Following the revelation, a number of things had changed.
Sex, for one. The act of sex. The rewards of sex. That sex of all things had suddenly lost its meaning he registered in an almost instinctual way, in the gut. Of course he needed proof. He found and hooked up with some nameless soul, and then the guy arrived, came, cleared off, and David stood in front of the open window and waited for the microwave ping in his inner core, a sign from the dark internal gremlin who’d register a good aha that’s hit the spot. But quietness did not come. The Mexican city moved beneath him. And the revelation, its consequence, remained.
He exhaled for twenty minutes, maybe an afternoon. He had an article to write. He’d pitched to Inveterate World on a character called Malintzin. Malintzin was an Aztec princess who slept with Hernan Cortez, the original conquistador, and taught him to speak Nahuatl. This might not have seemed a big deal but then Cortez used the knowledge of Nahuatl to dominate the Aztecs, ushering in a new age of what could justifiably be seen by the Aztec people as pure and total hell – slaughter, plague, etc. A bartender had told him that in return for access to her people Malintzin gave Cortez syphilis in revenge (this was David’s angle), and somehow also gave syphilis to his sons, so watch out, Spaniards, for hell shall be revisited on your best and brightest for this initial diabolical deal, the moral of which seemed simply to be be careful what you wish for.
David wiped another man’s sweat from his chest.
There was no quiet, no microwave ping. Instead, plain memory: remember when you had sex for the first time and the poor guy had phimosis. Remember when you were caught by your brother. Remember the barrister, the telesaleman, the junkie, the father of two, the Canadian. Remember life determined by a single drive. One act.
Outside, the town roared through its evening like a hot beehive gathers itself for a downpour, bars stacking and unstacking their plastic chairs, drinkers testing the mad dust for rain. Cries sent into the air. The buildings in this city were all unfinished. David could feel the sweat on his back, as if he’d just emerged from a dirty river.
What’s that? He looking into the mirror. It could be shadow. Did the guy notice? A patch of skin, very dark in comparison, in fact as dark as a crocodile’s. David lifted his arm up. Again, the shadow did not help. David could feel the sweat pool down the cleft at the foot of his spine, the arrowhead. He lifted his arm up. There. Another patch, just underneath his armpit. Dark skin growing there. Unheeded. Dark green skin.
Whereas in London the men required many boxes to be ticked before dispensing their love, in Peru, for example, the men were easy, and Brazil, and in Mexico and Columbia they were also easy, and they were easy in Chile and easy in Panama also. David did not keep a serious job. He did not have a serious life. He pitched to Inveterate World under the moniker Horny Goatweed about the differences in cruising habits across the Americas, and the site requiring first a pitch and then content either unconventional or culturally enriching, preferably both, and he having worked up to paid contributor knew more or less how to do both now and so then he knew how to receive monies to live on and rent private rooms, and move from place to place, and be with easy men who demanded very little from him. He had a good angle on Malintzin. So she let the Spanish in. Was she really a bad person? He had a sweet title for the piece. You Won’t Believe Why The Aztecs Hated on this One Woman.
David tried to settle into work. First line: Malintzin did it for love.
His parents were initially supportive – live your life! but in practice, over time, they had engineered from him a quiet withdrawal. Soft Brexit. You’re still our son, but why can’t you be like your broth-, and who are all these Josés and Diegos you so shamelessly talk abou-, we’re not stupid, and we forgot to say about coming for Christmas, perhaps next year-, you’re thirty next year-, and we forgot to say your brother now has a kid-.
You Won’t Believe Why His Parents Are Hating on this One Liberal Guy.
David looked out of the window, listening to the dark internal gremlin, running his fingers over his clavicle, his shoulder. He made himself a coffee but couldn’t drink it. He watched Mexico hurry and roar, homes flick their lights up into the evening squall. He made a sandwich but his fingers trembled and he covered his tiny desk in crumbs.
Perhaps it was the specific man. Perhaps he needed a different type. He showered and lay on his bed. He knew there was no point sleeping. He sniffed his armpits like a chimp would when watched in a zoo: with shame. He caught sight of the dark green patch on his flank. He could not work. He dressed. He went to a bar.
