Endowment

27 May

<By Robin Kilmer>

My Grandma never seemed to remember where my mother was.  She always won Scrabble games because she memorized every two-letter word in the English language.  In her repertoire were currencies, English spellings of the letters of various foreign alphabets, as well as words like “qi”, an alternate spelling of chi and “ut”, a measure of music.  But now, several years since her last Scrabble game, she could not remember for the life of her the whereabouts of my mother.

“Where’s Anne?” was the first thing Grandma said to my sister Ellen and me when we walked in the door of her room at the nursing home, a few days before the last day I saw her.

“Oh … she’s been in Kansas City,” Ellen and I said.

“But her daughters are here!” said Uncle Jim, who had accompanied us.  Ellen came from Chicago and I traveled from New York to visit her in the Bay Area of California, in this place that we all knew would be the last place she lived.  My Aunt Barbara and cousins John and Mary were leaving as we got there.  It was a small room, so there was only really room for three visitors at most.  Ellen and I started our shift by Grandma’s remote controlled incline bed.  Barbara, John and Mary had great swaths of curly, light brown hair.  Their ringlets bounced as they exited.

“Bye, Grandma,” John turned around to say.

“Bye, Grandma,” Grandma said back.

Oh God.  We had been warned that Grandma was in a bad state, but this worse than I expected.

“But Grandma…I’m John.”  John was as surprised and confused as Ellen and me.

“I know that.  But your hair’s so long you look just like me!  You should really get a haircut.”

It was true.  I don’t know how she pulled it off, but Grandma still had massive amounts of hair, and lots of it still retained its light-brown hue.  I’m told it was auburn when she was younger.

We laughed, relieved.  John left and Grandma focused her attention on Ellen’s hair.  “I just love your haircut.”  It took a lot of effort for her to reach up and stroke Ellen’s fashionable boy cut.  Then she focused her attention on me.  I knew my long hair was a mess.  It was a mess every time I visited Grandma.  When riding in cars in California I always roll the down the window so the au de California can tickle my olfactory senses.

For a long time Grandma just stared at me, her eyes focusing on my hairline.  I wondered what was wrong up there.  “What about my hair?”  I asked, to hurry along the inevitable nitpicking.

“Well,”  she said after a while.  “You just need to brush it.  There’s a brush on the top right-hand drawer.”  When we visited my grandparents as children Grandma always took over the grooming of my sisters and me.  She could never get over the fact that my mom let us go to bed with wet hair.  We never sat still long enough for my mother to blow-dry our hair, and I don’t think brushing and drying three girls’ hair was Mom’s favorite thing to do anyway.  But it was different when Grandma did it.  We could sense that Grandma always derived pleasure from gently and methodically blow-drying and brushing our hair.  But now she could not wield a brush, only point out where it was.

Grandma had suffered strokes before, but the latest ones left her bed-ridden and in questionable states of lucidness.  It is hard for woman who made feasts for dozens of people to be unable feed herself.  It’s even harder for a Scrabble champion to be at a loss for words.  She would always looked up at the ceiling, considering each word she said before slowly and softly saying them.  Grandma was always a loud person and it was strange to hear her speak so quietly.  She asked about Beanie, our youngest sister, and what she was up to in L.A.

“How was the wedding?”  She asked us after staring at the ceiling.

Ever since her last series of strokes Grandma had asked me about weddings.  I never knew which wedding she could possibly be talking about, and I had not been to a wedding since my cousin got married at least ten years before.  There hadn’t been too many weddings, but for some reason Grandma was always hearing wedding bells.

Though some grandmas might like to drop hints by asking about weddings, my grandmother, Frances Olive Ducey, was never one to be passive aggressive.  Just aggressive.  If she thought I was wasting my time being single she would have said so.  Instead she told Ellen and I how lucky she was to find Don, my Grandpa who had died over ten years ago.  When I visited her the year before she told me she still spoke to him, that at night he would stand at the foot of her bed and they would have long conversations.  She also told me that old friends and family would visit her, huddling around her bed, discoursing until dawn’s light came slithering in.  I didn’t ask about the nature of these conversations, but I don’t doubt they happened.

“I hope you two are as lucky as I was,” she said.

“So what do you like to do here?”  I asked after several moments of silence, then regretted it the second it left my mouth.  What a dumb question.  Grandma couldn’t do anything she liked anymore.

“Oh…you know.”  Grandma looked at the ceiling, as if she needed its permission to say what she wanted to say next.  “Just trying to figure out the best way to go.”

Sooner rather than later my grandma said she was tired and that talking had become a chore, but also that she liked us being in her room.  I guess it was nice for her to have someone to sit in communion with.  I used Ellen’s lavender face cream that she kept in her purse to massage Grandma’s arms.  Her flesh was as malleable as pizza dough and her skin dry as rice paper.  Grandma’s gaze focused on a distant memory as I worked the cream into her arm and then her hands, which I held.  They were as delicate as baby birds as they nested in mine.  Ellen and I left when we finally heard her snoring.

The last day I saw my grandmother was spent mostly in the sun.  One of the staff placed her in her wheelchair and Ellen and I wheeled her into the courtyard, where a deteriorating gazebo stood sentinel in the center.  Around the gazebo was a sidewalk promenade.  There was no shade.  We parked Grandma by some benches.  I went to the front desk and sifted through their lost and found for a pair of sunglasses.  Grandma looked content staring at the sun with her shades on, its rays licking her skin.

We brought with us a peach.  It was a particularly radiant peach, the sunset captured in a sphere.  We had been told by the staff at the nursing home that Grandma didn’t eat much and that she substituted meals for cans of Ensure.  The meals were engineered to be mushy enough for disintegrating teeth.  Though well intentioned, they were a travesty for a woman who had spent all her life cooking real food from scratch.

Hence the peach, a soft fruit with an attitude.  It was the last thing I ever ate with my Grandma, and still the best peach I’ve ever had.  Its flamboyant exterior gave way to toothsome flesh that oozed the very flavor of happiness.  We cut the peach into wedges and served them to Grandma.  Happiness dribbled down our fingers and chins.  We all proclaimed it to be the best peach we had ever eaten.

Not wanting to exhaust Grandma with conversation, we decided to sing.  We sang songs that Grandma had taught us many years ago.  Houses on the Hillside, Singing in the Rain and Blue Skies.  “Blue skies smiling at me, nothing but blue skies do I see.”  We sang softly in unison.  I commented that there was enough blue in the sky to make a Dutchman’s pants—something Grandpa used to say.  It made Grandma smile to hear one of her husband’s antiquated sayings.

We wheeled Grandma inside in time to meet Karrene, Grandma’s caregiver.  My aunt and uncle lived a couple hours away from the nursing home and saw Grandma once a week, but it was Karrene who had washed, bathed and cared for Grandma more than anyone else in the past five years.  The fact that she wasn’t family made Karrene better equipped to deal with Grandma, as everyone else in the Ducey clan was just as impatient, quick-tempered and stubborn as their matriarch.

Karrene is also stronger than either Ellen or me.  Along with certain aspects of our disposition, we had inherited my Grandmother’s frame; in her youth she had been thin verging on scrawny.  Karrene, on the other hand, single-handedly lifted grandma from her wheelchair and placed her in her inclining bed.

Grandma held court as she gazed down at us from her inclined bed.  Karrene, Ellen and I looked at each other wondering how we could all interact with Grandma.  Then she spoke.  “You know, we don’t have too much,” she said looking at Ellen and me.  Ellen and I subtly glanced at each other, each hoping that the other would have an idea of what she was talking about.

“What do you mean Grandma?”  We tried to inquire as politely as possible, trying not to make Grandma feel like the crazy old lady that she was.  “We don’t have much of what?”

Grandma laughed.  I know my mom got her laughter from my Grandma.  It is a wheezy laugh that is always accompanied by jumping shoulders.  “Neither of us ever had much of a chest!”  She exclaimed, and wheezed while her shoulders jumped.  Karrene, Ellen and I laughed too.  But our laughter was premature as Grandma was not yet done.

“But Karrene–”  Grandma continued.  Karrene’s breasts were much larger than ours, so there was only one direction Grandma could go.  Ellen, Karrene and I looked at each other, wondering if she would actually go there.  “–Karrene is really well endowed!”  Karrene simultaneously laughed and blushed.  I did not know what to do.  My grandmother had never acted like a teenage boy before.  But it was great to hear my Grandma laugh with such abandon.  So I laughed too.

And that was the last time I saw my grandmother.

In late October—the same month my grandfather was born–Grandma came down with a mild form of pneumonia. Anticipating her death several Duceys swooped into California from various parts of the country.  She died on the 24th, missing her 90th birthday on November 19th by less than a month.  A couple days before her death, she told my Aunt Barbara that Grandpa had come to visit.  It had shaken her up a bit.

“Fran, what are you waiting for?  Just get on with it!”  he had scolded her.

The attendant who was there the morning she died said that Grandma was very much alive when she left her room to go get her cocktail of medications, but was very much dead upon returning.  We suspect that Grandpa had something to do with it, that he had come to her room to steal her away.  His birthday was in two days, and after ten years he wanted his wife to be at his side again to help him celebrate.

Robin Kilmer studied Latin American and Iberian history at Bard College.  Robin is from Kansas City, Missouri, but lives in New York City.  Read her blog, The Newbie Yorker.

