Jaguar

My first husband, Leo, was rich. Actually he sold his saxophone after medical school to buy passage on a ship sailing to the States. He was handsome, worldly, and intelligent, but eventually success went to his head.

At one point we were traveling a lot, and of course, always first class. After a time in fashionable resorts I thought it might be a good idea to interject a bit of culture into our travels, and that is how we ended up at the great Mayan city of Palenque.

At that time Palenque was still surrounded by unspoiled jungle, and perhaps it still is. There was a small town a few miles from the site where the local people lived. We stayed at a hotel on a hill where the air circulated more freely than in the lowlands.

We arrived accompanied by our driver in the afternoon, and were profusely greeted by the kind staff who had prepared our room. By now, Leo was accustomed to staying in penthouses and presidential suites, and was having none of the ordinary room above the restaurant in the main house. And so the bellhop picked up our luggage, and led us to the annex far from any disruptive noises. I should mention that a low fence ran along the edge of the property, and just beyond that was the forest. Leo wanted to stay on the top floor which was closed due to lack of tourism, but eventually settled for two rooms at the farthest end of the building— one for each of us so that we would not have to share a bath.

When there is no moon or electricity to light the surroundings, night is profoundly dark, and can be disorienting to city people unused to wilderness. It is almost impossible to tell where sounds are coming from, and how far away they are.

After dinner, Leo invited me to his room to read aloud from a guidebook about the site. Shortly into my reading, the great silence outdoors, during day a din of animal noise, was interrupted by the lowing of a cow.

‘Funny, I thought the village was some distance away,’ I said, ‘ But it sounds as if  the cow is right on the other side of the fence!’ The cow lowed again and again until it was bellowing. And then we heard it, the unmistakable roar of a jungle cat. You have probably heard this in zoo or in the movies, but when you experience it in real life, it can cause quite a shock.

The cow was clearly bait for the cat. The cat roared again and again. We then heard some excited talk, and a few rifle shots followed by utter silence. Naturally, we mourned the cat like true city folk.

By then I had finished reading, and was ready to return to my room. Leo in jest said he would make sure the coast was clear. Opening the door, he rapped on the metal frame and called, ‘Here kitty, kitty.’

When that animal roared out of the darkness, Leo leapt several feet backwards, and slammed the door. I had never known a human being could jump like that. We had no idea where the cat was, but it seemed as if it was staking out the grounds directly in front the annex. We spent the night cowering at the back end of the room since the large picture window had a mosquito screen over it but no pane.

The next morning when we went to breakfast, I asked the waiter what had happened to the cat. Suddenly the entire staff of the hotel materialized, and insisted that there had never been and never would be a jaguar anywhere in the vicinity. But that evening, lamps were lit around the entire perimeter of the property.

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Meat

The first friend I made at Optima Views was a delightfully chatty, and brilliant Asian neighbor whom I’ll call, Atul. I came home and announced, ‘ Honey, there’s a gay Chinese dude in finance living across the hall. I finally feel confident that we’ve made a good investment in this building.’

In any case, we have become close over the years, had many parties, and have met lovely people through our association with Atul. But there are always favorites, and ours are a couple whom I’ll refer to as Paul and John.

Shortly after we met, they invited us to a fabulous party at their newly purchased condo. Atul and I were standing in a room full of gay men, discussing real estate, when Atul, in his slight accent announced, ‘ Lily I wish I had bought your condo instead. You have a view of the entire city skyline.’

In my best real estate manner, I said ‘ No Atul, you have a unique property. You have the biggest deck in the building.’

I think about a hundred heads swiveled around when Atul replied, ‘ I hate having a big deck. When you have a big deck everyone throws their butts on it.’ True story.

In any case, I had a great time, swilled enough liquor to kill a small pony and decided to have Atul, Paul and John over for dinner the next month.

I pondered the menu realizing that my new friends not only have great taste, but they like things that taste good.

