Fire and Smoke

Picture Credits: M C

Most of the time, new submissives saw the same roster of longtime clients who rotated through every new hire. Those clients would make appointments, and we would be counseled on their particular proclivities before they arrived. So it was unusual that my second session was a random walk-in, a thirty-something, fairly attractive guy who wanted to meet all the girls working that day.

To my surprise, he picked me.

*

The client, Jason, chose toys from the wall behind the front desk and handed them to me to carry. Leather paddles, floggers, a long, slender riding crop. I could sense it even before we made it to the room: the quiet authority with which he handled the toys, the way he ran a finger along one strand of the flogger, examining it in the same deliberate manner he might brush a hand across my flesh. I knew this session would be different from my first, and again, my pulse beat as if it were trying to escape the confines of my veins, my muscles, my bones.

But did I really want to escape?

*

We sessioned in the other upstairs room this time, the Athena room with its less medieval and more exotic decorating scheme, leopard prints and tiger stripes on all the blankets and pillows and even the carpet. To my immense relief, I remembered the location of the intercom; I pressed it and heard Mistress Amber’s soon-to-become-familiar response of “Thank you.” Then I stood and waited, silent, with my arms clasped behind me. I did my best to appear calm, yet my heart still shuddered like some strange caged creature inside me.

Jason told me to get on the spanking bench, which looked very different from the low, squatting behemoth in the Venus room. I approached it slowly, carefully, in the hopes I would look like I knew what I was doing. Days earlier I hadn’t realized spanking benches existed, and now I was discovering they had nuances. The one in the other room felt masculine, thick and solid, while this one was feminine and almost delicate, curved like the arch of a back. From the center of the bench, two leather-padded armrests extended like wings, and behind them and slightly lower were similar pads for calves and knees. Once I’d climbed up on the bench – fumbling despite myself as I did so – I was hovering three feet off the ground with my ass protruding, ready to be smacked.

Jason didn’t smack my ass right away, though. He circled the bench, and I observed what I could of him while keeping my eyes cast downward: a slightly stocky frame, a purposeful stride, the dark, close-cropped shadow of a beard when he inclined his head toward me. I barely registered his facial features; in fact, my first year at the dungeon, I’m not sure I ever looked a client in the eye. I knew them by their smell, or the way they walked, or the cadence of their voice.

Jason wasn’t giving off much of a smell, or maybe my breath was too shallow to pick up on it, my unease still so great that taking in oxygen was only a secondary concern. But his movements, his voice, the way he touched me – every action emitted a confidence that tugged a response from deep inside me. It was as though some coiled, knotted ribbon of desire buried in the pit of my stomach was beginning to unwind. Or as if that tiny flame that had smoldered within me for so long, the one ignited by Story of O and Belle de Jour, was being stoked back to life.

Jason trailed his fingers up the side of my thigh, flipping up my skirt so my ass was exposed. He continued moving past my ribs to my chest, where he pulled one breast free of my little tie-front top. He acted as if my body belonged to him – no asking permission, not even ordering me to take my clothes off myself, just grabbing what he wanted as though I were an object made for his amusement.

That ribbon of desire inside me unraveled a little further.

And then he spanked me for the first time.

I had received a few swats on the bottom from hookups over the years, and a few more during my interview at Medusa’s. I’d even tried to spank myself a couple of times, attempting to see if it really hurt the way the books and movies and websites portrayed it. But I’d never experienced a hard, purposeful spanking from someone who really knew what he was doing.

It was just a slap against my bare butt. Just the hand of a man I didn’t know, and would never see again, connecting with my skin.

So why did it feel like such an immense relief? This wasn’t pain, but the release of pain, the jolting free of everything that was tight and heavy trapped within my flesh. The swats kept coming, harder and harder, and the blood rushed through me and my heart beat yes, yes, this is where you belong, and the ribbon of desire inside me unfurled and caught on fire, it smoked and burned away so that my desire became Jason’s desire, became my dominant’s desire, and I lost track of what was mine and what was not, of what I wanted and what I did not.

Smoke is hard to hold on to. It changes its shape, it adapts to fit its surroundings. Smoke can be submissive.

That fire inside me turned to smoke. It filled my lungs and I breathed it out and it settled around me, clouding my senses, warping my vision and altering the way it felt to touch, to be touched. But it was so subtle – odorless, colorless, tasteless – that I didn’t even realize it was there.

Jason kept on spanking me. He used the paddle with its impact that reverberated across my backside, the riding crop that stung with a small sharp pain radiating outward. He stopped and rubbed my ass and asked me how hard it hurt, on a scale of one to ten. It was a seven or eight, but I said five. I wanted to seem tough. I wanted him to hit me harder.

“Five?” he said, and the intonation, the rise in his voice at the end, made me hope he was impressed. But perhaps it was all in my head.

The session went on, so many fantasies fulfilled for the first time that I couldn’t absorb them, they passed over me like waves, I floated along with them and let them take me where Jason wanted to go. He pulled my hair and slapped my face, twisted my nipples and hit my ass again, as hard as I’d hoped he would. Then after the spanking, he ordered me to crawl on all fours to the back corner of the room, where a little leather couch was set in an alcove. Somehow, I knew not to tuck my breast back inside my shirt before I made the trip.

He sat on the couch and I waited on all fours before him, my left side facing him, my gaze still instinctively downward. “You’re a true submissive, aren’t you?” Jason said quietly, stroking my hair and then giving a tug. “This is what you dream of. This” – he jerked my hair harder – “is where you belong.”

They were words I’d hear dozens if not hundreds of times over the next few years, words that, eventually, I’d consider worthy of nothing more than an eye roll; but at that moment, Jason’s words sang through me like truth.

*

When I try to picture this scene as it happened, I see Jason only as a shadow. I remember the sensation of his eyes on me, a weight and expectation that lit fire upon my skin. I remember that strange tangle of need and desire and hope and fear within me all at once. So much emotion, how could it do anything else but combust? But I keep coming back to the one thing he lacked: a smell. I would learn the smells of so many men, in the weeks and months to come. Sweat and cologne, Speed Stick deodorant, musty clothes; and arousal, always arousal. But with Jason, there was nothing, and Jason never returned to the dungeon, as far as I know.

Was he real? Could he have been some phantom, conjured from my mind to keep me here, in this strange space where fear and pleasure, distasteful intimacy and the possible answer to all my dreams, combined to form a trap I wasn’t sure whether to welcome or escape? I know he was real, but I like the idea of him as apparition, animus, minor deity, walking briefly into my life to ensure I continued on my new path.

*

Jason tugged on my breast again – that was real, that I remember – tugged it like he owned it, and then he said, “I’m milking you like a cow, aren’t I?”

A small portion of my brain, one that hadn’t been clouded by smoke, registered how ridiculous the statement was. But the rest of me whispered, “Yes.”

“I’m milking you like a cow.” He pulled harder, and everything inside me snapped taut. “So moo.”

Moo?

“You’re awfully quiet.” Another tug. “Moo.”

This wasn’t a part of my fantasy, not like the hair pulling or face slapping or crawling along the floor. But that didn’t matter anymore. “Moo,” I whispered.

“What?” he said.

“Moo?” I tried again.

“Pathetic.” His hand clamped down on my breast, spreading a kind of warm, constant pain through me, different from the sting of a slap that was there and then gone.

“Moo,” I attempted once more. He squeezed harder.

“Moo.”

Harder.

“Moo. Moo. Moo!

In my mind I was crying out, yelling, moaning, but in reality my voice was probably still quiet. I was a quiet girl, that first year at Medusa’s. But it seemed to be enough to satisfy Jason. He released my breast, caressed it so softly I might almost have imagined his touch. Then he reached up to stroke my hair. “Good girl,” he said, and if I hadn’t already caught on fire over that past hour, the words would have been enough to make me melt.

Soon after that, the session ended. Jason left quickly – many of the men would do that, I’d come to learn, slipping out the moment I turned up the lights and began cleaning the room. For them as for me, Medusa’s was a place of fairy tales, a glamoured version of reality where anything could be possible, and beautiful, for an hour. They had to hurry out before the illusion faded, before the dust in the corners of the room started to show and thoughts of their own work and families intruded. Reality had no place in the dungeon.

Jason left without tipping, too, and after Thomas, that should have been a disappointment. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. I didn’t have any more sessions that day, and I spent the rest of my shift in a daze, drinking cup after cup of the terrible Maxwell House coffee we brewed in the dungeon’s kitchen area, trying to keep my mind from going blank. Yet no matter how much caffeine I ingested, I couldn’t seem to wrest myself from the big leather chair in the break room, where I sat with my legs tucked under me, staring at the wall as the hours passed like minutes and the minutes passed like hours. Even when I took off my collar and schoolgirl outfit, put on my ordinary dress and sweater and found a seat on the bus home, I couldn’t free my mind. I lacked the energy to pull the book I was reading from my purse, much less to look at the words and translate them into meaning. Instead I gazed out the window at the concrete twilight, the world turned blurry and unreal. I wasn’t reliving what had happened with Jason, not exactly, but simply sinking into a peculiar peaceful longing, peaceful because even as I was desiring, waiting, I knew that more would come.

Somehow, I made it home and walked my dog and showered and fell asleep, and by the next morning I was in possession of my mind again. Later I would learn this strange other-state was subspace, an altered mentality that often followed an experience of submission. This was the kind, gentle subspace, the one that screened you from the world as though you stood behind a swirl of smoke, where nothing was sharp or sudden and your breathing turned soft and slow.

There was a cruel subspace too, a place that was like an empty, endless gulf. A place you could lose yourself for good.

But I had a ways to travel before I would encounter that darker part.




Lessons from a Homeless Man

I kept my head down on the way back home whilst immersed in my thoughts. I walked past Daniel’s spot hoping he wouldn’t notice me, and even ignored the first few times he called my name. But when I did turn around, and he saw my face, he insisted that I sit down with him for a moment.

It was obvious that I was lying when I told him that I was fine and that everything was okay. But it didn’t take long before I told him all.

*

Having spent my entire life in a classroom, I finally graduated from university in 2015. In the final months leading up to the end of my Business Studies degree, I had decided that before I settled on a career and pursued corporate progression, I had to travel.

My life was too unbalanced. The majority of my knowledge came from lectures, textbooks, teachers and seminars. I had zero real-life experiences and jumping from a classroom straight into an office just didn’t appeal to me.

After having graduated, and having spent a few months saving, my high-school friend Imran and I eventually bought a one-way ticket to one of the four corners of the world: Australia

The high in starting a travel of this nature – with no fixed end date or no real plan other than where to go – was fuelled further by a week-long stay in Singapore, prior to heading to Australia. It was a sort of celebratory holiday before the real adventure began.

And celebrate we did. Probably a bit too much.

Landing in Sydney, our financial situation could be described as “tight”. Fast forward to Melbourne, a few weeks later, and our financial situation could most definitely be described as “broke”.

It didn’t take us long to realise that all the advice we’d received about how easy it was to find jobs in Australia was wrong. And zero prior planning, due to a blend of stupidity and naivety, resulted in the need to find one being increasingly urgent. But a combination of desperation and persistence meant that I managed to land a waitering job in Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square.

I remember bursting through the doors of the hostel we were living in, with my arms in the air shouting, “I’ve got a job!” (Not even “the job”, any job would do at that point), and Imran hugging me as we both celebrated ecstatically the change in our fortunes.

But that job turned out to be an experience I won’t forget for very different reasons. And though on the surface it was a very negative experience, it actually turned out to be the catalyst for an encounter I will always remember and value. While the job also gave us some much-needed money, it also gifted me with yet another opportunity to add to my portfolio of racist encounters.

This one, like many others, was one of a very passive aggressive nature. Nothing so direct or concrete, so it could safely fall under the category labelled “alleged”. The “alleged” villain in question being one of the supervisors.

With no hard evidence, you can’t prove anything. It’s your word against theirs. It’s a very murky area where all you have to go by is your instinct and intuition, but in the world of facts, that doesn’t count for anything.

It started on the very first day and lasted around three weeks, eventually ending with a back-and-forth row in which the supervisor claimed the real issue was that I didn’t “smile enough”. The ridiculousness was too much. I quit the job and walked out.

*

From where Imran and I were staying to Federation Square required a walk along the city’s Yarra River. On one side of it was Melbourne’s Central Business District, the enormous Crown Casino and a very impressive riverfront full of gourmet eateries, high-end retail stores and tourists from the world over.

Directly opposite to the river – around this part at least – was pretty much nothing. There were no bright lights or a melting pot of people, just the distant sound of traffic, depending on the hour, and usually silence. So more often than not, it would be my route of choice. A handful of benches were sandwiched between the water and a bridge where I would occasionally sit and admire the city’s skyline; a view I would share with the city’s homeless and junkies who took up residence under the bridge. For me, it was a great and literal representation of the divide between the rich and the poor.

It was on that bench one day, that I got called out by a voice behind me. My vision led to a short man with messy hair and stubble. Perched up against the wall, half-covered by a sleeping bag and sitting on a cardboard box, he met me with an honest smile. He proceeded to politely ask me if I happened to have a cigarette.

I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. Well, it was probably because of the pressure Imran and I had put ourselves under, but I bluntly told him “no”.

That encounter bothered me for days after. Not just because of how I had said no, but also because I actually had a spare cigarette on me and it was very out of character to react as bluntly as I did.

The next time I saw him, I walked up to him with a cigarette in hand and reminded him of the encounter that had happened a few days ago and gave it to him. He looked at me confused, but said thank you and accepted it. From that moment on, whenever we would cross paths, we would say hello. It was not too long after that the homeless man taught me the type of lesson which marked my journey a success.

*

After I quit and left the restaurant I was full of emotion. I was angry at what had just happened but more than that, I was upset. Being racially judged and stereotyped – rightly or wrongly – is something which comes with the territory of being a Muslim in the modern world. But to effectively lose your job because of something you have absolutely no control over was so difficult to accept.

It was on this walk home that I tried to avoid Daniel, failed to do so, and ended up telling him everything.

He listened silently as I recounted the details of everything that had happened. How Imran and I had gone against most people’s advice by travelling to Australia. How we had absolutely no money, no idea where to go and how to get there, and I had just lost the only job that was supposed to support the both of us.

And what if it was my fault? What if no one was racist and it was all in my head and I was being paranoid. What if the problem actually was the fact that I just wasn’t smiling enough, which, in a customer service job, is a necessity? What if my ego was the main suspect? And what was I to do now. It was the first time I had ventured out this far from home and in that moment, it felt like all was falling apart.

To add to all of this, I was in the middle of Australia. You really have no idea how far away that country actually is, from pretty much everything, till you go there.

I let everything out. I dumped all that I had been carrying for weeks on him. And he listened. Finally, after feeling so much lighter, feeling relieved, I asked him the question which led to the answer of which I learnt so much from.

“So what’s your story man? How did you end up here?”

It had been two or three weeks since I’d had my first encounter with Daniel, but I had never asked him any questions about who he was, and why he was there. I guess I felt it was a little inappropriate as it clearly wasn’t a very happy story … you know, with him living under a bridge and all. But now I had shared with him, and it only felt right that I learnt something about him in return. Though it was not just that, I was genuinely curious.

It had always seemed a little unusual to me that he was in the situation he was in. Unlike many of the people who were homeless, at least those who lived under that particular bridge, I had never seen him under the influence of any drugs. I had never even seen any evidence like syringes, pipes or bottles even suggesting an intoxicating habit like you would find elsewhere along the underbelly of the bridge.

More often than not, when you entered that area as a visitor in passing, all of your senses were hit head-on by the realities of that world. You could smell the smoke and the burning of drugs, you could hear the sniffing and inhaling. Most of all, you could see. You could see the vice of choice in effect, in motion, taking over them.

Whenever you walked past Daniel however, all you were met with was a genuine greeting, a smile and politeness. Something Imran had noticed as well. I guess sometimes you can sense the kindness in a person.

*

Daniel came from somewhere in New South Wales. At thirty-five years of age, he found himself in Melbourne because the city was the birthplace of his wife. Before, he had made a good living for himself by learning a specialised skill and becoming a cabinet maker. But unfortunately for him, those hands – as well as the rest of his joints – began a painfully long losing battle against arthritis that started in his mid-twenties. Cruelly ironic for a man who earned his keep by using his hands.

But in true Australian fashion, he carried on with his life and work without making a fuss, as the arthritis adopted the same strategy, and silently went to work.

It was during this period, still in the early and manageable stages of his struggle, that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Laura. From not just what he told me, but the manner in which he conveyed it, with sincerity and genuineness, I believed him when he said he had everything he wanted. And it was because of his relationship that he had learnt to accept the disease his body was fighting against.

When he initially contracted it, after the shock of it, he was angry. To be diagnosed with such a crippling, lifelong disease at such a young age was highly difficult to handle mentally.

What helped him the most in dealing with it, was the fact that if it wasn’t for his arthritis, he never would have met Laura, who was a radiologist. As their relationship grew stronger, his body got weaker, and eventually, at Laura’s insistence, he stopped working. He was a proud man and went on working for as long as he could, but finally he knew she was right. Plus, she had a good job and a long, stable career ahead of her and earned enough to support the both of them.

He told me that it was one of the reasons why he proposed to her. He explained that in this day and age, people just don’t do that for others. So when you find someone you genuinely love, one who so clearly loves you back, you act upon it and make her the mother of your children.

They got engaged, he stopped working and she did everything she could to take care of him. Even though he was in constant pain, they were content and happy with the life they had, “Because life,” he told me, spreading his arms out to highlight where we were, “Can be a lot worse.”

Laura had analysed and studied thousands of x-rays throughout her career. She observed, in black and white, broken bones, growing tumours, and cancers of various kinds spreading throughout people’s bodies. Slowly creeping and taking over, fulfilling their purpose day by day.

The cruel irony was that this time the x-ray she was holding up was her own. Watching as the poison surged throughout. But just as Daniel had done before her, she kept it to herself for as long as she could. Still taking care of Daniel’s needs while trying to get her own “problem” taken care of with the help of her colleagues and friends in the hospital.

She tried protecting him and all of her loved ones for as long as she could. However, once it was confirmed that the cancer was malignant, she broke the news to him.

He told me that as devastating as it was for them, it sparked something in him. It had given him purpose. Now he had to take responsibility to ensure he was always there for her. To be right by her side throughout the whole process and remind her, whenever she needed it, that she was too strong as a person to give in to her cancer. That they were too strong as a couple for one of them to perish without a real fight.

You would forgive him for being angry and cursing his fate. Finding a job he loved, before having it taken away. Finding the woman he loved, and the risk of having her taken away as well. Surprisingly, he told me that although they were the hardest times of their lives, he was never bitter about what they went through.

“Something inside of me just always knew, throughout the entire time, that we would win. That she was going to live with me for a long time and that I could go back to being the one being taken care of and not the one doing the caring. Jesus, mate, at times it felt like the blind leading the blind.” Funny guy.

Even when she got scarily close to the end, and he married her, as they promised each other they would if the time came to it, he still believed. Even as she deteriorated and all one by one, began losing hope, his remained true. “I knew with absolute conviction that Laura was going to go right up to death’s door, and then come straight back to me.” Heartbreakingly, he was wrong.

*

She survived for almost two years from when she found out she was sick, till when she passed. And in that time, they spent and sacrificed everything they had in order to keep her alive. Towards the end, he sold off the house and whatever else of value they had, but all that did was land him under a bridge. He told me that Laura was mad at him when she found out that he had sold their house and she worried about what would happen to him if she were to die. “But I’m still here, mate. Still smiling.”

I’d rarely come across a person who has gone through so much yet was still so positive and grateful.

What shocked me the most was when I’d asked, he told me that she had only died six weeks ago. It meant that the first time I interacted with him, his wife had been dead for two, maybe three weeks. He broke my train of thought and the deep silence that had befallen me by telling me not to go anywhere, and that he would be back soon.

He left. I thought about everything he had just told me. His highs and lows and eventual loss. Not only had he lost the woman he loved in a long, protracted, painful and mentally draining battle. He was now broke and homeless. I thought about all of these things… and then I thought about my own “problems”.

If ever I needed another perspective to realise how lucky I am.

The one thing that stood out, and has stayed with me since, is that though he barely had anything, not the health nor the ability to live a good quality life, his attitude and spirit was one which I fail to see in the richest of people I know.

The manner with which he shared with me what had happened in his life, was the exact same way in which he had listened to mine. Barring one or two moments where you could sense his pain, his body language, expressions, tone of voice, all remained even. Consciously balanced. It made me curious. I mean, the man who only just lost his wife, sleeping under a bridge and is crippled displays not a hint of bitterness or guilt or justifiable self-pity. None. How?

When Daniel returned, he was holding a box of Domino’s pizza.

“I only had a fiver, mate, so I hope you don’t mind sharing.”

I tried saying no, but he told me that I had had a bad day and so he insisted. A homeless, heartbroken, sick man had just spent the last of his money on food to share with me because I had a bad day.

What more can I say.

*

While we were eating, I asked him about the thoughts which had been brewing in my mind. How I could not comprehend the way in which he remained so calm when re-telling his story.

His reply was, simply, acceptance.

“If I don’t accept all that has happened in my life. My past. My present. I’ll turn bitter. I’ll forget all of the amazing things I’ve had, and just focus on the bad things I’ll end up joining Laura a lot sooner than I should.”

We finished our dinner; I said goodbye and went home.

When I had left the restaurant I was hurt, confused and angry. By the time I got home though, those emotions had subsided considerably. I was mentally drained but I was a lot calmer. My sit-down with Daniel had forced me to stop and take a step back. To analyse my situation but this time with perspective. Yes, what I was going through was not ideal, but look at what he was going through … and he was still smiling.

When recounting all that had happened that day to Imran I spent most of my time talking about Daniel. I went through the confrontation, quitting and what should have been the most important topic; the financial implications. But I did so as an obligation, so that I could get to what was more important.

From time to time, I wonder where he is now and hope that he hasn’t joined Laura just yet. It’s not often someone in a position such as Daniel’s, a victim of circumstances and homeless, proves to be such an inspiration.

But then again, it’s not often we as a society give them the chance to do so.




Love, Santa

I wasn’t sure how it worked: if I could clasp
my hands and pray to Santa or if one had to actually write letters to the North
Pole to get a wish granted. Not that, at twelve, I believed in Saint Nick, but in
my desperation I wasn’t above begging for a miracle.

And yet, when I woke that Christmas
morning, I knew it was too late for any wish, prayer, or even bargain with the
devil to prevent my father from ruining Christmas.

As I watched my pajama-clad half-sisters,
dad, and stepmom giggle and rush down the staircase, I knew there was nothing I
could do but hope that when I got downstairs, I would not see a horse in the
living room.

*

I always knew that I didn’t fit in with my
dad’s new family.

While Dad and his new wife, Susan, loved
hunting, fishing, and cooking their kills, I was a vegetarian. While my
half-sisters grew up rowdy, loud, and tough, I was never happier than when I
was inside, alone, with a book. And even though Dad was passionate about his
horses, owning two and riding them daily, I always preferred fuzzy, lazy cats.

Such differences were small, however,
compared to our conflicting opinions on Christmas.

Call me a Scrooge but, growing up, I never
liked the holiday.

I simply couldn’t understand why anyone
would want to drag a full-grown tree indoors. Putting up snowflake decorations
in 80-degree Southern California weather, I decided, should be considered
court-accepted evidence of insanity, not proof of having a “holiday spirit.”

Plus, even from a young age, I hated the
idea of Santa. I could never convince myself to look forward to the prospect of
an old, unshaven man shimmying down my chimney. It sounded like a story from a
late night episode of Dateline
– not a tale found in children’s picture books.

Sure, I liked the two-week break from
school and I loved those seasonal pie flavors at Denny’s, so I never thought of
Christmas as a complete failure. But Dad and his family were strangely enchanted
by every last thing about the holiday: from the tallest inflatable front-yard
snowman, to the smallest piece of stupid tinsel.

Every year, Dad and Susan counted down the
days until Christmas. They hung too many lights and watched It’s A Wonderful Life until the film
from the VHS came out. They blasted Christmas songs from the CD player, proudly
displayed their A Christmas Story leg
lamp, and covered the house in Santa-and-his-reindeer themed anything.

So it was unfortunate that my parents’
post-divorce visitation schedule landed me at Dad’s house every Christmas morning.

From the beginning, Dad knew that I’d
never be one of those darling children who dreamed of snow or magic elves. He
wasn’t dumb. He knew I was never going to send letters to the North Pole, asking
for a pony or a rocket ship.

