Good Narrative Principles

July 2, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: Two Umbrella Steps Forward

TIMG_4263he holiday season was one of adjustment for Ena and Manny. Not only were they adjusting to living together, learning to navigate one another’s quirks, moods and preferences, but, being ambitious New Yorkers, they were also wrestling with the vagaries of their careers.

For Manny, a new connection was with a musician who belonged to several bands, each one laying claim to another part of world culture. Like Manny, Arto, the other musician, was generous in his love of all different sorts of music and could leap with ease from classical to punk to Afro-Pop. You could say that Manny had a man crush on Arto and stalked him the same way he had stalked Ena a few months before. The two became tight musically speaking and hung around after hours riffing an impossible blend of world music styles that left their collaborators in the dust. It was, for Manny, a wild roller coaster ride of joy.

If you could color Manny’s emotional state when it came to music and his life away from Ena, it would be a fusion of hot pink and Persian blue. Pink for the energy and blue for the deep well of emotions that Manny could now access on his horn, his flute and ax.

For Ena, the closer she came to her son’s first birthday and the one year anniversary of hitting the road, the more frantic she became. She couldn’t control where her mind wandered while sitting in the bodega watching grainy Spanish TV after hours.

Christmas was everywhere. Just as Manny delighted in learning new musical expressions of holiday cheer from around the globe, Ena too traveled in her mind to a distant place. It was always Ecuador. It was always the same mountain, the same village where her son, Hector, was now taking his first tentative steps, calling her Mother Mama and learning how to hold a bottle on his own.

It was in this state of distracted regret that Ena let lose on the thief and subdued him. She was fearless, not because she was confident in her abilities but because she was drowning in unexpressed and conflicted emotions.

When Manny found her in this state, he sensed that he could lose her to sorrow and to a fierce indifference that could no longer be contained.

And so he proposed. He proposed that they marry, that they travel to Ecuador and bring young Hector back to New York. He proposed that they be a family.

He waited until the Cops, prefaced by a stern warning, released the young punk. He waited until Ena mopped up the mess while he tidied up the newspaper racks, the cans of beans and Clorox. He waited until they were alone in their apartment, which was neither super clean nor dirty.

And then he asked her, on bended knee if she would marry him. She wanted to talk about all her practical concerns like, who will watch Hector when we’re both at work and how can we afford this? But for the first time in her life, she said yes.

Yes, to the complications. Yes, to the messy money issues that would inevitably tear them apart. And yes to becoming a family, not with Hector’s father as she had originally assumed, but rather with this too perfect and sexy guy who could belt out a tune on his trombone that sounded nothing like the farts that she made when she pursed her lips on his mouthpiece.

July 1, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: Cling Tight

IMG_2485In the first few weeks that Manny and Ena lived together, Manny discovered that Ena liked to reference a saying or proverb from her village in response to situations, conflicts and screw-ups. Most of them didn’t translate that well into English, so Manny had to struggle to figure out what Ena was trying to convey. For instance, in response to Manny incorrectly guessing the time that the bodega downstairs closed for the night, Ena smiled and shrugged, which Manny took to mean, “oh well”. But the saying from her village “it’s a poor mouse that has only one hole” suggested to Manny that Ena was accusing him of being flaky because he didn’t have a back up plan. Ena didn’t understand the word “flaky” beyond its context in baking, while Manny was left wondering if language was tripping them up or was it the baggage they each carried from their prior lives? Manny’s mother, for instance, scolded him when he came to her with his plans of making a living as a soccer pro, “you’re all bum and parsley”, meaning, that he was a blowhard. All talk, no action.

Then there were the unconscious customs and habits they each adopted as adults that played out in the choice of setting up a home together. They argued about sponges, dental floss and overhead lighting vs. floor lamps. Ena didn’t believe that a mop cleaned the floor adequately. Manny didn’t believe that dirty dishes needed to be washed immediately. He was okay with letting the dirt pile up.

