Beautiful Things

Zozulka Hausler Lew

Corona. Only pharmacies and liquor stores will remain open. So everyone can get their drugs and their coronas. There is too much going on right now. I walk down the street frantically, paying no mind to the bodies around me. I’m just chasing after whatever sanity I have left, it is just out of reach, but I know exactly where to locate it. Everything will be okay. I have no motivation, no direction, and no desire to do anything. On top of this loss of control in my own personal life, half the world is dying from COVID-19 and the governor is considering a complete shutdown of NYC. My city is going to disappear so can you please just announce that all retail stores, including Levi’s (where I work), are shutting down already. I’m impatient when it comes to grim prospects of the world.

             “Just get on with it already!” I scream in my head, not directed towards anyone or anything in particular.

            The red brick brownstone where I grew up, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, comes into sight. Years of paint chipping away, now covered in illegible tags, and a huge “FOR LEASE” sign plastered to the face of the building shrieks at me. Shut up. I can smell the garbage and shit that rots in the downstairs entrance. Stumbling over the brick in the sidewalk that still sticks up, I know I am home.

            I unlatch the waist-high black metal gate across the front stoop and close it behind me a little too hard, causing that familiar metal clang. Our family installed the gate years ago to discourage passersby from loitering on the stoop (like I am now), and to give some measure of privacy. But now I’m safe, the sun hugs me in a warm embrace and the gate seals off the outside world. I can watch the people go by, and write behind this invisible wall. I find my spot, next to a big crack my family never got around to fixing, tucked away in the corner of the doorway entrance. The entranceway is huge: two side-by-side, 9-foot-tall, red-painted oak doors with large glass panels, still covered by old lace curtains strung across the inside of each door. A half-moon glass transom over the doors sports the familiar “No. 203” in hand-painted gold leaf.

            I run my hand over the cherry colored paint of the door and quickly scribble my tag “CHAOZ” with a chisel tip Sharpie under some intruders tag. Might as well. This is my space, my territory. So many nights spent on this stoop, talking to my dog Booey, watching people walk by on these crowded sidewalks, in this vibrant neighborhood, while my mother, father, aunt, and whichever one of their various friends came by to socialize, share laughs and drink beers. I long for the cool breeze of those evenings, watching the sun slowly fade; scents of pizza, Budweiser, and Marlboros converge in my memory. I used to imagine myself doing the same thing one day, drinking and laughing with my friends on this stoop, but not smoking because I promised my parents I would never smoke.

            Tears gathering in my eyes, I pull out my notebook, a small sketchbook I refer to as my Book of Chaoz. It’s filled with weird sketches, anecdotes, and inconsistent handwriting. I flip through, I need to pick the perfect page, and land on one somewhere in the middle. This is where my book on sexuality and my distorted sense of femininity begins. I’ve been meaning to put it down on paper, but could never bring myself to, so I’ve just been collecting all these thoughts in my head, locked away in an impenetrable space, just how I am sitting here, hiding. Drops of salty sorrows mix with the ink on the page as I’m already reminiscing on my childhood on top of reflecting on my painful experiences. At this point I’m just consumed by my emotions, trapped in my Book of Chaoz, burying everything away.

            Something catches my attention out of the corner of my eye, dragging me back to reality. I turn my head to the right and a tiny dog attached to a red leash is walking up the five steps from the ground floor entrance to the sidewalk. The ground floor sits half-way below the sidewalk level, an architectural design I will never understand in these old Brooklyn brownstones. From where I am perched on the top of the front stoop, it makes it hard to see who is on the other end of the leash. The dog reaches the top step, level now with the sidewalk, and I can now see him leading a young woman. Simultaneously, I hear a group of middle schoolers, to my left, walking towards me and my territory. I can tell they are in middle school by the pitch of their voices and the way they sneer and laugh. There are about ten of them and they’re screaming “EWWW DIRTY BITCH,” and other inaudible, vile, remarks. They remind me of a pack of hyenas.

            I see that they’re taunting the woman who is coming up the bottom entrance steps with the little dog. I direct my attention back to her. She is standing at the top of the steps now, still behind that gate, which is clearly not protecting her from the outside world as well as my gate is. She is wearing an army green sweatshirt, ripped cargos, and a worn-out army backpack. She has a shaved head and lots of face tattoos she did herself. I can tell by the technique, it is very similar to my DIY tattoos.

             “I’m going to fucking kill myself,” she mutters under her breathe.