But it didn’t matter once my half-sister, Allison,
was old enough to sit on Santa’s lap. She danced around the house whenever a
Christmas carol came on the radio and her young life revolved around the ABC
Family holiday marathons. She covered her curly blonde hair with a cotton
ball-tipped Santa hat to celebrate the season and even wrote letters to the
North Pole in July.

She loved Christmas so much, she
practically had cranberry sauce running through her freaking veins.

And coincidently, Allison seemed to
naturally share a lot of Dad’s other interests, too. Even as a baby, Allison
loved going on the family fishing boat and she adored Dad’s horses.

The year I turned twelve; Allison was six,
and our youngest sister Avery was three. Like every other year, the house was transformed
into a winter wonderland by October. There were Christmas trees in almost every
room and light-up reindeer animatronics on the front lawn. Bits of holly hung
from the stair railing and the whole house smelled like pine. It was festive. It
was wintery. It was jolly.

I hated it.

As a non-believer in Santa, I was allowed
to listen in on the adults’ Christmas present conversations every year
– as long as I didn’t accidently tell my half-sisters what
gifts they were getting. Late one night, after Allison and Janine went to bed, I
sat with Dad and Susan as they talked about going “all out” and buying Allison
a pony. Dad’s blue eyes lit up as he explained how it was the perfect way to
combine Allison’s love of Christmas and horses. Susan, wearing her bathrobe, her
brown hair still wet from a shower, added that it was a practical gift, since Avery
would be old enough to ride the pony in a couple years, too.

“A pony? You’re actually going to get her
a pony?” I asked. “A live, literal pony?” I was convinced they were kidding. Dad
was known to play a joke every so often, but Susan was serious to a fault. They
both nodded at me, grinning like the elves at Macy’s.

They continued to brainstorm, talking
about how they’d bring the pony inside early on Christmas morning. They’d lead
it into the living room right next to the tree. He pony would have a bow on its
head, and a note, stained with tea leaves to look old and more official, with
large, ornate lettering spelling, “Love, Santa.”

This was the stupidest gift idea I’d ever
heard of. “Being given a pony on Christmas,” I explained, “will ruin a
six-year-old for life. You’ll spoil her.”

They didn’t respond. Instead, Dad watched
as Susan furiously scribbled the idea down onto a yellow pad of paper.

As if shecould forget to buy a pony.

I argued against the gift idea, explaining
that Allison would never remember to feed or walk the pony, and the duties
would fall on the three of us. I added that presenting her with a big present now
would make her expect an even bigger one next year, and the year after that. “She’ll
be the only second grader with a car.” I said, “The only seventh grader with a
space ship.”

Unmoved, Dad and Susan continued
brainstorming.

When I finally started up the stairs to go
to bed, I could hear them still planning in the living room. “It’s just like finding
a puppy under the tree,” Dad said.

Yeah,
a big puppy,
I thought. With bigger poop.

When mom picked me up Sunday night, I told
her everything.

“A pony? Like P-O-N-Y? Pony?” she said.

“Like a small horse.”

Mom said they would never do it, but I
wasn’t so sure.

Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mom dropped
me at Dad’s house after church, as usual. I hadn’t heard anything else about
the pony, so when I went to sleep that night, I still didn’t know what Dad and Susan
decided to do.

The next morning, Allison gathered Dad, Susan,
Avery, and me, leading us all downstairs. I held my breath as I walked into the
living room, and noticed one thing immediately: the room was absolutely
pony-less.

Apparently, Dad and Susan had decided
against the pony. Good. I quietly saluted their wise decision and watched as Allison
danced around the Christmas tree, giddy with excitement, ignorant of the pony her
parents had denied her.

The morning crawled on, and I slowly realized
Dad and Susan had actually skimped on Christmas this year. There were plenty of
presents, but they were all small toys or things that we needed, like pajamas
and socks. Generally, I liked more practical gifts: I always welcomed a new
sweatshirt or beach towel. But I tried to hide my disappointment when I ripped open
a gift labeled “To Jillian, From Santa” and found a bottle of body wash, men’s body wash, with white beads
floating inside. By
the way the liquid didn’t quite reach the top of the bottle, I could tell it
had already been used.

I looked at my dad, waiting for him to
say, “Oh, woops, how did that get in there?” Or maybe, “You should have seen
your face! Soap! For Christmas! Wasn’t that funny?” But he said nothing, just
reached for another present.

Only then did it become clear to me: this
wasn’t a joke. Dad had probably taken the shower gel from his bathroom and
wrapped Christmas paper around it.

Did he think I smelled? Was this a very
direct hint that I needed a more vigorous scent and a “20% more free” size
bottle to handle my new, pre-pubescent smells? Or was this something else?

I looked down at the bottle of blue gel, then to my sisters’ piles of
dollar-store dolls and plastic hair barrettes, and suddenly I felt sick. My
throat dried out as if I had just eaten gingerbread cookies with no milk.

It was obvious now that Dad and Susan probably
hadn’t officially decided against the pony. They just couldn’t afford it. Here
I was, afraid Allison would get a too-extravagant gift when clearly, the family
was having financial trouble. That was why they’d dropped the pony topic so
suddenly.

As I watched Dad hand Allison another
gift, which she happily unwrapped to reveal a new shirt, I understood then that
I didn’t actually care about the pony. I was just jealous.

And I wasn’t jealous of the possibility of
Allison getting such an impressive gift. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted a
pony for myself. I was envious of the bond Allison and Dad shared. They were
close and I wanted a relationship like that with him too.

Perhaps, I thought, I was just going about
it the wrong way.

Maybe Dad and I didn’t have that much in
common and maybe I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with the family
– but I could fix that. I decided, right then and
there, that in the new year, I’d stop being jealous and find a way to bond with
them all. I’d make a better effort to do the things they liked to do. I’d willingly
go on a camping trip, even help plan one. I’d try to be more interested in
things like horses and fishing, and I’d try harder to like Christmas. It would
take some work but eventually, my relationship with my dad and his new family
would be stronger and I’d fit in.

When all of the gifts had been opened, Dad
looked around the tree, playfully itching the spot above his temple with one,
hooked finger.

“Well, I thought Santa had one more gift
left,” he said.

“But everything’s opened,” Susan said with
an overly exaggerated shrug.

Dad pulled a large, white envelope out
from under the tree skirt and gasped. Allison’s eyes lit up like twinkle lights
and she hurried over to him, Avery toddling behind her. Dad held the piece of
paper up to the light, as if he were having trouble reading the words.

“Don’t do it,” I heard myself say under my
breath.

“Dear Allison,” he said slowly. I cringed.
“Look outside for your last present. Love, Santa!” He said the last words with cartoonish
emphasis, drawing out the words as his eyes got wide with mock surprise.

Before I could even get up from the couch,
Allison, Susan, Avery, and Dad were opening the front door. From my seat, I
heard Allison squeal with excitement in the yard. Dad laughed as I, too,
hurried to the front porch.

“We knew it would all be over once she saw
him,” Dad said. He stood in the doorway, talking to me over his shoulder. “So
we had to save the big present for last.”

I looked past him and saw it
– a brown and white Christmas pony, with a red bow on
its back.

At first, I crossed my arms over my chest
in protest, but as I looked out at the yard, watching Allison hug the pony and
pet its mane, I felt happy for her. I’d dreaded the idea of Allison getting a
pony for Christmas, but somehow, I wasn’t upset. I don’t know if this was due
to the fact that, just moments ago, I’d decided to make more of an effort to
get along with the family, or if seeing Allison’s wide smile softened my mood. Either
way, I was happy that my sister would always have this memory of getting a
real, live pony for Christmas.

And then, I remembered: Santa didn’t bring
her this pony, her parents did. As it turned out, there weren’t money problems
as I’d imagined. Dad and Susan got Allison a pony, and for that very same
Christmas, they’d given me used soap.

I didn’t know what to say as we all stood
there on the lawn that morning, so I just watched as Allison climbed onto her
Christmas present. We all stood there, together, and watched as the present
slowly began eating the lawn.

Later that morning, we had breakfast, and Dad
loaded everyone in the car to take the pony to the stable. I stayed home, waiting
for my mom to pick me up. Finally, she did.

As was customary for Christmas day, Mom drove
us to my grandma’s house. On the way, I told her the story, leaving out the
part about the soap. I made jokes about how crazy Dad and Susan must be to
actually buy a pony and I smiled when I talked about how surprised Allison was.
I wanted to sound like I was happy about the whole thing, but by the time I finished,
I felt my throat go dry again, and I didn’t know what to say.

Looking back now, I know I wasn’t old
enough to be able to describe, or even understand what I was feeling that day
in the car. But as we drove, I had the distant idea that maybe it wasn’t my
fault that Dad’s family and I had never been close.

I remembered the times Dad left me home
alone because I didn’t want to go fishing with him. About the times Mom drove
me the hour to their house, only to find that they went on an out-of-state
camping trip without bothering to tell us. I remembered all the times I felt
left out or unwanted or forgotten. I understood, in a small way, that it wasn’t
our different interests that were the problem. That the problem between me and my
dad was maybe, just – my dad.

After that year, I spent every Christmas
with my mom. I still visited my dad’s house every other weekend for years, but I
decided that I was old enough to make my own holiday plans.

And while I’d never liked Christmas before,
the holiday felt different after that year. Mom and I made our own traditions:
making waffles on Christmas morning, buying matching sweaters to wear to Grandma’s
for dinner, and stopping for second helpings of pie at Denny’s on the way back home.
Suddenly, I was happy, even jolly, during the holidays, like a child who got
exactly what she wanted for Christmas. Maybe because I had.




The Orphanage

In her corner office, Sister Modesta Cuma opens a notebook and considers a list of boys and girls under her care. She knows the story behind each name.

Lucera, 10. Mentally disabled.
Lives in her own world. Here five years.

As
director of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, a Catholic orphanage for HIV-positive
children, Sister Modesta is responsible for forty-five youngsters ranging in
age from a few days to fifteen years old. The orphanage stands beside a dirt
and stone road that wends through a dense jungle of leafy trees in the village
of Sumpango, about fifty miles outside Guatemala City, Guatemala, and near the
town of Antigua, once Guatemala’s capital and now a popular tourist
destination. Nuns with the order of Small Apostles of Redemption care for the children
behind high walls that shut off the trees and the road and the noise of traffic
converging on Antigua. Within the compound an orderly world of classrooms,
dormitories, a chapel, and a playground, replete with basketball court, swing
sets and slides provide an alternative universe of calm and safety in which
nuns occupy the roles of parent, teacher and protector.

Fernando, 8. Both of his parents are addicts. He has absorbed all of their problems. When he started walking, he would throw himself against walls. He couldn’t be left alone. His parents are now dead. They lived in Zone 18, one of the worst neighborhoods in Guatemala. Fernando’s uncle was shot. He’s hiding somewhere. Drugs, violence, gangs. It’s in his blood.

Sometimes,
when a mother visits the orphanage, her son or daughter does not recognize her.
The child cries and the mother gets angry. She doesn’t understand that the nuns
have replaced her.

Gustavo Ramirez, 11. He has no
family other than an aunt but she rarely visits. Just recently, however, she
took him for a few days.

All
the children were born out of tragedy. More often than not, their mothers
became pregnant after having sex with an HIV-infected man. Some of them worked
as prostitutes. Others were raped. Still others injected drugs with dirty
needles and continued using after they were pregnant. Then doctors and police
get involved. Then the courts refer the children to Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.  

Despite
having the HIV virus, the children impress visitors with their joy and laughter
so much so that a few visitors leave refusing to believe the children have any
health issues at all. However, Sister Modesta knows better. A three-year-old
died in 2014. He was so sick when he arrived that no amount of medication could
save him. The children of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello live with the threat of
death every day.

Ignacio Bachub, 14. Came to the
orphanage when he was eight years old. He has an uncle in the U.S. but no close
relatives in Guatemala.

Sister
Modesta could never have anticipated that her life would lead here when, as a twelve-year-old,
she told the nuns in her hometown of Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, that she
wanted to join the church. She had been impressed by their stories of traveling
to Africa and other faraway countries. Many of her teachers had degrees in
medicine, economics and other professions. Their knowledge impressed her.
Unlike her mother, they could read.

The
nuns told her she would not understand the call to Christ until she turned eighteen.
Sister Modesta, however, was undeterred. How much does a habit cost? she
demanded. It’s expensive, they told her. Too much for a twelve-year-old. Still
she persisted. Because of her commitment, or stubborn persistence – she
can’t be sure which, although she leans toward the latter – the
nuns relented and she began her studies to live a religious life in 1982 when
she was seventeen. As a novice, Sister Modesta worked in Colombia and later in
El Salvador. She also earned a nursing degree. In 2015, she was assigned to
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.                  

Abimael Chilisna, 11. He is
allowed overnight visits with his family. However, they forget to give him his
medicine or feed him a proper diet. They work all the time and leave him alone.
When they return him to the orphanage, Abimael won’t take his medicine. His
family didn’t make him take it, so why should he take it now? he asks. The courts have
been informed of the problem. The next time his family asks for him, the courts
will decide whether he goes or not.

Every
year, Sister Modesta knows, a child will leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello. Their
families take them back. The courts transfer them to another facility. They
turn eighteen and are no longer considered children. The sisters hope God will
help them. They pray that the children get through the difficulties of entering
into a world far different from the one they’ve known here.

Heidy Herrera. There are some
things about her life she does not know. She does not remember her mother and
that is probably a blessing. When her mother learned Heidy was HIV- positive,
she locked her in a cage inside the house. Her older siblings took her to her
grandmother’s house and then called the police on their own mother. The courts
placed her here. Her grandmother and uncle visit but not often.

Sister
Modesta closes her notebook, digs into the pockets of her vest to warm her
hands, and sighs. Discharges can end badly. Recently a girl left and began
dating a bad boy and they eloped. Her grades went down. She stopped attending
school and taking her medicine. Eighteen years old. Gone, never heard from
again. Sister Modesta still prays for her.

*

The playground at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.

Heidy
Herrera sits alone on steps that lead into the playground and watches a handful
of children shooting hoops. Their shadows climb walls, shrinking and expanding
as they run. Heidy pulls a sweater around her shoulders against the evening
damp air and the far-off reverberations of thunder. She does not know her age.
The nuns have told her she is fifteen and she accepts that but because she did
not know herself she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She knows she’s getting
older and that she can’t live at the orphanage forever. She does not remember
when she came here, or who brought her. She got really sick while she lived
with her grandmother, or so she’s been told. Her grandmother didn’t understand
the problem. Then the police took her to a hospital where she received tests
and then she ended up here. Her earliest memories belong here.

Heidy
understands HIV can’t be cured but with the right treatment she can live a
normal life. Without medicine, she understands HIV would develop into AIDS. She
feels at ease, tranquil about her diagnosis. She can live with it. She has for
a long time. She is the oldest child in the orphanage. She knows the time for
leaving nears. Thoughts about her future preoccupy her. Her older sisters have
agreed to take her in but they live far from Sumpango. The nuns are her family.
Will she see them again? She does not think so and the thought saddens her and
her eyes well with tears.

She
remembers an older boy who moved out. He was eighteen. He was friends with
everybody. All the children were sad to see him go. When he visits he plays
with everybody. He lives far away and doesn’t come often. When he goes, it
feels like the first time he left.

 Nuns also leave. At the end of each year one or two get new assignments. Sister Sandra Flores left in 2014. She took care of all the kids and was really affectionate and playful. Every now and then she drops by and Heidy embraces and holds onto her until she gently pulls her arms away. It seems to Heidy it’s always her favorite people who go. She gets nervous at the end of each year wondering who will tell her goodbye.

*

Sister Flor Ramirez, a teacher at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.

Sister Maria Chub stops by the clinic to look in on two infants: Kendel, eighteen months old, has a heart condition and doesn’t gain weight. Selvin, eight months old, came to the orphanage because his HIV-positive mother refused to seek medical treatment for herself and him. She fed Selvin water and nothing else. He was horribly malnourished when he arrived.

Sister
Maria sees love in the faces of the mothers who visit their babies but in most
cases they continue living the life that got them sick. Sister Maria doesn’t
judge. These mothers must eat. They are poor and care for themselves in any way
they can. If you don’t feed the body, you can’t feed the spirit, she reminds
herself.  

Still,
she gets angry. One year, the mother of an infant boy Sister Maria had grown
very fond of appealed the court order that had removed him to the orphanage.
The mother got the boy back but did not give him his HIV medicine. The boy got
sick and the court returned him to the orphanage. His mother appealed again and
won. This time she gave him his medicine but it was no longer effective because
he had gone without it for so long. Doctors said he needed stronger drugs
unavailable in Guatemala. The boy died. Just five months old.

The boy’s death broke Sister Maria’s heart. Her anger at the mother knew no limits even with prayer. The mother had an opportunity to help her son but chose not to. The boy looked normal but he was sick inside. Had he been allowed to stay at the orphanage he would have received his medication. He was family. He was so cheerful despite being sick. He really liked it here but his mother wanted him. He was so small. He cried when he left. All Sister Maria can do is pray for his soul now. She weeps with fury and frustration and asks God’s forgiveness of the boy’s mother and herself.

Sister Modesta Cuma, principal at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello .

*

Twenty-three-year-old
Floridalma Perez sits in a park about a mile from Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello,
where she once lived and now volunteers. She watches her three-year-old son,
Alex, play on a slide. Men and women walk in and out of a convenience store
nearby. Discarded bags of chips blow in the wind and Alex picks up one and
Floridalma tells him to drop it. The wind carries it away beneath a gray sky
warning of rain.

—Be
careful on the slide, she cautions him.

When
Floridalma was five years old, her mother died. Her father sexually abused her
for many years and infected her with HIV. She told her older siblings about the
abuse but no one believed her.

When
she started getting sick, her father left her at a hospital. The hospital staff
contacted the police and she was referred to the orphanage in 2006. She was thirteen.
She never saw her father again until she turned twenty-one when he asked for
her forgiveness.

—No,
you have destroyed my life, she told him.

At
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello no one told her she was HIV-positive until she turned
seventeen. Until then, she took medicine but never understood its purpose.
Perhaps the nuns thought she wouldn’t understand.

At
eighteen, she left to live with an uncle in San Marcos, Guatemala, where she
was born. However, he didn’t want her to stay with him so she rented a room and
worked as a maid in a wealthy man’s house. He raped her and she became pregnant
with Alex. When she told him, he said, Go away. She doesn’t know if she
infected him with HIV. She didn’t know then that HIV was transmittable through
sex. The sisters had never discussed sex with her.

When
she was seven months pregnant, Floridalma called the orphanage and told the
nuns what had happened. They invited her to return and put her on medication.
She stayed at the orphanage until Alex was born free of HIV. Thank God he is
healthy, she often tells herself, thank God. She rents a room near the park
now. The nuns continue to give her food and medication.

Floridalma
wonders, Why is there so much suffering? She worries for the children when they
leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello and face a world so different from the one
they’ve known. She says, Hi, how are you? and the children smile a greeting in
return. She doesn’t have a relationship with any of them or with anyone else
for that matter other than her son. She wants him to stay healthy. She wants
him to have the childhood she didn’t.

*

Daily Schedule:

5:30
a.m. wake up, administer medication

7:00
a.m. breakfast

8:30
a.m.–2:45 p.m. school

1:00
p.m. lunch

1:30
p.m.–4:00 p.m. homework, chores

4:00
p.m.–5:00 p.m. recess

5
p.m.–6 p.m. church

6
:00 p.m. dinner

8:00
p.m. bedtime

*

Sister
Aleja Ocox paces the playground as she presides over recess. She took her vows
in 2001 at the age of nineteen. She can’t say why exactly other than she
attended parochial school and, besides her parents, knew only nuns as a child.
As a young woman, her options were limited: join the church or get married. She
knew no boy she wanted to marry so she decided to enter the religious life.

On
this evening, she watches two boys chasing one another in a game of tag. They
both have kidney problems as a result of HIV. One of them, eight-year-old
Fernando, has lived here since he was a baby. He does not remember his
drug-addicted mother. He puzzles Sister Aleja. He steals from the other
children. Why is he like this? Perhaps because his mother was a drug addict and
Fernando was born with crack cocaine in his blood. He sees a psychologist once
a week. He can turn violent. He gets very aggressive and then calms down.
Sister Aleja doesn’t know what to think of him.

Sister
Aleja worked at the orphanage in 2006, was transferred to another orphanage and
then returned in 2014. When she was here the first time, the orphanage didn’t
have a clinic. If a child got sick, they had to be driven to Roosevelt
Hospital, the public hospital in Guatemala City, more than an hour a way. The
clinic has been a big help. Now, if a child falls or gets hurt in some minor
way, they have a place to go within the orphanage. Poor things. They panic so
if they bruise themselves. Sometimes even Sister Aleja panics. The slightest
thing, even a sneeze, makes her worry they might get sick and die.

Sister
Aleja especially keeps an eye on the little ones. She reminds them to take their
medicine before they go to bed. Don’t catch cold, she warns them, don’t get
wet. When the colder weather comes, wear a sweater. She worries all the time.
Please God, let them stay healthy.

About
once a week, Sister Aleja drives a van full of boys and girls from the
orphanage to Roosevelt Hospital for routine checkups. She awakens the children
at four in the morning so they can make their seven o’clock appointment. She
maneuvers through the congested traffic of the capital with the impatience of a
seasoned commuter. The gray-stone hospital rises above a parking lot filled
with beggars and fruit vendors. Sister Aleja parks and hurries the children to
the front doors, passes a security guard, and follows a hall that takes her to
a row of examination rooms. She registers the children with a receptionist and
then herds them together as she finds chairs for them all. They wait until
Sister Aleja hears her name called. Standing, she takes the children to a bare
room with charts of the human body tacked on the wall. A nurse seated behind a
desk beckons each child forward.

Angelica,
12: Pointing to a spot on her left arm, she tells the nurse she knows where her
good vein is to draw blood. Steady, the nurse tells her, so I hit the vein the
first time. The last time I didn’t need lab work, but today it’s my turn,
Angelica reminds her. The nurse nods as she inserts the needle. When she
finishes, she asks Angelica to stand on a scale. She is still underweight, the
nurse tells Sister Aleja, but she has always been a little underweight. Her cholesterol was high the last time
we ran blood. Is she eating oatmeal to lower it? Yes, but she doesn’t
like it, Sister Aleja says.

Nelson,
9: The nurse measures his waist, biceps and arm length and checks his weight.
He watches her as she adjusts the scale. Look, up, look straight ahead, the
nurse tells him. He gained two pounds since his last visit and grew 1.2
centimeters, she comments. How have you been behaving? she asks him. You have a
look like you’ve been misbehaving. He giggles. She considers his chart. Viral
load untraceable, good. White blood cells normal. Kidney, liver very well. Have
you been sick? No. You’re so quiet, guapo.
Why don’t
you say anything? He smiles.

Josue,
9: He gained two pounds since his last checkup and now weighs fifty-five
pounds. He grew one centimeter. Has he been ill? the nurse asks. No, Sister
Aleja says. He’s gained weight, the nurse continues, that’s good. White blood
cells normal, but his fatty acids are up. Give him Omega 3.

After the children have been examined, the older ones who know what it means to be HIV-positive meet with a counselor. The counselor tells them they’ll be OK if they take their medicine. You have limitations but do the best you can with the life you have. Give an example of how you can respect yourself. Do you brush your teeth, shower, eat every day? Yes, a boy answers. Those are things we can do to show our bodies respect and love, the counselor says. Every day you should do something that shows you love yourself. Every day, the boys says, I drink water. Good. What else? I take my medicine. Yes, the counselor agrees, that’s also good. If you take your medicine every day, you’ll be OK. From your blood work, I can see your medicine is working. How does the medicine help you? It doesn’t let the virus hurt me, the boy replies. What’s the difference between contracting and transmitting? If I use a needle, he says, I’ll contract it. If someone sneezes will you contract? the counselor asks. No, the boy replies. If you share a cup of water? No. What about sexual relations? Yes, the boys says, unless I use a condom. Very good, the counselor says.

Sister Modesta Cuma in the orphanage clinic.

*

Dreams.

Gustavo
Ramirez: I dream about my family. I dream about going home and spending
Christmas with them. In my dream I see my family. Everyone is happy.

Abimael
Chilisna: I dream of being with my family. They come and pick me up and take me
to swimming pools. I feel sad about leaving. I’ll leave my friends. All my
friends are here but I’m a little happy because I’ll be with my family.

