Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil

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The Voices Told Her So


Photo by Patrice Molinard

August 28th, 1965

Ana looked at her son’s white denim pants and wanted the grass and the blood to go away. No matter what the television commercials told her, no matter how many magazines advertised the wonders of laundry detergent, the grass stains created by a violent fall to the ground and the blood that came at the hands of other boys who didn’t understand her son’s pain made her freeze with anger.

The voices screamed in her head. They told her she couldn’t erase the hatred. They told her his anger was her fault. The voices shouted that his biological father was right to leave her for another woman, that he was  right to replace the clothes in her closet with the wardrobe of another woman’s.

The voices told her that being a single mother with a career and fulfilling her dreams of a store filled with her own fashion was selfish.

“Look at your son!”  The female voice said. “He hates you for not being there for him, back when you spent your days in a working in a store. He hates you for putting your dreams before him. He hates you for leaving Havana. He hates you for bringing him into a world where everyone hates him for his accent”.

The voices crowded her head. She told them to shut up, but they wouldn’t. The grass stains and the blood glared at her.

Then she heard the words, “Gasoline will take out those stains.”

It was a voice with a melodious tone, as if she heard it on the radio in between songs.  All the other voices stopped, letting this voice say it out loud, again and again. “Gasoline will take out those stains.” It grew louder and softer, as if the voice was teasing her. Then it became a jingle, sounding like the the Texaco commercials on the radio.

The black hole. The nothingness after an explosion. The silent black screen in between commercials. The gasket was blown, the fuse destroyed. After that moment, she was unaware of what she was doing.

She threw her daughters diapers into the machine. She threw back her son’s soiled wet jeans into the lid of the washing machine. The previous load filled with her husband’s shirts were turning and drying in the dryer. The hissing sound of the pilot light flame beneath the machine sounded off.

She thought of the plantains she had so longed to make, but the local store did not have plantains to buy. She longed for the soft, sweet corn flavor of a tamale in a banana leaf, and Arros Con Pollo, papaya shakes and Cuban steak sandwiches, pork marinaded in vinegar and garlic. He mouth watered for the kitchen of her childhood, the cool tiles on a hot day where she’s lay her head down. Her mother’s kosher work space, but her mother often turned a blind eye to tradition.

But now there’s  Rice a Roni and Julia Child recipes. She learned how to make ‘Chicken a la King’ from the Ladies Home Journal. She tried her hand at Cherry Rouss and Baked Alaska. Her new husband was delighted. They were made to perfection, but they weren’t as good a the caramel flan she made with dozens of eggs, condensed milk and burned sugar.

She didn’t remember going to the garage. She couldn’t recall the moment she saw the canister of gasoline her husband had bought earlier in the day to fuel the lawn mower for his afternoon of yard work. Her nose didn’t smell the acrid, dreamy smell of Sunoco’s premium regular as  she poured it on the stubborn grass marks and those pesky blood stains.

Anita had things to do. She had to wax the kitchen floor. She had to feed the baby. She had to wash the dirty grimy jeans off the knees of her growing son who was getting dirtier and smellier every day as hormones created a miniature version of the man she married when she was eighteen, whose face was ripped off of every old family photo, who name was erased from records and family mementos.  Anita had to erase the dirt because that’s what commercials said. That’s what the Readers Digest said.

She didn’t remember the moment the gas touched the white jeans. The dryer flashed the pilot flame as the gas touched the fabric. There was a quick roar and everything went white.

She wondered where the baby was.

In her cradle.

She wondered where her son was.

With the neighbors.

Her brother was with her husband, in a car following the ambulance.  Her sister in law took her own children and left the house, bound for Bay Ridge after the trucks left.

It ended there. The white jeans and the stains didn’t matter. Hospitals and skins graphs, insurance coverage and lives blown apart and put back together again all in the name of love.

And so it began. Life within the aftermath.



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That Feeling of Deja Vu on a Thursday

Thursday. It’s the Thursday of a slow and difficult week in terms of accomplishing my writing goals. Perhaps it’s the late summer doldrums. My body is still stuck in childhood, when summers were spent watching morning television, reading books from the library, discovering music, playing with friends and going to the local public pool. As an adult, I’m stuck in a routine of office work, and trying to get a Friday or Monday off during the hot months to keep my sanity.

Sticking to my writing goals. Trying to write at least 1000 usable words for the book inspired by my mother’s life in Cuba called “The Sea Around”. It will be part one of a trilogy inspired by the stories of, not only my mother, but my father’s life as well.

