Entries in Light the Corners of My Mind (32)
This post is intended to be part of Soap Opera Sunday, Brillig and Kate's ongoing series celebrating the melodrama in ordinary lives. I'm not sure whether anyone else is playing this week, but that's okay. I'm used to dancing with myself. Names in the following story have been changed; I don't need operatives from a Middle Eastern nation-state hunting me down. But all the other details are absolutely true.I met Dara in choir our junior year of high school in the early spring of 1982. Sitting next to each other in the alto section, we must have been a study in contrasts: me, busty with extremely short, bleached hair and wearing concert T-shirts and torn Levi's; her, tall, slim, and unfailingly elegant in the latest European fashions. All the girls in choir wanted to be Dara's friend, but English was her distant third language after Arabic and French, and this proved to be quite a barrier when she first arrived.
I had an edge; I'd studied French since third grade, and while far from fluent, didn't mind hacking that beautiful language to bits in the struggle to understand and be understood. It turned out that my year-long course of study and competition in Debate ("Oil Conflicts and Solutions in the Arabian Peninsula") also served me well; no other girl I knew could name all of the United Arab Emirates, for example.
Dara was from Beirut; she had come to California to live with her older brother and her sister-in-law when the Lebanese Civil War escalated in early 1982. She was justifiably heartbroken and terrified about what was going on in her country, and the fact that I could actually find Lebanon on a map made her feel like someone in America sympathized.
The first time I slept over at her house, I asked her what her father did; she replied that he was a minister. I remember thinking, "No wonder she's so strict about her prayers--her father is an imam." I nodded and smiled politely, and we moved onto other topics.
But not many days afterward, when we were in Taco Bell (of all places), a middle-aged woman saw Dara and immediately fell down at her feet, hugging her ankles and moaning. It was the only time I ever saw Dara flustered. She bent down and hissed Arabic into the woman's ear; the woman immediately jumped to her feet and, bowing repeatedly, backed out of the restaurant and fled.
Dara recovered her composure, but once we got back to her house, I asked her what had just happened. She sighed, pulled a big box out of her closet, and gestured for me to open it. Inside were piles of different Arabic magazines with Dara on the covers. "You're a model? That's so cool!" I exclaimed in French. She shook her head, sighed again, and started to explain.
Though Dara was hesitant at first, the details soon came rushing out; I think she was relieved to share her many secrets with someone. It turned out her father wasn't a minister; he was a Minister with a capital 'M,' a member of the Lebanese Presidential Cabinet. Dara's family was an ancient and royal one; she wrote out her very long and exalted title for me in Arabic and in English on a piece of binder paper (I still have it); it included phrases like 'Serene Grace' and 'Princess of Mekka,' and even the ball-point ink on the college-lined surface looked regal.
She had been engaged since birth to the Crown Prince of one of those little countries I'd studied; once she turned 18 and graduated from high school the next year, preparations for their royal wedding would begin. And the final bomb she dropped that afternoon? Her best friend Stephanie, with whom she had had several long and involved telephone conversations in lightning-fast French in my presence, was none other than Princess Stéphanie of Monaco.
I'd been hanging out with a real princess. The Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, Perrault, and Andrew Lang I'd been reading all my life were scant preparation for this; I was stunned. Dara made me swear not to treat her any differently and not to tell anyone at school. She was enjoying a relatively normal life--minimal and unobtrusive bodyguards, no paparazzi--and she planned to savor it for the next year or so. I agreed, and life went on.
Dara's English improved rapidly as the end of the school year approached. She started spending time with Melanie, another girl from choir. In May, Dara's parents moved to our town (and just in time, too; in June, Israel invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut). Dara's brother had bought and furnished a house for them in preparation for their arrival, and it happened to be next door to Melanie's in an exclusive subdivision on the other side of town from my house.
I didn't mind Melanie, but she actively disliked me, so the three of us didn't do much together that summer. This was fine; I had my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group and a boyfriend whose parents had cable, making near-24-hour worship of the newly minted MTV possible. It never occurred to me that Melanie might try to sabotage me when I was otherwise engaged.
Staying over at Dara's was always a treat. A beautiful swimming pool surrounded by lush flowering shrubs graced the back yard. Gorgeous Persian rugs and paintings covered nearly every surface of the interior. The exotic foods her mother prepared were delicious: flatbread with labneh; shish taouk; and my favorite, lahmadjoun, a pizza-like disk of dough spread with minced, spiced lamb, tomatoes, and onions.
The cold water that came out of their refrigerator dispenser was somehow scented/flavored with roses. And Dara's bed was a marvel: the king-sized waterbed (remember, it was 1982) had a featherbed between the mattress and the Egyptian cotton sheets and was topped with a lofty, silk-covered down comforter. It was the most insanely luxurious thing I'd ever encountered.
Then there was her car. Dara would have preferred something sportier, but her brother maintained that a big American sedan was much safer for her to drive. Consequently, the vehicle in which we cruised around town, blasting cassettes of Dara's beloved Bernard Sauvat, was a huge, swanky boat of a Cadillac.
