PARADISE

Misha had always wondered about that June day. There was that moment, for example, when he and his fiancee had returned from a trip to Yosemite and ended up at Venice beach watching an exquisite sunset. The brief vacation had been somewhat unsettling for both but neither Misha nor his fiancee said anything. Perhaps they attributed their blasé feelings to fatigue.

As the sun set into the Pacific, two planes could be seen flying in opposite directions as if they had somehow magically appeared from behind the sun. Misha was a rational person but was also attuned to the symbology, the metaphors in nature and about him. Signs. Signals. Omens.

Much later, years later, even….he would recall this memory often.

Just two months later, there was the pregnancy. Then the decision: marriage. Afterall, his fiancee had already suffered through an abortion. It seemed the appropriate thing to do, the alternatives being what they were. The proposal was something like this: ‘Well, maybe we should just get married.’ God only knows why she agreed but it probably had something to do with avoiding a second abortion.

Two weeks before the wedding, while lugging some of his possessions in his VW square-back, driving down Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Misha detected fumes and then heard someone blaring a horn. He looked in his review mirror and saw a dark cloud of smoke spewing out, quickly pulled over and lifted the rear engine cover, only to have flames shoot up into his face.

‘Oh Shit!’ He ran into some nondescript business which didn’t have a sign and looked like some kind of office. A man stood looking at him.

“Hey, man…. can I borrow your fire extinguisher?”

“Nope,” the man spoke with a wry smirk on his face. He obviously was enjoying the scene. He tapped his cigarette on a trash can, unconcerned about the California smoking laws, or maybe they didn’t apply to his business, whatever it was. He took a long drag and blew the smoke almost directly into Misha’s face.

“But there’s a fire station just around the corner down a few blocks,” the man continued, as if to prolong this interlude of entertainment which had broken his boring afternoon. He pointed in the general direction.

“Thanks!” And Misha took off running as the station turned out to be six or more blocks away and, worse, there was no way to alert the firemen inside who were probably shooting pool anyways and quaffing a few, so Misha angrily imagined. There did appear to be some alarm button on the side of the building and he pushed it but to no effect as far as he could tell. It appeared that no one stirred inside. He waited but no movement could he detect.

‘Fucking aholes!’ And he raced back to his car and watched it slowly burn up, helpless. It was the kind of helplessness he would feel many times in his life as if fate had thousands of such incidents mapped out for Misha, footprints to follow…so to speak, some sick program predetermined by the universe.

Finally, the fire trucks arrived but by then the vehicle was a total loss although Misha had been able to salvage a few possessions and set them on the sidewalk. He had a plastic crate in which he crammed some odds and ends, mostly sports gear including a baseball glove, hardball, Frisbee and tennis racket.

As he stood staring at the firemen who sprayed some foam on his car, Misha thought back to the repairs some mechanics had recently completed on his VW and then realized that they had totally screwed up, done a shabby job and there had obviously been a fuel line that was not secured or some such other delinquent fix. ‘More assholes!!’ he thought.

The firemen took off but not before admonishing Mishaa that he had to hire a tow truck to haul the burned vehicle otherwise he would get ticketed by the police. So fitting. Finally, relinquishing all to fate, Misha made the call inside a cafe nearby and returned to the sidewalk once again, staring at the vehicle.

Eventually, the tow-truck driver pulled up and at that very moment, a young Mexican kid on a bicycle swept by, reached out toward Misha’s possessions and grabbed his tennis racquet sticking out prominently and within reach. It was a crime of opportunity done without much thought, probably just for the hell of it, and off the kid continued on down the street.

“Hey, you punk,” Misha shouted out at the kid sped up and he took off running after him. This is where all his training for the marathon he had recently completed paid off, at least. The kid turned into an apartment complex and Misha followed and cornered the tall youngster who turned as if to use the racquet as a weapon and made a feint to hit Misha who grabbed the racquet and punched the kid who was, at that point, off his bike.

“You idiot!” A voice boomed and Misha looked up at the other side of the driveway which exited to the cross street. “This is gang territory,” said the tow-truck driver who had raced around the block after observing the events, recognizing the possibility of danger or at least imagining it, “Hop in the truck, now!”

