The Room

Looking back, Raúl remembered his first visit to the room and the view from the window of what would become his first home away from home. It was a lovely view, he had to admit. With one knee on the small bed, he looked out the window at the tree-lined street below, the charming row houses with their well-tended small gardens down the street to the right, and the creek winding its way through the park beyond. To his left, the tall bridge carried cars and bicycles, silently from here, from the northwestern suburbs into the heart of the city. Robins jostled at the canopy of the tall trees ahead. Sensing movement below, he watched as an elderly woman struggled to direct a beagle up the sidewalk, intent as the dog was on a squirrel in one of the front lawns.

“Very quiet, you see?” asked the prospective roommate, mixing sensory modalities, and the young man nodded, still watching the beagle track the squirrel away from the twig-strewn sidewalk, while the elderly woman yanked weakly at his leash. “Everybody loves it,” she smiled. “Like living in a tree house, but with better plumbing.” She laughed at her own oft-repeated joke.

The young man eased off the bed, standing before the woman, towering over her short and slight Asian frame. “I love it,” he said.

She smiled broadly. “You leave me the deposit today, and it’s yours for the summer.”

And so it was that the young man, Raúl, secured a place to live during his upcoming summer internship with the embassy from his Central American country. His worried mother had initially frowned upon this idea and any connection with the embassy. After all, they had escaped with their lives and little else following the government coup during which his father, a mid-level government functionary, disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. Raúl and his sister Violeta were still children when the elder Raúl, fearing for their lives, arranged to have them and their mother Eustacia stow away on a freight ship carrying crates of bananas to the U.S. It was a long and nauseating journey; and Eustacia anxiously cradled the children, fearful always of being arrested, kidnapped, or worse by potential sympathizers of the new regime.

Disembarking under cover of night over the oily and dark waters of the commercial docks, they finally made it safely to the home of their contact, a friend of Raúl’s father. He had worked at the consulate until the coup, when word arrived that he was to be recalled by the new regime. Instead he sought and obtained political asylum in the U.S., anticipating that he would be imprisoned or killed upon his return. He had not heard any news of the elder Raúl’s whereabouts or safety, and Eustacia prayed and cried as they saw the news reports. It was said that the insurrectionists had executed the president and many others connected with the U.S.-backed dictatorship.

With their contact’s assistance and that of other U.S.-based friends, the exiled family was able to obtain asylum as they waited to be reunited with the elder Raúl. They settled into a small apartment outside of Miami and waited for months in dwindling hopes of hearing from him. They never received any official word, but his name was among those circulated through the grapevine as having been executed and dumped into a mass grave in the coffee-growing mountainous interior.

Though Eustacia remained a fearful, overprotective mother, she was able to provide a loving home for her children with the aid of distant cousins who came swiftly to their assistance when they learned of the newly arrived primos. Raúl and Violeta grew up in bilingual, sunshine-drenched south Florida among the Cubans, Colombians, and variously dispossessed Latinos who were carving out a new identity there, amid the sounds of salsa and cumbia in the streets.

While holding proudly to their language, food, and traditions, most members of the community there showed a surprisingly patriotic devotion to their adoptive country. Nonetheless, as new waves of migrants arrived, including Salvadoran gangs, Colombian drug dealers and others, crime became rampant and a backlash of prejudice and bigotry became directed against them.

Despite occasional eruptions of anti-immigrant sentiment, the children were naturally bright and curious and did well in school, mastering English quickly and finding support among their teachers. They were not alone in being marked for periodic insults and taunting, and they knew that the Haitian and Guatemalan kids had it worse, so they were not overly sensitive or scarred by the experience. Raúl grew up with a strong sense of social justice, recognizing every advantage he had and overlooking those he did not. He did not judge harshly the kids who joined the growing neighborhood gangs and cruised the backstreets of Dade County in souped-up Civics with big spoilers, holding big guns in their tremulous hands. Raúl understood these kids to be sad and unloved, and he was eager to engage in an effort to provide more opportunities to those who like him had come to America for a better life.

Raúl excelled in school and had his pick of colleges to attend. While his mother urged him to attend the prestigious university in the Northeast that offered him a great scholarship, he felt that his mother still needed him at home. He chose instead to commute to the local state college, allowing him also to keep his grocery store job and help out financially at home. As he approached graduation, he began to contemplate his options and felt at a crossroads as he never had before. He listened to the conflicting advice of his college professors and felt no closer to a decision. Then he found the name and address of Hortensio Ojuela, the family’s old contact at the consulate who had lobbied on their behalf and started them on the path to becoming new Americans.

Raúl wrote to Don Hortensio to ask for his advice and support, citing his desire to become politically active as an American citizen and a member of the Latino community. Don Hortensio responded graciously and noted that the political climate in their native country had changed. He urged Raúl to pursue a summer internship with the embassy in Washington, D.C. He still had connections with the diplomatic staff, and he told Raúl that he would gladly write him a letter of reference, highlighting the unique experience Raúl could have as an insider in both countries.

Fifteen years and seven months after first setting foot on U.S. soil, Raúl received a letter of response from the embassy. The letter, unusually formal and italicized in an era of ungrammatical and abbreviated e-mail missives, offered Raúl a position with the assistant to the assistant to the ambassador in D.C. He would participate in interviews with relevant politicians and members of Congress, and he would have the opportunity to help write position papers for the U.S. news outlets.

Raúl arrived in D.C. in the midst of a May heat wave that made the buildings shimmer and was, if possible, even worse than that of south Florida. His mother dropped him off with tears and lingering hugs at the Miami-Dade airport and he took the Metro in from Reagan airport, wheeling a large duffel bag and carrying a knapsack over his shoulders. He had reserved an extended-stay room for a week until he could secure a room for the summer. He had made multiple appointments to look at rooms over several days prior to starting the internship, but it was proving a disheartening experience. The ones he liked were beyond his budget and those that seemed even only barely affordable were located in dangerous and out-of-the-way neighborhoods. He felt the disappointment in his gut as he reached the last address on his list. To his surprise and suspicion, it was a tall building, elegant if somewhat faded, on a lovely tree-lined street overlooking a park in a tony and convenient neighborhood. The front door was locked and there was a concierge, providing some added security. Mom would like that, he thought.

The woman posting the room for rent ad was Annie Chen, a tiny fifty-something who still divided her rooms with strings of beads. The apartment smelled of ginger and sandalwood, and a fat gray cat sat at one of the windowsills, unfazed by the human company. A number of oil and acrylic paintings lined the walls and sat on every surface in the small apartment, ranging from abstract expressionist canvases to whimsical portraits. Formal black-and-white portraits of an Asian couple, presumably Annie’s parents, stared from the wall alongside brush paintings on rice paper, a concession to her ancestral past. Annie took evident pride in her artwork, and she pointed out almost every painting, sketch, print, and knickknack in the apartment, describing her eagerness to embrace every aspect of the creative process. “I also sing and write music,” she beamed. “I get energy and inspiration from young people like you!” Raúl felt there was something over the top about Annie, but also a sincere openness that appealed to him.

The apartment was small, and the bedroom she was renting out was actually a space probably meant to be a home office; it did not even have a door, and a heavy red curtain was all that separated it from the main living area. She drew the curtain revealing a messy makeshift bed piled with books and clothes. A bike leaned against a small cheap chest of open drawers. Annie’s artwork was the only other decor; that is, except for the view of the trees from the wide window. He set one knee on the bed and looked out at the view. He knew then that he wanted that to be his view upon waking in the morning and going to bed at night.

The bedroom was occupied by a Swedish guy named Lars whose lease ran out in two days; he had promised to clear his stuff by then, as soon as he found a storage place for it. Lars worked for a cable TV channel and was going to spend a month in India on assignment. According to Annie, Lars was hopeful of returning to the room once he came back to the U.S., but she had told him that she could not keep the room open for him. Other people would want to live there and the room belonged to whoever was willing to commit to pay for it. Raúl nodded in agreement and felt a wave of possessiveness: Lars’s day had come and gone; this would now be Raúl’s place, and it would be his stuff in the room.

Raúl arrived as agreed three days later, lugging his stuff off the Metro stop escalator. He walked past the park and down the tree-lined street, grateful for the shade. He buzzed the concierge to be let in, and he thought that the decor in the lobby seemed more faded and neglected than when he first visited. The dour woman at the concierge desk eyed him appraisingly and did not return his smile. She told him that Annie was not in, but— at this she shuffled unenthusiastically to the numbered cubbyholes on the wall behind her, retrieving an envelope – she had left him a note and the key to the apartment. Annie was at an art show, according to the note; but it read to go ahead and make himself at home.

Raúl took the slow, droning elevator, its walls padded in thick gray sheets. The hallway of the sixth floor was quiet; a faded sign in front of the elevator door indicated that the even-numbered rooms were to the left and the odd ones to the right. Seems appropriate, thought Raúl as he turned right and found the nailed metal numbers on the front door signaling his new home.

In the absence of Annie’s enthusiasm, the silent apartment took on an oddly anoxic feeling. The tiny kitchen on the right by the front door was messy, with stacked bowls and porcelain dishes. The windows were closed and the air felt heavy and musty. The ubiquitous artwork was eclectic to the point of seeming now haphazard and disconnected. It’s a damn attic, thought Raúl to himself. He threaded his body and belongings through the cramped living area and drew the heavy red curtain. He was disconcerted to see Lars’s books on the bed and his bike leaning against the open drawers of the small chest. Had he even been back? Did he expect to return? Raúl pushed the books aside and dumped his duffel bag on the small lumpy bed. At least the view out the window was as comforting as he recalled it. He pressed his face against the glass to look around. The trees were fuller now as summer approached. Two girls were running together along the path by the creek and right below him a couple walked two retrievers. He let himself flop onto the bed, pushing aside the books and debris on it, and discovered himself to be more tired than he had recognized. His arms and legs felt tight and lying down soothed and relaxed them. To his surprise, he felt himself drift off as memories of the flight in morphed into dream images. He was on an escalator climbing up towards the sun, arriving at the apex of a pyramid overlooking the jungle below. Raúl recognized this image as incompatible with his present reality, and knew he must be wavering in and out of sleep.

“You’re here!”

Raúl started, and saw the big smile and little body of Annie standing by the open curtain. His first thought was, what time is it? He smiled sheepishly, and Annie launched into an explanation of her day, the art show, and “oh yeah sorry about Lars’s stuff still here no problem we can take it downstairs to the basement storage area but it’s too heavy for me to do alone but now you’re here so no problem okay”?

Raúl nodded, still heavy with sleep.

“You stay here. I want to take a picture of you,” smiled Annie, and she zipped away, returning with a camera. You’re kidding, thought Raúl, but he said nothing as Annie squinted through the camera for what seemed an excessively long photo shoot. At last she stopped and put the camera down. “You hungry?” she asked. “Let’s eat first. Then we can take stuff downstairs.”

Annie’s space in the basement was slightly larger than my putative bedroom and it was crammed to the proverbial gills with clothes, books, loose leaf binders, tools, painting supplies, and boxes with torn corners and frayed packing tape. How she could possibly find room for Lars’s stuff was astonishing, but before long his things had merged into the earlier mess with no evident change. “You could hide a body in here and no one would find it for years,” Annie laughed. Raúl laughed hollowly in response. It occurred to him that he had never met Lars and had no explanation for Annie’s choice to keep his stuff in storage. Did she kill him? Is his body hidden here, he asked himself, recognizing how ridiculous this thought was. There would be a simple explanation if only he asked her, he told himself; but he just didn’t want to appear to be challenging this tiny vibrant and artistic Asian woman.