They tried to work out a compromise with each conflict. For awhile, all the cleaning she had to do at night on the job and then during the day at home proved too much and so, Ena stopped cleaning up their home. But that proved too irritating, so Ena quit her cleaning job and applied to be a cashier at the bodega downstairs. The owner had wanted to stay open late, but couldn’t handle the extended hours. Ena, comfortable with the night shift and fluent in Spanish, was a perfect fit. She was hired.

Before he left for his gig, Manny would carry their dinner downstairs to the bodega along with two paper plates, which, thankfully, eliminated half of the dirty dishes. In between customers, Ena and Manny shared a hot dish and always stole a kiss before saying goodbye.

One night, when returning home, his head full of the arguments of the last few weeks, Manny turned the corner to their block and saw three squad cars parked haphazardly in front of the bodega. Their red lights were flashing,. Heart pounding, he ran inside, slipped on thick glass shards, regained his balance, only to lose it again in a puddle milk and beer. His sturdy winter coat, rust colored corduroy pants and fairly clean underwear soaked up the messy brew. Dazed, he tried to regain his footing while avoiding the broken glass and soggy newspapers strewn about. A hand reached down to help him.

It was Ena. She looked radiant. Her hair was wild and her eyes lit up with a fire Manny had never seen before. Standing now, his bum wet and weighed down like he was a child, Manny zeroed in on a young punk in handcuffs being led out the door.
The kid had burst into the bodega and pointed a gun at her. Ena’s voice trailed off as she tried to explain to herself and to Manny why she reacted the way she did, when a Cop intervened. Speaking to Ena in an official voice conveying both urgency and respect, he asked her if she’d come down to the station to file a complaint. Ena, fearing deportation, waved her hand, telling the Cop that the boy was just confused and she was fine to let him go. What exactly happened, Manny demanded. The Cop told him that how brave his girlfriend was, facing a crazed kid with a loaded gun and wrestling him to the ground.

All the misunderstandings, the arguments and petty clashes of the last few weeks melted away as Manny swept Ena up in his arms and held her tight. She hugged him in kind. All the while, her heart pounded with joy as she relived the moment of seizing control of a wild situation.

June 29, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: Transactions

IMG_0978In the late summer through early fall, Ena spent more time at Manny’s apartment, partially, because he lived close to her new job cleaning offices in Long Island City, or so she told herself.

Once she decided that working on crews with just men wasn’t for her, the only job available to her as an illegal and one that paid enough was night work. In the days leading up to her first night of work, Ena tried sleeping beside Manny, but her heart raced inside her tight chest and her eyes refused to stay closed.

However, once she began work, she discovered she liked it. She liked the freedom of being awake at night while the busy city and her young son Hector, back in Ecuador, slept. She liked getting cranked up on café con leche con azucar, and, simply by staying awake was like a thief, stealing time from the finite years, hours and seconds that remained. Only God knows when you will be called back to him.

Manny liked her new schedule as well. His gigs rarely began before ten and, if he wanted to get anywhere musically speaking, he would have to put in his time after hours. Stumbling home at four or five a.m. became the new norm. Manny and Ena took pride in being an unusual couple of night owls. It gave them an identity and made the job of staying awake all night less lonely.

Despite their growing attachment to one another, Ena didn’t officially move in with Manny until Thanksgiving. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, Ena paid rent to Pablo and sent home what she could to help cover her son Hector’s expenses. In exchange, she received regular pictures of Hector growing at an alarming rate, alarming because she wasn’t there to witness each milestone.

Her first Thanksgiving was marked by two joyous occurrences. First, neither she nor Manny worked Thanksgiving Night. And second, to celebrate the holiday, Manny took Ena to a feast in Staten Island hosted by one of his musician friends. Among his American buddies, Manny seemed to her more virile, looser and confident. He laughed with ease. Told stories with outstretched hands, as if he were squeezing additional significance from the air.