Floridalma
Perez: I have dreams for my son. I want him to have what I didn’t. I know this
will be difficult because I still don’t have what I want him to have, a home
and safety. I don’t have dreams for myself. I have nightmares. One positive
dream out every ten nightmares. The good dreams are of a life that is not
difficult but once I wake up everything falls away. My nightmares are all
related to accidents, car crashes or in a bus. I’m afraid of something
happening to my son and me.

Heidy
Herrera: I dream of living a normal life without medicine.

*

Social
studies class. Third- and fourth-graders.

Today’s
lesson: de la violencia a la paz. Violence versus peace.

—Take
out your notebooks, Sister Modesta tells the class of eight- and
nine-year-olds. The boys and girls shift in their chairs, rummaging through
shoulder packs, rocking the small desks on the concrete floor and the damp air
made damper from a lingering morning fog clings to the room and the children
rub goosebumps from their arms.

—Give
me some examples of violence, Sister Modesta tells the class.

—If
one boy punches another boy.

—If
one boy says I’m better than you that is violence.

—If
siblings fight for the love of the mother.

—One
at a time, Sister Modesta says.

—When
they drink, people become violent.

—Brothers
and sisters fight for the love of their mother.

Sister Modesta writes their comments on the board. She has chosen this topic because she knows some of the mothers of these children were raped. The children themselves have experienced physical abuse and social exclusion. She wants them to see this behavior as wrong and not repeat it themselves when they become adults.

Sister Modesta Cuma.

*

After
class, Ignacio Bachub approaches Sister Modesta.

—I’d
like to be a chef, he tells her.

—Whatever
makes you happy, she encourages.

Maybe a chef working in one of Antigua’s many restaurants would come and talk to him, she thinks. Perhaps even apprentice him. Why not? These children should be loved as much as anyone and have the same opportunities. They complain that they’re not like other boys and girls. Don’t feel dejected, she tells them. You will outgrow these disappointments, but she doesn’t know if she believes that. With each child she feels the vulnerability of her ignorance of God’s will. She prays for their health and welfare and then waits as uncertain as the children under her care for what the future holds.

The medicine cabinet at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.




Circumventing the Crowds in the City of Dreaming Spires

Picture Credits: kooikkari

A New NIMBYism

Autumn has descended, and with it, a fresh wave of overenthusiastic university
students upon the city of Oxford. They do not fill a vacuum, but readily occupy
the place of the some 16,000 tourists, day-trippers and student “edu-tourists”
who visit the city every day during the summer travel season. The passage of
time has mercifully dulled my recollection of my own student years at Oxford
University, but I still remember the unceremonious jostling and daily
turf-battles that took place between tourists, townies and students in the
beleaguered city centre. As a final-year student, I reluctantly gate-crashed
many a pristine photo of the Christ Church, or “Harry Potter”, dining hall in
my bid to reach the Examination Schools on time (although, as I was donning a
curious combination of hijab and “subfusc” at the time, I hope the tourists
didn’t feel too short-changed for their photographic efforts).

Oxford is just one of many destination cities that is beginning to suffer
the effects of “overtourism” – a term that hit the headlines in 2017, and has
only gained in traction since then. The term implies not only overcapacity in numbers,
but also the unsustainability, even undesirability, of the associated tourist
culture. Local inhabitants and environmental organisations have led the
backlash against global tourism, particularly in European cities, from the
banning of food trucks and selfie-sticks in Milan, to the recent announcement of
a new tourist tax on day-trippers to Venice. Nevertheless, travellers remain
unabated, continuing to make use of low-cost flights and cheap accommodation
options in their quest to witness, photograph and publically demonstrate their
presence across the globe. Many of us have, by all counts, brazenly severed
ourselves into a dichotomy: both vigorous defenders of our private spaces, or “locals”,
and bold venturers into unfamiliar places.

We might refer to this contradictory reality as the new NIMBYism: one
that exemplifies the many double standards of the human condition. The
backyards that we occupy, with their distinctiveness dulled to our senses, are
now an endless source of fascination to others, and prime opportunities for Insta-“grammable”
moments. En route to Venice in 2016, alongside the twenty-seven million other
visitors who made the same trek that year, one guidebook that I read sagely
cautioned its discerning readers to “walk in the opposite direction to the
crowds” if they wanted to experience the richness of the city. This reassuring
veneer of self-respectability shields us from being identified as part of the “crowd”,
even when we patently are.

Oxford has long witnessed its fair share of “set-jetters” and visitors eager
to absorb the city’s air of historic enlightenment, but a rise in tourism has
left the city centre unnavigable in the summer months, except to those
well-versed in the skill of crowd avoidance. As I transitioned from a student
of the University to a resident of the city, my own NIMBYistic tendencies have
been unleashed. I now watch in dismay as coaches carrying day-trippers block the
cycle lines in Oxford’s cramped quarters, and the tourists shuttled therein
tend to leave after only a few hours – increasing the flow of traffic without
making any contribution to the city’s independent stores. I bristle as I walk
past the £440m Westgate shopping centre, which opened two years ago, and has generated
ghost-town effects on other parts of the city, including the closure of my
favourite coffee shop haunt, Combibo’s. The owners of this shop made no effort
to conceal their chagrin at the establishment of the Westgate centre, affixing
a statement to the shop door in which they proclaimed that “Oxford is a shadow
of the place we all fell in love with” (even I haven’t quite reached that state
of disillusionment). Cornmarket Street, a major pedestrian precinct in the
city, is increasingly inhabited by souvenir shops that sell marginal stylistic
variations on Oxford-emblazoned hoodies and mugs.

To residents and visitors alike, there are bleakly comic undertones to the
growth of tourism in Oxford. University students commend the most creatively
fictitious tour guide anecdotes (one favourite being the “Bridge of Sighs” as
named after the disheartened students who shuffled underneath it in a spirit of
post-exam malaise). One elderly friend, struggling to navigate the crowded city
centre using her walking aid, has confessed to simply using it to mow down
large groups of stationary language tourists. There is even something wryly
amusing by the recent opening of “Britain Heritage” [sic], a souvenir shop that
has confidently taken its place next to Boswells department store, which has been
trading modestly for its part since 1738. In the meantime, retail bulletins and
city councillors alike commend the rise in “footfall” in the city: an indication of the need to scrutinise the
statistics peddled out in support of the travel industry, as well as the
desirability of “footfall” as an end in itself.

In the past, it has been customary to praise or condemn travel chiefly
for its effects on the mind. For Mark Twain, it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry
and narrow-mindedness”; for D.H. Lawrence, it is “an exercise in disillusionment”.
In contrast, the bullish character Mr Thwaites, in Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, had “further
narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad”. And yet, the
unregulated growth of the travel industry over the preceding decades no longer
permits us the luxury of viewing tourism solely through the lens of discovery
and self-fulfilment. We now need to find a more sustainable way of seeing the
world – one that channels both the accountability of the travel industry and
the conscientiousness of individuals.

The conversation has yet to shift significantly in these shores. This
past summer, the UK government cheerily announced the creation of five new “tourism
zones”. Oxford, of course, was granted the privilege of being one of them. With
a prickling of my conscience, I bemoaned this news while descending upon the
city of Bath, seeking welcome respite in its familiar unfamiliarity. In my
defence, I departed the city rejuvenated by its mineral springs, but mug-less
and hoodie-less. This I consider to be no small victory.




Canvassing for School Board in a State with Struggling Schools

I parked my car and worried about leaving it and worried about the privilege of being able to leave it. I worried about my own worrying about it, and what it says about me – my doors never used to lock. Conscious of the tenderness of knuckle and how I knocked – did it sound like the cops? – I wondered if I should even think this or if its impact transcended trope? (I should not have to rehash for you the catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement.) When I knocked, I made its noise into a sort of music, so its rhythm wouldn’t sound alarming: tat-tat tata-tat-tat tat-tat. Even when coming from loved ones, a knock is never welcoming; its thuds excite or concern us more than they calm us. The sounds are alerting. Alarming. An issue to be dealt with.

In
this Baton Rouge district, some of the houses had no doorbells. Sometimes, the
doorbells were taped over with blue masking or black electrical tape.
Sometimes, the outer coverings were broken so that the light shined behind, but
I wouldn’t press them for fear of being shocked. Sometimes, a second doorbell
with a small camera had been added. These doorbells were black and lit up blue as
they rang and they sang a small, sharp tune and surely watched me. Sometimes,
the doorbells didn’t make a sound, so I pressed my ear to the door to listen
and knocked after and felt the tenderness in my knuckle again. So many of the
doorbells didn’t work or weren’t there that a knot formed in my knuckle.
Sometimes there was a camera above the door and sometimes in place of the
camera there was a piece of paper that said, “Smile, You Are On Camera” or “We
Are Videotaping You Steal and Will be Sharing with the Police.”

Some
of the doors had second, outer metal doors over them. These were a pattern of
strips and rods through which I could see the real door and through which my
hand sometimes fit to knock on the real door. Sometimes I had to knock on the
steel frames, which made a low sound that people barely ever answered to, and
sometimes I had to knock on the mesh patterns between the frames, which made a
loud rattling sound which startled even me. Sometimes near the door there were
signs that said, “KNOCK LOUD” or “Leave packages around back.” Sometimes the
house had a gate that I could walk through to get to the door and sometimes the
gate was locked so that I had to slip the flyer on the gate and say hello and
hope that someone was home.

*

The
sidewalk broke away and gave to grass, the yards to rock and mud. A Styrofoam
sonic cup pooled its remaining blue wastes of sugar juice. I told you that I
parked my car and left it, and as I walked, I watched a man enter shirtless
into his house – he was taller than me with broad shoulders and a bald head.
His skin shone pale and white and flexed black tattoos on his back and arms. I
walked past his home, since it was not listed on the canvassing app on my phone,
and I knocked without answer at his neighbor’s door. As I moved along, a small
pickup truck idled at the street-edge of a driveway a few houses down. The
truck was white, with a rust-red fender, and the woman inside watched me. She
had been watching every house I knocked on. Her hands rested on the
steering-wheel as I approached.

“Hello.
I’m just here canvassing for the upcoming school board election.” She wore a
white shirt with no logo, not bright but not torn. Despite leaning all the way
back in the seat, her stomach pressed into the steering wheel. Her eyes, wide.
Her hair, stringy. Even though she was not on my list, in order to defuse her I
talked about the candidate I was canvassing for and about how the incumbent had
been on the job for awhile despite the fact that the schools keep
underperforming. It was my standard spiel.

“Me
and my mother have been here twenty years and watched it go to shit,” she said.
“It’s disgusting. See that man over there?” She pointed to the white man with
the tattoos. “He’s the biggest drug dealer around. And down the street, Mrs.
X’s daughter has special needs. The blacks use her as a sex toy.” I nodded.
There was nothing more to say to this woman, really. She drove off with her
truck clunking and my knuckle tender from knocking.

*

Further
down the street, I knocked on another house. The couple that lived there were
in their eighties, and so I waited awhile longer, laid a flier on the door, and
left. As I walked across the street, I heard a door opening and a man, voice
measured and low, muttering hello behind me. “I saw you leave something on my
door.”

The
man stood shorter than me, and I am a short man. His body drew thin at the
shoulders and wrists, the way older people can. He held a rake and covered his
head in a sun hat with a wide brim. Suspenders supported his tan khakis. I gave
him another flier since he did not bring the other from the door. I asked him
who he planned on voting for. I talked with him about the schools’ poor performance
in the entire city, not just in this district. He looked over the photograph of
the candidate.

“At
my age,” he said, “I’m not against anyone.”

Okay.
Wait for it. Try to smile.

He
continued, “You can’t be against anyone at my age.” He held an expression of
half hope, half fear, anxious about whether I would judge him.

“But
really, what can you do?” he said. “They’ve only made it this far and been
around this long. How much farther can we expect them to get, really?” His hand
was shaking, slightly. I suspected from age and not nervousness. I tried to
smile. I tried to tell him about the candidate’s platforms. I asked him if his
wife was available to speak and I asked him if he would like some help raking
his yard. He told me no thanks and that he would look over the flier and
consider voting for my candidate.

*

I
know that my being white allows me the privilege of being patient with a man
whose culture has engrained in him a racist worldview and an inherent bias against
minorities, women, and other ethnicities. But I also know of Daryl Davis, who dialogued
with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, for so long that the
two men became friends and Kelly eventually quit the Klan and gave Davis his
robe. This greatly diminished the presence of the KKK in Maryland. To be clear,
I am not advocating for anyone to speak with Klansman. No one should speak with
Klansman. Davis is lucky he isn’t dead. But it worked. On the other hand, I
also remember an image from Facebook. In the picture, a young and thin black
man holds a sign at the Woman’s March. The sign read, “We’ll See All You Nice
White Ladies At The Black Lives Matter Rally, Right?” I know that the issue
requires both patience and pressure.

This
is an essay on canvassing and the state of schools in Louisiana. But the essay
is also about race because every essay ever written in the United States is
about race. If you don’t realize that, you’re part of the problem.

*

When
clouds covered the sun, and a slight drizzle, so thin it almost formed in fog,
pearled the screen of my phone, I tucked an umbrella into my armpit and grew
thankful that the heat had abated. Some days the temperature made me sweat in
places that people living in the north never realize you could feel sweat in.
And this was fall, mind you. This wasn’t even summer.

I
knocked on the outer security grate of a red brick house and no one answered.
The doorbell either didn’t work or made a sound inaudible behind the door. As I
turned, I looked across the street to the end of a lawn with no sidewalk where
someone had piled tires, broken or shattered windows, an old printer, and a
couch. The couch was leather, black with the front faded and ripped to grey.
The house behind it was tan with a black roof shaded umber by leaves and dirt.
On the roof, a grey satellite dish pointed towards the constellations above
this very down-to-earth property where someone may have resided or someone may
have abandoned.

I
snapped a picture on my phone, and as I turned around the block, since the
house sat on the corner lot, I heard men behind the fenced-in yard, not visible
from where I stood earlier. “You’re on camera, too.”

“Excuse
me?” I didn’t think anyone was home, since no one answered.

“We’ve
got picture of you, too. You and the Feds.”

In
the yard, three men huddled. The one calling me out sat in the driver’s side of
a newly restored Lincoln with bright rims. Beside the car, two men stood, one
with a small glass bottle of gin in his hand. It was before noon.

The neighborhoods in this district wavered from run-down to classic suburbia. Tall, weedy grass to manicured lawns with carefully carved hedges. On one street, I saw a house with plasterboard for windows. Someone had written in chalk on the plasterboard, “For rent, call 225…” On another street, I saw a bonsai tree larger than any I’ve witnessed outside of museums. White stone lions pillared each side of one driveway. Several broken-down cars were the statues in another driveway. One house held a large banner written in black and red paint. The font varied in styles from cursive to gothic. It read, “Happy Birthday,” “We Gain Johnson,” “Asia Kim,” “Love Won!” and “Engagement Party.” I couldn’t quite make sense of it. At another house, a sign beside the door listed in orange marker the prices of meals. Patrons could get several “Breakfast 4 Champions” platters, such as a grits, eggs, and sausage plate with coffee for $5. A fish, shrimp, or crab poboy, also $5. Hamburgers or cheeseburgers were $2. That was not a typo. Desserts ranged from pecan candies to bundt cakes. At the top of the menu, the owner had written out proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thine ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.” Their slogan read, “Where every bite is like a slice of heaven.”

*

In
Louisiana, students in grade school take the LEAP test every year, which assesses
their skills in English, Math, and Social Studies. The test is scored through
five levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic, and unsatisfactory.
In order for a student to be prepared for the next grade level, he or she must
meet the level of mastery. However, for the last three years, little progress
has been made. In 2018, only 34 percent of third-through-eighth graders met
this requirement. When high-school students were added, only 43 percent of the
students scored mastery in English, and only 33 percent of the students met
this benchmark in Math, according to The Advocate.
In U.S. News and World Reports’ “Best
States for PreK-12” rankings, Louisiana comes in at 45. Wallethub, whose study factors in funding, class size, instructor
credentials and safety along with performance, rates Louisiana at 50 (out of
51, since D.C. is included).

Aware
of the poor state of their schools, the citizens I met voiced concern. One
woman who worked at the post office wanted to know what the candidate would do
about the LEAP Test. She worried that the state’s requirement that students
pass the test by a certain try held kids back and shaped the way teachers
interact with kids in the classroom. Another woman wanted to know what the
candidate would do to better the lives and working conditions of support
workers like bus drivers and janitors. Everyone talks about the teachers, she
said, but they aren’t the only ones working with these kids.

As
I answered a nineteen-year-old’s questions about her polling place, one of her
relatives, who didn’t live in the district, swayed and proclaimed that
politicians promise anything but never deliver. She said she’d called her
senator about burying her husband, but no one would help her.

Some
people didn’t answer the door even though I could hear them watching television
or talking or moving around. Sometimes the door would be open and I could see
them through the inner screen door, watching TV and ignoring me. Most yelled,
“Who is it?” through the door. Some shouted “Get off my property,” or “Not
interested” without ever knowing why I was there. Some said, “We don’t vote,”
or “I’m going to vote” in a tone as if I’d expected them not to participate. A
few teenagers told me with pride how they were going to vote for the first
time. This district resembled most districts in the U.S. Some people were
involved in their community and some weren’t, for reasons both personal and a
product of our national culture. Some held hope, while others had given up or
never cared.

*

I
knocked on the house of a middle-aged white man who burst through the door. He
said, “Is yours the candidate who said he wanted to create more opportunity for
black males?”

“What
do you mean?” I asked. The way he spoke showed his disproval of this idea.

“Last
night at the debate, one of the candidates said he wanted to create more
opportunity for black males. It did not go over well with the female
candidates.”

I
told him about the candidate’s desire to create equality for all schools and
students, but I also told him about how the highest drop-out rates are among
black boys. He may have been addressing this. The man held the flyer at eye-level
against his brick wall, squinted at it, and told me he would consider my
candidate. He remained undecided.

Later
I stopped to admire a woman’s garden. A raised bed burst with foliage and food.
On the side of her house, tomato plants dangled from hanging pots. In her yard,
a sign supporting my candidate stood. The woman appeared in her fifties, tall,
with grey hair, brown skin and freckles. She joked about the sign, as if I hadn’t
seen it. She offered me water before I left.

*

I
saw lizards, wasps, roaches. The glass covering of a porchlight contained a
graveyard of moths. Four dogs basked in the sun of a house with an eviction
notice. A woman told me the people had left them when they moved. In someone’s
driveway, a cat meandered around a turtle with a spiked tail. No body of water,
not even a culvert, was close.

*

I
met my supervisor, a young woman who worked the rest of the year for a
consulting firm in D.C., at an upscale, fairly-new Market in Mid City. The White
Star Market has coffee shops that sell cold-brew, nitrogen drips. Gov’t Taco
serves a single taco with coffee/chile rubbed beef, avocado crema, hot sauce,
and pickled red onions and jalapenos for $3.50. Chow Yum Phat serves a ramen
bowl with broth, seared pork belly, ajitama, woodear and shitake mushrooms,
enoki, mayu and scallions for $12. When my supervisor said that these neighborhoods
barely ever get canvassed, I told her that the main obstacle I was running into
was the citizens’ wariness of a young white man in their neighborhoods asking
them about voting.

As
African-Americans make up the majority of the district, its citizens
reluctantly trusted me – a white person walking into their southern
neighborhoods to ask them who they planned on voting for. Often, I got, “I’m
not going to tell you that.” “That’s my business.” “We don’t talk about that.”
Even though the picture on the flier showed that the candidate I was canvassing
for was black, these citizens were still aware of Republicans’ ongoing voter
suppression efforts. Shortly after inauguration, Kris Kobach, appointed by the
Trump Administration, headed a committee secretly aimed at creating data to
justify oppressive voter ID laws. In North Carolina, Republican senators in the
state legislature attempted to eliminate the final Saturday of early voting in
state elections. Black voters routinely show up to the polls on this day. In
Georgia, secretary of state Brian Kemp, running for Georgia Governor against
Stacey Abrams (who would have been the first black governor in US history),
used an exact-match signature system for absentee ballots. This system put the
registration of 53,000 voters on hold. When Abraham recently conceded that her
candidacy held no viable path to the governorship, she noted, correctly, that
“democracy failed Georgia” and “eight years of systematic disenfranchisement,
disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process
in Georgia.” Similarly, in Randolph County, election officials attempted to
close seven of the nine polling places. To justify these closures, the election
officials stated that the polling places do not properly accommodate Americans
with disabilities. Sixty percent of this county is black. In North Dakota, the
states supreme court upheld a controversial bill which required a street
address to be listed on state IDs. Many native peoples living on the
reservations in North Dakota use only P.O. Boxes. The examples go on and on.

Voting
is the foundation of our democracy, or our democratic republic, if you want to
get technical. This is something your high-school civics teacher will tell you,
and it’s true. Any attempt to disenfranchise Americans right to vote borders on
treason. If you don’t understand this, you’re part of the problem. So, when
people were skeptical to admit their voting intentions, I understood, and
simply told them abut my candidate, answered any questions they had, and gave
them a flier. I marked “No Response” in the app.

Near
the end of a long day, a woman peeked through the blinds and asked me who I was
and what I was doing at her home.

“My
name is Jesse. I am canvassing for the upcoming schoolboard election, ma’am.”

“Who
are you?”

I
repeated myself. I asked if X was home.

She
slightly cracked the door. “How did you get my name?”

When
I told her that both parties have voter-registration data that helps them
target supporters, she told me that she doesn’t like that her private information
is open-access. I understood her concerns. I really did. The app that I used to
find the addresses of potential voters also included the person’s name, age,
telephone number, and political affiliation. Eventually she stepped outside and
we talked not only about the candidates but also about the ability of political
parties as well as corporations to mine and database American’s personal data.
Somewhere, someone is getting paid to monitor and store records of your life – what
websites you visit, what words you type into search engines, what you purchase
and who you vote for. It’s terrifying.

At
the next address, I spoke with a woman who leaned into the half-opened door. As
I started to talk about my candidate and the state of our schools, the woman told
me that everyone in her family attended private schools. Apparently, it was not
her concern. I responded by telling her, in a way that felt almost cliché but
is still true, that the public schools are the life of the community. They are
a reflection of but also shape the values, economics, and crime-rates of an
area. These students graduate or they don’t. They go to college or they don’t.
They start businesses or they don’t. They get good jobs or they don’t. They buy
houses right beside yours or they don’t. But first, they attend our schools.

I
left the woman’s house. As it started to set, the sun abated the heat and allowed
some of the sweat on the middle of my back to dry. When I rounded a corner, I saw
a boy and two girls, probably in their early twenties, standing in the driveway,
talking. The house was not on my list, but I talked with the boy about what
happened next door. On the lot, the carcass of a house stood. Its brickwork,
painted white, stacked upwards to a burnt-away roof. Half-scorched boards leaned
into a grey carport. Parts of it were cindered and toppling over. I asked the
boy if he saw the flames. I asked the boy if anyone lived there. I asked the
boy if anyone died.

The owner was asleep inside its walls as it burned.




Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




The little story that haunted for a very long time

Can a story haunt you? I don’t
mean one that spooks you a little, even one that makes you keep the lights on
after reading. I’m talking about a story that leaves a scar, an invisible scab
that you return to weeks, months, and years after you’d read it. “The Girl in
the Mirror” did that to me.

Not that I could even remember
the exact title. I knew it was in a collection of ghost stories and there was
skeleton on the cover. I would have been ten, in primary school, wooden desks
and inkwells still there from earlier generations. In that final year we were
given plastic ink pens. We invariably smudged both our books and hands as we
wrestled to insert the thin cartridges. Crappy ink pens that would never be
used again, that you had to pointlessly master, and would be punished for misusing:
that sums up my 1970s education.

Other things though were quite
miraculous. Obviously the free milk was gone, and in the next decade they would
take our jobs, but that other source of sustenance, the public library, was
still in its pomp. The mobile version would park outside our tiny rural village
school (thirty pupils); we would line up and take it in turn to step into its
cave of treasures. The chosen books would be placed on a shelf in our classroom.
I can remember the L-shape of shelves, the large map of the world above. The
books from the library were placed in a special area so as not to mix them with
the school’s own books: many of which had been in the schools for decades. This
was the school that my grandparents, parents, uncles, and cousins had all
passed through.

The library service was the only
way to get modern books – not that I ever knew when books had been published.
I’d worked my way through my mother’s Enid Blyton, published thirty years
before, but I knew some books were easier than others to understand.