The first few days in his internship were exciting and heady indeed. It was odd to find out how many people had personally known or known of Raúl’s dad, whom he hardly remembered, and it gave him a sense of connectedness such as he had never known before. It also instilled in him a strong sense of mission, as the consulate staff appeared to making a sincere effort to assist their nationals who faced a range of problems, from immigration issues through questions about taxes and educational opportunities, to family concerns that they did not dare discuss with the local authorities. The director of the student internship program, Calixto San Inocencio, was a young Georgetown Law graduate who seemed to know everyone in D.C., as well as all the cool places for young people to attend. His street knowledge was invaluable: he guided Raúl not only to the best inexpensive restaurants and clubs, but to the places where the Capitol Hill staffers and diplomatic corps members lubricated their tongues and gave away useful information.

But for all that, Raúl found himself feeling uneasy at home. His odd thought that Annie might have killed and hidden Lars’s body, absurd as it was, infiltrated itself into every odd experience, of which there were several. He found clothing items he had folded neatly and placed in the top drawer, in the same manner but in the second drawer. Twice he woke up during the night to see Annie’s face peering around the curtain at him, only to disappear so quickly he thought he might have only imagined her. And he found his face now displayed in the house; Annie had worked some of the pictures she took of him into somewhat abstracted renditions in charcoal and pencil that she framed and set in various locations. What bothered Raúl most about these was that she had twisted his features so that he appeared to be in agony; he thought of them as resembling death masks. When he looked quizzically at one of them by way of introducing the topic, Annie clapped her hands and squealed with delight. “Beautiful! This one is also my new favorite,” she stated with such unself-conscious glee that Raúl felt inclined only to smile in ostensible approval.

On his first Saturday morning, eager to sleep in and perhaps take in the sights in a leisurely fashion, Raúl awoke too early to the commotion of various loud voices. He flipped opened his cell phone to look at the time; it was 6:45am. What the fuck?, he thought. No sooner did he turn than Annie peered in his curtain.

“You’re awake!” She exclaimed joyfully. “Come meet my friends!” The other end of the curtain then parted slightly to reveal the face of an elegant Filipino woman, who smiled at Raúl and then turned to nod at Annie. Annie laughed and both women left, allowing he curtain to spread closed once again.

Raúl slipped on a t-shirt over his pajama pants and slipped out of his bedroom into the living area. There were several people there, all older and sitting around the central table that displayed many of Annie’s heavier objets d’art. They gazed at him in a manner that he felt intrusive despite the surface friendliness. Two men, seemingly gay — maybe a couple– held out their hands and introduced themselves as Brian and Paul. Brian had a decidedly Irish brogue and Paul had a soft Southern drawl. The Filipino woman was introduced as Gloria, another artist; she crossed her arms over her chest and made a motion as if she were going to cry. “Raúl was my father’s name,” she said, as her eyes disappeared into her face. “But he spoke Tagalog, not Spanish.” Annie laughed along with Gloria as Raúl smiled politely.

The two other women stayed seated. Raúl now noted that they were not as old as he thought at first. Brian, Paul, and Gloria were probably all close to or past fifty, but the other two—Karin and Gisela—were probably in their late 30’s. They would have seemed younger in a younger crowd, thought Raúl, recognizing that both were fairly attractive, Gisela especially so. He assumed immediately that both women were German, but he learned that Karin was Austrian and Gisela Swiss.

“So you’re neutral,” he chirped in an effort a humor that fell completely flat.

Gisela held his gaze. “Not if by neutral you mean dull,” she responded, with an inflection that struck Raúl as profoundly sexy while also somewhat supercilious.

“So will you be joining us?” asked Brian. “We’re going to Paul’s cabin in the country for a barbecue and fun.”

“It’s a cookout,” corrected Paul. “Barbecue is something else altogether, you Yankee.” They both laughed heartily.

Oh no. Absolutely no way, thought Raúl. He intended to enjoy his first weekend off in D.C. by himself, and with Annie away from the apartment at last, he saw this as a perfect opportunity to enjoy some privacy.

“You should come,” said Gisela, matter-of-factly; there was nothing plaintive to her tone, but Raúl found himself persuaded to pursue the potential adventure.

Paul’s cabin was in Maryland, a little over an hour out of D.C., and he had a van into which the whole group piled in. Raúl sat between Karin and Gisela in the middle seats, and Annie sat in the back with Gloria. The movement of the van led Raúl and Gisela to bump into each other periodically and after a while they remained close enough that their hips and legs touched even when the van was not negotiating turns. Raúl felt an exciting tingling sensation in that proximity to her but was careful not to bring attention to their propinquity.

When at last they reached their destination, it turned out to be a beautiful secluded redwood and glass home atop a hill, with a view in all directions. The bucolic cabin Raúl expected was fully serviced and stocked, and beautifully decorated. Even though it was still only about 9:30 in the morning, Paul announced “cocktail time!” and produced a tray with a pitcher of vodka, one of Bloody Mary mix, and assorted fixings, including celery stalks, limes, black pepper, and horseradish.

Annie and Gloria gave Raúl a tour of the house, pointing out their own contributions to the art work that adorned the house. Brian sat on the living room floor before the stereo set with his drink on the carpeted floor. He shuffled through a variety of CD’s and started with an old Neil Young album. “Sugar Mountain” came on and he and Paul exchanged brief, meaningful glances. From the kitchen, Gisela and Karin could be heard speaking German and laughing. Raúl walked in to the large kitchen, where the Teutonic women stood leaning against the cabinets, smoking a joint. The smell was familiar and unpleasant to Raúl; against his usual judgment, however, he accepted it and took a drag when Gisela passed it to him. Annie and Gloria took hits off the joint as well, and before long the women all seemed stoned and giddy. In contrast, Raúl was untouched by the pot and he started to feel resentful about the gathering. The more the others found everything hysterically funny, the more antipathy he felt toward them. He decided to go out for a walk by himself. As he crossed the living room toward the sliding glass doors he passed Brian and Paul lying down intertwined on the living room in front of the stereo speakers.

Raúl crossed the deck, where the grill stood ready. He walked through the yard into the woods, where a path beckoned. He ambled along the path into a grotto-like space under the canopy of the deciduous trees, and as he looked around him he felt he was in the presence of God. Nature was infinitely beautiful, the breeze against his face was reviving, and the swaying of the leaves was too intelligent and conscious to be ignored. He knelt down and felt tears of joy and appreciation run down his cheeks.

At some point, he turned back down the path, aware of the footsteps of the squirrels and the wind through the wings of the birds. He stepped cautiously and gratefully, and as he emerged into the yard within view of the house he felt himself brimming with happiness at being reunited with the other humans.

His first such encounter was with Paul and Brian, who sat at a porch swing on the deck. They smiled wordlessly at Raúl and it occurred to him then that they understood him better than anyone else. As gay men, they belonged to mainstream white American society but also stood outside it, scorned by many; as a Latino immigrant fluent in English and raised in the U.S., it was the same for him. He crossed the deck and entered the house, turning toward the kitchen. There was no one there and he returned to the living room.

In the living room, the women sat at the couch and easy chairs as Moby played from the speakers. Gisela smiled at Raúl and her smile was simply glorious and luminous. He walked over to where she sat. She moved over slightly, clearing a space for him on the loveseat. Annie, unusually quiet, smiled at him as he found a spot nestled against Gisela’s accommodating body. He melted into her and felt a comfort he had never experienced before. Gisela opened her arms and took Raúl into her bosom; he closed his eyes and listened as every note of the Moby CD cemented his sensory memory of her.

Some time later, Gisela got up to head into the kitchen and pour another Bloody Mary into her glass. She winked at Raúl, who followed her. In the kitchen, they reclined against the butcher-block island and kissed as he had never kissed a woman before.

The next day, Sunday, Raúl woke up to the sound of Annie noisily moving things around in the kitchen. His head hurt and the banging of pots and pans pierced into his brain. He felt uncomfortable and a nagging sense of guilt hung over him. He then remembered making out with Gisela and his guilt took on a clearer shape. Oh no, oh no, he thought. Through his discomfort he could hear Annie singing something vaguely familiar; after a few off-key bars he recognized it as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.” Raúl rolled over in bed and the singing stopped abruptly.

“You up?” Annie pulled back part of the curtain to peer in at him. I so wish she would stop doing that, thought Raúl; but all he said was “Yup.”

Annie smiled her wide grin. “We had a great time yesterday, right?”

“I guess,” said Raúl, although all he could summon was an extraordinary sense of wrong.

“Gisela is a good girl,” Annie said. “Very smart, too.” This was not what Raúl wanted to hear at all. He was truly hoping that the whole thing had gone unnoticed entirely (just about impossible), forgotten (still unlikely), or at least ignored and unmentioned (too late for that).

“Yes, I’m sure,” Raúl responded, resigning himself to Annie’s inability to recognize signs of reticence. It became clear to him that if he stayed in the apartment today he would not have access to the privacy, the soul-searching time, the quiet contemplation and reflection he needed. He was in over his head here. Raúl was a bright and well-liked, but ultimately bashful boy who had not left his mother’s side. Despite his intellectual prowess and seeming independence, his personal life lacked the experiences of love and autonomy that most 21-year old males in this country had, or at least claimed to possess.

So finding himself in a new big city, living with an older Asian woman in a semi-room whose previous tenant had seemingly disappeared, spending a day in the country with older foreigners, and making out with an older German woman – not to mention getting high, a wholly illegal act and one that he had frowned upon when his schoolmates did, dismissive of their escapism, their immaturity, their disregard for the rule of law – all of this flooded his sense of identity and swept the mileposts that safeguarded his direction in life. He could not undo the events of the previous day, but he could pledge renewed commitment to his path and reinforce his mission. So he would return to his internship on Monday with abandon, throwing himself into service to others and the path toward greater success at doing so.

That still left today, however, and he would have to get away from this den of iniquity if he was going to stay true to his mission. And that’s when Annie said, “I got a picnic ready for us. Let’s go to Rock Creek Park and have a relaxing day, me and you.”

Raúl shook his head before he could formulate a verbal response. Annie looked crestfallen for a brief moment and then a smile crossed her face. “I have everything ready. Just a time for relaxing. You can read or whatever. Nobody else is coming today. No need to talk if you don’t want.”

Well, thought Raúl, one more day and I’m back on track tomorrow.

The day was perfect. It was even a little cool as the morning light spread softly over the park. Birds chirped above. Runners took to the pathways, earbuds attached to mp3 players providing their individual soundtracks. Dark squirrels a color Raúl had never seen scurried across the ground and up into trees. Even Annie was uncharacteristically quiet, lugging a picnic basket with a linen towel peeking out from the lid.

They found a place under the trees where they laid out the blanket and pillows Raúl carried, and they set down the basket after taking off their shoes. Annie smiled. “Nice,” Raúl allowed.

“Tell me when you’re hungry,” Annie said. Raúl had not been able to see the contents of the picnic basket and he worried that she might have packed some odd Asian foods that would trouble his stomach— something with squid or duck feet, or sheep brains, who knows. He hesitated.

Annie wordlessly opened the picnic basket and turned down the linen towel, revealing a baguette, a jar of pâté de foie gras, various cheeses, and cornichons. A bottle of champagne was wrapped in a cooling sleeve and she extracted a bottle of orange juice and two plastic flutes. “For Buck’s Fizz; you probably know them as mimosas,” she explained.

