Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sleep like the angels

"I guess I'm trying to manufacture a movie moment here." 

Zack says this and looks up at you with his blank Asperger's eyes. He is sitting up in the hotel bed. You had both slept in it the night before. You had kept your clothes and even your shoes on, chaste as a nun. Zack likes you like a girlfriend but you like him like a friend. 

Before crashing into bed together, far apart like siblings, you had gone to a bar and then to a club. You let him pay $11 for each of your four Ruby-Red Lemon-Drop Martinis at the swanky Daily Grill. That's $44 before tax and tip that he paid to get you feeling slinky, get you feeling warm and liquid and boneless, dancing like an off-duty stripper with him later at the club.

Chaste as a nun who drinks sugar-rimmed cocktails and simulates sex on the dancefloor.  

Can you blame him? For trying what he tried there at the end?    

Zack had come to town for the small-press comics convention in your city. You had not seen him since two years ago, when you rejected him after a couple of dates. In those two years, you had become a symbol to him. Whenever he applied for but did not get a job, he thought of how you had rejected him. Whenever he e-mailed a girl from the speed-dating night and she only wanted to be his friend -- it was you all over again.  

But it had been good for him, or so he said -- you also have to do, in some nebulous or obvious way, with his recent drastic weight loss. Weight Watchers and long walks at night. A lot of yearning odes to pies and doughnuts on his blog.  

You like it, don't you? Like being a symbol? Like being the point up ahead that seems to steer someone's life, like the unwitting carved maiden on the prow of a ship? Like having that much power over someone?  

Yes. You do. Admit it. 

You are a terrible person but tell yourself that you're nice. That you have a good heart. Why? Because all of your other former co-workers at the newspaper didn't like him, thought his loud nasal whine was obnoxious, thought it was weird that he chewed wads of paper when he was nervous? And because you tried to see past all of that?  

Or did you? You never really could see past that. What you saw two years ago when you agreed to go on those dates was: you, freshly rejected by someone else and insecure, and him, innocent and adoring. But mostly you just saw you.  

The first part of the night had been so charming. You had walked six blocks from the metro station to his hotel in your short dress and shoes printed like the fur of some wildcat. You had spotted him when you were half a block away -- he looked so thin! So surprisingly handsome, or at least scruffily cute! He had a new beard! You forgot how tall he was! 

He had taken you into his arms just like a lover from the most romance-drunk teen girl's fantasies. From your fantasies. He had clasped you in his superhumanly strong grip and swung you around and around, there on the sidewalk in front of everybody, you laughing and adored.  

That had been a movie moment.  

In the rain, he had twirled his umbrella and done part of the "Singin' in the Rain" bit, stomping through the puddles like a big kid, even jumping up onto a low brick ledge and sort of parachuting down off of it. Movie moment. You had wavered back and forth between embarrassed and delighted. Later he misread the sign outside a sake bar and said, "Hey, let's go to the Snake Bar!"  

At the Daily Grill, he'd honestly shocked you with his newfound coolness (or was it partly the alcohol -- for you, for him?). He'd worn a dark suit, black pants and a dark-gray corduroy jacket. He'd looked like what he was, an endearingly geeky freelance comics and pop-culture writer/blogger, someone who'd interviewed people who impress you, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who was also in town (for a literary festival) and wanted to spend time with Zack that weekend. But Zack spent time with you instead.  

Seated next to Zack at the bar were a young cool guy and his hot girlfriend. Zack was being Zack, loud and funny with his lecture-style ramblings and pronouncements that make you think of Truman Capote or one of those old-timey folks who said impossibly witty things with a cocktail in hand to a laughing audience at some plush red Manhattan lounge, some legendary bon vivant like you'd see in a classic movie. The cool guy and his hot girlfriend had been honestly entranced, laughing genuinely, and you'd felt proud. "Atta boy!" you'd thought. Revenge of the nerds! 

Zack drank a cocktail, a Black-and-Blue Mojito with a mucky seafloor of elegantly smushed berries. It was a girl drink but he hadn't cared, and that night, he had made it cool, because he hadn't cared. "What's that?" asked the cool guy, who surely only ever drank beer or gin and tonics. "I'll have one of those!" 

Zack hadn't meant to neglect you while the cool guy kept prodding him for more stories, more Zackness. Zack had turned to you once or twice to shrug, almost sheepishly, as if to say, "Wow, hey, tonight I am cool!" And you truly hadn't minded, staring at the back of his head and catching only some of what he'd said that had the cool couple laughing so hard. 

He wouldn't neglect you, if he suddenly got cooler than you. You are pretty sure of it.  

You'd also stared down at your fancy cocktail, pink and sweet and perfect, like what angels must drink! Or so you thought as you were getting tipsy, the kind of thought that lets you know you're getting tipsy. You couldn't even taste the vodka. It had slipped down your throat so easy.  

Each time you'd wanted a new one, you'd reached way down to your shoulder bag at your feet, making a perfunctory show of pulling out your wallet and swearing that you'll pay for this next one, "I have cash; my grandma gave me a 50 for my birthday!" But of course he had paid for them all. (Hey, his folks are rich; they gave him the condo he lives in rent-free; whatever.)  

You had stumbled to the club, the one so loud from the outside that Zack had talked of earplugs, was glad that he had some in his pocket. It's only at moments like this that you remember the other Zack, the worrywart who's scared of late nights in the big city, disdainful of drunken sluts, spooked by drugs and alien to sex.  

That night at the club, he'd been no alien.  

A rock band played and you two were up front. You'd done the things you always do, let all movement emanate from your hips, because you're no stiff white girl, dammit; you know that dancing is all about sex. It's pretend sex. And there's no denying it -- you had pretend sex with Zack there on the dancefloor. You took his goddamned pretend cherry.  

And yet the whole time you'd really been trying to catch the eye of the lead singer.  

More drinks at this place, this club, cheap screwdrivers with thin un-pulpy orange juice and skunk vodka. They hadn't gone down easy, so Zack had stood over you, practically chanting "Chug! Chug!" He'd said, "Close your eyes" (you'd closed your eyes) "and drink as you listen to my voice: You're at the beach, you're listening to the ocean, everything is calm, it's all good, drink, drink..." You'd opened your eyes once to see him blatantly peer-pressuring you to drown your liver. "Innocent my ass," you'd dimly thought.  