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Six Bests and One Worst: An Interview with Matt Gross

11 May

Matt Gross is a world-renowned cheap traveler and expert in the art of getting lost in foreign countries. Indeed, as the former Frugal Traveler for      The New York Times travel section he taught travelers how to live richly while traveling frugally, and now in his Getting Lost column, Matt introduces readers to the idea that one can be Zen and lost at the same time. Wherever he gets lost, Matt always finds his way back to New York, where he lives with his family. I was able to have lunch with him in DUMBO and he agreed to a quick interview on some benches directly under the Manhattan Bridge. Traffic hummed above us as I tried to extract as many interesting, yet random factoids as possible about Matt’s travels.

I was shocked to find out that in all his globetrotting through Europe, Asia and the United States, the worst parasites he encountered were not botflies or tapeworms but chiggers in Georgia—the state, not the country. Nor has he ever been smacked or spit on by anyone he’s encountered—though he has been roughed up by motorbikes. I also learned about the best place to have a layover, use the bathroom, and see the sunset, as well as tips on meeting or alienating people.

Robin Kilmer: What are the best places to meet people?

Matt Gross: Bars. Anywhere is good, but you have to overcome a natural reluctance to talk to strangers. It’s best to travel with someone of the opposite sex that you’re not involved with, because you both seem harmless—even if you’re serial killers.

RK: What are the worst things you can do when trying to meet people?

MG: Be shy. Leer. You shouldn’t ogle too much or drool…

RK: What is your favorite airport?

MG: The Teipei airport. There’s good coffee there, good WIFI, and the duty free store has a good whiskey selection. And there’s a kid’s play area that usually happens to be by my gate.

RK: Which country has the best bathrooms?

MG: Japan. It has toilets as sophisticated as your average Macbook and a dedicated bathing culture.

RK: Where is the best place to watch the sun set?

MG: Hawaii’s not bad. Just as the sun finally sinks it sets off a green light. I remember sitting on the Big Island with my wife drinking Green Flash IPA while waiting for the green flash.

RK: Which country has the best toast? 

MG: Georgia, the country not the state. There are a lot of toasts and sayings that are very oratorical, and they drink their wine from a cow’s horn. There is a saying in Georgia:  You never toast your friends with beer, only your enemies. You toast to your friends with wine.

RK: Which city has the best subways?

New York. The parade of humanity on the New York City subway

For more serious interviews with Matt Gross, click here or here.

Feast of the Sacrifice

7 Apr

<By David Moser>

In Abu Dis, during the Eid, when the children have been given gifts and the parents take rest,  for two days the streets are run by boys with guns.

They stand next to boxes of yellow oranges and green cucumbers, and against the Jerusalem stone of homes, with black rifles strapped on their shoulders and pistols in their hands. They dash across filthy empty streets where on most days men drive their cars, racing from wall to wall. Sometimes the boys hide behind garbage dumpsters and shoot at the windows of passing vehicles. Sometimes they shoot each other.

Of course, the guns are toys, for who would give guns to boys?

“Bo bo bo (come here),” one of the teenagers says, parroting the Hebrew he has heard from soldiers as he points his plastic pellet shooting weapon at me while his friends smile, impressed. Before he says another word, I take my passport from my jeans pocket and pass it to him. He pretends to flip through, and gives it back with a grin at my one-upmanship.

I have also had thoughts of how it would be to be in the army.

Years ago, I had a dream. I was an Israeli soldier, uniformed in olive green, alone amidst urban battle. I was standing against an outer wall of a boxy building and glanced around the corner to see two Palestinians, one man and one woman, who I knew were ready to kill me. These weren’t anonymous fighters, but people I knew in real life, and even dreaming I knew they would never hurt me, if they could only know who I was behind the uniform. But if I turned and spoke to them, they would shoot me before they could see who I was. So I had to shoot first, at my friends.

I did it. I turned and fired at them, hitting both the man and the woman. Rather than fall dead, or even begin to bleed, they sat speaking softly and smiling to each other, unaware of what I had done to them. But they had been shot nonetheless, and would surely die in a matter of seconds. I could not take back the bullets, and panicked at the thought that as they passed from life to death, they would see that it was me who had sent them there. In my terror and humiliation, I started shooting again, and as the dream went dark, fired round after round in prayer that I could kill them before they knew who I was.

When I woke up, the sky was already blue.

David Moser teaches writing at the  Al-Quds Bard Honors College in the West Bank. In his free time he rides the bus. You can find his other pieces at Ramallah the Big Olive .

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Prague Dream Hunt

7 Apr

<By Rob Williams>

Some mornings I’ll flip open the trashcan in my kitchen and see the wrappers of all those Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs and have a weird twinge—a realization that without this visual proof, my stoned, nearly somnambulatory binge would have been forgotten forever. But a glance at those crumpled wrappers is all it takes for the memory—the mental picture of me sprawled out on the couch, ripping open chocolate eggs—to come rushing back.

Other lost memories are much more difficult to find. Especially the memory of a dream, since those are always the most fleeting. As soon as you wake up, they begin to fade. How then, I wondered, as I sat at my desk, rifling through the drawers for a clue, could I track down the memory of a dream I’d had more than a year ago—in a foreign country, no less. Unless!—it occurred to me—those kinds of memories are actually easier to recall. Yes, that almost made sense: Because they occurred in an unusual setting, they are less likely to be obliterated forever in the crushing pile of one’s day-to-day memories. They’re probably in their own smaller pile, in some separate corner of the brain, if only it could be located.

The memory in question was of a dream I’d had about a year ago—in February 2010—in Prague. I had been there to visit a friend of mine, Anna, a tall, stoic, Polish woman I’d met while traveling in India several months prior to that. I’d stumbled across her sitting on the balcony at a hotel in Varanasi, looking out at the Ganges River, in all its mysterious, holy, and wholly polluted glory. There was a package of Gold Flake cigarettes on the table, and I asked her for one, although mainly I just thought she was beautiful and needed something to say. As usual, the first words were the hardest, and our conversation didn’t end until three weeks later, when I flew back to New York.

When we reunited in Prague a year later, our easy chemistry was gone. We recognized each other, of course, although neither of us seemed quite sure who the other was. She was even thinner than I remembered, gaunt, and I’m sure I looked different too, since people are always changing in small, unsettling ways. We regarded each other skeptically, trying to make the new pieces fit. Perhaps we were both just wondering what we were doing there, on the cold, snowy streets of Prague, rather than on the hot dusty roads of India where we had met.

Our days were spent sightseeing, wandering around the outskirts of the castle, looking for Kafka’s house, roaming through the natural history museum and the various art galleries, those kinds of things. Anna’s sister was there too. She took many photographs and occasionally had tearful arguments with Anna in Polish. I was never able to understand the source of their conflict, except that the sister’s emotions tended to run hot, while Anna’s were much more cold (from her sister’s point of view).

Days passed. In between our rambling walks across the icy city, Anna and I spent a lot of time sitting in the tiny kitchen next to the room we were renting, smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking tea. I wasn’t finding anything interesting enough to write about, but I didn’t mind, since I don’t really travel to write anyway, or at least I hope I don’t. But one night, toward the end of our two weeks in Prague, I had a dream that was so strange and hilarious—or so it seemed to Anna and me when I told her about it—that I promised myself I’d write it down when I got back to New York. But I never did. For some reason, for that whole year (2010), I didn’t feel like writing anything at all. I did make a halfhearted attempt to start the story though—I created a Word file called “Prague Dream” and wrote:

As we walked down the cobblestone streets from our room near the castle, Anna and I didn’t say much. We were both too tired. It was about 10 o’clock at night, and we’d just woken up from a nap that had been longer than either of us intended. I was more confused than usual, and Anna even more quiet. We’d been in Prague for many days now—days mainly spent wandering around the city and looking at odd sculptures, smoking cigarettes while gazing at snowy rooftops, eating enormous servings of Czech food, and drinking cappuccinos. We had reached the eating portion of the day again.

But that was all. I hadn’t opened the file in a year, and now, staring at this single feeble paragraph, I couldn’t believe that that was as far as I’d gotten. What about the dream itself? I had no memory of it whatsoever. Then I remembered that I’d written some notes on a scrap of paper as well, to prompt myself when I finally did get around to writing the story. I knew the paper was in my desk drawer somewhere, and I rooted around until I found it at last, buried under a pile of tax documents, old birthday cards, and a bullet-riddled paper target from a friend’s bachelor party at a shooting range in New Jersey.

The note, handwritten in blue ink, said simply:

—Roast knuckle of pork with Bohemian potato dumplings and braised white cabbage

—I am not living in a “post-racial” society in my mind!

In other words, it was virtual useless. The first detail, I already knew well. Anna and I had gone out to dinner late at night and I had eaten a ridiculously large knuckle of roast pork. Anna had been highly amused by the spectacle of me gnawing on this monstrous portion of food and had remarked that eating such a large meal so late at night was “going to give me nightmares.” I snorted indignantly and assured her that it would not. I’ve always been convinced that this piece of popular folk wisdom—the idea that eating certain foods, or large portions late at night, gives you strange dreams—is pure fantasy. It’s one of those things, like food poisoning or jetlag, that I absolutely refuse to believe are real, because they have never happened to me.