Most of the gringo bars followed a familiar pattern. Barman in orange knit, kitchen where cocaine is done, spider plants held in colourful crocheted holders, odour of hash and dried tequila, Americans.
One American caught his eye. He was familiar, but only for the questions David could read in his face: do I shed my past and become a new man here in Latin America? perhaps through the transformative power of experience x? like this blunt I am being offered by this very friendly barman? David could read them like a nursery rhyme. Mexico was a holy land for Americans, David knew. David tapped the American on his shoulder. Hello.
Hi, in return, spoken in capitals. HI. David had it spot on. The American was a spring-breaker, here to escape the impending tombstone of a life at Meryl Lynch. His eyes were a fraction too close together, but his jaw was good and his arms were thick, and he was easily impressed. You ever hear about the pineal gland vs. a direct map of the energy centres onto the body, said David. A scientific basis in quantum theory. Connective tissue. Biology. What do you think consciousness is, said David, and then, a little later, Have you ever tried anything stronger, and finally Do you want to come back to mine?
—You know I’m not gay specifically, said the American.
David sat him on the side of the bed.
—Gay doesn’t exist, said David. We are made of nameless energetic impulses.
David kissed him; the American gave in. David could taste a brief history: first the blunt, then tequila, both smoke and booze framed with a trim of fading toothpaste, and then after that the chimp taste that defines a man’s baseline, the code behind the drama. David took off the American’s shirt. His body was long and his armpits full of sable. For a moment David thought the magic had returned – look at this man who is willing! And on that basis he unzipped his own fly.
Yes, the American was eager. He was also totally clueless and his moans were put on and distressing. He wanted the show, the activity of transformation. David found himself rolling his eyes. The moans continued. The American took a hand over the mouth as encouragement. When David started to wilt he tried to explain that with guys you didn’t always have to stay hard, one could serve the other’s pleasure, but the American grew embarrassed and came frantically about a minute later.
—Sorry, said the American.
—Don’t be sorry, said David.
—I had fun. Did you have fun?
—I wish you’d kept quiet. There are French people next door.
—Man, it was good. It was, like, hot. Did you find it hot?
—But you didn’t finish off. I had fun though.
—That’s why I finished off so quick, said the American. Did you find it hot?
—Was it me?
—No, he said. I am going through something.
—You know what? I feel like we’ve bonded, man. You can totally tell me.
David looked at him.
—We could go again, said the American. If you want to. I can cancel the bus ticket. I was supposed to be going to Oaxaca but I can cancel if you want to try again tomorrow morning.
—I think I have lost interest in sex, said David. As a consequence of something I did.
—What did you do?
—It wouldn’t make sense to say to you, here.
—Man, I just sucked your cock.
—I don’t think you would understand.
The American had a long back and long mousey hair. He had the body of a man that has been unquestioningly drilled by a drill sergeant. The American swung his legs over the side of the bed and held his head in his hands. He went to the toilet. When he came back he posed sideways in the doorframe.
—Is it my fault? You don’t have to tell me if it’s my fault.
—You were fine. It is something I am going through.
Silence. The American leafed through David’s Spanish dictionary.
—Alright, said David, surprised at himself. Alright I’ll tell you. I found out why I have sex. I took a drug that gave me perspective on it. I found out exactly why.
—And now you can’t do it? Isn’t it, like, fear of women? Of pussy.
—It certainly isn’t fear of pussy.
—We know why we have sex. Making babies.
—Not me. I don’t have any kids.
— You can say what you discovered.
— It doesn’t matter. I found out. Once you’ve seen what’s behind the veil you can’t unsee it, if you know what I mean. It’s a horrible experience.
—Look. If you don’t tell me, no problem. I’m not gay. I’m no expert. Can’t you get a pill or something? Go to a shrink.
David shrugged and turned to the window.
A shrink would say, oh yah, zis is very typical.
The Mexican sky was violet and starless.
