I is for Innocent

The first words that come out of the foreperson’s mouth inspire hope.  The defendant’s eyes widen, a smile creeps across his face, his shoulders relax: not guilty, not guilty. And then the list begins: guilty, guilty, guilty.

The system says we are innocent until proven guilty.  Yet a jury does not decide you are proven innocent, they decide you are not guilty.  There’s a difference.  One is not guilty when the prosecution does not prove its case, or, perhaps because one really is innocent.

The young man is baby-faced.  He has perfected the blank stare, one that he thinks betrays nothing, except it does. He is angry.  He is scared.  As the charges are read, I zone out; I don’t look at anyone but the judge, except for a moment.  As the guilties roll in, he looks stunned, then furious.  He curses under his breath.

In a few years, he could have been a student in my class.  But in reality, in a few years, he would likely be right where he is now: in his neighborhood, in a trial, in a jail, not moving further from where he was born.

Sitting across from him, I realize that my innocence of his world is a mix of dumb luck and naïveté.  There’s intellectual skepticism that people like me harbor: the system is rigged.  By claiming that, people like me can sleep at night.  Deep down, however, we believe that the system will work, because we want it to.

The defense polls the jury—do you all agree?—and all 12 of us say yes.  My stomach drops.  I do not doubt our verdict, but I doubt my innocence.

H is for Helmet

I’m on my back, on the ground.  It’s cold.  Where is my cell phone? I don’t know where my backpack, or my bike is.  I can’t tell if my helmet is still on.  How am I going to get home?

A woman stands over me, tells me to stay still, and I insist I’m okay; she responds her friend has called 911.

“What?  I’m fine!”  I realize I’m having trouble speaking and that the lower half of my face feels searing pain and numbness all at once.  I raise my right hand to my mouth.  She gently tells me to stop talking, that my mouth is cut up badly.  I start rambling.

“Are you from D.C.?  Are you visiting friends?”  She tells me she’s from North Carolina.  “My husband is from North Carolina!  From near Burlington!  Are you a Tar Heels fan?”  I cannot stop talking.

A man asks me for John’s number; I can’t see him but I can hear him.  What’s my work number? John once asked me.  I can’t remember numbers ever.  It’s in my phone.  Why do I need to remember it? John looked dumbfounded.  What if your life depends on it? I laughed.

I can’t remember his work number.  I can’t remember it. I tell the man this, and he says it’s ok, asks if I know John’s cell number.  I say a few numbers first before getting them in the right order.  He never answers his cell at work. Continue reading

G is for Garden

The Early Girls called to us, sitting on the asphalt, the first starter real starter tomatoes at the market; spring greens and herbs were no longer novel as they were in the ground, thriving.   They were, true to name, at the farmer’s market before any other varieties were strong enough to make it.

Towards the middle of the June, the starters had become full plants, yellow-budded, with small green hard globes hanging heavily.  The fruit scented the plot more than mint and thyme–dry, warm, a little acidic, green.  Soon, the tomatoes ripen; I cut vines not only to keep the tomatoes longer inside, in the brown- and green-glazed bowl, but to bring that scent inside.  I planted more marigolds and calendula, to keep bugs away, and daisies and johnny-jump-ups and zinnias wherever herbs and vegetables were not.

By July, we had more vegetables than we knew what to do with, except the tomatoes.  Salad.  Pasta.  Sauces.  Grilled. Vodka-spiked.  The plot is in full sun, and we had to water it twice a day before the soil cracked.  All of the tomatoes now, Early Girl and Green Zebra and orange cherry, pop off the vines.  Each day I rubbed the leaves and vines between my forefinger and thumb; tomatoes are said to respond to human touch.

Late summer brings heat and a shifting sun.  The nights were cooler, and we planted the greens again.  We had some greens and herbs that lasted through the summer and now start to thrive the same way they did in the spring.  The last of the hard green tomatoes that never ripen come off the plants; I make jars of green tomato chutney and fried green tomato BLTs.  They are so good.

F is for Fort Funston

Or, the post in which I finally return to the original rule of the Alphabet project, in that the post is about 250 words.  Okay, it’s 380.

Photo by McAlister Clabaugh.  It would be really weird of you to steal someone else's wedding photo, but don't steal it.

I took my shoes off once we were through the old concrete gun batteries, my toes sinking into the sand and kicking up grains into my dress.  Gusts off wind off the Pacific, whipping up the cliffs, kept blowing up my long dress.  Christine carried the orchids, McAlister the mostly-drunk bottle of champagne.  (True to form, we started early.)  I saw John from across the parking lot, his lean figure cutting through the blue and brown landscape in his James Bond suit and sunglasses.

I’m getting fucking married to that sharp son-of-a-bitch, I thought.  (Just because I was getting married didn’t mean I was going to stop thinking and talking like a drunken sailor.)

Unbearably blue sky stretched for miles around and above us.  Everyone said not to do it there since the fog would take over; it always did.  But here we were, the sun a white spot, rays like spotlights; they casted long shadows on the sand, tinting us in Technicolor.  The beach, our friends, the paragliders, the cliffs, the roaring ocean, the howling wind through the dunes–this was hyperreality.

Ten of us clustered in a carved-out cove in the cliffs, shielding us from the wind.  Christine’s blue-and-green watercolored dress also was blown around by the wind; we unintentionally had matching sunglasses in different colors.  Our friends stood near us, and Sue, John’s cousin who is a San Francisco judge, stood in front of us.  We clasped hands.  I started crying, gulping air and trying to say the words.  The wind blew tears away, and Christine kept handing me tissues.  John started crying, which he never does.  We kissed.