Misha complied and listened to the rant of the tow-truck driver describe how lucky he was that there were no Latino gang-bangers around to pummel his head and otherwise inflict pain as was their wont, if one were to believe the pulsing ravings of the driver who presumed to have intimate knowledge of the local gangs in the neighborhood.

They returned to the site of the torched vehicle where the tow-truck driver hooked it up, pulling away as Misha watched his VW square-back disappearing down the boulevard. Misha pondered all the memories associated with it: the camping and back-packing trips to Joshua Tree, the Golden Trout Wilderness in the Sierra, Mineral Springs, etc. He experienced some pangs of sadness but tried to push them away.

He grabbed his box of possessions and began walking down the street, toward the house where his brother lived some several miles away. Feeling somewhat forlorn but accepting the reality of the situation and having expended much emotional energy and too worn out to even think of who else he might call. Besides, his brother never answered the phone.

Turning to cross the street, he heard someone yell out his name, and caught sight of two of his housemates driving down the street. The two women pulled over and Misha asked them for a ride. He hopped in their vehicle, putting his box in their trunk first. Talk about a serendipity. He had only been living near Silver Lake for a few months with these two women and what were the chances of his roommates being on the westside and encountering him at this particular moment? (Could God possibly feel guilty?’ Misha speculated).

He quickly filled the girls in on his tragedy and they both listened and commiserated. Misha had only been living with them a few months, having fled his previous refuge due to the bad vibes of living with a dedicated paranoid-phobic type roommate, his oldest brother, whose justification for hating everyone was that they were ‘weird’. This was the very same brother whose residence he was now headed.

The driver, Eve, was a pleasant-enough nymphomaniac which he had deduced from the constant stream of men whom traipsed in and out of the house while he had been living there. During a three month period, there were no less than six men Misha had been introduced to and that was only when he was around. Indeed, she had even hit on Misha one night, not shortly after his fiancee had suffered from her miscarriage.

The other woman, Lorilei, a lesbian, was friendly enough if still somewhat ambivalent about her sexuality. This was par for the course at least in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where sexual identify amongst the artistic crowd was always a flexible affair. She was a bit depressed but as interesting as her friend, working for some local news station as a videographer. Both were easy to get along with and attractive besides.

Misha’s third roommate, Jan, was a psychologist who sported the license plate, ‘Cum n Play’ on his Volvo and who talked to his mother weekly in a meek and feminine voice as if she were his lover. Misha’s roommates would have made fantastic prototypes for characters in some sitcom, much more interesting than those on Three’s Company which had been popular a few years earlier.

“Can you give me a lift to my brother’s place?” Misha asked. “It’s a couple miles away on the edge of Culver City. From there, Misha thought he could borrow his brother’s car and to get to his newly rented apartment he and his fiancee had found in Westwood Village close to UCLA.

“Of course,” Eve replied. They chatted some and Misha reminded them of their invitation to his wedding while they made their way through the crowded city streets. Within fifteen minutes, Misha was knocking at his brother’s place, a residence where he had spent two years after having moved from the Valley. Actually Steve, his brother’s best friend, owned the house and rented out rooms. Fortunately, Dan was home just as Misha expected. Dan opened the door and, seeing his younger brother, made some grunt of recognition and let him in.

Dan stared at Misha, without saying a word, a look of confusion on his face. Dan had been rooming there after Steve had divorced his wife and bought the house, Steve and Dan being long term buddies going back to the mid-sixties when all was in transition and confusion. Dan’s life was allegory for that confusion, that state of not knowing what the future held because he stared into the horror that was SouthEast Asia where he had spent two years in Thailand doing Intelligence work which he never defined or even talked about.

“My fucking car burned up!” Misha dourly spoke. “Can’t imagine much more shit happening to me before my marriage. Can you believe it? First the miscarriage, then my car.”