Raúl stared in ill-disguised disbelief. Annie laughed. “I never told you I lived in Europe, right? I spent two years in London and three years in Paris. I love French food.” Raúl felt chastened at his stereotypic assumptions, and was grateful that Annie said no more about it, while clearly understanding that this was the case. She opened the bottles and mixed mimosas while he tore chunks of the baguette, spreading pâté and cornichons on some and cheese on others, as per Annie’s instructions. “You can mix the pâté and cheese if you want,” she said, but she shook her head with a look of disgust as she did. Raúl laughed.

“This is unbelievably good,” he said, savoring the pâté as it release wave upon wave of subtle flavors. The cold mimosa was refreshing and produced a delicious light buzz. Raúl felt more conscious than ever of the beauty of the park, the gurgling of the water, the dancing shadows cast by the tree leaves, and the perfect feel of sun and breeze upon his skin.

After eating, Annie lay back against one of the pillows and reached for a book she was reading. Raúl saw that it was in French, titled Rédemption, by an author named Chantal Chawaf. He reached for his book, a much-publicized recent memoir by a Washington politician, and leaned back on a pillow as well. However, his attention kept drifting to the moving shadows and playful rays of sunlight, and he could not keep track of the words on the page.

He opted to set the book down on his chest and just watch the unfolding natural landscape before him. It was quiet and perfect. He had found the silence he craved and now, with food in his stomach and his headache gone, even yesterday’s events seemed understandable and benign to him. Not only that, as his mood eased up from euthymic to mildly euphoric, he thought about Gisela and wondered when he might see her again. He raised himself up on one elbow and watched Annie as she read.

“When were you there —in Europe, I mean?” Annie looked up at him and seemed briefly disoriented.

“I was in London in 1965 to 1967. I was just a kid. Then we went to Paris, from 1968 to 1971.”

“Wow, how did that happen?”

“Long story. My mother was born into great shame, and she did not have place to call home. You ever hear about Nanjing, or Nanking?”

“City in China, right?”

Annie smiled sadly. “The Japanese army invaded in 1937. One of the worst episodes in modern history. They killed hundred of thousand people and raped up to 80,000 women. Today this is still known as the Rape of Nanking.”

“Oh my God, I hadn’t heard anything about this.”

“My grandmother was fourteen and raped by the Japanese. When it became clear that she was pregnant she became an object of great shame. The people wanted to put the baby to death, as the child of one of these Japanese monsters. My grandmother, just a child, heard of an English missionary family in Shanghai, about 180 miles away, and hope that they might give the baby a chance to live elsewhere. She waited for an auspicious night and left her house, walking, with the baby. Somehow she made it to Shanghai and the house of the missionaries. This we know because they told and wrote the story. However, she never made it back to Nanjing. Her body was found outside the bridge to Suzhou.

“Anyway, my mother was taken to India, the next stop of the missionary family, who left Shanghai by ship with news that the war would be spreading and they were no longer safe. They loved Shanghai and were deeply saddened to leave. Even once in India, they continued to honor their Chinese experience and used feng shui guidelines to arrange their new house. They even built a Chinese-style temple, with incense, pictures, and offerings of fruit, although they denied any conflict with their Baptist beliefs. They saw my mother as a gift from China to them, and they took loving care of her.”

Annie stopped and Raúl saw that she had abruptly choked up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have not talked about this in a long time.”

Raúl was at a loss for words. “I’m sorry. I would love to hear as much as you want to tell.”

Annie smiled. “Let’s enjoy this beautiful day. No more sad stories.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Maybe later then. More pâté?” And that was it. In her polite, good-natured manner, Annie made it clear that her story was over for today.

The sun overhead was starting to sear as the temperature reached the mid-80’s, following a surprisingly cool morning. Annie’s cell phone vibrated and she picked it up.

“Yes, he’s here with me,” she grinned and mouthed Gisela at Raúl. Raúl smiled and waved with his hand. “He says hello,” said Annie, all the time looking at Raúl. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “She wants to join us,” she whispered conspiratorially.

Raúl actually wanted to hear more of Annie’s story, but he was surprised to feel a sense of both longing and excitement at Gisela’s presence on the phone. “Sure,” he said, and Annie conveyed the response. Raúl leaned back on his pillow, shielding his eyes from what had become a more incisive sunlight, and he felt that a new life was spreading out before him, unexpected, unanticipated, but perhaps predestined somehow.

The following Monday at the embassy, Raúl arrived a changed young man. He ran into the director, Calixto, who asked if he was settling into D.C.

“Definitely,” responded Raúl with a degree of excitement that surprised him. “I love it here.”

“Cuidado,” cautioned Calixto. “This town is known to exert its spell on newcomers and seasoned pols alike.”

Raúl smiled and thought back to yesterday. He wanted to hear the rest if Annie’s story—one of forced migration and familial tragedy such as he had not imagined—and he wanted to spend more time with Gisela, the beautiful 38-year old Schweizerdeutsch woman who had awakened in him such passion. She met him and Annie at the park yesterday, and they spent time together there talking about art and music; they then went out to eat at a place on Connecticut Avenue, close to the Woodley Metro stop. They did not kiss or in any way give in to the dizzying attraction that held them, but he did get her number when she slipped him her business card over dinner.

Gisela, it turned out, was an art dealer, specializing in abstract expressionist paintings. Raúl knew nothing about this genre, and if asked would have expressed doubts about it being art at all. However, she was going to be attending a Rothko exhibition and explained to Raúl what she saw in this defiance of the traditional mores of the art world. He and Annie perused the book of reproductions she brought with her and then, far into the book, he suddenly got it: it was a view of the primal world beyond, the colors of nature at various times of day and night, as if viewed from a cave home. He found himself close to tears as he recognized a feeling of sad beauty that he had never previously found in art. These are so fucking beautiful, he thought. Annie agreed, and mentioned having been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

“You will love it,” Annie told Raúl, and Gisela agreed. “We should go someday,” she said, winking at him, and it seemed to Raúl both promising and frightening to hear this suggestion of a future together.

By Wednesday, Raúl was aware that he ached for Gisela. He found all kinds of ways to explain this away, and they were easy enough to find. Even so, however, he wished to see her. He and Gisela had behaved politely to a fault at the park, and no plans for further rendezvous were made. He had her card, turned it often in his fingers and memorized her work number, but did not know whether it would be appropriate to call her. He hoped that Annie would mention something and give him a reason to call Gisela.

However, in an inexplicable new nod to discretion, Annie had not mentioned her again and for the last few days she had not even pulled the curtain aside to peer in to Raúl’s bedroom when he gave indications of waking up. Raúl was now living with the privacy that he had craved at first, but it now felt distant and isolating.

And yet he was here for a purpose, in the heart of the nation’s capital and one of the most important locations on the planet, surrounded by his people — darker-skinned, Spanish-speaking people, people who shared a pre-Columbian Indian heritage as well as a post-colonial Latin American culture — and his dalliance with white Germanic Gisela as well as Asian Annie seemed somehow treasonous. He was here on a mission, to do right by his people and the country for which his father had died. His mother had reluctantly entrusted her confidence in his mission, knowing all too well how her own people rose up from time to time against themselves, leaving death and devastation in their wake. She had come to the U.S., foreseeing a post-national American life, bilingual and multicultural, which required leaving behind the national identity Raúl was now claiming; but she was willing to sponsor his adoption of that identity if it was in fact the right thing to do. The sacrifice his family had made was tantamount to that of the young virgins whose living hearts were ritually removed from their chest walls atop Maya pyramids in his ancestral land. He could not allow that legacy to go ignored. He would throw himself into his work at the embassy, and that would be the target of all his attention and concentration.

But the embassy did not reciprocate his dedication. He was being kept busy but it was not satisfying work. He was given a number of readings but no worthy assignments and he was largely functioning as an overeducated page. Calixto was busy these last few days and mostly unavailable, and Raúl wondered if he had conveyed a bad impression somehow. He had anticipated being at the center of the storm, rushing to interviews with world leaders, lunches with staffers for the OAS, coffee with Congresspersons. But instead he was being asked to proofread trivial flyers and serve as a guide for a group of high school students touring some of the embassies.

Raúl thought he would lose all sense of direction and mission were it not for his mother. She would have called him several times a day but knew to give him some space. Instead, she limited her calls to evenings, when she would ask about his day, although she called on the occasional morning as she drank coffee and ate toast with cheese, missing her son. Raúl kept these conversations brief and factual, only allowing himself the emotionality of long goodbyes in which he and his mom professed their love. He told his mother the things she would want to know—that he was doing well, in the midst of exciting times and enjoying the accolades showered upon him—but what he did not tell her was that he was homesick, really; when he talked to her he wished nothing more than to be home, eating her home cooking, being around his friends, and feeling in control of his life, the life he knew and could manage. Still, for all the heartache as he recognized missing his life, his mother’s pure and absolute love for him made him feel deserving of better things. And this gave Raúl the faith that he could emerge from all this confusion a better person.

Of course, she wasn’t fooled at all, but knew to respect his efforts at presenting himself positively. She knew that only if he was truly defeated would he acknowledge it; and that if things ever did get that bad for him, he would tell her.

The thing that was hardest for him to recognize, to verbalize– to confess – was that his sense of national identity was up for inspection and found full of kinks and inconsistencies. Raúl found that he tended to be more Central American among his white American friends, and more American among the Central Americans. In the midst of a Latino community in America, this always allowed for safety. However, there was more of a divide at the embassy, and he found himself to be the local gringo, albeit one with a pass, rather than one of the paisanos as he had expected to be seen. While he had previously found his otherness to be a mark of pride and distinction, it was now leading him to feel isolated there.

In some inexplicably paradoxical way, he was even more at sea with Annie, Gisela, and their friends, all of whom were naturalized foreigners, making him less other than ever. The Latino-American divide inherent in him meant nothing special to them; they were not aligned with one side over the other. And yet there was something newly exciting about this lack of preordained coordinates; it left him being just Raúl, and it was surprising to realize that this was a new identity to explore.

Thinking back to Saturday with Annie and her friends, Raúl realized that they had all brought with them their stories, their nationalities, and their unique experiences as people. Even the lone native-born American in the group had probably felt likewise as a gay Southern man.

On the next Thursday morning, Raúl finally got a juicy assignment, a meeting with an attaché from the Mexican embassy regarding immigration issues and the alleged failures of the Mexican government to protect Central Americans who crossed through Mexico into the U.S. The issues were fairly contentious and had caused considerable tensions. Various Central American governments alleged that their nationals were detained and jailed indefinitely in Mexican prisons without due process or access to representation. The Mexicans argued that illegal immigrants into their country did not have the same rights granted to their citizens and that moreover, these migrants contributed to the costs and displeasure of the U.S. Border Patrol and hurt relations between Mexico and the U.S. Not to mention, they added, it was the suspicion of the Mexican government that many if not most of these migrants were mareros—gangsters – and drug-runners.

The hope was that some kind of multilateral treaty could eventually be reached, and it would be Raúl’s project to research the related arguments and draft a position paper to go to the OAS. He interviewed various immigrants who told tales of harrowing journeys through Mexico, enduring beatings, robberies, rapes, and witnessed deaths at the hands of Mexican authorities as well as roving gangs.