I settled on a wild rice dish, and spinach salad garnished with cranberries and walnuts. I thought that pork loin would go well with this, but how to prepare it?

I finally found an old European recipe that called for an overnight marinade of juniper berries and herbs. I looked all over town for juniper berries, finally finding them at Jewel, the last place I thought to look. I should mention that wanting the best quality meat, I had purchased two pork loins from Whole Foods, which were priced twice as much as they would have been in any other store.

That evening after an entire day cleaning the apartment, I set the table beautifully. I don’t recall if I made a Tarte Tatin or a cheesecake for dessert, but by the time I got to the marinade, I was thoroughly exhausted.

I submerged the pork in the white wine and juniper medley in a Le Crueset pot, but as I was about to put it into the refrigerator, my husband made an appearance to pronounce the pot far to heavy for any of the glass shelves to hold.

My neighbor, Irena, a night owl, came by to second the opinion, and they decided that the balcony in mid-January would be a fine place to overnight the meat. I was skeptical but I’ve always had a bad habit of deferring to my elders, despite the limited age range and my own often repeated experience of needing to trust my own judgment.

Tired as I was, I overslept and awoke to find the weather had turned. The sun was blazing hot, and the temperature had risen to over fifty degrees, something completely unheard of in Chicagoland. I jumped out of bed, and ran to the balcony where I found pot and pork heated to a toasty bathwater temperature.

My husband who had been up for several hours, looked at me blankly when I asked why he hadn’t taken the meat indoors. I said some other things as well, none of which I would like to repeat here. In fact, I yelled my head off.

I’m generally not a cheap person but I had decided to take some time off from work in order to write full time and was on a budget.  I was dreading the thought of throwing all that money down the drain, and so I called my mother, a very experienced cook for an opinion.

You can serve it, sine’ (literally sonny in Serbian, but used by mothers to refer to children of both sexes regardless of how advanced in age they are).

I knew then I had to throw the meat out, since I’ve found it good policy to do the exact opposite of what my mother says, and I told her so.

I then sent my husband to Trader Joe’s for a new pork loin. In the meantime, my mother called back. ‘Sine,’ she said, ‘ Take dat pork out of garbage, and make for Mickey. I promise everrryting vill be okay.’ Up until then I had thought she liked him.

It was too late to make another marinade, so I seared the meat on the stove in garlic butter and olive oil and finished it by roasting it in the oven. Furious, drained and broke, I put on a false smile for my guests. In the end, dinner was pronounced a success by our kind friends, who would never suspect me of having a terrible temper. 

Ducks and Optimists

I live in a building called Optima Views, and I jokingly call the residents Optimists. Optima is supposed to be a green building, and on the fourth floor deck we have lawn and mature trees along with a swimming pool and fountain. The pool is big enough for toddlers to frolic in and the fountain is outsize, but hasn’t worked for several years. I would normally be upset about that fact, except that it has put an end to our duck problem.

The first year we moved in, a mother duck had made her nest somewhere in the bushes on our deck. It is the ideal place, safe from predators and traffic, human and vehicular. However duck intelligence being what it is, she didn’t foresee that after she had paraded the ducklings through the grass and into the fountain, they would be to small to be able to hop out, not yet having the wing capacity to fly. That was the season of baby duck death.

The following summer when she arrived, I vowed to do everything in my power not to be confronted with that sad spectacle ever again. And so when I realized that the ducklings were in the fountain, I never having lived outside the city in my adult life, called the fire department. The kindly fireman on the other end of the telephone line must have been used to dealing with all kinds of crazies, and so he patiently told me that really there was nothing that the fire department could do for me or the ducks, but maybe if I got into the fountain, and tried to catch them in a cooking pot I could save them. I knew that would never work since my pots are very heavy so I put on my bathing suit and grabbed a mesh colander.

