Cristobel of Tragicstan

snow in the windowShe sits at the kitchen table drinking coffee and wishing for a cigarette.  It was a stupid wish, because she gave up smoking for the last time a month ago.  And even if she hadn’t, she couldn’t smoke in the house – at least, not while her mother was home.

Since her mother was home, having a cigarette would mean bundling into her old leather bomber jacket and standing, stamping, on the back porch.  It was November in Cincinnati, and cold; the puffs of her blameless breath would be indistinguishable from the cancerous clouds of her Camel.

But even if she hadn’t quit and even if she had a cigarette, she knew she wouldn’t smoke. Her father lay in an ICU less than 20 miles away, dying slowly of the emphysema that gripped his lungs like the unseen fist of an unknowable God.

Her father was a farmer. He’d smoked three packs a day for the last forty years.  He’d  also spent the last forty years performing hard physical labor, breathing the methane stink of pig shit, inhaling the countless chemicals of modern agriculture. Now he was going to die at the age of sixty eight, and if cigarettes weren’t the cause they were certainly going to be the scapegoat.

No way was she going to light up in the face of the community consensus that a good man  was going to soon while certain unworthy persons enjoyed undeserved youth, health and far away apartments in snooty Paris France.

She watches her mother’s reflection in the window over the kitchen sink, watches the way her careworn face floats on the dark glass like a tired lily pad on a pond of warm yellow light. She knows from the way her mother hunches over the sink, her arm moving in short, muscular sweeps, that she is doing that thing again, that thing with the rag in the sink.  Gathering up the repulsive scraps of food that lay limply on the bottom once the gray, suds-flecked water drained out.  She will take these scraps and toss them off the back porch for the dogs to scrabble over.  Nothing in this house was ever wasted, not even the thin rinds of fat cut away from her pork chop at supper, pushed to the side of her plate.

She’d arrived early yesterday, and though the flight from New York was direct, and only 3 hours, there were eight messages waiting on her voice mail.

Five of the messages were from her boss. Each message escalated in length, bitchiness and opacity about what had brought her to Cincinnati during high season, so that the fifth message made no mention of her father at all.

Two of the messages were from her boyfriend.   She wished she could be happier that he was being so supportive, but for some reason all the correctness of his responses did was highlight just how mistreated she was at work.

The final message was from Cristobel, a model from one of  the Russian-sounding stan countries.  So beautiful, she could only bear to look at her sideways.  There was talk that she would be the next big thing, talk everyone knew about but Cristobel herself.

Everywhere she went Cristobel carried a fake purple leather bag that contained random personal items from her home – the empty plastic egg that had once contained pantyhose (when asked, Cristobel cheerfully told her she’d spent seven hours in line, thinking it was food); a surprisingly charming doll made of twine, bright yellow and red wool, and the glass of a coke bottle, one of the old ones with the thick, greenish glass.

The purse also and always contained a large gray one-eyed cat.  The cat was incontinent, so naturally, the purse stank, which miraculously did not detract from, and even added to, the allure of Cristobel’s fragile beauty.

She has lived in Paris for a year now, and her only friend is a too-naive-to-know-better  soon-to-be-supermodel with an ugly dying cat, neither of which spoke English or French.

Cristobel’s message is the usual confusion of verbs and question marks.  “You are at home yes? With the family of the bosom, yes? You are so happy to see them, even the father of the dying. It is not sad, no? To be with the ones of your love. Yes!”

She listens to Cristobel’s message twice, remembering the first time she met her, the landlord that had called, angry at the smelly cat, angry at the girl’s beauty, angry at the byzantine locution that refused to acknowledge his compliments, his possibilities, his power as the landlord.

She’d rushed to the apartment to smooth things over and there was Cristobel with her gray cat, a huge fur hat on her head and no shoes on her feet, standing on the concrete balcony of the apartment in the fourteenth arrondissement, smiling, not recognizing the landlord’s hostility, not knowing her apartment was a disappointment, was a piece of shit, was the ruination of most models’ barely sprouted dreams.

She looks at the kitchen clock.   Another forty-five minutes until evening visiting hours. No one has said anything about going, and she isn’t sure if that is because it is assumed they will all go, or if it is assumed that, having already been today, they will not go again until tomorrow.

They have not yet established the watchful rhythm of the deathwatch; hope was still ambient, not yet driven out by the mechanical rasp rasp of the breathing apparatus and the quiet swish swish of the surgeon’s footsteps, the sounds that had come to represent the unseen failing of her father’s lungs.

Her mother glances up from the sink, a trick of the light subtracting years from her reflection; the woman that gazes unseeing into the darkening Ohio night sky is sloe-eyed, her cheeks elegantly hollowed, her expression distant and sad – for a breathless moment, easily the match of the desperate beauty of all the Cristobels of all the tragic-stans.

She has a sudden urge to hand her mother the cell phone so that she can listen to Cristobel’s oddly confident pronouncements, the way the harsh accent of her homeland, so far away and unremarked on – did she miss it at all? – has a rhythm with a meaning all its own.

“Here, is fine. The cat makes the sounds at night.  For sickness, I think.  You will return and tell me what this sound of sickness is, then I will fix.”

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