Simply making the journey was hazardous enough without these added dangers. One 15-year old boy told Raúl about how he and his guide, barely older, waited at night in a desert valley in Sonora to hop a night train. They were seemingly alone in the valley, crouched quietly behind scraggly bushes for hours; when the train approached they ran out, joined by at least twenty other migrants who came running out from their hiding places behind the other bushes. They jumped the train to ride on top; one young woman was far along in her pregnancy and had to be pushed up to help her get on top. As she planted one foot on top she slipped down the side of the railroad car. She managed to hold on to the sidebar to avoid falling off, but the momentum of the moving train propelled her back and under the wheels. The boy was behind her and saw her body sliced in half as she screamed into the uncaring Sonoran night. He still saw and heard her in frequent nightmares, sacrificing the baby that was meant to live a better American life.

Another man who had made the journey several times explained that those in the know learned to speak like Mexicans, pronouncing all s’s, using the familiar tú instead of vos, and peppering their speech with words like pinche and chinga. To do otherwise was to risk being targeted for theft or worse. By the time they reached the U.S. border they melded in with the Mexicans whom they regarded so suspiciously. It was he who also explained why so often the journey was carried out only by men, leaving their wives behind: the routine nature of the rapes committed against the women by cops and mareros was such that it was basically accepted; and the prettier and younger girls endured repeated or gang rapes. Rightly or wrongly, upon making it to America those girls were then marked as damaged and unfit for marriage.

The scope of the problem was daunting, and there was both virtue and fault on all sides. Many of the assailants were other Central Americans, particularly the mareros, eager as they were to demonize the Mexicans. And it was the contention of some of the Mexican authorities that the jailing of the foreigners delivered by the U.S. Border Patrol was meant to house them safely until they could be deported back to their homelands. They were only detained for as long as it took to round up enough numbers to undertake the expense of busing them back to their countries of origin, according to treaty. The fewer the migrants from any one country, or the more distant their country of origin, the longer it took to do so. They couldn’t very well fly home every individual caught from distant lands at the expense of the struggling Mexican government.

Raúl researched the treaties and international law cases relevant to what was certainly a timely issue, particularly as a weakening economy in the States meant that many Central Americans were now pressured into taking the feared journey overland back through Mexico and sometimes several Central American countries.

He was thrilled to have this project and eventually to have his name as an author in the position papers, website releases, and letters to the editor that would follow, and in several countries at that. He threw himself fully into his work, and came to be less irritated by Annie’s face peering at his curtain when she heard him rustle awake in the morning.

There had been some outings with fellow interns; but these gatherings, while pleasant on the face of them, conveyed a subtext of insecurity and competitiveness. Raúl’s instinctive response was to be unfailingly pleasant and polite, avoiding all invitation to insult or mock anyone, and hold his cards close to the chest. He enjoyed a drink or two as much as anyone, but the intern parties tended to become fairly drunken fests that cliqued quickly; his studied neutrality came to be seen as an unwillingness to commit, which eased him further toward the outer circles until he opted out of these gatherings altogether. At work the interns all appeared to get along well, with no evident sarcasm or negativity, but it was increasingly clear to Raúl that he had lost a game of musical chairs that had never been announced. The music he did not hear had stopped at some point, and he was left standing.

So that it felt as comfortable as a breath of fresh air, as slipping into an old pair of shoes, when Gisela called him the following weekend and suggested an outing to the National Gallery, just the two of them. They met in front late Saturday morning and toured both the original building and the Annex, after which they walked up the Mall and into the sculpture garden. As they walked and talked about art, Gisela appeared both older and younger to Raúl. As if under the effect of some Alice in Wonderland potion, she alternately seemed parental, experienced, and inaccessible; or girlish, enthusiastic, and exciting. He enjoyed both aspects of her: her knowledge and maturity as well as her verve and zest. He had the romantic notion to drape a coat on her shoulders and walk with his arm around her, digging her into his side; but the heat made foolishness of this notion and they walked apart, their hands periodically brushing together.

They stopped for lunch at a small place that specialized in salads and light fare, and Gisela ordered a Stella Artois, giving Raúl the valor to order a European beer as well. To his surprise, he felt a light buzz as he finished his lunch.

“Now what?” he asked. Gisela was still picking at her Cobb salad.

“What would you like to do?”

“As long as it’s with you,” Raúl said and could not believe those words had left his mouth. Gisela smiled, and Raúl thought it was the sexiest smile he had ever seen.

“Annie is likely to be at the house,” she said, leaving Raúl feeling quizzical. “So why don’t we run by my place for a bit?”

Raúl and Gisela made love that afternoon in her third-floor apartment in the Adams Morgan area as the sun cast dappled shadows through the wavering sheer window drapes. A staccato oscillating floor fan did all it could to dry off their perspiration and muffle their moans. He felt that he was in love, as he never had been, and he hoped to hold onto this moment forever. He swore his love to Gisela and to himself began to wonder how he would broach the topic of this love with his mother. For having felt what he now did, he could not imagine life without Gisela anymore.

Of course, those of us who have lived longer know better. The universe, as playful as it was, did not careen off into the unlikely: Lars returned a month later to pick up his belongings from the basement and move in to a new apartment in Georgetown. He proved to be a lanky, bearded Swede: friendly and bright, and decidedly alive.

Gisela remained sweet, loving, and passionate toward Raúl; but she knew theirs to be a lovely dalliance, a parenthetic piece of beauty that would never fit in the larger jigsaw puzzle of their lives. She and Raúl enjoyed occasional weekends of love and art, and she quietly suffered his passionate protestations and tearful rants when he came to understand that she did not share his expectations.

Raúl left Washington upon concluding his internship and he went on to graduate school and a career in diplomacy. It would serve him well, and it would afford him the opportunity to serve others well. He often came back to D.C., working with various governmental and civic agencies, and every time he remembered the unforgettable summer in which he discovered himself to be the person he now was.

Annie died a number of years later, her boundless energy contained at last. Paul and Brian, Annie’s closest friends until the end hosted the wake at her apartment. She had bequeathed her art pieces to the individuals who had inspired them, among them Raúl. He accepted the envelope with the charcoal-and-pencil renditions Annie had made when he first moved in. He noticed that they no longer appeared as frightening as they had, and that they were actually a good likeness of his younger self.

Gisela was unable to attend the wake. Raúl was disappointed; he had hoped to see her, even though he was now married and did not pine for a rekindling of their love. She sent flowers and notes addressed to the friends. Included was a postcard addressed to Raúl from the Rothko Museum in Houston. It is beautiful: lovely and serene, if somehow sad, the note read. You really should come someday.

Raúl looked at the paintings and drawings that were still up on the walls. Nothing there, he now thought, conveyed the pain that she had hinted at so briefly that day in the park when she began to tell the story of her mother’s life. She never did finish telling that story; enough had been said and enough sadness had already been lived.

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New eBook- Wandering and Other Stories

Dear friends,

I selected a number of my favorites, did some brief editing, and published these to Amazon’s eBook publisher. If you are interested you can download Wandering and Other Stories by Jack Riley for only 2.99.

You don’t need to have a Kindle. The Kindle app, available for free from Amazon, can be downloaded onto your iPhone, iPad, or Android. 

Please tell your friends, and thank you for your support!

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The Anticipated Death of Diógenes Morales

By the time death found Diógenes Morales, sitting limp in a shower stall with a leather belt around his neck, he had become bone-thin, weighing only half what he had barely one year before. Emaciated and undernourished, his skin had turned a sickly yellow-brown marked by blemishes and discolorations. His yellowed teeth protruded from his weakened gums and appeared to smile grotesquely as his father wept.

The emergency workers were at work, but there was no emergency: Diógenes had been dead for hours and they were mostly being used for the officious work, the documentation of time and cause of death clumsily handwritten by the police responding to their call. The cursory investigation necessitated that fingerprints be examined and the apartment sealed off after interviewing Evaristo Morales, Diógenes’s father – who found the limp, dead body of his son that morning when he drove over to bring him breakfast (“He needed to eat,” Evaristo cried into his hands.“If I had been able to make him eat, maybe this would not have happened.”).

But an investigation was hardly necessary— Diógenes had started dying nine months before, of his own free will. The suicide (“¿Suicidio?” his mother objected, shaking her head impassively. “That puta killed him. That was no suicide.”) was barely a formality, a brief advancing of the predictable. If it did not come about exactly as Diógenes had wished or intended, his death had long been summoned and anticipated.

It started with the news— it came over the cell phone, as all news did these days, spread at the supraliminal speed of gossip in the technological age. Maricarmen Jiménez — who barely a year before was a beautiful mother of two adorable dark-haired daughters, recently separated from her abusive lawyer husband and enjoying her renewed sexuality with the younger Diógenes – had died of complications of AIDS. Thin, cachectic, blotched with Kaposi’s sarcomas, and wheezing from pneumonia, Maricarmen died with little fanfare in the overcrowded AIDS wing at the Hospital del Maestro. Her children had already been sent to their aunt’s house in Orlando, Florida, and Maricarmen’s family, disgraced by her fall from grace – she had been married to a prominent lawyer, lived in a beautiful big house in a gated community – had essentially abandoned her. (“She abandoned us,” her father protested, “when she decided to become that no-good boy’s whore.”)

Diógenes – taciturn and despondent, consumed with anxiety about Maricamen’s whereabouts and condition– was on his way from work to have lunch with his brother Ernesto. It was Ernesto who delivered the news, shouting into his hand-held cell phone, as he drove on the expressway, hurriedly weaving in and out of traffic in search of the quickest snaking path to the lunch counter in Hato Rey where the brothers met on Fridays for comida criolla. Ernesto knew that Diógenes would grieve her loss – Maricarmen was the one good woman he had loved, he claimed, alone in this assessment of her – but he did not expect the silence and the severity of his grief.

Diógenes barely spoke over lunch and only toyed with his food, breaking up the mofongo into small chunks of plantain masa and pushing them this way and that with his fork. He displayed no emotion other than a frightening numbness, and excused his loss of appetite, telling Ernesto that he felt a stomachache and would rather not eat anything just yet. (Over the course of the next nine months he would similarly turn down about $7,000 worth of meals, paid for and brought him by his disconsolate and desperate relatives and friends.) He said little and betrayed no outward signs of sadness, but deep inside him everything began to change: he could feel his nerves rewiring, glands recalibrating their secretions, and organs shifting and sputtering, overwhelmed by their work.

That afternoon he stopped by the hospital to get tested, yet again, for HIV. Since learning four months before that Maricarmen had the virus, had actually been diagnosed with it long before but did not believe she could be a carrier for it, he had been tested monthly, and would do so, unnecessarily, for a whole year. He would be told repeatedly that there was no need for this —having tested negative three months, let alone later, after his exposure it was amply clear that he had resisted contracting the virus on those five unforgettable coital sessions. He was one of the lucky ones, Ernesto told him; he should be grateful.

But Diógenes did not feel so lucky, or so grateful. He would have stayed with Maricarmen, taken care of her, seen her through her ordeal, raised her daughters. But her estranged husband, betrayed and vindictive despite his own new relationship with a young paralegal, created such a social scandal and a legal battle that Maricarmen withdrew herself from Diógenes’s life so as to avoid causing him any further difficulties. He did not know where she was living or how to reach her, and did not see her as she abruptly became sick, and began the quick descent into the death of the undefended. By then her daughters were already out of the country, her life was squalid and effortful, and Diógenes pined for her day and night, only a few miles away but never to see her again.