I walked down to the fourth floor, promptly waded into the fountain, scaring off the mother duck, or so I thought. Actually she flew up to the trees where she would make lightning quick strikes at my head for the duration of my ordeal.

I rushed after the ducklings intending to scoop them up, but they scattered and swam underwater quicker than tadpoles. The mother duck took her first try at decapitating me while a nosy neighbor came out on her balcony demanding to know what I was doing with those ducklings. When I told her and asked for help, she turned her back and went into her condo without saying a word.

In the end I did manage to save the ducklings, and my husband built a wooden ramp so that I would not have to humiliate myself publicly every day. The ramp worked until a confirmed duck lover built little  steps out of concrete block which were not only much easier to use but significantly more attractive.

Each year we managed to raise about two or three ducks to adulthood, and it was always a pleasure to see them taking off in the fall down the the middle of Maple Street, their own private runway.

A couple of years ago we had a management group which hired a handy man as part of the full time staff. I will refer to him as Thor, since he was a strapping Scandinavian. I also should mention that the fountain had been leaking on cars in the garage below for some time.

As is my habit when I take a break from the computer, I looked out into the yard only to see Thor taking away the tiny step ladder while the sole remaining duckling was paddling around the fountain. I thought that perhaps he was cleaning it, but when I looked out an hour later, the duckling was still desperate to get out, the mother duck was agitated and running around the pond trying to coax him out, and the ladder was nowhere to be seen.

I marched downstairs, and catching sight of Thor, who must have been about six foot five, eleven inches taller than me, demanded to know what he had done with the ladder. Thor explained that the condominium board had ordered him to remove it since it was probably causing the leak. By now I was livid, and told him exactly what I thought of the compounded intelligence of the board, and the cause of the structural leakage. By the time I was finished with my tirade, Big Thor was white as a sheet. I marched upstairs, fuming. Just then my mother called.

‘ Mommy,’ I said, answering the phone, ‘ They’re killing the ducks,’ and promptly burst into tears. ‘ Who is killing ducks? ‘ she wanted to know. After I explained she said, ‘I vill call your seester right avay.’ My sister is famous for lodging complaints with the city for every infraction imaginable. Well, my sister called PETA, which put her in touch with a bird rescue organization in the area. Not long afterward, a tall German lady with a von in her name and a hawk in her car arrived in our lobby with a bird trap. However, even she declined to help when she saw how small the duckling was, stating it would not survive separated from its mother, and that there was no way she could capture a healthy, mature duck.

I was just going upstairs for the colander when Thor arrived with a wooden gangplank wrapped in terry cloth for the duckling, which immediately lept to safety. Mother and child were reunited, but not before I was chewed out by the board president for having frightened Thor.

New Car

My father’s first car in the United States was a golden Buick. He bought it fresh off the lot in 1968. The whole family went to pick it up. Our landlord had been planning to clean the garage out for us, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. So when we pulled up to the two-flat were we lived my father was delighted to see a parking space directly out front.

As he pulled in, the sound of crushed metal resounded, smersh.

HEEEEEE,’ It’s my mother from the backseat. I can’t reproduce this in print exactly, but it’s the sound of fear made on the inhale, and when I hear it I lose my reason entirely. The last time she produced it, I was a grown woman making Thanksgiving turkey for my husband’s family. ‘When did you put it in the oven?’ she asks ‘ Eight-thirty’ I reply.

HEEEEEEEE,’ she says, and whatever common sense I have flies right out the window. Despite the fact that I know that it takes seventeen minutes per pound, and that I have plenty of time, my heart starts pounding, and I overdo the bird.

She must have had the same effect on my father because he pulls forward abruptly, only to smash the front fender in. We all pile out of the car. He is red with fury, my mother is a nervous wreck, my is sister whining, I am laughing my head off. Both ends of the car are crushed like eggshells. My father takes one look at me, laughing, and slaps me upside the head.