His brother said nothing. He had no interest, his thought process a complete mystery to most. A laconic person by nature, somewhere on the continuum of Aspergers, he simply left Misha there to deal with his problems and went back to his bedroom where he normally spent some two-thirds of his life while over his bed hung a poster of Stalin, whom he called Uncle Joe and admired because he ‘got things done’ as he often responded when others complained about the government. No one quite knew how to take this comment supposing that Dan was being sarcastic, not realizing the depth of belief in that remark.

Misha used the phone and called his friend Todd and asked if he could borrow his car since he now realized that asking his brother would not be worth the time because he knew that his brother would refuse, mostly because Misha was known to be a bit reckless.

Only recently, he had been ticketed for a dangerous turn on the freeway coming home from work, his sixth that year. Two months earlier, he had totaled his fiancee’s car and nearly died or so he told the story. Cops made it a habit to stop him, pulling him over for some minor infraction or other if only because he displayed bumper stickers on his car that no doubt riled them.

Stickers like, ‘Support the Black Panthers’, or ‘Impeach Reagan’, or ‘America Sucks.’

When Misha told others that he was being targeted, his listeners were skeptical. But he would tell them: “Look, if a cop follows anyone long enough, there’s going to be a reason to pull that person over.”

Not that anyone believed him. And that was part of the frustration Misha had experienced most of his life, people’s skepticism at his description and analysis of events.

How could he convince people that being given a ticket for going too slow or not signaling when making a right turn were normally things cops ignored? It was impossible to persuade people who had not been the victim of so many such incidents.

But back to Todd.

Todd was Misha’s friend with whom he had hitch-hiked across the country back in the early 1970s. That was after they had attended the first Rainbow Festival in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado before heading toward their real destination, the Republican Convention where they ended up joining a zippie commune and were arrested some three times for their political protesting. This had cemented their friendship.

Unfortunately, Todd suffered from an existential crisis, complete with a mania inspired by amphetamines and God know’s what else. So, Misha spent limited time around him, and only when it was a matter of pragmatic need.

Todd was the type of person that liked to orchestrate outings with friends as if he were a movie director providing them all with a backdrop to some fantasy he was executing as his mind traced some fantastic storyline. He had had many girlfriends but never married…a wise move on his part. Much later in life, he was to end up homeless and psychotic begging for hand-outs on Skid Row in downtown, L.A.

An evening out with Todd was enough to drain any normal person and only someone like Misha could tolerate the frenetic path through which his friend might deliver him, having been around enough eccentric persons through the myriad experiences that his life had drawn him (if only because Misha himself appreciated such experiences from an artistic point of view).

Misha thought that it was sort of like being around the famed Neal Cassidy on Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road. But Todd would lend Misha his car and this enabled him to get back to his apartment.

The cosmic forces were set in stone in a conspiracy to fuck with Misha, but it would take him years to discover this fact. His soon-to-be impending marriage was to devolve over a twelve year period into a relationship fraught with his wife’s affairs and deceptions, lies and violence, and even worse. But Misha was stoic and trusting by nature, loyal to a fault and oblivious, a romantic who would not admit to the dark depths that any human was capable of sinking. Naive, you might say or really stupid as others might have concluded.

The day of the reckoning, his marriage to Jackie, was fantastic if one were to evaluate it in terms of the reception that followed which, like so many weddings, turn into a charade of happiness as if to create the fantasy of a permanent exuberance. Couples cling to the happily ever after all fantasy, all human experience to the contrary, at least in the U.S. where the divorce rate hits 50%. Second marriages are worse, at 55%.

Of course, this does not even take into account the plethora of marriages which are immensely dysfunctional and survive due to practical considerations or a multitude of other pathetic reasons. In truth, it is doubtful that even 10% of marriages result in true happiness. In fact, it is rather amazing how many people put on a front of happiness to their family and friends, meanwhile living double or false lives. Maintaining a front often becomes a full time job for both spouses.

*****

Misha’s first marriage lasted a dozen years or so before his wife left him. At that point, they had moved on to Oregon where his wife had wanted to join a spiritual community. Misha quickly sized up the community as a cult, saying to his wife: “There are too many plasticized smiling faces here.” She disagreed and left him to become one of the several hundred devotees of this Swami who later was sued by a host of women in the community with whom he had had sex.