His brothers, Ernesto and Julio Angel, had tried to set him up with other women. Diógenes was only twenty-three, handsome and well-spoken, and would have had no trouble finding dates with the young, nubile beauties of the island; but he longed only for the thirty-five year old mother who had wandered uncertainly into his office at the insurance agency, eager to create a new life for herself and her daughters.

Undressing hurriedly in his apartment that afternoon while her daughters shopped at the nearby mall, he would not have believed what he was about to learn: how it was that having sex could, really, feel like making love. Not just showing love and feeling love; but making it, creating it in some secret alchemical manner, fashioning something powerful and new out of the seemingly obvious and accessible. He wanted to devour her whole, pull her every cell into his body and in turn invade and inhabit her. The act of love felt insufficient; but it was somehow still closer to expressing his feeling than any words.

Having lost her, knowing that the very act of love was also a lethal weapon, he wanted no part of the simple, superficial act of sex with other bodies. There was simply no one else to love.

Ernesto pleaded with his brother: You’re depressed, ‘mano! he said. Please, hazme el favor, do me the favor of seeing someone. You need help. There are medications for this. There are solutions. Doctors. Come on, you can do better, feel better. You’re falling apart, getting weak, neglecting your work. Neglecting your own family. Escúchame, por favor.

His mother and father did the same, separately, each in their own way. His mother pleaded with him to move on, find someone else, and get back to normal – you’ll forget all about her, she said; and don’t worry, she said (more to herself than to him), people will forget all about what had happened. Do it for me, she pleaded, herself victimized as well by the scandal, the public knowledge of her son’s affair with the older, still-married woman – and with AIDS no less! It sank into her skin and kept her up at night, tormented as the good name of the Morales family was stained and imperiled.

His father edged cautiously to the confessional approach: I understand how you can feel in love with her. Even after what she did to you. But you feel that way when you get, you know, one who is good in bed. Right? Then the next one comes along and you realize, hey, she’s not the only one in the world. There are others. There will always be others. You’re young, you’re single. Live it up. Trust me—there’s always better out there.

Diógenes had initially been reluctant to mention anything to his family about his discovery of love. He knew that they would be skeptical, if not altogether dismissive, of his happiness. Plus, with her being older, having been married and having children already, they would undoubtedly seek to disabuse him of his bliss, to redirect him to the immature young girls his own age. He decided he would keep secret this joya, this gem of a relationship, until perhaps they could make marriage plans, eloping if necessary.

But everything unraveled once Maricarmen first became sick and had to be hospitalized, fighting for breath, perspiring and weak. Then he found out about the AIDS and got tested immediately. He dismissed the good results –the first time always comes out negative, anyway, he thought — and he visited her daily and stayed by her side, even when her daughters and family came by, and they saw the young man (just a boy, really) who was her new paramour. And then word spread, and her family concluded that it had to have been he, Diógenes, who had infected her and caused this sickness unto death. And her estranged husband found out about him and angrily, self-righteously, suggested the same.

So once it became public knowledge, Diógenes had to tell his family about it. He would have to tell them about the beautiful, now chronically febrile, Maricarmen and the tragedy, the unfairness of her having AIDS. He would have to tell them about how he now had to get tested and how it would show up as well in his blood, sooner or later: the stealthy virus crawling under the radar and spreading quietly, inexorably, sneaking up on immune cells like a thief in the night, knifing them from behind as they stood guard, helpless before the invaders.

His family, of course, was outraged and inconsolable. They blamed her – the puta, the whore; you’d think she’d have some sense of propriety, of responsibility, a married woman and a mother no less. Her family was similarly outraged and even more public with their anger. They expressed their support of Maricarmen’s husband, the poor betrayed man, and pronounced themselves disgraced by the wayward mother and her schoolboy boyfriend.

Maricarmen blamed herself only for the foolishness that kept her with her husband all that time– the hijodeputa who was so abusive with his words and sometimes actions, boorish and manipulative, philandering, and now infecting of her and who knows how many others. Meanwhile, he sure as hell did not blame himself; luck of the draw, he figured, but hey, there were treatments available and he could still live for decades maybe. He secretly took the cocktails, the protease inhibitors, the antivirals, the whole mess of it, and here he was, healthy as Magic Johnson, no sign or symptom of infection or disease beyond that one initial positive finding that had come up in his pre-liposuction blood work.

But Diógenes, as far as he was concerned, blamed nobody. There was no one to blame. He had found the one true love of this lifetime—you know it when you feel it, he said, in the flash of an instant: the eyes locking in a brief gaze, the certainty welling up in your insides– and then, shortly after that, she was dead. So, why live now? He would join her in death. He would be killed by the same killer that was taking his woman: you took her, cabrón, you’re going to have to take me too. What his family read as fear, the fear that he was infected, he saw as courageous: the courage to pursue the woman he loved into the afterlife itself.

The doctors were alarmed at his appearance, and several times admitted him to the hospital to fill him with fluids and nutrients. But even then he continued to lose weight and become frailer. When the spots began erupting they appeared just like Kaposi sarcomas and it appeared to confirm that he had been infected despite the negative tests. But pathology studies indicated only normal skin, discolored but not diseased. There was no explanation; experts in infectious diseases were summoned, but they could only hypothesize that Diógenes’s symptoms were psychosomatic in nature, although all were hard pressed to identify any similar case histories in their experience.

Over the next few weeks Diógenes became too fatigued to work. He was finally asked to resign and transfer his clients, whose attrition was already underway as startled clients recognized his sick appearance. Cashing in his savings and belongings, he paid his rent and regular bills for eight months in advance, and began his countdown.

Every morning he read the newspaper, smoked a cigarette, and sat in his favorite chair, closing his eyes and visualizing the breakdown of his immune system. He created names and cartoonish images corresponding to the various cells he learned about: natural killer cells, phagocytes, T-cells all became sluggish and tired in his mind’s eye, succumbing to fatigue and being quickly overwhelmed by fast-spreading, insatiable viruses. He began to cough and sneeze, wheezing with fatigue, and became delighted at his first recognition of success, when a small paper cut he sustained was still bleeding, unhealed and showing signs of infection, a week later.

He lost all appetite for food and drink, and all sense of lust. Nothing interested him anymore, and he even lost the desire to defend Maricarmen during his mother’s diatribes at what that puta had done to her boy and her family. His father came by dutifully every morning bearing fresh bags of toast with cheese, fruit and hot coffee, and cold cuts and baguettes for lunch. He would complain about how it was all going to waste and how Diógenes needed to eat, if only because it was already paid for, might as well. But Diógenes never touched the stuff and learned eventually to give away what he could rather than exhaust himself arguing with his father about it.

After a few months and about fifty pounds of excess baggage evanesced, he began to have visions, projected onto his kitchen wall, that would unfold and evolve nonstop for weeks and weeks on end: terrible, beautiful, admonishing visions featuring the various images of heaven, hell, angels and demons from the paintings that had adorned his bedroom as a child. He never regarded them as anything other than hunger-induced signs of organic disturbance, but was entertained by the dramatic ideation concocted by his glucose-deprived brain. It was, he thought, as though the brain would do all it could to frighten him into eating. “Buena suerte,” he said aloud, “if I can withstand my mother’s torments there is nothing worse you can cause me.”

By Christmastime– untouched by merriment, deaf to the aguinaldos and tinny carols blasted from storefronts, blind to the incongruous images of Santa and reindeer among the palm and mango trees of the hot tropics – he understood that he was really and truly alone. He missed Maricarmen and thought only of the glorious day when he would join her at last, together for eternity. Christmas meant nothing to him now, and this was the season he had always loved: the festive spirit, the music blaring everywhere, the parrandas, the food. People seemed happier, friends and relatives felt closer, and one was happy to be alive, even with the full-throttle commercial push from the retailers whose imprints and logos were ubiquitous.

But Diógenes, who left his apartment only to buy cigarettes, pay bills and have his monthly HIV test, sat alone in silence, surrounded by greasy paper bags with uneaten food and sugar packets for coffee he wasn’t drinking. He stared vacantly at the kitchen wall, where the visions entertained him in their blazing colors. For about two weeks now they had featured a continuous and seemingly infinite procession of people of every conceivable description: the souls of all the departed of all time paraded before him as a massive migration of people through valleys and over hilltops toward a distant setting sun.

And then one day, Maricarmen appeared before him, angelic and whole, miraculously restored to her vigorous youthfulness. She wore jeans and a tight-fitting blouse and a luminous halo shone incongruously around her head. She was at peace, she told Diógenes, and was assuming her place in the procession of souls. Don’t do this any longer, she cautioned Diógenes. You need to live. And definitely do not die for me; I’m happy as an earthworm. She smiled broadly and turned away, receding into the distance as she joined the line of the exultant who marched toward the setting sun.

Diógenes continued to stare at the wall, but it had once again become just a wall. As Maricarmen joined the procession of the departed the image faded, until all that was left was the pattern of shadows and stains in the paint job. Diógenes stared a little longer, trying to will Maricarmen into reappearing. He needed to ask her something; he needed to know more. But the wall remained blank and silent, and all he took note of was the mess and the smell of uneaten food.

Mierda, he said aloud, this place is a shithole.

He began to pick up and clean as best he could, but he had become very weak with malnutrition and dehydration, not to mention his sedentary deconditioning. He exerted himself as he had not in months, and briefly contemplated moving the furniture around, but knew that he was not up to this task.

Still, he got the place looking fairly good by the evening, and was pleased at the result. He opened the blinds and let in the bright tropical sun, and found himself restive and uncertain with the loss of the visions that had demanded his nearly continuous attention projected on his kitchen wall. Instead, he struggled to recreate his own: reaching into memory, he visualized the sight of Maricarmen when he first saw her walk into his insurance office; her smell when he first held her close and nuzzled her neck between her ear and her hairline; and the feel of her when they first made love, hurriedly right here, in the bedroom in his apartment. He recalled the images he had long treasured since: reuniting in the faintly tropical paradise he imagined the afterlife to be, their loving souls merging at last for eternity.

He was then ushered into unhappier memories: he recalled his mother’s anger; how she dreaded scandal and blamed the puta for the disgrace brought to the family. And he remembered his father’s fumbling attempts at encouraging promiscuity as the antidote to grief. They saw him as weak– the victim of a brief and inappropriate love– and a little insane, thinking himself sick when he was not. To Diógenes the truth was entirely the opposite: willing himself to death was jumping headlong where others feared to tread. Not only did he welcome death with open arms, where others fear it, death was seemingly afraid to come to him. After all, here he was still alive and functioning despite removing as much as he could of the armor that all others donned to do battle in everyday life— nutritive, immunological, and the psychological armor of anger and blame. He had cast off the protections and let himself fall prey to the muscle wasting and the harrowing visions that preyed upon his undefended self. And yet he had lived on, despite the doctors and the IV fluids every so often and against his will, despite his having lost any illusion that life could ever be worthwhile again, despite his desire to show his parents how wrong they were about him.

It’s too damn late, he thought to himself, in response to Maricarmen’s plea in the last kitchen-wall vision of his life. He knew then what he had not known before: that he was still going to die, although not as he had long anticipated. He realized that the virus that had taken her life was nowhere to be found in his body, could not be willed to do so, and would not be his killer.

He reached for the belt that he kept hanging in the closet, and prepared the noose. He sat on his shower stool and put his head through the noose, aware of the comforting smell of the leather. It actually took an effort—after knocking the stool out from under himself his balance shifted backward, pulling the noose away from his trachea and hurting his neck. But he made himself lean forward with a small awkward hop, dizzy as his breath gurgled and sputtered. There was a quiet, an emptiness, and then he saw it before him clear as could be, in blazing color and even grander than in his visions: the distant setting sun and the long line of people extending over and across valleys and hills, before and behind him. Among them somewhere was Maricarmen, although he would never find her, and he knew full well that he never would.