There is an isolated moment you can remember, an island of clarity in the blur of the night. Zack in the men's room and you sitting on the cracked pine-green vinyl of a booth seat in the empty dining portion of the club's restaurant, staring at fat sequin-scaled goldfish in a tank. Staring at the flowy slow-motion movement of their tails and fins, like when you're in the pool and your hair flows so pretty.   

The club with Zack is like an aquarium where your hair flows so pretty, prettier than in real life. When you're drunk, all metaphors seem profound.  

At the hotel, in out of the rain, you'd posed on the bed like some G-Rated centerfold and he had snapped a few photos. Your thoughts were like little clear champagne bubbles that rise up giddily and pop away to nothing. "I'm posing like a cat, back arched and clawing at the sheets -- but it's OK, because my clothes are all still on." Someone ought to brand you with a PT for "prick tease."  

"Let me see! Let me see!" you had chanted after each one, scrambling to him to see yourself on the tiny screen.  

Once sleep was physically inevitable for both of you, beckoning like a drowsy siren, you'd decided to stay in his room instead of walking six blocks to the metro, riding the metro for 45 minutes with a book you have already read, driving the five miles from the station to your home... and besides, the metro stops running at two... 

You had fallen gratefully beneath the comforter. It had felt so clean, like heaven-clouds, like where angels sleep! He'd only tried one thing during the night -- as you'd slept, he'd draped a heavy arm over you, accidentally making contact with the padded part of your still-on bra, and you'd jumped. "Oh," he'd said in his flat Asperger's voice, and he'd turned over onto his side, his back to you.  

You'd wondered if he'd mistakenly thought that he'd just made contact with your real boob.  

You'd stared at the back of his head. 

In the morning, he'd asked if he could hold you. How could you say no? Well, quite easily. But you hadn't. You'd stiffly allowed his embrace, holding your breath and eager for it to be over. Telling yourself it's all for a good cause, a charitable cause. He'd felt like a big soft down-covered baby. He'd gotten bold. 

Atta boy.  

He'd pulled you on top of him. "Zack..." you'd murmured scoldingly, sadly. Laughing a feeble little laugh. "I'm not going to try anything," he had said, and then he had tried something. His hand up your skirt.  
 
You had wriggled off him, embarrassed for both of you, feeling that this ending was all wrong. You had then sworn that "It's OK, it's OK," delicate with him (you are a symbol, after all; you have power). You had just stood there for a while as he sat up in bed. He had said something astonishingly jerky: "I feel great. I guess I should feel like an asshole about that, but I feel great."  

You can't blame him. He's not like a normal person, someone blameable, plus there's your invisible PT tattoo. (But maybe you're unblameable, too? Sad things have happened. That morning, he had reminded you that you'd been crying in the hotel bathroom just before joining him in bed. You hadn't told him what was wrong, but now you remember drunk-texting someone you shouldn't have. Funny -- all of this is fuzzy, but the glittering auburn goldfish are so very clear.)  

Now he is trying to summon up a "movie moment," from out of thin air, from out of nothing. Some "You complete me" Jerry Maguire kind of deal. Where is the debonair Truman Capote-style dispenser of bon mots from the night before? But it never comes to him, and it never comes to you.   

You hug him good-bye and feign reluctance before you bolt out the door.

Soon you will be down the hall, fidgeting while waiting for the elevator and staring at the cans of coconut juice mixed in with the Pepsi cans in the vending machine.

Soon you will be hurrying down the street in gray weather, then realizing you have hurried way down the wrong street, and it will take you twice as long to get to the metro station. Your slept-in contact lenses will feel sticky on your eyes, and you will fantasize about brushing your teeth.

You will re-read your favorite parts of your book on the train, seasick in your backwards-facing seat.

You will feel inexpressible relief at seeing your car parked magically where you'd left it the night before.

You will drive five miles home to your apartment, where you live alone. You will try to settle on just one label, just one tone, for the night with Zack. What song would be playing over the preview (which would undoubtedly include his "Singin' in the Rain" routine)?  

But you won't be able to label it neatly and put it away. You will feel mentally constipated. You will need a maiden on the prow of a ship.  

After he gets home, he will tell you that the visit did wonders for his self-esteem. You will not be able to forget the part where he tried something, but you will not mention it, ever.  

Later, he will e-mail you the photos of you that he took. ("Let me see! Let me see!") You will see yourself kneeling on the hotel bed like a sex kitten, short dress rising to expose the "control top" bands at the top of your tights, playing with your hair and not looking at him, faraway and blurred. You will see the sad empty pit of yourself. You will stare into it then look away.
 
 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

He said it didn't matter


"And even tho' we ain't got money,
I'm so in love with ya, honey..."

He sang these words to me while rowing us in a little dinghy. A dinghy is a small boat, but it's also a funny word that sounds like a you-know-what. 


We had both been talking about how we were broke. It was a glorious night in a big city that had a bay in it. We were in that bay, in that dinghy.

It had been there in a cluster of dinghies floating in the dark, at the edge of the ghetto part of the bay.
The people who live on their crappy boats farther out use the dinghies to get to their bobbing, creaking homes. No one guards the dinghies, so we had taken ours for free.

It was wild. We were both a little drunk. He was rowing us, gliding us across the water, which was black with red and green sparkles on it, reflections of the city lights.

It was a wild, crazy time, just after the Great Recession had started to eff up people's lives, and I was out of a job, and he said that it didn't matter, and that he loved me. He loved me even tho' we ain't got money.

He pretended we were in Venice, in a gondola, and he sang to me in fake Italian, too.


It was wild and crazy and romantic. Except that I didn't love him back, because he was a toothless old wino, and I was not a toothless old wino, and I just wanted to make it back to the shore alive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ride

The idea was for my life to become a poem: a few perfectly chosen words on a clean white page.