Who could be haunted by a story?
Not a novel, just a story a few pages in length. I don’t think I was
particularly sensitive as a child. Sensitivity isn’t a big advantage on a farm.
We always had plenty of books though. Not only did the library send its mobile
to the schools, it would also stop at the end of my parents’ farm lane so we
could walk down and get books. It would make this stop just for the two or
three families on that lane.

The library books borrowed by my
family were placed in a special place so they wouldn’t get confused with the other
books in the house. They were placed on a chair in the spare room, and had to
be returned there. My mother didn’t want to search our rooms for them when the
library next made its call. Lord of the
Flies
found its way there one week, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up
the book because of the gruesome cover. Perhaps I was sensitive, but not to real life and death. That pig skull on
the cover was somehow more unsettling than the bone fragments scatted over our
farm, jaw bones a thin boot-crunch beneath the surface. Death was ever present.
Piglets crushed by their mothers, chewed or sickly. Cats drowned in sacks.
Chickens torn apart by foxes. Stillbirths. All part of the mix.

Right now, there is much talk about how reading novels generates empathy in the reader. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The perfect synthesis of silver bullet public-health promotion, and evangelism. No need to learn from life, from loving, from hating, from being hurt or hurting. No need for anger in this sparkling new century. Just read from this list of books. Perhaps that’s why certain books are frowned upon – if it’s so easy to bestow empathy via books, then surely other, darker emotions can be conjured by the act of reading. And perhaps they should be.

When my son was around eight I
read him The Tiger Rising (by Kate
Dicamillo). A wonderful book, but (spoiler) the tiger dies. The ending takes me
by surprise too, but he’s old enough to deal with this, isn’t he? The real world
doesn’t always run smoothly.

Not all stories have happy endings,
I tell my son, nestled on the bed beside me. Surely, that was right. Wasn’t it
fair to warn him?

His bottom lip quivers. His eyes
are huge. My heart drops through the floor. What
have I done?

“How many don’t?” was his very
reasonable question.

How could I possibly answer that?
My brain raced through all the stories with less than upbeat endings. Too many.

“Three,” I squeak.

“Then we won’t read those,” he
said.

And that was the end of the
matter.

Had I told my son a story that
would haunt him?

I’m happy to report he seems
undisturbed as a teenager, and quite relishes a less-than-happy ending. The Tiger Rising, a book that deals with
rage and injustice, which let me introduce Blake to my son, is also a book
about a beautiful tiger that is killed.

What was it about “The Girl in
the Mirror” that had it slipping round and round in my head for years? I didn’t
have the book. I never went back and reread it, but it never left me. I have
more memories of thinking about that story, dreading it, then I do of reading
it. Books weren’t a thing for conversation. We could talk about comics. What superhero
could beat another, etc. – and then, later, all our talk was of music, never
stories. Who would have spoken about such a thing? If you read, you kept it to
yourself.

As the years passed all I had was
my memory of that story, and the ghostly horseman on the book’s cover. I also remembered
the first story in the anthology was called “Pride Comes before a Fall”
(actually it wasn’t, but I had the memory that it was). That cover, that title,
and the story of “The Girl in the Mirror”niggled at the edge of my brain for years.

Decades go by, and the Internet
is here. In the intervening years, I have looked for the book in second-hand
bookshops, but mostly it has faded to a memory of something not-quite-right.
When I do mention the story (by now I know people I can talk about books with) it
sounds almost Freudian. A time-travel story. Two girls switch places through a
magic mirror. One girl, rich and lazy, is from the present; the other is a
hardworking girl on a Victorian farm.

The rich girl wants to swap
places, live on a real farm to ride the horses. To avoid detection they will
leave their clothes behind for the other. The rich one goes through the mirror
first, meets the brutal parents, and of course is trapped there. It’s that image
of nakedness, vulnerability, and being trapped in an alien world that unsettled
me. The girl from the Victorian farm slips into the future and is never seen
again. Smart girl. When I told my partner about this story that had so freaked
me she thought it probably didn’t exist. That it was something I’d created. After
thirty years of films, comics, books by the thousand, how many could remain
with you? My psychedelically enhanced synapses had embellished and transformed
something I’d heard, read, or seen into a memory.

It is a time-travel story, not a
ghost story. One person is trapped on a farm forever. Perhaps this story,
lodged in my brain, influenced my decision to refuse the farm when offered a
few years later. But that’s hindsight. We create a coherent narrative after the
events, refusing to believe that life is random.

But that story was real. I was sure of that, despite having had the experience, several times over my life, where things I “remembered” have been disproved by family, or myself. I’ve learnt that memory can’t always be trusted. I might not remember something, might think I’d locked a door, or sent an email, when really I hadn’t, but my brain was unlikely to create something as elaborate as“The Girl in the Mirror” to haunt myself with.

The story that haunted me for so
long is short and not collected in other anthologies. It is no classic. Its
author, Margot Arnold (born 1925) is still alive and has spent her life writing
books such as The Officer’s Woman, Marie, Voodoo Queen, and Lament for
a Lady Laird
.

It wasn’t through the Internet
that I tracked the book down. I searched and found the Armada book of Ghost Stories, the one with that cover, and ordered
it. When it arrived, there was no “The Girl in the Mirror”. It did have “The
Skeleton Rider”,in which a character
is warned “Pride comes before a fall”.

I didn’t doubt the existence of
the mirror story, but clearly my memories were jumbled. For decades I’d assumed
if I just found that book with that cover, I would have the story. There were
other books in that series, and other similar anthologies. I bought a couple at
random but none had my story. I got on with my life. Moved house again. Back
into the countryside, though Shropshire rather than Yorkshire.

Here I could make paper boats and
float them in the stream with my son. You needed to make your own entertainment
here. It was perfect for wandering. I expected my son to have that anchorless
roaming existence I had had, but there was no dog, and he wasn’t constantly
being told to get out of the house, so never developed the habit. People in the
village muttered about child snatchers, men in white vans. I thought of my
childhood when Hindley and Brady had prowled and preyed. That had never stopped
any of my parents’ generation telling their kids to get out and get fresh air –
get out of their house. The Bogey Man only gets you if you stray from the path.
In the twenty-first century there is no safe path.

One afternoon, we are sitting by
the river, and there is the inevitable church stall of bric-a-brac, junk,
books, and food. I checked out the stalls. You can see the ending, can’t you? And
it’s true, there it was: The 8th Armada
Ghost Book.
There were several of the series. I picked them up, knew
immediately which one held “The Girl in the Mirror”, recognised the black and
white illustrations, the seventies hairstyles.

To be honest I felt quite sick
finding it again. Motion sickness, as if the world had lurched the wrong way. I
tried to force myself to read the story but something wouldn’t let me. The
words remained black letters. It was enough that I had the story, the book.

And it sat on the shelf for a
couple more years, until I finally picked it up and read the story through. It
is short and exactly as I remember it. There is no reason that story should have
lodged so tightly in my brain. I have read so many ghost stories, horror
stories in my life – have a whole collection, but that fairly crappy one stuck
in my brain, and in some small unseen ways changed my life.

We are not empty vessels. We cannot accurately predict what reading one book or story will achieve. Or that we will get the same results each time. These are not laboratory conditions. We are not rats. We are readers, and have our own stories.




The Familiar Absence of Words

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived
alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never
mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My
mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.

*

The day before my grandma died
she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It
always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty
years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few
hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash
nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was
cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still
hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before
had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun
and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the
carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and
sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine
beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This
was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while
now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t
have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried
to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there
was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her
voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some
weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t
know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and
about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I
hoped it was enough.

*

I stayed with grandma for most
of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss
are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise
of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between.
I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

*

My grandma died on the 16th of
March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the
room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was
quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an
injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too
oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum
seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into
the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room:
the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside
the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the
blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a
few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped
in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood
against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go
in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his
lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second
and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said
nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In
moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for
home. He was tired and needed to rest.

*

“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer
like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I
was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then
looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I
didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too.
I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s
arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged
and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the
silence that my family is so good at again.

*

Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t
keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I
asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at
the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to
grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and
soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched
the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took
a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s
house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said
hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind,
unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and
grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan
nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and
John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I
pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was
hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then
the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked
grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum
has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum
in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,”
she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and
the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs
of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she
said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds
for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face:
to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except
that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her
for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I
leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool
and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched
another human like this.

I realised then that the
carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d
never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their
mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a
few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for
months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were
just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up
again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a
sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed
now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened
to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was
dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was
strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded
and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and
unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start
of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without
difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked
out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee
at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t
want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless,
too still.

A few minutes later I stepped
outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to
drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I
ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the
stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half
an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and
certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss
of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for
her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward,
stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The
doctors shook our hands and quietly left.

*

In the immediate aftermath of
grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other:
how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a
clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or
awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just
there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the
aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for
the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.

*

Later two undertakers came to
collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain
from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her
tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I
waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they
carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own
home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was
over.

*

A week or so passed and it was
time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director.
It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what
clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions
to answer.

We decided what Grandma should
wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,”
the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It
signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult,
Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered
and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then
we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the
funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan
nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum
smiled at me and so it was agreed.

*

For the few weeks following my
grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never
experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a
relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a
while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living
my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we
met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made
sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We
gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we
waited.

The crematorium had big
windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family
members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked
behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The
other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our
seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the
congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It
was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these
were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t
we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her
leave.

Soon the celebrant started his
speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that
make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who
wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and
waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to
direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past
the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely
face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused
after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched
as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my
mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that
this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains
close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium
in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and
the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as
I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a
few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay?
They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and
then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I
finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s
just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the
growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve
mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between
us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to
lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since
childhood.

We stood there for a second longer,
the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved
separately into the group of mourners.




Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me – About Ageing

Picture Cfedits: Carlos Eduardo Du

Mother never said that
there would come a time when Spanx and control-top pantyhose would be my best
friends. Trusted close-knit companions you can rely on. My mother failed to
tell me I would embrace the push-up bra I cursed in my twenties, since it left
red welts on my skin, with enthusiasm in my fifties when everything goes south.
I never saw Mother naked. Never saw her blemishes and wounds of experience. I
have scars. The back of my hand reminds me sixteen-year-old girls are more
comfortable with a potato peeler than a paring knife. The faint discolouration
on my ankle showcases my first attempt at shaving my legs. Mother never
enlightened me on waxing. Her idea of waxing was a can of lemon scented furniture
polish – ideal for keeping the dining table shiny. No, Mother never promised
personal grooming would get easier with age.

I curse the age spots. As a child, I embraced my freckles. A connect-the-dots story, Mother said. Her fingertips brushing against my cheek made me giggle. I’d bury my head in her shoulder. A whiff of her Evening in Paris perfume was comforting. Today, I scold myself for baking in the sun during my twenties. Once upon a time, society envied golden girls for their beachy exuberance, their tan lines were badges of honor. Mom never suggested a sunscreen with a high SPF rating. I lathered baby oil with carefree abandon. My daughter wouldn’t dare skinny dip in a vat of oil, baiting the Sun God to burn baby burn!

I wear progressive
lenses, a tell-tale sign of maturity. Women my age resist squinting lest our
peering be mistaken for a cougar-like glare. Channeling my mom-voice, I direct
the adolescent grocery boy to my car. He sees an older woman with yogurt tubs,
bags of granola and ripe bananas. I see army supplies, intending to battle with
my fluctuating weight. The specialty toothpaste is designed to lighten the
agony of sensitive teeth. He’s too young to deduce the box of pantyliners in my
cart is incriminating evidence of my easing into menopause. I’m too old to be
embarrassed by personal grooming products.

As a woman, I want
respect, with my years of experience valued as wisdom. Yet I constantly
camouflage. Monthly hair salon visits hide my roots. I’m seduced by promises to
conceal my wrinkles and astonished the drug mart legally sells snake oil. More
lotions and potions sit displayed on my nightstand than are found in the school
chemistry lab. Give me time and I’ll create a spike in Proctor & Gamble
shares. We respect, even nurture, the aging of wine and cheese. Yet you won’t
find me tattooing my date of birth on this old crate. I’ve lived. Survived the
terrible twos, endured teenage angst, and trudged through mountains of
adulthood. Financial woes, career challenges, and family drama are all etched
in my creases and folds. The support of loved ones boosted my immune system.

Mother failed to
mention mishaps and mayhem bring your personality to life. A surgery scar is an
emblem of family togetherness, when everyone, little kids included, helped
around the house while I recuperated in bed. There were family vacations where
we laughed so hard that we should have taken some Depends. Smile lines are
easily read by a skilled fortune teller. Remembering the stumbles of my youth,
I look back and laugh. Applying for positions I wasn’t qualified for led to
long-term employment. Going outside my comfort zone broadened my skill sets.
Learning on the job I didn’t age, I matured. Capabilities were stretched.
Responsibilities gained. A career wasn’t defined by the number of years worked.
I balked at the word “senior” in my job title. When a role shriveled up, I
dusted off the interview clothing and put my best foot forward. Defeat was not
an option. Male colleagues are often graded as distinguished as they aged. A
woman is seen as being well preserved. Why are we stacked differently on the
shelf?

Time is a precious
commodity. I’ve passed the route marker where the road ahead offers more
funerals than weddings. Traditions and customs suggest we maintain a rosy
complexion, the casket on display. No amount of rouge can return us to our
youth. I held my mother’s hand during my father’s funeral. Our chests of
memories are deemed more valuable than the contents of our jewelry boxes. I’ve
offered her aged bones a boost when climbing into my family van. Despite her
advanced age, she is sturdy. Fragility isn’t to be confused with helplessness.

Mom’s a first-generation
immigrant who navigated the cultural differences of a new frontier. Her first
year in Canada came with no how-to-manual. It never occurred to me that cooking
a Thanksgiving turkey was such an ordeal. Mom told me a neighbor came to her
home and gave her step-by-step instructions. Without her help, Mother admitted,
that she’d have cooked that bird with a bag of giblets inside. Dressing fowl
was as foreign as purchasing a winter coat, but she adapted. Weathering the
frost of Alberta, she embraced new traditions. Mom never hid her heritage, age,
or her eagerness to try something new. I shared my first dish of frog legs with
my mother. When my own teenage daughter had the opportunity to taste the item,
I encouraged her.

“Go ahead, take a
bite,” I said. “You might discover you like the flavor. Maybe it’s not for
everyone, but my girl channeled her adventurous side. Truth be told, the froggy
appetizer tastes just like chicken.

My mother failed
to tell me that the weight of childhood teasing is tough to shed. Taunts and
ridicule nestled beside love handles. As an adult, I’ve learned to balance when
someone kicks me in the shins. I propel myself forward, springing back up like
the kiddie inflatable punching bag. Mom never spoke of my exclusion from the
cheerleading squad because the white uniform looked different on a brown girl.
She skipped the explanation why the neighbors hesitated to let me hang out in
their daughter’s playhouse, merely suggesting that I’d understand when I got
older. I’m older now, yet I fail to understand.

I’ve inherited arthritis,
alongside the aches and pains of teenage adolescence. When picked last for the
dodgeball team, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. Every
joint hurt, even my heart ached. No cure found in the Farmer’s Almanac. My mother
had travelled across the world, with four young children, not knowing the
landscape, the currency, or the customs. If she could survive without friends,
so could I. She told me that growing pains came with adolescence. It might hurt
at the time but I’d forget all about dodgeball when I was older. Resilience is congealed
in our bone marrow.

Exposure to the
world expands my mind. Yet mother forgot to point out that we shrink as we age.
Perhaps not enough to be cast in our own TLC television program, or in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, but
sufficiently smaller that we see the world from a different perspective. Energy
depleted, I concede I don’t have the fight in me to bark at the salesclerk who
asks where I’m from. I’ve heard the question so often that it feels routine,
much like someone asking whether I’m paying withdebit or credit card. Do salesclerks quiz the second-generation
fraulein from Germany or the mademoiselle from France? Their creamy complexion is
several shades lighter than my own. My aged ears suggest judgment by something
other than my shopping habits. Mother’s parenting words encourage politeness. I
resist the urge to have a cougar fight at the checkout stand, among the Made In India accessories.

Mother encouraged
good posture. Stand tall she advised. Looking back, I realize she was resisting
more than my juvenile slouches. She was giving me a push. I suspect my teenage
swagger thought my flared jeans were cool. Yet Mom’s notes about good
presentation remained in style much longer than those threadbare flares.

I’ve embraced my
mum jeans, my hips reminding me that I earned my curves. My children are the
best accessories investment I made. I avoid telling my daughter what she should
or shouldn’t wear. She’s far more sophisticated than I ever was at her age.
Confident in her body image, she’s without need for her mother’s advice. Three
generations of women displayed, our choices repositioned and recycled, adapted
and repurposed. Mother never told me it would take fifty years to be
comfortable in my own skin. She forgot to mention style is about personal
choice. The threads we wear are an extension of our creativity, our character.
Regardless of what we choose to mask or hide, the wrinkles of experience, the
creases of laughter, and the comfort of our past can be worn with panache.
Mother should have told me – there’s nothing more attractive than a confident
woman.




Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

In
the early hours of a Tuesday morning, an old man drives a Jeep out of Tucson
and onto Highway 286
toward the Arizona desert and the first of three sites he’ll visit where the
remains of migrants were found. He has made this trip once a week for the past
six years. Three crosses four feet tall and two feet wide, each one a different
color, blue, blue-green and rust, rattle in back. Heat from the sun warms the
windshield and a woman in the passenger seat, Alicia Baucom, cracks her window
to shrieks of air still cool from the night. A second Jeep carries a man and
two women who, like Alicia, have volunteered to help plant the crosses. Flat
land covered with cactus and scrub juniper slanted by wind unfurls into
distant, bare mountains peaked against domes of blue sky slowly revealing
itself two hours after dawn, and as the Jeeps rush down the highway, also known
as Sasabe Road, the old man, 73-year-old artist Alvaro Enciso, asks Alicia the
names of the dead migrants.

—The
one found in 2006 is unidentified, she says. The man discovered in 2015 has a
name, Valentine Guzman Flores. Thirty. Found December 29 near Three Points.
Skeletal remains. Death unknown. The third was found in 2017. His name is
Felipe Vargas. Also thirty. Found near Sasabe on June 8. Hyperthermia. Dead
less than a day. Coroner said he was fully fleshed.

—The
first two could have died long before they were found, Alvaro says.

He
hunches over the steering wheel and makes no further comment and Alicia doesn’t
speak either. She has been helping Alvaro just five months, replacing another
volunteer who broke down after he and Alvaro found a migrant’s body nearly a
year ago. The volunteer sought counseling. It was one thing to hear about
people dying in the desert but it was quite another to see a body.

Alvaro
collects information on dead migrants from the Pima County coroner’s office.
Last year, the medical examiner recorded the remains of 127 dead migrants.
Before 2000, the bodies of fewer than five migrants were found
each year. However, in 2001, the number soared to 79 and then to 151
the year after that. The number of annual migrant deaths since then has
remained well above 100.

As
he follows the highway, Alvaro notices workers laying asphalt, shoveling it off
the back of a truck, the air stung by its sharp odor as a roller inches toward
them, and two border-patrol agents lean against pickups and watch the men work.
They are either chasing someone, Alvaro says of the agents, or they’ve given
up. They don’t move as he passes them, heads down staring through dark
sunglasses at the steaming asphalt.

Alvaro
often encounters border-patrol agents. A few times he’s tripped a sensor and
they converged from nowhere to check him out. He explained his purpose and
showed them his crosses and they were cool. He had no problem with them and
doesn’t now. They have a job to do; some are good and some are bad. If they see
someone in the middle of nowhere, they get suspicious. Alvaro understands that.
He shoots the shit with them, complains about the heat. Many of them aren’t
familiar with deserts because they were raised outside of Arizona. They’ve seen
earthworms but nothing bigger and worms don’t bite. Rattlesnakes do. They worry
about snakes.

Alvaro
recalls the spring of 2017 when the border patrol could have been a problem. He
and some volunteers found a man in the desert walking south toward Mexico. He
was delirious and thought he was headed north to Phoenix. He had no food or
water. Alvaro considered his options: he could call the border patrol, give the
man something to eat and drink, or leave him to his fate. He could not,
however, transport him. If the border patrol stopped him, he could be charged
with harboring. But the man needed medical attention. How was he to say I can’t
help you, to a desperate man? Sometimes, he reasoned, laws have to be violated.
The volunteers had their own car and drove the man to a safe house. Alvaro
doesn’t remember his name but he was told later that he ate eleven pancakes,
three sausages, three cups of fresh fruit, two glasses of orange juice and five
pieces of toast his first night. He had come from Honduras and it took him two
weeks to recuperate. When he left, the staff gave him directions to Phoenix but
he didn’t make it. The border patrol picked him up.

*

Alvaro
had been unaware of migrants dying in the desert when he moved from northern
New Mexico to Tucson in 2011. He started walking migrant trails and imagined
himself crossing borders on foot. The idea appealed to him as something
romantic, people entering the United States seeking the opportunities he had.
He noticed all sorts of debris, rusted cans of sardines, sausages, beans and
other food migrants had brought with them. He collected the cans and
accumulated a huge mound to use for his art. Every can told a story of the
person who ate from it. He didn’t know if the story had a happy ending but the
can was there for him to imagine a life.

Two
years later, he took a four-hour orientation with Tucson Samaritans, a group of
more than one hundred volunteers who go into the desert seven days a week to
assist migrants. The presenter showed a map of southern Arizona covered with
red dots. Each dot represented a spot where a migrant’s body had been
found. From 2001 through 2018, the remains of 3,011 migrants
have been recovered in southern Arizona. No estimates have been offered for the
numbers not found.

Alvaro
wondered what happened to those people. He searched those locations for
anything that gave substance to those who had died. He lay on his back and
stared into an unrevealing desert sky and felt only the emptiness of his
surroundings, its nothingness that had absorbed suffering and death.

Alvaro
felt a bond with the dead through his own sense of not belonging. He was not a
gringo but he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, either. He rarely hung out with
Spanish-speaking
people, and
when he did, he assumed a different character than when he spoke English. Who
was he? He had been born in Colombia. He had left everything he knew, his
family, his country, to live in a place that was and was not his home. He began
contemplating how, as an artist, he could convey the quandary of his existence
with the experiences of dead migrants caught between the countries they were
leaving and their visions of America.

As
a first step, Alvaro snapped photographs of what he called dead sites, but a photo could not
capture the absent bodies of migrants. He hired a woman and had her wear a
black dress and drove her to the desert to be photographed. He shot beautiful
pictures of her against the sparse landscape but a woman in a black dress, a
strikingly mournful figure, said nothing about the people who had perished. He
made sculptures of red dots but they weighed too much to transport to the dead
sites. Next, he sprayed red dots on the ground like graffiti but the dots alone
conveyed nothing.

The
idea of building crosses came to him as he combed through books about Roman
history. The Romans, he read, crucified many people, not only Jesus. They left
them exposed to the sun and elements until they died. The same, he believed,
was happening to migrants. Through its immigration policies, the U.S.
government was forcing them to follow the most difficult routes north to kill
them. Where the two pieces of a cross intersected formed the nucleus of an
encounter between poor peasants of the south and the American giant of the
north and the encounter was fatal. Goliath won.

Alvaro understood that not everyone would agree with his overtly political analogy. However, he was not seeking approval but laying a philosophical foundation to buttress his ideas to mark the dead sites with crosses. Absent politics, a cross would also have meaning, not as Christian symbol (—Forget religion, Alvaro tells the volunteers. Death is very democratic. Death has no interest in faith.), but as a secular, geometric one. A cross consists of vertical and horizontal lines. Alive, people stand erect. Dead, they lie flat. Life and death existed in the same image.

*

As
a child, Alvaro had learned to accept absence. He grew up in a shanty in
Villavicencio, Colombia, a frontier town where men earned a living raising
cattle and selling marijuana. He did not wear shoes his first five years at
school. In the evenings, he gathered dead birds from cockfights for his mother
to cook, or he would walk to the slaughterhouse and collect blood to eat with
his rice because they could not afford meat. His mother had few soft edges. She
warned him against daydreaming. Dreams, she said, won’t deliver him from
poverty.

Alvaro
never saw his father. He was married to another woman and considered Alvaro’s
mother his mistress. In 1996, when he turned fifty, Alvaro returned to Colombia
and tracked him down in Honda, a village not far from where he grew up. His
father owned a big house near a cemetery and had a little store and everybody
who went to the cemetery stopped there for food and flowers. He assumed Alvaro wanted
money.

I
don’t need your money, Alvaro told him. I’m not angry with you. I have no
feelings toward you. I just want to know who you are.

