By Tad Wojnicki
(Earlier version published in Sugar Mule)
"Los Angeles anyone?" the Dean asks. "Rep the college at a rally?”
Igor and Lidka, my Polish college buddies, cross my mind. They'd settled in Los Angeles. Shouldn’t I visit them? Now, at Christmas?
I already smell the mushroom-stuffed pirozhkes, Ukrainian borsht, and the honey-noodles with poppy seeds. I see myself carrying a bottle of cognac for him, a bunch of red roses for her, and a gold-embossed box of marzipans for the kids. But this time, not to drink ourselves unconscious—just smoothe the starched table-cloth, light the candles, rehash old jokes, laugh off some of our dumb dreams, and toast the beauty of all the ladies present. That's all.
I dial Igor's number.
"Hello?" I howl. I want to whisper, but I howl, I don't know why. "Igor?"
Igor has always been phlegmatic, but somehow I thought he would howl back.
"Remember me?" I yell. "It's Teddy, your hikig buddy, skiing bunny." I hear nothing, so I go on. "I'm going to a schmooze-fest, and guess where? To the City of Angels, of all places, and I'm wild about the chance to see you!"
I can hear Igor sucking in his cheeks.
"Something's wrong?" I ask.
"Nothing to write home about."
"You two, guys, are splitting, or something?"
"So what the hell are you pissed off about?"
"Lidka would kill me if I invited you to crash for the night,” Igor says.
“I said nothing of crashing for the night,” I say. I hoped for it, though. I admit it. I'm offended he knew what I didn't say.
"Call when you fly in," he adds, and hungs up.
This morning, I fly in.
At the terminal, I sit by the phone, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Santa schleps gifts across all windows, blue skies in his eyes. People run in and out, yelling "Rapido, rapido!" and dragging bags, boxes, bundles. Schleppers do last-minute schlepping. Me, too. I get a bottle of Hennessy, a box of chocolates, and a bunch of roses.
I dial Igor's number. First, busy. Then, no answer. Then, busy again. Then, it goes dead. Finally, it rings, rings, and rings. What's going on? Are they out? Doing their last-minute schlepping? Or, are they in, baking, cooking, mixing--even calling out, but never taking a call, knowing it's me? Sour acid foams in the back of my throat. My abs start to spasm. I'm not eating, hoping to lick Lidka's pans.
Outside the windows, the sun is setting. Santa's eyes look bloodshot. I no longer care about crashing for the night. Or, pigging out on the Christmas specials. If I take the red-eye to Monterey, I'll be beachcombing at sunrise. Tomorrow, instead of doing a cockamamie rally, I'll be hugging the bay, hiking the hills, fressing fried fish and slurping smoothies. But I look at the Hennessy, the chocolates, and the roses, and I feel I would miss something.
The night has fallen.
Finally, I hear Lidka's voice. Outside, the stars sting Santa's eyes like tears. I hold the phone in a white-knuckle grip. In the background, I hear happy people, singing and clinking glasses.
"I'd invite you," she says. "But we have fish for four people, no more."
"Whadd'ya serving, angelfish?" I ask. Had I known, I would have sent them a fish bowl.
"You know what, Teddy?" Lidka says. "Why don't you fly by right after we eat?"
Big lump is getting stuck in my throat. "Never mind," I say, swallowing hard, but then, I think again. What if they hurt for cash? I hurt for friends who hurt. Saying "no" is cruel.
"Wouldn't you try the finger-licking-yummy cake that has taken me the whole of the day to bake?" she says. "Jews eat cake, what?"
In the background, heavens break loose. I hear whispers, giggles, a few snickers, and finally, a horse-laugh, and I wonder why Igor, my old buddy, isn't getting to the phone to talk to me. The fish is sticking to the pan, I guess.
"So you'll hop right over, what?"
I think of the poppy-seeds ground with cocoa dust and mixed with honey. Gooey and sticky. Syrupy, even. I can almost touch the moist raisins and black-meat dates my Mama spiked her tzimmes with. I'm getting weak, just by remembering. I ache to sing, drink, wish well. Be with them. With the old pack. Right now. But, there's something spoiling the goodies --t he acid in the back of my throat.
I hang up.
I ride a bus past brightly-lit restaurants, cafes, houses of the residential area. I see people at the tables, drinking, eating, and singing. They are being watched by people hiding in the dark. Not just the homeless. Often, people with a place to go, but no one to go with.
At midnight, I am on a flight home. The jet is getting higher and higher. I feel strange. Instead of pirozhkes, borsht, noodles and poppy-seed cake, I'm wolfing down a fish snack, and washing it down with cognac. The higher I get, the stranger I feel.
Earlier version published in Sugar Mule
About the Author:
Tad Wojnicki holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and an M.A. in English/Creative Writing.
He is the author of a factual novel, Lie Under the Fig Trees (1996), a flash chapbook
Under the Steinbeck Oak (2004), and he lives in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, where he
leads "poetry powwows" on the beach and teaches "Write Like A Lover!" workshops