I got laid off from a job I'd wanted to leave anyway. At 4:29 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, I printed out the page of my strengths and weaknesses I'd typed up in preparation for the "one on one" with my boss, the new VP of my department. She'd told us in a meeting earlier in the week that the "one on one"s were nothing to fear; she was having one with each person in the department. I'd worn a white button-down shirt that day even though I sometimes showed up in jeans on days that weren't Fridays. At 4:32 her door was still closed, so I knocked, even though I was a little afraid of her. The door was opened then closed behind me. The HR lady was sitting at the table. I sat, thinking, "I know my math's not great, but shouldn't there be only two people at a 'one on one'?" My boss got straight to it: "Christie, we're eliminating your position."

The HR lady peered at me with concern, hazel eyes like little embers in thick ash-black liner. My boss laid it out for me crisply, in her lady-executive suit with her lady-executive haircut: the budget was tight, most companies this size don't have two people for corporate communications, it's nothing personal.

At our department meeting earlier in the week, she had apologized for being bitchy lately and had told us, "I'm actually a really nice person. And I'm a fun person, once you get to know me."

The HR lady started to talk about severance pay and COBRA, but I didn't hear much of it. I was thinking that I felt elated.

I'd had this big idea of moving out West and starting a new life. For months I'd been looking online for jobs in California (I hadn't figured out yet how I'd show up for an interview if anyone was interested in me). I'd even decided to try to get an MFA in creative writing in the next year or so, maybe at a college out West somewhere, and started looking into how the GRE deal works, and student loans. During an inspired trip to Target, I'd bought a big dry-erase calendar and a new daily planner that I wanted to fill with stuff like deadlines for graduate school applications and, eventually, job interviews. I'd also bought a bulletin board and had the seventh-grade notion of putting up postcards with palm trees or the ocean on them, something to help me "keep my eye on the prize!" But it wasn't until I was sitting in my boss's office, tuning out the talk about unused vacation days and signing the termination letter, that the idea climbed down from daydream realm. It was like someone had fired the shotgun to let me know to run.

I left my work-issued laptop, BlackBerry, and key-card to the building with another HR lady, the one from Boston, who said to me as I left: "May Gawd be with you." I drove home in monster traffic. At home in my apartment, I lay on my bed in the dark. I called a friend. I probably cried. Then I got up and browsed craigslist for rooms to rent in California.

I found a posting by an irreverent 27-year-old engineer whose condo was in the Little Italy part of downtown San Diego. I savored the phrase "Little Italy" like a piece of hard candy, the poetry of it. I wrote the engineer a witty e-mail. I got a reply--he was sorting through the other responses to his ad, but so far I seemed like the coolest one. After I read that, I got up and jumped around in my apartment like an idiot. I jumped high enough to reach the ceiling. I thought, "Damn, I didn't realize I could touch the ceiling in here." I jumped up and touched it a few more times. Then I went for a long, long walk.

That night, I contacted a few friends who might be able to help me out, one who worked in publishing in San Diego and one who manages one of a national chain of bookstores. In the morning, I went to my apartment community's management office and asked about breaking my lease early. A girl at a desk in the back told me I could do that, but I was responsible for August and September rent unless I could find someone who wanted my apartment soon. Back at my apartment, I put up an ad on craigslist. Responses trickled into my inbox like tiny miracles.

By the end of the day, I had shown the apartment to a guy with my same last name, his fiancee, and his two adorable daughters from his previous marriage. I told them they could have most of the furniture. They said they'd take it--Could they please move in on Tuesday?

That weekend, I put the last of my ex-boyfriend's belongings in piles (stacks of magazines and comic books, clipped-out restaurant reviews, little plastic toys from Japan, his "collection" of three corn-cob pipes, a bumper sticker we'd bought at a cafe/bluegrass place during our West Virginia cabin vacation, his bottles of high-quality whiskey, his bottles of anti-depressants). I asked him to come for his things Monday evening. I drove trash bag after trash bag of outdated or ill-fitting clothes to the donation shed in front of Blockbuster. I hauled even sentimental things to the Dumpster on my street. My hair was pulled back in a sloppy "getting down to business" bun, my shorts were dusty, my arms ached from moving things. I felt like Superwoman.

On Monday, my mom arrived early and cleaned the apartment while I continued to weed and prune my belongings to the bone. We'd keep the antique dresser that I'd had in the bedroom; I'd only borrowed it from my parents in the first place, so I'd ferry it back to their house. And I'd take my computer and computer table. Everything else would stay for the new Chapman moving in. With the help of a uniformed man standing outside who probably worked for the apartment community, we wedged the dresser into the trunk of my mom's Buick. The man tied the trunk lid down at a 45-degree angle over the sticking-out part of the dresser, using some twine in the trunk. I drove the dresser to my parents' house, a half-hour trip, slow and steady, feeling like a parade float. When I brought the Buick back I saw my mom on her hands and knees, scrubbing my kitchen and bathroom floors, barefoot. My mom is Appalachian and not prissy. We took a lunch break at the Chipotle in the shopping center near my apartment community.

When I'd first told her about losing my job, on Friday night, she had been folding laundry in my parents' bedroom. She'd stopped, clutched the towel or sheet or T-shirt or whatever she'd been folding to her chest, and said, "Oh Lord, Chris! What are you gonna do?" I'd been secretly annoyed at her knee-jerk pessimism, her hillbilly "Oh Lord, Chris!", her panic when I needed to be calmed. I knew it'd be a long way from that reaction to her being okay with me moving to San Diego. I told her gradually:
"I've actually been looking for other jobs for a while now."
"Are you looking for something here, or in another state?"
"Another state... I mean, I've lived here all my life. It wouldn't have to be permanent."
I'm sure it was a long way for her.

But sitting at Chipotle eating our burrito bowls, smelling like sweat and Scrub-Free, our fair-skinned faces flushed from exertion in July heat, my mom told me that part of her wished she'd done something like move across the country when she was younger. She said, "I admire your spunk." She said this even though I won't be with her on my 30th birthday, even though she worries that she won't see me for Christmas this year.

"I'm gonna steal a silver stallion
with not a mark upon his silky hide
teach him he can trust me like a sister
one day we'll saddle up and ride

and we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride
ride like the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds
with the Devil close behind
we're gonna ride
we're gonna ride

I'm gonna find me a reckless man
with razor blades and ice in his eyes
just a touch of sadness in his fingers
thunder and lightning in his thighs

and we're gonna ride

I'm gonna chase the sky forever
with the man, the stallion, and the wind
the sun is gonna burn to a cinder
before we ever pass this way again

and we're gonna ride..."