As we staggered back up the winding stone streets to our room, I was telling Anna this—that there was no way my dreams could possibly be affected by the food I’d had for dinner, unless I was deluded enough to believe it—and she was laughing, telling me that I was ridiculous, which, coming from a beautiful woman, is always sweet music to my ears. Back in the room, we quickly lapsed back into a powerful food coma (to use a phrase I am simultaneously appalled and amused by), dead for the night—except for the strange machinations of my mind, the mysterious dream that I can no longer recall.

I do remember that I told Anna about the dream the next morning, and that she thought it was extremely funny. My note about “not living in a ‘post-racial’ society in my mind” obviously indicates that there was a racial aspect to it—almost certainly something offensive, given what I know about the way my own mind works. (This is not to say that I am racist, at least no more so than most people, just that my mind is not a very politically correct place!) And what about the phrase “post-racial”? I must have been thinking about President Obama when I wrote that, about the absurdity of the phrase itself—the suggestion that his presidency somehow marks the beginning of a new era in American life and politics that transcends or somehow otherwise eliminates all questions of race and racism, or whatever the phrase is supposed to mean. This is clearly a lie, one of the many phony social and political narratives that the media is hell bent on creating and repeating, ad nauseam—that much I knew for sure. But who cares about all that—what about the dream?

Stymied by the limitations of my own mind, the apparent impossibility of retrieving certain memories—a fact that makes me feel slightly nauseous if I think about it from the wrong angle—the only thing left to do was e-mail Anna and ask her if she could remember what the dream was. This was a real shot in the dark, considering that the conversation had happened more than a year ago and was just one of many odd, slightly humorous conversational gambits I tossed out over the course of our two weeks in Prague. Then again, it’s unpredictable, the things people remember. I’ll never forget the time Anna told me that she felt such a profound kinship with elephants that she was sure she’d been one in a previous life. We were bouncing up and down on the back of a bus somewhere in the south of India, and we had just passed one of those majestic kindred spirits of hers, sending Anna into a state of reverie. Then we hit a bump that was so huge it sent Anna’s head all the way up to the ceiling and she let out a protracted whoop that left us both in hysterics.

Now Anna was living in London, back at her job as an engineer—and very restless, I’m sure. The last time I spoke to her was a few months ago, just before I quit Facebook. I’d announced in my news feed (or on my wall, or whatever it’s called; I’ve already forgotten the lingo) that I was quitting and urged my “friends” to get in touch and stay in touch in the real world, if they were so inclined and could locate such a place. Anna was one of two or three people out of two hundred that e-mailed me and said that they would.

So, determined to get to the bottom of this Prague dream mystery, if at all possible, I sent Anna an e-mail that said:

Hi Anna. I have a random question for you, which I don’t really think you’ll have the answer to but which I might as well ask anyway. Remember when we were in Prague last year and I ate that ridiculous roast knuckle of pork right before bed one night and then had a weird dream afterward? Do you remember what the dream was? I know I described it to you and you thought it was funny—but I can’t remember what it was anymore. I’d been meaning to write a story about it for a long time, and I thought I had some notes to help me remember what it was, but all my notes say are “Roast knuckle of pork with Bohemian potato dumplings and braised white cabbage” and “I am not living in a ‘post-racial’ society in my mind!” I think the dream involved black people? I guess that’s what that note is about? Dammit, I can’t remember! Any thoughts?

A full week passed and I didn’t hear back. I was starting to think that perhaps that was for the best. I had continued to turn the matter over in my mind, and it had occurred to me that there had been a disturbing and potentially embarrassing element to the dream—possibly sexual in addition to racist. I remembered Anna asking at the time, somewhat incredulously, if I “would really write a story about that.” And I remembered assuring her that I would, though perhaps I had just been showing off. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the dream involved urination—either me urinating on someone or me being urinated on. And of course there was the racial aspect to it too, implied in my cryptic note to myself that “I am not living in a ‘post-racial’ society in my mind.” Perhaps this was actually a dream that was better left forgotten!

Then, just like that, I got Anna’s reply.

Dear Rob, I have been trying to recall the dream but I think no luck. What came to my mind was a bit weird and I wasn’t sure if I should/should not share it … I remembered/or my mind made it up for me/that somebody was pissing over somebody. As there would have been a difference in level, different height location, and the person who was higher obviously could piss over the person who was sticking out from the ground. It probably doesn’t make any sense to you. So, yes, ignore it. My memory might have used the picture of two guys located in front of Kafka’s museum (light green installation). Do you remember them? Pissing over Czech Republic? Anyway, sorry I couldn’t help.

Egad, I thought, the dream had involved pissing. I let her e-mail sink in. I was pretty sure that I was the person “sticking out from the ground” that she mentioned. I had totally forgotten that part. But it was all coming back to me now …

I was wedged in a sewer drain, the top half of my body sticking out onto the street, my legs trapped underneath. I looked around for help, but the streets were empty and eerie and calm. Then I saw a group of black teenagers. I called out to them for help, for them to come over and pull me up out of the street, which was eating me. They stared at me for a long time, deciding what to do. I liked them, their style—skinny black jeans, black metal-studded coats, and other “punk” accoutrements that seemed incongruous with their skin color—and I felt confident, pleased that my fate was in their hands. I like these guys, and they will like me. But, to my surprise, when they finally approached, they didn’t try to help me. Instead, the leader of the group unzipped his fly and began to piss, not over me as Anna had said (though she was probably just being nice) but directly in my face.

Then I woke up.

Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who currently lives above a meat market in the East Village.

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Vampires in Tahoe

7 Apr

<By Robin Kilmer>

Maya, a three year old, was staring at me.  Her gaze was unshifting, willing me to wake up.  I was on the top bunk and wondered how her eyes had become level to mine.  I strained to see in the darkness and realized that she was sitting on top of a shelf, looking at me in that deconstructing way that only children are capable of.  In her eyes I saw a challenge.

I got myself into this predicament because of my job.  I am currently the nanny to the Nichols children, Kate, 6 and Maya, 3 and was invited to accompany the family on their trip to California, which included a stop in Los Angeles before bunkering down in Tahoe for what was going to be a week of skiing and other winter fun.  I shared a bedroom with Kate and Maya in the condo we were staying at.  The room had a bunk bed consisting of two full size beds and a twin sized hide away.

When it came to bedtime I could always depend on Kate to fall asleep without qualms, and stay asleep until at least seven in the morning.  Maya, on the other hand, must have learned her sleeping habits from the likes of banshees, vampires, and boogey monsters.  Every night she would wake up countless times with different demands.  Getting water was simple enough, but going to the bathroom required that I accompany her and wipe her ass when she was done relieving herself.  The real drama would arise when Maya realized that it was me attending to her and not her mother.  To her I was an imposter, and she would go to hunt down her mother, who tried in vain to thwart her three year old by rotating rooms every night.  My efforts to coax her back into bed were fruitless.  Maya was not a stealthy hunter; disregarding the dark she would bump into walls and doors and me as she scoured the hallway for her prey.  Mrs. Nichol’s plan backfired and the longer it took for Maya to find her mother, the louder her wails got until everyone in the house over the age of six was awake and gripped with terror at having to deal with this midnight marauder.  Kate mercifully remained asleep while the adults awkwardly cooed and lumbered about in the dark trying to diffuse her little sister.

The condo was situated a half a mile from the lake.  Winter activities on the itinerary included dog sledding and going on old fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides.  The lake itself was invisible behind force-fields of snow.  In the white-out storms one could only see the stoic, towering evergreens that were cloaked in snow, white as brides.  The dogs, horses, sleds and sleighs became out of commission due to the unusually high build up of snow.  When there was a break in the blizzards, Kate and Mr. and Mrs. Nichols would go skiing and Maya was my charge.  We stayed in the condo.

I spent most of the time looking anxiously out the window and drawing vampires at Maya’s request.  Vampire houses, vampire cookies, vampire renditions of her family members.  Any inanimate object could be converted into a vampire with the quick addition of a mouth and two teeth at either end that had a tendency to resemble tusks.  These were sanguine, smiling vampires, not intent on hurting anyone.  The vampires were not my idea.  I’m not sure if it was Kate or Maya who was the first to request a vampire, but it was Maya who has become a vampire junky, and her mood is controlled by the constant production of vampires.  Mrs. Nichols jokes that Maya is in fact a vampire and her theory is supported by Maya’s nocturnal rituals.

Eventually the kitchen table became a gallery of vampires, collaborations between Maya and myself.  I would draw a vampire toilet at Maya’s request and she would color it in, either assiduously between the lines, or furiously ignoring all borders, creating what most people inaccurately interpreted as sribble scrabble.  Maya, however, would explain that she was drawing the wind.

Falling asleep has never been a problem for me, though waking up is not my forte.  When I was a teacher and had to be at work at eight in the morning, I used to set three alarms and sometimes have my friends give me wake up calls.  But in Tahoe, in the vicinity of children, my sleeping habits changed.  When it came time for bed, I’d lie awake in the top bunk, with snow and vampires clouding my mind and the snoring of two children laying siege on my ears.  My dog, when he sleeps, chases squirrels.  His paws paddle the air and he snarls and yips at his prey.  I cannot tell you what Kate or Maya dream about, though it must be something aerial or acrobatic.  A snort from Kate would anticipate her performing a bicycle kick in bed, and she would roll into her sister, who would do horizontal cartwheel, landing on top of Kate.  When they went to bed, each would start out in a designated side of the bed, each head on a respective pillow.  Yet these girls managed to migrate to the far reaches of the bed every night, bodies perpendicular, limbs dangling dangerously on the edge of the bed, like fish flopping out of a net.  Every time I heard a shift from the bottom bunk I was jolted awake for fear that one of them was about to fall out of bed.  These plate tectonics from below caused minor earthquakes on the top bunk that caused me to trip out of my dreams, sending me headlong into wakefulness.