As she lay next to him in bed, satisfied after a sweaty trip to the “Congo”, Ena listened to Manny’s rolling heartbeat, sliding towards a steady thump…thump…thump.

He was telling her a story about his early years in New York, a landscape that was now populated with familiar landmarks — his first gig, first girlfriend, first brush with the criminal element. While recounting his first trip to the ER, he called his first girlfriend by name. Janice, Janice from Jackson Heights, who waited all night with him until the bullet was removed from his arm, payment for having refused to relinquish his instrument to a street thug. Ena then asked her first “girlfriend” question, a question that revealed the faintest trace of jealousy — “where is she now”?

Manny shrugged. He didn’t know. Honestly, he didn’t know. After the divorce, the two lost contact. Ena’s ears perked up. The wound inflicted by Hector’s father abandoning her was, despite the passage of time, still fresh. Who divorced who? “Whom”, Manny corrected her. Ena sat up. Manny, alert to the subtle shifts in Ena’s moods, recognized that she was upset, a breath away from drawing inward to a place that he couldn’t reach. He touched Ena gently, hoping to extend the good feelings generated by the day, explaining that his relationship with Janice was basically a “green card marriage”. Manny was sure that Ena would now relax, lay her head on his chest and slip back into sweet oblivion.

Instead, Ena grabbed his t-shirt and slid out of bed. If Manny had a green card, and she married him, would she qualify for one as well? So many questions. And then there was Hector, Hector. In the shoebox of a child’s bed where the cool winds swept across the floor, Hector like his Mother, was probably awake right now. listening to the frantic sound of the guinea pigs scratching and clawing their way to freedom.

June 28, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: We Speak in Code

IMG_0988It was hot summer when Ena and Manny fell into a routine that including one another. The assumption of spending weekends together, what used to be called “going steady” happened slowly, a gradual testing of the waters and when finding that the other was still okay, it yielded to a yearning that lasted straight through to Sunday.

None of the easy technological contrivances that help to bridge the gap were available to them as a couple. Ena didn’t have a phone, which proved to be more of a hindrance then she could ever imagine. For instance, it was challenging to connect with potential employers. Now that she had a reputation for taking on jobs that involved physical labor, now that she had established herself as a reliable, hard working hand, she was hungry for change. She went looking for work that didn’t involve strictly male co-workers who had a tendency to assume she was “easy” and therefore fair game for groping and other sorts of rudeness.

They still met every morning at the train station, but now there was a schedule, each encounter was planned down to the minute. Set your clock for ten minutes and watch them touch, kiss and share the headlines, the big news, both recent and anticipated. And then, before saying goodbye, they planned their next weekend outing.

There was much to consider. Being from the mountains, Ena wilted in the heat. She didn’t she know how to swim, nor, did she know the city. Manny offered her a menu of options, ways to spend their weekends. He assured here that there were many sites to choose from and all were free.

On this one Saturday, she chose the Bronx Zoo. “The real zoo”, Manny told her, which wasn’t free, an unpleasant shock for Ena who felt uncomfortable when he offered to buy her ticket. Until now they had gone strictly “Dutch”. Even Steven. As she stepped aside to consider this, her gaze locked on the sea lions lolling in the sun then tumbling into the water. Ena’s stomach fell, slipped downwards, as Manny, for the first time since they’d met, put his arm around her and drew her close. He leaned down, smelled her hair.

At first it was an experimental foray. Resting a hand on her shoulder. Noticing if she shivered, straightening her back to meet his hand, drawing her neck in line with her shoulders. Or would she shrug, wave him off?

Instead, she settled, relaxing into the warmth of his hand. By the time they hit Madagascar, it was a thing that they were now doing — touching each other. Manny’s hand curled around her waist. They walked past the gift shop without breaking their stride. The reptiles didn’t appeal to her, though if you had asked him, he would have been happy to make the detour. There is something intriguing he thought, about alligators. Ena scanned the landscape, exhaled decisively. Manny knew enough to know that she was thinking “no”, but still didn’t trust him enough to say so. So they walked on.