They
spoke for a short time. His father appeared indifferent that Alvaro, his only
son, the result of a one-night fling, had appeared out of nowhere. It was
like looking in a mirror, Alvaro reflected afterward. His father’s disinterest,
his lack of empathy, were characteristics Alvaro shared. A woman he had dated
in New York told him, “You
don’t ask about my life or daughters. Your interest lasts only one night.” He
received her words as a revelation and on his flight back to the states he
thought of them again and decided that it although he felt bad his father was
the way he was he did not have to be like him.

They
never saw each other again. Blind, sick and unable to walk, Alvaro’s father
died two years later.

*

When he was a boy, Alvaro’s watched Hollywood movies at a theater where
his mother worked. On screen, actors smoked long cigarettes and ate in
restaurants. He saw dashing detectives and strutting cowboys. That was the life
he wanted. In 1967, when he was almost twenty-one, an aunt in Queens offered to
fly him to New York. She didn’t have to ask twice.

New
York made an impression. The tall buildings, the busy streets, the stores with
all the elegantly dressed people. He loved the seasons, especially winter. That
something could fall from the sky and turn him white left him amazed and a
believer in miracles. He thought pizza and canned foods with decorative labels
the most wonderful of meals. He sorted through trash, an odd assortment of
junk: high-school sports trophies, beat-up bowling balls, picture frames and
other garbage. Get
this out of my house,
his aunt scolded, but he continued adding to his collection. He had never had
these things. Ownership represented the promise of America. With his aunt’s
help he applied for citizenship and received his green card. He also registered
with the selective service without fully understanding what that meant but he
felt he was on his way.

However,
Alvaro soon faced difficulties. His aunt’s American husband disliked him and
kicked him out of the house two months after he arrived. Homeless and fearful
of returning to Colombia a failure, he went to a church and prayed. God, he
begged, you need to cut me a break. I’m screwed here. Any bone you can send my
way, I’d appreciate. You’re the guy who’s supposed to help.

Two
months later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Having no skills,
he joked, they put me in the infantry. It was not the divine intervention he
had sought but it got him off the street. His commanding officers trained him
to hate the Vietnamese and kill them and he did. Today, he doesn’t see a
connection between the person he was then and the man he is now. He was young,
naive and stupid. He lacked compassion. He believes that with each cross he
puts up today he atones for his actions in Vietnam.

*

After
his service, Alvaro returned to New York. He visited an Army buddy in New
Mexico and fell in love with the desert, awed by its immense limitlessness, and
promised to return and live there some day. Back in New York, he drove cabs,
mopped the floors of a peep show and working as a photographer’s assistant. He
attended college and graduate school and earned three master’s degrees in
anthropology, Latin American Studies and Contemporary Hispanic Studies. In
1980, he took a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and stayed
for almost twenty years before he got tired of the nine-to-five grind and
decided to pursue an artistic career. He had always liked to draw. His savings,
pension and veterans’ benefits would support him. With art, he rationalized, he
didn’t need credentials.

In
1999, he moved to Placitas, New Mexico, an old hippy town north of Albuquerque,
and bought a house. For two years he read books on philosophy and art
criticism. He built boxes with cutout figures representative of the American
West. He took large canvases and painted layers and layers of the same color
paint in varying shades and made frames for them. It’s not bad, he thought, but it may not be
good art.
Over the years, however, people bought his work and he felt their approval in
the money they paid him and that in turn gave him the impetus to do more
serious work that would encompass his ideas of being an outsider. After more
than ten years in Placitas, Alvaro felt the need for a more urban environment.
Albuquerque was close by but he wanted a city with a better reputation for the
arts. That led him to Tucson.

*

A
hawk flies above the Jeep as Alvaro drives deeper into the desert, the sun
higher but the air still cool although he feels it warming. Gusts rise off mountains
sweeping the air ahead of it, fanning dust. Alvaro pulls off the road and parks
near the spot where the remains of the nameless 2006 migrant were found. He had
put up a cross for him last year. A migrant sleeping nearby awoke, startled to
see him. Don’t worry, Alvaro said, I’m here for a cross, nothing more.

Alvaro
doesn’t know what happened, but a short time later someone destroyed the cross.
Hunters have used his crosses for target practice. Other people break and
remove them. He went to a swap meet one afternoon and saw one for sale. The
cross he had placed here looked like it had been hit by a sledgehammer.

Stepping
out of the Jeep, Alvaro stands stoop-shouldered and adjusts his cap. He wears
jeans that pool around his ankles and a long-sleeve shirt with triangular
patterns that restrains his paunch. Gray hair falls to his neck and he removes
his glasses and rubs his eyes.

—Keep
talk to a minimum, Alvaro says. We’re going to a location where someone died.

He
takes a blue cross from the back of the Jeep. Slivers of tin cans decorate the
wood. A red dot on another piece of tin fills the center. Friends give him
paint, off-white, beige, bland colors he brightens with whatever he has on hand
in his shop.

The
volunteers unload a shovel, bucket, bottled water and a bag of cement and
follow Alvaro. The noise of their steps breaks against small stones and the
scraping sound tears at the air like a ripped sheet.

Alvaro
moves cautiously between jumping cholla cactus, whose stinging thorns collect
like burs and can easily penetrate clothing. Blankets, shoulder packs, worn
sandals, plastic water jugs and other supplies discarded by migrants litter the
ground. They may have camped here. They may have been picked up by family or
border patrol. Their abandoned possessions offer Alvaro no hint of their fate.

He
searches the ground for bones. In 2017, a man driving home from a casino
stopped to piss and saw a human skull. The skull belonged to forty-four-year-old
Nancy Ganoza, from Peru, who had disappeared in the desert in 2009, cause of
death unknown. A DNA sample found a match in New Jersey where her two daughters
and husband lived. Her family flew to Tucson and Alvaro built a cross and they
joined him to raise it where her skull was found. Her husband propped a photograph
against the cross below a red dot. She had black hair down to her shoulders and
a winsome smile and she squinted as if she was facing the sun. Five candles
surrounded the base of the cross and a white rosary with a crucifix hung
loosely from it, and a circle of prickly pear cactus threw shadows beneath the
twisted branches of velvet mesquite. Alvaro had planted dozens of crosses for
people by then. Sometimes he knew their names but he did not know them. Until now. The
intimate presence of Nancy’s family brought him to tears.

Nancy Ganoza’s cross

It’s
so sad, Alvaro thinks now. All of it. Each death haunting. All of
them tragic, some beyond tragic. Not too long ago Alvaro built a cross for a young man
who had died from hanging, a suicide, the medical examiner concluded. Alvaro
could not conceive the agony and utter hopelessness that he must have
experienced. Knowing it was too much to go on. Deciding with what strength he
had left to take his own life rather than die of thirst,
starvation, heatstroke, hyperthermia, or madness.

The most disturbing moment for Alvaro, however, occurred last August when he found
a body in the Roskruge mountain range, a remote area close to Tucson. Five
miles from a paved highway, four miles from some houses but still in the middle
of nowhere. He had just put up a cross and was following a stone path back to
his Jeep when he disturbed two rattlesnakes and his heart was racing from
surprise and fear, the sound of their rattles still in his ears, when he saw a
dead woman. For a moment, his reaction was similar to entering a room and
encountering
someone he
had not expected.

A
sharp odor rose from the corpse. The bones remained intact and her clothes lay
around her, possible torn off by animals. A T-shirt and blue jeans and a cell
phone. She had a pair of yellow-and-pink sneakers that looked new. Very
feminine and small. At first, Alvaro thought she was a child. He called 911. An
autopsy revealed she had suffered hyperthermia and had been dead about two
weeks. She had documents from Guatemala but no identification.

Days
later, Alvaro marked the location with a cross. Was she a mother? he wondered.
Did she leave children behind? What was she running from and to? In the
following weeks he returned and looked for ID but found nothing. He lay on the
ground and traced an outline of his body with flour. He stood and looked at the
image like something from a crime scene. It was his way of sharing himself with
her. Had his life been different, had his aunt not flown him to New York, he
might have died as she had, or like the migrant he is about to acknowledge this
morning, dead without a name.

*

Alvaro
sets down the cross, takes the shovel and digs a hole. He tosses dirt to one
side and when he stops to catch his breath, silence settles around him and he
raises his head to listen to it. He asks Alicia to mix the cement. He watches
her shake it into the bucket, add water and stir it with a stick.

—That’s
enough, Alvaro says.

He
inserts the cross into the hole and holds the top of it as Alicia distributes
the cement. Alvaro asks her if it’s straight and she nods. He continues holding
it as she and the other volunteers collect rocks and stack them in a small
mound around the cross. Once it’s secure, Alvaro steps back and ponders it
within the vast solitude of the desert. Stalwart, like a sentry, unaware that
soon it will be alone and appear quite small, dwarfed by the limitlessness of
its surroundings.

Alicia
removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

—I’d
like to play “Amazing Grace.”

—Play
“Down in the Valley.”

—I
don’t know that one. I hope I can get through this without crying.

—That’s
OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

She
begins playing and Alvaro bows his head. He has put up nine hundred crosses in
six years but has no idea how many still stand. They last five, maybe ten years,
eaten by termites, beaten by weather, turned to dust. Some nuns in a church in
Cochise County heard about what he was doing and designed their own crosses.
They did not place them where migrants died but, as far as Alvaro was
concerned, where it was convenient. Their crosses have no relation to anything.
The word got out that an old man was making crosses and the nuns wanted a piece
of it.

He
does not consider himself an activist. At home, he likes to read, go to
restaurants and play with his dog. He paints pictures with red dots in
fragmented circles and lines to represent a splintered border and the ruptured
lives of those who cross. He only wants the integrity of his project respected.

What’s
happening, he tells himself, is that instead of mellowing he’s becoming
cantankerous in his old age. How does he tell nuns they’re screwing up? They
have a divine license to do what they do. They have God. How does he argue with
God?

I’m
an infidel,
he reminds himself.

As
Alicia plays, the plaintive notes drifting with the wind, Alvaro considers his
own life. With each cross, he commemorates his journey as an immigrant and its
inevitable end. His weekly desert sojourns have become a form of meditation in
which he grieves his own losses, two failed marriages, the death of his mother,
his time in Vietnam, his absent father. He is his father’s son but not his son.
He does not conceal his emotions. He empathizes to the point of tears. He can’t
control what other people do with his art but only what he seeks to achieve
with it: recognition of the dead, solace for himself.

The
struggle of migrants, he knows, will outlive him. More will die today, tomorrow
and long after he has died. He’d like to paint three thousand red dots in a
Tucson gallery but he doubts that will happen. Galleries don’t appreciate art
that won’t sell. He will never build enough crosses.

—That’s
all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes
playing.

—That’s
correct.

—Does
anyone want to say anything?

—I
hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

Alvaro
lets her comment linger. The wind whistles and carries the sound of a semi and
the volunteers shift and twigs break beneath their feet. When the noise of the
truck fades, Alvaro speaks.

—In
2006, thirteen years ago more or less, a man came here looking for the American
dream. He didn’t find it and all of his plans ended here. And those plans and his
dream left a lot of suffering behind with a family that perhaps was hoping for
him to be the person who would send checks back home for them to survive. But
this all ended here. We don’t know his name, but he had a name, a family, and
he had dreams and hopes, he had everything. That’s why we do this, to give this
person presence. To honor this person. But there will always be an empty space
at the dinner table for this person and that takes a long, long time to go away;
in fact, it never will. He’ll always be missing in some way.

At
a loss to say anything more, Alvaro stares at the ground. He wonders how much
longer he’ll mark dead sites. His knees are shot. In the old days, he’d start
at seven, walk three hours to a site and three hours back, up and down
mountains, sometimes not getting home before nightfall. These days, he seeks
clusters, areas where several bodies have been found, so he can put up crosses
without walking too far and adding mileage to the Jeep. It’s old, too.

He picks up the bucket and shovel. The two other sites are close by. He expects to finish before noon, an early day. Next Tuesday, he will return and carry more crosses into the desert and give presence to the anonymous dead with a marker no one will see. Art without a viewer. He considers their shortened lives part of the American myth. Dying for a dream.




Writing, and Chaplin

Picture Credits: Engin akyurt

Any
story, Chaplin said, can be told without human voice, with only a fork and a
spoon, at a dinner table. And, invited to many dinner parties, Chaplin, they
say, could prove it.

What
makes writing not good? The same things which make people not good. An
unawareness of their dishonesties, their entrenched imitativeness; a writer who
has spent too many years in front of a television will spend many years, if he
or she is trying to be a writer of some goodness, discharging those memories of
dramas on televisions. Half of his/her writing is vomiting them up, sick of
turning them around in one’s stomach all those years, feeling the sound of
their words as if in a tin can, never able to fully absorb them, aware of some
pervasiveness of death of honesty in them, death of innovation. Yet only half
of the writer/artist is re-wounded by this repeating what was seen and heard
there, by this disgorgement; a good half of the writer/artist is healed through
catharsis.

Flatness
is bad. Too much too even calm. Unless it is calm with an eeriness, while
terrible things go on, to show that everywhere there is a pond, there is a lily
pad, there is a frog ready to leap. Sometimes the narrator must be all calm;
sometimes descriptions of places must be all calm, to lull the reader into a
somniance. Before things begin.

But
not too much constant agitation. That will create only the need and wish for a
dark blue sleep.

The
layers and meanings of words. The writer who does not understand the double and
triple-speak of words can still fool anyone into almost anything, as can
societal attitudes. But a writer who approaches words with an already-ready
sense of suspiciousness can rule them. So intelligence, x-ray vision, are
paramount: mind you, these are unusual traits, the traits of superheroes.

But
most of all, more than dishonesties, or too much from television to disgorge,
or too much flatness or agitation, or too little wise suspicion of common words
– most of all, a writer is bad if he or she cannot self-generate heat, power.
We are, as writers, the solar collector, the hybrid engine: we take energy from
what surrounds us or our remembering of surroundings; but we must also, through
the rhythm and placement of our speech, with the jabbing moving dance or battle
motions of our ideas woven through whatever is written, make energy: that is
the writer’s job. Each writer infuses what he finds with his own needs and
medicine of response: he shows the inert reader that he or she can be offended
or delighted by what she sees, but the dedicated human brain deeply wants to overcome
danger, and, with enough resolve, can often overcome obstacles, peril. In
dwindling summary: the writer always is the fairy tale riddle-solver, the one
fate has brought, somehow entering the story already knowing what is needed
–  or by end of story or novel does.

What
the writer needs may be only an understanding of inevitabilities, and a way to
accept and even find beautiful the inevitabilities. He or she can try to make
change, and he or she does not necessarily need to succeed.

Around
an oval table, writers can read stories about finding a large Canadian goose
nesting on their roof, staying there till summer, her five goose-eggs laid and
lined up in a row, ready to hatch; they can read a poem while jazz is played;
they can read a story filled with cursing words. A woman can go to a French
enclave in Canada and meekly submit to the rudenesses which people inflict upon
the unFrench outsider and endure it for twenty-five years which then become at
least twenty-five chapters. A giant, in a story, can work his way into a house,
laugh, destroy things; people can live in a society where their minds are
boundaried and controlled, and never have the wish, let alone the need, to have
courage enough to escape; someone can decide the most loving embrace they have
ever felt is the clasp of a seatbelt on an airplane, loving the stewardesses
nagging him about being buckled in. A writer can write in one whole book about his
proud love for his religion, about the comfort like home it gives him.

But
what is underneath? The American writer about the woman in French Canada may be
realizing now the court is hers. The writer who thinks he is in love with his
religion may be realizing as he writes that it is the setting sun he looks to
each day and adores, not the people or rituals or stories in churches; and that
sun travels – everywhere. The writer who loves the buckling ritual on the plane
may be secretly wishing for the courage to unbuckle on another country, or
continent, and somehow stay. The person writing about people over-controlled in
a society may be really in love with that control, though everyone thinks the
purpose of the written piece is to lash out against the control. The giant? The
giant may represent the author’s jealous and inflamed heart, his memory of his
own displacement, of being made small; he wants all to experience his displaced
heart. And the woman with the goose on her roof may be stating that she is
feeling the authenticity of “impostor syndrome” – the truth that all of us are
frauds, compared to our child selves, when we were new and we knew the greatest
love we will ever know, our early love for our mothers, and school, and sleep.

And
the writer who reads his writing while jazz is played by a certain player? He
by the time he is finished realizes his writing is jazz, too, that the musician
whose recording he used was only his five delicious minutes of using him the
magician as a crutch. Taking courage from the original players of jazz who found
their genius footing in a country which mocked them, the writer is borrowing
footing from the ones who defeated the undefeatable odds: on a European
civilization’s instruments, they outdid them, without their instructions or
rule books, tuition, without their composers. In one generation.

How
else does a good writer be a good writer? She or he admits they know just what,
even though it is unnamed still to them as they write, they are seeking. Yes,
they are greedy. Yes, they have an overarching and ridiculous need to have
something they might not win or even deserve: and they insist on an almost
ridiculous excess of dignity. But they admit their humbleness, that they are
lacking. And from that comes humor, or sardonicness; you’ve admitted, as a
writer, need.

Declared
mortal, vulnerable: already wounded, soft white belly even more vulnerable,
because you have pulled aside your shirt to show the wound. But admired; you must
be strong to be so reckless. Only strong can dare the fates this way: such brave
display.

Writers
have a music a music class or tutor cannot give. As great singers must have
deeply felt the feel of notes in their silent throats through earliest childhood,
writers resonate with the music of the books they have read. Neither music nor
novels come from class. As a tree turns in the wind, as water rounds edges of
boulders; music logic has a fall of gravity. Writing logic has an even sharper
gravity – the rise and fall of necessity. You the writer prove you see, or saw,
an unendurability before you.

Consider
Chaplin. Chaplin takes his sad little too-large hat, his eyebrows like piles of
dark-burned ash, shoes which yes are shoes but obviously like his dreams
oversized. His cane which is to reassure, remind him, that the wisdom of the
old man is with him, though he is young. To town. His eyes like coals, he
wanders, overflowing with dreaming. Dreaming he can rise above the poor and the
poorly-placed and win the lovely girl, who will see the fervor and the delight
of his heart, and is the symbol of his prize.

Chaplin
improvises with each turn of the story; he is willing to do anything, to win.
Arrogance of any type he can both mock and envy, absorbing as he simultaneously
pushes away. The airplane Chaplin realizes is full of people who have forgotten
what the adventurous meaning of life is. To them the seatbelt is an empty,
unloving ritual: to them it is an annoyance. Chaplin would see a goose on a
roof is a sign he is lucky to be human; the goose must be there to make him
think of fairy tales, a sign he should understand the goose and gander, brave
and nesting and valiant, there to lead the way for the next generation of
nesters; the goose should make him long for family around him, too, to guard him
and give him an increased feeling of strength (Chaplin in his last, fourth
marriage, in Switzerland, fathered his last set of children: eight.)

Bored
groups of people are really the audience Chaplin dreams of, who are waiting to
see how he sets himself free from dull repetition and attitudes; an audience
waiting almost eagerly to be awakened. They’ve forgotten, or maybe never
learned well enough, the special art of making themselves the fool. Or how to
watch for the jealous giant who is everywhere, because the jealous giant is in
each of us. When we are on the plane, Chaplin knows, we need instead of pulling
down the airplane’s tiny plastic beige window shades when the glare of the sun
is on us, to let it shine on us and diffract us. For the sun, the shining sun, is
the base of, outdoes, all religions.

After
Chaplin, where is the impostor? How do we find him? Chaplin would have us
recognize the great impostor also is always in us. Acting and actors are
half-complete impostors. They might wear the Chaplin hat: an admission that to
up-end any impostors, you must admit first you are one, too.

As
Tolstoy said, all of writing is about the stranger who comes to town, or the
trip a man makes to the strange town. So: writing then is startlement, introductions,
rejections. The fairy tale riddle-solver seeing the problems before him.

And
what do you find? That a person has both badness and goodness; that a town
does, too. But you as a writer are a force of control, self-comfort, movement;
you are a painter at an easel, looking for something or someone beautiful,
wanting to record something startlingly, bravely true, something no one has
recorded before. You gain something by meeting a stranger, also, by meeting a
strange town.

The
people in the strange town? They never travelled your trip, never heard anyone
call out to you watch out for that step
which is their way of saying it is their house and they know that step is
theirs, not yours, you are but the awkward visitor, so clumsy you would likely
fall. (What is dressed up as a welcome is really their comment on how awkward
they expect you to be.) The writer says thank
you
but beneath the polite thank you
he knows the real intent of the admonishment: almost a wish that he would fall,
or full credit for having saved clumsy him, the invading guest.

Oh, do you think I’m
clumsy
, he calls out, all
grace.

Or
better, like Chaplin, tips into a neat double set of cartwheels, landing almost
exactly at his chair at the table, smoothing his hair, raising and lowering his
eyebrows, settling his cap, leaning his cane against the table to neatly,
precisely, hang his hat from top of its crook, that deep crook very much like a
goose’s or a gander’s neck deeply bent, attentive. Chaplin sits now alert at a
supper table where all the bored guests are set, as neatly as silverware, as
rows of seats on a plane; waiting, they are, for the one who will save them
from their boredom, show them something they have never seen on television: Waiting
for Chaplin. Chaplin, ready, maybe, to tell a story: with one spoon and one fork.




What Happens When Your Psychiatrist Pretends He’s Mick Jagger

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

Everything in this story
is the God’s honest truth; especially the parts that seem exaggerated. When my
twins, my only children, were applying to colleges, I told them that they couldn’t
go west of Connecticut. I raised them in Rhode Island. While they currently
live on campus, the bus that takes them to and from the university they attend
passes by our new house, the one my husband and I downsized into so that we
could pay for their college education and not have to work until we are Orrin
Hatch’s age. The move was a sacrifice: from one of the most secluded
neighborhoods on Aquidneck Island where everyone has a golf cart for trick or
treating, to a house off the highway, so close to the busy road that when I’m using
the bathroom, I have to brace myself if a truck drives by. Actually, if I open
my front door and then sit on the toilet with the bathroom door open and I time
it right, I can wave to my sister Jeanne who passes by every morning.

Six months before our
daughters left, I thought I would buy them the dog they’ve always wanted, so in
the spring of the girls’ senior year of high school, we googled “Dogs that
don’t bark and don’t like to walk.” We ended up with Harry, an English bulldog.
I flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Columbus, Ohio in an afternoon to pick
him up. When I met a representative from the breeder and was handed a small
brown animal with long ears, I thought I had been conned and wondered instantly
if I had just flown to Ohio to pick up a rabbit.

I had never had a dog
myself so for the first nine months I treated him like a toddler. He had
scheduled nap times, a pink stroller, an air-conditioner in his room and a
sound machine. Eventually he went off to doggy day care, which is more like a
preschool, where he still goes every day, where they throw birthday parties and
give out cake, and encourage the dogs to play on plastic cars and slides. When
he was three months old and had completely exhausted us with his puppy antics,
my husband, a medical doctor, was convinced Harry had rabies. I just thought he
was mentally ill and that he also had a fondness for women’s underwear.

I had read on the
Internet that English bulldogs are susceptible to all sorts of health
conditions. Before he was ten months, Harry had suffered from a seizure,
chronic skin infections, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and tear ducts
that underproduced. I grew concerned that the veterinarian might start to blame
me.

“Do you think the vet is
going to think I have munchkins disease?” I asked my husband.

“If you mean Munchhausen
syndrome by proxy, then no. Although he may think that there are other things
wrong with you.”

Unquestionably, my
husband was right; there were and still are many things wrong with me. On top
of my empty-nest crisis and puppy training, I live with chronic pain. Not
root-canal-without-Novocain pain, but hourly, daily, pain. In early November
2016, on a Saturday night, I took a lot of pills, not a Heath Ledger dose, not
even close, but enough to end up in the ER and by Monday morning we, meaning my
Dr. Husband and I, were off to see a psychiatrist. I took a combination of
drugs to help relieve the pain I had been experiencing, but secretly I’d been
hoping for a spiritual revelation. For the last twenty years. And one afternoon,
a few weeks before the ER visit, I was sure that I was on the verge of one while
I was meditating.

