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Gabrielle Smith-Dluha

The Universe is Shaped Exactly Like

the Earth

The Tiger Has Come for Me Again.

Gabrielle Smith-Dluha teaches English at the University of Vienna and Stanford University. She has published stories in anthologies for Seal Press and in The Sun literary magazine. She loves hiking around the vineyards in the hills above Vienna. Her favorite t-shirt is pink and says: Talk Nerdy to Me. And she’s crazy about her writers group.

She can be contacted


In the beginning there was a party. The earth was formless and void, darkness was over the face of the deep. But then there was a party. It was 1967.


The way my mom tells it, she rented a big Spanish-style house on a busy palm tree street in Palo Alto, California – whitewashed walls, a tile roof, and an iron wrought balcony. The house became the artsy hang-out place just on the border of the campus. But she wasn’t a student. She was a dancer. In evenings and afternoons she taught dance in a big room of the house. Her students were the uptight, overwound physics grad students; one of them from the department had discovered her, and word got around, then more students came and history professors and biology researchers. They all came to roll on the floor in black leotards, to move, to self-express; they danced by touching, rolling, leaping, collapsing – it was the 60s. She rolled around with them or just looked on in her long Indian dress and beads and long brown hair. She was 22.


That Friday she and her friend decided to have a party. Word got around, groovy party at dancer’s big Spanish house. She and her friend cooked Indian lentils served on a big ceramic platter, so exotic.

A guy who had lived in the house the year before heard about the party. He showed up with an 8mm movie camera. People were inside, outside, sitting on the stairs, smoking on the balcony. He filmed the dancing and the lentils, the beads and the beautiful long hair.

The hostess waved to him, across the room. He followed her around the house, filmed her walking up the stairs, filmed her smiling and introducing others to the camera. More people arrived, she greeted them and made them welcome, made sure they were fed. She mingled and danced the room. Plates with leftover lentils were strewn around. But that’s not the important part. The important part was the next day.


The next day, mid-morning there was a knock on the door. My mom, in purple bellbottoms and flowy white peasant blouse, hair back in scarf, went to open it.

There, leaning casually against the door frame in a cool and relaxed pose, was the stranger with the film camera from the night before. He had dark hair, was shortish, dressed all in black – turtleneck, pants and ankle high boots. He was handsome. This time he didn’t have his camera.

“Cup of coffee for an old friend?” He asked.

She laughed.

She looked at him, smiling and squinting her eyes. Her head to one side, hand on hip.

Then, “Yes. OK. Come in.”

“Cup of coffee for an old friend” “Yes, come in.” is the important part. It’s what I think of as the exact moment I came into being. This is when the world began.

When your mom first says yes to your father is when you are conceived. It’s not the sperm and the egg sometime later, that’s merely a physical formality.  It’s some secret that happens between them, pulling you into being.


But the party, the leaning on the door, the beads; none of that was the way my dad told it.

He never once mentioned those things.

What he talked about was the water tower. Which was months or years after this first meeting. What he talked about was how much he didn't want to get married. The way he told it was that he spent three days and two nights alone fasting in an empty water tower wrestling within himself whether he should marry her or not.

Nobody ever told me that he had taken LSD – that was hushed up until much later when he was dying. That’s when secrets come out. That’s when the mirages that families hold onto dissolve.

And those are the things you hide from children. Yet somehow, somewhere, a part of me was in there with him – in his inner particles – me inside him, him hunched up inside the water tower on a dry, golden California hillside, as he wrestled back and forth in his mind; not wanting to get married, but feeling the squeeze from all sides that marriage is the thing you are supposed to do. “Mortgage and marriage are the great American prison system” is what he would often say later. But there in the dark and silence of the water tower, it came to him definitively that yes, he should marry this woman.


What I didn’t tell you is that my mother, the 22 year old dancer, had already been married before my dad showed up and leaned on her door frame. And she already had a child. A dark-eyed daughter. She had had a shotgun wedding at age 18 with a charismatic Chicano revolutionary named Fernando. And a quick divorce at age 19. And the main thing was the daughter. Which is why my dad felt he should marry her. To take care of the two of them.

She had met Fernando while he was cruising the streets in his 1950s Chevrolet on a warm summer night on the strip near Balboa Beach, just south of LA. He rolled up in his car while she was hanging out with friends on the streets like the girls did in those days. She wasn’t a modern dancer then. She was a classical ballerina. I don’t know what he said, not: “Cup of coffee for an old friend?” But something else. Something else that worked. And that is the moment that my older half-sister came into existence when my mom, the young ballerina, leaned expectantly into the open window of the car that pulled up next to her on that warm summer night. The dark charismatic man said something, something compelling. My mom said ‘yes’, opened the door and popped into the passenger seat. It didn’t last. That love story ended fast. He was an unabashed philanderer. They divorced a year and a baby later and he disappeared forever. Only his name, Fernando, remaining – a pillar in family lore.