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Death At Hacienda Punta

 

It was one of those slow, oppressive summer days when everything reminds one of legumes. I had been working as a ranch hand on my uncle’s estate, a mere day and a half’s journey from Montevideo (as the fuácata flies, we like to joke). My uncle Dionisio was a small gaunt man shaped much like an Elysian water-pourer, but nowhere near as lacquered. In his youth, living in Buenos Aires, he had acquired great wealth by ingratiating himself to a blind money-lender named Isidro Nachtstein, who took to the young Dionisio as a yellow-haired cur takes to zabalotes when it rains. The tale—apocryphal, no doubt, but oft-repeated by the local bards and minstrels that have become such a plague of late —had it that Nachtstein died of heartbreak over the younger man’s treachery. The money the young Uruguayan was supposedly managing was instead being diverted to various locations outside the fabled port city. By the time Nachtstein learned of this usury, Dionisio had slyly changed his height and his mother’s maiden name, and thus eluded the authorities, aided no doubt by the tacit anti-Semitism of our antipodean neighbor in those halcyon days.

Laugh if you will, and cry if you must—I have to excuse myself, but it is ultimately an important true story I have now told many times, making small changes with each telling. Mind you, one quickly learned not to tell it in my uncle’s presence. Those who transgressed were exposed to my uncle’s fiery diatribes about Argentines in general and beekeepers in particular. But I digress from my story, which takes place on an oppressive summer day in the Hacienda Punta, in the province of Otrosón. Looking up at a chevron of migrating hummingbirds, their hyperkinetic wings a cloud of blurs, I was salivating and imagining a plate of steaming garbanzos when a piercing shriek came from inside the ranch house. Fearing the worst, I ambled over arthritically, eventually overcome by some of the moseying gauchos who had been similarly roused from their private reveries involving peas and, yes, even peanuts. By the time we reached the gate, the blood-curdling sound had ceased and we found ourselves able only to shrug and return to our legume-fueled fantasies.

Perhaps only I remained curious, for what might have caused such a sound, only to end afterwards? Little did I know that there would be an answer: one that would later make itself known to me; and answer would demand—nay, would exact of me—every square centimeter of my intelligence, every gram of my bipedalism. But it would be well worth it, as years later I would scream at the apparitions brought on to me by excessive drink and laudanum in the back alleys of Cartagena, where I would find sleep at the mercy of the elements, befriended only by sailors and harlots. But that, my friends, is an altogether different tale, for another telling.

So anyway, years before fate would find me intoxicated and delirious roaming the back alleys of Cartagena’s port district (the front alleys having been viciously patrolled by the police and their accomplices) I sat quietly astride the fence on the corral, where two horse bound gauchos were herding the cattle at my uncle’s estate. Having returned from the now-silent house, I pondered the meaning of the scream we had all heard, silently mouthing the words as I thought them. More than once my methodical analysis was interrupted by phonemic doubts, but I was able to conclude that further investigation seemed appropriate. I fell cautiously, if awkwardly, from the fence and ambled sorely toward the house.

 

Pushing open the door, I was stunned by what I saw. Nothing inside the house was as I remembered it from only that morning! In place of the once-grand parlor, where a beautiful spinet piano once commanded attention – having been brought over from Scotland by my frugal great-granduncle, Andrew Ferguson—there was a large kitchen, with an oversized oven and large kettles around an open fireplace. A wooden icebox, looking as if it had always been there, lay in the corner where the stairway to the upstairs rooms had once been.

“Who could have possible exercised such sorcery?” I asked myself out loud, when the sound of laughter came to me from behind the wall. I retraced my steps cautiously and stepped outside, realizing at once that I had entered from the wrong side of the sinisterly symmetrical house, an architectural practical joke enjoyed by the Scottish architects, who so enjoyed imposing their Calvinist sense of order upon our once-chaotic land.

As if part of the magical act once practiced by the Franconi brothers– whose stage act was much beloved among the patrician classes in the capitals of our upside-down continent– the next door yielded the parlor just as I recalled it, spinet piano, staircase, and all. Laughing at myself, as undoubtedly my great-granduncle Andrew was doing simultaneously in his churchyard grave, I entered the room to find my uncle Dionisio slumped in his Chippendale sitting-room chair, his Edwardian cravat jauntily spilled across his chest. In his hand he held, however barely, a crystal goblet still partly filled with his favored brandy. His cyan-hued lips contrasted quite nicely with the smoky gold of his beverage.

“Tío Dionisio?” I asked, tugging cautiously at his cravat.

“He is dead,” announced a muffled voice behind me.

“Tía Cicatriza!” I spilled, surprised. “But why are you dressed as a beekeeper?”

She did not answer in haste; but slowly, thankfully, doffed her beekeeper’s hat, shaking out her long and thick gray curls.

“It has taken me thirty-seven years to realize my dream,” she said. “Ever since my beloved uncle Isidro was taken for a fool by this… this… this…”

She let her words drift off, crossing her eyes mockingly. Steeling myself, I was riveted. “Please go on,” I pled.

“You might as well know,” she pronounced, still shaking her curls in a most distracting fashion. “I have slowly ensured that all Dionisio’s money—taken illegally and so harmfully from my uncle Isidro Nachtstein – has been returned to where it belongs. It is now back in the possession of the Nachtstein family of Buenos Aires, to whom and where I shall return. This ranch is being foreclosed!”

“Yes!” she laughed as I coughed uselessly, but knowingly. “Yes, I am an Argentine!”

I sat, stunned, as she went on. “This vile creature shall sting no more. The stinger has been rendered useless and he is now dead. And dirt-poor. Ha ha ha!”

I only then understood the meaning of the beekeeper outfit, but not why she had waited all these years to kill the man I had come to regard as an uncle, having been born my mother’s brother. The answer to that question never came. Having failed to ask her, she failed equally to address the unspoken inquiry. Much of my youth was subsequently squandered and misspent in search of answers to questions mouthed silently but never given the power of voice.

I left Uruguay, never to return to that roughly triangular nation, wandering the southern continent incognito, questioning always, sotto voce, dreaming only of legumes.

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That Blue Light

That Blue Light

Whenever I was little, it used to upset my momma every time I asked her about my daddy. He’s gone, she’d say; he’s dead, Eleanor. Yes, ma’am, I know, but where’d he go? I asked her, and she’d get impatient with me, and talk to herself in an irritated tone that told me to hush and mind my own business.

Back in my bed, I’d talk to my rag doll about all my troubles, as I saw them then. It embarrasses me now to realize that throughout my self‑pitying and whining my momma was doing all she could to keep us fed and with a roof over our heads.

My daddy, from what I could piece together, was a weak man who couldn’t deal with problems. He was, Momma said, full of fear, and could not stand up to others for what was rightfully his. Or ours, Momma said, folding the laundry she washed for the neighbors in exchange for corn, peas, and okra, and sometimes even sacks of grits. Why, one time the Drummond boys was up to no good, messing around with their daddy’s guns and shooting at the squirrels on our trees. Don’t you know that man would not even pay them no mind, Momma said. I yelled at them to stop and they just started running their mouths at me until I got my own daddy’s gun and shot up in the air right at them.

I was horrified, and for days thought of what would have happened if Momma had killed one of them boys. But she knew it was the onliest thing to do, and my daddy would have let them put holes in our house before he’d have done anything. That’s the kind of man he was, said Momma, scrubbing the wood floors, that wouldn’t look after his own wife and child. Dreamin’ to himself, she said, and she spat on the stove to get it shiny with the washcloth.

I loved Momma; I still do. She never did whip me but when I needed it, and she taught me to be strong. Momma was real pretty back then, and many a man would tip his hat and say, Mornin’  Miss Ruby, how’s yourself and that purty little daughter doin’ this fine day? And Momma would flash her smile, pretty as can be. And then, when he walked on she would scowl at me and say, Eleanor, men are stupid beasts. Don’t you go forgettin’ that now. Stupid, dumb beasts, is what they are.

She wouldn’t hardly never talk to me about my daddy. I remember maybe three times she told me stories about him, including the one about the Drummond boys. Whenever I had my first period, she taught me to braid my hair and wear lipstick, and she talked to me about her honeymoon with daddy. She wasn’t but sixteen years old, and he was twenty‑three. She knew there was something funny about him, the way he said he didn’t want to be a farmer like his daddy and granddaddy, and he wanted to live far away. They drove in his truck all the way to Myrtle Beach, and stayed in a motel on U.S. 17. That night, she said, when they was ready to go to sleep for the first time together, she felt like she wanted the whole bed to herself, and like there was something in the way, and it was my daddy. And he wouldn’t turn the light out, until Momma told him to, and then he turned the TV on and left it on. I told him I want to get some sleep, Momma said, brushing the eyeliner on me, and he wouldn’t turn the TV off. I reckon he was afraid of the dark!, she said, and went to laughing. There, she said, you’re going to be the prettiest girl this side of Atlanta.

Whenever Travis first proposed to me, Momma told me to get a job first. You have to look out for yourself, she told me; a woman has to know to depend on herself for the necessities of life, she said. He’s got a good job, Momma, I said; he’s working construction at the new jail, and that job is steady money for at least another two years. His daddy done bought us the trailer, and put it on their land right by the pond. It won’t cost us a penny.

That’s all fine, she said, but first you get yourself a job. For your own spendin’ money, and besides, a woman has got to keep her options open, she said.

So that’s how come I started working at the Piggly Wiggly. Every morning I made lunch for Travis, and he come by to pick me up, drove me to work, and take his lunch to work. In the evening he come by to pick me up, and we ate at home with Momma, and we watched TV and Travis went home. It was like being married already, except I was still living with Momma. And we did like that for almost a year, until I got to be eighteen years old.

All the time, I worked hard and did good. I got raised from cashier to customer service, to closing out the registers and making deposits. I worked long hours because Travis worked late, sometimes until nine or ten at night, and I had nothing else to do. And I loved my job. I saved money and bought myself my own car, a Ford Granada, used but in good shape, and Travis fixed it up for me. Weekends he went racing and I drove into town to the video store to rent movies for me and Momma to watch, and I bought groceries for Miss Cox, Travis’s momma. I loved watching the movies. Travis liked the action ones, like Terminator and Rambo and that stuff, but I liked the comedies and the ones about rich people in big cities like New York. Like “Paternity,” with Burt Reynolds; I must have seen that movie five or six times.

Sometimes we had arguments. Travis is the kind of guy that when he wants to do something, he just plum forgets everything I have to do. Not just me, anybody; but it seemed to be mostly me. Like the one that we had last Saturday.

I had to cover for the produce manager, John, when he went on funeral leave for his daddy, and Travis made all these plans to go down to the river with all his friends. He wanted me to go to drive the boat so him and the rest of them could water ski, and I told him I had to work and he wanted me to call in sick, because he didn’t want to drive the boat himself or get one of his friends to. When I told him I couldn’t discuss it, I had to work, he just left and didn’t talk to me for three days. He didn’t even come by or call or nothing. Then Thursday morning he comes by to pick me up and I didn’t have his lunch ready. He was all happy like nothing had happened, so I made up some ham sandwiches and a thermos of tea and I acted also like nothing had happened. I even let him drive me to work in his truck like we used to.