And now Maya, sitting atop a shelf, with her eyes fixed on mine.  If her mother’s hypothesis was correct and Maya was in fact a vampire, her perch on the shelf was advantageous as she had an unimpeded path to my jugular.  As she stared at me, she scooted closer to the edge of the shelf until I realized that with her eyes she was daring me to stop her from jumping to the floor.  I lurched out of my covers.  “MAYA, NOOOOOOOOO!”

I’m not sure which made me come to, either the jolt out of bed, or my screaming, but as I sat up stiff in bed I realized that Maya’s eyes were not staring into mine anymore.  At first I thought this was because she took the plunge.  Then I noticed that there wasn’t actually a shelf against the wall.  I looked down at the floor and did not see a broken three-year-old, but a tiny figure curled up innocently sleep in bed.

I fell asleep grateful that I had only had a strange dream and woke up with enough energy the next day to make a vampire snowman with Maya and Kate.  This time the vampire was my idea.

Robin Kilmer studied Latin American and Iberian history at Bard College.  She taught at a public school in the Bronx for three years before deciding to pursue her lifelong passion in writing.  Read her blog, The Newbie Yorker.

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Dreamscape

7 Apr

<By Christine Kilmer>

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California:  It took twelve hours to reach the peak of our own personal Everest. As I sat overlooking the mountains below me, I found the questions to a universe of answers. What had passed through here? What catastrophes had these giants endured? Was this great mountain range getting smaller or growing taller? The rocks remained silent sentinels, holding the secrets of the Earth within them. But I felt a kind of peace I hadn’t felt in a long time. There’s something in the air—the rawness, the clarity—that lets the imagination run wild. And when you’re sitting 8,839 feet above sea level, what dreams may come…

THE CHOICE

Enveloped in time itself. Fly or be invisible?

EXODUS

The weary nomads are cradled within the wisdom of the wind. Trivialities are tamed by the awesome silence of the ethereal terrain.

THE BEAST

The creature thrashed wildly, before surrendering to the current of time. Only the bravest dare venture over the remains of the monster, treading carefully so as not to wake the beast.

THE DANCE

And so the sky caressed the face of the earth and together they danced ‘til forever.

Christine “Beanie” Kilmer is an acting student at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California. She studied Photography at Columbia College Chicago. When it comes to writing, she is inspired most by her big sister, Robin.

Thanks Beanie.  That means a lot.

Did you like Dreamscape?  Let Christine know how you feel.  Feedback means a lot to contributors.  Please leave a comment.

On the Bus

12 Feb

<By David Moser>

Welcome, welcome. There is space. You can stand.” He says.

I step onto the blue carpeted bus. Palestinian bus. Jerusalem bound. I pay my six shekels, get my ticket, and stand at the front. The seats are filled with women from the university. The men huddle by the door.

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“America. I love America. Especially Las Vegas.”

“Las Vegas?”

“Yes. I love the poker.” He rubs his right thumb and index finger together. He raises his thick black eyebrows and purses his lips.

“Really? Do you play poker?”

He nods once.

“Are you good?”

He raises his chin and makes eye contact. “What do you study at the university?” He asks.

“I am a teacher. I teach writing. In English.”

“Ahh, welcome. Really, I love your country very much. But you make fuck up in Iraq. You make fuck up in Pakistan. You make fuck up in Afghanistan. But I hate Bin Laden. He is total mother fucker. And you, do you love Israel? “

“I live here in Abu Dis.”

“Yes, Abu Dis, Israel. Do you love it here in Israel?”

I look at him knowingly.

“What country is this?” He asks.

“I thought it was Palestine.”

He smiles a wide, toothy smile, touches my shoulder then shakes my right hand. “Yes this is Palestine. Israel, it is nothing. It will be gone in ten years. Believe me. In ten years.”

“How? How will it be gone? Will you beat Netanyahu at poker?”

He smiles again. He makes the fingers of both his hands into guns. Lines them up with the left in front and the right in back like he is aiming a rifle. “Me and my brother, we will do it.”

“You will do what? Someone will kill you. And then what?”

“No. We will shoot them. All of them.” He looks at the floor. We roll down a hill, guided by curving asphalt, into a rocky valley. Two leather skinned men face Mecca in afternoon prayer from the roof of a two story house they have built all day. The sun is still high.

“Are you married?” He slides his right pointer and thumb down his left ring finger.

“No. I’m not married.”

“How old are you?”

“Guess.”

He looks at my nose, my eyes. “Twenty…six.”

“Twenty five.”

“Will you marry next year?”

“Enshalla.”

He rubs his two index fingers together. He asks, “Are you Fatah or Hamas?”

“I am Democrats.”

“Democrats. But here, do you love Fatah or Hamas?”

“I don’t vote here. What about you? Fatah or Hamas?”

“Fatah.” He nods twice. “Hamas.” He says and squints his eyes, flares his nose, flicks his right palm open as if shooing a fly. “Do you know Ismail Haniyeh?”

“Yes. From Hamas. He is in Gaza.”

“Yes. He is a donkey. He is a big donkey.”

“That’s true.”

“You know Mohammad Dahlan?”

“Yes. From Fatah.”

“Yes. He is my father. I love him.”

“He is your father?”

“Yes. I am from Gaza. He is my father. I love him. Really.”

“If he is your father, why are you riding the bus?”

He laughs once. “He is not my father, but I do love him.” We enter the round-about in front of the settlement Ma’ale Adumim. A middle aged man with grey hair and a grey kippah drove his ocean blue sedan in front of our bus as he entered the settlement. My companion flicked his hand again.

“We are not terrorists here in Palestine. Right?” He was asking only what I thought. He knew already.

“You just said you plan on killing every Israeli.”

“No. This is not terrorism. This is an important thing.”

“So what is terrorism?”

“What Israel did in Gaza. What Israel does in Jerusalem.” He made only his right hand into a gun this time. “Every day.”

“Where do you live in Jerusalem?”

“Shuafat. My mother is from Hebron. Have you heard of the Jaber family?”

“Yes I have.”

“Do you love George Bush?”

I make eye contact. Scrunch my eyebrows. “No.”

“He is a good man! A great man!”

I elbow him lightly in the ribs and smile.

He smiles and nods. “He fucked every country.”

“And America too. He fucked America too.”

We drove slowly into the A-Za’im checkpoint. The contract security guards were changing shift. We stopped. The door opened. The whole bus emptied as we stepped into the hot afternoon, walked through the fenced passageway, showed my ID to a female soldier with a brown ponytail and big hips. We stood outside the bus as the girls reentered. When we stepped back in, we took different places. There was someone between us, and we didn’t speak again.

David Moser teaches writing at the  Al-Quds Bard Honors College in the West Bank. In his free time he rides the bus. You can find his other pieces at Ramallah The Big Olive .

The Things for Which We Fish

12 Feb

<By Josh Wrigley>

I can’t feel my hands when I wake up lying in the cold gloom of a land where the sun never actually sets. My fire has gone out and the stove’s rusty metal is cold to the touch. With numb fingers, I tear up old Penthouse magazines that a crew member long ago left moldering in the corner and jam them down into the stove. I’m out of driftwood and spruce branches so I tear off my shirt and throw that in as well. As the fire warms, I lurch back to my narrow bunk reeking of fish and sweat and lie there reminding myself that the shirt is keeping me warmer on fire than it ever did on my back.

As the Talking Heads say, sometimes one finds oneself living in a shotgun shack and wondering how he has wound up there. Why am I in the great north burning my clothing to keep warm? The answer, if there is one, must lie partially in generational discontent and individual self aggrandizement that at times seems to border on sheer craziness. People come to Alaska searching for something. It’s a state of wanderers: the restless who prefer the open road to the constricted circulation of populated areas, the disaffected and the adventurous. For many, the state serves as a transformative catalyst, a magic box into which one can step and emerge as something different. Boys come here to become men. The opportunistic come to get rich. The spiritually disenchanted come to find salvation. They all seek internal change by embracing an external dream that draws its essence from an uninterrupted state of nature.

The Kasilof River drains into the upper Cook Inlet several miles south of Kenai, on the western side of the Kenai Peninsula. With the clouds perpetually hanging like tufts of steel wool in the sky, any chromatic vibrancy in the atmosphere inevitably yields itself to a grainy color scheme the hues of which seem to be dragged from an old black and white motion picture. On a clear day, you can sit on the sea wall of the Lape Fish Company looking west and see Mt. Redoubt, smoking ash in the distance. To the north, the lights of the Nikiski oil refinery glitter in the night. The Kasilof is one of several rivers that feed their silty contents into the inlet. Years ago, there was a cannery at the mouth of the river and long before that, multiple wooden fish traps jutted out into the water. All that remains now are the nubs of once mighty pilings that meekly peer out from the mud flats at low tide.

