Poetry & Parallel Worlds

March 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago, I had to write a blog post about Barcelona’s literary side. I knew the blog masters in charge wanted a snappy, touristy thing about Shadow of the Wind and the like. I wasn’t gonna give it to them. I knew there was a whole lot more to the city’s fictional universe than a couple of bestsellers. I spent a long time on Enrique Vila-Matas’ website where I came across a post by Juan Pablo Meneses.

The Chilean writer recounts evenings hobnobbing with the city’s literary crowd, and I instantly got the excited, slighty anxious and envious feeling of this whole other world playing out around me and not being a part of it. Instead of writing my blog post, I searched out several local publishers and liked them on Facebook.

A few days later, one of the publishers, Alpha Decay, posted something about a poetry reading by one of the writers Meneses mentioned in his post, Jaime Rodríguez Z. By now, I’d virtually stalked the vast majority of our local literary talents so I knew that he’s Peruvian, recently moved to Madrid, has a new poetry collection – Canción de Vic Morrow – named after an actor who’d been decapitated by a helicopter blade, and is married to another writer who everyone seems to be talking about all of the time. I “liked” the event and A. got excited about it and said we should go.

The thought of actually going hadn’t really materialized in my mind. A. told me how ridiculous it was to talk about discovering something new, finding out all this information, “liking” it on Facebook and then not actually getting off my ass to check it out. The reluctance, of course, was part of my old junior high anxiety of not getting invited to the party or – worse – showing up and realizing I’d been cast as the verbal punching bag. Ridiculous, I know. We’re all grown-ups now and besides, none of these people know me. It’s also a public event, A. pointed out with a look that summed up the entire absurd nature of my thought process.

The reading was at a bar in the Raval called Bar Raval. I must have walked down Doctor Dou hundreds of times, but I’d never noticed the place before. The people smoking outside the entrance all seemed to know each other. I was early and A. hadn’t arrived yet so I stood near a skinny tree and called a friend. We talked for a bit, I asked her if she wanted to come down, promising this would be much better than previous literary excursions, but she had just made chicken for dinner and had a friend coming over. I walked inside and looked at an enormous statue of a flamenco dancer. I looked at the photos on the wall. Circus performers. The photos were dark and slightly menacing.

The bar was almost empty. A group of twenty-somethings playing cards at one of the tables. A woman with a hurricane of red hair hugging people at the bar. And the poet, in a white shirt and grey V-neck sweater, talking to another man at a table stacked with copies of his book. I sat down in the back and decided I liked the bar. It was old Barcelona, wood and worn red leather, a long bar and tables with curved legs. The waiter brought me a glass of wine and some nuts.

People started arriving, and the woman with the hurricane hair greeted them all, and it was a bit like crashing a family gathering. But not in an uncomfortable way. They seemed like a friendly family, unpretentious and genuinely fond of one another. A. arrived and took an instant liking to the poet because he reminded him of a friend from La Paz. Right when everyone settled down, three girls walked into the bar, a Russ Meyer trio with breast shelves wrapped in black and polka dots. They sat down next to A. and me.

Another writer I’d encountered in Meneses’ blog, Jordi Carrión, introduced the poet. He made a joke about how he’d started dressing preppy since moving to Madrid. He talked about how he’d wondered whether the book would reveal anything new about the poet, because his wife had written about him on so many occasions. The audience loved hearing stories about the poet and his wife, especially the one about him writing her a birthday poem on Facebook. But, Carrión went on to say, the answer is yes, the book reveals plenty about the poet. About growing up in Lima in the late Seventies, about fathers and violence and childhood memories. And somehow he wove all of this together with an old TV show and a supporting actor best known for his role in a most macabre death.

I liked how Rodríguez Z. read his poems, without sentimentality or overwrought flourish. A humble, straightforward delivery, like he was reading to friends in his living room. Which he kind of was, except for a few new faces and the fact that everyone paid for their own drinks. The poems moved through different emotional spaces, at times mysterious, unsettling, funny or immediate, a concoction of pop-culture references and childhood recollections stirring up curious, vivid images. The audience was clearly enjoying themselves. Only the Russ Meyer girls seemed oblivious, sitting in the back, flicking through a copy of Cosmo, red lips in a pout.

Barcelona is small, but occasionally I stumble upon something new, something that’s been happening parallel to my own life this whole time. I walk down a street I’ve walked down almost every day and enter a bar I’ve never noticed before. I find myself in this parallel world, surrounded by people I’ve never met, and suddenly realize the city is a whole lot bigger than I think.

On World Cup Fashion, Part 2

July 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

When I arrive at Xop d’Or to watch the Uruguay – Netherlands game, a man tells me about an octopus that has the uncanny ability to pick winning teams.

“So how does he do it?” I ask.

“He’s given the choice of two containers, one for each team in a match, and then I guess he picks one with his, uh, tentacles.”

Apparently, the octopus, who goes by the name of Paul, has not been wrong once this whole World Cup. So besides the ability to hide in its own ink, change color and shapeshift, the octopus is now a bona fide oracle.