-"Silver Stallion," from the Cat Power album "Jukebox"


Now that the new Chapmans have moved into my apartment, I'm staying with my parents for these last few weeks before I leave for the trip out West. Since moving back in, the shape of my life has changed. It's populated with new minor characters--the lady who takes her walks in the evenings around the same time that I do, walking laps around the neighborhood but in the opposite direction than the one I like to take, who avoids my eyes when I try to smile at her or say hello; the people who work in the Starbucks cafe section of Barnes & Noble during what used to be my workday hours, who all know that I want a tall mocha frappuccino with two pumps of vanilla syrup and that I do in fact have a member discount card. It smells clean in my parents' house, not stale like my apartment. It's peaceful in their Edenic upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood, no sirens from the fire station near the apartment, or honking car horns on nearby Duke Street, or throbbing bass and casual obscenities from rap music played in apartments or cars. When I walk at night, I don't dodge cockroaches streaming from the cracks in the sidewalks like I did in my apartment community. I don't get hit on by older men standing on street corners.

During my walks now, I see shooting stars. There's bad cell-phone reception because the neighborhood's away from the city, away from Route 1 with its fast-food restaurants and chain-store mini-malls. You see lightning bugs and hear cicadas and sometimes frogs, especially down by the pond and coming from the woods across the road from it. You sometimes have to dodge low-hanging canopies of leaves. At night, I can walk for hours without seeing another person. I can walk down to the boat docks and have the river to myself.

The furniture I left behind:

-1 red couch. My mom and I discovered it while roaming around JCPenney before I moved into my first-ever apartment in Lynchburg, Virginia. I spotted it, cherry-red cotton and roomy, and we both collapsed onto it, happily reeling at the low sale price.

-1 bed/2 mattresses. The headboard was fake wrought-iron, IKEA. My ex and I had privately snickered over how the headboard's bars would be good for clinking handcuffs around, not that we ever did anything like that. When I visited the apartment later, the new Chapman living there said that the double bed couldn't accommodate his queen-sized mattresses, so he'd given my bed to the couple who lived next door. I know that the woman next door's name is Darlene because her boyfriend was always yelling it when she locked him out after one of their fights. He'd get drunk and accuse her of being a junkie and a whore. In the mornings, she played 70s soul music at a high volume. I never heard her yell back at him. The new Chapman said he'd heard sounds of a porn movie coming from Darlene's apartment on the very first night he moved in. 

-1 diner-style table, chrome frame and legs with a periwinkle-blue Formica tabletop. This belonged to my grandparents--my dad's parents--in the 1950s. At some point my grandmother decided that she didn't like the chrome, so she started putting a tablecloth on top and she spray-painted the legs a dull matte brown. When I got my first apartment, my parents gave the table to me. Before I left home, I never asked her to, but my mom, knowing that I'd prefer it if the legs were the original chrome, spent days in our basement, on her knees, scrubbing at the legs with paint remover, using a toothbrush in the crevices. Today the original chrome gleams. You'd never know it'd been painted brown.

The table is vintage and probably worth something. It was the one thing--other than the antique dresser--that my parents wanted me to keep or at least sell. In my haste to get someone to take my apartment, I'd said that the new Chapman could have the furniture, including the table. I hope he knows what he's got. Before he moves out at the end of September, I'll try to remember to tell him.

-1 purple daybed, from the JCPenney catalog. The arms had gone threadbare by the time I left it for the new Chapman (I'd used decorative throws to disguise this, but my conscience had me disclosing it when he came by to check the apartment out). I remember my ex grinding his skull into its arm during a manic-depressive episode one time.

-1 small bookcase that my ex kept his foreign-language books on, organized by region of the world (including Croatian for the trip we took to Dubrovnik, and Spanish for a trip we were going to take to Buenos Aires before I broke up with him).

-1 boxy, clunky 1980s TV. My ex spent many hours struggling with the "rabbit ears" antenna that we had because we couldn't afford cable, cursing at it, and we'd laugh when we'd be watching something and it'd go black-and-white or snowy if one of us coughed or shifted. After he moved out, I was no longer supporting both of us on one salary and could afford cable (I got rid of the diabolical antenna), but I never watched TV after he left. We used to put up the little plastic "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree next to the TV. The apartment seemed most like a home to me when he'd put the rainbow-colored Christmas lights on the tree and we'd turn off all the other lights. I threw the tree away when I moved out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Home

I got hired to be a UFO-hotline operator. It wasn't as fascinating as I'd thought it'd be. I'd imagined old men in tinfoil hats calling every day, their sightings of alien spacecraft served up with a side of theory about who shot JFK. You know.


But nope. It was just ordinary people, saying banal things like, "Well, I thought I saw this thing... but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it was a hot-air balloon. It just looked a little funny. Maybe I need to clean my glasses."

So imagine my surprise when one night I saw a UFO, and it landed in my back yard, and aliens came out, and their leader wanted me to be their cultural ambassador. I didn't report it to my bosses, because I had signed a secret pact with the aliens. I said, "I will do this for you, if you promise to take me away from here. This was never my home in the first place."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Two skies, one in Heaven and one on Earth

Manuel Javier Olivarez stepped out of his house on a Sunday at nine in the morning. The sun shines on Colito, Arizona, where Manuel lives, 364 days a year, and today was not the cloudy one. The girls at the hair salon told him that he was a handsome old man. When he looked in the mirror, he would have to say that he agreed. At 74, he had a full head of black hair that parted to one side in front. He was trim but not gaunt and sinewy like other old men. He had dreamy black eyes with long lashes and read Pablo Neruda; Manuel liked to think he had the eyes of a poet. He went by the nickname Manny.