The ocean itself seems tired having relinquished so much of its bounty to the enterprising individuals of yesteryear. For a Johnny-come-lately like myself, its murky waters offer only a glimmer of hope that something still resides within them. My shack is an 8×12 plywood construction on a foundation of discarded line spools. A small, grimy window looks out over the sea and a rusty stovepipe juts haphazardly from the ceiling. The beach dwellings along the Point couldn’t be more antithetical to the mansions of the East Coast. Here, the dilapidated structures and community atmosphere eschew pretension. Line scraps, planks, and corks, litter the upper dunes while the whitening carcasses of spiny dogfish and starry flounder drift in the wash. The dead and the dying are the only sunbathers here. Some will leave with the ebb and others will arrive with the flood tide as the water comes surging back up the inlet. The beach is not a place born to leisure but instead exists as a working waterfront minus the wharves and derricks. It is here that the upper Cook Inlet set netters ply their trade during the months of June, July and August.

Commercial fishing has become a source of nightly entertainment through shows such as “Deadliest Catch” and movies like “The Perfect Storm,” causing many viewers to come away with skewed perceptions of the industry. Fishing, as it is popularly conceived, exists in a romantic, high stakes world of large ships and daring machismo. People enjoy the drama of the Bering Sea and the Grand Banks because they stir something in the imagination. Heroic, self-sacrificing fishermen are easy to idealize as is the concept of an anachronistically physical occupation. The popularity of these tropes has reduced fishing to a common point of reference causing people to continually ask, “Was it like that show- the Deadliest Catch?” I always answer “no,” and the gleam immediately fades from their eyes.

Set netting continues to live in obscurity like some abyssal, prehistoric species, waiting for discovery not by scientists, but by television producers. To one unfamiliar with its nuances, it is deceptively simple- merely a gillnetting technique employing small craft and stationary nets. Wind and tide present the greatest challenges as each one shifts the rules of the game. The set netter wonders if the tide will be slack when setting or if it will be roaring through the inlet fast enough to make the static lines seem to skip across the surface? Will it be a spring tide necessitating extensions on the lines to prevent breakage? Layers of complexity pile on as equipment considerations, laws, and procedures come into the picture. In order to function properly, the entire operation relies on flawless preparation while continuously accommodating itself to both the environmental conditions as well as the dictates of the Fish and Game Department.

Commercial fishing is notorious for being a brutal business often attracting people from the fringes of society. Though mariners as a collective group certainly possess upstanding qualities, their ranks have tended to include the felonious and dysfunctional from time to time. Commercial fishing claims no lack of stories that include deckhands battling addiction, sadistic captains and surly mates. A dragger captain out of Portland, Maine once answered my inquiry for employment stating that his entire crew was composed of addicts, the fact of which diminished my enthusiasm considerably. Not surprisingly, the thought of jeopardizing myself on George’s Bank with such reliable fellows seemed ill advised. Would any man of sane mind be apt to place his trust in the care of that august body? I think not. The classic drunken sailor is not as apocryphal as he might seem. And yet the Humpy Point set netting community departs from the usual stereotypes. It exists as a humble beachfront community and working waterfront. The crews are all family run, with the same individuals often returning year after year.

Set netters set, pick and pull on the water but conduct the rest of their daily affairs on land, resisting complete submission to the oceanic environment. They instead remain partial landsmen while periodically shedding that persona for that of the mariner. It is very much a tidal community, continually adapting itself according to the vagaries of wind and water. Unlike his pelagic brethren, the crab or cod fisherman, he does not venture offshore. The seiners call him a bed wetter and a fish choker. They disrespect his amphibious nature.

The set netter employs small craft, not the larger vessels usually associated with commercial fishing. His commands a fiberglass skiff that pounds the waves and whose construction grants little clemency to one’s knees in rough weather. At the low spring tides, he traverses the mudflats and pounds stakes- long pieces of rebar- into the marl. These serve as anchors that will eventually hold a gill net the fibers of which will be cramped with tension at the height of the ebb. Each end of the net is designated and held aloft in the current by orange buoys. There are so many on the inlet that to the casual observer, it might seem that the water is afflicted with an acute episode of the pox. Sometimes one crew will accuse another of establishing an illegal location or tempers might flare over a corking incident in which one net cuts off another. Set netters on occasion descend to fathomless levels of rancor as territorial disputes emerge. In their darkest moments, they have been known to hurl live flounders at each other in anger. However, despite his territorial and occasionally defensive nature, his deportment is most truly characterized by a magnanimity induced by common struggle. During these times, he is selfless and unhesitant to lend a winch or vehicle or conduct other neighborly repairs that might involve welding or engine work.

The Kenai Fish and Game Department rules over its duchy with an iron telephone message. When not mending, set netters are constantly exercising their fingers by dialing the Fish and Game hotline to hear when they either need to set or pull their gear. Using sonar, the government monitors the numbers of salmon entering the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, always striving to admit only the optimum number that they’ve mathematically contrived. Without Uncle Sam’s guiding hand, the salmon might run amok and that would not benefit them or anyone else. Day after day, and sometimes hour after hour, they record a different message stating the acceptable fishing hours. It changes as the conditions change and the numbers fluctuate. Some have joked that calling the number is like hearing the voice of god on the telephone. Others have looked at it less humorously and have playfully burned Fish and Game effigies out of frustration over a bad season. Their reception is always a mix of reverence and loathing. If too many salmon enter the river, wisdom dictates that the next year’s class won’t have enough resources to survive. Unfortunately, they don’t have mechanisms that will generate salmon if too few enter the river, but they’re working on it.

Several hours later, before the tide changes, we pick the nets- the bowman pulling the lead line and the tillerman pulling the corks. A few reds come over the side and hang like convicts from the mesh. Dying in a gill net occurs through strangulation and internal bleeding. Each fish presents a puzzle to the picker as he or she assesses the situation. Is the fish in the bag or out of the bag? Has it gone through another hole? Is it tangled around the sex teeth or the gills? Or has it slid all the way through to the dorsal fin? One flip out of the net brings us one step closer to solution. Fingers go under the mesh and free it over the gill plate. Out comes a salmon. If it’s been in for the duration of the tide, it might have the bloated aspect of a fat man with his belt cinched too tightly. The birds peck out the eye that is facing upward and the last thing the salmon sees are the harpies descending with beaks and talons. A fresh hit brings a vivacious fish into the boat and its silvery luster draws accolades. One man on the crew even dreams at night of the set. He leaps out of bed clad only in his underwear and violently tears the sheets from his bunk cackling, “I’ve got a king!” Those who sleep near him say it’s quite a spectacle though I have not had the privilege of witnessing it personally.

We’re well acquainted with Platicthys stellatus, the starry flounder. They arrive in prodigious numbers on the larger tides. Sometimes their numbers are so great that they clog the mesh resulting in damaged equipment and flagged nets. Most of the flounder roll in the bag until it becomes so heavy that we need to lean over the gunwale and rake mesh into the skiff with the hundred pounds of flounder we’ve accumulated. There is no glory in catching a starry flounder for they are the homeliest creatures of the sea, with little to recommend them physically or personality wise. The flounder lives an ignoble, abused existence- it looks like a tatterdemalion leather briefcase. Among fish, it is a malingerer, among fishers, a curse. There is no worse sound than that of ten starry flounder beating a furious cadence on the deck boards.

The salmon are predominantly sockeyes that have spent the last several years maturing at sea. Upon feeling their reproductive impulse, they have returned to the Kasilof shore to ascend the river of their origin. In many ways, the set netters who pursue the salmon live lives of a similarly cyclic nature. The summer salmon season draws them to the beach and as August brings long slanting rays of sun, they recede to winter locations perhaps to lead land bound existences until the fecundity of the inlet draws them forth again.

The skiff chugs along, blue smoke curling above the engine as it runs in asthmatic fits. We’re encumbered with nets and we sit on them, feeling the limpness in our arms and gazing at the approaching shore. The tillerman stands in the gurry, his feet growing cold from the ice and we see the truck rumble down from the hill and idle by the water.

I had come to Alaska searching for a place where the water was blue and the blood was red. In my mind I had already constructed it, down to the salmon’s scales and the weave of the mesh. In the end, the water turned out to be grey and the blood that washed across the deck was a brooding maroon. If the blood swirling about my ankles were the true crimson of my mind’s eye, it would have been an abrupt end to an endless quest. In my mind, I’ll transform it shade by shade after the fact, when I’m re-established in the regular patterns of my life and then it will become that idealized shade. What hues reality failed to provide, I provide myself in order to create a grand saga out of it. Is there even room in the 21st century world for red blood and blue water or have they been rendered obsolete? Did they ever exist at all? Maybe I’m just searching through a gloomy present for a past that has only revealed itself to me by déjà vu, or the collective memory of previous generations.

People have become so accustomed to technological convenience and the highly polished enamels of this modern world that when they see blood, they recoil because it confronts them with the truth of their own mortality. Unlike the salmon, swimming on to eternity, we lack the luxury of instinctual programming. Perhaps if the salmon were in our position they would take a break and get a time share in Hawaii for a while- enough of this whole spawning business. It’s a drag. But the salmon in their unconscious condition remind us that despite our materialistic values and erudition, our physiologies are the same and that we divorce ourselves from the natural world at our own peril. To forget the sea as our place of origin and to view the world in anthropocentric terms can only estrange us from the true business of living. To continue in that direction will only reinforce our satisfaction with the hollow entertainments that we presently substitute for reality: one composed of blood, water, sweat, and sand. I will carry all those things with me as I begin a trek tomorrow afternoon with my colleague, Johnny Five Sandwiches, a prodigious lad with an immense appetite (he’ll eat five sandwiches if given the opportunity regardless of contents) from the mouth of the Kasilof to the town of Kenai some thirteen miles to the north. We’ll walk along the shore and hopefully arrive just before sundown.