After rooting loyally for Ghana, watching Uruguay cheat them out of their quarterfinals win (Ghana was robbed!) and my World Cup boyfriend Gyan weep on the field, I feel the need to present Ghana with several awards.

Most intense goalkeeper: Kingson, the Purple Tank of Ghana, because he’s fierce, fearless and looks splendid in both lilac (game vs. the US) and the very fashionable brown and orange combination he wore during the game against Uruguay.

Best Facial Makeup: the Fans of Ghana for going all out, having vibrant colors and imaginative designs.

Best Celebration of Scoring a Goal: Team Ghana for their sexy little post-goal dance. Definitely beats the “spread-arms-look-at-me-me-me” or “fist-pumping-the-air” run across the field.

Runner-up for Best Celebration of Scoring a Goal: Miroslav Klose’s hands-free-two-feet-above-ground-somersault after goal 4 in the Germany vs. Argentina game.

Ghana may have been cheated out of its rightful place in the semifinals by Suarez’s attempt to take over as goalie, but Gyan, Kingson and the Boys are definitely my pick for Best Team of the 2010 World Cup.

Brazil lost it’s top ranking for Best Use of Color Psychology as a Game Strategy when they made the fatal mistake of wearing their friendly, baby-blue shirts versus the black-and-orange-clad Dutch, who resembled a furious hornet’s nest. The German team also sought inspiration in the insect world. Swarming the field in black with gold stripes, they were as formidable and unsettling as a perfectly coordinated cloud of wasps. Argentina (dressed in what looked like blue and white striped pajamas) didn’t stand a chance. One of their players even lost a shoe. I’m afraid for Spain. It all depends on whether they’ll be wearing their amiable, boy-scout red and blue or their dark paramilitary getup that reminds me of the Mossos de Esquadra.

So…the award for Most Intimidating Paramilitary Style Uniform goes to Germany.

And proving that you can still be intimidating while dressed as a clown fish, the award for Most Outrageous Use of Color goes to the Netherlands for their All Orange Uniform.

Award for Most Likely to Be Confused with an Ice-Cream: Uruguay’s day-glo lime goalkeeper uniform, because it looks just like a popsicle.

Best Shoes: Argentina for their classic, old-school look in black with yellow stripes.

Funniest Name of a World Cup Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger (for all you non-German-speakers out there, the man’s last name basically means “Pig-Mounter”)

Most Regal Name of a World Cup Player: Prince Boateng, who also has a deck of cards tattooed on his neck.

World Cup Player Most Likely to Be Cast in Twilight: Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani.

Player Who’d Be A Lot Better Looking If…he shaved off his tiny facial vagina: Spain’s David Villa.

Player Who’d Be A Lot Better Looking If…he stopped gnashing his teeth on camera: Uruguay’s Diego Forlán.

Most Bizarre Victory Promise: Maradona ‘s pledge to prance naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina won the World Cup, only topped by his assistant, who offered his anus to whomever scored the winning goal.

Here’s a few contenders for Attractiveness Awards, although none can hold a candle to my boyfriend Asamoah Gyan.

Award for Good Sportsmanship and Lustrous, Glossy Hair: Argentina’s goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Honorable Mentions for Potential Cuteness Factor: Uruguay’s Alvaro Pereira, his teammate Martin Caceres and Spain’s Iker Casillas.

I’ve discovered that showing up early enough to catch the teams singing their anthems (or in Spain’s case simply standing there, I guess, since the anthem has no words) is crucial to identifying player attractiveness level. It’s the one time they stand still and the camera gets a nice, long, fat close-up of each one. Wish I’d figured this out before…just thinking about all the lost joy and awards not given makes me feel a little cold and dead inside. Oh well, I’ll be better prepared in four years, I promise.

Tomorrow Spain faces the Wasp Battalion from Up North in the semifinals, but I’ve shaken some of my fear.

The octopus picked Spain.

On World Cup Fashion

June 30, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m not much of a sports fan and only really develop an interest in football every four years. For some reason, I can’t get all hot and bothered over club football. It’s not the same as countries from all over the world gathering in one place to duke it out on the field. It wasn’t until my early twenties that professional sports started playing a role in my life. My boyfriend at the time harbored a great love of sports and was pretty much omnivorous in his consumption: basketball (the LA Lakers), baseball (the LA Dodgers), ice hockey, American football (a sport I can’t get into to this day, largely because of their silly uniforms. Granted, their butts look firm in their shiny tights, but combined with all the padding and the helmet, the players remind me of 1980s action figures. Also, they have thick necks, an instant turn-off). Given that I didn’t know anything about any sport, I had to find something to hold my interest during the game, and I picked “boyfriends” to cheer for. In the late 90s, the guys had Kobi Bryant and Shaq. I had Robert Horry, the cutest Laker playing at the time. My all-time favorite basketball boyfriend, however, was Allen Iverson. I know, he didn’t play for the Lakers. I was flagrantly cheating, but I couldn’t help myself. Short, rude and demon fast, he really got me excited about watching a game.  “He’s a punk!” my then (real life) boyfriend would exclaim outraged. Such reckless disloyalty was cause for much distress amongst the boys and occasional threats of being banned from future game nights.