Colito is small, but there are many towns in the Southwest that are much smaller. Manny's house is on what is best described as a suburban street. The houses are nearly identical and not far apart. Although there are houses and cars and people there, the desert reminds you that it was here first. In Manny's neighborhood, there are no yards, just fenced-in squares of sand to the back and front of each house. Some of the women have found scorpions in their ovens. Children playing in the fenced-in squares of sand that they call back yards have encountered several kinds of snakes: boas, colubrids, coral snakes, rattlesnakes, threadsnakes, vipers.

On this morning, Manny encountered a black rattlesnake. He had stepped outside his door, pondered for a moment about which direction to go, chose right for no particular reason, and headed down the sidewalk. There is a cactus forest on a mountain behind Colito. It is the only thing around for miles that is not flat. On the 364 days a year that the sun shines on Colito, it is so flat that drivers see heat shimmers at the far end of the road they are driving on. Today, Manny thought he might try to discover a shortcut to the cactus forest through the yard of a neighbor that had no fence. He got as far as the clothesline when he heard the rattle and saw the snake rear up at him.

Today was not the day to find the shortcut. He turned and headed for town instead.

* * *

The part of Colito that people call "town" is clustered around the on- and off-ramps leading to and from the Interstate. There is a 24-hour gas station, a convenience store, and a truck stop. There is a billboard that you see if you are driving toward Colito from the east: "Live White Tiger! Next Exit. Colito." But there is no live white tiger in Colito. Tourists, especially families with fussy children on long road trips, are disappointed about Colito's lack of a live white tiger. There was a live white tiger once, or so people said, although no one knows how the family got it. The story goes that the father of the family was entrepreneurial, and he had worked in a circus and somehow came to acquire the tiger via his circus connections. He purchased advertising space on the billboard and hand-painted the picture of his tiger onto it, not understanding the usual way that advertisements are put onto billboards, or wanting to use his own, more artistic method instead. The tiger died two weeks later in the dry, shade-less desert heat. The sign is still there because no one else in Colito has wanted to purchase advertising space. It is a laid-back sort of town -- the tourists will stop for gas and a sandwich whether the businesses in Colito advertise or not. The tourists will stop in Colito but they will not stay there.

All of the businesses in town are built to look like they are made out of adobe. They are matte, shineless rust-brown with dark-orange tiles for roofs: the bank, the library, the shopping center that contains the hair salon. This morning, Manny walked into the hair salon in the shopping center that looks like it is made out of adobe. Luz is the owner, and she is always there. She is there more days out of the year than the sun shines on Colito. She has teased blond hair and thick black eyeliner. Her lips are outlined in brick-red lip pencil; she draws peaks on her upper lip to make a Cupid's-bow shape. Her hair is not naturally blond, and her lips are not naturally Cupid's-bow-shaped.

"Manny! Cómo estás?" Manny and Luz speak in a combination of Spanish and English, and they both think in Spanish. Manny mostly used English when dealing with gringos before he retired from his job as a real-estate agent selling ranch properties in other counties. For poetry he uses only Spanish, always. For talking to his friends, he uses something in between.
Luz was behind the counter where you sign in with your name and the time of your appointment. Manny found her a bit garish, but he flirted with her anyway. It was in his nature to flirt.
Luz said, "Where is Julio? Did he drop you off and leave? I don't see his car."
Manny made his eyes twinkle, or so he imagined, and he smiled. His real teeth had been crooked, but his dentures were straight and white and perfect, which he knew made him even more handsome than before.
Manny said, "I don't need Julio to drop me off. I walked here myself."
Luz made a skeptical face, and Manny worried that she might call Julio, so Manny did what he had to do. He recited some lines from a love poem by Pablo Neruda, and he kissed her hand. The poem was one that Manny used to recite for his late wife. If you could have seen Luz blush through her sun-coarsened, makeup-spackled complexion, you would have. She laughed and told him that he was a charmer. Then she looked at him with playful doubt.
"You don't have an appointment," she said.
"I did not come to get my hair cut," Manny said. "I came to brighten your day."
He winked and walked out of the hair salon. He did not have to turn around, because he knew without looking that she was swooning.

Manny walked to the bus station. Buses did not leave and arrive every day, and Manny did not know the schedule. He wondered how much folding money he had in his billfold. He did not plan to take a trip, but he would have liked to figure out how far he could go with what he had on him, just in case. The station was empty inside except for an attendant sitting by a phone, and a blind bum with a dog. The attendant was new; Manny had not seen her before. The bum sat at the far end of the station and stared ahead at nothing. Manny walked to a wooden cubby filled with brochures for local attractions: the cactus forest, the small Catholic mission on an Indian reservation. The live white tiger was not among them, of course. It occurred to Manny that maybe the billboard had always been a sham, that maybe it was merely a ruse to get motorists to stop at Colito instead of the small towns at the exits before and after it along the Interstate.

Three large vans pulled into the parking lot, and a middle-aged woman helped several dozen old people get out. These were mostly women, and maybe two or three men. The men were of the gaunt, sinewy variety to which Manny felt himself aesthetically superior. Manny was glad he had worn his best-fitting pair of pants today. As the old people bustled into the station, Manny strolled over to stand closer to them. He pretended to examine the cities and dates listed above the attendant's head, but really he was reveling in the attention from the women. He could feel their eyes on him, and he knew that these older women were probably starved for specimens of male beauty.
"OK, people. Our bus is here."
The middle-aged woman was a blond-haired gringa with a shrill voice and a harried, put-upon manner. She was flustered, so she did not notice when she herded Manny onto the bus along with the rest of them.
She did a head count on the bus, and then she said to the bus driver: "Yes, 36. We're all here."
As the bus pulled out, Manny heard one of the old men say, "Where's Marco?"

* * *

The bus jostled over a dusty road. Manny watched his hometown streets turn into expanses of parched, clotty desert shrubs and pitchfork cactuses. He did not know where he was going. He was perfectly relaxed.

Where he was going turned out to be the Catholic mission on the Indian reservation, the same as the one in the brochures he had been looking at in the bus station. Manny had never been there, but he was not impressed; he had hoped for a longer bus ride. When they got to the Indian reservation, the bus rolled down a road flanked by tiny crosses and vibrant bunches of flowers. A cemetery. A hush fell over the bus, and the man who had wondered about Marco woke from his doze as if he were psychic. It was a bummer, Manny thought, to bring a bus of old people through a cemetery. At the little white mission church, the gringa shepherded everyone out and split them into groups of six. Tour guides chaperoned five groups, and the gringa took charge of the sixth. Manny made sure to be in one of the other five groups so that the gringa would not discover this interloper on her field trip.

