Passive transformation

SanFrancisco Bay Guardian – Literary Supplement
Feb 24 2005

Fiction ’05 honorable mention
Passive transformation

Mira Martin-Parker

I GET UP everyday at six. I drag myself from bed, shower, make
coffee, and then dress for work. I am always on the 8:15 train. I’ve
never missed it and I’ve never been late, ever.

[You probably think I’m fucked up. You probably think it would do me
good to wake up late one morning – to just for fun call in sick. But
that can’t happen. That can never happen.]

By eight forty-five I’m ascending the stairs of the Powell Street
Station, making my way to the department store where I work. I love
watching the pedestrian traffic downtown, but I don’t let myself
linger. I move on, weaving quickly through the crowd. As I said, I’ve
never been late, not even once.

[My first boyfriend was a thirty-seven year old Persian. He just
moved here from Iran and had a hundred grand in the bank. We’d meet
at a café in a strip mall near my high school. I liked to ditch class
and hang out there, drinking coffee and reading. Actually, I wasn’t
really reading, just carrying around books from my father’s library.
I wanted to read them. I wanted to be the kind of person who
understood things. But I could never concentrate on the pages. My
mind was always wondering. I couldn’t hold it still. I couldn’t keep
from staring out the window, daydreaming.]

The employee entrance is at the end of a long, filthy alley. People
live back there. I see them every morning, sleeping on old blankets.
I dash by them, trying not to look, trying not to notice the tattered
belongings they keep stuffed in bags. I don’t like to see the bottles
and cigarette butts that surround them. As soon as I reach the back
door, security buzzes me in.

[I was sixteen when I met the Persian. At the time I was living in a
house way out on a lonely highway in the Central Valley. My dad left
my brother and me there with no money and three large dogs to feed.
He said he had business to take care of in Los Angeles – he had to
sell an antique tribal weaving, or a Pre-Colombian stone carving, or
perhaps it was the Turkish runner that used to line our hallway. Two
months went by and he still had not returned.

First they turned the electricity off, which wasn’t so bad because
there were candles. Then the phone was disconnected, which we could
deal with because there was a mini-mart a mile down the road. But
there came a point when we actually began to starve. I met the
Persian just in time. “You need money, don’t you?” he said, noticing
that I always paid for my coffee in change. When he picked me up in
his Mercedes, I had my clothes packed in grocery bags. I threw them
in the trunk and we drove away. My brother stood on the front porch

Once safely inside the employee entrance, I pick up my keys from
security. I then go straight to my office, turn on the computer,
powder my nose, and comb my hair.

[When the Persian’s ex-wife decided to come to the U.S. for a visit,
I was asked to leave. I didn’t want to go back to the house on the
highway, so he set me up with a studio apartment in the old part of
town. He covered the bills for a few months, but soon he started
cruising the pretty young actress that lived next door to me. They
would go out for coffee together in the morning and sometimes meet
for drinks at night. She enjoyed coming over and telling me all about
his advances, about the pretty Indian earrings he had given her and
the promise he had made to take her to Italy one day. When he stopped
paying my rent altogether, I got myself a job selling dresses in a
small boutique. I earned just enough to cover my bills and buy
cigarettes. But I soon discovered that if I wore make-up and high
heels, I could pass for an adult, so I started going out at night.
That’s when I met the Armenian.]

Usually by ten I’m ready to collect the orders. First I check with
furnishings and shoes. Then I make my way to the suit department. The
guys up there like to joke around, asking me things like when am I
going to get married or go out with them and what the heck is wrong
with me anyway that I’m such a loner and a quiet girl and why don’t I
ever have some fun after work, just once?

[The Armenian picked me up one night in a bar when I was out drinking
with a friend. To be honest, it was actually me who picked him up. He
was my type – tall, wearing an expensive suit and a heavy pair of
wingtips. I said something about liking his shoes and we started
talking. Within a week I was living with him. The first night at his
apartment he asked me to make him dinner. I was petrified. He ate
differently than I. He wanted his meat cooked in richly spiced
sauces. He wanted his vegetables prepared the way his mother back
home made them – lightly par boiled, a squeeze of lemon and some
yogurt on the side. What did I know of making such dishes? The best I
could do was a pot of rice and some sautéed zucchini. As soon as he
discovered I was useless around the house, he wanted me out. But he
was too ashamed to admit it. He felt he had assumed an obligation in
taking me in and he bore it. Not like a stoic though. He still fucked
me when he was drunk and he drank heavily. But the message was clear
– I was a burden.]