Baseball was a bit of a drag. On TV, it had a soporific effect on me. A live game was alright as long as it was sunny and we had plenty of beer and pot. But the uniforms remind me of pajamas and there’s too much standing around involved and some of the players have big guts. Surprisingly, I enjoyed hockey, even though you can’t really appreciate any of the players’ physical attributes what with all their protective gear. As to the argument why hockey players get a pass and football players don’t – here it’s really about the game (I know it sounds odd coming from a professed sporting ignoramus). Hockey is lightning fast and ferocious. The players get into vicious fights and seeing blood is a definite possibility. This creates true, exhilarating drama.

Nothing, however, beats football. And with that I mean the football the rest of the world plays, the football that actually involves kicking the ball with your foot, what Americans call soccer. As a game, it is beautiful to watch even if you don’t know the rules. But by now it’s obvious that the elegance of the game is what matters least in my sports analysis. Yes, it’s about looks and style. Superficial indeed, but so what. It makes watching a game a lot more fun. Football players have splendid physiques. Not too big, not too broad. Watching their leg muscles ripple in slow motion is a joyful, zesty experience. The uniforms are fitted just right – not too tight, not too loose – and I love the knee socks. And now that it’s World Cup time, I am fully invested in my quadrennial sports addiction. To celebrate this glorious game and its many heroes (and diss its cads, divas and sissies), I’ve decided to present my own World Cup 2010 Awards.

Best looking player: Asamoah Gyan (Ghana)

Funniest hair: Carles Puyol (Spain), because he looks like a cast member of Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

Worst hair: Fernando Torres (Spain), because he gets it wrong every time – mullet, blond tips. It’s all bad.

Best socks: Ghana (uniform worn in game vs. USA), because red and gold is a stylish, winning combination.

Runner up for best socks: Paraguay (the red and white striped socks in game vs. Japan), because they look like candy canes.

Award for Best Use of Color Psychology As A Game Tactic: Brazil. (Granted, Brazil has a built-in freak-out factor what with their multiple World Cup wins and formidable reputation as the world’s most ass-kicking football nation. But add an avalanche of yellow shirts rushing across the field, and the opponent may easily experience fear and a sense of inadequacy. Sure, yellow is a friendly, cheerful color, but it’s also been associated with feelings of frustration, eye fatigue and even vision loss. In the game vs. Chile, the Brazilian team’s goalie sported a green uniform that almost matched the field, yet another strategic move. I’m not saying that if Brazil wins this World Cup, it’ll be due to their ingenious use of color, but beyond the ability to play well, there’s plenty of subtle factors that deserve careful consideration.)

Most Bizarre Fashion Moment: in the Spain vs. Portugal game when Fernando Llorente sported a torn football jersey. Is the tattered chic look breaking into football? What’s next? Bleach stained shorts with carefully orchestrated rips just below the crotch?

I hope to closely examine the fashion sense of additional teams as we enter the quarter finals. New awards will no doubt be presented shortly!

Poetry 101

January 26, 2010 § 4 Comments

A while back, I decided that perhaps I should engage with my local writing community. Reach out, meet some fellow scribblers. Be less of an arrogant misanthrope. A few days later I got an invitation to a reading and saw it as an opportunity to exercise my new openness. I arrived late, because of a group of Nigerians singing “Give Peace a Chance” on Plaça Sant Jaume, holding up Nigerian flags and banners that read “Nigeria is not a terrorist nation.” I stood in the rain watching them sing, a small group of men, women, children on a Sunday evening in front of the deserted city hall. When I got to the gallery, people were still standing around, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. A woman was fiddling with the music stand and the microphone. I hadn’t missed anything. I got a cup of wine for a euro, which made me happy, and checked out the crowd. Mostly middle-aged, dressed in subdued winter fashion. A smattering of people in their thirties. One woman in her twenties in a purple turtleneck. And then I saw her. She was short, in her fifties, with shrill red hair and thick lips painted orange, heavy eyelids and an enormous smile revealing tiny teeth pointing in all directions. She wore a thick, wool sweater and gold paisley leggings and hiking boots. I hoped that she was amongst the evening’s readers.

We sat down on plastic folding chairs, and a woman in her forties with sharp black hair welcomed us to an evening of poetry and prose in Spanish, Catalan and English. The first woman to read was young and covered her entire oeuvre from the age of sixteen to the present. At the beginning there was lots of stuff about elves and magic kingdoms and brooks in the moonlight. A waterfall interrupted her sonnet, and I glanced at the pipe in the corner closest to me and my neighbor whispered that this was just something that happened when someone flushed the toilet upstairs.

Up next, a woman in a loud shirt with a book full of what a friend once uncharitably described as Hausfrau poetry. The woman in the purple turtleneck read a couple of despondent short stories, the kind that always end in death, because of the faulty assumption that only death results in poignancy. She wrote about death like someone who has never encountered death. I was about to sneak off for another cup of one euro wine when…my gold paisley woodland creature made her way up to the music stand. Yes! Finally! I sat upright in my squeaky plastic chair. She stared at us, her hands on her hips, and grinned.

