winter(verb)

Laryssa Wirstiuk is a writer and writing instructor based in Jersey City, NJ. She teaches writing and digital media at Rutgers University – New Brunswick. Her collection of short stories The Prescribed Burn won Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards (Mainstream Fiction category). Her writing has been published in IthacaLit, Hamilton Stone Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature and is forthcoming in Barely South Review. You can view all her work here: http://www.laryssawirstiuk.com.

 

the first two portions of this suite http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/contests/instafriend-california/

 

Burial Ground

At 30,000 feet, I was reading about destruction. I admit: it’s not the most pleasant subject matter for someone who’s facing her fear by confronting it. But I needed a plan, before landing, for how I could burn away everything that had been holding me back: frustrated relationships, insecurity about my career path, a temporary creative block.

More specifically, I was in love with someone who didn’t love me back. And from this man I was seeking approval that I should have been giving myself. I should have been enough, and I was taking this trip to remind myself.
With nothing but atmosphere between me and the Earth, I was studying Awakening Shakti, a book that introduces readers to female Hindu goddesses. Kali, I was learning, is a goddess who represents creation and renewal, which can only happen when a person destroys whatever is keeping her from growth. In New Jersey – my origin – my heart and creative energy had become as lifeless and cold as the mid-January freeze.

When I arrived at the following words, by Swami Vivekananda, I opened my mouth and closed the book: “The heart must become a burial ground.” I would need to lay everything dead and dying inside me to rest, and my heart would need to swell and grow in order to do that. I couldn’t just discard these things outside of myself, ignoring them. Instead, I would have to keep the decomposing pain inside me forever, honoring it.

When I landed at Los Angeles International Airport, where the temperature was about 40 degrees warmer than in Newark, I picked up a rented Hyundai Sonata and anticipated spending the next few days like a child’s lost and forgotten summer toy – a miniature water gun, perhaps – captured in a block of ice, waiting for the heat to melt it into being.

 

Instafriend

I peeled off the layers – a sweater, a hat, and heavy socks – that had kept me warm that morning and on the air-conditioned plane, and I considered what to do with my new sense of weightlessness. Hungry, I made my first stop Veggie Grill, a plant-based fast food chain with locations throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. As a vegan, I wanted to take this trip partly so that I could indulge in all the best vegan food that Los Angeles has to offer. I wanted to celebrate, in abundance, my decision to be vegan, a choice that many assumed was limiting.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I couldn’t believe how many people were eating lunch at an eatery with a meatless menu; all tables were occupied. After ordering a “quinoa power salad,” I sat down at a table that had just cleared and waited.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. In the moment before I turned around, I guessed that the person tapping me might be another solo diner, hoping to share my table in the crowded space. Or had I forgotten to take my change from the cashier? I faced the stranger.

“Are you Laryssa?”

I squinted at the dark-haired young man. He was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans. I tried so hard to place him in my memory that I could almost feel my hippocampus groan.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said.

Who, so far away from my home, would recognize me? I was trying to be something different here, to shed my East Coast identity. Obviously I was still carrying its weight.

“Do I know you?”

“We follow each other on Instagram,” he said.

Instagram is a social media community where I post photos of vegan food and other miscellany. To myself, I call it “Veganland” because nearly every one of the 1,000 users I follow is vegan. Whenever I feel alone, I can open the iPhone app and, as I scroll through photo after photo of vegan dishes, can pretend that our planet is a cruelty-free utopia.

But I didn’t recognize his face from any of the 110×110 pixel profile photos I had associated with people’s Instagram handles.

“What’s your username?”

“Spencer – “

“Oh!” I interrupted.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he hugged me: the perfect welcome. I learned that my Instafriend Spencer was visiting Los Angeles for the day to protest with an animal rights activist group from San Diego.
When he left, his absence made me feel as if my cover had been blown – what are the chances that someone would recognize me from my own square profile photo? I wouldn’t be able to begin this trip as someone completely new, removed from my past failures and frustrations. But I realized, between bites of my quinoa salad at Veggie Grill, where I was surrounded by people who were actively making the same ethical choices I make, that I’m in good company, not only in a vegan fast-food establishment but wherever I am.

I wouldn’t have to be alone to burn away my past identities. Instead, I would soften myself to allow connection, which is the only way I’d be able to learn about new possibilities and opportunities, to gain insight into the person I am and who I want to be. When I stepped into the parking lot, I felt a dampness above my upper lip. The sun was at its highest point, and I was sweating.

 

YouTube Celebrity

Months later, in a Barnes & Noble in New Brunswick, NJ, one of my former students approaches me.

“Professor, you’re famous!” he says.

“What’s he talking about?” asks my friend.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The YouTube video. I saw it,” says the undergraduate.

