October 5, 2014

Mad people across the water, part 5


Dulles, mon amour, how many times have we done this?

 

Clown red uniforms speaking that other kind of German are serving me water. Lipizzaner stallions, whose passages and caprioles moved me to tears once upon a time, prance on the screen in front of me. Leonard Cohen wails “Take this waltz” on repeat in my head (there is a concert hall in Vienna where your mouth got a thousand reviews). The laid-back Hapsburg campiness sucked me in so quickly that I was genuinely disoriented when I looked out the airplane window to find out I was still on U.S. soil. The futuristic shuttle monsters were shuffling between concourses, I was on the other side of Immigration and Customs, and my baby was riding the Great White Whale on a road somewhere, smoking cigarette after cigarette, wading through traffic back toward our house.

 

It takes three visits to call a place a home. Three borders to reach it. One beer to fall back, two Adirondack chairs on the porch, and one shower for hair and skin to remember how soft the water is. It takes three lights, LaFarge, the L-Furnace, and the Key Bridge, and the big barge redding up the waterline in between, to offset the torn-down tower that we once called FeelGoodInc. It takes three nights in your, his, our bed, and three strands of scent - his skin, the house, and Old Road Bay, to bring a heart wide open.

 

“You were never more quiet,” my friend says upon greeting me back.

 

It is true. Usually, when I jump countries, I will text, call, send photographs and long-winded letters. This time, I was quiet. Baby cooked for two, drove for two, sang and danced for two. I was happy to lie down on the sofa, our sofa, that sofa. I was happy to be quiet and listen to him speak. Tell me a story. Speak of the future. Let that baritone fill my ears and my oxblood shoes show us both just how mindless my mindless is, and how wicked my wicked.

 

“We cried less and fucked more,” I tell her.

 

I will never have the things I love in one place, or even remotely close to one another. I am back to being the plucked chicken of romance, chasing my multiple lives across pages and time zones. Where there is dance, there is no him. Where there is him, there is no family. Where there is family, I am always a misspoken child in a house of super-ego mirrors.

 

There is that moment of first sunrise above the Atlantic, above the clouds, just above the first shoals of Europe, when you realize the flight is almost over. That moment when, if you have met a handsome stranger and your head is resting on his shoulder, you start wishing that the voyage would never end. If you are flying home for Christmas, that is the moment when time seems to slow down like a lazy drone, and you will never land. Caught between my stretched-out lives, I take it as another border-crossing, clouds, sun and sky in three thick stripes of white, apricot, and cerulean, brushed across my horizon by some relentless hand.

 

Greyhound tickets, 7-Elevens, Wawa receipts fall out of my pockets. I carry three currencies in my wallet. I brought the Bay back with me again, I brought my baby with me again, mold, wood, age and water, scallops, steaks and spicy crunch sushi. Dulles, mon amour, how much longer?
 
 
 
 

September 19, 2014

Good luck with everything


 
 
“You look like you’ve lost weight.”

She eyes me up and down, like always, this Eastern European wonder that I am to her. The upright breasts, the tiny dancer’s waist hiding abs underneath the cozy fat of summer break from practice, the tanned arms resting on casually sweatpanted hips. She doesn’t know what to do with me. In body, mind, and presence, I should be less of an offense to her sensibilities, yet I am not.

“Nah, I’m the same,” I say.

I do what is asked of me. It is a request which I am left to divine for myself, without a “please” or “thank you,” more like an assumption that needs to convince itself more than anyone else. I understand. I understand that “please, can you help me” would have been weakness in the face of my foreign quasi-youth. I understand that it is an ever-so-slight groveling for control. Asking means that one can be denied. In a gesture of magical thinking and displacement of responsibility, an order renders a denial disobedient.

I make no excuses for why I was in bed at noon. I ask courteous questions from behind a vague smile that could mean a million different things. Her new place is nice and private and quiet, and she has not yet cleaned up her old place for the contractors. It’s been three years now of "trying to get things done." She tries to bond by comparing my writing to her gardening. She asks about my family, my work, my flight, my trip to Pennsylvania. She doesn’t mention the one thing that would humiliate her if she asked: how long are you staying?

“She is terrified. No one should feel this way.”

Yes, she is. And no one should.