“I will read my poems in Spanish and then I will read the translation into English. Yes? So, first in Spanish and then the same in English!” she said loudly and happily and immediately launched into a verse about waves kissing rocks. She read as if devouring something incredibly tasty. Her hands never left her hips. She looked up and grinned. “And now in English!” she called out cheerfully and read a literal translation of the poem in thickly accented English. Her poems were neither good nor dismal, but she was magnetic up there, performing poetry as if it were an endurance sport. “And now!” she called out, “A very short poem, first in Spanish and then translated into German!” Only two lines long, the vanishing line of the horizon, something like that. Her German was unintelligible. But it didn’t matter. She moved from one poem to the next so swiftly, it was like watching a magic trick, the classic trick with the coin that vanishes and pops up in all sorts of orifices. You have a vague notion of how it all works, but you could never explain it let alone repeat it, and yet you are mesmerized.

We stood around as the organizers gathered up the plastic folding chairs and the woman in the loud shirt asked my neighbor, a young novelist, if she was coming to the Thursday meeting, and the novelist smiled without saying yes or no. She later confided that I wasn’t missing much; mostly a bunch of old guys sitting around and telling everyone else how they should be writing. Someone flushed upstairs and water roared through the gallery walls. The young novelist and I smiled at each other.

The Letter, Part 1

January 20, 2010 § 3 Comments

She was reading the letter out loud, wondering what she would do when she got to the part that revealed everything. Would she blurt it out or glide across it so seamlessly that he’d never even know she’d skipped a paragraph. Or would she hesitate just long enough to make him suspicious. Half a page to go. She sat upright in the office chair across from him, the back of her legs sticking to the pleather seat. He had taken his glasses off and was running both hands through his thick hair. Light brown, no gray yet. A youthful 34. Old next to her though. She was reading a letter from her best friend. Something about a play they were doing at her high school. He wasn’t really paying attention. He was thinking about best friends. He hadn’t referred to anyone as his best friend in a long time. Perhaps best friends die out with adolescence. Perhaps at 34 all you have left are acquaintances. Again he was hit by the gulf between them. The office was silent. She had stopped reading.

She was disappointed. He hadn’t been listening. Otherwise he would have noticed the tiny pause she’d slipped in. But it had hung there, ignored. She blushed. What if she was wrong? She’d die of embarrassment.

“What’s the matter?” he asked and put on his glasses, “Was that everything?”

“No,” she said, her eyes fixed on the letter in her lap.

“Go on then. I was enjoying it.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

She was holding the letter with both hands. Unsteady hands. Her cheeks were on fire.

“I can’t. It’s private.”

“Now I’m definitely curious.”

“It’s better if I don’t.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” he smiled.

She watched him closely, deliberating the consequences of her next move. If she was wrong, she’d get herself into a world of trouble. And if she was right… She had no idea what would happen if she was right. She’d come up with all sorts of fantasies, but that’s all they were, fantasies. The cramped, airless office vibrated in the neon glare. He was watching her with penetrating blue eyes. A silence full of noise. The blood in her ears, the hum of the computer fan, the drone of the central heating system. The laughter of students outside. Recess was almost over. She wanted to know. She jumped up and slammed the letter on his desk.

“If you really want to know,” she said loudly, “Read it yourself!”

She walked out of his office before she could change her mind.

Henry sat and observed the letter from a distance. The pale blue paper with a floral motif in the center. The girlish handwriting. Smily faces as punctuation, swirling ink patterns to fill up blank space. For some reason, he was afraid. He wasn’t sure why. He knew what it said in the forbidden paragraph. He’d known for a while now. She wasn’t hard to read. He wasn’t afraid of her feelings. She was 16 and curious and had no concept of death or the end of things. He was afraid of his own feelings. They’d met during her interview at the exclusive private school that had been his meal ticket for the last five years. We’ve got a student interested in drama, Luke, the admissions guy, had told him. Henry taught drama so he interviewed her as he had interviewed so many other potential students over the years. But she wasn’t like the others. She seemed older, poised, incredibly bright and self-assured. European girls are like that, Luke told him later. Luke would know, he’s English. Henry had never been to Europe. He had never been anywhere, really. After high school he’d driven his old Buick from San Clemente, California to New York City to become an actor. When things didn’t work out and he was broke, he pawned the gold watch his paternal grandfather had left him, a man he’d never much cared for, and drove back across the country. He got married to his high school sweetheart. Always a bad idea. Two years into college and they weren’t the same people anymore. Divorced, luckily no children. He got married again, to a woman who was much taller and much smarter than him. She wore billowing dresses and was working on her Ph.D. in philosophy. He always thought she’d leave him for one of her university colleagues, but in the end, he was the one to stray. An actress, adorable and bubbly and not at all intimidating. His co-star in a terrible community theater production of The Seagull. After a few manic, exciting months, she burned all of the photos of his previous wives in a metal bin in the backyard. When he broke up with her, she stalked him for half a year. First he changed his phone number, then he moved to a new apartment. He spent a couple of years alone, in recovery. He started working at the school. He had a brief affair with a fellow teacher, who decided to go back to her ex-husband in Chicago at the end of the school year. His entire romantic life was a drab cliché. A string of lamentable choices. He eyed the letter. Perhaps the fear was his self-preservation instinct kicking in. These stories never ended well. This was professional and personal suicide. He laughed. He hadn’t crossed the line. Nothing had happened. Nothing would happen. Stop being ridiculous, read the damn letter and tell her tomorrow, gently but firmly, that nothing could come of this. Ever.