I had taken up meditation,
which for me involved sitting up in my bed wearing a sleeping mask and a
bicycle helmet. Just before I reached a pretty impressive level of relaxation,
I had a tendency to fall asleep and hit my head on the headboard. The helmet
became a natural part of my meditation practice. On one particular afternoon, I
thought for sure I saw a sign directly in front of me: a beautiful ruby red
light, an indication of some sort of spiritual awakening. For about three or
four seconds, I actually got nervous and questioned whether I was prepared for
this type of experience: the light, the Truth, the whole thing. I even wondered
if, braless, I were dressed for the occasion. I felt I might be seeing living
sparks like Hildegard of Bingen or a red flowering tree sheltering all children
like Black Elk. But it soon became clear that my desire for an awakening was
just that my sleeping mask was on crooked and the red light was coming from the
cable television box.

The experience that led
me to the ER that cold November night was nothing short of terrifying but the
only way I know how to describe it is to say that I had inhabited a universe
made of Swiss cheese and every minute or two I slipped into one of the holes
where time and space were incomprehensible. Trying to hold a thought together that night was like trying
to hold smoke between my fingertips. A friend of mine who grew up in the Sixties called it
a “bad trip.”

In the end, my
psychiatrist said that my experience might have been the best thing that ever
happened to me. When I asked him to explain, he said, “Sometimes you don’t
always get what you want, but you get what you need.” We drove ninety minutes
to hear him quote Mick Jagger.

I had been on a strict
Paleo diet for thirty days, but on that morning, on our way back from seeing the
doctor we headed to Dunkin’ Donuts where I got two large raisin bran muffins.
On the way home, we took a different route. The thought occurred to me that
maybe my husband was taking me someplace to commit me and my second thought was
I hope he had enough sense to send me to a place that had Netflix since I had
to finish Stranger Things and Luke Cage and for the love of God, I
thought, I hope he packed my mascara and foundation. It turned out my husband
just took a wrong turn and we were lost.

The following day when I
returned home from picking Harry up at school I went into a full-fledged panic
attack. Once I had unlocked my front door and was standing in my kitchen, I was
convinced that someone was in our house. I called my sister who lives four
minutes away. When she came into the house she could tell that I was on the
edge, and she demanded I take a lorazepam before I even told her what was
wrong.

Ever since I moved out
of my parents’ house in 1985, I’ve had an irrational fear of men hiding in my
closets, under the bed, in the basement or in the attic. For the past thirty
years, wherever I’ve lived – in a studio apartment in
Santa Cruz or in a large house on the coast of Maine – if
I came home alone, I compulsively checked between every pair of Gap jeans and
as I got older and fatter and went through menopause, I checked between every extra-long
tunic, and behind every door. By the time I was middle-aged, my husband and I
were living in a house with twelve closets and checking each one and then
checking the basement and the attic turned out to be a work out.

That night, standing in
the kitchen with my sister I said, “I need you to check the closets.”

“What am I looking for?”
my sister asked.

“Men.” I told her.

“Any particular type?”
she asked.

My sister, who is
usually bold and unstoppable, slowly opened the pantry door and peered into it.
And then she closed it as quickly as she could, holding her breath she said, “I
think you’ve called the wrong person for the job.”

But still she carried
on.

Eventually we headed to
the attic. Harry took the lead, hauling his little bulldog ass up the stairs. When
my sister opened the attic door, Harry made a beeline for the eaves. I managed
to catch him but not before he put something in his mouth and swallowed it. I
had suspected it was mouse poison and my mind raced back to the night I
accidentally fed my twin ten-year-old daughters hot dogs laced with bright blue
mouse droppings. Well, technically my husband fed them the hotdogs.

“Daddy, these hot dogs
have blue spots on them,” Zoe said.

“Eat the hot dogs. They’re
fine; I just bought them,” Dr. Husband replied.

“No, Daddy, they have turquoise-colored
dots on them,” explained the future art major.

Having overheard this, I
dashed into the kitchen and discovered flecks of tainted mouse poop in the
cupboards and in the frying pan. I immediately called poison control and began
quizzing the person on the other end of the line. He explained to me that my
daughters would have had to ingest grams and grams to be, how shall I say,
poisoned. My husband had to put me in a hot bath that night and give me a sedative.
When I was sure he was back downstairs with the girls, I climbed out of the tub
and called poison control back, this time disguising my voice and using my best
manly British accent.

“My daughters, who weigh
about 80 pounds, just ate hot dogs that had blue spots on them, the color of
turquoise,” I said.

There was silence on the
other end.

“Hello, did you hear me?
My daughters ate hot dogs that were cooked in a pan that a dying mouse shit in.”

“Ma’am, I’ve already
told you…”

Regardless of how he
tried to assuage my fears again, I really couldn’t wrap my mind around what a “gram”
was so I spent the night looking up grams of cocaine, grams of sand, grams of
loose tea.

The morning after my
sister searched in vain for a human intruder, Harry had what appeared to be a
seizure. He was lying on his back, paws up in the air, like he was dead. I
carried him to the car in a state of panic noticing dog chewed wrappings of a
Dunkin’ Donuts raisin bran muffin. I didn’t know what caused the seizure: the raisins,
which are known to be poisonous to dogs or mouse poison he might’ve gotten into
the night before.

By the time we got to
the vet, Harry appeared perfectly normal. Well, that’s if you consider licking the
wall normal. Sitting on the floor with him in an examining room, waiting for
the vet to come in, I contemplated weighing myself on the giant stainless steel
hydraulic examination table that also served as scale. Naturally, I would have
to strip to get an accurate reading of my weight but I wondered how I would
explain myself if the vet came in and saw me standing there in my underpants.

The week of Harry’s seizure
and my own visit to the ER, I was so worked up that all I could manage to make
for dinner was cereal. By the end of the week I called the fish market.

“Hi. Do you recognize my
voice? I’m a middle-aged, overweight woman who comes in and orders three pieces
of wild salmon with the skin on.”

“There’s a lot of women
that fit that description,” said the fish man. “How can I help you?”

“Well, my dog Harry had
a seizure the other day and I don’t want to leave him alone. Do you think I can
order my salmon from the car and then just toss you my credit card from the doorway
because I’ve seen that your sign reads ‘No dogs allowed’ and for the last four
days I’ve been eating cereal for all my meals and we live in this new house
where the bathroom is close to the road. Well, I really don’t want to go into
the specifics but do you think you could help me?”

The fish-market man
tossed me my salmon like he was pitching to a ten-year-old nearsighted kid.
After my attempt at tossing my credit card to him from the front door, which
was six feet away and over a five-foot counter, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind
coming out from behind the counter. I thought if I could just get him to stand
at the same distance as the starting point for a good old-fashioned egg toss,
we would have been successful.

*

Around the same time, Harry
and I each had our own respective visits to our dermatologists. As long as we
wipe his paws and the multiple folds of his face with medicated pads every
night and keep his anal pocket clean and his anal glands expressed and he stays
on his restricted hypoallergenic diet, he’ll be fine. My own visit was a little
more anxiety-provoking as I had been experiencing intense itchy nipples which
my high school friend who is now an oncology nurse had convinced me was a sign
of advanced breast cancer. Once in the examining room the medical assistant asked
what my chief complaint was and I told her.

As she typed, she spoke
to herself like she was taking a deli order. “Well that’s two itchy nipples.”

When she was done typing
she looked up and told me to undress but leave my underwear on under the medical
gown. I was little embarrassed.

“I’m not wearing any
underwear on account of my vagina.”

“What’s wrong with your
vagina?” she asked.

“It itches, too. I think
it’s old.”

Turning back to her
keyboard she typed, “That’s two itchy nipples and one itchy vagina,” as if she
were confirming my sandwich order.

Given her tone, it
wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if she had followed up with, “Will that
be all?” And had she, I might have been tempted to tell her about my trip to
the ER, Harry’s seizure, and the imaginary men hiding in my closets.

It turns out that Harry
and I both just have sensitive skin and are prone to dermatitis.

As November passed by, I still had not
accepted my friend’s interpretation that it was all just a bad trip. I wore
sunglasses on foggy and rainy days and wept in public, convinced that I was
slowly losing my mind and that feeling of not being in control and not being
able to speak would reoccur, unannounced, and unwanted like my new neighbor who
knocked at my door at 10:30 at night and asking me to help locate her runaway
rooster.

But then I remembered something that my
psychiatrist said. He suggested that I look for signs of change that might
occur as the result of the “bad trip”, particularly positive changes in the way
I felt towards others. This resonated with me. That fall, I had just finished
reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and I had become completely obsessed with Father Zosima’s display ofunbridled compassion and his deep understanding of the
interconnectedness of all life. I wanted that desperately. I had begun to
pray every day – a simple prayer: God
make me less of an asshole.

Years ago when I learned researchers at
Johns Hopkins were the first to use psilocybin to treat existential
anxieties of terminally ill patients, I was kind of jealous that I didn’t
qualify for the study. They reported that participants had come to terms with
dying and felt one with the universe. I wanted that too, minus the terminal
illness. So I conceded and thought maybe my psychiatrist was onto something. Perhaps
that terrifying night wasn’t the type of spiritual experience that I wanted,
but one that I needed. Following my doctor’s advice, I looked for subtle changes
to see if I felt more connected to others. I ended up bonding with a lot of
dogs on the beach that winter.

Maybe if I live long enough I’ll be diagnosed
with cancer and then I’ll have a legitimate reason to investigate the effects
of drugs like psilocybin. Now researchers have opened up the studies to
garden-variety depressives and people prone to anxiety like myself. As ironic
as it sounds, I think a cancer diagnosis would make me brave enough to
experiment with drugs that promise life-changing experiences – experiences that
might mitigate my pain and allow me to ignore the strangers in my closets. Until
then, I’ll just hold on. Sometimes I’ll simply hold onto Harry, steadying myself
like those moments when I’m on the can and my underwear is down around my
ankles and a Mack truck drives by the house. I just hope that one day a truck
doesn’t drive through the wall of our house and my colleagues and high school
friends end up reading that I died on the toilet.




On Love

There
is a picture of me and my father and a dead deer hanging above the fireplace.
My skin is red and tear-stricken. The deer is lying limp, its head held up by
its ears by my father. The gun is strung across his back, the barrel pointed
proudly at the sky. I am eight years old in the picture. I had never been close
to a dead thing before.

Later,
he’d make me gut it. He’d hang it by its legs from the rafters on the ceiling
and I would learn what the insides of a body looked like. The pool of glowing
crimson collecting under it, traces of the life my father had taken, stained
the floor for months. It was an art, he said, as he stripped the fur back to
reveal the raw fuchsia flesh that looked more alive than skin did. I placed my
fingertips against it, half expecting but mostly wanting to feel a pulse of
life. Of course there was nothing. Just a cold dull mound of something that
used to exist but no longer did. Ten years later, I would learn to call
something like this a vessel. I would think that it was poetic.

Now
I think of the deer as a tragedy. I think of it as childhood. I think of my
father’s hands and the way they take and the way they give and how, sometimes,
I can’t tell the difference.

My
mother hates the picture. I am not entirely sure why she doesn’t take it down.
But then again, I am not entirely sure why she hates it. I am not sure if it’s
because there is a bloody carcass, or because my dad is smiling, or because it
was from a time where we lived in separate houses. Whatever the reason, she
holds her breath for a second when she sees it.

He
brought the picture when he came back home, along with a few cardboard boxes
and a promise to be better. I don’t know why he brought the picture. It wasn’t
even an impressive deer. After we found its body we realized it was only a baby
– a button buck, my father said. I could see the little beginnings of antlers
peeking out from the fur. That was when I cried.

I
don’t know why he was proud that he killed the creature. Was it about power?
It’s always about power, it seems. At least that’s what my therapist said when
the childlike version of me asked her why my dad hit my mom.

I
know it’s said when you love someone you must love the bad parts of them too,
but people have said a lot of things. And I am not really sure how that applies
here. I guess it begs the question if there are limits to love. And if there
are, then if once we pass them can we ever go back?

Maybe
it is possible for love and hate to coincide. For them to inhabit the same
space. I am convinced of this because there are days where I can’t even tell
them apart. Where they are so intertwined or so far away, from a distance, they
look the same. If I were to make a metaphor here I would say that sometimes I
walk into the living room and see Love and Hate sitting on the couch together.
They are having a conversation of sorts. Love is flailing her arms and Hate is
doing the same. They are never indifferent. They are always yelling. But I am
too tired to make a metaphor. By this I mean I am too tired to try to
understand.

So
instead I say that there is a picture in my house that is hard to look at. That
in a way I was never, and that I am always eight years old. And that there are
things that my father’s hands are capable of that we don’t like to think about.




Wreckless Abandon

It was the second car accident and third hospitalization that spelled the end. We’d known each other six months, had sex many times, but never spoken on the phone. Now we never would.

Last summer, I connected on a hook-up site with a guy I’ll call Daniel. On the evening we agreed to meet, I was late. I arrived to find him sitting at the end of the bar. He was in his late thirties, a few years younger than me, cuter than his photos – a rarity. I remember thinking he looked profoundly lonely. The kind that shows up in slumped shoulders, staring into an empty glass, circling with a straw, as if to stir up a connection with the world. I walked over and we greeted each other awkwardly, then I sat down and ordered a drink.

Before meeting Daniel I’d decided to give dating a break. I was two years out of my last relationship. I’d thought I wanted to find another. But a few dating stints had followed, and several firsts, none going anywhere. I reasoned that, for now, just sex was less frustrating or complicated.

It was clear Daniel and I were into each other. We made small talk a while, then left. The bar was closer to my place than his, the understanding from the start that’s where we’d go. He lived with a cousin who doesn’t know he’s gay. When we got there, we each drank half a beer before we locked lips and clothes started coming off. Afterward, we talked a few minutes. Then he jumped up, seized by a furious need to leave.

Just like that, he
was out the door.

Daniel came over again the next day. We went at it again, and he left just as suddenly. He was going to the Dominican Republic later that week, where he’s from, staying with his large family for a month. We agreed to meet when he got back. I wasn’t sure that would happen and wasn’t particularly concerned.

A week after he left, I got a text from an unknown number. It was Daniel, using a phone with better reception wherever he was. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. This surprised me. That he’d made the effort, the forthrightness that contrasted with quick, silent exits, that he felt that way at all. I’d thought about him too, though not as often as he claimed. The next time we messaged, he said sometime he’d like to take me to a place as beautiful as where he was. This also seemed strangely intimate.

Right after he got back, Daniel and I were in bed again. Afterward we lay in the dark. I had my hand on his leg. His body was as stiff as it had been relaxed minutes before. He seemed consumed with shame. We talked a while, stilted, incongruous to his expressiveness in tiny words. Then he abruptly wanted to leave, just as before.

“That’s cool,” I
said, casual, instead of betraying the disappointment I felt. After he left I
began to realize I recognized his behavior. That was me before coming out.

*

The sweet and flirty texts continued. Despite thinking I didn’t want it, I found myself starting to develop feelings for this person. The next time Daniel came over, I asked him to stay the night. “I wish I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”

“It’s complicated,”
he added. I didn’t push it. We stuck with quick visits, and quicker exits.

Daniel was surrounded by family who lived local all the time, just as he said he’d been in the D.R. He mentioned his mom frequently. Aunts, uncles, other cousins. More than once he cancelled our plans last minute because he ended up with family and didn’t know how to duck out. He always apologized. Still, the back and forth grew wearisome.

We sometimes bickered
as if we were an actual couple – over text, of course. Passive aggressive,
snarky even. We always found a way back, neither able to maintain a petty
argument on our respective ends. The intimate affection would return. It was
becoming the most relationship-like non-relationship I’d ever experienced.

A couple of times, Daniel disappeared for a week. He didn’t initiate contact or respond. This upset me more than expected when it happened the first time. I wasn’t yet willing to admit how much I’d started to like him. I excused the inconsistent behavior as “complications.” Knowing that for him our relationship – if you could call it that – was illicit only contributed to my denial that he meant something to me.

It turned out, that first time, Daniel had been in the hospital for a back injury he didn’t explain. This wouldn’t be the last. He seemed to exist in constant chaos. Doctors and hospital stays – his or family; he might have to move suddenly; a car accident; a new job quit after three weeks; a torn knee ligament; a real estate scam in the D.R. And on it went.

I recognized this too, chaos that had engulfed my own life while hiding in a shrinking closet, down to repeated car accidents. Constant distraction, preoccupied with something, manifesting in how I operated in the world. But as the boomeranging continued, Daniel’s inner turmoil became my anguish. I thought about him constantly and never knew what to expect.

*

For two months, Daniel didn’t come over. We stopped contacting each other, though neither explicitly said it. For my part, I decided the whole thing was too big a struggle. I deleted his number, which of course only suggests finality, as if reversing it isn’t simple. But thoughts of him hung around, like mosquitos you just can’t seem to swat away.

Then, he surfaced again. Annoyance was almost overcome by the excitement I felt. The unnamed number got its name back. “Why are you contacting me?” I said, then immediately worried this was too dismissive. “I wanna see you,” he responded. It took a while, but this time I said no. I fancied this cutting off an act of self-preservation. He honored the break, apart from a couple more texts and me finally saying no more communication.

Less than a month later, I gave in and contacted Daniel. A moment of weakness, I told myself. Friday night, jet-lagged, home alone. He replied right away. “I just can’t get you out of my mind.” Of course, I invited him over. A lot had changed since we last got together. I had moved, started a new job, he had another new job. When we saw each other, it was if no time had passed. I think we were both surprised by how strong the chemistry still felt. After the hottest sex yet, Daniel threw his leg over mine and scooted next to me – a casual affection he’d never exhibited before.

For the first time, he stayed and we talked. For hours. Next to each other, naked, my hand on his back, his on my arm. It was mostly about family. Each of us with a very Catholic mother. His father’s lost battle with alcoholism. It was then Daniel told me he was married, to a woman, with two young kids, in the process of getting divorced. I was stunned but pretended not to be, worried if I made a big deal out of him being in my bed he might never be again.

He hadn’t told his
wife he’s gay – nor anyone in his family – and insisted no one knew. As we
talked, his phone across the room repeatedly rang and dinged with texts. He
tried to ignore it, which became difficult. “My cousin thinks I’m at the gym,”
he said, tone completely flat. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the
phone, unsure which way to go, body positioned between two worlds, equally
powerful in that moment, each in its own way.

The inevitable side won. Conversation dropped off, as it always had. Agitated, he went and looked at the blue screen glowing in the dim light. “I have to go,” he said. Once again I affected a lax, sure that’s cool response. After he left, my mind rolled back over our interactions, now, with this new information. Some things made more sense, others led to bigger questions.

*

We had plans for Daniel to come over the following Saturday. He cancelled last minute – in the hospital, another car accident. He was clearly shaken. I had my coat on, ready to go, worried he was there alone. Then he said an aunt was with him. In other words, don’t come. We checked in after that. His pain lessened. We agreed he’d come over soon.

I never saw him
again.

A few days after the accident, I got a long message from Daniel. He said it had caused him to reevaluate who he is and what he wants. He made a vague reference to feeling lost, and a relationship to God and faith. He needed to recover his life, he said. In short, he couldn’t see me anymore. He apologized twice, which felt unnecessary, once “for all the chaos he had created.” His use of the exact word I’d been using for months to describe his life felt telling.

I sat at my desk in
silence and reread his note, work spread in front of me, suddenly unable to
concentrate. With this decision to will a piece of himself away, I wondered,
what would happen now?

I went out and wandered the streets a while – a gray sky fittingly somber – feeling almost breathless with sadness. At first I thought it was all about the situation of Daniel’s life, the inner battle I’d recognized, how his body would claw its way to connection, then seize with shame and flee. And the chaos he himself had called out. That familiar, relentless, brutal chaos that can engulf a life with such conflict within. Representations of how we resist living as we’re meant to, at odds with how we believe we should.

But the sadness
lingered for weeks after. “Why are you
so sad about his life?” a couple of
friends asked.

It took me a while to recognize I was using Daniel’s situation to obscure my own. Till the end I struggled to accept I’d developed real feelings for him, beyond the bedroom. I felt foolish. Romance from a distance is essentially fantasy. And I’d told myself from the start I wasn’t looking for a relationship, knew this would never be more. But maybe that’s what made those feelings possible. Opening my heart was somehow safer than when trying for a lasting relationship. After multiple burns, I have to admit I’ve struggled with that in recent years, which I suppose contributes to why new ones don’t last.

I’ll never know the true nature of Daniel’s feelings. But what I know to be true is sad. Meeting Daniel reawakened me to how insidious homophobia can be. I haven’t been naive to the fact it still exists. But I’d forgotten what it feels like so close to the skin.

On one of our last exchanges Daniel had just bought a new car, soon battered in an accident. He sent me a picture. I said I hoped for a ride one day. “Definitely,” he said. More banter, then I signed off with, “Don’t be a stranger.” I had said this before, though never to Daniel. The lightheartedness is always overshadowed by the suspicion you will forever remain that. Maybe I already knew.

His immediate
response, a single word: Never.

I hope when it comes to discovering a relationship that feels right the subtext of that word doesn’t prove true.




Pounding

Picture Credits: Greg Willis

Three young girls squirmed their way into our courtyard.
They jumped in excitement, pointed at me, and motioned me to follow them. I
stood, not really wanting to go, but the oldest ran to me and grabbed my hand.
I looked at Moussa. He nodded and laughed at the girls’ urgency.

The girls were light-skinned and slim-figured Fulani, an
ethnic group living and herding just south of the Sahara Desert in west Africa.
The youngest wore loose-fitting panties with the words “Minnie Moose” on her
bottom, the older two – perhaps six and eight in age – wore loose cotton
shifts, all six feet were bare.

We didn’t speak a word in common, but we played. I’d stop
and pretend to hear something. They’d listen, then see my smile and giggle and
pull at me. I’d resist. They’d jump up and down and plead. I’d follow, then
stop again, turn and begin walking back. They’d run to stop me and pull me
onward. We wound through passages wide enough for a donkey but not a cart,
passed between walls of mud that separated family compounds.

From behind the walls, always, I could smell it, women
lighting fires for cooking and the aroma of toasting millet rose with the
smoke. We shuffled along the sandy ground, telling noisy dogs to be quiet and
collecting at least a dozen more children as we walked. We turned a corner and
the passageway opened onto a large square and found two camels surrounded by
half the quartier, the neighborhood.

My new friends were the remaining children of an ageing
mother who had given birth to seven – the death of four sons taking its toll on
her emotional and physical health. Because it was the girls, not the boys, who
survived, their father had taken a second and younger wife, hoping for sons.

Men with multiple wives are mandated to treat each with
equal attention and respect, but this is rarely what happens. More often, and clearly
in this case, the older wife was left by herself to worry about the future of
her daughters.

*

In west Africa, to some extent still, marriages are arranged
by fathers and approved by grooms and their families. Girls are given in
compensation for the sins of a brother. Girls are bartered from one family to
another as payment of a father’s debt. Women generally marry with a dowry, objects
which she will own and use: pots, pans, textiles, and mats. She will be
proprietor of the family grain. She will have children. These things make up a
woman’s worth. The rest sits in the hands of her husband and father, and real
daily power in the hands of elder co-wives.

In Mali’s capital city of Bamako some years later, I met a
Bamana woman in her forties. She dressed in the fashionable urban style of
carefully-tailored factory-cloth ensembles with head wraps to match. She didn’t
look much different from other privileged women, but she spoke English and had
her Master’s degree from a French university. Her husband was a physician. They
lived in a private house in a part of the city occupied mostly by expatriates
and government officials.

During the two weeks I knew her, she was offered a six-month
academic internship in the U.S. To leave Mali and return, she had to have
special re-entry papers issued by the Malian government. For Mali to grant her
these papers and re-entry from the United States, she needed written consent to
leave in the first place from both her husband and her father. Her husband was
proud of her and wrote a letter with his blessing.

Her father, though, was a village man with three wives. He
thought his eldest daughter had moved to the city and abandoned him long ago
and, by so doing, shamed his family name; she had studied English in school
rather than learned how to cook millet on her mother’s stove, she married an
outsider, and, she had no children – a fact which led her father to inquire of
his wife whether this daughter, in fact, was a sorcerer. In response to his
daughter’s request to travel, he’d said, “No.”

Her choice: she could decline the internship and remain in Bamako.
Differences might be smoothed over with her father, but she’d be resentful and
her father would never be happy with her. She would, however, remain safe. Her
alternative was to defy her father and leave without means of return. The
father would feel further humiliated, disown her, and it would not be out of
the question – should she manage to return anyway – that she would pay with her
life. I don’t know the outcome of her story. I left Bamako before she decided.

*

The girls and I made our way through the crowd. In the
central square, two camels towered over a crowd of hooting, cheering men and
women. Two men looked to be negotiating.

One man shook his head. The other slapped the back of his
own head. One flapped his arms and looked incredulous. The other clucked his
tongue and said a few words under his breath. The larger camel snorted and
sprayed saliva and swayed and stomped.