Even with all these perqs, I loved Dara for herself. I couldn't get enough of her stories of a life so wholly other. She was kind, funny, and interested in more than what went on in the confines of our small Central Valley town. I enjoyed her company, and I think she valued mine. I always listened when she lamented over the latest bombing of her home city. I tried to comfort her when she confessed her worries about the eventuality of marrying someone so much older than she was. She cried in my arms that horrible week in September, when Princess Grace died and Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on the same day.
All this bonding made what happened in November that much less comprehensible to me....
To be continued next week, in fine SOS tradition!
In 1984, I don't really know who I am. I'm 17, so maybe that's normal, but I've been out of high school for a year and still have no idea what I want to do with my life. My high school friends are all away at university now; my sense of identity seems to have left with them, and I'm not getting much in the way of new direction in my classes at Modesto Junior College. I'm very, very lonely.
I meet a new crowd; they're not the deepest dishes in the drawer, but they are fun and different. I reinvent my external self in their image. Why not? I've done the preppy thing, I've been a punk; now it's time to try the vintage/mod look. For everyday wear, I comb through thrift stores for boxy cashmere cardigans, muslin shirtwaists, and moleskin capri pants. But I can't resist also buying dupioni silk suits hand-tailored for well-off women a quarter century before. And hats: a friend's mother gives me some gorgeous pillboxes--one completely covered in ostrich feathers--that would have met with even Holly Golightly's discerning approval. I soon add to this collection, courtesy the local Salvation Army and Goodwill outlets.
But where does one wear such finery when one lives in the Central Valley of California, America's Apricot/Sugar Beet/Almond Basket? Conveniently for Anj (not my sister), Deb, Lily, Don, Kasey, Mike, and me, a new slice of heaven has opened up in downtown Modesto: The Café Decadence.
It's much more innocent than it sounds. A couple of guys create a little restaurant that is open in the evenings only. There's a garden out back that they string with copious amounts of tiny white lights and fill with mismatched patio furniture. Foodwise, they focus on one thing: excellent desserts.
My favorite is Cake of Joy. Thin layers of chocolate butter cake and crispy, light, hazelnut meringue alternate with generous amounts of mocha buttercream and creamy, dark ganache. Every bit of it is homemade by one of the partners, and it is fresh, rich, and perfect. (I've been dreaming of recreating it for years.) But the Carrot Cake is also excellent, as are the Linzer Tarts, the Berry Crumbles, and the Sour Cream Lemon Pie.
To drink, of course there's coffee, but that's not my thing. I either have the iced Ruby Mist tea or the Hot Buttered Milk. That last I have recreated: warm milk with cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, and brown sugar stirred in. Delish; don't knock it till you've tried it.
The other mods and I aren't really welcome at "The Dec" during prime-time hours; hordes of real adults with real jobs (and who can leave real tips) show up perhaps before or after a movie, enjoy something fabulous to eat, and go home to their real lives. But after 9:30 or so, the place empties out, and we mods arrive in full regalia. The guys wear thin-lapeled suits with skinny ties and mismatched cufflinks, acting natty backdrops to us girls. We do our best to be Audrey or Marilyn, Doris or Sofia, and as we sit under the fairy lights, making our orders last and chatting for hours on end, we imagine we're in San Francisco or New York, or the ultimate: Paris.
The music, wafting out of speakers wired to the sycamore trees, helps us along. It's stuff I haven't really heard before, but I fall head over heels for it. The owners favor Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. I enjoy Lady Day and the Divine One, but sometimes the tragedy that wells up out of the voices of these first two is too much for me; it reminds me of how alone I really am with this sparkling but shallow group. Ella, on the other hand, becomes my my friend and secret ally.
Even when she's singing the blues, there is a warmth and wit to Ella's lithe, pure voice that lifts my spirit and makes me smile. I can't decide which is more marvelous: her technical perfection, or the way she pours every drop of her glorious soul into her music. Often, when one of her songs comes on, I drop out of the conversation, close my eyes, and just listen.
And it's a good thing I do, because it turns out that Ella has messages intended only for my ears. You're stuck, she whispers. I was stuck once, too. Everything around you is just a shadow of something bigger and better, but you're in danger of falling for the mirage. You can get out, though, if you want.
Really? I ask silently, night after night. How? Where? Show me the way out.
Wait and watch, girl, she answers.
Filled with a new, restless energy, I do as she counsels, and when I get offered a job in the Bay Area not long afterwards, I gather my courage, leave the mods behind, and go. I'm fairly certain they don't really notice I've gone. But no matter: though there are plenty more mirages and mistakes on my journey, I'm starting to get a sense of direction at last.
It's 1994. I'm sitting in a lovely Manhattan apartment with Patrick and our close friends D&S. I've been to the real Paris, and it is worlds better than even Ella describes. Sweet Baby Christian is asleep in another room, and we four linger for hours over fabulous dessert and talk. The conversation sparkles, but it has depth. Our friends are beautiful and stylish, but they have minds and hearts even more attractive than their clothes. I feel loved and treasured, warm, safe, and understood.