Sometime later my father decides he will save money if he buys a car that gets better mileage, and so he trades the golden Buick for a red Fiat. The Fiat might be a great little car in its own country but during the interminable mid-western winters and flooded springs, it was a disaster from the first day. The first day, now infamous in family lore, was when he drove it over to my Uncle Steve’s house to show it off. As he was leaving, he put the car in reverse instead of drive, and promptly backed into my uncle’s Cadillac, narrowly missing Steve, who had to jump out of the way to avoid being killed.

‘ I thought he was playing around,’ was my uncle’s only comment on the situation.

I myself did not witness this. What I remember are summer days, driving without air conditioning in the sweltering heat to  fly ridden picnic grounds on beaches, and in forest preserves where my parents would meet their friends. Invariably, no one would remember to bring silverware or plates. They had fun though, the men playing soccer, the women chatting. As the only older child present, I would stalk about alone all afternoon, since I was pudgy and my mother thought I needed exercise, swatting mosquitoes, and scratching my already bitten flesh.

Returning home, my sister then a toddler, would always get car sick as we slowly made our way back amidst miles long colonnades of bumper- to- bumper Sunday traffic. Of course we could never open the windows to air out the stink because of the dreaded Yugoslav scourge, promaja or draft, as it is commonly known.

On one particular evening we were caught in a sudden downpour. Flash flood warnings were being issued as we hurriedly left the picnic grounds. We made good time until somewhere around Cumberland Avenue, when traffic began slowing down. The drivers stopped honking and didn’t seem nervous anymore. Instead they patiently waited to take their turn. I was curious as to the reason until we approached. Then I saw that a lake of water had pooled in the underpass and even the largest American cars were having trouble getting through it.

When our turn came, the Fiat started out bravely, and swishing through the water spluttered to a halt midway under the bridge. My father tried everything to start it up again, but was growing more and more impatient by the minute, evidenced by his reddening face and irritable demeanor. Having learned a lesson last time, I decided not to say anything.

Suddenly I heard my mothers dreaded, ‘ HEEEEEEEE!’  I looked down, and saw water flooding the inside of the car. As it poured in, my sister started screaming, my mother began offering up ideas, my father became more and more nervous, and bigger cars began to pass us by since the Fiat was small enough  for a tandem drive -by.

Needless to say, each time that happened, the Fiat would be deluged. We were stuck for some time, the water rising up to our seats until a kindly Black man parked in front of us, got out, chained our car to his and pulled the Fiat to dry land.

Black people were the only Americans who ever stopped to help us during our many car mishaps, which says a lot, considering Martin Luther King had been shot not too long before.

At the Beach With Mother

My mother is a very generous person. She likes to see that her children are living well even when times are hard. She always has a connection which will invariably help her score free tickets to cultural events, discounted designer clothing and incredible trips. So far I have accepted the clothing and the ballet tickets but turned down the trips. I passed on China and Egypt but when I saw the deluxe accommodations she had stayed at, and places she had visited, I felt more than a twinge of regret.

The truth is, I would have loved to see those sites, but I wasn’t sure that I could endure two non-stop weeks with Mother. So last winter, which was interminably long and unendurable, and after begging my husband to go with me to no avail, I broke down and booked a one week trip to the Mayan Riviera with Mother. Its not that I don’t have friends, I do, but owing to circumstances, no one could make the trip with me. My husband, less forgivably, loathes the beach. Of course, as Mother goes so does my sister, Layla, who never leaves her side.

I made a reservation at a beautiful old style resort with palapa roofs, left over from the days, not long past, when that part of the world was quiet and totally unspoiled. New hotels have grown up all around, as has the town, in my memory a sleepy little fishing village. With all the construction going on, people from all over Mexico have flocked to the area looking for work, bringing their habits with them. Unfortunately, this includes their animals, left homeless or allowed to wander around at will.