The men quieted.

The snorting camel raised its head and stretched its sinewy
neck back so pieces of straw, fell loose from its chest, then he blew a wad of
camel snot the size of my fist which hit the ground with a splat.

The female camel bent her front knees, then her back knees,
and dropped belly to the ground. The girls looked up at me and giggled.

The snot-spitter swayed and bucked, lifted his front legs,
and mounted the female. The crowd applauded. A woman on the far side of the
circle began to sing in a high, nasal voice, a local language and local humor –
other women covered their mouths laughing before joining her in song. Children
clapped rhythm.

How many people had gathered to watch? I’d guess a couple
hundred, all smiling.

The male settled onto the female’s single hump. She turned
around to look at him and bat her three-inch long eyelashes.

A camel penis is slender as a human finger but about three
feet long and muscular, so it finds ingress. Both animals strained their faces
toward one another, and, during the entire five minutes of breathless dromedary
ardor, they nuzzled lips.

Even in the sweetest of towns, which Diré – on the Niger
River was – life in West Africa is hard. What options would my three young friends
have? What choices will they make? Copulating camels provide moments of social
levity and needed relief, but then it’s back to raising babies and washing
clothes, lighting fire and pounding millet.




The Wrestlers

Picture Credits: Rudy and Peter Skitterians

In the autumn I
went along with my dad to Runcorn Wrestling Alliance’s training gym and on the
train we talked about his glory days. He told the same stories most of the
time. There was Terrible Ted the wrestling bear who he would drive around in
the back of his pink Cadillac. I wasn’t sure if a bear could fit in the back of
a muscle car but I had seen match reports and pictures of wrestling bears from
the period.

“You have to
get them as pup,” he said. “Before they open their eyes and then they’ll find
you’re its mother.”

“What did you
do with the claws?” I asked.

“They can be
trimmed down and you’d make sure they were well fed before you went out with
them but bears love to wrestle.”

He smiled with
longing for the bear as if it were an old friend.

Once in a bar
he had shown his wrestling pictures to a barmaid on his smart phone. She was
interested up until she saw the images of bear and called out the animal
cruelty and distress caused by removing the pup from its mother. Dad was hurt
by the comments and reacted by reaffirming how much bears love to wrestle and
how well cared for they were. Terrible Ted even had his own rider and demanded
a bucket of cola before every match. He was a bigger attraction and better paid
then most of the boys.

Dad believed
this regardless of whether it was true or not.

I wondered what
would have happened if our timelines had been switched? If I was born in 1943
and he 1985. If he grew up under my influence rather than his. Dad passed his
eleven plus but was too socially awkward to do well at school. His Asperger’s
wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his seventies. He was an autodidact and had
picked up bits of Latin, an interest in Roman history and a deep knowledge of
British heraldry. If I was born back then with five siblings who were each sent
out into the forces or to boarding school, what trajectory would my life have
followed?

We changed at
Manchester and headed on for Runcorn where we caught a taxi at the station to
the community centre where I could see boys hauling in parts of a wrestling
ring through the fire doors from the back of a van.

Dad struggled
out of the taxi, slipped a polo in his mouth and lit a cigarette.

“I’ll just have
this and then we’ll go in,” he said.

He told me he
wasn’t a smoker and he didn’t inhale. Yet he still had to sneak between
carriages on the train to smoke out of the window on the way here. Whenever
anybody caught him not abiding by the rules he would just stare at them with a
blank expression in his eyes, rarely would he react or get angry and whoever
was dealing with him would soon not know what to do.

I stood beside
him, still smaller, with a pair of running shoes, Lonsdale jogging bottoms and
a polo shirt in my rucksack.

There’s a photo
of me and my dad in the mid eighties. I’m dressed in some crazy outfit mum had
configured for me with ankle boots, oversized shorts and braces. Dad is
standing behind me leaning on his red Ford Cortina. He’s more than double my
height, shaven headed, in a black T-shirt and jeans with a tattoo of a
Rottweiler half-hidden beneath a gold watch. However much changes between us,
or how gradually frail and shorter he becomes, this will always be how I see
our relationship. While the body changes, this is who we were on some deeper
symbolic level of meaning. Man and boy.

I didn’t know
what to expect? I still maintained the faint desire to have a go in the ring
and it remained an unfulfilled ambition. There was that and also the feeling
that I didn’t care any more. Nothing mattered to me. The sheer silliness and
ridiculousness of wrestling appealed to me. But now I was here, sober and
feeling anxious, with my belly cramping and the feeling I was going to shit
myself.

“Do you know
what we’re gonna do?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Just get in
there and have a roll around.”

When we went
inside most of the attention was directed at Dad who had hands to shake and
people who wanted to introduce themselves to him. I stood by the door holding
my rucksack by the strap before finding a toilet to get changed in. After a
discussion with Andy Baker, the wrestler who was running the promotion, it
seemed that Dad was here to lead a seminar as a guest trainer but he was
unaware of this. “Just do what you normally do and I’ll chip in,” he said.

Andy began
warming up the trainees who were mostly boys from the nearby Grangeway Estate.

What was I
supposed to join in?

Dad had led me
to believe I was ready to jump in the ring and start calling matches, and this
wasn’t the feeling I was getting from the boys, perhaps this was how they did
things in the sixties but not now.

Andy, who
looked like a more jacked version of Leila’s boyfriend Sam, with his slightly
receding hair and toothpaste commercial teeth and manly stubble, got them
started with some light cardio drills and moved onto squats and push ups. I
joined in but quickly felt myself lagging behind, my quads were stiff after
about twenty squats and I stopped before it got too embarrassing. Dad was
watching by the ring.

I joined him,
ran my hand along the canvas of the ring apron, then patted it. The canvas was
rough and tightly packed over the ring by a system of bungees around the ring
frame beneath.

“Jump in,” Dad
said. “They won’t mind.”

I looked
around. Andy cast a gaze in our direction.

“I don’t know.
I feel like you’re not allowed in the ring. It’s some sort of threshold.”

“Suit
yourself,” he said.

I patted the
canvas again, feeling the heavy mats beneath. It definitely wasn’t soft.
Pulling the bottom rope toward me the tautness barely gave an inch. This was
hard rope. I don’t know what else I thought it would be? I didn’t fancy the
thought of running them, the cables lacing your body as you lassoed from one
side to another.

While the
trainees were dismissed for a drink break Andy came over. “Anything you’d like
to do?” he asked.

“He’s a good
wrestler,” Dad interrupted. “We’ve only gone through the basics but it won’t
take much to get him ring ready.”

“That was years
ago,” I said. “And it was really basic.”

Please, I
thought. Stop telling this guy I know what I’m doing.

“Alright then.
How about you just go over some stuff with Dave?”

“Sounds good,”
I replied.

Going over some
basics with whoever Dave the Wrestler was sounded better than climbing in the
ring with somebody even though, really, this is what I had come here for. I had
never set foot in one. There it was, a few feet away, a theme park I could
climb into and perform the simulations I reenacted in the playing fields at
school in the late nineties.

Andy called
over to Dave and a big guy who was probably about my age, heavily stubbled with
the lightly hippy look of somebody who had been on the Manchester alternative
club scene, led me to a judo mat go over the basics.

“Do you know
how to lock up?” he said.

I told him I
did and then proceeded to lunge at him with my arms clawing out around his
shoulders and arms.

“That was
alright,” he said. “But a bit rough.”

Watch, he said.
I looked at his footwork. His right foot was forward in a split-legged stance.
His arms were crooked and palms open by his sides. I copied, replicating the
stance and the intensity on his face.

“You take a big
step in with your left leg and your left arms goes around their neck like
this.” He did as he said, lunging in and then securing the nape of my neck in
his cupped hand. “Your right hand then pushes into their bicep like this.”

This
combination meant that it seemed logical for my hand to reach round and cup his
neck while my right secured his biceps. We pushed against one another, becoming
the image of Grecian sculpture, bronzed in endless struggle, wrestlers. We
repeated the collar-and-elbow position for the next half an hour or so, taking
deeper steps back, lunging in with more attack until we heard the smack of our
clashing bodies.

Why hadn’t Dad
told me any of this stuff? Maybe he had and I had forgot. I still remembered
all the holds and the reversals, how to pull a punch, how to bump, but this
lock-up was the most basic position in pro wrestling and I doubted the
thoroughness of my learning.

What else
didn’t I know?

Across the room
I could see guys going over running sequences in the ring. Somebody would take
a headlock, the other guy would slingshot them into the ropes to escape.
Instead of simply stopping, the wrestler who was sling-shotted ran across
across the ring where he hit the facing ropes and came back running toward his
opponent who throws himself at his feet. I never quite understood this – it’s
something you see in wrestling all of the time – one of the conventions that
defies logic and reveals the artifice. Why would the guy lay down in front of
the guy for him to just run over him and hit the other ropes? The idea was that
the manoeuvre, known as a “sleep” was once an offensive move in pro wrestling.
Wrestlers would fling their bodies sideways at the legs of an incoming opponent
in order to trip them. In time, wrestlers got “wise” to this and began evading
the trip by leaping over it. An alternative interpretation I’d read in a
wrestling forum was that the sleep was intended to be an evasion itself. Seeing their opponent catapulting toward them from
the ropes the wrestler had no choice but to evade them by “sleeping” on the
floor. But how plausible was this? Who evades an oncoming three-hundred pound
man who’s out to batter you by laying on the floor in front of them? Don’t
worry about it, it’s fake for God’s sake, it’s only wrestling was the kind of
reply I was used to. Why did it matter to me? Pro wrestling was clearly staged
and looked nothing like a fight in its own right, why was I so drawn to those
wrestlers who did make the effort to conceal the cracks in narrative logic?
After the wrestler slept and his opponent leaped over him he came off the
facing ropes again and this time the wrestler leapfrogged his opponent –
supported by the opponent ducking his
own head – rather than simply headbutt the guy in the balls. This final time
the opponent comes off the ropes the wrestler leaped up into the air and
donkey-kicked him in the chest. Why wouldn’t the guy just have headbutted him
in the balls? The sequence was once of the most popular in wrestling. I didn’t
know what it was called but I had seen countless variations. Sometimes the
manoeuvre at the end was different, it could be a succession of moves or lead
into another sequence known as high spots.But what irked me was the sleep followed by a leapfrog as if to completely destroy any kind of plausibility.

“Anything else
you want to try?” Dave asked. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing and for
him to teach me everything again from beginner level. I looked around at the
wrestlers planning matches and going over sequences. Dad had always told me
wrestlers called matches in the ring when he wrestled. They would constantly
communicate and improvise high spots
in response to the crowd. If the crowd were down, they’d get them up with some
action. If the crowd preferred hold for hold wrestling, they’d give them
wrestling. Yet the kids here seemed to be planning matches move for move. Dad
was trained in 1966 in by Steve Rickard. In the great age of kayfabe, many fans
didn’t know for sure if wrestling was fake or not. There was a lot of
confusion, often wilful, about what was fake and what wasn’t. This meant the
in-ring style could be more hold based and realistic. There wasn’t as much
flying around as there is now. Nobody did rococo sequences as they looked
collaborative and gave the game away. In the forty years since, with the
secrets of the business being much more open, with international styles of
wrestling becoming known to one another and fans being more deeply educated in
the conventions of pro wrestling, the in-ring performances had become more
maximalist and intricate.

The next hours
passed with me learning basic throws and knock-downs. The mechanics would be
demonstrated and then Dave would find a passing trainee and we would repeatedly
drill the movements. A trainee would run at me and I had to knock them down
with a nearly-straight outstretched arm called a clothesline. The trainee would
feel my contact and fall to the floor. I had to count my steps and turn at the
precise moment he would roll to his right, enabling us to return to our exact
starting positions and repeat the movement.

When my forearm
was red from smashing trainees, Dave decided it was my turn to run some drills
in the ring. I wanted nothing more than to get in there and let my fantasies
run wild. But it also meant standing up in front of everybody and revealing how
bad a wrestler the son of Earl Black was. Dave showed me how to run the ropes
by planting your standing foot, making a pivot, falling into the top ropes with
your mid back and then bounding in three measured steps across the ring before
pivoting and repeating the process. While the timing and pacing were difficult
to get right, what was harder was the ropes themselves against the tender flesh
of my upper and mid back. I don’t know why this surprised me? Maybe it was how
implausible rope running looked in terms of a fight but the actual physics of
it were painful. The ropes were hard. Taunted by the wingnuts of the
turnbuckles and the tension applied to the structure by ratchets and cabling
beneath the ring. What’s more, it wasn’t enough to glance the ropes as you came
off them. The propulsion was real. What you needed to do was attack the ropes.
But this meant throwing your back into the cheesewire whilst remembering your
footwork and whatever high spot you were supposed to be running at that moment.

When I just
about had the hang of rope-running in an old-man-walking kind of way, Dave
introduced the sleeps and leaps I had earlier derided. Had he read my mind? Was
my dislike of them so obvious? I had to do thirty in total, seamlessly,
sleeping and leaping while my opponent ran the ropes back and forth. I got
halfway and collapsed. I felt a little dizzy and my skin whitened. My heart
beating hard, I panted, pissing sweat.

I sat in a
squat and closed my eyes.

“You blown?”
Dave laughed.

Dad was looking
on.

“Now you know
what if feel like to be a wrestler!” he said.

Then he pointed
his camera at me and started taking snaps. I didn’t feel like these would be
the most flattering photos but didn’t have the reserves to shield my face or
get out of the way.

How could I
have got so out of shape?

When I was
training with Dad in the field all those years before, I played football three
or four times a week to the point where I worried it was stopping me gaining
muscle. I would do four workouts a week on the weights, not lifting heavy, more
high-intensity circuit training. I was lean, hard bodied, with a six-pack.

Once the
session had finished all the trainees sat crossed-legged on the mats and Andy
invited Dad over to talk about how to make it as a wrestler and to take any
questions. Dad told his favourite stories. His greatest hits consisted of the
riot in Jakarta airport, getting his head tangled in the ropes and a woman
wrestler running to the ring from backstage to knock him out with one punch and
stop him struggling and going to see the promoter Stu Hart while he “stretched”
young trainees in his basement gym known as “the dungeon”, the screams heard
all around the house. He told them not to worry about getting six-packs and to
eat meat, fish, eggs and cheese and plenty of it. He didn’t always seem aware
of what his audience wanted from him and struggled with specifics or to
remember exactly what things were like back in the sixties. “I’ve been hit in
the head with too many steel chairs!” He laughed then talked about how
wrestlers today use too many moves and throw too many punches. “The more
punches the less it means,” he said. “The more you expose how bent it is.”

I said nothing,
watched from the sidelines and thought about how good this felt. Seeing Dad in
his element. Talking about the glory days. Instead of making my own I had
become dissociated from spontaneity, the originality of our family trade, the
aliveness of being in the ring, of having a body and performing. After he had
finished the boys formed a queue around the gym and took it in turn to shake
his hand and thank him for coming.




Wrathful Wiccan Wikipedians

Picture Credits: Gerd Altmann

When I was seven, my dog, Indiana
Jones, disappeared. My parents had just divorced, my dad was living in a small
commune in the University Park area of Denver, and my mother would come home
from work every night and cry herself to sleep. Indiana Jones was my anchor.

Soon after the disappearance, the
commune phone rang. Someone called out my name. It was for me. The voice, deep
and husky, said that they would return my dog on the “eclipse of the new moon,” a pagan reference that I did
not get at the time.

My mother had been a hippie, but the
fact that I was going to my father’s commune every other weekend often left her
on the verge of nervous breakdown. It’s different when you’re a mother living
with your child in a commune versus when your child is there without you,
especially when the father of your child was prone to wearing tin-foil on his
head and worrying about black helicopters.

That night, my dad had a lecture
somewhere in the mountains. We got lost and when we stopped at a 7-Eleven in
Golden to ask for directions, I spotted Indiana Jones tied to a fence. We broke
him free and went back to Denver and my father never went to his lecture. In
the end, one of my biggest childhood traumas had come not, as my mother feared,
from the commune itself, but from the realization that some people were so mad
at my dad that they would steal his young son’s dog as revenge.

*

Ten years later, long after the
commune had dissolved, my father wrote a book about Satanism called Painted
Black
(Harper Collins, 1990).
The book was entertaining, but also a bit of a mess. He had blown the whole
Satanism thing out of proportion, confused certain bands and elevated singers
like Ozzy Osbourne into real threats. However, at the time, there had been real
black magic murderers, like Adolfo Constanzo in Matamoros. As a high school
student reading the book I began to understand my father’s talent as a
University of Denver religious studies professor. He gave a relatable
perspective on these dark occults, written in accessible language.

The book sold well, but was poo-poo’d by his fellow academics. My father was also mocked, front page, by Denver’s longtime weekly, Westword. On the other hand, our teacher and editor on the Thomas Jefferson school newspaper got us out of class so we could watch my father debate Satanists on none other than the Geraldo Rivera Show.

Afterward, my dad never made much of that brief time in the spotlight, rarely talked about it except with a wave of the hand. He chose to spend most of his life teaching while writing or co-authoring dozens of academic books with staid titles like: The Engendering God, Male and Female Faces of God, or The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness. He slipped quietly away from the buzz of best-sellerdom and back to the sleepiness of academia. In fact, he used the publisher’s hefty advance to pay for my drinking at a very expensive private liberal arts college in Indiana. In a way, Painted Black, with all its failings, helped me become the writer I am today.

*

A few weeks ago, my father called me,
somewhat distraught. As usual, I thought he needed advice on how to stop the
refrigerator ice-machine from overflowing. Instead, he told me that someone had
created a Carl Raschke Wikipedia page.

“Well good,” I said. “It’s about
time.”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not good at
all.”

My healthy seventy-year old father was
huffing into the phone. He was on sabbatical and working on his next book from
his second-home in Oklahoma. When he writes my father is happy and talkative,
but now he was as distracted as he was curt.

I live in Europe so by the time I’m winding down, everyone in America is winding up. After I hung up, I kissed my wife goodnight, then sat at my computer. At first glance, the Wikipedia entry was six or seven long paragraphs long. Slowly, I realized that the entry entirely focused on my father’s book, Painted Black. It was under the very reasonable headline, Satanic ritual abuse moral panic, modern popular culture and new religious movements. It was like Westword’s attack, but on a far-larger scale.

The first sentence went like this:

Raschke has written and commented on topics such as Satanism, Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music and certain new religious movements. His work in this area as well as his role in the development of the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular the book Painted Black (1990), have been much criticized in academia.

It wasn’t terrible or outwardly offensive, but to have someone’s long and distinguished academic career, their thirty some books and hundreds of other publications, reduced to “Dungeons and Dragons” and “heavy metal music” on a website where the majority of internet users get their first understanding of a person or topic, was if not nasty, at least demeaning. Ultimately, the entire page was little more than a cut-and-paste Nexus-search compendium on anything negative ever written about Painted Black. He’d written nearly twenty books in his career and hundreds of essays and articles, all about theology, post-modernism, and densely academic topics, yet his Wikipedia page centered around this one pop book.

It was hard that my father was, after
so many years, a public target and it was even harder for me, his son, to learn
that Wikipedia, which I use almost daily, was little more than a platform for
well-written, but bitter blog posts.

Reviewing Painted Black in 1991, scholar Jonathon S. Epstein writes: “Painted Black adds additional fuel to the flames of hysteria surrounding satanism [sic] in America”

Scholar Arthur Versluis (2006) is highly critical of Raschke’s Painted Black, which he describes as an “effort to awaken an American inquisition” and refers to the book as “breathless sensationalism”.

In an article on Wicca and media for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and the News Media (2012), scholar Sarah M. Pike describes how a media report during the trial for the West Memphis Three “failed to consult experts on Wicca and Satanism” but rather referred to material by Raschke, who she describes as a “widely discredited ‘Satanism expert’”

I googled the “scholars” Arthur Versluis and Sarah Pike, who had two decades ago reviewed my dad’s book. They were both young theology academics at state universities, while Jonathon S. Epstein lists himself as a consultant for the Rock ’N’ Roll hall of fame. None of them were my father’s peers. It would be like a writer from Teen Vogue having the keys to Peter O’Toole’s IMDB page and focusing entirely on the movie Supergirl.

Suddenly, I was questioning all the
information I had ever gleaned from Wikipedia and incorporated into my writing.
How much of it had also been slanted and plain wrong? I had sat in on my
father’s classes, proofread his books, argued politics and philosophy over
whiskey, and while I was critical of the man like most sons are of their
fathers, especially ones who let their sons grow up in a commune with weirdos,
this Wikipedia entry felt unjust, if not infuriating.

I decided to take action. The editor of my dad’s article screen-name was Bloodofox. This Bloodofox’s other entries were limited exclusively to Norse and Germanic mythology. Heathenism. Paganism.

Bloodofox was a Wiccan.

When my father had lived in a commune,
there had been Wiccans living there. They taught me about Wiccan ideas, but
most of the explanation involved tarot cards and listening to the band Rush. Of course, I had only been seven years old. I
was older now. It was as if all the old wounds of my childhood were flooding
open, thirty-three years later, I could clearly hear that phone call promising
to return my beloved dog on, “the new moon.”

*

Joining Wikipedia is a bit like
attending Catholic mass and the Freemasons simultaneously. You don’t need to
give too much information beyond a screen name, but there are endless pages and
rules, many of them obscure, protocols linked on other pages, nothing binding,
but almost all leading to certain punishment if broken.

When you sign up for Wikipedia, they
ask you to edit a few things unrelated to your interests. My test was to
correct grammatical mistakes for a relatively skimpy page about the Congo.
Next, I was asked to proofread a vague historical event in the Marshall Islands.
I guess I passed because then I was given the green light to edit whatever I
wanted.

At the time I did not know that one of these rule was “you can’t edit family or friends.” Almost every fiction writer I knew on Wikipedia had been added by their spouse or partner. Of course, I immediately started editing my dad’s page. Minutes later, I was blocked by a bot. Then someone named bonadea blocked me. Bloodofox instantly reverted all my edits back to what they had set before. I reverted them back again. Suddenly, I was accused of vandalism. Bonadea accused me of being in an edit war, which to a writer who spends most of his days in a bathrobe, felt glorious.

I went back to Bloodofox’s page and discovered that he had won a Wikipedia contributors award. There was a small section where people had commended Bloodofox’s work. They even had a link to cyber-bullying against women and a brief passage about how Wikipedians protect each other. I figured if Bloodofox could write about my dad, I would at least be able to post something on Bloodofox’s “comments” section. I wrote that Bloodofox had written a disproportionately negative piece about Carl Raschke and this made me “sad.” Little did I know, I was kicking a hornet’s nest.

*

Whenever I hear someone say that they
are an Ayn Rand fan, my first thought is that they are not a big reader. Ayn
Rand always reminded me of my old Denver neighbor Phil, a frumpy white programmer and insufferable libertarian who
sprinkled Ross Perot signs on everyone’s lawn and talked about The Fountainhead as if it were the Bible. It was only after a
motorcycle accident and subsequent conversion to Unitarianism that Phil’s
incessant diatribes actualized into reasonable conversations about the cost of
light-rail or John Elway’s injuries.

Tech billionaires love talking about
free information if they think it can make them money. There are many
mind-numbingly peppy TED Talks where you can hear Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy
Wales explain how to get rich off of free information. The only time I heard
dissent during these talks was when someone asked him how Wikipedia can accept
donations while adhering to the ideology of Ayn Rand. Jimmy Wales claimed that
objectivism and charity were not mutually exclusive, which is a little like
saying there’s a place for LGBTQ in ISIS.

It is inherently troubling that Ayn
Rand’s philosophy shrouds many people’s go-to place for information. Ayn Rand
is often espoused by Republicans although it is amusing to imagine the
notoriously blunt author in a room with Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. If truth
favored the Republicans then May 1st would celebrate George W. Bush’s Mission
Accomplished and the liberation of Iraq. If history is any indication, when
ideologies influence information, history is often rewritten.

The next morning, after attempting to
change my father’s page, I looked at my phone and found a flood of warnings. My
attempt to join the open discussion at Wikipedia had led to a torrent of
threats of excommunication. As I brushed my teeth and then my kids’ teeth, I
wondered, is this what Ayn Rand’s utopia is going to look like, a land of angry
white programmers publicly smearing academics?

My most aggressive Wikipedia enforcer was a skinny kid from UCLA who either admired Stromboli or Metallica, because he went by the name of Master of Puppets. I asked Master of Puppets politely who I could go to for mediation. Master of Puppets told me nothing was wrong with the entry, that Bloodofox had written straight from fact, and that was good enough.