Joshua Wrigley is a free lance writer and graduate of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.He is currently pursuing a degree in maritime environmental history at the University of Kansas.

Photo by Luke Eberhart-Phillips

Love, Theft and Power

12 Feb

<By Adam Janos>

I had become insanely good at cell phone tetris.

I hadn’t planned for it to get that way; in fact, like most of my many talents, it was something I just sort of fell into. At twenty-three, my brain was ripe and overflowing with the energy. Still, who could’ve predicted in a million years that mobile gaming was the challenge I would take on with such zeal? God works in mysterious ways.

When I first moved to Ecuador, I knew I was going to be learning something. I didn’t have any friends or any women in my life, and that usually bodes well for skill acquisition. However my original plan had been to channel my energies towards dance, and to end up becoming the most fearsome salsa dancer in the city.

(Okay, even in my wildest fantasies, I didn’t really see myself reaching #1. But I thought with a little practice I’d be top five.)

Salsa turned out to be extremely difficult and a disheartening task to take on (“What do you mean, I have to lead?”), so as the weeks turned to months, I found myself gravitating more and more to the cell phone tetris.

Double line.

Triple line.

Motherfuckin’ tetris.

When I went to the house party where I met Luz Maria, I assumed this would be a brief respite from all that tetris-ing around. A friend of a friend of a friend was throwing the party because the city was dry for gubernatorial elections, and it seemed like a good place to drink away part of my weekend. I’d drop in for half an hour, then head along my way to another underwhelming event. This was my life at the time: I had places to go, but never anywhere good.

Luz Maria and I clicked immediately. She was the most beautiful woman in the room, and I was in no mood to flit about in the crowd of cast-off acquaintances and pretend otherwise. We talked for hours, grabbed a bottle of wine off the table, then headed to the roof and drank ourselves into a stupor.  She was six years older than me, but neither of us really knew that yet; to me, she was young, sophisticated, and beautiful. To her, I was a bushy-bearded foreigner with a cute little accent.  We both figured whatever age difference there might be was somewhat irrelevant.

That said, she definitely did know she was married, and when her husband of nine years came upstairs to tell her he was leaving, she barely batted an eye, told him she’d follow along later in the evening, then went back to chatting with me. He likewise showed little reaction, and that was that.

At the end of the night, she told me she was married, and I was openly shocked.

“Wait,” I said, flabbergasted. “You’re married?”

“Yeah,” she said with a shrug. “Remember that guy who told me he was leaving and asked me if I was coming?”

“Not really. There was a guy?”

“There was a guy.”

“Really?” I asked, in disbelief.

“Yeah.”

“Wait… like… really?”

She cocked her head to the side, unsure what to make of my refusal to understand.

“…yeah.”

We exchanged email addresses and I didn’t sleep that night.  I’d met women before, but never one like this. Why couldn’t I sleep? What a demon! What a saint!

A few days later, she contacted me for a coffee.

“To give you a comic I wrote,” she told me. “I need to give you this comic, because we are both artists.”

“Right,” I wrote back. “We need to exchange comics. It’s the artist exchange. It’s logical.”

We met for comics, then for more coffee, then for movies in my apartment. It couldn’t have been a week before we were lovers.

The first stage of our affair was painful bliss. I kept thinking she wouldn’t have any time for me, and she kept making it, crunching it in between her full time job and her life as a domesticated partner. The time she made – of course – was always short and unsatisfying. An hour or two after work. A quick brunch before.

Always at my apartment.

Never staying the night.

She started to tell me all about her failing marriage, about her husband’s brutal infidelity, about the way she knew almost immediately after they took their vows that the partnership had been a mistake. I listened with sympathy, and – despite both of us being wracked with guilt for our part in a fundamentally sinful relationship – we were also both convinced that the partner we were sharing time with was a complete gift from God. It was veryemotional, and very dramatic.

One day, she came by my place with deep bruises on her arms.

“I told my husband I was leaving him, that I had met someone,” she told me. “He tried to physically stop me from leaving the house. I moved to my sister’s today.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m leaving him, and because I’ve met somebody.”

I went silent.

“Don’t worry,” she continued. “I thought about your safety, so I told him that I had come to the realization that I was a lesbian. I told him that my new partner was a woman. He’ll never know how to look for you. If you’re not comfortable seeing me anymore, I understand. Thanks for everything all the same.”

“Why would I stop seeing you now? We can finally hang out for more than a couple minutes. It’s about to get good.”

But, like all good things, it also had to come to an end. My stint as a volunteer at Children International was over, my savings were trickling slowly and steadily towards zero, and – with no viable source of income in Quito and a healthy dose of homesickness – I decided to continue moving back towards the United States by land. This had been my original plan, and I didn’t feel like I could stay in Ecuador ad infinitum, no matter how great the woman. She and I were a fling, I told myself. A good story to write one day. I would get over this and so would she.

Still, I asked her to prolong the magic and to bus through Central America with me. She asked her work to give her vacation time and she got it. And so we were off, bussing from one city to the next. Eventually, when that time ran out, and she flew back to Quito, got back to work, and began to set up a new life for herself as a divorced woman.

We stayed in touch in the years that followed. In 2009, I flew back to South America, this time to live in Colombia. I was twenty-five now, but no less lost. During Semana Santa (Holy Week), I flew down to Quito to see her.  A few weeks later, she flew to Bogota and stayed at my place. This visit was more somber; it would only be a weekend, and I could tell she felt that my traveling act wasn’t leaving her in the healthiest emotional state.  That weekend in Bogota felt like the end of a party.

For our last night, we went to a Japanese restaurant uptown. Wok. We ordered far too much food and split the bill (She always insisted on splitting the bill, and I always let her). After grabbing the check, we took a taxi back to my neighborhood.

It was a nice night by Bogota’s brisk Andean standards, so we decided to get fresh air and walk the last few blocks back to my apartment. Shortly after getting out of the cab, we saw a homeless man digging for scraps in the trash.

“Adam,” Luz said. “I’m going to give that man our leftovers. Do you think that’s alright?”

“Sure,” I said. “He looks hungry.”

She approached the man, and gave him our food. On closer inspection, it became clear to us both that he couldn’t have been older than sixteen or seventeen. He was a boy. His hair was a bit long over his face, and he wore rags. He mumbled some disingenuous words of gratitude, then wolfed the ribboned carrots and goza down in a few gluttonous bites. We continued walking, but – to our surprise and slight dread – he started to follow close behind.

Our walk at that point brought us to the narrow alley that lead directly to my house. La Candelaria – the bohemian neighborhood where I lived – is a hilly labyrinth of zig-zag streets, and alleyway walks are par the course for getting from point A to B. Normally though, you don’t have the homeless following you in.

“Hey buddy,” said the homeless boy as he walked us into the dark.

“Hey,” I said.

“What’s your name?” the boy asked me.

“Miguel,” I lied.

“Hi Miguel,” he muttered. “Where are you from?”

“Hungary,” I lied again, my blood starting to turn to ice. I had a feeling where this was going.

“Hungary,” he said. “Man, I know someone who once went – ” And then, mid-sentence he made his move. In one quick motion, he grabbed me by the shoulder and raised his hand in a fist up next to his face. Fighting stance.

“Okay,” he said. “Give me all your money right now.”

His grip was tight.

“Give me all your money,” he repeated. “And I won’t hurt you.”

I took a moment and evaluated the situation. Time seemed to be slowing down, and suddenly a million factors were buzzing in my brain.

1) The alley was empty, and there were no cops near.

2) The boy holding me was two or three inches shorter than me, and – to the best of my knowledge – wasn’t armed.

3) He had me by the shoulder with one arm to keep me from running, but the arm he was holding had not been incapacitated.

4) He had one fist up, not as a boxer might, but as if he were getting ready to slash with a sharp weapon. Like he was pretending to have a knife, or a piece of broken glass. But there was no weapon. I was more confused than anything else. You can’t just pretend your way into having a knife.

“This can’t be a mugging,” I thought.

“This is so bush league,” I thought.

“I could probably take him.”

I’ve never been in a fight before, and in retrospect, my attitude surprises me. You see, one of the worries I have about myself is that that – when push comes to shove – I’m really just a coward. I talk a big game, and I like to act bold when it comes to things like job interviews and pretty Ecuadorian ladies who obviously like me. But how would I react to a true test of courage, like getting mugged in the third world, or facing down bone cancer at age fifty-five? When faced with these things, would I curl up into a ball and cry like a sissy? I daydream about it, and I always think, “Yes yes yes. I will – in that situation – show my true color. Yellow.”

This mugging scenario in particular was something I’d really thought about, because in Bogota I was living in a rough neighborhood and I figured I had a coin’s flip chance of getting mugged at some point. In my mind’s eye, curling in a ball, crying, and being kicked repeatedly by the evil faceless bandits was always how this story ended.

And yet here I was face to face with the mugger, and I felt nothing. Not fear, not anger, not excitement. Not even sky blue Buddhist calm. It was just colorless thought.

Luz grabbed the reigns. She spoke directly to the homeless boy.  “Okay, calm down, friend. We’re going to give you the money.”