But at the sign for the Congo Guerilla Forest, they made a left. Again, in sync. It started to rain moments before they rushed in. The primates also swooped inside. A hot wave that smelled like hair and sweat and something like musk rode the thermals in the vaulted room straight towards them.

She pressed her back against his chest, his stomach, his hard on.

From then on, Congo Guerilla Forest, CGF or even just “Congo” was code for all things sexual. (Photo: Tim Duch)

June 24, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: The Habit of Your Company

IMG_2993Ena was still living at Pablo’s apartment when she met Manny. Despite the high marks she received in English back when she was a student in Ecuador, Ena was reluctant to engage in conversation with real New Yorkers. English was awkward in her mouth and made her feel like a child. It was frustrating having to squeeze the full complexity of her thoughts through small holes created by the handful of words and sentences she knew. Her conversations in English tended towards idle chitchat. Alternating between the deep ache she nursed for Hector, the infant son she had left back home, and the unbridled anger at the son’s father and his family, Ena had little interest in discussing the weather, the cinema or the library in any language.

Now adrift, moored loosely to New York through Pablo’s lumpy couch, Ena sorely needed that sense of connection that comes from sharing stories relayed through the spoken word.

Manny, who mastered Spanish the same way Ena learned English, namely, under duress in a classroom, was nervous heading into that first date. How would they connect when all they had going for them was chemistry?

Over pizza, they quickly moved from safe sentences like; where are you from and how many brothers and sisters do you have, to who are you and what do you love most about your life. Manny took out his phone and pointed to Scotland on the world map, explaining, this is where he grew up and played soccer. He loved the game, was good at it and was expecting to dedicate his life to it, when a nasty knee injury sidelined him. Ena noticed that Manny walked with a slight limp. When she mimed his loping gait, his expression tightened. She could read in his face the faint echo from the original shock of adjusting to life without soccer. For a few moments, their conversation faltered. The pizza, mediocre to begin with, was now cold. Ena studied Manny objectively. Quick to go to the dark place, she wondered if Manny waiting for her by the train entrance day after day with an unwavering devotion was enough.

Perhaps sensing Ena’s cooling interest, Manny shifted the conversation to music, explaining that what once was a hobby came to fill in the gap left by his failed athletic career. No longer relying on words, he sang and hummed music that moved him. Over the intermittent jukebox playing music from another era, Manny sung bits of Mozart, a Mingus riff, imitated the thrum of Metallica and marked the bassline of Motown hits. Irish ditties danced around his head, as did big band tunes. Who was he, musically speaking, he still didn’t know. He liked it all. It was both a point of pride and a source of confusion. He admitted sheepishly that he didn’t know his “brand”, a concept of self that Ena didn’t quite follow.

Looking back on that night, Ena had to admit that Manny had been honest with her. He laid it all out; the things he loved and lost, his restlessness and in no small measure, the charm that made all those disparate elements cohere.

She happily agreed to a second date, despite the crappy pizza and that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t wired to be a breadwinner.

June 24, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: It Could Have Ended There

DuringIMG_7517 Ena’s first winter in America she got a job working with a roofing crew. An odd choice for a woman born in a culture that seemed wedded to traditional gender roles but for Ena it wasn’t an idle choice. Smarting from the insults, the verbal abuse directed at her by the father of her young son Hector, Ena wanted to scream. Scream his name, the name of his family and all the wrong they had heaped her. Scream it at the top of the hill, above the village. Scream it on the busted up basketball court near the one gas station in town.

Instead, she left.

Ena had known Hector’s father since childhood. As a boy, Hector’s Dad soiled his pants the day following the Dia De Los Muerto celebrations. As a boy, he struggled to get through sentences, especially when tense. A thick stammer made talking in public difficult. Once, when they were children, they had gone swimming in a clear stream at the foot of a ravine. This earned Hector’s future Dad a beating. But now that he had attended college, now that he was “a man with a future” as his Mother and Father liked to say, he deserved better. This man whom she refuses to call by name, this man who was briefly her lover, had propelled her into the world. To be fair his family had a hand in what followed. Maybe, come to think of it, they did her a favor.