After we arrived we were assigned a beautiful casita close to the beach. We unpacked, went for a swim and a long walk along the shore. So far, so good, I thought. It was only after dinner that I was to get a preview of things to come when my mother made her first friend, a pregnant tabby that lived on the property. I love animals, they are pure and true and I have always preferred them to people. I love them but my mother is positively crazy about them. During World War II, she housed and fed twelve cats at a time when there was not enough food for people to eat. And so not having anything to give to the kitty, she began to audibly sigh and make empathic noises. Even when we were tucked in for the night, mother kept asking if we thought that the cat was still out there.

In the morning, before the sun rose, she was already up urging us onward. My sister merely rolled over, ignoring her, and I, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that the beach was cold until the sun came up and that the restaurant didn’t open until seven-fifteen, giving her about an hour and a half to kill.

As she herded us out the door at seven sharp, her true purpose was revealed. Her kitty, no stranger to the predilections of gringo tourists, was firmly ensconced on the restaurant steps. Seeing the buffet, Mother immediately hatched a plan. We would overload our plates, eat a bit and save the rest for kitty. This worked for me, since despite having a Mediterranean figure I have little appetite. My sister on the other hand, needs a lot of fuel. And so the second part of Mother’s plan was revealed. We would diet. Since breakfast and dinner were part of our package, we would skip lunch. My sister, looking at her in disbelief, picked a bunch of bananas off of the buffet.

‘No,’ Mother commanded, ‘ One banana for you Layla, two for Lil.’

I’ve always played well by myself, having been an only child for almost eight years. But my sister needs direction, or so my mother believes. However, she was going to make a valiant effort to break her habit and leave us alone. And so I arranged our lounges under the best palapas, spread out our towels, went for a swim, a walk, another swim, read my novel, and so on while my sister plopped herself right under the sun. By afternoon she was red as a lobster and by evening, one leg was swollen to twice its normal size due to sun poisoning. Mother saw that she was going to have to take charge after all.

That evening, we saved half our dinner for her cat, who knowingly, brought a friend to share the spoils. So began our regular routine of stealing food. This was intensified the next day. Walking up the beach a couple of miles we found a homeless dog who was living on a yet undeveloped property, and who followed us for some distance looking forlorn. At breakfast we had to pile even more food on our plates, particularly sausages and ham, since our dependents were multiplying. I hated to think what the waiters thought of us.

Additionally, Mother had taken to directing my sister, throughout the day. ‘ Layla, put sunscreen on, pull chair out of the sun, put chair in sun, get up take valk, go for swim, use towel to dry so you don’t catch cold,’ she intoned in a continuous drone.

At night when Layla is out of commission, she directs me, usually with a deep sigh; am I asleep, she wants to know. Not any more. Then we begin, air on, air off.  But when she says, ‘ Layla, I see you reading novel, why aren’t you studying French?’ I know I have to get away from them. I pull my chaise under the neighboring tree, out of earshot. Mother takes one look at me and says,  ‘Lil, that coconut vill fall on your head.’ I hope so, I think to myself.

That afternoon, Mother’s dog brings a friend, an emaciated bitch who has just given birth. Scandalized, Mother insists we walk to the grocery store for fresh meat and so we trek four miles under the blazing sun to town and back. The dogs are happy and gobble up the fresh meat while my mother moans with pity,‘ YOY, YOY, YOY, Vat vil hapin to dem ven ve go avay?’ she asks.

That’s when I blow my stack. In truth I too am worried but I don’t say that. Instead I tell her that she has obsessive- compulsive disorder. She waits until my tirade is over and says with great dignity, ‘Lil, you have bad temper, just like Daddy.’

When we get back to our spot on the beach, there is a bird cawing in my coconut tree, ‘Do you tink dat brrrd is hungry?’ she asks. It’s hopeless, and I resign myself.

At the airport my sister says that she had a really good time, I say so too. Mother hesitates, ‘It vas good. But next time I go vit my grrrlfrrends.’