Ella comes on the stereo, soft in the background. Suddenly, she's speaking to me again, whereas I've heard only her songs for most of the last decade. Look around, girl, she whispers. You did it; you got unstuck and found the reality behind the pretty shadow. You made it out.
I look around with a sudden lump in my throat and realize she's right.
GOD with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.
Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.
Then let the march tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years.
It is April 2006. Patrick, the kids, and I are staying at FDR Pebbles, a kid-friendly, all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. We're having a wonderful time.
Daniel is eating sand to his heart's content. Tess, in her Coast Guard-approved floating bathing suit, is in the huge pool with fabulous water slide for hours at a time. Hope is enjoying meeting new friends and tie-dyeing as many T-shirts as possible. The boys are thriving on their freedom to shuttle between the game room and the swim-up grill ("I'm eating a cheeseburger in the pool!" crows James). Patrick and I are sea kayaking and snorkeling whenever we're not napping or getting massages.
How is it possible that the seven of us are each doing exactly what we want at any given moment? The genius of FDR Pebbles is that it assigns each family a nanny for the entirety of its stay. Since we have five kids, we opt for paying an additional $100 for an extra nanny for the whole week. We meet Tina and Sonia within minutes of arriving and fall in love. Both are mothers themselves; are certified in first aid and CPR; and are kind, funny, and sensible.
The nannies are with us from 9 to 5, and we can pay them $3 per hour to stay longer. They very much want the extra work and are happy to stay as late as we'd like; we can't help but oblige. They trade off: one oversees Daniel, who still naps twice a day, while the other watches the girls. The boys are generally under the supervision of the older kids' Activities Coordinator, but know to check in with either the nannies or us when they want to do something new.
Complete freedom is a heady thing. We can take the older kids snorkeling. We can spend one-on-one time with any one of them, building sand castles or reading and chatting side by side in hammocks. There are many off-resort adventures available, but we find ourselves content with the myriad of activities we've already paid for right on-site.
There is one notable exception, which turns out to be the highlight of the entire trip for me: Ron, the snorkel boat driver, highly recommends a trip to the Luminous Lagoon, ten minutes away by car in Falmouth. Tina and Sonia agree: the lagoon is not to be missed. So one night, we leave Tess and Daniel with the nannies, and FDR's shuttle bus takes the rest of us off to adventure.
We are dropped off and wait at the Glistening Waters Marina until it's fully dark, sipping oversweetened fruit punch and admiring the mangroves while the rest of the tour group assembles. Finally, our captain arrives with his boat and introduces himself as Timothy. About 30 of us strap on life vests and clamber aboard; as Timothy hands me into the boat, I smell the unmistakable, cloying odor of ganja. This gives me pause for a moment, but I decide to be zen about it. Yeah, mon; this is Jamaica, after all. Once we're all aboard, Timothy heads out.
It's a beautiful, warm night; the stars hang low and the breeze is soft. As the boat picks up speed, Timothy starts to sing. What does he bawl to the moon, his dredlocked head thrown back, his gravelly voice carrying out over the dark water? None other than what seems like the entire oeuvre of Jamaica's own son, Bob Marley.
"Lively Up Yourself." "Three Little Birds." "Stir It Up" (for the first time, I realize that the lyrics to this one are emphatically rated-R). And of course, the peace anthem made cliché by Jamaica's Board of Tourism: "One Love."
What could be cheesy and annoying is instead magical. Sometimes Timothy's captive audience (most of the members of which have had several rum punches at this point) sings along, which he actively encourages as confidently as any arena rocker would, pumping one fist in the air as he steers the boat with the other.
Patrick, the kids, and I lean over the side of the boat to watch our progress; we are the first of the group to notice that the boat's wake has turned a phosphorescent green, and that we can see what look like glowing missiles darting to and fro in the water. "They're fish!" cries Hope, and our mouths fall open in astonishment. We have arrived at the Luminous Lagoon. It is only now we realize that the lagoon doesn't glow all the time; the water is as black as you would expect on a dark night--until something moves through it.
There are only a few places in the world where plankton called dinoflagellates glow, or 'bioluminesce,' when disturbed: Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico is probably the most famous, but the little lagoon in Falmouth amazes us. Timothy stops the boat and invites us all to get in and swim. We jump in right away; I am surprised at how many of the other passengers opt to stay on board. The very muddy bottom disconcerts us. The water is only about three feet deep, so we do our best to float or tread water shallowly as we enjoy the spectacle.
We wave our arms through the water and spin around, watching trails of bright green follow our every movement. Hope is the first to raise her arms out of the water; the glowing droplets running off her body transform her into a little goddess of light, like something out of an ancient myth. We all imitate her, mesmerized by our own glory. And all the while, Timothy sings, his lusty, gravelly renditions somehow the perfect accompaniment to our watery dance.
Like all magic, it's over all too soon; Timothy announces that our time is up, and we reluctantly climb back into the boat. As we glide slowly back to the marina, we all sing along with our blissed-out captain: "Don't worry about a thing/'Cause every little thing gonna be alright." Our arms around our children, Patrick and I look at each other and smile. This is a night we'll remember forever.