Somehow, somewhere, something happened. Something broke, irreversibly. Her pride and vanity are now dependent on others to get things done. She has big plans that are pure escapism, a dream of moving from one hoarder’s den into another. She can’t stand the sight of her thinning hair and the fact that she has to apply tons of make-up to hide whatever she only sees and no one else cares about. The age and wisdom that would have gotten her compassion and love from those surrounding her if she had only been kind, she has turned into toxicity. Others’ happiness mortifies her. She wants to be invited in, but she eggs your house instead. The howling emptiness of her hyper-filled home makes her lash out at beauty and love. Whoever wanted to help was alienated.

It is a desperation of the saddest magnitude. I should not be a threat, yet I am. I never asked for this kind of power, yet she threw it right in my lap. I could crush her with one word, one Macbeth look, or with silence, and I would feel filthy. It is a dialogue, a relation, a puzzle that my open heart never would have expected, or accepted.

She is looking for a different kind of water to live on, hoping it will save her, hoping she can save herself.

“Good luck with everything,” I say.




July 4, 2014

Llorona


 
 
Remember 2014
The year García Márquez died
Everyone was having babies
And the poplar tree in front of the window grew taller than ever
Winter was kind, summer kicked in the door too soon
While floods swept through muddying everything in between


Remember 2014
When you couldn’t stop crying for five months
And the thunder of escobillas was not enough to shut out the songs that fought in your head
When love asked you to be quiet
To just be
And you buttoned up your breath so tight that
When it was finally released, it came out as a wail


You finished something
That took a year of your life
And it was only the first of five, not even a final version of itself
A Delicate Balance visited again with its question
How do you know if it has happened? If you’ve really gone to that place?
You preferred not to
You decided against


Remember this
Remember this moment
Your red is granate, deeper than rojo
You click your heels for some nebulous home
How many sunrises in 2014?
How many kicks and screams spell ‘patience’?
How many ways to bend a Vitruvian heart?
On y va, missy
To storytellers who deny
And dancers who tell stories
To those that get your unthinkable music
¿que más quieres? ¿quieres más?
 
 
 
 
 

May 25, 2014

Pearls or swine



Is it my turn
To compose soft words at daybreak
With hand flourishes that compete with morning birds
To tell stories of the night before
Of days forfeited
And what it means to be “on the mend”


Shall I?
Keep my regal shoulders dignified
In this longest check-out line of
Paying dearly for what you’ve got
Like molasses, emptiness is slow, and thick
And catatonic, and quiet


Is it my turn
To be quiet in the face of the past
So beautifully completed
Narratable
Free of debt
Its own dignified cenotaph
Pretty to think so


Is it my turn
To count the anomalies that came before
To be wide-eyed
In the face of this entropy of which came first
Pearls
Or
Swine
Sitting in the eye of a most undesired storm
Of spread and swiped human dearth
Dripping from dirty wings
Running out of absence.



May 23, 2014

Ladybug llamada




“Holy crap, you seem to have this natural sway to your hips.”

 

If I had a nickel.

 

Yes, I do. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know where it comes from, and I can’t control it. It’s just there. People tell me they recognize me by the way I walk. I have no idea what that means.

 

We have been practicing walking in dance class.

 

Yes, walking. That thing where you put one foot in front of the other and the rest of you follows.

 

I keep comparing the farruca to how I imagine military ballet. Staccato. Proud mourning. Homesickness. Tense containment at the verge of insanity. Anger and atonement. I do not relate to these things, I am them.

 

Except, apparently, my hips refuse to comply. I am also told that my epaulement is too graceful for this choreography, and that I should keep it tougher. We watch the video of our practice. Some of my motions are incomplete. My posture still sucks balls. The llamada and chaflán look very much OK, though. But, mother of God,

 

I. Am. Soft.

 

Soft.

 

Gentle.

 

Pliable.

 

Too soft and too gentle for this dance. I have been called strict, and tough. Also, magnificent, intoxicating, pure evil and a tease, but that is neither here nor there. Too graceful? I have the subtlety of a freight train. Have I been hiding behind my yang all this time? I keep waiting for the camera to lie, like Lucille.

 

I have a thick rubber band wrapped around my hips to keep them in place, and my hair pulled back. This disciplinarian business is really amusing, and I find it even more hilarious that it doesn’t seem to work.