The tour guide for Manny's group was a teenage Latina with a perky ponytail and a crisp uniform. As she led them through the church, she gave her talk first in Spanish and then in English. Afterward, she invited those in her group to take a look around the church and buy candles for $1 apiece to light at the altar. Manny had been scoping out the females, and he took this opportunity to make a move.

A few of the women were very old, too old for him. They had cotton-white hair and were bent over even when they were standing straight. One of the women had eyes that were the color of green olives. Manny's late wife's eyes had been that color. In the tiny mission church, as clumps of old people whispered in corners or sat thoughtfully in pews, brilliant jewel-colored light fell on Manny through the stained-glass windows. He felt a tightening in his chest. It was not something to worry about, he knew; he was in excellent physical health for his age, in addition to being remarkably handsome. It was just what happened when he thought of Sylvia. He took a dollar from his billfold and bought a white votive candle. He lit it and placed it among the many that were already at the altar. He closed his eyes and said a prayer. It included lines from a love poem by Pablo Neruda, even though Neruda himself had not been a praying sort. For this, Manny thought, Neruda would allow an exception.

Manny was still praying when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He opened one eye. It was one of the younger old women from another group. Her face glowed in the candlelight. She winked at him.
"I know your secret," she said. "I could tell on you."
Manny pretended to be shocked, but in a playful manner. "If you don't mind--you are interrupting my prayer. I'm trying to have a very serious moment, and here you are flirting with me."

But he was grateful for the levity. He wanted to sneak into her tour group, and so before her group left for the cemetery, Manny and the woman, whose name was Marina, arranged an exchange: Manny swapped places with the man who had expressed mild concern for Marco. Manny and the man were both happy with the deal, which allowed each of them more overall exposure to the pool of females.

At the gift shop, Manny bought a souvenir keychain for Marina. When no one was looking, he took a plastic carnation from one of the graves and gave it to Marina. On the bus ride home, Manny and Marina held hands. The sun was setting. At the bus station, Manny kissed Marina's hand before she boarded one of the vans. She waved at him from the other side of a tinted window as he stood on the curb.

The bus-station attendant guided an old man to the vans and explained something to the shrill gringa, who then said: "I'm sorry, Marco! I must have miscounted!"

Manny watched Marina's face slide from view as her van pulled away. He felt a wistfulness spreading in him like a bruise.

* * *

The bus-station attendant stood next to Manny.
She said, "Weren't you supposed to go with them?" She seemed like a suspicious type, and Manny worried that she might call someone and tell on him.
Manny thought quickly and said, "No. I'm here to pick up my uncle."
They both looked at the blind bum with the dog, both of whom were sleeping at the far end of the station.
The bus-station attendant looked skeptical.
Manny said, "You have the most beautiful eyes. Has anyone ever told you that you look like Ava Gardner? Oh, you're too young to know who that is. She was a beautiful movie star, and she looked just like you!" Manny had a few lines like this up his sleeve in case of emergencies.
The girl looked at the ground and smiled. She said, "That guy's your uncle? He's here like every day. Where have you been?"
Manny thought quickly again. "He just likes to get out of the house once in a while."

* * *

The girl reluctantly returned to her post, beside the telephone that wasn't ringing and beneath a list of cities and dates, but Manny could feel her eyes on him. He did not want to give her a reason for suspicion. He crept up to the bum. The bum was somewhat well-known around town; everyone had seen him at least once, and he could in fact be found sleeping at the bus station almost as many days out of the year that the sun shines on Colito. Manny shook the bum's shoulder gently. The dog lifted its head, and then the bum lifted his head.
"Excuse me, sir. Would you like to go for a walk with me?"
The bum was wearing dark glasses. That's how everyone knew he was blind.
"Do you have forty cents?" the bum said.
"Yes," Manny said, truthfully. There was a pause.
"Well?" the bum said, expectant.
"Come with me," Manny said, "and I will do better than give you forty cents. I will take you to the bar, and I will buy you a drink."
The bum roused himself and his dog without further hesitation.
"Adios, Ava," Manny called out to the bus-station attendant. She blushed and waved.

In Colito, there is only one bar. In Colito, there is only one of just about everything. The bar in Colito stays open late, even on a Sunday. Manny and the dog guided the bum, whose name was Al, inside the bar.
Al found his own way to a barstool, and Manny asked him, "What will it be?"
"Tequila!" Al shouted. Al's posture was very straight now, and he banged his fist on the bar once to punctuate his order, as if that were the Morse code for tequila.
Manny and Al raised their shot glasses.
"What'll we drink to?" asked Al.
"To women!" said Manny, before amending the toast. "No. To love!"
Al laughed, as if it were a private joke, although the two were still virtual strangers.
Al ordered another shot of tequila, and another, and then Manny said, "Come on. We are going to the canyon."

Manny had only thought of going to the canyon at that moment. Something in the tequila had made him think of it. The canyon was in the cactus forest on the mountain behind Colito, and if you walked up a particular dirt road, you came to a cliff looking deep down into it. It was one of Manny's favorite places, and he wanted the bum to see it. Of course, the bum could not have seen it, not with his eyes. But Manny wanted to describe it to him. His poet's soul made him want to paint the scene with his words for this poor bum who would never really see the canyon in all its splendor.
Al drained the last drops of tequila from his shot glass, and they left the bar. Manny did not have to tell the bartender to put the drinks on Julio's tab.

* * *

Only locals know about the overlook because it is not on a brochure that you can find at the bus station. Manny, Al, and the dog walked up the road through the cactus forest to the overlook. Manny used to walk there with Sylvia. It took about 45 minutes to get there if you walked, and it took an hour and seventeen minutes if you walked with a blind bum and his dog. As they got higher, Manny made sure that Al was walking on the mountain side of the steep drive. No cars passed. The dog whimpered. They took it slowly, and they made it to the overlook without incident.