By eleven I’m back downstairs in my office. Before processing the
orders, I check over the employee timecards from the previous day.
The manager likes me to report to Human Resources anyone who punches
in over five minutes late. My co-workers despise me for this. When I
enter the lunchroom, the place immediately gets quiet and one by one
people leave. Once everyone’s left, I shut off the TV and read.

[During the day I attempted to fix up the Armenian’s place. I went to
the Salvation Army and picked up some furniture. I found a chartreuse
vinyl chair and some cool ceramic lamps. I even started experimenting
in the kitchen. I bought cookbooks and learned a few recipes. I made
baked chicken with rice pilaf. I could do it, I told myself. I could
be a good wife. But at the end of the day, he’d just laugh at the
things I bought. “Where I come from, we throw that old shit out.” My
cooking was never right either. “You poor girl,” he’d say. “Didn’t
your mother teach you anything?”]

Once I’ve processed the orders, I pick up the completed ones from the
receiving room. The receiving workers are a rough, alcoholic bunch. I
handle them carefully. If they say to come back later, I turn and
leave. If they say they need coffee before they can help me, I go and
get them coffee. I do what I have to to get my orders filled. After
signing for the packages, I return to my office and match the
merchandise with the forms.

[I was finally able to escape from the Armenian and move to San
Francisco. Actually, he paid me to leave. One Saturday morning he
loaded me up in his car and drove me to the city. He found me a
furnished room in an apartment building downtown. It had a nice view
overlooking the street and a charming little walk-in closet. He then
helped me arrange my things. We hung all my dresses and coats in the
closet and folded my sweaters and put them in the drawers. Later we
went to the store and he bought me a pound of freshly ground coffee,
a loaf of bread, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker black label.
Afterwards he handed me an envelope with three thousand dollars in it
and left.]

I leave work promptly at five. Once I find a seat on the train, I sit
and read. I have a stack of books at home that I’m slowing making
headway on. Mostly philosophy. I’m half way through the Critique of
Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. I like to imagine myself as embodying
the categorical imperative. I don’t even allow myself to think things
that can’t be universalized [Obviously I do, but these thoughts have
not been consented to, they just come – I do not choose them].

Once home, I slip into my house clothes and pour myself a beer. I
only have one, except on weekends, when I have exactly two a night.

[The first night in my room it was so cold I used one of my vintage
coats as a blanket. I lay in bed shivering. I could hear men and
women passing by my door laughing and the scratchy sound of mice
scampering inside the walls.

I did OK for a few months. I got a job in a dress shop on Fillmore. I
worked during the day, drank myself out of existence at night, and
somehow managed to get by. But I was starting to wear down a little.
I’d wake up late, my head throbbing and my clothing strewn about the
room. The first thing I’d look for was my wallet – the money was
always gone; spent or lost somewhere the night before.]

At eight I make dinner, usually steamed vegetables with brown rice.
Sometimes, as a treat, I indulge in an avocado salad. I eat in
silence, reading Kant, occasionally glancing out the window into my
neighbor’s apartment. I am in bed by nine.

[One day I forgot to show up for work and my boss fired me. I was
seriously in debt at the time and on the verge of being evicted from
my room.

That night I cried myself to sleep. I cried myself into a state of
hysteria. I cried until there was nothing left to cry. I wept so
violently the gods couldn’t tolerate it any longer. “Look,” Father
Zeus said, placing a hand on my shoulder, “from now on I will take
care of you. Only, you must do exactly as I say, and never, not even
once, deviate from my orders.”]

. . .

One morning when I boarded the train there were two homeless people
sleeping on the seats, a teenage boy and a young woman. The boy had
an Afro. Not the kind of cool Afro kids get to annoy their parents,
but the kind of Afro people have when they can’t afford to take care
of their hair properly. There were no other seats, so I sat next to
them. The boy’s arms were tucked inside his T-shirt and he was
shivering. I looked over at the girl. A blanket partially covered her
face. At her feet were several shopping bags filled with clothes. I
quickly turned away and the young boy saw me – he was staring
straight at me. I tried to avoid his gaze, but he kept looking. Soon
tears formed in his eyes.

I tried to concentrate on my book, but I couldn’t. The letters and
paragraphs were swirling together, melting into a gray blur on the
page. My mind drifted and soon I was staring out the window. Cherry
trees filled with white blossoms lined the street outside and their
petals were blowing in the wind like snow. Underneath them, a little
blond boy was running and laughing. I waved to him as we passed, but
he didn’t see me. He just kept running and laughing, reaching into
the air, trying to catch the petals.