 

On my way home, a ladybug lands on my shirt. I let it climb onto my forefinger (index is such an ugly word) and carry it with me through one of the busiest streets, straight to the main square. I must look like a demented Marie Antoinette, my arm up in the air like there should be some invisible nobleman eye candy hanging off it, flamenco elbows, insubordinate hips and all, among the noon trains and the smell of summer in the air. Only those who looked carefully could see the tiny creature that hitched a ride with me, if only for a few minutes in the crowd. Trying to keep track of my marbles, I forgot to count her dots.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

May 16, 2014

Ain't the same


It’s raining in May
I am shamelessly wearing winter boots and a coat
A mutt runs eights around my legs
Seeking shelter from the wind
A cab driver yells to me from his car,
That’s no stray, ma’am. That’s our boy from up the street.
We take good care of him, don’t you worry.
I smile back and give him a thumbs up, reassured that there might just be hope for this world
Because there are people that watch out for others out there
As a friend’s quiet words from the night before
Click like marbles in the pockets of my coat

 
“Mikey ain’t the same”


Four simple words
To rattle my cage
As I catch up with friends in the evening
We have dinner and crêpes and cuba libres and smoke weed and watch movies
And just for a few hours
I curl up on the couch
Lose myself
In the safe and warm company


“I guess he misses you”


I don’t know that anything could have broken my heart
And lifted it up at the same time
Like this soft, sincere appeal from across the ocean
From someone in the inner circle


I know, buddy.
Mikey’s holding his breath
Sleeping with boots against the door
Watching airplanes
Studying the tides
Counting the feathers in his wings


Mikey’s racing ospreys
Playing the chess game upside down
Fixing every broken human trinket that crosses his path by rote
Like a good angel
Tipping the scales between test and penance
Taking the measure of this world
Waiting for life to begin
For the big music to speak


He ain’t the same, no
But it gives me comfort that you get it
Big hugs to you and your lady
Can't wait to come home.
 
 
 
 
 

April 16, 2014

Mad people across the water, part 4


“We’ll get that sorted f’ya, luv,” the neck-tattooed hotel receptionist tells me as he hands me a city map that dates back to 2001, and it hits me that I haven’t been on this island in seven years. Before Birmingham for conference, there had been Edinburgh for graduation, and Bristol for business, and London for pleasure.

 

It takes all I have not to say,

 

“Have you ever read Redburn by Herman Melville? A young American sailor explores Liverpool using his father’s old guidebook from fifty years earlier in that novel. Or the documentary series Great Continental Railway Journeys, where the 1913 Continental Railway Guide is used to retrace what is left of the Edwardian perception of Europe a hundred years later?”

 

I shut up and ponder this apparent Anglo-Saxon fascination with belated maps on my own. Portillo and Melville are not even remotely similar, after all, and The Cube and The Mailbox would find me later through unmapped routes anyway. The receptionist would not have that sorted for me, luv, but my room would be cleaned despite my saying no housekeeping please. Some nations can afford not to be up to speed with the world, I guess.

 

Blessed Britain, where, thanks to a rampant regal Y-chromosome from five hundred years ago, women can today be ordained as priests.

 

Where a conference colleague can talk about his husband with the exact same pride I have when I brag that “my boy reads Pynchon.”

 

Where club managers look like Del Boy and the drunks are waited on by ambulances scattered on Broad Street Gomorrah like watchful birds, without even being summoned. I tried to imagine what that cost in comparison to this and this. But hey, at least the drunks came in all shapes and sizes. “Birmingham is very diverse,” my Pakistani cab driver would tell me on the 4-a.m. ride to the airport.

 

Victoria was elusive that night. She was supposed to be a beacon towards a far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, but she kept disappearing up and down Broad Street, as if somehow weightless in her stony majesty, and I would see The Floozie in the Jacuzzi* sooner than Victoria. When we finally found her, she did not care. I thought about how magnanimity comes from leisure, and freedom from oppression, where your dirty work is done for you and you have the luxury of drop-kicking your shameful to the other side of the globe. Blessed Britain.

 

I found shelter in the far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, after leaving the cliques and neuroses of fellow humanities’ freaks at the hotel along with my heels. I encountered a vernacular soul who had read “that terrible book” Moby-Dick twice, and made me laugh more than any of the two hundred fellow neurotics earlier. I was told that my favorite Edinburgh pub, The Blind Poet, was still standing, and I could feel it pulling at my heartstrings from seven years ago and five hours up north. I remembered that you hail a bus in the UK and say “Thank you” to the driver, I remembered how you tip over there, I remembered to look right then left, and how much I dislike ‘circuses.’ I found the Cube, the Mailbox, and the geese in the canals. I found rowdy Jamaicans in the Peace Garden, and cathedral spires craning their necks like sunflowers growing from glass and steel.