Manny led Al to a low boulder, which was a good place to sit, as if nature had carved them a bench. Al complained that he was having no fun, that he wanted to go back to the bar.
"We'll leave in just a minute," Manny said. "But first, I want you to try to imagine what this looks like. Were you born blind?"
"No," Al said, and left it at that.
Manny said, "Good, then maybe you will remember what I'm talking about when I tell you about the colors and shapes of everything."
Al was quiet.

Manny supposed he should begin with some general information, like a tour guide.
"We are sitting at an altitude of 2,600 feet above the level of the sea."
Manny was not so sure about that, but he did not think that Al would research it and correct him later.
"Eons ago, a fierce river cut straight through the land and carved the deep cleft of the canyon. Then the mighty river left, leaving only dry rock behind. If you were to look down, just a few steps from where you are sitting, you would see a steep drop that would kill you if you stumbled. It is dry here, and there are snakes lurking in the rocks. If you fell, there is a chance that your fall would be broken by a cactus, if you were lucky -- but the cactus would prick you so badly that you would probably wish you had just fallen to the bottom without interruption. There is no water anywhere, not as far as the eye can see."
The fact that there was no water seemed to sadden Al.
It was not cheering Manny up either, so he said, "But there are trillions of stars in the black sky. Because Colito is so small, and because the towns around us are so small, our sky is full of diamonds. We can even see the Milky Way, a great lashing dragon's tail of starlight. And after it rains one day out of the year in Colito, the canyon is filled with water like a lake. Then we have two skies, one in Heaven and one on Earth, the one on Earth reflecting the night sky like a lake filled with stars."
Al looked hopeful.
"Is it like that now?" Al asked, although surely he had to know that it had not rained in Colito for a long time.
Manny looked down at the bone-dry canyon bed.
"Yes, it is," Manny said.

* * *

Manny took Al back to the bar for one last drink--"A nightcap," Al had called it while pleading all the long way back down the mountain--before escorting Al and his dog back to the bus station.

At the bus station, Manny found Julio talking to the girl behind the counter. Julio was Manny's daughter's husband; the two had moved in with Manny last year. This was after Manny had taken a spur-of-the-moment bus trip to the Grand Canyon. Manny had been on milk cartons in 7-Elevens and grocery stores in Colito and neighboring counties after he was reported missing. The day after he came home in a police car, Manny had proudly bought a carton of milk with his picture on it, used the milk on his cereal for a week, then threw the carton away. He had gotten a kick out of the whole ordeal for a while, but then he had wanted life to return to normal.

"Manny, where on Earth have you been?" Julio asked.
"Nowhere," Manny replied. On a bench at the back of the station, a blind bum lay down on a bench and dreamed about a lake filled with stars.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Still



Abandoned Navajo jewelry shack, Arizona.
 
I seek calm in my life. Yoga was not enough. Therapy had the opposite effect.
I have a fund from my parents. I tell myself it's not my fault I live like this. It's like a handicapped person needing a wheelchair. This black cloud settles in my mind as if on a windless day.
The upside is that I am creative, like all those tormented artists before me. I had read all of their biographies before I'd finished high school: Byron, van Gogh, Woolf. Sometimes I say their names like an incantation. It makes me feel I am in an elite league.
I always rent, never buy, even though I could afford to do either. Another thing I do in life is abandon. I think of it as escape.
I tried living with roommates in Austin. I thought companionship would be good for me. My bedroom was shared with another girl; it was split down the middle with a quilt we hung as a curtain. After two weeks I started locking myself in the house's only bathroom, where I would lie on the floor, my cheek to the cold tile, and study the pipework beneath the sink. I would do this for hours, unable to rise. The others' voices and laughter ricocheted outside from far down the hall.
Next came New England; I was thinking of Thoreau. A converted barn in the woods in Vermont. My favorite of all the places I had ever lived, until one night when the husband from the main house let himself in with his key as I lay in bed. He was trying to be quiet. I pretended to be asleep as he stood over me in the dark and reached down to himself. I pretended to be asleep until he was gone.
How did he know? How did he know that I am someone you do that to? That I am someone who will not tell?
The same thing happened when I was a kid, a birthday party, hide-and-seek in the woods and I'd hidden in a place farther out than the other children. He was the father of my friend, the birthday girl.
"Stand still. I just want to look at how pretty you are."
The lesson here is to stay out of the woods.
After Vermont, a summer at an "artists' camp and workshops" in Arizona was safe but too safe.
So I left early and went to stay with a shadowy male friend-of-a-friend in Paris; my friend said this man would let you live in a room rent-free as long as you painted for one hour each day. A bohemian landlord, he thought of himself as a sort of small-scale patron of the arts. At first I attributed his lasciviousness to his Frenchness, a harmless Pepe Le Pew. After two days, the price he expected from me for room and board – it twisted and swelled and blackened.
I should have stayed in the happy little artists' commune in the desert.
If I had stayed there, I might have painted watercolor sunsets and flowering cacti, adobe villages and cute Navajo children, instead of what I paint now, over and over, as if repetition will desecrate it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Alone in my mountain tower with my worst enemy



They found the Japanese literary master dead in a mountain tower. He had been holed up there for months, and then he had killed himself.
When his fans heard this, they grew morbidly excited. Had he been completing a final masterpiece? Had he woven together his accumulated insights into a tapestry that shimmered with ultimate truth? Did the police find a manuscript, or at least some notes? A computer disk containing a precious file? But no, all the police found was issues of People magazine from the U.S. and empty Hostess chocolate cupcake boxes. There wasn't even a suicide note.

His fans couldn’t reconcile this with their idolization of the late master. They expected the police to at least find something heroic or poetic: a samurai sword, a goblet of wine. But I know how he felt. A suicide note, a symbol – a final poignant act – would have brought him back to life, through eternal analysis and worship. And he wanted to be dead. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

In the rays of the dying sun

 
I read on Wikipedia that some people believed fairies are like condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight. That they are most clearly seen, in all their painful and mysterious beauty, in the soft rays of the dying sun.