“So give it to me then!” he shouted, still looking directly at me. He was breathing heavily, totally off his rocker.

5) Was he on drugs? And if so, were these drugs that would provide him with stupid super strength (PCP, crack, etc.), or drugs that would destroy his motor skills?

6) If I threw him into the brick wall behind him, would he collapse into a heap of ragged bones?

7) And what was this pretend knife bullshit?

“We’re going to give you the money,” Luz repeated. She took a handful of bills from her pocket and handed them over. I reached into my right pocket, took out what I had, and forked it over.

I had learned long ago that you should always keep your big bills in one pocket and your small bills in another. I handed the heavy-breathing stumpy homeless boy 1000 pesos, or approximately $0.53. I probably had another 230,000 pesos and a credit card in my other pocket.

“Give me more!” he shouted.

“We gave you all we have,” Luz said calmly. “Now please leave us alone.”

And then, like that, he did. Luz and I walked home. She was badly shaken, and immediately began to swear profusely about how stupid she had been for giving him food and attracting his attention.

“And you’re the gringo!” she exclaimed. “I’m getting you mugged! Have you ever been mugged before?”

I shook my head no.

“It’s my fault. It’s like when they stole my car in Quito and fired a gun at me as I ran away.”

“Damn girl,” I said. “You got stories.”

We made it back to my apartment and told my housemates about it. Luzma had lost 2000 pesos ($1.07) in the robbery, so between us we were out $1.60. Economically, we would survive the hit, but the rest of the trip was ruined. No more romantic moonlit walks. Mostly, we sat at home and watched pirated movies on my laptop. That night we watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“I’m so angry with him,” she said as we snuggled up for the night. “We gave him our food. What a piece of shit. We gave him our food and he still robbed us.”

“It could be worse,” I said, trying to play the hero as I so love to do. “Imagine if you had to be that guy. We only had to be in his world for a few seconds. Now we’re back in a nice warm bed. He’s $1.60 richer but still out on the street, strung out on drugs, looking for a way to survive until tomorrow.”

And that was genuinely how I felt… but I also felt completely stripped of security. All the fear that I had anticipated feeling in that moment of danger hit me in the year that followed. My mugger daydream intensified, so that when I walked alone at night, I walked faster, breathed faster, hoped to just get back to my apartment. Fear was now an everyday part of my life. Even after moving back to the states, the fear of violence stayed with me. Here stateside, I imagined that the mugger would have a firearm. Here stateside, my cowardice would actualize in real time, and there would be no beautiful, sophisticated woman to share the fear with.  Here stateside, the “curling into a ball, getting kicked repeatedly” fantasy would come true.

Danger shared between two is an adventure. Danger absorbed solo is just a really bad night.

But maybe that danger is what I was looking for with Luz all along. Maybe that’s what she was looking for with me, when we first met at a party in Quito. I remember one night with her, shortly after our affair began, we went and got dinner at a nice Italian restaurant downtown. On the walk home, we spotted a parked car of the same make and model that her husband owned, and so she made us pick up the pace, hail a cab, and hurry back home. Another time, she came over in fits, and swore that someone had been following her.

And then there was one night, in the early AM, the deep bruises from her altercation only just starting to fade, when we woke in my bed to the sound of heavy pounding – thump thump thump – someone banging nonstop on an apartment door. Both of us opened our eyes but neither of us spoke, and later we recounted to one another that we were sure her husband had found her and was outside my door, pistol in hand, ready to end our partnership the old fashioned way.

And somewhere out in Bogota, there’s a drugged out boy waiting in an alleyway to take your cash. Or maybe he failed to improve his lot, and froze to death, clearing the way for more efficient thieves.

Or maybe he’s finally fallen in love.

After traveling the Pan American  Highway Adam Janos found a passion for teaching theater at Harlem Children’s Zone.  He was a member of the touring indie-cabaret band The Easy Tease and the sketch comedy groupOlde English.

The Seahorse and the Cow

12 Feb

<By Robin Kilmer>

There is a dead seahorse in my room.  I am told it is a male. I purchased him in Argentina from a Colombian who got it from a boy on a beach in Peru.  He was naturally mummified by unusually high salinity in his home waters.  His body is shaped like a question mark and death caught him at the precise moment when his tail was curled in a dainty coil.  The seahorse’s thin hide is unremarkable; it is his skeleton that inspires.  His bones are a series of Lilliputian flying buttresses that come together to form tiny triangles and polygons on his body.  The perfect spiral of his tail evokes a geometry of infinity—of a never ending cycle.

Unlike the architecturally magnificent skeletons of sea horses, human bones must interact with the flesh in order to aesthetically please.  Some of my favorite bones are the mandible and the clavicle.  A fresh, flawless canvas of flesh stretched over an easel of bones yearns to be blemished with scars that narrate our existence.  I have a two-inch long vertical scar on my left arm from the time I tried to open a wine bottle by sticking a nail in the cork and pulling it open with the claw of a hammer.  My ex-boyfriend Leonardo has a scar on his lower abdomen from where his appendix was removed.  There is also the trace of a cut a cut across his left eyebrow. At first he said it was from when he fell off his bike.  Then he said it was because he was hit with a baseball bat during the riots over the devaluation of the peso.  The story has been revised many times, and I’m sure it will be revised many more before I know the full truth.  His worst scars are a series of horizontal tracks in the middle of his inner arm that form a jagged and sinister barcode.

The mummified sea horse came into my life the same night as Juan Manuel.  It was August of 2008, and the first time I returned to Buenos Aires after spending a whole semester there in 2006.  I was sitting at the large table in the common space of a hostel in San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires and one of the cradles of Argentine tango.  It is therefore fitting that I was reading the Spanish edition of a book about Argentine tango.  I looked up from the book to see three backpackers trooping in looking quite exhausted.  It was clear they had stayed at the hostel before as Marco at the front desk greeted them by name.  They were from Colombia.  Andres was a doctor.  His pretty wife with long black hair was Carolina.  They were accompanied by a tall, thin character with a modest beard, shoulder length hair and high cheekbones; he could have passed as Jesus.

That was Juan Manuel.

Later that night, after dinner with a friend, I found myself sitting at the table again, speaking to the trio.  This time Juan was clean-shaven and scrubbed—but not too scrubbed.  Instead of looking like Jesus he could have passed as a South American Kurt Cobain.  It turned out that Juan was Andres’s brother and he came to Buenos Aires to study at one of the city’s many culinary schools.  He earned money as a street vendor to pay for room and board.  Someday, when he returned to Colombia, Andres was going to buy him a restaurant.  Juan saw me as a potential customer and wasted no time in bringing down his wares.  He had three small suitcases full of bracelets and necklaces he made himself.  It was the kind of jewelry worn by college students who, after returning from travels in South America, proclaimed a renewed interest in the Spanish language, Che Guevara and Manu Chau.  Being a college-aged foreigner he probably expected me to buy a necklace or bracelet.  But I did not need jewelry and politely declined his merchandise.

“Okay, well I have some stones.” He started unwrapping semi-precious stones. They were nice, but there was nothing I could do with a stone.

“No thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” he said, unfazed.  “I have something else I think you’ll like.”  He disappeared, leaving me with Andres and Carolina.

Juan returned carrying a small white box.  He opened it and took out a wad of newspaper, revealing two dead seahorses.  I had never been this close to a seahorse, dead or alive.  Actually they were in such perfect condition that I half expected them to start flopping about—or whatever it is seahorses do—for want of water.  Juan explained that they were mummified.  These I knew I could not easily find in Buenos Aires.  I bought one of them for twenty-five pesos—roughly eight dollars.

“I was wondering who would buy these guys,” Juan said.  He seemed pleasantly surprised that I went for the seahorse instead of the jewelry.  “Here, take a little bracelet too.”  He gave me a blue bracelet with three wooden beads.

I stayed in touch with Leonardo after I left Argentina.  I was in contact with him enough to keep abreast of his troubles.  He told me about the time he went to the hospital because his hand got smashed during a fight in a bar.  I knew about the time he stopped working because he had fallen off the bandwagon and lived in the streets of Buenos Aires because couldn’t pay the rent.  I was also aware of the time he quit his job in the orchestra of a nightclub because he thought the owner was in the mafia.  When I first met his mother she asked me if I had been looking for an adventure in Argentina—glancing at Leo as she said this.  All I could do to respond was laugh.  She laughed with me.

It was after I saw the barcode scars that I started pressing him for information about his past.

“What happened?”  I kept asking him.

“Nothing,” he kept saying for a while.  But I kept asking.

“I didn’t really want to tell you,” he finally said one say as we were strolling on the banks of the Rio de la Plata.  “I’m afraid of you judging me…but you haven’t stopped asking…”

“I won’t judge you.”

Leo divulged that not only had he been to rehab, but was also clinically insane.  I was not surprised by such drastic news, as the scars had already spoken volumes.  Nor was I afraid.  I hoped it was water under the bridge and thought I could help him.  It’s amazing how naïve a twenty-one year old can be.