My face turns as red as the passion-fruit iced tea I’m sipping.
In my defense, my senses had been overwhelmed by Venice Beach: talented skateboarders showing off their hard-earned tricks, men dressed in head-to-toe kelly green advertising marijuana prescriptions, muscle men earning a day’s dose of self worth, hopeful salespeople peddling painted ceramic skulls and handmade hemp jewelry. Under the spell of my own dizzying fascination, I was accosted by a group of four young men with professional camera equipment.

“Do you have a second?” asked the leader of the pack, a young Korean man named Josh.

“I’m not sure,” I said, frowning at the camera pointed at me.

“Just one question. For my YouTube channel,” said Josh.

“Alright, I guess.”

What I show my friend in the Barnes and Noble, using the YouTube app on my smartphone, is the following exchange.

“So far, how many kisses have you gotten this year?” Josh asked, his arm around my shoulders, pivoting me toward the camera.

The “year” in question had only lasted two weeks.

“One, I guess,” I said, remembering a prosecco-fueled, Times-Square-ball-drop kiss in my married friends’ apartment.

“Want to make that ‘two’?” asked Josh, pulling me toward his face and planting a dry-lipped kiss before I could protest.

A perpetual “good sport,” I managed a smile for the camera.

“Make that two kisses,” I said. “I may have found my soul mate.”

My friend and I watch the rest of the video: a montage of Josh kissing women with varying degrees of willingness.

“Well, that’s it – I’m famous,” I say to my friend in the bookstore, hoping that no one else will recognize me. I sit for a moment, remembering the sun setting on that 65-degree evening. When the cameraman had finally pointed the camera toward the ground, I felt like I could stop acting.

“How long you visiting?” asked Josh.

“How did you know?”

“You look dazzled,” he said. “And you’re wearing a scarf.”

“I’ve been cold for too long,” I said. “I just landed a few hours ago. From New Jersey.”

The winter had been particularly brutal, with sub-zero winds numbing my entire body as I had stood waiting for trains and shoveling my car out of colossal snow drifts. Sometimes, when I had finally been able to enter a heated building or my apartment, I worried that the feeling would never return. But it always did.

“Stay here with me, soul mate. You don’t have to go back,” he said.

“I have a dinner reservation,” I said, walking away.

He gave me his phone number, but I couldn’t bear to tell him that I had already purchased my return flight.

 

Opalite Rabbit

The Pacific Palisades Farmers Market allowed me to relive two of my most vivid childhood memories: eating sun-ripened tomatoes and raspberries from their plants in my grandparents’ backyard and spending Saturday mornings tasting so many food samples at the membership-only wholesale club, while my dad did household shopping, that I wouldn’t be hungry for lunch.

I had never seen so much fresh, beautiful produce in my life, let alone in January, the worst month for produce in the Garden State – so awful, in fact, that I had been known to weep over a bag of sweet cherries imported from Chile, $9.99/lb. The teal-blue pint containers of berries – strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries – were arranged like squares on an heirloom quilt. The farmers market stretched at least a full block, and nearly every vendor presented a luscious array of samples: citrus, grapes, apple slices, nut butters, gourmet spreads, etc.

I wanted to buy at least one of everything but knew that, with only three more days in Los Angeles, I still had so much more food to eat. Compromising, I chose a pair of perfect apples that I could enjoy as a light breakfast.

Other vendors at the farmers market were selling nonperishable items. At one table, a middle-aged woman was displaying her healing crystals. I picked up a miniature, carved opalite rabbit and admired it.

“Are you a tourist?” she asked.

I nodded, though I didn’t like that I could be distinguished so easily from a local. Was it my pale skin?

“I knew it,” she said. “You have a clarity I don’t often see in Los Angeles. The locals always seem cloudy.”

I turned the cool, carved opal over in my palm.

“I’m just seeing this for the first time,” I said.

 

Scenic Overlook

The greatest luxury of traveling alone is being able to stand in one place without worrying that your traveling companion is getting bored or is going to leave you behind.

Indulging in that luxury, I stood for about an hour at a scenic overlook in Santa Monica, admiring the Pacific Coast Highway and the coastline beyond it. I was taking photos of the colorful beach houses: slate blue, canary yellow, lavender, and rose pink facades.

“Are you a photographer?” a male voice behind me asked.

I was in no mood to be humored or interrogated or interrupted from my single-minded enjoyment of the view.

“No,” I said, not turning around.

“May I ask you something? I promise it’s not a boring question.”

I tried to anticipate his query: Are you single? Are you available for drinks later? Do you come here often?

“I guess,” I said.

“What legacy do you want to leave behind?”

I turned around to face him, wishing I could be him, seeing me against this backdrop that I so admired. I wanted to try the Pacific on for size, test myself as a character with Santa Monica as my setting. I almost asked if he could take my picture. Instead, I opened my mouth.

 

 

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2 Responses to “winter(verb)”

  1. Defenestrationism » Blog Archive » And the Winners are… Says:

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