***

I looked them up after my fiance and I went to the exhibit. He works for a gallery and I write for a well-known fashion magazine. We both studied art. We live in New York and tell ourselves we're not hipsters. Our apartment is Zen – it has to be when it’s tiny – and we're atheists. We joke about how it's an allergic reaction; we both grew up in houses overdecorated with potpourri and wicker and Jesus. My wedding dress is a minimalist white bubble.

We went to the exhibit ironically. It was called "Faeries," with the "e" instead of an "i." It was at a gallery we'd never been to before, in a neighborhood that was new to us. The little girl I had been would have loved it, the gossamer wings, the woodland world of toadstools, morning dew and honeysuckle, hummingbird creatures, acorn and moss. The adult I am now analyzed it coolly and recoiled at the gift-shop kitsch.

In a dream that night, a soundless voice told me that I used to believe in things. I lay awake on my back next to my fiance in our steel-framed bed.

I read on Wikipedia that fairies fear cold iron; some people believed fairies were a race of conquered people, and the conquerors had weapons of iron.

My mom went through a phase in which she collected porcelain dolls from QVC, the home-shopping channel. They filled our attic guest room – in glass-fronted display cabinets, on antique tables draped with doilies. Their unblinking glass eyes shone in the dark. As a child I would go up and name them and thought they had souls. As a teenager I cited them to my friends as the epitome of bad taste.

The conquerors had weapons of cold iron.

In the days after the exhibit, I got these notions. I envisioned stringing white Christmas lights across our apartment in a sort of firefly web. I thought of making mobiles of butterfly wings that drip from the ceiling. The fairies are infesting my mind, I thought like a crazy person. I shook it out of my head with a laugh. I never did these things; I got over it.

I read that some people believed fairies were deities left over from a religion that died when Christianity arose. When no one believes in you, do you still exist?

I wondered about the last believer.

I saw her in a dream I had. She had walked off to her death. She didn't throw herself off a cliff or drink poison. She simply walked deep into the woods and kept walking. She let herself be dazzled and swallowed. She walked so far that her tether to the real world snapped, and she joined them.

Fourth World

I was a young girl when they stopped believing in us.

Or I was what you might call a girl. A girl version of what I am. Girl is the word you will understand.

This was a long time ago. Now I've picked up modern slang. I've learned concepts that will mean something to you. I can tell you how it was near the end, what it felt like. It felt like being in a doomsday cult on their last day of the world -- everyone going around making preparations, lighting candles, saying good-bye.

They see us best at twilight, in the rays of the dying sun. Our grandparents told us this at bedtime when they talked about your kind, about the limits to what you can see. The limits to what you choose to see. Crazy people and children -- those are the ones who see us most clearly. For them the layers of reality are permeable.

We measure age differently, but I was what you might call a teenager. I was no longer childlike. I was in love.

The older ones were the most involved in the preparations, the most invested.

Do you know how much we know about you? I could make the easy analogy -- it's like a person in what you call a Third World country, a country you have never heard of because it's too tiny to show up on a globe without a magnifying glass, or one that's rarely mentioned in the news. It's like a person from there drinking your Coca-Cola and wearing your Nike T-shirt and knowing your president, vice president, and pop stars although you don't even know their alphabet, let alone their language.

It's like someone from there who sings in your language, not theirs.

As a young girl I was jealous of my counterparts in your world who went to universities. We don't have our own; we're creatures of emotion over intellect. I would go in through a window and listen in. No one chose to see me. I liked the Sociology classes, learning about your kind, why you do what you do. You might think I’d be sick of it – after all the bedtime stories, the fables that warned us to stay away from the few who see us, to avoid causing mayhem. (The fables came before the end – near the end, we wanted them to see; we needed them to believe, mayhem or not.) But I couldn't get enough of it. I never tired of hearing about you.

So I knew about things like elaborate burial rituals in Haiti, where a person might spend more money on a crypt than on the house he lived in during his lifetime. I knew about the morbid festivals that celebrated the beyond-dead – Halloween, Dia de los Muertos.

I had been to your funerals.

That night, when the last believer died, I was thinking about those things you do when your kind dies. I was sitting on a tree branch, looking around me, thinking how lovely our world was. That night we went out at twilight, the best time to be seen. We lit candles on lily pads that bobbed down the stream. We wove wildflowers into spiderweb. We did all the pretty things you like for us to do, in the stories you tell but don't believe.

I sat on the branch beneath the deepening sky and listened to the lone low call of an owl. I had been in love with one of our kind who was already dead. He was poisoned by disbelief. We never knew who would go next; those of us left at the end were not the ones who were physically strongest. He had been one of the passionate ones. What wounds us is more emotional than what harms you. It mystifies us, how your kind can hurt and go on living just as before. For us, what breaks the heart becomes physical.

He lived boldly. He felt it happening to him, and he flew up into the sun, into the light. I think he was fighting death, fighting oblivion. You see what you choose to see. I saw a spark—I had never seen anything so beautiful. I saw him fully, for all the people who would not. And then he was gone. Our bodies go when we do. I had been to your funerals, and I was jealous. We don't get to say good-bye to a physical form.

I thought I might die after that. During the day I would look up into the sun – it doesn't hurt our eyes, to look right at it, in all its white glory – and I would think I saw him. It would always turn out to be a bird shadow, or a falling leaf.

Near the end, we held meetings. Those who could see us did not believe, or would not believe for long – the crazy people knew, deep down, that they were crazy and distrusted themselves; the children would grow out of it. There was no hope.

Or so we thought.

We lit candles and cried. In those last days, I watched my loved ones vanish like dew. Those who cried hardest went first, so I held it in. I didn't become hard, just silent. A few of us did that, as if by finely honed survival instinct. I looked away into the darkening woods and thought of other things. Little things. My favorite oak root where I napped as a child. Little white flowers he'd given me. I would think of anything but despair.

A few of us made it. I never knew how. I thought: Perhaps their new God is real and has spared us. Perhaps our own legends were wrong.

There are new believers but it isn't the same. It's no longer passed down, from parent to child in a chain that lasts centuries. Now there are spurts: a child believes for a while and then grows up; a teenager goes through a phase and picks up a book in a library, moving on before the book is due for return.

We have to believe. Maybe that's it, why some of us are still here. We found the loophole: We believe in ourselves. We have to or we die.