Ava walked out of his office and down the hall, white noise in her ears, sweating, her footsteps faster and faster. She pushed through the glass doors to the courtyard and then she was running. She ran across the courtyard and the lawn, past the library and down the slope to her dorm. She ran down the carpeted corridor, breathless and elated. Into her room, slamming the door behind her. Beth and Anne sitting on the bed. She barely saw their faces. Stars danced before her eyes.

“What’s up with you?” Anne asked.

She bent over to catch her breath.

“I did it,” she croaked.

“Did what?”

“I gave him the letter.”

The stunned silence she’d been hoping for.

“No way!”

“He’s reading it right now?” Beth asked.

She nodded and sank onto the bed between them.

“You are totally nuts,” Beth said.

Anne studied her with what she hoped was newfound respect. Anne, the unrivaled leader of girls, the object of desire. Blonde, glamorous, outrageous Anne who wore a tiny trench coat and golden heels to class, who kept a bottle of rum and tropical drink mix in her closet and weed in her underwear drawer. National Honor Student, dorm counselor, vice-president of her class, third generation to attend the school. Anne got away with everything. The other girls clung to her, hoping that some of her golden shine would rub off on them. Ava liked to think she was different, an echelon above the sycophants. A true friend.

“I’m impressed,” Anne said, “A little obvious, perhaps, but daring.”

“It might turn into a total shit storm,” Beth remarked.

“I know,” Ava sighed, “I don’t know what happened. I couldn’t stop myself.”

“I’m definitely taking a more subtle route with Mr. Sanderman,” Anne said, examining her nails, “I think he’d totally freak out if I pulled a stunt like that. But we’re making progress. I just got him to help me with my Spanish after school,” she batted her eyelashes coyly, “because I want to improve my conversation skills before the family trip to Puerto Vallarta.”

She rolled her “r’s” expertly.

“You’re terrible,” Beth muttered, “Both of you.”

“But I’m sure Mr. Lynch was into it,” Anne added, “After all, it’s pretty theatrical.”

“He’s probably gonna go home and rub the letter all over his body.”

Ava squealed and buried her face in a pillow.

* * *

Henry took off his shoes and his jeans and sat down on the edge of his bed with a tumbler of bourbon. He looked around his tiny apartment and for the first time it struck him how lonely it was, how devoid of any effort to make it a home. The TV and VCR formed an island in the gray, carpeted room. His bed stood in one corner. A coffeemaker, a pot, three glasses, that was the extent of his kitchen utensils. All he ever bought was water, coffee, milk and bourbon. He never cooked at home. When had his existence become so dreary? How had this never bothered him before? He poured himself another bourbon and picked up the letter and carried it over to the bed and read it again. He wondered if she regretted giving it to him. He wondered if she meant it. And if she did, was she capable of knowing what it meant? What did a sixteen-year-old girl know about love? She’d been crazy about Tom Leland for most of the fall semester. She’d told him all about it. Tom had gotten expelled, and she’d snuck off on two dates with him and then it was over. Now she never even mentioned him. It was as if he had never existed.

* * *

Ava lay on her back in the dark, staring at the sickly green constellation on the ceiling. Beth was snoring softly, her hands folded demurely under her cheek. They had pushed their beds together on one side of the room and sometimes they fell asleep holding hands. When the other girls in the dorm teased them about being lesbians, Beth and Ava just smiled. They had figured out that they’d been born on exactly the same day at exactly the same time on opposite sides of the world. They dyed their hair the same color red and loved The Pixies and The Violent Femmes and drifted between cliques without really belonging anywhere.

Ava couldn’t sleep. The exhilaration had worn off, doubts accumulated in the dark. She knew he cared for her. Even if she was wrong, Henry would not rat her out. He’d done her plenty of favors in the past. Back in the fall, whenever Henry drove them to the mall, she’d met Tom in the parking lot instead of going to the cinema with everyone else. Only once, when she’d been late for the van pick-up at Baskin Robbins, had he told her to be careful. This was after Tom got expelled for smoking weed. It was inevitable, really. Tom would show up late to first period, stoned to the eyeballs. He was a day student and sometimes he’d smuggle beer on campus and they’d drink it down by the softball pit after school. Or he’d bring his flask to the lame school dances and spike their drinks. He also sniffed glue, but Ava preferred to ignore this. There was no rebel drama in glue. She worried about Tom, and Henry was the only person she could talk to about him. After he got expelled, she saw him a few times. On their last night together, he picked her up in the mall parking lot and they drove to the park. They hadn’t seen each other in two weeks. He’d brought a blanket and spread it out under a tree and told her he had something important to tell her. He seemed lucid and earnest. He told her he’d quit drinking and smoking weed and was seeing a shrink. He said it felt weird to see things so clearly. He was happy. He said he loved her. Ava wasn’t sure why, but his declaration left her cold. Suddenly he seemed so ordinary. Just some guy from the suburbs getting over a drug problem and flunking out of school. The sense of adventure deflated like a balloon the morning after a glorious party. They made out for a while, but when Tom asked her if they could have sex, she told him she’d be late for the van pick-up at the mall. On the ride back to school, she sat up front next to Henry, and he was telling them about a play he’d seen in Hollywood over the weekend and how terrible it was and how no one understood subtext anymore.