And even after my parents married, this man’s shadow was a magnetic presence in our family. We weren’t a family of four:  mom, dad, two girls, but a family of five. For somehow Fernando, the invisible philandering Chicano revolutionary, was always there. People didn’t really talk about him much. But still, in the flesh, there was my sister, dark haired, dark eyed, abandoned by Fernando; she as intense and difficult and charismatic as the whispers said that he had been.

Here and there my mom said things. Stories came out. At the height of the Bay of Pigs, Fernando was invited by Fidel Castro to come to Cuba. He had to first fly on a plane to Ireland and then on another plane from there to Cuba, all to keep the FBI off his trail. And he brought my mother back Irish gifts as cover. My mom got a beautifully thick knit Irish wool sweater out of his trip to Cuba. Rumor had it that he had nine more children after my sister, with god only knows how many women. I had only one sister. But my sister had nine brothers and sisters. He had been in prison for manslaughter. The details were never elaborated on. That’s all I heard – the terrifying, beguiling new word introduced to my childish vocabulary: “manslaughter” and connected to Fernando. Or that my mom and Fernando had tamales and hot chocolate for Christmas Eve dinner – the one Christmas they spent together– that’s what Mexicans have for Christmas, my mom says every Christmas.

That’s all you get to know. The fuzzy patchwork of bits they choose to tell. The truth remains unsaid.



And I see it now, catching me off guard. My mom is sitting at my kitchen table, in her 70s with her hand shaking hard and uncontrollably from Parkinson’s disease. My back is turned as I stand at the sink, but I hear it riding underneath her voice.

“You still love him!” I say, turning around to look at her.

She stops. Breath taken aback. She answers slowly. “I suppose I do.”

And then I realize, “But you never loved Dad like this, did you?”

“No, I guess not. Not like this,” she says, “I loved him differently.”

So many of these feelings rest like sleeping orchids in my genes. Or sleeping demons. I don’t know which.


My stylish and once good-looking grandmother, Ruth, had her one Fernando story. She always told it with a cheeky laugh.

The first time she met Fernando, her daughter’s suitor, he let his brown eyes slowly look her, the mother, up and down, taking her in as a woman.

Feet, legs, hips, breasts, neck, face, and slowly back down again. Looking at her that way. Leaning back and casually enjoying the look. Another strange beguiling image penetrating my childhood psyche. Fernando – the mystery force – checking out my grandmother.


How do these things add up when you are a child? The things you hear and see and how they sculpt the way you understand what it is that goes on between a man and a woman. It’s so very different from the princess fairytales you’re told. You take it all in without knowing, storing it inside for when it is your turn.


As for me, it was fall in Europe in 1990 not long after the fall of the Berlin wall, and I met him in a hostel in Prague. It was a make-shift hostel, at a football stadium for the young backpackers streaming in on trains from the West. It was right after the revolution when everything in Prague was both crumbling grey communist and dizzily free capitalist at once. Everyone who could was making money. And the Westerners came for the cheap beer and to gawk and marvel at this once hidden universe.

The hostel check-in office was down a grey hall behind a window with dingy curtains. I followed some other travelers down to an unshaven drunken Czech man with greasy blonde hair, a white tank top and a beer belly, who sat at the window taking our money. But in the back behind him there was a boy, my age, about 19, with green eyes. He spoke English.

Lock and key our eyes met. At the check-in desk.

It was not love at first sight. But something else. Our eyes looked at each other over the shoulder of the drunken unshaven man. In my body was a strange clicking through every molecule. So quickly it all unfolded in that one look. The sex, the fights, the marriage, the births of our children, the naked swims, the twenty four years of dishes and folded laundry. Each their own side of the bed, legs touching, the affairs, the car repairs, the pillow talks, the disintegration, divorce.

We smiled politely at each other and I looked down and away.

Later in the hostel hall, the boy touched my arm and invited me in his awkward English to go dancing at a disco. I said yes. But in my room, I looked in my bulky traveler’s backpack and saw I had no disco dress. I only had Birkenstocks and a long navy blue polka dot dress. I could not go to the disco. I hid from him that night when we had agreed to meet. Locked the door to my room and read a book.