—What is that?
The American pointed at the patch of dark green on his shoulder.
His mother, shaking a letter at him. The letter explains that due to inappropriate behaviour with a pupil in the year below they are very sorry but will need to expel David from this term and all future terms. His father sits in an armchair, crosses his legs at the ankle. You were supposed to go to Oxbridge, says his mother. She makes the second ‘s’ of ‘supposed’ into a long hiss.
—I mean that, said the American.
On David’s other shoulder (he had not noticed this till now) was another patch of dark skin, and at the crest of the patch grew a nodule. David touched it. It was hard.
—Are you sick, said the American.
—Have you heard of Malintzin? said David. Sometimes she gets called La Malinche. She’s to do with Hernan Cortez, the conquistador. Do you know Hernan Cortez?
The American started to dress. His fingers stumbled over and over on the stiff jean buttons of his fly.
—What is it, he said. Are you full blown? Jesus, do I need to get tested?
David held his arms to his chest.
— Am I going to die? I’m not gay. I can’t die.
—There is no cure for what you have.
— Jesus, Jesus Christ.
—Perhaps I have been needlessly cruel, said David. Do you forgive me?
The American did not respond until the last of his clothes, his polo shirt, had been pulled over his neck. His hair was caught in a sheen of new sweat. David walked to the window.
—Asshole, said the American. Jesus Christ. It’s all over you. If I get sick – if I catch it – he said, then threw his hands up to his head and left.
When he was alone again, David turned in the mirror. The dark skin had spread quite rapidly. It spread around his shoulderblades. No wonder the American had said something. A nodule grew on the crest of his shoulder. Two, actually. Small enough. At the tip of one nodule you could make out the beginnings of something white.
He sat down at his desk. He had one last shot at things. He said this to himself. One last go at the article. If he could just write it and get it published in Inveterate World perhaps somehow there was still a place for him somewhere. Sure, the logic was off. It was a fool’s effort. But the Mexican evening felt long and open, full of hope, and the mix of sweat on his back had become a cold uncomfortable lace, one that pooled along his spine and ran down intermittently into the small of his back, then to the plastic chair, where it pooled again, and he found he could not think straight. Is this an effect of the change, also?
David began to type.
A couple of months before he slept with the American, David had visited a town in Peru so high up in the Andres he’d needed to lie down for some three days upon arrival. The men there were anxious and nervous but easy. Although it was expensive to rent out private rooms night after night David took the joy he wanted all the same, flush with money from Inveterate World. He felt totally free of shame.
A barman named Papa Tio offered to show him dancing cacti for three hundred soles. David was here in Peru to experience and write about the real wow events. Dancing cacti ticked the boxes. He could write for Inveterate World on dancing cacti.
Later that day they had hiked up to the top of the valley, and beyond that, onto the scrub, during which time Papa Tio told David all about the cactus-people. The cactus-people were spirits from the underworld that danced at the start of the evening. They took human form and preserved the knowledge of the old quechua people, the runakuna. There was science behind the dancing, said Papa Tio. Quantum theory. David didn’t think so. Perhaps he’d write an exposé. You Won’t Believe What This One Guy Uses Quantum Theory to Explain.
After eight hours’ hike beyond the town they stopped. The landscape was brown, hilly, plantless, trees starved off by solar radiation and thin almost acidic air. Mountains in one unbroken flank, a rejecting wall. Papa Tio called the sun ‘raw yang.’ He gave David a flask of liquid.
—Drink this, said Papa Tio, pointing to a group of cacti.
—Are they going to dance? What is it?
—Just do as I say.
The taste was bitter. About half an hour later David threw up. Then after some more time, harder to measure, the cacti in the middle distance, a group of five or six, began to move. They were the cacti you’d expect, the kind you’ve seen in westerns – tall, dark green limbs festooned at the tips with white flowers. The shift was hard to track precisely. A cactus first, and then a person. The evening light turned oblongs and triangles of prickled cactus flesh into five o’clock shadow, the shoulder-pads of gladiators. Not people. Be specific. They began to resemble men.