“You guys are way ahead of these theater flunkies,” he said and smiled at her and the smile made Ava tremble. And then she knew that all along she’d been making up excuses to avoid the glaringly obvious. She was in love with Henry.

The glow in the dark constellation had faded to a pale shimmer. 5am according to the red numbers on the alarm clock. Her brain hurt. Ava got out of bed and did a shot of cough syrup in the hopes of getting at least a couple of hours sleep.

to be continued…

The Funeral

November 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

I was seventeen and I’d never seen a dead person before.

He lay in the coffin like a wax figure, his hands folded across his sunken chest. The inside of the coffin was lined with white ruffles. It reminded me of a cream tart. His face was an unnatural shade of orange and he was wearing eyeliner. I’d met Henry’s grandfather once. We’d visited him at his little house in Hemet, a desert outpost where the residents refer to the fifty-somethings as “the youth”, and he’d made us instant coffee and we’d sat amongst towers of old newspapers and he’d complained about his nurse.

“You can’t trust the Orientals, you know,” he’d said, sucking on his oxygen mask.

“Asians,” Henry had said.

“What?”

“The people are Asians. Oriental is used for carpets and furniture.”

“You always know everything better, dontcha? Always been a smartass. Look at you now. Still teaching at that high school, arentcha? Whatever happened to your great acting career?”

“He’s always been that way,” Henry told me later that evening, “Hateful. I think my grandmother died just to get away from him.”

And now he lay stiffly in his funerary cream confection, looking like he’d spent every free minute on a tanning bed instead of hiding behind dusty curtains and a lifetime of accumulated stuff.

The nurse had called Henry a few days ago and told him of his grandfather’s death. Mid-rant, apparently. Something about a “wetback invasion.” He’d gotten so agitated his throat had seized up and he’d choked.

“The paramedics tried to revive him, but it didn’t do any good,” the nurse said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Henry told her.

We drove out to Hemet for the funeral. A beautiful clear morning. The sunlight reflecting off the palm trees sharp and blinding as we drove through the desert. Henry listened to NPR and didn’t talk much.

“Is your sister coming?” I asked.

“No.”

“They didn’t get along?”

“You met him. You saw how he was. Getting along with him was impossible. He hated everybody. He told my sister she was too fat to ever find a husband. She stopped talking to him years ago.”

“He must have liked someone…or something.”

“He liked seeing people fail.”

We sped past a crooked sign. Hemet, 10 miles. An artificial geriatric island in the middle of a vast, sandy emptiness. Single-story homes with wilting front yards. A few nursing homes. A hospice. A main street with forgettable chain stores and restaurants. A few miles out of town people cooked up meth in broken-down trailers. Sometimes they’d blow themselves up, but usually death came to Hemet quietly and undramatically.

The service was being held at a local church, a flat, peach-colored stucco building with a couple hibiscus out front. We walked in and eight elderly people turned to stare at us.

“Wow. I thought we’d be the only ones here,” Henry remarked.

“Who are these people?” I asked.

Henry shrugged.

A woman of about seventy in a velour jogging outfit came up to us. “Did you know the deceased?”

“Yeah. He was my grandfather.”

“Oh, of course! Henry, right? I’m Pamela. I lived next door to your grandfather.”

She looked at me and beamed, “And who is this lovely young lady?”

Henry cleared his throat, “My, uhm, my niece. Ava.”

“So nice to meet you, dear,” Pamela’s face went into mourning and she clasped my hand, “So sorry for your loss.”

I nodded vaguely. Six more months, I thought. Six more months until my birthday. Six more months and we’d finally be free of nieces and cousins and all the other invented relatives I’d played in public. I wanted to hold his hand, not some old lady’s I’d just met, I wanted to kiss him in the middle of a crowded street and not lie about my life when I ran into old friends from high school. Be patient, Henry would tell me, just a little while longer. I fought the urge to kiss him right there, in front of Pamela and the priest and the seven wrinkled faces examining us like a rare species. Seeing the outrage ripple through the room would almost have been worth it.

“We reserved a table at the Homestyle Buffet for after the service. You’ll join us, won’t you?” Pamela spoke slowly, over enunciating every word as if we were toddlers or hard of hearing.

“Sure. Thanks.”

Pamela pointed to some chairs in the front row. We sat down. The priest stood next to the coffin and read something from the Bible. He closed the book and looked at us awkwardly.

“Would anyone like to say something?”

The room sat in silence. I could feel their eyes on us, expecting Henry to get up and deliver some kind of eulogy for a man no one had ever liked. Henry stared at the scuffed tips of his shoes. I curled my hand around his. A man in the back cleared his throat and we all turned to look at him. He was short with an impressive stomach plunging over his belt buckle. Bald, except for a wispy crown of white hair. He stood up and cleared his throat again.