On the way into work that morning Travis tells me he thinks we should live together before we go and get married. Travis, I say, you know Momma would never stand for it. And besides, it ain’t like we never have got the chance to, you know. It ain’t just that, baby, he says; it’s that there ain’t no better way to know how it’s going to be being married and everything than to be, you know, living together like we was already married.

I am angry and I show it. I look away and don’t face Travis at all. Baby, don’t get that way, he says. But I stay quiet until we get to the store and I get out of the car without saying no goodbyes or kissing him or any of that. I’m thinking, why is he going to want to marry me if he already has me there any time he wants me?

As I’m getting ready to leave work, with Lucy who has offered me a ride home even though it’s out of her way by about six miles, Travis is standing outside the store with flowers in his hand and a cellophane‑wrapped six‑pack box of Nestle’s Crunch bars, which is my favorite. Baby, he says, I bought you flowers and chocolates to tell you I’m sorry. It’s just that I want you so much I can’t hardly wait to get through with gettin’ married and all that, he says, looking me in the eyes without blinking. I am so choked up I can’t say nothing and I’m fixin’ to bawl.

Baby, he says before I can get any words out of my mouth, I want you to come to Disney World with me. Tonight. I know you don’t have to work tomorrow, or this weekend, he says with a smile. He knows it’s true. I think, what will Momma say? And then I think, let’s do it. Momma can say whatever she wants.

Momma finally does come to see the light after we talk it over at home while I’m packing my bag for the weekend. She cries a lot, but she sees that she can’t really stop me, and she shouldn’t. And next thing I know, me and Travis are riding in his truck, with our bags packed and him playing the Garth Brooks tape I love, because he knows I don’t like the kind of country music he likes that is for drunks anyway, all about getting out of jail and stuff like that. And it’s a beautiful night: stars everywhere and a nice breeze as we cross the state line into Florida.

We don’t talk much: just a little here and there about stuff that don’t matter all that much. It’s a nice night and we feel good, and the music sounds perfect, so why talk. It gets to be almost midnight when we are driving into Orlando, and Travis says, Well, we got to find ourselves a place to stay. We drive on the highway past Rosie O’Grady’s and all that tourist stuff there, and next exit Travis says let’s pull over here and look for a motel.

We get off and drive and it’s one of those streets with a lot of traffic at this hour, and there’s some expensive‑looking motels and a lot of neon signs, to where I can’t hardly tell what’s what. There’s a lot of strip motels, and Travis drives past them looking for one that seems right. But the traffic is heavy, and it’s hard to make up your mind in time, and we keep driving.

We pass a Bonanza steakhouse, and a Huddle House, and that kind of thing. Then we pass a bar with lots of cars parked in front, and the flashing sign says TOTALLY NUDE DANCERS. I don’t say anything, and Travis don’t, neither. Then we pass another that says TOPLESS and then another that says TOPLESS AND BOTTOMLESS REVUE, and then the next one says 24 BEAUTIFUL GIRLS and below that it says BEST NUDE DANCE REVUE IN FLORIDA.

Nice neighborhood, I say, and Travis giggles. I notice that all the parking lots are jammed full. After a while I say, Travis, can we get out of here. He says, I’m tryin’, baby. We come to a motel called the Driftwood, and I say, Travis, I’m dead tired. All I want to do is sleep. Let’s stay here.

         The room is on the upstairs and we have to drive around to the back of the motel. There is a high cement wall around the parking lot, and there’s pine trees and palm leaves on the other side. You can hear the traffic but I am too tired to care. We carry our stuff up the stairs and walk past the other rooms, with heavy purple drapes in the windows and the sound of the air conditioners muffling our steps. Travis turns the big heavy key to room 254, and we finally get in. There’s a TV bolted to the stand, two hard‑looking double beds, and an ugly print on the wall. The wallpaper is heavy and peeling a little. We lock the door and turn the TV on, trying to figure out how to turn the lamps on.

After brushing my teeth and washing my face, and setting up my stuff in the bathroom, I change into my bathrobe and come back out. Travis is lying on the bed closest to the door, with the TV on to a channel showing a tractor pull. He has to reach to a heavy metal remote control that is bolted to the night table to turn the volume down. He looks at me like he’s thinking about sex.

Baby, he says, moving over, lay down over here. Travis, I ask, did you want to go into one of them clubs? What you talking about, he asks. You know, I say, all those strip shows. Baby, he says, I’m here with you. But he’s not being truthful to me like I want him to be. Travis, I ask, if I wasn’t here, would you go into one of them clubs? Would you want to see all those naked girls? Travis kind of smiles to himself and says no, but I can tell he’s thinking about it. Well, baby, he says, a man is a man and he likes to see beautiful women. But that don’t mean nothing about me and you, baby, he says, and he’s trying to be cool; but I am just plum disgusted with him.

Baby, he says in the cutesy‑but‑kind‑of‑whiny voice he makes when he wants me to shut up and put out, will you rub my back? No, I say defiantly. Rub your own damn back. I step over to the edge of the other bed, pulling my knees up straight and covering my legs with the bathrobe, down to my ankles. The cutesy stuff ends right then and there. What the hell’s going on? Travis sighs, exasperated. What did I say? Nothing, I mouth under my breath, just leave me alone. He sits up in the bed, looking at me like he looks at the engine under the hood of the truck when it don’t work right. He pauses, and I look at the TV, all the time feeling the intensity of his stare. I brace for the duration, like he might hit me, although the truth is he never has. Okay, he finally says, breaking the silence, be that way. And he turns the light out and rolls under the covers, looking away from me.

I stay where I am, watching David Letterman with the volume off, thinking to myself, How do I get out of this? I can’t possibly get married to Travis, as much as I want to have a husband and a baby, lots of babies. Will you turn the damn TV off? Travis mumbles without moving. I tap it off on the remote there, bolted to the little table between the beds. But my mind won’t quit, and I’m wondering how I’ll tell Momma, and how I’ll ever face Miss Cox and the rest of his family. And I toss and turn, and can’t get no rest. The damn bed is hard as the trailer on a flatbed truck, and the pillows give in like cotton candy. Travis is snoring already. It makes me mad to think how easily he falls asleep after a fight.

So I reach over for the remote and turn the TV back on. There’s a commercial on for an adjustable bed, and it don’t look much better to me than what I’m laying on now. Then there’s another commercial, one with a lot of people about my age running to the beach with a cooler and laughing like they’re having theirselves the grandest time. I know it’s silly, but they look happy and I got a big smile on my face for them. Dave comes back on, and he’s talking to some actress type with a short skirt on, showing off her legs. He makes a face at the camera and drums on his desk with a pencil. By now my eyes are feeling real tired and heavy, and I fold the two pillows over under my face.

I’m just about to reach for the remote, but the truth is that it feels good to have that blue light on while I settle myself in, looking for the most comfortable position. It feels best when I stretch my arms and legs so that they cover the whole bed, with my head in the exact middle. Now I can finally rest.

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Southern Heritage

I lived in Savannah, Georgia,  for several years and loved it. It is truly a mesmerizing place, overflowing with charm, beauty, and a touch of danger. I know of no other place like it, and I’m not alone in having been touched and changed by it. My sons were born there; while they can therefore lay a stronger claim to this wonderful city than I can, I do feel a degree of possessiveness and belonging that exceeds any objective explanation.

I was down in Savannah doing a contract job which required me to stay in town for about a month. Flying in from Chicago, I was excited as well as a little apprehensive. I knew little about Savannah — this was back when it was only a tourist destination for other Southerners, particularly of the drunken and carousing type crowding the picturesque squares for St. Patrick’s Day — and my images of the South were shaped by movies like “Deliverance” and TV shows like “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Upon my arrival I was immediately struck by the strangling humidity as we descended onto the tarmac at the airport. It was March and it was in the 40’s when I left O’Hare. I was overdressed and unprepared for the summery heat, still blistering in the late afternoon, and I quickly tore off my sport coat and loosened my tie. I had my other senses on alert too; I listened to the local accents as I made it into the airport and on to baggage claim and the rental car desk.

My contacts had arranged a rental car for me and a room in an inn on Bay Street. I was given the fairly simple directions, although it was disconcerting for me not to see any buildings of note: most of the drive from the airport was on a long stretch of highway past scrubby pine trees and dark squalid houses surrounded by clusters of dripping live oaks. I exited at Derenne and passed strip malls and a huge faded old globe that seemed to hearken to better days for whatever store had thus advertised itself. My directions told me to make a left onto Abercorn, and I found it after almost driving through it. It was an unimpressive divided street, which quickly turned interesting, then very pretty, and then unimaginably beautiful. At either side of the street, the houses became progressively older, as if digging through historical strata one decade per block: the boring ranch houses of the ‘60’s gave way to beautiful craftsman-style homes and then to the eclectic architectural array money allowed in the early 20th century. Large live oak trees created a canopy over the street; with Spanish moss waving in the breeze like mermaids’ lace fans swaying underwater.

Crepe myrtles alongside the sidewalks were also draped in the absurdly charming Spanish moss. Azaleas in bright colors lined the houses, and sturdy magnolia added to the botanical variety. I had never seen a more beautiful urban landscape. The descent through time continued, but it then fell into squalor: beautiful Victorian homes with laced porches sank in their neglected poverty, and the neighborhood was evidently poor. Black men sat in porches and nodded politely when I looked toward them from the car. It was a neglected area, in disrepair, but for all of that still beautiful except for a few blocks with nothing but dark service stations and modern churches surrounded by asphalt parking lots.

I passed some large intersections, where more divided and beautiful tree-lined streets of architectural beauty crossed Abercorn. I was heading further north and back in time, towards the river. At last I found Bay Street, the last cross street on top of the bluff over the river: below it, cobble-stoned curves lead one to River Street, the site of restaurants, bars, and tourist shops; and the place from which to view the massive freighters just making it under the bridge into South Carolina.

Savannah had made its impression on me before I even checked in for the night. I went for a humid and sweaty walk down the languorous park areas above Factors’ Walk, down into lively and somewhat creepy River Street, and back through a few of the squares. The heavy vegetation was beautiful but also cast worrisome shadows that gave the squares an ethereal and otherworldly quality. I was in love. However, one falls in love with Savannah as one falls in love with a beautiful artsy girl: she takes your heart and brings the promise of excitement such as you have never experienced or expected; but you know there is a dark side that you will always fear and dread seeing.

For the next few weeks as our project was underway, I came to experience more of Savannah’s charm and beauty, as well as its oppressive heat. There were days when the winds brought in a nauseatingly disgusting smell from the paper factory upriver in Pooler. Newspaper reports of murders that took place within a few blocks lent a very real and present sense of danger. I recognized a seemingly comfortable if ultimately uneasy truce between the old South whites and blacks; for all the more overt historic racism, they demonstrated a greater degree of interaction and conversation than I was used to seeing in the Midwest. Older people of both races smiled and spoke amicably in the Post Office steps; in the city playgrounds the white kids were all being fawned over by oversized Black nannies, fanning themselves in the shade and comparing notes on the affluence of the families for whom they worked. I found myself less able to criticize reflexively the segregation I had been taught to anticipate.

In the River Street bars, the beer flowed freely as progressively more inebriated people stumbled on the cobblestones and narrow and uneven sidewalks. You still saw Southern Belles here– lovely young women wore sundresses and hats, along with seductive smiles; the bartenders were uniformly friendly and the cover bands spilled music eagerly into the night.