After about an hour of dancing David worked it out.
—They are not dancing.
Papa Tio told him to be quiet.
—That is not dance.
David knew what to do. He had never been more certain. He stood up, confidence tearing like a wasp through his arteries. He walked towards the cactus-men. He began to unbutton his shirt. How hard the sunlight on his skin, even in the evening. A few hours of exposure would transform it into a tawny brown. He kicked off his boots. He unpicked his socks.
—Hey, shouted Papa Tio, part in English and part in Spanish. Hey! Hey! Get back here!
He could see six cactus-men. Fucking, not dancing.
—Hey, gringo! Get back here! Hey! Put your goddam clothes back on!
Yes, he was going to do it alright.
He didn’t know where to begin. Then, he did.
— Ah, Jesus Christ. Maricón!
This was it. The jazz of life. David looked back. He worked it out. He let it happen, arching his back, staring Papa Tio in the eye. Here comes the wow event, he thought.
—Maricón! Have you no fucking shame? Basta!
David was close to the wow. Real close. He could taste it, this wow, the wow to solve the picture. But right when he thought he’d receive the deep true message, the point, oh god: Pfft. A great stupid pfft. He looked up. The starlight weak and old. Ice on his breath. Nada. Zip. And if he looked back then Papa Tio’s face was a total blank too. Papa Tio’s face gave him nothing, and nothing was returned from it. The air was close to pure void. His breath was white. And there was a deathly silence. This place was the grave of starlight. Papa Tio caught the truth in his fist: David was just a brat trying to piss off his parents. That was it. A hurt kid trying to make them sorry, hurtling to the shock factor and stumbling up on lots of pure dull emptiness.
He finished the Malintzin article the day after he slept with the American.
That night he got drunk on his own and wandered around the cool Mexican streets. He sent the article off in the morning. In seducing Malintzin, he concluded, Cortez was simply looking for the next big thing. Perhaps he even wanted to get syphilis. Perhaps he was sick of being Hernan Cortez. Just totally sick of himself.
He waited. The editor made many corrections. Essentially the thesis was wrong, and the idea that syphilis was transmitted via or as a result of the brutal conquest of the Aztec peoples was offensive, and David should remedy the outright cultural insensitivity and clear exhibition of privilege by registering the singular importance of this woman, Malintzin, not some straightforward floosy but mother to a people who have already had enough problematic neo-imperialist journalism done about them, thankyou very much, and did not need any more. Jesus, said his editor. Syphilis? What have you been smoking, David? Are you okay?
It was the last straw; it was a message, and David could read it clear. He prevaricated a couple of days then took a flight plus a very long bus back to Huaraz, the town high up in the Andes. Here was a people he could recognise. Peruvian campesino women in bowler hats and bright pink, orange or green skirts and blouses. He stopped off at a hostel but did not talk to anyone. He wore a dark long sleeved shirt and long trousers. He thought he saw the American in the crowds and turned into another street. He was overcharged for a pack of cigarettes, which he didn’t smoke. He got lost, or he pretended to get lost.
Really he was just putting things off. When he cut it out, he tied the laces on his hiking boots tight and trekked to the top of the cordillera blanca, trekked through past wild horses and dwindling glaciers until he hit the broad low hillocks of the uppermost part of the Huancayo valley. To the uninitiated this terrain seemed to be a desert – grey-brown soil, plantless except for tightly-clustered cacti – but it was hemmed by the cordillera’s rejecting mountains a half-mile away.
He found a good spot. He dug a bowl in the dry soil and peeled away his clothes, the dark-green having spread down across his whole body, and he planted his feet into the bowl and sat in lotus modified to accommodate the angle of his legs. Then he waited. He looked directly up at the white ball of unfiltered sun, raw yang, and waited.
He waited for the nodules that now covered his shoulders to open. He waited for the flowers that lay inside to offer themselves up to the sun. And the buds would open, in time. And the flowers would offer themselves to the sun’s raw yang, as dumb and shameless as they were.