When Leo realized that I was not going to eschew him for his past, he wanted to spend more time with me.  Initially the feeling was mutual.  A classical guitarist, he never went anywhere without his guitar in tow.  It was his one constant in life.  I would wake up in the morning to him playing Catedral.  He introduced me to the works of Augustín Barrios and Andres Segovia, as well as the Tango, Argentine Folklore and the Flamenco of Camaron de la Isla and Paco de Lucia.  Leo would smile patiently if our conversations were punctuated by me having to flip through my pocket dictionary to look up a word in Spanish.  In the mornings he would buy pastries for us to eat, with our backs against the wall in his room at the flophouse that had been plastered over the summer with smashed mosquitos.  He marveled at my gall every time I took the bus across town to visit him in that room in la Constitución, deemed the South Bronx of Buenos Aires.

He was very sweet, but his alter-ego was Machiavelli, and Machiavelli came to town whenever Leo had the slightest drop of alcohol.  Leo as Machiavelli was paranoid, aggressive, thought the mafia was on his tail, and that the Universe and everything and everyone in it was conspiring against him.  And always at the height of his delusion he would accuse me of being a floozy who was shagging half of Buenos Aires.

Things had not ended well between us.  The last time I saw him was in July of 2006 when he stole my cell phone.  I always tell people that I let him have it—which isn’t untrue.  He had taken it from me thinking I was contacting that ever present figment of his imagination: my other lover.  I managed to grapple it from him and hail a cab.  With Leo in hot pursuit I threw myself into the vehicle and used all my force to pull the door shut as quickly as possible.  But instead of hearing the satisfactory sound of the door slamming against the body of the car, there was a dull thud of metal on flesh.  Leo had been diving into the car to try to stop me and to my horror his head had prevented the door from closing.

“OH MY GOD!”  I forgot that I was trying to get away from Leo and took his face gently in my hands.

“Are you okay?!?  I’m so sorry…”  I was in hysterics.

Leo was not looking at me when he nodded yes.  He was looking at the phone that had dropped to the floor. He grabbed it and left the cab.  I followed, furious at myself for being compassionate and furious at him for taking advantage of my compassion.  I ran after him.  A line of people waiting for a bus turned to watch our artless tango unfold.

Leo was furious too, but not at having a door slam on his face.

“Robin, why would you do this to me?”  He was referring to the fictitious other lover.  “I would have gone to the United States with you,” he continued desperately.  The spectators laughed, knowing that it is nearly impossible for most of them to even visit the United States ever since the economic crisis.

I wasn’t paying attention to them or what he was saying.  I couldn’t help but notice that the force of the door slamming on his face had caused a gash over his right eye.  Now there was a tear of blood going down his cheek.

“You’re bleeding,” was all I could say.

“I’m fine.”

I lost my zeal to fight.  I had no heart to wrestle with a delusional, bleeding man over a cell phone.  I headed back to the cab while Leo stationed himself near a curb to search for proof that this other lover who had nearly cost him his head was more than just a figment of his imagination.

Two years later I was hesitant to tell Leo I was going back to Argentina, but contacted him anyway a week before coming.  We agreed to meet up.  I hoped we could be friends.  I was on my way out when I saw Juan was in the common room reading my book about Argentine tango, which he had taken an interest in and asked to borrow the day before.  He closed the book when he saw me.  He smiled and asked me where I was going.  I explained that I was meeting up with someone.

“A lover?”  He asked.

“An ex-lover.”

People have a tendency to be more direct when traveling.  There is little time to beat around the bush and think about reasons why you shouldn’t do or ask something.  So I wasn’t surprised when Juan asked me if I was going to sleep with the said ex-lover. For some reason Juan thought it strange that my plans were not of an amorous platform, so I explained to him that though I hoped we could be friends, as Leo was clinically insane.  I recounted the phone incident, expecting Juan to concur.

“You’re crazy,” is what he said instead.

“What?!?  How can you say I’m crazy?  You don’t know anything about me!”

“Well, I already know you’re crazy.”  The Jedi calm with which he stood by his statement unnerved me.

“No, you don’t understand, I’m not the crazy one; he is!  Don’t you think he sounds crazy?”

“I’m not talking about him.  I’m talking about you.”

“Okay, explain to me why you think I’m crazy.”

“You’re crazy because he’s done all these things yet you are still going to see him again.”

“…Oh.”  I said in concession.

“Where are you meeting him?”  If he was smug he did not show it.

“There is a free classical music concert twenty minutes from here.”

“Sounds interesting.”  There was a pause as Juan considered what else he could say to catch me off guard.  He smirked and said,  “I’m coming with you.”

“Don’t you dare.”  I was getting angry now.

Juan laughed.  He was only trying to make a point.  Meeting up with Leo was not within the realm of logic.  But since when did matters of the heart ever make sense to the brain?

Leo was late to the concert—accompanied by his guitar of course.  He looked more pale and thin than before, but we greeted each other with smiles and a hug.  I noticed that the gash I had given him was healed and now he had a scar over each eyebrow.  Leo joked that his face was symmetrical again.

The orchestra played the works of Poulenc, Tchaikovsky and others.  As a lighthearted finale, they decided to play a Beegees number.  Leo was a musical purist.  He looked disgusted and got up to leave.  “I’m not staying here to listen to this tomfoolery.”  I let him go.  He was waiting for me outside when the concert ended.

“Let’s get a beer,” he said.

“I thought you said you weren’t drinking anymore.”

“Yes, but this is a special occasion!  I have to offer you something.  We’ll split one.”

He insisted that he would be fine and I wanted to believe him, hoping Leo was capable of staying out of the cycle of drinking, raging, remorse and the depression that him back to drinking.  For some reason it seemed unlikely, but denying him a chance to prove himself was the same as admitting defeat.

We went to a supermarket to buy a liter of Quilmes and sat down at the curb outside.  There was an urban guard standing on the corner.  Many corners in downtown Buenos Aires are occupied by the Guardia Urbana.  They are easily identifiable by their reflective orange vests.  These otherwise normal looking blokes stare intently at passersby.  Perhaps the man rested his gaze a moment too long on Leo before returning his interest to the other pedestrians.  Leo immediately started getting defensive, taking on an aggressive tone that heralded the arrival of Machiavelli.

“What is he looking at me for?  He probably wants to take my guitar.  He’s waiting for me to make a mistake so he can take me to jail and steal it.”

“I don’t think he’s looking at you.”  I said, knowing anything I said was useless.

“I hate this place.  There are no good people in Argentina.”

“You don’t think you’re a good person?”  He ignored my question.

“You’re so lucky.  I don’t know why you’re here.  You have everything you need in the United States.”

“There are many things here that you can’t find in the United States….”

“You don’t know anything.”

I decided to leave before he got himself worked up into a proper rage.  This was his cycle, not mine.  I had learned by now that I could not help him out of it.  “Well, since I don’t know anything, I guess you probably don’t really need my company.”  With that I got up and left, grateful he didn’t follow me like he would have two years ago.

The next day Juan, Andres, Carolina, and other guests and staff of the hostel sat down to a feast in the common space.  Juan prepared the beef in the patio outside.  Other guests brought some red bell peppers and bananas to throw on the grill, and I provided some red wine.

It was the wine that helped catalyze the feast in the first place.  I purchased it earlier that day at the La Feria de Mataderos outside Buenos Aires.  The fair caters to tourists looking for gaucho merchandise and artisan goods.  Juan was with me when I sampled it at the wine booth.  I wondered what he had to show for his culinary schooling and was trying to think of a tactful way to find out.

“I’ll buy this if you do an asado tonight.”

Juan capitulated easily.  After all, Andres and Carolina were going back to Colombia the following day, so what better way to send them off than with an Argentine style barbeque?

After the fair we went to the market to get some beef.  At the butcher a pig’s head smiled vaguely at our feet and a cow had been disassembled into many pieces.  Its stomach, looking like huge, deflated, bizarrely textured balloon dangled inches from our faces.  Its innards were twisted into ropes of sausage, and its red muscle fibers were laid out in chunks in front of us as Juan chose the best cuts.  Except for those that I had already seen on a plate, the cows, pigs, poultry and goats whose bodily expiration was put on display at butcher shops around town were the only dead creatures I saw besides the seahorse.

As manifested by the visit to the butcher, the demise of the cow contrasts starkly with that of the seahorse.  The mummified seahorse appeals to the eye while remaining outside the circle of life and death, its flesh providing no feast for the usual agents of decomposition.   The beauty of the dead seahorse is that it remains as solidly intact as it was in life, but the beauty of a dead cow on a grill is that is has been so tampered with that it does not resemble its original form.  In death the cow becomes a medium to create something that is beautiful to us, whether it be a t-bone steak, a sirloin steak, a stir fry, or a hamburger.  The dead cow pleases the tongue and remains solidly in the circle of life—its flesh contributing to our flesh.   In one life cycle there are multiple other cycles: some are functions of the body, others are functions of the mind and heart.  The beginning of one cycle is always marked by the end of another.

The feast had gone well and accolades went to the chef.  It was a wordless conversation at the table.  One guest expressed satisfaction with their dinner as they noisily masticated their meat.  Another concurred by sucking zealously on the bones.

The night wore on, the wine was drained and everyone set off to bed, leaving just Juan and me.  Eventually all the beef was gone too, and the only flesh left to be enjoyed was each other’s.  Juan invited me to his room in the hostel.  Juan was running his fingers along my hips—to see if the structure was sound?  To search for stories?

“What a lovely bone,” he finally said, and then drew his lips to my hip and gently bit it.

Robin Kilmer studied Latin American and Iberian history at Bard College.  She taught at a public school in the Bronx for three years before deciding to pursue her lifelong passion in writing.

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