A few years later Misha found himself entangled in his second marriage with a woman whom he thought was the love of his life. But that marriage only lasted four years before she inherited half a million dollars…..hired a lawyer and then quickly divorced him and a year later, began her fourth marriage….or was it her fifth? No one was sure, least of all her kids.

In fact, Misha actually found a tape recording his wife had made in therapy for what reason he had no idea. He had been going through his own cassette tapes of music he had recorded over many years and had found a blank tape. He popped it in and first thought it was blank. But he turned the volume up fully and then heard a faint voice. He had to put his ear to the audio recording and soon realized it was his second wife who had taped a session with her therapist.

On it she revealed that she had had multiple affairs on her husbands her whole life. At the end of the tape, Misha could hear the therapist say: ‘Well, don’t forget to erase this tape.’

Apparently, his wife had thought she had erased it but there was still a very faint recording of her and the therapist’s voices. He strained to listen to his ex-wife admitting to sordid affairs from a life filled with her licentious behavior. And worse, the horrors of her childhood revealed a tale which recapitulated a history of her mother’s decadence and perversions and explained Misha’s wife’s despondent moods and, later, severe anxiety attacks.

Wow, he thought. And he was lucky. For if he had known the whole story of his wife’s life…he would have been shell-shocked. The woman’s life would have made a best selling novel and major motion picture. It had murder, two suicides and a shocking family revelation that Misha’s ex-wife’s much younger sister had discovered…….. a deep tragic secret which had explained the mystery of their mother’s pathological lifestyle. But that is grist for another story.

For years, Misha had been a free-lance editor for a number of years and figured he could work online almost anywhere. So he packed the few possessions he would need, sold all the rest, and decided to go to Costa Rica where he spent the next four years bumming about while he earned enough to actually increase his savings.

Finally, after much reflection, he decided to return to his island paradise…..where he had lived while in the Peace Corps some 45 years earlier after graduating from the University of California in Los Angeles. In Palau, life had been simple and although modern technology had invaded….he could still live the simple, unadulterated life he had longed for most of his life.

While traveling Central America and Mexico, he kept in contact with a few friends and his family over the years and updated them before he told them that he was departing for his new life which he intended to carve out in Palau….now an independent country.

Soon after he arrived, he took up with a much younger and beautiful woman and was now living the simple life he had always yearned for. ‘Why?’ he often asked himself….’did he not recognize or did he not follow-up on this feeling much earlier in life?

All his life, he had been alienated from American culture and the horrors of what he called consumer capitalism….the last stage in a decrepit system which he avowed ‘ate its own’ which he believed to be an apt metaphor and not at all an exaggeration.

So, he settled down and lived the simple life, hanging out with the natives, fishing in their outrigger canoes, partaking of a community that he had always longed for. He read books, re-learned the native language, wrote and otherwise whiled away the time.

Friends back home would ask him, “Are you happy?” And he would tell them:

“Any fool can be happy. That’s easy. But to be content. That is a challenge. And yes, I am content. I don’t need the luxuries and frivolous entertainment of a society committed to destroying itself all for the sake of making profits, consuming endless stuff, and dedicated to the proposition that there is never enough.

“No,” he would continue, “I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. And I have found balance in my life. ‘Besides, the weather is near-perfect all year round.”

This was the gist Misha’s last letter he wrote to his eldest brother who upon reading it, simply said, ‘Huh?’ and then went back to watching his football game while he examined the new automatic weapon he had recently bought for protection. Then he looked up at Uncle Joe and smiled. No one would fuck with him now.

About Mikhail Branski

Mikhail Branski has written poetry, comedic skits and essays, and other prose sporadically during the last forty years. Much of his poetry he describes as political, social and philosophic commentary or simply “rants.” A self-described critic, he lambastes, especially, American society and political culture. Words such as “caustic and vitriolic” are often used in reference to many of his poems. His writing is also infused with humor and odd twists and tries to keep listeners on their toes. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Mikhail has taught in the ghettos of Los Angeles, and was a political activist and organizer during the 1980s and early ‘90s. He now lives in Mexico teaching Russians online while eking out a living while writing and exploring other realities.
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