Thought it didn’t feel like that her first year in the States. It was a sheer act of lunacy to learn how to walk on ice while lugging hot tar on a snowy-pitched roof. She came home and cried, but less so then when she first got here. Hard to call that progress, but it was something.

One bloodshot early morning on the way to the train, Ena ran into Manny returning from a gig. He was carrying a tidy leather flute case. They stopped to talk. Other times Manny carried a sax, then a trombone. Once, he let her blow through the mouthpiece. The BLURT coming from his instrument sounded like a giant fart. And since she didn’t know the polite English word for fart, she laughed and then blushed noticeably, melting Manny’s dog tired heart.

In the spring she worked for a gardener. The work was physically demanding. The guys on her crew gave her a hard time. But she never slowed her stride. When they said nasty stuff she stopped listening and tuned in to the hum of traffic — a noise that didn’t exist in her village.

Regardless of when she left the house, somehow, Manny was there. At the train station entrance. He always just happened to be there.

Was he stalking her? When asked, he shrugged and said “kinda” with a smile. A stalker, she reasoned wouldn’t do that. So she suggested that they meet at a designated time.

She didn’t want to use the word “date”.

But that’s what it was.

A date, a first date with Manny.

June 20, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

The Manny and Ena Stories: How They Met

IMG_7414Ena had been in the country for a handful of weeks, staying with her cousin Pablo when she met Manny at a party hosted by Pablo in his painfully small studio apartment.

When Ena finally packed up to go, when she made the momentous decision to leave her young son Hector behind so that she could get away from Hector’s father and his greedy family, her worried mother slipped Pablo’s address and phone number into her sweaty palms. Pablo was the pride of the village. He had made it safely to America and once there, in the frigid cold of New York, he landed a job as a technician, evidence of divine intervention if you ask his family.

He and Ena were never really close growing up, but they were related and knew each other as children, which counted for a lot. Pablo was kind to Ena. He didn’t ask anything of her for three weeks or so while she lay on the couch, watched TV and cried.

In those long weeks and months following Hector’s birth, Ena kept weighing the question of staying or leaving. She looked for signs everywhere. If it rained before two it meant that she should go, but only if it stopped by three. She realized that the rules to determine her future were growing more byzantine by the day.

The crossing was fraught, tiring, tense. And then for long stretches it was boring, so boring that they each told the others their life story, which weighed Ena down. When Ena started showering regularly, Pablo knew she was over the hump. Sometimes it takes that long to adjust, especially in the winter. The unremitting cold, the feeling that this cold is attacking you and that it’s personal, is a common reaction. Pablo the perfect went through it too.

Week three is always the best time for a party of this nature. In Spanish it’s called “The Boat Pulls In” but it looses something in the translation. Pablo’s party for Ena wasn’t much of a party by any standards. He opened a few bags of chips, a jar or two of salsa and beer. The beer ran out early but someone brought some more. The music started in. The crowd swelled. People started dancing. Boys asked the girls. Girls asked girls. It was all a bit wild for Ena. She gravitated to the refrigerator, which was at a right angle to the small stove. She could feel that familiar balloon of sadness swelling up inside her when the music stopped. Just. Like. That. The crowd groaned. And then thirsty, everyone headed to the refrigerator. Ena was in the way, slowing down the handing out of the beer bottles fire brigade style. She twirled and bounced from one set of friendly hands to the next as she tried to get out of the way. Everyone was touching her but in a friendly way. It felt like she was being blessed. The last in line was Manny.

Manny leaned down and whispered in her ear something that made her smile. He offered her his beer. His bottle was cold, sweaty. She took a long pull.

That moment seemed to stretch sideways. That’s the way Ena remembers it.