 

“God bless you, my sweetheart,” my cab driver would say as I left. We will have talked about qawwali and Sufism and Nusrat, and curry and cab drivers’ working hours, and the children that Britain had taken possession of and misplaced over the centuries, that were now identifying the mother ship by her wake and claiming her back.

 

I found my breath in displacement once more.

 

I realized, once again, how much I feed off my dissociation.

 

It had been too long.

 

I returned to a freshly painted apartment with no doors, to a country which has a constitutional ban on gay marriage yet has just approved two people to officially change the gender in their documents without undergoing a sex change operation. I returned to a plastic recycling plant aflame half a mile from where I live and a toxic cloud of DeLilloesque proportions. Mine is a wicked and cruel lot sometimes, and more often than not I wish a cosmic flood could wash them clean again.

 

I returned to find my bird on its last legs. I genuinely thought I would lose him in a matter of hours. He’s never going to recover, but he has picked himself up since I came back. My fantastic veterinarian sister reminded me that parakeets are sensitive buggers who sometimes pluck all their feathers out in protest if their owners go AWOL. Flattering as it is to think he might have just gone sicker missing me, and there’s precious few things I value more in this world than animal loyalty, my bird is a loner and I love him for it. He might be dying but he will bite your finger off if you touch him. In the face of human desperation for someone to just keep us safe and warm and hold our hand as we leave this world, I am stunned by the dignity of animals who prefer to die alone, dissociated enough to return to the very same nature that bore them.
 
 
 
 
 
My other "Mad people across the water" writing can be found here:
 
 
 
 
 
* I am told that Dubliners' own Floozie, or Biddy in the Bidet, or the Whore of the Sewer, predates Birmingham's: Anna Livia Plurabelle.
 
 
 
 
 


March 21, 2014

Home


The smell of coffee early in the morning. The whistle of a clogged vacuum cleaner. Wine stains on the carpet and square halos where old photographs used to hang on the wall. Footsteps, laughter. What shall we do for lunch? The scent of fresh-cut flowers and kitty litter. Music and mud in the hallway.

A life lived.

Home.

Do you think they know, when they are built, to expect us somewhere down the line? Are they eager to meet us?

The homes that have us. That raise our children and endure our noise. That see us when no one is looking and cradle our fragility.

Homes that we build. That we are made to leave. Those that were just houses that we never made our own. Those that craved an owner like a tired fighting pitbull, and perhaps spent a lifetime licking their wounds and waiting.

Homes that couch our defeats, and respectfully show them the door when they overstay their welcome. Those that anticipate our triumphs, and celebrate quietly by ruffling a few curtains and stretching their eaves.

Homes that get off on our lovemaking, and sigh and pillow talk with us. That watch us change partners, that change and grow with us. That comfort us when they are gone. That allow their walls to get cold after we are left alone. That listen to too much Adele and La Roux when we are gone as well.

Those that always remain projects, or promises. That were supposed to, should have, ought to, someday will…

Homes that are sad to watch us abused, abandoned, and lost. Those that never get to see happiness inside their walls. Those that were chosen to harbor secrets, ghosts, and death, without having a say in it.

Homes that keep us our entire lives, and those that we treat like train stations, means to an end. Homes that are not even ours, yet embrace us and we get to stay. Homes across the ocean, homes that let us go and never get over us. Those that wait, and wait, and wait for us to return.

Homes that gave us freedom. And those who gave us shit from the moment we moved in. Those that watched us make fools of ourselves and never asked a question. Those that we disappointed.

Do they know their fate in advance?

Do they enjoy being flipped?

Do they know when they are about to be torn down?

Are they jealous?

Do they have regrets?

Our drawbridges

Basements

Turrets

Staircases

Prisons

Beacons

Caskets

Libraries…

Those that we never forget, and that never forget us, and our lives lived.



March 12, 2014

Elephants


A few years back I was asked two simple questions: if you could be any animal, what would it be? And, if you could have any animal, which one?

Code for, how you see yourself, and how you see your ideal partner.

I said cat, and horse.

I’ve changed my mind.

I am an elephant.

Elephants can be trained to sniff out poachers, and match them to the exact snares and guns they touched.

Rescue elephants come back from the wilderness, willingly, to their rescuers for help when they are attacked with poisoned arrows. They know their safe places.

Baby elephants throw themselves in mud when upset, apparently.

That’s how you become a big stomper when you grow up.

More than anything, elephants don’t forget.

I danced yesterday, and my heels refused to hit the floor.

They clickety-clicked like a fucking tap dancer’s.

I dug not the allegria yesterday.