After, our friends threw rose petals at us in the wind, some dodging us gracefully, others smacking us right in the face and sticking to still-damp cheeks.  We opened another bottle of champagne and passed it around before signing our documents on the trunk of a car.    The fog had not yet rolled in, and we left the sand dunes, the winds to our backs and sun in our faces, blue sky miles and miles above us.

E is for Epicure

The Silver Palate Cookbook (Original)

When I was in my early teens, I bought the Silver Palate Cookbook.  This book was so far from my childhood reality of tuna noodle casseroles and chicken chow mein; the instructions promised color and beauty and, above all, flavors I never imagined.  Even the ingredient lists read like poetry.  But how I learned to cook is still a bit of a mystery.

I often helped my grandmother make dinner, but she was the one who decided what we would eat.  My mother does not cook; were she to live alone, I imagine she would live off grocery store iced cake, and possibly some Stouffer’s “frozen entrees”.

Broccoli was covered in Cheez-Wiz.  Vegetables came out of a can or out of a bag from the freezer.  Mashed potatoes came out of a box.  Sauces came out of packets.  There were a few notable exceptions (like the occasional beef stew or roast), but food was packaged and salty.  At the time, I had no idea we were poor.  When I went to college, I realized most of my friends did not live off this kind of food, and many had parents who embraced the religions of The Joy of Cooking and The Moosewood Cookbook.

Food, I now know, is the best indicator of a family’s socio-economic status.  A can of tuna fish would, with some celery and Miracle Whip, feed the three of us.  A can of Campbell’s tomato soup, six slices of buttered bread and three or four slices of American cheese singles would be a comforting weekend lunch.  Cooking from scratch often required more ingredients, leading to a costly grocery bill; without culinary skills, making food from scratch was even more unlikely.  We were poor.

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D is for Dog: A Love Story

Hamming it up on her first day home

A funny black-and-white dog stared up at us with with huge brown eyes. Tandy was in her own little pen, because she fought with all of her previous “roommates.” The shelter, more like a doggie spa than the traditional picture of sad pound pups in cages, put dogs in their own little rooms; floors could be heated, toys and blankets everywhere. The saddest of the sad finally had a chance. Tandy looked up at us as we opened the top of the split door, and jumped up to put her paws on the ledge. She had a ridiculously long body and short legs, and a big head. Her eyes and ears were surrounded by black fur; half of her long snout was black and the other side was white. The white streaked up the middle of her face, and then there was a little white blaze on the top of her head. Her stomach looked like a cow belly–pink and white with dark gray spots.

She gazed at us with human eyes. About three years old, she looked like she may have had puppies early; she was rescued from a kill shelter in Georgia, had a mild case of heartworms, and had been at the shelter for far longer than any of the other dogs there at that time. She is a funny mix of corgi, border collie, and possibly some hound.

She didn’t bark, or jump around, she just stared at us, and stretched her neck and her long snout towards us. Hello, she seemed to say. I’m here. You can pet me if you want. She was reserved, wary. We took her into the playroom. She was disinterested in toys, but when I sat down, she plopped down next to me and leaned on me. She didn’t fuss, she didn’t wag, she just leaned on me. And looked up at me. Continue reading

C is for City

“…quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”  —  Joan Didion

My mother and my aunt talked nervously in the taxi.  I tuned out and thought about how the taxi was yellow and checkered, like in the movies.  My mother and aunt were to help me move into my summer home in NYU dorms, but this was more for them than it was for me, it seemed.  I would have gone by myself if I could, but that was not going to happen.  We rushed out of the tunnel, into the barely-there light streaming through the tall buildings.  I craned my neck to look up and I saw a small patch of blue in between the skyscrapers.  I didn’t feel confined; I felt free. Continue reading

B is for Blond

It all began even before the break-up, but a five-hour screaming match in front of the campus library marked the grand finale of a yearlong mistake. He yelled at me the whole time, telling me I was crazy, that this was not working.  I did not disagree.  I begged him not to go.  (I hate that girl still.)

Weeks later, I decided something did need to change.  My honey-colored hair skimmed the middle of my shoulder blades.  In a salon’s mirror, I saw hair that was dirty, limp, lifeless. I slumped down in her chair, nineteen feeling like ninety-nine. I could only see what someone longer wanted.  The stylist started painting my hair with nostril-burning purple cream.  Two hours later, I saw bangs, and a short yellow bob, hyper-defined against the blurred face.

The nape of my neck was exposed, and I was struck by how cold the air was, how I could feel it so much in that small spot. Continue reading

A is for Annandale

My mother and grandmother would always say, “You’re not from Annandale.  You’re from Alexandria.”  Our zip code straddled the invisible line from Alexandria city and Fairfax County.

Even back then I knew that the distinction they made was something they told themselves to feel better.

I’m from Annandale.  Actiondale.  Nowadays, K-Town, home of the best Korean B-B-Q you’re going to get around D.C.

People ask where in D.C. I’m from, and if they’re from the area, they’ll ask, “Where did you go to high school?”  The D.C. natives who went to public school only know the city public schools.  The D.C. natives who went to the prep schools only know the prep schools.  The kids from Fairfax County usually say, “Ooooh.”

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