead against his furred one, against that ridge of hard bone, and ask forgiveness.

My girl tugs at my sleeve to move on. I thought you hated zoos, she says, but I am swallowing hard, and she sees, still, why.

We walk another path, Lake Shore Drive winding to one side of us in a stream of moving machines, the water lapping in soft sloshes to the other side. We walk between the two worlds made one. I am mesmerized by the paradox, the contradiction, the juxtaposition, the bridled wild.

We walk and walk, for two days, off and on, sleeping but a little—and always by an open window. We walk between trees as we walk between shelves. Thrift stores and grocery stores and bookstores and doodad shops. In our dreams, we buy a thousand useless things. We laugh, arm in arm, and toss them all away again. I am happy, I realize, my heart full and warm, visiting my little girl’s life, unfolding and opening petal by petal, parting like a sea to either side. I am on the brink of some other place, some quieter dream, while hers surges and pulsates and thrives. I visit her like I visit myself in another time. I release what was and greet what is, and I am deeply pleased to do so. My own blood streams in the veins of this golden girl, and I am only too ready to pass along this crown to her, that she can rule now, take the world into her hands and shape it. May she be a blessing, always. A drop in the ocean, perhaps, but every one of us changing the world, somehow. Even if by one golden smile. By one cherry dipped in wine. Or one hand placed inside another, tender pink inside an open palm like a great black baseball mitt, asking forgiveness.

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