My Life in the Gulag

My life in the Gulag

My father was loud and he was tall. He smoked a lot and always smelled of smoke. He didn’t bathe every day. He said that dirt was good for his immune system, all kids should play in alleys, and less shampooing prevented baldness. He was often sweaty and his blackish-red thinning hair matted down on top of his olive skinned head. He wore Fruit-of-the-Loom white v-neck t-shirts splattered and stained with red marinara and gold olive oil. He wore V-neck shirts because he feared choking. Crew necks went in the garbage. The palms of his large, round, hands, that he often held my smaller ones with, had long life and love lines filled with blue chalk. His eyes were black as night. I used to think he could see in the dark – like a leopard stalking its prey. Or later, like the giant eyes watching the valley of ashes in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby- omnipotent, sometimes sad and disappointed, but very very much alive. His eyes contained a rich vocabulary which easily translated into any language. His eyes could convey anything he needed them to, especially in an emergency or across a room to a backer if he was hustling. His false front teeth, bought in an alley through the dental black market and necessary after an often retold childhood swimming pool accident, would occasionally dislodge after sucking the marrow off the corner of a pan fried pork chop bone or from chewing white gelatinous grizzle which he claimed was as scrumptious as foie gras. He had a broad, barrel chest, warming you quickly in an embrace, and before Run DMC, wore multiple, thick gold necklaces easy to throw down into the pot during a Pinochle game or across a pool table if he ran out of cash to gamble with. If he was home, he would put his thick glasses above his head while reading a book close to his face and occasionally bite his nails. He claimed reading without his glasses(he was near sighted) would relieve him of needing reading glasses in old age. He was right. My brother and I both bit our nails, as did our mother. I don’t know if it was out of nerves, mimicking our elders, or genetics, that we followed in their footsteps. I tend to think of it as one way to control oneself, or their environment. I was forever trying to control chaos both outside of my body and on the inside. I like to think of my young family as sitting atop the giant rocks at the Lion house at Lincoln Park Zoo. My father, with his giant mane and strong, furry tail, pacing back and forth, restless from the domesticity, roaring at strangers, protective, yet scaring the shit out of everyone looking at us. And us. My brother and I, smaller, slightly smarter, wiser, more observant, licking our paws obsessively, and fearful of the giant chasm at the end of the green grass, separating us from the humans staring at us, taking pictures, pointing. I could see them, and they could see us, but no matter how hard I racked my brain, I would never be able to solve the great problem of making it safely across the ditch and over to the other side, the better side, or so I thought. I tortured myself with longing and deep, deep desire to be a part of a crowd, any crowd, other than ours. I was a traitor to our pride. My mother, a beautiful lioness, lied helplessly at my father’s side, having officially given up on escape. Then, my father would expel another giant roar causing me to shiver with fear and close my eyes waiting for it to end, as I started licking my paws again until I felt clean, I could never feel clean enough, and until my stomach returned to normal. It was always my stomach which hurt first.

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