“Yes, but…”

“You must also stop asking questions,”
he warned. “Or you will be blocked.”

“Why?”

“You must stop asking ‘why?’ or you
will be blocked.”

I had been in the Peace Corps in Armenia so I understood Soviet Bureaucracy, the cold efficiency of veiled threats concealing ignorance over the genesis of certain protocol. But what was fascinating was that so many of these Wikipedians whose pages I visited, such as with Master of Puppets, professed anti-establishment attitudes, yet were simultaneously creating an Orwellian system to stop anyone who questioned them.

The Wikipedia Talk page accusing me of “disrupting”.

Over the next few days, my dad’s colleagues, other tenured professors, and notable academics joined the “war.” They spent hours debating Bloodofox’s entry, reasonably explaining my father’s academic legacy, and because of their efforts, they too were all blocked. They were accused of being “sock-puppets,” or someone who is closely associated with the subject. When their suspension was lifted, they returned to the debate only to be blocked again. In fact, every single person who worked on Carl Raschke’s Wikipedia entry, with the exception of Bloodofox, was at first blocked, then permanently kicked off.

Victor Taylor, an English professor from York University, was beside himself when he was permanently blocked after making a few edits on my father’s Wikipedia page. He wrote a letter demanding to be unblocked, but was coolly rebuffed by KrakatoaKatie (named I would guess after a fiery East Indies volcano). Discouraged, Taylor wrote my father an exasperated email saying that he felt Wikipedia operated “like a cult, with only external layers and no discernible core.” It was much like the cults my father had written about in Painted Black.

Since these academics knew as little as my father and I did about how Wikipedia works, they wrote brilliant emails arguing their case. Eventually, Wikipedia did something called a UserCheck lead by J. Gordon, the first editor with a seemingly regular name. The UserCheck confirmed that everyone who had been writing on my father’s page was linked to Carl and could not contribute to my father’s page. I am sure the prohibition of peer-review aged a few of my father’s Ivy-League colleagues considerably. In the end, there was however one contributor who was not a sock-puppet and could legitimately edit my father’s page. According to J. Gordon, this editor was, Duikelmaan, which was, actually me, his son.

*

Anarchists, anti-establishmentarians,
and often programmers are zealots with facts, their self-righteousness buoyed
by truths derived from big data. Wikipedia, and similarly free information
portals, often march to a new kind of fascism, where even though millions of
followers are separated by culture, race, and geography, they see themselves as
gatekeepers to an empirically-purified future. The elite old guard, professors
and academics, colleagues and department chairs, men and women with
“intentions” are replaced by what they believe is the truth produced in vast
cerebral, collective knowledge of internet users.

I have lived in the Netherlands now for almost a decade and my biggest complaint is that the Dutch’s adherence to egalitarianism reduces democracy to a Yelp review, where everyone and anyone can topple great institutions based solely on personal experience. In this case, Bloodofox, a professed pagan, read Painted Black many years ago, was incensed how my father portrayed certain pagan groups as cults, including the Wiccans, and later, found in Wikipedia a perfect way to exact revenge. Wikipedians are decentralizing authority just as quickly as they recentralizing it in the hands of those practiced in Wikipedia protocol. The “intentions” are still there, but gone is the academic debate.

Larry Sanders, co-founder of
Wikipedia, recently said in a Vice interview[1], that one of his biggest regrets was
not putting in place an expert-reviewed system, much like Twitter has verified
checks. “I do think it has a root problem that’s social,” Sanders said. “People
that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the
asylum.”

*

In a Salon piece entitled, “Revenge, Ego, and the Corruption of Wikipedia,” Qworty, a senior editor at Wikipedia, systematically writes hundreds of negative things about Barry Hannah and several published fiction authors. The reason was much like Bloodofox’s. Qworty had had his fiction spurned at many of the conferences Hannah attended and found Wikipedia a perfect place to exact his revenge.

There is also Philip Roth’s open
letter to Wikipedia, published in The New Yorker, where
he goes to great length to refute an entry about his novel The
Human Stain. Roth pointed out several inaccuracies on his Wikipedia
page, claiming to be the highest authority on himself. The response from
Wikipedia was exactly as you might imagine. “I understand your
point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,”
writes the Wikipedia Administrator to Philip Roth, “but we
require secondary sources.”

Over the next week, my father and I became bad amateur detectives. We traced a photo of a spiritual Norse tree on Bloodofox’s page to a lumpy Wiccan and rabid Bernie Sanders supporter on the northern East Coast. We also discovered that Bloodofox’s wife was a Wiccan, a proud heathen family, pagans, worshipped goddesses, the earth, old trees. If this was Bloodofox, and I’m not sure it was, then he was a soft, white middle-class, intellectual cum middle-manager, who, according to his numerous blog posts, enjoyed farmer’s markets and was ready to send Wall Streeters to the guillotine in exchange for a lower cable-bill.

Ironically, Bloodofox, according to his Linked-In page, was an IT manager for a retirement fund, the same retirement fund that the University of Denver used. My dad called the retirement fund and they agreed that this particular employee had been spending an inordinate amount of time on Wikipedia, but all they could do was ask him not to do it at work. And once again, we had zero evidence that this was the same Bloodofox that had written my father’s Wikipedia page.

Going through Bloodofox’s Facebook page, I realized we both liked exotic whiskeys. Enjoyed many of the same books. Like the same movies. In real life we might be friends, but in the world of Wikipedia, we were fighting in a world of friction and fiction, where entire careers could be rewritten by someone with a grudge.

In the end, my father never had his page changed. He said that in academic circles, his career and accolades were known, and that was enough for him. But still, any time a student or reader of his work, reads his Wikipedia page, they will learn about my father not from his accomplishments, but from Bloodofox’s grudge. This, in itself, should be a red flag for not only how the internet supplies us with information now, but how we will be remembered by the generations to come. 


[1] Wikipedia’s Co-Founder is Wikipedia’s Most Outspoken Critic, Zack Shwartz, Vice, November 11, 2015.




The Lady in the Boot

Picture Credits: LEEROY Agency

I
admit I was more accustomed to rowdy seedy bars in backstreets. Unlike the one
I was in which oozed elegance and splendour. It was marble-floored,
air-conditioned, the walls were not smudged and the seats not moth-eaten. The
music didn’t assault one’s ears and the air was pristine. No vile smells of
sweaty bodies and stale liquor, or choking marijuana smoke, and hands were not
reaching for the large-bottomed barmaids in their lovely black and white
uniforms.

Even
the ladies-of-the-night were formal and proper. They sat with their backs
straight, their legs crossed, laughed with their mouths closed and drank their
wine with the utmost panache.

I
was here with my two good friends to celebrate my first ever royalty check. We
drunk our overpriced drinks quietly, daunted by the fact that we were just
visitors to such classy places.

Two
tables to my right was Kamanga, a man well known to many residents of Nairobi.
In the tabloids he was often seen shaking hands with the high and mighty.
Kamanga was a fixer who also had his finger in many shady deals. If one wanted
a competitor intimidated, or had a pregnant mistress who was refusing to get an
abortion, he was the man to call. If one’s daughter was dating a loser who
refused to let the girl be, Kamanga made sure he saw reason, courtesy of a few
broken bones.

Kamanga
was in the company of three other men. Similarly pot-bellied, and by the way
they spoke to the barmaids, with massively inflated egos as well. The four kept
talking in a conspiratorial manner while staring at three young women who were
seated at a table a bit further off. These women were engaged in rather
animated talks and seemed to be in celebratory mood.

Kamanga
urged a member of his posse to go talk to them. The man stood up, slightly
agitating the well-stocked table, and strolled to the three young women.
Without a word he pulled up a chair to their table. Once seated he outstretched
his hand to the bewildered women. They hesitated before shaking his hand.

The
man commenced introducing himself and concluded by stating he was a lawyer and
that the blue BMW outside was his. The ladies didn’t seem impressed at all. As
a matter of fact, there was a lot of irritation showing on their faces. He went
on and on about how beautiful the ladies were that he just had to come over and
introduce himself. My friends and I watched on amusedly.

“Listen,
sir,” said one of them in curtly, “we are just here for the drinks, not to
mingle.”

The
man, unperturbed, singled out the one of the three women who seemed least
hostile. He bombarded her with cliché upon cliché: eyes like cowrie shells,
smile of angels, most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on, and so on.

The
lady tried to fend him off without seeming rude. The other two would tell him
to get on his bike, but he would very calmly reply that he wasn’t talking to
them. The polite lady’s “Thank you, but I’m not interested”, “I’m sorry, but
you’re not my type”, “I’m just here to have fun with my girlfriends” all went
unheeded.

Finally,
resignedly, she said she had a boyfriend. The man sighed disappointedly and
angrily walked back to his table. It seems the only thing that can get a woman
from unwanted attention is to claim she is “taken” by another man.

When
the man sat down I heard some choice words thrown at the three women by the
gang. It reminded me of my usual watering holes, where barmaids hurl
unspeakable words at touchy-grabby customers.

“I
once knew a woman like these three girls,” said Kamanga, “who think they are
too good for some men. Just because she has much book and can speak the Queen’s
English and drive a German car. All that don’t mean shit. She is still a woman
and must never forget that.

“Her
name was Njeri,” continued Kamanga, “prettiest thing you ever saw. Big titties,
big ass and exceptionally curvy. Every time I saw her she left my mind and
loins aflame with unsatisfied desire. Njeri and I lived in the same apartment
building in Eldoret Town. She worked for an NGO that paid her really well.
Which made her think she could look down on everybody.

“Njeri
was insufferable. I recollect her haughty tones, her phony English accent and
the way she shook hands as if the other was infested with leprosy. Regardless,
I really wanted to smash that. Time and time again I tried asking her out but
she laughed me down. I’d rather hang than let an uncultured, uneducated
fisherman between my thighs, she often said. I gave up when she said well-bred
ladies did not fraternize with sewer rats.

“It
was the year 2007 and that December there was an election. The general election
that most Kenyans avoid talking about. On D-day we went and voted and went back
to our homes to await the results. Everything was peaceful until the
presidential results started streaming in. It was evident the out-going
president had rigged the election. Like some constituencies had more votes for
the president than the actual voters. Despite the irregularities, he was
quickly announced the winner by the electoral commission and was sworn in at
night.

“The
opposition weren’t having any of it and violence erupted in many parts of the
country. Eldoret town amongst them. As most of you remember the president was
from the Kikuyu community, and you all know we vote along ethnic lines. Tribes
supporting the opposition party started venting their anger and frustration on
tribes that supported the president. Members of the Kikuyu tribe who lived in
opposition strongholds had it worse. Many were beaten, raped, killed, had their
houses burnt down and property stolen.

“It
was a devilish time where neighbour turned upon neighbour, friend upon friend
and even in-laws. It was also a time when old scores were settled. Many Kikuyu
began fleeing from hostile territories. And their travel was full of peril. One
group fled to a church and the church was razed down killing many of them. A
woman fleeing with a mattress and other odds realizing the child on her back
hadn’t cried a while, turned the child to her front to find arrows sticking in
its back.

“Others
met with roadblocks manned by enraged youth who would board the buses and tell
everybody to hold out their National Identity cards. If it bore a Kikuyu name
you were pulled out of the bus, and the driver ordered to drive on. All these
was broadcasted in the evening news.”

Seated
there sipping my beer I remembered those unforgettable days that forever
changed Kenya. I was sixteen years old then. My family and I lived in Kikuyu
land, therefore we were safe from the aggression of other tribes. Each evening
we watched the ghastly news of death and destruction, and it felt like we were
watching carnage in an alien country. Kenya had always been billed as one of
the most stable countries in the continent. A country that had never
experienced civil war or a coup. A country whose transition of power from one
president to the next was always peaceful.

Schools
were suspended, and every day in the streets of my village refugees streamed in
by the dozens to their relatives. Haggard, hungry, devastated, clutching onto
their little bundles. The refugees gave harrowing descriptions of what they had
endured at the hands of colleagues, schoolmates, fellow church members and
neighbours whom they had borrowed from one another the odd cup of sugar.

Odhiambo
was a man I knew all my life. A bicycle mechanic who was slightly mentally
challenged. Regardless of this, he was easily the best bicycle mechanic in the
village and all the surrounding villages. It seemed he had a secret language
with the bicycle tribe. They could speak to him and inform him exactly where
and what was ailing them.

One
morning in the midst of all this post-election madness, as I walked to a shop
for some bread. I heard many people shouting and yelling. It was coming from
Odhiambo’s shed. I rushed. Odhiambo was on the earth in his greasy overall. His
face was all bloody. The angry mob was kicking him left and right.

No
one was shouting “thief”, but I knew why they were beating him up. Odhiambo was
a man who rarely talked, who mostly kept to himself and never did anyone any
harm. He was the most peace-loving man I am yet to meet. He was a man who
always had his radio tuned to one station, Radio Citizen. A man who spent his
days at his shed repairing bikes and haggling with customers who wanted to take
advantage of his mental challenges. They were beating him up because he was
Luo. Retaliation against their kinsmen who were being persecuted in other parts
of the country by tribes such as the Luo and Kalenjin. Odhiambo hadn’t done
anyone any harm. He had woken up, worn his overall, and carried his tools and
radio to his station like any other day.

A
woman yelled that he should be circumcised since his tribe didn’t traditionally
circumcise their men. Hence the Luo are seen by tribes that use circumcision as
a rite of passage to manhood as forever immature.

A
neighbour pulled me away towards home. I went crying.

“Why
do you cry for these animals?” he asked. “You know very well what they are
doing to our people in their homelands.”

Odhiambo
didn’t live to see the next day. He was either beaten to death or bled to death
from the circumcision. That is the one person close to me whom I lost during
the violence. But I couldn’t grieve him, I wasn’t supposed to grieve him. He
was the enemy.

We
stopped killing each other after forty-five days. Only after the intervention
of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. He brokered a peace
treaty between the president and the opposition leader who was to become prime
minister, a newly created position. The two leaders formed a government based on
a fifty-fifty power-sharing agreement.

Someone
coughed loudly and brought me back to the bar.

“In
our building there were several Kikuyu,” said Kamanga. “All fled but Njeri.
Initially we didn’t think the skirmishes would reach our affluent
neighbourhood. But it did. Gangs were going door to door flushing out the
undesirables. Most of the residents in the building were uneasy about Njeri,
because harbouring a Kikuyu was putting one’s self at risk.”

As
Kamanga talked, I caught up on some history: Eldoret, which is part of the Rift
Valley province is the traditional home of the Kalenjins, who voted for the
opposition. Part of the reason why some Kikuyu found themselves living in the
Rift Valley away from their traditional home in Central Kenya was due to British
colonization.

The
British took most of the arable Kikuyu land and they were forced to look for
land elsewhere through settlement schemes. These Kikuyu were always viewed
suspiciously by the locals as grabbers who had come to steal the Kalenjin land
like the British stole their land. The second is the Kikuyu are the most
entrepreneurial community in Kenya, popularly referred to as a money-grabbing
tribe. They are everywhere trying to eke out a living.

After
the elections, politicians trumpeted that it was about time they did away with
the cockroaches that had occupied their land, and the rallying call was heeded.
Those who had been jealous of their rich Kikuyu neighbours took advantage of
the situation and kicked them out to take their land, cattle and other
property.

“Well,
being Luo myself I was safe in Eldoret Town, a Kalenjin town,” said Kamanga,
“unlike Njeri who was Kikuyu. The opposition leader was a Luo man, after all,
whom the Kikuyu had rigged out of presidency.

“Two
weeks in, I decided to leave for Nairobi to stay with my brother’s family till
everything had settled down. Njeri too was thinking of ways to skip town. From
our balconies we could see smoke emanating from many neighbourhoods. We could
hear cries day and night. We didn’t dare to venture out. In the apartment,
tempers were flaring up. Many wanted Njeri gone. She was risking their lives
being there, they said. They even threatened to direct the gangs to her
doorstep if she didn’t leave. So you see Njeri was in a very hard place. She couldn’t
stay, and due to the roadblocks erected by angry youth, she couldn’t leave.

“When
Njeri heard I was leaving come morning, she knocked on my door that night. She
wore a rather revealing nightdress. She didn’t beat around the bush. She wanted
me to take her with me but understandably I wanted nothing to do with her. She
tried manipulating me with her feminine wiles; using honeyed tones, touching my
arms and really playing up the damsel in distress. I wasn’t having any of it.

“Suddenly
she grabbed my hand and gently started pulling me towards the bedroom, but I
said I wasn’t in the mood. She tried kissing me and unzipping my pants but I
flung her away from me. I thought ladies didn’t fraternize with sewer rats, I
said. She sunk onto the floor in a heap and began sobbing. I felt so much
pleasure turning down her advances. Oh, it was so invigorating.

“The
next morning I packed a few things and was ready to leave when a delegation of
members of the apartment held me up and beseeched me not to leave Njeri behind.
I would be subjecting her to untold horror when the gangs reached the
apartment, they said. I held firm to my stand. She always thought I was not fit
to shine her shoes, why should she need me now? How dare she ask for my help?

“A
few men called me aside and basically said I shouldn’t condemn Njeri to death
just because she refused me. Eventually I gave in. I hid Njeri in the boot of
my car.

“The
streets of Eldoret town gave the impression of the beginning of the end of the
world. A fog of smoke blanket everything. Businesses had been broken into and
looted. Elephant-sized rocks had been placed in the middle of the roads and
tyres were burning everywhere. Vehicles and kiosks were smouldering on the
roadside. Young men with bows, arrows and machetes patrolled the streets.
Others were carting away television sets, heavy sacks and even fridges. I did
see a few bloody corpses by the roadsides, with arrows sticking out of them.

“Every
few hundred meters I was waved to a stop. Young men thrust their heads into my
car and asked for my ID. But mostly on seeing my face, they could easily tell I
was Luo and waved me through. In every stop, the young men chanted that it was
time they uprooted the weeds on their land.”

Many
people in the bar were listening in to this story as Kamanga’s husky voice
carried a far distance. I could tell the three ladies were also listening in.
The story was being told for their benefit, after all.

“Outside
town, the story was the same. Broken-into shops, smouldering houses, rocks on
the road and people carting away stolen property. I drove down the Rift Valley.
Every little town I passed or every village, it was as if the Army of Death had
paid them a visit. And every kilometre or so there were road blocks manned by
angry young men with crude weapons.”

“But
you will have to agree it was quite risky,” said an older gent in a table near
to the three ladies, “you risking your life over a girl who wouldn’t piss on
you if you were on fire.”

“Hold
your horses, sir,” said Kamanga, who immediately took a big chug of his beer.

“With
every passing of a roadblock I grew angrier and kept questioning myself: What
if I find a gang who want to look into my boot? What then? Won’t they accuse me
of collaborating with the enemy? Why am I risking my life over a girl who
thinks her vagina is too good for the likes of me?”

“But
I’m sure you would have easily talked to them, being a Luo,” someone said,
“maybe given them a few coins to look the other way, said she was your wife or
something.”

“Yes.
I’m sure I could have worked something out,” said Kamanga. “All I’m saying is I
would’ve easily gone to such troubles if she had been nicer to me.”

He
took another big chug of his beer.

“I
reached yet another roadblock and pulled over. I handed over my ID, they handed
it back and ushered me along. One young man shouted they would not relent until
my tribesman, the opposition leader, was made president as he had clearly won
the election. The Kikuyu had run this country for many years, another said, it
was time they gave the top seats to other tribes to enjoy the fruits as well.

“I
didn’t drive off immediately. There’s something about this gang that I liked.”

He
took another gulp of his beer.

“I
got out of the car, strolled to the boot and opened it. I pulled Njeri out by
her hair and informed them she was Kikuyu. They immediately got hold of her.
Three of them dragged her into the bush. No one asked me any questions. As I
drove off I could hear her screams.”

There
was an atmosphere of shock and disbelief in the bar. Even someone dropped their
bottle to the floor. Then I heard some murmurs from a few drunken men – served
her right, what did she expect?

“It’s
been nearly fifteen years and she’s still missing,” Kamanga said, in a manner
as if he was giving a toast. He laughed hard, a maniacal laughter, and other
men joined him. Including, surprisingly, my two friends. They seemed to have
thoroughly enjoyed Njeri’s demise.

“Be
nice to that man who shows some interest in you,” said Kamanga, “you might
desperately need him tomorrow. That’s the point I’m trying to put across to
women here.”

Some
clients, mostly women, walked out of the bar in disgust. Including the three
young women.

“But
that’s in the past now,” said Kamanga, his voice beginning to slur from the
alcohol. “Isn’t the government constantly shoving down our throats the
forgive-each-other doctrine over the atrocities committed then? So that we can
build a more coherent country? So that we never turn into savages ever again…
Well, long live Kenya.”

I
was mad with rage, and perhaps due to the alcohol in me, I decided the best
course of action was to rush to the nearest fuelling station, buy a gallon of
petrol and burn his car. But something curious happened. A pretty woman, in her
mid-thirties, walked slowly to the posse. She stared at them for a while. I was
sure a tirade of abuse would follow. Maybe even a spirited charge at them.
Instead, she asked, in a shy flirtatious manner, whether she could sit on
Kamanga’s lap since the other chairs were occupied. Kamanga more than obliged.

“You
see,” he said boastfully as the woman tenderly sat on him, “this is a woman I
would not leave in the cold to be devoured by wolves.”

I
couldn’t understand the act. But then again, I have never been one to
understand women. The act gave me so many colliding thoughts that I decided not
to burn Kamanga’s car after all.

As
I huffed in anger and confusion, I asked myself: Why am I this angry? Is it
because of poor Odhiambo? Is it because of the thousands that were killed in
the violence, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees?

Am
I angry because of the rampant tribalism that never seems to ever go away? Or
is it due to this woman who is now, by Kamanga’s countenance, whispering
naughty things in his ear. Perhaps it’s all down to Njeri, a woman I had never
met. If yes, am I angry only because she was a woman from my tribe? Would I be
as angry if she was from another tribe? Yes? No? And what does it say about me
that I have friends who relish such wickedness?

Later
Kamanga and the lady excused themselves. Kamanga was so drunk he could barely
stand straight. As the lady supported him on their way out, I heard him ask her
if she could drive or whether they would have to hail a taxi.

That
was the last time anyone saw or heard from Kamanga.




On this Day

Hannah, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this photo of you from exactly five years ago today.

Do you remember that day, Hannah? “Meet us in the park,” your friends said, “we’re down by the river,” and so you (pictured, left) went, and you all sat in the shade because Ellie (pictured, right), one of your oldest friends, sunburnt so easily. Mark (not pictured) bought everyone ice creams and you lay around on the daisy-jeweled riverbank, the air fragrant with barbeque and coconut sun cream and freshly cut grass, and you chatted and laughed and had a good time. You don’t remember what you talked about though, do you, Hannah, because why would you – you thought you’d have hundreds more of these lazy afternoons, no need to commit every conversation to memory, no need to do anything but feel life wash over you, bask in its pulsing rays.

Look
how happy you are, Hannah. You’re positively glowing. Look how young you are.
Life hasn’t done its damage yet, hasn’t wrinkled that youthful face, shadowed
those shining eyes. This was before The Year Everyone Died, wasn’t it, Hannah?
Before Mark (who took this photo, captioned it “Summer of Love,” and uploaded
it to Facebook for you to enjoy this special memory) was found dead in his
flat, alone, his cat curled on his lap. Before Ellie was found dead, alone, on
the night of Dan’s funeral – Dan
(not pictured) who overdosed, alone, “accidentally” they said but who knows, I
mean they said Ellie died of “natural causes” but what’s fucking natural about
dying at the age of 34? This was before Carl (not pictured) died, alone, jaundiced
and bloated and surrounded by empty whiskey bottles in a hotel room in Beirut.
Before your Nan (not pictured) died, surrounded by family in hospital, a couple
of days before Christmas. Do you remember what your Nan said, Hannah, when you
told her you loved her?

“If
I could bottle up all that love, I could go on forever.”

But
nobody goes on forever, do they, Hannah? We just thought we’d remind you of
that today, five years since this photo was taken, and what have you even done
with your life in those five years, Hannah, are you making the most of every moment,
are you doing your dead proud? Because you survived, Hannah, and they didn’t,
and your incessant googling of “survivors’ guilt” won’t slacken its noose.

We’re
only reminding you of all this because we’re such good friends, Hannah, which
is why we’re on a first-name basis. We care so much about you and your memories, and by care we might mean own, but you don’t need to read the
small print, Hannah – just trust
in our relentless algorithms.