“Frank was my neighbor. He lived at number 15, I live right next door, number 17. He was a quiet man. Always minded his own business. He was good at fixing things,” he paused, his arms hanging limply on either side of his bloated belly, “Once he let me borrow his camera. That was a nice thing to do, because he loved that camera.”

He glanced around the room nervously.

“That’s all,” he said and sat down. We all turned back to the front of the room.

“Thank you,” the priest said.

We took turns walking up to the coffin. Pamela tucked a hibiscus flower under his hands and I wondered whether she’d plucked it from the bush outside the church. Henry stared at the old man for a few seconds. His mouth twitched like he was about to laugh. He turned and walked out, eight pairs of old eyes following him. I felt uncomfortable standing by his coffin, looking at his waxy, orange face with the thick black eyeliner, a joke of a death mask, trying to think of something nice anyone had ever said about this man and coming up empty. When I went outside, Henry was standing on the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the rows of identical stucco houses. I stood next to him and felt young and stupid.

“We’re heading to the Homestyle Buffet,” Pamela pulled up in her car, the window rolled down. She was wearing a green plastic visor, “Maybe it’s best if you follow me. That way you won’t get lost!”

We got in the car and Pamela honked as we pulled up behind her and we drove down the street, a slow-moving caravan that a random onlooker might have mistaken for solemn.

The Homestyle Buffet was on Hemet’s main street, next to a hardware store and a pharmacy. We parked in the lot behind the restaurant. Henry sat back in his seat, his hands flat on his knees.

“This is gonna be profoundly depressing,” he said, “We should’ve brought the flask.”

“We don’t have to stay long,” I tried to sound comforting.

“We’re definitely not staying long.”

I leaned across to kiss him. He pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t. I’m not feeling romantic right now. Let’s go and get this over with.”

We crossed the parking lot, not speaking, a tense three feet apart.

Pamela waved at us from a long table at the rear of the restaurant.

“Grab your trays and join us!” she called out brightly. The portly neighbor sat next to her, shoveling mashed potatoes into his mouth. The other mourners shuffled along the buffet, piling food onto their plates. We joined the line with our blue plastic trays.

“The creamed corn is very good here,” one old lady told me, “I always get the creamed corn.”

We paid at the register and carried our trays over to the table. A red plastic “reserved” sign stood next to the salt and pepper shakers. We sat across from Pamela and the portly man.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s just say a quick prayer for Frank,” Pamela said and held out her hands. She wiggled her fingers. The portly man looked guiltily at the mashed potatoes and put down his fork. Henry rubbed his temples. His patience was running out. But he played along and we held hands and Pamela mumbled a few words and everyone said “Amen” and then Pamela smiled cheerily and said, “Let’s eat!” and everyone dug into their food.

“So you came all the way down from Seattle for the funeral?” Pamela asked me. I stared at her blankly.

“I’ve never met your mother,” Pamela continued, “But Frank told me his daughter lived in Seattle.”

Oh, right. My mother. I forced a smile, “Yes. We live in Seattle.”

“A pity your mother couldn’t come,” Pamela said, shaking her head reproachfully, “At times like these…” She paused expectantly, waiting for me to provide an acceptable excuse. I sucked on a mouthful of bland creamed spinach. “Anyway, it’s none of my business…” Another loaded pause. Others at the table had gotten interested in our conversation. The woman next to me fiddled with her hearing aid.

I glanced at Henry. I wanted to tell them that Henry’s sister hadn’t come, because she’d hated the old bastard. I wanted to tell them that she wasn’t my mother at all. I was sick of pretending all the time.

“My sister just had an operation,” Henry said calmly, “She couldn’t travel.”

“Nothing serious, I hope?” the woman with the hearing aid asked loudly.

“No, nothing serious,” Henry said and smiled. He squeezed my thigh under the table. I jerked my leg out of reach and stabbed into a pile of wilted lettuce on my plate. Henry folded his hands in his lap and kept smiling.

The conversation soon turned to the mundane matters of retired life in the desert. Ailments and hospital stays. Who had what and where what hurt. Tips on new meds. Everyone was very upbeat, swapping golfing stories and sharing updates on recent hip replacements. A comparison of recent funerals yielded the conclusion that Eunice’s service had been splendid, her family had done a great job with the floral arrangements, and wasn’t it a relief that she’d gone the way she did, a stroke while putting on her lipstick (oh Eunice, she was glamorous all the way to the end!) and not like poor Margaret, who’d lain crippled (but didn’t she suffer bravely? Such a noble spirit, that one!) at the hospice for months before slipping away in a morphine haze.

“I need a drink,” Henry muttered.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We stood up and thanked everyone for coming to the funeral.

“Aren’t you staying for dessert?” Pamela asked.

“We’ve got a long drive back,” Henry replied.

“Well, it was real nice meeting you,” Pamela said and patted Henry’s hand and then mine, “Come by any time. We might still be here!”

Everyone except for the lady with the hearing aid laughed.

“Drive safe now!” Pamela said and waved as we walked away.

We headed out to the parking lot. Everyone else picked up their trays and went back for seconds.