But first, Havana. My mother’s voice is over my shoulder. It feels like she’s saying, “You have to tell my story first! Write a book about me!” So, I spend some time each today writing about, and researching a country I’ve never been to.

In recent years, Cuba has slowly opened its doors to tourists from America. It’s quite tempting to sign up for a tour of Havana, my mother’s home city. My intent would be to absorb the culture, the heat, the energy, the despair – to follow the footsteps of my mother’s life told in darkened rooms during her depressed evenings, stories that hang like myths in my imagination. Yet, the prices for tours are expensive. For a country so poor, I have to wonder where all that money is going. Ethics win out over financial draw backs for me. I decide to stay put in my current home of Los Angeles, and live vicariously and without abandon on Google Maps. Tourist shots of calles and avenidas paint a picture of my mother’s neighborhood in Miramar. The map gives me a vision of her landscape.

While coming across various street shots of the shabby Victorian buildings, mixed with shattered shacks and contemporary apartments, some crumbling, others well maintained, it struck me how much Havana looks like Echo Park in Los Angeles. The blue skies and open horizons beyond the shallow rooftops. Tired palm trees line the streets. Some of them pop up in random places. Run down cars and jalopy pick up trucks so old and rusted, I can practically hear the music from ‘Sanford and Son’ playing as I imagine the sound of creaking shock absorbers crying for help while holding together bouncing bald tires.

It reminds me of how pockets of Los Angeles remind me of New York – my home state. Just like a residential street in Havana looks like a side street near Elysian Park, L.A., there is a corner north west of La Brea and Beverly Boulevard that makes me feel like I’m back on Central Avenue in Hartsdale, New York, near what is know as “The Four Corners”. Both locations have a brick apartment building in the same spot. Both have gas stations nearby. Hartsdale’s corner has a Dunkin Donuts to it’s right, followed by the famous Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. The corner in Los Angeles has a strip mall with a major Kosher store that caters to the large Hasidim community that surrounds the region. Slightly altered specifics, but it still embodies the same energy – the same feeling – like I’m back home where my parents lived before they died four years ago. Back in familiar territory, where only a decade ago, my adult summers were enjoyed on weekends, away from my place in the city, back in Westchester County. That’s  where I hung out by my parents’ condo pool, and befriended my now distant friend Marie. It’s where I found out about the local condo politics and listened to family stories spoken by neighbors with open hearts. It’s where I met my sweet, disturbed friend Eamonn (who inspired some of the stories in my forthcoming October book), who calls me once in a while to tell me about his progress in life.

Different places in separate states or countries – yet they conjure the same feeling. Home is everywhere.

Fathers And Cousins

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Fathers And Cousins

“I even remember the day . He made me feel so special and loved. I always knew he cared. And in a world where most of the adults were worried about their own shit, I always felt like my uncle was always there.”

This is a photo of my soon-to-be-father and my cousin Michele, taken in the spring of 1961. The quote above is from her. This picture happened before he met my mother, and obviously, before I was born. The photo was shot by my uncle Charles, his brother, on an afternoon outing in area known as the Cloisters, located along the cliffs of the Hudson, north of Manhattan.

The moments in between grief are consumed with every day, ordinary matters. Thoughts fly, and responsibilities keep you grounded to the day to day. But the moment your sorrow invites itself into your room and interrupts your denial, and shakes you by the shoulders to remind you of the space in your heart, all breathing stops. The heart sinks.

I discovered this photo for the first time in my life, several months after my father died. It was an ordinary evening, during one of those moments in between grief. The TV was on, dinner was finished, thoughts and plans for tomorrow occupied my mind. My uncle, who was also handling the anguish of losing his big brother, sent me this photo of my young father holding my cousin. All at once, the waves of sadness and resignation that came and went in the recent months, culminated into a tidal wave of heartbreak. It came crashing while I wasn’t looking. It slapped me down and held me there, as I gasped for breath between tears and heavy heart. It had been fine for a while after my father left this world. But each day since, the waves grew bigger and louder until the moment I saw this photo, of my young, single dad-to-be, full of love for a hurting niece, with a whole life of love, sadness, pride, happiness, anger, sadness, fury, resignation and beauty before him. The years drained away until he grew old and ill. His last days alone, likely thinking of the young man he once was, and the old man he had become.

My father was a child of the holocaust, escaping capture by the Nazis thanks to the Catholic church who took him and his brother into their orphange. They were hidden children. When he came to America, he became the all American man. He made his way through New York University by waiting tables and taking odd jobs. He served in the Army during the Korean conflict, but never saw a day of combat. He became a manager at IBM and remained there for thirty five years. He married my mother, and they had me. Only me.