I ordered a beer at Trixie’s, one such bar, overhearing the loud drawl of a man in his 50’s a few stools down from me as he ordered shots of whisky with a non-alcoholic beer chaser. He caught my eye as I turned to look at the origin of that unusual order, and he smiled at me: “I learned yeahs ago that mah vision and mah mahnd remain cleah after many such shots if I dispense with the regular beeah.”

I grinned, and he pulled over near me. “Are you a tourist? Ah haven‘t seen you heah befoah.”

I told him I was not, but that I was in town doing contract work.

“A yankee!” he uttered with seeming exuberance, at the sound of my flat Midwestern accent. “Well, welcome to Savannah, and to the South.”

“Thank you; I love it here,” I told him, truthfully.

“Wheah are you from?” he asked.

“Chicago,” I told him; and he repeated it in a way that completely changed the sound and meaning of the word. He elongated the vowels and pronounced the final “o” in what I would have thought as a British enunciation. It sounded softer and gentler, and I toyed with pronouncing it this way when I returned home.

He told me his name was Jarvis, and that his family went back about ten generations in Savannah, back to before the great fire that burned most of General Oglethorpe’s original planned city. They owned cotton plantations and a townhouse near Factors’ Walk, on Habersham Street. From there they oversaw the ginning — invented in Savannah — and the baling and shipping of cotton onto sailships that carried the cargo to London and Paris, where Georgia cotton was prized by the most discerning tailors for its quality.

The family prospered until the Civil War (“We still call it the War of Northern aggression,” he winked) and Sherman’s march to the sea.

“He burned what there was then of Atlanta and everything until he reached Savannah,” Jarvis said. “Once heah, he saw it was too beautiful to destroy and he decided to take over and stay. He took over the Meldrim house, one of the finest houses in town.

“The bastard then offered the city of Savannah as his personal gift to President Lincoln. A hundred and thirty yeahs of history already heah, and the sombitch considered it his to give away.”

Unbelievable, I thought. I felt a wave of anger inside and immediately got how the local Savannahians would have become incensed and resentful.

Jarvis went on to explain that during Reconstruction, the Federal government made sure there would be no further Southern rebellion by taking away the plantation owners’ lands and building military bases there. “Whah do you think there are so many military bases in the South?”

Jarvis’s family lost all they owned except for their dignity and heritage. It was not at all clear how he made a living now, laughingly evasive as he was about his livelihood.

A few more drinks in us, I found a dear friend in Jarvis. He told me a bit more about the architecture of Savannah, suggested some squares and houses to look at during my stay, and we parted with a bear hug and the hope of meeting again here or on one of the other River Street bars.

Jarvis stumbled off into the night, where a fog had descended, lending River Street a Dickensian English appearance. I got ready to settle my tab and waved for the barmaid, whom I now knew as Miss Emma Lee, having been introduced by my honorary host.

Miss Emma Lee smiled and shook her head as she laid down the bill. “That Jarvis sure enough is a real doodle,” she chuckled. “You know he is not from here, do you?”

My jaw just about dropped. I barely got an interrogative squawk out of my mouth.

She laughed. “I’m born and raised here, and you’d think Jarvis was too, the way he runs his mouth about Savannah. He is what we call a damn Yankee: that’s a Yankee who stays in the South. He moved down here about twenty years ago from somewhere up North — I remember when he first started coming in this bar– and he heard all them stories from the guys who used to hang out here then. Why, I bet he has come to believe half of his lies now himself!

“The funny thing is, some of them ol’ boys were Yankees too, who passed themselves off as being from old Savannah families. It’s almost like they become possessed by the old spirits. But that’s just talk.”

Well, all of this was about twenty years ago now. I went back to Chicago after my contract ran out, and two years later I came back to Savannah to stay. It’s a different place now: Paula Deen, who runs a restaurant here, is a national celebrity, and movies get made here ever since Clint Eastwood, among others, discovered our enduring charm.

As for me, I like to paint and write in my upstairs apartment on Drayton Street, and I saunter down to hang out at Trixie’s every so often, regaling Yankees with stories of old Savannah and the generations of relatives that preceded me here.

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A Lovely Nonlinear Right-Brain Evening

This story is a little bit different from most of the others in this blog, inasmuch as it is not really about the influence of place and environment. I see two distinct ways of reading this story. One would point to how comically stupid and helpless we men so often are in the presence of beautiful women, crazy as they might be. But another angle, that I find kind of tantalizing, is that this is a fable about men’s inability to listen to and understand women: the narrator of this story is really getting it all wrong. He dismisses her observations as arbitrary and meaningless throughout the evening dinner, but still desires her at a superficial level. Once he discovers her erotic power over him, he steps into the deep end of the Madonna-whore pool and comes to overidealize her. He never gets to see her as a real person; and so the battle of the sexes lives on. They think we are stupid; we think they are crazy.

A LOVELY NONLINEAR RIGHT-BRAIN EVENING

“I hope you’re not a typical male,” she said, looking up from her Belgian endive and goat cheese vinaigrette salad with artichoke hearts, caustic despite her flirtatious smile.

I quickly looked up into her eyes, ensuring against any doubt that I might have been even fleetingly glancing at her cleavage. “Typical?” I sputtered. “How so?”

“You know,” she flashed an effort at coyness, “so left-brain and linear and stuff.” She swallowed and looked pensive, as if willing her peristalsis. “Always taking things literally and trying to fix everything…as if that were possible.” She laughed to herself, no doubt amused at the image of feckless males rushing into useless activity.

I was about to offer to help her solve the problem of left-brain males when she added, “…and making a joke of everything. You know, being unable to communicate seriously about anything.”

Grateful that I had been slow to produce my effort at a bon mot, I smiled as I bit into my Caesar salad. “I’m sure I’m not a typical anything,” I purred, in hopes of getting away from the bashing of my gender. I was beginning to sense that this evening was going to end poorly and find me alone and discouraged.

***

This was not what I was hoping for when the evening started. The date had basically been set up for me by my friend’s wife—usually a bad idea. My friend Matthew is married to Nicolasa Probst, a Chilean spitfire who grew up in diplomatic circles and chose to stay here in D.C. when she met Matthew, then a young functionary with the State Department. She was only eighteen and her father,  Santiago’s ambassador to the U.S. and former ambassador to France, was completely opposed to the union. While Matthew was daunted and prepared to call off the engagement, Nicolasa made it clear that she would follow no man’s imperatives, and the two were wed in a ceremony that made the papers in Chile and eventually led to the senior Señor Probst to be recalled, for fear that it might suggest his being beholden to the Yankee people and government.

Nicolasa’s friends were typically no less iconoclastic, and Matthew kept quiet as the three of us had drinks in their living room and she suggested that I meet Gabriela, an artist of European and South American parentage who had grown up in D.C.

“Don’t you think they’d hit it off, darling?” Nicolasa told, rather than asked.

Matthew swirled his drink, and looked apologetic. “She is beautiful.”

“She is that,” chimed in Nicolasa. “And very bright.”

***

            By the time our entrees arrived— a peppercorn-crusted halibut steak with charred leeks over creamy polenta for her, osso bucco for me—we had already started our wine, a particularly good and expensive Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I enjoy wines and wine drinkers, but had never seen anything quite like Gabriela.

She insisted upon sniffing the cork and tasting the wine first—fine with me. She then swirled it and stared languidly into the glass, entranced by the color. The waiter seemed to look briefly in my direction, but I avoided catching his eye. She tossed it down her mouth, swirled it about with her eyes closed in rapture, and then surprised us both by spitting it back into the glass. The waiter and I stared at her, her long neck gracefully stiff like an image of Nefertiti, her eyes still closed. Then tears began to appear under her eyelids, like a miraculous icon of the Sacred Virgin, and she slowly opened her tear-reddened eyes.

“Sublime,” she pronounced. “Get me another glass, please.”

After a long pause, during which she appeared to compose herself while still spilling occasional tears, she looked at me, seeming expectant.

“I’m glad you like it,” I said, meekly, helplessly, undoubtedly requiring every synapse in my left cerebral hemisphere.

***

Fortunately for me, the halibut was merely wonderful and decadent, and not altogether sublime. The waiter learned to ignore me in his subsequent anxious visits to our table, and we were given ample opportunity to converse.

Which we— she— did. She talked about all manner of ideas and things. She was curious about the enforceability of artistic license. She was concerned about the logistics of karmic demographics: she stayed awake at night, trying to reconcile a belief in reincarnation with the exploding population of the planet. She seemed to love words as much, or more, than the ideas they represented. “Ephemera, simulacra, arcana:” she loved words with plural “a” endings. She used words that I had read but never heard pronounced aloud, words that would challenge any Reader’s Digest quiz writer. Words that, in all truthfulness, she appeared to force arbitrarily together. She found the restaurant’s decor “rapaciously quotidian” and described our waiter as  “abstrusely taciturn.” Her childhood was described as “Rabelais meets Rilke.”

She told me about a dance piece she was hoping to choreograph herself, called “Schrodinger’s cat,” a piece about how dancing neutrinos lost and regained mass, that was supposed to be both a commentary on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and a criticism of Hollywood’s obsession with thinness.  She was also working on a performance piece on fractals, that somehow combined the music of Kurt Weill and a slide show on plate tectonics.

I was at a loss, but thankfully not expected to say much in return. When she excused herself to go to the bathroom, I watched her slink off, casually tossing her pocketbook over her shoulder and offering a demonstration of perfect movement. Heads turned as she floated by, the topology of her breasts, hips and legs making intelligible the concept of n-dimensional space.

When she came back, she sat down stiffly, ill at ease. “Let’s go,” she said softly, decisively.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Wonderful,” she said, just as softly. “Let’s leave? Now?”

“Okay.” I hastened to wave for the check and pay, while all the while Gabriela shook her crossed legs nervously, her eyes darting around in impatient anxiety.

We got in the car and I drove her back home, past DuPont Circle, when I saw that she was crying in that same regal way that she had with the wine: neck arched, face smooth like an alabaster sculpture, eyes closed, and tears spontaneously forming at the lashes. I wondered what I had done or said, or maybe even just reminded her of, that caused this severe disappointment. Or was it something else? Someone else she saw in the restaurant? I dared not ask.

We drove in silence until we reached her townhouse. I got out and opened her door, one last gentlemanly display before going home and settling down with a drink before the tube.

“Come in,” she said, dabbing at her tears.

“Really?” I asked, incredulous.

“This has been such a wonderful evening,” she said, and the tears flowed a little more freely. “Such a lovely nonlinear right-brain evening.”

“It has,” I concurred, more out of confusion than agreement. “It certainly has been that.”

***

We made love that night, in every nonlinear mode possible. I could swear I came to understand fractals, neutrinos, and chaos theory in a way I never had before, without those words being uttered again. My mind seemed to fly off through cosmological images of landscapes unseen as our bodies merged. And they all exploded in one shimmering display of gossamer starlight as we climaxed.

“Sublime,” I whispered, as I rolled gently down her outstretched arm.

Then I saw it. Right before my face, her open hand had an open wound in the middle of her palm, the blood pooling and spilling over. I jumped to my knees, and saw the matching wound in the right palm; and then, inevitably, I looked down and saw those in her feet.

“Yes,” she acknowledged. “Stigmata.”

“Baroquely solipsistic,” I said, spitting out two words at random and lying back down, cradled in her accommodating arms, moistened by the blood of her palms.

“Exactly,” she smiled, and hugged me tightly, lovingly, her nonlinear face happy as a child coming home.

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