It feels like the happy dance of an octogenarian who just discovered he did not die during the night.

Imagined invincibility.

As sweat poured down my neck

I smeared my feet into the ugly distorted marcajes of the farruca.

The ones that look like you stepped in dog shit

Or like you’re putting out a cigarette.

Can you imagine the biteable cuticles on an elephant?

I told my heels I was a stomper with a minor in faceplanting

Give me the yang, you fuckers

You don’t understand

The trunk said out of the mud

That is not why I am upset

That is not why I am crying

That is not why I am furious

The herd watched

Raised an eyebrow

Took a dump

And waited.

I’ve changed my mind.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

December 24, 2013

Je bricole


“So, you ride too?”

This just after I’ve told the story of the last time I fell off a horse to a bunch of professional riders. My rambunctious pony had decided that it was a good day to gallop out of formation and shake me off while he was at it. My stirrup got detached from the saddle, my hand got caught in the reins and I ended up with my arm in a cast and a nice black eye from one of his back hooves. Luckily for me, ponies don’t wear shoes. And I got a month of not having to write any notes or homework in school. Score.

“Um, no, I was ten when this happened.”

“Hey Chris, do you still sing?”

“Um, not really, I stopped taking lessons like thirteen years ago.”

Not that ships and sailors aren’t sexy, but I had to wonder: I used to be this creative, passionate amateur, dabbling in all sorts of things. When exactly did I turn into a Fachidiot of academia and translation? And how beautiful that people still associated me with athletic and creative endeavors, even though I abandoned them decades ago.

And then it arrived. My new joy.

Me: “Honey, I think I am going to take up F L A M E N C O.”

Murdoc: “Come again?” [he actually said something else but I’m censoring it]

Me: “Yeah, I’m an angry little woman stamping my feet all the time as it is. Don’t you think it would be perfect for my character?”

Murdoc: “Well if you’ve put it that way, yes.”

 
So, yes. I have been dancing.


Twice a week I pack a duffel bag with shoes, skirt, water bottle, leg warmers and other dancer paraphernalia. We practise braceos, marcajes, taconeos. We do ballet. We do the tangos choreography for fun and the fandangos for keeps – we are performing it in February [hyperventilation, thy name is moi]. We laugh our asses off and get yelled at. We do balance exercises in animal slippers. Forget the cheap loud celebrations of soccer chants and French matadors: the olé is something you slip in huskily between steps, a bridge between pleasures, an indication that the fun has only just begun. Planta, tacón, gólpes. Planta, tacón, gólpes. Faster. Keep the beat.


I thought you had to be three years old and bendy to do turnouts and grand pliés. You don’t. I thought my bad posture and nonexisting abs would get in the way. They did. I am inherently musical but have never trained professionally. The newly self-aware middle-aged skinsuit has its limits, its knots, traumas and inhibitions. But the body is such a grateful little instrument. And there is that moment when, with the help of a broomstick, you learn how to bend from the rib and not the waist. When that attitude comes out just right, knees open, feet brushing through the first position, coupled with perfect floreos and a flick of the chin. When compáses stop being something you count, but just dance instead. When you feel your body firming up from the inside, wrapping tighter around itself. The gym makes you bulgy. Dancing makes you spindly. Look Ma, I’m an athlete now. I give the world attitude with a sweep of my skirt. Bam.


It is pure yang. Not everyone would agree. There are many different styles and incredible dancers out there, some very feminine, and I’ll be damned if Eduardo Guerrero isn’t one androgynous little Gitano. But it is pure yang. You have to be soft and explosive at any single time, firm and limber in the same motion, tempered yet ready to pounce. If you appear light or gentle, it is because the yang has allowed it. It is a masculine kind of elegance.


Our bailaor has this down to a T. It is enchanting to watch him move. He does with the body what I do with language. He can do the same braceo in three different ways, and you will be able to tell which one is tangos, which fandangos, and which soleá. He can repeat your mistakes effortlessly, with just a sprinkle of caricature on top, so that you can see what you’re doing wrong. Dancing is always a little schizophrenic, he says. You’re always imagining resistance where there is none.


A few years ago I saw a documentary about the former Formula One champion, Alain Prost. After retiring from professional racing, he found an amateurish kind of pleasure in cycling. There was a scene in his garage, him fiddling with wrenches, bike wheels hanging on the walls, spare parts all over the place. He seemed no less devoted to cycling than he had been to car racing, but he was more playful. Je bricole, he said with a smile.


I tinker.
 
 
 
Carmen Amaya