The next day the boy with the green eyes, who was exceedingly handsome, saw me in the hall, bewildered I hadn’t been there. I could not explain. He invited me to take a walk around the city on that drizzling September day. I said yes. He opened his umbrella and held it over me. He was gallant and knew things, knew history and such worldly things like Marx and Dostoevsky, which would make any American girl swoon, and he carried a heavy depressed Kafka aura around him. He had wonderful soccer legs and a charming physical power and when I said I loved drawing, he invited me to go back to my room so we could draw each other.

Sitting always in the hall of the hostel was an African immigrant waiting for papers to go to Germany. He sat there all day. While the drunken, unshaven man with greasy blond hair sat at the check-in desk at the window talking into two old dial up phones – one bright orange, one moss green. One receiver at each ear. This is how it was. He argued into both phones at once. And then he just gave up and put the two receivers together to let the two distant high pitched voices sort it out.

That day when I passed by the African man sitting on the bench and went to put the key into the door to my room, the drunken desk man suddenly came out from behind the window. He came behind me and gripped the backs of my arms with his two strong hands. He lifted me straight up in the air then moved me over parallel two feet and put me down. It was matter of fact. No words involved. Then he opened my door with my key, went into my room where there were two single beds. He took one single bed and pushed it together with the other to make a double bed, then he went out. The African man smiled to himself, looking away.

This is how my children began. When the Czech boy and I went into that room to draw each other.

And this is how I struggle years later, finding myself thrashing around in my own psychic water tower, not wanting to be married to this man but somewhere in the order of the universe chained in love to this man. While my mother sits at my table still in love with Fernando. And “Cup of coffee for an old friend?” has long ago died. How do we all come into existence? This is how.



















































The tiger has come for me again. Prowling in silence outside my office door, moving smooth and light on her massive paws. She enters and drops down on her rear haunches behind my desk. She stretches out comfortably on the floor. Her green eyes fixed on me.


I pull my swivel chair in tighter to my desk so I don’t have to see her. I concentrate fully on my files and the emails that pop up with endless urgency on my screen. Below my black pencil skirt, I cross my stockinged legs, shiny black heels held neatly together. But I feel her hot tiger breath on my ankles from beneath my desk.


All afternoon, she’s still there, stretched out majestically, tail flickering electric.


The phone rings. “Hello, Stanton Financial. Can I help you?” I mean to ask, but my voice comes out in a velvet whisper from deep below my throat. I hang up and pull my chair in tighter.


After work, at home in my kitchen, she’s there too. The tiger’s warm body is lying over the full length of the counter where I am trying to make a chicken dinner. And I don’t have much time because I have to pick up Sam from soccer and Hannah from piano. And I have a husband who will soon come in the door.


I push at her furry belly to find a place to put the glass casserole dish for the chicken. Her black lips are curled into something of a smile. Her tail is thumping against the side of the refrigerator.


“OUT!” I shout, “I don’t want you here!”

She looks at me with a lazy, unflinching stare. I use both hands to push against her heavy body, trying to shove her off the kitchen counter. But she turns towards me with a low throaty growl which rumbles through my bones. So, I cook meekly around her furry limbs.


At night in bed with my husband’s body curled behind me, I feel the tiger pacing the length of the bedroom by the window. Back and forth. All night. Her kinetic energy thickening the room. I slip out of the covers quietly so as not to wake my husband. He has not seen the tiger. He knows not of her.

I kneel in my nightgown by her large head. I whisper, angry and tired and scared, “What do you want from me?”

She uses no words. But in the grainy darkness of the night I do what she says.

I climb onto her back and she takes me away from my soft dreamtime breathing family where everything is right and safe and in order.


She moves with purpose up towards the mountains. My arms cling around her thick warm neck. There’s a balmy wind that tears at my nightgown, ripping it to shreds that flutter away in the moonless night.

I feel the movement of her powerful muscles rippling underneath my bare skin. I press my breasts into her fur.


And she takes us up into the hills. In one backward glance over my shoulder I try to look towards the lights of my city. I think I might see our porch light on, but I’m not sure. She’s moving forward quickly and it’s all unravelling behind me and fluttering away like my nightgown. Now we are running. We pass through trees and dark and stones and cold, laboring uphill, her breathing fierce.

I cling to her neck so I don’t fall off. My legs are wrapped around her torso.


We break at the crest. All wind stops. The stars burn. She drops me from her back to the ground.


I am on my knees again, my weight pressing into the sharp gravel and dirt. I hold her large face in my hands.


“Here I am” I say.


I kiss her mouth tigerishly. I run my tongue over her ivory fangs.

My lips are pressed against her black curled lips. I search with my open mouth. But she never answers.


Instead she turns away. Lumbering downhill. Disappearing between the trees.


And I am left alone naked in the fierce darkness.

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