On the Price of Things

October 30, 2009 § 2 Comments

A week ago I was scoping out the new, shiny Terminal 1 at the Barcelona airport. Very shiny. So shiny that you can look up a woman’s skirt as she crosses the polished black floor. After staggering out of security with my shoes in hand and pants falling down, I found myself in the airy, curvaceous, white glory of the airport mall. It was my first time in the T1 and a little reconnaissance was in order. I had plenty of time and I needed some lip balm. Somewhere amidst the souvenirs and designer rags there had to be a pharmacy. How naive. Why would anyone want to sell something useful at an airport mall? This is where all the colorful, shiny, useless things go to when they die, a consumer heaven populated with bored people who can’t escape. Expensive perfume, wool coats, big hams. Desigual with clothes that look like a giant moth ate its way through a costume party and threw up. Zara and its parade of synthetic clones.  A Ferrari store. And Natura, the haven for the conscientious mainstream shopper. 50 Euros for poorly glued boots made in the People’s Republic of China. 20 Euros for a 100% acrylic scarf. But hey, the bags are made from recycled paper and deliver happy, fuzzy messages about taking it slow and sharing the love. A German woman was rummaging through a plastic bin of cheap baubles, plastic beads and pendants covered in silver paint.

“How much?” she asked the sales girl.

“1 euro,” the girl said, “1 piece, 1 euro.”

She held up a bauble and one finger to illustrate her point.

“Cheap!” she added, smiling.

The woman beamed. “Yes. Very cheap. Good!” She started a little pile of baubles next to the cash register.

I swallowed to stop myself from blurting out something rude and coughed loudly. After all, why should I care about this bit of highway robbery. Obviously the woman enjoyed getting ripped off. She walked out of the store with six plastic baubles that would probably lose their silver coat in a matter of days. But it’s hard to get anything for a euro these days so when it’s right there in front of you, that shiny bright useless thing, yours for just a single coin, you gotta strike. It’s so cheap! You’d be a fool not to!

The reconnaissance work left me hungry. I weighed my options.

8 euro wok noodles fried up in cheap oil, 6 euro cheese sandwich, 5 euro ice-tea, 4 euro muffin.

I know, I know. It’s the airport, and airports are always a rip-off. But if that’s true then the whole world is turning into one gigantic airport. Or at least the city of Barcelona. My local restaurant, for example. Two years ago I was a lunchtime fixture. 8 Euros got me a good, 3-course meal, beverage included. Now the same menu is 12,50. The food hasn’t changed. The portions haven’t gotten any bigger. Nor has anyone’s salary. In fact, salaries are plummeting. And those with a shrinking salary are the lucky ones. In some parts of the country, unemployment has reached 20%. Public coffers are running dry, the government is about to raise the sales tax. Groceries, rent, utilities…everything has gone up, except for our paychecks. The more we work, the poorer we get. That sounds like bad math to me.

I know that this scenario plays out all over the world, but in some countries the rip-off is done with kid gloves. In Spain, the rip-off happens unabashedly, in your face. Deregulation was supposed to lower our phone bill. Telefonica still charges me almost 80 Euros a month. Every time I call to complain, they promise a discount that never comes. Every time I call to complain about the discount that never came, they claim the discount never existed in the first place. When I’ve called the company, the phone lines are usually full of static, their operators come in faint and tinny, as if they were using skype to run their customer service. I’ve flirted with the idea of switching providers. But who to trust amongst this shameless cabal? Who terrorize their potential future clients at all hours of the day? Andrés and I have developed elaborate dissuasive techniques. I try selling operators on their competitors. Andrés plays them heavy metal. I speak to them in a language they don’t understand. Once Andrés even told a phone company salesperson that I, the contract holder, had died. I can’t wait to see what happens now that the electrical market has been deregulated!

And the political class? Their scandals have been getting plenty of ink lately. Ransacking public coffers, using taxpayer money as their personal (or party) cash cow. Caso Gürtel. The Palau Incident. When public and private sector are so deeply in each other’s pockets, it comes as no surprise that citizens are footing the bill. At all ends. Slowly, you start to feel like an idiot.

And the most astounding thing of all – we put up with it. All the time.

Sure, we complain. A lot. In the supermarket check-out line. In the elevator. At the bus stop. We bitch about the cost of living. We erupt in outrage when our bills arrive. We vent to friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, complete strangers in bars. We feel united in our outrage, bond over our shared abuse. We’re outstanding complainers. But what we should really do is take it a step further. Find ways to boycott the worst private sector offenders. Identify them. Refuse them our money. They are big and we are small, but starting small is better than not starting at all. Our power to consume – or not consume – is the only power we have. And our voice. Spain’s “consumer protection agency” is a joke. How about starting an online platform where people can post comments about and rate companies, providing others with helpful information to guide their choices? And we must all become loud, vocal, obnoxious, public pains in the ass. Writing letters, starting blogs, initiating neighborhood actions. The best citizen action, of course, would be for all of us to stop paying our taxes until we get the kind of laws that close the gulf between the cost of living and our salaries, laws that reign in a system spinning out of control, laws that allow us to live and work with dignity.