            Not quietly enough though, because I hear her and decide to befriend her. I should have opened with “Fuck those kids,” because that’s what I am thinking. Instead I say, “Hey!” I think she also decides to befriend me or at least trust that I’m not going to harm her because I’m not in the best state myself.

            I smile and ask “Are you staying here?”

            Apprehensive, she turns towards me, but says nothing, sizing me up. I explain to her that this is where I grew up, in this building, and that I come here sometimes just to feel at home. I see a shift in her. She lowers her protective shield, realizing I’m not an enemy. She finally responds.“Yeah, I stay here. The basement door is always open. I stay here with my friends.”

            I tell her, “I haven’t been inside since we moved. My great-grandmother bought this house in the early 70s and it has been in my family since then. Until we sold it.”

            I linger on this statement in my mind. My grandparents immigrated here from Ukraine when they were kids, escaping WWII, after spending years in DP camps in Germany and Austria. They both grew up in Brooklyn, in this same neighborhood and eventually met in their teens. My mother and her sisters all lived in this house with their grandmother–my great-grandmother–at various times throughout their childhoods. My great-grandmother passed away here, in this house. I was born here and lived here my entire childhood, until my grandmother sold the house four years ago. I spent every holiday there with extended family–cousins, aunts, uncles, various in-laws. Christmas was my favorite. We would set up two long folding tables in the living room on the ground floor, cramming everything into the limited space like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes we would have over 20 people on mix-and-match chairs sitting around the table, set with linens embroidered with traditional Ukrainian designs. My mom has old black and white photographs of my grandmother and great-grandparents spending holidays in the same room, the multi-course, meatless Christmas Eve dinners or the hams and assorted porks of post-church Easter meals visible in the photos. I often wondered if their celebrations were as chaotically joyous as ours.

            There are three apartments in the building, sprawled over four floors, all once occupied by relatives and family friends. Yellow peeling linoleum covered the hallway floors and steps of all the staircases, leading upstairs. There were more doors than rooms in the building, a result of many incomplete renovations. Each apartment had a marble fireplace, each doorway covered in detailed trim, and tiles of every color and shape could be found inside. My favorite tiles were the ones that covered the walls of the bathroom of the ground floor, that also led out to the backyard. They were perfect pink squares surrounded by blue rectangles with hand painted flowers. The backyard was beautiful. There were perpetual packs of cautious feral cats roaming around; grapevines covered each fence; and shady trees towered taller than our buildings, four stories high; all hidden from the outside world. My floor-to-ceiling, bedroom bay-windows overlooked the backyard and I remember always looking out at my secret forest under the night sky. I used to call it the Brooklyn Forest. I’m sure it more closely resembles a jungle now, wild and overgrown, without my mom and aunt to care for it and keep it neat and tame.

             “My friend Scoop, he’s a little crazy, I wouldn’t go down there,” the girl warns me, interrupting my daydreams of the Brooklyn Forest. “He poked someone up with his knife when they came down before. He’s really protective of this place because it’s kinda our home.”

            That’s when it hit me. This home that I have so many memories in, that I had spent most of my life in, and in which so much of my ancestors’ lives unfolded in, was no longer mine. It would always be my home, but I no longer lived there. I have to let go. And I did let go, at that moment. Hearing this stranger–always on guard against the world around her–say those words and seeing that she now took comfort in the same place that protected me for 14 years and still protects me now.

             “Do you know anywhere I can take a shit?” she asks.

             “There’s a Starbucks a few blocks away” I respond, giving her directions.

            She walks off and I am back to writing in my Book of Chaoz. A new sense of liberation and peace comes into me. I am safe here right now, writing on the steps of my childhood home. But I was released from this home, almost four years ago, and now I’m ready to let it go. In the same way these words will be freed from my Book of Chaoz one day and set upon the world. In the same way I said my last goodbyes to Booey, holding her close on the living room floor as she was freed from this world. In the same way I whispered goodnight to my Brooklyn Forest on the last night I spent here.

            The girl returns a few minutes later. We start talking again. As she’s telling me about all the places she has lived in across the country, traveling around, I come to realize she can’t be more than five years older than me. I offer her a Marlboro out of my pack, and smile to myself as I recall all the beautiful things I had the chance to experience living in this home. It is no longer my home, but will always be my portal to all the beautiful things in this world.

Zozulka Hausler Lew was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and is Ukrainian-American. This is her first published essay.

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